John 12: 20-36, page 106
Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks.
They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”
Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus.
Jesus answered them, “the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.
Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.
Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.
“Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say – ‘Father save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father glorify thy name.”
Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and will glorify it again.”
The crowd standing there heard it and said it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.”
Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgment 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.” He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.
On more than one occasion, I must confess, I’ve made fun of the great 20th Century governor of Texas Miriam A. Ferguson. Though she was a college graduate in a time when so many women were left uneducated, was the second female governor in United States history and the first female governor of the great state of Texas, was by most accounts, a great leader, a populist, a fiscal conservative, and a great opponent of the Ku Klux Klan, is perhaps most famous for saying, “If English was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for Texas schoolchildren.”
Jesus, you see, did not speak English. He spoke a language called Aramaic.
But seminary students, trained to read scripture, in the language scripture was first uttered in, learn to read, not Aramaic but Hebrew and Greek.
I knew why I was supposed to learn Hebrew, but on my first day of Greek class I had no idea why we were being forced to learn Greek and I couldn’t figure out why we weren’t learning Aramaic.
I was too embarrassed to ask anyone why we were learning Greek however, so I just went on learning it, not knowing why I was learning it, until one day I overheard a conversation on the subject: “Greek was the universal written language of Jesus’ world.” So the Gospels were not written in Aramaic as it was not a written language, not Hebrew as only Jews learned to read it, but Greek, the language of Asia Minor, Ethiopia, and Spain. It was at the time of Jesus, the written language of the Roman Empire, what Latin was to the world for much of the Common Era during the great expansions of the Roman Catholic Church, and what English is to the world today.
From our own Central High School to schools in Tokyo and Paris, even rock bands in Kabul, Afghanistan, English is the closest thing the world has today to a universal written language.
It is the language of the most powerful nation on earth. It is the language used in the most exciting movies anyone can see; it is the language of President Barak Obama, William Shakespeare, and Wall Street.
People who have something to say to the world today are saying it in English, just as people who had something that was worth saying in the ancient world wrote it in Greek. It was the language that people who were educated enough to be literate learned to read, it was the language of Homer and Plato, the language of democracy, power, empire, and influence.
So these Greeks go to Philip, we assume that something about living in Bethsaida in Galilee meant that he could understand their Greek or that they all could speak Hebrew, these Greeks go to Philip in the hope of seeing Jesus but it’s important to think about why.
With so many centers of education, Nashville has been called the Athens of the South. Athens was the peak of culture and wisdom that many societies, like ours, hope to emulate, so these Greeks didn’t need Jesus the teacher – they were Greek and they had the greatest philosophers of the time – and as we still learn of them today you might argue that these Greeks had the best philosophers of any time. They had Socrates, Aristotle, Plato, Diogenes who said that life was best lived impulsively, follow your desires he said – and should you take the opposite slant the Greeks also had the philosophy of the Stoics, suppressing passion, living life to the fullest by avoiding emotional investment.
Unlike so many I assume that these Greeks also did not need Jesus the healer to deliver a miraculous healing as they had Hippocrates and the most modern medicine available to help them avoid suffering, illness, and disease.
Nor did these Greeks need Jesus the Prince of Peace as they already had democracy, they trusted the voice of the people, and were able to avoid the tyranny of leaders too powerful through election.
They didn’t need any of the things that people often go to Jesus looking for, so maybe we should wonder why they went up saying, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”
Like the Greeks, you could say that we don’t need Jesus to teach us anything, anything worth knowing is already in English.
Like those Greeks who went to see him, you could say that we don’t need Jesus to heal common ailments necessarily, we have doctors and hospitals.
And you could say that we don’t need Jesus the Prince of Peace to deliver us from tyranny as we have the right to vote and can deliver ourselves from tyranny.
But maybe like us, this group of Greeks still knew that something was missing.
That despite all their wisdom there were still some questions left unanswered.
That despite all their medicine there was still something that plagued them.
That despite all their democracy there was still some power they could not touch.
That despite all they had to enhance life something was wrong.
So Christ gives them death: “I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain.”
Everything in Greek culture, and possibly even more so in our culture, is focused, not on embracing this truth but on avoiding it – avoiding this one reality that we cannot do anything about.
I was reminded of this truth recently by our church’s directory. A new directory of our church has just been produced, which prompted our church secretary, Debbie Sherman, and our Maury County historian, Bob Duncan, to pull out church directories from many years ago. Bob was able to find a pamphlet produced by our church from the 1920’s – various reports were included. So many of the names listed are familiar – Dale, Fleming, Jewel, Borum, Frierson – while other things I’m thankful are quite different - pastor’s annual salary was listed at $3,000. The same is true of the directory from 1976 – much is the same – the church organist for example – only her hairstyle has changed; many of you are pictured also – Hal Landers for example, but he’s smaller – in fact in 1976 his head is smaller than the bow tie that he’s wearing.
These differences are noticeable, and they’re fun to notice, and that made me realize that 10 years from now, Annie Laura Hill, whom we just baptized will be big, and we’ll remark on how much she’s grown. We’ll all be looking at my picture on the first page of the directory from 2012 saying, “Look, back then he still had his hair.”
But more than that, the hard part about a directory is that it preserves who was there then, making plain who isn’t with us anymore.
Already our directory from 2012 is out of date – all ready there are those pictured who are no longer with us – and this is the great struggle for humanity – not how to live, but how to deal with the reality of death, a reality that every facet of our culture wants to avoid.
Our medicine preserves life at all costs, compromising quality of life for length of life, our government’s purpose is to provide for the means of attaining life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and we all are conditioned to want to look younger, taking great pains to hide what might give our true age away.
So what Jesus has to offer these Greeks is not only foreign, it is completely different from anything else their culture and ours has to offer.
The way of Christ is not the way of our culture, as Christ does not fear death!
What Christ offered those Greeks must have seemed foolishness then, but Paul would say, “The message of the cross is foolishness… but the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.”
What we have in Christ is foolishness to much of the world – that life is to be lived, not by fearing suffering, hardship, and death, but that life is to be lived with all of these things in plain view for death is not to be feared as death is not the end but the pathway to the new beginning.
On this, the Fourth Sunday of the Season of Lent, we embrace a truth that few in our culture know anything about – that death is not to be feared – and so we prepare ourselves to observe the most important death of human history attempting to understand who Christ is and what he did for us.
The Greeks, those masters of preserving and enjoying life, came to see Jesus, and in him they found something they had not seen before.
In him may you find the truth, that out of hardship comes new life, that hope bursts forth from shadow, and that not death, but life streams forth from the tomb.
May you see Jesus, the light, and become sons and daughters of the light.