The Greater Lazarus/Palm Sunday 2019

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We are seeking to recover a Christian sense of time and history, and in some sense this means a recovery of the church year. But though we are seeking to escape a secularized calendar, we must never forget that we got this secular calendar (in part) because of a reaction away from the very real problem of “saints day glut.” And this means we cannot just be aware of the problems with our immediate past. We have to look farther back than this, and hence it is a means of guarding the future. What we need is balance in all of this.

The Text:

“On the next day much people that were come to the feast, when they heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem, took branches of palm trees, and went forth to meet him, and cried, Hosanna: Blessed is the King of Israel that cometh in the name of the Lord . . .” (John 12:12-26).

Summary of the Text:

Quite a few people had heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem (v. 12), and when they heard this news, they cut down palm branches and went out to meet Him (v. 13). Jesus, finding a young donkey, sat on it (v. 14), and thus He fulfilled the words of the prophet Zechariah (v. 15). The disciples did not get the full import of the Triumphal Entry until after Jesus was glorified (v. 16). People were in Jerusalem, and they were talking about the raising of Lazarus (v. 17). This, in part, was why such a great crowd had gathered (v. 18). The Pharisees had trouble seeing outside the immediate moment (v. 19), but they could see that everything was running Christ’s direction. The whole world had gone after Him. In addition, there were some Greeks there, who had come to worship (v. 20), and they had heard about Jesus and asked Philip if they could see Him (v. 21). Philip and Andrew then came and asked Jesus about it (v. 22). Jesus answered them (although it does not appear to be an answer), and said that the hour had come for Him to be glorified (v. 23). Death was necessary in order to bear real fruit (v. 24). He then applied the principle more broadly, applying the truth to all His followers (v. 25). Follow me, Jesus said, and the Father will honor you (v. 26). Follow me, Jesus said, but when did He say this. Follow me, He said, right on the eve of His arrest and crucifixion.

The Time for Openness:

Throughout His ministry, Jesus had spent a considerable amount of effort to get people to keep His miracles quiet. He would heal someone and tell that person not to tell anybody. But at this point, His hour has come, and He does nothing to get this crowd to be quiet—as He says elsewhere, if the people were quiet, the stones would cry out. This crowd is here because of the resurrection of Lazarus, and Jesus does nothing to discourage them from declaring His praise. It is also worth mentioning here that the old preacher’s chestnut that takes Palm Sunday as a time for preaching on the fickleness of crowds is really unfounded. We have no reason to believe that this welcoming crowd was made up of the same people who were crying “crucify Him” a few days later. Big cities have the capacity to generate different kinds of crowds.

Deeper Glory:

The disciples were caught up in the moment, and all they knew was the glory of that moment (and it was a real glory). But it was only glory in preamble form, and there was a deeper glory coming. But in order for that deeper glory to arrive, it was necessary for the “corn of wheat” to fall into the ground and die (v. 24). Jesus had to explain this to His disciples. The exultation they felt was not the grand moment of victory. They thought the book was ending, but there were still five chapters left.

In the same way, the Pharisees (on the same carnal level) looked at the triumph of Jesus entering Jerusalem on a royal mount, heard the crowds, and lamented their loss— “behold, the world is gone after him” (v. 19). In other words, this was to be a roller coaster ride for them also: despair, scheming, victory, and then ashen despair again. The disciples were operating on the same earthly level—only opposite. Their downs were the other party’s ups, and vice versa. And this shows that there is a kind of “opposite” that is not really a demonstration of the antithesis at all, but is simply a matter of “taking sides.” This is why we have left and right, conservative and liberal, and so on. And often there is a correct way to go in those instances. But the real antithesis is death versus life from the dead. That is where the real action is—dead or alive.

We Would See Jesus:

In the pandemonium, certain Greeks came and wanted to see Jesus. Philip and Andrew ask about it, and Jesus gives them a cryptic answer. But the answer is not a change of subject; the Lord is actually explaining how it is possible to see Jesus. Do you really want to see Him? But the answer involves much more than simply arranging for an appointment (which may have been what these men were asking for).

The hour is coming when the Son of Man will be glorified (v. 23). How will that glorification occur? The seed must die (otherwise it remains solitary), but if it dies, it will bring forth much fruit (v. 24). The one who hates his own life shall regain it in eternal life, and the one who grasps to keep it will lose it (v. 25). This principle is now being extended by Jesus to His followers. What He is going to go through, they must go through also. If these Greeks want to really see Me, Jesus is saying, they must follow me. And if they follow Him, they will be where He is and will do what He does also. They also will die, and they also will be fruitful. If this happens, then the Father will honor them. Now this is the only means these Greeks have of “seeing” Jesus that would be any different from how the Pharisees were also “seeing” Him at that moment.

The Greater Lazarus:

Now the crowd was there because they had seen Lazarus raised, or had heard about Lazarus being raised (vv. 17-18). This meant that the multitude with the palm fronds knew that Jesus had authority over death. But what they did not know is that He had authority over death from the inside of it. If Jesus was here and death was over there, then Jesus could fight with death the old-fashioned way, the way a knight might fight with a dragon. But Jesus was interested in far more than simply being opposed to death in some form of external combat. He walked into the maw of death in order to be swallowed by it, and to defeat death while a dead man. It was this feat that defeated all death for all time at one blow, instead of having to bring people back, one at a time, and only temporarily, like Lazarus. This crowd assembled because of Lazarus, but were about to experience the world-shaking triumph of the greater Lazarus.

Delayed Insight:

The disciples did not realize until later that they had been the instrument of fulfilled prophecy (v. 16). They did not know these things at the first. But after Jesus was glorified, they realized it all. But Jesus talked to them about His approaching glorification (v. 23), and so it had been part of their conversation on that day. They talked about glorification, but it was not until they saw Jesus as glorified that any of this made any sense to them. But note what Jesus had taught here. It did not suddenly make sense to them simply because time had elapsed, because Jesus had died and was now glorified. It made sense to them because also they had died. They had gone through this death in different ways—Peter and John, for example, were quite different. But the shepherd had been struck and the sheep scattered. Jesus died, but so did His apostolic entourage. This, in a way, meant that the sheep had been struck as well as the shepherd. And when Jesus rose from the dead, so did His followers.

So Jesus did not die so that we might live. He died so that we might die; He lives so that we might live.

Death and Fruitfulness:

Many Christians glibly talk about having a fruitful Christian life, or a fruitful Christian ministry. They often mean nothing more than learning how to not mess up in obvious ways. But we use phrases like this in a way that should make us think of the request made of Jesus at an earlier time—that two brothers might sit on His right side and His left. Do you know what you asking? The answer was yes, but the answer was really no. When you ask to be fruitful, do you know what you are talking about? Not fully, but Jesus still issues the graceful invitation in the midst of His triumph. Come be fruitful with me. Come and die. The fruit is in the harvest; the fruit is found in the resurrection. The fruit is found in the course of our Christian lives, as we have been raised to newness of life.

An earlier form of this message was preached in 2006.

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