Sermon from March 22nd, 2015. Text for this sermon was John 12:20-33.
Skipping to the End
This past month I read a book called The Giver. It’s an older book that most everyone I know has already read. When I told Hannah I was going to read it, she said, “Tell me what you think about the end.” But the end was my problem. The deeper I got in the book, the further it seemed like I was getting from the end. Things were happening that couldn’t be resolved quickly or easily, and I started to get anxious. I was wondering how she’s going to wrap up this book with only a few pages left. In my younger years, I would have just skipped to the end and read the last page. If I read the last page then I would know the end of the book and wouldn’t have to have so much anxiety about how it’s going to end. This time, though, I decided that I was going to stick to it until the end. I was going to live with the tension of not knowing what would happen.
In the book of Mark, when Jesus is on the cross, he cried out in anguish, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” Those are his last words. In the book of Matthew his last words are the same. Luke and John on the other hand, report a much calmer Jesus on the cross. In the book of Luke, Jesus seems in complete control of his faculties and with no sense of abandonment. “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit,” he says. And in the book of John, Jesus says simply, “It is finished.”
Most Bible readers never notice the differences in Jesus’ last words. Close readers will notice that there seems to be a contradiction. People who are familiar with the context will understand that we’re listening in on a conversation. In the years after Jesus’ death, many people were telling the story of what happened. And just like any story, there were different tellings and different versions. Think of an old married couple telling a story. They interrupt each other, they correct each other, they contradict each other. But you get a clearer picture for hearing both versions. Each writer has their own way of telling the story, their own things they think of as important, and sometimes those key points have a way of seeming rather pointed at the other.
In the Gospel of Mark the author is telling the story as a story. Mark wants us to experience the dramatic realization of what it means that Jesus is the Messiah. Mark wants us to be looking over the disciples’ shoulders and thinking, “How could they not see?!?!” and be inspired to believe and act on our own. So the book of Mark ends ambiguously. There are no resurrection appearances. There is just an empty tomb, and a fearful group of disciples. In the way that you might yell, “LOOK OUT BEHIND YOU!” at a horror movie, Mark makes you want to shout at the disciples, “HE IS RISEN! CHRIST IS VICTORIOUS!”
The author of John, on the other hand, is writing a very different narrative. The author of John wants to inspire confidence and conviction, and so the book of John is an empirical proof. John is giving a list of signs performed by Jesus so that we might come to believe and have life in His name. There are other signs, the author says, but these seem to be enough. There is no narrative tension in the Book of John. John wants us to skip to the end. John wants us to know from the beginning what it means that Jesus is the Messiah.
Which gets us to today’s passage from the Gospel of John. In our passage, Jesus seems to ridicule the idea that He would be found praying to the Father to save him from this hour. But that’s exactly what happens at the Garden of Gethsemane in Matthew, Mark, and Luke (Matthew 26:36-46, Mark 14:32-42, Luke 22:39-46).
The book of John was written much later than the other Gospels, so the author of John had most likely heard other versions of the Gospel, such as the ones written by Mark, Matthew, and Luke. The other Gospel writers emphasize that following Jesus involves a difficult road ahead. They want us to see the humanity of Jesus, to know the anguish and the uncertainty, and the weakness.
But the community that John writes to already knows anguish and uncertainty and weakness. John’s community has seen persecution. They are being shunned and kicked out of the synagogue for their faith. They don’t need to be warned that it will be painful. They need to know that the pain will end. They don’t need to be told that Jesus went through what they are going through now. They need to be told that Jesus got out of it. And that’s what John wants us to know. So John writes his story in response to those other versions. In it, John wants us to flip to the end of the book and see that death is not the end of the story. John wants us to know that the victory has already been won.
We live in a world where death is all around us. There are wars and rumors of wars. People in our lives are getting hurt, getting sick, getting old, or all three. Not only is the future in doubt for many of our most cherished institutions, some wonder if they even have a future. The way they talk about things on television, hope is nothing more than an illusion.
We have much to fear in our own lives as well. We might have big changes coming on the horizon. We may have to let go of something or someone. We may not be able to do what we once were. Or we may have things that we must do but that we fear to do. And if we do, Jesus’ words should reassure us.
Should we be afraid of this hour? Jesus tells us that we should not be. Pain, death, and loss are all part of the process. But we know the end of the story and the end is victory. Jesus says, “Father, glorify your name.” And a voice answers, “I have glorified it.” The victory has already been won. “And I will glorify it again.” My Kingdom will come.
We should not be afraid in a world of death because we worship a God who knows his way out of the grave. Death is not the final word for us but the prelude to resurrection. We proclaim that Christ not only will be victorious but is already victorious, for us and for the world. We have flipped to the end and the end is an empty tomb, a victory over death. We already know the whole story, even though we are in the middle of it.
And because of that, we do not have to go into our world in darkness, but we can walk in the light. In the light of knowledge that death has been overcome and will be overcome. Though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we shall fear no evil. We can rest in the assurance that God has already planned our deliverance. We do not need to fear the challenges that face us because we know that God will guide us through them, because the end of the story is already written and it is a good ending.
The story begins with a voice calling out from the depths, continues with a voice calling out in the wilderness, and ends with a voice proclaiming that God will be with us,
“he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.’”
I'm the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Pitman, NJ. I love camping, rhetorical criticism, and classic movies. I'm passionate about God's love, and the messy, beautiful ways it shows itself in our communities every day.