“Sir, we want to see Jesus. Can you help us?” (John 12:21) That’s how our story begins. “We want to see Jesus”.
Close your eyes for a moment. Imagine that Jesus is right in front of you. Imagine that you’re looking right at him. You can see him, and he can see you. OK, keep those eyes closed.
This is wonderful. Many people have heard about Jesus. Many people have read the stories about him. Many have learned the prayer that he taught. Many have learned the songs composed about him. But they have never seen him.
But now you are seeing him. What do you see? What does he look like? Try to pay close attention, his appearance, his clothing, his expression. Pay close attention.
Keep those eyes closed, please! You’re paying close attention to Jesus who is right in front of you, and you’re right in front of him. Take note of what you are seeing. What color is his hair? Dark or light, thin or thick, long or short, curly or straight? What color are his eyes? Brown, blue, or one of those in-between shades, hazel, green?
What kind of clothes is he wearing? Clothes like you might see in one of those epic movies about him? A white robe? Or maybe something browner or dirtier or patchier? Or something else altogether. Something simple or something elegant?
Please keep them closed. Look closer. Does Jesus look energetic or tired? Does he look happy or sad? Next week we’re going to read a story about Jesus crying – do you see some of that? Is he glaring at you? Is he angry? Or maybe you can imagine Jesus laughing, maybe laughing at one of your jokes?
Would the Jesus you see stand out in a crowd? Does he glow? Is he radiant? Is the sun shining on him? Or does he look nondescript and unremarkable, just another person?
Take one final look. Try to fix it in your mind. OK, now “save” that picture, like you would save a photo on you cell phone, pad or computer.
Have you got it? OK, please open your eyes.
Now, let’s talk about what you saw when you were looking at Jesus, and he was looking at you. Let’s compare notes with each other. Don’t worry, we’re not going to carve what you describe in stone. It’s a time for imagination, so let’s be in the spirit of imagination, a holy or spiritual imagination.
So, please, would you be willing to share the picture you just saved? Tell us something about Jesus’ physical appearance. Tell us something about his clothing. Tell us something about his expression. Tell us something about what he might look like in a crowd. What did you see? (various responses follow)
When those Greek people wanting to see Jesus saw him, maybe what they saw is much like what you have described? It’s hard to be certain about that, because we are hampered by a serious lack of information about Jesus’ appearance. A Gospel huckster many decades ago used to offer “gen-you-wine” autographed pictures of Jesus to people who sent him money during his radio broadcasts. But of course there were no cameras back in Jesus time. There are no “gen-you-wine” photos of Jesus. Last night I did a computer search on Google. I did a search on “the oldest picture of Jesus”. Try it, you’ll find all kinds of interesting artwork from the distant past. The picture that I found most intriguing is one from Syria in 235 AD, showing Jesus healing the paralyzed man. [ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Depiction_of_Jesus] It’s the oldest picture on record. He is shown with short dark hair and no beard. He’s wearing a Greek robe and his hand is reaching out to the paralyzed man. Compelling testimony, or just someone’s imagination 200 years after Jesus? A lot of the oldest art shows Jesus with curly hair and no beard.
On the same web site you can see Jesus as pictured by Africans, Asian, or Latin Americans. Guess what, in their pictures Jesus looks just like the people who live in those places. That’s not surprising, I guess. We imagine Jesus looking something like ourselves. And that’s good, I think, because he shares our humanity.
But there’s a danger in that because if we imagine Jesus looking just like us then it’s harder to imagine him asking us to be anything other than what we are. Too many times in the last two thousand years various Christians have somehow heard in the words of Jesus a command to obliterate or destroy the ones different from themselves. Maybe a picture of Jesus looking very different from ourselves would be a good idea, we wouldn’t be so quick to assume his affirmation of everything we would say or do.
When I read a Bible text for preaching I usually begin with the New Revised Standard Version – it’s the translation that I studied while a student at Union Seminary. But I also like to look at other translations from time to time. I did that with this reading from John’s Gospel, by turning to “The Message” translation. And I noticed something I’d never seen before.
So some Greeks show up, asking to see Jesus. Let me tell you that this was an unexpected development. Up until that moment, the people curious about Jesus were Jews of one kind or another. That Greeks had appeared asking about him is hugely remarkable. These were people who worshiped the gods of Greek mythology, Zeus, Hera, Apollo, Athena and all the others. But on this day, they are approaching Jesus. They are curious about him. They want to see him.
So Philip and Andrew go and tell Jesus that some Greeks want to see him. Jesus responds, “Time’s Up! The time for the Son of Man to be glorified as come.” “Time’s Up!” This really caught my attention. I’ve passed by these words many times before, but in this translation my attention is drawn like never before. Somehow this moment when people outside of the Jewish experience want to see Jesus becomes the tipping point and Jesus announces he is ready to be glorified, which means he is ready for the cross and the resurrection. Jesus is no longer the private possession of one religious tradition, he has now become available to the whole world. When Jesus learns that that boundary has been crossed, “time’s up!” It’s time for what will come next!
“Sir, we want to see Jesus”. So now my imagination is running stronger than usual, and I am imagining that when I see Jesus it becomes a tipping point all over again. Tipping the world, tipping me, tipping you, toward the cross … and the resurrection.