“Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”
Another grand and glorious verse from John, a Gospel filled to the brim with pithy phrases that end up in contexts and situations far removed from their origins. Yet John 20:21 has found a fitting home outside of its narrative as a verse carved in pulpits around the world. As I noted in my commentary on John 12:20-33, this verse is a summative theology of preaching for the Fourth Gospel. Preaching John means creating an experience of Jesus. It’s that simple. The request of the Greeks voices the desire of every parishioner in the pew — not to be told about Jesus but the desire to encounter Jesus. Too many sermons stop at information. Perhaps this week a Post-It note in your pulpit would be an important reminder of the purpose of preaching — to show them Jesus — particularly when having Palm Sunday, Holy Week, and Easter in clearer view.
Accordingly, for the last Sunday in Lent, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus” is a more than appropriate appeal when bringing Lent to a close. But it’s not a verse only for seeing Jesus in the present passage or only for orienting our vision for the future. To see Jesus also means some retroactive gazing.
What have we seen of Jesus in these last few weeks? What has Jesus revealed about himself to us? Or, in the words of the Fourth Evangelist, how has Jesus made God known (John 1:18)? These kinds of questions can be important in preaching. Questions of hindsight bring perspective to the present. They help us take stock of where we’ve been so as to make sense of what is to come. They invite reflection and deliberation and contemplation, none of which there is enough when it comes to faith. Rehearse the stories. Remember the revelations. Why take the time to do this? Why is all of this important? Because then in our preaching we are modeling a hermeneutic for faith. That a life of faith recalls the past, resides in the present, and rests in the future. That being a believer means, simultaneously, to be an interpreter of our traditions and of our current reality, all for the sake of interpreting the kind of future into which God wants us to live. What have we seen, what do we see, what will we see?
Reflection on what we have seen will help us interpret what we will see. And this is why the request of the Greeks is also a request that should make for a significant cause for pause. Which Jesus do you really want to see? What we might want to see, expect to see, is not always grounded in reality, which is why hindsight is essential. Our myopia is frequently symptomatic of our selected scope of vision, whether it’s a convenient forgetting of the past or a choice to ignore the present.
In this case, a hindsight hermeneutic is also an act in acknowledging the grand vistas that lay claim on any given text. It provides corrective lenses for nearsighted readings. We are never just preaching one verse, one pericope, one story. We are preaching the breadth of the witness to God’s love in the world. We do this by recognizing that to interpret a part means using the whole of a narrative, so that looking back on the first eleven chapters of John and looking forward into the next nine is essential for making sense of chapter twelve. At the same time, we return to the scriptures that informed and shaped the imagination of the New Testament authors as they sought to make sense of God’s activity in Jesus. But a word of warning here — this is not an injunction to bring every text but the Christian sink into a sermon to prove a point. Preachers that provide endless quotes from other parts of Scripture, whether nearby or far back from the Old Testament, are frequently those uncomfortable with the text they have. They will argue that they are letting Scripture interpret Scripture, or make some sort of claim about the importance of canonical criticism.
But, there is a difference between using other parts of Scripture to inform an interpretation of a biblical passage and quoting other biblical passages to avoid the one in front of you.
Worried about being wrong, anxious that our interpretations will be wide of the mark or mistaken, afraid of being accused of heretical leanings, we even use the Bible itself to dodge having to make a clear and concise statement about a text. Why? Because to make memorable proclamation about a text is a vulnerable act. It exposes you for the theology you have. It lays open how Scripture works in your own life. It uncovers your character, for good or for ill. You will be seen. So we lodge generalities about God that save no one or say nothing at all worth remembering. What might all this mean for this last Sunday in Lent?
“Pastor, we wish to see Jesus.” Show them. Show them, big time. Or, to put it another way, “go big or go home.”
As Fred Craddock once noted, “If there is a disease in preaching … it’s not that what the minister says is wrong. It’s that it is just too small.”