"Safety Not Guaranteed" - Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent - Year B

"Safety Not Guaranteed"  -  Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent - Year B

Mar 21, 2021

Passage:John 12:20-33

Preacher: The Rev. E. Courtney Jones

Series: Lent

Category: Love


Crash helmets.


Author Annie Dillard suggests that if we really knew what we were getting ourselves into by coming here, week in and week out, that we would wear crash helmets when we come to church.  


She says, and I quote:  

It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return. 1

As we wrap up our Lenten season and move toward Holy Week, it will become more and more apparent to us that following Jesus is not a particularly safe thing to do.  

In today's Gospel, some Gentiles try to book an appointment with Jesus, and somehow, Jesus knows that this means his time has come.  And instead of Jesus saying "Oh for sure, bring those fellas to coffee hour and we'll chat."


Instead he says:


"The hour has come.  Very truly I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain, but if it dies, it bears much fruit."  And then he goes on to say


"those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life."  


A church marketing consultant would tell Jesus that he has a very poor evangelism strategy.  

Today marks the turn in John’s Gospel toward the crucifixion.  


And today, Jesus is inviting the disciples to get their lives in order.  


And that's where the "love/hate" thing comes from - those who love their lives lose them, and those who hate their lives keep them for eternal life.  


To us, that sounds like opposites.  


Something that we miss listening to this with 21st Century Western ears is this:  ORDER.  

The Greek word for hate here can be rendered - "to hold in lesser esteem."  It implies that there is an ORDER for our affections - an order of priority for what we love.


Jesus is not telling his disciples to go around saying “Ugh. I hate my life" like some petulant teen.  


Jesus is encouraging the disciples to get their LOVES in ORDER.  


Jesus is saying that it's okay to let go of the lesser things - the single grains of wheat, if you will - 

    because they will be replaced with greater things - a whole harvest of wheat.  


I love the way that Eugene Peterson, in his "The Message" transliteration, renders it this passage: 2

 Listen carefully:  Unless a grain of wheat is buried in the ground, dead to the world, it is never any more than a grain of wheat.  But if it is buried, it sprouts and reproduces itself many times over.  In the same way, any of you who holds on to life just as it is      destroys that life.  But if you let it go, reckless in your love, you'll have it forever.  Real and eternal."  


Reckless in your love.  


Having joy that is “real and eternal."


So the formula for true joy given here is this:


Love God.

Love people.



And be wiling to let go of everything else that gets in the way of either of the above.

And that sounds easy enough.  Love God.  Love People.  Everything else.  


My youth pastor growing up used to say “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.”3

Except like, that’s not at all what we do.  

In fact, our reading from Jeremiah today points to the fact that God’s people have a long tradition of failing to “keep the main thing the main thing”.


Jeremiah says that God’s complaint against the people is “they broke the covenant, though I was their husband.”  This is actually an interesting double-entendre, because the word “husband” would have been commonly associated with the Canaanite god Ba’al.4  I mention this not because I think it’s clever writing, but because it points to our human tendency to favor success and security over God and people.  


Ba’al is a god of fertility and war.

The Israelites didn’t like, walk into a voting booth each year and say “huh, is it gonna be Yahweh or Ba’al.” It wasn’t that explicit.  It was a subtle shift.  More like, “okay well, I’m going to plant these crops and, you know what, my livelihood depends on this working out so . . . so maybe it won’t hurt to make a tiny little offering to the fertility god5, Ba’al."


Or, “There’s whispers in town that there might be some Assyrian soldiers headed this way and boy, we’ve got to make sure our army is strong enough to repel them . . . [whispers] I know Yahweh is with us, but Ba’al is so much more . . . warlike6.  It can’t hurt just to hedge our bets, right?"




Everything else.  


That way of ordering life leads to a season of ruin and exile for God’s people.  



Everything else.  


How is that difficult?

But, you know.  

We are, afterall, animals with survival instincts.  We are, afterall, not just bodies but egos that need protecting.  


I saw a meme that said, “Humans beings are anxiety wrapped in meat.”7

Those anxieties drown out the voice Jesus saying to us “lay down what is temporary.  Hang on to what is eternal!"   In an effort to be safe, we compromise our values. We make new rules to insulate ourselves from trouble. We make whole systems to ensure the success and protection of our way of life.


 And, we didn’t like, mean to, but eventually we find that we love our rules more than we love other people.   We slip into being more loyal to systems of our own making than we are to the God who made us.


I don’t know how else you can explain some of the rotten things that self-labeled "Christian” nations did within the last century:  Segregation.  Apartheid.  Genocide.8



Everything else.  


Fear of losing "life as we know it" is a major driver of DIS-ORDER.  Of putting our priorities in the wrong order.  

Trying to protect "life as we know it" gives cover to all manner of sin.  

Jesus says to his disciples:  "Those who want to keep their life will lose it.”

But he might as well say, “Put on your crash helmets, boys.  This could be a bumpy ride."

As we turn toward the crucifixion over the course of these next two weeks, we're going to see that when following Jesus safety is not guaranteed.  


JOY IS. Eternal life is. 


But safety?


Jesus has his priorities in order.  Jesus loves recklessly.  And he still suffers.  



 that the crucifixion isn't the end of the story.  Suffering does not get the last word. Jesus offers himself as that grain of wheat.  And springs up three days later as a harvest that two-thousand years later has still not been contained and will not be contained.

Try as we might to insulate ourselves.   We will still suffer.  Even if we manage to avoid hardship in the here and now:  We aren’t getting out of this life alive.


We’re not safe in a temporal sense.  But we are safe in an eternal sense. 


We’re not safe. But we are invited to order our lives in a way that brings joy.




Everything else.


We are not safe.  But we invited to love recklessly anyway.


We are not safe. But we are held.  

And Jesus is saying to us:

“Put on your crash helmets, folks. This could be a bumpy ride."


  1. Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters (New York: Harper & Row, 1982), pp. 40-41.
  2. The Message.  Eugene Peterson.
  3. As it turns out, he was quoting Steven Covey.  
  4. This textual note appears in the New Oxford Annotated Bible
  5. Ba’al.  Mercer Dictionary of the Bible.
  6. Ba’al.  Mercer Dictionary of the Bible.
  7. I can’t find this meme now.  Maybe I dreamed it.
  8. Non-Christian nations did some bad stuff too.  It’s not a competition.