Two quotes come to mind every time I prepare a sermon, one biblical, the other not. The “other” quote is one of those maxims that has been credited to just about everybody who has ever put pen to paper, including Augustine. The quote is this: “If I had more time, I would have written less.” This is great advice for any public speaker. It takes a lot of time to organize words in concise but meaningful sentences. In contrast, a long and rambling sermon needs little preparation. Keep it short. Good advice for the preacher.
The biblical quote that I bear in mind when writing sermons is this: “Now there were some Greeks among those who went up to worship at the Feast. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, with a request. ‘Sir,’ they said, ‘we would like to see Jesus’” (John 12:20-21).
Sir, we would like to see Jesus. This should be engraved in every pulpit so the preacher never forgets. These people came to see Jesus. They need Jesus. I know, dear preacher, that the story about your dog is hilarious, or the mishap on your vacation seems relative to the text. I know that high expectations are laid upon the pastor, that it’s hard to keep people engaged week in and week out. I know, too, that even politicians and late-night comedians repeat themselves--and, while they have an army of writers, you are alone!
That may all be true, but preachers, do not forget this: these people came to see Jesus. And worshipers, do not forget this: come to see Jesus, not the preacher.
We do not know the motivation of the Greeks who wanted to see Jesus. I like to think that they were great thinkers. I imagine them as heirs to the Greek culture. After pondering the great questions of life and speculating with Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, they realized there was a serious gap in their life, so they sought out the great rabbi from Nazareth.
But we don’t know why they desired to interview Jesus. What we do know is how Jesus answered Philip and Andrew when they told him about these Greek men. His answer? I die.
John 12 lists many people who sought Jesus, but they already had an image of God in their minds. The Greeks seem to be the most open-minded. The others sought Jesus, not to discover Christ, but to reinforce their own image of God.
Judas Iscariot, for one, interrupted Mary as she poured expensive perfume on the feet of Jesus. The traitor feigned concern for the poor, “Why wasn't this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year's wages” (John 12:5). In other words, Jesus is great but we have practical concerns. Doesn’t Jesus care about the poor?
Next, we are told about chief priests who were mulling around Mary and Martha’s house because Lazarus was there, the one Jesus raised from the dead. They plotted to kill both Jesus and Lazarus because so many were putting their faith in Jesus. They thought: A miracle resurrection is impressive, but we have cultural and nationalistic concerns. This movement must stop.
Next come the Palm Sunday worshippers who hailed Jesus as King. We all want a strong leader. Until we don’t. Most who hailed Jesus the King on Sunday were nowhere to be found when Jesus the Lamb of God died.
Still others heard about the miracle of Lazarus’ resurrection and came out to see him. How many of them ignored his preaching until a miracle was a part of the equation?
To all of them--Greeks, Judas, the priests, the crowds--Jesus' final answer is this: “I die.”
It is the same answer to us who look for Jesus in all the wrong places and for all the wrong reasons. There are as many Jesuses out there as there are people. There is a Republican Jesus, a Marxist Jesus, a self-help Jesus, and a life-coach Jesus. Do you want a conservative Jesus? A Democrat Jesus? No problem, there are plenty of parishes who will give you exactly what you are looking for.
But may I suggest you never forget the Hebrew rabbi’s answer to the Greek men’s request. “Sir, we would like to see Jesus,” they asked. To which “Jesus replied, ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. I tell you the truth unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds’” (John 12:23-24).
We look for Jesus in all the wrong places because we are looking to glorify ourselves, to reinforce what we already believe to be true, to validate ourselves. But the glorification of Jesus is found in the last place we would ever look, the cross.
Do you want to see Jesus? “I die,” is Jesus’s answer to your request. And what an answer it is. His answer is love. He puts himself in our place. His death for our life. His righteousness for our sin. This means freedom from guilt. This means freedom from fear. Even the fear of death. It means life forever.
So then dear preacher, please remember that they would like to see Jesus. Carve it into your pulpit if you forget. Even if you don’t have a lot of time to craft the precise, tightly woven (and shorter) sermon you want, give them Jesus. Every time.
Dear seeker, keep asking that question with an open mind, “Sir, we would like to see Jesus.”
And never forget the answer: He dies. I know that is not the image of God you had in mind. It’s not what any of us had in mind. But it is the best answer there ever could be.