Life on a Ferris Wheel

Delivered March 25, 2001 by Rev. George Antonakos.
Theme: We must die to ourselves to experience maximum growth.

Sermon Text:
John 12:20-33

There is a second passage that I would like to read for us today as we consider what the word of the Lord is for us. It comes from John, Chapter 12:20-33. Listen to the word of the Lord Jesus Christ the good news of the gospel.

Now there were some Greeks among those who went up to worship at the Feast. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, with a request. ‘Sir,’ they said, ‘we would like to see Jesus.’ Philip went to tell Andrew; Andrew and Philip in turn told Jesus. Jesus replied, ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me. Now my heart is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour?’ No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour. Father, glorify your name!’ Then a voice came from heaven, ‘I have glorified it, and will glorify it again.’ The crowd that was there and heard it said it had thundered; others said an angel had spoken to him. Jesus said, ‘This voice was for your benefit, not mine. Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. But when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.’ He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die.

Life is like a Ferris Wheel. That’s pretty profound, right? I know you will carry that statement with you all week. But if you think about it, it’s really true. And I can think of two reasons why it’s true. One is that a Ferris Wheel, like life, is cyclic. Life and Ferris Wheels turn in cycles and bring us to similar points again and again. Secondly, at certain points in the ride of life, we go from feeling very secure to feeling very insecure. You know as your riding up on a Ferris Wheel, and I’m not talking about a Ferris Wheel ride that is enclosed by glass and steel, I’m talking about one in which you sit there and there’s only a little bar securing you and your feet hang and it’s rickety. You feel pretty secure at the bottom part, but then you go to the top, then, right before everything seems to fall away, there’s a moment that you feels very, at least for me, very unnerving. And then, after you pass that point, then you feel okay again. And I hate it when the operator stops the wheel right at the top, at that point between feeling secure and insecure. I remember being a little kid sitting beside a daredevil type of person who loved to rock it at that point. And that’s what’s so scary about it, rocking the ride at a transition point.

You know, life is like a Ferris Wheel because transition points can be very, very unnerving. And at every point that we ride through, it seems like there’s another point where we have to stop and face the transition. At those points, it’s like we have to die a little bit. We have to die in so many different ways and at so many different times in our life. Let me mention a couple of these times. Some we may remember, and some we can’t. For instance, none of us remember the moment we passed from the womb into the world, but I am sure it was very traumatic for each of us. I mean, there we were, so safe and comfortable, then a earthquake happens. There are some cataclysmic moments and then BOOM! There are lights and people yelling and talking and smacking your bottom. It’s quite a transition if you think about it. And then you go through infancy and toddler-hood and then there comes a point in life (no one remembers this either) when you realize that the world doesn’t revolve around you–that there are “others.” And you have to start sharing with them. That’s very difficult to adjust to. I’m sure if we broke into small groups right now and discussed our memories of going to the first grade, I’m sure we could all remember that moment. And for some of us, it was a very traumatic transition point in our lives. And on we go, to middle school to high school, from singleness to married life, from married life to singleness, job transitions, health transitions, family transitions, children being born, children moving away, children getting married, children and parents growing old. And then comes that transition point, which all of us here have yet to face–that moment when God will carry us from the womb of this world into the Kingdom of Heaven. Believe me, that’s very unnerving. Some of us will have the opportunity to think about transitioning from life to after-life as it happens, and others will not. But these transitional points are part of our whole life story and they are scary. And I would dare say, and I’m not going to do this of course, but if I asked for a show of hands and asked how many of you are going through a significant transition right now, either emotionally or relationally, it’s my guess that a number of hands would go up. And so transition points create anxiety, because we don’t like change. We’d rather have our misery, in the present present than move into an uncertain future. So we naturally resist transitions. But if we resist them long enough, we will get stuck forever in that spot. A spot that we ought not be stuck on.

A couple of years ago, I met a young man who ran into some trouble with the law. I visited him in prison. Then, when he got out of prison–it was a short stay, he graduated from high school. I remember once, when I went to the high school to pick up one of my kids, I saw this young man on the other side of the street with his hands in his pockets leaning against a pole. He looked like he was looking at Shangri-La and couldn’t go back in. He didn’t know what to do. I asked him what he was doing there and he said, “I used to go to that high school, but now what am I doing?” He was totally lost. And it’s not just high school kids who are lost in a transition. I mean, we have all heard of the term, “mid-life crisis,” haven’t we? I turned 50 in December and I am telling you, it was hard. It was hard to turn 50. Some of you may have forgotten that time, and some of you may be thinking, “Wow! That’s really old!” I remember several years back, and I don’t know if you remember this, but Jim Palmer at the age of 45 thought that he would go down to Spring training and try to make a comeback. I think he was going through something like a “mid-life crisis.” He pulled his hamstring about two weeks into Spring training. And that was it. And it’s not just jocks either who have to go through these transitions, it’s also people who retire. I was watching part of a news segment on people who were CEO’s of big companies. They were talking about the day after they were no longer the CEO. One guy said, “You know I used to wear these ( obviously speaking metaphorically), stars and bars on my shoulders and everybody would genuflect to me. But now, my dog is the only one that does that.” He said that it hurts. Even spiritual people have to go through unnerving transitions. A friend of mine in Pennsylvania and I used to get together for a minister’s group where we once shared about pastors who retired but didn’t know how to let go. Thankfully, that’s not the case here at Central. I’m amazed how well Murray keeps boundaries. But this one guy in the group, and I felt so sorry for him, shared “In my previous pastorate, I was there for eight years, and for seven of those eight years there was not a funeral, wedding, or baptism where my predecessor was not right beside me.” That is a person who has his hands on the controls of the Ferris Wheel and makes it stick on purpose. We do that because we don’t know how to let go at a transition point. We don’t know how to die. It’s a great thing to see that Jesus knew how to die and pass through life’s transitions. Because transitions create pain, we can learn from our Lord Jesus, and accept His help when having to face our own letting go and dying in order to make it through a transition point. And so the word today is “hang in.” You don’t have to go through those scary parts again and again alone. The Lord is with you right in that seat. So relax your white knuckled grip, He’s going to help you through the transition. He’s willing to help you because He knows what it’s like on a Ferris Wheel. He said, “Unless you descend, unless you die, unless you let go, you will remain stuck. You’ll remain like a grain of wheat not doing what it was created to do, just a grain of wheat sitting on a shelf, just there doing nothing, instead of descending into the earth and sprouting and new life being created in your life as you follow God’s will. When you go through what you don’t want to go through, you will be amazed at how much life will come out of you.” And so this passage in scripture suggests that Jesus knew, or did, three things that took him through the most unnerving transition that anybody could ever go through. And I want to share them with you.

Look at verses 20 and 23 of John 12. This passage speaks of some Greeks who were coming to worship at the feast. They wanted to “speak with” Jesus. They wanted to sit down and chat with him. Then, after two verses they disappear. I will tell you why in a minute. But the first point is this, Jesus was alert to God’s transitional signals. Jesus saw when it was time to let go. In fact, after Andrew and Philip came and told Jesus about this desire for an interview, Jesus says in Verse 23, “The hour has come.” If you are familiar with John’s gospel, you know that in about three of four different places before this, Jesus says, “My hour has not yet come.” He says this at the wedding at Cana in Galilee. And He said it at other times. Now, in this passage, Jesus says, “My hour has come.” What’s the hour? The hour is the cross. Now’s the time that Jesus will do something that will draw all people to himself. And that’s why the Greeks couldn’t speak with him at that time. The Gentiles would only be able to see Jesus after His death and resurrection. Not just for a moment, but for life. Again, there are those signaling events that we see, that come to us, and we have to determine whether or not we will see those events or signals and pay attention to them, or not. I’m thinking of when I met my bride. I didn’t know she was going to be my bride. So, you see, life’s transition points aren’t all bad, there are some good ones, too. They are just scary-things that make your guts churn when you think about taking a step toward them. When I met my bride to be, I was completely infatuated with her. We were together for four or five weeks at a conference in New York and we always went on group dates–I didn’t try to be slick or anything, we just kept it nice and honest. On the last day before we were all going back to our different places–she was going back to Ohio and I was coming back to Maryland, I thought, “I’ve got to say something, I have really got to say something to her. This is going to go right by and it’s going to be over.” So this is what I did, and I’ll give you the short version–I just got up the nerve and finally asked her, I called her, and all guys know this, you just know that moment when you have to pick up the phone and call. It’s like being on a Ferris Wheel. “What’s she going to say when I call?” you wonder. She said “Yes, I will go for a walk with you.” So we’re walking on the campus and we sad down on the hillside near the chapel and you could hear the violins playing and there was a full moon. This was my moment of truth. I said, “Ellen, I just want you to know, first of all, that I am really infatuated with you.” That was a word we had been throwing around for weeks in class. “And I was just wondering how you were feeling.” It was like I had stuck my head in a noose and she had the rope and she could yank it or not yank it. And she said, “Oh, I feel the same way!” And it was like Oh Yea!! But I realized that I had to die a little bit to get to that point. And this is the same with many other things that are a little more difficult, like when you need to confront somebody in a difficult situation, maybe somebody who hurt you. Maybe you have to tell somebody something that you don’t want to tell to them. And you have to die. You have to die to the feelings that might come with a loss of approval that might come if you speak honestly to them. And there’s so many other ways of dying to your feelings during a transition. I mean everybody who has ever been to a funeral knows that that casket has to close. You know you’ve got to walk away, and you know you can’t stay with that person. And you’ve got to move on, but it’s so hard. These are the kinds of signaling events that Jesus noticed in his own life or saw in his own life and calls us to do the same. And again, these moments are not all bad. I remember walking Andrea, my daughter, right down this aisle back in May. That was such a hard thing. Jerry had to do the wedding. I could not do the wedding. I would be standing right here, blubbering while my daughter and son-in-law were trading vows. And as I walked down this aisle with Andrea, my guts were churning. I mean, I loved what was happening, and I wanted her to take this step, but I had to let her go. And so Jesus saw these signaling events of life and he said, “Now is the time.” And if our desire is to walk with God, God will see to it that the signaling events are very clear so they’re really not the issue. The issue instead is-“Will we really let go when we see them?”

My second point is found in Verse 27 when Jesus says, in the midst of going to the cross, “Now my heart is troubled and what shall I say? Father save me from this hour? No, it was for this reason I came to this hour.” This passage is John’s mini-Gethsemane. In two weeks, we’re going talk about Gethsemane. But, now, I want you to notice something here that Jesus said. “My heart is troubled.” Troubled means disturbed, unsettled, and thrown into confusion, this word speaks of intense mental and spiritual agitation, and Jesus spoke it. He paid attention to his feelings. That’s the second point. Jesus paid attention to his feelings. And many times we don’t pay attention to our feelings. And we don’t get through the transitions of life because we push them away and pretend they are not happening. Grief is so important. I remember going to a seminar about trying to help people who had suffered serious abuse. The speaker said that there are really three things that you have to do if you have suffered terrible abuse. First, you have to get out of denial. That was the first thing. You have to quit denying that the abuse happened. Second, once you realize and accept that you have been wounded, you have to grieve. You have to let it go, you have face the painful feelings that the abuse engendered. And third, then after grieving, you’ll be in a place, in a holistic sense, where you can begin to forgive. Too many people try to jump right to forgiving and they don’t go through those other steps. Let me share something very personal with you that only applies to this congregation at this moment. Because Jesus paid attention to his feelings, there is something that I really think the Lord wants me to say to you, and I am certain that this doesn’t apply to everybody. But you know that we are in an anniversary, this is March, and one year ago, Ron was called to leave and things were very, very stirred up here. And then on top of it all, through nobody’s fault, Ron’s son became ill. And here’s my point. It is so understandable and easy to focus on what was going on with a beloved senior pastor and his family that you may not have paid attention to your own feelings. And some still may have to go through some grieving and still may be hurting even though a year has passed. And experts say that sometimes it takes a year or more to get past a certain grief. But if this applies and you feel kind of stuck, feeling like “Am I really going to commit myself to the next pastor?” I will tell you about a story I read. An old lady, about eighty years old, says, “I am not going to love the new pastor that comes, because every single one before him left.” And then the new pastor came and she loved him and she said, “Well I guess I’m just going to cry as hard when he leaves too.” But that’s the point. Jesus paid attention to his feelings. He said, “Now my soul is troubled,” and so we have to do the same thing. Sometimes we can be there for everybody else, that we ignore our own grief.

Thirdly, Jesus was deeply aware that the Father was with him. In verses 28 to 30, Jesus says, “Father, glorify your name.” And then a voice comes from heaven and says, “I have glorified it and will glorify it again.” The crowd was there and some said it was thunder and others said that an angel had spoken to them. But Jesus said “This voice was for your benefit, not mine.” He also said, “I know that God is with me.” And so God is with us at the deepest points, at the scariest part of any of our life’s transition, God is with us right there, even at the white-knuckled point on the Ferris Wheel. And when we get screwed up, we think, “Is that God’s care, or is that just thunder? Is God really for me? Is He really with me?” And now, just think, and I know you have heard this before but think about it again, about how the cross looked like such a total defeat. Think about how the cross was such a symbol of abandonment and even Jesus cried out, “Why have you forsaken me?” But now listen to what the cross does. It’s in the rest of the passage that the thing that looks like a worthless seed that looks like abandonment turns into a source of great strength and triumph. Jesus says in verse 31, “Now is the time for judgment on this world. By the cross every human being will judged.” By the way we respond to what we think of the cross and what happened on the cross and what happened in the resurrection, we will be judged. If we believe, then we are judged by God, and found innocent. If we don’t believe, we are judged by God and found guilty. The cross didn’t judge Jesus. The cross judges us. Secondly, Jesus says, “Now the prince of this world will be driven out.” At this moment, it looked like Satan was going to defeat Jesus. No! Instead, Jesus was defeating Satan. Jesus was overcoming all the evil of this world but it still looked like, and still does, that there is plenty of evil left in the world. But with the cross, Jesus defeated evil to the place where all will be made right in the kingdom of heaven. And then lastly, Jesus says, “When I am lifted up I will draw all people to myself.” The cross represents death, and repels us, but here death, the death of the Son of God attracts us–those whom God is calling. So, in these moments of transition when we feel defeated, when things seem like loss, when it seems like nothing good is going to come out of them, remember the way of the cross is the way of light.

I like the story of an unusual account of how the news of the Battle of Waterloo reached England. The report from the battle ground back in those days was first carried by sailing ship to the southern coast and then by signal flags to London. And when the report was received at Winchester, the flags on the cathedral began to spell out the message, “Wellington defeated.” And then before the message could be completed, a heavy fog rolled in and with that heavy fog the gloom of a nation filled the hearts of the people. But then, when the mist began to lift, it became evident that the signals of the Winchester Cathedral had really spelled out this triumphant message. “Wellington defeated the enemy!” Too often we allow the future to be colored by what we understand at the moment and it keeps us from moving forward. Trust God in the midst of transition and conflict. Let go of resistance to change. Let go of panic, release yourself again into His hands. God is for you and God will see you through. Trust in him. Let us pray.

Lord we do trust in You today and we remember our need for salvation, during those points when we had to decide whether we would turn our life over to You and how for many of us that felt like a little death and yet it has brought such life. Lord through these same kinds of experiences teach us that every single transition we go through, if we will simply follow you, follow you to the cross, recommit ourselves to serve You, You will bring so much life out of us that we won’t know what to do. For we ask it all now in Jesus’ name. Amen.