The theme of my sermon today is ‘glory’. I have chosen this theme to reflect today’s reading from the Gospel of John. The focus of John’s Gospel is on the ‘hour’ of Jesus’ glorification which was to return to the Father at the Crucifixion.
‘Glory’ is not a word that readily springs to mind at present, as the sufferings generated by the onset and spread of the corona virus have been and are acute. Where is the glory, you may ask, in lying on a hospital bed on a ventilator, or tearfully trying to communicate with a loved one through a window.
Let me attempt in this sermon to respond to this question. In the first sentence of today’s Gospel, Jesus is asking God to glorify him so that he can give eternal life to all those whom God has given him. So glory here means the ability to offer us an existence in eternity. Glory can be found in our earthly life, for example in the glorious spring weather we have enjoyed recently, but its ultimate expression lies in the eternal. Jesus says to God ‘I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do’ but then he goes on to ask God to glorify him in his own presence with the glory that he had in his presence before the world existed. Here again is the interpretation of glory as eternal; it was there before the world existed as well as in the life to come.
Where, though, does this promise of eternal life leave the inglorious sufferings of our present predicament? Why would God promise us through his Son Jesus Christ a glorious eternity while allowing us to endure the inglorious time we are in of restriction, fear and death? I would say that Jesus died on the Cross to free us from the power of sin and through that death and resurrection we have the promise of eternal life. However, until the kingdom comes we are still having to confront evil in various ways, as we have had to do from the beginning of time. From the wily serpent in the Garden of Eden, the death on the Cross and the wars and plagues across the centuries our earthly life is not without its battles.
If we look further on in the Gospel chapter we learn that Jesus, knowing his earthly journey is coming to an end, is praying to God to ‘protect his disciples from the evil one by his sanctification ‘so that they also may be sanctified in truth’. He then goes on to ask that this sanctification be extended to all those who believe in him. This was, as William Neil expresses it in his Bible commentary: ‘a matchless prayer of self-consecration as he turns to face his Cross’.
The implication here is that the death on the Cross, which was the ultimate expression of the love of God for humanity, did not mean a cessation of hardships for humanity. Had it done so there would have been no need for Jesus to call upon God to protect his people. It is only when we read the Book of Revelation that we find the glory of the new heaven and the new earth. Here, the holy city Jerusalem comes down out of heaven from God and has ‘the glory of God and a radiance like a very rare jewel, like jasper, clear as crystal’. Until then, although God loves his creation, we are still in the battlefield against the forces of darkness.
So what can we do in this battlefield? We can work to find solutions, help each other out, applaud, as we are now doing, those who are on the front line of the battle – the medical profession, the carers and the scientists fighting to provide a remedy. We can find solace in the Bible narratives that give us a pattern of loss and retrieval, destruction and rebuilding. Solace, because we are shown in the Bible story the temporary nature of loss and destruction. Then there is test and reward as given in the story of Abraham and Isaac. Such is Abraham’s love of God that he is willing to sacrifice his son Isaac for him but God prevents it as Abraham has shown great faith. So if we demonstrate our love of God this may ease our suffering. Today, as people go to great lengths to help others in the crisis they are, I believe, doing just that in emulating this Divine behaviour. When people produce images of the rainbow, as they are now doing in response to the crisis, this affirms God’s covenant made with us that he is and always will be with us – that is his promise to us. We can also, as Jesus did in today’s Gospel reading, pray to God to protect us and others.
Prayer is rooted in faith. Faith is, I believe, the trust in God that he will aid us in our battle against destructive forces. I find this faith beautifully expressed in Julia Ward Howe’s 1861 ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic’:
‘Mine eyes have seen the glory
of the coming of the Lord
He is trampling out the vintage
where the grapes of wrath are stored
He has loosed the fateful lightning
of his terrible swift sword
His truth is marching on’.
Then the chorus continues with:
‘Glory, glory, Halleluja!’
This, to my mind, is a wonderful, uplifting song that affirms by faith the ability of God to rescue us from our troubles. It also affirms the truth and glory of God that cannot be diminished by adversity. So God tests us and may leave us to fight our battles for a time, according to his Will. If, though, we have faith, we know that God will never abandon his creation.
An expression of faith is hope. In keeping hope alive we are holding on to this conviction that God may, from time to time, put us in a dark place but he is with us in the darkness and he will never abandon us. Never have expressions of hope been more needed than they are now whilst we are in the tunnel, looking for light at the end of it. Better still if we can go one step further and turn that hope into the sure conviction that God is with us and will see us through.
So, in faith, hope and love let us soldier on with our eyes fixed, not just on the end of the tunnel, but on the glory of the kingdom to come.