John 12: 20 Now there were some Greeks among those who went up to worship at the festival. 21 They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, with a request. “Sir,” they said, “we would like to see Jesus.” 22 Philip went to tell Andrew; Andrew and Philip in turn told Jesus. 23 Jesus replied, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24 Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. 25 Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26 Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me. 27 “Now my soul is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour. 28 Father, glorify your name!” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and will glorify it again.” 29 The crowd that was there and heard it said it had thundered; others said an angel had spoken to him. 30 Jesus said, “This voice was for your benefit, not mine. 31 Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. 32 And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” 33 He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die.
Pity the poor barracuda. He has a brain only the size of a pea. He’s swimming through a coral reef one morning, looking for breakfast, when he sees this fish (cue marine butterfly fish). The barracuda’s approach to life is, “if it flashes, smash it.” So, without delay, he swoops down on the butterfly fish, opening his mouth wide, aiming just ahead of the fish’s eye. Because at least he knows that fish don’t have a reverse gear.
But wait, which eye is the real eye? With only a pea-size brain, naturally he zeros in on the first eye he sees, the big one. And so he misses breakfast. Because what looks like an eye is actually a spot by the fish’s tail. That barracuda missed breakfast because he got something so important backward.
And so often do human beings, even though we have much bigger brains than do barracuda. Where we get it most backward is in the matter of honor and glory. With our Mennonite emphasis on humility, we may think that matters of honor and glory don’t matter. But they certainly mattered to Jesus. Some variety of the word “glory,” like “glorify” or “glorified,” is used four times in our reading today. Its a word that gets used many times throughout John’s Gospel. The Gospel barely begins before we read, in Chapter 1, verse 14: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
Glory and honor certainly mattered to Jesus’ adversaries. Jesus pegged them spot on when he asked them, in Chapter 5, verse 44: “How can you believe since you accept glory from one another but do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?”
Jesus is not telling us to seek no honor nor glory whatsoever, because that would be impossible. Naturally we want our lives to have value and meaning, and something commendable to show for them. God made us that way, because we have meaning and value to God. The choice then before us is not whether we will seek honor or not, but will we seek honor and glory from God, or from people?
Sometimes the honors of heaven and earth match. But just as often, honor is given and measured in heaven and among mortals, for quite opposite reasons. Which is why we sense, in today’s gospel reading, the threat gathering against Jesus. Because his code of honor was directly at odds with that of the most honored people of his society.
Oddly enough, the threat comes to a head just when a significant honor comes to Jesus, a gospel breakthrough. Some Greeks, we are told, want to see Jesus. The good news about Jesus, and the interest in him, is spilling over beyond the small world of Palestinian Jews. That’s what he came for, after all. His mission is working! Success!
“The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified,” he says. Good. Cue the drums and the trumpets for a fanfare. Bring on the banners, the confetti and the parade.
Wellllll…. not so fast. Strange glory this is, when he goes on to say, “Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” This sudden interest in him from outside the usual circle actually confirms that this is his hour to die. Yet he also calls this his hour to be glorified.
Glory..Cross…Glory….death. That’s sobering enough. But lest we think it only applies to Jesus, he says to the disciples, “Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be.” Where will we, his servants be? Facing the same choice, to love our life in this world, that is, on society’s terms of honor and glory, or to hate the terms on which the world offers honor and glory, and to seek them from God, even at the risk of our lives.
At its best, honor is the status we ascribe to our actions and our character. Glory, by contrast, is honor on steroids. Glory is the highest, stratospheric level of honor by which we often measure and arrange other people and their honors. Someone may receive community honors for being a foster parent for scores of children over the years, but monuments are usually built for presidents who lead a nation through war, the generals who win battles, and the soldiers who die in them. Those we count “glory.” Honors may go to the person who builds a better mousetrap. But college buildings get named after the person who corners the market on mousetraps and makes billions off of them. That too we count “glory.”
When Jesus talked about “glory” his audience would have associated the word with similar splendors: the glint of sunlight off legions of spear tips, the flapping and snapping of scarlet imperial banners waving in the wind, the rhythmic tread of tens of thousands of marching feet moving to the sound of drums and trumpets, a sight to strike fear in the hearts of their foes, and to swell the hearts of friends with pride.
Into such a world comes Jesus with his seemingly backwards, upside-down standard of glory. It looks more like a criminal’s cross, than a conqueror’s sword. The cross reveals that heaven’s standard of glory is about self-giving, sacrificial love. An old hymn from the 19th Century captured the reversal of glory that Jesus brought into the world with these words (cue the first hymn verse):
God’s glory is a wondrous thing,
Most strange in all its ways;
And, of all things on earth, least like
What men agree to praise.
The good news this morning is that heaven has a path to glory that is accessible not only to presidents and generals, soldiers and CEO’s, sports stars and Hollywood celebrities, but to those who never make this year’s copy of Who’s Who, nor the cover of Time magazine. Its a path accessible to parents and single people, to children and servants and the poor. They don’t need armies and budgets worth billions of dollars to achieve glorious things, nor do they need massive amounts of airtime and publicity to validate their accomplishments and achievements. In fact, the most glorious people according to heaven are probably not even aware of what glory may hover around themselves and their actions. For Christ seems to be more impressed by what we overcome, than by what we achieve and accumulate. He was more impressed by the one copper coin that a widow gave in the temple, than by the bags of gold that the wealthy were dropping in, because she likely had a harder time getting that coin, and more to lose by giving it away. Christ might then be more impressed with a homeless man who stays clean from drugs than with an evangelist who preaches to millions, again, if that homeless man had more to overcome. In the face of all the human struggles and weaknesses I encounter, I have learned to suspend judgment and let God assign honors and glory, because he sees and knows what I cannot.
Where then did Jesus find the patience and the strength, even the joy, to pursue and to display his Father’s honors and glory, even on a cross? Jesus names three joys that lay before him on the other side of the cross: One is the honor of being honored and glorified by God, for having honored him. As God told Samuel so many years earlier, “Whoever honors me will I honor.” And this honor Jesus shares with us, for he said, “My Father will honor the one who serves me.”
The second joy before Jesus is that “the prince of this world will be driven out” (according to verse 31). By “the prince of this world” he meant Satan, the Evil One, the Accuser and the Tempter. It was by the Cross that Jesus dethroned “the prince of this world.” He dethroned Satan first of all by exposing, on the cross, the true nature of Satan’s Empire and dominion. There on the cross was displayed the true cost of all the glories that people seek through conquest and dominion over others, and their squalid, sordid nature. There on the cross was displayed the world’s way of enforcing its honor codes. The world weaves webs of lies around the words “glory” and “honor,” that enchant us and blind us to their costs. But because of the cross of Jesus, none of us can deny that those webs of lies are anchored in brutal, bloody crosses. Jesus dethroned the devil by exposing him.
Which leads to the third joy, all the people who would be drawn to Jesus. “If I be lifted up [on the cross, he meant] I will draw all people unto me,” he said. On the cross, not only would we see the true cost and brutality of human notions of glory and honor, we would see the true nature of heaven’s glory, its never-ending, self-giving, sacrificial love. And that would draw all sorts of people to Jesus, as I can tell just by looking around this sanctuary. The joy of all those friends, of you and me, coming to him was another joy that motivated Jesus, and kept him on the cross.
Our take-away lesson from this is two-fold: 1) to dis-enthrall, or disengage ourselves from society’s usual standards and labels of honor, glory and success. The world honors and glorifies success, efficiency, survival and growth for their own sake. The measure of success is, well, success. All this focus on strength, conquest and dominion for worldly rewards and honors may help us make better mousetraps, and more money from them. But it doesn’t always connect us with God or each other. If anything, the world’s notions of glory encourages us to hide and deny the common human needs and weaknesses that connect us with each other, and with God.
But in this morning’s thought to help us prepare for worship, you saw the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, that “In a world where success is the measure and justification of all things the figure of Him who was sentenced and crucified remains a stranger and is at best the object of pity…[But] the figure of the Crucified invalidates all thoughts which takes success for its standard.”
Once we dis-enthrall and disengage ourselves from society’s usual ideas about honor and glory, we can know where and how to go about true and lasting honor and glory rightfully, in ways that honor God, and in ways that God honors. Jesus directs our quest for honor and meaning toward God, so that God’s honor and glory become our honor and glory as well. Then we can do what brings lasting, enduring honor to both God and ourselves. The author of that same hymn I quoted earlier understood this when he wrote (cue the next verses please):
Workman of God, O lose not heart,
But learn what God is like!
And, in the darkest battlefield,
Thou shalt know where to strike.
O blest is he to whom is given
The instinct that can tell
That God is on the field when He
Is most invisible!
Blest too is he who can divine
Where real right doth lie,
And dares to take the side that seems
Wrong to man’s blindfold eye.
Our choice finally comes down to this: Whose honor matters most to us? That of a fallen society, afflicted with a moral vision that is reverse and upside-down, or that of our Heavenly Father? The cross stands as the divine question mark now posed over and against so much that we are taught by society to honor, value and achieve. It calls us to live instead for the honor and glory of God, and for the honor and glory that God gives. Heaven’s honor and glory may come at the price of a cross. But oddly enough, such honor and glory are best shown from a cross. We can see it straight if we are not looking at it upside-down and backward, as the world so often does.