Grace, mercy, and peace be to you from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.
Our text is today’s Gospel (John 12:12-19):12 The next day the large crowd that had come to the feast heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. 13 So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, crying out, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!” 14 And Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it, just as it is written, 15 “Fear not, daughter of Zion; behold, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!”
16 His disciples did not understand these things at first, but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written about him and had been done to him. 17 The crowd that had been with him when he called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to bear witness. 18 The reason why the crowd went to meet him was that they heard he had done this sign. 19 So the Pharisees said to one another, “You see that you are gaining nothing. Look, the world has gone after him.”. (ESV)
Who would you say is the greatest deceiver of all? Your answer, I suspect, would be “Satan”. And it is true that the Bible calls Satan the deceiver of the whole world (Revelation 12:9). But I am asking for the name of the greatest deceiver of all, and it is not Satan. I have in mind Jesus, the Saviour of the world. Let me explain.
In the Book of Proverbs is a pair of sayings that seem to contradict each other: Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes (26:4-5). These proverbs are addressing two different situations. In general, it is foolish to engage in a debate with fools. However, there are times when the best course of action is to answer a fool with his own line of reasoning. When the Pharisees ask Jesus to show them a sign from heaven to prove that He is the Christ, He answers them according to their own folly of seeking for proof rather than trusting God’s Word: “You want a sign? I’ll give you a sign. As Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth (Matthew 12:40).
Answer a fool according to his folly—that really is how Jesus is dealing with the devil, the deceiver of the whole world. The devil deceived Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and he has been deceiving sinners ever since. The whole human race is enslaved and bound to the chains of the devil’s malicious deceit. But of course, God’s love for sinners is greater than the devil’s malice. And God’s wisdom is higher than the devil’s deceit. What a wondrous thing God has done, that He has answered the devil’s deceit with an even greater deceit, and in this way God has released the human race from the chains of sin, death, and hell.
Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God, came in the flesh to trick the devil with his own deceit. The devil is a proud and cruel enemy who would have expected Jesus to attack him with a visible display of force and power. But do you see how Jesus deceived the devil? [Jesus] concealed the power of His majesty from the furious devil and put forward instead the weakness of our lowliness (Leo I of Rome, Sermon 62, Oremus, p. 397).
Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey, greeted by a crowd waving palm branches and quoting Scripture— Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel! But the disciples themselves and also the crowd do not understand what is happening nor what they are saying. There is nothing about that Palm Sunday parade that would appear to pose a threat in any way to the devil’s kingdom of deceit. But Jesus is deceiving the devil by concealing His power and majesty.
And our Lord’s great deceit continues. Once inside the city, Jesus does say that His hour to be glorified has come, but He speaks of this glory hour in terms of a grain of wheat falling into the earth and dying (see John 12: 24). He does say that now the ruler of this world will be cast out, but He has such a strange way of speaking about this victory, for He speaks of the kind of death He is going to die, a death by which He is lifted up from the earth and draws all people to Himself (see John 12:31-32). And when He is finished speaking, Jesus departs from the crowd and hides Himself from them. And though He had done so many signs before the people, they still did not believe in Him (see John 12:36-37). What kind of threat could Jesus possibly be to Satan? For here, we have a self-proclaimed saviour who speaks of dying, who goes into hiding, and who has no army of followers who will fight to the death for Him. The devil feels secure upon his throne of deceit.
But the devil is tricked by his own deceit and wickedness. The devil could never imagine winning a victory through weakness and lowliness. And so he inflicts great torment upon the Son of God, thinking in this way to assure a great victory for himself. But the deceiver of the world is deceived by the greatest of all deceivers, Jesus Christ our Lord. Jesus allows the devil to torment Him unto death, but this torment—which the devil thinks is his victory—this torment is changed into the medicine of immortality for all sinners. In those well-known comforting words from Isaiah: our Lord Jesus was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed (53:5). The devil’s torment inflicted upon Jesus on Good Friday ends up becoming God’s means of giving peace and healing to sinners. Of course, this was God’s plan all along, from before the ages began, that our Saviour Christ Jesus would appear in the flesh to abolish death with His death and to bring life and immortality to light through His Gospel (see 2 Timothy 1:9-10).
As our brother in our human flesh, Jesus has conquered death. His physical body was the instrument of our salvation. In skin and bones like ours, Jesus bore our sin. He suffered excruciating agony of body and soul upon the cross. Three days later His resurrection was the culmination of our redemption, but it all began with His crucifixion. Like bookends, they contain the whole package of our deliverance: death and resurrection, cross and empty tomb. Because Jesus emerged victorious from His grave and conquered death, we will too.
In flesh and blood like ours, Jesus came in weakness and lowliness, appearing to pose no threat to Satan. And in this way, God’s Son deceived the deceiver; He transformed the devil’s torment into the medicine of immortality. Yes, Jesus destroyed death and ransacked hell. He offered up His human body to be tormented on the cross. And in doing so, His body because a bait which Satan swallowed—hook, line, and sinker! The devil plotted to destroy God’s Son by nailing our Lord’s body to the cross. But of course, Jesus is both true God and also true Man, so that we can truly say that God died on Good Friday. Our Lord’s human body was the bait that Satan swallowed at Calvary; our Lord’s divine nature was the hook that destroyed the devil and robbed him of all his power, delivering us from bondage to sin, death, and hell.
Here is how the Book of Hebrews describes our Lord’s great deceit over the devil, the deceiver of the world: Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, [Jesus] Himself likewise also partook of the same [flesh and blood], that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives (2:14–15). Do you see? Jesus defeated death by His own death. Satan sought to be the devourer, but he ended up being the one devoured—because God cannot die. As God, Jesus is life, and so death has no power over Him. Oh, it’s true, Jesus—who is both God and man—did truly suffer and die according to His human nature. But death could not hold Him down, and so on the third day He rose again in His human body. With His flesh and blood intact, Jesus destroyed death and made captivity captive.
And now, the waters of baptism join Christians to Jesus’ cross and resurrection, by which He won the victory over death and hell. We were buried therefore with Him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life (Romans 6:4).
Baptized into Jesus’ death and resurrection, you and I now spread before Jesus not the garments and branches of that first Palm Sunday crowd but our very selves, clothed in His grace, or rather, clothed completely in Him. We who have been baptized into Christ must ourselves be the garments that we spread before Jesus. The crimson stains of our sins have been washed away in the saving waters of Baptism and we have become white as pure wool. And now, we are to present the Conqueror of death not with mere branches but with the fruit of His victory, our lives wholly given to Him, that we may thank and praise, serve and obey Him in all we think, say, and do (adapted from Andrew of Crete, Sermon 9 for Palmarum, Oremus, p. 397). This is the life that is now ours to live.
Oh, we live this blessed life imperfectly, for we love neither God nor our neighbour as we should. But remember, our life in Christ is not a finished work but a process. As Luther said: This life is not godliness but the process of becoming godly, not health but getting well, not being but becoming, not rest but exercise. We are not now what we shall be, but we are on the way. The process is not yet finished, but is actively going on. This is not the goal but it is the right road. At present, everything does not gleam and sparkle, but everything is being cleansed (Defense and Explanation of All the Articles, AE 32:24).
This life of being cleansed along the way is now yours. Having died with Christ in baptism, you also live with Him. You live in Christ, knowing that He cleanses you of your sins and refreshes you in the true faith. And you can count on that life in Christ to sustain you every single day of your life. That includes days of darkness and pain as well as days of sunshine and happiness.
In a very real way, having been baptized into Christ, you have put on Christ. You live in Him, and He in you. As St. Paul writes: I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me (Galatians 2:20). My dear brothers and sisters in Christ, you now live connected to your Saviour Jesus, who came in weakness and lowliness to render powerless the deceiver, the devil, and to set you free—free from sin, death, and hell and free for righteousness, life, and heaven. In Christ Jesus your Saviour, your life has become a holy doxology by which you proclaim: Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel! Amen.
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For a portion of this sermon, I am indebted to Rev. Harold Senkbeil for insights from his book Christ and Calamity: Grace & Gratitude in the Darkest Valley. Soli Deo Gloria!