Sermons That Work

When Philip Reported to Jesus…, Lent 5 (B) – 2009

March 29, 2009

Phillips Brooks, author of “O little town of Bethlehem,” and briefly Bishop of Massachusetts, was also responsible for one of the masterpieces of American nineteenth-century church architecture: Trinity Church in Boston’s Copley Square. Brooks played a very direct role in Trinity’s design. However, there is one feature of Brooks’ design that is visible only to those who preach in Trinity church. Brooks had these words carved on the inside of Trinity’s pulpit: “Sir, we would see Jesus.”

They are, of course, the words that “some Greeks” spoke to Philip when both they and Jesus and his disciples were on their way to Jerusalem. The Greeks were more than likely non-Jews who were fascinated by Judaism’s antiquity and its profound ethical teaching. They were known as “God-fearers,” and they were numerous in the first century. Many of these “God-fearers” would have converted to Judaism had it not been for the requirement of circumcision. Along with Jesus and his disciples, the “God-fearers” were on their way to celebrate Passover in Jerusalem. But Jesus was also on his way to suffer, die on the cross, and be raised again.

When Philip reported to Jesus that the Greeks had asked to see him, Jesus exclaimed, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” This is a major turning point in John’s gospel. Scholars tell us 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: raising Lazarus from the dead. Throughout the “book of signs” Jesus makes enigmatic references to his “hour” or “time” and says that it has not yet come. When his mother tells him that the revelers at the wedding feast have run out of wine, he 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 asked to see Jesus, he knew that the hour had come for him to be glorified. As Jesus amplifies his enigmatic comment about the hour of his glorification having come, we realize that Jesus’ idea of glory and our idea of glory are radically different. For Jesus, to be glorified was to embrace the cross, the epitome of suffering:

“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.”

Because non-Jews such as the Greeks were seeking to meet Jesus, he knew that his mission was no longer restricted to Israel but had become universal. It was time for him to be lifted up – that is, crucified – so that all people could be drawn to him.

For us glory is about having more: more money, more prestige, more power. For Jesus, glory was about giving more, and he demonstrates this throughout John’s gospel, but nowhere more vividly than in the final chapters. Jesus gives himself to his friends by washing their feet. Then he gives himself to the world by dying on the cross.

It is the completion of the great arc of self-emptying that began with the opening verses of John. The cosmic Word by which God spoke creation into being descends from on high and is clothed with flesh, “and we beheld his glory.” The Word Incarnate heals the sick, feeds the multitude, raises the dead, and finally completes his task by dying on the cross, and only then resumes the glory that is rightfully his.

“Sir, we would see Jesus.” Phillips Brooks knew that everyone who steps into a pulpit and presumes to preach the gospel needs to think about those words, because the great temptation of preaching is to give our hearers something other than Jesus. “We would see Jesus,” our listeners plead, and we give them our learning, comments on the day’s news, a witty joke or two, but too often there is little of Jesus in our preaching.

But it is not only preachers who do this. All around us are people who want to see Jesus. Do they see him in us? Do they see the Servant-Lord who washed the feet of his friends? Do they see the prophet who cleansed the Temple? Do they see the healer who made the blind to see? If we are to let people see Jesus in us, then we must go ourselves and sit at his feet, let him heal us, feed upon his body broken for us, and above all stand at the cross and wonder as the Word that spoke out of the void lapses into silence and death.

A few years ago, a rabbi at a large Reform synagogue published an editorial in the local newspaper on Christmas Day. He said, “I like Christmas, and I like Christians. My only problem with both is that they need more Jesus.”

Precisely. Sometimes those who are outside the circle of the church can see and name our problems far better than we can. We all need a lot more Jesus. It’s not only a problem for preachers; it’s a problem for every one of us who are called by the name of Christian.

“Sir, we would see Jesus,” the Greeks said to Philip. We, too, need to see Jesus, so that when others want to see Jesus, they can see him in us. As the old spiritual puts it:

In the morning when I rise,
Give me Jesus.
When I am alone,
Give me Jesus.
When I come to die,
Give me Jesus.
You can have all the world,
But give me Jesus.

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Christopher Sikkema


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