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If I Be Lifted Up. A Classic Sermon.

May 23, 2004

Bible Reading

And Jesus answered them, saying, "The hour is come that the Son of man should be glorified. Verily, verily, I say unto you, except a grain of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abides alone; but if it die, it brings forth much fruit. He that loves his life shall lose it; and he that hates his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal. If any man serve me, let him follow me; and where I am, there shall also my servant be; if any man serve me, him will my Father honor.

"Now is my soul troubled; and what shall I say? Father, save me from this hour? But for this cause came I unto this hour. Father, glorify thy name."

Then came there a voice from heaven, saying, "I have both glorified it, and will glorify it again." The people therefore, that stood by and heard it, said that it thundered; others said, "An angel spoke to him."

Jesus answered and said, "This voice came not because of me, but for your sakes. Now is the judgment of this world; now shall the prince of this world be cast out. And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me." This he said, signifying what death he should die.

The people answered him, "We have heard out of the Law that Christ abides forever; and how say you, 'The Son of man must be lifted up?' Who is this Son of man?"

Then Jesus said unto them, "Yet a little while is the light with you. Walk while you have the light, lest darkness come upon you; for he that walks in darkness knows not whither he goes. While you have light, believe in the light, that you may be the children of light." These things spoke Jesus, and departed, and hid himself from them.

(John 12:23-36)

Sermon

And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me. (John 12:32)

These words are some of the most powerful in all of God's Holy Word. Not only are they highly descriptive of what was happening to the Lord himself in his terrific struggle to subdue the powers of darkness and to set humanity free again, but they are also a supreme challenge. This is the supreme challenge to every man, woman, and child who is fortunate enough to grace this habitable earth.

William Bruce's Commentary on the Gospel according to St. John, after a considerable unraveling of the larger passage of which these words are a part, boils it all down in one grand summation:

  • To have the light is to possess the truth in the memory.
  • To believe in the light is to have it in the understanding.
  • To be children of the light is to be born again by truth through its full incorporation into the love of life.

Can you imagine what it must have been like to have lived way back in the age of what we call prehistoric man? Can you conceive what an amazing event it must have been when fire was first struck upon the earth; when humans beheld that noble flame of light? How could they, or we, ever forget it? It could never escape from human consciousness--not even for a moment.

Light had come into the world. At first there was fear. Many questions were asked, some of them in profound puzzlement. But light had come! As man warmed to the light, some of the mystery was revealed--some, for we never reach the end of its mystery. Man began to understand, his intelligence was sharpened, he could believe and have faith, because he understood something of the divinity in the fire that lighted up his mind.

But greatest of all, man could now use that light and that fire in many ways. The whole earth could be transformed because light and fire had been discovered and revealed. A thousand uses suddenly dawned upon the human consciousness. And humans became, or had the possibility of becoming, the very children of light. Think of it! Without the use of the fire of light, what a darkness there was upon the earth! What a difference it made!

And now, in our text, God has come to earth. The original Fire of Life has cast a light that penetrates the darkest corner of the human mind and heart . . . if we will only let that happen! Jesus is speaking about the wonderful prospect of glorifying the world, of glorifying the natural mind of man and making it come to life with a power and a glory defying human description. He is telling us to walk in the light while it is available, lest darkness overwhelm us, and we begin to stumble in the darkness again.

Oh, how our poor world today seems to be torturing itself as it tries to sort out the true from the false, the good from the bad! We have reached a point where everything is questioned, suspected, and challenged. The holy is made to look profane by the twistings of disordered minds. People distort truths until they appear ridiculous. I know of no better demonstration of this than the Joe Pyne show on television. Time and again, I have seen people come to that public podium obsessed with some tiny fraction of truth, only to have it so distorted and ridiculed that viewers are left with uncomfortable misgivings about the real things of life. They cannot truly believe because they do not understand what is happening. They cannot become "the children of light," because they have not, beforehand, found any use in life for the light.

In Jesus' own words, "Now is the judgment of this world; now shall the prince of this world be cast out." And he shall be cast out, even if it is necessary to expose him by the utter confusion in the public mind. What is happening is that everything except the Light, the Lord of Life, is being lifted up to human sight. Take a look at things. What are they worth? This is the devil of confusion and disorder. But Jesus said, "If I be lifted up, I will draw all men unto me."

"The Word became flesh and dwelt among us" (John 1:14). How often we repeat these words. They simply mean that the memory of these words that we read in the Word of God must become more than words, more than a memory. They must become part of us: they must be our very flesh and blood. We have to pursue the memory beyond the memory and into the world of intelligent understanding. These words have to be "lifted up" into the higher realms of human life and thought. They must be raised to the point of easy, comprehensible belief; not blind acceptance but knowing, because we understand to some degree why it is so--which is intelligent belief.

Easy? No, not by any means. We have to go through the process of letting die in us things that we do not want to die. But die they must, if our life and thought is to be lifted up.

Not long ago, I sat one evening with some of my fellow ministers and laymen of the church. We were struggling to determine what has been happening to our church. Everyone these days knows that the church as a whole is trying to find its meaning in a world in revolution. A strange thing was happening in that group. At first we felt terribly depressed. I actually saw four people with tears in their eyes, both men of the cloth and laymen. Then it dawned upon us that we were not so much depressed as sorrowful. And there is a vast difference, you know.

Having now reached a point where we could be more openly honest with ourselves, we could begin to see what we were so sorrowful about. You see, something has died. We were actually experiencing a "wake": a mourning for dead things. We were not so sure that we wanted some of our past traditions and church practices to die.

Isn't that the way things look in this upset world of ours? We are experiencing a burial of the past, but we are not quite clear exactly what has died. Perhaps when we can identify that, we can begin to think more realistically about the great transformation that will come about when the light begins to dawn.

It is fitting that the theme that has been chosen for our [1967] National Convention in June in Kitchener, Ontario, expresses it in these words: "The Swedenborgian Perspectives for a World in Revolution." We are not talking about a world of change anymore; we are seeing a world in revolution. Let us do our grief work for the past, and get it over with. Let us go on with the grand work we have to do. Lift up Christ in our lives. Let his words be in our minds, our memories. Let us keep them there, keeping the light constant and steady until the gift of insight brings pure and holy belief.

Finally, let us see what kind of revolution will take place in our own lives as the true fire of life begins to burn away the old, and to light up the darkness. Let us see it as it purifies our minds and hearts, actually glorifying the lower regions of our minds, where the simple truths of life reside, until the world itself begins to reflect the glory of God.

Get the picture in your mind of those who are listening to Jesus as he expounded this great truth. He himself was in a state of inner peace, even as he looked to the future with its inevitable death. He saw the coming glorification. He knew that when what he was saying was understood and accepted, there would be a great transformation. His words were sanctioned from heaven. The mystery of it fell upon the dull minds of his listeners. Some said it thundered; others said an angel was speaking to him.

Just so does his illimitable truth thunder now across the world. There is always thunder when lightning strikes close. It thundered when the law was given from Mount Sinai. The people did not yet fully comprehend what was taking place.

But when we know and understand what is happening, we are no longer afraid of the thunder. We enjoy the flashes of purifying light that streak across the sky. We are drawn to the greater light--a more peaceful light of a sweet and serene dawn. It is like a thunderstorm in the night. The sky lets forth its rain, like the crying of a soul in distress. That crying washes away the accumulation of that which needs to go. And the dawn comes up bright, smelling fresh and pure and sweet. The growing things are inspired to come forth in all their green and luscious adornment. We are drawn with irresistible force to the goodness of life.

Prayer

O Lord Jesus Christ, who have gone up on high, who have led captivity captive, have mercy, we pray, on all who are imprisoned in strongholds of their own building. Throw down the bronze gates of pride of race, creed, or cult, and break the iron fetters of fear, greed, and lust for power. Restore to us the joy of your salvation, and uphold us with your free Spirit, so that by your grace we may be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of light. Amen.

Galen Unruh