Not Living On Cruise Control

Guest Post: a sermon by Rev. Dr. Brad Gabriel (part of a Lenten Series entitled: The Lonesome Road) Text: John 12:20-33

Adaptive cruise control is a new car technology.  According to Numlock News, the technology uses radar to determine the distance between the car and the vehicle ahead of it and manage cruise control actively with that information. This makes cruise control more dynamic. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety carried out a study of the technology.   The Institute loaned cars with the technology to 40 Boston-area drivers. The results show that adaptive cruise control made speeding much easier. Monitors in the cars showed that drivers were 24 percent more likely to speed when using adaptive cruise control than when they were not.

Going on cruise might not be 100% beneficial, then.  This is true for our spiritual journey as well for commutes to work, vacation driving, and road trips to the grandparents.  This Lent for our spiritual journey we are walking that Lonesome road with Jesus.  In today’s lesson, something expected, but still new, comes up. 

“Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”  

Ok, good. Thank you. I do, too.  We still are dealing with lingering pandemic, continued civil strife, and potential religious divide, so, yes, I wish to see Jesus.  I wish to see Jesus in good news as well.  I want to see him celebrate with us as more vaccines are more widely distributed, as vaccinated parents and vaccinated children get to hug one another, and other signs of renewed life are reported.

I wish to see Jesus in the face of bad news. It only takes one news report about the looming humanitarian crisis on the Southern border, or some white guy with a gun committing a heinous crime to send us all reeling.  What are we doing? Why? How do we do something else? I wish to see Jesus in our current context. On this Lonesome road, I wish to see Jesus. 

 Traveling this Lonesome road with Jesus has made clear once again, that regardless of how I may feel or what I may think about anyone else’s behavior, my errors are many, my sins grievous, and my vision more than a little hazy.  Yes, I wish to see Jesus. Seeing Jesus will make sure that I stay on the road.  Seeing Jesus helps me avoid getting too close to the guardrails, because even that is too close to losing my way entirely.  I wish to avoid falling into the error of going on spiritual cruise control.   I know the temptations. This is not my first season of Lent.  Or second, or fiftieth. 

I wish to see Jesus because I want to remember that the discipline of this season allows me to remember the central parts of our faith. From what I read and hear and see, I do not think that I’m the only person these days who is tempted to slip into a comfortable and culturally approved spirituality that looks a whole lot less like Christianity and a whole lot more like what one observer called a “new belief system [that] is a blend of self-optimization, therapy, right wing Q-anon conspiracy theories, economic thoughts, wellness, astrology, left-wing political orthodoxy, and Dolly Parton.”  So, hearing these Greeks come and tell Philip “We wish to see Jesus,” and reading about what comes after, serve as course corrections.  

The setting of today’s Gospel matters as much as the Greeks’ request. I am certainly not the first person to notice this. Earlier in this chapter, we read that some of the authorities have decided to kill Jesus. The reason is because he raised Lazarus from the dead.  I might have thought that raising a good person from an untimely death would cause general happiness.  Apparently, the fears of those leaders were that such miracles might lead to yet another pre-doomed popular uprising against Rome. The last doomed revolt was only about 30 years prior. The pain, the destruction, the deaths, of that time are still too fresh.  The miracle of defeating death was one problem for those who choose a comfortable if slightly oppressive stability over fidelity to the will of God. 

Another problem that we will read about next week, was what happened when Jesus and his followers came to Jerusalem for the Passover celebration. His entrance had all the trappings of a nationalist uprising.  That was sure to anger the Roman occupiers. Messianic, nationalistic, religiously excessive, and, the authorities tell one another, the whole world is going after Jesus.  

One commentator remarked that these events smacked of foreshadowing to him. Do you remember learning about foreshadowing as a literary device? When do our teachers talk to us about that?  Eight grade?  Ninth?  Both of our sons talked a lot about foreshadowing when they learned about it.  We would watch a TV program and they say, “Oh, look, that’s foreshadowing. Let’s see how it works in the story.”  

My favorite example is the scene in the first Jurassic Park film when the T-Rex is chasing people who are in a car.  You see the monster’s face in the side view mirror of the car. What is printed on the bottom of the mirror? “Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear.”  

Foreshadowing. A hint of what’s to come.   The whole world is going after Jesus.  A fulfillment of what we read last week. John 3:16, “for God so loved the world…”  Now the world appears to be going after Jesus.  Those asking for the introduction didn’t have to be Greeks. Any ethnicity would do, I suppose.  Italians. Celts. Iberians. Egyptians. Tennesseans.  These Greeks, though, these outsiders, these foreigners, these others, these who are “not our type of people,” come up. They say to the Disciple with the Greek sounding name, (which is, also a foreshadow of coming events) “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”  The whole world is going after him.

The appearance of these Greeks in turn, foreshadow Jesus’ sacrifice for the whole world. Their appearance foreshadows the church’s mission to include all people. “For God so loved the world….”

Philip and Andrew two Greek named disciples bring the request to Jesus and he says in response, not, “Let’s sign them up.”  Instead, Jesus says, “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 of us on this side of the cross know that he is talking about his own death.  At the very least, his death. Of course, as has been noted on stage and screen and classroom, he didn’t have to go through with it. 

He could take it all back. “Excuse me?” he might say.  “Is that what you heard me say about the Temple hierarchy?  About Rome?  About people who are always looking for someone to feel superior to?  My bad.  Sorry.  Tell you what, how about I toddle on off back to Nazareth.  Join the family business and we just file this all away as a misunderstanding? One day, we’ll look back at this and laugh. Right?”    

He could have.  He won’t.  He didn’t. Jesus understands his life is the seed that will bring the harvest of God’s love, reconciling all things to God’s own Self, as the apostle writes in Colossians 1:20 “and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven.” At the risk of sounding too flexible, this is a universal love.  Jesus knows that when he dies to all the external trappings of power and prestige and popularity, he knows that when he speaks the truth in love, and when he lives the truth in love, and when he loves, in truth, the whole world and all its people, he knows that the outcome is inevitable.  He knows the outcome. It’s on that hill. Just outside the city gates. 

He also knows that staying on that lonesome road, being lifted up, being cast down and entombed, all of that, will bring the harvest of love that is the only way to re-shape this world, beginning with your life, with my life.  “When I am lifted up, I will draw all people to myself.”  “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”  “The whole world is going after him.” “For God so loved the world.”  All of it and all of us. 

How do we grasp that? We keep Jesus in our sight.  We can’t afford to go on cruise control.  We will see Jesus in the scriptures, in the sacraments, and in the means of grace.  The question for Lent on this lonesome road is, will people see Jesus in us? 

Did you see the television series called “The Queen’s Gambit?”  A colleague called it to my attention.  (Careful, here, there are spoilers ahead.) Fictional, it is the story, set at the height of the Cold War between the US and the USSR, of an orphan girl who discovers that she is a chess prodigy.  Beth Harmon, the name of the woman in the show, rises in the world of chess. She falls in her private life, alcohol and drug abuse, isolation, and anger that reflect the abuse and betrayal that she experienced as a child and younger woman. 

At one point in the show Beth is going to play the world champion for the title of Grand Master. She is rescued by an old friend who comes to help, to sacrifice for Beth, to support, and most important to tell her the plain and simple truth in loving and unvarnished terms. Beth learns that she can never become great in isolation. People whom she had cut off return and support and provide advice and direction. Beth wins the chess match, defeats the Russian and is cheered by the entire world it seems. 

Beth is escorted by a state department official to be received and praised by the President of the United States.  She is dressed ambiguously, in a long white coat, wearing a white beret style hat with a pom-pom on top she looks like the White Queen, possibly the most powerful piece of a standard chess set.  Or is she a pawn ready to sacrifice herself for the good of the other? Beth leaves the State Department car. She walks away from power and prestige and popularity and does for an old man sitting alone at a table with a chess board on it that which no one had done for her until almost too late. She invites him in, “Let play.” 

We are to invite in the whole world. As they are.  Jesus will work on them just as he does.   We must participate in this life and the next. We must make sure that all of our remaining sins are on the table.  That means the areas of work Jesus has in my life includes my racism or sexism or classism or homophobia or chauvinism or greed or arrogance or desire for power or prestige or even popularity.  Those areas have to be removed so they do not get in the way of showing Jesus to the world in all that we say and all that we do in all of our relationships, all the days of our life.  Certainly, you will continue to show Jesus to the world in the service that you give aiding the hungry and thirsty, and naked and homeless and sick and in prison, those to whom Jesus points us.  

We must keep Jesus in our sight. The one who is lifted up.  The one who falls to the ground.  The who is the seed of God’s all redeeming love.  The one who teaches us how to love and who makes your love for others and for yourself possible.  The one who witnesses and blesses your sacrifice that lets the kingdom expand a bit more today. The one who already understands that your sacrifice is never a way to earn what Jesus already gives freely.  Jesus accepts your sacrifice as the “Thank you” to him that it is. 

I can’t do this on my own.  No matter how modern and fancy my cruise control might be.  While I may be wrong, I suspect that none of you can do it on your own either. Stay aware. Stay engaged. Stay on the road.  Keep Jesus in your sight. Continue with your joyful sacrifice of time and resources and money and prayer. Continue imitating the Jesus you love as you become his hands in the life you live with others.

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