[This message was delivered at Perinton Presbyterian on the Fifth Sunday in Lent, March 21, 2021. The text is John 12:20-33. It can also by viewed on the Perinton Presbyterian FaceBook page.]
It was Christmas Eve, three months after I turned 40. At the end of the last service, just about midnight, the far corners of the sanctuary seemed fuzzy. I had been on my feet ministering for most of the past eight hours and was tired; my eye sight had a right to be tired. Since I had always had excellent eyesight, I told no one. Then I noticed again a few days later that I wasn’t reading signs in the distance as well as usual. For the first time in my life, I went to an optometrist. After a bunch of tests, he said, “Have you heard of presbyopia?” “Of course, I am a Presbyterian pastor,” I replied. “Now just what is presbyopia?” “It is losing some of the eyes’ elasticity, which comes from age.” “Yeah, I have seen that in the church I serve. People start losing their vision, but at all ages.”
They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Their request wasn’t about changing or failing eyesight. They were hearing about this Jesus. He had turned water into wine at a wedding reception. As he approached the Temple at Passover, he saw merchants and money-changers scamming people, so he overturned their tables and send money flying in all directions. And just one chapter before today’s, he stopped at Bethany, just up the hill to the east of Jerusalem and, finding that his friend Lazarus was dead and buried, visited the tomb and called Lazarus back to life. Who wouldn’t want to see this man? “We want to see Jesus.” “We would see Jesus.” “We wish to see Jesus.”
Sometimes we don’t see what is right in front of us. We are in a hurry, or distracted, or just not observant to what is happening right around us. Joshua Bell is one of our country’s finest violinists. He fills concert halls where people pay lots of money to see and hear his musical genius. A few years back, he filled Liberty Hall in Washington DC for a concert. A few days later the Washington Post had him play some of that same music, some of the most demanding music written for the violin, but in the L’Enfant Plaza Metro subway stop, with hidden cameras. In the three-quarters of an hour that Joshua Bell played, seven people stopped what they were doing to hang around and take in the performance, at least for a minute. Twenty-seven gave money, most of them on the run — for a total of $32 and change. That leaves the 1,070 people who hurried by, oblivious, many only three feet away, few even turning to look. A three-year old stopped to watch and listen; then his mother pulled him away. Oh, and that violin he was playing in the subway station was worth about $4 million.
“We want to see Jesus.” Do we really? TV news programs often warn us that an upcoming clip may be explicit, so we can choose to look away. I warn us: seeing Jesus may not be what we are expecting. In Isaiah 53, a chapter often read in late Lent and Holy Week, we get a prophetic view of the Messiah (vss. 2-3 from “The Message”): “There was nothing attractive about him, nothing to cause us to take a second look. He was looked down on and passed over, a man who suffered, who knew pain firsthand. One look at him and people turned away. We looked down on him, thought he was scum.” There is nothing in the New Testament to suggest that he looked like anyone other than a Palesttinian Jewish peasant, which means he was about 5’4” tall, thin, with dark hair, dark eyes, olive hued skin, and calloused hands. He didn’t have wavy chestnut brown hair with golden highlights and blue eyes. Sorry.
In Ephesians 2 we get another view of Jesus. There Paul describes the wall that separated Jews and Gentiles. It was a racial wall as high as any we know today. Then Paul paints this picture: “For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” After my sermon two weeks ago, in which I mentioned systemic racism and sexism, one of you wrote me these words: “If we were created in God’s image, then God must be all colors, shapes, sexes. etc.” That is precisely the picture the New Testament paints of Jesus. All of us are in him. Galatians 3:28 nails it: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
In Matthew 25 Jesus gives us another look at how we can see him. There he tells how can see him in how we treat others, especially others in need. The surprise is that when we serve anyone in need, we are serving Jesus. “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’”
Until a few days ago, I didn’t know who Steven Amenhauser was. Then I heard in the local news that he died last week a few days after being set on fire, allegedly by two teenagers. Steven was alone in the world. He was adopted in childhood and then orphaned. His wife died some years ago. Then his girlfriend died five months ago. He lived alone. Did anyone notice? Did anyone reach out and care for him? I am heartened that over $2,000 has been collected since he died to make sure he has a decent burial. Do we ever see people like Steven Amenhauser and fail to stop and recognize Jesus in them? I do.
A few years ago I took a course in Ignatian spirituality at Mercy Spirituality Center in Rochester. We met weekly for about 40 weeks, with readings, assignments, talks, and small group conversation. The single most memorable experience was in my small group. We were talking about seeing Jesus in everyday life. Vilma told how she volunteered visiting people in hospice care in their homes. She was making her weekly visit to an old man living alone, nearing the end of his earthly days. A hospice nurse was there. She asked Vilma if she would gently massage the man’s body with oil. Vilma began gently rubbing his old, dying body with soothing oil. Then she teared up and said to us, “Suddenly, I realized I was anointing the body of Jesus as I cared for this dying man.” Vilma wasn’t the only one crying at that point. We remembered how a woman did the same for Jesus as he was heading to Jerusalem.
“We want to see Jesus.” Jesus is present all around us, especially in people in need. The underserved and overlooked. The oppressed and persecuted. To use Jesus’ words: the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, the imprisoned.
Jesus hears that some people want to see him and what does he talk about? Not making some more disciples. Not calling for a photo-op or press conference with reporters present. He talks about his death.
- “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.”
- “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 people to myself.’ He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.”
In John’s gospel being glorified means dying. In John’s gospel being lifted up means being hung on a cross. Three times in John’s gospel, Jesus is spoken of as being lifted up. One was in last week’s sermon on Nicodemus’s conversation with Jesus at night: “so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” (John 3:14-15) The second is John 8:28: “So Jesus said, ‘When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will realize that I am he.’” The third is right here. “When I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” When Jesus is lifted up, it isn’t on a pedestal. It isn’t on a platform of honor. It isn’t on a throne. When Jesus is lifted up, it is on a cross.
Death isn’t Christ’s enemy; it is his opportunity to be glorified, to be lifted up; to confront evil and defeat it. When that grain of wheat falls into the ground, new life emerges. “We want to see Jesus.” He is visible, all around us. High and lifted up, right here in our neighbor, in the one in need. Do we want to see Jesus” Let’s open our eyes; he is very near.