Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Why Did Jesus Die?

This was a difficult pericope on which to preach... could be any of dozens of sermons. This is where I settled.

Preached at First Presbyterian Church Boise.

Why Did Jesus Die?

Scripture: Jeremiah 31:31-34
John 12:20-33

Focus: John 12:32  And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself."

Do we come to church this morning as seekers… seekers after answers - to the news of violence and hatred from Boise to the farthest stretches of the earth?

Do we come to church this morning seeking answers to the issues within our personal lives?

Do we come to church this morning seeking solace as we pray, listen, sing, learn, fellowship?

I think so!

At the beginning of our scripture reading today we have a rather interesting story unfolding. It is a story of seekers.

First of all, the people were described as Greek. The nuances are interesting and bring fullness to the story.

These Greeks seek out Philip because they identify with him. His name is Greek and he came from a predominately Greek region. It seemed safe to seek out Philip.

"Sir, we wish to see Jesus."  It is a polite request but it was also a very surprising one. “To see” didn’t mean that they wanted to see the celebrity Jesus. But rather, it is deeper – they want to get to know Jesus, they want to be a part of what he is teaching.

Oh how I pray for that deep drive to “see” Jesus on even my best days!

Philip wasn’t quite sure what to do with the request so he turned to Andrew (the disciple with the reputation of introducing people to Jesus). And together they went to Jesus, “There are some Greeks looking for you.”
When I was a young girl my father was in the wholesale grocery business so our family often got to officially test new products. The two I vividly remember are Jiffy Pop and Betty Crocker’s Chocolate Cake mix.

One evening we were presented with a beautiful chocolate cake, a real treat, for dessert. Mind you I never remember my mother baking from scratch but this night we were to compare fresh baked with box cake.

In our minds it failed miserably, just didn’t compare! Turns out that was the experience with just about all the testers. What I learned years later is that we had tested the cake where only water needed to be added. Surely, then, it HAD to taste like cardboard.
Betty Crocker took the cue. Once an egg and some oil had to be added to the reworked dry mix it suddenly took off and the rest is history.

The presentation of the Christian faith can be like the original cake mix – simplified, not needing much work to get a good outcome. Pastors, congregations, and denominations often make the mistake of “packaging” or presenting the faith as being “easy”. They are afraid that people won’t “buy in” if it is too hard.

We wish to see Jesus… we wish to see the Jesus that will teach us how to live in faith, how to believe, how to live as those who are saved. We don’t need a “packaged” faith. We seek the REAL faith, the faith that Jesus teaches, faith that gives answers.

The Greeks came to be a part of what Jesus was. We do the same and Jesus doesn’t disappoint.

Jesus begins with a parable. The story is about a grain of wheat that will not grow and multiply into a field of wheat unless it falls to the earth and dies. Once it dies it can rise through the dirt… and grow… into an abundant harvest.

If you grew up attending Sunday school, we learned that this parable is about Jesus needing to die to save our souls. As a child I was mesmerized by the concept and totally perplexed at the same time.

From the perspective of my adult faith – having taken that “leap of faith” necessary to get past logic into the heart, it now makes sense. But I admit that the intellectual side of me sometimes wonders, “How can this be?” I wish to see Jesus more clearly. We desire to know Jesus.

Jesus then explains the parable: Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.

This statement is oh so true. In our present time success is often achieved by setting goals and working hard, by putting oneself first at the expense of others, pushing, pushing, pushing forth doing what one needs to do to achieve the goal.

Jesus sets a different path. One’s faith is what is important… the other successes are transient. The fullness and sweetness of life can be missed when one is myopic.

This saying in itself is not so very unusual – it is a consistent motif of the New Testament. We’ve heard it many times… if you want to live a full life you have to first learn to give away your life. From Jesus’ perspective you have to learn how to die to what you may hold dear and serve and love others as Jesus loved us.

Think of it this way: If a person focuses on treasures and personal possessions, they lose their life – that is they miss the goal of eternal life.
But if a person “throws away” their life with generosity and care, they are assured of eternal life. Our permanent satisfaction comes from faith and our response to faith, not in the “stuff” with which we fill our lives.
In other words, those who are comfortable with their present lives and work to maintain the status quo no matter what it takes, will lose their lives.

It's true in life in general isn't it? If we are going to get anything out of our lives we have to invest ourselves. Being a Christian doesn’t just come from attending church each week. There has to be an investment in one’s faith.

Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.

The person who follows Jesus – no matter their personage – is involved with the harvest (remember the wheat?). The follower of Jesus – all disciples – turn from the passions of the world, puts these passions behind in order to serve with Jesus and ultimately give even their life as Jesus does so that all my discover eternal life.

It may be an enigma to the world as a whole – one must give their life up in order to find it? But there is a sequence here – death, obedience, life. Ultimately, one is to pursue a life that is honored by God.

Perhaps John Wesley captures it best when he wrote to his people, called Methodist, the following Rule of Conduct: 
Do all the good you can, 
By all the means you can, 
In all the ways you can, 
In all the places you can, 
At all the times you can, 
To all the people you can, 
As long as ever you can.

I am going to leave John 12: 27-31 for Holy Week where we attend several services taking us step by step to the crucifixion and resurrection.

It is verse 32 that has always fascinated and perplexed me: “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself."  It is the crux of our answer to the question “Why Did Jesus Die?”

Remember what started this discussion? A group of Greek persons wanted to be part of what Jesus had to offer. Greeks! Non-Jewish people! As he is just hours from the Garden of Gethsemane and days from the cross these visitors spark the recognition by Jesus that he is to have worldwide influence.

Who will be drawn to Jesus and why?

Jesus began his ministry with great hope and now, and in just a few short years he is facing the very reason that he was sent among us; to serve humankind in the greatest possible way – to lay his life down in order to save our lives and to bring us gracefully into the presence of God.

In doing so, Jesus becomes the  “head” or the “representative.” Jesus doesn’t draw “men” to him. He draws men and women, young and old, Greek and Jew to him without any force or compulsion.

And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself."

ALL is a deliberately used word in the New Revised Standard Version and about ½ of all the versions I read this text. The others use “men.” But the presence of the Greeks in this conversation by Jesus, who clearly includes them in the lesson on how to live by Jesus, shows his intention that the outcome of his sacrifice was to be for the world, for those who are saved with no delineation.

For those who would do without the violence to Jesus on the cross it is pabulum, it is a feel good faith, it is “easy” religion.

Theologian H. Richard Neibuhr condemns cross-less Christianity whether it is promoted by liberal Protestantism or the evangelical "feel good", seeker-sensitive churches. It is a false gospel in which "A God without wrath brought men [and women] without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross."

There is no Christianity without the Cross.

Jesus died to become one with God and one with ALL people. A triumphal and force-filled ending to his life may have been a success for the moment in time but it would not have had lasting power.

Why Did Jesus Die?

I feel that the Rev. John Buchannan (Presbyterian) captures the answer of this question and brings together what we have already noted … he writes:

He [Christ] died because he really believed that in living for others, we become the men and women God created us to be.

He died to show us how to live: to save us from our sins, to show God’s love and forgiveness and reconciling grace that covers, pays for, redeems everything we have done to separate ourselves from God and others.

But more than that even. He died to save our souls from narrowness, from the confines of our own selfishness.

He died to call us out of our self-concern, our stress and anxiety about careers and how much money we earn, to a life lived in the glorious freedom of his love.

He died to show us that we need never be afraid of anything.

“And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”

To God be the glory. Amen.

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