Sunday, March 29, 2015

Sermon for Palm Sunday/Sunday of the Passion (March 29, 2015)

Palm Sunday/Sunday of the Passion (March 29, 2015)
“We Wish to See Jesus” (John 12:20-43)

The dream of every rabid fan of a famous band is to get their hands on a backstage pass.  To go behind the scenes after the concert and hang out with the band.  Talk to them.  Get your picture taken with them.  What a thrill!  But what inevitably happens when you are so star struck?  What do you say when you finally meet your favorite musicians?  You get all tongue tied.  About the only thing you are able to spit out is, “Uh, yeah, uh, I really love your work.”
            There were some Gentiles who wanted a backstage pass to see Jesus.  They approached Jesus’ disciple Philip and said, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”  The text calls them Greeks, which probably means they were Greek-speaking Gentiles from the region to the east of Galilee which was heavily influenced by Greek culture.  But they were also apparently worshippers of Yahweh.  They were “among those who went up to worship at the feast.”  This was right after Jesus had entered Jerusalem on the back of a donkey.  The city was temporarily increasing in population as people arrived from all over the place to prepare for the Passover later that week, the great festival that celebrated the rescue of God’s people from their Egyptian enslavement.  The crowd that followed Jesus that day included people who had heard of his fame and rallied around him as the Messiah.  And, I suppose, like in any other crowd, there were others who simply got swept up in the excitement and didn’t really know what the hoopla was all about.
            Why did these Gentiles want to see Jesus?  We’re not really told.  Was it simple curiosity … to see what the big deal was with him?  Was it to hang out with this popular figure … like the groupies that surround band members at a concert?  Was it to see a miracle so they could say to him, “Uh, yeah, man, I really love your work”?  Why did they wish to see Jesus?  We can only guess.
            As a disciple of Christ, has anyone ever approached you and said, “Sir … Ma’am … we wish to see Jesus.”  Probably not.  At least not in those exact words.  But maybe the request was framed differently.  Maybe they noticed the way you respond to certain situations or problems in your life that set you apart.  Maybe they heard you say something that piqued their interest.  If they were brave enough, maybe they asked you to tell them what makes you tick.  Did you show them Jesus?  Or did you chock it up to just trying to be a good person?  Did you glorify yourself, or did you glorify Jesus?  Did you love “the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God”?  Did you love your life so much that you were afraid to publicly confess Jesus as your Savior?  Or did you hate your life so much that you were able to freely point people to the Savior in spite of what others may think?  Please note, by the way, that when Jesus says to “hate” your life he is not telling you to hate yourself.  This was a typical way of speaking in those days.  By way of exaggeration, Jesus is telling his followers to set aside their own selfish wants and desires and to embrace what God wants … and that, of course, is to give up all hope of saving yourself by your own efforts and instead to come to Jesus in repentant trust and give him the glory in all you say and do.  
            “We wish to see Jesus,” these Gentiles said.  The request of these Gentile worshippers of Yaweh was the occasion for Jesus to speak of his “hour” when he would be glorified … the time to see Jesus glorified at the cross as he finishes the work he came to do … to die for both Jew and Gentile alike.  Jesus had stated that he had come to save the lost sheep of Israel (Matt. 10:5-6).  Yet in John 10, he declares that are also “other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd” (John 10:16).  These “other sheep” are the Gentiles for whom Jesus also came to lay down his life.  Like a grain of wheat planted into the ground, his body would be laid in the tomb.  But, like a grain that sprouts forth in order to produce more grain, so would the Risen Jesus produce the fruit of forgiveness and eternal life for all who receive him by faith.
            Jesus is the one who “hated his life in this world” so that you and I could have eternal life.  Jesus always put the will of his Father first, and that meant putting the needs of others before himself …  including our greatest need, the need of an atoning sacrifice for our sins.  Therefore, Jesus “humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:8), and in this way Jesus is glorified and exalted (Phil. 2:5-11).
            Now, don’t think for a second that this was easy.  It might be easy for us to say, “Well, of course Jesus could do all this.  He’s God, after all.”  He is indeed God.  But he is also Man with very human emotions.  And he was “troubled” by what was coming down the road for him at the end of that week.  On several occasions he told his disciples that he would be arrested, mocked, spit upon, flogged, and killed.  If you knew this was your fate, you’d be troubled, too.  Jesus was troubled … yet he was still obedient to his Father and willing to glorify the name of his Father by his death on the cross and the salvation of the world that it would bring.
            At our Lord’s Baptism, the Father’s voice came from heaven, assuring Jesus of his Sonship and sending him on his divine mission.  At the Transfiguration, the Father’s voice came from heaven again, once again affirming Jesus’ divine Sonship and sending him down the mountain toward his own “exodus” to rescue us from our slavery to sin, death, and the devil.  Once more, approaching the cross, the Father’s voice is heard again, assuring Jesus that in his death, the Father’s name would be glorified.  Jesus told the gathered crowd, “This voice has come for your sake, not mine.”  And this is true for the gathered crowd here today.  The voice of the Father is for our sake, too.  His voice that comes to us through his Word today assures us of our forgiveness as Jesus is lifted up on the cross … including the times when we have been afraid to let others see Jesus in us and through us as we confess his name.  The sinful world is judged.  The devil is defeated and has no more power to accuse you or threaten you.  Jesus is lifted up on the cross and draws us to himself in grace and mercy.
            I know of some pastors who have placed these words on their pulpits where their sermon manuscript is placed: “We wish to see Jesus.”  Whether laminated, engraved, or written on a Post-It note, those words are a reminder to the preacher to give his hearers Jesus and to point them to his cross.  Jesus and his cross should be at the center of every Christian sermon, as St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians chapter 1: “We preach Christ crucified” (1 Cor. 1:23); and in chapter 2: “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2).  You should come with that expectation every time you come to the Divine Service: “We wish to see Jesus.”
            If you don’t see Jesus as Savior at the cross, it will be impossible to see him as your Savior at all.  There were those who refused to do as Jesus did, to “Walk while you have the light, lest darkness overtake you.”  The Savior of the world was right in front of them, and they refused to believe in him, even though, as John notes, “he had done so many signs before them.”  Jesus therefore “departed and hid himself from them.”  What a frightening indictment on their unbelief!  Their hardness of heart brought God’s judgment, the very judgment that Isaiah had prophesied … the blinding of eyes and the hardening of hearts that stubbornly refuse God’s gracious offer of salvation.
            Isaiah saw Jesus.  At the end of today’s Gospel reading, John writes that “Isaiah … saw his glory and spoke of him.”  In Isaiah 6, the prophet says, “I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple” (Is. 6:1).  And in chapter 53, the great “Suffering Servant” chapter, God says through the prophet, “Behold, my servant shall act wisely; he shall be high and lifted up and shall be exalted” … and then proceeds to describe how this Servant will be marred beyond recognition … how he will be “despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” … how he will be “stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted” … how he will be “pierced for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities” … how the Lord will lay “on him the iniquity of us all” … how he will bear “the sin of many” and make “intercession for the transgressors.”  I contend that what Isaiah saw in chapter 6 was our Crucified King lifted high upon the throne of his cross.  The train of his robe that filled the temple was the blood of the King flowing down to atone for the sin of the world.  How appropriate then, that we sing the song of the angels from Isaiah 6, “Holy, holy, holy” as we approach the altar of the Lord to eat his holy Body and drink his holy Blood that was given and shed to atone for your sins and mine.  Here is where you see Jesus!
            Fed and nourished, you go from this place so that others will see Jesus through you.  The humble service of Jesus is reflected in the humble service of his followers.  “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.”  You have been given life and breath to serve your neighbor.  So walk while you have the light.  Believe in the light.  In Holy Baptism, you have become “sons of light.”  Shine the light so others will see Jesus.

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