“Now is the judgement of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”
In the name of the holy and undivided Trinity, one God now and forever. Amen.
When was the last time you heard a sermon on the evils of the world? It may strike you as an odd question, but it merits attention. Perhaps you heard that kind of sermon a long time ago: something scary you might remember from when you were a tad younger—maybe something about sex or other human foibles—when those sorts of sins occupied a far more prominent place in our worldview, and morality was nothing if not rigid and unchangeable. Perhaps, on the other hand, you may have heard that kind of sermon recently, though I doubt very much it was in this church. Yet we do know that for centuries, an awful lot of sermons preached in all sorts of churches focused almost exclusively on the big bad world, and on how the Christian must avoid its temptations at all costs. Preachers would truly delight in spelling out for you, in grand, gory and deliciously colourful detail, the devious and cunning ways of the world. It must have been great fun for a preacher. Ah, the good old days! Personally, I strongly suspect that those sorts of sermons gave people more ideas than not about what they should not be doing.
I ask the question because the further we move along in Lent, the more there seems to be a growing cleavage between Jesus and the world. The more the ways of the world—whatever those may be—are being called into question. Perhaps Jesus is deliberately trying to separate himself off from his environment and those closest to him, as a person who knows his or her death is fast approaching might do. Perhaps Jesus wants to leave a final teaching, making it quite clear that his way and the ways of the world are not the same; that, in fact, they stand in some kind of opposition. Perhaps, on the other hand, Jesus is simply being true to himself and to his message. Throughout his public ministry, he did make it clear, after all, that the world’s standards were not his own. So here we have another instance—in today’s gospel from John—of Jesus placing himself squarely on one side, and the world on the other. Jesus states quite bluntly that what will shortly be happening to him will stand as a mark of judgment on the world. Even more: that “the ruler of this world will be driven out.” This naturally begs the question: who might that be?
The scene is one interesting one. It’s just before the great feast of Passover, and some Greeks approach Philip, one of the apostles, saying that they would like to meet Jesus. These Greeks were probably sympathetic to monotheism. After all, they had come to Jerusalem to participate in the festival. In the New Testament, Greeks are also a stand-in for non-Jews, or Gentiles in general, and they represent the dominant secular culture, since the broader culture of the Roman Empire was understood as being of Greek inspiration. Notice what happens next. There’s a chain of command. Philip goes to Andrew, and they go together to see Jesus. The gospel doesn’t say that Jesus went to meet the Greeks who had asked to see him, but rather that Jesus “answered them,” essentially by talking of his imminent death. If I had been one of those Greeks, I’m not really sure how I would have responded. I suspect I would have been quite confused, even perhaps a bit shocked. After all, here I was, simply and politely asking people in the entourage of Jesus to meet him, and this Jesus person starts going on in a rather cryptic fashion about judging the world and driving out its ruler. You mean the Emperor? No, surely not. That would be rather suicidal, to say the least.
That’s not what Jesus is talking about, of course. Actually, he’s being rather typical here, doing something he quite often does. Jesus is reversing the apparently natural order of things. You would expect—and probably these Greeks did—that a common preacher about to die a criminal’s death would be in no position to judge the world; quite the reverse, in fact. The world would judge him. Or that such a man could really tackle and drive out whatever worldly ruler he was talking about; quite the reverse, in fact. He would be crushed. Or even more, that a man tortured and humiliated and hung out to be shamed and laughed at publicly could still think of attracting admiring crowds; quite the reverse, in fact. He would be rejected. But Jesus doesn’t play that game of thinking like the world thinks, of thinking that powerlessness is just that and nothing more, and that real power, the worldly kind, is the only game in town. For Jesus, real power lies in its opposite. Real power means the subversion of power—or, at the very least, envisioning it differently. As one of the commentaries on this passage puts it: “Reality reverses appearances: Jesus’ death judges the world, not him; it defeats Satan (the ruler of this world), not Jesus; draws, does not repel, all people.” And that even goes to the pastoral motif of the grain of wheat dying, or the more existential challenge of losing one’s life in order to keep it. How illogical, or unworldly, or simply outrageous and naïve is all that? How can one possibly live and function outside of the world’s normal and natural ways of understanding and displaying power? Quite simply, Jesus says. Turn it around. That’s where the real truth lies. The truth lies in its opposite, and this opposite is where Jesus situates himself, and where he wants us to be and to claim a place for ourselves. A place where this world’s power is life-giving, not deadly; affirming, not dismissive; generous, not mean-spirited.
Well then, what about those deliciously attractive evils of the world, the evils of the flesh and other delights? What’s this preacher going to say this morning about those? Much as he would like to paint a thoroughly decadent and hellish picture for you, he will resist the temptation. Because, you see, the ways of the world, the so-called evils of this world, don’t have to do with mundane human foibles. They are far scarier than anything I could possibly recount from this pulpit. They have to do with that other ruling paradigm, that other infernal and nefarious understanding of power, the one that Jesus came to reverse, and that he will conquer. This is the ruler that says that power is the end-all and the be-all, and that humans have no choice but to willingly subject themselves to it. In fact, this ruler says that humans are superfluous, that they don’t really count. Those are the real evil ways of the ruler of this world, and our job, as Jesus shows us, is to look elsewhere for the true meaning of power, and ultimately to resist—to do and to be power differently, as it were.
No, the world is not a bad, or an evil, or a scary place. Nor is power in and of itself. That it is not the Christian message, much as some might want us to think so. Rather, this message calls on us to be wary and suspicious of the devious ways of worldly power. It calls on us to be a contrarian people, a people of resistance, a people who call out power, a people not afraid to look behind, and under, and even sideways to uncover its true dynamics. And to look to Jesus— to his suffering and to his resurrection—as ways to do this, as ways of forging a new power paradigm.
When the Greeks approached Jesus, I’m pretty sure they weren’t bargaining for a lesson in the real meaning of power. Nor were they probably expecting Jesus to flip on its head, or to reverse, their everyday understanding of it. That’s exactly what he did, by reminding them and us too, that in apparent powerlessness lies true power; in weakness, strength; in vulnerability, judgement; in death, life eternal.