This sermon is part of the sermon series "If Jesus Came to Your Town ...". See series.
It was all going well. The worshippers at these special services rated them as the best ever. Suddenly, a motorcycle gang drove up with a threatening roar, gleaming bikes, and bandanas flying. Some bikers had beards, studs in their jackets (and probably elsewhere), and tattoos. Driving up close and parking in the no-parking spaces, they dismounted, throttled to silence, stepped up, and said: Sir, we would like to see Jesus.
That's a little like the first shock in John 12. Of course it's not just special services; it's the Feast of Passover. But it is going spectacularly well because of this Jesus, who apparently has raised someone from the dead, and who rides into the city on a donkey while the crowds explode with excitement: "Hosanna! Blessed is the King of Israel!"
I know it's a stretch to liken the Greeks coming to a bunch of motorcyclists. And if you drive a Harley-Davidson and are proud of your tattoos, I apologize. But I wanted to show them as rank outsiders. Sure, they are sympathetic, but they are so different in every way.
They ask Philip, "Sir, we would like to see Jesus," and he doesn't seem sure what to do. He asks Andrew, and Andrew knows enough of Jesus to know that he welcomes genuine interruptions. A woman touches his cloak, children rush to his knee, a blind beggar shouts out, a little man climbs a tree, a thief speaks on the cross. And every time, these unscheduled interruptions from outsiders usher us into deep places where Jesus heals and teaches. And that's what happens here. Because of these outsiders, Jesus gives us the second shock—a heavyweight shock. Several times, he uses the D word.
There's a cartoon in Leadership Journal this month that shows an advertisement for a seeker-sensitive funeral service. It reads: "Seeker-sensitive funeral: No body, no casket, no mention of the D word." But Jesus specializes in using the D word.
"The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified." In the fourth gospel, that means Jesus is talking about his death upon a cross very soon—only he could call dying cross-shaped glory.
"Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds." Jesus says a seed has to be buried and die so there will be many seeds. He's talking about his death on the cross very soon.
"Those who love their life will lose it, while those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life." Jesus says those who fall in love with themselves will love themselves to lonely spiritual death. But those who do the opposite of self-love, unselfishly throwing loving service into God's way, will "death" themselves to life. By so many daily little deaths to pride and ego and sacrificial acts of holy boldness for God's sake, they will live cross-shaped lives. Jesus has some powerful words about that for both the insiders and the outsiders.
A word to insiders: Live a cross-shaped life.
Insiders are the people who have heard all this before and preached sermons on it and arranged worship services about it. He could have said: Follow me.
But no, he links three things together: "Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me." "Serve me" means doing things for Jesus; many of us know about that. But that must be linked with "follow me"—staying close in faith and obedience to him, my dying and being buried. "Where I am, my servant also will be." As you serve and follow me, you will be where I am.
It is possible to disconnect what Jesus puts together—to serve Jesus and do things for him without following his cross-shaped life, to fit him in to our way of doing things, to do things in his name but to do them our way, and to serve Jesus for my agenda, not his.
My last year of college, I had plans worked out that seemed to be God's agenda. But they all went wrong, and I was left confused and angry. I didn't know what to do. A new job came up in our Baptist headquarters in London to work with students and chaplains. Someone warned me: "I wouldn't take that job. It is very easy to lose your faith there." I thought it cruel and cynical to think that working among Christians would damage my faith. But, as I have grown older, I've found out how easy it is to bring the mass of jealousies, unkindnesses, ambitions, and lack of compassion right into service for Jesus. To serve Jesus Christ, Inc. in structures, organizations, and local churches set up in his name without following the Jesus of the Cross, of burying and self-giving.
And because I am proud, I think that my service means Jesus will be with me. I am tempted to think that Jesus Christ is contracted to go along with me—didn't he say, "Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age"? Actually, he says: Go for me, and I will be with you. Serve, follow my way, and I will be with you.
He's not reminding me how to live my life. He wants to be the Owner of my life, to turn it around. He wants to be Savior and Re-creator. He doesn't fit in with my life, helping me cope with its ups and downs—he confronts me with a completely different life. He doesn't follow me. He wants me to follow him.
That is what disturbs me: In practice, we have elevated service, doing things for Jesus our way, assuming that Jesus fits in. He has a supporting role, doesn't mention the D word, and doesn't wrench me around to follow his cross-shaped life.
A word to outsiders: Jesus is the real thing.
This business about insiders and outsiders is strange. Looking at you all, you all seem to be insiders—you are all students at Wheaton College. But some of you feel like outsiders. For one reason or another, you don't feel you belong.
In my first church as pastor, I remember my consternation at the end of the service when there was a stranger, head bowed, who was left there when everybody else had gone. He was unusual, an obvious outsider. He had on a purple, cut-away t-shirt and tattoos over large muscles. He looked like a professional wrestler, which turned out to be exactly what he was. He was upset. I sat next to him and asked him whether I could help.
No, he said, choking, he wanted to go now. Would he come and see me at my home? Yes, he said; one night that week. When he did, he launched into a horrific story of abuse and neglect. He hadn't been to church in years. He had been unfaithful to wife, violent to his children, and violent to himself with drugs. He was a mess. At the end, he said, "Do you know what I need?"
I did, but I wasn't quite sure how to put it. "What do you need, Dave?" I said.
He said: "I need Jesus." And this big man knelt on the floor and gave his life to Christ, and got up with his center of gravity now on Jesus.
Jesus has the right to stop us in our tracks, to confront us with his death, to pull us into new life with his mercy and forgiveness, and to turn us around so we can follow him. There is no one in the world like Jesus. No one.
Michael Quicke is professor of preaching at Northern Baptist Seminary in Lombard, Illinois, and author of 360-Degree Preaching (Baker).