April 17, 2011 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA
“The crowd that had been with Jesus 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. . . . When Jesus had said these things, He departed and hid Himself from them. Though He had done so many signs before them, they still did not believe in Him, so that the word spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled.”
You heard two statements about belief from St. John’s Gospel. The crowd comes to see Jesus when He arrives to enter Jerusalem. Why? “The reason why the crowd went to meet Him was that they had heard He had done this sign.” They had heard about the raising of Lazarus done in Bethany. Witnesses of the event tell the people of the city about this amazing act. The Passover pilgrim crowds believe the reports, and so they spill out of the city gates to await Jesus’ arrival. But after the parade, when the pomp and circumstance is over, Jesus teaches the same crowd in the Temple. He tells them: “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to Myself.” This dead-raising Jesus tells the people that He Himself will die. And that will lead to the other statement about belief—or lack thereof: “Though He had done so many signs before them, they still did not believe in Him, so that the word spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled.”
It is notable what John describes about the crowds’ unbelief and why it is seen. The events taking place around the city of Jerusalem were full of signs meant to create and affirm faith in those who see them. Jesus had recently performed some, including two that you have heard of the past two Sundays. He gives sight to a blind man and raises Lazarus from death. And another sign is given at the beginning of Palm Sunday. Remember how our service began with Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem: “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!’” By climbing on a donkey and riding it into the Holy City, Jesus fulfills a long-standing prophecy meant to identify the divinely-promised king that the Lord’s people should receive.
The people don’t miss that sign. Recall what the crowds’ actions and their shouts of joy were: “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!’” What a response to a Man traveling on a donkey colt. What could cause them to say this? Who calls a burro-riding individual a king? Those who link the words of the prophet to what their eyes see do: sign predicted, sign fulfilled, sign believed.
The crowds’ reaction to seeing Jesus is also helped by what they had heard about His works in Bethany days before. Jesus had brought a dead man to life, a dead man that many in the crowd had known. Remember last week, how you heard that “many Jews from Jerusalem had come to Bethany to mourn” with Mary and Martha. They went out to the Jerusalem suburbs to show their sympathy. But while they were there, they saw the sign performed by Jesus, and now they were there to welcome Him to Jerusalem: “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.” Once again, a matter of seeing a sign and believing.
But all of this changes. It changes when the signs that Jesus says He will do are not so dramatic and not so impressive. His words begin to confuse and confound. He tells them what will happen, but it is not expected. A triumphant king, a dead-raising miracle worker: the crowds can get behind that. They want to support and believe in that. But Jesus’ prophetic words, the sign that He gives, is less-than-inspiring: “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.”
Jesus says that He will be glorified. But right after that talks about dying. The statement about grain dying isn’t a non sequitur. He adds to it the description of the seed these words: “Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” Even more, Jesus adds talk about judgment and even more mention of death: “Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to Myself.”
And when these messages strike their ears, the crowds’ moods swing wildly. There is a change in their response. No more “Hosanna!” No more welcoming the King. No more wild palm waving and cheering. Instead, there is surprise, disbelief, even disappointment. You heard how the people reacted: “Though He had done so many signs before them, they still did not believe in Him, so that the word spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled.” This would not do. This can’t be Jesus’ destiny. The Messiah isn’t supposed to suffer and die, is He?
Well, actually He is. It’s what Isaiah mentioned in his prophecy about the Christ. The words are placed in the Messiah’s mouth: “The Lord God has opened My ear, and I was not rebellious; I turned not backward. I gave My back to those who strike, and My cheeks to those who pull out the beard; I hid not My face from disgrace and spitting.” Suffering, even death itself, is the destiny of the Messiah. It’s what the Lord has laid out for His Servant to do, to undergo.
But for those who only want the spectacular, the magnificent, the miraculous, a suffering and dying Messiah is not desirable. It isn’t logical for a Savior to suffer and die. How can one rescue people by being betrayed to die? If Jesus is to help us, then how can He be helpless? If He is disabled and killed, how is Jesus capable of anything great? This Man says that He will draw all men to Himself, but crucifixion is about the best way to drive away and lose all support.
So this teaching of Jesus isn’t believed by the crowds. In a matter of days, they will not only desert the Man from Galilee, they will actively call for His death. “Hosanna!” turns to “Crucify Him!” Without the divinely-given faith, the work of the Holy Spirit, no one would put faith in someone like the suffering Jesus. That’s what the prophet Isaiah mentioned, as St. John cited: “He has blinded their eyes and hardened their heart, lest they see with their eyes, and understand with their heart, and turn, and I would heal them.”
But not all is lost. The gospel writer includes a very important detail: “Nevertheless, many even of the authorities believed in Him.” There are people who would see the salvation that Jesus brings through His sacrificial death. The Christ does rescue and deliver by His being betrayed and killed. Through these deadly actions, you find your redemption. But this perceiving isn’t the result of intellectual calculation and reasoning that convinces. Rather, it is the work of God Himself that opens your eyes to see the greatness hidden behind the masks of weakness. That faith leads you to everlasting life.
It is the confession of that faith that you have heard earlier in the service today and which you will make later. The Church prays the words of Scripture: “Christ entered once for all into the holy places, by means of His own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. Therefore He is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance.” By death, Jesus secures eternal redemption. By the sacrifice of Himself, the Christ mediates a new covenant. But this is not done for His profit, to save Himself; rather, it is to bestow benefits to others, including you.
If the events were only seen with your eyes, you would not believe that there is anything positive in them. But when looked upon and beheld by your enlightened minds and spirits, you see something magnificent taking place: the voluntary death of God, the substitution of a divine life for your sinful existence. Remember how St. Paul described this to the Philippians: “Though [Christ Jesus] was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made Himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
And it is in this humbling, in this servitude, the Christ fulfills the purpose that He was born to do: “He will deliver His people from their sins.” Jesus testifies to the people: “For this purpose I have come to this hour.” Jesus humiliates Himself for you. He doesn’t count equality with God something to be clung onto and kept for Himself. Instead, He leaves it behind, so that you can have a share in it. That is what “draws all people to Himself.” Jesus even “hates His own life in this world,” so that you can have a life in eternity. By being “placed into the earth and dying, Jesus bears much fruit,” the fruit of salvation for you to partake.
Yes, there is humiliation. The illogical happens: the Savior is betrayed to others; the Lord of Life dies. But through this, Jesus is exalted: “Therefore God has highly exalted Him and bestowed on Him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” The same exalted One lifts you up from sin and death to perfection and life. He gives you His name to share, so that you may rule with Him, being part of His eternal kingdom. You believe and trust in this, for it is the Lord’s will that you would be saved. And since it is the Lord’s will for you, He has given you the eyes to see beyond the surface to what is actually taking place for you.
So do not join in the unbelief of the crowd. Rely not on having to see the miraculous to believe. Be not confounded by the statements that do not make sense. Instead, lend your voices to the positive response of those who trust in what the Lord says about His Servant’s humility. Ask that you may always follow the example of Jesus’ great humility and patience and be made partakers of His resurrection. For through this, He answers your cry: “Hosanna! Save us now, Lord!” And so you can say about Jesus: “Blessed are You who humbly and obediently came in the name of the Lord, even to die and rise for me!”
T In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.