Last autumn, as winter was closing in, Vivienne got us organised and we planted up all the pots in our little back garden with a load of bulbs. They looked like a heap of dead lumps. If I hadn't seen the annual miracle before, I'd have said they were good for nothing. But we buried them under the soil. And we left them. And now it's spring and those dead bulbs have been raised to life and there's a glorious splash of brilliant colour raising our spirits whenever we look out of our kitchen window. That's what God's like. That's what he does. He brings life out of death.
My title this evening is Dying and Living. We're in a short series morning and evening in the run-up to Easter. The section we're looking at this evening is John 12.20-26.
I have three headings. First: 'We want to see Jesus'. Secondly: We see Jesus glorified on the cross. Then thirdly: We live for Jesus by laying down our lives for him. So:
1. 'We want to see Jesus'
Take a look at the first paragraph of this section – that's John 12.20-22. Let me read that:
"Now among those who went up to worship at the feast were some Greeks. So these came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and asked him, 'Sir, we wish to see Jesus.' Philip went and told Andrew; Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus."
What's going on here? Well this is happening in Jerusalem. In fact, it's getting close to the time when Jesus was crucified. We're now just under two weeks away from Good Friday. At this time Jesus was less than one week away from going to the cross. Jesus' suffering will soon begin – but only Jesus understands that. To everyone else, the big deal is that it's the feast of the Passover, commemorating the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. That might not mean much to you, but I suppose the nearest equivalent now would be Christmas. This was Jerusalem's big annual religious festival – though the religious bit was often distorted or neglected. Like Christmas. Everyone came 'to worship at the Feast' – even if they weren't regular attenders.
And some of these people were, John says, 'Greeks'. Really that just means non-Jews from the Graeco-Roman world – which was pretty much all the world they knew. In other words, these Greeks knew they didn't really belong there. They were away from home and off their territory. But something had drawn them along. Somehow they wanted to be there.
So these Greeks weren't content with what they had in their own culture and their own lives. They thought there must be more to life than they had experienced. There was an emptiness in them. And that made them curious. I'm speculating about these Greeks, but I don't see what else would have made them do what they were doing. In a word, they wanted a new life. Maybe they thought that all the wrappings of this religion and this festival would give it to them.
But while they'd been in Jerusalem, they'd heard about Jesus. Maybe they'd heard about what Jesus had done for his good friend Lazarus. There was a lot of talk about it. Not surprising, either. Because Lazarus had been dead. Had been. Jesus had brought him back to life – and that was after days in a tomb. It was all over social media. You'll see what I mean if you just look up the page to verse 17. I'll read it:
"The crowd that had been with him [that's Jesus] when he called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to bear witness. The reason why the crowd went to meet him was that they heard he had done this sign."
So here are these Greeks – these outsiders who don't quite feel at home – and this is what they do (verse 21):
"So these came to Philip [he was in the inner circle of the friends and followers of Jesus], … and asked him, 'Sir, we wish to see Jesus.' Philip went and told Andrew [another of the inner circle]; Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus [that these Greeks wanted to see him.]."
For over thirty years now we've had a partnership with the church of St Philip's in Mburi in rural central Kenya. It's been a great joy for me to go there a number times over the years, and also to preach in the Community Centre where the church meets. Hanging on the front of the pulpit lectern is an embroidered cloth – rather as we have here. But theirs has a Bible quotation. It has on it: "Sir, we want to see Jesus" – taken from this verse, John 12.21. It's the motto that our brothers and sisters in Christ adopted early on in the life of their church. We want to see Jesus. It expresses what's in their hearts. And it's a great motto, isn't it? We want to see Jesus.
Does that express what's in our hearts too? Do we want to see Jesus, in the way that these Greeks did – that is to say, not from a distance, across the heads of a great crowd. But up close and personal. They wanted to meet him face-to-face, talk with him, get to know him. They probably didn't have much idea what that would mean for them. If they were going to take him seriously then their lives would be turned upside down.
Are we ready for that? Because the truth is that we can see Jesus, up close and personal, if anything more easily than those Greeks could then. He is immediately accessible to all of us, anytime, anywhere, by his Spirit and through the pages of the Bible – not least these Gospel accounts. The message of Easter is not only that he died on Good Friday, but that he was raised on Easter Sunday. He's alive. He is the Lord of all. And we can know him personally.
Maybe you've been holding back from wanting to know Jesus personally. Don't hold back any longer. Be like those Greeks. Maybe you've drifted away from him over the last few months or even years – as if to the back of the crowd, keeping him at a distance from your life. Come close again. Maybe, like the disciples Philip and Andrew, you are close to him, and the challenge is to be available and on the lookout to do all that we can to help those who want to see Jesus but aren't sure how to get close to him. Verse 22:
"Philip went and told Andrew; Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus."
It's a simple thing – but what a wonderful thing to be able to do, to introduce others to Jesus. Let's be on the look-out for the opportunities that the Holy Spirit puts in our way, and take them.
As our Kenyan brothers and sisters say, 'Sir, we want to see Jesus'. Of course, if we walk away from Jesus, and want nothing to do with him, then, in the end, he'll give us what we want. But now, as for those Greeks, the opportunity is there for us. And we mustn't miss it.
Then the next thing is this:
2. We See Jesus Glorified On The Cross
Let's look at what Jesus says about himself here, in response to the request for an audience from the Greeks. It's there in verses 23-24, which say this:
"And Jesus answered them, 'The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.'"
Let me unwrap that, because there's a lot packed into a small space there. Jesus is saying at least four things about himself. Each of them is an absolutely massive claim.
First, everything that happens to him is under the direct control of God. When he says, "The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified…" that's the truth that lies behind that little phrase. This is God's timing. Even his crucifixion is ultimately under God's control.
Secondly, Jesus himself is supremely powerful. He calls himself "the Son of Man". That's a seemingly insignificant little phrase, but in fact, it's loaded with significance, because of a prophecy from hundreds of years before this, that's in the Bible. God gave Daniel (of the Lion's Den fame) a vision. In this vision, Daniel saw "one like a son of man" going to God and being given "dominon, and glory and a kingdom" at the right hand of God and over all the nations of the world. He is given an eternal, indestructible kingdom. 'That,' says Jesus, 'is me.' Jesus is supremely powerful.
Thirdly, his coming death will bring him glory. It's clear from the context here that when Jesus says, "The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified…" he's referring to the crucifixion that he knows he's about to undergo. And that cross will be his glory.
He's going to be glorified directly through the achievement of the cross, because the cross opens the way to forgiveness for all believers. It is the great work that Jesus came to do. And he will be glorified through the sequel to the cross, because he is raised from the dead and he ascends to heaven to the place of eternal glory at the side of God the Father. And he will be glorified as we look to him. As we look at the cross, we will see the glory of Jesus. The coming death of Jesus will bring him glory.
Fourthly, his death will bring life to many. Jesus says,
"Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit."
Jesus is the grain of wheat that dies. And this one seed is almost unbelievably fruitful. The life that he gives up becomes the source of eternal life for millions – billions of people who believe in him.
At the cross, Jesus undergoes the judgement we deserve so that we don't have to. His death wipes out our debt to God. It opens the fountain of forgiveness. His one death produces the seed of new life, eternal life, that he plants in us as we put our faith in him. He alone gives us that utterly new perspective on our present existence, and a sure and certain hope of a glorious eternal life beyond death – more glorious than we can imagine.
So first, 'we want to see Jesus'. Secondly, we see Jesus glorified on the cross.
3. We Live For Jesus By Laying Down Our Lives For Him
Jesus spells this out in blunt and even shocking terms in verses 25-26:
"Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honour him."
That means that if we are to have the eternal life that Jesus offers, we must give up our old life. If we don't, we'll lose it anyway. If we want life without Jesus, we'll lose it. It's very dangerous for us when we're too comfortable with the way things are. That's why God often throws a spanner into the works of our lives. If we think we can do fine without him, then we're riding for a fall.
Who knows what's going to happen to the government of this country. But when it comes to the government of our own lives, one thing is clear. What Jesus is saying is that if we think we're in charge, we have to be ready for a complete change of government in our lives.
Maybe you're one of the many who comes along to these services because you have a grumbling discontent and you want to find out what makes Christians tick. Well, dissatisfaction with the way things are in our lives is a good thing if it causes us to seek out Jesus like those Greeks did. But we need to go a step further. We need to reach out to Jesus by faith and say to him, 'Lord Jesus, you take over. I hate the mess I'm making of my life. Please forgive me. My way's no good. Show me how to do it your way.' When we do that, that's the beginning of a new life for us.
That's what Jesus promises. We have a new start, a new Lord and guide, a new basis for living, a new purpose, a new power at work within us, and a new hope for eternity. We receive what Jesus promises to those who rely on him – a new life.
And when we've found this new life, as many of us have, what does it look like? What does it involve? It involves nothing less than laying down our lives for him.
The life that Jesus gives is eternal. Eternal life begins the day we begin trusting Jesus: "whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life." Death becomes the gateway to an eternity with our global family and our glorious Lord. However bad things get now – and they do get very bad at times – we know that the future will be good. There is always a blazing light at the end of the tunnel. What's this new life like? It's eternal.
Then it's a life of serving Jesus. "If anyone serves me, he must follow me …" says Jesus. Pleasing Jesus becomes our goal. And the wonderful thing is that Jesus knows what's best, and he wants what's best, so when we serve him we do what's best and we get what's best.
This new life is eternal. It's a life of serving Jesus. And also it's a life of following Jesus. "If anyone serves me, he must follow me …" That means that the character of Jesus is our pattern for living. Something of the suffering of Jesus is our expectation. And others who are following Jesus here and all over the world are our new family. Like our brothers and sisters in Mburi, who want to see Jesus.
New life with Jesus is eternal. It's a life of serving him and following him. So it's a life of being with Jesus always: "where I am, there will my servant be also," Jesus promises. We go where he takes us, but we're never alone. He is always present with us by his Spirit. Only long years of experience can make us realise just how wonderfully true that is. When we get to rock bottom, we realise that Jesus is the rock beneath our feet, and he'll never abandon us, never let us go.
New life with Jesus is eternal. It's a life of serving him, following him, being with him. And most startling of all, it's a life of receiving honour from God. "If anyone serves me, the Father will honour him." That's what Jesus promises. Such honour is utterly undeserved. But that's the nature of God's generosity. He treats us as if we do deserve honour. We become members of the royal family of God.
Those Greeks wanted to see Jesus. Our brothers and sisters in Mburi want to see Jesus. Do we want to see Jesus? We can. By faith we can see him glorified on the cross. And we need to be ready to lay down our lives for him.