A parishioner once told me that her measure for whether or not a sermon was any good was all about whether she could “see Jesus.” That’s a tall order and a helpful clue for what is needed. Even in John’s Gospel we encounter soon-to-be disciples whose first urge is to “see Jesus.”
The preacher’s task is to figure out what that means and shape it for the assembly. Who is the Jesus who must be seen? What is it about this Jesus that is most necessary for people to hear? What in the story or narrative can make Jesus’ essential qualities most palpable?
This is important for the sustenance of faith. We do not come to worship on Sunday so much because we are perfect believers but because we need to hear again who Jesus is so that we can believe.
Walter Brueggeman preached on the verse, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus,” noting it offers the strongest rationale for a Christocentric theory of homiletic. The role of the homilist, particularly, is to offer a message that is transparent to the person of Jesus. . . . The gospel writer notes that many in the crowd wonder about Jesus, but they do not yet believe in him. – Jeffrey VanderWilt
My vocation is to teach a new generation of preachers, pastors and teachers about all the other aspects of liturgical leadership, but not to preach. Yet one cannot neglect such a central act of worship in classes such as “Introduction to Christian Worship.” And so each year, I gird up my loins and lecture on preaching “as one without authority.” I always begin by invoking John 12:21, “Sir, we would see Jesus.”
Nothing more, nothing less is the call of the preacher—to bring the people face to face with Jesus. It is not our cleverness that sustains, nor the brilliance of our exegesis. It is the One who fell to earth, lost his life, rose again and who like a tree bears an abundance of ripe, nourishing fruit. Let this One be recognized in the retelling of the stories, in the interpretation, in the breaking of the bread—and then perhaps the people, like those two demoralized followers at the end of Luke’s gospel who left their companions and their vocation to return home after their teacher died, may, with restored hope, and burning hearts, risk being witnesses to the Life that death cannot end, to the Love that is stronger than the grave. – Scott Haldeman
The prophet announces a covenant that will not be something to learn, something to memorize, some rules to know. Rather, the covenant with God is written on the heart. The people will be united in a knowing that is deeper than cognition.
“Seeing” and “knowing” Jesus is, similarly, a heart-involved experience that is an on-going, ever-changing, always-evolving relationship with the One who is Love.
That relationship involves prayer, and so the letter to the Hebrews helps the assembly “see” Jesus also in its own prayerful communion with God.
Jesus prayed to the one who could save him from death, and yet he died, even death on a cross. Thomas Moore reminds us that prayer works, but not because we get the answer we want:
A billboard near an old house of mine displayed in six-foot type: “Pray. It works.” I always thought this was the ultimate in American pragmatism. If it doesn’t work, do you stop praying? What does it mean to say prayer works? You get what you want? Life gets better? My billboard would say: “Pray. It may not work.”
Prayer is an alternative to working hard to get what you want. One discovers eventually that what you want is almost always what you don’t need. Pray—period! Don’t expect anything. Or, better, expect nothing. Prayer cleanses us of expectations and allows holy will, providence, and life itself an entry. What could be more worth the effort—or, the non-effort? (Thomas Moore, Meditations: On the Monk Who Dwells in Daily Life (New York: HarperCollins, 1994), 19.)
– Scott Haldeman
Scott Haldeman is associate professor of worship at Chicago Theological Seminary, Chicago, Illinois.
Jeffery VanderWilt, author of Communion with Non-Catholic Christians (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2003), teaches at Santa Margarita Catholic High school in Southern California.
Homily Service 39, no. 5 (2006): 2-8.