5th in Lent
March 18 2018
Jeremiah 31.31-34; Psalm 51.1-12; Hebrews 5.5-10; John 12.20-33
Rev Páraic Réamonn, Church of Scotland
How do we see Jesus?
We see him clearly when he looks upon us with the eyes of love and pours into our hearts the Holy Spirit, so that with the same eyes we may see him and each other.
I could stop there and move on to the offering. But perhaps I should say a little more.
“Hands to work and feet to run,
God’s good gifts to me and you…”
That’s how Hilda Margaret Dodd begins her song in the National Sunday School Union’s book of Child Songs, just over a century ago.
“Hands and feet he gave to us
to help each other the whole day through.”
So far, so good; but in her second verse, Hilda Margaret runs into trouble.
“Eyes to see and ears to hear,
God’s good gifts to me and you…”
Our Bibles challenge the idea that we all have eyes to see or ears to hear. They’re not talking about those of us who are in the ordinary sense deaf or blind, but about those who just don’t get it.
“Use your ears!” says Jesus. Eight times in our gospels, he says, “If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear!”
The first time is in Mark’s Gospel, where Jesus quotes from the scroll of Isaiah:
Make the mind of this people dull,
and stop their ears,
and shut their eyes,
so that they may not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears,
and comprehend with their minds,
and turn and be healed. (Isaiah 6.10)
“Use your eyes!” says Vivien when, yet again, I’ve mislaid something in the apartment just as we’re about to go out.
Our Bibles suggest that this is not as straightforward as we may think. Just like hearing, seeing is easier said than done.
In the beginning of the Genesis story of the binding of Isaac, the Akedah, Abraham sets out for the land of Moriah and sees the mountain from afar.
At the end of the story, he comes to the place that God has shown him, looks up and sees the ram, and sees that it must be substituted for his son.
At the end of the story, Abraham sees in a different way than when he first began. His vision unfolds. He grows in understanding of what God wants from him. Despite the perverse command with which the story begins, he sees that God does not desire human sacrifice. God does not want the death of his son.
God doesn’t want the death of his own beloved Son either. But God allows it, for our sake. What happens next? Let’s see.
In the beginning of John’s story of the first Easter, Mary comes early to the garden and sees the stone taken away from the sepulchre.
She jumps to a conclusion, as we often do.
She tells Simon and the beloved disciple, “They took the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have laid him.” A paragraph later, she sees two angels, dressed in white, and tells them the same thing. In a third moment, she turns around and sees a man she takes for the gardener. “Sir,” she says, “if you took him away, tell me where so I can care for him.”
Only when the gardener speaks does she recognize him. Heart speaks to heart, and Mary sees the risen Lord.
The Akedah, the story of Abraham and Isaac, comes at the beginning of the covenant between God and God’s chosen people. The story of Mary and the gardener comes at the climax of that covenant.
John writes his Gospel as a drama in which everything leads up to that climax – the hour in which the power of Jesus, the power of God’s own love, goes head to head with the world’s injustice.
Our Gospel reading this morning is one scene in that drama.
It is again the time of Passover. Among those who have come up to Jerusalem for the festival are some Greeks – most probably Jews from the Jewish diaspora. “We want to see Jesus,” they tell Philip; and Philip tells Andrew; and Philip and Andrew tell Jesus.
It’s a short story in three verses followed by a speech in which Jesus speaks of his death and its significance.
The speech looks like a monologue – a speech within the Gospel addressed to Andrew and Philip and the crowd standing there. But it is, perhaps, better understood as a soliloquy – a speech addressed to us who hear or read it.
“The hour has come,” Jesus tells us. Earlier, we are told that his hour has not come; but now the time is right. As the drama hastens towards his arrest and trial, Jesus will tell us as much as we can bear about his death and the coming of the Spirit.
In his soliloquy, Jesus asks himself what he should pray. Should he say, “Father, save me from this hour”? No, for the hour is the whole point of his coming to us. “Father, glorify your name!”
When he says, “Those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life”, he encourages us to reject the world’s small and self-centred definition of life as a snare and a delusion.
He is a grain of wheat that falls into the earth, and so are we. We must die to the world and the values of the world if we are to bear much fruit.
In John’s story, to see Jesus is also to see and know the Father. The love they share is the same love Jesus shows us as he washes the disciples’ feet; as he lays down his life for his friends; as, lifted up, he draws all people to himself. The love they share is the love that triumphs over death and the cross.
If we are to see Jesus and the Father and to share their love, we need a third person who is neither Father nor Son, but Holy Spirit. We need to be drawn into the renewed covenant and to have God’s law written on our hearts.
But before we lay our Christian hands on Jeremiah and the promise of a new covenant, we need to recognize that this is not, to begin with, a covenant with us.
Jeremiah is writing in the sixth century before our common era, and he gives the promise, in the first place, to a dispirited people in exile – the leading families of the southern kingdom of Judah who have been carried off to Babylon.
It is a promise given there and then, and only partially and rather disappointingly fulfilled in their return from exile. But it is also given to all of us, Jew or gentile, here and now.
How are we to see this rightly?
Let’s think a little about covenant and chosenness.
Tribal gods are bound to their tribes. Tribal gods get behind the slogan, “My people right or wrong”.
All too easily we reduce the one true God to these dimensions. In the trenches on the Western Front in the Great War, writes Robert Graves, “we spoke freely of God and Gott as opposed tribal deities.”
Only a universal God can choose. Only a universal God can single out the particular, as God does with Abraham. The God of Abraham can judge the iniquities of children of Abraham because he is the God of all, who singles out Abraham not for his children only but for the sake of all.
We are chosen for the others. And we are not the only ones so chosen.
Recurrently we are tempted to contrast Christian universalism with narrow Jewish particularism. We need “to recognize that Christianity shares with Judaism the scandal of a singling-out God, and that the Jewish no less than the Christian God singles out the particular for purposes transcending the particular, i.e., nothing less than the world”.
We don’t have a corner on the covenant. If we are children of Abraham and heirs of the promise, so too are our Jewish and Muslim cousins.
We see because we are seen. We see in being seen.
Paul says that now we see through a glass, darkly; but then we shall see face to face. What does this mean?
We don’t see things clearly yet. We’re squinting in a fog, peering through a mist. But the sun will come out and the weather will clear. Then we’ll see it all, just as clearly as God sees us.
We love, because God first loves us. We see, because Jesus first sees us.
How do we see Jesus?
We see him clearly when he looks upon us with the eyes of love and pours into our hearts the Holy Spirit so that we may do the same.
But I don’t want to end on a pious note. Let me end, instead, with a sting in the tail:
We aren’t the only ones who want to see Jesus or to see God. We aren’t the only ones who need to see Jesus or to see God.
How far does what we do as Christians and as a church help others to do that?
Emil L Fackenheim, “A Response to Five Questions”, in Quest for Past and Future: Essays in Jewish Theology (Boston: Beacon Press, 1968), 310
Terence E Fretheim, “Jeremiah 31.31-34”, Working Preacher
Robert Graves, Goodbye to All That (London: Penguin Classics, 2000)
Gustavo Gutiérrez, Sharing the Word through the Liturgical Year (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1997)
Judy Klitsner, Subversive Sequels in the Bible: How Biblical Stories Mine and Undermine Each Other (Jerusalem: Maggid Books, 2011)
Eugene Peterson, The Message Remix: The Bible in Contemporary Language (Colorado Springs, CO: 2006)
Peter E Sabella, Closed for Renovation: On the Road to Emmaus (Jerusalem: Emerezian, 2015)
Mary Hinkle Shore, “John 12.20-33”, Working Preacher
Hans-Ruedi Weber, The Book that Reads Me (Geneva: WCC, 1995)
NT Wright, Twelve Months of Sundays: Reflections on Bible Readings, Year B (London: SPCK, 2002)