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?

6. Uncertainty when Jesus delays

‘Living with Uncertainty’ Meditations: 6. Uncertainty when Jesus delays

Jn 11:6  So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.

Ongoing: If you are someone who prays, I guess your greatest desire is that Jesus answers your prayers and life changes and/or people are changed. Arguably the best book around on why prayers are often not answered is Pete Greig’s ‘God on Mute’. Often we use prayer as a way of venting our wishes, our hopes and desires, trying to get God to conform to what we think should happen. The problem of suffering is an ongoing one. Philosophers, contemplating suffering and God, wonder if God CAN alleviate suffering, why doesn’t He, if God IS compassionate and loving, surely He wants to alleviate suffering, so why doesn’t He?  This is sometimes summarized as, ”Can He – is he powerful enough, does He want to – is He truly compassionate?” But then we put up the answer to both as ‘Yes’ so then comes the big question, “Why doesn’t He?”

The Prayer Dilemma: Praying for sick people, especially those who are perhaps terminally ill, is not an area for the faint-hearted to enter, for it can be an area of great uncertainty. When we pray and people are healed, great, but when we pray and pray and pray and they still die, not so great! The complexity of who God steps up for and who He doesn’t is always a mystery. I think a shorthand answer is seen in Acts 12 where James is killed by Herod but Peter is saved by angelic intervention (yet still to die years later as a martyr!). Our role is to pray and pray, and then trust. Our trust is in a God who is love (1 Jn 4:8,16) and who is perfect, which means He cannot be improved upon, which includes action and inaction. Faith comes from hearing (Rom 10:17) but trust is when you hang in when you hear nothing.  Both are needed in the Christian life. Some find this a disquieting answer for it smacks of agnosticism, the great ‘I don’t know people’. So where can we find some answers?

The Lazarus Drama: On the way to Jerusalem on his last journey, Jesus is told about the illness of his friend Lazarus but, “When he heard this, Jesus said, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.” Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days.”  (Jn 11:4-6) It would appear that at the time Jesus had recently been in Jerusalem (see Jn 10:22,23) but had gone out of town to a place across the Jordan (v.40,41), possibly some twenty miles away. Bethany, where Lazarus lived, was just a few miles from Jerusalem and thus still about 16-18 miles probably from where Jesus was teaching. It would take a while for the message to have reached Jesus and so in declining health, Lazarus needed Jesus quickly. How often do we sense urgency in our circumstances?

Delay: But Jesus stays where he is for another two days. He will not be rushed for he knows the outcome and he knows what has to happen before he arrives – Lazarus is going to die (11:14) and it’s going to take at least another couple of days to get back to Bethany (their arrival was four days after Lazarus had actually died – 11:39). In this four days anguish has set in.

Martha: One of Lazarus’s two sisters, Martha is the first one to greet Jesus: “Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” (11:21) There is a sense of reproach about this that undergirds anything else she might feel. It is difficult not to feel aggrieved when God doesn’t turn up and you know He can. But she grabs hold of a vestige of faith, “But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.” (v.22)

The things that go around our minds at such times as this are often confusing, certainly uncertain, often mixed with wonderings about what could have been, but then struggling with the reality. When the messenger had gone to Jesus with the news of Lazarus’s illness, Jesus had responded, This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it,” (v.4) and he had not doubt conveyed that back to the sisters, maybe also intimating the Jesus had not seemed in any hurry to come. Martha, no doubt realistically, faced the fact that Lazarus had died even before the messenger had got back probably, and so unless Jesus had been able to get there earlier, it was hopeless. But then there were those words. What did they mean? Perhaps she has them in mind when she makes this last assertion. Is there a glimmer of hope within her, one that she dare not utter, that yet, four days on, Jesus might be able to do something? Four days! It seems impossible.

Mary: When Mary comes out, she is the one who had sat at Jesus’ feet, imbibing his presence and his words (Lk 10:39), and so his absence when she needed him was doubly troubling. She can only come out with the reproach (v.32) as she collapses at his feet weeping. The previous time she had sat at his feet it had been a joyful time but all of that is gone now. Jesus does not rebuke her for her lack of faith, but just, was deeply moved in spirit and troubled.” (v.33)

Jesus: At such times as this realize the Son of God empathizes with us. The verb here in the Greek that we have rendered, ‘deeply moved’ has a sense about it of indignation, even anger, the same as used in v.38. But see how it is worked out.

And then as they go to the tomb, “Jesus wept.” (v.35) As one scholar put it, ‘This is the shortest verse in the Bible, but no verse carries more meaning in it.’ They agree this is not wailing crying but it simply best put as “Jesus burst into tears.” This is Jesus who feels for the loss of Lazarus, Jesus who feels the pain of Mary and Martha and the struggles they are enduring, this is Jesus whose feelings for them are so strong that they cannot be contained and so flow out in tears of compassion.  But then we find again, “Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb.” (v.38)  There is (according to the original Greek) within all this sympathy, empathy, compassion that is blended with a righteous anger at the effect that Sin has, bringing death and pain and anguish and mourning. This is never how it was supposed to be when God first created the world, but this is how it has become when sin entered the world at the Fall. It is the curse of free-will, and yet an absolute necessity if we were to be the incredible beings we are in the image of God, with all that means. And then Jesus brings Lazarus back to life. Incredible!

And Us? There is more to think about in this realm of God and suffering but we will leave it to the next study. For the moment, let’s hold on to some of the things that have come out of this episode involving Lazarus:

– death comes to us all (Heb 9:27)

– death brings a sense of loss and anguish

– often within that anguish our minds wrestle unsuccessfully about where God is in it all

– Jesus understands this anguish and wrestling and empathizes with us, not condemns us

– the power of death is in his hands (and we’ll see more of that in the next study)

– and it is that which brings questions to us so often.

Many of us may have lost loved ones with question marks hanging over their deaths. There may be no easy answers this side of heaven but there are some helps and we’ll go on to consider them in the next study. In the meantime, even though it may sound trite from our position of anguish, it is the truth, trust is what holds us, that even though we may not understand, we trust that He does all things well.(Mk 7:37)

1. Acclaimed & Anticlimax

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. (We are following Mark’s version of events). 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.

19. The Tide of Acceptance (1)

Meditating on Great Themes in John:   19. The Tide of Acceptance

John 12:9-11  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 putting their faith in him.

A sub-title for this study might be, ‘The Battle for Belief’. When we come to chapters 11 and 12, with the raising of Lazarus the battle for belief that has been going on throughout the book seems to come to a climax. This battle for belief is rather like the tide that goes in an out. In this study we will note the incoming tide and then in the next one the outgoing tide. The incoming tide is belief, the outgoing tide is rejection. We have earlier commented that one of the main overriding themes of John is the identity of Jesus. This theme of belief in him is rather like a sub-theme to that, how people responded to the revelation of who he was. (That we will see very clearly in the next study after this one).

John hinted at this tide early on in the Prologue when he wrote, The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.” (Jn 1:5) and then, “He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God. (Jn 1:10-12) There it is simply laid out – three things people did not do in respect of belief, but nevertheless there were some who obviously did believe and came to be children of God. As we go through John we will see the signs of this tidal movement. So, let’s look at the incoming signs.

“This, the first of his miraculous signs, Jesus performed at Cana in Galilee. He thus revealed his glory, and his disciples put their faith in him.” (Jn 2:11) In chapter 1 we saw individual responses of the early disciples to meeting Jesus (see Jn 1:41,45,49). Having seen this miracle their faith is bolstered. Yet things were said and done that even they struggled with: “After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the Scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken.” (Jn 2:22) i.e. at the time they did not understand what he was saying.

Nevertheless the things he did swayed the general people: “Now while he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many people saw the miraculous signs he was doing and believed in his name.” (Jn 2:23)

`        When he left Jerusalem and returned to Galilee via Samaria, after the encounter with the Samaritan woman we find, Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I ever did.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they urged him to stay with them, and he stayed two days. And because of his words many more became believers. They said to the woman, “We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world.” (Jn 4:39-42)

He leaves there and goes to Cana in Galilee where, you remember, he healed the official’s son from a distance and we read, “Then the father realized that this was the exact time at which Jesus had said to him, “Your son will live.” So he and all his household believed.” (Jn 4:53) After the feeding of the five thousand we find, “After the people saw the miraculous sign that Jesus did, they began to say, “Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.” Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself.” (Jn 6:14,15) But the tide can change so quickly. Before the end of the chapter we read, “From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.” (Jn 6:66)

The conflict of belief versus unbelief becomes clearer in the following chapters: “Again they tried to seize him, but he escaped their grasp. Then Jesus went back across the Jordan to the place where John had been baptizing in the early days. Here he stayed and many people came to him. They said, “Though John never performed a miraculous sign, all that John said about this man was true.” And in that place many believed in Jesus.” (Jn 10:39-42) When the opposition rose, Jesus stepped away and allowed there to be opportunities for belief to grow in others.

We see the peak of his approval on what we call Palm Sunday, “The next day the great crowd that had come for the Feast heard that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. They took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting, “Hosanna!”   “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Jn 12:12-13) and a little later John explains why this peak of popularity: “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 given this miraculous sign, went out to meet him.” (Jn 12:17,18)

There is still a growing opposition in some quarters that we will examine in the following study, but the battle for belief still raged: “Yet at the same time many even among the leaders believed in him. But because of the Pharisees they would not confess their faith for fear they would be put out of the synagogue.” (Jn 12:42) John likes that word ‘believed’ for it occurs 19 times in this Gospel. The identity of Jesus is a key theme but how people responded to it is equally important in terms of volume of the reports in John.

Palm Sunday

PALM SUNDAY – Heralded

Matt 21:8,9 A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

David the psalmist wrote, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” (Psa 23:4) It seems an apt description of this week ahead – the valley of the shadow of death. For Christians this week ahead is a week of mixed emotions. On Good Friday there is the awfulness of the events of that day when we rejected the Saviour of the World. Then of Easter Sunday there is the celebrating that he is alive. But as we walk through this week ahead, there is the awful shadow of death hanging over it, the death we know is coming at the end of it.

It is that, perhaps, that makes the events of ‘Palm Sunday’ so incongruous. We know, because we’ve got it in writing and we’re looking back on it, that his death is coming, but death is the last thing on the mind of the crowd who welcome Jesus into Jerusalem. Indeed this travelling preacher seems to be the master over death because it was only a few weeks back that Lazarus was raised from the dead by him and the word has spread around the area like a tsunami rushing out from an earthquake epicentre, so now here he is on his way to Jerusalem with the crowd getting bigger and bigger by the moment.

It almost seems like he inflames them for he sends some of his followers to borrow a donkey and he mounts it to ride up to and through the gates of Jerusalem. The words of the prophet Zechariah, taught in the synagogues throughout the land, are being fulfilled before their very eyes: Say to the Daughter of Zion, `See, your king comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’” (Mt 215 quoting Zech 9:9). Some who have come from the north remember the time when he had fed five thousand with virtually nothing and the word had started to spread that this was their new messiah-king, a worthy king for Israel surely!

Thus they herald him as their king, yet nevertheless for some there was this shadow of death hanging over it all. The disciples had heard their master say a number of times that they would go to Jerusalem and there he would be killed (see Mt 16:21, 17:23). They had heard it and they had grieved. Peter had even rebuked him for saying such things.

How unreal those words must have seemed now, with the crowd screaming and shouting and applauding him; yet those very shouts would have had the exact opposite effect upon the religious authorities within the city, who became more and more anxious and sought opportunities to arrest him.

God’s plan was clearly declared by the prophet Isaiah, that “he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.” (Isa 53:5)  The Cross is the necessary end of this week because of our sins; that was God’s declared plan, but it needed the work of men. The Lord knew how the crowd would react with just a little prompting, so the raising of Lazarus just a few miles and weeks away, and the riding in on a donkey were just gentle fuel to fire the passions of men of power to move against Jesus. As Peter later said to the Jewish crowd on the day of Pentecost, “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, this Sunday is a terrible combination of the knowledge and plan of God, the shallow adoration of a self-seeking crowd and, eventually, the sinful scheming of powerful men. How terrible! How wonderful!

Power in Action

Readings in Luke Continued – No.28

Lk 7:14-17 Then he went up and touched the coffin, and those carrying it stood still. He said, “Young man, I say to you, get up!” The dead man sat up and began to talk, and Jesus gave him back to his mother. They were all filled with awe and praised God. “A great prophet has appeared among us,” they said. “God has come to help his people.” This news about Jesus spread throughout Judea and the surrounding country.

In our previous meditation we pondered on the imponderable, why some things happen to some people and not to others, and why God seems to turn up for some people and not for others. Over the years I have pondered another issue – why is it that God turns up in revival at certain times in history and brings utter transformation, but mostly doesn’t? My only conclusion, and it may only be very partial, is that even if He did keep on turning up in power, the sinfulness of mankind would still distort it or fail to appreciate it. I have travelled in parts of the world where revival has come and have been in villages where 100% of the village population were Christians, yet somehow there was almost a lethargy there that did not seem good. When I compare that with the reports from the underground church in China , struggling against fierce persecution, there is not the same vitality that is present when there is opposition, it seems. It appears that when God’s presence is constantly there, it needs less on our part and, this side of heaven, we do better when there is some opposition or God’s power is relatively limited. That may sound incredible to say, but that is how it seems in practical reality.

I say these things in the light of the miracle that we observe in today’s verses. Jesus, moved by the plight of this woman who has just lost the second important person in her life, steps up to the funeral procession and puts his hand on the coffin being carried. Those carrying it sense something is about to happen, so stop and Jesus calls to the dead young man to get up – and he does! Immediately he sits up (which supposes that the coffin was an open topped one) and starts talking. It is patently obvious that he is alive, and everyone sees it and comments upon it.

Now the point that comes to mind is that this is one of only three instances of those who Jesus raised from the dead, the others being Jairus’s daughter (Lk 8:40-56) and Lazarus (Jn 11:38-44). Why, with the power available to him, didn’t Jesus raise more people from the dead? The answer to that has to be, surely, that God allowed him, or guided him, to do these three for what have to be specific reasons that fitted the will of God. Now that may sound a bit bland but everything Jesus did, he did for a purpose – his Father’s purpose: “Jesus gave them this answer: “I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.” (Jn 5:19). The Father, in His wisdom, obviously sees that simply bringing lots of people back to life, i.e., extending their lives, does little good either for them or for others, but on rare occasions He does do it to reveal His power and, indeed, His compassion.

The Bible thus reveals to us a God who does have the power to bring back the dead, prevent people dying and healing them and utterly transforming lives physically, but He appears to do it sparingly most of the time. There are times and places where He comes in mighty power and healings etc. are seen in great abundance, but taking the world as a whole, they are relatively few. Does the Lord delight to bring healing? Yes, He clearly does, looking at the numbers of people who were healed by Jesus. Does He heal today? Yes, He clearly does. What seems to be a vital ingredient for this to happen? Well as John Wimber used to point out, faith was always present in one person at least in all the situations in the Bible where people were healed, but then faith is simply responding to what God says, and so in every case where healing occurred, and does occur, first of all there is God’s expression of His intent to heal. Our faith, our response to His words of prompting, give Him the space to do it.

Does Jesus raise people from the dead today? Yes, he does. I have heard of rare instances where I trust the integrity of the reporters. However, when we come to this subject, let’s be careful to check our hearts out, because such happenings reveal the state of our hearts. Those who are critical will criticise and say, “Well why doesn’t He do that all the time?” and will thus reveal the short-sightedness of their thinking. Those who are open-hearted to God will find themselves stirred by such events as in today’s verses and will ‘come running’, in their thinking at least, and will want to learn more of this one who can do such things. Those who are utterly given over to God will just praise and thank Him for every token of His goodness expressed in such instances as this.

After all Jesus didn’t have to raise us this young man. He just did it as a token of his Father’s love for the widow and her family. He obviously saw that here was a situation where ongoing life of this young man would truly benefit this family. That isn’t always so although, if it is our family, we will almost certainly think it would be. Why did God allow my loved one to die? I don’t know, but I just have to trust that when God weighed the alternatives He considered that in the long term this indeed was the best option. It may take us a long time to see that because in the immediate, grief blinds us to the bigger picture, and anyway it may take a long time to see the good outcomes. We may not see it even until we get to heaven and see the big picture through God’s eyes. In the meantime we would do well to join with Job who declared the classic phrase: “The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; may the name of the LORD be praised.” (Job 1:21 ) Amen.