“We would see Jesus”

A sermon preached to the congregation of All Saints Church, San Francisco, on the 5th Sunday of Lent, March 20, 2021, by Christopher L. Webber.

I remember reading an interview years ago with a famous Russian 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. So 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?” 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, “I think 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 to meet him. 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 that meeting Jesus is coming face to face with God.

For some three years, Jesus had been traveling in Palestine, primarily in Galilee. From Galilee to Jerusalem is further than Sacramemto but not as far as Lake Tahoe. Back then it was a four day journey on foot and that meant that there wasn’t a lot of contact so obviously news about this new Messiah had reached Jerusalem but not many had seen him. 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 omnipotent Creator, had come from: to see Jerusalem. They had come 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 finally come. So some of these Greek-speaking Jews and Gentiles 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.

So, that’s the story in today’s Gospel: a critical turning point leading directly to the events of Holy Week, leading up to the 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.

Pay attention to those critical words: “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. They say that 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. Our Presiding Bishop speaks of us as part of “the Jesus movement.” We need to know Jesus, to 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 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 in Russia and Sendai in Japan where people may never again be able to live because of the power of the radiant energy that has seeped into the soil after a nuclear accident. 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, the C.S.Lewis children’s books? 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 – who hope to see God – will need 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 go to church to do? Isn’t that what we zoomed in to do this morning? 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 do want you to see Jesus, I want you to see what those Greek pilgrims wanted to see. I want you – and me – for better or worse, to come face to face with Jesus.

John Donne, for my money, was the greatest preacher ever in the English language and he said this – it’s a long quotation but worth it:

“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, as John Donne asks us to do: see him in all those places: see him in the poor and the suffering, see him in the evening news, see him in Trayvon Martin and Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, and see him at the checkout counter, and see him sitting homeless on the sidewalk in your neighborhood.

Let me tell you a story about the one time when I know I saw Jesus. I was making hospital calls one day and I was 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 holding 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 probably just inside my head, but I heard it, I heard it loud and clear: It said, “He had no beauty that we should desire him.” Now that’s a familiar verse from the prophet Isaiah (53:2) and it’s often seen as a prophecy of Jesus’ suffering and dying. “He had no beauty that we should desire him.” I’m sure it’s easy to imagine how a familiar verse would come to mind under those circumstances, but out loud? I didn’t just remember the verse; I heard it. And what I know is that Jesus was sitting there in a wheel chair looking at me and I was trying to avoid eye contact, trying to avoid seeing his face right there in front of me – seeing Jesus there and not taking time to respond.

My advice to you is, don’t ever do that. Don’t ever turn away from Jesus. Be prepared to see Jesus today or tomorrow and never turn away. Ask God to open your mind and your heart to see that face in the sick and the poor and the suffering, yes, and in the pew beside you when we get back to the church and in the faces on the zoom screen – to see Jesus beside you, with you, yes, but to see Jesus in others so truly that others will see Jesus in you.

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