The Barrel

by The Rev. John H. Pavelko
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Listening for the Thundering Voice of God
Year B - 5th Sunday in  Lent
John 12:22-33

Listening for the Thundering Voice of God

John 12:22-33

Reading the Defense

This has been an exciting month of sports. March Madness is a welcomed distraction from car bombings, hostage negotiations, beheadings and corrupt elections. The Detroit Red Wings are about to make a serious run at the famed Stanley Cup and the Pistons will be heavy favorites to return to basketball's championship series. So unless you are an avid sports fan, you may have missed the news that the Detroit Lions have allowed Joey Harrington to negotiate a new contract with another team. Joey does not believe that he can win in Detroit and the Lions front office does not believe that they can win with Joey as their quarterback.

The importance of the quarterback for a football team cannot be over emphasized. Successful quarterbacks have more than just a strong arm. The quarterback is required to lead his team. Even when the play is chosen by the coach, the quarterback has a plethora of options based on the defensive scheme. The quarterback must be able to read the defensive and then react to their movements. He must know what receiver stands the best chance of being open. He must know where to throw the ball based on the tendencies of the opposing players. And he must be able to make split second decisions. Apparently, the Lions management does not think Joey has the ability to make those decisions. I do not know how strong an arm Jesus had but in today's story, he displays the ability to be able to read the situation and make a split second decision.

Strictly speaking, this mornings passage is slightly out of place. The interaction between Phillip and the Greeks actual follows the Triumphant Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem which we will celebrate next week. However, it is inserted into the lectionary order on this Sunday. Jesus and the Greeks are in the holy city to celebrate Passover. The city streets are crowded and bustling with activity. There is so much that we do not know about the conversation. We do not know exactly when or where it takes place. It could be anywhere in the city. We do not know what prompted these Greeks to seek an audience with Jesus. They may have been spectators watching him enter the city and were amazed with the reaction of the crowd. They may have heard about his miraculous healing power in their home village and now recognize that they have an opportunity to actually meet the man. Whatever the reason they ask Phillip. We do not know why they choose him nor do we know why John even mentions the disciple's name. What we do know is that their inquiry triggers a strong reaction from Jesus.

The writer of the gospel of John appears to be using the Greeks as representatives of the whole world. They also stand in sharp contrast to the religious establishment who are exasperated with the growing interest of the people in Jesus. His reaction is surprising and somewhat confusing. He completely ignores their specific request not because it is unimportant, just the opposite. Their coming is extremely important. Their interest indicates that his mission has reached its climax. He has only last thing to do and his purpose in life will be complete. His hour has come.

Knowing that pain and suffering are before him, Jesus' heart is troubled. This will not be an easy path. He offers a prayer, “Father, save me from this hour.” Scholars have long debated if this was a hypothetical prayer or a petition that he uttered but then took back. I believe that Jesus is thinking out loud for the benefit of his disciples. It follows his own question, “What shall I say?” Shall I take the easy way? Shall I choose to avoid suffering? Shall I do what is most comfortable? Shall I do that which does not place any demands on me?

The natural human response is to shrink from suffering. We are to quick in singing along with Carlye Simon, “I haven't got time for the pain.” We assume that God does not want us to suffer. We assume that God wants to enjoy a carefree life. We ask God to make things easy. We pray that God would remove all the obstacles, perform a miraculous healing so that we do not have any pain. Why go through agony when another road is possible? But Jesus says a resounding NO! I will not take the easy way. Father, glorify your name. At that very moment the heavens thunder with the voice of God.

When the heavens thundered

While the people were listening to the heavens thunder, Jesus heard the reassuring words of the Father, “I have glorified it and will glorify it again.” The Father, tells the Son that he has glorified his name through the life of his Son and will glorify his name through the death of his Son. The Father assures Jesus that his death will not be in vain. It will not be meaningless. The Father will complete his work of grace through his Son. But once again Jesus surprises us with his answer. He tells us that the voice from heaven was not for his own benefit but more for the benefit of the disciples and the crowd. The statement is confusing. If his heart is troubled, is the thunder for the benefit of the disciples? The disciples did not need any words of comfort or assurance, if they did they would need to take some other form. Thunder is not considered comforting by most people. Wouldn't the disciples receive a greater benefit if they could both hear and understand the words that are spoken?

These questions are answered when we consider first, that while the thunder may have been for the benefit of the people, Jesus also received some benefit. Secondly, the blessing is a delayed blessing because of the lack of spiritual acumen. The author of John frequently presents the theme of misunderstand. The thunder did nothing for the disciples at the time but later, after the Cross, after the Resurrection, when they finally understood, it would all come back to them. Finally, the very fact that a voice thundered from the heavens should have reminded that a turning point in history had been made. They should have recalled the stories of old, when Moses ascended the mountain and God spoke with the prophet face to face. Mose heard his voice but all the people heard was the tumultuous thunder of the storm that surrounded the mountain. It should have alerted them to their own spiritual condition.

Understanding the Thundering Message

We need to ask ourselves if our spiritual acumen is any sharper then the disciples in our story today. If God spoke to us, would his voice should like thunder? Would he hear the sounds of words but attribute them to an angel? Or would we hear and understand his message?

There are many reasons of our spiritual denseness. I believe that the most obvious is our lack of time listening for God to speak. A careful reader of the gospel of Mark and Luke will notice that Jesus spends a great deal of time trying to get away from people so that he can spend time alone with God. During these times Jesus feasted on the spiritual food offered by the Father. The solitude refreshed his soul. His spirit was refreshed in seclusion. This is difficult for our secular minds to understand. We are lonely people in need of company and companionship. Our isolation feeds our depression and despair so we avoid it. We fill our lives with activity. We suppress the silence with the noise of a TV or radio.

How ironic! We avoid the One person who loves us unconditionally to spend time with people who will withhold their love unless we meet their expectations. We turn away from the One who offers a message of comfort and affirmation to fill our ears with the noise of senseless banter. When will we become convinced that the emptiness of our hearts can only be filled by his presence?

God's voice also sounds like menacing thunder because our preoccupation with ourselves. This is expressed by our 'wish-list' prayers. Dad needs healing from cancer. Susan has a badly burned hand. Tom needs a new job. Shirley is not getting along with her boss. Mom has high blood pressure. The church needs a new roof and parking lot. We take one line from the the Lord's Prayer, “Give us this day are daily bread,” and provide God with an exposition of its meaning. We want to make sure that he knows what we need that day. We want to make sure he understands everything that constitutes a daily ration. We want more than just bread and water. Our basic needs include meat and potatoes, soup and salad, and what is a day without dessert.

Seldom do we sit quietly in God's presence and ponder the opening petition, “Our Father who art in heaven, thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.'” During a confirmation class, I tried to make the prayer more meaningful by rewriting the words. My prayer read, “your kingdom come, your will be done, in my life as it is heaven.” Occasional, in my personal devotions, I will paraphrase the Lord's Prayer using those words. Those words remind me that my life belongs to God. I am to pray for his will not my own. I am to be preoccupied with serving him not pursuing personal fulfillment.

God's voice will continue to sound like thunder because of our lack of time with him, our personal preoccupation and our reluctance to embrace the sacrificial call. Jesus used the analogy of the seed to illustrate his message. The placing of a seed in the ground symbolizes burial. The seed must die and be buried before a new plant will grow but the seed cannot produce the new plant unless it gives up its life. It must sacrifice everything that is familiar. It must be willing turn its back on its old life so that a new life can emerge.

The emergence of new life is a wonderful and joyful experience but we often miss these moments because we are afraid to walk through the pain of Friday. We think that we can avoid suffering. We attempt to create a pain-free world but the despair of Friday always comes before the joy of Sunday. Jesus attempts to prepare his disciples for this reality by announcing that his hour has arrived. The time of suffering has come. They do not understand what he was saying. His words are no more meaningful than the thunder from heaven.

We are at a crucial time in the history of our state and nation. The powerful and lucrative auto industry is rapidly changing. Companies are being reorganized and the workforce trimmed. Jobs are being eliminate. This will have a dramatic impact on every sector of our economy. We need to hear God's voice. We need to know how he wants us to respond to this crisis and what he wants us to do. But unless we are spending time with him, unless we are submitting to his will for our lives, unless we are willing to take time for the pain, his voice will continue to sound like the rumble of thunder.

But if the solitude of prayer rejuvenates our souls, if we have discovered the joy of humble submission and the fortitude to endure the pain, then we will not flounder in a sea of despair when a loved one dies; we will wallow in a morass of uncertainty when friends loss their jobs; and we will be able to lift high the cross of Christ and draw all women and men unto him and our lives will glorify the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

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Crossroads Presbyterian Church
1445 Welch Rd
Walled Lake MI 48390