‘Living with Uncertainty’ Meditations: 20. Join the Crowd
Jn 12:1 Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead
Jn 12:9 Meanwhile a large crowd of Jews found out that Jesus was there and came
Context : We have been considering what it might (?must) have been like being one of the disciples with Jesus in these weeks running up to Holy Week, travelling all over the place, backwards and forwards, all the time watching the Master continuing to teach and heal people, as if there was nothing different going on while, yet, in the background the hostility against him, from the religious authorities, was growing and growing. But now I want to step back and catch something of what it must have been like to just be one of the crowd, ordinary people who were not close to Jesus, who had not been called to be part of that nomadic band we call his disciples, not on the inside.
Passover: Passover is approaching. We cannot overstate the importance and thus significance of the coming Feast of Passover. This was one of the ‘must-do’ feasts which meant that large crowds flocked to Jerusalem to take part in it. It was the first of the God-ordained feasts for Israel. Its origin is found in the deliverance from slavery in Egypt that is found in Exodus 12 when the destroying angel came to bring the tenth and last ‘plague’ on Egypt, the death of every first-born son. Israel avoided that death by taking a lamb and putting its blood, as an act of faith, of the doorposts of their homes so that when the destroying angel saw the blood, he would pass over that house and they would be saved.
The Background: It was held on the fourteenth day of the first month of their calendar, (established in Ex 12:2) the month of Aviv, (Deut 16:1) later renamed Nisan. Jewish day/night cycles – sundown to sundown – meant that Nisan 14 for that year would mean sundown on Thursday to sundown on Friday. The lamb was to be slain at the feast in the evening of the 14th – before sunset on Friday (Jesus would eventually die late on the afternoon of the Friday). On the 15th it was the start of the Feast of Unleavened Bread: “The Lord’s Passover begins at twilight on the fourteenth day of the first month. On the fifteenth day of that month the Lord’s Festival of Unleavened Bread begins.” (Lev 23:5,6) Twilight was thus the Friday. We also read, “On the fifteenth day of this month there is to be a festival; for seven days eat bread made without yeast. On the first day hold a sacred assembly and do no regular work.” (Num 28:17,18) Thus the Saturday, the Sabbath, was a solemn day, but the start of a week of feasting and rejoicing. The Jewish authorities clearly wanted to eat Passover on the Friday evening (see Jn 18:28) and get Jesus’ death over before Sabbath started, late Friday evening into Saturday. Jesus, because he knew what was coming, sat down and ate the Passover with his disciples (The Last Supper), possibly after sunset on the Thursday so it was actually on the 14th – but that is all yet to come.
Return: They have been in the area to the east of the Jordan ministering (in what is often referred to as his Perean ministry), including coming back to raise Lazarus, then returning there, then on the way back coming through Jericho and finally back to Bethany. The Mary, Martha & Lazarus link is mainly in John (Jn 11), writing much later we said, no longer needing to give them the privacy that the Synoptics give them. Luke had simply mentioned the time in their home (Lk 10:38-). So, now we read, “Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead.” (Jn 12:1) They are back for the final time and, “Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honour.” (v.2) As we have seen previously, “a large crowd of Jews found out that Jesus was there and came, not only because of him but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead.” (v.9) Note the ‘six days before Passover, so probably the Friday, a mere week off.
The Crowd: So back to the crowd who have turned up because of hearing about Lazarus. Some of them probably come from the east and from Jericho, while others were coming from the north simply for Passover, but hearing about Lazarus they join in the almost riotous gathering. Forgive me if you don’t like modern illustrations but if you have ever seen Crocodile Dundee 2, you will remember CD is going to storm a Mexican drug lord’s mansion to get his girlfriend back and gets the help of a streetwise guy he knows, who in turn gets the help of a local gang who are persuaded to go along and make a distraction while CD gets in. They do this in such a way that as they drive through town, other people looking for fun join the cavalcade and so more and more it builds and noisier and rowdier it becomes. It’s carnival time!
Now this, I want to suggest, is what it must have been like now. People are turning up, excited by the thought of the coming celebrations of Passover in Jerusalem, many have already heard about Jesus’ activities and now his presence in the vicinity, and now the incredible story of him raising Lazarus from the dead. Add to that the local sinners club of tax-collectors, who have heard about Zacchaeus, the general low life who have heard of their beggar-buddies getting healed by Jesus, apart from others who have been healed and the growing atmosphere of anticipation, and you have a cauldron of hope just waiting to boil over. We should probably add on to all this, the various times Jesus has put down various Pharisees and temple authorities (with more to come next week) and delighted the crowd who disliked them. This must put in the shade even the time after the feeding of the five thousand when the crowd were determined to make Jesus king (Jn 6:15). How easy it is to get swept up in enthusiasm and the hype that goes with such occasions.
Expectation and Uncertainty: So here we have Jesus’ real followers and the taggers-on and everyone who’s just there for the joy-ride and it almost feels like a carnival! Where is this going to go? What will happen? Do we have some trigger-happy zealots along who are looking for any opportunity to upset the balance of power? Uncertainty! The Roman authorities must be feeling nervous. As we said previously, Passover was a celebration of deliverance from an oppressor and the Romans would have known what the Jews felt about them in their country. Uncertainty! But the most unhappy are the Temple authorities who can see this all getting out of hand with the result that a Roman crackdown might go over the top with synagogues and the Temple itself being shut down. That must not happen! This agitator, Jesus of Nazareth, must be dealt with – but how? Uncertainty! There is just one hope: tomorrow is the Sabbath, the day of rest, surely this will be a day of peace, respectful of God? So by Sunday all this excitement might have calmed down. Wishful thinking!
And so, us? The trouble with all this, and of course we see it with the privilege of hindsight, you can’t trust emotions, you can’t trust crowds. How easy it is to get hyped up at a wonderful convention (annual Bible Weeks and so on) or even periods when God does some zany things (the so-called Toronto Blessing at the end of last century) but are we truly changed or is it just a thing of the moment. I write this as we are right in the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic when people are shut in to maintain isolation, and God is dealing with hearts and bringing changes in many, but what about afterwards? Will we hold on to what we have learned, the changes in the way we do things, or will we revert to ‘same old’? May it not be. Another trouble with these times is that the greater the euphoria the greater the come-down afterwards, which we shall no doubt see in the next week or so. Can we learn from these things? Please, yes.