Then a voice came from heaven. The crowd there heard it and said it was thunder. (John 2:28-29)
The fifth Sunday of Lent always arrives with great intensity, because Passiontide begins. On the fifth Sunday, Lent officially stops being about me and my little problems; it stops being about how impossible it is for me to keep my Lenten resolutions. Lent officially ceases to be an excuse for whining. Instead, it’s all about Jesus now. About His final days. About the consummation of all things on the Holy Cross.
Once every three years, on this momentous fifth Sunday of Lent, we get to talk about how to understand God when He speaks to us in claps of thunder.
I don’t mean “speaks to us in claps of thunder” figuratively, as in ‘Just had an Ah-Ha moment, like a thunderclap!’ No, I literally mean the sound of thunder, in the sky, in the humid and pregnant moment before a storm breaks.
Ok. What do the wisest sages of the world teach us that the sound of thunder means?
Anyone remember what it says in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad? About the meaning of the sound of thunder? I cannot claim to have read any ancient Indian books myself, but my favorite poet T.S. Eliot read them.
The thunder says: Datta, dayadhvam, and damyata. These Sanskrit words mean: generosity, compassion, and self-control. Datta, dayadhvam, and damyata —then the rain will come. Give, have compassion, and control yourself, says the Almighty One, and I will shower good things upon you. That, at least, is the picture that T. S. Eliot paints of the thunder-cracked sky, in one of his famous poems.
Sounds good to me.
But then there is what happened when the Greeks came to see Jesus in Jerusalem. These Greeks had come to worship at Passover, which means that, although they were not Jews, they believed in the God of the Jews. Many of the pious people of the ancient world admired the religion of Israel, and recognized that it had much more to it than their fanciful, self-indulgent paganism.
So these particular Greeks believed in the Holy Lord of Israel, Who had taught His people to look for the coming of the Messiah. These Greeks, like many of the Jews, must have thought to themselves, “Maybe this man Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ?”
Also, I think we can imagine: These Greeks wondered about Jesus being the Christ without any of the baggage that many Jews had attached to the idea. These non-Jews had no political interest in whether Herod wore the crown in Judea, or whether the Sanhedrin exercised supreme rule, or the Roman procurator. These Greeks hardly knew the difference between a Pharisee and a Sadducee.
Actually, these “Greeks” could have been pilgrims from India, for all we know. For the Jews at that time, the word ‘Greek’ simply meant ‘foreigner.’ Any foreigner could be called a ‘Greek.’ And we know that pilgrims came to Jerusalem from very far east. Iranians made up some of St. Peter’s audience on the steps of the Temple at Pentecost.
So these particular ‘Greeks’ might have learned the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad as children. Perhaps they had tried to practice generosity, compassion, and self-control, all their lives, like the thunder had told them. But they were still waiting for the divine rain to come from the sky.
So they came seeking the man who may be the Messiah. And He says to them, “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a single grain. But if it dies, it produces fruit.”
Now, here the Lord did speak a little figuratively. It would be going too far to say that a dormant seed in the ground, waiting for water and nutrition, is “dead.” But we get the idea.
‘Ok. So you Greeks think I may be the Messiah? I am going to call your bluff. The Messiah came to die. When I am lifted up on the cross, then the rain of divine grace will come.’
After speaking to the foreign visitors, the Lord Jesus turned His eyes upward and spoke not to man, but to God—to the sky, to the heavens—knowing that the sky and the heavens are not empty; knowing that when the thunder speaks, it speaks to a purpose; knowing that the sky is full of fatherly love. The Christ cried out to the One Who speaks in thunder, “Abba, Father! May You be glorified!”
And the thunder spoke again. The thunder said something that not everyone there could understand. But it was clear to those who knew how to listen. The thunder said: “I have glorified my triune majesty, and I will glorify it again!”
God the Father glorified Christ from all eternity, by begetting Him in infinite love, before the foundation of the universe. God the Father glorified Christ at the time of Jesus’ human birth, when the heavens resounded, not with thunder, but with angelic song: Glory to God in the highest!
But the Father would glorify the Son again, with the undying glory which drove Satan from power. The crucified Christ would conquer, and rise from the tomb, and ascend to heaven. The crucified Christ draws us, draws everyone to Himself. The grace of Christ crucified is the divine rain that all the world has waited for.