Christ Covenant Church
Jon Marq Toombs
18 September 2016 / Ordinary Time
My first full time ministry was at a small church in a small town in West Texas. (Sudan Church of Christ). It was there that I started learning to preach. Not a week goes by that I don’t think about those good people and all things they taught me about life and ministry.
One of the most important things I learned came from a sign on the pulpit. Just a few words printed with an old label maker stuck on top of the pulpit where only the preacher could see it. Every time I stood up to preach I saw those words and they cried out like a prayer request: We Would See Jesus. No one knows who taped that sign to the pulpit, or when it first appeared, but whoever it was did a good thing.
I contacted the minister of that church this past week and asked if that note was still taped to the pulpit — and to send me a pic if it was. He responded that it is no longer on the pulpit and he doesn’t know when it was removed. That’s too bad.
Well, the sign may have been peeled off the pulpit, but it is still printed on my heart.
And today, we will see Jesus.
Our sermon text is John 12:12-26. If you are willing and able, I invite you to stand and give your undivided attention to God’s Holy Word.
The next day the large crowd that had come to the feast heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, crying out, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!” And Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it, just as it is written, “Fear not, daughter of Zion; behold, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!” (His disciples did not understand these things at first, but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written about him and had been done to him.) The crowd that had been with him when he called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to bear witness. The reason why the crowd went to meet him was that they heard he had done this sign. So the Pharisees said to one another, “You see that you are gaining nothing. Look, the world has gone after him.” Now among those who went up to worship at the feast were some Greeks. So these came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and asked him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. And Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him.
The word of the Lord.
May God add his blessings to the reading, preaching, and hearing of his word. All the church says: Amen. You may be seated.
Story within a Story
As we make our way through this text, I want us to see the story within the Story.
Last week we heard that the Passover of the Jews was at hand, and many went up from the country to Jerusalem before the Passover to purify themselves. (John 11:55) That;s why Jesus and his disciples went to stay with friends at Bethany near Jerusalem.
As you know, the Passover was the single most important event in the story of God’s people up to that time.
The Book of Exodus tells us that the Lord passed through the land to strike the Egyptians, and when he saw the lamb’s blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, the Lord passed over the door and did not allow the destroyer to enter those houses to strike his people. So the Passover was the memorial service that commemorated that night of destruction and deliverance. (Exodus 12:27)
That event It was so important that it altered time and became New Year’s day for the people of God.
According to the Law of Moses, the week leading up to Passover was the time to prepare the way for the Lord.
The Law required each head of household to select a lamb without blemish to slaughter in sacrifice for their household, to be eaten by their household. Also, the people were required to remove all the leaven from their households. That way they could eat unleavened bread every day for seven days.
So the people came up to Jerusalem from all over the country to purify themselves and prepare for holy week.
Passover only lasted one night, but the days leading up to it and the days that followed it were part of holy week.
According to the Law of Moses, the first day of holy week and the last day of holy week were special Sabbath days. Holy assemblies were held on those days. Absolutely no work was to be done; everyone was required to assemble for worship. (Exodus 12:16)
I tell you all that to say this: it was on the first day of holy week that Jesus went up from Bethany to Jerusalem for the first holy assembly of holy week.
Jesus was a man of his time. He lived in obedience to God’s word.
On Sunday, as Jesus made his way up to Jerusalem, a flash mob formed and crowds gathered along the road to welcome him to the city.
So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, crying out, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!”
On the surface, this seems innocent and peaceful to us. But there was more going on than meets the eye. The Jewish people had transformed the religious event into a political event. As Ray Vanderlaan explains:
For the Jewish people, Passover was more than a religious observance. It was the time of year when they celebrated liberation from Egyptian bondage. During Jesus’ time, they also used this opportunity to express their longing for political freedom from Rome. Jews who claimed to be messiahs had so often caused riots during Passover that the Romans brought extra troops into Jerusalem during the Passover season. The Roman soldiers did not hesitate to shed blood to keep the peace.
So the palm branches were not a symbol of peace and love as many of us wrongly assume. Palm branches were a symbol of Jewish nationalism and patriotic zeal. We tend to read this story and imagine it was some kind of spontaneous mobile/portable worship service because of all the biblical language and religious imagery.
But this was not just a religious event. It was a political event.
By political event I do not mean it was a liberal hippie Jesus People “make love not war” peaceful protest march. It was more like a right-wing hawk “kill ‘em all let God sort them out” kind of political rally.
By waving palm branches and rolling out the green carpet, they were making it clear to the Romans that they wanted them out of their land and off their backs.
And they were also making it clear to Jesus that they wanted to make him their political-military savior.
It was the same kind of thing we see in the USA every election season.
Like American Evangelicals, the Jews mixed their politics and religion into a toxic brew.
The Jews wrapped their messianic hopes in the palm leaves of political zeal the same way American Evangelicals wrap their religious hopes in the stars and stripes of Old Glory. Their “Jesus for King” is not much different than our “Jesus for President”.
Now, this was not the first time the crowds tried to make Jesus their king.
After Jesus fed the five thousand he perceived that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, so he withdrew to a mountain by himself (John 6:15). But this time he weathers the storm and even welcomes their praise.
But notice that he mounts a protest of his own.
And Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it, just as it is written, “Fear not, daughter of Zion; behold, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!”
The point was not just to fulfill prophecy, but to demonstrate that he was not a haughty military leader that must be feared, but a humble and merciful savior that can be followed.
Calvin’s comments are worth repeating here:
Never is tranquillity restored to our minds, or fear and trembling banished from them, except by knowing that Christ reigns amongst us. The words of the Prophet Zechariah, indeed, are different; for he exhorts believers to gladness and rejoicing. But the Evangelist John has here described the manner in which our hearts exult with true joy. It is, when that fear is removed, with which all must be tormented, until, being reconciled to God, they obtain that peace which springs from faith…This benefit, therefore, comes to us through Christ, that, freed from the tyranny of Satan, the yoke of sin being broken, guilt canceled, and death abolished, we freely boast, relying on the protection of our King, since they who are placed under his guardianship ought not to fear any danger. Not that we are free from fear, so long as we live in the world, but because confidence, founded on Christ, rises superior to all than.
That crowd wanted a liberator to spark yet another political revolution, but they needed the Lord to come set them free from sin and death. They needed redemption and reformation, not revolution. The same goes for us.
We need a King to shepherd us through the valley of the shadow of death; a Lord to lead us beside still waters and make us lie down in green pastors; a Savior to deliver us from evil and calm our fearful hearts.
So now that we’ve looked at the story within the story, we need to look at the four kinds of people we meet in the story.
Stalkers Spectators Seekers Servants
Stories are made of people. In this story we meet stalkers, spectators, seekers, and servants.
What do they all have in common? They all use their eyes to look for Jesus, at Jesus, or to Jesus.
John tells us everyone was looking for Jesus at the time of the Passover — each one for different reasons. (11:56-57) The same hold true in our time. Everybody is looking to, for, or at Jesus for one reason or another.
So, when it comes to Jesus, what kind of person are you? Are you a stalker, a spectator, a seeker, or a servant of Jesus?
Let’s look at these one at a time.
First, the stalkers. Stalkers are the priests and Pharisees — the hyper-religious folks — who were looking for a way to arrest Jesus and put him to death (11:57). They kept a close eye on Jesus only because they hated him; they kept track of him because they wanted to find something wrong with him so that they could feel good about getting rid of him. Stalkers remind me a girl I know who claims to be a wannabe atheist, yet she has a strange “fatal attraction” to Jesus. She’s a stalker.
Second, the spectators. Spectators are the folks in the crowd who were looking at Jesus. They saw or heard about the signs Jesus performed and they became his biggest fans. As long as it was safe for the whole family, they didn’t mind singing praise songs or waving their palm branches. As long as it was trending and cool, they didn’t mind cheering for Jesus at the parade. They remind me of a man I met last week. He told me about the megachurch he attends, with its professional musicians, large crowds, and amazing facilities. He concluded by saying, “They put on a great show and that’s why I’m there — for the show.” He’s a spectator.
Third, the seekers. Seekers are the Greeks — outsiders — who were looking for Jesus because they wanted to get to know him, learn his teaching, explore his truth-claims. They didn’t let anyone or anything stand in their way: not tribe or language or people or nation. They were assertive. They found some guys who really and truly knew Jesus and said, “We want to see Jesus.” True seekers don’t ask about kids’ programs or worship styles. They ask about Jesus. They are interested who Jesus is, not “what’s in it for me?”. They remind me of a Japanese exchange student (Koji Karasawa) I met at a campus Bible study many years ago. He made one humble request, “Teach me Jesus, teach me English.” And that’s what a friend and I tried to do. We read the Gospels together, ate lots of Calzones, and talked as much as possible about life. Then, one day out of the blue, Koji told us that he believed the story about Jesus. He confessed “Jesus is Lord” and was baptized. He was a seeker who was found by the Savior.
By the way, Seekers also remind me of some of you. You could be church members any where else, yet you are here. Not because we have so many cool things to offer you, but because the one thing we offer you is enough for you — the gospel of God’s grace.
Fourth, the servants. Servants are the disciples who were looking to Jesus and following his lead wherever he went. No matter how far, how scary, how dangerous, how costly. They want to see the Lord’s will carried out not their own, they want to see his desires fulfilled, not their own. They live with a sense of reckless abandon in the eyes of the world, even when it costs them their own life, pleasures, comforts, or pride.
Servants are folks who surrender their life to serve the Lord.
His priorities shape their priorities: Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.
His purpose shapes their purpose: If anyone serves me, he must follow me.
His position shapes their position: and where I am, there will my servant be also.
His prize shapes their prize: If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him.
They know and believe that the world and its desires are passing away, and that the one who does God’s will lives forever. So they simply refuse to treat the world or anything it as absolute and ultimate. For the Lord’s servants, the whole duty of life is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. Period.
Those are the four kinds of people we meet in the story. Which one best describes you?
Are you a stalker, a spectator, a seeker, or a servant of Jesus?
If you’re like me, you might answer: It depends on the day — and some days are better than others.
As I reflect on my life, I confess that I can see myself in each one of them.
Whichever one best describes you and me today, at this moment, right now, there is one more person we need to meet in this story.
Whether you are a stalker, a spectator, a seeker, or a servant, you need to come and see the Savior Jesus Christ. Why? Because all stalkers, spectators, seekers, and servants have one thing in common.
We are all sinners in need of the Savior.
Throughout John’s Gospel, Jesus has been portrayed as the Word made flesh, the savior of the world, the messiah, the light of the world, the bread of life, the resurrection and the life.
In this story he is portrayed as a grain of wheat.
Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. (John 12:23-24)
A grain of wheat! Let that soak in for a moment and think about it.
Jesus is the Bread of Life who became a grain of wheat and fell into the ground and died to bear much fruit for the life of the world.
What does that mean?
It means that Jesus is the true and better Israel who went down into Egypt and came back up again.
Like a grain, Israel fell into Egypt and died; but after they died they were raised up and bore much fruit. Seventy souls went down to Egypt; a few million went up from Egypt.
Likewise, Jesus is a single grain who will lay down his life at the cross; he will be planted in the tomb, and he will be raised up to new life and bear much fruit.
The One will become many through the crucifixion, burial, and resurrection. The many who serve him will be honored by his Father and share in his glory together.
So, whether you are a stalker, a spectator, a seeker, or a servant, we urge you to come and see the Savior Jesus Christ. Why? Because you are a sinner in need of the savior’s grace.
If you believe that Jesus is the passover Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world; who laid down his life for your sake, and took it up again, for your sake, then know that his blood is sprinkled and smeared on the doorframe of your heart. When the destroyer comes it will pass over you and your household, and you and your household will be saved.
If you believe that Jesus is the passover Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, including yours, then you are not just a seeker, you are a servant in community with other servants. That means you must follow Jesus together, into the city, up to the cross, down to grave, out among the people, for the life of the world.
Earlier this week I asked you to focus on a few personal questions as you read over this story:
What do I fear? Who do I wish to see? What do I love? Who do I follow?
Whether you answer “Jesus” to all, some, or none of the questions, we want you to know that you are still welcome to come and fill your heart and feast your soul on the bread of heaven who gave himself for you.
Why? Because we all need more grace; we all need Jesus Christ.
Today, when we come to the Table, let’s come hungry and thirsty to be satisfied with Jesus; let’s come broken to be healed by Jesus; let’s come anxious to be comforted by Jesus; let’s come weary to rest in Jesus.
As we come to the Table today, let’s think of the Lord’s Supper in a real down-to-earth way. Think of it as comfort food. Comfort food for your soul. For when we eat the bread and drink the cup we proclaim the death of Jesus Christ until he comes.
When we eat the bread and drink the cup we also remember that our only comfort in life and death is that we are not our own, but belong body and soul to our faithful savior Jesus Christ, who works all things together for our salvation.
Let us pray:
O merciful Lord, we do not presume to come to this thy Table, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy: Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen. (Thomas Cranmer, Prayer of Humble Access, 1548)