The Fifth Sunday of Lent
John 12:20 -- 33
We Wish to See Jesus
"Sir, we wish to see Jesus." This was the request of the Greeks who had come to worship at a festival in Jerusalem. These were Gentiles, non-Jews, who likely showed up at the Jewish Passover and other festivals because they intuitively felt that the God of Israel was the true God. Their own philosophies and religious systems must not have been satisfying to them for it seems they knew that there was more to be found, it appears they felt that Israel had the answers that they desired to discover to their deepest questions. "Sir, we wish to see Jesus." They spoke to Philip, one of only two disciples with a Greek name. Perhaps they knew him from their past, maybe they just sensed that he wouldn't dismiss their request just because of their cultural background. Perhaps he was the one disciple who could understand their language, whatever the reason, it was to Philip that they said, "Sir, we wish to see Jesus." They had missed the glorious occasion, the pomp and the chaos of the few days before; they had missed Jesus "Palm Sunday" entrance on a donkey with the crowds and the children shouting "Hosannas." They had come into Jerusalem just in time to make preparations for their Passover meal; for the Seder and they found the whole city buzzing about this Jesus character and they wanted to see him for themselves.
It appears that Philip wasn't sure what to do with their request. There didn't seem to be a set of rules or a precedent of how to deal with Gentiles in the disciples training manual, so Philip consulted with Andrew, the other disciple with a Greek name and together they went and told Jesus of the Gentiles request. Jesus’ response, on the surface may appear a bit odd to us: "the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified... and I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself."
Throughout the Gospel of John at various critical points of Jesus ministry when the crowds are either very upset with his teachings and ready to kill him or very impressed with his miraculous powers and ready to crown him king, he says repeatedly, "my hour has not yet come." But here, in today's reading, after this apparently innocent request by Greek visitors, he announces that the hour has come, that the glory they've been longing for was to be revealed, not in wreaking vengeance on his enemies or in doing even greater miracles, but by his falling into the earth and dying as a grain of wheat, in his losing his life, in his being lifted up on the cross. Perhaps we may wonder how Philip and Andrew responded to the words of Jesus. We know that no amount of explanation by Jesus to his disciples that he must be lifted up on the cross, be crucified and die ever seemed to get through to them, they simply could not embrace or receive that revelation. Yet, Jesus presses on with his messianic actions and message. But why now? Because the world was knocking at his door, the nations were clamoring for his salvation, and these Gentiles had come, and he knew that the only way they would truly see him was to gaze upon him in his bloody glory, lifted up from the earth on the cross where he would draw all people to himself.
"Sir, we wish to see Jesus." What is it that is so transforming, so powerfully healing about gazing upon our crucified Lord? What is it that draws us back here again and again as we walk through these somber days of Lent and into the passion of our Lord Jesus Christ? "When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself." Perhaps Jesus was saying to Philip and Andrew, to the Greek visitors and to us that it is time to gaze upon him in awe and wonder, as we allow our hearts to be drawn by his transforming love which calls forth a loving response from us.
For it is this heartfelt response to our crucified Lord which Jeremiah spoke of hundreds of years before: "the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant... I will put my law within them, I will write it upon their hearts... no longer shall each teach his neighbor saying "know the Lord," for they shall all know me...."
This dichotomy of which Jeremiah spoke between the old and new covenant was not a setting of the law over against Grace, the God of the New Testament over against the God in Jesus Christ, nor was it a setting of Judaism over against Christianity. God's activity among his people has always been Grace filled and the content of the covenant remains the same: people are called into a loving relationship with their creator in which they respond by keeping his laws. It is the means of keeping that covenant which Jeremiah prophetically saw would be transformed. No longer would the law be written on stone tablets, but on the heart. No longer would there be a need of intermediaries; each one would know the Lord for himself or herself.
But that is a very scary transformation to imagine -- to have surgery done upon one's heart, to have to face God on a one to one intimate level is an awesome proposition. It is much easier to view God's law as something on stone, something "out there," some ideal that we all strive for but never quite make, or even a demand which seems a bit unreasonable. It is much safer to live within a "religious system" than to enter into a relationship with the living God. For that is the sword which Jesus brought. He did not come to divide Jew and Christian, but to divide those who wanted the security of a nice safe religious system and those who long for a life transforming relationship with the living God.
It is just as easy for Christianity to become a religion of law as it is for Judaism, for it to become a means by which we keep God at a safe distance, appease him and our own consciences by giving some time, and money, and even some of our talents, all the while keeping our hearts untouched by the finger of God who longs to write his name upon it. And all of this done innocently, unconsciously, with the best of intentions. I imagine and it's been my experience that most of us don't purposefully hardened our hearts and walk away from God, just as most married couples in trouble don't purposefully close down their hearts to one another. They just wake up one day and realize that they're sleeping next to a stranger, that all meaningful communication has ceased, that bit by bit their conversation has closed down, slowly but surely they have grown apart choosing to avoid all conflict, by retreating to the illusion of a safer place, all the while having their hearts grow colder and harder day by day. So it is often with our relationship with God.
We may flow easily with the routine of our religious lives and obligations, but out of the blue, sometimes suddenly, and sometimes gradually, it dawns upon us that God is a total stranger, someone out there who writes in stone and in a language we can no longer comprehend. Someone we have avoided God intentionally, perhaps because of our own behaviors that we don't want to face and hope to hide from the Almighty. Perhaps we have grown cold towards God because of pastoral issues in our life. Perhaps we have a difficult or handicapped child, a friend's cancer may cause us to reject the presence of grace, it may be the death of a parent or spouse, and some may have taken on a way of thinking about God that that keeps God as one who is remote and ourselves as victims.
And today we hear the request of Greek visitors in Jerusalem and perhaps it stirs something in us as well. Perhaps there very simple request can become our request. Perhaps we see life and glory and wonder and faithfulness all around us but our experience of the living God has grown old and tired and dusty and cold. The words of the Greek visitors can energize us and instruct us; perhaps these are words that we need to say as well.
"Sir, we wish to see Jesus." There is no other answer. We cannot talk ourselves into faithfulness. We cannot, by an act of will simply restructure our lifestyles which have left so little space for listening to the voice of God. One time at a stewardship meeting I asked the small committee gathered there if we could spend five quiet minutes in quiet contemplation, in silence, five minutes to listen while we opened our hearts to hear, "what the Spirit would have us do." One of our leaders replied that the request for five minutes of silence, listening and prayer, was too much time. Will we not give our Lord five minutes after he has given us everything? What kind of boundaries, walls, and barriers have we built between ourselves and our Lord? These Greek visitors show us a way to tear down the boundaries and walls and barriers that we may have constructed. They simply ask and remind us to say, "We wish to see Jesus."
"We wish to see Jesus." In his bloody glory, lifted high upon the cross where he draws us, he draws us with the cords of love stronger than all our willfulness, with cords of love stronger than our sinful habits, stronger than our deaf ears, our blind eyes, lame limbs, our stony hearts. He draws us in with gentle surgery, he gives us grace, "grace to love what God commands and grace to desire what God promises, that, among the swift and varied changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found."[BCP]
On this fifth Sunday of Lent, before we enter the week of our Lord's passion, let us take time and pray with one another to see Jesus. Good lord, we wish to see Jesus!