Decision Time

playing the violin, in-group in background
Photo credit: <a href="">Luis Hernandez</a>

John 12:20-33

Some heathens also went up to the Temple to worship during the festival. They came to Phil, who was from from Fishermans Wharf in Galilee, asking for an appointment with Jesus. Phil went and told Drew, and together they went to ask Jesus.

Jesus said, “It’s time for the authentic human to be recognized. I’m telling you, really, if a seed never falls into the earth and disintegrates, it remains just a seed. But if it disintegrates, it produces fruit. If you love your life, you’ll lose it. If you let go of your life as it is, your horizons will expand forever. If you want to serve me, you have to do what I do. You have to go where I go. If you do this, God won’t let you down.

“I’m troubled. What am I supposed to say? ‘God, keep me from my fate?’ No! I won’t deny the reason I came here in the first place! God, make yourself known!”

Just then a voice came from heaven, saying, “I’ve made myself known, and will do it again.” When people heard it, they thought it was thunder. Some said that an angel had spoken to him.

Jesus said, “The voice wasn’t for me. It was for you. It’s decision time. The world’s ruler is about to be sent into exile. I’ll be upheld, and everyone will come to me.” (This was how he hinted at the way he expected to die.)

This passage begins and ends with people coming to Jesus. All the wrong people.

It’s the gentiles – the heathen- who approach Phil, the one with the Greek name, to ask for an appointment. They’re not the ones who are supposed to be “in the know” about right religion. But somehow they know that Jesus is the one they should talk to. When Jesus talks about being raised up, it’s not the people who are already on the inside, the “right” people, who are drawn in. It’s everyone else who will come to him. In the very next verse (omitted from the lectionary) the crowds (of insiders) don’t get it. They want to know how Jesus can say he’ll be raised up. This doesn’t fit their expectations of religious protocol.

The people on the outside get it. They come. The people on the inside don’t. They go.

At the center is this saying about the seed, and the paradox of keeping your life and losing it, or losing it to keep it. This is the great truth that the religiously inside so often fail to grasp. It’s not just about Jesus’ death and resurrection. It’s about being willing to follow Jesus into death and resurrection. What’s true for him is true for everyone. You can’t move by standing still. You can’t grow by remaining the same. You can’t reach your destiny by refusing to participate in the moments that are meant to define you. You can’t be great by playing it safe. You can’t stand out by staying with the in crowd.

It’s decision time! Will you stay on the inside, comfortably numb and self-assured? Or will you follow Jesus, face your fear, and forever expand your horizons?

Your Priestly Calling

woman blessing
Photo credit: <a href="">Wonderlane</a>

Hebrews 5:5-10

Jesus didn’t appoint himself to the high-priesthood. It was God who said,

You’re my child.
I’m your parent.

It was God who said,

You’re a priest,
In the tradition of the king of justice.

When Jesus was with us in the flesh, he prayed, pleaded with cries and tears, that God would spare his life. His prayers were heard, but in spite of being God’s child, he still had to go through with the suffering. It was through the suffering that he became the life-saving spring for everyone who follows his calling. He was appointed by God to be a priest in the tradition of the king of justice.

“Melchizedek,” from the Hebrew roots m-l-k “king” and tz-d-k “righteousness, justice,” is first mentioned in Genesis 14 as the priestly king who blesses Abram. You can look it up.

Doing justice is no picnic. It’s a calling. It involves suffering. Lifesaving, life-giving, life-affirming suffering.

Which is not to say that one ought to be a doormat. What it does mean is that you have to do the work, put in the time, endure the nay-sayers, the make-fun-of-yous, and the it-can’t-be-done people. It does mean that you have to take a stand, even when it’s unpopular. Even when it lands you in hot water.

It means that you actually have to put your life on the line for something worthwhile.

It means that being privileged doesn’t exempt you from putting your life on the line for what’s right. If you were born with a silver spoon in your mouth, you’re no better when it comes to doing right than someone who was born in a slum in Calcutta or East LA. All it means is that you’re responsible for more to start with.

Anyone can be a priest in the tradition of the king of justice. You can be a source of blessing. Jesus was God’s child, sure. But so are you. All you’ve got to do is put your life on the line for something wonderfully right.

A Vision from God

man walking into vortex
Image credit: <a href="">Hartwig HKD</a>

Galatians 1:10-12

 So, whose approval do you think I’m looking for: people’s or God’s? Do I sound like I’m trying to win a popularity contest? If I were trying to suck up to people, I wouldn’t be working for Jesus, would I? Friends, I want you to know that the story of Jesus I tell doesn’t come from other people. I didn’t get it from some storyteller who taught it to me. I got it in a vision, straight from Jesus himself.

I admit that when someone tells me he or she has had a vision from God, my first impulse is to be a little bit skeptical – no very skeptical. The problem with visions from God is that they’re impossible to confirm or deny. There’s no proof one way or the other. All you have to go on is what the person who claims the vision says. Even if that person is someone you like and generally have a high regard for, you still might wonder if their “vision” is a sign that they’re coming unhinged. Should you be concerned for them?

Still, you can’t disprove it either. Nor should you try. I’d suggest that the basis for buying someone’s claim about a vision from God (or any kind of vision, for that matter) is by watching to see if it makes any real difference in the life of the person who had it. Do they change their course of action. Do they take action change their life’s trajectory? Do they change their priorities? Do they focus in a way they hadn’t before?

In other words, even though you can’t duplicate their experience, or experience it vicariously through them, or see exactly what they saw, do they live as if what they saw was really real? If they do, then even if the way they describe it seems far-fetched, there’s probably something to it. Otherwise, take it with a grain of salt.

Paul may not have been perfect. He may not have been always able to implement things in an ideal way. He may have been abrasive. He may even have had some of the details wrong. And he was a terrible theologian. But what he says he saw changed his life. There was something to it, and his passion for it changed the world – maybe not precisely the way Jesus had in mind, and probably beyond what even Paul himself had in mind – and he pursued it without regard for what anyone else thought of it.

For better or worse, and probably both better and worse, Paul was, if nothing else, a visionary. Like all visionaries (Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Nelson Mandela, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Adolf Hitler, John Kennedy, George Washington, Ronald Reagan, Albert Einstein – the list goes on) he’s not perfect. Visionary does not imply “good.” What makes them visionaries isn’t their goodness or perfection, it’s their vision that leaves the world a different place, for good or ill or both, behind them.)

Calling Leads to Resistance Leads to Commitment

become change written on fingers
Photo credit: <a href="">Abe Novy</a>

Mark 1:9-15

That was when Jesus came. He arrived from Nazareth and John dunked him in the Jordan River. As he emerged from the water he saw the universe as it really is, and he felt it resonate to his core: that he was God’s precious child, and God was joy.

But as soon as this had happened, the vision cast Jesus into a desert of uncertainty, where for 40 days he wrestled with the Resistance, where he came face to face with fear, and still the divine vision endured. Then, when John was arrested, Jesus returned to Galilee where he started working toward the goal. “It starts now,” he said. “The goal is close. Turn your life around! It’s going to be awesome.”

[See previous comments on:

  1. 1:9-11, Baptism Redefined
  2. 1:12-15, Getting Started
  3. 1:4-11, You’ll Know it When it Happens
  4. 1:14-20, Who Are Your Fans?]

In the context of the first Sunday in Lent, the first two of the comments above will be the most immediately relevant, and especially the second. Also, Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art
ought to be required reading for sermon preparation this Sunday. If you want an abbreviated version, read Pressfield’s own Cliffs Notes version: Do the Work.

This passage begins with the moment Jesus knows clearly who he is and what he is called to do. Immediately, he is also confronted with every reason why he should forget everything he knows and just go back to being an ordinary guy from nowheresville. These two experiences go hand in hand. It’s the human condition that you never know one without the other. Jesus was no exception. You and I are no exception. Your little church (or your big church) is no exception. The moment you know most clearly who you are and what God/the world/your soul requires of you is the moment when you will encounter the Resistance to doing it. It’s this simultaneous knowing and resisting the move from knowing to being which introduces the theme for Year B Lent.

For Jesus, the entire ministry – everything from here to the cross – is born (and borne) out of this tension between Vocation and Resistance. Against the Resistance, may your Lenten journey be one in which the divine vision endures. Turn your life around. It’s going to be awesome!