The Five Longest Miles
Text: John 12:1-2, 20-36
The kitchen was a wreck. Leftovers littered the floor while dogs sniffed about and licked clean the plates that had fallen from the counter. Despite the mess, delightful smells still lingered in the air—cinnamon from the pies, the enticing aroma of freshly baked bread, the maddening scent of a slow roasting side of beef.
Glasses, no longer full, were everywhere. Bodies were strewn across the living room floor fast asleep. Loud snores came from the couch and in the corner of the room a man and woman held hands, not with the grip of lovers, but of old friends.
One man paced nervously about the house. He had not slept. He had nothing do with this party. The merrymaking could not end soon enough for him. He was biding his time until people awoke from their sleep or stupor. He was biding his time until his leader finally came to his senses.
Outside the house, a “Welcome Back” banner hung at half mast, a victim of earlier festivities. Yellow ribbons adorned most trees, signs of a hero’s welcome. Despite the early hour, excited crowds were gathering near the front door while town leaders talked of ways to keep the hero in town.
Finally, the sun peeked through the clouds and a cock crowed. Inside the house, countless arms stretched and the almost awake searched for water to splash on their faces. The man who said goodbye to the woman whose hand he had held throughout the night was Jesus. He embraced an older man whose eyes betrayed gratitude too rich for words. He gently touched a woman who closed her eyes, determined not to cry.
The man who had not slept was Judas. He mumbled under his breath, “It’s about time.” Judas was as ready for Jesus to go as everyone else was hoping that he would stay. People outside tried to convince Jesus not to go, as did some of his friends inside. They made him grand promises and attractive offers. But as dawn broke, the hero’s welcome gave way to the hero’s goodbye.
At the edge of town, Jesus read the signpost – “Leaving Bethany – Come Again Soon.” Budding flowers and trees lined the road with color. Some in his company sneezed as pollen filled the air. The sound of bees busy at work and birds humming their tunes was almost deafening. It was spring and everywhere were signs of life.
It is only five miles from Bethany to Jerusalem and to Gethsemane and Golgotha. Only five miles. Mary and Martha, Lazarus, Peter, and Andrew plead with Jesus to stay where he is safe and welcomed and loved, while Judas can’t wait for him to go.
Mary, Martha, and Lazarus wave to their dear friend until he passes from their sight. Tears streams down their cheeks, no long the tears of joy of a returning friend, but the tears of watching a friend walk into the eye of a storm. Jesus had offered them no other explanation for his leaving than to say, “It is time for me to go.”
Once in Jerusalem, Jesus tells his companions, “The time has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” When Jesus speaks of “glory,” the nervous, sleepless one, Judas, inwardly cheers. He has waited forever to hear Jesus speak about glory, the glory of brave heroes parading home in victory, freed slaves kissing the soil of their homeland again, young children grabbing their fathers returning in victory. Judas imagines the sounds of bands playing, firecrackers popping, patriotic speeches broadcast from bull horns.
Now, at long last, the Romans will get a taste of Jewish justice. Caesar will never steal another cent of hard-earned Jewish money. Roman women and children will now know what it is like to suffer the pain and indignities of foreign rule. As Jesus speaks of glory, Judas imagines a large crowd of followers unfurling a banner across Pilate’s headquarters, reading: “Israel Rules Here.”
While Judas approaches Jerusalem picturing one kind of glory; Jesus paints an altogether different picture of glory. Glory is like this says Jesus, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” Glory is also like this says Jesus, “Those who love their life will lose it.” For Jesus, glory has nothing to do with retribution but everything to do with redemption and new life.
Why does Jesus travel the five longest miles to enter into a week that is called “holy,” and yet seems to be a week that is totally devoid of “glory”? In words that only a person approaching death and maybe only those who are dying can understand, Jesus says, “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say, ‘Father save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.”
Conrad Hyers tells an ancient parable of the kind of “glory” that Jesus speaks. The parable tells of a great man who pays a visit to a massive walled-off enclosure. “Until the coming of this Great One, no one had ever been able to climb the wall, or had known what might be on the other side of the great wall. When this One succeeded in climbing the wall, he saw a paradise on the other side.
“Inside the wall were all the evils that beset humanity: selfishness, greed, pride, hatred, conflict, slavery, war. But outside the wall was a place of peace and harmony. Selfishness, ego, pride, grasping and clinging – the sources of evil and suffering – were not known.
“The Great One faced a difficult decision. Should he climb down the other side into the paradise that beckoned, or should he retrace his steps to tell others of what he had seen and to help them scale the wall? Sacrificing the paradise that was so near his grasp, he turned back into his world of suffering to share with and to rescue others.”
The great American poet, Langston Hughes, understood why Jesus would find no glory by staying in the safety and warm hospitality of Bethany. In his poem, Harlem, Hughes asks the question:
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore –
and then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over –
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
Why does Jesus travel the five longest miles? Why does he leave friends to face bitter foes who will not rest until he is “crucified, dead, and buried”? In Jerusalem, Jesus is glorified in the most unlikely way as he “bears our grief and carries our sorrow.” Outside Jerusalem, on the cross, in all his “glory,” Jesus becomes the friend of all who suffer and grieve and die.
Following the discovery of her son’s kidnapped and murdered body, Anne Morrow Lindburg wrote: “I do not believe that suffering teaches. If suffering alone taught, all the world would be wise, since everyone suffers. To suffering must be added mourning, understanding, patience, love, openness, and the willingness to be vulnerable.”
That is why Jesus travels the five longest miles into his “glory,” though he must surely have been tempted to stay in the comfort of Bethany. Instead, he travels into the storm of suffering awaiting him in Jerusalem and he still travels with us when we find ourselves in the miry places of suffering and loneliness and despair, times when we cry out with strained voices and breaking hearts, “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord, Lord, hear my voice!”
In the 12th century, there lived a priest and poet by the name of Bernard of Clairvaux. He wrote words that were set to music some 400 years later. The last verse of his poem is a prayer for those who seek to grasp why Jesus traveled the glory road. The poet asks: “What language shall I borrow to thank Thee, dearest Friend, for this Thy dying sorrow, Thy pity without end? O make me thine forever; and should I fainting be, Lord, let me never, never outlive my love to Thee.”
As Holy Week draws near, may God watch over our footsteps as we refuse to settle for comfortable lives lived in the safety of Bethany, but instead, as we follow the glorified One who walked those fateful and faithful five longest miles.