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"Sir, We Wish to See Jesus"

Preached at St. George’s Episcopal Church, U Street, NW Washington D.C. (field ed site) on March 25, 2012.

5th Sunday of Lent, Year B (RCL): Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 51:1-13; Hebrews 5:5-10; John 12:20-33.


 Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful, and kindle in us the fire of your love. 
Send forth your Spirit and we shall be created, and you shall renew the face of the earth. 

O God, who by the light of the Holy Spirit did instruct the hearts of the faithful,
grant that by that same Holy Spirit, we may be truly wise, and ever enjoy its consolations,
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.  


     I once heard a story about a vicar who was moved to tears the very first time he was asked to preach at the church where he was serving.  It wasn’t the invitation to preach that brought tears to his eyes, but what he saw the first time he stood in the pulpit.  The church, I’ve come to find out, is Trinity Church at Copley Square in Boston, Massachusetts. 

     Phillips Brooks, the author of “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” and a graduate of Virginia Theological Seminary, served Trinity Church as their rector, and helped shepherd that congregation through the tragedy of a fire which destroyed their building.  Consequently, Brooks became responsible for one of the masterpieces of American nineteenth-century church architecture that is Trinity Church.  He had a very direct role in Trinity’s design.  However, there is one small feature that is only apparent to those who preach there.

     As this vicar ascended the pulpit to preach, he noticed a little bronze plaque attached to the interior wall, which had six simple words, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”  That very moment, that preacher looked out into his congregation, as I look out upon you now, to see the people of God as they really are: pilgrims on the Way who are seeking after Jesus.

     “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”

     In our Gospel today, now the Greeks have come.  Those ‘other sheep, not of this flock’ have heard the voice of their Shepherd.  They probably learned about the raising of Lazarus, for news of that recent miracle quickly spread throughout the land, and they have come to see about this Jesus.

The children of God, who are scattered abroad, are now being gathered.  These are God-fearing Gentiles, maybe followers already of Jesus, who have come with others to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover.  Many Greeks might have already converted to Judaism had it not been for the requirement to be circumcised.

     These Greeks seek out Philip because they identify with him.  Philip’s name is Greek, and he came from a predominantly Gentile, Greek-speaking area called Beth-saida.  He seems the easiest of the disciples to approach, being one of their own “social network.”  It is, incidentally, those personal, family, and neighborhood ties that are all at the heart of most lasting evangelism.  The Greeks address Philip with respect as they make known their request.  “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”  It isn’t a matter of just looking at Him, or to meet a “celebrity,” but to visit with Jesus, and spend time with Him to get to know Him.

     Philip, who seems a little slow and indecisive throughout John’s Gospel, isn’t quite sure what to do.  So he shares the hopes of the Greeks with Andrew, the one who is so often the introducer or intermediary.  Together they take the request to Jesus, who at first seems to ignore it.  Jesus exclaimed, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.”

     In fact, this visit of the Greeks does indicates that a crucial moment is now here.  Jesus’ hour of glory has come!  For so often he had said it would come, but now it has arrived.  The coming of the Gentiles, who represent a waiting world, is the sign that the time of self-giving sacrifice to lay down His life has come.   

     This is a major turning point in John’s Gospel.  Scholars have told us that John is divided into the “book of signs” and the “book of glory.”  In the “book of signs” (the first part of John) Jesus performs seven miracles that John refers to as “signs.”  They begin when Jesus turns water into wine at the wedding feast at Cana and culminate with Jesus’ greatest miracle: raising Lazarus from the dead.  Throughout the “book of signs,” Jesus makes mysterious references to His “hour” or “time,” saying it has not yet come. When Mary, his mother, tells him that revelers at the wedding have no more wine to drink, Jesus says, “My hour has not yet come.”  In John 7:8, Jesus tells his disciples that he will not go to Jerusalem for the Feast of Booths because his “time has not yet fully come.” 

     But when the Greeks come to see Jesus, He knew then the time had come. When Jesus amplifies his perplexing comment about the hour of His glorification having now come, we realize that Jesus’ idea of glory and our own idea of glory are radically different.  For Christ to be glorified, it meant that Jesus must take up His Cross, that ultimate tool of suffering, that vehicle of torture and death, for it was the only way to new and unending life in Him:

     Jesus says, “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. ... 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. ... And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”

     Jesus’ own death, in ‘the economy of salvation,’ is like this parable of the grain of wheat which must die if there is to be a harvest.  There is no fruit apart from the death and burial of the seed.  It is the same with Jesus, who speaks here of His own unique death.  There can be no ‘multiplication of life’ without His life first being cast into the ground. 

     Because Gentiles were now coming to see Jesus, He knew that His mission was no longer restricted to the people of Israel, but was going worldwide, even universal!  It was time for Him to be lifted up - that is, to be crucified - so that the people of the whole world could be gathered unto Him.

     This will be the glorification of the Son of Man.  But He is not using this designation as the Jews commonly understood it, as the Messiah, that undefeatable world conqueror sent by God.  He is not the tremendous figure held on leash by God until the day when He would destroy all enemies.  No, while Jesus is the mighty Son of God, He comes, lowly and meek, to be crucified that sin and death might be destroyed.

     Often times, for many of us, glory is about having more: more money, more prestige, more power, perhaps even more time.  For Jesus, glory was about giving more.  He demonstrates this throughout John’s Gospel, but nowhere more vividly than in these final chapters, in the “book of glory.”  Jesus first gives himself to his friends by washing their feet.  Then Jesus gives himself to the whole world by dying on the Cross.

     This completes the great arc of self-emptying which began with the opening verses of John:

     “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.  All things came into being through Him, and without Him not one thing came into being.  What has come into being in Him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

     This cosmic Word by which God spoke creation into being has descended from on high to be clothed with flesh, “and we beheld His glory.”  This is the Word Incarnate that heals the sick, feeds the hungry, opens the eyes of the blind to see and the ears of the deaf to hear, raises the dead, and finally accomplishes His task by dying on the Cross.  Only then does He resume the glory that is rightly His.

     “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”  Phillips Brooks knew that everyone who steps forward and presumes to preach the Gospel must first think about those words engraved in the pulpit at Trinity Church, Copley Square.  Because sometimes, the great temptation is to give our hearers something other than Jesus.  “We wish to see Jesus,” our listeners plead, and what we give them is our learnings, comments on the day’s news, a witty joke or two, but too often there is too little of Jesus in our preaching.  Not here at St. George’s, mind you, but it’s out there, believe me!

     But it is not only preachers who do this.  All around us are people trying to catch a glimpse of Jesus.  Do they see Jesus in you or in me?  When they come seeking, is it a time when “the Christ in me greets the Christ in thee?”  Is our Servant-Lord who washes the feet of His friends clearly visible for them to see? Maybe they seek that rebellious prophet who upset the status quo while cleansing the Temple.  What am I or you doing that might make Jesus present to those seekers?  Are we acting so that they see the healer who made the blind see, or the deaf to hear, or the lame to walk?  If we, as Christ’s disciples, are to let others see Jesus, we too must sit at the Master’s feet, to let Him heal us, to feed upon His Body which is broken for us, to learn to do what we must to make Him known today.  Above all, we must stand at the foot of His Cross to watch with wonder as the Word that spoke out of the void now lapses into silence and death. 

     One of my classes this last semester at VTS is taught by a Jewish rabbi. Each day, before immersing ourselves into interpretative literature called Midrash, Rabbi Jack Moline invites us to ask anything we want to know about Judaism, Jews, Jewish culture, Jewishness and all those other mysteries about the Children of Israel.  No question is considered out-of-bounds and Rabbi Jack approaches these inquiries and curiosities, and us, with good nature, great knowledge and experience, and much humor.

     When asked about our Church’s observances in December and January each year to celebrate the birth of Jesus, Rabbi Jack said, “I love Christmas, and I love Christians.”  He delighted “that the Church can burst out into the streets and all around society.”  But he added, “My only problem with Christmas and Christians is that you both need more Jesus.”

     Aahh, there’s the rub!  Sometimes those who are outside the circle that is this church can see and name our problems better than we can.  William Henry Cosby, the gifted comedian, actor, author, and activist, better known as Bill Cosby, once said, “Every closed eye is not sleeping, and every open eye is not seeing.” 

     We all need a whole lot more of Jesus!  It’s not a problem only for preachers, but it is a regular opportunity for every one of us who call ourselves Christian. Look around our world today, from the present headlines in the news - Where do we need to see Jesus right now?  Do we see Jesus in the faces of crowds who gather calling for justice in the midst of an unjust system?  What must be done to prevent us from reading more headlines about senseless deaths like Trayvon Martin’s? 

     Many of the world faith traditions, including Christianity, demand protection for the poor and preservation of the lives and dignity of all people.  Can our nation pass a budget which doesn’t provide for the rich on the backs of its poor?  I don’t know.  I understand the budget recently proposed by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), current House Budget Committee Chairman, is characterized by some as “Robin Hood in reverse - on steroids.”  Those opposing it claim it could “produce the largest redistribution of income from the bottom to the top in modern U.S history and likely increase poverty and inequality more than any other budget in recent times.”

     Where are the faces of Jesus that will stand together to challenge this nation to preserve the lives and dignity of all - especially the least of these?  Trayvon Martin and our budget problems are just two prominent headlines of today.  There are many other injustices in our world.  But I do want us all to remember that when we see people standing together to confront these injustices, then there we can see Jesus.

     Jesus said, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”  Let us be like those Greeks in today’s Gospel who came not just looking for Jesus, but wanting to spend time with Jesus, to grow close with Jesus. Always, at all times, and in all places, may we all say, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” 

     + In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. AMEN.

1 OT 622 Midrash Class Notes, February 9, 2012

2 Bob Greenstein, President of Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) in “The Ryan Budget and Moral Cowardice” SoJoMail, March 22, 2012. http://sojo.net/blogs/2012/03/22/ryan-budget-and-moral-cowardice


Mar. 28th, 2012 12:39 am (UTC)
just to let everyone know that he got on a roll and by the end of this sermon, he was ROCKIN' with the Spirit. In an African-American congregation, this is fun. They were right there with him.
I love when this all comes together like this!