Facing what we most fear
Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. 21They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus.’ Bethsaida, from the more Gentile oriented territory of Philip the tetrarch 22Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. 23Jesus answered them, ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24Very 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. 25Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honour.
27 ‘Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—“Father, save me from this hour”? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.28Father, glorify your name.’ Then a voice came from heaven, ‘I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.’ 29The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, ‘An angel has spoken to him.’ 30Jesus answered, ‘This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. 31Now is the judgement of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. 32And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’ 33He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.
One year I went to my daughter’s school camp as one of the supporting parents.
One activity on offer at Coffin Bay that summer was wind surfing, or sail boarding. The girls were in thigh deep water, and would teeter to an upright position on the board. Then started the perilous effort to raise the sail, which mostly resulted in them falling off, and bouncing off the bottom of the bay, with the obligatory squeals and shrieks. Everyone was having a great time.
The three girls I was tasked to watch and help, were very slowly drifting away from the shore as they splashed and crashed around in the water. Then, after one more attempt to raise the mast, the girl fell off, just on the other side of the board to where her friends were standing, and completely disappeared. Three, maybe four seconds later, she popped up, shocked, shrieking, spluttering and white, and was back on the board quicker than a champagne cork out of a bottle.
At some places in Coffin Bay, the beach goes out for many yards with no perceptible change in depth, and then drops abruptly as it goes over the edge of an ancient cliff. It feels like there is no bottom to it all.
Life is like this. In our lucky country, we spend a lot of time in the shallows, where it is warm... and relatively safe. We have our struggles, to be sure; indeed life can feel like a constant balancing act where we keep falling off the sail board. It can feel like we are making no progress at all; we spend days and months trying to learn and to manage a situation, and still we fall off at the merest puff of a breeze.
And then, we step off that underwater cliff, and go down very deep. Sometimes the cold drags at us, like snagging weed, seeming to want to kill us. Making it back to the surface of life becomes an enormous struggle. We wonder if we will ever regain the joy and the innocence of the shallows!
Or, maybe we are like the Year Seven boy on the camp who had an innate knack for sail boards. It took me weeks to finally catch on to handling one of those things, but after 40 minutes mucking around he was up and sailing; a prodigy. And our Year Seven went ripping up and down the bay in delight, and at speed, all the while slowly moving further out from the shore.
When he decided to come in, he found himself far distant, with the wind against him, and began to wonder if he would ever get home! Life can be like that, too.
Imagine if we planned life to cope only with the good times. Imagine if we’d said to the girls on their sail board, “You won’t need life jackets. We’re only in shallow water.” That lass who fell over the edge could have drowned as she plunged down into the cold depths.
Life needs a life jacket. A religion which can’t deal with the worst of life, is not worth having.
John’s gospel, is a gospel which deals with the deepest, coldest water over the edge of those cliffs which we can’t see coming. It deals with death.
We don’t know what happened when Jesus died. We can guess. We can imagine the shock, and the pain, and the denial. We can imagine the feeling of being dumped in the coldest, deepest water, and floundering to survive, as everything we hoped for seemed to be washed away, and lost.
All we know is that after a few years, letters keep surfacing. People like Paul, the apostle, were talking about Jesus being resurrected, somehow moving on after death. People began to sense a new presence in their lives, which they identified as Jesus. They began to wonder if his dying, was not actually the disaster it seemed, but the way to freedom from death, and the way to a more full and meaningful life.
By the time we get to John’s gospel, it’s 70 or 80 years since Jesus has died. John writes in a mystical style that to our eyes seems a bit west of weird, and on the way to being freaky. But, if we give him time, and don’t turn off, the message is clear. He has Jesus saying,
32... when I am lifted up from the earth, [I] will draw all people to myself.’ 33He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.
The death on the cross is the “lifting up” he is talking about, and it is clear that John understood Jesus death was inevitable, and in some sense, needed to happen. Our salvation comes through a dying. As John said in last week’s reading, God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that whoever believes in him may not perish, but have eternal life.
Eternal life is not life after death. Eternal life is now... life seen and experienced with different eyes; a different quality of life; life on a different plane, even here. It is life where the deep, cold depths of tragedy and pain, which seek to draw us down and drown us, begin to lose their power.
We can repeat John 3:16 as we go through life in the shallows. God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that whoever believes in him may not perish, but have eternal life. Whoever... the whoever believes in that verse ... is me; us! God loves me. God is on my side. I will get through this. I will get back on the board.
It is good to know this. But what about when life goes off the deep end?
What happens when we have taken one more step, and find ourselves plunging down deep, wondering if we will ever survive, and if life will ever get back on an even keel? What happens when John 3:16 sounds like mere words, fancy magic, and God is a made up imaginary friend?
You might remember the story from the Hebrew scriptures when there were serpents in the camp, and people were dying of snake bite. Imagine how fearful this is; you’ve been bitten, and now you wait for the poison to begin to work in you; there is nothing you can do. It must be a most terrifying experience.
In that story, it seems like there is magic; just superstition. Moses gets a serpent made out of bronze and sticks it up on a pole, and says, “If you are bitten, look at this, and you will be healed. “Underneath that story, however, is a deep psychological truth: if you want to be healed, you have to face the thing you most fear.
If you want to be healed of the fear of death, look up at Jesus on the cross, in the same way the Israelites looked up at the bronze serpent. Don’t look for Jesus who is resurrected; look at Jesus who is dying.
Let’s come back to this week’s reading.
.... 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. 25Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honour.
If we try and make life safe, we just remain a single grain. We remain in the shallows. We may drown in tragedy, when it comes. But when we risk our lives for Jesus, when we die to ourselves, we are given our lives back. We gain eternal life, a whole new way of living, and seeing, and feeling.
That may not be easy, for Jesus said, whoever serves me must follow me... that could mean... to the cross. But whoever follows him will be honoured by the Father.
What’s this all got to do with surviving life? It’s something that is almost impossible to describe. We have to discover it. God gives it to us. It comes like the wind of the Spirit in John 3. But let me try and describe something....
At the school camp are a little girl and a boy, who’ve never been near the water much. They’d dearly love to have a go on the sail boards, but they are afraid.
When I offer to help them, the boy says, “Nah, not interested. It’s boring.” He saves his life, and his embarrassment, and avoids his fear, and keeps safe. And he loses his life. I can tell you this, because it’s what I did with one sport in Primary School, and I still regret it fifty years later!
But the girl goes through the agony, and the little death, of admitting that she is very afraid of the water, and the agony and embarrassment of letting people laugh at her. She lets me help her out with lots of little jokes, and helping her balance on the board, and helping her up when she falls in and splutters. And slowly, over a couple of days, she is able to stand up and raise the sail.... the smallest sail they have... and even move across the water in a small breeze.
And I see her at the moment she realises she has moved out over the deep, deep water where there is no bottom! There is a moment of terror on her face, which fades as she realises she is alright, she is safe. What joy! And as we go back to Whyalla to school, she has surely been given a new life. And the boy up the back, tough, dismissive of her, who cares... he’s lost his life, even though he saved it.
That girl began the process of facing her greatest fears, of looking up at the serpent of death, which will lead her to a far richer life—eternal life—if she cares to keep going.
What about us, here in Prospect, this morning? We haven’t got sail boards.
Well, will we face the fear of talking to a stranger... that’s what Jesus would do?
Will we admit to another that we are afraid and lost, and risk the little death of humiliation, when people realise we are not cool, and in control of life?
Will we take a risk with a stranger in the street? “
Will we let someone who is very ill talk to us, even if we are scared to death we won’t know what to say, as they lie dying? Or will we talk over the top of them with platitudes, and keep ourselves safe?
Each time we don’t make the safe choice, and make the Jesus choice, instead, it changes us.
We become the people others look at and exclaim, “I can’t believe they’re not being sunk by everything they’re going through.” We open ourselves to the Spirit, and receive eternal life. We discover that deep down in the cold water, which is so threatening, there is also an incredible richness from God. Amen.
Andrew Prior Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!