“Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”
Those are very simple words, and they were spoken by people who had come to Jerusalem for the festival of Passover. They had most likely come from the area northeast of the Sea of Galilee, a mostly non-Jewish area where people spoke Greek, as well as Aramaic. These were people who were Gentiles, but were drawn to the worship of Israel’s God, perhaps even considering the process of conversion to Judaism.
They have come to celebrate the most important festival in the Jewish year – the annual commemoration of God freeing the Hebrew people who were enslaved in Egypt. And just at this time Jesus and his disciples also arrive in Jerusalem – for the same reason of celebrating Passover. Except Jesus had ridden into the city on a donkey, right up to the Temple gate, and crowds surrounded him, accompanied him, acclaimed him with shouts, and waving branches, and making a pathway with their cloaks, just as they would if Jesus were a conquering hero, or beloved royalty.
These Greek-speaking worshippers must have been very curious about who Jesus was. If they had been studying the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures – particularly Zechariah and Isaiah – they might have wondered excitedly if Jesus was, in fact, the Jewish Messiah.
So they go to Philip (himself a Greek-speaking Jewish disciple) and ask for an introduction: “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” And as so often happens in the Gospel of John, Jesus doesn’t answer their question on the level they think they have asked it – simple, direct, factual, straight-forward.
Instead, Jesus answers the Greeks’ question on the most profound and spiritually truthful level possible. He tells them that now the time is right for the final act of God’s drama to unfold. He reminds them that grain can’t become a new plant and produce much more grain unless that seed grain falls into the earth and dies by being planted; and tells them that their lives in God are like that grain of wheat. They must be willing to let go of, to lose, whatever power and control they think they have over their lives, if God is going to bless them with abundant life and love.
Beyond that, Jesus tells the Greeks that he himself will die, and that in his death God will be honored and glorified. It is not to be a death in valiant combat, not one of which heroic tales would later be told; but it would be a death that would draw all people to himself. And we should hear in the back of our minds – just as those travelers probably heard – the echoes of Isaiah’s vision about God’s purpose: that one day all the world, Jew and Gentile alike, would come together in a common humanity, untied by their worship of God, at one with each other and all creation.
The Greeks asked to see Jesus, and he told them truly and deeply who he was – the One who would be lifted up on a Cross, the One who would draw all people to himself, the One who can show the world what God is like when they draw close, because if we see Jesus, we see God.
The Greeks asked a simple question; Jesus gave them a profound answer.
Phillips Brooks was the most renowned preacher in America at the end of the 19th century. We know him because he wrote the words to the Christmas hymn: “O little town of Bethlehem.” But as the rector of Trinity Church, Copley Square in Boston, he had a small brass plaque installed on the inside of the pulpit: Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” This was to be a perpetual reminder to Brooks, and anyone else who stepped into that pulpit to preach, that the congregation gathered before him was there to see Jesus.
It was – and is – the preacher’s job to make Jesus visible in ways that are meaningful and connected to the lives of those who listen. But it is also the preacher’s job to open a window onto the reality of God that may not be apparent in daily life. The Greeks came to Philip asking to see Jesus, and Jesus gave them much more than they thought they were asking for.
We all are like those Greeks who came to Jerusalem for the Passover and ended up being pilgrims who were seeking Jesus. They were seeking the intimate and powerful experience of God that Jesus embodied, for which Jesus was a portal.
And isn’t that what we seek – an intimate and powerful experience of God? Don’t we want to know God’s comfort, and forgiveness, and healing, and abundant life? Don’t we want to know that we belong to and are beloved by the One who created the very fabric of the universe? Don’t we want to know how to live with one another and all creation in peace? These questions and desires are pressing and profound.
We know in human nature there is something that also pulls against those desires, those good intentions; and sometimes pulls against them hard. It’s the force of sin. Sin is not just a list of our individual transgressions and failures, not just the things that would put us in the time-out chair or the penalty box. But sin is a force that separates us from our best intentions, from God’s purposes, and from being in love and charity with our neighbors. Sin keeps us from being able to fully know ourselves as loved and valued by God.
And tragically, that sin often spills over outside ourselves – sometimes in small ways, sometimes in large and public ways as has become so obvious in the growing threats and violence against Asian-Americans. What we saw in Atlanta this past week was not an isolated incident, but another link in a chain that has escalated over the past year, and for many, many years prior to that here in the United States. Some hurting and angry people have dealt with their feelings about the pandemic by lashing out at anyone who is of Asian descent – as if the COVID-19 virus were their fault.
We want to see Jesus; but how does Jesus see us? What does Jesus see when he looks at us? He sees a person made in the image of God. He sees a person for whom he was willing to go through betrayal, and torture, and death. He sees a person for whom he conquered sin, and to whom he offers a new life, and a new way to live. Jesus also sees our struggles to accept that love, our struggles to let go of our old, distorted views of ourselves that nevertheless give us a false sense of control and power.
When you look at Jesus, what do you most want to see and hear and know? What is it that you yearn and ache for that only God can provide?
And when Jesus looks at you, looks into your heart, what does he see? And what words of profound love does he speak to you?
Let us pray.
Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence and take not your holy Spirit from me. Give me the joy of your saving help again and sustain me with your bountiful Spirit. Amen. (Psalm 51)
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Fifth Sunday in Lent
March 21, 2021