Palm Sunday April 5, 1998
58, 161, 162, 341
Then there arose a question between some of John’s disciples and the Jews about purifying. And they came unto John, and said unto him, Rabbi, he that was with thee beyond Jordan, to whom thou barest witness, behold, the same baptizeth, and all men come to him. John answered and said, A man can receive nothing, except it be given him from heaven Ye yourselves bear me witness, that I said, I am not the Christ, but that I am sent before him. He that hath the bride is the bridegroom: but the friend of the bridegroom, which standeth and heareth him, rejoiceth greatly because of the bridegroom’s voice: this my joy therefore is fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease. So far the Holy Word.
In the Name of Jesus Christ, Our Triumphant King, Dear Fellow Redeemed,
If you could write a part for yourself in the drama of Palm Sunday, what would it be? If you could insert a few verses in Matthew 21 or Luke 19, which tell what happened when Jesus entered Jerusalem, what would those verses say? Perhaps you’d have them say that you climbed to the top of the highest tree for the most beautiful palm branch to lay in Jesus’ path. Or that you held the donkey’s bridle and led Him down the road to Jerusalem. Or that you shouted hosanna the louder than anyone else, and kissed the hem of Jesus’ garment all the way to the city gates. Even if you weren’t the star of the show, you’d at least want to be “best supporting actor.” You’d certainly wouldn’t want to be just another face in the crowd.
We modern-day Americans like to be in the spotlight. We tend to have a very self-centered and inflated image of ourselves. As an individual, I’m tempted to see myself as the center of the universe, with everything else in life revolving around me. Well, for a Hollywood actor, that might be alright. But for a Christian, it’s all wrong! In our text for today, we’re going to take a look at a man who could have made himself a real big shot, but instead diminished himself, on purpose. His name was John the Baptist, and there are some important lessons we can learn from him. In the theme of this sermon, I call him,
As our text begins, it is a short time after Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan River. Christ’s ministry has just begun, and the ministry of John is almost over. The Baptist doesn’t seem too worried about this…but his disciples sure are upset about it! And they came unto John, and said unto him, Rabbi, he that was with thee beyond Jordan, to whom thou barest witness, behold, the same baptizeth, and all men come to him. Look, teacher—they said—here’s this new prophet. You did a lot for Him, you said good things about Him, and now He’s competing with you and stealing all the attention that you were getting before! They were indignant. They felt deflated and belittled. They wanted their master, John, to hold center stage. If possible, they might even wish that their master would be recognized as the promised Messiah!
But for John that is impossible. He shrinks from receiving what God has not given him. And it’s not that he didn’t have the opportunity to claim messiahship for himself. He was a powerful preacher. Jesus Himself said of him, “Of those born of women there is no one greater than John the Baptist.” Several times people had asked John flat out, “Are you the Savior promised in the Old Testament?” It would have been so easy to say YES! But he didn’t. “When the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, ‘I am not the Christ.’” Jn 1:19. In our text, we hear him tell his disgruntled disciples, A man can receive nothing, except it be given him from heaven Ye yourselves bear me witness, that I said, I am not the Christ, but that I am sent before him.
John the Baptist shrank from receiving what God had not given him. And so should we. There is a big difference between Christ and Christian, and we need to be very careful that we remember which one we are! This warning is especially for preachers. As soon as my preaching draws more attention to ME than it does to THE LORD JESUS, then my preaching is worse than a failure. My job is to direct people to Christ. Like John the Baptist, I must shrink from taking any of the glory or credit that belongs, properly, only to the Savior!
But this is a danger for you Christians in the pew, as well. The danger? That you make yourself out to be your own Christ, your own Savior. “Impossible!” you say, “I’d never do that!” But we’re tempted, aren’t we? Aren’t we tempted, from time to time, to give ourselves a little credit for our upstanding lives and our good church attendance record? Aren’t we tempted to be a little proud about some of the good things we’ve done? Aren’t we tempted to look down on some ungodly neighbor of ours and say, “Lord, I thank you that I am not a sinner like he is…!” But doing those things is making yourself—at least partly—your own Savior. It’s making yourself the star of your salvation, and relegating Jesus to a supporting role.
But Jesus doesn’t want a supporting role in the drama of your life. He’s not part of your salvation. He’s ALL of it, the A through Z! Christ says, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End, the First and the Last.” —Rev 22:13. Jesus can’t simply be one spoke on the wheel of your life. He’s got to be the hub—the very center of your existence, to which every other part of your life is attached. Jesus doesn’t say to you: Make sure I’m ON your list of priorities; rather He says, Make sure I’m NUMBER ONE on your list of priorities. “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.” —Mat 6:33. Render unto God the things that are Gods, and by all means, shrink from receiving what God has not given to you!
But back to John the Baptist. Did you know that these are the last words we have from his lips in the whole Bible? With this last statement of faith, the mighty prophet is leaving the stage of history. This preacher who had made such a name for himself and caused such a stir in Israel is fading away—shrinking—almost before our very eyes. Yet, he willingly gives up the spotlight. And not just willingly…he actually is happy to do it! As far as John the Baptist is concerned, he’s glad to shrink in order that Christ may expand.
John tells his disciples, He that hath the bride is the bridegroom. This beautiful picture of Christ as the Bridegroom being married to the Church, His Bride—this is a familiar picture in the Bible. In the Book of Zechariah, the Lord says to us believers, “I will betroth you to Me forever; yes, I will betroth you to Me in righteousness and justice, in lovingkindness and mercy.” —Hosea 2:19. But if Christ is the Bridegroom, where does that leave John? Out of the picture? Not at all! He says, He that hath the bride is the bridegroom: but the friend of the bridegroom, which standeth and heareth him, rejoiceth greatly because of the bridegroom’s voice: this my joy therefore is fulfilled.
Ever been the best man or maid of honor at a wedding? If you have, then you know that John’s right. The best man at a wedding isn’t jealous of the bridegroom; just the opposite—he’s happy for the bridegroom and rejoices with him! Far from being envious of Jesus’ popularity, John the Baptist was overjoyed that people were coming to Christ. In fact, the whole point of John’s ministry was to get people ready for the coming of Jesus Christ. And now that the Bridegroom had arrived, John was happy just to shrink into the background and listen to His voice. Because what he heard from Jesus were the soothing words of the Savior of mankind:
“I am the way, the truth, and the life.”
“Come unto Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”
“He who comes to Me I will by no means cast out.”
“I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live!”
In short, John the Baptist heard the voice of the Bridegroom telling of salvation for him and every sinner. Just hearing that Gospel good news gave him all the joy he could ever hope for!
God wants this joy to be yours, as well. Have you rejoiced to hear the voice of the Bridegroom in your life? There’s a lot to rejoice over, especially on this Palm Sunday. Today we hear once again how our Lord Jesus rode in quiet majesty toward His death. He took the palm-strewn road to Jerusalem, knowing full well that at the end of that road, a cross was waiting. He knew what was coming, and yet He calmly rode onward. Why? One reason—He did it out of love for you and me, lost sinners powerless to help ourselves. That’s why Jesus took on the devil and won. In our place He kept God’s Law, the Law that you and I have broken times without number. On the cross, Jesus suffered the last ounce of punishment that our sins deserved. Someone had to be punished, and our loving Lord Jesus decided—better Him than us!
The Son of God, who gained heaven for you and me—that’s the Bridegroom whose voice we rejoice to hear! Today we’re laying our palms before the shepherd who gave His life for the sheep. Today we too may shout out loud with joy: “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!”
The way John figured it, if he could help the message of Christ grow and expand by himself shrinking into the background, he was glad to do it! That’s why, as soon as Jesus had arrived on the scene, John the Baptist joyfully directed people away from himself and toward the Savior. This was the way it had to be, and he was perfectly happy that it should be so. John told his disciples, “He must increase, and I must decrease.”
On this Palm Sunday, as we offer our hymns and our hosanna’s to Jesus, let’s you and I resolve to be “shrinking Christians.” Let’s be as humble and self-effacing as we can in our service of Christ. “He must increase, but we must decrease.” When we share the Gospel with others, let’s be careful to impress them with Jesus’ righteousness, not our own. When somebody asks you a question about your faith, let it be the wisdom of God’s Word, and not your own wisdom that convinces them.
A Christian is, almost by definition, humble. He defers to his Savior on every point. He shrinks, in order that Christ may expand. But if there is humility in the life of a believer, there must also be great joy! Jesus asks, “Can the friends of the bridegroom mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them?” —Mat 9:15. It’s impossible! Yes, you and I are conservative Lutherans…but does that mean that we have to be tight-lipped and stern, and go around wearing a frown all the time? Ridiculous! How can we keep from rejoicing when we’re here in our Lord’s house, listening to the voice of the Bridegroom? How can we feel anything other than sheer delight when we hear from this pulpit, every Sunday, that our Redeemer is alive, our sins have been forgiven, and heaven is ours?! How can we help but say, with Isaiah, “I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my soul shall be joyful in my God; for He has clothed me with the garments of salvation, He has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with ornaments, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.” —Isa 61:10.
Speaking of things that shrink… I’m reminded of those indoor storm windows—you know, the plastic kind that you tape on the inside of your window frames? You’re supposed to use a hair dryer to shrink the plastic and remove the wrinkles. Well, some brands work better than others, but on the best ones, all the wrinkles are removed. The plastic is so clear and tight that you don’t even notice that it’s there. The same is true about Christians. The best Christians are those who are “transparent.” They don’t draw attention to themselves, they simply let the image of the Savior shine through in their lives. John the Baptist was that kind of “shrinking Christian.” He said, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” God grant that you and I may be shrinking Christians, as well! AMEN.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.