A sermon on John 12:20-33
First Baptist Church of Lynchburg
March 21, 2021
By Paul Dakin
May the words of my moth and the mediations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.

Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to meet Jesus.” John 12:20-21

As many of you know, not long after graduating from college, I spent two years living in Japan while working as a missionary journeyman. My first week in Japan was spent in a time of orientation in Tokyo. Older missionaries used the time to more fully introduce my journeymen group to Japanese culture and customs. We attended classes and lectures and discussions during the days. One evening was spent going to a street festival that was held in the city every summer. Even though this took place some forty years ago, I still have vivid memories of that experience. I had never seen anything like it before…
The festival was a religious celebration known as “O-bōn”. It is one of the most important of the annual national religious observances. According to Buddhist and Shintō traditions, O-bōn is the time of year when it is said that the spirits of the departed return to earth to visit. Ritual observances include the cleaning up of one’s family gravesite and making offerings of flowers and incense. People also go to the local temples and shrines to worship and to offer prayers to one’s ancestors. Many of the folks who participate in O-bōn wear Western style clothes with which we would be familiar. But many choose to dress in their traditional summer kimonos in order to honor the spirits. At the temple, both men and women can participate in a ritual dance to welcome the returning spirits. The dance consists of very stylized movements while slowly stepping in a large circle, accompanied by music that is mostly made up of the beating of huge drums and the chanting of sacred texts. An O-bōn festival is a feast for all of the senses.
In addition to its religious significance, O-bōn is a popular celebration in the streets. It is almost like a carnival atmosphere. Streets are closed off to traffic and vendors set up their booths selling their wares. Brightly colored paper lanterns hang from the trees and lamp posts to illumine the night. There are carnival-style games to be played. And lots of different festival foods. Some of the more popular ones that I saw were okonomiyaki (a kind of thick pancake sprinkled with vegetables and sometimes little dried shrimp), takoyaki (round dumplings that include small pieces of octopus), and ikayaki. Ikayaki is basically a whole grilled “squid-on-a-stick.” (Never one to turn down a challenge, I bought one of those “squid-on-a-stick” from one of the street vendors and started eating it. And I did this in front of the startled eyes of our guide, hosts and the other journeymen. I confess that, as I chewed, I felt like the pressure was on. I had to silently pray the famous missionary prayer, “Lord, I’ll get it down if you keep it down…” And God was gracious…)
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I was a stranger in Japan attending a religious festival. It was all new to me. I had a guide with me to help me understand what was going on, which I appreciated. That was very helpful. But I could not enter into the spirit of the O-bōn festival. That’s because I was an outsider looking in from a different culture and a different religious tradition. I certainly enjoyed the experience and I was glad for the opportunity. But I was really not an active participant. I was just a curious observer on the sidelines. I was not involved in any of the proceedings. I was not invested in that religious celebration. For all intents and purposes, I was little more than a tourist…
The opening verses of today’s gospel reading from John 12 make up a curious little vignette. This story is only related in John. The setting is the city of Jerusalem during the Jewish religious festival known as Passover. This is during the last week of Jesus’ earthly life. John tells us that some Greeks approach Philip, one of Jesus’ disciples. And they come with a request. They say to Philip that they want to see Jesus. Instead of going directly to Jesus, though, Philip goes to another one of the disciples, Andrew, to talk it over first. And together the two of them took their request to Jesus.
The reason why the Greeks chose to go to Philip with their request is not clear. But there are a few clues. First, Philip is a Greek name. Now Jewish men with Greek names were not all that uncommon in 1st Century Palestine. And not only that, we are told that Philip then went to talk it over with Andrew. The interesting thing is that Andrew is another of our Lord’s disciples who also had a Greek name.
Second, John makes it a point in verse 21 to remind us that Philip was “from Bethsaida in Galilee.” Why would he give us that seemingly insignificant detail? It is known from contemporary sources that there was a large enclave of Greeks living and working in the city of Bethsaida. They had been there since the conquest of Israel by Alexander the Great a couple of hundred years earlier in the 4th Century BC. Perhaps these Greeks saw some Greek ethnicity in Philip’s face. Maybe. Or perhaps they detected a Greek accent in Philip’s voice when he spoke. It’s possible. We really do not know for sure. I suppose that either—or maybe both of those things—could have led them to think that Philip offered them the best chance to see Jesus…
We are also not told much about the Greeks themselves. Who were they? Where did they come from? What were they doing there? They may have been Greeks who made their home in Israel. Maybe they were even residents of Jerusalem…Or they may have traveled a great distance to get there…We do not know if they were in town specifically for the Passover celebration…or if maybe they were in town on some other kind of business. Or perhaps they were in town visiting—sightseeing—or maybe they were interested observers like I was in Tokyo for the O-bōn festival years ago. We really do not know why they were there. The text does not tell us.
Some knowledgeable Bible scholars have speculated that these Greeks were part of a group of people known as “God-fearers.” God-fearers were people who were not Jewish. They were Gentiles, but they worshipped the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob just as the Jews did. At the Temple in Jerusalem, there was special area set aside for non-Jews to worship the Lord. It was known as “The Outer
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Courtyard” or “The Courtyard of the Gentiles.” If these Greeks were indeed God-fearers, then perhaps they were in Jerusalem to worship during the annual Passover celebration. It is certainly possible. It is known that God-fearers would sometimes travel great distances to worship at the Temple in Jerusalem.1
And why did they wish to speak with Jesus? Again the text does not tell us. Were they surprised to see Jesus riding into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey to the acclaim of the crowd the previous Sunday? Maybe they among those who welcomed him into the city…Or I wonder if they had been at the Temple earlier in the week when Jesus chased all of the merchants and moneychangers out. The Outer Courtyard—the only place in the Temple where these Greeks would have been permitted—would have most likely been the place where those business men would have set up shop and conducted their business. So it is conceivable that these Greeks witnessed Jesus’ actions that day. Perhaps they were intrigued and they wanted to ask him about it…2
Or…maybe they had heard of Jesus and just wanted to meet him. At this point in his life and ministry, Jesus had become quite well-known as a miracle worker and healer. To tell the truth, he had become something of a celebrity. The scriptures say that people came from all over the region to see him. Jesus attracted large crowds wherever he went—crowds who were interested in hearing him teach, watching him perform miracles, witnessing healings, and often putting the self-righteous religious authorities in their places. There was no telling what Jesus might say or do next. But you could be sure that there was seldom a dull moment…
So the Greeks approached Philip, Philip talked it over with Andrew, and together they went to Jesus with the request. In verse 23, John tells us Jesus’ response—or lack thereof. John gives us no indication that Jesus granted the Greeks the audience they sought. After hearing of the request, in verse 23 John tells us, “Jesus answered them, ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.’” Jesus then continues to teach on that theme about how a grain of wheat must fall into the earth and die so that it can bear much fruit. And he continues to describe what discipleship really means to the end of the passage…
The word “them” as in “Jesus answered them” is quite ambiguous. To whom did Jesus address these words? To the Greeks? To Philip and Andrew? To all of the disciples? To the crowd gathered at the Temple to hear him that day? Maybe all of the above. No one knows. The text does not tell us.
I have a hunch that Jesus did not respond to their request because he discerned that they were not really spiritual seekers. I think that they were not so much coming to Jesus with questions about the kingdom or seeking to clarify who he was or what he was about. I believe that were just curious about Jesus—but not enough to take our Lord seriously. I do not think that these Greeks were really potential
1 A New Testament example of a God-fearer coming to Jerusalem to worship is the Ethiopian eunuch, whose story is told in Acts 8:29-39.
2 John puts the timing of the cleansing of the Temple early in Jesus’ ministry in John 2. The other gospel writers place it at the beginning of Holy Week, right after Jesus’ triumphant entry on Palm Sunday. See Matthew 21:12-13, Mark 11:15-17 and Luke 19:45-46.
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would-be disciples who were seeking to understand the way of God’s kingdom that Jesus had to offer. NO. Instead I think that they were just spiritual tourists—sightseers of the Spirit.
Have you ever visited a place on vacation where you really had a good time? Perhaps the beach was inviting, the water was warm and the waves were gentle. Or maybe the mountain vistas were truly breath-taking and awe-inspiring. The food you encountered was interesting and delicious. The accommodations were plush. The weather was great. There were lots of interesting things for you to see and do. You just had a really great time while you were there…and maybe you even planned to return at some later date. But when it was time for you to come home, did you ever have the thought, “It’s a nice place to visit—but I wouldn’t want to live there?” Have you ever said those words before about some place you have visited?
I think that describes a lot of people spiritually these days. It seems to me that a lot of people are genuinely seeking to find some answers for their lives. They are seeking meaning. They are looking to make a connection to God that satisfies the inner longings of their soul. Something that truly speaks to them. Consequently they may flit about from church to church—or even from religion to religion—seeking something—even if they cannot put their finger on it. They are restless and cannot seem to find what they are looking for…
And then there are people in the church who seem to be spiritual tourists. Every church that I know anything about has them. Their names are on the church roll, and yet they are seldom seen or heard from. Perhaps they come once or twice a year—or maybe not even that often. Maybe they only come for weddings and funerals or other special occasions. They are officially members of the church, to be sure. No question about it. But if the truth be told, they are only minimally involved in the church or invested in the life of faith. They make very little progress in their spiritual lives and their lives do not reflect much of the transforming power of the indwelling Holy Spirit from day-to-day… I would call these kinds of folks spiritual tourists. For them, the Christian life is a nice place to visit…but they don’t want to live there…
Friends, I beg you today on behalf of the Lord Jesus—Don’t be a tourist. That is not the kind of life that Jesus wants you to have. Jesus said, “I have come that you might have life, and have it more abundantly.” (John 10:10) But the abundant life does not come to those who just stick their toes in the water. It does not come to those who only want just a little bit of the Spirit. Jesus offers his life to those who are all in. It’s a life with an abiding sense of the presence of God in your life. A vibrant relationship to the Lord that grows and develops with the passing of time. A way of service that is a part of God’s plan to bring the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven. That is the life to which God has called his children. That is the way to live into the life to which God has called you.
To God alone be the glory! Amen.