March 22, 2015

On Greeks and Thunder

Passage: Jeremiah 31:31-34, Psalm 19:9-16, Hebrews 5:5-10, John 12:20-33
Service Type:

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.’ … Then a voice came from heaven, ‘I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.’ The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, ‘An angel has spoken to him.’

I suppose that on looking at the sermon title you may have wondered if the sermon was going to be about Greece’s ongoing financial troubles. And the current situation is, financially speaking, stormy. The sermon isn’t about today’s Greeks. I have some other Greeks in mind; the Greeks who were in Jerusalem for the Passover and ask to see Jesus. And the thunder isn’t the noise of the storm of financial crisis.

Yet in another way the sermon, in so far as the gospel is announced, could well be for today’s Greeks. Or for any population of people. When we draw aside for worship we bring with us the concerns and burdens typical in the world. We might come with financial challenges, the grind of unemployment, the hurts of relationship struggle, the weight of diminishing health, the pain of bereavement. What are we hoping to hear? News of financial windfall, a job offer, strategy for reconciliation of relationship, a cure for disease, comfort that makes the pain of searing loss disappear?

I often think about this in sermon preparation. In an article on preaching one teacher proposes that preachers try to help hearers see how these ancient stories offer a lens, a perspective that helps people make sense of some of the ordinary or mundane things that make up most of our lives. I do appreciate this preaching professor’s advice; I read this article routinely to keep his advice in mind in this work.

I wonder what word these Greeks were hoping to hear from Jesus this day they ask for an audience. What cares do they bring? What are they hoping Jesus will do or say? Upon reading this story some might find Jesus’ behaviour off-putting. John does not indicate that Jesus met with them; in fact this event is recorded as his last public appearance. John tells us that after this Jesus “departed and hid from them.” (John 12:36)

And then there is this litany of pronouncements that explodes from our Lord’s lips upon hearing that these Greeks would like to see him. He takes their request as a signal that his “hour” has come; speaks of how only through dying will the seed bear much fruit; of hating life as the path to keeping it; of his soul in turmoil; on the horizon he sees an event that will change everything in the cosmic structure of the world; of being “glorified” and being “lifted up.” John gives us the interpretation; “he said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.” (John 12:33) I have no idea what these Greeks wanted him to speak about but I doubt that it was about a litany of sayings regarding his impending death and discipleship entailing the hating of this life. Do we want to hear this from Jesus?

I have often noted with you that the cross of Jesus Christ is the prism through which the gospel views everything. And it is for this reason that our Lord was pointing people to his coming death. It is clear that he thinks this is why he came among as a human being. We may want him to talk with us about all manner of things, he points us to the cross—to his dying for our sakes. Is it possible that there is a more profound need that he can discern but we cannot? Is it possible that the conquering of sin and death at the cross has an encompassing impact for all these other needs that we perceive? Is it possible that economic crisis has more to do with what Jesus identifies as human sin that with financial systems and currency exchanges? Jesus indicates as much as he responds to the request of these Greeks for an audience.

Ever since the event of the transfiguration Jesus has been pointedly telling his followers that he is headed for trouble, opposition and death. The cross is presented to us in the gospels as the pivotal event of human history. But we want economic well-being, happy relationships, health, coping strategies and so on. Jesus knows all these things and insists that he go to the cross and that we go there with him; “where I am, there will my servant be also.” (John 12:26)

The cross of Jesus Christ isn’t merely a nasty bit in the Jesus story that we grin and bear so we can get past it to Easter and then go merrily on way living as “people of resurrection.” The resurrection of Jesus is the vindication of the cross assuring us that what he accomplished in his death for our sakes is certain. Since Jesus believes his “lifting up” pivotal for us then we can be assured that whatever burdens we bring there is something here at the cross for us.

1. Who were these Greeks that seek an audience with Jesus and why are they at the temple.
They are most likely what are referred to as “God-fearers.” In the First Century there were Gentiles who were attracted to Judaism but who did not become Jewish converts. They worshipped at local synagogues and some would come to Jerusalem for the festivals including Passover. They would be connected with a Jewish congregation and associated with Jewish people without ever becoming Jews. (We note in the story that they hesitate to go directly to Jesus but approach the disciple Philip who had a Greek name; perhaps unsure if Jesus would receive Gentiles).

Why were they drawn to Judaism? They were attracted to Jewish monotheism and Jewish ethics. The Gentile world of that era was riddled with assorted deities. These pagan gods and goddesses were said to squabble among themselves incessantly and to behave immorally. In other words, pagan religion was no more than a projection of the messed-up human heart. Pagan religion constantly reinforced fallen humankind’s confusion and savagery and disintegration. There was no help, then, to be found in pagan religion. The God-fearers, however, recognized in Jewish faith a throbbing conviction that God is one. God is holy. God is exalted. God blesses his people by suffering on their behalf, by delivering them from assorted bondages, and by claiming thereafter their obedience for himself. Earnest, thoughtful, Gentiles were only too glad to live on the fringe of the Jewish faith.
At the same time, they tended not to take the final step and become Jews. If an adult Gentile male became a Jew he had to be circumcised — and this in a day and age that had neither anaesthetic nor antiseptic. And Gentile women? They weren’t always eager to embrace all the details of the Torah, the dietary restrictions, and so on. These Greeks relished the company of the Jewish world without becoming Jews themselves.

I believe there are many people like these Greeks connected to the church today. They are attracted to Christian faith and the message of God’s love for the world that Jesus declared. They find compelling the sense of purpose for life that the gospel affirms and the passion for the care of the poor and marginalized. At the same time they are cautious, reserved, lest they appear too “religious.” Or maybe they don’t feel they can honestly, unreservedly, assent to all the major doctrinal statements. They may even hesitate to declare themselves Christians.

But they have come near to Jesus. In John’s gospel the story that precedes this one is the story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. John makes clear the there is a buzz about Jesus because of the raising of Lazarus from the dead. John records the Pharisees complaint, “You see, you can do nothing. Look, the world has gone after him!” The story of these Greeks who would see Jesus is an instance of this phenomenon.

As you reflect on Jesus’ response to their request it is clear that the coming of these Gentiles heralds the climax of his ministry. Jesus takes this as a signal that his “hour” is now come. You can see that he has the cross in mind because of the sudden agitation in his spirit. The word he used to describe his inner turmoil connotes horror, convulsion, and shock of spirit. The prayer that will be on his lips in the garden of Gethsemane is already forming; “And what should I say—“Father, save me from this hour”? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.” (John 12:27)

It does not appear that Jesus met with these Greeks. Right after this incident Jesus withdraws from public appearance. Are these not part of the “all people” Jesus would draw to himself once he is “lifted up”? Indeed, John presents these Greek to us as the first fruits of the Gentile world who would own Jesus as Lord much in the same way the visit of the Magi is presented to is by Matthew. So why does it appear that our Lord declines their request to see him?

This event with the Greeks occurs on the Tuesday (most likely) of what we know as holy week. Suppose a few days later those same Greeks passed by that scarred figure impaled on a spit of wood at Golgotha (Skull Hill). Jesus couldn't hide himself from anyone that day. He was on public display, literally nailed down at last. Conversely, however, Jesus could not go to anyone himself, either. You had to come to him that day if you wanted to see him.

The question is: would anyone bother, would anyone dare, could anyone stomach the sight? "When I am lifted up, I will draw all people to myself," Jesus predicted. Just in case we were tempted to think that this "lifting up" meant the glory of Easter or the Ascension or something else, John inserts his own voice into the text once again to remind us that it was his raw and hideous death Jesus was referring to there. “He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.” (John 12:33)

Jesus would draw all people to himself on that cross, but would anyone come? Would anyone let themselves be drawn, or would they hide their faces, turn aside, run away, look for someone else who appeared to be going somewhere worth following? "Sir, we would see Jesus" the Greeks said to Philip. In a way, everything Jesus said in response was an extended answer to that request, as though Jesus were saying to these Greeks, "You are right to want to see me, but wait a few days. I invite you to come and see me Friday afternoon. You won't be able to miss me. You'll know me when you see me. I'll be the suffering and dying one. But I hope you'll come by to see me anyway."

3. Now about the thunder. As the anticipation of his pending “hour” presses on his imagination, sparked by the request of these Greeks, he speaks aloud of this turmoil. A prayer escapes from his lips that anticipates the one he will pray a day or so later in a garden. At the end he cries “Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, ‘I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.’ The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, ‘An angel has spoken to him.’ Jesus answered that “the voice has come for your sake, not for mine.” (John 12:30)

John tells us that the crowd heard the voice but said it was thunder. Some admitted that they heard the voice—meaning they heard what was said—but said it was for Jesus (an angel) not for them.

Some of you may remember studying Greek mythology; if you are like me you remember the study you just don’t remember the mythology. One mythological story is about a young man named Icarus and his father who attempt to escape from Crete by means of wings that his father constructed from feathers and wax. Icarus's father instructs him to fly neither too low nor too high, because the sea's dampness would clog his wings or the sun's heat would melt them. Icarus ignored his father's instructions not to fly too close to the sun, whereupon the wax in his wings melted and he fell into the sea.

This story has been the subject depicted by artists throughout history. A Dutch painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder painted Landscape with the Fall of Icarus in 1558. (Screen or below) You have to look carefully but Icarus foot is sticking up out of the water in the bottom right had corner of the painting. The people portrayed in the painting don’t even notice, because they’re too busy plowing and working doing all the things that make up their daily lives.

I wonder sometimes of this is how the story of Jesus is heard. It is hardly noticed because people are busy with their real lives. The cross of Jesus is in the bottom right hand corner of the picture, so to speak, that would be painted of how their lives depict the attention our Lord’s cross gets. Perhaps an audience with Jesus would be sought if it was perceived that Jesus had something to offer for all the routine stuff of life. “It’s only thunder,” said the crowd who heard the voice that day—“not much to see here, just a man on the edge, clearly in need of rest, claiming the messiah must die.” But Jesus insists that this thee event that which will change everything about the world including humanity. It so dominates the landscape of how Jesus sees the world that it towers at the centre over everything else. “Now is the judgement of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” (John 12:31-32)

If the voice was for the sake of those listening then it is also for us who are now listening as John recounts the story. The voice confirms what Jesus anticipates. This is his hour. To glorify means to show clearly; it is when Jesus is lifted up that we will see who God is most clearly. The story still puts its question to us, the voice—was it merely thunder?

At the beginning of holy week (Palm Sunday) we typically offer a prayer in which we ask God “to turn our hearts again to Jerusalem, to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ,” and to “remind us again that this (cross) was all for us, for our sin to be forgiven.” It is a prayer we need to continue to pray. Amen