This Sunday suffers from liturgical schizophrenia. Is it Palm Sunday or Passion Sunday? A time to remember Jesus’ entry into or His suffering outside of the city? Hymn and reading selections depend on this decision, as does the member of the altar guild who orders the fronds. Choosing to preach from John 12:20-43, however, will not make this decision much easier. It comes immediately after the Triumphant Entry and is followed quickly by Maundy Thursday. A sermon on this text could go either direction.
There is a lot going on in these verses. There are the Greeks who want to see Jesus in verse 21. There is the paradox of loving and losing, hating and finding life in verses 24-26. There is the voice from Heaven thundering words about glorification in verses 27-30. There is Jesus’ promise to draw all people to Himself. There is the metaphor of light and darkness in verses 35-36. There is the unbelief promised by Isaiah in verses 37-40. Any of these could provide focus for the sermon. Another option would be Jesus’ words in verse 26: “If anyone serves Me, he must follow Me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves Me, the Father will honor him.”
It is the following which caught my attention this week. It seems especially appropriate to consider this Sunday, for Holy Week is designed to help Christians follow Jesus through His last and consequential days. The following begins on Palm Sunday as we join the crowd and celebrate His entry into Jerusalem. We continue following Him around the city as He cleanses the temple and confronts the religious leaders early in the week. We tag along with Jesus and the disciples as they enter the upper room on Maundy Thursday, and we depart with them for the garden later that night. Early Friday morning we follow at a distance with the other disciples, and we go after them into hiding on Saturday. Then comes Sunday, when we follow the women and Peter and John in their sprint to the empty tomb and as they go forth in the power of His resurrection toward new and courageous living. All week we follow, for that is what servants of Jesus do. The end of this following is honor from the Father.
A focus on following Jesus invites connection with other parts of this text. I can think of three possibilities:
- Connections with verse 24-25 would help you cast following Jesus as losing our lives too. Philippians 2:5-10 describes what this entailed for Him and Paul explicitly directs us to follow his example. Despite the praise He received on Palm Sunday, Jesus was headed toward rejection and death. But like a seed that falls into the earth and dies, Jesus rises again to bear much fruit. So also, the one who dies and rises in Christ.
- The dark/light metaphor works well with following, too. We follow Jesus into the darkness of death with the assurance there is light on the other side. The contrast between the darkened sky on Good Friday with the bright morning sun on Easter Sunday could figure prominently here.
- Focus on following Jesus could also help you bring together Jesus’ promise to draw all men to Himself (verse 32) while acknowledging that many would not believe or follow (verses 37-40). We follow Jesus because He draws us—because He gives us eyes to see and hearts to believe. In this sense we cannot help following Jesus. We would not want to either.
Following Jesus would make an appropriate theme for this Sunday because, whether you call it Palm or Passion Sunday, the sermon on this Sunday never really ends (I recall one Palm Sunday when I titled the message, “The Sermon That Never Ends.” As far as I am aware, no one snuck out before I started preaching). More than any other Sunday in the Church Year, everyone must come back for the rest of the story—not just for Easter Sunday, but also Thursday and Friday. It would not be out of bounds to say this explicitly in the sermon.
Concordia Theology: Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO, to assist you in preaching John 12:20-43.
Lectionary Podcast: Dr. Charles Gieschen of Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN, walks us through John 12:12-19.
Text Week: A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach John 12:20-33.
Alternative Gospel Texts:
Concordia Theology: Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St Louis, MO to assist you in preaching Luke 22:1-23:56.
Text Week: A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Luke 22:1-23:56.