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Sunday, March 21, 2021
Fifth Sunday of Lent
“Pictures of Jesus” Sermon Series
Scripture: Jeremiah 31:31-34 & John 12:20-33
Rev. Troy Hauser Brydon
An image of Adam Driver and Lady Gaga in costume for the movie they’re filming called House of Gucci has been making its rounds of the internet. As happens with so much of what touches the internet, people have turned this picture into a meme. My brother-in-law sent one of the versions of this meme to me this week, which is captioned, “Adam Driver and Lady Gaga look like the new mega church co-pastors who just arrived in town and this is their sponsored Instagram photo to announce it.” He then lamented, “Such a weird, bizarre thing. ‘Rockstar Pastor Idolization.’” And he’s right. The culture of celebrity is so engrained in our world that some churches and pastors embrace it. Humans have a celebrity problem. We lift up people who may be gifted singers or actresses or athletes or politicians, plaster their images or videos everywhere, and give them undue influence in our lives. My brothers and sisters, this should not be.
I suspect that many of you have encountered famous or powerful people in your life. My ministry has brought me into contact with many people I’ve seen on TV, and it’s strange how hard it is to know how to act around them. On the one hand, I know fragments of their lives from SportsCenter or from the news, yet starting a conversation with them is so difficult because I bring all of my expectations to it. “Hey – that was an amazing putt you made to win last weekend.” Or, “So – sounds like life in Washington has been a bit rough.” The struggle, at least in my mind, is that I know these people as objects and not as flesh-and-blood people. They’re already on a pedestal in my mind, elevated to a place where no human belongs. Celebrity is a form of idolatry, and our culture is celebrity obsessed.
This condition is not unique to Americans or to our era, even if things are magnified to an extreme in our oversaturated media culture. People treated Jesus as a celebrity. They heard about what he had done. They were eager to hear what he had to say. That’s the situation we encounter in John 12. Jesus has performed many signs. Most recently he raised Lazarus from the dead. (It’s only one chapter back in John.) Who wouldn’t be curious about Jesus? Whether you were truly interested in what he was doing or you were challenged by it, surely if Jesus were in the neighborhood, you’d want to see him for yourself.
Just before the text we read this morning, the Pharisees lament, “Look, the world has gone after him!” Sure enough, some Greeks (that is, people who are not Jewish) are wanting to see Jesus for themselves. His popularity is going beyond his own people. They’re looking for an entry point, so they find Philip to see if they can get a few minutes with this celebrity.
The Greeks come with a simple request. “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” The question for them – and for us – is do they really want to see Jesus, or do they just want to see Jesus as they imagine him to be, for he is more than the miracle worker. He is more than the radical teacher. He is the one sent to die for the sins of the world. He is the one who expressed power in weakness.
In pulpits all over the world, this question is inscribed as a reminder to preachers that their job is to hold forth Jesus and to get out of the way. Show people the whole Jesus, not just the easier parts. And make sure that the preacher does not become a stand-in for Jesus among the congregation. These Greeks wanted to see Jesus, but did they really want to see him? This text is the turning point in John’s gospel. From here on, Jesus’ focus will be on his remaining days. He has a purpose. It is a hard purpose, but he turns to it with a steely resolve.
It is notable to me that Jesus doesn’t do anything to impress others with his wit or his abilities. He turns straight to some hard words about what he has to do. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains a single grain,” he says, “but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” Leave it to Jesus to be cryptic when he could have been popular. Yet, Jesus is using common knowledge to drive home his point. He’s speaking to a society that is largely agrarian. They might not think about seeds in terms of death and resurrection, but Jesus gets them thinking along those lines. The seed is stripped from the plant – it’s source of life – and must be buried in order to produce new life. It’s a simple concept, but Jesus gives it a whole new meaning.
We’ve been looking at works of art to drive home these texts, and this week’s comes from Vincent van Gogh. In June 1888 he painted this wheat field. Other than being the work of a famous painter, there’s really not that inspires in this painting. It looks like an impressionist wheat field in harvest. Beautiful because it’s a van Gogh, but not his finest work. Yet, as I dwell on the painting and think of Jesus’ words in John 12, I begin to see things in a new light. I see that thousands of seeds died and rose again to produce this harvest that will sustain the life of the community. In the sheaves, there are grains that will fall to the earth once again and resurrect into new grain for the next harvest. I see the dark, stormy sky in the background, I remember that the storms are coming for Jesus too, and yet, those incoming rains will water the earth making life possible. In short, I hear Jesus’ words about grain and harvest, and even this painting – which I don’t think van Gogh ever intended for this purpose – can bring the gospel home. I even see this as a picture of Jesus.
These Greeks wished to see Jesus, but Jesus wants to be seen in his fullness. He’s more than the miracle worker. He’s the suffering servant. He’s more than the celebrity preacher. He’s the faithful Son of God. He’s the one who will be lifted up, as he says in verse 32, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” The words “lifted up” here can mean exalted, just like we do for the celebrities in our midst. And Jesus would deserve that. But here, Jesus means that he will be exalted when he is lifted up on the cross. All people in just days will see Jesus hung on a cross. But in God’s wisdom, this act that takes on all the worst of the world is what will be the cause of a new age dawning.
Do we wish to see Jesus? He invites us to gaze upon him at Calvary. He invites our love. He feels our loss. It is in the loving and the losing that we come to know him. Like the grain that falls to the ground and sprouts anew, he has come to live, to die, and open the door to life again. He is more than a celebrity. He is the very Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. And here he is, still today, asking us to look to him, to see him there on the cross out of love for the world, and to draw all of us to him.
“Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Help us, Lord, to see Jesus still today.