Fifth Sunday in the Midst of Lent (Year B)

TEXT: John 12:20-33

Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 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 who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.” (John 12:23-26a)

In today’s gospel lesson, we hear Jesus make some enigmatic—and perhaps vaguely disturbing—statements. First, he says, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” Then, immediately, he begins talking about death. He says, “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.”

“And I,” he says, “when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”

Of course, it is his own death of which he speaks. He will be lifted up upon a cross to draw us to himself. He will die for our sakes, in our stead. Some people are troubled by that idea: that the Son of God would die on our behalf; die, so that we might live.

It’s a difficult concept to grasp. And yet, it is a truth that lies at the very heart of our Christian faith. It’s what the apostle Paul is trying to express when he says—in First Timothy chapter two, verse six—that Christ gave himself as “a ransom for all.” Paul states this even more clearly elsewhere, when he says that Jesus “died for us, so that … we may live with him” (1 Thess. 5:10).

And of course, earlier in John’s gospel—in what must surely be the most-quoted Bible verse of all—we hear that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16).

Death for Christ means life for us.

Jesus often spoke to his disciples about his death, but they didn’t get it … not until much later. And we read the gospels … and we hear Jesus speaking about his death … and we think that we get it. But I wonder if we do.

Do we really appreciate his death and understand what it means to us? Do we comprehend the price that was paid for our salvation?

Today I want to quote something at length. It’s from a book I first read about 30 years ago, by Hank Hanegraaff. The book is called Christianity in Crisis, and it was re-issued in a new edition in 2009. This story appears in both editions.

          The time was the roaring twenties. The place was Oklahoma. John Griffith was in his early twenties—newly married, and full of optimism. Along with his lovely wife, he had been blessed with a beautiful blue-eyed baby.

          John wanted to be a traveller. He imagined what it would be like to visit faraway places with strange sounding names. He would read about them and research them. His hopes and dreams were so vivid that at times they seemed more real than reality itself. But then came 1929 and the great stock market crash. With the shattering of the economy came the devastation of John’s dreams. Brokenhearted, he, like so many others, packed up his few possessions and with his wife and little son, Greg, headed east in an old Model-A Ford. They made their way toward Missouri, to the edge of the Mississippi River, and there John found a job tending one of the great railroad bridges that spanned the massive river.

          Day after day John would sit in a control room and direct the enormous gears of that immense bridge over the river. He would look out wistfully as bulky barges and splendid ships glided gracefully under his elevated bridge. Then, mechanically, he would lower the massive structure and stare pensively into the distance as great trains roared by and became little more than specks on the horizon. Each day he looked on sadly as they carried with them his shattered dreams and his visions of far-off places and exotic destinations.

          It wasn’t until 1937 that a new dream began to be born in his heart. His young son was now eight years old, and John had begun to catch a vision for a new life—a life in which Greg would work shoulder-to-shoulder with him, a life of intimate fellowship and friendship. The first day of this new life dawned and brought with it new hope and a new fresh purpose. Excitedly father and son packed their lunches and, arm in arm, headed off toward the immense bridge.

          Greg looked on with wide-eyed amazement as his dad pressed down the huge lever that raised and lowered the vast bridge. As he watched, he thought that his father must surely be the greatest man alive. He marvelled that his father could single-handedly control the movements of such a stupendous structure.

          Before they knew it, noontime had arrived. John had just elevated the bridge and allowed some scheduled ships to pass through. Then, taking his son by the hand, they headed off for lunch.

          Hand in hand, they inched their way down a narrow catwalk and out onto an observation deck that projected some 50 feet over the majestic Mississippi. There they sat and watched spellbound as the ships passed by below. As they ate, John told his son, in vivid detail, stories about the marvellous destinations of the ships that glided below. Enveloped in a world of thought, he related story after story, his son hanging on every word.

          Suddenly John and his son were startled back to reality by the shrieking whistle of a distant train. Looking at his watch in disbelief, John saw that the bridge was still raised and that the Memphis Express would be by in just minutes.

          Not wanting to alarm his son, he suppressed his panic. In the calmest tone he could muster, he instructed his son to stay put. Leaping to his feet he jumped onto the catwalk and ran at full tilt to the steel ladder leading into the control house. Once in, he searched the river to make sure that no ships were in sight. And then, as he had been trained to do, he looked straight down beneath the bridge to make certain nothing was below. As his eyes moved downward, he saw something so horrifying that his heart froze in his chest. For there, below him in the massive gearbox that housed the colossal gears that moved the gigantic bridge, was his beloved son.

          Apparently Greg had tried to follow his Dad but had fallen off the catwalk. Even now he was wedged between the teeth of two main cogs in the gearbox.

          Although he appeared to be conscious, John could see that his son’s leg had already begun to bleed profusely. Immediately, an even more horrifying thought flashed in his mind. For in that instant John knew that lowering the bridge meant killing the apple of his eye.

          Panicked, his mind probed in every direction, frantically searching for solutions. Suddenly a plan emerged. In his mind’s eye he saw himself grabbing a coiled rope, climbing down the ladder, running down the catwalk, securing the rope, sliding down toward his son and pulling him back up to safety. Then in an instant he would move back to the control room and grab the control lever and thrust it down just in time for the oncoming train.

          As soon as these thoughts appeared, he realized the futility of his plan. There just wouldn’t be enough time. Perspiration began to bead on John’s brow, terror written over every inch of his face. His mind darted here and there, vainly searching for yet another solution. What would he do? What could he do?

          His thoughts rushed in anguish to the oncoming train. In a state of panic, his agonized mind considered the 400 or so people moving inexorably closer toward the bridge. Soon the train would come roaring out of the trees with tremendous speed. But this … this was his son … his only child … his pride … his joy.

          His mother—he could see her tear-stained face now. This was their child, their beloved son.

          He knew in a moment there was only one thing he could do. He knew he would have to do it. And so, burying his face under his left arm, he plunged down the lever. The cries of his son were quickly drowned out by the relentless sound of the bridge as it ground into position. With only seconds to spare, the Memphis Express—with its 400 passengers—roared out of the trees and across the mighty bridge.

          John Griffith lifted his tear-stained face and looked into the windows of the passing train. A businessman was reading the morning paper. A uniformed conductor was glancing nonchalantly at his large vest pocket watch. Ladies were already sipping their afternoon tea in the dining car. A small boy, looking strangely like his own son, pushed a long thin spoon into a dish of ice-cream. Many of the passengers seemed to be engaged in either idle conversation or careless laughter.

          But no one looked his way. No one even cast a glance at the giant gearbox that housed the mangled remains of his hopes and dreams.

          In anguish he pounded the glass in the control room and cried out, “What’s the matter with you people? Don’t you care? Don’t you know I’ve sacrificed my son for you? What’s wrong with you?”

          No one answered; no one heard. No one even looked. Not one of them seemed to care. And then, as suddenly as it had happened, it was over. The train disappeared, moving rapidly across the bridge and out over the horizon.*

This story provides a faint glimpse of what God the Father did for us—of what Jesus did for us in offering up his own life. Unlike the Memphis Express, that caught John Griffith by surprise, God—in his great love for us—determined to sacrifice his Son so that we might live. As First Peter chapter one, verse 20 says: “He was destined before the foundation of the world, but was revealed at the end of the ages for our sake.”

Jesus was not caught accidentally by death. Willingly, he sacrificed his life for the sins of humankind. Listen, again, to these words from today’s gospel: “Now my soul is troubled,” said Jesus. “And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.”

The suffering and the death of Christ had a purpose. Those who join themselves to him, those who believe that he was lifted up on the cross for them, those who in faith submit their own suffering and their own pain to his—they honour what God has done.

Writing to the Corinthians, Paul said: “The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18).

“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains but a single grain. But if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

It is difficult to comprehend the will of God, difficult to grasp just what he has done. But we know this—and we are called to accept this, and to embrace this—that it was done for us. And it was done so that we might live.


* Hank Hanegraaff, Christianity in Crisis: 21st Century (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2009) pp. 167-170


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