Scripture Readings: Jeremiah 31:31–34 | Psalm 119:9–16 | Hebrews 5:5–10 | John 12:20–33
Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” (John 12:20-21)
Do we wish to see Jesus? Do we desire to see God at work in our world?
It seems like a silly question. I mean, of course we would want that, right? To recognize the presence of our Saviour close at hand. To draw near to the eternal King of Kings and Lord of Lords… who also calls us to cast our cares on Him, because He cares for us. To come to know Him more completely. To experience His life. Of course we’d want to see Jesus! Such an obvious answer, right?
Maybe. But then again, maybe there’s more to the story than we have considered. Today, the fifth Sunday of Lent, we’re being asked to reflect on what ‘seeing Jesus’ entails… and how it might just change how we ‘see’ everything, and everyone else as well.
In our Scripture reading this morning from the twelfth Chapter of the Gospel of John, Jesus invites us to see the surprising way in which the glory of God is made known in the world. But before we reflect on our passage, we need to set the stage a bit.
Right before our text this morning comes John’s account of Christ’s ‘triumphant entry’; with Jesus arriving at Jerusalem ahead of the Passover festival, riding into the city on a donkey and greeted by crowd crying: “Hosanna!” and waving palm branches. Next week, on Palm Sunday, we’ll look a bit closer at this significant part of our Lord’s story, but for now it’s important to know the context of Jesus’ words we heard today, as His controversial ministry of signs and sermons gives way to the rising tensions of Holy Week… which we are fast approaching.
Riding into the city, we clearly see the expectations of the crowd: they’re welcoming Him as the Messiah, the chosen One of God… descended from King David, and sent to rescue Israel for good. We’re also able to see the panicking of the Pharisees, along with the rest of the Jewish leaders who were plotting against Jesus. Having already been told in the earlier chapters of John’s Gospel that these leaders were looking for way to have Jesus arrested and killed, they looked on in dismay as the crowds of Jerusalem cheered Him on. John 12:19 says, “The Pharisees then said to one another, “You see, you can do nothing. Look, the world has gone after him!” As it turns out, they weren’t really all that far off the mark. In the very next verse, we heard that “among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks”… and that they wanted to see Jesus too. This may not seem like a big deal today… but back then it certainly was.
There was little love between most Jews and Greeks in Jesus’ day, due to a long and bitter history of clashes and conflict. After Jerusalem and the kingdom of Judah was conquered by Babylon, and it’s people carried away from the land into exile, the Jews had existed under the thumb of several ancient superpowers: the Babylonian Empire, Persians and Medes, who let them return to the Promised Land, and then came the Greeks, with the armies of Alexander the Great, and his power-hungry successors, who fought for control of his vast empire… which, of course, included the region of Judea.
And like many empires, before and since, the Greeks hoped to spread their own culture, their own language, values, religions, and their whole way of life, forcing the people they conquered to conform, either willingly or not. In Judea, especially during the second century before Christ, this all led to harsh oppression, bloodshed, and essentially cultural genocide… as their Greek-speaking conquerors desecrated the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, and tried brutal ways of forcing Jews to abandon their faith and their God. Eventually, some devout Jews rose up in revolt, retaking control of Jerusalem at least for a time… before the entire region was brought under Roman rule. The Romans at least allowed the Jews to retain their religion and culture, but the tensions with their non-Jewish, Greek-speaking neighbours remained, and continued to fester.
Which brings us back to Jesus, riding into Jerusalem, at the climax of His deeply misunderstood mission to Israel. The crowds saw Him as the Messiah, but one who would bring about their desires: a powerful military victory over their non-Jewish oppressors. For them, the Messiah was to bring glory to God by crushing their enemies and bringing Jerusalem enduring freedom and peace at last. On the other side of things, the leadership of Jerusalem saw Jesus through the eyes of jealousy, and fear. Not only were they losing the respect, and influence, and glory they felt they deserved, as more and more of their people looked to Jesus instead of to them… they were also afraid that if Jesus succeeded in starting a revolt, the Romans would step in and crush Jerusalem once and for all. For them, Jesus was a threat to everything that they held dear. Even Jesus’ own disciples, seemed mostly concerned with their own sense of power and greatness. Seeing all His signs and hearing His words, but missing their true meaning. God’s people, it seems… the crowds, the leaders, the disciples, could not yet see Christ clearly. At this point, late in John’s Gospel, I think we’re meant to remember John’s words from the very beginning, where he says in Chapter 1:10-11, “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.” But we’re also reminded of this hope too, found in verses 12 & 13, “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.”
And so, as some Greeks come, seeking Jesus, He says that the fateful hour has now arrived for Him, the Son of Man to be glorified. How? By military might? By rising in fame, power, and influence? By crushing His rivals, and seizing control, like everyone else expected of Him? No. Our Lord makes clear that His hour of glory means going first to the grave. Buried, like a single grain of wheat in the ground, in order to bear much fruit, and bring new life into being. “Very truly, I tell you,” He says to us, “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. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.” (John 12:24-26)
Setting aside the praise and expectations of those around Him, He chooses instead to surrender His fate to the will of His Father in Heaven, setting His face towards the cross as the fulfillment of what He had come to do… the only means by which God’s great rescue mission would succeed. As one scholar writes: “Jesus sees his own forthcoming death. It would be so easy to avoid it, to choose the path of human glory and follow the crowd to revolution. But if the seed is not placed in the earth, “it remains alone.”… Jesus’ path to glory will also put him in the ground before he can bring his fruit to his Father.” His glorious victory would be to faithfully face the cross. This is ultimately the place God’s life-giving power shines through the brightest. But what kind of ‘fruit’ was Jesus’ crucifixion and death to bring about? What was accomplished by laying down His life in the grave?
More than we could ever imagine, and certainly more than we can speak of today, but our text today points us to some of the ‘fruit’ of our Lord’s life-giving death. At the cross, Jesus reveals the true and glorious heart of God: a heart full of forgiveness, reconciliation, and love… which He intends to bear all sorts of fruit in our lives. N.T. Wright puts it like this: “Jesus’ death will be like sowing a seed into the ground. It will look like a tragedy… In fact, it will be a triumph: the triumph of God’s self-giving love, the love that looks death itself in the face and defeats it by meeting it voluntarily, on behalf not just of Israel but of the whole world, the world represented by these ‘Greeks’.” In the words of our Lord: “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself”( John 12:32). All people. Jew. Greek. All. Any who will receive Him, believe in Him… follow Him. And in coming to Him, we find ourselves drawn to each other in His love. To see ourselves, and everyone, only in the light of the cross.
Christ died to draw us back to God, and back together too. To bring us God’s forgiveness, reconciliation, and love… and to bring human forgiveness, /reconciliation, and love to life as well. To tear down old hostilities, and put to death our prejudices… to set aside our selfish ways, that we too can share in His glory. Not the glory of this world… the glory of fame, power, or domination… but the glory of God’s eternal love, planted in Jesus at the cross in order to take root and spread through us His people, and out into His world.
Do we still want to see Jesus? To draw near the Living God at work in our world? If so, we are pointed first of all to look at Him on the cross: offering His life in God’s own glorious, self-giving love for all of us, Jew… Greek… all of us, while we all were still His enemies. And seeing Him there, offering His saving love to everyone, we are pointed to our enemies… and called to love them too.
How might seeing Jesus offer His life for sinners transform how we see the real people in our lives, and in our wider world? How might it call us to change our attitudes and actions towards the people we’d rather not see? Those we fear? Those we despise? Those we are struggling to forgive? What might we have to set aside if we are to reflect the holy, self-giving love God offers us all in Christ? Our own ambitions? Our bitterness? Our selfishness? Our indifference?
Seeing Jesus truly, coming to know Him as He really is will challenge us, and change us, and call us to let His love take root in us. Seeing Him on the cross, there’s no more enemies to overcome… just fellow human beings in need of God’s forgiveness, and New Life. To live this way, to follow Him, means letting our old life die… letting Christ bury our fear, and hate, and evil with Him at the cross. But it also means bearing the fruit of God’s glorious love: becoming the way that God’s goodness, and mercy, and healing power flows into our world, which is still being torn apart by the darkness Christ died to rescue us from.
So may the Holy Spirit of God help us always to see Jesus: to remember His self-giving love offered once and for all on the cross. May His love take root within us, may it change how we see and treat those in our lives, and by His grace, may we bear all the fruit that comes from following Jesus. Amen.
 Richard A. Burridge, “Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year B,” in The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Texts, Volume Three, ed. Roger E. Van Harn (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001), 542.
 Tom Wright, John for Everyone, Part 2: Chapters 11-21 (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2004), 29–30.