Tuesday, March 27, 2012

John 12:20-33[1]
Not many of us like change. That’s very likely an understatement. Change means adjusting to something different, and adjusting is not something we prefer doing. We’d much rather keep things the way they are. Routine, consistency, predictable outcomes—these are things we rely on for a sense of safety and stability in our lives. Even good change is difficult, if for no other reason than what it takes to get there. Becoming debt-free, or getting in shape, or starting a new job are all good changes to make, but to make those changes can take a lot of determination and effort on our part. In many cases, in order to change something about ourselves, we have to be willing to admit we’ve been doing it wrong and try to do something different.
Our Gospel lesson for today suggests that God has changed everything. Through Jesus, through his birth, his life, his teaching, and in this passage especially through his dying and rising to new life, God has changed everything. Everything. For everybody.[2] Jesus says it this way, “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (Jn. 12:32). It’s a message of hope, that God is working in this world to make everything new. It’s a bold declaration about the power of God’s love changing everything and everyone.
It is a wonderful thing to believe and hope that through Jesus God is making everything new. It can be inspiring and reassuring to believe that God is not going to leave this world in its current condition, with all the pain and suffering and oppression and injustice that so many people suffer. It is encouraging to hope that through Jesus Christ God is changing everyone and everything for the better.
But in a very real sense, I think we have to realize that change begins with me—and that can be challenging. The changes of the new life we’ve been talking about during Lent don’t just happen automatically for all of us. Most of us have to work at it. We have to come to the point where we can acknowledge our flaws in order to avail ourselves of the love God offers us all so freely.[3] If we want to experience the healing life God offers, the only way to start the journey is to recognize that we can’t do this entirely for ourselves.[4] We have to take the risk of faith to entrust our lives to the care of a loving God in order to make the changes the new life calls us to make.
For some, those changes can take place quickly, almost overnight. For most of us, it can take a lifetime of reorienting our lives toward God’s peace and justice and freedom and compassion. That means we must be intentional about how we live. If the change that God is bringing about in this world is important to us, then we have to take definite steps in order to align ourselves with it. We have to find ways of consciously embracing the repentance and faith that Jesus invites us to practice. We have to seek out ways of incorporating the directions for living that are meant to make us more whole, more peaceful, and more joyful into the way we actually live our daily lives. We must make it our goal in life to become a person who is open to God’s loving presence and who allows that love to flow through us to others.
It can be painful to undergo these kinds of changes in our lives. In a very real sense, in order to experience the new life that God offers us all, we have to make ourselves vulnerable.[5] We’d much rather avoid any kind of difficulty or discomfort and just stay in the same old ruts we’ve been in all our lives. But in order to change, we have to refrain from all the ways we normally try to escape the difficulty and discomfort. We have to stay with it, even if it provokes a crisis in our lives, in order to experience real change. We have to refrain from all the ways we try to escape the pain we might feel, because it’s the pain that heals us and gives us the strength and courage to make the changes we need.[6]
That sounds hard and perhaps even burdensome. But in a very real sense, it can be as simple as embracing the change God is bringing into this world by loving God and loving others. The message of our Gospel lesson for today is that when we make changes in our lives in order to align ourselves with God’s peace and justice and freedom and compassion, we’re not engaged in a self-help project! We’re opening ourselves to the change that God has already made through Jesus, and that God continues to make in all our lives through the love that constantly surrounds us. At the end of the day, the changes of the new life we seek don’t depend solely on our efforts. They depend on the good news that through Jesus the Christ what God is doing in this world has left everything and everyone changed![7]

[1] © 2012 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 3/25/12 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Some would not take this passage in such a sweepingly inclusive sense. For statements that do, cf. The Study Catechism, Q. 132, “there is … a depth of love which is deeper than our despair, and that this love … will finally swallow up forever all that would now seem to defeat it.” Cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, In the End the Beginning, 48: The good news is that “the risen Christ … draws the whole of humanity out of the world of death” into the transformed world of new life.
[3] Without this, Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls what we seek “cheap grace”! Cf. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, 44-45; cf. also Otto Weber, Foundations of Dogmatics II:296-97, 301, 305, 339.
[4] See Paul Tillich, “Salvation” in The Eternal Now, 115, 117-18
[5] It is commonly noted that the most vulnerable people in our world seem to have a way of pointing us most clearly to faith and new life. Cf. Jon Sobrino, Where is God?, 7, where he says that the poor and the powerless possess a “primordial saintliness”; and Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 126-29.
[6] Cf. Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart, 2-5, 8, 17, 30; cf. also Pema Chödrön, The Places that Scare You, 28-29, 120-22.
[7] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 4.3.491, where he argues that even for one who has not embraced faith, what God has done in Jesus Christ “means de jure a complete alteration of his situation.” He also reminds us that “Jesus Christ always comes to him with His call, that He always encounters him, that He always stands at his door and knocks (Rev. 3:20).”

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