Fifth Sunday in Lent, March 21st, 2021


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The fifth Sunday of Lent is the next-to-final Sunday of the season. The last Sunday before the culminating Passion Week, which opens with the reading of the extended passion narrative, this year from Mark. We stay in John’s Gospel for one final time this fifth Sunday, before returning there again in Eastertide.

As we have noted, in John’s Gospel it is the raising of Lazarus that triggers the decision to bring Jesus to trial. The culminating sign—the dead Lazarus come forth alive—creates just too great a draw in its wake. “What are we to do? For this man performs many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation…So from that day they took counsel how to put him to death.” So the end of chapter 11.

John has shown Jesus coming up for Passover previously, earlier in his ministry. So in John’s Gospel the plotting against Jesus zeros in on this Passover time and place because the authorities can expect him there and then. And they are right about that.

The crowds come out to see him, because of the fame surrounding the raising of Lazarus, and John says his death, the risen Lazarus, too is under consideration by authorities scandalized by his living testimony. Yet one more time John records that the crowds swarm Jesus because of the testimony of those at Lazarus’ tomb, as he enters the holy city in John’s version of the Palm Sunday hosanna, king of the Jews episode. “The world has gone out to him” is their concerned verdict.

All of this serves as a trigger, or triggers, for John’s narrative unfolding, as the forces against Jesus observe the reality on the ground. The signs are too effective, especially the final one.

But Jesus has his own trigger, his own timing, his own sense of God’s work in him, and we hear him express it clearly in the lesson for today. “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.”

As with other things said unwittingly by those who claim to be in power, a truth was prophesied. The whole world has gone out to him means just that. In our lesson for today we hear that the Greeks have come to see Jesus. Gentiles. They go to Greek speaking Philip and Philip gets Andrew and they together go to Jesus. Andrew and Philip were those who were the first communicators of his long-promised arrival, Philip finding Nathanael back in chapter 1.

Understated but unmistakable. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is spilling out beyond the nation and temple—the proximate concern of the authorities—and into all nations. In the temple that is his own body, ironically to be destroyed after all, as feared by the authorities of the temple structure by the Romans. Something is happening, mysteriously, inexorably. The hidden grain which will blossom and grow and bear much fruit. By dying. And already drawing all people to himself in anticipation of his final lifting up from the earth. Those who may not know who they are seeking to see, but who know he is the one they must see all the same. Sir, we would see Jesus. The whole world is going out to him. They have rightly prophesied. The hour has come.

It is perfectly possible that the Greeks—the term used for Gentiles elsewhere at John—were actually gentile proselytes, like the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts. Some hold we cannot know that for sure since pagans also on occasion might bring gifts to the Court of the Gentiles, as the outer region of the temple precincts were known, in tribute, during festivals. But in either case, the import is the same. The Gospel is making inroads which will find their high point at the Cross.

The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.

The Epistle reading from Hebrews comes alongside this scene with its reference to the father’s glorification, and also the prayer of Jesus that the cup might pass by. This is registered only to be set aside in the triumphant manner of Jesus in John. Hebrews speaks of loud cries and anguish such as we find described in the garden scenes of Matthew, Mark and Luke. But as with the one verse “Jesus wept,” Jesus soul is also here troubled, in John’s compact syntax.

Hebrews wants to emphasize the obedience of Jesus, who did not glorify himself but participated fully in suffering submission before God. The judgment of this world, as John calls it, is the confrontation of Jesus with the ruler of the world. Hebrews reminds us that this confrontation was costly in a way that Jesus did not seek to avoid in the days of his flesh. His obedience to death amounted to a kind of perfection, whose purpose was to win eternal salvation for us. This is the unique priesthood of Jesus. A prefect offering for us and our salvation. A priesthood Jesus, the risen and ascended Jesus, continues to exercise for us as Hebrews elsewhere states it.

It is here, then, that the cries of the psalmist and the promise to Jeremiah converge and find their place. The psalmist longs for a pure heart. A right spirit. Deep within. To put his soul at peace with the God against whom he has sinned. A broken and contrite heart is a sacrifice pleasing to God. Jesus in dying has entered into that space and heard us in his saving priesthood. Has heard the psalmist: blot out all my iniquities. Create in me a clean heart.

And here the promise of God to Jeremiah embodied in the new covenant. The covenant which God made with Israel when he took them by the hand to lead the out of bondage, they broke it. This was a covenant they needed to teach to each generation. So that they might come to know the LORD. Here Jeremiah and Deuteronomy come close. Teaching is at the heart of relationship. Yet even the final chapters of Deuteronomy envision clearly an Israel that will fail. That will break the covenant and will in consequence experience the judgment Jeremiah announces to his generation, and like Moses before him, will share as well. Deuteronomy promises that God will hear the penitent Israel and renew the covenant even for a wayward people. Jeremiah sees something out beyond that in the promises of God. Ezekiel will come alongside him in describing a new heart, the heart clean and pure that the psalmist longs for. I will write it on their hearts and I will be their God and they will be my people.

And the how of his doing that we see in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Something is happening, is lifting him up and drawing all people to him. By his death new life and new growth new fruit blossoms forth. So the grain dies that the harvest may come. The forces that seek to thwart God and undermine the teaching that makes him known are to be confronted and defeated. When the Gentiles approach the disciples and ask to see Jesus, Jesus announces that the hour has come. The new covenant reality will involve not just the hearts and wills of a disobedient people whom he loves, but will draw all people into its saving life. The again of saving health of the penitent psalmist join the now of the hour that has come for Jesus and for all those he has come to save.

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