Sermon for Lent 5B

John 12:20-33

“Father, we love you, we worship and adore you. Glorify thy name in all the earth.” So goes the praise song that I’m sure many of you out there have heard. I am assuming that the composer took it from the verse that comes out of today’s Gospel reading, where Jesus prays those very words as he looks toward his death on the cross. But, when we hear the word “glorify” what do we think it means? Do we think it means to praise God? Do we think it means that God should come in all of God’s glory and smite those evildoers and vindicate those who are faithful to God, whatever being faithful might mean in each person’s definition? Is God’s name only glorified when something good happens, or is God’s name glorified even in the midst of the most horrible event we could imagine? I’ll give you a hint: whenever a Lutheran pastor asks an “either/or” question, the answer is most likely, “Yes.”

Since I think it’s pretty easy for us to imagine God’s name being glorified in good things, we’re going to talk about God’s name being glorified even in the midst of the bad things in life. After all, when Jesus uttered the prayer, “Father, glorify your name,” he was in the midst of once more telling his disciples how he was going to die: tortured to death upon a Roman instrument of execution, the cross. Each Gospel writer tells the story of Jesus’ crucifixion a little bit differently. In the Gospel of John, the crucifixion is seen as a victory: God’s triumph over the powers of the world and over the powers of sin. Jesus is in control from the beginning of his story until the end; he knows what is going to happen, and he bows his head in obedience to the will of the Father. And yet: he is afraid. He says, “Now my soul is troubled.” A better translation of that Greek phrase would be, “Now my soul is struck with terror.” Jesus, the one who, in this Gospel, is always in control, is still human and is absolutely terrified at the death he is to die. And yet, he knows that through this death, God’s name will be glorified and those who believe will be saved from their sins.

So, what does God glorifying God’s name look like in this day and age? Especially in all of the bad things that are happening in this world? I’d like to start with a story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German theologian that some of you may have heard of. He was part of the German resistance to the Nazis in World War II, and was executed on April 9, 1945, just a month before VE Day, the day that the war ended in Europe. The thing is, Bonhoeffer didn’t have to die. He had been offered a position as a professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York, and he had traveled there several years before. He could have ridden out the war here in the United States, been a distinguished professor at a distinguished seminary, and lived a full and comfortable life. But he chose to return to Germany. At the time, he wrote to another distinguished theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, and said, “I have come to the conclusion that I made a mistake in coming to America . . . I shall have no right to take part in the restoration of Christian life in Germany after the war unless I share the trials of this time with my people” (quoted in Provoking the Gospel of John, Richard W. Swanson, 136). Through the work that he did in Germany, and through his execution by the Nazis, Bonhoeffer and his theological work have become well-known throughout a variety of Christian circles, and God brought glory to God’s name. But, lest we think that Bonhoeffer was calm about this momentous decision in his life, local stories at Union Theological Seminary say that he spent his last night in New York alone in his apartment, chain-smoking in a closet. Bonhoeffer’s soul, too, was struck with terror as he faced what God was calling him to do.

Even though this illustration fits with today’s Gospel text, I tell this story with some trepidation, because it seems larger than life, almost legendary. Looking back, World War II seems like a grand cause, ripe for many people, known and unknown, to follow God’s call to martyrdom and to witness to others about God on a grand scale. And while there are many more stories in today’s world of Jesus’ call to servanthood and to lose our lives for his sake, they always seem to involve going to a dangerous part of the world and facing the loss of a person’s physical life. What does losing one’s life for Jesus’ sake look like in Powell, Wyoming? How does God glorify God’s name among us?

To try and answer this, let’s go back to the event that occasioned Jesus’ speaking of God glorifying himself in Jesus: the request of the Greeks to see Jesus. Notice that we don’t ever find out if the Greeks got to see Jesus; all Philip and Andrew did was to tell Jesus of the request and then Jesus starts talking. Consider, though, that the Greeks would have been outsiders in the Jewish culture, which is why the disciples didn’t quite know how to handle their request to see Jesus. Who are the outsiders in today’s Christian culture who might want to see Jesus? I could think of several groups of people, but let’s pick this one: those who identify as spiritual, but not religious. This group of people, in general, may be searching for some kind of spirituality and may be open to it, but they have been turned off by what they call the institutional church and how the institutional church reacts to certain things in today’s society. How will they see Jesus being glorified through us?

I would like to suggest that, just as God was glorified through Jesus’ death on the cross, God is glorified in us when people outside of the church see how we behave in difficult situations, just as much as, if not more than, the good things in life. Of course people know of our witness to the love of God through the good works that we do: quilting, volunteering at community events, donating food, money, and time to things like Loaves & Fishes, Boys & Girls Club, Kiwanis, and so on and so forth. But what about the difficult situations?

This week the women’s circles had their Bible study on the book of Job. Job is part of what’s called the wisdom literature in the Bible, and it’s an attempt to answer that question, “If God is good, and if God is all-powerful, then why does God allow bad things to happen?” Job starts out in the first chapter of the book as the richest man in the known world—he literally has everything—and as a righteous man as well. And then everything is taken from him in one fell swoop: oxen and donkeys stolen, servants killed, fire from God killing his sheep and more servants, his camels stolen, and his sons and daughters killed. Job’s reaction to all of this misfortune: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” And even though Job’s initial reaction seems to be quite calm, the majority of the story is Job lamenting his misfortune, crying out to God, asking why, cursing the day he was born, and so on and so forth. And yet, through all of that, Job is named as righteous.

How do we react to misfortune, to death, and to catastrophe? In the middle of our grief and anger at God, do we still pray that his name be blessed? Do we still trust that God is there in the midst of whatever overtakes us? Do we believe that God loves us even when we are angry at him and argue with him over whatever our situation might be? Even when we are terrified at what we think God is calling us into, do we acknowledge the fear and go into whatever it is that God is calling us to anyway, trusting that he will be there with us? I believe that it is our witness to others, in the face of these questions, that will enable those outside of the “institutional church” to see who Jesus truly is and what life in him looks like.

The hymn that we are going to sing in a few moments speaks of seeing Jesus on the cross, and what that means for our lives. That is the first and most important place that we see Jesus. It is what we testify to: that God is with us not just in the good and uplifting parts of our lives, but that he is also present in the most terrifying and painful parts of our lives. But we have another hymn in our hymnal that is a more direct prayer for God’s name to be glorified. It’s ELW #744, “Lord, Be Glorified.” And the prayer is that in our lives, in our song, in God’s church, and in the world, that the Lord would be glorified. Let this be our daily prayer as we go forth from here today: that in all that happens to us, good or bad, that our responses would glorify God’s name. Amen.

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