Seeing What’s in Front of You
[There is no audio for this sermon.]
Text: John 14:9c: “How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?”
Maybe it’s because I am in the middle of middle age. Or maybe it’s because I am maturing into the curmudgeon I have always aspired to be. Or maybe it’s just because I have long since given up on any hope of finding somewhere in my personality makeup some small possibility of being meek and mild.
I don’t know why it is, but I do know that as I get older I find more and more comfort in the stories we get of Jesus being completely, totally, exasperated with his friends. I know that feeling. I would guess you do, too.
Exasperation is really something pretty rich in meaning, if you think about it. It’s something different from being frustrated; it’s something different from being disgusted.
When you’re exasperated with someone it’s at least in part on you. You’re having that moment of realizing that something you’re trying to teach someone else, something you’re trying to show them, something you’re trying to convince them of or lead them toward or help them see, they simply are not getting.
To say it differently, exasperation is a moment of mutual frustration. It’s the marriage of impatience and humility.
The stories we tell here every week, the things we reflect on about the life and teaching and work and nature of Jesus, all of them are meant to help us approach something that is ultimately beyond our understanding. That thing is something we say, or perhaps struggle with, every Sunday, when we recite the Nicene Creed: “true God from true God, / begotten, not made, / of one Being with the Father.” Those words all each make sense to us individually, but when you put them together that way, and when you capitalize that “B” in “Being,” to be perfectly honest what they say is not all that easy to grasp.
The best we can do is to try to gain a little perspective, a slightly different view, a new light on Jesus each time we come back to these stories, so that somehow over the course of a lifetime of thought and prayer we will come more deeply to understand what all this means.
We are used to the themes of these stories: The compassionate Jesus, the healing Jesus, the teaching Jesus, the questioning Jesus. We even learn from the stories about what people in his own day made of him—Jesus the somewhat troublesome preacher, Jesus the suspected revolutionary, Jesus the miracle-worker.
All of like some of these stories more than others, and all of us have a kind of tendency to make of Jesus what we want him, or need him, to be.
But this morning we have to deal with a different Jesus. This morning we have to deal with Exasperated Jesus. That may be no one else’s favorite Jesus; but in some ways I’m kind of coming to like this one.
Because whatever else Jesus is hoping to do, whatever else it is we think Jesus wanted to accomplish in his ministry, it’s pretty clear that he had some pretty strong ambitions for changing the world—and specifically for changing how people thought about their relationship with God.
At the very least he wanted them to put more thought, more time more love into that relationship. Even more, he wanted people to dare making that relationship the very center of their lives.
And because he was that person we profess in the creed—“of one being with the Father”—he knew that meant having a relationship with him, and understanding that having that relationship meant having a genuine, strong, relationship with God.
To put it differently, Jesus was a guy trying to start a new movement—a movement of God-centered people. He was a start-up guy.
I relate to this. To my great surprise, I have spent a pretty large share of my own working life as a person leading startups. And what I know about that experience is what it’s like in that moment you realize that someone who has been working really hard alongside you, someone who has been part of getting your movement off the ground and headed toward success, just doesn’t get it. It’s a moment someone in this room once perfectly described to me as a “head / wall” moment.
Philip, poor Philip, faithful Philip, dependable Philip, brother Philip—he has been there through thick and thin, helping distribute the food, helping find a place for them to stay, helping to keep the crowds that surround Jesus from getting too out of hand. And still, here he is, kind of standing in for us, portrayed as a guy with a head so dense that gravity kind of bends around him.
“Show us Father and we will be satisfied.” “You keep talking about God; show us God and we’ll be happy.” “Just stop making it a mystery already.”
And Jesus has a head / wall moment in response. Philip, don’t you get it? Philip, don’t you see that what you’re looking for is standing right in front of you, and has been all this time?
What I love about this moment is that it reveals something about the humanity of Jesus—his capacity for exasperation. I can’t read this story and think that these word of Jesus are spoken critically to Philip; if anything, they’re spoken by Jesus in something like a self-critical way. Have I been around so long and you still don’t get it? Have I really not managed to help you see this?
You can’t have that feeling of exasperation, that feeling of realizing the distance between the change you thought you’d made and the change you’ve actually made, unless you care deeply about that person you’re dealing with. And that is exactly Jesus’s situation. It matters because Jesus wants nothing more than to change people’s notion about who God is and where God fits in their lives. It matters passionately, desperately, completely to him. And Philip has just made it clear to him that he still has work to do.
So what does this mean for us? What are we supposed to make of this?
We might think that it’s harder for us than it was for Philip. After all, he had the huge advantage of being one of those select few that lived and worked with Jesus.
But we need to see it differently. We need to understand for the world outside the church, for the neighbors and the colleagues and the classmates and the friends we have, we are the ones who are supposed to reveal to them the face of God. We are supposed to be the way in which they get to see, to sense, to suspect, that God is somehow interested in them—passionately, desperately, completely interested in them.
And when they don’t get it, then the right response from us isn’t to be dismissive, or critical, or condescending. The right response for us is to be exasperated. Because that feeling holds us at least as much accountable.
If trying to imagine being exasperated like Jesus feels a little remote for you, there’s almost certainly an example much more familiar to you that you can easily bring to mind as a model for what I’m talking about.
It’s a person who has known you better than anyone, maybe even yourself; it’s a person who has a deep belief in your best capabilities, your best possibilities, your best self, and who has taken some responsibility for bringing those out of you.
And it’s a person who, when you’ve fallen short of those possibilities, has taken no small share of the responsibility for not drawing them out of you. It’s a person, in short, who has loved you enough to be exasperated with you.
That person, of course, is your mother. I have to think there’s something quite appropriate that this story about Exasperated Jesus would roll around on the Sunday of Mother’s Day. Because it may be the moment in which we see the closest parallel between the love our mothers have had for us and the love that Jesus has for us.
I suppose that all of us have the experience in our lives of feeling angry at God. The good news is that God is more likely to be exasperated with us—not angry, just wondering what more might work to get through to us. And God is counting on us to regard the whole human race in that same way—loving them into the best possibilities of themselves, and never giving up on them when they look at us from outside, or even come right in here among us, and don’t see that they are in the presence of—indeed are a part of—the living body of Christ. Amen.