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Sermon: "Sir, We Wish To See Jesus!"

Sermon preached at Meade Memorial Episcopal Church in Alexandria, VA on March 18, 2018.
5th Sunday in 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. Amen.

Some time ago, I 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 came 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 am looking 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 reading today, now the Greeks have come. Who are these Greeks? I’ll tell you – we aren’t sure. Scholars differ in their assessment. Some think they are those ‘other sheep, not of this flock,’ Gentiles who now have heard the voice of their Shepherd. The Greeks might also be Jews who traveled and have settled away from the homeland. Either way, they want to see Jesus. 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 Greeks have come with others to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. They seek out Philip because they identify with him. Philip’s name is Greek, and he came from a predominantly Gentile, Greek-speaking area of Galilee called Bethsaida. 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. (Remember, Andrew was the first disciple Jesus called.) 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 people from outside, maybe even the Gentiles, who represent a waiting world in this Gospel, is the sign Jesus waited for 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 point out 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: the raising of 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 knows the time has come. Then as 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 means 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 these Greeks were now coming to see Jesus, he knew that his mission was no longer confined to the people of Israel, but was spreading worldwide, even going 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, for many of us, glory is about having more: think about how our society seems to ascribe glory to those with more money, or more prestige, more power, perhaps even more time (as in youth!). For Jesus, glory was about giving more. He demonstrates this throughout John’s Gospel, but nowhere more vividly than in the 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 who gives his own glory to this world and 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 take on again 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 he had 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 Meade Memorial, 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, and his Blood which is spilt 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 while in seminary at VTS was taught by a Jewish rabbi. Each day, before immersing ourselves into interpretative literature called Midrash, Rabbi Jack Moline (a neighbor of ours who formerly led the conservative congregation at Agudas Achim synagogue) invited 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 was considered out-of-bounds and Rabbi Jack approached 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.”

“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. 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 corrections in our communal justice system which seems to focus on incarceration and criminalization more than justice? How about mercy in an unjust system impacting Dreamers and those who have found their way to our shores? What must be done to prevent us from reading more headlines about senseless deaths like seventeen souls who perished last month at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, or from the Opioid scourge that continues to afflict our country?

Many of the world faith traditions, including Christianity, demand protection for the poor and preservation of the lives and dignity of all people. Will our nation ever pass a budget or tax which doesn’t provide for the rich on the backs of its poor? I don’t know. Time will still tell what the overall impact of tax reforms recently passed will bear out. I fear our economic policies too often ignore what Jesus preached.

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? For those being rounded up by ‘ICE squads,’ the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency to be detained and possibly deported, and the need for common sense gun reforms promoting gun safety that our young people have been agitated by and are now mobilizing for – these are just two prominent headlines of today. There are too 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, when people rise to say #ENOUGH, when those leaders call for us to change systems or policies, 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.