fish6.gif - 0.8 K

A Sermon from
Valley Covenant Church
Eugene, Oregon
by Pastor Steve Bilynskyj

Copyright © 2015 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

John 12:20-33
“Be a Loser”
March 22, 2015 - Fifth Sunday in Lent

         Ancient Greeks were the tourists of their day, beginning with the historian Herodotus. The ruins of ancient Egypt are marked with graffiti left by tourists from ancient Greece. Greeks loved to travel and see new things. We see their fascination with novelty in Acts 17:21 as Paul meets a group of Greeks who come together just to listen to and talk about the latest ideas.

         So it’s not surprising that a group of Greek tourists show up in the Gospel. They had come to Jerusalem for the great Passover Feast. They may have come to observe and visit Herod’s impressive temple. Perhaps they meant to worship themselves. Some Gentiles were “God-fearers,” non-Jews who honored the God of Israel. But they may have just been traders, doing a little sight-seeing, observing local customs, gathering some good stories.

         These Greeks heard about Jesus and were intrigued. Perhaps they ob­served His impromptu parade with palm branches and people shouting “Hosanna!” They wanted to know more, maybe come and take a selfie with an arm around this new prophet. So they ap­proached a disciple with a common Greek name, Philip, the name of the father of Alexander the Great. When we were tourists ourselves in Greece the owner of one of our hotels a had cat named Philippos. Greeks love that name.

         The tourists’ request was simple: “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” It was a direct fulfillment of an unwitting prophecy by the Pharisees. Back up one verse to 19. At the end of the Palm Sunday story we will read next week, after seeing the crowds following and praising Jesus, the Jewish leaders were dis­mayed. Their opposition seemed hopeless. They thought it was exaggeration when they said in disgust, “Look how the whole world has gone after him!” But these Greeks showed it was already coming true.

         Foreign tourists were just the beginning. Within a few hundred years much of the world would follow Jesus. These early Gentile looky loos were a down payment on God’s promise to spread the good news about Jesus to everyone on earth.

         They came to Philip. Philip took them to Andrew, the only other disciple with a Greek name. Andrew and Philip presented the request to Jesus. Andrew is in his characteristic role. He is the disciple who is always bringing people to Jesus.

         Jesus wasn’t very responsive. Verse 23 sounds like He just changed the subject. He replied, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” It doesn’t seem like much of a welcome for His foreign visitors. But the “Son of Man to be glorified” has everything to do with Jesus being approached by non-Jewish tourists.

         “Son of Man” was Jesus own favorite term for Himself. He used it frequently and it implied His identity with our humanity. But it first appears in Daniel in the Old Testament. In Daniel chapter 7, verses 13 and 14, the “Son of Man” is a glorious figure who comes from heaven and the prophet writes that “all peoples, nations, and languages worshipped him.” For Jesus to call Himself the Son of Man was to imply that would be true of Him.

         Jesus’ reply in verse 23 makes perfect sense. Daniel’s prophecy was being fulfilled. These Greeks were just the beginning. People from all the nations would worship Him. The Pharisees’ unintended prophecy was being fulfilled. All over the world people would follow Jesus. Once glorified, Jesus would be Lord, not only of Jews, but of Greeks and of Romans and of everyone else on earth.

         That’s why verse 24 makes sense too, even though it seems like Jesus is going in yet another direction, with a grain of wheat falling to the ground and dying. Jesus was explaining how the Son of Man would be glorified. The Father’s plan to make His Son Lord of all the peoples, nations, and languages of the world was to Have His Son die. A grain of wheat grows and is productive after it’s buried in the ground. The glory of Jesus would grow around the world after He was buried in the ground.

         The same truth applies to you and me. We think achieving glory is a matter of success, or getting fame or money or power. We think it’s glorious when we get an “A” on a test, or win a race, or make a profitable investment. But Jesus taught and practiced a different way to glory, both for Himself and us. Be a loser.

         Losing is glorious. Jesus said this more than once. We heard Him say what He says here in verse 25 three weeks ago in a completely different context in Mark 8:35. “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” He’s not just talking about Himself. Verse 26 continues, “Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, will my servant be also.” Be where Jesus is, even if it’s dead and in the ground. Be a loser, even it means losing your life.

         A couple weeks ago I sent out an e-mail saying we had lost our Advent candles. Back when we took down Christmas decorations and moved stuff out of the sanctuary to host the Warming Center, the candles and their expensive brass candle followers got stashed somewhere no one could remember. Last week as we moved everything out of the sanctuary once again for the Family Shelter, the candles were discovered, carefully placed in a flower planter and set up on shelf. We had looked at that planter a dozen times, not realizing that what we were looking for was right there.

         Forgetting where you put stuff, losing things like candles or car keys or even a paycheck (that just happened to us a couple weeks ago) is just regular human stupidity. But losing your life for Jesus is glorious spirituality. Put candles in a flower planter and they go missing for awhile. But when you plant your life away for Jesus, lose it for Him, you may feel like you are losing something. But you’re not. You are gaining eternal life.

         Still, nobody likes to be a loser. Even Jesus was bothered by it. In verse 27 He says, “Now my soul is troubled.” He even wondered aloud if He should ask the Father to save Him from going to the Cross. As we will remember in less than two weeks, the night before He died Jesus did in fact ask the Father to save Him from losing His life. But all along the Son of Man knew He would only be glorified by losing. He couldn’t win by winning.

         We tell athletes and soldiers and even business people to go for the glory. But Jesus knew the only way to get glory was to give it up, to turn His glory over to His Father. That’s why in verse 28, the only thing He asked is “Father, glorify your name.” He was willing to be a loser for the sake of God’s glory, for the sake of a great name for God.

         When I was a boy someone gave me a copy of The Heart of a Champion by Bob Rich­ards, an Olympic medal winning pole vaulter who became a preacher. The book is full of sports stories and encouragement to be a Christian winner. But the story I liked best, the only one I remember from the book, was about John Landy running the mile in Melbourne, Australia. He was in the middle of a glorious race, on his way to breaking his own world record of 3:58. The crowd roared its approval as he blazed along. Sud­denly a young man running beside him, just a high school student, stumbled and fell. Landy stopped, reached down and pulled him up. Landy made sure he was O.K. The boy told him to go on. Landy finished with a 4:04, nowhere near a new record.[1]

         Landy lost a record, but he gained something better. He gained a good name, a name as a good man. He gained a life of character, of love and concern for others. Be a loser for God and others and that’s real glory. By the same principle to the highest degree, Jesus Christ gained a glorious name for God by losing His life completely.

         Jesus’ loss of His life was the key to everything, the key to God’s plan of salvation. So as Jesus spoke, the Father spoke so everyone could hear in verse 28. God the Father confirmed His plan for Jesus, confirmed that losing was the way to glory. “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.”

         Being a loser is not an easy message to hear. As verse 29, tells us, most of the crowd standing right there thought they just heard thunder rather than the voice of God. A few of them imagined an angel had spoken. But in verse 30, Jesus told them that voice was for their benefit. They needed to hear God’s confirmation of His great plan to win by losing, to live by dying, to be glorious by giving up one’s own glory.

         When I teach Confirmation to middle school students they memorize a catechism that says, “By the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God conquered sin, death and the devil.” We like the thought that God has conquered all the evil and pain of this world. But we need to remember the way it began, first by the death of Jesus, by losing. He asks us to conquer—to be saved—in just the same way, by losing.

         In verse 31, Jesus told them that God was ready to judge the world and drive out “the ruler of this world.” He meant the devil, Satan. The great cosmic battle with Satan was about to be won, not by heavenly fireworks or spiritual artillery, but by one Man who was willing to shoulder a rough piece of wood, struggle up a rocky hill, and then nailed on that wooden crossbar. God was going to win by losing, by let­ting His own Son die.

         God’s voice spoke to us too. He wants us to know the way of Jesus is the way of life. His people have always been greater, stronger, more alive when they have been willing to lose everything for their Lord.

         Some of you may have seen the YouTube video of 10-year-old Myriam from Mosul in Iraq. Last July ISIS drove her and her family out of their home along with thousands of other Christians. They landed in a refugee camp in Kurdistan. There she was interviewed by a reporter from a Christian broadcaster in Egypt. He asked her how she felt about ISIS. She told him and told over a million people who’ve watched the video, “I will only ask God to forgive them. Why should they be killed?”

         Another video that’s been seen by half a million people is an interview with Bashir Estephanos who lost two brothers among the 21 Christians who were killed by ISIS in Libya. He said, “ISIS gave us more than we asked for. They didn’t edit out the part where [as their throats were cut] they declared their faith and called out to Jesus.” Then Estephanos prayed on the air for God to save the killers from the ignorance they had been taught. He said that his 60-year-old-mother had told him that if someone from ISIS came to their village, “she would invite him in her home.. and ask God to open his eyes.”[2]

         Maybe we need military action to stop ISIS. I’m not smart enough to decide that. But I do know that when Christians can take the losses that Myriam and Estephnos did and respond as they did, then we’ve already beat ISIS, already won by losing. Around 200 A.D. Tertullian wrote to those who opposed Christianity, “As often as you mow us down, the more numerous we become. The blood of Christians is the seed.”[3] That’s often been paraphrased as, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”

         Those Greeks came to meet a local Jewish prophet. Instead, they met the Savior of the world. A few Gentiles asked Philip to be brought to Jesus in Jerusalem, but the whole world was waiting to be brought to Him. To accomplish that, to bring everyone together to Jesus, He had to finish what He came to do. He had to reconcile them all to God and reconcile them all to each other. Jesus had been planting the seed of reconciliation for three years. Over and over He taught us to love God and love our neighbor. His words and exam­ple planted the seed in everyone He met.

         Bur for those seeds to grow—to bring up fruit—there needed to be one final planting. For the world to be reconciled to God and to each other Jesus Himself had to be planted. For that to happen, He would first, in the words of verse 31, “be lifted up.” He was lifted up on a cross. His life would be the seed lost in the ground and then raised to grow in glory.

         If you and I planned Jesus’ mission, would we have understood this? Would His death be the central event of His work? Wouldn’t public relations for Jesus have encouraged Him to talk to those Greeks? Then set up study times, focused on Greek-speaking people. Send out news releases and stage more healings. Arrange for Him to meet Romans too, maybe some Africans and Chinese travelers. Have cocktail parties and get Him introduced. Find donors and set up a foundation. Hire marketing consultants. Get it moving!

         Would we have dreamed at all that the way to promote Jesus was to let Him be crucified? To get things moving He had to stop moving. He had to suffer and die. He had to fall to the ground and be planted. Only then would there be any fruit.

         Which brings us to verse 32. Jesus returned to the subject of those Greeks who wanted to see Him, a whole world that wanted to see Him. He says by being “lifted up”—by dying on the Cross—He “will draw all people” to Himself. His willing death was the seed which planted a vine. Now anyone, from any country, can grow and find life on that vine.

         Athanasius wondered why Jesus had to die on a Cross. Why that particular mode of execution? He realized that only on a cross do you die with your arms outstretched. So he says, “we see the fitness of His death and those outstretched arms: it was that He might draw His ancient people with the one and the Gentiles with the other, and join both to­gether in Himself.”[4] Losing His life on the Cross, Jesus won the whole world for God.

         This Lent we are asking how to follow Jesus, how to carry our cross and lose our lives like He did. What does it mean for us individually and as a church? This morning we see that it means being a loser. So what do you and I need to lose? Some comfort? Some time? Some entertainment? Some sin? Some money? Some pride?

         Be a loser. That’s how Jesus did it. That’s how He saved us, saved everyone—by losing His life. By losing His life, Jesus received a new life. We will celebrate His new life on Easter in a couple weeks. To gain that new life ourselves, He asks us to follow Him in being losers. It is not all big losses, martyrdom and persecu­tion. Following Jesus calls for little losses all the time, doing what He wants instead of what you want, letting go of your own advantage in favor of others, giving up things you might have had so that you can have His kind of life. That’s being a loser for Jesus. That is the seed of eternal life.


         Valley Covenant Church
         Eugene/Springfield, Oregon
         Copyright © 2015 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

[1] (Westwood, New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1959), p. 111f.

[2] This and Myriam’s story from “Forgiving ISIS: Christian ‘Resistance’ Videos go Viral in Arab World,”

[3] From his Apology in Early Christian Fathers, edited and translated by Henry Bettenson (London: Oxford University Press, 1956), p. 166.

[4] On the Incarnation, translated by Penelope Lawson (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 2946), p. 39.

Last updated March 22, 2015