We’re going to begin with a quick bit of work this morning. If you have your Bible with you, find John 2:4. If you’re using one of the Bibles in the pews, you can find that verse on page 93 of the New Testament.
I hope you’ve got nimble fingers this morning, because I want you to keep the spot in chapter two while looking up two other verses—John 7:30 (page 100) and John 8:20 (page 101). What’s the common element there? That’s right; Jesus hour had not yet come.
Something very particular is going on then in our text today. Jesus says that his time has now come. What does that mean? Hopefully in the next 20 minutes or so we are going to find out. As you are able, please stand as we hear the word of God read from John 12:20–33.
Let us pray. (first stanza of Speak, O Lord)
I want you to try and imagine that you are in Jerusalem for the celebration of Passover in the year 29 A. D. You are not a Jew by birth, nor have you yet converted to Judaism. You are certainly not the pagan you once were; in fact the Jews have a term for someone like you—God-fearer. You have had your fill of a religion that sees a god in every cloud and under every rock. And while you would not think of yourself as any sort of revolutionary, you cannot bring yourself to offer any sort of worship to Caesar in Rome. You are not a Jew yet, but you are certainly seeking to know the God of Abraham, Isaac and Moses.
This is a great time to be in Jerusalem. Travel is not as easy as it will be in 50 days, when Pentecost is celebrated, but the air is thick with anticipation and excitement as preparations are made to celebrate Passover, marking the beginning of the Exodus out of Egypt. You feel not just a momentary happiness that you have made the trip, but rather you feel something deeper, a sense of joy.
Your joy, however, is restrained. No matter how inclined you are towards Judaism, you are not a Jew and therefore limited in your access to the Temple. At the centre of that great building is the most holy place, then the holy place, then the court of the Israelites, the court of the women, and finally the court of the Gentiles. That’s who you are and you can see the placards with their dire warnings—any Gentile who goes further than the outer court will be punished by death.
Oh, it would be so wonderful to escape this outer court. It’s not just the noise; there is noise everywhere in the city today. The noise here is of the money changers and animal sellers. I suppose it’s necessary, but it feels out of place. I want to grow closer to God; this seems to push me further away from him. Can you get some sense of the emotion that would be part of the day for you?
Then something quite incredible happens— “Jesus went into the Temple and began to drive out the traders, those who bought and sold in the Temple, and overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of the dove-sellers. He permitted no one to carry any vessel through the Temple. He began to teach: ‘Isn’t this what’s written, he said, My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the world to share? But you’ve made it a brigands’ den!’” (Wright, N. T., The Kingdom New Testament, Mark 11:15–17).
Who is this that seems to claim some sort of authority in the Temple? Who is this that says God’s house should be a place for the whole world to share? Can we discover more about him?
Am I speculating? Of course. John does not tell us why this group of Gentiles were curious to know more about Jesus, why they wanted to see him. But I can’t think of a better reason than that they recognized in him a person who wanted to help them on their journey of growing closer to God. So they came to Jesus.
As it sometimes happens in John’s telling of the story, these characters quickly fade into the background in order that Jesus can teach something vital about his ministry and mission. It seems to me, however, that these people who ask to “see” Jesus are never far from the scene. I say that because now that the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified it is also time for the whole world to see Jesus for who he truly is and to believe in him. In the time that we have left, let’s take a look at the rest of our text and see what it is that is happening that means Jesus’ hour has come.
The first thing to notice is verse 23. Jesus refers to the unfolding of God’s plan as his glorification. Let’s be quite clear on this. Jesus admits to having a troubled soul. There is nothing easy about the path upon which he is going to travel; but this path will lead to the fulfillment of God’s will and to the name of God being glorified. For Jesus, to turn away from this path would be to deny his very reason for being.
Jesus then uses an image from the world of horticulture to illustrate his point. What he says brings to mind for me the amaryllis. We were fortunate this past Christmas to receive two bulbs. Honestly, they look for all the world like onions that are past their “best-before” date. Into the dirt goes the bulb and about four or five weeks later you have a long green stem that shoots off as many as four, five or even six glorious flowers. But unless it’s buried in the ground, it never fulfills its true purpose.
Let’s skip down to the end of our text, to verses 31 and 32. “Now is the judgement of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” Think about this with me. In the aftermath of entering into Jerusalem, Jesus has claimed a startling measure of authority over the Temple, not just by driving out the sellers but by making that incredible claim that in doing so he was bringing to fulfillment the Word of God heard through the prophet Isaiah—my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples (Isaiah 56:7).
In our text he specifically talks about driving out the ruler of this world. In other words, I think what Jesus is telling us is this: the incident in the Temple is a picture, a symbol, even perhaps an acted out parable of what ultimately God was going to accomplish in his death and resurrection.
There’s more: those pilgrims whom John refers to as the Greeks came to see Jesus. Perhaps they came as a result of what had happened in the Temple. Jesus says to them and also to us, if you truly want to see me, if you truly want to know what my God-given purpose is, if you want to draw close to the most holy place of God’s presence, then what you must do is see me when I am lifted up. Do you remember what I said last Sunday about this word? It has a double meaning. Yes, it refers to being lifted up from the earth as one would be for crucifixion. It also refers to being exalted, to being glorified, to being raised up so that all who look can see clearly what is happening.
Let’s look at one more aspect of this text: look at verse 28. “Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.”
You and I know that religious thinking changes over time. We are used to that in our day, but tend to think in biblical times that thinking about faith was pretty much of a straight line. Nothing could be further from the truth.
William Barclay explains. There was a time, he says, when God’s people were convinced God spoke directly to certain of his people. God spoke directly to the child Samuel. God spoke directly to Elijah. The Bible says that God spoke to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend (Exodus 33:11).
However, by the time of Jesus, God’s people had stopped believing that God spoke directly to them. Those were great days but that was history. God was too far away; the voice that had spoken through the prophets was now silent. They now believed in what they called the bath qol; this is a Hebrew phrase which means either daughter of a voice or echo of a voice.
Let’s do a bit more work: Jesus calls on God to glorify his name. The voice of God, not a faint or distant echo, replies, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” To what is God referring? What event is being spoken of? You’ve got 30 seconds: turn to the person in front, behind or beside you.
If my understanding of Old Testament history is correct, the supreme example of God glorifying or bringing glory to his own name was in the Exodus from Egypt, which, of course, began with Passover which is the event about to be celebrated in Jerusalem, and which marks the nation gaining freedom from bondage and slavery. Now God says he is going to glorify his name again. I think God is talking about a new Exodus-type event in which the gift of spiritual freedom and life is offered to the whole world through the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Now is the right time, says Jesus. It is the time for the plan and purposes of God to be fulfilled. It is the time for Jesus to be lifted up in what is both agony and glory. This is another instance of the upside-down nature of God’s Kingdom. The path to glory for the Son of God is through crucifixion. The ruler of this world will be driven out just at the point when it appears as if death and despair and darkness were going to have the last word. The ultimate contradiction of God’s Kingdom is this: somehow it is within the will of God that the world is drawn to Jesus when he is lifted up on the cross.
Last year the movie version of the Harry Potter story came to an end. Fans of the series by J. K. Rowling have known since 2007 how the story was going to end, but we waited with great anticipation to see how the movie makers would handle it. What is it that draws people to such a story?
Harry awakens or something like it. Dumbledore walks toward him and then they walk together. Harry assumes he is dead. “Ah,” said Dumbledore, smiling still more broadly. “That is the question, isn’t it? On the whole, dear boy, I think not.”
“Not?” repeated Harry.
“Not,” said Dumbledore.
“But I should have died—I didn’t defend myself! I meant to let him kill me!”
“And that,” said Dumbledore, “will, I think, have made all the difference.”
Dumbledore asks Harry where they are. Harry tells him it looks like King’s Cross station, only cleaner and without any trains. The ultimate act of love takes Harry to King’s Cross.
The path to God’s Kingdom goes by way of the cross. And, yes, that will have made all the difference.