Seeing Jesus

A sermon preached  by Christopher L. Webber at St. Paul’s Church, Bantam, Connecticut on March 25. 2012.

I remember reading an interview years ago with a famous Russian Jewish writer who was asked what he would do if Tolstoy or Dostoevsky moved in across the street: would he be anxious to meet him? No, he said; he had read their books  and had no need to meet them.

What would you say  if the opportunity came to meet Jesus: would you say, “No, thanks, I’ve read the Bible and that’s enough?”  Actually, I can imagine saying, “No, thanks; I’ve read the Bible and I’d be scared stiff!”

Some have said that after you die  you will first of all come face to face with Jesus. The bishop who ordained me said he had heard that, and he said, “Frankly, I’d rather be fried.”  Well, I understand that.  When you stop to think about your life – what you know Jesus called you to do  and what you actually have done – speaking for myself,  I don’t think I’m any where near ready.

And yet, on the other hand, isn’t there an enormous difference between the opportunity to meet Dostoevsky or Shakespeare or Charles Dickens  or anybody on today’s best seller list or George Washington or any other human being  – and Jesus? Meeting anyone else might satisfy my curiosity but meeting Jesus is coming face to face with the meaning of life. Christians believe it would be coming face to face with God.

For some three years, Jesus had been traveling in Palestine, primarily in Galilee. From Galilee to Jerusalem  is about the distance  from Bantam to Greenwich and in those days it would have taken about four days to walk it. So obviously news about this possible Messiah  had reached Jerusalem; Jesus himself might have been there briefly, but now he had gone there himself  and the people in Jerusalem had a chance to see for themselves  who this famous teacher, this wonder worker might be. And not just the people of Jerusalem  but thousands of other people who had gone there to keep the Passover:  Jews from all around the Mediterranean world, Jews who might never have been in Jerusalem before,  people who had come back to the city of David, the center of their faith,  to keep the Passover in Jerusalem and found it astir with excitement:  had the Messiah come?  Had God’s promise been kept?

And not only were there these Greek-speaking Jews  from around the Mediterranean world but Gentiles as well.  There were Gentiles  who had become interested in Judaism,  seeing it as much more appealing than the foolishness of the Greek and Roman gods  and maybe they had come to Jerusalem to see for themselves the place this belief in one God,  an invisible Creator, had come from: to see Jerusalem, to see the Temple,  to talk first hand  with the best known rabbis. And now there were rumors in addition to all that  that the Messiah had come. Some of them found Phillip, one of the inner circle of Jesus’ disciples,  Phillip, a disciple with a Greek name who presumably could speak their language,  and they told him, “We wish to see Jesus.”

Now that’s not just an interesting little story,  it’s a critical new stage for Jesus’ mission.  This meant contact for the first time  with the Gentile world, the rest of the world. And Jesus saw the importance of it  Now, said Jesus, now the hour has come, “now is the judgment of this world, now when I am lifted up, I will draw all people to myself.”  Now.  “We wish to see Jesus.”  Now, symbolically, the door is opening to the whole world. That’s the story in today’s Gospel:  a critical turning point  leading directly to the events of Holy Week,  leading up to crucifixion and resurrection and the gift of the Holy Spirit  and the beginning of the mission  that would carry the gospel out  to the rest of the world – and to us. But pay attention to those critical words:  Sir, we wish to see Jesus.

They tell the story of a rather inept preacher  who went into the pulpit week after week  and talked about one thing and another  but never seemed to focus on the Gospel, the good news about Jesus.  He went into the pulpit one Sunday morning  and found a note taped to the pulpit desk: “We wish to see Jesus.” Well, yes: that’s what it’s all about.  We are Christians, followers of Jesus. We need to know Jesus, see Jesus. And that is a radical revolution in the history of faith:  to see Jesus, to see the one who unites us to God,  to come face to face with God in human form.

Now go back.  Go back to the first chapters of Genesis with its stories of Adam and Eve  and a God who wanders in the garden in the cool of the day, Those are good stories and they make a valuable point  but God is not like that and you don’t have to go very far  – just into Exodus, the second book of the Bible to come to Moses and a deeper understanding  of who God is. Moses said, “Show me your glory, I pray.” And God said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, ‘The LORD’; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But,” he said, “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.”  (Ex 33 19-20)

There is, after all, a difference between human beings and God. There are areas of the world  around Chernobyl and Sendai where people may never again be able to live  because of the power of the radiant energy that has seeped into the soil. No one can go there and live.  One definition of God is pure energy, radiant energy,  life giving energy. But how safe can it be  for us mere human beings to encounter that energy face to face?

Did you ever read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe  in the Chronicles of Narnia? There’s a lion in it called Aslan who’s a stand-in for God.  There’s a point in the story at which Susan, one of the children,  has heard about Aslan and asks, “But is he safe?”  And the answer comes, “Of course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.  He’s the king, I tell you.”  So, yes, it’s a risk.  You don’t dare take God for granted. “Blessed are the pure in heart,” said Jesus  in the Sermon on the Mount, “for they shall see God.” Those who are not pure in heart  may also see God but they – I, most of us – can hope and expect to have the impurities purged out and that might be painful.

Coming face to face with God’s holiness  is not safe.  That’s why there are the commandments: You shall make no image of God;  you shall not take God’s Name in vain. Yet I hear it taken in vain all the time – OMG – even put that way I want to step back in case the lightening strikes. Good, yes, but not safe.  Not safe, but the center and source of life, the meaning and purpose of life. And God, out of love for us,  wants us to see and to know,  and comes to us in Jesus. No one can see God and live, says the Old Testament.  No one can truly live, says the New Testament, if they have not seen Jesus.

And isn’t that what we come here to do?  I often think of that unfortunate preacher  who found the note in his pulpit. I may be off target,  I’m sure I sometimes am, but I want you to see Jesus here, I want you to see what those Greek pilgrims  wanted to see. I want you, for better or worse,  to come face to face with Jesus.

John Donne, for my money, was the greatest preacher in English and he said this: “Do not therefore be strangers to this face.  See him here that you may know him there. See him in the preaching of the word.  See him in the sacrament. Look him in the face as he lay in the manger, poor,  and then do not murmur at temporal wants,  and doubt not that God has large and strange ways to supply you. Look him in the face in his father’s house,  a carpenter and only a carpenter . . . But bring him nearer and look him in the face as he looked on Good Friday when he whose face the angels desire to look on. . . was so marred, more than anyone . . . when he who bore up the heavens bowed down his head and he who gives breath to all gave up his spirit. And then look him in the face again as he looked on Easter Day, not decayed in the grave, but raised victoriously, triumphantly, to the destruction of death itself. Look him in the face in all these respects, of humiliation and of exultation too.  And then, as a picture looks at the one who looks at it, God on whom you keep your eye will keep God’s eye on you. And, as in the creation, when God commanded light out of darkness but gave you a capacity for this light, and as in your calling, when God shines in your heart, God gave you a beginning of this light, so in associating yourself to God at the last day, God will perfect, consummate, accomplish all, and give you the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”

Yes, see him in all those places  and see him also in the poor and the suffering, see him in the evening news, see him in Trayvon Martin, and see him at the checkout counter  and in your neighborhood.

Let me tell you a story  about one time when I know I saw Jesus. I was making hospital calls one day and in a bit of a hurry because someone was waiting for me and I was walking down a corridor where there was a row of wheel chairs  with elderly and apparently senile patients. I’ve often had the experience  of such people seeing my collar and asking for a blessing, but I was in a hurry so I was trying to avoid eye contact  and I heard a voice.  The voice was inside my head but I heard it  loud and clear: “He had no beauty that we should desire him.”  It’s a familiar verse from the prophet Isaiah and often seen as a prophecy  of Jesus’ suffering and dying. He had no beauty that we should desire him. I’m sure there’s a good scientific explanation  of how a familiar verse would come to mind under the circumstances, but out loud?  All I know is  that Jesus was sitting there in a wheel chair and I was trying to avoid eye contact, trying to avoid seeing his face.

My advice to you is,  don’t ever do that. Be prepared to see Jesus today or tomorrow  and never turn away. Ask God to open your mind and heart  to see that face, to see Jesus beside you, with you, in you so truly that others will see Jesus in you.

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