Before we go any further, let’s notice a couple of structural issues about John’s Gospel. The Gospel is 21 chapters long. The first 11 chapters cover the three years of Jesus’ ministry. The last 10 chapters cover the last week of his life. In fact, six of those chapters focus on the last night. There is no doubt what John considers significant. He didn’t shortchange the former, but put special emphasis on the latter.
As we come to chapter twelve, the raising of Lazarus is still fresh on everyone’s mind and the Sanhedrin’s decision to have Jesus put to death is even fresher. There was no doubt in the minds of the Jewish leaders that it would be better for the nation if Jesus should die rather than risk letting this movement boil out of control and bring the full weight of the Roman military down on them.
John begins his account of the last week in chapter 12, Six days before the Passover, Jesus arrived at Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him. Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.’” He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it. “Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.” Meanwhile a large crowd of Jews found out that Jesus was there and came, not only because of him but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests made plans to kill Lazarus as well, for on account of him many of the Jews were going over to Jesus and putting their faith in him. (John 12:1-11)
So many things are going on in these eleven verses that we need to walk through them one at a time and make sure we are listening to the deeper meanings.
First of all, this is the beginning of Passover week. You cannot overstate the significance of the Passover in John’s Gospel. The timing of Jesus’ death on the eve of Passover is important because Jesus is the perfect lamb of God. Every Passover from Exodus forward anticipates this night when Jesus will free them from slavery to sin by his death. Instead of the blood of a Passover lamb, it will be Jesus’ blood that is shed.
That first evening in Bethany, a banquet is given in Jesus’ honor and during that banquet, Mary takes a bottle of nard and pours it over Jesus feet and wipes his feet with her hair. This was a very costly gift and an act of incredible devotion to Jesus. (Just a side note here: Messiah means “anointed one”, and in a sense, Mary is acknowledging that he truly is the Messiah. Perhaps she, more than even the disciples truly grasped who he was and by this act confirms her belief and her devotion).
Judas Iscariot speaks up in criticism saying it was a waste since the money could have been given to the poor. (John, looking back on the comment lets us know it wasn’t out of Judas’ compassion, but out of his greed. In fact, John’s telling of the story creates a stark contrast between the devotion of Mary and the duplicity of Judas). But Jesus interprets Mary’s act of devotion as something even she did not grasp. She saw it as a living proclamation. He says this perfume was in preparation for his burial. Six days later they will be wrapping his dead body with spices, but tonight this perfume will remind them of how short their time is with him.
And then the last thing we notice is that Lazarus has become quite a folk hero. He is the ultimate demonstration of Jesus’ power. His rising from the dead continues to have a ripple effect through Jerusalem, and the crowds have come to Bethany, not only to see Jesus, but to see Lazarus as well and even many of the Jewish leaders were putting their faith in Jesus because of him.
But John also tells us that this fame had put Lazarus’ life at risk as well, for as long as he was alive, people would continue to be reminded of Jesus’ miracles and his claim to be one with the Father. And so the Jews decided Lazarus must also be put to death.
The next morning, the fateful week begins as Jesus mounts a young donkey to begin the two mile ride into Jerusalem.
You’ve been there. You knew the day was coming – a surgery, a move, a separation, a death. You laid awake at night thinking about what it would look like, how you would feel, how your life would change. And yet when the day arrived, nothing could prepare you for the intensity of the moment.
The walls of Jerusalem rise before them in the distance. For the other pilgrims who are gathering for the Passover, those walls are a joyful welcome to the end of a long journey. For Jesus, they signal the beginning of the end. This week that will begin with such glory, will end with unimaginable pain and death.
The other Gospels tell us of Jesus’ instructions to his disciples concerning obtaining the donkey. But they all point out the prophecy that this fulfilled from Zechariah 9: “Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey.”
This week will be filled with prophetic reminders of Jesus’ identity as the Messiah sent from God. For centuries the Jews had been talking about and anticipating the coming of the Messiah, and now that he does, the full weight of their rejection will come crushing down.
The disciples threw their cloaks on the back of the colt and Jesus mounted for the ride. It was an ordinary sight with extraordinary meaning. Many travelers were making their way into the city, some certainly on donkeys. And yet, Jesus suddenly begins to attract attention. Onlookers begin throwing their cloaks before him on the ground, while others cut palm branches and waved them in the air and laid them on the ground before him.
As Jesus nears the gates of Jerusalem, every pilgrim travelling on the road joins the procession, and every resident of Jerusalem pours out through the gates to welcome him. And in chorus they shout “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the king of Israel!”
His disciples must have been thinking all that talk of going to Jerusalem to die was a big mistake. Surely this procession will take them to the palace of Herod where Jesus will throw out that corrupt demagogue and take his rightful place on the throne. John often explains what is going on in the disciples’ minds and here he tells us: At first his disciples did not understand all this. Only after Jesus was glorified did they realize that these things had been written about him and that they had done these things to him. (Jn 12:16)
Not everyone was joyful. The Pharisees think it is scandalous – this pretender to the throne, riding the wave of popularity. They become more entrenched in their belief that he must die. John writes: Now the crowd that was with him when he called Lazarus from the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to spread the word. Many people, because they had heard that he had given this miraculous sign, went out to meet him. So the Pharisees said to one another, “See, this is getting us nowhere. Look how the whole world has gone after him!” (John 12: 17-19)
Luke tells us they pushed their way toward Jesus and shout above the din of the crowd, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples!” He would not… he could not, even if he had tried. No more than he could keep the blind and the lepers and the sick who had been healed from telling about what Jesus had done for them, he could not silence this crowd. He shouts back to them, “I tell you, if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out!”
What I see in these verses that we’ve read this morning is a representation of the individuals and groups surrounding Jesus who come to drastically different conclusions concerning him.
We see Mary, who, convinced that Jesus is the Messiah, anoints him with perfume. Her conclusion is that Jesus is to be worshiped and followed whatever the cost. We see in her the wondrous possibility that we can pour ourselves out in serving Jesus humbly and selflessly; that we can willingly give the most expensive and precious gift we have without regard to the cost.
We see Judas, whose selfishness and greed blinds him to seeing Jesus for who he is. His heart is so hardened that even Mary’s act of devotion sets off his critical spirit and he reacts out of his personal self-interest. We see in Judas the tragic possibilities that confront us when we come to Jesus with our own agenda and seek our own willful pursuits. How blind we can become to truth; how self-seeking we can become; the depths to which we will sink when we allow sin to master our lives.
We see the crowds who pour out of Jerusalem shouting praises to the coming king. They are caught up in the excitement of the moment. They are not responding out of genuine belief, but out of emotion. This crowd mentality might look like true devotion, but it fails to touch the heart of the individual. Six days later these same people will be caught up in the moment and be shouting “Crucify him!” It was for these same people that Jesus will pray from the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” If we are going to be followers of Jesus, it can’t be a momentary whim, but out of what Jesus called “counting the cost” and an intentional commitment to follow him even if it leads to the cross.
In the Pharisees we see the tragedy of being people who value religion over God. Confronted with overwhelming evidence that Jesus was the Messiah sent from God, they realized that he would change everything, and that threatened their way of life and they concluded he must die. And while we could never imagine ourselves being so cold-blooded and heartless in our assessment of Jesus, we too will push Jesus out of our lives when he threatens our comfortable complacency and demands more than we are willing to give. We’ll maintain our religious façade, but our hearts will be far from God.
And that brings us to us this morning. Jesus does not let us remain complacent about him. He demands that we choose either to follow him with all our hearts or walk away.
Three-year old Shawn and his family were sitting in church on Easter morning, when Shawn looked up at his dad and asked what Easter was about. So his dad tried to explain it in terms a three-year old might understand. He pointed at the cross and said that Jesus died because people nailed him to the cross. Shawn’s eyes got wide and he looked around and asked his dad, “You mean THESE people?”
And the truth is, yes, us people. It was just as much us as those soldiers who drove the nails that Friday morning. It was just as much us as those Jewish leaders who decided Jesus must die. It was just as much us as Judas who betrayed him for thirty pieces of silver. And more than that, not only are we the ones who nailed him to the cross, we are also the ones for whom he died – to save us from our sin.
Posted on Sun, April 9, 2017
by John Roberts