Sir, we wish to see Jesus.John 12:21
“Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” This simple question in today’s gospel reading echoes down through the centuries to us today. There are many who wish to see Jesus. This very quote is one that is often written on church pulpits, not for the congregation to see, but for the preacher, to remind us of why you come to worship. You wish to see Jesus. We all wish to see Jesus.
Those who first asked this famous question were Greeks, we are told in this reading. They were not expecting a messiah, in other words. But they had heard of this man, Jesus, and wanted to see him for themselves. They had no doubt heard that Jesus had recently raised Lazarus from the dead, the last and perhaps greatest of the miracles that he performed. They had surely heard about Jesus’ recent triumphal entry into Jerusalem, on the day which we will celebrate next week as Palm Sunday. So, naturally, they wanted to see Jesus for themselves. Who wouldn’t? But there is no record of the Greeks actually getting to see Jesus that day.
Instead, this request initiated a conversation, between Jesus and his disciples about his upcoming death. And at the end of that conversation, Jesus tells his disciples that when he is lifted up, he will draw all peoples to himself. In other words, when he is crucified, then all the world – including the Greeks – will see Jesus. But only then. “Sir, we wish to see Jesus,” they asked Philip. And there are many who wish to see him still. Including us. But if we want to see Jesus, truly see him, there is one place, above all, that we must look. We must look to the cross.
Why the Cross?
Why the cross? Why must we look to the cross? Why not the triumphal entry, or the empty tomb, or the glorious transfiguration? Why do we have to keep being reminded of his death on the cross? I suppose we all have asked that question. Even Jesus is tempted to ask that question. As he says in this gospel reading:
My soul is troubled. And what should I say — “Father, save me from this hour”? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.
Even Jesus is tempted to ask his heavenly Father to save him from this hour, from his death on the cross. To try and find another way to save our world. And we, too, are tempted to try and find a way that does not involve the cross. Like others, we want to see Jesus, but must it be on the cross? Wouldn’t we rather see Jesus performing his great miracles – healing the sick, raising the dead, calming the storms, feeding the 5,000? Wouldn’t we rather picture Jesus on a hillside teaching the crowds about God’s love? Wouldn’t we rather see Jesus only after he has been gloriously raised from the dead?
Even we in the church are often tempted to try and have Christianity without the cross. And we preachers – I might add – are no exception. It is always tempting to preach good news without the cross. It is always tempting to offer a feel-good religion, with no acknowledgement of our sin and our need for the cross. How easy it would be to do just that!
But this is not the true gospel, the full story of what Jesus came to do for us. And not only that, but if we see Jesus on the cross, then we see Jesus everywhere. On humanity’s darkest day, we see God’s love shining most brightly. And so, on our darkest day, we see God’s love shining brightly, too. No matter the pain or the suffering or the challenges we face, we can see Jesus right there in the midst of them, in the midst of us.
The cross is where Jesus defeated sin, death, and the devil. It is where he defeated the ruler of this world, as Jesus calls Satan in this gospel reading. It is where he bore the judgment of the world. In other words, it is where that is where he accomplished our salvation. Without the cross, Jesus knows that his mission will have been in vain. As he says to his disciples in this passage:
Unless the grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.
Jesus knew that he would remain a single grain unless he died on the cross. To bear much fruit, he had to die on the cross. And if we think of Jesus’ death on the cross as being the grain of wheat falling into the earth and dying, then what is the fruit that it bears? What is the fruit borne by the cross? Let me share three things that the cross does for us, that Jesus’ death on the cross does for us, as a way of thinking about the fruit borne by his death.
The Cross Frees Us from Sin
First, the cross frees us from “sin, death and the devil,” as Martin Luther liked to put it. It is not our hard work that frees us from these things. We are captive to sin, after all, and cannot free ourselves. It is not Jesus’ teaching that frees us from these things. His teaching shows us how to live once we are freed, but it doesn’t free us. It is his death on the cross that frees us. As Jesus put it:
Now is the judgment of the world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.
And to do it, he will go to the cross, to drive out the ruler of the world, and to free us. Unless he dies on the cross, the fruit of our freedom will never be borne in us. The freedom of the gospel was won on the cross. Not in the miracles, not in the teaching, not even in the resurrection. But on the cross.
The Cross Brings Us into Jesus’ Kingdom
But we might ask, what happens after Jesus sets us free from these things on the cross, after we are set free from sin, death, and the devil? In Martin Luther’s Small Catechism, Luther answers this question in this way: He says that Jesus freed us from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil, in order that we “may belong to him, live under him in his kingdom, and serve him in eternal righteousness.”
So, the second thing the cross does for us is it brings us into Jesus’ kingdom. We now belong to Jesus. And who better to belong to?
As Bob Dylan put it, you gotta serve somebody. So how about serving the one who loved us enough to die for us, and who freed us from sin, death, and the devil? We who believe in Jesus belong to Jesus, and we get to live under him in his kingdom. And what other kingdom would we choose but his? We are always living under someone’s kingdom.
Or, as C.S. Lewis put it:
There is no neutral ground in the universe: every square inch, every split second is claimed by God and counterclaimed by Satan.
We are either living in God’s kingdom, or in Satan’s. We are either serving God, or serving our sinful desires and the ruler of this world. Jesus died on the cross to free us from our sin, and to claim us for his own, to transfer us from one kingdom to another. From the kingdom of sin, death, and the devil, to the kingdom of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Forever. This, too, is what the cross did for us.
The Cross Helps Us to Bear the Fruit of the Kingdom
And the third thing that the cross does for us, that I want to mention today, is that it helps us to bear the fruit of the kingdom while on this earth. Jesus died on the cross to free us, to bring us into his kingdom, and to give us the Holy Spirit, that we might bear the fruit of his kingdom. The image this brings to mind for me is one that Jesus will share a couple of chapters later, in John 15, when Jesus talks about bearing fruit by being attached to the vine:
I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.
When we abide in Jesus, we bear much fruit. He is the grain of wheat that fell into the ground, on the cross, so that he could bear much fruit. And he bears this fruit through us. He is the vine. We are the branches. Those who abide in Jesus, and he in them, bear much fruit. Those who hear the Word, who pray, who worship Jesus, who live in Jesus, bear the fruit of his kingdom on this earth. Jesus died to plant the seed of the gospel in us all, and when we stay connected to him, we bear his fruit.
“Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” If this is your request, too, then look to the cross, the life-giving cross, on which was hung the Savior of the whole world. There, we will see Jesus. Today, by God’s grace, you and I get to see Jesus. We have heard his words. We have worshiped, prayed, gathered in his name. We have seen Jesus once more. We have been set free from sin, death, and the devil. We have been reminded that we now belong to Jesus, and live in his kingdom. Attached to Jesus, we can now bear the fruit of the kingdom. Reminding all the world, through our words and our deeds, that we have a Savior, who has been lifted up, and seeks to draw all the world to himself. Thanks be to God. Amen