Download or listen to Palm Sunday, “The Whole World Has Gone After Him” (John 12:12-43)
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“You see? You are accomplishing nothing,” the Pharisees say to each other. “Look, the whole world has gone after Him.” You see that you are accomplishing nothing: you are not silencing Him, you are not stopping Him from teaching and preaching. You are not stopping people from believing in Him. Look, the whole world has gone after Him.
And it must have seemed as if the whole world had gone after Him. The crowds all gathered on the day that Jesus rode into Jerusalem on the back of that donkey. The crowds pressing in on Him, scattering their palm branches, putting down their garments on the road. The crowds shouting “Hosanna! Save us now! Blessed is the One coming in the Name of the Lord, even the King of Israel.” Look, the whole world has gone after Him. But the Pharisees are poor prophets, at least about what would happen that week. Because even after the crowds continue to hear Jesus preaching and teaching in the Temple during the beginning of the week, by Friday they are all gone. Where is the world at the cross? Where are the crowds? They are nowhere to be found. According to John, there were only a few women and John, the beloved disciple. A few people, huddled under the cross. The world is gone. Because the world likes glory; the world likes triumphant processions; the world likes conquering heroes, riding in to regain what they had lost; the world likes kings who overthrow oppressive regimes. What the world does not like is suffering; the world does not like a so-called God, bloody and beaten and dying. That looks too much like failure, too much like defeat. So they are gone. But if they had been listening to Jesus, if the disciples had been listening to Jesus, if the crowds had been listening to Jesus in the Temple, they would have heard Him say that this was why He came. They should not have been surprised at the turn that Holy Week took. In fact, immediately after Jesus enters Jerusalem, He speaks of the cross. Some Greeks had come to Philip and said, “Sir, we would see Jesus.” Philip told Andrew, and Philip and Andrew told Jesus. But instead of Jesus inviting them to come and talk, Jesus says, “Now is the hour for the Son of Man to be glorified.” Throughout John’s Gospel, “hour” and “glory” consistently point to the cross. And so He goes on: “Unless a seed dies, it remains only one.” Jesus would remain only one, the only righteous one, the only holy one, the only obedient and sinless man who had ever walked the earth. If Jesus did not die, He would remain who He was, but He would be alone, singular in His holiness. And we in our unholiness would die forever. But if the seed dies, if it is buried in the ground, then—as you well know—it bears much fruit. This is a mystery that no one can understand. If you tear open a single grain of wheat, you will not find a bunch of tiny grains of wheat. It is just one. But when it dies, when you bury it in the earth, it grows up and the fruit is multiplied. So it is when Jesus rises in new life from the earth, He produces the fruit of millions who trust Him, millions who call Him Lord, millions who have life because He is the Life which cannot stay dead. If the world had been listening, they would have known that they cannot go after Him except through death. He says, “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this, John says, to signify the sort of death He was going to die. Only through Jesus’ death is there life. And we can only get there by following Him into death.
So it is fitting that two of the questions in the confirmation rite mention death. One about being faithful until death, and the other about remaining steadfast in this confession and Church, and suffering all, even death, rather than fall away from it. And the answer that the confirmands are to give is, “Yes, by the grace of God,” I will remain in this confession and Church and suffer even death rather than fall away from it. But that answer sounds to me suspiciously like Peter’s answer to Jesus on the night Jesus was betrayed. Peter said, “Lord I will go with you to prison and to death (Luke 22:33). I will lay down my life for you.” And Jesus says, “Will you lay down your life for me? I tell you, you will deny me three times” (John 13:38). And so it goes. We make our vows, and we break them. And even if we do not break them openly, we break them a thousand times in our hearts. We deny our confessions a thousand times; a thousand times we pursue other gods, and put our trust in anything but the one, true God. See how many have forsaken their confirmation vows! See how many have forsaken not only the confession that is made here, but the Church altogether. See how many have not remained steadfast in the face of far less than death.
So it is a good thing that confirmation is not really about the vows we make. It is not really about your promises, but about the promise that God has made to you in Jesus Christ. Confirmation is really about baptism, which is why the first question says, “Do you acknowledge the gifts that God has given you in your baptism?” God never breaks His promise; He never forsakes His vow. His baptism is the white garment that you wear at all times. He knows how fickle and faithless we are. He knows that we cannot stand to watch and pray with Him even an hour, let alone the three hours He is on the cross. He knows you and He knows me. This cannot be about us and still be good news. No, this whole thing—confirmation, Palm Sunday, Holy Week—it is all about God and what He has done. How He takes all the broken promises, all the unbelief that causes the world to leave Him, and turns it into His promise never to leave or forsake the world. This whole week is about helping us to see the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. The one who rides on in lowly pomp to die, who has come not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. True, the world loves the darkness rather than the Light of Christ, but that does not mean the Light has not come. He has come, and He will come again. And on that day He will not come humble and hidden, riding on a donkey; He will not come humble and hidden, under water or bread and wine. He will come in all His crucified, resurrected, ascended glory, with all the armies of heaven. And every eye will see Him, and everyone will kneel and everyone will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of His Father. And some will grieve with faithless tears, because they turned away from His cross. But others will rejoice. Those who know that He will draw the whole world after Him into resurrection. He will restore this whole, sad, broken creation, and with it He will give life to your mortal bodies. Though we seem to be few, huddled under the cross, we know that His redeemed are a multitude that no one can number, waving palm branches and wearing white robes. He will come for you and He will wake you from your sleep, and you will open your eyes, shake the dust from your face, and you will see your King coming to you, righteous and having salvation. See! He comes.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
— Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 3/23/13