Lent V, 2018
They must have heard stories about Jesus. Word had gotten around about this Jesus who brought a man back from the dead. Maybe one of the Greeks was a friend of a friend who knew the man born blind who could now see. Maybe they had even been in the crowd that waved palm branches that morning, calling out “Hosanna!” at the top of their lungs. Or maybe they simply wondered what all the hype was about, and they wanted to see for themselves if there was anything to the wild stories about this man called Jesus.
They know enough, these Greeks, to know that Philip is one of Jesus’ followers. They go to him and say, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” A simple straightforward request; we wish to see Jesus. Philip, the one Jesus asked to feed the 5,000, the one who invited Nathanael to “Come and see” for himself the one from Nazareth is the one about whom Moses and the prophets wrote—goes to Andrew and the two of them go to Jesus.
“Jesus, there are some Greeks who’ve requested to see you.”
Funny thing is, we never hear whether or not those Greeks got their audience. Instead there’s this bolt out of the blue, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.”
Okay! A tingle of excitement must have raced through those who heard him. This was exactly what a lot of folks had been waiting for for three years. Now Jesus would throw off the Judean “Clark Kent” disguise and become Israel’s “Superman” Messiah – yes!—glory!
But wait, what follows in the gospel account is one of those Johannian almost stream-of-consciousness monologues that we who live on this side of the resurrection can understand, but it must have left his original hearers in a fog.
Put yourself in their place. There was that statement about the grain of wheat having to “die” in the ground before it can bear fruit. What has that got to do with the conquering Messiah? That’s followed immediately with “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” Then he says, “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.” Uh huh. Finally he takes a deep breath and sighs, “Now my heart is troubled.”
And those standing there seeing this probably mumbled, “Ours too.”
Suddenly he lifts his eyes upward and begins a conversation with heaven that is punctuated with what some hear as a clap of thunder and others insist is the voice of an angel. One way or another it is disquieting. Finally he says, “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” Sure, we know what he is talking about, but you can be sure that those who first heard and saw all this were confused.
Did you notice something though? Confused or not, they stayed. There was something about Jesus that did indeed draw people to see him. It had been so since his birth – humble shepherds and learned magi. As a boy in the temple, there were rabbis and scholars. As a man there were folks from all walks of life – from fishermen and tax collectors to men like Nicodemus, the cream of Israelite society; upstanding women and fallen women; little children who loved him enough they become nuisance for the disciples to shoo away. Even a hard-bitten governor is impressed enough to disavow blame for his execution.
Why were people so attracted to Jesus? Scripture says he was not particularly handsome. He didn’t come from an influential family. He had no money. What did folks see in him? Was it the miracles? Maybe. There are always those wowed by a magic show. But on a deeper level what folks must have seen in Jesus was a sense of hope, the same kind of hope that ancient Judah felt when they heard the words of Jeremiah: “The time is coming says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant…I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts…and I will be their God, and they will be my people.” What people saw in Jesus was hope.
Several years ago, a schoolteacher accepted the volunteer position of visiting and teaching children who were patients in a large city hospital. One day the phone rang and she received her first assignment. She took the name and room number and was told by his teacher that he was studying nouns and adverbs in his class before he was hospitalized.
It was not until the visiting teacher got outside the boy’s hospital room that she realized the boy was in the burn unit. She was prepared to teach English grammar, but she was not prepared to see the horrible look and smell of badly burned human flesh. She was not prepared to see a young boy in great pain.
She wanted to hold her nose…to turn…to leave faster than she came, but she could not just walk away. So she clumsily stammered over to his bedside, and she simply said, “I am the hospital teacher and your teacher sent me to help you with your nouns and adverbs.”
The next morning a nurse from the burn unit asked here, “What did you do to that boy?”
The teacher began to apologize profusely, but before she could finish, the nurse interrupted her: “You don’t understand. We have been really worried about him…his condition has been deteriorating over the past few days, because he had completely given up hope. But ever since you were with him yesterday, his whole attitude has changed and he is fighting back, and responding to treatment. It’s as though he decided to live!”
When the nurse later questioned him about it, the boy said, “I figured I was doomed… that I was gonna die…until I saw that teacher.” And as a tear began to run down his face, he finished: “But when I saw her, I realized that they wouldn’t send a teacher to work on nouns and adverbs with a dying boy...would they?”
Some years back, the psychology department at Duke carried on an interesting experiment to see how long rats could swim. In one container, they placed a rat for whom there was no possibility of escape. He swam for a few moments, then ducked his head to drown. In the other container, they made the hope of escape possible for the rat. The rat swam for several hours before finally drowning. The conclusion of the experiment was just the opposite of our common conclusion. We usually say, “As long as there is life, there is hope.” The Duke experiment proved, “As long as there is hope, there is life.”
Look around you. What do you see? Communities, a nation, the world, torn by distrust of those we see as different. Political and economic systems that fight for winner take all status and power. War, famine, natural disasters, drug addictions and gun violence, one right after another, all tearing us apart. Add to that the countless homes and families where dreams are crushed down and aspirations are snuffed out each day. We wonder how anyone survives in this life.
We survive by the measure of our hope. That is what we can see in Jesus. For the hope of your heart and my heart is Jesus Christ.