Sermon: Certain Uncertainity

Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 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. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.
“Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgment 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.” He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.

John 12:20-33

My sermon from the Fifth Sunday in Lent (March 17, 2024) on John 12:20-33.


During the season of Lent, our texts in worship invite us to focus on specific themes or ideas to provide a bit of insight into our life with God. But there are times when the narrative surrounding these stories help explain why they might matter in the first place. Today’s reading from the gospel according to John is, I think, one of those kinds of stories. It took place at the start of Jesus’ last visit to the city of Jerusalem. He had, by this point, done many Jesus-like things such as feeding thousands of people with a few loaves of bread as well as raising Lazarus from the dead. We get a sense Jesus’ reputation had grown to the point where people wondered if he was a prophet, a miracle worker, or mostly just a troublemaker. Since the city was gearing up for the celebration of Passover, there was a bit of uncertainty about what Jesus might do since he already had a history of flipping over tables and driving cattle, sheep, and birds out of the Temple. Jesus was no longer a person who could be pushed aside or ignored. And those in power wondered what to do with him. The situation felt very unsettled and that’s when some Greeks came to one of his disciples and asked if they could see him. 

Now who those Greeks were is a bit complicated since, in Jesus’ day, being Greek didn’t mean that your family originated from the small nation located at the bottom of the Aegean peninsula. Centuries of colonization, trade, war, and the power of pop culture, led some people living in modern day Egypt, Turkey, Morocco, Sicily, Iran, Armenia, Syria, Israel, and even Spain considered themselves to be Greek. Being Greek was a kind of cultural identifier signifying the language, values, beliefs, history, and point of view the Greek culture cultivated and shared. For many people in the Ancient Near East, being Greek was seen as a common denominator holding all different kinds of people together. Yet this was also a problem since some wondered if you could be both Greek and Jewish at the same time. For a long, long time, the people of God have wondered who is, and who isn’t, allowed to be part of God’s family, especially if those folks hold any kind of hyphenated identity. The Greeks who came to Jesus knew exactly what it was like to be at the center of that kind of conversation. And yet they also noticed that one of Jesus’ disciples had a name that showed he was Greek. 

Now, at this point, we could use the fullness of Jesus’ story to help us reflect on what this might mean. But I also wonder if there might be something to gain by staying in this moment and imagining being the outsider who felt the need to see someone who could reject them. I wonder, in the days and hours before they saw Philip, if their stomachs were knotted up with feelings of anxiety, worry, and fear. I wonder if their palms were suddenly super sweaty and if they tried to talk themselves out of even trying to see Jesus since they didn’t expect a rabbi like Jesus from ever really wanting to speak to them. These Greeks were, in other words, living through a feeling of uncertainty that left them feeling uncomfortable and extremely vulnerable. It was probably the kind of feeling we do all we can to avoid. And yet I wonder if their uncertainty helped open them up to what Jesus might be about. In her new book Uncertain: The Wisdom and Wonder of Being Unsure, Maggie Jackson wrote about how scientists have started to explore uncertainty in a new light. Uncertainty isn’t only about the unknown; uncertainty is also a very human thing that we experience deep in our bones. We love answers and so when uncertainty comes into view, we often have a physical sensation that leaves us feeling uncomfortable, mixed up, vulnerable, and completely stressed out. Yet it’s possible that what we’re feeling in that moment might actually be good. When our body reacts to uncertainty by increasing our heart rate and wetting our palms, it also releases all kinds of chemicals and hormones to help us keep our focus, bolster our working memory, increase our mental acuity, and help our brain be ready to process any new information. Being uncertain is a feeling we’ve been culturally accustomed to dislike but it also leads to a physical state of wakefulness that shows us the status quo is no longer enough. Uncertainty is often very annoying but it also keeps us physically open to the possibility that there might be something more. 

Now the reason why I think the Greeks were flustered with uncertainty is because they first came to the person who they related before going to Jesus. They saw in Philip something they could grab onto and yet even he was a bit uncertain of what might come next. Rather than heading to Jesus, he first headed to Andrew and asked what they should do. At every point in this series of interactions, the Greeks and the Disciples could have both walked away from the whole thing. The Greeks could have stayed on the sideline, avoiding any of the conflict their presence might have caused while Philip and Andrew could have assumed it was their responsibility to keep outsiders away from Jesus at all times. They could have let the prickly, cold, hot, and anxious feeling in the pit of their stomach keep them apart. Yet what they chose to do instead was to live through it – by paying attention, asking questions, staying curious, and realizing that Jesus wasn’t only for them. The uncertainty they felt wasn’t only a negative thing to avoid; it could also be a generative experience reminding them of what could be. It was this uncertainty mixed with the invitation of the Spirit that invited the Greeks to do the difficult thing of wondering if they were part of what God was up to. And this uncertainty was also what helped Philip and Andrew realize it wasn’t their responsibility to keep Jesus under lock-and-key. It was either of their responsibility, through their actions or inactions, to decide who was in and who was out. That responsibility would, instead, be fulfilled by Jesus who – in a few days after this reading – showed what that looked like by keeping his arms open to everyone while hanging on the Cross. Living with uncertainty is never an easy thing and there are types of uncertainties – pertaining to our health, employment, our relationships, and countless other stuff that weighs down our souls – that can’t be brushed away as simply as a knot of nerves setting our stomach. Yet it’s for those moments when everything feels uncertain that Jesus gave you the one thing you can always count on. In your baptism and through the gift of faith, God has already declared that you are meant to be part of what God is doing in the world. You aren’t just loved; you also belong. And it’s through this amazing covenant of what will be that enables us to lean into the uncertainty, not because we like it, but because we know it can never wipe away the certainty of God’s love for you. In the week ahead, we might find ourselves living through the kinds of uncertainty that leave us feeling conflicted, confused, and a tad more anxious that we’d like to be. But rather than running away from that uncertainty, I wonder if we might choose to embrace it – noticing the ways we are the outsider who is invited to see more while also the insider who has the opportunity to show others what it means to be wrapped up in the certainty of God’s mercy, hope, and joy.