Heb 5.5-10 – Psalm 119.9-16 John 12.20-33
‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus’
It was obvious that something was afoot when even some strangers from Greece, who had travelled to Jerusalem for the Passover, asked to see Jesus.
True, they could have heard about him after the commotion of his boisterous entry into Jerusalem, which in the Gospel of John is the passage immediately before the one we read today. After all, that would have been enough to create some buzz, some notoriety for this young preacher from Galilee, finally reaching the Holy City after quite a journey.
Not that this was the only high-profile event of the preceding days. Shortly before that, Jesus had brought Lazarus back to life, thereby attracting the attention of the crowds around him, so much so that many believed in him – and presumably shared their newfound belief with all who would listen.
There were those who were not quite so pleased with this turn of event. The religious authority of the time, the Pharisees, anxious about loss of control, for whom this was – if not the last straw – at least a warning sign that their beloved institutions and customs might be imminently threatened. Caiaphas the High Priest had already suggested that it was ‘better for one man to die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.’ (John 11.50). An ominous threat.
Knowing that he was under surveillance, Jesus kept a low profile while many wondered whether he might come to Jerusalem for the Passover. The chief priests meanwhile were ready with an arrest warrant in his name.
Before making it to the Holy City, Jesus stopped once again to visit his friends Mary, Martha and Lazarus in Bethany, creating a commotion once more. We may remember the powerfully charged symbolic anointing of Jesus’ feet by Mary with costly perfume often used for the anointing of the dead. We may remember the spat between Mary and Judas Iscariot over such an extravagant use of money which he felt might be used better for the poor, though whether he really cared for them was another matter altogether. Jesus rebukes Judas, knowing that his motive is not as pure as he pretends, but also that the money used to purchase the perfume would not solve the world’s poverty problems.
Yet, the Chief priests grow ever more anxious at Jesus’s exponential increase in popularity, and vow to put Lazarus to death as well as Jesus.
How Jesus managed to make any kind of entry into Jerusalem under those threats is in itself miraculous, and in great part due to the popular acclaim with which he is greeted. Great crowds congregate with branches of palm trees to fete his arrival with the joyous sound of a word we traditionally do not say in Lent. The crowds thwart any attempt of an arrest at that point. Jesus gets into the city, and presumably the crowds disperse and further spread the word.
And so these foreigners now want to see him – Greeks of all things, therefore likely to have been converts.
They speak to Philip, the Galilean, who then turns to Andrew, and who then both go to Jesus. We are told nothing further about whether the Greeks actually do get to see Jesus, or whether they are also converted.
However, it is Jesus’s answer that is striking: ‘The hour has come for the son of Man to be glorified’. And the manner of the glory is explained in a metaphor involving the grain of wheat and death, which leaves us in no doubt that in order to fulfil his destiny, Jesus is about to die.
Why is it that Jesus’s hour has finally come when throughout his journey, time and again, we had been told that the hour had not yet come: in his response to his mother at Cana (2.4), when he was teaching in Jerusalem previously (7.30), and when he was preaching in the treasury of the temple.
It is quite obvious that things have changed radically for Jesus now. Opposition to him has grown considerably because he is a threat to those in power. But so have the numbers of his followers, especially since the raising of Lazarus. His increasing following compounds this sense of threat.
The hour has come because the officials are planning for his death. But it has also come because of his success with the world, a world currently seeking him but which could easily look for another doing more extraordinary signs the next day. As we relive Jesus’ passion in the coming week, we will be confronted head on by the fickleness of humankind, be faced with our own fickleness
We will also be confronted by the utter humanity of Jesus who, though he may astonish by his divine powers, still undergoes all the emotions, fears, anxieties and pain that all human beings share in common.
Whilst we might often portray Jesus as superhuman, the point of the incarnation, of God becoming human, is that the God incarnate Jesus experiences what we experience, and prays ardently to be saved from trials in the same way as we do. Jesus cried out to God and begged to be relieved of the passion he had to undergo. But in the end, he submitted to what had to be.
His high priesthood, as described in the letter to the Hebrews, is hewed out of the life to which he has been called by God, a life of prayer, intercession and experience, a life of adulation and a life of pains and tragedies. In Jesus, God truly becomes human.
The principles of this priesthood applied to Jesus are described in the first three verses of this chapter which we did not read: (Heb 5.1-3).
‘Every high priest chosen from among mortals is put in charge of things pertaining to God on their behalf, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. They are able to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since they themselves are subject to weakness; and because of this they must offer sacrifice for their own sins as well as for those of the people.’
There is one addition though: that Jesus also became the source of eternal salvation.
The writer reminds us that Jesus cried out and he was heard, and that he learned obedience through what he suffered.
After a year of COVID-19 when many of us have had cause to wail at God for all that we have had to endure, for the losses we have suffered, for the pain we or loved ones experienced, for the ways in which our lives have been so transformed that many have become quasi hermits, we Christians are reminded that God has heard us, that God has been there before us and that God is with us again in our suffering today.
Unwelcome as it is, it is for us, like it was for Jesus, to see the lessons we can make out of that suffering and to learn through it.
And by learning, growing further in faith in the image of Christ.
This does not mean that God sends us the suffering to test us, but instead that whatever suffering we experience can be redeemed by God as we grow through it, in the way that Jesus’ suffering was redeemed by God too. Our suffering therefore should not lead us to despair and further darkness, but instead to a closer presence with God.
In the end, through our baptism, we are all called to the priesthood of all believers. Like the Greeks in Jerusalem, we wish to see Jesus, because by seeing him, we can fully understand the model we aspire too, the one who can truly guide us so that our lives are transformed.
As we enter into Holy Week next Sunday, we will be with Jesus all the way to the cross and beyond, and so will have a particular opportunity to see Jesus.
The gift of COVID and the confinement that we experience is that, by being forced to spend more time at home, we are able to better control our environment to experience Holy Week in a way that we might not again, fully entering the depths and the heights of emotions that are woven in the agony of the Passion.
I would encourage you to plan your schedule if you can to participate in our worship online or in person, and especially our services on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, the Easter Vigil and Easter day. These form a part of a whole that are hard to dissociate, and they bring us as near to the despair of Christ as we will ever be, before the elation of Resurrection life. It is difficult to conceive one without the other. So I hope you will join us.
In a week which highlighted again some Christian prejudice against LGBTQ2S+ people, as well as further racial intolerance, I would like to finish with a quote from a sermon by Desmond Tutu, delivered in London in 2004:
“When Jesus spoke of being lifted up on the cross he said :
‘I, if I be lifted up will draw..’ – he didn’t say ‘I will draw some’– he said ‘I, if I be lifted up will draw ALL – draw all to me to hold them’, all of us drawn into the divine embrace that excludes no-one – black, yellow, white, rich, poor, educated, uneducated, male, female, young, old, gay, lesbian, so-called straight – yes it IS radical. All, all,