TITLE: We Wish to See Jesus SCRIPTURE: John 12:20-33
The gospel lesson this morning is set in the context of the Jewish festival of Passover, one of the holiest feast days of the Jewish faith.
Tens of thousands of faithful pilgrims would flock to the temple from all over the Mediterranean to celebrate Passover, making their sacrifices to God and paying their half shekel temple tax.
They'd come from as far away as Persia, Syria, Egypt, Greece and Rome. And this is the setting of our text today. John says:
"Now among those who went up to worship at the festival
were some Greeks.
They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee,
and said to him, 'Sir, we wish to see Jesus.'" (John 12:20-21)
In the sermon this morning, I'd like to explore this simple request -- "we wish to see Jesus" -- for, isn't it true, wouldn't we all, in one way or another, like to see Jesus? Wouldn't we all like to get a first-hand glimpse of him; to see, up close and personal, the kind of man he was, to hear his voice, observe his mannerisms, follow his train of thought? Wouldn't we all like to see Jesus?
The question is why? I can think of two reasons. The first is curiosity, and curiosity is what I think is going on here in this passage. John says that, among the crowd who had come to the Holy City to celebrate Passover, was a small group of Jews from Greece. They zeroed in on Philip, most likely because he had a Greek surname and was from Bethsaida, a fishing village on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee where Greek descendents were numerous.
Although we're not told why these Greeks wanted to see Jesus, I think it's safe to assume they'd heard about him and wanted to meet him face-to-face. Perhaps they'd gotten wind of his teaching or heard about some of the miracles he'd performed. There's no indication that they wanted to be disciples or make any particular commitment to him. More than likely, they were simply curious: Who was this incredible man who'd calmed the storm and walked on water; who had healed the sick and brought the dead back to life; who had taken the old dregs of the Jewish Torah and turned them into the sparkling wine of a new creation? I'd say they were curious, that's all.
Now, curiosity is a good thing. It's often the motivating force of research and discovery, the stimulus that pricks our complacency and prods us to look into things more deeply. Curiosity may have killed the cat, as they say, but, for the most part, it feeds that innate longing we have to solve mysteries, unlock secrets and broaden our horizons.
One of the current trends in the church today is to make allowance for the fact that, often, people who first come to church come out of a sense of curiosity. They're curious to know more about God and Jesus, the church and what it stands for. They want to know more about this covenant relationship that binds us together as one family of faith.
They're curious, but, as yet, not committed. So, some churches have developed what they call, "seeker services," services designed for folks not all that familiar with the liturgy we use and hymns we sing and acts of praise such as The Lord's Prayer and Apostles' Creed that we recite, Sunday after Sunday, at the drop of a hat. It's an effort to meet people where they are and introduce them slowly to the rudiments of worship, rather than have them dive in head first.
You may or may not have heard about this, but there's a program sweeping the country called, "ALPHA." It actually began in England twenty-five years ago. A minister at Holy Trinity Church in Brompton, London, was looking for a way to present the basic principles of the Christian faith to new members. What emerged was the "Alpha Course," named after the first letter of the Greek alphabet. In a relaxed and informal setting, he addressed simple questions such as "Who is Jesus?" and "Why do we pray?" Things like that. Over time, he moved on and others picked up this new member course he'd started and added their own innovations.
In 1990, a minister named Nicky Gumbel took over, and he made a startling discovery: Of the thirteen members in his "new member" class, ten hadn't joined the church at all. They were just there to learn more. A bell sounded. He realized how this simple course in basic Christianity had become a tool for evangelism. So, he went to work, streamlining the course, developing a simple format consisting of supper, a brief talk on a subject of common interest, followed by small group discussion. As the numbers grew, he trained leaders to lead the small groups. He intentionally geared everything to making the experience as comfortable and inviting as possible to the person who'd just walked in off the street. He was emphatic -- no question would be treated as too trivial, threatening or illogical. Every question would be addressed courteously and thoughtfully, and no one would be pestered if he chose not to come back.
Today, there are Alpha courses popping up all over the world. On their web site, alphacourse.org lists twenty-one countries in which Alpha is now offered. No doubt, it's more successful in some places than others. Time will tell whether it'll continue to expand and grow or prove to be just another passing fad.
Personally, I see Alpha as one of many ways to satisfy people's natural curiosity. It's one way of responding to the request the Greeks made so long ago when they said to Philip, "We wish to see Jesus." Like them, we, too, want to see Jesus because we're curious.
But there's another reason people wish to see Jesus, and that is, like so many of our heroes, he's bigger than life. Unlike the rabbis of his time, he taught as one with authority. He broke the rules of social convention and ate with tax collectors and sinners. He deferred to no one, not even Herod. He dared to touch lepers and walk among Gentiles. He had compassion for the poor; yet, showed no contempt for the wealthy. He put down the religious leaders for their false piety and, by contrast, held a child in his arms and said,
"Whoever becomes humble like this child
will be greatest in the kingdom of God." (Matthew 18:4)
We all need role models, and, when you think about it, you couldn't find a better role model than Jesus. He always seemed to know the right thing to say. When the Pharisees tried to trip him up, he saw right through them. For example, they handed him a coin and asked him whether they ought to pay taxes to Caesar. If he said, no, he'd be in trouble with the state; if he said, yes, he'd be in trouble with the church. But he knew what they were up to, and so he said,
"Give unto Caesar what is Caesar's
and unto God what is God's." (Matthew 22:21)
He always knew what to say; he always knew what to do. One time, the religious leaders brought a woman before him who'd been caught in the very act of adultery, an offense punishable by death. They wanted to know what he thought they should do to her. If he showed mercy, they could accuse him of not upholding the law; but if he condemned her, he'd prove to be one of them. Instead, he scribbled in the sand, and, as he did, he said, "Let him who is without sin cast the first stone." (John 8:7) One by one, they all slipped away because there wasn't a soul among them who wasn't guilty of sin.
Jesus is the person we'd all like to be more like. Think about it: You never hear of Jesus going back to apologize for something stupid he may have said or done; you never hear of Jesus wishing he had a better job, a bigger house, a nicer robe or a new pair of sandals. Unlike us, he lived as one with God. He had his priorities straight. His approval and his riches were not of this world.
And so, like the Greeks so long ago, we wish to see Jesus, if only for the momentary inspiration of seeing the embodiment of this ideal person we would aspire to be more like. The catch is, according to John, the Greeks never got an audience with Jesus. Philip took their request to Andrew, and, together, Andrew and Philip told Jesus, but Jesus didn't say yes or no.
Instead, he said,
"The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.
Very truly, I tell you,
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.
Those who love their life lose it,
and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life …
Now is the judgment of this world;
now the ruler of this world will be driven out.
And when I am lifted up from the earth,
I will draw all people to myself." (John 12:23-25, 31-32)
In this odd and cryptic sort of way, Jesus takes our curiosity and our admiration and elevates them to something more significant and transforming. And this is the Good News of the gospel: This little band of Greeks will get to see Jesus, all right, as will we, not as an object of curiosity, and not as a hero, but as the Savior of the world, high and lifted up on a cross for all to see.
And what this means is that to see Jesus is not simply to look at a historical figure, impressive as he may be, but to behold the Christ as one crucified for the sins of the world in order to offer salvation to all who would call upon his name. Like Moses placing a serpent on his staff and holding it high for all the people to see, Jesus is the signpost pointing us to God and to a life of self-surrender in love and service to others. He is the promise of our deliverance from sin and death, the herald of a New Creation calling us to a life of faithfulness and obedience to God. And this is his message in a nutshell,
"Those who love their life
will lose it,
and those who hate their life in this world
will keep it for eternal life." (John 12:25)
Jesus himself showed the way – he voluntarily surrendered his life in obedience to God, trusting God to order and provide. In so doing, he not only defeated the powers of sin and death, but was raised from the dead as the first fruits of eternal life. To see Jesus, then or now, is to see him crucified for the sins of the world, and, in response, to lay down our lives for the sake of others.
This is what we do, figuratively speaking, every time we gather at the Lord's Table – we participate in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We remember how his body was broken and his blood was shed for the remission of sins, and we take the bread and drink the cup in remembrance of him. And, being renewed in faith, we go out, by God's grace, to be the body of Christ in the world today, looking for signs of his presence along the way.
Last year (January 12, 2007), The Washington Post set up an experiment to learn whether people would pause long enough to recognize real quality in their midst. They arranged with Joshua Bell, a young violinist, to dress in jeans, T-shirt, and baseball cap and play his violin near a busy Washington D.C. Metro (subway) station.
Bell stood by a wall near a trash can, took his violin from its case, tossed a few bills and some coins in the case to encourage donations, and began to play. He played his violin for 45 minutes as subway riders passed by -- more than a thousand of them. While he was playing, a few people tossed a little money in his violin case -- $32 in all. Most of the rest walked by, scarcely acknowledging his presence.
$32 doesn't seem too bad for 45 minutes work. That figures out to $42 an hour -- if you don't have to take any breaks.
But Joshua Bell does better at his day job -- or, as it were, at his night job. A few evenings earlier, he sold out Boston Symphony Hall with most tickets going for $100 or more. In that concert, he played a Stradivarius violin worth $3 million -- the same violin that he played at the subway entrance.
I wonder if we would notice Jesus if he were in our presence today. He is in our presence, of course. Remember what he said? "Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me" (Matthew 25:40).
Sometimes I think that God put the needy people of the world there to give us an opportunity to do something for Jesus.