Fifth Sunday in Lent
We live in a world that is consumed with time. In our personal lives, this takes the shape of making sure that we have arrived at a particular place at a particular point in time: When does my class begin? When does work shift start? When do I need to pick my kids up from school? When does this appointment, event, or Zoom meeting begin? This is seen in larger systems as well. Trains and buses in large cities arrive and leave at specific times, and we are reminded about this constantly at the platform or the bus stop. In financial transactions, profits are often earned through the precise timing of buying and selling commodities, with any minor variation effectively ruining such gains. In many parts of the world this past week, we were confronted by time by adding one hour to our clocks. We are also attentive to times that are not marked by a moment on the clock, such as charts indicating when we might be eligible to sign up for a COVID-19 vaccine. Through all of this, we discover that our lives are dominated by timetables, schedules, and appointments, some of which are posted on office doors or recorded in daily planners, and some of which are simply inscribed in our daily habits. And while some of these time-consciousness matters have been upended, in many cases, they have simply been replaced by others (trading in-person meetings for virtual appointments).
Because of this formation, we may find ourselves somewhat perplexed by Jesus’ declaration in the gospel lesson: “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (John 12:23, NRSV). We might link this statement to our own preoccupations with time, as though a preplanned alarm has just sounded, alerting Jesus to this temporal marker. Like the schedule of our days, Jesus has arrived at his next appointment, right?
There is no doubt that John’s gospel has built anticipation for this moment, having had Jesus deny the arrival of this moment on at least three other occasions. In chapter 2, even as Jesus changes water into wine at the Cana wedding, he tells his mother, “My hour has not yet come” (John 2:4). In chapter 7, Jesus is teaching in the temple during the festival of Sukkoth. In response to his presence, some in attendance try to arrest him, but John tells us that “no one laid hands on him, because his hour had not yet come” (John 7:30). A similar event happens after the festival in the treasury of the temple when Jesus calls himself the light of the world. Again, there is an unsuccessful attempt to arrest him because “his hour had not yet come” (John 8:20).
Unlike the time that occupies our attention, the “hour” in question is not a simple moment on Jesus’ itinerary. Instead, it signals a shift in perspective and the consummation of what God has already been doing in the world. There are two Greek words for time—one that refers to chronological sequential time (chronos) and one that refers to the time for God’s purpose (kairos). While neither word is used explicitly in these lectionary passages, clearly the time in question is one of kairos.
In John’s gospel, this kairos moment concerns Christ being “lifted up” (John 12:32). This phrase certainly means that he will be exalted and glorified, which is confirmed by the voice from heaven (John 12:27-28). However, we now see that this new time of his glorification centers on his crucifixion. This “hour,” then, involves eschatological time, marking a new season of life for Christ and those looking to him. Jesus has indicated that a transition is happening; a new normal has emerged. In short, the time has come.
The time has come – for the vision of Jeremiah 31 to be realized. “The days are coming…” speaks the prophet, signaling a similar kind of kairos moment. In Jesus’ declaration, these days have arrived. The new covenant of which Jeremiah speaks focuses on the fulfillment of the law. But law here is not simply rigid obligations, otherwise the Psalmist would not seek to treasure it, meditate on it, and delight in it (Psalm 119:11, 15, 16). This law is the Torah—the heart of the covenant, instructing God’s people how to be faithful. Yet, the fulfillment of the law demands a greater intimacy with God, where the teaching of the law and obedience to it are transformed to such a degree that God and God’s people will belong together: “I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Jeremiah 31:33).
This new covenant will require a high priest. The Sinai covenant is mediated through the work of the Aaronic priesthood. As Hebrews tells us, Jesus is in fact a high priest, though not in the line of Aaron. Instead, he is a priest according to the order of Melchizedek (Hebrews 5:10). Interestingly, this new covenant draws us to old things, such as law and priests.
The time has come – for all other human differences to be relativized in light of Christ. Jeremiah declares that under the aegis of this new covenant, everyone—“from the least to the greatest”—shall know the Lord (Jeremiah 31:34). Poverty, nationality, ethnicity, gender, and age (among other qualities) will not exempt anyone from this knowledge and intimacy.
Likewise, Jesus’ statement in the gospel lesson is preceded by the arrival of some Greeks “who went up to worship at the festival” (John 12:20). These Greeks, whether they are converts to Judaism or simply curiously interested in Jewish liturgy, ask to see Jesus. It is important to notice that they come to see Philip, the disciple with a Greek name who is described as hailing from Galilee. Clearly they are foreigners, and they know that this endangers them, so they exercise caution as they courageously ask to approach Christ. The gospel does not tell us what becomes of their request, but once Jesus is told of it, he says that when he is lifted up, he will “draw all people to myself” (John 12:32).
The time has come – for the church to be the church. Jesus calls for people to follow him through suffering service (John 12:24-26). The new covenant in Jeremiah is with God’s people, not merely with individuals (Jeremiah 31:33). Both passages declare who we are as the church, the community of Christ, and they state our loyalty to him with unwavering resolve. This kairos moment reminds us that eschatological time is not merely a wonderful present deferred to the future. Indeed, it has purchase on the here and now. As we follow Christ, we boldly proclaim: the time has come.