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.