CS Lewis as he so often does perfectly captures our assumptions about how we think God should work in our world.
We, with our modern democratic and arithmetical presuppositions would so have liked and expected all men to start equal in their search for God. One has the picture of great centripetal roads coming from all directions, with well-disposed people, all meaning the same thing, and getting closer and closer together. How shockingly opposite to that is the Christian story!
Lewis, C. S. (2014-05-20). God in the Dock (p. 84). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
We would want God to act in a public, universal way, a way that any and all could instantly appropriate, comprehend and embrace. The scheme of the incarnation seems absurd.
One people picked out of the whole earth; that people purged and proved again and again. Some are lost in the desert before they reach Palestine; some stay in Babylon; some becoming indifferent. The whole thing narrows and narrows , until at last it comes down to a little point, small as the point of a spear— a Jewish girl at her prayers. That is what the whole of human nature has narrowed down to before the Incarnation takes place. Very unlike what we expected, but, of course, not in the least unlike what seems, in general, as shown by nature, to be God’s way of working.
Lewis, C. S. (2014-05-20). God in the Dock (p. 84). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
The Gospel of John in its transition from the book of signs to the book of glory highlights some religious shoppers.
John 12:20–22 (NET)
20 Now some Greeks were among those who had gone up to worship at the feast. 21 So these approached Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and requested, “Sir, we would like to see Jesus.” 22 Philip went and told Andrew, and they both went and told Jesus.
This prompts a declaration from Jesus “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified!” which leads to a string of sayings and events that summarizes Jesus’ mission to the world.
Why Do the Found Seek?
We should ponder for the moment who these “Greeks” might have been and why they wanted to meet Jesus. It’s pretty safe to assume they were Greek speaking Diaspora Jews who in their faithful observance of their religion traveled to Jerusalem to observe the Passover feast. They had somewhere, somehow heard rumblings of this Jesus. Perhaps they witnessed his triumphal entry into Jerusalem? Perhaps they heard of the raising of Lazarus. However it happened they had heard about Jesus and wanted to meet with him, so they approached the disciple Philip who had a Greek name, likely spoke Greek and was from the Galilee where Jews were accustomed to managing the complicated social relationships with Gentiles, as these diaspora Jews were.
We might also imagine that despite their commitment to a highly counter-cultural religion in the midst of the vast and diverse Roman Empire these Greek speaking Jews were not fully satisfied with the state of their religious life or the world. Why not seek out this Jesus to investigate whether he might be at some point a game changer for their lives and the lives of their people. Nicodemus, who we talked about last week, seemed to entertain the same possibility.
When I was younger I used to wonder “Why do people leave the church and the faith? Why can’t they just stay when they’ve got the right one? Why can’t God just lock them into the church, denomination, tradition or religion that’s right and be done with it? Why all the drama, pain and tragedy that goes along with all of the wrangling that seems endemic to religion and faith?”
Our religious restlessness and consumerism betrays a number of facts about us, our world, and our grip on God.
- We are rebellious and prone to wander
- We are not easily satisfied, even with what should satisfy us. This too is our fault
- No answers in this world fully satisfy us because we are made with a hunger that goes beyond anything that we have encountered. See CS Lewis’ argument from desire in Mere Christianity and other places.
- This world of pain will unseat us even from positions we feel ourselves settled in, satisfied by and happy with. See CS Lewis’ A Grief Observed and even Jesus’ wrestling in the Garden of Gethsemane.
Jesus’ response to the seeking Greeks is surprising. We don’t know if the Greeks ever got the conversation they were looking for, but Jesus took their approach as a sign that the time had come for him to bring his mission to its climax.
When I get a chance to teach in a classroom I regularly ask students why the world exists? It’s a hard question to answer but Christianity does give one, the answer is glory. The universe doesn’t have to exist, Christians believe God wants it to and so he made it.
Christians don’t believe God needed to make the universe nor save the world. Christians believe that God is free to do what he wants and that all of this is his desire.
Glory is the thing God wants for the world and from the world. This might seem strange to us because we, like all religious seekers know that this is a world of pain. The relationship between pain, suffering, injustice and glory is complicated, not simple.
A Picture Taking Trip
A month ago my sister and I took a trip to Yosemite to take pictures. On the way we drove up Highway 4 through the grass land in the foothills. She was looking around for an old, rusty windmill to take a picture of, instead we spotted a lot of aluminum cell towers.
That frustration got me to thinking, why is a rusty, old, metal windmill picturesque, laden with the potential for picture taking glory, while a bright shiny new aluminum cell tower is an eye-sore? The ironic answer is decay and death. A creaky windmill evokes in our imaginations thoughts of farmers struggling to bring life out of death, joy our of pain, endurance from the jaws of loss. If you want a dose of this read the kind of things James Schaap regularly posts on his excellent blog. He regularly digs up stories from the plains of life and death, loss and pain, and his blog is full of glory.
The Grand Miracle
John 12:24–26 (NET)
24 I tell you the solemn truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains by itself alone. But if it dies, it produces much grain.25 The one who loves his life destroys it, and the one who hates his life in this world guards it for eternal life. 26 If anyone wants to serve me, he must follow me, and where I am, my servant will be too. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him.
CS Lewis in one of his great essays The Grand Miracle references this text. According to Lewis this one idea, this one assertion illuminates all of nature.
Now, as soon as you have thought of this, this pattern of the huge dive down to the bottom, into the depths of the universe and coming up again into the light, everyone will see at once how that is imitated and echoed by the principles of the natural world; the descent of the seed into the soil, and its rising again in the plants . There are also sorts of things in our own spiritual life where a thing has to be killed, and broken, in order that it may then become bright, and strong, and splendid.
Lewis, C. S. (2014-05-20). God in the Dock (p. 82). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
Lewis believes it is not the myth imitating nature, but the other way around because it is in of all places, the one area of the ancient world where they had no natural religion with this theme to echo.
Humanity The Unnatural
It is a telling and normally ignored irony that despite a popular contemporary narrative of humanity being nothing special beyond the most highly evolved primate we regularly exclude ourselves from nature. With this foundation upon what assumption do we conclude that our pollution, destruction of the planet, genetic engineering and chemical shenanigans are anything besides “natural”? Are they not the product of humanity which is nothing but another example of the un-designed chaos of nature and physics? Yet exclude ourselves we do.
We, in imagined obedience to Darwin exclude ourselves and employ “nature” against itself to privilege ourselves. We LOVE life, struggle for it, fight for it, destroy for it, hold onto it at all costs, even terrible ones. We destroy our neighbor not simply to preserve our lives, but often to simply preserve our egos.
Jesus exposes this in us and reveals God and himself to be utterly unnatural. While we live “my well-being at the world’s expense” Jesus revealing the Father flips the script. The grain of wheat must “die” and any who wish to transcend nature, to become part of the script that nature borrows and follows must follow him.
While Messiahs popped up right and left in Judea at the time seeking to take at the cost of the blood of Romans and Jews, Jesus would give himself up to his enemies not to triumph like a Hollywood hero at the point of death, but to die. Hollywood, ironically, would too, like nature, learn to imitate part of the script.
Facing the Grave
Jesus is, however also, one of us. When we poke him he bleeds. His skin like ours is full of nerve endings. His self like ours, has ego, attachment and vulnerability. He stands at the precipice and contemplates the path he must take.
John 12:27–29 (NET)
27 “Now my soul is greatly distressed. And what should I say? ‘Father, deliver me from this hour’? No, but for this very reason I have come to this hour.28 Father, glorify your name.”
Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” 29 The crowd that stood there and heard the voice said that it had thundered. Others said that an angel had spoken to him.
The issue in this passage is the reputation of the creator God. Jesus asserts that his actions will be connected with the reputation of God. Religious and philosophical experts of the time were divided on what to think about the creator God.
- Some believed that the creator god of the material world was a lesser deity because the material world was subject to pain and decay
- Others thought that the creator god was out there, but aloof and detached, not available to address humanity’s plight.
The fundamental insight of polytheism, which distinguishes it from monotheism, is that the supreme power governing the world is devoid of interests and biases, and therefore it is unconcerned with the mundane desires, cares and worries of humans. It’s pointless to ask this power for victory in war, for health or for rain, because from its all-encompassing vantage point, it makes no difference whether a particular kingdom wins or loses, whether a particular city prospers or withers, whether a particular person recuperates or dies. The Greeks did not waste any sacrifices on Fate, and Hindus built no temples to Atman.
Harari, Yuval Noah (2015-02-10). Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (Kindle Locations 3301-3304). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
This scene turns this scenario around.
- The God of the Universe stands connected with this Jesus
- In this Jesus, his incarnation, his teaching, and his action, the creator God is glorified and will be glorified. Through this death and resurrection humanity now will not only relate to this God but find their hope in him.
The Turn in the Tale Begins Here
John 12:30–33 (NET)
30 Jesus said, “This voice has not come for my benefit but for yours. 31 Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler 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 (Now he said this to indicate clearly what kind of death he was going to die.)
This statement would have gotten the attention of the visiting Greeks. Whether you imagine the decay, pain and chaos of this world as a function of its order, our rebellion, or the intentional work of other spiritual forces whose goal it is to rob God and humanity of the glory desired by its Creator, what Jesus says here is astounding.
The moment the adversaries, human and spiritual of Jesus seem to secure their victory, will be the moment Jesus finally triumphs over all. It will be the moment that nature copies in the cycle of life, or the gift of motherhood, or the sacrifice of the hero for his helpless followers. Jesus declares that whatever nuggets of wisdom or insight the Greeks hoped to secure by a sit-down with Jesus will be overshadowed by what Jesus himself will accomplish on the cross and in the emptied tomb.
Are you a found seeker or a lost seeker? Do you feel the pain of this bitter and cruel world that promises so much that we cannot secure? Do you see that no matter how much you try to hold onto life it keeps slipping through your hands leaving your with loss, pain and dissatisfaction? I won’t sell you my church. I’ll point you to my Jesus.
Jesus invites his disciples into his life, but neither that invitation nor their capacity to fulfill will actually be the thing that makes the difference. It will be nothing but the action of the Son of Man as he is lifted up, as he like the grain of wheat falls into the ground to die. It is He that will glorify the Father as he himself is glorified. It is for this glory that we are made and it is to this glory that we are destined.
The question we ponder is how we will respond. CS Lewis captures it in this way.
That is why I think this Grand Miracle is the missing chapter in this novel, the chapter on which the whole plot turns; that is why I believe that God really has dived down into the bottom of creation, and has come up bringing the whole redeemed nature on His shoulder. The miracles that have already happened are, of course, as Scripture so often says, the first fruits of that cosmic summer which is presently coming on. Christ has risen, and so we shall rise. St Peter for a few seconds walked on the water; and the day will come when there will be a re-made universe, infinitely obedient to the will of glorified and obedient men, when we can do all things, when we shall be those gods that we are described as being in Scripture. To be sure, it feels wintry enough still: but often in the very early spring it feels like that. Two thousand years are only a day or two by this scale. A man really ought to say, ‘The Resurrection happened two thousand years ago’ in the same spirit in which he says, ‘I saw a crocus yesterday.’ Because we know what is coming behind the crocus. The spring cames slowly down this way; but the great thing is that the corner has been turned. There is, of course, this difference, that in the natural spring the crocus cannot choose whether it will respond or not. We can. We have the power either of withstanding the spring, and sinking back into the cosmic winter, or of going on into those ‘high mid-summer pomps’ in which our Leader, the Son of man, already dwells, and to which He is calling us. It remains with us to follow or not, to die in this winter, or to go on into that spring and that summer.
Lewis, C. S. (2014-05-20). God in the Dock (p. 88). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.