(a sermon for March 13, 2015, the 5th Sunday in Lent; fifth in a series, based on John 12:20-33)
He awoke around midnight, and his first sensation was that of tubes coming from just about every orifice; but it was the pain in his chest and the dull, sick feeling everywhere else in his body that told him that the surgery was now over and the dreadful, painful work of healing had begun.
It had been open heart surgery; a ruptured valve that had to be replaced immediately. Things had happened so quickly that he’d never really had the opportunity to prepare for this moment: he’d been told, of course, that the surgery was necessary to save his life, and they’d given him all manner of explanation as to what was going to happen afterward; but now he wondered why no one had let him know just how intense the pain was going to be!
And so it would continue for the next two days in intensive care, a time that seemed to him like two weeks. Truth be told, as the hours passed he never was really awake, yet to him it never felt as though he’d been able to sleep. He remembered very little, save for the interruptions: the nurses by his side, doctors coming in and out; technicians and aides doing their jobs; there always seemed to be somebody around doing something to him! There was the hospital “johnny” that made him feel naked and exposed, the constant beeping and buzzing of monitors all around him, and then, of course, the pain: medication had managed to keep it under control at least intermittently, but when it was bad, it was… agony! And there was very little he could do but suffer through it; and it really did seem to him at times like his suffering was going to go on forever.
It’s wasn’t forever, though; and eventually he was well enough to leave intensive care and be moved to a room on one of the surgical wards. Understand, he was still feeling awful and there was a lot more healing that had to take place; but it was so much better than before, and for the first time he could concede that eventually he might recover! In fact, as they wheeled him out of the CICU cubical where he’d gone through so much, he looked back at all the unconnected tubes, discarded gauze and medical machinery and found weary comfort in knowing that he’d suffered through all of this, and so much more, and had survived. He was going to make it; and now, as he thought back on it, he began to realize that in a very real and profound way, these had been his finest hours. In his suffering, you see, there was… glory; a strange glory, to be sure, but glory indeed.
Now, I’ll grant you, this is not how we’d prefer to think of “glory.” That word for us conjures up images of exaltation, victory and joy: it’s the Patriots winning the Super Bowl (when they do!), and the Red Sox victorious in the World Series (when they are!). Glory is reaching the goal; it’s winning the battle; it’s crossing the finish line with heart pounding, adrenaline pumping and arms lifted up in exhilaration. You know, when the Bible uses this word “glory,” in both the Hebrew and Greek languages of scripture, the words used imply “weightiness” and “splendor;” and that certainly applies, right? Glory is that which gives both weight – that is, substance – and splendor to your life and being; it what makes you truly shine!
So, in one sense, it wouldn’t seem as though time spent suffering in an ICU would be all that “glorious” an experience! And yet, anyone who has endured great suffering of any sort will tell you of the weightiness that experience has placed upon their lives: the sharp devastation of having to deal with a life threatening illness, either your own or that of a loved one; the emotional hurt that just seems to grow and grow in the face of a relationship irreversibly broken; the dull emptiness that comes in the wake of any number of life’s unexpected tragedies. It’s horrible; and the experience of it, more than merely a “one day at a time” proposition, seems to have become an “hour by hour” challenge! You’re carrying more weight than you ever thought possible, so much so that you’re sure you’ll never survive it; and yet, in the midst of it you realize that you are surviving it. And maybe… just maybe now… that there’s a bit of splendor in the fact that not only have you been able to bear that weight, but you’re also the stronger and the better for it.
That’s glory, friends; a strange glory, to be sure, but glory indeed!
We in the church know a little something about glory; that much is for sure. After all, what is the purpose of our worship if not to praise and “glorify” God? “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost,” we sing on nearly every Sunday we’re together. “Praise God from whom all blessings flow, praise him all creatures here below.” So much of what we do here serves to praise the name of the Lord, and well it should; for God is high, and is to be exalted and lifted up! God is transcendent: eternal, invisible, unchangeable, infinite, incomprehensible. In a word, God is glorious! That’s why, writes William Willimon, “generally speaking… we don’t write church anthems for the harmonica or the kazoo. We throw up a thousand pipes and pull out all the stops on the organ.” And then we bring every bit of melody and harmony we can muster as we sing to God be the glory!” “As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, Amen. Amen!”
That’s the kind of glory we understand! And that’s the kind of glory we’re looking for in a Savior, is it not?
So what do we do about Jesus?
Actually, you know, those two men who’d come up to Philip that day saying “Sir, we wish to see Jesus,” were in truth seeking that kind of glory. They were Greeks – likely Greek speaking Jews who were in Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover – and they’d heard of Jesus; or at least knew of his reputation as an illustrious worker of miracles; a healer and teacher all in one. And honestly, that’s what they were looking for – that’s, in all honesty, what any of us would be looking for – a glorious one come from a glorious God! And yes, when Jesus himself hears this, he indeed answers this request by saying that “the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” But rather than then speaking of the imminent arrival of angels and heavenly choirs, Jesus goes on to say something rather shocking: he says, “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” These two men have come to Jesus looking for a glorious life lifted up in exaltation, but Jesus speaks of his life as a grain of wheat, dead in the earth!
It’s a radical shift in expectation; but then, that shouldn’t surprise us, for isn’t this always the way of God? In that regard, I’m not sure who wrote this; I found it in my own notes from years ago, and I’m sure I didn’t write it, but it really says it very well: “In the Christ, we beheld God’s glory running counter with our own. We lift up our crosses of silver; but Jesus stoops under the weight of a cross of wood. We speak of crowns of gold; Jesus wore a crown of thorns… We beheld God’s glory in Jesus Christ; but his glory [was revealed] in his stooping down. His glory was not about transcendence, but condescendence. He became as a grain of wheat cast to the earth, [in that] he suffered and he died.”
Jesus tells the gathered crowd that he is to be “lifted up from the earth” but know that this was not meant in the manner of great success and grand celebration; His being “lifted up” involved being hung from a cross, executed as a common criminal, quite literally “the ruler of this world [being] driven out” in an act of infinite injustice; hardly the “heights of glory” as they, or for that matter, we would have understood it! And it’s important to note that Jesus – even Jesus, who by now was already resigned to his fate – had to confess that his own soul was troubled by this. Glory? That certainly doesn’t seem like glory at all!
And yet, what was it that Jesus said; that “when I am lifted up from the earth, [I] will draw all people to myself.” For Jesus knew that it would be precisely in this moment when the purposes of God would be revealed and fulfilled in the world; a time of total confrontation when the powers of the world would be unmasked and the reign of God would begin in its fullness. Though the events were yet to unfold (for our gospel reading this morning comes just after Jesus’ “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem, with Maundy Thursday and Good Friday still a few days away), Jesus knew full well what his “glory” was to be: an agonizing death on a cross and the full weight of the world’s sin and sorrow on his shoulders. But along with the weight would also come the splendor of the world’s reconciliation with God offered up “for the love of it all.”
And that, beloved, is true glory; a strange glory, to be sure, but glory indeed.
I was delighted to learn some years ago that the eminent preacher and scholar of the early and mid-20th century, Harry Emerson Fosdick, used to spend his summers up on an island just off Boothbay Harbor, in Maine. Having read some of his work in seminary, and also having had the opportunity to spend some time on that part of the coast, I could very much relate to how the ocean there would always remind him of God. “Now I do not know the whole sea,” he once wrote. “It is very great. I never sailed the tropic ocean where the Orinoco and the Amazon pour out their floods through primeval woods… wide areas of the sea are to me unknown, but I know the sea. It has a near end. It washes my island. I can sit beside it and bathe in it and sail over it, and be sung to sleep by the music of it. So is God… the cosmic end of God I marvel at, but [it is] the near end of God I love; the Divine close to wherever there is beauty, love, integrity and truth.”
I love those words… for as much as I stand in amazement of the great wonder of the glory of God, I need to be bathed in that kind closeness that comes in the “near end” of God’s presence. For the “near end” of God is Jesus Christ, the one who has come to us to share “our common lot,” as we like to say; experiencing with us everything we know to be true in this life: its joy and its sorrow; in the ease of living, but most especially in its struggle and pain. The “near end of God” is the Christ who brings to us his comfort and peace, taking on the sheer weight of all of our sufferings as his own, even unto death. I need to know the glory of God; and while I know there will come a day when the crescendos of our praises will grow to the point where there will be nothing left of the resounding echoes of all our hosannas and alleluias…
…for now, I am content to be present with the one who is willing to give his whole self after the manner of a seed that is buried deep within the dank, dark soil; perishing for the sake of something else… something glorious… to take root and grow.
That’s glory, beloved… a strange glory, to be sure; but glory indeed: true glory, by which you and I know life that is abundant and eternal.
For the love of it all, beloved, may our thanks be to God!
Amen and AMEN!
c. 2016 Rev. Michael W. Lowry