Today we need to start out by talking about Philip. Not Philip the Apostle - we'll get to him in a minute - but that great conquering hero, Philip of Macedon. When he was made king in the 4th century B. C., Philip took the beleaguered and bedraggled Macedonians, and he carved an empire for them out of the Greek world that his son, Alexander the Great, would expand east and west from India to Egypt. Philip and Alexander created the imperial footprint on which the Romans would later build their own empire. Philip and Alexander created the Hellenistic world - the Greek world - that Jesus was born into. Philip and Alexander were conquering heroes - they were people who redeemed the world for their followers - and so it's no wonder that in the centuries after they ruled, people and places would be given their names. This is why Paul wrote one of his letters to a group of Christians known as Philippians. This is why Jesus could travel to a region of Galilee known as Caesarea Philippi.[i] This is why, to arrive at today's text, there were people in Israel who bore that unmistakably Greek name, "Philip."
The Apostle Philip shows up time and again in John's gospel. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke we only meet Philip in the rolls of the Twelve, but in John it's different. Philip plays a central role in a number of Johannine stories, just like he does in this one, and by John's telling this story is the climax of Jesus' ministry: "Now my hour has come," Jesus proclaims to the crowds...and all because a couple of Greeks introduce themselves to Philip and tell him that they wish to see his Lord.
But, if we're being honest, of course they do. At this point in John's Gospel, Jesus has just concluded three of his greatest and most controversial acts. First, in chapter nine, he gave sight to the man born blind; then, in chapter eleven, he raised Lazarus from the dead; and finally, here in chapter twelve, Jesus made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem surrounded by a parade of supporters waving palm branches in celebration and shouting, "Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!"[ii] Power. Resurrection. Spectacle. This is when the Greeks present themselves to Philip. This is why the Greeks present themselves to Philip. These Greeks wanted to see Jesus because at this point in the story everybody wanted to see Jesus. Everybody wanted to see a conquering hero..."even the King of Israel." Everybody wanted to see a Messiah.
And why not? Messiahs help you make sense of the world around you. You feel it in the way they speak, in how they act. You feel that they have somehow grasped the moment, the Geist, the spirit of the age in a way that's compelling but, more importantly, in a way that's comforting. That's because Messiahs don't just help you understand your world, they also assure you of your special place within it. They tell you that you are good. They tell you that you are right. Messiahs tell you that you're important, and then they tell you what they're going to do in order to safeguard you, your family, and your importance in this world, now and forever more. At base, Messiahs tell you that you and your people are loved and are lovable. And when it comes down to it, could any message be more compelling? "You are loved! You are loveable! and I, with my power, am going to take care of you. I alone can fix this. I alone can solve your problems."
I don't think it's a stretch to say that there are a number of people in our world today who, like these Greeks, are looking for a Messiah. If you just look at economic statistics, then life today look pretty good. Globally, extreme poverty has been halved in the last thirty years.[iii] In America, the stock market is seeing record highs, wages are up, and the unemployment rate is as low as it's been in a generation.[iv] And yet, the malaise in our culture is palpable. It feels like we've gone adrift. It feels like we've lost our place, like we've lost our footing, like we've lost a sense of who we are. Even if we can't quite name it, we can intuit that something fundamental has gone wrong.
Nationwide, there's an opioid epidemic that claimed over 60,000 lives last year from overdoses, to say nothing of those who still struggle with addiction or the damage done to friends, loved ones, and communities.[v] It seems like every day brings another example of how people who've been entrusted with power - business executives, medical professionals, pastors, priests, police officers - have abused that power in order to prey on the men, women, and children around them. Our confidence in the structural institutions that buttress our society - up to and including the church - remains soundly underwater.[vi] A solid two-thirds of Americans report feeling anxious whenever they contemplate the future of their country.[vii] In our wider conversations, we seem to have adopted a national mood of bitter despair. To use an old familiar line, we feel like a people who are "rich in things but poor in soul."[viii]
And if that's the case, then it's no wonder that so many of us feel like we need someone in power to offer us love, to offer us security, to offer us "a hope and a future." (Jeremiah 29:11) It's no wonder that people are looking for a Messiah to care for them. It might be a spiritual leader who offers a sense of order out of the disorder of modern life, or an escape from the anxieties that grind us down. It might be a political messiah who'll tell us who is good and who is bad, who promises to protect us and ours from the hands of those who - they warn - will do us harm. It might be a technological guru or a health expert who assures us that we don't need to be afraid of what the future might hold, somebody who'll offer us deliverance from our fear of decay and death. Messiahs promising to have the answers to our questions abound - they always have - and so do the people looking to follow them.
And it is either by God's Holy Spirit or by their great good luck that these Greeks in today's text, looking for a Messiah, present themselves to Philip. Philip, who's been with Jesus from the very beginning. Philip, who was there at the wedding when Jesus turned the water into wine, and who was there in the boat to see Jesus walk across the Sea of Galilee. Philip has seen some stuff...but that means that he's seen some other stuff as well. Philip was there when Jesus drove the moneychangers out of the Temple. (John 2) Philip was there to see the crowds turn their backs on Jesus and his own brothers reject him. (John 6, 7) Philip has seen Jesus almost get arrested, almost get stoned. (John 10) Philip knows both the highest highs and the lowest lows of following his Lord. Just as important, Philip is introduced to us in chapter one alongside that bracingly honest question about Jesus: "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" Philip knows. He's been with Jesus from the beginning. He's seen the promise, and he's seen the peril, and he has had to reckon with them both. He knows the power and the glory, but he also knows that the power and the glory of his Lord are not the power and the glory that a lot of people might hope for. He knows that Jesus is the one true Messiah - that all the others are simply pretenders - but he is not naïve. Philip knows that following his Lord will be a sacrifice, that it's not some upward march towards comfort, safety, and security. But Philip also knows that it's true.
And this is what makes him the perfect friend to these Greeks. They have seen Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem. They have almost certainly heard about Jesus healing the man born blind and Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. They think that they've found the world's next great conquering hero. Somebody who can throw off the yoke of the Romans. Somebody whose reign might even rival those of Alexander the Great and Philip of Macedon. Somebody, as the crowds shout, who is "even the King of Israel." They think that they've found a Messiah who'll not just bring peace to their troubled lives, who'll not just protect them from the hands of their enemies, but who might protect them, like Lazarus, from death itself. And they're right! But what they don't think - what they cannot imagine - is that in four short days that Messiah will be hanging on a cross. They cannot imagine that in four days he will lay down his life...for his followers, yes, but also for his enemies. And to be honest Philip can't imagine it either. But Philip has been with Jesus from the beginning. He's seen more, he knows more, and quite frankly, he already knows what it is to have doubt and faith wrestle down deep inside of him. And it's for these reasons that he's the perfect person to help them white-knuckle their way through Good Friday so that they might still be there on Easter Sunday - to help them, not past the self-sacrifice of their Messiah but instead, through it to a new and deeper understanding of life and hope and peace that's only possible within his Kingdom.
Brothers and sisters, the descendants of these Greeks who've come in search of a Messiah are all around us. Sometimes, in our weaker moments, they are us: searching for an answer, desperate for a savior, longing for whatever port we might find in the storms that rage in our world. We know what it is to lust for a conquering hero, for a Messiah, to save us...and yet, like Philip, we also know that the one true Messiah is the one who did not do as Alexander the Great and Philip of Macedon and so many others have done but who instead "emptied himself...humbled himself, and became obedient to the point of death - even death on a cross." (Philippians 2) At the same time, we also know that that focus on loving our neighbors more than we love ourselves can make him a hard Messiah to follow. And we know that, in our most vulnerable moments, that can make it tempting to doubt that his Gospel - that his good news - is well and truly good for us...and for our families...and for our friends who are yearning for a word of hope in these times.
In the Church's calendar, next Sunday is Palm Sunday, but most of us will celebrate it both as Palm Sunday and Passion Sunday. We'll celebrate Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem - the conquering hero, "even the King of Israel," being lauded by the crowds as their one true Messiah. We'll then make our way from that great procession to the terrible slopes of Golgotha, and we'll bear witness as that same man appears to be himself conquered: betrayed, tortured, nailed to a Roman cross. We'll see him die, and then afterwards we'll depart, knowing that on the following Sunday we'll return again to celebrate his resurrection: the great vindication of him as the world's one true Lord. As we do so - as we move from Palms to Passion to Empty Tomb - let us keep in mind that the foundation of our Messiah's Kingdom is not the power and glory of the triumphal entry but is instead the love and self-sacrifice of the cross. That is the source of our hope. That is the source of our peace. And that, therefore, is what we use to evaluate the promises of hope and peace offered by the would-be Messiahs of this world. That's what empowers us to resist their Siren songs, and that, brothers and sisters, is the greatest gift that we have to offer our neighbors.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] Via Herod Philip
[ii] John 12:13, NRSV
[viii] Harry Emerson Fosdick, "God of Grace and God of Glory"