Sunday, April 5, 2009

Going to Jerusalem

The following is a sermon based on John 12:12-33.  I first wrote the essence of it back in the early 1980s while serving as associate pastor of the campus church at Messiah College.  This is a revision that incorporates some of my journey over the past several years.

I pray that my readers may be pulled into following Jesus more fully as we go into this blessed time of Holy Week.


On Palm Sunday the Church begins to follow her Lord on his path to the cross as he went to Jerusalem. This is not just a story of something that happened in the life of one man so many years ago. Neither is it only an integral part of the Church’s doctrine. The message of the gospel is also a method that must be incarnated — fleshed out in the lives of those who take it seriously. The message that comes to us from Jesus Christ is not only an offer of forgiveness and a gift of salvation, it is a call to obedience. I invite us to consider what going to Jerusalem means.

The first thing to consider is what going to Jerusalem meant for Jesus himself. It is important enough to be included in all four gospels. Holy Week begins with the acclaim that Jesus received from the people as he rode into the city. But he did not go into Jerusalem to hear the shouts of Hosanna or even to test the waters of the people's affections. The first thing we can see in this event of Jesus' life is its parallel to his teaching. Jesus is coming face to face with a theme that occurs time and again throughout the gospels, and John has Jesus saying it here in connection with this going to Jerusalem. It's in vs24,25:

I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. Those who love their life lose it, while those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.

Those were not mere words rolling off the lips of Jesus so people would say, "What a profound thinker!" This was no intellectual concept to be understood, but kept at arm's length. Jesus knew it was the truth about the way things are, and that every human life in the world had to face the implication of that truth — even he himself.

It has always been that way. About 2,000 years before Jesus said these words, God came to Abraham: "Abraham! How about that life you hold so dear? Do you still love me? Even more than Isaac? Offer him as a sacrifice!" Now here is Jesus, going to Jerusalem knowing he is God the Father's Isaac.

It is here that we see the second thing that going to Jerusalem meant for Jesus: it was a test of obedience to the Father. Think of how the cross must have loomed on the horizon of Jesus' consciousness. How much did the boy Jesus understand when he stated at 12 years of age, "I must pursue the things of my Father," to those men steeped in the Scriptures? Most biblical scholars agree that by the time of his baptism, Jesus knew what lay ahead. In the first three gospels, Jesus’ temptation occurs right after his baptism, and already Satan tries to dissuade Jesus from the path of the cross. As John opens his story of Jesus' ministry, there is a calamitous wedding. Jesus' mother comes to him for help and gets a reply that shows the shadow that was already falling on him: "Dear woman, why do you involve me? My time has not yet come" (2:4).

Over half of Luke's account is devoted to Jesus going to Jerusalem. It all starts at 9:51— As the time approached... Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem. By the time Luke’s Gospel gets to 18:31, Jesus and his disciples are nearing Jerusalem. Again, Jesus is aware of what lies ahead. Luke records:

Jesus took the twelve aside and told them, "We are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written by the prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled. He will be handed over to the Gentiles. They will mock him, insult him, spit on him, flog him and kill him (18:31,32).

So what did going to Jerusalem mean for Jesus? It meant that his teaching on life / death and giving / keeping were real life issues. It was not enough to talk about them. They had to be acted upon. It also meant that Jesus must persevere to the end in his obedience to the Father. The question was before him as he faced Jerusalem — as it had been at the other instances in his ministry. What was his answer to be? At v27 we hear him ask the question of himself and give the answer: Now my heart is troubled, and what shall I say? 'Father save me from this hour?' No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour." For Jesus, going to Jerusalem meant death.

A second question to ask is what Jesus going to Jerusalem meant for the world. I raise that because of v31,32, where there are three obvious things: (1) judgment on the world, (2) freedom for the world, and (3) an invitation to the people of the world.

Here is the essence of the gospel. God always responds to sin with judgment, but in sending his Son he has chosen to put on Jesus the punishment of our sins. But it's not only our sinfulness that's at stake; the whole earth is under the control of the evil one. Satan must be defeated, and that is what Jesus is doing by going to Jerusalem.

Do you remember the parable of the strong man? You can find it in Matthew 12. Jesus asked the question: "How can anyone enter a strong man's house and carry off his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man? Then he robs his house" (v29). That is right after he had spoken the words, But if I drive out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. You see, by going to Jerusalem, Jesus was entering the strong man's house. He was making his move to take the rule of earth away from Satan. And the word here in v31 is, Now the prince of this world will be driven out.

The context for this is v32: Jesus is to be "lifted up" — crucified. That crucifixion is the seed going into the ground. It is the full incarnation of what it means to not try to save one's own life. It is the way judgment has been turned to mercy and bondage to freedom. Jesus' going to Jerusalem means we are invited to come to God knowing that our sins are forgiven, and the prince of this world has no further claim on us. Paul put it this way when he wrote to the Corinthians:

All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ. God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people's sins against them (2 Cor 5:18,19).

For the world, Jesus going to Jerusalem meant salvation.

The third question I want to ask, though, is this: What does Jesus going to Jerusalem mean for the believer? It is here that we need to pause and reflect as we journey through Lent. This is where God has something fresh to say to each of us. Here we find the watershed that delineates people who only know the story from people who understand the implications of the story and truly follow Jesus. Notice v26: Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me.

How do we follow Jesus to Jerusalem? There is a sense in which, if we are believers in Jesus Christ, we have already followed Jesus to Jerusalem. We are "in him," as Paul says so often. When Jesus went to Jerusalem, he went there for me and for each one of you. That is the gospel— he took our place.

This is the teaching that comes to us in the epistles as they interpret this great thing God did in sending his Son to the cross. Consider a chapter like Romans 6. Think about what Paul is saying there:

Don't you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? (v3).
If we have been united with him in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection (v5).

For we know that our old self was crucified with him... (v6).

Now if we died with Christ we believe that we will also live with him (v8).

That is part of one chapter from one epistle. The fact that we died with Christ is basic to everything else in personal salvation. It is the basis of God's forgiveness and it is the basis of our response. Consider the argument for holy living in Colossians 3, where we are reminded that there is a fundamental truth which dictates one's behavior — For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God (v3). It has already happened. When Jesus rode into Jerusalem to die, he carried with him all who would believe. That is the first way, then, that we follow Jesus.

But there is a second way. Two verses later in the Colossian text, there is this command: Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature (3:5). This time the verb is not indicative of something that is already true; instead it's imperative — a command — to experience what God has already decreed. That is the part which is so easy to avoid. There is comfort in hearing that Jesus went to the cross for us, but the words take up your cross and follow me seldom elicit the same enthusiasm.

Jeremy Taylor was a 17th century man of God who lived in England and wrote a book, The Rules and Exercises of Holy Living. In it he said, "Men are apt to prefer a prosperous error before an afflicted truth." I know that is my natural inclination. I had much rather think I can embrace mentally the doctrine of salvation and yet not be personally inconvenienced. And considering our culture with its self-indulgence and narcissism, that seems to be the condition upon which people will hear the gospel—if at all. We want a religion that will make us happy, not one that calls us to come and die.

It is so easy to shirk the spiritual fight. It is so easy to presume on grace instead of battling to the death those things in Colossians 3— the sexual immorality, impurity, evil desires and greed; the anger, filthy language and lying. We cringe to hear of Christian service that might call for inconvenience and discomfort, much less physical danger.

That is not the way the Scriptures portray following Jesus. Listen to Paul as he wrote his second letter to Corinth:

We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus' sake (4:8-11).

That is what Jesus meant when he said, Whoever serves me must follow me (v26). Just as he came to live out the truth that he taught, so he calls his disciples. The message and the method are one. The message is Jesus and him crucified. The method for those who would continue the message is also to know of that crucifixion working in them. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer so eloquently put it: “When Jesus calls a man, he bids him come and die.”

Jesus said, no servant is greater than his master (Jn. 13:16; 15:20). Any perversion of Christianity that would spare the believer a cross must be seen as a deception having its origin in Satan himself. As we get ready for Holy Week, let us not forget that there was no resurrection without the crucifixion; no elevation to glory without the obedience. When John shows Jesus going to Jerusalem, he has him going to his death. Here is the question for today: Are we truly following Jesus? Where is our Jerusalem? What death is the Lord wanting to work into you in order to transform your life?

I look back on my life and realize much of my ministry was spent declaring “truth” that I had —blindedly — allowed to become disconnected to where my heart truly was. I was committed to the truth of the gospel. I took the Scriptures seriously. Many of my years in pastoral ministry were given to a passionate declaration of God’s truth, and yet I was not giving myself fully in following Jesus in death. I gave myself to priorities that, while not “wrong” things, were wrong in my life because of the place they took. I cycled over and over with internal moral battles, not seeing (or being willing to see) that I was hedging on a basic issue of following Jesus into his death in those areas of my life where I wanted to keep some control.

In his mercy, the Lord did not allow me to be satisfied with that level of commitment. During my Sabbatical in 2002 I began an intentional process of repentance. I needed to repent of the place some sporting activities had come to have in my life. I needed to repent of how easily I pleased myself in the ways I spent time and money.

In that process I began to experience how the life of Jesus is only free to work in us as we die to the things that insulate us from the real work of salvation. Death is not really death when the Lord lets us see the reality of his life at work in our lives. There is no way I would have been ready emotionally to face cancer a few years ago without the Lord having already led me into the truth about dying — in some practical ways — in order to live. We cannot truly live for Jesus until we are ready to die.

I have no idea what particular way the Lord may want to work this into each of your lives. That is between you and him. I do know, though, that our Lord calls us to come and die. It is the way he gives us his life.

God wants us to know him. Jesus wants us to follow him, but that only comes by the way of the cross. We have to follow Jesus to Jerusalem. The cross is more than an experience Jesus had to face. The cross is more than the place of the world's salvation. The cross is God's method of bringing his very life into our lives. The Son of God went to Jerusalem, and he died there. Each person who would be faithful to him must follow him there, too.

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