20. Join the Crowd

‘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.

19. The Uncertainty of Jericho

‘Living with Uncertainty’ Meditations: 19. The Uncertainty of Jericho

Mark 10:1  Jesus then left that place and went into the region of Judea and across the Jordan. Again crowds of people came to him, and as was his custom, he taught them.

Mt 20:28  As Jesus and his disciples were leaving Jericho, a large crowd followed him.

Context : We have considered Jesus’ warning to his disciples (which they were unable to take in) and we’ve seen his two visits to Bethany as well as his retiring to the east of the Jordan. We have also noted the way Jesus followed the leading of his Father, and so his travels at time seem a little erratic, although they always bore fruit. Some put going to Jericho as before the raising of Lazarus although, as I hope to show, the indications are that he went to Jericho and then on his final trip to Jerusalem. If I am correct then he has been ministering to the east of the Jordan, keeping away from possible too-early opposition from Jerusalem, was called back to Bethany to raise Lazarus and then returned east again to give time for the word to spread while he was able to continue ministering out of sight, so to speak. Note, in passing, that John does not mention Jericho in his Gospel, as he usually didn’t pick up on the events clearly recorded in the Synoptics unless they were specific things that would show the glory of Jesus in what John was conveying (e.g. feeding of the five thousand).   Also bear in mind what we said about the different mindset that the writers had from ours, not being particularly concerned to itemize each step. Let’s see how each of the Synoptics cover this time.

Matthew: “Now Jesus was going up to Jerusalem. On the way, he took the Twelve aside and said to them, “We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests.” (Mt 20:17,18) That was followed by the incident involving James and John’s mother and then immediately afterwards we find,As Jesus and his disciples were leaving Jericho, a large crowd followed him. (v.29) For Matthew, the incident that follows where two blind men are healed, is the important thing showing the coming of the kingdom which is a priority in his Gospel.  (see v.30-34) All we know from Matthew is that they have been to Jericho where this healing occurred.

Mark: We start in chapter 10 with, “Jesus then left that place and went into the region of Judea and across the Jordan. Again crowds of people came to him, and as was his custom, he taught them.” (v.1) A reference “When they were in the house again,” (v.10) would suggest that is the Judea part, probably back in Capernaum but we can’t be certain; it may just be a place where they were staying in the east. Direction and warning after a section of teaching: “They were on their way up to Jerusalem, with Jesus leading the way, and the disciples were astonished, while those who followed were afraid. Again he took the Twelve aside and told them what was going to happen to him.” (v.32) The fact of going to Jerusalem, Mark interestingly informs us, creates a sense of fear in some of those following. Obviously they knew the rumblings in the authorities in Jerusalem and feared the outcome of a further visit. Then comes the James and John incident followed simply by, “Then they came to Jericho.” (v.46a) Peter, reporting through Mark in his Gospel remembers that (apparently) one of the two blind men stood out as a local character: “As Jesus and his disciples, together with a large crowd, were leaving the city, a blind man, Bartimaeus (which means “son of Timaeus”), was sitting by the roadside begging.” (v.46b) and healing follows (v.47-52) and this man follows them, hence the reason he stands out to Peter.

Luke: Now we’ve already noted that Lord records their journey south – “Now on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled along the border between Samaria and Galilee,” (Lk 17:11) and picks up on him healing ten lepers along the way (v.12-19). Teaching follows until in chapter 18 we read, “As Jesus approached Jericho, a blind man was sitting by the roadside begging.” (Lk 18:35) and healing follows (v.36-43) As there would have been numerous beggars it does not need to be a contradiction; it is just whoever Luke used as a resource remembered that particular one. The end of it is worth noting: “When all the people saw it, they also praised God.” (v.43b) Into chapter 19 we read, “Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus,” (v.1,2) and the whole incident involving Zacchaeus is revealed. Jesus’ popularity with what we might refer to as the underclass (involving tax-collectors and ‘sinners’) would have been seriously boosted by this incident. After finishing teaching we then read, “After Jesus had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.” (v.28)

Why Jericho? We may look at these parts of the records and wonder why Jericho? There is uncertainty hanging over this part of the journey all the time – why? Well each of the accounts emphasize a different aspect of what went on. Matthew seeks to emphasize the coming of the kingdom in the way two blind men are healed. Peter, through Mark, is more focused on one of then who was a local character who ends up following them. Luke, the doctor, the people-person, the one interested in people, picks up on the gentle way Jesus healed the beggar on the way into town – getting into town is not so important that Jesus can’t pause up to help a beggar on the way in.

As far as Luke was concerned the big issue in Jericho was the calling and the change brought about in the chief tax-collector, Zacchaeus, whose area of control probably covered the whole of the south of Judea at least. His significance was the equivalent of saying the mayor of London or of New York getting saved. An amazing transformation that may have ongoing long-term effects.

But why have we bothered to cover this part of the trip? Well, apart from the fact that it happened, if it was on the way back from the area to the east of the Jordan (and Jericho is a few miles west of the Jordan), it shows Jesus in no rush to get back to the conflict in Jerusalem but, taking his Father’s leading, picking up some significant popularity while ‘bringing in the kingdom’ through miraculous healings and life transformations.       Right up through this time, it is as if he pushes out what has got to come in Jerusalem and simply concentrates on bringing the love and goodness of the Father into each situation he finds as he travels. On the way down from the north he had healed ten lepers. In Bethany he had raised Lazarus from the dead, to the east of the Jordon he continues teaching and healing, on the way back through Jericho he shows his love for the outcasts by healing blind beggars and his love for the sinner called Zacchaeus. If I had that lot on my resume I would be thrilled.

And us? Can we apply some of what we find here? What I find coming through here is that, first of all,  the pattern of their travels overall, or the strategy of Jesus, although often seeming unclear, seems to be a strategy involving a general desire to get closer to Jerusalem, bring the blessing of God to aggravate the religious authorities, and yet keep at a sufficient distance but not to provoke confrontation too early. Having said that, there is also just this sense of Jesus continuing to take any and every opportunity to bring the love and power of God to bear in changing people’s lives for the good. Yes, there may be that big pattern strategy (which the disciples probably couldn’t see) but behind it, there is this taking every moment left to him to continue to bless people. In a sense, it doesn’t matter about the long-term strategy, the question is what will I do with today? Can I catch something of the Father’s heart and the prompting and leading of His Holy Spirit, so that TODAY will be a day of blessing others, those closest to me and perhaps further afield, TODAY will be a day when Jesus will use me? Can we see it like that?

18. Seclusion and Waiting

‘Living with Uncertainty’ Meditations: 18. The Uncertainty of Seclusion & Waiting

Jn 10:40   Then Jesus went back across the Jordan

Jn 11:54    Instead he withdrew to a region near the wilderness

Context: We are now going to observe Jesus stepping back from public acclaim and possible confrontation with the authorities in Jerusalem, and we’ll start in December: Then came the Festival of Dedication at Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was in the temple courts walking in Solomon’s Colonnade.” (Jn 10:22,23) This is our December, a festival that commemorated the purification and rededication of the temple by Judas the Maccabee in 165BC.

Prior to that Jesus, as recorded by John in his Gospel, had been in Jerusalem for the Feast of Tabernacles (see Jn 7:2,10) in our October, but now John jumps forward to December where John shows us the hostile Jews were seeking to provoke him to declare if he was the Messiah (Jn 10:24) but he’s not yet ready to do that; that has to wait until Passover, some months off. Yet his answers to them provoke them so, “Again they tried to seize him, but he escaped their grasp.” (10:39) In order to stop this escalating, we must assume, we find, “Then Jesus went back across the Jordan to the place where John had been baptizing in the early days. There he stayed, and many people came to him. They said, “Though John never performed a sign, all that John said about this man was true.”  And in that place many believed in Jesus.” (Jn 10:40-42) From Jerusalem to the Jordan is over twenty miles so he was putting a reasonable buffer between himself and the hostile Jews of Jerusalem.

It was from there that he gets the call to come to Bethany, only a few miles from Jerusalem, to help save Lazarus. Then follows the miracle we have observed in two previous studies. It was because of the hostility we have previously recorded that we then read, “Therefore Jesus no longer moved about publicly among the people of Judea. Instead he withdrew to a region near the wilderness, to a village called Ephraim, where he stayed with his disciples.” (Jn 11:54) It is later that John records Jesus returning to Bethany (Jn 12:1) where, perhaps to up the publicity stakes (for the time is drawing near for confrontation in Jerusalem), he has a big meal at Mary and Martha’s home and the crowds start gathering as we saw in the previous study.

The Disciples? So again I ask us, can we see all this through the eyes of the disciples? Yes, we’ve seen them being warned by Jesus what is going to happen, and we’ll see at the Last Supper, as we’ve already noted, there were more indications that he was not going to be with them much longer. I’ve tried to suggest how it was almost impossible for them to get past what we might call a super-hero image that they have of him, completely in control and with all power, and it was that, I suggest, that blinded them to the realities of what was going on – a carefully orchestrated programme by Jesus to gradually up the ante, up the popularity stakes, to the point where the religious authorities will cast everything to the wind and, ignoring any ethical considerations, wrongly try him, wrongly condemn him, and wrongly have him put to death. It is going to be a case where politics trumps religion in order to preserve the ‘religion’.

So here are the disciples, not briefed by Jesus to the measure that they have it securely in their minds what is going to happen and why, who are traipsing backwards and forwards across the country with Jesus. Coming up from Galilee, settling in the east, coming to Bethany, returning to the east again, then returning to Bethany and eventually into a hostile Jerusalem. Fishermen are good at sitting in boats, tax-collectors are good at sitting in collection-booths, zealots are good at sitting behind closed doors plotting change, but now this group have become good at walking – Galilee to the Jordon in the south-east, quite possibly seventy miles. Back and forth to Bethany, twenty plus twenty plus twenty. Can we stop to buy a new pair of sandals please? What are we doing? Why do we keep doing this?

The Reasons: There are reasons behind everything. They’ve got to leave Galilee for the confrontation has got to be in Jerusalem. When they get south, they must not provoke the situation too early so we’ll stay in the east. The call for Lazarus is humanitarian but ultimately planned for the glory of God and to stoke the pot of popular acclaim. Back to the east to stay clear of the authorities. Then back to Bethany to let public acclaim build and build, all the while raising the ire of the various religious parties who are, and have always been, opposed to Jesus. The boiling-over point has got to come just before Passover for the Lamb of God to be sacrificed for the sin of the world, as the commemoration of those other lambs slain so the destroying angel would pass-over Israel and they would be saved.

Now it is easy for us to see this from where we stand in history, having the completed Gospel accounts right up to Jesus’ ascension, and having the explanations of the rest of the New Testament,  but I guess that if you were a disciple, there on the ground trudging backwards and forwards with Jesus, seeing him continuing to preach and heal and continuing to see the crowds gather and acclaim him, it would be nigh on impossible to maintain perspective and see these things – largely because the end-game has not happened yet. All they are seeing is the prologue to it and that was  pretty confusing, with glory at the front of the stage but not-so-little groups huddling at the back of the stage plotting his downfall. Which way do you look, to the front, the glory and public acclaim and the wonder of it all (and feel really good about all that), or to the back to the scheming and plotting and bad-mouthing Jesus (and feel annoyed, angry and a little disquieted)? It’s a topsy-turvy time, a time of great uncertainties and the only comfort we have is that we’ve seen the Master in complete control for three years, so, hey, what can they do?

Be Understanding: There are times in our lives as Christians when it seems all out of control, but there are plenty of other times when life seems good, we seem to be getting the guidance of God and even blessing with it. Now I don’t want to appear pessimistic but we do need to learn to understand spiritual warfare, that life is always a combination of moving in the blessing of God and opposing the kickback of the enemy. Whether it be in the extreme blessing of revival, where the sovereign power of God is moving in the church and in the community, or in times of outreach where blessing seems to be coming, history teaches us to be alert and wise in understanding and ready to counter enemy attacks.

Imaginary Peter: Let’s imagine Peter at that time and a modern day news reporter comes up to him to do an interview. Would it have gone like this?

Interviewer: So tell us Peter, what’s it like travelling with Jesus?

Peter: Awesome, man, awesome! If I told you some of the things I’ve witnessed – and been part of – you wouldn’t believe it. He’s incredible.

Interviewer: So how’s it going at the moment?

Peter: Amazing! I mean when we got here, down south, you must have heard about the miracle in Bethany when he brought Lazarus back from the dead. It was incredible. The guy had been dead and buried, four days! Four days! That is power!

Interviewer: And since then?

Peter: Well wherever we’ve been – over the other side of the Jordan, back over here – the crowds keep coming, he keeps preaching and healing, and the crowds get bigger and bigger. In fact it almost became a problem back here in Bethany because people have been pouring in to see Lazarus and ask him what it was like being dead and now being alive. It’s wild!

Interviewer: So everyone thinks Jesus is great?

Peter: Yes, sure. (Pause, looks away, look back not so confident). Well of course there’s always been the religious parties of Israel and the charlatans up at the temple, they’ve never liked him, but hey, they’re the minority, everyone else recognises that what he’s doing is amazing.

Interviewer: So the future is bright and rosy?

Peter: Yes…. I… I …I think so. I’ve got to go, I’m part of this, there’s stuff to do.

And Us? We delight in certainties in the Christian life but are not so good at facing the uncertainties, but if that is so, it is that we’re not too secure in the knowledge that Jesus IS Lord and IS in control, and if it goes pear-shaped sometimes, well….  Perhaps we need to ask Him to help us come into that place of complete confidence in him whatever comes. To conclude, if you don’t know the song, “Whatever Comes” by Brian Doerksen, may I recommend you look up the words on Google or listen to the song on YouTube. It’s a song for these times. A glimpse:

Whatever comes
Whatever season paints this day
Whatever trial may come our way
We will rely upon Your grace

Almighty Immortal
Always on Your throne
The Sovereign in control
Unchanging prevailing
Though the nations rage
You’re still the God who reigns.

Hallelujah!

17. Crisis, Triumph & Uncertainty

‘Living with Uncertainty’ Meditations: 17. Crisis, Triumph & Uncertainty

Jn 11:44-47   Jesus said to them, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.” Therefore many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin.

Context : Now we covered the incident involving Lazarus in Study No.6 “Uncertainty when Jesus Delays”, but now we are going to revisit it, not so much in respect of that uncertainty but the uncertainty that it brought, I suspect to the minds of the disciples. I think it is very difficult for us, having the rest of the Gospels showing us what then went on and how it all worked out, to catch the feelings of the disciples who were there, part of it, watching all that was happening, and all they felt about Jesus.

The Disciples: I think it would have been impossible to have been travelling with Jesus and not be almost overwhelmed by the wonder of what was happening on what seemed like a daily basis. In the previous study we observed the amount of healing that went on, much of it very spectacular and, we also noted, they had been witness to the miracles Jesus performed. I don’t think we can grasp what they felt about Jesus in the light of all this. Yet there are those that suggest that his otherwise very ordinariness might have lulled them into complacency. They remind us that Isaiah prophesied, “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him,” (Isa 53:2b) and thus it is possible that really the disciples were surprised by all he did.

Preparations to Leave: The fact that Jesus spent a number of weeks in Galilee with them after his resurrection, where he, “spoke about the kingdom of God,” (Acts 1:3) and telling them about the coming Holy Spirit (Acts 1:4,5) rather suggests, that despite having taught them extensively at the Last Supper (see Jn 13-16), he nevertheless had not focused in further detail on the years following when he would not be with them. That had been partly spelled out at the Last Supper, as we’ve noted before – see Jn 14:2,3, 18,19, 25,26, 28-31, 15:26,27 – where numerous times he had been trying to warn them he would be leaving them.  And then as we saw in the earlier study he set his face towards Jerusalem and started telling them how bad it was going to be – without them taking it in!

The Lazarus Incident: And then while they are in the area to the east of the Jordan the news comes about Lazarus, they eventually go, Lazarus dies before they get there, and so after the body has been dead for four days Jesus raises him back to life. There is no doubt about this, this is a ground-breaking miracle. That is Jn 11 but from what follows and reading Luke’s account of Jesus in Jericho, it would appear that they left Bethany, went to Jericho and then came back, when we read, “Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honour. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him. Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.” (Jn 12:1-3) We tend to focus in this story on the thing about Jesus being anointed with nard but perhaps what is even more important is the setting for soon we read, “Meanwhile 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. So the chief priests made plans to kill Lazarus as well, for on account of him many of the Jews were going over to Jesus and believing in him.” (12:9-11)

So Lazarus has become somewhat of a celebrity, the man who had come back from the dead, and it is perhaps because of this that the other three synoptic Gospels, written much earlier, don’t mention him, in order to give him peace and not have to put up with sightseers. But the event of Lazarus being raised has ongoing repercussions: “Now the crowd that was with him when he called Lazarus from the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to spread the word.  Many people, because they had heard that he had performed this sign, went out to meet him. So the Pharisees said to one another, “See, this is getting us nowhere. Look how the whole world has gone after him!” (12:17-19)

So we’ve seen that this miracle has, first of all, so stirred up the temple priesthood (12:10) that they were not only were planning to kill Jesus but Lazarus as well, because his presence alive was giving credibility to Jesus. Now also the Pharisees, who had always been opposed to Jesus, were also reaching despair over Jesus (12:19).

The Disciples Again: Now one cannot help wondering if the disciples were living in blissful ignorance, but I think that is unlikely because there would have been so much chatter in the general population about all that was happening and rumours would be leaking out of the Temple and among the Pharisee watchers among them. Remember Jesus has told them at least three times that in Jerusalem he would be arrested and killed, but the accounts tell us, as we’ve seen, that they just couldn’t take it in. I have a feeling, and I may be wrong, that if I had been one of the disciples at this time I would be feeling slightly uneasy if these things were coming to our ears, and maybe I might even have felt, raising Lazarus from the dead this close to Jerusalem and this close to the Passover when so many people are starting to gather there, wasn’t such a good idea, in the light of the effect it has had on the authorities.

Worrying Conflicts: As I said earlier, I think it is difficult for us to comprehend what they were feeling but I suspect confusion and uncertainty may have been lurking in the background.  On the one hand there has been an amazing impact on the people after Lazarus has been raised, and when we come back from Jericho we can’t help bathing in the celebrity status that surrounds Lazarus. Moreover the crowds are looking to the Master to do even greater things at the coming feast.

But on the other hand, there is this growing black cloud of hostile opposition that is coming from the Temple authorities (who are mostly Sadducees) and from that powerful conservative force who hold sway in the Sanhedrin, the Pharisees. And in the background will be the Roman authorities watching out for any potential trouble that might boil over at such a nationalistic event as the Passover, which celebrates the deliverance of Israel from Egypt, the people of God being delivered from heir oppressors. The swelling crowds who are buoyantly getting more and more enthusiastic about a possible Messiah being here, are adding to this growing sense of unease. We have, I suggest, because the raising of Lazarus was relatively soon before the coming feast, and yet sufficiently earlier that it allowed the news to spread and rumours to build, a caldron waiting to boil over. As a disciple, I’m starting to feel increasingly uneasy about this, especially as the Master doesn’t seem concerned about it. (The Last Supper warning are yet to come).

And Us? I think there are times when things go wrong in the Christian world, where leaders fall off their pedestal or the media give Christians a bad time. There are times in our own life circumstances when things suddenly blow up, apparently without any warning. The important thing in any such times is to remember the Lord knows all about it, saw it coming and is not phased by it. Somehow he will weave it into his will in such a way that a good picture will emerge on the other side, when all we can see are the hanging threads at the back of the picture (tapestry).

Remember the promise: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (Rom 8:28) When he called us it was for a purpose that is in his heart (Eph 2:10) but he doesn’t promise that it will all be smooth going, that it will never seem to be going pear-shaped. Jesus was working to a plan as he approached Jerusalem for that final time but as far as the often-confused disciples were concerned that was often seen through a filter of uncertainty in their minds. Wait until we get to the other side, and don’t panic in the meantime.

16. Death an Impossibility

‘Living with Uncertainty’ Meditations: 16. Death an Impossibility 

Lk 18:31-34  And taking the twelve, he said to them, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished. For he will be delivered over to the Gentiles and will be mocked and shamefully treated and spit upon. And after flogging him, they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise.” But they understood none of these things. This saying was hidden from them, and they did not grasp what was said.

Lack of Understanding: Little children often think their parents are invincible, they will always be there for them. It’s not true but they just can’t grasp the possibility of either their parents not being right or of them not always being there. I think there is something of this behind the verses above. Think about it. The disciples have been with Jesus for nearly three years and they have watched him being in total control of every situation. Even when a hostile crowd had sought to throw him off a cliff, he simply, “walked right through the crowd and went on his way.” (Lk 4:30). They had watched him calm a storm with a word (Mk 4:39), they had even seen him walk on the water (Mt 14:25), they had seen him bring about healings by the hundred (Mt 4:24, 8:16,  12:15,22, 14:14,36, 15:30, 19:2, 21:14), deliver the possessed (Mt 8:16,32 etc.) and even raise the dead (Mt 9:18,25, Lk 7:12-14). There seemed nothing Jesus could not do. And now he says he will be arrested, flogged and killed?  Surely this cannot be!

There are times, I think, when what we see before us seems impossible and the mind refuses to grasp it. I remember some friends returning from observing an amazing healing ministry in Africa where literally bodies changed in front of you and they said that for the first three days their minds were just struggling with what they were seeing and couldn’t take in the miracles their eyes were seeing. It is a very much a lesser incident but my wife took me away to a surprise birthday celebration holiday and we turned up at a house where we stopped and she got out to go in and investigate and I just followed.  It was a big house and I just assumed we were looking for the owners here of a rented property we would go on to. She walked into the entrance hall and I followed. No one seemed to be around. She started opening doors of the hall and I did the same. I just opened one and saw people in the kitchen and assumed they were visitors like us and so just closed the door again. It was only when I shut the door that my mind caught up and a realized it was my three children and their partners. There was much laughter when I opened the door again. Surprise! But my mind had seen people but had not registered them as my family. It was not what I was expecting.

The Build-up: Matthew tells us that at least three time Jesus told his disciples what was going to happen: From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.” (Mt 16:21) Then a second time: “When they came together in Galilee , he said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men. They will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised to life.” (Mt 17:22,23) Then the third time: ”Now as Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside and said to them, “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 20:17-19) He keeps saying it but they still can’t take it in; it seems it goes against everything they know about Jesus; this just can’t happen. We don’t know why he is saying this but it can’t be. After that first instant, “Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!” (Mt 16:22) which earned the rebuke, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.” (v.23)

The Crisis: At the Last Supper it gets worse. Jesus predicts one of them will betray him (Jn 13:18-21) His disciples stared at one another, at a loss to know which of them he meant.” (v.22) They can’t take it in. Then, after warning them that they will all fall away and leave him (Mt 26:31), Jesus warns Peter that he will betray him (v.34) and Peter just can’t accept that.

The truth is that it was becoming more and more obvious what was about to happen. John later writes, “It was just before the Passover Feast. Jesus knew that the time had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father,”  (Jn 13:1) and the washing the disciples feet was put in that context (see 13:2,3,11,18,21,27) then specifically he declares, “My children, I will be with you only a little longer. You will look for me, and just as I told the Jews, so I tell you now: Where I am going, you cannot come.” (13:33, also 14:2,3, 28-31, 16:5,7,10,16,19,20,28) Thus many times in that last discourse he alludes to the fact of his leaving them, though not the how or why. So the crisis came and after he is arrested, “Then all the disciples deserted him and fled.” (Mt 26:56b)

And So? So we have been observing how the disciples really struggled to take in what Jesus was warning them would happen – but failed to take it in. But this was because it was too bad for them to be able to comprehend in the light of all that they knew of Jesus.  But then I think about how we so often struggle, not to believe what is bad but to believe what is good. This is all about uncertainty, remember, and the disciples were so unsure about what they were hearing from Jesus, so uncertain about the reality of it, that when it came to the crunch, it seems like they just weren’t prepared for it – but they were!

But isn’t that so often how it is with modern believers, we hear the good news of the Gospel and we can’t  believe it can be that good, that God loves me just like I am! We can’t believe Jesus has dealt with all my guilt, so we continue to struggle to appease God or do things to get on His good side.  So often when I have brought a prophetic word to someone that is really good news, it is received with an, “All right, thanks” instead of shouts of joy. We just can’t believe it can be that good! Uncertainty starts in our minds. It isn’t just what’s going on around us, it is what we think of it and especially what we think of it in the light of what God has said about it through His word.

On the road to Jerusalem, Jesus seeks to convey the tough side of what was going to happen and the disciples so struggled with that, that they failed to take in the mind blowing bit at the end – “and on the third day be raised to life.” (Mt 16:21) and, “and on the third day he will be raised to life,” (Mt 17:23) and, “On the third day he will be raised to life!” (Mt 20:19) There it was, three times he had spoken about his resurrection and no one had responded, “Awesome Lord!”

When difficult, troubling and uncertain times confront us, do we wallow in the bad sides of it, or do we look for the good and remember that the Lord is here with us in it and His resources are available to us to cope with it? And can we go on to look beyond it to see the good that will yet come? May that latter experience be ours.

15. Target Jerusalem

PART TWO: On the Way

‘Living with Uncertainty’ Meditations: 15. Target Jerusalem

Lk 9:51-53 As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem. And he sent messengers on ahead, who went into a Samaritan village to get things ready for him; but the people there did not welcome him, because he was heading for Jerusalem.

Lk 18:31   And taking the twelve, he said to them, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished.

Context?  We are two weeks off Easter and as much as I would like to map Jesus’ activities in this period running up to Passover, our Easter, it is not clear. There are some time and date indicators but it is very difficult to be able to pin down various parts of the Gospel accounts to specific days. When we get nearer to that final week that we tend to call Holy Week it does become a little clearer and when we get there we will try and do that, but for now we simply want to try to gain some perspective using Luke’s Gospel.

Direction?  In Luke at least, 9:51, our verse above, is a turning point. He is in Galilee and he determinedly turns south and aims for Jerusalem. Shortly afterwards we find in 10:38 him coming to the home of Mary and Martha which we know was in Bethany, which is close to Jerusalem, but he doesn’t now go on to Jerusalem. Whether this is an insert (but out of historical context just to remind us who Mary and Martha were for later on) is unclear.

It seems as if Luke, is using

– both Mark’s information,

– the other general information picked up by the three Synoptic Gospel writers referred to as ‘Q’ (from the German ‘Quelle’ meaning ‘source’, thought to be a written Greek document of sayings etc. in existence in the early church),

– and his own sources, people he came across who contributed to his account,

but is not necessarily following a historical narrative, but partly narrative and partly individual teachings picked up along the way.

Confusing Direction: Perhaps it is because of this it seems like Luke jumps back with a general comment insert:, “On a Sabbath Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues.” (Lk 13:10) which would suppose he is in Judea, having passed through Samaria but then we find, “Then Jesus went through the towns and villages, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem.” (Lk 13:22) Along the way we find other incidents, for example, “One Sabbath, when Jesus went to eat in the house of a prominent Pharisee,” (Lk 14:1) and we also see that, “Large crowds were traveling with Jesus.” (Lk 14:25) Later on we find, “Now on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled along the border between Samaria and Galilee.” (Lk 17:11)

Modern Frustration? It could be at this point that you might be muttering about divine inspiration and wondering where there are signs of it? But this is where our uncertainties have a modern flavor to them, this need that I have referred to before in these studies, to be in control and to package everything in a neat, concise, easily understood document, but God doesn’t work like that. He chose a time in history for his Son to come, a time in very many ways very different from ours and one of those was the Jewish mentality. It didn’t have this same neat orderly package approach that we have. They weren’t out to ‘prove’ a case by its logic and order, they were out to simply convey the wonder of what was going on. Sometimes it did have chronological order but for the most part that wasn’t the all-important issue, it was what Jesus was teaching and doing and sometimes I think their writing is like our memories. I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed this but sometimes if you are in a group that is talking about the past, as someone is sharing a recollection, suddenly, from nowhere it seems, a memory comes to you that you hadn’t thought about for years and as the group of you share memories, sometimes they are in neat chronological order and sometimes they appear haphazard.

So if, like I’ve just tried doing, you try to get a clarity through the Gospels, a neat order of events, don’t be frustrated if you can’t do that. Just take the clarity you can get but relish the wonder of what is being taught and what happened. I warn you, the closer to the awful events of Easter we get, the more confusing it will be, but that is simply because it was an utterly confusing time.

Catching the Order: Go back to that thought that comes in Jn 5:19 that the Son only does what he sees his Father doing. What that says is that the Spirit picked up on what was going on in people’s lives, the things the Father was saying to them or, perhaps more accurately, the things they were doing, probably without being aware of the prompting coming from God. So Jesus arrives in town and the Spirit prompts the spiritually hungry people to put down what they are doing and go and see him. Some, as we’ll soon see, will be prompted to climb trees to see him.  Some will be prompted to simply cry out for his help. Can we enlarge our understanding to see that actually God is at work all the time, even though we either don’t understand it or realise it ? Can we see that living ‘in Christ’ is partly looking out for what God is doing in the lives of people around about us, and acting accordingly? It may appear confusing or uncertain but it is an area we perhaps need to think about as an area where we can learn.

So instead of seeing a neat pattern in the Gospels sometimes, I suggest we see Jesus moving about the countryside teaching in the open and teaching in synagogues, taking any and every opportunity that came before him to flow in the Spirit and address that situation or those people, hence one of them we saw above, was simply to go and eat in the house of a prominent Pharisee (Lk 14:1) We’ve seen previously how he was there for Nicodemus in the night, how he traveled up to Sidon for a rest but was there for the Canaanite woman when she came with her need. We’ll see him pausing up to respond to blind men crying out to him, and calling out a chief tax-collector watching him up a tree.

And Us? Are we too concerned to maintain order in our lives to be open to the prompting of the Spirit to guide us to something or someone new? Do we ignore the thought to ring a friend, write a letter, send some flowers or whatever other possible opportunity the Lord wants you to create?  Does he want you to write something, a poem or a story, or be creative in some other way through which His glory might shine? These may appear as small things but they could have big consequences. Being available to the Father was the key to Jesus’ ministry, and even if life around about seems confusing and uncertain, learn to let His whispers into you mind and spirit bring guidance, direction, blessing, assurance and certainty into your life.

14. Coping with Jesus’ Uncertainties

‘Living with Uncertainty’ Meditations: 14. Coping with Jesus’ Uncertainties

Jn 2:4   Woman, why do you involve me?” Jesus replied. “My hour has not yet come.”

Mt 15:26   He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”

And So: In Study no.8 we thought about ‘Responding to the Uncertainties of God’ and, before we move in to the next Part following Jesus in the weeks running up to Holy Week, I just want to do a follow-on to that previous study, perhaps as a way of setting the backdrop to all that is about to come. I often feel there are various dangers or pitfalls to be avoided in being a Christian and one of them, we will see here, is trying to be too confident in understanding Jesus. He is the Son of God and he tells us that he only does what he sees his Father doing (Jn 5:19) and it seems that sometimes that was slow in coming through, but it may not be his uncertainty but his way of testing the people before him. I have three instances in mind that show this.

  1. A Matter of Teaching: The passage in Jn 3 where Jesus meets with Nicodemus highlights something which, when we are looking for it, comes up a number of times, either with his disciples or with the crowds: he says things in picture language that requires us to think, and when we’ve thought and not come up with answers, turn to him in prayer for clarification. Consider: Jesus talking about being ‘born again (Jn 3:3) naturally creates questions in Nicodemus. There is uncertainty in his mind: what does this mean? Then talk of the wind (v.8) which requires us to think. Again and again, especially when we are hearing something new, uncertainty springs up in our minds as we wonder how to take what we are hearing. I have seen it many times in students and I’ve experienced it often myself. There is nothing mysterious about this, it is quite natural but what it does mean, when it comes to the Bible, is that sometimes we really do need to slow up and think about what we read and then, as I said before, if we are still struggling with it, turn to God in prayer and listen – which in turn requires us to learn some new skills.
  2. A Matter of Involvement: More than once in the gospels we see an expectation being placed on Jesus to do something. One of our starter verses above occurs in respect of the wedding in Cana where the wine runs out. Mary knows her son, knows something of what he is capable. Now whether she expects him to use his wisdom to resolve this present problem or something else is not clear, but it is clear she is gently nudging him to do something when she says, “They have no wine.” (v.3) Yes, Jesus probably knows that so it is an implied question – are you going to do something about this? When he uses the word, “Woman”, in his response to her, he is not disrespecting her but gently reminding her what she already knows – he is not the same as her, he is not a mere man and therefore, by implication, he is on a different path and thus it is legitimate to ask, what does this have to do with me?” In a very gentle way, and he might even have been saying it with a smile on his face, he is saying, “Come on mother, you know better than that. I can’t just go around performing miracles when I like it for the sake of it,” and then he adds, “My hour has not yet come.” i.e. “I can’t rush things, I have an agenda to follow, I can only follow Father’s leading.” Is he testing her out, is he gently giving his own mother a little challenge, “Let’s see how you will respond if I appear slow to act?” She passes the test. She doesn’t press him any further, she trusts him, and so simply tells the servants quietly, Do whatever he tells you.” (v.5) Delightful! And then she waits, and yes he acts. Father and Son have it in mind to help out in this situation with the result that his glory was visible for those with eyes to see. (v.11)
  3. Further Persistence: The situation involving the Canaanite women up in the area of Tyre and Sidon in the north is intriguing. This woman comes to him and pleads with him and cries, Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” (Mt 15:22) Have mercy on me? Think well of me, help me! Lord? Possibly just a term of respect. Son of David? Ah, that is more interesting. Does this imply something she thinks about him. My daughter? Yes, I have a problem with my daughter. Hold on a minute! You don’t get oppressed by a demon unless you have opened yourself up to the enemy somehow? What has gone on in this family? Something is not good here!

“But he did not answer her a word.” (v.23) That seems a bit hard. Why is he remaining tight-lipped? His disciples take his silence as a sign of displeasure and urge him to send her away, but it’s not displeasure, it is something else. He drops a truth before her: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (v.24) That, quite amazingly, was his calling: “he will save his people from their sins.” (Mt 1:21) That is the expectation in Israel, the Messiah comes for the Jews, but maybe what some forget is that throughout the Old Testament, the presence of Israel was to reveal God to the rest of the world. Yes, God is concerned for Jew AND Gentile. ‘His people’ become any believer. Is she a believer? “But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” (v.25)  That looks rather like a believer, but Jesus pushes it a little more: It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” (v.26) Ouch!

That sounds unkind. But it is at this point the self-righteous get up and stamp off muttering under their breath. It is only needy believers who stay around – and that‘s her! Are there smiles on both their faces in this interchange as she persists: Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Humility and grace, signs of the true seeker. Good enough!! Result: O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” See that, “great is your faith”! Awesome! It’s like Jesus is saying, “Well done, my dear, you pass with flying colours, yes, let’s deliver your daughter without any quibbles, let’s not go into the past why she is like this, let’s just free her.” End of story, she is!

And So? Isn’t that a beautiful story! But three times now we have seen Jesus creating uncertainty in the minds of those conversing with him and it is clearly with the intention of gently pressing them to come to their own good conclusion and in the latter two cases, results in the power of God changing the situation. If there is uncertainty in our circumstances, it’s not about whether God brought them but about how we will respond to them:

– Looking for a cause to blame God in the uncertain circumstances of life, reveals a poor heart that is just looking for an excuse to turn away from God and continue on in self-centred godlessness, OR

– Simply looking to bring a godly response to the circumstances shows the heart of a believer, a mature follower, whose trust is in God and who recognizes His love and His desire to help us in any and every circumstance.  May we always fall into this latter category.