What's the Draw? (w/audio)

. Posted in Sermons

John 12:20-33


“And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.

These are hard words. Not just to understand. But because they say hard things—things hard for us to swallow, things hard for us to believe.

Throughout the gospel of John, we hear that the hour of Jesus has not yet come. When his mother comes to him, wanting him to do something about the lack of wine at a wedding party, he tells her that his hour has not yet come (2:4). Later, when religious leaders attempt to arrest him, they fail because, we are told, “his hour had not yet come” (7:30). Still later, while Jesus is teaching in the temple, we are told again that he was not arrested because his hour “had not yet come” (8:20).

Now, in the passage before us, the situation has changed: “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (12:20). And it is sparked by what the religious leaders of the day had feared: “Look, the world has gone after him!” (12:19). This is evidently symbolized in the Greeks who have come up to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover and are seeking Jesus out, approaching his disciple Philip and expressing their desire to see Jesus. “Sir, we wish to see Jesus,” they say to Philip. The world has indeed gone after him! All of which seems to prompt Jesus to speak those fateful words, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.”

Perhaps to many of our minds it seems a strange sort of glory. What Jesus is talking about is his suffering and death on the cross. When he talks about being lifted up, we his disciples perhaps think of his resurrection. We his disciples perhaps think of his ascension to his heavenly Father, to God. But, when John’s gospel pictures Jesus talking about being lifted up, he is talking about being lifted up on a cross. I am thinking that this does not seem very glorious to many of us, and certainly at the time when Jesus was lifted up on that cross it did not seem very glorious at all.

Yet, Jesus says, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” Really? We may wonder: what is the draw? What is it about Jesus being lifted up on the cross that will draw all people to him?

There is a prayer that appears every Friday, the day of Jesus’ crucifixion, in the Daily Prayer section of the Book of Common Worship. Every Friday I find myself praying it: “Blessed Savior, at this hour you hung upon the cross, stretching out your loving arms. Grant that all the peoples of the earth may be drawn to your redeeming love: for your kingdom’s sake. Amen.”

There it is again, the notion that Jesus, his loving arms stretched out on the cross, would draw all the people of the earth to his redeeming love. “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth will draw all people to myself.”

Have you heard of Larry Kudlow? His name has been in the news of late. President Trump is about to name him to be the director of the National Economic Council. If you have heard Larry Kudlow on CNBC or being interviewed on one of the other news stations, you know he is a smart guy (agree with him or not), especially when it comes to economic concerns. In the 1980s, some of you may recall that he served on the economic team of the Reagan administration, and later became a managing director for Bear Stearns.

What a lot of people don’t know about him and what I learned in an article and interview with him last week is that he became a Roman Catholic in 1997. And this happened after a dark period in his life in which he was struggling with alcohol and cocaine abuse. Introduced to a priest by a friend, the priest came to visit him in his office.

Kudlow described their encounter this way: “He (the priest) introduced himself and said he had been watching me on various television shows throughout the years. He said, ‘Lately you have changed?’ I said, ‘How so?’ And he said, ‘It appears you’re looking for God.’ He was right, and I broke down and started to cry. So we talked some more… I think I had told him that I had just come from four weeks in a treatment center for alcohol and substance abuse, a faith-based or spiritually based treatment center. He said that he would give me some books to read.”

Soon after this conversation, Larry Kudlow went to Mass for the first time, and he actually enjoyed it, even though it was a new and strange experience for him. As he said, “The first time I walked into Thomas More (Church) in New York City I loved it. As soon as I saw Christ on the cross, I felt at one with it.”

There it is again, the truth of what Jesus said: “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”

But what is the draw? What does this man who has hobnobbed with presidents and some of the most powerful people in this country see in Jesus on the cross? What does this man struggling with an addiction that has been threatening to make a wreck of his very successful life see in the one who hung upon the cross, stretching out his loving arms?

I think of the man I told several of you about recently. He is a counselor now of children who have been abused. But he is also an adult survivor of abuse himself. There is in his house a Trolley that he keeps, the kind that kids play with. But, for him, it reminds him of a very important turning point in his life.

Here is how he described that turning point: “(When I was a child) the most dangerous time for me was in the afternoon when my mother got tired and irritable. Like clockwork. Now, she liked to beat me in discreet places so my father wouldn’t see the bruises. That particular day she went for the legs. Not uncommon for her. I was knocked down and couldn’t get back up. Also not uncommon. She gave me one last kick, the one I had come to learn meant ‘I’m done now’. Then she left me there upstairs face in the carpet, alone. I tried to get up, but couldn’t. So I dragged myself, arm over arm, to the television, climbed up the tv cabinet and turned on the TV.

“And there was Mr. Rogers. It was the end of the show and he was having a quiet, calm conversation with those hundreds of kids. In that moment, he seemed to look me in the eye when he said, ‘And I like you just for being you.’ In that moment, it was like he was reaching across time and space to say these words to me when I needed them most.

“It was like the hand of God, if you’re into that kind of thing. It hit me in the soul. I was a miserable little kid. I was sure I was a horrible person. I was sure I deserved every last moment of abuse, every blow, every bad name. I was sure I earned it, sure I didn’t deserve better. I knew all of these things… until that moment. If this man, who I hadn’t even met, liked me just for being me, then I couldn’t be all bad. Then maybe someone could love me, even if it wasn’t my mom.

“It gave me hope. If that nice man liked me, then I wasn’t a monster. I was worth fighting for. From that day on, his words were like a secret fortress in my heart. No matter how broken I was, no matter how much it hurt or what was done to me, I could remember his words, get back on my feet, and go on for another day.

“That’s why I keep Trolley there. To remind me that, no matter how terrible things look, someone who had never met me liked me just for being me, and that makes even the worst day worth it to me. I know how stupid it sounds, but Mr. Rogers saved my life.”

These days that adult survivor of abuse can be heard saying to his young clients: “And remember, I like you just for being you.”

I wonder if that is not the draw of that one on the cross. He is like the voice of the kindly Mr. Rogers who reminds each of us that our lives matter. He comes to us, as I imagine he came to Larry Kudlow, reminding us that we are not alone in the struggles that threaten to undo us, that whatever suffering we endure Jesus suffers with us. That scarred and hurting boy pulling himself up to the tv cabinet, that alcohol and cocaine addicted man looking for God in a church—Jesus on the cross shows us a God who does not remain at a distance. He comes to be with us. He suffers our fate with us. So that we may know that our lives matter. So that we may know that the love that lifts us up is the love that is with us no matter what we are going through.

“And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”

I wonder if the draw is not just about Jesus. I wonder if he does not give us a picture of what our lives are to be about. “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also,” Jesus said.

Do we not see something of ourselves, our true selves, in that one on the cross? That an abused kid could grow up to be a therapist with abused kids. That an alcoholic and drug addict could find his place with other alcoholics and drug addicts and help them in the way he has been helped. That people like us could find time to sit down with someone who is struggling with age or health or both, and listen. That people like us could stand with and for those who are hurting in some way or being denied the justice that they deserve. That people like us could exhibit in our own lives the love we see in the one who was lifted on a cross.

“And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” What’s the draw? I think we know. Every time we experience Christ reaching out to us just as we are and where we are, no matter how difficult or hard or ugly, with a love that claims us; and every time we give ourselves to that love and reach out to others as Christ has reached out to us, we know what the draw is.

—William E. Warren, Cumberland Presbyterian Church of Germantown, March 18, 2018

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