Texts: Jeremiah 31:31-34; Hebrews 5:5-10; John12:20-33
You never know when synchronicity will happen. When things come together in unexpected ways and become an opportunity for insight. For me, it’s having the story of Jesus in the last week of his life, embracing his death, while I contemplate the last days of my own mother’s life.
There’s a saying among those who care for people who are coming to the end of life. It’s “as people live, so they die.” Unless death comes suddenly and unexpectedly, it is a process rather than an event. Caregivers find that whatever experiences, conditions, or perspectives we have tend to impact our final journey. For better or for worse.
Ministers see this too. Once, I was summoned on a winter’s night into the mountains above Albuquerque to a beautiful home. A caregiver showed me to the bedside of a man whom I did not know. It seemed to me that he must be in his mid to late seventies.
I listened to his story of an early life marked by challenges. It made him a hard, though eventually, successful man. Now ill and exhausted he faced his death. Yet he just couldn’t let go of his life. He didn’t know why.
The surprising outcome of our conversation was that the man thought he ought to be judged for certain moral and ethical aspects of his life. But nothing ever happened to him to suggest that he had any spiritual or cosmic accounts in arrears. The man wanted to know if, and how, God would weigh righteous judgment against him. He had put his question out to the cosmos, but heard no answer. That very uncertainty was holding him in life.
It puts me in mind of Psalm 51. Tradition says King David authored the psalms. Under the circumstances we can understand this emotional cry. If we hear it in reference to his misadventure with Uriah who he had killed and whose wife Bathsheba David appropriated, it makes sense that he approached God in fear and trembling.
This is confession; a plea for mercy. The cry, “Indeed, I was born steeped in wickedness, a sinner from my mother’s womb” is the utterance of a wracked and guilty heart. Don’t even think of accepting this verse as a scriptural defense for the theology of original sin. It is simply the fullest possible expression of personal accountability. This is the place from which a new beginning is possible. And in fact David did get his new beginning from God.
My mother Phyllis also had challenges in her life. She was imperfect and she knew it. She too felt that her life had fallen short in various ways worthy of judgement.
But there was one particular thing that made all the difference for Phyllis. In her spiritual life she heard not only the psalmist’s cry, but also the prophecy of Jeremiah. “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” It’s confidence in the covenant that God made with Israel in the beginning and renewed every time the people stumbled.
God is provoked by us. Yes, all the time. But after every instance of rebellion, it is God who returns with heartfelt sorrow and a new plan for redemption. Who can fail to hear the passion of God in the words, “…for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”
Phyllis was among the great company of people who have confidence that God’s love for us is an enduring promise. We accept God’s covenant of redeeming love in our baptism. The more we believe it, the more it forms our lives, beginning to end.
In her last weeks, Phyllis experienced several encounters with unknown figures in night dreams and daytime visions. These mysterious visitations Phyllis embraced with open curiosity. Together we wondered who the figures were and what their purpose might be. She eventually concluded that they were coming to encourage her. And for the remaining weeks of her life, she was comforted by that.
As we live, so we die. Looking at Jesus, this saying becomes more than a casual observation.
His own journey of faith reaches its highest point here in John’s gospel in the week before Passover, when the atmosphere was festive and Jerusalem was full of visitors. Some were Jews, while others were God-fearers, and perhaps spiritual tourists.
The arrival of some Greeks looking for Jesus is not surprising. What is surprising is that despite the diligence of the disciples in passing the word along, the Greeks disappear from the story. But why then would John even mention them in this narrative?
Perhaps the point is that it is no longer the time for spiritual and philosophical conversations for which the Greeks had boundless enthusiasm. Jesus seems to say so with his answer, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” He’s moving toward the cross. This is real, hard.
From the Passover to the cross Jesus lived out trust in God’s promises. In the image of a grain of wheat, Jesus gave a message to his disciples to take to the world – reject the small glory of your individual self, so that God can give you expanded life in a community that endures for all ages.
Jesus said his soul was troubled. Hebrews says he grieved giving up his own life. Be glad for that, because it tells us that Jesus felt deeply the preciousness of life – his own and ours too. Letting go is hard, and sometimes terrifying. All the ills of our lives and therefore of this world are because the ruler of this world tells us to keep a death grip on everything we know and have.
Jesus said that in his end on the cross God would speak a final judgment on the ruler of this world. Loss and letting go is the only way beyond this present into the life that Jesus came to show us. God’s glory was the place where Jesus was bound. In the bible glory is not some shiny, fluffy thing. It is the weighted blanket of God’s presence. It’s what encompasses our naked souls in love.
As we live, so we die. I didn’t hear again from the man who called me in the night to his mountain home. But his experience is a vision of how our living affects our dying. As also my mother’s journey was for me. Jesus is our guide to dying to what is small and living to what is great, weighted with God’s glory as he goes to the cross. Amen.
The Rev. Beth Purdum Eden is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church. She has served in more than 6 parishes in the Western United States for 30 years.