March 29, 2009
Scripture: John 12:20-33
Sermon Title: “Between Now and Death”
Rev. George N. Miller
(this is a sermon that is acted out)
It was getting warmer. School was out of session. I didn’t feel like working at Dad’s law firm, so Tony, Joey and I did the one thing any college age kid does: Spring Break!!!
We packed our bags, convinced our parents that it was good for us to see the world, and off we went. Just the guys. We had a blast. No idea where we were going, every night a party.
We tried to see who could drink the most, sleep the least and score with the most girls.
That’s what Spring Break is all about; each day was adventure. There was the night Joey raided a harem by sneaking past the guards dressed as the ugliest looking concubine you’ve ever seen.
Or when Tony almost lost all of our money on cards until he won double or nothing on the dice.
I found out where and when the best house parties were. We partied all night, slept most of the day and then traveled until we found the next party.
It was the Spring Break of Spring Breaks.
We got wind that something big was going down in Jerusalem. People were traveling from all over for this Festival of the Passover, the biggest blow-out of the year that celebrated something or other that their God Yahweh had done a long time ago.
Being Greeks we didn’t know much about this Yahweh or what he supposedly did, but we knew there’d be plenty of food and wine, so we said “Heck yeah!” and made our way towards the city.
It was as if the entire world was on Spring Break. Along the way we began hearing stories about this Jesus guy, how he was some kind of healing magician who was riling up the authorities.
Well, healing magicians are the biggest scam going in Greece, so we didn’t care about that, but as college students we admired anyone who’s anti-establishment.
We also heard some of how people thought he was Wisdom incarnate. Now we may not be Jewish, but if there’s one thing Greeks like and have admiration for, it’s Wisdom.
So we figured we’d check out this Jesus guy and see just how much wisdom he was full of. Who cares if he worshiped a different god then we did. Wisdom is wisdom, right?
We got into town, booked a room. Tony used our winnings to get the top suite and we had it all: room service, wine, girls.
We kept hearing about Jesus and one night in a tavern I’m talking to the guy next to me. His name’s Philip and he turns out to be one of Jesus’ disciples. So we began asking him questions, and Philip is telling us all the crazy things they’d been doing and how much Jesus had changed their lives.
We wanted to be part of the action, so we asked Philip to introduce us to Jesus. Philip said sure thing, and he comes back with his buddy Andrew and together they take us to go see Jesus.
He wasn’t the best looking guy I’ve ever seen, a bit homely actually. He wouldn’t have gotten any girls back at school. But yet he was surrounded by people listening to and watching everything he did. There was a magnetism about him.
So Tony, Joey and I tell Jesus it’s nice to meet him and we wait for him to lay some knowledge down, when he looks away from us and says the oddest thing “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.”
Then he talked about grains dying to bear fruit and losing life and how his soul was troubled.
Thunder comes rumbling out of nowhere and I couldn’t help but to shake the fact that he was talking about his death.
We went back to our rooms. We didn’t feel like partying, so we talked; we were confused and our impressions about Jesus was divided.
That night I dreamt of someone planting a grain into the earth. The grain produced forty new grains, and kept going until there were far too many seeds to even count.
I woke up that morning feeling both inspired but also strangely fearful. Tony said I was just being a wuss.
Then we got the news: Jesus had been arrested. One of his own crew snitched on him. He was rough housed by the cops and given a mock trial.
Tony, Joey and I were totally unprepared for what happened next. We saw them march Jesus past us, wearing a purple robe, and a crown of thorns, from which I could see he was bleeding pretty badly, and he was carrying a cross.
I had heard stories from my father about the barbarian ways in which they exacted justice in this part of the world, but I didn’t believe him.
We should have left there and then, or spoke up, did something, but I guess we got swept up in the crowd and the happening of things. They led him to a place called Golgotha and nailed his hands and feet to the cross. I couldn’t take my eyes off him. He didn’t yell or scream.
All around us people are shouting “Crucify him!”, and we’re just watching in disbelief, and there was something about his eyes: they were the eyes of someone who was innocent. After years of working with my father I could tell when someone wasn’t guilty just by their eyes.
His eyes said something else: “Love.” I can’t explain it any clearer then that.
Before his cross knelt his mother. She was sobbing hysterically “not my son, not my son,” and reaching out to him, while three people consoled her.
And he just hung there. He said something to them, which I couldn’t hear.
I couldn’t take it anymore. The blood thirst of the crowd was reaching a crescendo. It was absolute mayhem. I turned to the guys and said “We have to leave. Now!”
We moved swiftly to our hotel room, gathered our stuff and high tailed it out of town; we didn’t stop moving until our feet couldn’t go another step. I threw up everything that was within me.
We traveled the rest of the way in silence, as quickly as we could. We agreed not to tell anyone when we got home. Not a word. We’d stay silent: if we never mentioned it, it never happened and it would never bother us.
Trouble is, by staying silent, the events became louder. So loud we could barely handle it. We resumed our lessons at the university. But Tony one day up and disappeared. Left no note, everything in his room gone.
Joey ended up finishing his studies, found a nice girl to marry, had two kids and set up a local shop selling veils and head ware. We tried to stay in touch, but couldn’t. Memories of that day were far too real.
I poured myself into my studies. Graduated top in my class, worked at my dad’s firm.
And then came the guilt. I kept replaying in my mind the day Philip and Andrew took us to see Jesus and how he said “The hour has come.” I couldn’t help but think that perhaps we were the ones responsible for his death.
Maybe if we hadn’t gone on spring break, if we hadn’t gone to Jerusalem, if we hadn’t asked to see him, the time would have never come and he would still be alive. I drove myself crazy thinking about this.
I visited Tony and told him what I thought and he said, point blank “I don’t know what you’re talking about” and went right back to work.
Guilt ravaged my soul. Guilt that in some way, some how we had brought about Jesus’ death.
I stuffed myself with wine and women. But none of it lasted, none of it felt good, none of it took away the horror of what we had experienced.
Food stopped having any taste. At night, when I slept all I could see was the nails driving into his limbs and that innocent look in his eyes.
For all intents and purposes I stopped living. Nothing I did produced fruit. No seeds were planted.
At my fathers firm I took a special interest in those who appeared to be innocent. I vowed that no innocent person would ever be punished under my care. With no wife or kids or personal life to go home to, I poured myself into my work.
I became the advocate for the innocent. I got more people off their charges then anyone else. Those were the brief moments I felt a sense of liberation and any kind of happiness.
Life continued for decades. Tony stayed forever gone. I’d see Joey on the street and nod. I never attempted talking with him about what happened that spring break in Jerusalem. He was getting older, his kids bigger, he became a grandpa. He seemed happy, but I knew differently.
College was so long ago. Dad died. I was now head of the law firm. Then one day a parcel landed in my hand. It was a collection of scrolls. A note said, “You should read this.”
With trepidation, I opened it up. Across the top it said “The Good News According to John.” I didn’t know who this John was, but I could sure use some good news. It started off well enough, in rich Greek poetry about God and light.
Then there was a mention of someone named Jesus Christ. I felt a pit in my stomach. Could this be the Jesus that we had met oh so long ago? I continued to read. Feelings I had long suppressed were stirred up inside.
The Gospel writer got some things right, some things sounded a little off. His Jesus talked a lot different then the one I met, and it was missing some of the parables and wisdom we had heard.
Then I got to the part where some Greeks were said to have come to the festival. When Philip and Andrew were mentioned I stopped right there.
This was us. Not just some Greeks, but Tony, Joey and I, Michael.
This was us.
After a deep breathe I continued reading. The Gospel recounted what Jesus said about seeds and being lifted up. And then there were things about an advocate coming in the form of the Spirit of Truth, and I thought: well a lot good that advocate did for Jesus!
And Jesus stated that people will weep and mourn, but rejoicing would come.
I thought about how I didn’t weep at all. I didn’t mourn or feel pain. I just felt numb. For decades, I felt nothing but numbness and nightmares.
Then I got to the part in which Jesus was crucified. I could barely make my way through it. How was this Good News? It was scandalous, horrific.
I expected the story to end with his death. But it continued. How two men took his body and gave him a proper burial. Then the shocker: one of the women we had seen at the cross came to Jesus’ tomb only to discover the body was missing. I was outraged. This was not Good News at all.
I slammed the scroll done. Cooled off. Then went back to reading. As the rest of the gospel explained, Jesus appeared to Mary and asked why she wept. It claimed that Jesus appeared to the disciples. He spoke to them words of peace, and then gave them the gift of the Spirit and the ability to forgive people of their sins.
He had breakfast with them, encouraged one of them to tend his sheep and the writer stated that those who believed in the resurrected Jesus would receive new life.
Being a man of logic, it all seemed too far fetched. Being a man of culture, I knew of other Greek tales featuring famed men returning to life.
It’s all made up, I thought, but strangely enough, for the first time in a long time I felt an odd sense of silence within my soul. I spent the rest of the day pondering what I had read.
That night, for the first time in decades, I had a new dream. Instead of Jesus being nailed to the cross, I dreamt that he was walking towards me. Except I wasn’t me. I mean, I was my old me, like back in the college days.
“Michael,” he said, holding out his hands. I could see fresh wound marks. His eyes were filled with love.
“Jesus,” I said.
I let him embrace me.
We were in silence, until I spoke. “I am so sorry.”
“For what? “ he asked.
“That you died. For what we did. I feel like it’s all my fault.”
“All your fault?”
“For coming to visit you. When you saw us you said the time had come and then you were killed, and I just feel like, like, like if we hadn’t gone on spring break, if we hadn’t asked to see you, it never would have been time. That you would have been OK. That you would still be alive.”
“But I am alive,” Jesus spoke.
“But they killed you,” I said, feeling tears welling up in my eyes for the first time since ever.
“They were going to kill me no matter what,” Jesus said. “I was going to die. We all die.”
“But not the way you did, that was so unfair,” the tears trying to break though my eyelids.
“But they did nothing I wasn’t prepared for,” Jesus spoke. “Michael, I knew what I was doing, I knew what was going to happen. I chose that path for myself.”
“But we caused your death,” I said. “We did: Tony, Joey and myself by coming to see you. We are responsible for you dying.”
“No, no, no,” said Jesus. “You don’t understand, it was not because of you that I died, but it was for you that I died.”
“For me?,” I said, “I don’t understand.”
“You don’t have to understand, Michael, just believe. Believe that what I did, I did for you and for Tony and for Joey and for all the people of the world, the Jews and Gentiles together.”
“I don’t understand,” I repeated. “ I don’t understand.”
“You don’t have to. But know this: that I love you. And Michael, I forgive you.”
“So it was my fault.”
“No,” spoke Jesus, “No it wasn’t your fault. What I am forgiving you for is how you have allowed your sin and misplaced sense of sin to control you and take over your life.
“My Father and I release you from the past and whatever you think you may have done wrong, and we fill you with grace. You have stopped living for far too long. It is now time for you to reenter the world of the living.”
Even though it was a dream, it felt so real and the next thing I said was “I love you Jesus.”
And he said “I love you too,” taking me within his wounded arms and hugging me. All the tears I never shed came coursing out of me, tears I had kept buried for far too long, tears I did not know I had, tears that had been stifled unsuccessfully by wine, women and song.
“And Michael,” Jesus said, “Thank you for taking care of my sheep.”
Next thing I knew, I was waking up in my own bed, alone, but not feeling so lonely. My pillow case was covered with tears. I got up, just as the sun was just starting to rise, and as the tears dried away, I felt two new sensations inside of me.
The first was joy. Joy of seeing another day. Joy that I was freed from something I didn’t even know was trapping me.
The second was hunger. I felt hunger like I had never felt before. I cooked up two eggs, toast, grits, fish and a strong cup of coffee and scarfed it all down while watching the sun continue to rise, and it tasted soooooo good.
“He has risen” I heard myself say, “He has risen indeed.”
I went to work with a new energy. By the third client I had realization: that these were the sheep Jesus was talking about in my dream.
The Spirit of Advocacy and Truth had been active all along in my practice without my knowing it.
I came back home and after a fantastic meal I sat down and reread the scroll. This time, it was indeed Good News, from start to finish.
Weeks later I came across what they call a house church, a group of people who not only knew about Jesus, but also believed in the Good News, and they didn’t have one Gospel, they had many.
All this Good News from people like Matthew, Mark and Luke. Each with slightly different views, sayings and versions of the events.
The other gospels reminded me more of the Jesus I met. But the Gospel of John will always have a special role in my life. Not only did it make reference to me and my friends but it’s also the means by which God’s grace found a way to free me from guilt I thought I had done.
Looking back over my life, I realize there is so much I have done wrong, so much I wish I could do over. There’s so much I may never have, like a wife and children and grandchildren. But instead of dwelling in the past, I am living in the NOW.
NOW is what I have. NOW is where I live. NOW is where my seeds are planted and reaping fruit for the future.
Because of Jesus Christ, I am no longer the living dead focused in the past, but I am in the present living between NOW and death.
I sometimes wonder who sent me that scroll. Is Tony still alive? Should I stop by Joey’s to share the Good News I have received? Perhaps it will set him free and we can go back to being friends, like we once were.
That spring break was so long ago. It was the best of times and the worst of times. But today I am living in the NOW, releasing the hold the past has played in my life, embracing each moment I have until I will die.
Let me end by telling you this: last night, I had a new dream. Each and every person I ever defended in court came to me, giving me thanks for what I had done. Proving again that Jesus’ death was not in vain, and that he does live on in ways none of us could ever fully comprehend.
Every moment we live is NOW, and I give thanks to Yahweh, the true God of the world.
I give thanks for the Spirit of advocacy and of truth.
And I give thanks for Jesus Christ who died to set all of us free.
His love and grace is abundant, his love and grace is forever NOW.