March 22, 2015
“We Would See Jesus”
The Rev. Maren Sonstegard-Spray
John 12:20-33 (NRSV)
20 Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks.21 They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” 22 Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. 23 Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24 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.
25 Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26 Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor. 27 “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. 28 Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” 29 The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” 30 Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. 31 Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out.
32 And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” 33 He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.
Many months ago on a lazy Saturday afternoon when pretty much everyone in our house was taking a nap, there was a knock at the door. Living out in the country, other than UPS nobody comes to our door uninvited.
The man at the door introduced himself and said that he was an apprentice falconer (it is a real thing – we googled it afterwards) and told us that we had a red-tailed hawk living in our backyard.
When we looked at him baffled, he said, “Haven’t you seen it?” No, we hadn’t.
He asked if he could put a trap out to capture it so that he could train it. We weren’t sure what to say – we hadn’t seen this bird – so we said, “Um ok . . .” and I, at least, was secretly hoping he wouldn’t get it. And in the end he didn’t and he didn’t come back again.
And the thing is, now that we know it’s out there, now that we want to see it, we see it all the time. It is an enormous bird – I don’t know how we ever could have missed it. Now we see it, diving in the field for mice, perched on our playground or in the big black walnut tree. Knowing what to look for made all the difference.
We have, this morning, this odd story in John’s account of Jesus’ life, of people showing up uninvited, wanting to see Jesus.
It helps a great deal to know where we are in the story. We are very near the end of Jesus’ life on earth.
If you remember from two weeks ago we talked about Jesus cleansing the temple. In the other accounts of Jesus’ life, the cleansing of the temple is the thing that seals Jesus’ fate. The religious leaders can’t stand it any longer – the situation is getting out of hand.
But not so in John’s account. In John’s account, the temple cleansing is in the beginning, where Jesus takes a stand to say that how we worship God, how we understand how God relates to us, is completely changed – no more God only in one place, no more sacrifices, no more intermediaries – God is in Jesus Christ – God can get to us and we can get to God.
In John’s gospel it is the raising of a man from the dead, Jesus’ friend Lazarus, that tips the scales. The religious leaders simply cannot allows such things to continue.
They say, “If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.”
High stakes, one man’s life to save the whole nation. So they plan to put him to death and from that point on we are told Jesus retreats from public view.
But the time for the Passover Festival was coming, where hundreds of thousands (and maybe in the millions by some estimates) would have traveled to the religious heart of it all, Jerusalem.
Jews from all over were looking around, wondering if Jesus would come this time. There was an arrest warrant circulating throughout Jerusalem. Anyone who saw Jesus was to let the authorities know so that they could arrest him.
Everyone is looking for Jesus.
A couple days before the Passover Jesus comes to Bethany, the place where he raised Lazarus and his death sentence was sealed. He is anointed by his friend Mary, who takes expensive perfume, covering his feet, preparing him for death. Once we know to look for death, we see it come up again and again.
A great crowd of Jews learns that Jesus is back out in the open and they find him.
They follow him into Jerusalem where a great crowd waits as well and they welcome Jesus like a king. And the religious leaders are stymied – the crowds are too great – they can’t touch him – and they say, “You see, you can do nothing. Look, the world has gone after him.”
Tensions are high, the crowds are eager and expectant. They didn’t know if Jesus would show his face, and look what happened – he came into town like a king, with a crowd following him, and a greater crowd cheering him on, all the while this arrest order, this bounty for Jesus, is whispered from person to person.
We can imagine excited voices crying out, “Have you seen Jesus?” like fans looking for the face of a rock star in a crowd.
And we can imagine plotting voices asking door to door, “Have you seen Jesus?” because there is a hefty reward awaiting the finder.
And with all that, we arrive at this strange story of Greeks at the festival. From the word used for “Greeks” and because they were in Jerusalem to celebrate at the Passover festival, these were Jews but Jews from far away.
They find Phillip and the account tells us that Phillip was clearly from Galilee, where Jesus was also from. He was a country boy, just like Jesus, and probably spoke with the accent of the Galileans.
So they guessed or maybe figured out that Phillip was with Jesus. Phillip takes the message to Andrew and they go together to Jesus.
So here’s the question. Why did these Greeks want to see Jesus? Was it for good or for evil?
Was Jesus being found by “the nations” who the religious leaders were so afraid would believe in him? Were they a sign that Jesus’ message and ministry were spreading wider and wider? After Jesus rides into Jerusalem to so much cheering and acceptance, the Pharisees speak their fears – “look the world has gone after him” – these Greeks, do they show us that, yes, this is indeed true?
Or are they a sign that the net was closing in around Jesus? His close friends were easily identifiable. It was harder and harder to hide in this crowded city. He was being sought and perhaps nearly found by those who wanted his head on a platter like John the Baptist.
We aren’t told whether the Greeks get to see Jesus or not, but their presence signals something important to him.
Time is up, or more rightly, the time has come. Death looms; it has been looming since Jesus snatched Lazarus from death’s grasp.
We have felt its dark presence following Jesus away from Bethany and back again, and into Jerusalem. But here Jesus tells those around him, and us, that death is not always what it seems. Sometimes what appears to be the end, is only the beginning. Sometimes death is necessary for life.
There is a great TED talk by Eddy Cartaya who explores and maps caves in glaciers outside of Portland, Oregon.
Glaciers form on the slopes of Mount Hood and warm water and warm air form channels and holes in the hundreds of feet of packed ice. As the ice melts and shifts things that were buried for decades fall out of the ice and onto the floor of the ice caves.
In a cave named Snow Dragon they found a seed of a noble fir buried in ice for over a hundred years. We would call that dead. But once it was liberated, the seed began to sprout and grow.
It is the image of a seed that Jesus uses to tell us how death is not the end, but the beginning.
He tells us that when we die to the things that hold us hostage in this world, we find freedom.
He tells us that when we die to the idea that we are the center of the universe and that we are the thing that matters most of all, we discover life.
People say they want to see Jesus, and Jesus says, “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.”
He has given the answer. We see Jesus when we see how death can give life, when we see this in our own lives, in the lives of those around us, and in our world.
When we let die our idea of the perfect marriage or the perfect life, then we find love and connection.
We let die our need for control over our lives.
We let die our fear of pain or loss.
We let die the part of ourselves that cannot forgive.
We let die this idea that somehow God is no longer in charge of the church.
We let die our selfish ideas of what we are owed in this life.
We let die the idea that money will buy us contentment and peace and joy.
We bury all those things in the ground, and discover in their place new life welling up inside us.
Gerard Sloyan, a scholar and commentator on John writes, “Following Jesus is, from first to last, a matter of letting go.”
We want to see Jesus. Jesus says to us, “You want to see me, follow me. You want to see me, be a servant. Serve, and I will be there.”
Once we know what to look for, we will see Jesus everywhere. Amen.