Sunday, March 25, 2007

Jesus on course: A sermon preached in Magheralin on 25th March 2007. Luke 22:1-13

As we approach Good Friday and Easter – now just two weeks away – we’re brought once again to think about the cross, and Jesus’ death. We might be tempted to think that it was all a big mistake – that Jesus wasn’t meant to die at a relatively young age, on a cross. It can all seem so pointless; so sad.

Indeed, you might be thinking that the gospels, the records of Jesus’ life would have been better if they didn’t talk about his death, or if he hadn’t been executed. Some people think that the Gospel is all about the nice things he did. You know, all those nice stories of him going on boats, and feeding people, and healing people, and saying nice things to people. Then it all turned out horribly wrong when some people got annoyed with him and crucified him.

Is that what the Gospel is all about? Was the cross just a disappointing and embarrassing end to a great life? I hope with me, that you’re saying no – that the cross was the climax to Jesus’ life and work – that it is in fact crucial (from the word crucify) to Jesus’ life. As we read from his passage at the start of Luke’s Passion story, we’ll see that the cross was the way Jesus had to go, and that he was right on course in following the Father’s will.

Jesus was on course in the Father’s will. How good are you at following plans and timetables? Whenever I’m flying, (and that’s quite a lot with Lynsey in Scotland), I always like to be on time for the check-in. But then I leave earlier than I had planned to make sure I’m definitely there on time. So I always find myself with at least a couple of hours in the airport lounges… I want to make sure I don’t miss the plane.

Already in Luke’s Gospel we’ve seen Jesus working according to his timetable. Back at the start of Lent, David was teaching on the temptation of Jesus, at the start of his ministry – Satan tried to take him off course then, by getting his goals by easier means – worshipping Satan rather than God. Then a few weeks back we heard about Jesus being warned that Herod was out to kill him – what was his reply then? ‘Go tell that fox “I will drive out demons and heal people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal.”’ (13:32).

Jesus is on a mission. Jesus is on the mission, to save us by the cross, and nothing will divert him or stop him. We’ll see that Jesus’ plans come together just as he says, and that nothing can keep him from fulfilling them – be they the schemes of his enemies, his friends, or the demonic powers.

Next week, we’ll be hearing about the entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, when Jesus rode on the donkey, with the people cheering him and praising God. That comes in Luke 19, and as chapters 20 and 21 progress, Jesus is teaching the crowd in the temple, answering questions and debating with the Jewish officials. But the passage we’re looking at comes later in the week. By now it is Thursday in Holy Week, the day of Unleavened Bread.

The Feast of Unleavened Bread recalled the bread eaten by the Israelites on their exodus from Egypt, and was celebrated in connection with the Passover Festival, which remembered the Passover in Egypt – when the angel of death ‘passed over’ the homes of the Israelites where blood had been shed. For Jesus, it was of utmost importance – as a sign of what he would achieve by his death on the cross, as well as of beginning the Lord’s Supper, or Holy Communion – through which we remember the cross.

As Jesus says in verse 15, ‘I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. For I tell you, I will not eat it again until it finds fulfilment in the kingdom of God.’ But for the meal to happen, it required preparations. Here, we see that Jesus is in control; Jesus is on course.

It is Jesus that sends Peter and John to make the preparations for the meal. To us, the instructions sound like a mini-treasure hunt, with the various clues to follow. They had to enter Jerusalem and find the man carrying a jar of water; follow him to the house he entered, then say to the owner about the Teacher asking where the guest room was. Why doesn’t Jesus just tell them what street and who owns the house?

Was it to prevent Judas and Jesus’ enemies from knowing where they would eat the Passover as a small group? Was it to keep the details private? Or was it to show Jesus’ power and knowledge, inviting the disciples to take him at his word?

The commentaries mention that it would have been unusual for a man to be carrying a water jar – only women would have been carrying water in a jar. Men, if they carried water, would do so in a leather skin. But here, Jesus tells them to look out for the man carrying a jar of water.

So Peter and John go, and there indeed is the man carrying the jar! As we read in verse 13, ‘They left and found things just as Jesus had told them.’ The Passover meal is on course – Jesus will share it with his disciples, recalling the salvation of Israel from Egypt in the past, and looking forward to the next day when he would accomplish the Passover, as the Lamb of God was slain. They found things just as Jesus had told them. His word was certain and sure, and to be trusted.

Jesus was on course to complete the will of God. Yet there were people trying to prevent him from completing God’s will – people out to try and stall him, or get rid of him. It’s a bit like getting to the airport – there will always be that driver who insists on toddling along when you need to be going a bit quicker. They hold you back, they almost prevent you from being on course. We’re going to look now at the people who were trying to keep Jesus from being on course.

As I said earlier, we are thinking of the days after Jesus entered Jerusalem on the donkey, as Jesus seems to be continuing to grow in favour with the crowds. They had greeted him with praise, and as the week went on, he appeared to be becoming more popular.

We read in 21:38 that ‘all the people came early in the morning to hear him at the temple’. The crowds were coming to hear Jesus teaching – no wonder the chief priests and teachers of the law were jealous. If the people were listening to him, then their popularity and authority was being undermined.

But there was more at stake here. Verse 2 tells us that ‘they were afraid of the people.’ They had already seen what Jesus had done in the temple – driving out those who were selling animals – what if Jesus led the crowds with more reforming zeal? Their power and position would be lost. What could they do about it? Their solution was to get rid of Jesus – if he was killed, then his followers and supporters would vanish, and the temple would be safe.

But how could they do it? Whenever he was in the city, there were always big crowds with him. How could they get rid of him when he was alone?

Verse 3 reveals some troubling words. It’s as if Satan saw the problem the chief priests and teachers had, and wanted to lend a hand. ‘Then Satan entered Judas, called Iscariot, one of the Twelve.’ Jesus is on course, and then his demonic enemy steps into the fray. While he had failed to sway Jesus, he now enters one of his closest friends and disciples – Judas. We don’t know how this happened; yet it was a fearful reality.

Worse, it led to an attempt to take Jesus off course, through the betrayal of a close friend. Judas takes the initiative and goes off to see the chief priests and officers to suggest how he might betray Jesus. We don’t know what his motives were – was he frustrated with how things were going? Matthew and Mark date Judas’ going to the temple after the ‘waste’ of the perfume to anoint Jesus’ feet. Was he out for some personal gain? Was he trying to provoke Jesus to reveal himself and become the king? We don’t know.

As we read the passage, we can see the unholy delight of the chief priests as circumstances unfold. They have moved from anger and fear of the people, through puzzlement at how to get rid of Jesus, to being ‘delighted’ when Judas suggests a way through. They are more than willing to offer him a reward for his part in their wickedness.

Does this reveal some element of Judas’ priorities? Was he only out for himself, and some financial gain? Not that that would matter to either Satan or the chief priests. He was merely a pawn in the grand scheme to defeat and silence Jesus.

Now they were in a watching and waiting game. They were waiting for the time when there was no crowd, and Jesus could be handed over and arrested. So it was against this background that Jesus had made plans for the Passover – maybe this was indeed why he was so secretive about where they would eat the meal.

As we read earlier, it was Jesus’ eager desire to eat the Passover with his disciples before he suffered – so it was important that Jesus remained no schedule. Nothing would divert him from the plan – neither the actions of his enemies, or friends, or even the devil himself.

Just a few hours later, however, and Jesus would willingly surrender to the mob who came to arrest him, who would lead him off to be tried and sentenced to death. There too, Jesus was following and fulfilling the plan of God – despite what the chief priests and teachers thought they were doing.

While the disciples didn’t realise at the time, they could have found everything going on ‘just as Jesus had told them.’ (13) As we think about Jesus’ arrest, trial and death on the cross, it was just as Jesus had told his disciples several times. So we find in 9:22 ‘The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.’ Or again in 18:31 ‘We are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written by the prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled. He will be turned over to the Gentiles. They will mock him, insult him, spit on him, flog him, and kill him. On the third day he will rise again.’

You see, while the chief priests thought they were stopping Jesus by having him crucified, they were actually fulfilling the plan of God. As they celebrated the Passover, they killed the true Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.

As Peter declared 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… Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ’ (Acts 2:23, 36)

Jesus was on course to fulfil the plan of rescue and salvation. Nothing could keep him from dying to save you. Will you come to him, and find your salvation? Will you come to him, and trust his word?

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