First United Methodist Church
Plymouth, Indiana

New Possibilities in Terrible Times

New Possibilities in Terrible Times; John 12:20-33
Plymouth First United Methodist Church; March 21, 2021
Pastor Toni Carmer

I don’t think I can do it.

I’m not sure I’ll survive.

I hurt so bad.

I can’t keep living like this.

Perhaps you have said these words at some point in your life—or you have heard someone else say them.

There are times when it feels like you’re “large and in charge” and things are going your way—just the way you always hoped they would be. You’re calling the shots, setting the schedule, making the decisions.  And then something happens and the rug is pulled out from under your feet. It all changes in a heartbeat.

You receive the phone call to come into the doctor’s office, or you’re told “there’s been an accident.” A loved one dies, or your spouse tells you something you didn’t want to hear.  You witness something horrible, you experience physical pain—pain that won’t let go, pain that can’t be relieved—you’re hurting so bad.

There are those who can hardly remember ever being happy: Abuse, depression, chronic illness, dysfunctional relationships. All these and more could contribute…

Suffering comes to us in different ways, in different times, wounding the heart, scaring the soul, casting deep shadows of despair.

What do you do? When the bottom falls out?  When life hurts?

This morning’s scripture is an interesting one. A group of Greeks have come, hoping to talk to Jesus. They’re traveling, as are many others, toward Jerusalem, preparing to celebrate the Feast of the Passover. They are likely converts to Judaism, and converts weren’t always treated with the same regard as those who were life-long Jews.  Perhaps its similar to the way people in a community feel about themselves.  Even after living in the same place for 20 or 40 years, they still think of themselves as being “outsiders.”  If you weren’t born down on the corner, or didn’t go to high school there, then you’re consider an “outsider.”  That’s how these converts felt, and how they were often treated. Some Jewish leaders felt that they alone were choice citizens. You might remember the Pharisee who prayed, thanking God that he was not like all other men.  So, these new converts sought out Philip who then took them to Andrew—and then together they went to see Jesus. They weren’t used to being treated all that well, and they weren’t sure how Jesus would respond to them.

When they came to him, Jesus realized that this was a pivotal moment in history: that a new door had been opened—that his message was to be heard and known—not only by the people of Israel, but by people all around the world. You’d think in seeing this that perhaps he might start sharing with them a lit bit about how his ministry has been going…how he started out in the desert, and how he came to understand his call.  You’d think he might share a bit about how he called his first disciples, what they had been doing and what they were now doing…  Maybe how people treated them when they traveled about…maybe tell them how they had fed 5000 people and the amazing things God could do.  Maybe he’d lift up a miracle or two, about some folks whose lives had been changed.

Instead, he begins talking about death. He tells them that he’s troubled.  And he describes a seed and how it has to die and be swallowed up by the dirt before it can become a mature plant and bear fruit. It becomes clear to his listeners before too long, that Jesus is talking about his OWN death—and about resurrection—as the pivotal moment when the world will see the glory of God.

Here’s Eugene Peterson’s translation of Jesus’ words:

“Times up. The time has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Listen carefully. Unless a grain of wheat is buried in the ground, dead to the world, it is never any more than a grain of wheat. But if it is buried, it sprouts and reproduces itself many times over. In the same way, anyone who holds on to life as it is destroys that life. But if you let it go, reckless in your love, you’ll have it forever, real and eternal.

If any of you wants to serve me, then follow me. Then you’ll be where I am, ready to serve at a moment’s notice. The Father will honor and reward anyone who serves me.

Right now I am shaken. And what am I going to say? ‘Father, get me out of this’? No, this is why I came in the first place. I’ll say, ‘Father, put your glory on display.’”

A voice came out of the sky: “I have glorified it, and I’ll glorify it again.”

The listening crowd said, “Thunder!”

Others said, “An angel spoke to him.”

But Jesus said “the voice didn’t come for me but for you. At this moment, the world is in crisis. Now Satan, the ruler of this world, will be thrown out. And I, as I am lifted up from the earth, will attract everyone to me and gather them around me.”

Jesus knows where he’s headed, the direction this is all going—and he shares with them how all of this has purpose, that it’s all a part of God’s plan: there is a bigger purpose and a grander reason why all this is happening. And even though Jesus is troubled—the human part of him recognizes that this isn’t going to be easy—he reveals to them that he is willingly following in the direction God is leading. He’s not a puppet, as Pilate asks later—not one who unknowingly fulfills another’s purpose.  He is not a pawn on God’s chess board of life. Jesus knows, and he recognizes that the events that are to come will have a profound impact in human history.

These events will give evidence to the fact that God’s glory is revealed in the big and beautiful and glorious and wonderful moments of life. But not only then, God’s glory is revealed as well, in the sad and difficult and awful moments of life: when life hurts.  When the bottom drops out. When the walls cave in. When it looks like hope is nowhere to be found.

It is an amazing thing—an unexpected, irrational but very real thing—that God has the ability to transform sadness and sickness and brokenness into moments of blessedness and hope. Somehow, where fear ought exist—it’s lifted.  Where loss of faith would make logical sense, it’s strengthened. Where brokenness seems the only word for the future, pieces begin to fall into place: lives are blessed.  God can do that.

That which dies can bear much fruit.

Moments that we most dread become blessed. And perhaps, those moments that we want to run away from are the moments that God has been preparing us for our whole lives.

God’s glory can come in beauty.  God’s glory can come through pain.

Think of childbirth. Not all of us has given birth, but all of us was born at one time or another, and I think I can pretty much promise you that you were born in pain. Giving birth hurts. I remember wondering, as my stomach grew in each of my pregnancies, if I would survive childbirth. That sounds dumb in some respects, but it’s not an uncommon fear.  But, I did survive, and new life was given in the form of 3 red, screaming infants. The raising of whom, also had many joyful moments, as well as difficult ones.  But God’s glory comes through: the painful moments and the good ones, too.

There are moments in life we pray to avoid. There are experiences in life that hurt so bad, that don’t have an obvious good ending. There are moments in life we want to run away from. Terrible times that come into each of our lives.  When we feel separated from God. When we’re not sure we can go on. When it hurts so bad.

There are moments in life, experiences in life, that we pray to avoid.

You would think that this would be one of those moments for Jesus.

But it isn’t.

Jesus says this is why he came. Jesus is saying that his whole life has been pointed toward these next few days. Everything that has come before has been prologue to this chapter that will include his betrayal and arrest, his friend’s denial, mockery from the crowds, physical cruelty, a lonely march through crowded streets carrying the burden of a cross that will soon be bearing his weight.  The hammering of nails under a darkening sky, a sign which sarcastically reads King of the Jews, indifferent soldiers who throw dice to see who gets to go home with the clothing of this condemned man.  A silent tomb where sad hearts consider what-might-have-been, and then silent wonder because the crucified one is no longer there—he’s gone. Resurrected. Lifted up.

This is what my life is all about,” Jesus is saying.  “Right now, right here.”

Historian Stephen E. Ambrose, in his book Band of Brothers tells the story of a group of ordinary Americans who made up E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne.  The men were from all over America—East Coast, West Coast, Deep South and Midwest.  Some of them were very poor and not formally educated, and some of them came out of Harvard and Yale and UCLA.

They were thrown together and put through a terribly difficult training regimen. They were run until they got sick, and then they were run some more. They so hated the officer who pushed them, who acted like a petty tyrant, they looked forward to combat because it would present them the opportunity to murder their commanding officer.

Ambrose tells the story of the men of E Company as they hit the shores of Normandy with the D-Day invasion force. He tells us the story about how they fought across Europe. And he tells the story of the Battle of the Bulge. The battle took place in December of 1944. It was Nazi Germany’s last, best effort to stop the Allied Forces in Western Europe. Hitler threw his best tank forces and best infantry forces into a surprise attack through the forests of Belgium.

The 101st Airborne was outgunned, they were outmanned, and their lives were made miserable because of terrible, bitter cold. It was a nightmare. The whole terrible thing was a nightmare.

But they held. The men of E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne held. They did their job.  They did exactly what they were sent to Europe to do. They did exactly what they were trained to do. Surrounded and outnumbered by the forces around them, they held their ground. Asked to surrender unconditionally, the commanding officer of the American forces in the city of Bastogne responded to the German demand with a note that simply said, “Nuts.”

It was a terrible time. These cold, awful days and nights in the forests, facing the Germans in December of 1944 were a terrible time. But those days in those winter woods were the glory of E Company. It was during that terrible time the men of E company did something  that revealed their strength, their courage, their faithfulness.  They held on and Nazi Germany’s last major offensive was defeated. It was a terrible moment, and it was their best moment.

Jesus talks about a seed falling into the dirt, being swallowed up by the dirt and dying, before it can become a plant that produces a harvest. Jesus says that this terrible time, this passage in his life, when he will be betrayed and arrested and taunted and beaten and marched through the city to a cross, is why he has come. His soul is troubled—this isn’t easy—but his whole life has been about this moment.

It makes no sense, because what is about to come looks like defeat. Until you realize the life of Jesus has been about three things: first, showing the world the depth and breadth of God’s love for creation, for us; second, persuading us to repent, turn around, and come to God rather than running away from God; and third, revealing the ultimate power of God to rule over death and sin.

The life and ministry of Jesus has been all about delivering these 3 messages: you are loved by God, come back and do life with God rather than on your own, and trust God to have the last word after sin and cancer and rejection and failure and death have taken their best shot.

Jesus is exactly right: the minute the Temple guards and Judas show up, the minute they begin to march him off into the night, the minute they press a crown of thorns down over his head, the minute they march him to the cross, the world comes face-to-face with God’s ferocious, determined, grace-filled love for the world. We see, in those days in Jerusalem, John 3:16 come to life: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” You watch this teacher, this carpenter, this healer, marched off into the darkness of that Jerusalem night and you know…you know…like you have never known it before: God so loves the world. God so loves the world. You know it. You see it. In what Jesus is willing to go through for us.  So that we’ll know: God so loves the world.

That kind of love has a way of turning us…touching us…changing us…  That kind of love can give us the courage to stand up, even in troubled times.  We’ll still have them. We can’t escape that. But, the knowledge of God’s love for us, as shown through Jesus gives us the foundation upon which we can stand firm.

A little boy and an old man were sitting on the edge of a river fishing. The little boy got so caught up in catching fish that he fell off the pier and landed in the water. He was flailing around, gasping, shouting for help. He announced that he couldn’t swim. The old man sat right there during all that and continued to fish.

“How can you just sit there while I’m drowning in this river?” the boy shouted.

The man quietly said, “Just put down your feet. Put down your feet and you’ll be fine.”

The boy stopped flailing away, he put down his feet, and discovered he was standing on good ground.

When you and I are in terrible times, when we are in the middle of something that we wish we could run away from, God invites us to put down our feet so we can remember that we’re on good ground.

We’re on good ground.

We have a Savior who died for us; who has already won the victory over sin and death.

Thanks be to God.