Some Greeks had come up with all the others to worship at the festival. They went to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee. ‘Sir,’ they said, ‘we would like to see Jesus.’ Philip went and told Andrew, and Andrew and Philip went together to tell Jesus. ‘The time has come,’ said Jesus in reply. ‘This is the moment for the son of man to be glorified. I’m telling you the solemn truth: unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains all by itself. If it dies, though, it will produce lots of fruit. If you love your life, you’ll lose it. If you hate your life in this world, you’ll keep it for the life of the coming age. ‘If anyone serves me, they must follow me. Where I am, my servant will be too. If anyone serves me, the father will honour them. ‘Now my heart is troubled,’ Jesus went on. ‘What am I going to say? “Father, save me from this moment?” No! It was because of this that I came to this moment. Father, glorify your name!’ ‘I have glorified it,’ came a voice from heaven, ‘and I will glorify it again.’ ‘That was thunder!’ said the crowd, standing there listening. ‘No,’ said others. ‘It was an angel, talking to him.’ That voice came for your sake, not mine,’ replied Jesus. ‘Now comes the judgment of this world! Now this world’s ruler is going to be thrown out! And when I’ve been lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself.’ He said this in order to point to the kind of death he was going to die.
It happens all the time in spy movies and TV thrillers. Some-one does or says something which, by itself, seems quite unimportant. But the hero, or perhaps the villain, recognizes that this is the sign. This is the moment. He or she at once takes the hint and sets off to bring matters to a head. We watch, realizing that, even though we didn’t know such a sign was coming, we are now witnessing its effects.
Actually, those with eyes to see might have spotted that some such sign was imminent. When Jesus rode into Jerusalem on the donkey, he was acting out – and many of the onlookers must have realized he was acting out – the strange scene from Zechariah 9.9. John quotes that verse in 12.15. But the passage isn’t just about a king coming to his people riding on a donkey. It is about this same king going on to establish his peaceful rule over the whole world, ‘from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth’. The prophet is echoing many older passages, not least in the Psalms, which say substantially the same thing.
Thus, though Jesus has conducted his public career only among Jews (and of course Samaritans, as in John’s famous chapter 4), there has always been the implication that if he was indeed Israel’s Messiah the time would surely come when not only Israel but also the rest of the world would come to him. Not, we presume, in the sense of a normal earthly empire: Jesus wasn’t being a standard ‘king of the Jews’, and there’s no reason to suppose he was thinking of being a typical worldly emperor either! But John is already pointing us in the right direction when he says, in verse 19, that the Pharisees, sneering, declared that ‘the world has gone off after him’. They mean, of course, ‘look, all the riff-raff are dancing attendance on him’. But John sees deeper. It is indeed time for the world to come.
So when the Greeks send a message, via Philip and Andrew, to Jesus, what appears at first sight as a complete non sequitur(Jesus begins to talk about a grain of wheat falling into the earth and dying) is in fact the long prelude to his answer. We are not told whether the Greeks ever got to see Jesus, or what he said to them if they did. What John highlights is, for him, far more important. This is the moment for ‘the son of man to be glorified’ – for Jesus, in other words, to be ‘lifted up’, both on the cross and as the sign to the world, the sign that God’s purpose for Israel is fulfilled and that now it’s time for the nations to come in. ‘When I’ve been lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself ’ (verse 32).
And all this will happen because this is how God is glorifying his name and calling the whole world to account. The reason the non-Jewish world has not, up to this point, come to worship the creator God, the God of Israel, is that it has been under the control of the malign force to which Jesus here refers as ‘this world’s ruler’. He presumably means the satan, the adversary, the dark power that has usurped the creator’s authority, the power that needs to be overthrown if God’s kingdom is to come on earth as in heaven. And Jesus sees the request of the Greeks as the sign that all of this is about to kick into operation. He will be ‘lifted up’; God will glorify his name; the seed will fall into the earth and die, and will by that means bear much fruit. Jesus’ own challenge to his followers (‘If you love your life, you’ll lose it. If you hate your life in this world, you’ll keep it for the life of the coming age’, verse 25) is coming true in his own case, though it must also be acted out by his followers (verse 26). And, as a result, people from all across the world will be drawn to him.
And, whether the sceptics like it or not (they don’t, of course), it has happened. Anyone looking on at the time would have waved it away as a grandiose dream. What can this mad young prophet be thinking of, to suppose that the death which he knew was already being planned for him would have any such effect? Yet, as we read this gospel this weekend, millions upon millions of our brother and sister Christians around the world, in places wondrously diverse and with worship styles more diverse again, hail him as ‘Lord’.
It is, of course, our tragedy in the Western world that we have reduced the significance of that to ‘private religion’. For most of the world it can never be that. Following Jesus as the true Lord means, for many today, precisely that: following him in risking his life (verse 26). But that, today as for Jesus, is the way God is glorified.
What are the hints, the secret signs, in today’s world that indicate where God is doing a new work, and asking us to devote ourselves to taking it forwards?
Lord Jesus Christ, lifted up on the cross, draw us and all the world to follow you, to serve you, and to glorify God.