Date: April 5, 2020
Festival: Palm Sunday
Text: John 12:20-43
Preaching Occasion: St. Paul Lutheran Church, Union, MO
Sermon Hymn: LSB #433 Glory Be to Jesus
Exegetical Statement: In this section of John’s Gospel account, a crowd of God-fearing Gentiles are worshiping during the Passover as they desire to see Jesus. This signals to Jesus that the people initially excluded from the covenant community of Israel are now coming into that community; this furthermore signals to Jesus that the hour of His glorification has now come. Not only the eventual vindication of His resurrection, but also the glory of His work He would perform in the shame and pain of the cross. Jesus must die in order to give the blessing of the fruit of eternal life, just as a seed goes into the ground to die and produce a plentiful harvest. Any who follow Jesus, therefore, must expect a similar path, for they must follow Him where He goes, specifically death and the eventual glorification in resurrection. The disciple must deny/hate his own life, that is, the Hebraic idiom of fundamental preference—the preference of the focus of one’s life being on Christ rather than the self. Consequently, Jesus encourages the crowd to trust in Him, who is the light of the world, while He is still among them since it will not be easy to trust in Him after the cross-event. He demonstrates this difficulty by purposefully withdrawing from the crowd to an unspecific place of seclusion. In spite of all Jesus had done and will do (i.e. His resurrection), there is massive unbelief. This is the state of the world in which we live.
Focus Statement: Jesus died and rose so that He might give you the fruit of eternal life.
Function Statement: That my hearers may endure their suffering in Christ the Lord.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Foreshadow of What is to Come
Palm Sunday is a day of dramatic irony. Dramatic irony is a literary device a writer or film director uses to give the audience full knowledge of the character’s past or fate while the character remains unaware. For example, in Shakespeare’s play Othello, the audience knows Iago is treacherous, whereas Othello the main character is unaware of Iago’s treachery, and he trusts in him to his own detriment. Another example is in Snow White, where we know the apple she eats is poisoned but Snow White is unaware.
Of course, Jesus is aware of His dramatic irony; He knows what’s about to happen. Yet the crowd does not know what’s about to happen to Jesus—really, what’s about to happen for them, but we do.
We live in post-resurrection times, so we know what’s about to happen this week on Good Friday—Jesus’ death; and we know what’s about to happen on Easter Sunday—Jesus’ resurrection. As Holy Week begins today on Palm Sunday, we contemplate on the entirety of the week from the dramatic irony of our post-resurrection perspective.
What it Means to Follow Jesus (Bearing Your Cross)
First, the death of our Lord since that is His focus in our Johannine text today. Jesus depicts His death as a grain of wheat that is placed into the ground to die so that it might germinate abundant crops. With this metaphor, Jesus says He must die so that His death might germinate abundant life, that is, the harvest of eternal life for those who believe. He calls this “the hour” of His glory. He is not only alluding to His glory in His resurrection on Easter Sunday, but this is also the glory of His work He would perform in the shame and pain on the cross.
In appearance, the event of the cross is violent, weak, and shameful; but in it Christ performs His glorious work of dying for you so that you might have the abundant fruit of His death, which is eternal life.
He says that is the purpose for which He came into this world—to die and germinate the harvest of eternal life for you, that God the Father may be glorified in His work on the cross. Even more, Jesus’ life that led to and from the cross also characterises the life of His disciples. Not only His chosen disciples we read about in the New Testament, but all disciples who would come to follow Him: you and me.
Interestingly, the first time the word “cross” is used in the New Testament is not when the Apostles use it to describe Jesus’ work of salvation in His death and resurrection, but when Jesus uses it as He speaks of those who follow Him before He was even crucified.
As it’s recorded in Luke, Jesus says, “If anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow Me” [9:23]. Before Jesus even says anything about being crucified, or “lifted up” as He says in our Johannine text, Jesus tells His disciples to “take up” their cross daily if they are to follow Him. Keep in mind: at this place and time, the cross being used as a positive, metaphorical model for life was non-existent. Even when they eventually knew what Jesus was referring to, like in our Johnannine text today, the cross was always and only a symbol of shame.
The people in the New Testament had an unfortunate familiarity with Roman crucifixion. The great philosopher and politician, Cicero, considered crucifixion to be more gruesome than being burnt alive or decapitated. For the Romans, putting a criminal to death was not enough; it was their custom to publicly shame and humiliate the convicted. Jesus’ physical torture, public humiliation, and carrying of the cross through the streets was common practice for the Romans.
When He was crucified, like everyone else who underwent such shame, Jesus hung naked by His arms so that His chest muscles contracted, causing difficulty in breathing. In order to breathe, Jesus had to prop Himself up with His nailed feet, which only increased His pain and suffering. He would have lost control over all His bodily functions with insects feeding on His body on top of unquenchable thirst, muscle cramping, the pain from the nails in His limbs and the previous ripping of His flesh, His back scratching upon the wood of the cross as He breathed and as His crown of thorns dug into His skull with blood flooding His eyes, in addition to the verbal abuse of the mockeries He had to endure.
Not only is the sight difficult to bear—or in our case visualise—but imagine the smell!
To everyone who has seen such crucifixions on public roads, Jesus says, “Take up your cross daily.” Similarly, in our Gospel text today, He says, “If anyone serves Me, He must follow Me; and where I am, there will My servant be also.” If anyone is to serve and follow Jesus, this means they also must carry their own cross; and some of them did this literally, such as St. Peter who was crucified upside down. We, too, must suffer and die for Jesus’ sake. Yet just as Jesus was glorified in His resurrection, so His followers will be also. “If anyone serves Me, the Father will honour him,” He says [v. 26].
Indeed, we do suffer. The Devil is a roaring lion. He preys on human beings. And when a human becomes a Christian? It’s as if that person is a piece of meat dipped in BBQ sauce. We suffer loss of people we love. We suffer illness. We’re suffering this pandemic. We suffer depression and stress.
We suffer all kinds of things, even for the sake of Jesus. People literally hate us for believing in God. They make fun of us at school. They vomit profanities and mockeries at us in the streets and the virtual valleys of the Internet for holding to our Christian confessions. As the unbelievers mocked Jesus on the cross, so they mock us as we carry our cross daily. Just as the unbelievers killed Jesus, so they seek to kill you and me. Maybe not in America, but don’t be surprised if or when we face persecution.
That is what it means to be Christian—to follow Jesus where He goes, even to the cross as you carry your own and die for Him rather than for yourself. Rather than loving your own life, you must hate it, Jesus says. This is not “hate” as we think of it, as in extreme dislike for someone or something. The juxtaposition between love and hate is a Hebrew idiom that describes “fundamental preference.” Hebraically, to hate your life rather than loving it does not mean to hate yourself, but choosing “not to pander to self-interest,” which is our natural way of living, but rather to make Christ the focus of your “interest and perception” rather than yourself, thereby “dying” in a sense [Carson, 438-439]. It is to deny yourself—or to die to yourself—and to live to Christ. Your preference is to Christ rather than it is to yourself.
Describing Christianity this way does not make it sound attractive, does it? Well, that’s because it’s not! Who on earth would prefer suffering, especially for the sake of somebody else, especially for Jesus? For some dead guy these crazy Christians claim is still alive? That is why our faith is so real because—unlike all other religions—Christianity fails to pander to our self-interest. Rather, it pushes forth the interest of Someone else—that of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, whose interests do not match our own.
So, if Christianity isn’t about me and what I want, why should I follow Jesus? Because of who Jesus is and what Jesus did. We see who Jesus is and what He did on the cross. But more on that this Friday.
Being a disciple means you will suffer on account of Jesus. Carrying your cross will look different every day. And yes, the Christian life is hard. Christianity does not free us from suffering. If anything, it magnifies it. We become more aware of our sins; our guilty conscience grows more sensitive. The Devil paints a bull’s eye on our backs while his demons use us as target practice. We enter trying times like the current plague.
Jesus knew it would be hard; He made that point to the Gentiles in our Gospel reading. He says, “The light is among you for a little while longer. Walk while you have the light, lest darkness overtake you… While you have the light, believe in the light, that you may become sons of light” [vv. 35-36a]. As John emphasised in chapter 1 [vv. 9-13], Jesus is the light of the world who makes you and me children of God, and He warned the Gentiles to follow Him while He was still with them because it will become much harder to follow Him when He’s gone—first when He dies, then when He ascends. And He purposefully withdraws from them to an unspecified place of seclusion to illustrate this point. Indeed, perhaps our quarantined seclusion emphasises this even more right now.
Just like these Gentiles, we live in a world of unbelief. And just as the Scriptures forewarned Israel that many would not believe, so these same Scriptures have forewarned us that we would live among many who will not believe. So, we should not be surprised that many do not believe, especially in our younger generations growing up in a culture that teaches them distorted moralities and that words don’t have meaning. We also should not be surprised when we have times of plague and other tribulations. Because of this, life is hard, yet this is not the first time the Church has lived during such afflictions, and it will not be the last time we survive it. If it is, then Jesus will have returned, and what a glorious Day that will be!
Carrying Our Cross to Easter Sunday
Like Jesus, we suffer Good Friday. We go through our own suffering. You and I will die. Come Saturday this week is a brief separation from Jesus. The light of the world died for a time; the disciples knew this, for they were grieving on Saturday. We currently live in the time after Jesus’ ascension, which is like that Holy Saturday—Jesus is not physically present, though we have His Helper the Spirit. That’s why following Jesus is so hard today, because He is not physically here, just as He forewarned the Gentiles and us of this difficulty.
Yet He gave us His promised Spirit to strengthen us as He ascended to the Father where He mediates on our behalf to forgive us our sins. Then comes Easter Sunday. God the Father glorified His Son by resurrecting Him from the dead, whom Paul calls the “first fruits” of the resurrection [1 Corinthians 15:20].
So, too, you also shall experience your own Easter Sunday. Jesus was the first of the resurrection; you and I shall be the second for all eternity. Though you suffer now, which St. Peter says is “for a little while” [1 Peter 5:10], bearing your cross to the zenith of the end of the age, you are promised the resurrection of Christ.
It is as if Jesus wrote His will on the cross. In fact, He spoke His will in one word in Greek that translates to, “It is finished.” God’s will is finished on the cross where you have received Christ’s inheritance of eternal life, the abundant fruit of His death germinated in your faith. And just as the Father glorified Jesus in His death by raising Him from the dead, so the Father will also honour you when He raises you from the dead for the sake of His Son, Jesus Christ, in the final Easter Day that is to come. Let us pray:
May this peace of God, which surpasses all understanding as you take up your cross and follow Jesus, guard your hearts and minds in the death and resurrection of our Lord and Saviour. Amen.
Carson, D.A. The Gospel According to John. The Pillar New Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991.