Tuesday, April 3, 2012

From Utter Darkness, A Brilliant Light Shines

(This was the Palm Sunday message I delivered at my father-in-law's church this past weekend. Apologies for the length, but it was a pulpit message, longer than a typical article.)
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Chapter 24 of Luke’s gospel tells the story of a man named Cleopas, lamenting to a fellow traveler on the road what had happened to Jesus with the crucifixion. The account that he gives is brief and shows that he doesn’t yet understand the news of Jesus’ resurrection. How might Cleopas tell that same story years later with the benefit of hindsight? It might have sounded like this:

Three years had passed since Jesus began his ministry. The people of Israel had waited for centuries for the Messiah that the prophets had foretold. But when Jesus came, he was an unlikely Messiah: the son of a simple carpenter, raised poor, born in a stable. Maybe the world would have been more impressed if he’d been born the privileged son of royalty or the rich, with resources he could bring to bear against the oppression of the Romans.

The Romans! They were merely the latest, yet the cruelest of Israel’s oppressors. Israel was conquered first by the Babylonians. Then the Persians conquered the Babylonians. Then the Greeks conquered the Persians, and finally the Romans conquered the Greeks. Through it all, the land of Israel was just handed down from one conquering pagan nation to the next, and had hardly had a few years of autonomy in almost 600 years.

So we expected that the Messiah that had been promised through the prophets would finally lead the rebellion, rally the people, to throw off the Romans, to get their foot off of our neck as a people, and restore the kingdom of Israel as it had been under our greatest King, David, a thousand years ago.

But even though Jesus didn’t come from privilege, he nonetheless drew huge crowds. He taught like none of the other rabbis, priests and experts in the Law of Moses. The other teachers always referred back to respected rabbis’ teachings, such as “Rabbi Hillel says about this passage that we should do such-and-such.” But when Jesus taught, he referred to no one. It was his own teaching and it had the ring of truth and authority behind every word.

Then there were the miracles. With merely a touch, sometimes even with just a word, the blind could see, the lame could walk, a man with a withered hand received healing and his hand was whole. He even raised the dead! There was the poor widow whose only son had died. The funeral procession was carrying him to the burial place and everyone was weeping not just because he had died, but because of his poor mother. What would she do? First losing her husband, then her only son! Who would provide for her? She would be destitute, possibly living on the streets. Jesus saw the funeral, went to the boy’s body and raised him from the dead! Then there was Lazarus, brother to Mary and Martha. In the tomb four days, and yet Jesus raised him! He walked out of the tomb and they had to untie the grave clothes from him!

So even though he was a mere peasant like us, his teaching, his power, his authority, drew huge crowds to him. But you know who wasn’t impressed with him? Who opposed him? Who hated him? The religious leaders, our rabbis and teachers of the Law, the Pharisees and the Sadduces. The ones we had always looked to for leadership and guidance in our spiritual lives. They hated him because they were jealous of him, because the people flocked to him, a mere carpenter. They hated him because he challenged them, because they were masters at keeping the law, of meticulous rule keeping for holy living, but had completely lost heart and compassion for our needs as a people. Even when Jesus healed a man of some terrible affliction such as blindness, instead of rejoicing that the man had been set free from his physical bondage, they carped and griped that Jesus had done this on the Sabbath, violating Sabbath law!

So it was that the stage was set for the final confrontation between Jesus and the religious hierarchy. Like thousands of Jews all over Israel, Jesus and his disciples came to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover remembrance of God’s people being delivered from the bondage in Egypt. Little did we realize what would happen. Jesus would enter the city, the nation’s capital, the center of the religious leadership, and challenge them head on. It would be the final clash, the last battle, and it wouldn’t be just between Jesus and the Pharisees, it would be between Jesus and the devil, between the power of the Living God and the dark forces of Satan, and at stake was the salvation of all of humanity.

But Jesus knew. Before coming to Jerusalem, he had told the disciples that he would suffer many things at the hands of the priests and teachers of the law, that he would even die but that on the third day, he would rise again. The disciples were incredulous and didn’t understand what he was saying.

Knowing the terrible suffering that awaited him, Jesus “set his face like flint” to go to Jerusalem. His face became resolute and strong even knowing what was ahead. He told the disciples to go before him into the city and where they could find a colt for him to ride into the city on. They went and found it and brought it to him. They put their cloaks on it for him to sit on, and you know what was amazing? That even though the colt had never had a rider before, and was still unbroken, he meekly allowed Jesus to ride him into the city, even with a crowd shouting around him.

The crowd, sensing the moment, lined the road and shouted “Hosanna! Glory to God!” They believed the time had come for the Messiah to overthrow the yoke of our oppressors, the Romans! Freedom at last! Glory would be restored to Israel!”

It was a tumultuous week leading up to the Passover. In fact it started off with Jesus throwing down the gauntlet. He came to the temple and in the outer area of the temple complex were the money changers and their booths. What a racket they had going on! What a thievery they committed against even the poorest of our people! They had turned the worship of God into a business opportunity for themselves. When a family would arrive and offer their sacrifice, the priest would find some defect with the animal they brought and tell them their animal wasn’t worthy, that they would have to go to the dealers outside the temple and buy an animal that was pre-approved by the priests. And if they had traveled here from far away and didn’t have the local currency, then they had to take their own currency to the money changers to exchange for the local, accepted currency. And of course, the exchange rate amounted to robbery.

Jesus came to the temple. He saw the animal sellers, saw the injustice foisted upon God’s people and the greed and corruption of the religious leaders and his anger burned. He stormed the stalls where the animals were sold and set them free from their cages. He over turned the money changers tables. He made a whip out of some cords and thrashed the crooks out of the temple area. And he shouted at them: “My house shall be a house of prayer. But you have turned it into a den of robbers!” The people were thrilled. The religious leaders were not.

That set the tone for the rest of the Passover week. Jesus had struck at the root of their corruption and they would not sit still for it. The religious leaders began to challenge his authority, yet he matched their every argument and put them to silence.

He told a parable about a vineyard owner who left his prosperous vineyard in the hands of his employees while he traveled in a far land. Every time he sent messengers back to the employees at the vineyard the employees, jealous to steal the vineyards profits for themselves, would abuse the messengers, beat them, even kill them and throw them out. They ran roughshod over the owner’s property. Then the owner sent his own son back to the vineyard thinking that they would respect him. But the corrupt employees schemed that they would kill the son, the owner’s only heir, so that one day when the owner died, the laws of inheritance would deed the vineyard to them and they’d finally own it outright and make all the money themselves. But the owner when he heard, returned and had all the corrupt employees executed and made others, strangers, to be the new heirs to his vineyard.

When the Pharisees , Sadduces and priests heard this story they seethed with resentment. They ground their teeth because they knew he spoke this parable against them.

Then Jesus called them to account for something that even we, his followers didn’t fully grasp at the time. Jesus had been teaching that he was no ordinary prophet, that he was God’s Son. This was the biggest and most vexing religious doctrinal contention between Jesus and the religious leaders. They considered it blasphemy for a man to claim to be the Son of God, to believe that the promised Messiah would be God himself come in human form. They considered that human flesh was corrupt and God would never come as a man. After all, hadn’t pagan kings for thousands of years claimed that they had been gods?

So Jesus quoted one of the Psalms where 1,000 years ago King David said: “The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool.’” Since the prophets said that the Messiah would be a descendent of King David, this verse poses a problem. Jesus asked the religious leaders: “If David refers to the Messiah as ‘Lord’, how can he be his son?” The question wasn’t whether the Messiah would be a descendent of David. The question was: no father calls his son by the respectful term, “Lord”. So for David to call the Messiah “Lord” means the Messiah would be more than just a human prophet, more than a mere man. He would have to be Divine, God come in flesh.

After this the religious leaders no longer challenged Jesus with questions. Instead, they plotted to have him silenced forever. They plotted to murder him.

Meanwhile, Jesus continued to minister to the people. He watched all the rich people throw money into the temple offering out of their abundance, yet said that a poor widow who threw in a penny had given more than anyone, because she gave all that she had.

He healed the blind. He laid his hands on little children and blessed them even though his disciples tried to shoo them away.

He taught that one day our great temple would be torn down, that terrible times would come to the earth and that he would return and defeat the powers of darkness trying to destroy all of humanity, that he would come on the clouds with power and glory and utterly defeat the armies of darkness, all evil and oppression and bring God’s victory to the whole earth. Some day…

Peter took to bragging again, telling Jesus that he was willing even to die for him. Jesus shook his head, telling Peter that before the rooster crowed the next morning, Peter would have denied him three times.

There was treachery afoot. The religious leaders gained an ally in one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot. In reality, they gained an ally in Satan himself because “Satan entered into Judas” to conspire with them to betray Jesus into their hands during a time of quiet, when their were no crowds present. Judas had been a member of a political movement called the Zealots who sought the violent overthrow of Rome. When Jesus disappointed Judas’ ambitions, he decided to betray him.

Just before Jesus celebrated the Passover meal with his disciples, Judas and the religious leaders struck a deal. They would pay him 30 silver pieces for leading them to Jesus at an opportune time. We only realized later, and Judas probably never realized, that he was fulfilling the words of the prophet Zechariah, who foretold that God’s people would sell him out one day for exactly that: 30 pieces of silver. Judas was fulfilling the very prophecy of God written over 400 years before.

Judas knew that Jesus liked to spend time in solitude and prayer and that there was a nearby garden close to where they would celebrate the Passover that he would likely go to after the meal. It was then and there that Judas would take the soldiers and leaders to arrest Jesus. Then, he returned to Jesus and the disciples, pretending that he was what he was not, that he was one of them still.

Jesus and the disciples secured an upper room to celebrate the Passover Seder meal. At the start of the meal, the disciples began to discuss, even to argue amongst themselves which of them would hold positions of the highest authority when Jesus lead the final assault over the established rulers, the religious leaders, the Romans, all the oppressors. Who would be Jesus’ right hand man? Who had earned it?

While they were squabbling over which of them was the greatest, no one noticed what Jesus was doing. He gathered a wash basin of water and a towel, and quietly began washing the dust off of their dirty feet . Normally this was the job of the lowest servant in a household. But here was their leader, their Master, the very man they were expecting to lead the rebellion over their enemies. Washing their feet like a common slave! One by one they fell silent, brought to a place of humility by the humble example Jesus was setting for them.

The Passover meal was served and Jesus made an incredible gesture of grace. He announced at the table that one of them would betray him. When each one wondered aloud whether it would be them, Jesus said it would be the one who dipped the bread with him in the gravy bowl. Then he offered the bread for the dipping bowl to Judas. This was an act that traditionally was offered by the Master of the house to an honored guest. Think of it! Jesus, even though he knew that Judas was in the very act of betraying him to his enemies, in grace offered the dipping bread and bowl to Judas as though he were the honored guest at the table. We should know such grace! Then he told Judas to go and do what he must do. And Judas slipped out to gather the forces of darkness against his Master.

Jesus then took the bread and broke it and told the disciples to take and eat, that this was his body, broken for them. Then he took the cup and passed it to them and said for them to drink, that this was the blood of the new covenant for the remission of their sins. God entered into a new covenant with his people for the redemption of all of humankind.

They finished the meal and Jesus took his closest disciples to the garden to pray. He went a little further alone and collapsed in agony, knowing what lay just before him, perhaps within the hour. He asked the Father if this could pass him, but that the Father’s will was what he wanted, not his own. And he knew. He knew that there was no other way. He submitted to the Father’s will.

Suddenly there was the sound of a mob, and Jesus was surrounded by soldiers. From a crowd of Pharisees emerged Judas who had told the authorities that he would officially identify Jesus for arrest by greeting him with a traditional kiss on the cheek. But Jesus asked him “Judas, will you betray me with a kiss?” meaning, with a gesture of friendship?

Peter reached inside his cloak and brought out a sword he’d been concealing and commenced a struggle and slashed off the ear of a man. Jesus rebuked him and healed the man’s ear…right there in front of the Pharisees, who still, with this one last miracle, remained hardened in their hearts.

The soldiers seized Jesus, wrenched his arm behind his back like he was dangerous and needed to be controlled, and carried him off. First they lead him to the chief priests who put him on religious trial. Such a trial in the middle of the night was just the first violation of the rules for a fair hearing for an accused. The religious leaders had recruited a crowd of people of bad reputation to use against Jesus.They brought forth false witnesses who twisted Jesus words and made misleading statements about him. They harangued him and slapped him…and yet he never tried to defend himself. It was only later we realized that he was fulfilling the words of the prophet Isaiah written 700 years prior, who said he was lead like a sheep to the slaughter, and like a lamb before it’s shearers, he opened not his mouth.

Finally, they demanded point blank whether he was the Son of God and he declared that he was, using the Hebrew term “I AM”, the holy name of the Eternal Yahweh God, and that they would see him come one day in power on the clouds with angels. The chief priest shrieked in indignation. “What further need do we have of witnesses? You’ve heard his blaspheme yourselves!”

Then they took a “vote”, if you could call it a vote. Tradition called for votes of the Sanhedrin to be done with the youngest members going first so that they wouldn’t feel pressured to go along with the vote of the older members. But this was a lynch mob, not a legitimate hearing and they all shouted their enraged votes for death in unison, a cacophony of rants against the meek man bound before them.

Since Roman law disallowed them from their traditional means of execution, stoning, they had to hand him over to the Romans for execution. But the Romans wouldn’t care if some peasant prophet claimed to be their so called Messiah. What was that to Rome? It meant nothing. So the Sanhedrin had to trump up charges, and tell the Romans that Jesus was claiming to be a king and was gathering followers, which meant that he was leading an insurrection against Roman rule. They took him to Pontius Pilate, the local procurator. He quickly saw that this was a case of trumped up charges and tried to convince the mob to drop the matter. But they noisily refused, and fearing a riot that would get him in trouble with Rome, he passed Jesus up the chain of command to the local governor, Herod. Herod amused himself by taunting Jesus, but ultimately sent him back to Pilate. Pilate hoped that he could have Jesus whipped and that it would satisfy the mob, so he handed him over to be scourged.

The soldiers did their worst to him. Soldiers assigned to the duty of punishing prisoners were the lowest of the low. Unskilled, lacking in the intelligence and ability to advance in the military, they were typically low brow, sadistic brutes. They mocked Jesus, beat him with branches, pressed a crown of thorns on his brow until his face ran with blood. Then they scourged him. Using a leather whip with multiple straps, each strap embedded with bits of sharp metal and bone, they shackled him to a low wooden block and began to methodically beat him to a terrible, bloody wretch. The scourging was so terrible that sometimes prisoners died from the shock of it and never made it to the crucifixion.

Pilate displayed Jesus to the mob, hoping they’d be satisfied, but more loudly than ever they demanded his execution. So Jesus was led away to be crucified. He was so weak with shock he couldn’t carry his own cross to the place of execution as required and another man was forces to do so. They stripped away his garments, laid him on the beams, drove huge spikes through each wrist right at the base of the hand, then hammered a spike through the tops of his feet. Then they raised the cross, positioned it over the post hole, and dropped it in with a hard jolt, Jesus’ body twisting in agony from the shock of it.

Then, over the course of the next few hours, the life of the Messiah, the Son of God, God come in flesh, slowly ebbed away, suffering from the worst that humankind, even his own chosen people, had heaped upon him. Man had seen God’s brilliance and love come to earth…and had rejected him. Despised him. Hated him. Sought to destroy him. Satan, no doubt, thought that he had won the victory. The coup that he accomplished in the Garden when he seduced mankind into disobedience was now complete and mankind was doomed for eternity.

Even in this darkest hour, Jesus extended grace, asking the father to forgive those that had done this to him. They didn’t realize the full impact of what they had done and how it would fit in the plan of redemption that the Father was carrying out.

The sky turned dark and it wasn’t from an eclipse. Astronomers and scholars knew about eclipses and when they happened. This was no eclipse. Then he died, and the earth shook, graves came open and people who had been dead were seen walking through the city. The great thick curtain in the temple was ripped from top to bottom as though giant unseen hands had seized it and torn it apart. The Holy of Holies, normally only seen by the High Priest, was now open and accessible with no barrier.

Yet in spite of all these things, we were bewildered and confused. The man we had followed, had given our lives to for three years, was dead. Our dreams seemed to have died with him. Evil had won and we were desolated.

Jesus’ disciples and some of the women took his body down. It was late in the day, nearly into Friday evening, the start of the Jewish Sabbath. There was no time to properly prepare his body for burial. So Joseph of Arimethea, a rich man and follower of Jesus, hurriedly wrapped him in a burial shroud and he was put into his own tomb that he had set aside for himself one day. He and the women planned to return after the Sabbath to finish the preparation of his body for a proper burial. A huge round stone was rolled across the entrance, closing it off. The religious leaders and the Romans, suspicious of mischief over such a controversial figure, stretched a length of twine across it and sealed both ends to the cliff wall with wax impressed with the official Roman seal. Then they place several guards in front of the tomb to guard it until the women could come back after the Sabbath to properly prepare the body.

And that was it. It was over. Three years of ministry, ended with a terrible thud. The hopes of a nation for deliverance from Roman oppression were shattered. Our anointed Messiah was dead. Slaughtered like a common criminal. Our hopes and dreams had died with him. We all walked away numb with despair, our chance at redemption in tattered pieces.

Or so we thought. We couldn’t see, couldn’t even conceive, that the day after tomorrow, on the first day of the new week, our souls would be soaring with joy.

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