Sermon for Evensong on the Sunday called Quinquagesima, or the next Sunday before Lent, 10th February 2013
Exodus 3:1-6, John 12:27-36 – ‘Father, glorify your name.’ The Riley Elf.

Do you remember the Riley Elf? Or the Wolseley Hornet? Those little cars? Well, sometimes people used to say they were just ‘glorified Minis’. They were posh versions of the Mini.

Is that what we mean by ‘glorified’ – or, ‘glory’? Is it just a sort of embellishing process? What is glory?

I’ve always found the passage in St John’s gospel that we had as our lesson really rather difficult to understand. Indeed, it’s quite a theme in St John’s gospel, glory. What is this glory?

St Paul talks about a woman’s hair being her ‘glory’ (1 Cor. 11:15), and we talk about people ‘glorying’ in some good fortune or other. 12th August is known as the ‘Glorious 12th’. The glory there seems to consist in mass slaughter of grouse. We sometimes say that it is a glorious day, when we mean that it is sunny and fine.

But none of this really seems to help us when we examine what Jesus was mulling over here, after his entry into Jerusalem on a donkey. He is thinking about the fact that he is going to be ‘lifted up’, as he says, and as the gospel put it, ‘He said this to indicate the kind of death that he was to die’, being lifted up on the cross. Just as in the other gospels they have the scene in the garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus is praying to his Father, ‘Take this cup away from me’ (Matt. 26:36-46, Mark 14:32-42, Luke 22:40-46), here similarly he is thinking whether to ask to be saved from his impending fate.

On a human level, he’s afraid of what’s in front of him. So his instinct is to ask to be saved. But he knows that it is his destiny, that the purpose of his life on earth is to go through this terrible suffering. Just before this passage, he explains how death can be more fruitful, ultimately, than life. ‘A grain of wheat remains a solitary grain unless it falls into the ground and dies; but if it dies, it bears a rich harvest’ (John 12:24, NEB).

So Jesus says this rather peculiar phrase, ‘Father, glorify your name.’ And a voice comes out from heaven saying, ‘I have glorified it, and I will do it again.’ (John 12:28) Just like the voice from the burning bush to Moses in our Old Testament lesson from Exodus, here the voice from heaven, which was heard by those standing round, is miraculous evidence that God is present, and that Jesus isn’t just a man. One of the modern translations of the Bible, the Contemporary English Version published by the Bible Society, translates this section this way: “‘I must not ask my father to keep me from this time of suffering. In fact I came into the world to suffer. So Father, bring glory to yourself’. A voice from heaven then said, ‘I have already brought glory to myself, and I will do it again.'”

‘Glorify your name’: ‘bring glory to yourself’. The Greek word behind this passage (δόξα, δόξαζω) is interesting. It has been translated literally as ‘glory, I glorify’, but it started out as a word meaning, ‘I have an opinion about’, maybe ‘a good opinion’, something ‘seems to me’, then, something ‘seems good to me’. That goes on to mean something is a ‘good spectacle’, a sight to see: and it’s a very big word in Christianity.

In the Nicene Creed which we say at Holy Communion, we mention glory twice. Jesus ‘shall come again with glory to judge both the quick and the dead.’ And we believe in the ‘Holy Ghost, The Lord and giver of life, …. who …. is worshipped and glorified’. We have great hymns, ‘Thine be the glory’; ‘Angels from the realms of glory’: the Gloria itself, ‘Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost.’ Good repute, good opinion. Difficult to translate – what on earth does ‘Glorify your name’ mean here?

I think the Contemporary English Version translation is probably right. Bring glory to yourself. On one level it seems an absurd request. God is omnipotent. God can do whatever He wants. He doesn’t need to demonstrate how powerful He is. He doesn’t need to curry favour. He is God.

But still, Jesus says, ‘Bring glory to yourself’. The more I consider this, the more I think about it, it dawns on me that of course this is a mystery, a holy mystery. Jesus is weighing up two alternatives. Calling on his father to save him, or the alternative, ‘Father, glorify your name’, which must mean, ‘Do something which will redound to your credit.’ In other words, let Jesus go through with the Passion, with suffering and death.

It doesn’t seem right. But so much about Jesus contains apparent paradoxes. The Servant King. Washing the disciples’ feet. Showing humility, never glorying in his position. ‘All who exalt themselves will be humbled; those who humble themselves will be exalted'(Matt. 23:12). So there’s a paradoxical meaning to ‘glory’ in St John’s gospel. When Jesus talks about being glorified – ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified’, he says – what he means is not that the Son of Man, that he, is going to preside in triumph.

There is a paradox about the way in which he entered Jerusalem, on a donkey. It’s meant to make you think about the way in which Roman generals, after a successful campaign, would lead their armies back to Rome and enjoy a triumph: games, processions, jollifications, huge celebrations. At their heart was a kind of worship for the successful leader. Jesus wasn’t intending anything like that. His triumphal procession, on the donkey, was nothing like a Roman general’s triumph. Jesus earns his glory, his good reputation, by showing ultimate humility, by submitting to the whole process of his passion: the torture at the hands of the Romans and the Jews culminating in his agonising death on the cross.

Some triumph! But it is meant to be a triumph. It is meant to be a glory. As St John writes, later on in his gospel, ‘The book has been written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing, you may have life in his name’ (John 20:31). ‘Glory’ really has a connotation of the divine nature. Jesus is not only a man, but also he is divine, the Son of God. ‘Coming to glory’ has that meaning. The realm of glory is the realm of the divine.

We may not now think of the realm of glory as being up in the clouds, somewhere beyond the clouds, but the idea is still a perfectly good way of understanding something which is strictly beyond our understanding. So when Jesus says that ‘the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified’, he really means it is time for the Son of Man, for him, to put on his divine nature. And that means that Jesus’ glory comes not only from his glorious resurrection, but also from his suffering and his passion. That is glorious too.

We are on the edge of what we can understand. It’s not really surprising that the words we are using don’t necessarily convey the full weight of meaning which this mighty truth requires. Let’s go back to the Riley Elf. A glorified Mini. Nothing of the divine there. That’s something that should bring us up short. We talk quite easily in church about something being glorious, God being glorious, ‘Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost’, and so on. It’s a word which just slips down and does not really mean anything to us as we say it. Just like the Mini turning into a Riley Elf, are we saying that Jesus in our lives is almost like a shining ornament in the corner, very nice to look at, but it doesn’t do anything?

Or are we saying that the lustre, the glory, the special shine, that we see on Jesus, is because he is the Son of God? And because he is, that we will have to change our lives in response? I think so. ‘Who is the king of glory: even the Lord of hosts, he is the King of glory.’ (Psalm 24).