John 12: 20-36
‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified’. I find our Gospel reading today, on this day, this Tuesday in Holy Week, to be really moving. We are in company with Jesus as he gets ready to die. He is fully prepared. As Son of God he knows that his death will bring life and salvation to the world. But he’s also Son of Man, he is just like us: flesh and blood. He is fearful. ‘Now, my soul is troubled he says’. We hear similar words in the other Gospels, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; (Matthew 26:38)
Each day of this Holy Week, Jesus draws closer to his death. We meditate again on his gracious words and actions, culminating in that glorious final commitment from the Cross, ‘Into your hands O Lord I commend my spirit’. In doing so we can I believe be strengthened to prepare for our own death. Jesus was fully prepared for his death, and we should be too. There is something rather important being said in the Great Litany in the Book of Common Prayer when we pray to be ‘delivered from dying suddenly and unprepared.’ It is good to be ready, to be prepared for when our own death comes. St Francis of Assisi could speak of death as ‘Sister Death’, because she was for him a familiar and welcome companion. It is said of Pope John 23rd -good Pope John- that as he lay dying of a rather terrible stomach cancer, he told his secretary, ‘My bags are packed and ready to go.’ In the Rule of our Society we read, ‘We are called to remember our mortality day by day with unflinching realism, shaking off the sleep of denial.’ (Chapter 48). Death for the Christian is no enemy, is not to be feared, but is rather a kind angel waiting to lead us into the presence of our heavenly Father.
Given our proximity to the ocean, we might imagine a vast body of water when we read in the Gospels about the Sea of Galilee. But the Sea of Galilee is no ocean. The Sea of Galilee is a lake, a large fresh-water lake in northern Israel/Palestine. The lake is 33 miles long and 8 miles wide. It is fed by the Jordan River which flows from north to south, and also by underground springs.
The Sea of Galilee is as dangerous as it is distinctive: distinctive because it is the lowest freshwater lake on earth – it’s surface almost 700 feet below sea level, with a beautiful shoreline, pristine drinking water, and a plentiful stock of fish. Anddangerous because of its surprising and violent storms. From the Golan Heights in the east, fierce, cool winds meet up with the warm temperatures of the lake basin, sometimes creating the perfect storm. Storms literally come out of the blue, even when the waters have been tranquil and the sky perfectly clear.
This must be the very thing that happened here with the disciples. They had set off in their small fishing boat in seemingly tranquil waters, when suddenly a violent storm arose. Their tiny boat was being battered by the wind and the waves, and there seemed to be no possibility of safely reaching the shore. They were swamped by fear. They had fished on this lake for a living. They knew this water, they knew these storms, and they were terrified!
And you? You probably know how it is to be sailing through life in radiant sunlight when swiftly and unexpectedly a storm arises and you suddenly find yourself swamped by mighty waves and tossed about by terrible winds. Perhaps something tragic or frightening has happened to a family member or friend, or to you; maybe it’s a health issue, a financial disaster, an accident, some kind of assault, or some other unforeseen suffering. There is so much to be afraid of in life, and our fears can seem so great when we feel so small. Fear is no respecter of age, or gender, or social standing. Fear may be the most common experience we share with all of humankind: the consuming, crippling, sometimes-irrational visitation of fear. We can experience fear when we face impending danger, or pain, or evil, or confusion, or vulnerability, or embarrassment. Whether the threat is real or imagined does not matter. What does matter is our sense of powerlessness. We don’t feel we can stop or divert or control what threatens to swamp our lives and make us sink. Whatever its source, our fear is real.
Jesus speaks a great deal about fear and anxiety, which is quite revealing. He would have learned his lessons about fear from two sources, one being the Hebrew scriptures. The scriptures which he would have known – what we call the “Old Testament” – are replete with messages about worry and fear. We are told very plainly that we do not need to be afraid, and this is because of God’s promise and provision, God’s steadfast love and unfailing faithfulness. Fear’s tight hold on us is loosened, the Bible assures us, when we put our trust in God.
“I sought the Lord, and he answered me,” the psalmist says, “and delivered me out of all my terror.” (Ps.34:4)
“The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom then shall I fear?” another psalmist declares. “The Lord is the strength of my life, of whom shall I be afraid? …. Though an army should encamp against me, yet my heart shall not be afraid; and though war should rise up against me, yet will I put my trust in him.” (Ps 27:1,3-4)
“Whenever I am afraid,” the psalmist says to God, “I will put my trust in you.” (Ps 56:3)
“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble,” writes another, “Therefore we will not fear, though the earth be moved, and though the mountains be toppled into the depths of the sea; though its waters rage and foam, and though the mountains tremble at its tumult…. The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our stronghold.” (Ps 46:1-3,11)
Jesus would have known these words, just as he would have known the words of the prophet Isaiah:
“But now, thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.” (Isa 43:1-3)
Jesus would also have learned about fear from his own life. I am not talking about the fear he observed in other people. I am talking about his own personal fear, what he experienced. We don’t know the specifics of what Jesus feared, but we do know that Jesus lived a fully human life, and therefore he must have been acquainted with fear, undoubtedly. If you want to imagine what Jesus feared, use your own life as an example. Of what have you been afraid? If you went back in memory to your earliest childhood, then your adolescence, then coming into your twenties and beyond into adulthood, what has caused you to fear?
Were you afraid there would not be enough of something, or afraid there would be too much of something? Were you afraid because you might be excluded from something, or afraid because you might be included in something? Were you afraid because you might be asked to speak, or afraid because, when you spoke, no one would listen, or no one would understand? Were you afraid because you might be left alone, or afraid because you would not be left alone? Were you afraid because of too much work, or afraid because there was no work, or no meaningful work? Were you afraid because you stood out, or afraid because you felt unnoticed, lost in the crowd, forgotten, invisible? Were you afraid because you were bullied, or because you faced prejudice or persecution? Were you ever so afraid that you feared for your life? Or were you afraid because of your own temper? Some of our fears are pathetic: tiny, tedious, embarrassing to even admit… and yet they are very real. We suffer with our fears – which are the kinds of things Jesus must also have been afraid of, because these are the kind of fears that visit us in life.
When Jesus talks about not being afraid, he is not speaking clinically, nor is the source of his teaching primarily from external observation. He is rather speaking from his own experience. He is speaking about fear from the inside-out, autobiographically. He had as much to be afraid of as you and I have. And then, something slowly happened to Jesus. Something shifted in Jesus in the nearly 20 years between when he was, at age 12, discussing theology with the elders in the Temple in Jerusalem, and when appeared before his cousin, John, to be baptized in the Jordan River. These 20-some years are often called Jesus’ “hidden years,” and we are not told where Jesus was or what he was doing. The scriptures are silent on this period of Jesus’ life. I am certain he was making peace with the terms of his life, and that included facing his fears.
When Jesus finds his voice – at around age 30 – he speaks a great deal about fear, worry, and anxiety: he tells us that we need not be afraid, that we need not worry, that we need not be anxious. Why is that? Because of God’s powerful presence and provision; and because of God’s enduring faithfulness. Jesus learned this. In facing his own fears, he discovered he was not alone.
Going back to the Gospel lesson appointed for today: When a violent storm descends upon the disciples in the boat, Jesus appears to them. The disciples are terrified. Whatever we make of Jesus’ walking on the stormy water, we can see that he is not afraid. Had he ever been afraid of storms on the Sea of Galilee? I’m sure he had. He had grown up in Nazareth, which is not far from the Sea of Galilee. He knew storms, inside and out. But he is no longer afraid of storms. And he tells his disciples, he tells us, not to be afraid. He isn’t scolding us; he is reassuring us not to be afraid, because we don’t need to be afraid. He has come to know this, from the scriptures and from his own experience. And he promises us his power, his provision, his presence to be with us always, to the end of the storm, and to the end of life.
If your life now is swamped with fear, or if you are afraid about an incoming storm in your life – and I presume that all of us are acquainted with fear – remember this: our fear is not an obstacle to God but rather an invitation from God to take Jesus at his word. We need not be afraid. Jesus will know every reason why we could be afraid because he’s been there. He assures us not to be afraid, not to have anxiety, because he is with us: his presence, his power, his provision. For us, fear can seem such an inmovable impediment. But for God, our fear presents an opportunity to show forth God’s presence, and power, and provision; and an opportunity for us to learn to trust. Our fear is God’s invitation, and Jesus will make good on his promise to be with us always. There is so much of which we could be afraid in life, but Jesus assures us not to fear.
Saint Francis De Sales, a 17th century Bishop of Geneva, who lived during a very stormy time in history, left us with these words of assurance:
“Do not look forward in fear to the changes in life;
rather look to them with full hope that as they arise,
God, whose very own you are, will lead you safely through all things;
and when you cannot stand it, God will carry you in his arms.
“Do not fear what may happen tomorrow.
The same everlasting Father who cared for you today
will take care of you then and every day.
“He will either shield you from suffering,
or will give you unfailing strength to bear it.”
Jesus has the last word: “Do not fear, for I am with you, always.” (cf Mt 28:20)
The Sea of Galilee is actually a large fresh-water lake in northern Israel/Palestine. The lake is 33 miles long and 8 miles wide. It is fed by the Jordan River which flows from north to south, and also by underground springs. The Sea of Galilee is as dangerous as it is distinctive: distinctive for being the lowest freshwater lake on earth – its surface almost 700 feet below sea level, with a beautiful shoreline, pristine drinking water, and a plentiful stock of fish. And yet the Sea of Galilee is dangerous because of its surprising and violent storms. From the Golan Heights in the east, fierce, cool winds meet up with the warm temperatures of the lake basin sometimes creating the perfect storm. Storms literally come out of the blue, even when the waters have been tranquil and the sky, perfectly clear. This must be the very thing that happened here with the disciples and Jesus. They had gotten into a boat. All was calm, all was bright… and then comes the storm. With the wind and waves coming at them, the disciples are swamped by well-informed fear. Most of them fish on this lake for a living. They know this water and these storms.
And you? You probably know how it is to be sailing through life on the sunniest of days, and then a storm hits. There is so much to be afraid of in life when we are accosted by threats, whether they be familiar or foreign. These fears can seem so great and we feel so small. Fear is no respecter of age, or gender, or privilege. Fear may be the most common experience we share with all of humankind: the consuming, crippling, sometimes-irrational visitation of fear. We can experience fear when we face impending danger, or pain, or evil, or confusion, or vulnerability, or embarrassment. Whether the threat is real or imagined, it does not matter. What does matter is our sense of powerlessness. We don’t feel we can stop or divert or control what threatens to swamp our lives. Whatever the source of our fear, our fear is real.
Howard Thurman, the great African-American teacher and pastor, wrote extensively on what Jesus said “to those who stand with their backs against the wall: the poor, the disinherited, and the dispossessed.”[i] Thurman drew his inspiration from Jesus, who grew up in poverty. Because of their race and religion, Jesus’ people had for decades been cruelly subjugated by the oppression and discrimination of the Roman Empire. For his first thirty years, Jesus would also have faced the ignominy of his own birth. Either he was born to a mother out of wedlock; or his mother and father, Mary and Joseph, were fabulous liars and blasphemers; or both parents were mentally unsound. How could this be, the “miraculous” story of Jesus’ birth? Jesus faced prejudice and persecution from the very beginning of his life.
When Jesus finds his voice, one word recurs in Jesus’ speech and actions: power. People would ask, “Where did he get all this power?” because Jesus teemed with power.[ii] In the end, as Jesus was coming down from the Mount of Olives, “the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen” (Luke 19:37). And his departing words were about power: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses … to the ends of the earth” (Acts of the Apostles 1:8). Power.
St. George the Martyr
Preaching on the saints can be, at times, a real challenge. This is especially true with some of the early saints, including some of the apostles, about whom we know very little, and what we do know, is largely legend. Does the preacher simply stick to the texts, or do they focus on the legend? The problem with dismissing the legend out of hand is that many of the legends have within them shards of historical truth, and if they don’t, the legends are so archetypal, they still contain truth, and those archetypal legends have the power to shape and influence lives.
This is especially true of St. George, whom we remember today. What can be said about him, or at least about his feast historically, is that his feast was being kept as early as the mid fifth century. The legend of George and the dragon can’t be traced back earlier than the twelfth century. It is thought he died a martyr in the early years of the fourth century, during the persecution of Diocletian. He may have been a soldier, which gave rise to him being recognized as the patron saint of soldiers in twelfth century. As patron saint of soldiers, the Crusades were fought under his banner, which is how, ultimately, devotion to George was carried back to England, where in 1347 he was declared the patron saint.
Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah, saying, “Arise, go to Ninevah, that great city, and cry against it.”
Now the word of the Lord came to Simon and Andrew, and James and John, as they were casting and mending nets, saying, “Come, follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”
When Jonah heard the Lord’s voice calling him he immediately got up and hightailed off in the opposite direction! When Simon and Andrew, James and John heard the Lord’s voice, they immediately left their nets and followed Jesus. Two very different responses to the call of God. And as I was reading the two stories set in today’s Scripture readings, I was reflecting on the mystery of vocation, of how God is always calling us to larger life – and our very mixed and not always very impressive or heroic responses!
And certainly, in Scripture, it seems that most people whom God calls, don’t immediately leave their ‘nets’ and follow. Most of them, like me, are more like Jonah. Or like Moses. He tries to wriggle out of it when God calls him to confront Pharaoh: ‘O Lord, I’ve never been eloquent: I’m slow of speech and tongue.’ Or poor Jeremiah. ‘O Lord, truly I don’t know how to speak, for I’m only a boy.’ Or poor Isaiah, in the midst of a stunning vision of heaven – ‘O Lord, woe is me, I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips.’ But after the Lord cleanses him he does manage to say, ‘Here am I Lord, send me.’ We used to joke that he was probably feeling more, ‘Here am I – send HIM!’
Feast of the Holy Innocents
King Herod was scared of a baby. King Herod was so scared of a baby, that he ordered the massacre of every child under the age of two in Bethlehem just to try to kill that one baby. Thanks be to God, baby Jesus escaped the wrath of Herod. Today, the feast of the Holy Innocents, we remember all those babies who did not escape the wrath of Herod. All those babies who were killed due to one man’s fear.
The slaughter of babies is not a pleasant subject, especially during the Twelve Days of Christmas. The Christian church has been observing the feast of the Holy Innocents for over fifteen hundred years. That’s a long time. Clearly something important is going on here. Some lesson that needs to be relearned yearly, again and again over the course of centuries.
Consider what parts of the story are timeless. What is just as true now as it was then? Certainly the evil ordered by Herod to slaughter babies is timeless. It is just as evil to us now as it was then. It was an evil fueled by fear, anger, and power. Three poisons with timeless potency.
A master entrusts property to slaves before going on a journey: five talents to one, two talents to another, and one talent to the third. Some scholars say this is a huge amount, a talent as a lifetime’s wages.[i] It’s extravagant, an amazing invitation. I’m entrusting you with all of this. Either way it is a surprise, a gift, and an invitation to act. They are differing amounts, “according to the ability of each.” The master trusted with particularity, noting the unique ability of each.
After a long time, the master returns. The first two say: You entrusted me with this amount, and see I have doubled it. “Well done, [you are] good and trustworthy.” Having been trustworthy, I will give you more. The master doesn’t say: You are successful. Rather: you are good and trustworthy.[ii] You stepped out on my behalf buying and selling property, investing what I handed over. It appears that engagement and participation are more important than a particular return.
So where are we now?
We have come, at last, to the end of one of the most bitterly contested national elections this country has ever seen. For many of us, finally naming a winner doesn’t bring the resolution we hoped it would; it feels like we’re all on the losing side in this contest. We are like two battered and weary fighters standing in the middle of the ring, faces bruised and bleeding, bent over with exhaustion, waiting for the referee to raise the arm of one of us. Our country is as divided as ever. Our political leaders are locked in seemingly irresolveable conflict that limits their effectiveness at home and diminishes our influence abroad. We are facing the largest public health crisis the world has ever known, with the numbers of new cases soaring to unprecedented heights in half of our states. We’re tired – of this pandemic, its restrictions, and all the pain and loss it has brought. We’re weary – of this toxic political deadlock, of the vilifying that characterizes election campaigns, of the threat of violence and lawsuits, of the seeming intractability of systemic racism, and of so much more.
What message of hope can the Church possibly offer?
Our answer begins with a reminder of who we are. We are human beings, created in the image of God, knowing ourselves to be loved by God in all our diversity. We are people who belong to God, who have been invited to live in a relationship with love with our Creator, who have been forgiven and redeemed by Christ, and who can reflect God’s glory in the world. The prophet tells us that God has called us by name, and we are precious and honored in God’s sight: every one of us. There is not a single human being that God does not love.
Our reading from the Second Book of Kings would make would make for a great scene in an adventure movie or mythology novel: the Prophet Elijah’s ascending into heaven in a whirlwind with horses of fire and in a chariot fire. And there’s also the scenes when Elijah’s cloak – his “miracle mantle” – is used two different times to strike the Jordan River, which then miraculously divides in two, one side to the other, to open a dry passageway for a walkthrough. It’s such spectacular power!
A fascinating and inspiring way to read the Scriptures is through the lens of power. In virtually every page of the Bible, there is a supernatural manifestation of power, the intervention or infusion of God’s power in everyday life:
- Power in the form of words being given to someone who is otherwise inarticulate.
- Power in the form of knowledge about something which is otherwise unknowable.
- Power in interpreting signs, experiences, dreams, languages, or what could seem as “coincidence.”
- Power to be wise amidst what is otherwise so confusing and undecipherable in life.
- Power in the form of physical strength, or moral integrity, or courage when confronted with strong opposition.
- Power in the form of an inner peacefulness in the face of strife, violence, or threat.
- Power in the face of disaster, imprisonment, censure, or banishment.
- Power in the form of provision: food, money, shelter, access to people of influence.
- Power in the form of healing mediated through words, through touch, through oil, through spittle.
- Power to forgive the otherwise-unforgivable.
One question trailed Jesus throughout his earthly life: “Where did he get all this power?” because Jesus teemed with power.[i] And Jesus’ parting promise to us was about our being able to do “even greater works of power” than he did because of God’s abiding presence with us, because of God’s Spirit.[ii] Christianity without power is like a country club for nice manners and good taste. Christianity is about engaging the powers and the powerful needs of this world with the force and provision of God.
Annie Dillard writes, “Why do people in church seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour…? Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we blithely invoke? …It is madness to wear ladies’ velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.” [iii] We have been created by the power of God to know and mediate the power of God.
There are lots of things in life for which we could be fearful. And so Jesus speaks endlessly about our not needing to be afraid, about our not needing to be anxious because he is with us, always.[iv] You may be in touch right now with fear or anxiety where you feel your vulnerability and need. But there’s more. You may be equally afraid – maybe even more afraid – of how you are powerful. If you are afraid of your power – and you do have power – you need not fear your power. Don’t be afraid. Remember the Blessed Virgin Mary who was visited by an angel announcing Mary’s life mission, a very powerful calling.[v] Mary was afraid, afraid of being giving such power, and then she found the grace to say “yes” to God. She finally prayed, “Okay. Be it unto me according to your word.” And so for you. You probably already pray about poverty and need, yours and others’. Also pray for God’s power. Pray your “yes” to God’s power to be at work within you and through you.
[i] Matthew 13:54, 26:64; Mark 6:2, 14:62; Luke 6:19; John 1:12.
[ii] John 12:12-14.
[iii] From Annie Dillard’s Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters, pp. 40-41. Annie Dillard won the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction in 1975 and in 2014 received the National Humanities Medal.
[iv] Matthew 28:20.
[v] Luke 1:26-38.