Thursday, April 5, 2007

He went willingly

John 18:1-14
When Jesus had spoken these words, He went forth with His disciples over the ravine of the Kidron, where there was a garden, into which He Himself entered, and His disciples. Now Judas also, who was betraying Him, knew the place; for Jesus had often met there with His disciples. Judas then, having received the Roman cohort, and officers from the chief priests and the Pharisees, came there with lanterns and torches and weapons. Jesus therefore, knowing all the things that were coming upon Him, went forth, and said to them, "Whom do you seek?" They answered Him, "Jesus the Nazarene." He said to them, "I am He." And Judas also who was betraying Him, was standing with them. When therefore He said to them, "I am He," they drew back, and fell to the ground. Again therefore He asked them, "Whom do you seek?" And they said, "Jesus the Nazarene." Jesus answered, "I told you that I am He; if therefore you seek Me, let these go their way," that the word might be fulfilled which He spoke, "Of those whom Thou hast given Me I lost not one." Simon Peter therefore having a sword, drew it, and struck the high priest's slave, and cut off his right ear; and the slave's name was Malchus. Jesus therefore said to Peter, "Put the sword into the sheath; the cup which the Father has given Me, shall I not drink it?" So the Roman cohort and the commander, and the officers of the Jews, arrested Jesus and bound Him, and led Him to Annas first; for he was father-in-law of Caiaphas, who was high priest that year. Now Caiaphas was the one who had advised the Jews that it was expedient for one man to die on behalf of the people.
A very famous passion play is performed every ten years at a town in Germany called Oberammargau, another somewhere in South Dakota, and any number of “multimedia” passion plays are done in churches across the country. Also, if you’re familiar with classical music, you know of the oratorio-like passions composed by Bach, Sch├╝tz, and others. So you already know there’s another meaning for the word “passion” than the one used in soap operas. The Passion is the story of our Lord’s suffering and death, including his arrest in the garden and events leading to it. Of course Jesus suffered all this because of his great love for us, you might even say “passionate love,” but that’s not why it’s called the Passion.

The word Passion comes from the Latin word meaning “to suffer,” and that’s what Jesus did during the days and hours before he was betrayed, during the long night of trials and interrogations, and finally, during those six hours when he hung on the cross. So today is Passion Sunday, and this week is Passion Week. During these seven days we will look at the Passion of our Lord according to St. John. Each of the four Gospels views Jesus’ passion somewhat differently. They stress different details. One omits this, another contributes that. We could profit from listening to the Passion according to each of the four gospels. But today and for the next six nights, we will look especially closely at John’s account of the sorrows of our Lord.

You’ll notice another word in your programs this week: “Unraveling.” I’ve chosen this theme because it expresses the significance of what Jesus suffered. In a way, it seemed that creation itself was coming apart. The heavens were darkened, the earth shook, rocks were split, tombs opened, the veil in the temple was torn. God Himself, in the flesh, hung dead on a cross. But things didn’t fall apart then. The world didn’t end, and Christ wasn’t defeated, as he proved Easter morning. The word “unraveling” has another meaning too. In literary circles they use the French word denouement, which means “unraveling,” to mean the conclusion of a difficult plot, the solution to all problems, wrapping up all the loose ends in a final grand gesture. When Jesus said, “It is finished!”—as you will hear on Friday—man’s warfare with God was ended; the problem of sin was solved; God’s just anger was satisfied; all that needed done for our redemption was done; Jesus’ sufferings had ended; salvation was perfected; the world’s history came to its real climax. In fact, the world as we know it came to an end, and a new creation was born. The Passion of our Lord is a triumph hidden in defeat, a stroke for God disguised as a stroke upon God’s Son. It is his mighty and magnificent answer to the question that has had all creation on edge since man fell into sin: How will it all end? Now we know the answer, and all that has happened since Jesus rose again is like a big fat epilog that adds essentially nothing to the story.

While we’re defining words, let’s go back to the word “suffering.” We tend to think suffering means “to endure pain.” Now Jesus’ passion is more than just his suffering on the cross, more even than his being whipped and beaten and forced to wear thorns on his head. There was also his agony in the garden, as he sweated drops of blood and prayed that, God willing, this cup might pass him by. But not all of this story is about “suffering” in the sense of pain. The word “suffering” also has another meaning, which is: to let something be done to you. In old-fashioned language, “suffer” is the opposite of “do.” Going back to the connection between “passion” and “suffering,” maybe you can see how the word “suffer” indicates a passive disposition, whereas “do” indicates an active one.

You know Jesus’ words, “Suffer the little children to come to me.” That doesn’t mean, “Pinch them real hard till they run into my arms.” It means, “Allow them to come,” or even better, “Cause them to be brought to me,” a totally passive thing. So the passion, or suffering, of Jesus, mainly concerns what he allowed to happen to himself. He went willingly to the place of slaughter. He endured all this suffering and did nothing to prevent it, on purpose, because he loves us so much. Here’s how John summarizes what Jesus did on the night he was betrayed: “Knowing that His hour had come that He should depart out of this world to the Father, having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end.” Again Jesus himself says that very night: “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.”

Jesus suffered himself to be subjected to priests and the Sanhedrin, to Herod and Pilate. He subjected himself to sadistic Roman soldiers and a jeering mob of Jews who wanted his blood. And finally, he made himself obedient to God the Father, obedient to death, even death on a cross. Why? Because he loved us and was willing to give himself utterly for us, to redeem us from sin and buy us back from Satan, death, and hell. Though we were not his friends, but rather, enemies in sin, God loved us so much that he gave his Son in exchange for us. God sent Him for this purpose, and He went willingly!

We are so accustomed to this story, maybe we fail to see how awesome it is. Pilate himself marveled at this, but Jesus told him: “My kingdom is not of this world. If My Kingdom were of this world, then My servants would be fighting, that I might not be delivered up to the Jews.” In other words, he could have prevented all this from happening. Even though his kingdom is not of this world, he had the power to stop everything and get away clean. Instead, willingly, as a humble servant, he went all the way. “The Son of Man came not to be served,” Jesus said, “but to serve, and give his life as a ransom for many.”

Look at the story of his arrest, our lesson for today. When the Roman cohort and Jewish officers came with lanterns and torches and weapons, they were prepared for a man who might resist arrest—or worse, sic his followers on them and start a nasty battle. Instead Jesus, knowing all the things that were coming upon him, went forth and said, “Whom do you seek?” And when they had made it clear they were out to arrest him, he said, “If it’s me you want, let these men go”—so his disciples would be spared. When Peter lashed out and injured Malchus, Jesus said, “Put up your sword; shall I not drink the cup which the Father has given Me?” Even though the soldiers and officers bound him and led him away, it is clear Jesus gave himself up without resistance and went willingly.

What makes this meek submission so awesome is the fact of who is offering himself up so calmly. For when they told him they were looking for Jesus of Nazareth, he responded: “I AM.” And at the mention of the Lord’s covenant name, the “I am who I am” of Exodus 3:14, the whole posse was knocked flat on their backs. This man who was about to be led away in chains, meek and submissive, now identified himself as the Lord of heaven and earth, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who spoke to Moses out of the burning bush, now found in the form of a man. Jesus called himself the “I AM” and it just blew them away. They got up, as if dazed, and went through the same exchange: “Whom do you seek?” “Jesus of Nazareth.” “I told you that I AM…” Only this time, he let them take him in to custody.

Jesus had the power to drop them on their bottoms just by mentioning His name. He had essentially called himself Jehovah, and by way of demonstration, his very words knocked their feet out from under them. They had come to arrest him and, ultimately, to destroy him, but even these pagans and unbelieving Jews, were all forced to fall down in a sort of reverence toward this mighty God-Man. They could not have touched him, they could not have taken him anywhere against his will, unless he went willingly!

What man among us would do that, knowing the things that were to come? Yet Jesus said to Peter, “Shall I not drink the cup which the Father has given Me?” In other words, it was necessary for Jesus to suffer, in order for us to be saved. Caiaphas, the high priest, had stumbled upon a truth: “It is expedient for one man to die on behalf of the people.”

What Caiaphas meant was, it’s better that this so-called Messiah die than that he should disturb the people, possibly cause a rebellion or upset the delicate dance between Jews and Romans, possibly split the Jews into warring factions or bring down the wrath of Rome. Caiaphas had his eye on the security of the nation, especially at a time when many Jews were growing comfortable with Greek and Roman culture. Here came a preacher condemning all that, accusing the Pharisees of being hypocrites, insulting the Sadducees, dealing with sinners, breaking taboos, and threatening the balance between good Jews and Roman subjects. It was better, he reasoned, for Jesus to die instead of the whole people.

Ironically, Judaism as he knew it was destroyed precisely because Caiaphas and his party rejected Jesus. You remember what Jesus had prophesied about Jerusalem: “Not one stone will be left standing on another.” That came true in the year 70, when the Romans burned the city and drove the Jews out of the area. Caiaphas’ policy, that it’s expedient for one man to die on behalf of the people, came true but not the way he envisioned it. The “people” he meant were after all destroyed because of what they did to Jesus. But in fact, Jesus did die for the people, that is, all mankind, and his death brings life to all who believe in Him.

Jesus suffered and died in the place of all, for the sake of all, and to the advantage of all who believe. He bore our sins and carried our sorrows; he was punished as we deserve to be punished; he died to win for us eternal life. Such was the cup Jesus took from the Father, and he drank it to the bitter dregs. Why? Because he loves us, and so urgently wants to save us that he did the unthinkable. The Almighty became weak for us. The Lord became a servant. The giver of life accepted a death sentence. And the light of the world went into darkness for us. He whose name bowled over a Roman cohort in the garden, held out his hands to be chained and bound and led away to slaughter.

Why is this so important? Well, you need to know that nothing but His love for you compelled Jesus to suffer like this. Nothing but ineffable grace made him subject himself to such punishment. This was the necessary prelude to all things being subjected to him. Before he could ascend in triumph, and sit at the right hand of God to rule the cosmos, Jesus must humble himself so deeply and descend into such agony. Paul tells us to be of the same mind: that is, submit yourselves to cross and trial, dejection and humiliation, even to death, knowing that afterward, for Jesus’ sake, you will be exalted with Him. Jesus will be worshiped and confessed by every knee and tongue, not only because he is Lord of Lords, but especially because he bent his neck under the load of sin; he was marred out of all semblance to mankind. He became a byword, a curse, an object of mockery, and finally, a hunk of dead meat that squirted water and blood when the soldier’s spear poked it.

He came from heaven and returned there, but all that would mean nothing to us if he had not made satisfaction for our sins, if he had not drunk the cup the Father gave him. Otherwise we would drink that cup, and we would never finish drinking it for all eternity; we would be suffering and dying endlessly, in hell. But as Caiaphas ignorantly told the truth: “It is expedient for one man to die on behalf of the people.” He alone, as God, could drain all that cup of wrath, and with one crucial act of submission—even death on a cross—he could tie up both death and hell for every sinner. He endured all that God’s justice could exact. Wonderfully, mysteriously, in six hours on a cross, he perfected our salvation.

It had to be daunting, even for a Man who is God. We are told he was troubled about what was to come. But knowingly and willingly, he went. Thanks be to Jesus! Having put himself in submission to the base things of this world, he has placed all things in submission to himself. He has risen victorious and is seated at the right hand of God, where all things have been put under his feet. So when he declares our sins forgiven, they are forgiven; when he promises us resurrection and eternal life, they are assured; and when we face cross and temptation, humiliation and pain, and even the very grave itself, we go forward with confidence and face them. For we know the one who faced them for us is the great I AM. He will see us through them, and will afterward crown us with glory everlasting. Shall we not therefore go and die with him, die to sin, die to doubt, even lay down our very lives for the sake of his name? Certainly we shall, for he had no obligation to suffer and die for us, except the great love by which he went willingly.

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