April 13, 2014 – Palm Sunday

Palm Sunday   April 13, 2014   Ps 118, John 12:1-16, 14:1-12, 28-31 Greater works than these

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John 12:1-11

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus.

John 12:12-16

The next day the great crowd that had come to the festival heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord— the King of Israel!” Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it; as it is written: “Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion. Look, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!” His disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written of him and had been done to him.

John 14:1-12, 28-31

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father….You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I am coming to you.’ If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I. And now I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe. I will no longer talk much with you, for the ruler of this world is coming. He has no power over me; but I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father. Rise, let us be on our way.”

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Jesus and trouble go together. We see Jesus in trouble oh so very often – trouble with religious leaders, trouble with civic leaders and authorities – all throughout his public career. But here’s Jesus telling us – ‘don’t let your hearts be troubled.’

Jesus raises a man from the dead, and this life-giving work of passionate compassion puts Jesus at the top of the list of Most Wanted men. (He’s in clear violation of the commandment, Thou shalt not give life unto the dead without proper authorization.) There’s a price on Jesus’ head, a price one of his own disciples is willing to cash-in on. So does Jesus head for the hills, or seek asylum in another country?

No, Jesus rides into Jerusalem, home turf of the religious leaders out to kill him. Rides into the capitol city on a humble donkey. And the crowds wave palm branches in the air, signifying hooray for God’s victory! They shout hosannas (meaning ‘save us Lord!’) and name Jesus as King of Israel.

A royal king riding a humble donkey seems odd. But all Israel knew – the prophet Zechariah prophesied of a king who’ll break the weapons of war and rule the earth in peace. That king will come into Jerusalem riding, not a warhorse, nor in a chariot of iron, but on a lowly donkey. Now here comes Jesus, fulfilling the prophet’s word.

And if we know this Palm Sunday story, we remember also how the same crowds that greet Jesus today with roars of acclamation will soon vanish – as Jesus is betrayed, turned over to authorities, condemned to die… all within a few days of this triumphal parade. Later this same week he’ll be arrested, interrogated, whipped, beaten, mocked and scorned… hung on a cross, with criminals on either side, left to die…

Yet here’s Jesus, a night before he’ll die on the cross, saying, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.

At perhaps the very moment he says these words, Judas Iscariot is betraying him, leading temple police to the place Jesus has been camping with disciples. And before this night’s over, his friend and chief disciple Simon Peter will deny he even knows Jesus, three times.

Jesus knows all that’s coming. He defends Mary’s anointing of his feet as a preparation for his burial. And as we read all John’s gospel, we remember Jesus has, in fact been troubled, occasionally, as he prepares to leave his followers and go to God the Father.

But now, at Jesus’ last supper with friends and followers, here’s Jesus telling us – Do not let your hearts be troubled. My Father’s house has plenty of room I’m going to prepare a place for you… Jesus makes room for us in the dwelling place he calls eternal life. There’s plenty room in God’s house for all of us.

Jesus is having one last long talk with his still dubiously-doubting-disciples – famously doubting Thomas, also doubting Philip, doubting Peter, doubting Judas (the other Judas, not Iscariot, who has already left). We overhear all four of these guys in chapters 13 and 14, speaking the doubts of all disciples. Four times in a few verses they interrupt Jesus with questions and comments revealing their confusion about who Jesus is, and where he’s going. And we can just feel their anxiety rising… as it sinks in with them… He really is about to leave…

But here’s Jesus, knowing his time has come, yet calmly explaining – ‘I’m off to the Father now, to prepare a place for you. Don’t worry. I’ll send the Holy Spirit to remind you of all I’ve told you. The Spirit will support you in all your work of faith.” ‘Don’t worry. You’llbe doing the works I’ve been doing. And, did I mention? Greater works than these – you’ll be doing.’

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I wish we had the transcripts of the disciples’ reaction to the news that they, themselves, will be doing greater works than Jesus did. (I’d be curious to see their faces.)

And in fairness to the first disciples, they’re not the only ones who’ve had a hard time with this verse. I remember a few years ago, when I was getting ready to preach from this text… Even with lots and lots of study, this verse was still bothering me…. I just couldn’t get my head around the concept of anyone doing greater things than Jesus. Jesus, who gives eyesight to the blind and makes the dead come alive. What can he mean by ‘you’ll be doing greater works than these?’

We had a Saturday morning men’s group breakfast, once a month, in the Adirondack church I served at the time. I asked the guys: ‘What do you think Jesus meant, saying we’ll be doing greater works than he did?’

And our fourteen-year-old-at-the-time, Nathan, was first to answer, saying in a flash, ‘this has gotta be Jesus talking outreach numbers.’ Fine answer! Same answer some of our best bible scholars, like William Barclay, also give. And Nathan said it with more conviction.

Jesus sometimes preached to thousands, but the crowds thinned out quickly after Palm Sunday, as we journey towards dark Gethsemane. Only a tiny handful of faithful women and one lone male disciple stayed close by Jesus at the cross. Even after Jesus has risen from the dead and ascended to the Father, the hardcore church numbered only about 120 people (Acts chapter 1 tells us). The whole church fit into one room together at the same time. And the church, God bless them, up to now looked pretty clueless most of the time.

But in spite of all their fears, doubts, questions, misunderstandings – this same small, weak, confused bunch of disciples somehow did manage to continue to meet together, study the word together, pray together, fellowship together, break bread together… becoming truly the people of God together.

As the words of Jesus continued to sink in – and as they received the Holy Spirit – now these same first followers of Jesus did do the works Jesus did. They fanned out in all directions, and by word and example, spread the word… Reaching dozens here and there, then a few hundred in some of the larger cities… after awhile thousands, then tens of thousands, slowly, on into the millions… Reaching and teaching to the far ends of the earth… All word of mouth, no paid advertizing. Reaching out in all directions through simple acts of faith, hope, and love, repeated again and again, day by day… Soon far exceeding the number of people reached by Jesus himself. Greater works than these… doing indeed.

Then Nathan’s dad, Jim said,” “We all know Jesus saves. We expect Jesus to save and work wonders. That’s who Jesus is. But when God uses ordinary people like us to do God’s work – that can be shocking. That counts as a ‘greater work’ of God, in terms of its effect on people.” Good answer again.

Then, Dick, one of our active-duty-retirees, said ‘doing greater works’ had him thinking about his daughter, an art teacher. When someone compliments her art work, his daughter says, ‘Don’t praise my work. I’m a teacher. Look at my students’ work. The test of my work is the work my students do.’ Great answer. Jesus is called Teacher in the gospels. Jesus wants his work as our Teacher to be visible in the work of his students… (That’s us)…

It was great to hear these guys come up with excellent answers, with no rehearsal. And well, why not? We were gathered together in prayer and conversation, in Jesus’ name. Why wouldn’t the Holy Spirit give us good answers?

We too can understand, God’s word, with the help of God’s Spirit. Like the first disciples, our work of faith is to do what Jesus says. Which takes practice.

The first disciples didn’t stop all doubting when they heard Jesus say they’d be doing greater works. They didn’t do everything Jesus said to do immediately either. Some pushing and prodding by Jesus and the Holy Spirit was necessary.

But Jesus (of course) was right. The book of Acts is full of stories of disciples who had been running and hiding from their callings… Now spreading the faith and love of Jesus to the ends of the earth….doing what he said to do…

Now it’s up to us to continue the work of Jesus – who needs us to be there for him, not just Palm Sunday and Easter, but Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and every day of the week. Jesus needs us now to be doing the greater works he calls us to do.

Because this world still desperately needs to see God, alive, at work in the world. And Jesus still has nobody but us, the body of Christ, to do his work.

Young and old, we all need God and desire God – whether we know it or not. We’re all made in the image of God, wired for closer, deeper, stronger relationship with God.

Jesus tells us if we know him, we know God the Father. Jesus tells us he is in the Father and the Father is in him, and we who believe are also in the Father and in the Son (14:20). So Jesus tells us – keep doing the work of new creation that he and God the Father are doing, and teaching us to do…

The greater works Jesus says we’ll be doing may occasionally include even the miraculous signs and wonders he does. But most often, the greater works Jesus expects of us will be small, humble, hidden works of faith and grace. Jesus does some powerful miracles. But his daily work of new creation is about praying constantly, keeping in close touch with God the Father, and teaching God’s people patiently. Colossians 3 talks about our lives hidden in Christ. Our works – which are actually not our own, but works done by God and Jesus through us – are often also hidden… to be revealed only in God’s time.

Most of the greater works we’re called to do won’t seem particularly great. Most of the work Jesus asks of us will seem weak, small, unspectacular. (The devil’s temptations offered to Jesus, remember, back in Matthew 4, are to be relevant, powerful and spectacular.) The greater works Jesus calls us into may include changing diapers, giving rides, pushing brooms, saying a thousand prayers (if necessary speaking words aloud)… listening to others…seeking the good of others before our own interests… bearing faithful witness to the presence of God in every situation… (And…)

We won’t ever do the greater works Jesus speaks of alone. Jesus prayed that all who believe in him will all be one, united in him and in the Father (John 17). The only way we can ever do the works Jesus has done is together, in his community of faith, hope and love.

We worship together, pray together, listen for God’s word together, love and serve God together. Together we share in each other’s struggles and joys. Together we share in the work of God, sustained by the love of Jesus…

Letting God’s love become ever more visible among us…

Living, together now, with hearts untroubled –

Because best of all, now we know –

Jesus is with us – And we’re with Him…

forever and always.

(So we say together from the heart –)

Thanks be to God.

Amen.