Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Palm Sunday is pretty cool, isn’t it? Waving branches, shouting crowds, royal arrivals. The spreading news of miracles, the latest of which was fantastic, indeed. Lazarus, a dead man, had been brought back from the dead. Walking out of the tomb after four days! The stuff of legend, indeed. Grand and glorious; exciting and exhilarating. Who wouldn’t want to ride that emotional high as long and as far as it could carry you? Who wouldn’t want to hang with Jesus?
Well, as the saying goes: Curb your enthusiasm. Don’t buy into that theology of glory. Trouble is brewing, and not everybody is happy. Hanging with Jesus will be very painful.
“You see that you are gaining nothing. Look, the world has gone after Him.” So concluded the Pharisees in our first Gospel lesson today, the one that described Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem. This was the event that gives Palm Sunday its name, as the crowds laid branches and cloaks on the road while the King of Kings fulfilled the prophecy that the Messiah would arrive humbly on a donkey.
Gaining nothing indeed, those Pharisees. For what does it profit a man, if he gains the whole world, and loses his soul? Jesus had used those words right before His transfiguration, to indicate that anyone who would follow Him must daily take up his cross. The Pharisees weren’t interested in that sort of profit, though. They didn’t want to gain the whole world, really. They just wanted to keep a firm hold on their own little corner of it—the petty power and prestige and privileges that came from being the reluctant and resentful vassals of Herod and Pontius Pilate.
Though the Pharisees and other religious leaders despised those foreigners who governed their land and their people, at least they were allowed a degree of control over the nation’s spiritual matters. But now this Jesus of Nazareth was threatening to upset the delicate, carefully-crafted balance that had been achieved between church and state.
So long as these religious leaders kept the population from doing anything stupid such as those hopeless rebellions of the Zionists, there would be no harsh clampdown by the power of imperial Rome. Business as usual could continue. Worship could go on in the temple and the synagogues. Sacrifices of the approved animals, conveniently purchased right on the temple grounds with funds that had been converted into the local currency by the authorized money-changers, would go on. The Passover and other festivals would be celebrated, bringing thousands of Jews to Jerusalem and pumping up the local economy more than any Olympics or Super Bowl.
The treasury of the temple, supporting the lavish lifestyle of these leaders, would swell along with the numbers of people who came to worship. That’s certainly ample motivation to keep everyone calm and happy.
All this clamor about Jesus and His teachings and His miracles had to stop. Not only were the Pharisees gaining nothing, but they could lose everything. How would Herod and the Romans react to news that some rabbi from the backwater was being proclaimed a king by large number of people, many of them coming from outside Jerusalem? Was it an invasion of sorts, a hide-in-plain-sight infiltration by yet another self-appointed insurrectionist? There had been plenty before.
Jesus certainly didn’t seem dangerous in the military sense. He wasn’t advocating rebellion, but the radical nature of His ideas, the power of His presence, and news of His miracles were already spreading like wildfire throughout Jerusalem. If they reached the wrong ears, there could be hell to pay, and the Pharisees knew all too well just where the Romans would come to collect the payment. The whole world has gone after Him, the Pharisees said to one another, so they would have to go after Jesus, too—and with a vengeance. They’d been contemplating Jesus’ destruction ever since He’d first surfaced, and now it was time to take action. Off they skulked, to plot His ruin.
Meanwhile, the world still went after Him. John writes: “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.’”
Now, if these Greeks had come to worship at the feast, they were at least tacit accepters of the Jewish religion. They may have been prevented from entering the part of the temple grounds where Jesus was teaching because they were only proselytes, not yet fully committed to living the life of the Jewish faith. They came to the big festival of the Passover because they were a lot like those who will show up in church next Sunday for Easter, but don’t come around much otherwise. They’ll come for the power and the glory of the resurrection, but they avoid the shame of the cross and denial of self that living a life of discipleship, service, and sacrifice entails.
Nevertheless, these Greeks approach Philip, and they want to see Jesus. Note the verb they use. They want to see Jesus. It doesn’t say they want to believe in Jesus as the Messiah, or confess Him to be the Christ. It doesn’t say they want to worship Jesus as the Son of God, or follow Him as subjects of the King or disciples of the Master. They want to see Him—to observe, to evaluate, to judge Him for themselves.
So, the question must be asked: Which Jesus do they want to see? For that matter, which Jesus do you want to see? There are a lot of them out there, you know—Jesuses that the world goes after, whether in attraction or repulsion. Some chase a partly-true but insufficient Jesus they’ve cobbled together from selective Bible verses that don’t offend their sensibilities, filling in the blanks with the imaginings of their hearts. Some go after Him with swords and bombs and AK-47s, because they can’t accept a Jesus that was the one, true Son of God, the final Word, the all-sufficient Redeemer for their sins.
Others go after Jesus with pen and ink, or with words typed on a screen, condescendingly rejecting as preposterous the notion that God—if He exists at all—would become man, would and could die a miserable death to atone for the transgressions of the world, and then rise again from the dead to one day return to judge and to separate those who believe in this from those who do not.
Perhaps our constructs of Jesus are not so crass, our rejections of who He is and what He has done not quite so blatant. Yet every day, in each and every sin—known and unknown—we deny Him. We want the Lazarus-raising, miracle-working, triumphant King, but we often reject the One who gave His back to those who strike, turned His cheeks to those who pulled out His beard, who hid not His face from the disgrace and the spitting. We sometimes want to see and grasp the Jesus of power and glory, so that we can judge the sort of saving—and the sort of Savior—we need.
In other words, we want equality with God—to see as God sees—even though our efforts to achieve this lead only to death. We must repent of seeking to be God, of wanting to create Him in an image of our choosing.
Jesus chose this moment, out of His entire ministry, to reveal that the hour had come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Though He had been many times worshiped and adored, especially in the events of Palm Sunday, His glorification was not in His miraculous conception and birth; not in His many miracles and healings; not even in the raising of Lazarus or the triumphal entry at Jerusalem.
If we want to truly see Jesus, to see who He is and what He means, we must see Him as He wishes to be seen—raised up on the cross. Fallen dead into the ground like a grain of wheat so that He might be fruitful. Hating the life in this world yet giving up His life for the life of the world. Serving and following His Father, honoring His Father in His humble obedience.
See Jesus. See Him pursue not His own glory, but rather to have His Father’s name glorified. Hear Jesus. Listen as He answers the thunder of God’s voice from above not with fear, but with quiet confidence. The judgment of this world and its evil ruler is nigh, He says. The Son of Man is to be lifted up, and all people will be drawn to Him—some in ridicule, some in shame, some in fear—but as many as He chooses, in faith.
The Greeks had come to see Jesus, as had the crowds, when He rode into the city and taught in the temple. Yet Jesus concludes by warning all who would listen that the light—an essential component in seeing clearly—is to be among them only a little while longer. Without that light, there is no seeing. Without the light, there is only darkness, where we know not where we go; darkness where we are lost. Such was Jesus’ invitation to the crowd and to the Greeks: “While you have the light, believe in the light, that you may become sons of light.”
At that, He departed and hid Himself from them. They’d had their chance to see Him, to see the signs, yet unbelief prevailed in most of them.
There’s no little irony to those words that the Holy Spirit caused the evangelist John to record there, either: “Though He had done so many signs before them, they still did not believe in Him.” Do you see the reflection of Jesus’ Easter message to Thomas there? Do you? When Thomas had doubted the resurrection until He had proof in the mark of the nails, Jesus had lovingly chided him, “Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe.” Here John writes, essentially, a reversal of that statement: “Condemned are those who have seen, and yet do not believe.” There’s a powerful bracketing here, connecting the crowd’s skeptical question early in Holy Week of “Who is this ‘Son of Man’?” to Thomas’ bold confession following the crucifixion and resurrection, “My Lord and my God!”
John goes on to quote twice from the prophet Isaiah, in both cases pointing toward a salvation that comes not merely from what is seen by the eyes or understood by the mind, but from what is revealed through the word of God, and what is understood by the heart.
First: “Lord, who has believed what he heard from us, and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?”
Also, “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.”
Isaiah saw God’s glory even in the suffering of God’s people, as they were surrounded by enemies and seemingly defeated and destroyed. Yet God remained faithful to His promises and His people in Isaiah’s day, just as He remained faithful to His promises to send a Savior. Just as He has remained faithful to His Church through the centuries.
So, too, He remains faithful to you, and faithful to all those who those who confess His Son today. God’s true glory is always revealed in suffering, in sacrifice, in the faithful confessing unto death of Jesus as Lord and Savior. Despite the risks of being put out of the synagogue of popular culture, the synagogue of government, the synagogue of academia, even the synagogue of family and friends, He calls us to remain faithful, too. You want to see Jesus? See the glory that comes not from man, but the glory of God the Father which flows from the scandal of the bloody, painful, Son-killing, sin-killing cross of Jesus.
For your glorification in heaven, Jesus was humbled on earth. For your adoption into the comforts of the household of God, Jesus became a suffering servant. For your disobedience, He was obedient unto death, even death on the cross.
Look: Jesus has gone after the whole world. And see: You are gaining everything! In the name (+) that is above every name, Jesus. Amen.