The Shepherd’s Voice: Given for Others

by David Baer, March 25, 2018

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Text: John 12:12-27

A few years back we planted morning glory in our back yard. We strung guide lines along the back fence, and succeeded in enticing the vines to climb and wind their way across. The flowers were beautiful, opening fresh every morning all through the summer. But when the growing season had ended and the first frosts came, the vines died, and we gathered them up and tossed them into the compost. There was no part of the plant that survived the winter–no life hidden and kept back in the roots underground. Everything had died.

That’s why it was surprising to see little shoots of morning glory poking out of the ground the following year. All the plant’s energy had gone not into preserving its own life, but into bearing seeds that carried the promise through the killing frosts and snows and into the spring. As the morning glory vine died, it dropped its seeds into the waiting soil and entrusted them to the ground. Morning glory lives and dies in the hope of resurrection.

Jesus said, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

After all the pomp and pageantry, the waving of palms and the singing of psalms, Jesus paused to tell his friends what it all meant, why he was coming into Jerusalem. There were those who hoped Jesus was there to conquer, to realize the messianic hopes of his people by driving out the Roman occupiers and re-establishing the kingdom of his ancestor David. There were those, like the Pharisees, who knew all too well that Jesus could never deliver. They too cherished the hope for a messiah, but this Jesus was a yokel from Galilee with a ragtag band of fishermen. He was too weak, and also too brash, too contemptuous of those in authority and the compromises they made in the name of keeping the peace. They saw the crowds who met Jesus and hailed him as king, and they sighed: “You see, you can do nothing. Look, the world has gone after him!”

Heinrich van Waterschoot Einzug in Jerusalem.jpg
By Henri van Waterschoot († 1748(?) in München) -, Public Domain, Link

Jesus recognizes the hopes and disappointments and fears that surround him, among those who look for a conquering messiah, one who will beat the oppressors at their own game. But when he talks about what it means for Jesus, the Son of Man, to be glorified, it sounds less like the glory of a throne room and more like that of a garden, like the glory of a seed that dies in order to bear fruit. Jesus intends to live like the morning glory, winning his fight against the powers that threaten him by surrendering himself into their hands, by laying down his life in an act of faithful trust. And it’s in this way that he will be lifted up and draw all people to himself.

When we tell the story of Palm Sunday, it’s hard not to consider that the crowds that gathered to hail Jesus as the king when he came into the city failed to take his side when he carried his cross to the place of execution later that week. And was that because they judged Jesus to have failed them, to have disappointed their expectations for what a Messiah should be? Or was it because of what Jesus was doing, laying down his life out of love for his friends, and asking those who would follow him to do the same? Already on Palm Sunday, Jesus is saying, “Come with me, friends, and lay down your life too.” Are we able to follow Jesus in the days to come, when it means laying down our palm branches and taking up our cross?

What kind of energy moves you? So much of our activity is building, keeping, guarding. This is necessary. This is what we have to do, if we don’t want our houses to fall down, if we don’t want the weeds to take over the garden, if we want our families to be fed and clothed and sheltered. This is a cautious energy, a prudent energy. It’s the energy that makes us get up every morning to go to work, that sends us to phone the doctor when the baby cries. It tells us to cut back on spending, makes us push off those vacation plans and that kitchen remodeling when times are tough. It’s an energy that gathers and protects our resources to keep us and our loved ones healthy and safe.

Jesus might have brought this kind of energy to his ministry. If he had, I doubt he would have considered going to Jerusalem—the politics of that place were just explosive. It would have been too risky, too foolish to go there—not just for him, but for his followers. Why would he expose his friends, the people he loved to such danger? Just think of all the good he could have done if he had stayed in Galilee, healing people, transforming their lives, and helping them to understand the Kingdom of God. Maybe he could have founded a school in Nazareth to propagate his teachings. He could have lived peacefully into old age, respected and loved by all his neighbors. He could have slipped blissfully out of a long, productive life surrounded by family and friends.

Maybe that’s how Jesus’ life could have played out… but I doubt it. When Jesus healed, he did so in ways that upset and disrupted—like when he healed on the Sabbath. When Jesus taught, it brought him into conflict with the established authorities. Jesus perceives the deep nature of things, the way the world works, the things that motivate the people around him. He sees poverty and injustice, he sees a political and economic system built on the backs of the poor and maintained with institutional violence. And he sees that even this is a manifestation of a deeper brokenness, a ruptured relationship between the people, their God, and one another. None of that will change, not unless the God who sent him, whose presence he embodies and carries with him, confronts the broken system and transforms it. “The hour has come,” Jesus says. The time is now. The hurt, the oppression, the sinfulness and the desperate, hopeless desire for something better—Jesus sees all of it, and it fires his passion.

He asks the same of us. There is a place in our life for cautious, careful action. But our life as disciples of Jesus, as those following him, learning from him, and traveling with him toward a fuller, richer life, is a place for passion. It’s a place for living like the morning glory, living with like our days are numbered, and living for a future that is out of our control, that can only come to be through God’s care and grace. And what makes this passion so necessary is that we live in the same fallen world that Jesus came to save, a world he loved so much that he gave up his safety, his home, and his life.

I see that passion in students—some of them members of this congregation—banding together to demand changes in public policy to make their schools and neighborhoods safer. Some of these students walked out of their schools a week and a half ago to remember the victims of the shooting in Parkland, Florida, and to underscore the need for change—and as in any act of civil disobedience, they were willing to pay the cost of being disciplined for what they did. Some of them sacrificed a weekend to march in Washington yesterday. Whether you agree with their ideas or not, theirs is a purposeful passion, a willingness to risk and to sacrifice for the sake of a greater benefit for all.

Jesus said, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” Haven’t you found that to be true? Think of the most fruitful, the most rewarding things you have done in your life. Maybe it was a business you started. Maybe it was a lifelong relationship with a friend or spouse. Maybe it was raising children. All of these things take risk and sacrifice to bring into being—none of them were a sure thing, and maybe you can think of some sacrifices you made that didn’t pan out, that brought only fruitless hardship and struggle. Planting a seed doesn’t guarantee it will grow. But every seed that has ever grown into something more had to be planted first.

Jesus calls us to a faith that takes risks for the sake of love. There are people you already know—you don’t have to go out and look for them—who are hungry for bread, and people who are hungry for the bread of God’s Word, for the material and spiritual things that give life. Where are you going to sow the seeds God has given you? Where are you going to invest yourself, not halfheartedly, not keeping something in reserve, but all-in?

There are no guarantees. Jesus’ risk cost him his life. Jesus rode into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday not to conquer, but to die. He sowed the seed of his own body in faith, and it blossomed into a rich harvest of grace, forgiveness, and everlasting life. And from the other side of this journey, Jesus calls out to us: “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.” In faith, risk, trust, sacrifice, and resurrection, Jesus wants us at his side.

Will you pray with me?

Lord Jesus, you came in humility, in vulnerability, in sacrificial love to claim your kingly throne on a cross. Teach us the fruitful power of laying down our lives for one another in love. In your name we pray. Amen.