Friday, March 29, 2013

my sermon from today

If you'd like to follow along in the bible we'll mainly be in John 18 and 19 but I'm going to quickly walk us through the events of Jesus' trial and execution using all four accounts.

So Jesus entered Jerusalem in triumph on Sunday and went straight to the Tempe to scope it out for the next day. On Monday and Tuesday and Wednesday he entered into serious conflict with the authorities and basically stirred the pot of conflict and anger against him all those three days. On Thursday, before the usual time to celebrate the Passover feast, Jesus joins with the 12 in the upper room to share that memorial meal, but also to teach the disciples, to institute the Eucharist, to wash their feet, to warn them about what was immediately ahead, and to pray his high priestly prayer--to, as we saw last night, love them to the end. It is during this meal that Satan enters into Judas and Jesus sends him away to do what he is going to do.

After the meal Jesus leads his disciples through Jerusalem. He takes his time. The washing of the feet, the sermon preached to his disciples at the Passover Meal and the prayer, in John, is 5 chapters long. If you account for the institution of the Eucharist, which John doesnt include, you have a considerable time in the upper room. Then the leisurely walk through the city. Then they go across the Kidron Valley to what John calls a garden. Jesus is taking his own sweet deliberate time.

Now, none of the other gospel writers call this place a garden. Mark and Matthew give the proper name of a particular place, Gesthemene. Luke use a more general and well known broader appellation, Mount of Olives. But John, using the unspecified, allows this garden to stand as a type, an opposite of another Garden standing at the beginning of time. In that garden the first man walked in the day, in the light, in beauty, in plenty, in peace, in joy. But, there in that garden, surrounded by everything his heart could desire, he chose to walk, and then, to stand, and to be comfortable, and to talk and carry on and commune with wickedness, with Satan. In a single moment, with no struggle, no thought even, he gave over his whole self, the whole earth and all of his children to death. Jesus comes into this second garden. Now it is night. Now there is struggle and pain. Instead of a moment we have a long difficult time. Rather than parlaying with Satan, Jesus seeks the face of his Father. He prays three times, perhaps in three hour blocks--can you not, he reproaches his sleeping friends, pray with me even one hour? In each hour of prayer his will bends more fully to the will of his father. Matthew records the movement in prayer. First, he asks that the cup might be removed. The second time of prayer, he shifts, if it cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done. The anti type of Adam who stood in conversation with Satan, no struggle, no hint of consideration and then reached out and took that which seemed good to him, Jesus struggles and prays and weeps and bends his will to accept the cup the father gives him.

And at night. All of this at night.
So what of Judas? What has he been up to?
Well, remember that the rulers and authorities had been trying to arrest Jesus for a while but had been unable to. It is a reasonable speculation that they have not made plans to kill Jesus at this time. There isnt time before the Passover. They are probably afraid of him--both his own power and his effect on the crowds. They are biding their time and considering what to do. But then who should come to them that night, in stealth, but Judas. They have already formed a relationship with this man, so close to Jesus, the holder of the money, for heavens sake, but still ready to betray and inform. Judas comes with interesting information. Jesus, he might have said, has just been talking about death. He seems to expect to die. He might be in an arrestable mood. Moreover, he is this moment on the Mount of Olives with only a few friends so there would be no crowd if they want to make an arrest without an outcry.

In the intervening hours of Jesus' meal and teaching, the prayer, the walk through Jerusalem, and then the hours of prayer in the garden, there have been rushed and wicked goings and comings across the city. Caiaphas had to get an arresting party together. He very possibly went himself to work a deal with Pilate that he would rubber stamp a capital punishment. He had to wake up the 71 strong Sanhedrin and get them ready to hear this case. He rousted his Father in Law, Annas, and got him ready to work. It is as though, with a word, with a will, the city leaps to do his will. The Lord determines the time and course of his death, and those who hate him most leap to obey.

As the preparations are completed, Jesus is confirmed in prayer. Angels come and minister to him, to strengthen him and comfort him. When he is ready, the arresting party arrives. He comes forward to meet them but, strangely, it seems like they don't know him. He asks them whom they they are looking for and instead of saying, 'you' they give his name, Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus responds to them, the Greek is literally, 'I am'. It is possible he gave this name in Hebrew. That might explain why they draw back and fall to the ground. He has to ask them again who they seek, giving them time to recover themselves. He says again, I am, and then he commands that they let his friends go free. Notice they obey. Certainly they would have wanted to gather the disciples in as witnesses, but they let them go. The Lord stands, sovereign, his arresters obey.

In the chaos of the moment, Peter strikes out with his sword. Put it away, says Jesus to Peter. The flaming sword blocking the way into Eden, the Tree of Life, is sheathed. Jesus leaves the Garden resolutely, he is not driven away.

Once arrested, Jesus is taken to Annas, who ought to be High Priest but who isn't at this time, where he is illegally questioned directly. In Jewish law in the first century, the accused never had to speak out against himself. That his why Jesus says, 'why do you ask me? Ask those who heard me.' He is letting Annas know that he knows the law and will not testify against himself. From there he goes to Caiaphas. Caiaphas is the High Priest put in place by Rome. Here, in front of Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin many more laws are broken. Remember, they haven't had very much time to get themselves together, and so to execute Jesus before the Passover they are going to have to illegally try and convict him. The first illegality is that this part of the trial happens in the middle of the night. Trials were to be conducted in the day in order to avoid the appearance of injustice and evil. Secondly, there were very strict rules about who could be a witness and the job of the witness. In Matthew 26 we can see that the court wastes a lot of time trying to find witnesses. Legally, the witness of a crime was bound to arrest the perpetrator and then serve as the prosecutor in the trial. It then would fall to the Sanhedrin to either defend or find defenders for the accused. Here they can't find witnesses who agree and no one comes to Jesus' defense at all. Finally, it was illegal in Jewish law to convict with a unanimous vote. A unanimous vote bespoke mob emotion and rule, a court in which the accused could find no friend, no defender. The unanimous and therefore illegal vote to convict Jesus comes through a masterfully brilliant move on the part of Caiaphas. The High Priest was never to speak in a capital trial, such as this one, yet here, in desperation, he stands up and puts Jesus to the most sacred oath, the oath of the testimony, I adjure you by the living God, that he is not only the messiah, but also the Son of God. Alone, neither title is troublesome. Any Jewish person could claim to be the son of god in an ordinary sense, and the Jews expected a human political messiah, not a divine one. Taken together, the one interprets thr other and the one who takes them claims to be divine, of one substance with God. As a pious and true man, Jesus willingly takes the oath and strengthens it by reiterating the image in Daniel 7. Remember, he is not bound to speak, but he does. He willingly goes forward, step by step, to death. Caiaphas tears his robes and cries 'blasphemy'.

From there, in the early morning, Jesus is taken to Pilate. Here, there is good reason to believe that Caiaphas expects a rubber stamp for his night's work. This might be so because it seems like the Chief Priests are thrown into confusion by Pilate's questioning and try to appeal to their own goodness as a reason to proceed. Why would Pilate change his mind? During this same night, his wife has had a troubling dream about Jesus, and so Pilate, a weak and superstitious man, decides to try Jesus for true. John ironically notes that those who delivered Jesus to Pilate would not go in to Pilate's headquarters for fear of being defiled before the Passover. Having been caught off guard by Pilate's intention to hold a real trial they change the convicting charge from blasphemy, about which Pilate would not have cared, to sedition against Rome and not paying taxes.

Pilate questions Jesus from the temporal seat of judgment. But it is really he who is on trial before Jesus. He asks the questions and Jesus answers them, but the answers reveal the truth at the heart of the universe, that Jesus is king, the king who bears the truth, who witnesses to it, who embodies it. Pilate looks at the truth and flinches. 'What is truth' he asks. But he doesn't want to know. He takes Jesus back to the Jewish rulers and announces his innocence but the moment of reckoning found him a coward, so when the chief priests protest he sends Jesus to Herod. Herod is curious but cruel. When Jesus doesn't do tricks his soldiers beat and mock him. And send him back to Pilate.

Pilate's next attempt to free Jesus is to compare him with the most notoriously evil man in Jerusalem--Barabbas. The name Barabbas means 'son of a father'. He himself is a type, the worst of men, rightfully convicted of murder and sedition, in prison waiting to die. In a twist that seems to surprisePilate, the crowd chooses Barabbas and cries out for Jesus to die. Barabbas is a real man, an exchange is truly made--Jesus stands in the place of Barabbas and dies instead of him. The righteous man dying for the sinner. What happened bodily and visibly for Barabbas is what is offered to those of us who look on, some 2000 years later.

But Pilate still doesn't want to execute a good man, so he has Jesus flogged, hoping the gathering crowds will come to their senses in front of an obviously innocent and now broken man. His flesh torn, covered in blood, crowned in mockery and robed in contempt, Jesus is stood in front of the crowd. Pilate calls out 'Behold the man'. A man of sorrows, aquatinted the grief. Is there any sorrow like his sorrow? Any suffering like his? The crowd bays for his blood crying, 'blasphemy.'

Pilate is running out of time but he tries one more time to get Jesus speak and defend himself. What sort of person chooses to die? What sort of person goes all the way to suffering without crying out or trying to stop it? This person, Jesus, in his glory, in his power, is so steadfast, all of creation does his will, whether in hatred, fear, or in love. Finally, Pilate sits down in judgment seat, the Jewish Rulers before him, and Jesus. And he says this time, 'behold your king.' And then, in the moment of greatest irony, greatest tragedy, greatest truth, the chief priests cry out, 'we have no king but ceasar.'

And so Jesus is taken out to die. As thousands of lambs are that moment being slaughtered in the temple, the volume of blood so great flowing off the altar that it turns the stream running through Jerusalem red, Jesus is hung between two theives. In the final moments of his life, before he gives over his spirit, his own perfect blood flowing down to accomplish what not one single drop of lamb's blood can do, he says, 'it is finished'.

Done. Accomplished. Complete. The light came into the darkness and conquered he darkness, exposing the hearts of men, shining the truth into a world that doesn't struggle against the darkness, that walks and stands and sits in the way of wickedness, that would rather embrace the thing most hated then repent and turn around, that chooses fear over the truth. We live in this world. It is alive in our minds, in our hearts, it has corrupted our understanding. And yet here comes the man, behold him, he is the king, he comes forward, with power and glory and strength, not flinching, not running away. He comes and embraces the death that is our future. We, imprisoned by sin, like Barabbas, deserving to die, or, like Pilate, averting our eyes from the pain of the truth, or, like Caiaphas, grasping hold of our greatest hate in rejecting Jesus, or like Peter, denying him, or, like Judas, betraying him, we will ultimately obey the king. Yet he, lifted up, dying, his arms stretched out on the hard wood of the cross offers the chance for us to come in humility, love, repentance, willingly. And for those who come now, for those there is no longer any condemnation. The light of truth is married to the grace and mercy of love. Our Lord did this incredible thing out of love, not wanting that you should perish in the prison of your sin. The final people in this moment of greatest sorrow, whom we have not spoken of, looked up at the tree and lived. The thief next to Jesus. The disciple whom Jesus loved. His mother and the other women. I pray that you will leave here this afternoon having looked at the truth without flinching. That you will sit at the foot of the cross and love your Lord who loves you. That you will give yourself to him as completely, as steadfastly as he gave himself to you. If you are his then there is no condemnation, no sin, no darkness, no lie, no wickedness that can separate you from his love. Neither death, nor principalities, nor power can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Behold the man, your king, your God.


Anonymous said...

Thank you. Your church is lucky to have you.

Heather near Atlanta

Bethany said...

I love this close examination of the events leading up to Jesus's death. Your thoughtful meditation on his suffering helps me to place myself alongside those other women who looked up at their Lord on the cross.