Sunday, March 24, 2013

A Plot Versus Signs of Salvation (John 11-12)

PALM SUNDAY Sermon by: Robert Austell - March 24, 2013

:: Some Music Used
Prelude: "Hosanna, Loud Hosanna" (J. Wayne Kerr)
Hymn of Praise: "Hosanna, Loud Hosanna" (ELLACOMBE)
*Song of Praise: "Praise is Rising" (Brown, Baloche)

*The Word in Music: "Hosanna!" (Children + Choir) (Mark Kellner)
*Offering of Music: "Hosanna" (Andrew Peterson)
*Hymn of Sending: "Where He Leads Me" (NORRIS)

Postlude: "Jesus, Still Lead On" (Paul Manz)

*Palm Sunday Music Sampler - short sections of the 4 songs marked above

"A Plot versus Signs of Salvation"
(Click triangle to play in browser; Left-click link to play in new window; or right-click to save)
Text: John 11:46-57; 12:9-19; Psalm 118:24-29


**Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes - search for "Good Shepherd Sermons or Robert Austell"**


Today we finish the story of Lazarus and a series of events that are full of action, plots, politics, and intrigue. In fact, the story of Lazarus dovetails right into the event that we are remembering today on Palm Sunday.

I want to walk you through the timeline and events and note a few key elements along the way. We will be left with a question, perhaps better described as a tension: is all of this a plot against Jesus or sure signs of the salvation that God was providing to the world?

First Division


After the amazing miracle of raising Lazarus from the dead, many believed. (v. 45) Of course they did! I’m not sure how much more clearly a sign could be given. Jesus didn’t just heal a sick man or bring the recently deceased back to life. He raised a four-day old stinking corpse to life. And as we saw last week, Jesus went out of his way to include those witnessing this, from his out-loud prayers to asking some to move the grave stone to asking some to help remove the cloth wrapped around Lazarus. People saw and smelled and touched and believed.

And yet… and yet… SOME went and reported Jesus to the people trying to kill him.  It’s right there in verse 46. Some, even seeing all that, did not believe Jesus, but turned against him and worked against him. It marks the first of several times in today’s text that, presented with the same events, people were divided over what to do with Jesus.

The ones trying to kill Jesus, the ones receiving this report of his whereabouts, were the chief priests and Pharisees, nearby in Jerusalem. We read in v. 47 that they convened the council (also known as the Sanhedrin) to discuss what to do about Jesus. Helpfully, we don’t have to imagine their concerns, they are spelled out for us:

What are we doing? For this man is performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, all men will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation. (vv. 47-48)
They recognize that he is performing signs. Throughout the Gospel of John, Jesus’ miracles are called “miraculous signs.” The point is that they aren’t just supernatural (though they are that); rather, they are called ‘signs’ because they point to something.  That something is Jesus’s identity as the Messiah.  In other words, his actions are holding him up to be the Messiah – popularly believed by the people to be a mighty warrior of God come to through off the oppressive rule of the Romans. You can see that played out in the council’s words. If Jesus continues attracting attention, his popularity will attract the attention of the Romans, who would tighten their grip on Israel, displacing the religious rulers place of power as well as what was left of the independence of the nation.

The council conversation continued and the high priest, a man named Caiaphas, noted that the stakes were so high that it would be worth sacrificing this one man’s life if it would spare the nation the wrath of the Romans. These words would have been ironic in hindsight anyway, but John makes a fascinating assertion that because he was serving as high priest, God actually spoke these words through him. And we read in v. 53 that “from that day on they planned together to kill [Jesus].” Without the high priest realizing it, God was using him to bring about the once-and-for-all sacrifice of the spotless lamb for the sake of the world. God can even use His enemies to accomplish His will and bring Him glory!

Second Division


If you were here 3-4 weeks ago when we started the Lazarus story, you’ll remember that I mentioned the risk to Jesus.  That is what took him and the disciples some 20 miles from Jerusalem because of a crowd that had tried to kill him. It was a risk to come back to Mary and Martha’s house in Bethany, just two miles outside Jerusalem, and we have seen now that the risk was not unfounded.  Indeed, he was recognized and reported to the religious leaders in Jerusalem, despite coming to Bethany for the extraordinary purpose of bringing Lazarus back to life.

After raising Lazarus and as we read about the council plotting to kill him in v. 53, Jesus and the disciples again withdrew to the country (v. 54).  And some time passed. We can actually piece together how much time passed because he had come to Bethany just after the Feast of Lights (modern-day Hanukkah), at the end of December. He will return for Passover, which is approximately the same time as our Easter, so basically winter has passed to spring, about three months.

In the meantime, no one has forgotten Jesus. If anything, everyone is on the lookout for him.  You get a flavor of that in vv. 55-57, with opinion and interest in him still divided.  Knowing that most Jews came to Jerusalem for Passover, we read that many were “seeking” Jesus and speculating on whether he would come to the feast at all. (v. 56)  We also read that the religious leaders are on the lookout, having given orders that anyone with knowledge of Jesus’ whereabouts should report it for his arrest.  Jesus was a wanted man!

Third Division


Jesus did indeed return for the Passover, coming to Bethany again six days beforehand. (John 12:1)  In our Holy Week timeline, that would have been yesterday, the day before what would become known as Palm Sunday. There he had dinner and Mary anointed Jesus’ feet with very costly perfume. His presence became known and many came to see Jesus as well as Lazarus. It is here we read that Lazarus has become a wanted man. His presence and the talk about him made him a prime target for believers and enemies alike. This is why I still include all of this as the conclusion to the Lazarus story.

This brings us to the account proper of what is usually referred to as “The Triumphal Entry” or “Palm Sunday.” It is the next day, a Sunday, and Jesus comes from Bethany into Jerusalem. The crowd has already gathered, already heard that he is on the way.  And they give him a very particular and significant welcome. They take branches of a palm tree and go to meet him and shout, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel.” They are quoting from Psalm 118*, part of which comprised our responsive call to worship today. All this – ALL this – is another sign of who Jesus is. From the shouts of “Save us now!” (that’s what “Hosanna” means) to the connection to Psalm 118 to riding in on a donkey to the timing of it all… he was fulfilling the Messianic script.  These were all things the Messiah would do and the people recognized it and him, which is why they shouted “King of Israel” at him.  Meanwhile, all the people who had witnessed the raising of Lazarus were testifying about that miraculous sign. (v. 17)  Given all this, it would not have been any clearer a sign if a blimp had been hovering over him with “That’s the Messiah!” flashing across the screen.

Those fears expressed by the council months earlier had all come to pass. Seemingly the whole world had gone after him… and they were proclaiming him the “King of Israel.”  You can begin to see how these chief priests and Pharisees, who were concerned enough at the possibility of him being seen as the Messiah to try to kill him, now moved very decisively against him so that within a matter of days he would be arrested and killed. They believed their livelihood, their freedom, and their very lives were at stake.

And so, on this “Palm Sunday,” we find an extreme division between those believing and hailing Jesus as King and those trying to kill him for it.

Division Today


As I ponder how all that might be applicable in our lives beyond greater knowledge of the unfolding story, I am moved by the skit that the children shared this morning. In it, an older sibling turns from faith despite having been raised in a Christian context.

It strikes me that this is how it’s always been. Often in discussions about Christian faith the question will be raised about those who have never heard about Jesus. Frankly, I don’t ultimately know. I know that we should be ready and willing to share God’s story, but I ultimately don’t know, though I trust God.

What is a significantly more common reality in our lives is not encountering people who have never heard of Jesus, but the way that Jesus draws some and repels others. There is a fundamental and very challenging question underlying that reality. We can push it off for a while saying, “I just need more information” or “I just need some proof.” But the thing is that information and signs and proof still leave us with the fundamental question: “Will you trust and follow me?”

Think about all that was witnessed that day Lazarus was raised, not to mention in the week before Passover. Jesus not only displayed supernatural power that signaled explicitly who he was and what he was doing, he then fulfilled prophecy after prophecy, like a massive prophetic checklist. 

Has God answered prayer? Check.
Is the beauty of God’s creation evident around us? Check.
Has God’s intention and message to us been made clear through writing, teaching, witness, and sacrifice? Check.

“Will you trust and follow me?”

…I’m not sure.  I need more time.  Yeah, mostly; I just have a few exception clauses I’d like to write in.

… or sometimes, “I will not!” 

At the heart of the fundamental question is the thing at stake in the fundamental commandment. Will you yield your will and life to a god other than yourself? Will you serve and love another?

Jesus began asking the question when he first began calling the disciples, before any miraculous signs.  God asked the question of His people throughout the scripture – of Abraham, Moses, Esther, Mary.

The two responses to Jesus are so clear again and again throughout the Lazarus story.  And that’s what I think this story brings to us today beyond knowledge of how a story unfolded. It asks us the question Jesus asked of so many: “Will you trust and follow me?”

We even know how the story turned out, while those following Jesus didn’t know what Easter morning held.  We have our own treasure-trove of witness, signs, experience, and knowledge.  But it comes down to this:

Will you trust and follow Jesus… wherever he might lead?  Ponder your response as we pray together.




*For more on Psalm 118, see this older sermon from 2003






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