|Series Theme: Aspects of Easter|
Meditations on Aspects of Easter: 1. Acclaimed & Anticlimax
John 12:13 They took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting, "Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the King of Israel !"
Easter is approaching. We are just a week off and I want to put aside everything else for this week and simply meditate on the wonder and reality of this time, considering some of the key aspects of this all-important week. It is what we call Palm Sunday and it is exactly one week before Easter Sunday. Between now and then some of the most terrible things ever seen on earth have yet to happen. I love the Christmas story; it is so full of the miraculous and wonderful and full of joy. Easter is always a mixed bag. Part of it is full of anguish as we watch Good Friday approaching, full of dread at the awfulness we know is about to happen. But then the outcome is triumph, joy, rejoicing as the Son of God is revealed as the Resurrected One. It is a roller-coaster week, ups and downs and it starts here on Palm Sunday.
Of course it has started before this because just recently Jesus has been to nearby Bethany , to the home of Mary and Martha, to the wake of their brother Lazarus, who Jesus comes and raises from the dead. As a result of that, the word has spread that this miracle worker is in town. Of course he had been doing this sort of thing for the last three years up in Galilee but now he's just done this most amazing thing on Jerusalem 's doorstep, so to speak (Lazarus had been dead for a number of days).
Israel was in a particularly fraught political position, having been overrun by the Romans and now under their rule for a number of years, and there were many political factions who wanted to rise up against their oppressors. Add to this the shadow of a Messiah spoken of a number of times in the Old Testament prophetic writings, and with the coming of their first prophet for over four hundred years, just three years ago, they are primed to believe the time might be right for the overthrow of the Romans by their possible Messiah. It was the apostle John who remembered this aspect of that time when, after the feeding of the five thousand, “ Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself.” (Jn 6:15)
Now, not long after the incredible raising of Lazarus from the dead, and shortly before the coming Feast of the Passover, when literally hundreds of thousands of visiting Jews would be there at and around Jerusalem , Jesus chooses to enter the city on a donkey. The imagery is not lost on the crowd. No doubt he would have been seen from some distance off, and the crowd would grow exponentially as he neared the city. The word would have gone out: “Jesus, the miracle worker, the one with power over death is coming – and he's coming on a donkey, just like Zechariah (one of the last prophets about four hundred years back) has declared: “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, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” (Zech 9:9). He's coming to claim his crown, he's coming to overthrow the Romans with his power. There is an immense sense of festivity, of coming triumph, of possibilities and the crowd are up for it! The crowd gets bigger and bigger and louder and louder as they enter the city gates. Come, they probably think, let's go with him and watch as he turns up the road to the Fortress Antonia, the barracks of the Roman garrison, to throw them out!
But he turns the other way, he takes the roads up to the Temple , that gloriously restored temple of Herod , and he enters it and looks around the market there, that the temple money-changers had set up over the years, where pilgrims were expected to buy their sacrifices. What is this? He looks around and leaves. That's it? That's it. And therein is the story of the whole of the passion week and its outcome; it confused people because God was not doing what they expected. He has come to do something utterly out of this world, so big that that world would never be the same again, but big because it would affect the standing that mankind had before the holy God. That was what the Son of God had come to do, not bring about a political revolution.
And that is the thing about Christianity, it is full of surprises, things we were not expecting, things we find difficult to believe, things which confuse us. Oh yes, this Palm Sunday is not just about rejoicing at the welcoming of the Son of God, it is also about priorities. God's priorities are so often different from ours. Centuries before, Isaiah had prophesied, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways," declares the LORD. "As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isa 55:9)
The Lord comes to us with the challenge: it is not the state of the economy nor the state of politics, who is in power, what their policies are, that are all important. Yes, they are important but not THE most important. THE most important issue in the whole of your life is how you can possibly stand, as a sinful human being, before the almighty and holy God. That is what this week is all about.
Meditations on Aspects of Easter: 2. Anticlimax & Provocation
Mark 11:12 The next day as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry.
It is Monday morning. Across the city and, indeed, in the surrounding villages where Passover pilgrims might be staying, people are waking up and wondering. They wonder about what had happened yesterday. Yesterday the Messiah had come to the city, they thought, yesterday he was welcomed by the crowds. For the Roman commanders, no doubt they had held their breath for a moment as the potential for a riot, if not worse, appeared to be approaching the city. But then it had dissipated as, instead, the crowd had gone up to the Temple . No doubt they breathed a sign of relief.
But not so in the house of the Chief Priest or in the homes of the temple administrators. The agitator from the north had come and then, thankfully, gone. But at least he didn't seem to upset the Romans! If he does that we're really in trouble. It's bad enough that we know we have these various rebels and troublemakers around who want to cause trouble and rise up against them. If they are allowed to cause upset – and just before this most important feast of the year – the Romans will bring such a crackdown it may even curb the entire festivities. We mustn't let that happen! (We will follow what happened now in Mark's account in chapter 11)
And out at Bethany , just a few miles away where Jesus is staying with his disciples, the disciples wake and wonder. What will the master do today? Yesterday was pretty exciting but where did it go? As they go to leave Bethany early in the morning, Jesus pauses for a moment and then wanders over to a fig tree. (v.13,14) It's the time of the year when f ig-trees normally begin to get leaves but do not produce figs until their leaves are all out in June. This tree was an exception in that it was already, at Passover time, full of leaves. A tree that looked good but bore no fruit. And so he cursed it. His disciples looked on and wondered. It wasn't until they passed it next day on the way into town and saw it shriveled that they wondered some more and Peter commented, but Jesus gave no answer that made sense, it seemed, but simply taught them about having faith (v.20-). It would only be with further reflection that we might see Jesus highlighting a failure of Judaism – looking good but not producing godly fruit, thus worthy of divine condemnation.
But now on this Monday, he makes his way back up into the city and up to the temple. (v.15-) He enters and in a loud voice starts denouncing their making the temple a market, and starts turning tables over. Total chaos. There is much shouting. What is going on? He's turned on his own people, or at least he's turned on the administration of Judaism. If this is the Messiah he seems to have got it wrong. We expected him to have sorted out the Romans but instead he's turned on us? The temple officials come running but Jesus has left. They had been made to look fools as this agitator from the north had gate-crashed the crowds in the temple and caused havoc and denounced them.
It is Tuesday and the familiar walk into town from Bethany starts again. They see the withered fig tree but continue on into town and again aim for the temple. In the temple courts, before he has time to do anything else a band of the religious leaders approach him (v.27) and expecting a repeat of yesterday, demand, “ By what authority are you doing these things and who gave you authority to do this?” Jesus floors them with a question of his own which they refuse to answer, but it leaves them disarmed. Jesus turns away and teaches the crowd and tells a parable (12:1-) that had distinctly Old Testament echoes about it, of a vineyard owner who lets out his vineyard but whose rent-collectors are rejected, eventually sending his son who they then kill. The authorities, standing there in the background listening, know he is talking about them. The vineyard story was a familiar one used by the prophets to denounce Israel . They are angry, and they turn away angrily talking in whispers about how they could arrest the provocateur. (v.12)
Jesus leaves but they aren't done with him yet. They gather some Herodians (more politically motivated and friends of the Romans) and some Pharisees (from a very conservative religious grouping who thought themselves guardians of the Law), both groups with their own agendas (v.13) but both of whom would be upset by any challenge from an outsider from the north and they send them to challenge Jesus, but he confounds them. Then there came (v.18) a group of Sadducees, (another religious party of wealthy Jews who focused in Jerusalem on the temple) and challenged him, but again were confounded by Jesus.
It is a week of continual confrontation. By the way Jesus comes each day to teach in the vicinity of the temple, it is almost as if he is provoking the authorities, goading them into wrong action. He simply speaks the truth and his depth of teaching confounds all those who come to try to pull him down. The Chief Priest and the other priests are zealous to protect Judaism as they know it and they fear his presence might cause the Romans to react harshly against them. The Sadducees are jealous for their city and their temple and are angry that an interloper can barge in during the week running up to the great festival, causing upset. The Herodians fear political challenge and upset and see him as a real threat. The Pharisees can't quite understand where he's coming from, but it feels like he is challenging everything they believe in. He must go! The forces of opposition are mounting day by day. How will it end?
For those of us familiar with the story (possibly too familiar) we know the end, but what have we got here? We have the Son of God working out his Father's strategy that will bring about his death on the Friday of this week. The apostle Peter, under the anointing of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, would summarise all this: “ This man was handed over to you by God's set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.” (Acts 2:23) Yes, it was God's set or pre-ordained purpose for this to come about and His foreknowledge knew that if sinful men were provoked enough by goodness they would rise up and sacrifice the Lamb of God who had come from heaven for that very purpose.
That is what is happening here and with hindsight it is easy for us to take it in, but imagine you were a disciple in this week. I suggest you would be largely clueless as to what is going on. Yes, Jesus has spoken about what was to happen (as we'll remind ourselves in a later meditation) but it all seemed so strange, as to be beyond believing and so you had pushed it to the back of your mind. What we don't understand we ignore and, if we are honest, often circumstances are so strange, we just don't understand them; that's just how life is so often but just possibly, God is working out His plans around you, even though you may not yet understand them. Simply trust Him and be at peace.
In both this and the first meditation, I briefly noted that we were following Mark's account of the things that occurred and because I am aware this differs in order from Matthew's & Luke's accounts, and question has been made about it, it seemed appropriate to add this further comment.
The Gospel writers, as they collate the reports and writings they have been collecting, aren't always as clear as we today might wish report writing to be. For instance, in the first meditation I cited Mark's account of Jesus coming into Jerusalem, going to the temple, leaving and returning next morning to overturn the tables (Mk 11:9-17). Bear in mind that it is thought that Mark is dictated by the apostle Peter for whom these events would have been graphically imprinted on his mind!
Now if you look in Luke he, at first sight, appears to show the overturning tables on the same day of arriving. See Lk 19:41-46 and also Matt 21:9-13. One reason, which is sometimes put forward, may be the total confusion that surrounded these events, which we'll attempt to draw out as we proceed further through the week. Another reason, more likely, may be the simple fact that the Jewish writers approached their composition in a completely different way to the way we do today, often not bothering to include every detail (hence different accounts) and not showing the gaps in a series of (as they see them) individual actions. Thus in Matt 21, taking Mark into account, there is a twenty four hour gap between verses 11 and 12. Also Matthew being the ‘kingdom writer' of the four, wants to emphasise Jesus' ruling activities. Luke simply follows on. A different age, different styles and approaches to writing – but presenting the facts nevertheless.
Meditations on Aspects of Easter: 3. Anguish
Heb 12:2 Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame
Because we want to focus on a number of issues surrounding the events of the Cross, we jump Wednesday and are now in what we call Maundy Thursday, although it may be that much of what we say about this Thursday was also true of what Jesus felt on the Wednesday. Maundy Thursday takes its name from the command to wash feet found in John 13:1-17 when Jesus washed the feet of the disciples at the beginning of the Last Supper. (Also possibly the command to 'love one another' expressed by this act)
We are going to focus in a moment on the feelings Jesus had near the end of this day but feelings don't tend to come in separate blocks and I wonder, therefore, whether there was already an element of what Jesus expressed in the Garden of Gethsemane late in the evening, there in him earlier in the evening at the beginning of the Last Supper and, as we've already suggested, there with him on the Wednesday as well in some measure. I think the answer must be, yes, almost inevitably.
Stop and think for a moment how we view the future, anticipating some approaching event. Perhaps it is a major exam, perhaps it is a major operation, perhaps it is retiring from work, perhaps it is moving from your present home. These are all events that in some way or other are likely to conjure up negative emotions, perhaps even a feeling of dread or maybe of fear, and the nearer and nearer we get to the event, the stronger the feeling becomes. The point I am about to make is that in the late evening in Gethsemane Jesus expressed some very human negative feelings, but the makings of those feelings would have been growing within him over the previous days. Every step, every action within this week takes him a step nearer the Cross.
The fact is that very clearly Jesus knew what he had to do, he knew every detail of the plan of the Godhead, formulated before the foundation of the world: “We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will turn him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified. On the third day he will be raised to life!” (Mt 20:18,19). There it was all laid out, each detail: betrayal, condemnation, mocked, flogged and crucified and then, the big faith event from the human standpoint, being raised from the dead. We often struggle with understanding the mix of the human and the divine in Jesus. The divine is seen in his ability to know his Father's will and to do the miraculous. The human is seen in the fact that he got tired and hungry, and we are now about to observe his humanity at its strongest point.
Yet, as a human being, just like us, he would have these coming events in the forefront of his mind as the week wore on. Thus when we come to the early evening of the Thursday and they gather to celebrate the Passover meal together Jesus, almost perhaps to remind himself that this is not only the path he wants to lay before his disciples, it is the path he must walk. It is the path of humility and obedience. Now there is a thing about this and it is that so often when we face such things, we have doubts, we have second thoughts, is there some way to avoid this, am I doing the right thing, am I committed to this particular path, is it too late to change it? These are all the sort of things the human mind wrestles with when it faces potential pain – the pain of leaving, the pain of failure, the pain of the unknown, the physical pain, the emotional pain. All of this is involved at such times.
And so, reluctantly, we arrive at Gethsemane. The meal is over, some clear teaching has been given, some questionable things have been said, Judas has gone out, Peter has made strong declarations of loyalty – strong but unknowing – backed by the others, and then they had got up, left the house and made their way out to the garden area where Jesus wanted to pray, and as he does so, the reality of the situation presses in. He sits the main group down and going a little further, “He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, "My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.” (Mt 26:37,38)
He confesses his sorrow to them and then prays: “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” (v.39) and then a few minutes later, “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.” (v.42) and a little later repeated it. Luke records, “being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.” ( Lk 22:44) Everything – every human thing – in Jesus, screamed out to avoid what he knew had to happen. There were, I suggest, three areas in Jesus' thinking that caused him to have this depth of anguish.
The first area has to be the physical dimension. Jesus knew, as we've already seen, that death by crucifixion was at the end of this path, an execution thought to be one of the most painful and inhumane ways of putting a person to death devised by mankind. No one in their right mind would face that with equanimity.
The second area had to be a human relational anguish, the concern for his disciples, having to go through what they have to go through. After having been with the Son of God for three glorious years, watching miracle after miracle, now having to witness the events that are about to unfold, they are going to be devastated.
But the third and main area to be faced was separation from His Father. It had been bad enough leaving the glory of heaven to come and dwell in a tiny human form and be limited by the growth of that form all those years, experiencing the human experience, leaving the wonder of his Father's glorious presence in heaven, but now something unique in the experience of the Godhead is about to happen. In a way that challenges our intellect, Jesus on the Cross was going to take on himself all of the Sin of the world, all of the individual sins of mankind that deserved to be punished, and so terrible was the experience that it seemed to shut out his eternal consciousness of the Father so the human cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mt 27:46, Mk 15:34).
Sacrifice of the Lamb of God? Yes, this was what was involved in this sacrifice. The writer to the Hebrews wrote, “Therefore, when Christ came into the world, he said: "Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me..… Then he said, "Here I am, I have come to do your will." He sets aside the first to establish the second. And by that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” (Heb 10:5,9,10) The anguish of the evening of Maundy Thursday evening is both human and divine as the Son of God took the next step in the plan of the Godhead. Before the Cross itself, such anguish should give us pause to be still, be silent, reflect, and be thankful.
Meditations on Aspects of Easter: 4. Abandoned - Betrayal
Mt 26:14,15 Then one of the Twelve--the one called Judas Iscariot--went to the chief priests and asked, "What are you willing to give me if I hand him over to you?"
We have entitled this short series of meditations, ‘Aspects of Easter' because there are a number of aspects of this week leading up to its awful conclusion and then glorious conclusion and we want to take time to pause and ponder on them. One of those aspects we would summarise as the ‘abandonment of Jesus' and, we suggest, there are three expressions of that, the first being abandonment by betrayal.
The fact of Jesus' abandonment is itself incredible. Here was the Son of God who had for three years, mostly up in the north in Galilee, performed miracle after miracle. It had been an incredibly wonderful time which makes all the more terrible the abandonment of Jesus by the end of this week. So the first expression of this abandonment is betrayal.
It is a terrible thing that Judas, when listed as one of the apostles chosen by Jesus is simply described, “and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.” (Mt 10:4) Usually gentle and compassionate Luke in that list has, “and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor.” (Lk 6:16) What is even worse is John's record of Jesus own words, “Have I not chosen you, the Twelve? Yet one of you is a devil!" (He meant Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, who, though one of the Twelve, was later to betray him.)” (Jn 6:70,71) What a terrible record to have hanging around your neck!
So much for the judgment of Judas, what about his actions? There are two different contexts for Judas' actions in the four Gospels. The first one, recorded by Matthew and Mark, picking up on a specific incident in the life of Jesus and his disciples, shows Judas leaving and going to the authorities immediately after the incident in the home of Simon the leper in Bethany, where a woman had poured expensive oil over Jesus' feet. It is after this that Judas goes and agrees with the authorities to betray Jesus. John shows that at that event, Judas objected to the waste of money and adds as a reason, “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.” (Jn 12:6) That puts a question mark over Judas' general moral disposition from the outset.
Luke sets the context in the political rooms of the authorities: “Now the Feast of Unleavened Bread, called the Passover, was approaching, and the chief priests and the teachers of the law were looking for some way to get rid of Jesus, for they were afraid of the people.” (Lk 22:1,2) Jesus, as we have seen, was causing concern, so much so that they had been plotting to arrest or even kill him. At this appropriate moment we read, “Then Satan entered Judas, called Iscariot, one of the Twelve. And Judas went to the chief priests and the officers of the temple guard and discussed with them how he might betray Jesus. They were delighted and agreed to give him money. He consented, and watched for an opportunity to hand Jesus over to them when no crowd was present.” (Lk 22:3-6)
There is a combination of spiritual pressures and practical outworkings. Now normally we would say that a person can only become ‘possessed' when they have already given themselves over to the enemy and are involved in satanic or occult activities, but here there is no such mention, but the Lord allows Satan access to Judas' mind at least to suggest to him that he goes to the authorities. John's summary of that was, “the devil had already prompted Judas Iscariot, son of Simon, to betray Jesus.” (Jn 13:2) and so during the Last Supper, he records, “As soon as Judas took the bread, Satan entered into him,” (Jn 13:27) and “As soon as Judas had taken the bread, he went out.” (v.30) The actual betrayal occurs in the darkness of the Garden of Gethsemane, following the events we saw in the previous meditation. Judas comes with a band of temple soldiers and kisses Jesus and the soldiers arrest the one Judas kissed.
Now there is a certain air of mystery hanging over all of this. Yes, we have seen two of the Gospels attribute his actions to being prompted by Satan, but what was Judas thinking when he first went to the authorities and planned the betrayal, and then when he carried it out? Was it basic greed, he did it for money? Or was there some twisted thinking that thought that by doing this he would provoke Jesus into defending himself and rising up and leading a rebellion against the authorities? Is there a clue from what followed?
It is only Matthew who records what happened to Judas afterwards: “When Judas, who had betrayed him, saw that Jesus was condemned, he was seized with remorse and returned the thirty silver coins to the chief priests and the elders. "I have sinned," he said, "for I have betrayed innocent blood." "What is that to us?" they replied. "That's your responsibility." So Judas threw the money into the temple and left. Then he went away and hanged himself.” (Mt 27:3-5) This only occurs after Jesus has been arrested, taken and falsely tried and condemned. It is only at that point that Judas sees that whatever he had been thinking was wrong. Jesus was just letting himself be condemned and put to death.
Now what can these events possibly say to us? Well, first, I would suggest there is a reminder that God has given us free will and once we determine a course of action, the Lord will not necessarily step in and make us stop. Second, it is possible that we allow attitudes or behaviour to grow in our lives that develop so that Satan has leverage and can press in on us with temptations which become very difficult (but not impossible) to reject. Third, when such things happen it is possible to forget all the good things God has done for us so far, things that normally would act as a brake on our actions. Fourth, it is just possible we become motivated by things we have tolerated in our lives (Judas became a thief and maybe that gave him wrong thoughts about making money), and they lead us to do further wrongs. ‘Keep short accounts' was a phrase that used to be used, meaning deal with every wrong issue as it arises, so it cannot build up. Fifth, it is possible for us to have wrong ideas about Jesus, wrong perceptions and those lead us to say or do things that are not things he would tolerate. Sixth, God knows everything and He knows what is going on in your mind and although He still loves you, your wrong thoughts or behaviour will not please him. Seventh, and finally, He will use all of your actions and work through them to bring eventual good for you.
Could Judas have repented? Well yes, he did in a measure but so given over was he to the enemy that he gave way to desires to commit suicide. Yet Jesus' arrest was part of God's plan and He used Judas' confused and demonic thinking to bring it about.
Enough said. Be still before Him, aware that we are vulnerable and need His help always. There but for the grace of God go I. You don't believe that? You don't yet know yourself. I cannot envisage myself ever following Judas' example but that is based on the knowledge of my life so far – blessed by God. I need that grace every day, every year. It is there for each and every one of us. Tragically Judas never talked to Jesus about himself (that, I suggest, is obvious by the outworkings of his life and tragic death). The more you share yourself with Him, the less likely you are to fail Him. Hold on to that.
Meditations on Aspects of Easter: 5. Abandoned - Rejection
Mt 27:22,23 "What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called Christ?" Pilate asked. They all answered, "Crucify him!" "Why? What crime has he committed?" asked Pilate. But they shouted all the louder, "Crucify him!"
As I have started meditating on the various aspects of Easter this year, as I suggested in the previous meditation, the aspect of the abandonment of Jesus Christ has loomed large and seems to me to come in three forms. We considered the first yesterday, betrayal. Today we consider rejection which played a large part of what went on. In yesterday's meditation, we started to consider how incredible it was that after travelling with Jesus for three years and being a witness to all he had done, Judas could turn on him and betray him to the authorities, and as we pondered on that it seemed that a combination of poor moral quality, if I may put it like that, that had opened him up to temptation, and a possible confusion of thinking about Jesus, brought that about. When it comes to thinking about how Jesus was rejected, it becomes more complex because more people are involved, probably with different motivations.
We start with the people of Jerusalem , first of all, in our verses above, because in one sense they are the most obvious because they shouted for his death. This would have included people who a few days before were dancing in the streets and welcoming their conquering king on Palm Sunday. It may be that some of them, pilgrims even from the north, had witnessed Jesus' wonderful ministry, yet now they are baying for his death. Why? Three reasons at least.
First, as Matthew puts it, “the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus executed.” (Mt 27:20) Mark puts it, “the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have Pilate release Barabbas instead,” (Mk15:11) It is clear from what had gone on before this that the whole religious establishment was determined to have Jesus killed, so although the crowd appear the most obvious ones rejecting Jesus, they actually come second in line. The first group rejecting Jesus are the Chief Priest and all the other priests and members of the religious establishment there in Jerusalem .
In reality, it was organized religion that first rejected Jesus and they then stirred up the crowd – on a political pretense – to leave Jesus to his fate and have Barabbas released, a rejection that essentially came from a combination of fears – fear of being shown up by Jesus, and possibly fear of the upheaval Jesus might cause and the reaction against organized Judaism that might come from the Romans.
Barabbas had taken part in a rebellion (Lk 23:19; Jn 18:40), presumably against the Romans and so he would have been a folk hero among the Jews. It didn't take a lot to stir up the volatile crowd to shout for the rebel leader to be released because he might go on to raise a rebellion against the Romans. It was, in fact, a rebellion that eventually caused the Romans to utterly destroy Jerusalem in AD70. Rebellion had been then just below the surface all that time. It is probable that the emotions of the crowd were played upon as appears to happen sometimes in eastern cultures, emotions of frustrations against the Romans and a desire to be free. Mixed motives all.
But this is only part of the picture, a strong part admittedly, but there are the rulers to be considered. First there is Pilate, the Roman procurator. He had at least twice interrogated Jesus and found no cause for his death, and yet in the face of the baying crowd, he abandoned Jesus to be crucified and sealed it with the graphic washing of his hands of the whole affair (Mt 27:24). He tried to off-load the responsibility for Jesus' death onto the Jewish people and authorities, but he is the authority of Rome , the all-powerful authority there, and there he simply shares in the rejection, and guilt. It is simply political expediency that motivates him. But there is also Herod who, Luke tells us, saw Jesus but treated him just as a spectacle and because Jesus would not play, simply rejected him and sent him back to Pilate.
The religious authorities (Caiaphas etc.), the all-powerful military authority (Pilate), the local authority (Herod) and the people in general, all players in this terrible drama, players without whom it could not have continued, and so players who rejected the Son of God for such a mixed bag of motives. The crucifixion of Jesus Christ, the perfect Son of God who had simply done good for three years, is bad enough in itself, the death of a good man, but once you start looking at all of the other people involved, it becomes a darker and darker picture where organized religion, military power, civic power and just ordinary sinful humanity stand in the dock.
Religion should stand up for the weak and the poor, military authority should protect society, civic power should similarly stand up for the society and human beings…. We were designed by God to be good, to be honest, to be fair, to be just, to be caring, to be loving, to be kind ….. but all this went out the door with the Fall. If we had doubts about it, the events at the end of this Passion Week scream it loud and clear: we are guilty, we need forgiveness, we need a saviour, we need someone to stand in the dock with us, because otherwise we are doomed! I wonder, was there deep down in the subconscious of all of these people, the ultimate in self-preservation, that he should die rather than me?
I describe Sin as self-centred godlessness but, I wonder, is the greatest manifestation of that seen in the rejection of God, a desire to be free from an ultimate authority who stops me exercising that self-centred life I long to have? Yes, there may be a whole raft of sub-motives seen in all these people and groups, but ultimately does it come down to the fact that I don't like being told what to do and Jesus shows me up for falling short of his goodness? As so many of us have learnt, to become a believer means we have to come to a crisis in life where we face these things, face our humanity, face our failures, accept that we could easily be someone in these accounts for, until then, we too had rejected the Son of God. Becoming a Christian, becoming a believer, being saved, being born again, means facing the fact that until then we were part of this mass of humanity that rejected the Son of God. Tomorrow, Good Friday, is how Jesus used our rejection of him to become the Saviour of the world.
Meditations on Aspects of Easter: 6. Abandoned - Denied
Mt 26:34,35 I tell you the truth," Jesus answered, "this very night, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times." But Peter declared, "Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you." And all the other disciples said the same.
We have considered two aspects of the fact that Jesus was abandoned at the end of this Passion Week, betrayal and rejection, and now we come to the third expression of this abandonment, the denial of Peter. We did very briefly allude to it in an earlier meditation but now we have to look more closely at it. It is not comfortable reading. However, before we really get into it, we must note that this is different from the previous two aspects for they were both essential to the whole work of the Cross.
Unless Judas had betrayed Jesus and told the authorities where and when to arrest him without public upheaval, it would not have happened. Unless the religious establishment had not made such a strong case for his death, it would not have happened. Unless the crowds had not bayed for his death and unless Pilate and Herod had both just shrugged their shoulders of all responsibility, it would not have happened. Unless the Father had allowed the Sin and sins of the world to sit upon Jesus so that Jesus lost sight of the Father's presence and humanly felt abandoned by Him, the death on the Cross would have meant nothing beyond the death of another poor soul at the hands of the Romans.
But it was not like that with Peter. If Peter had not denied Jesus nothing would have changed. His denial was not essential to the death on the Cross – and yet it is another thing that happened that has significance and meaning, so what happened?
Our verses above show us something significant about Peter's involvement: Jesus knew it would happen! That is not to say Jesus made it happen, but very simply he knew what was going to take place and he knew that would involve Peter in this way. Now before we think more on Peter and this action, let's just note something about Jesus in all of this. At the Last Supper two things occur of some significance. First, Jesus clearly revealed that he knew what Judas was going to do. Second, as we've just seen, he also clearly knew what Peter would do. One would betray him, the other deny him. Now here's my question: suppose you had knowledge of the future, and you employed or simply had a band of followers, and as you gathered them together you realised that before the time was out, one of them was going to betray you and the other deny you, how do you think you would feel about these two, knowing this? Even more, if the betrayer was also an accountant, would you let him hold the purse strings of your business? If the denier was a natural leader, would you let him rise up to be a leader among your group, knowing what is coming?
There is, therefore, either an incredible lack of judgment by Jesus or there is an amazing level of grace and forgiveness being shown. With Judas it is slightly different because, as we've said, his betrayal is essential to the end outcome. But what about Peter, his denial (which does follow – see Mt 26:57,58,69-75) is not essential, it is merely an expression of human weakness? His denial is an abandonment of loyalty and a failure of that other word the Bible uses so often – faithfulness.
Now it is possible that you have never denied a friend, or at least have forgotten it perhaps. It occurs when you simply do not stand up for someone who needs you to stand up for them – and you step away and you may or may not utter words that separate you from them. It is rooted in fear, fear of consequences which, in Peter's case, might have had severe physical repercussions. It may be the fear of what other people will think of you. Have you ever been in a room when people speak against God or against Jesus or against Christianity, and you remain silent? We live in an age where, tragically, there are so many marriage break-ups, and so often they are accompanied by abandonment through betrayal (going to another who is not your spouse), abandonment by rejection (walking away from your partner) and abandonment by denial (they don't love me, I don't love them, there is no marriage here). But we mustn't digress from denial. I wish this paragraph didn't apply to me in the past, but it does. I stand with Peter and weep at past failures, not having been there for people who needed me.
Why Peter's denial? I think it is simply a terrible reminder that even the best of us are flawed human beings, prone to failure, prone to getting it wrong. It is made worse by the fact that Peter was one of the inner three, one of the ones who accompanied Jesus up the Mount of Transfiguration, one of the ones chosen by Jesus to go and pray with him in the Garden of Gethsemane. It is also made worse by Peter's unknowingness, his inability to know himself when Jesus, at the Last Supper, told him what would happen. It is made worse by the fact that mere minutes before, Peter was wielding a sword in defence of Jesus in the garden, an act of mistaken human desire to help God out.
How many of us struggle, even at this moment, with our human frailty: “I will never disown you!” There are times to rejoice at the wonder of who we are and at the wonder of our salvation, and at the place held for us in heaven, but here on this Good Friday – yes, it is the day of Jesus' death – it is a time for mouths to be silenced, mouths that would speak forth self-justification, mouths that would make excuses, mouths that would even deny the truth about themselves.
Yes, it is Good Friday, and you may be surprised that we have not focused even more on the details of what happened to bring Jesus to the Cross (we have been doing that surely?) or more importantly we might think, on what happened on the Cross. I have done that in other meditations in other series in past years; this series is all about why Jesus went to the Cross – for us, for our needs, for the needs of the whole, failing human race. We have faced confusion, we have seen anguish, we have seen plotting and scheming against Jesus, we have seen him abandoned to his fate on the Cross by betrayal, rejection and denial. These are the things that we, the human race do, these are the things that brought Jesus to the Cross. Yes, it was the will of the Father, “stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted…. the punishment that brought us peace was upon him… and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” (Isa 53:4-6) but as the apostle Peter preached, “with the help of wicked men, put him to death .” (Acts 2:23) That's what we have been considering in these recent studies. Be still, be silent, be thankful, and yes, by all means weep at the truth.
Meditations on Aspects of Easter: 7. Silence & Questions
Lk 23:54-56 It was Preparation Day, and the Sabbath was about to begin. The women who had come with Jesus from Galilee followed Joseph and saw the tomb and how his body was laid in it. Then they went home and prepared spices and perfumes. But they rested on the Sabbath in obedience to the commandment
It is Saturday, the Sabbath in Israel . Let's clarify days and times first. For the Jew the new day began at 6pm (yes, of the previous day) and so the day of celebrating Passover and eating the lamb started at 6pm on Thursday and finished at 6pm on Friday. The Sabbath, the Saturday on which no work could be done according to the Law, started at 6pm on Friday and finished at 6pm on Saturday, after which work could be done and spices etc. purchased from the markets which had reopened, to be able to be used next morning (Sunday) once the sun had come up. It is Saturday, the day of no work and so it is quiet. Behind some closed doors in Jerusalem (or maybe in Bethany ) there are red eyes, red from weeping.
Now there are two perspectives that need considering. First there is our perspective from two thousand years afterwards, and with the knowledge of hindsight – we have the completed Gospels and so we know what follows. We know that tomorrow we will celebrate Jesus' resurrection, but because of this knowledge I would suggest we have a tendency to complacency. It's a bit like the film, ‘The Titanic'. My wife says, “I don't want to see it; I know the end, it sinks!” From our perspective, we know the end – he rises from the dead: “ God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.” (Acts 2:24) Yes, tomorrow we will sing victory songs about Jesus rising from the dead but we will have lost the sense that you would have (and we'll consider tomorrow) if you had been there.
So let's go back nearly two thousand years and see if we can grasp something of the awfulness of this day - and it is awful! It is a day that is almost worse than yesterday. Yes, yesterday contained those awful events, the trial and crucifixion of Jesus, but somehow it seemed somewhat unreal. Some had been up all night long. Peter had fled in tears from the courtyard where he had three times denied his master. He is devastated and guilt ridden. John had been there and seen the trial and had no doubt heard about Peter's experience. The others had mostly fled and were now behind locked doors. At least yesterday there was a faint glimmer of hope: if he is the Messiah it is just possible he will call down armies of angels and step down off the Cross and claim his Father's kingdom. When he dies – well, we saw him raise others from the dead; is there yet hope? But he was taken down from the Cross, a lifeless and bloody body. They take him away, do some temporary embalming in a rush (6pm is rapidly approaching and nothing can be done on the Sabbath), place him in a cave, a tomb belonging to a follower, and roll a massive stone across the entrance to keep off predators (animal and human!)
And so now it is Saturday morning and there is an air of finality hanging over the day. Everyone else is taken up with observing the Sabbath. For them the continuity of life brings an air of normality but for those who had followed this wonderful man, this incredible miracle healer, there is an emptiness that is only filled with despair. It is all over, he is gone. Death is final. All our hopes have been dashed. Rome and the establishment have triumphed; they have got their way and removed him. All the bright hopes of ‘your kingdom come' have evaporated. Was God in this? Was it all a dream, these past three years? What had it all been about? Is Satan stronger than God? Will evil ever more triumph over good? Has the whole Jewish history been a sham? What is the point of life? Well, we have some good memories, but you can't live on memories, memories won't stop you being hunted down as a supporter of this rebel who has now been executed? Nothing makes sense any longer. For three years goodness had triumphed over evil. For three years, the sick had been made well, the deaf had been enabled to hear, the dumb had been enabled to talk, the blind had been enabled to see – but now that is all over, it is just memories. No more. The end. Where is God when we needed Him? Why didn't He turn up and save Jesus?
Such are the questions on this Day of Silence. If the Old Testament had taught us anything it was that God is a communicator, God talks to us, but now – He is silent. Had Jesus got it completely wrong? Was he just a pretender (but what about the miracles????) and so had God judged him and put a stop to his ministry? God, are you there????? What is going on?????? It's no good saying, “Just hold on, be patient, it will all work out to the good if you just hold on,” because the very foundation of all we believed has just been crucified and, yes, he is truly dead and death is the end. We gave up our lives to follow him and we traipsed miles around the country following him. What for? What was the point? If it was God giving us a little glimpse of what was possible when He was on the scene, surely that seems a bit unkind, devastatingly unkind, when He walks away and we're left with nothing!
Don't you dare look at this from our perspective and think, well just maybe there were some of them who had held on to Jesus' words and were just waiting for him to come back; we would have. Oh no, all the accounts (and you can read them yourself as an exercise later today) show that these devastated followers were blown away when he reappeared, and the two on the road to Emmaus show they were utterly confused. No, there is no false hope here today. Just silence and questions.
Only a few days ago I was talking to a good friend who is going through harrowing life and family circumstances and all of his angst is summed up in one word – why? It is the word many of us ask out of circumstances of pain, anguish, loneliness and so on. I could attempt some answers but this Saturday is a day with no answers. Tomorrow may be different, but don't hold your breath.
When God turns up with answers, they tend to come like a bolt out of the blue, unexpected and unforeseen. There is one thing I am sure about though, and it is this. If, when we get to heaven, should the Lord allow us to see back through all of history with His full and total sight and knowledge, I am utterly convinced that when we see it all, we will never be able to find a thing to criticize Him about. But for the moment, weep at loss, weep with fears, weep with frustration, weep for all these things, but may I come and sit or kneel beside you and weep with you so the three of us may weep together?
Meditations on Aspects of Easter: 8. He's Alive?
Lk 24:2,3 They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus.
It is Sunday, Easter Sunday, Resurrection Sunday. Whatever I write today will be inadequate. From that perspective I wrote about yesterday, of two thousand years of hindsight, I am convinced that so much of the time we just skim over the accounts of the first day of the week rather like we skim over the evening news on TV. It comes and goes. It may be terrible and for a moment or two we may be moved. It may be wonderful and for a moment or two we rejoice but as they say in the news world, the news cycle is incredibly short these days and so today's news will be superseded by a new batch in a day or so. Is that how we will treat this incredible day? May it not be so. I have sought, during this week, to face the realities of what happened and why, in broad terms, rarely focusing on individual scriptures but seeking to capture the big picture. I want that for today especially.
Today we rejoice in our celebration services and so often it all seems so sure and so clear. For those involved, there on the ground in Jerusalem, I suggest, it was utterly confusing. If I may cite again, for I have used this story many times over the years, the illustration I came across a number of years ago, it might shed some light. Some people I knew, leaders of the church grouping of which I was part, went out to Africa to see for themselves the reality of accounts that had been coming of an amazing healing ministry that was going on in one country.
I will never forget one of the things they said: “For the first four days we struggled as our minds desperately sought to catch up with what our eyes were seeing.” So dramatic and so incredible were the healings they witnessed, hundreds every day I believe, that their minds just could not cope with what they were seeing. For example, bodies changing shape in front of their eyes as God healed and straightened out broken and distorted limbs, and so much more.
Now imagine you were one of the people who were there two thousand years ago. We saw Jesus broken and bleeding body taken down from the Cross, utterly pale, no question, dead! And now standing before me is this man I have followed for three years and he doesn't look an invalid even, and he is well and truly alive, and smiling at me. I think if I was me, I would have burst into floods of tears at the relief, once I passed the stage of believing it is him and he is alive. I often say that when it comes to the loss of a loved one through crippling old age perhaps, we should not feel guilt about having a feeling of relief mixed in with our mourning for loss. Sometimes death brings a sense of relief; this terrible ordeal is at least over. Now if that is so over a death, I wonder what it would be like when the person we feared was gone, proves to still be with us?
There are many questions over the accounts of the things leading up to the crucifixion and his death and resurrection, but that is not surprising. These close followers of Jesus have just been through the most dramatic three years of their lives as they have followed him around Galilee transforming the lives of thousands. It has been the greatest roller-coaster ride in history.
The biggest question has been “How?” followed by “Who?” Answers have not always been clear. Then come the events of Passion Week that we have sought to briefly reflect upon this week. It was confusing, often hostile, frequently chaotic; the fact is that these were incredibly tumultuous times and so although the facts are all there, they are a) not always there in their entirety and so b) the order is not always abundantly clear.
I did warn at the beginning that whatever I wrote would be inadequate. What I seek to suggest is that these events are so tumultuous and mind blowing that it is probable that if we could time travel back there with a bunch of psychiatrists, I am fairly certain they would diagnose most of Jesus' followers as suffering from post-traumatic-stress syndrome. However many words Jesus spoke when teaching his disciples beforehand, nothing would ever truly prepare them for the emotions that would accompany the events we have been considering this week. And therein is the ring of truth.
If the four Gospel accounts had been precisely the same and neatly and orderly spelt out these events, I would be seriously suspicious about their veracity. These slightly shambolic records (at times at least) say, “This is true! This is what really happened.” And if it did, why did it? Well I have been desperately trying to catch a sense of reality about what went on in this week, but now we come to the words so often and so easily spoken in church: “Jesus died on the Cross to take the punishment for your sins.” Do I believe it? Utterly! Do I understand it? In general terms, as far as the words are all familiar words, yes, in a measure. Beyond that, if I am honest, and I have sought to be this week, not really. I struggle to comprehend my need (hence some of the earlier meditations) and I certainly struggle to understand how awful it must have been for Jesus to do what he did, and therefore how he could love you and me so much that he still went through with it.
The best I can do is say, I will declare it as the truth and that truth I comprehend more clearly on some days than on others – but I will live by that truth and trust that truth, and my knowledge of God, accumulated over nearly fifty years of following Him, says He is content and pleased with that. That truth opens up a doorway to a life in which I can experience the love and the goodness and the grace and the power and the wisdom of God on a daily basis. On a good day it is brilliant, and on a bad day, it is still the truth. And it is all like that today because nearly two thousand years ago in time-space history Jesus went through the things we have been considering this week, and he did it for you and me. And he rose from the dead and a whole new world opened up. Amazing! Staggering! Incredible! Wonderful! Hallelujah!
Meditations on Aspects of Easter: 9. Afterwards
Lk 24:40-43 he showed them his hands and feet. And while they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement, he asked them, "Do you have anything here to eat?" They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate it in their presence.
My original intention had been to finish these Easter meditations with Easter Sunday and yet as I read back over them I am aware of two further aspects of Easter that I feel I have neither adequately covered nor sufficiently emphasised and I will deal with them both in this final consideration.
The first aspect I will simply call ‘Ragged Recollections”. In the previous two meditations I have emphasised the chaotic nature of the Easter weekend. Now I have never heard this spoken about and indeed virtually every Easter Sunday sermon I have ever heard seeks to lay out neatly all that went on. Now this is natural and good and I have done it many times myself. The intent is to leave the congregation with a clear picture of the historical accounts of the weekend. Now just in case anyone has jumped to a wrong conclusion about where I come from in respect of this, let me make it clear. Do I believe the things happened exactly as they are relayed in the Gospels? Absolutely! Do I believe it is all neatly laid out in such a manner as to preclude questions? Absolutely not! Let me explain what I mean.
I have often challenged the questioning of sceptics of the bible who claim there are contradictions all over the place, with the request to consider the witnesses to a multi-vehicle accident. Lay out all the witness reports and one talks about the lorries involved, another the cars involved and so it goes on. Different aspects but no contradiction. Contradiction occurs when one says, “Three lorries were involved,” and another says, “No lorries were involved.” Now let's look at the neat packaging of Easter.
Earlier on we considered the specific case of the order of events about Palm Sunday. The fact of different accounts of what Jesus said on the Cross, exactly fit my major accident analogy above. When it comes to Jesus' resurrection the witnesses are all over the place.
Matthew's Account: Matthew has Mary Magdalene and the other Mary going to the tomb (Mt 28:1). There is an earthquake that moves the stone on the tomb and an angel comes down and scares the life out of the guards (Mt 28:2-4). The angel speaks to the two women when they get there and tells them Jesus is risen and will be going ahead of them to Galilee (28:6,7). As they go to leave, Jesus meets them and confirms the message (28:8-10). The women go to return to the others (28:11), and after a reference to the authorities (28:11-15), Matthew jumps straight to Galilee where they meet Jesus and he gives them the Great Commission. (28:16-20) End of story.
Mark's Account: Mark does a very brief summary in Chapter 16 – Mary Magdalene meets Jesus (v.9), she tells the others who were mourning and weeping (note their state in the light of what we said yesterday) (v.10) but they didn't believe her (v.11). Then there is the meeting with the two on the road (v.12) who reported back and weren't believed either (v.13) (ditto what we said yesterday) Then the meeting with the rest and their struggle to believe (v.14 ditto), then his commissioning them (possibly weeks later – v.15-18), then his ascension (v.19) then the Gospel taken out (v.20). End of story.
Luke's Account: In Luke 24, Luke has ‘the women' going to the tomb where they find the stone rolled back and two angels are present (v.1-4) who tell them he is risen, just as he had told them previously (v.5-8). They go and tell the others (v.10) who didn't believe them (v.11). Peter goes and has a look at the empty tomb (v.12). We then have the story of the two men on the road to Emmaus encountering Jesus who eventually teaches them about all that had happened (v.13-32). They return to tell the others and Jesus appears to them all (v.33-49). Luke then clearly jumps several weeks to conclude his Gospel with Jesus' final instructions and ascension (v.50-53). End of story (but picked up in Acts 1).
John's Account: John writing possibly thirty years later than the others, reflecting back with the sharp memories that come with old age, picks up things the others had missed. In shorthand in chapter 20, he recounted Mary Magdalene going to the tomb, then returning to the others (v.1,2). Peter goes to look, accompanied by John, saw the empty tomb and returned to their lodgings (v.3-10). Mary M comes back to the tomb, sees two angels and encounters Jesus and then returns to the others (v.11-18). Later Jesus, on that first evening of the week – Sunday evening – came to them all behind locked doors (v.19-23) Thomas who had been absent refused to believe when they told him what happened and so a week later Jesus came to them again, especially for him (v.24-29). Chapter 21 is given over to his meeting with them in Galilee.
Now take each one of those incidents and put each one on a separate piece of paper and juggle them around and you find a coherent account like my vehicle crash analogy. The only time it requires some more thought is in the account of the women. John follows Mary M and only mentions her although her “we” of Jn 20:2 implies she was with the others. When you patch the stories together like this you find there are no discrepancies, just different witness accounts, one stressing one thing, another something else. Yes, there are questions about Jesus walking through locked doors, travelling across country so quickly etc. but those you can ask the Lord about yourself.
Now why am I taking this time and space to cover all this? Two reasons. First, it is only genuine seekers who work through to find answers. Will that be you and me? Second, the slightly chaotic reporting confirms the nature of what was going on and all that they felt, as we considered in the previous two meditations. It affirms the very nature of all that happened. Why don't preachers like to face this? We prefer to package a neat orderly, “He is risen” simple package to make it easy for people – but it ISN'T easy! Which brings us to the second aspect: the Failures of the Followers.
This we have covered fairly extensively earlier in the week, but why have I emphasised that? Two reasons. First, because so often in modern evangelical, charismatic or Pentecostal circles we like to emphasise triumph and as much as that is right and appropriate, it fails to address the reality of what happened. Second, the reality of what happened has a specific pastoral bearing for each of us. There is a superficial teaching that preaches triumph and only triumph which so often leaves people feeling guilty inside, that they do not match up, and that distances them from God.
The reality is that the disciples were, over Thursday night through to Sunday night, in a state of shambles and unbelief and, as I have sought to show previously, that was partly because they were locked into the ‘Jesus of power and miracles' picture, the Jesus who left the authorities in confusion. What they witnessed was doubly bad because of the wonder of all they had experienced previously of him. They could not cope with (as they saw it at the time) Jesus' failure that resulted in his death and ministry termination. They, like us so often, failed to see the big picture of the plans and strategies of God for His world.
We are not good in the modern church at facing our frailties, weaknesses and failures. The lesson comes loud and clear – and hold this as we leave this series – God did not abandon them because they struggled to cope throughout this weekend. To the contrary He poured out His Holy Spirit on them to send them out with the message that came through the weekend. Jesus has died for our sins so face your frailties, weakness and failures and know you are still loved. Face them and receive his forgiveness and the outpouring of His Spirit so you and I can be his witnesses, witnesses of his love, mercy and grace, and of his forgiveness, acceptance and reconciliation, and then go on with his enabling to be the wonderful people we are called to be. Take the lessons of this week with you and be blessed and be a blessing!