Sermon for 5 Lent Yr B, 6/04/2003
Based on Jn. 12:20-33
Grace Lutheran Church, Medicine Hat, Alberta
By Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson
The old adage has it that: “Curiosity kills the cat.” Well, in today’s gospel, we learn of some Greeks, who were likely curious alright about this Jesus. After all the Greeks were known for their curiosity—they loved to travel, study people, places, as well as the natural world to find things out. Many of them were born seekers after the truth.
It was no unusual thing to find a Greek who has passed through philosophy after philosophy, and religion after religion, and gone from teacher to teacher in the search for truth. The Greek was the one with the seeking mind.
How had these Greeks come to hear of Jesus and to be interested in him? J.H. Bernard throws out a most interesting suggestion. It was in the last week of his ministry that Jesus cleansed the Temple and swept the money-changers and the sellers from the Temple court. Now these traders had their stance in the Court of the Gentiles, that great court which was the first of the Temple courts and where Gentiles were allowed to come but no further. If these Greeks were in Jerusalem at all they would be certain to visit the Temple and to stand in the Court of the Gentiles. Perhaps they had actually witnessed that tremendous scene when Jesus had driven the traders from the Temple court; and perhaps they wished to know more of a man who could do things like that.
The Greeks came with their request to Philip. Why Philip? No one can say for certain, but Philip is a Greek name and perhaps they thought that a man with a Greek name would treat them sympathetically. But Philip did not know what to do, and he went to Andrew. 1
Then, John says, both of them went to Jesus. It is interesting that we are not told whether or not they brought the Greeks along with them to see Jesus. They may have done so, but perhaps they did not. It may be that we can take the word “them” in verse 23 to include the Greeks that Jesus was speaking to here.
It is also rather interesting how Jesus responds to their request of “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Jesus is way more than a mere curiosity for people to study. His answer here in verses 23 to 26 certainly points the Greeks as well as all of us to something above and beyond observers and curiosity seekers. Here we learn, once again, as we’ve learned earlier on our Lenten journey, that life as followers of Jesus INVOLVES NOTHING LESS THAN THE WAY OF THE CROSS. Life with Jesus is one of loving self-sacrifice. Speaking of his imminent death, veiled in parabolic language of a single grain of wheat planted in the ground to die there in order to give life to a new plant, which will bear much fruit—Jesus teaches us all his way of the cross and prepares us for ours too. And millions down through the centuries have discovered the truth of Jesus’ way of the cross.
In the Swedish movie, Jerusalem (1996), which portrays peasant life in that nation around the turn of the 20th century; a devout lay leader in the community named Ingmar, sees two small children trapped on a raft quickly driven down a fast-flowing river. The water is ice-cold, and everyone but Ingmar stands helplessly on the riverbank, watching the children face their impending deaths. However, against all odds and advice of the passive bystanders, Ingmar jumps into the river and saves the children. Unfortunately, a floating log smashes into him, stunning him as he sinks under the water. Somehow he struggles back to shore safely.
However, the ice-cold water had already done its damage, along with the floating log. Ingmar becomes ill and then dies. Ingmar, unlike everyone else passively watching, was willing to count the cost by taking the risk of losing his life to save the lives of the two children. It seems to me that Ingmar is a Christ figure in this movie insofar as he chose Christ’s way of the cross; of gaining life by losing life; of giving life in sacrificial love for the benefit of others.
Even, believe it or not, our natural world teaches us the truth of Christ’s way of the cross. In the insect world, the praying mantis male gives up its very life in the act of mating: the female actually devours the male. How in the providence of God could such a cruel thing happen? What purpose is served here? Yet it’s part of the very order of creation, as though God planned it that way. Could he be reminding us from nature of the very thing we lose sight of? 2
Little wonder then that Jesus here in John’s Gospel has such magnetic power to attract “all people” to himself when he is lifted up on the cross! Even though many would mock and outright reject the way of the cross, nonetheless it is God’s way of drawing people to himself. The cross is a clear demonstration that Jesus does not want us to be indifferent or distant bystanders or observers. Rather, he called those Greeks long ago and everyone else to come close up and actively engage in life by following the way of the cross.
When Count Nicholas Zinzendorf was a young man, he had an experience in an art gallery that changed his life forever. He was born an aristocrat and had always known wealth and luxury, and he was an extremely gifted individual. Zinzendorf had been reared and trained for a diplomatic career in the Court at Dresden. Beyond all of this, it has been said of him that he was a child of God. One day, on a trip to Paris, he stopped for a rest in Dusseldorf; during his stay in the city, he visited the art gallery. There he caught sight of Sternberg’s painting of the crucified Jesus that he calls “Ecce Homo.” The artist had written two short lines in Latin beneath the painting:
Hoc feci pro te:
Quid facid pro me?
(“This is what I did for you: what have you done for me?”)
As the story goes, when his eyes met the eyes of the thorn-crowned Saviour, he was filled with a sense of shame. He could not answer that question in a manner which would satisfy his own conscience. He stayed there for hours, looking at the painting of the Christ on the cross until the light failed. And when the time arrived for the gallery to be closed, he was still staring at the face of Christ, trying in vain to find an answer to the question of what he had done for Christ. He left the gallery at nightfall, but a new day was dawning for him. From that day on, he devoted his heart and soul, his life and his wealth—all he had—to Christ, declaring, “I have but one passion; it is Jesus, Jesus only.” 3
Did those Greeks move beyond their curiosity and observation of Jesus to be drawn closer to him by following his way of the cross? Did they, like Nicholas Zinzendorf come to have but one passion, Jesus only? What about us? May Christ who is lifted up on the cross draw us ever more closer to him so that like Nicholas Zinzendorf and countless others; our passion is Jesus, Jesus only!
1 Cited from: Wm. Barclay, The Daily Study Bible: The Gospel of John, Vol. 2 (Burlington, ON: G.R. Welch Co. Ltd., 1975), p. 120.
2 Cited from: Wm. H. Horn, “The Secret Of Survival,” in: A.M. Motter, editor, Preaching The Passion (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1963), p. 74.
3 Cited from: George Bass, The Tree, The Tomb, And The Trumpet (Lima, OH: C.S.S. Publishing Co., Inc., 1984), pp. 40-41.