March 17: Whoever Serves

March 17: Whoever Serves

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Audio contains Scripture reading and sermon only

March 17 – 5th Sunday of Lent

Other sermons in this 2024 Lentent series
“Depths of Love”

Scripture: John 12:20-33

I was talking with a young couple this week who got engaged at a Franky Avalon concert. But not just at the concert, it happened onstage during the concert. And Franky Avalon himself was personally involved in both the planning and the execution of the proposal. In fact, if you can believe it, it all happened because the groom-to-be searched down Franky Avalon’s personal phone number, called him, and convinced him out of the blue to be a part of it. As they’re telling me this story, my mind’s just blown by the fact that he was able to find his number and call him let alone convincing the famous singer that he’s not a wacko! And, to her 95% surprise, the bride-to-be found herself being called up to stage by the singer who produced the ring and handed it to her fiancé so he could get on his knee and ask her to marry him. It’s a great story!

In their case, the groom-to-be wanted to personally connect with a well-known and well-loved singer, a person he’d never met or talked with. And as it turned out, he was able to just that.

Let’s compare their experience with the one John described in today’s reading. The story begins in a similar fashion, with some people wanting to connect with someone “famous,” in this case, Jesus. Again, here’s how John describes it.

Some Greeks were among those who had come up to worship at the festival. They came to Philip (one of Jesus’ disciples) and made a request: “Sir, we want to see Jesus.” Philip told Andrew, and Andrew and Philip told Jesus. Jesus replied, “The time has come for the Son of Man to be glorified….” (John 12:20-23).

That’s the last we ever hear of those Greeks. John doesn’t indicate what came of their request to see the Lord. The reader is simply left wondering what happened. This is because John presents it in a way that makes it sound like Jesus’ statement about it being the time for the Son of Man to be glorified was spoken to Andrew and Philip, the bringers of the request. Also, what kind of response is that to a request for a friendly meeting? Hey, Jesus, we just met some people who’d love to meet you. They’re from out of town and have some questions. . . . Very truly I tell you, it’s about time for my life’s purpose to be completed by going to the cross. Very odd response indeed.

Well, if you’ve ever read the Gospel of John, then you know that Jesus’ non sequitur about his coming glorification is par for the course for John’s Jesus. The Jesus in the Gospel of John always seems to have a hidden agenda. The things he says often seem to come out of left field. And they often seem to speak to issues beyond the scope of the conversation they’re having. In John, his answers to their questions often feel like non-answers, and you’re left going, “OK….I’m not quite sure where that came from.” And the reason for this is because John himself has an agenda, a particular message that he, the Evangelist, wants to communicate to his readers.

In today’s story, mentioning these Greeks was intentional on John’s part. He brought them into the story on purpose, but it wasn’t so that he could report on the content of their conversation with Jesus. Mentioning that these Greek people wanted to see Jesus and that they took steps to make it happen was simply a ploy, if you will, to get to John’s real purpose in telling the story. John’s real purpose is to let the reader know that Jesus’ audience was expansive. He wants to know that Jesus came to die for the world, and the introduction of these Gentiles into the story indicates the wide scope of the effectiveness of his approaching crucifixion. Remember what Jesus tell the Pharisee Nicodemus: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son” (John 3:16). For John, “world” can mean the planet itself, but it more often it’s a reference to the people who live on the planet. Humanity. God so loved the people of the world. God loved human beings so much that he gave his one and only Son. And the world, of course, includes all the Gentiles—the non-Jews. For the first century Jew, it would have been a radical idea that God was for Gentiles as much as he was for Jews. So, when John mentioned that some Greeks wanted to see Jesus, it was his way of indicating that Jesus came and died for everyone, not just his fellow Jews. That salvation is available to everyone, not just a select few.

Now, to be clear, that’s an interpretation on our part. It’s a possible answer to the question about why John only mentioned these Greeks at the beginning. Jesus’ statement was about something else. Here it is again:

“The time has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. I assure you that unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it can only be a single seed. But if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their lives will lose them, and those who hate their lives in this world will keep them forever. Whoever serves me must follow me. Wherever I am, there my servant will also be. My Father will honor whoever serves me” (John 12:23-26).

I’ll try to restate this in a more understandable way. Jesus says: I’ve reached the end of my life and fulfilled my purpose for coming into this world. My death will result in great fruitfulness for the kingdom of God. Those who give their lives over to kingdom purposes will know what it means to truly live. The kingdom is built through a life of service. My true followers are servants at heart—they express their commitment to following me by living no longer for themselves but for others and for me. From the Heavenly Father’s perspective, true honor is given to those who serve me by serving others.

If I had to sum this statement up in one sentence, it’d be this: following Jesus is synonymous with serving others. In other words, one cannot follow Jesus without serving others. To follow is to serve.

Let me put this rather bluntly. If your life is pretty much about you—ordering your life around making sure your needs are taken care of first and foremost, often at the expense of others—then an argument could be made (based on Jesus’ statement) that you can’t really call yourself a follower of Jesus. Why? Because to follow Jesus means dying to self—and those are Jesus’ words, not mine. This isn’t to suggest that we all have to become Mother Theresa’s in our own rite, or that we have to commit ourselves to a life of poverty, or that we should never take care of ourselves. Those are misrepresentations of what I’m saying. I’m simply stating that Jesus is here saying that ordering our lives such that a significant aspect of what we do day in and day out is for the sake of others is required if we want to call ourselves a follower. Big things? Sure. Small things? Absolutely, and by the tons, because every single day provides multiple opportunities to do something for someone else, even if it’s offering a word of thanks or encouragement.

So, what’s the connection between this statement of Jesus and the request of some Greek nationals to see Jesus? John probably had a reason for making them part of the same story, so what might that be?

I think one possibility is this. The Greek people mentioned in this story represent the world outside of Jerusalem, the Temple, the Jews, God’s covenant people. These outsiders were drawn to Jesus and had a desire to see him up front and close. They’d probably seen him from a distance. They probably met some of his followers who told them about Jesus. Maybe those encounters-from-a-distance made them want to know more and to have a first-hand encounter with the Savior. These “non-believers” were being drawn to Messiah.

What would be necessary for them to be “let in”? What would qualify them to be able to see Jesus, to have a first-hand encounter with him? What criteria would allow them to be his disciples, his followers? One thing, according to Jesus: being a servant. Jesus says, If you want to follow me, you have to serve others. And being a servant-follower of Jesus Christ is something that anyone in the world can be.

Is there someone you know who you’d not consider to be good Jesus-follower material? Maybe it’s their questionable life style, or the plethora of poor choices they’ve made in life, or the people they hang out with, or their course language, or their habits. Maybe they’ve been openly hostile to the Christian faith; or maybe they’ve never given Jesus a moment’s thought. Maybe everything they seem to stand for strikes you as disqualifying them from being a follower of Christ. What the reason may be, who do you know who you’re pretty sure is unfit for the kingdom?

On the other hand, didn’t Jesus tell us it was for them in particular that he died—those on the “outside” so to speak? He also seems to say that the qualifier for following him is something that’s within the grasp of almost everyone. It may take some time, but isn’t that true for all of us, that being other-focused in our day to day lives is something we have to work at?

I’d like to suggest a two-part application of today’s message. First, every one of us can evaluate how well we’re living a servant’s life. And where we identify some areas of needed growth, we can certainly find ways to do it. Second, I’d encourage us to commit to pray for one person we know who’s not currently a follower of Jesus. And not just to pray for them a couple of times or for the next week or so. I’m talking about doing it for the next year or two, or until the Holy Spirit finally breaks through and they come to faith in Christ. You pray for that encounter to take place. You tell Jesus that you’d like that person to see him. And as you pray for them over time, ask the Holy Spirit to create opportunities for small conversations to happen. And for him to give you the words to say when those opportunities present themselves.

Know this: holding before God another person’s spiritual and eternal well-being is probably the biggest act of service any of us can do. With that, let’s pray…

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