When we pray — if it’s anything more than pious show — we must have at least some faith that God hears. And we don’t usually expect an immediate or direct answer. But imagine that as soon as you finish praying, there’s a crack of thunder and the skies rumble. Or even more: you hear an actual voice answer you from heaven. What would you do?
Me? I’d just hope I remembered to take my heart medication that morning.
John tells us that Jesus, refusing to back away from suffering he knew would be his, prayed aloud in front of the crowd who had come to Jerusalem for Passover: “Father, glorify your name” (John 12:28a, NRSV). And immediately, a voice from heaven answered: “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again” (vs. 28b).
What did the people hear? As happens so often in John’s gospel, the crowd was divided. Some heard only the sound of thunder. That’s not to say they necessarily believed it was merely a coincidence or a purely natural event. Surely some would have remembered Moses receiving the commandments as the mountain shook with thunder and lightning. Others thought an angel had spoken.
Jesus declared that the voice had been given for their benefit:
This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself. (vss. 30-32)
They had all heard a noise, but what did they understand? Not, apparently, that Jesus had addressed his Father and the Father had answered.
And what did they make of Jesus’ words? The language of judgment probably sounded encouraging: if Jesus was the Messiah they wanted him to be, he would pass judgment on the Romans and drive them out.
But wait…there was also this mysterious language of being “lifted up.” The people might have remembered the story of Moses and the bronze serpent in the wilderness (Num 21:4-9). Moreover, Jesus had earlier applied that metaphor to himself, albeit in a private conversation with Nicodemus (John 3:14-15). Somehow, in the context of the strange things Jesus had just said about the Son of Man, glory, and death (John 12:23-24), the crowd understood that he was talking about his own demise.
As far as they were concerned, however, that wasn’t good Messiah talk.
So they pushed back, arguing that their own scripture taught that the Messiah would remain forever. And to some extent, rightly so: there are texts from our Old Testament that can be read that way. How then could Jesus say that the Son of Man must be “lifted up”? Was the “Son of Man” the same as the Messiah? Was Jesus one and not the other?
We’ll see Jesus’ response in the next post. But by the end of the interchange, John tells us that Jesus “departed and hid from them” (vs. 36). They had heard, but they hadn’t listened with ears enlivened by faith; they wanted to understand, but didn’t believe.
We have unmet needs, unfulfilled wants, frustrated desires. We bring them before God. And we hope for some kind of answer. We don’t expect a voice to thunder from heaven, though I suspect we’d like to think that if it did, we’d hear and believe whatever was said.
But really, would we? And if not, why not?