Fifth Sunday of Lent

By Pastor Bryan Niebanck

Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor. ~John12:26

Who do you serve?  If you work in a restaurant, you serve the customers who come through the door looking for a meal.  And you remember that the customer is always right.  After working in a restaurant for three years, I heard of plenty of times where this was aggravating.  A server told me, “They definitely asked for no cheese on their bacon cheeseburger.  But then they asked me where the cheese was.  I can’t tell them that they asked for no cheese, but I have to ask them if they want a new one made and make it seem like it was my fault.”  I definitely have a new appreciation for what restaurant workers go through, having worked there myself.  We serve the public, and make their experience as enjoyable as we can even when they are the ones who make a blatant mistake.

Our healthcare workers serve those who need medical care.  They attend to some of the most urgent needs.  They also want to make those who require services to have as comfortable a stay as possible, whether it is extended in a hospital or simply a checkup at a doctor’s office.  Though, they deal with a lot too.  During my time as a chaplain at Marion General Hospital, I remember one nurse talking about the patient I was about to go see.  She warned me that he saw this place as a prison, believed he was perfectly healthy, and was being held here against his will.  He physically fought the nurses every time they tried to administer his medication.  Neither the nurse nor the patient was necessarily in the wrong, since the patient was in an altered mind state, but this goes to show that serving others can be incredibly hard, even when we are called to the job.

Whatever job you have, you are serving somebody.  There will be times where that serving is a joy.  For every frustrating customer or patient, there were three more who thanked us and were very pleasant people to talk to.  There will be difficult moments also, though.  The disciples were seen by some in a negative light because they did not abide by every rule that the Old Testament laid out.   In Matthew 9:14, Jesus was asked of his disciples, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?”  Assumptions were made, and they were not always the most fair.  How do you do balance the feedback from the people that you serve?  Do you let it bring you down?  Does it motivate you to do better?  Do you want to scream at them because you are doing the best that you can for them?  Or do you choose to forget about the complaints and focus on the good?  Perhaps you do all of these things.

There are plenty of things that we choose to focus our minds on.  Some of it is the good and some of it is the bad.  We prayed over the past couple weeks for God to help us renew our minds so that we fill it with good things and not the things that bring us down or distract us from our true focus, being servants of God.  You spend so much energy trying to please customers and those you serve in this world.  How much of that energy do you save to try to please God?  Do not misunderstand me, for it is important to try to please those who we serve in this world.  Yet, we should please others with the wider context behind us; while serving others we are working to spread the grace and kindness of God.  We give someone grace when we do not yell back at them even if they deserve it.  Instead, we give them a smile and keep doing the best that we can.  Jesus knew that the world would hate his followers, for as he was preparing to leave the world, he prayed, “I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world” (John 17:14).  Today, we want to ask ourselves, “Who do we serve, and is this evident by who we follow?”  Do we serve the people who demand too much of us?  Or do we serve God by giving grace to the one who wasn’t so kind, and love to everyone?  I read a conversion story once about a man who had jumped someone and held them at gunpoint asking for their money.  The man with the gun was so surprised that the person responded with a smile and spoke to him that he dropped the gun and asked how the person could have been so calm.  He was baptized later that week.  Do we serve our fear, or do we serve God knowing that whatever happens to us, God will have our back?  Do we serve our worry, or do we trust God to make the most out of every situation, even if it is in our own pain?  Do we serve the need to please others, or do we place priority on serving God?

Our goal in Lent has been trying to draw closer to Jesus.  We strive to keep learning from Jesus until we become more like Jesus.  Jesus modeled the perfect life for us.  To draw closer to Jesus, we can seek to live a life closer to the one that Jesus modeled for us.  Perhaps we are not as gifted in hospitality as others, but we may be gifted in just being someone who cares enough to listen.  Jesus told the disciples, “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor” (John 12:26).  Jesus is not telling us to serve our worry, or our fear, or our ambition.  Jesus is telling us that we need to serve Him.  Do not focus on your worry.  Do not focus on your fear.  They will only distract you from being with Jesus.  To serve Him, you must focus on Him.  You must know how to focus on Him.  Reviewing where we have been this Lent will tell us how to focus on Him.  Realize our transgressions, or where we have fallen short in our relationship with God.  Seek to build those relationships, knowing that God will show us grace and forgiveness as long as we keep our renewed focus on God.  Ask God to search us and remove those things that distract us from renewing our relationship; because they are often unnoticeable to ourselves we will not get everything if we convince ourselves that we can search our hearts ourselves.  And lastly, fill ourselves with new things that draw us deeper, such as the movement of the Holy Spirit.    Now, we take what we have been filled with, and create for the Christian people a “willing spirit” (Psalm 51:12).  This is our final Lenten theme, following the example that Jesus gave on the way to Jerusalem and the cross.  It is all done with the desire that David showed: “I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you” (Psalm 51:13).  We are called to teach others through whatever means that God calls us to, each in different ways.  It may be that we are a simple model of Christ’s likeness, that we are visibly striving for God’s ways, and others see that.  Or, it may be something else.  Yet, we are each called to give our lives to God willingly, so that we do our part to prepare a place for God’s kingdom to reign on this earth.  Yes, we may be broken, as Christ was broken.  Yet that is exactly what is acceptable to God (Psalm 51:17).  In Christ’s brokenness, many followers were gained.  In our brokenness, we are filled, and we have truly learned what it is like to walk with Jesus.  We become the disciples that Jesus gathered at the beginning of his ministry.  Then we transition from being the disciples who want to follow but who are not sure how, to learning how.  Now, we are following Jesus no matter what, and could not imagine anything else.  This is where the disciples feel ahead of Palm Sunday.  This is where we find ourselves today.  Do you want to be honored by God?  Jesus tells us that we need to serve Jesus to be honored by God.  My prayer is that we find ourselves all with a willing spirit, more eager about experiencing God than we are about anything else.

God is at work in us, and God is at work in this world.  When we fall short, God gives us mercy.  God works with us and helps us to know what is good and just.  God lifts us up when we are down.  Let us pray the parts of the prayer that David prayed to God, to remind us how we can pray to God and to remind us that God is still working for us.  “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love.  Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.  You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.  Let me hear joy and gladness.  Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.  Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me.  Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit” (Psalm 51:1-12).  We become filled with truth instead of deceit, clean instead of guilty for what we do not care to admit, hearing good things from the world and from God instead of all the evil and violence that fills the news.  We become joyful to serve.  This is the joy of discipleship.  I challenge you to pray this prayer of David regularly.  Remember who you are to focus on.  Remember where you can always find joy.  But remember what we must do before we can easily find that joy.

Is who you serve evident by who you follow?  You decide.  Only you know where your heart is right now.  But whenever you find that you feel far away from God, there is something that is holding you back.  I challenge you to find that something by asking God to search you and purge it from you.  Only God can do that.  And if you do not fill it with truth, with the Holy Spirit, and with the fruits of the Spirit, it will only come right back.  There is a force in the world that will do anything to keep you from experiencing God and being willing to work for God’s glory.  Just ask Peter, who followed Jesus so closely yet was drawn to deny Jesus three times.  Just ask David, who valued a close relationship with God but still killed Uriah in order to cover up his affair with Bathsheba.  Whenever someone truly experiences God, they are willing.  That is what an overflowing cup means; when the joy that we feel does not fit in our own selves, we have to give it to others (Psalm 23:5).  You will serve others in your workplaces, but in doing so you are also serving God.  Will we be the one who stands so calmly in a chaotic moment, in this world, or in your life, knowing that life will turn out okay?  If we pledge to follow Jesus through anything, we follow Jesus through anything.  Anything.  Especially in the midst of violence.  I am reminded by the moment a pastor stared down a criminal in the movie, Do You Believe?  He was at gunpoint, and when asked if he was ready to die, he knew he would if it was his moment, and turned the question around.  He was ready to die because he was in a close relationship with Jesus.  He knew that because he served Jesus with a willing spirit, God would honor him whenever he were to die, even if it were today.

Others know who we serve by what we do or what we say.  A popular hymn states that others “will know that we are Christians by our love.”  I will close with a quote from the movie, Do You Believe? which asked, “If you were ever accused of being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?”  Are you guided by God?  Are you willing?  Or do you still let this world get the best of you?  God is good, and God will sustain in us a willing spirit.  All we need to do is keep asking, and keep close, and God will honor us.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Scripture Readings:

Psalm 51:1-12
51:1 Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.
51:2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.
51:3 For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.
51:4 Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment.
51:5 Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.
51:6 You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
51:7 Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
51:8 Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
51:9 Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.
51:10 Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.
51:11 Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me.
51:12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.

John 12:20-33
12:20 Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks.
12:21 They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”
12:22 Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus.
12:23 Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.
12:24 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.
12:25 Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.
12:26 Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.
12:27 “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.
12:28 Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.”
12:29 The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.”
12:30 Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine.
12:31 Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out.
12:32 And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”
12:33 He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.

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