Rev Dr Edgar Mayer – Living Grace Lutheran Church, Toowoomba – Date: 13 April 2014
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So It Begins
In one week’s time, we honour and revere the death of Jesus on a cross (Good Friday) [the word “celebrate” would not quite catch the weight of his unbelievable sacrifice] and his subsequent resurrection after three days (Easter) and we will have the great joy – the great thrill and adventure (fun even) – of bringing this message to our city and thousands of visitors through Easterfest. I am so excited but – this morning – we will take time and taste the experience of what happened almost 2000 years ago. Can we settle into some inner quietness and (not thinking about ourselves) look at Jesus and who he is and what he has done?
The place was an olive grove – a garden – a short distance from Jerusalem. The time was late at night. (I guess that it would have been approaching midnight or even later because before Jesus had had a meal with his disciples where he had washed their feet and poured his heart out in teaching them. Then, he had poured out his heart in a long prayer for his disciples and his own fate.) The time was late at night and the olive grove was secluded – a place that Jesus liked for being alone and close to his disciples – a place for bringing them closer to God (away from the business of the day).
At that time in the night, Jesus would have deserved a break – enjoy the pleasantness of the garden with his disciples – but this was the beginning of the end. I read from the Bible:
John 18:1-14: When he had finished praying, Jesus left with his disciples and crossed the Kidron Valley. On the other side there was a garden, and he and his disciples went into it. Now Judas, who betrayed him, knew the place, because Jesus had often met there with his disciples. So Judas came to the garden, guiding a detachment of soldiers and some officials from the chief priests and the Pharisees. They were carrying torches, lanterns and weapons.
Jesus, knowing all that was going to happen to him, went out and asked them, “Who is it you want?” “Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied. “I am he,” Jesus said. (And Judas the traitor was standing there with them.) When Jesus said, “I am he,” they drew back and fell to the ground.
Again he asked them, “Who is it you want?” “Jesus of Nazareth,” they said. Jesus answered, “I told you that I am he. If you are looking for me, then let these men go.” This happened so that the words he had spoken would be fulfilled: “I have not lost one of those you gave me.”
Then Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it and struck the high priest’s servant, cutting off his right ear. (The servant’s name was Malchus.) Jesus commanded Peter, “Put your sword away! Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?”
Then the detachment of soldiers with its commander and the Jewish officials arrested Jesus. They bound him …
This experience of Jesus reminds me of the battle of Helms Deep in the Lord of the Rings saga. All the demonic forces had lined themselves up to attack what is good in the world and – finally – the dreaded moment comes. All hell breaks loose. I play you the clip. Try and capture the emotions which were the same for Jesus.
King Theoden knew what was coming – the battle, the fear, the pain, the bloodshed, the suffering – and it was with a heavy heart that he had said: “So it begins.” The moment had come to face the enemy.
Jesus had felt the same as King Theoden and, for him, it was the same. He knew his human opposition and he knew what dark demonic forces had lined themselves up against him. Satan himself was working through Judas (his own disciple), the leaders of religion, the government and the mob. In Jesus’ heart – the dread and foreboding were terrible and – then – in an olive grove – late at night – finally – he saw Judas and a detachment of soldiers rushing towards him with swords in their hands and torches. He knew what this meant: “So it begins.” There was so much suffering ahead.
Not long before the soldiers came – knowing the forces that were lining up against him – Jesus was in absolute despair trying to cling to his disciples. He said to them – Matthew 26:38: “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.” He threw himself to the ground – facedown – and prayed with desperation (again and again) – Matthew 26:39: “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” The disciples were no help but slept through his agony which was terrible but Jesus regained composure by the time Judas and the soldiers came. Jesus was ready. It was going to happen. “So it begins.”
Jesus was facing the battle head-on because he was the King (our King) – the Son of God – who had come to protect and save us and deliver us from evil. His mode of fighting though was different. He would let the enemy army to do him what they wanted – go wild with their cruelty – mock, torture and kill him – but – costly as it was for him – it would be their downfall because his sacrifice would be the end of their lordship over us – the end of our separation from God, the end of death as the curse of sin, the end of a hopeless existence. Jesus sacrificed himself to be the guilt offering for our sin – not his but ours. On account of his death (the shedding of his innocent blood), we receive forgiveness from God – grace and mercy – friendship and love – which puts a stop to all accusations which Satan keeps levelling against us and delivers us from his dominion – sharing his fate of eternal separation from God and damnation in eternity. Jesus knew what he was doing. He was the King – our King – and he faced the battle head-on – in an olive grove (his favourite spot) – late at night. He was not running – he was not leaving us – he was prepared to die for us – he loved us and loves you still – and so he faced the first act of violence against him with knowing courage: “So it begins.”
When Judas and the soldiers came with swords and torches, Jesus stepped out from under the trees and took the initiative. He asked them: “Who is it you want?” They replied: “Jesus of Nazareth.” And as soon as Jesus told them: “I am he,” they tumbled backwards and fell to the ground – smitten down by the power of God. Jesus asked them again: “Who is it you want?” And they answered again: “Jesus of Nazareth” which was no longer such a powerful request when you are lying in the dirt. Maybe you should not even pursue this man any more. Jesus towered over them [assuming that the soldiers were still lying on the ground], saying: “I told you that I am he.”
This little detail in the story makes quite clear that Jesus went to his death voluntarily. He was not outsmarted by anyone or overpowered by anyone. He chose his fate which was imprisonment and death – for us.
In the same way, no one will persecute and harm us or any other Christian in this world against the will of our Father in heaven. When it is our time to go, it will be according to the Father’s will and not according to Satan and his evil schemes. A Muslim warned Suzette Hattingh about Muslim suicide bombers or a sniper’s bullet in Indonesia but she replied: “You cannot kill me. I will die when God allows it – not a day earlier.” David Hogan, a missionary in Mexico, reported how a militia group opened up their machine guns at a group of Christians – men, women and children – but when the guns fell silent not a single bullet had grazed the skin of a single Christian. Unbelievable but God decides whether we live or die. Persecutions are not outside of his control and it is not always our time to be harmed by what others are doing. Accusations can come to nothing. Slander can come to nothing. Attempts on our life can come to nothing. We are safe with God and whether we live or die is in his hand and must serve his purpose.
John Wesley had more than one narrow escape which gave evidence of God’s protection:
Here they were all at a full stop, till one advised to go to Justice Persehouse at Walsal. All agreed to this; so we hastened on and about seven came to his house. But Mr. P--- likewise sent word that he was in bed. Now they were at a stand again; but at last they all thought it the wisest course to make the best of their way home. About fifty of them undertook to convoy me. But we had not gone a hundred yards when the mob of Walsal came, pouring in like a flood, and bore down all before them. The Darlaston mob made what defense they could; but they were weary as well as outnumbered: so that in a short time, many being knocked down, the rest ran away and left me in their hands.
To attempt speaking was vain; for the noise on every side was like the roaring of the sea. so they dragged me along till we came to the town; where seeing the door of a large house open, I attempted to go in; but a man, catching me by the hair, pulled me back into the middle of the mob. They made no more stop till they had carried me through the main street, from one end of the town to the other. I continued speaking all the time to those within hearing, feeling no pain or weariness. at the west end of the town, seeing a door half open, I made toward it and would have gone in; but a gentleman in the shop would not suffer me, saying they would pull the house down to the ground. However, I stood at the door, and asked, “Are you willing to hear me speak?” Many cried out, “No, no! knock his brains out; down with him; kill him at once.” Others said, “Nay, but we will hear him first.” I began asking, “What evil have I done? Which of you all have I wronged in word or deed?” And continued speaking for above a quarter of an hour, till my voice suddenly failed: then the floods began to lift up their voice again; many crying out, “Bring him away! bring him away!”
In the meantime my strength and my voice returned, and I broke out aloud in prayer. And now the man who just before headed the mob turned and said, “Sir, I will spend my life for you: follow me, and not one soul here shall touch a hair of your head.” Two or three of his fellows confirmed his words and got close to me immediately. At the same time, the gentleman in the shop cried out, “For shame, for shame! Let him go.”
An honest butcher, who was a little farther off, said it was a shame they should do thus; and he pulled back four or five, one after another, who were running on the most fiercely. The people then, as if it had been by common consent, fell back to the right and left, while those three or four men took me between them and carried me through them all. But on the bridge the mob rallied again: we therefore went on one side, over the milldam, and thence through the meadows; till, a little before ten, God brought me safe to Wednesbury; I having lost only one flap of my waistcoat and a little skin from one of my hands.
I never saw such a chain of providences before, so many convincing proofs that the hand of God is on every person and thing and overruling all as it seemeth Him good.
The poor woman of Darlaston, who had headed that mob and sworn that no one should touch me, when she saw her followers give way, ran into the thickest of the throng and knocked down three or four men, one after another. But many assaulting her at once, she was soon overpowered and had probably been killed in a few minutes (three men keeping her down and beating her with all their might) had not a man called to one of them, “Hold, Tom, hold!” “Who is there?” said Tom: “what, honest Munchin? Nay, then, let her go.” So they held their hand and let her get up and crawl home as well as she could.
From the beginning to the end I found the same presence of mind as if I had been sitting in my own study. But I took no thought for one moment before another; only once it came into my mind that if they should throw me into the river, it would spoil the papers that were in my pocket. For myself, I did not doubt but I should swim across, having but a thin coat and a light pair of boots.
The circumstances that follow, I thought, were particularly remarkable: 1) that many endeavoured to throw me down while we were going downhill on a slippery path to the town; as well judging, that if I was once on the ground, I should hardly rise any more. But I made no stumble at all, nor the least slip till I was entirely out of their hands. 2) That although many strove to lay hold on my collar or clothes, to pull me down, they could not fasten at all: only one got fast hold of the flap of my waistcoat, which was soon left in his hand; the other flap, in the pocket of which was a bank note, was torn but half off. 3) That a lusty man just behind struck at me several times with a large oaken stick, with which if he had struck me once on the back part of my head, it would have saved him all further trouble. But every time the blow was turned aside, I know not how; for I could not move to the right hand or left.
4) That another came rushing through the press and, raising his arm to strike, on a sudden let it drop and only stroked my head, saying, “What soft hair he has!” 5) That I stopped exactly at the mayor’s door, as if I had known it (which the mob doubtless thought I did), and found him standing in the shop [his presence giving] the first check to the madness of the people. 6) That the very first men whose hearts were turned were the heroes of the town, the captains of the rabble on all occasions, one of them having been a prize-fighter at the bear-garden.
7) That from first to last, I heard none give a reviling word, or call me by any opprobrious name whatever; but the cry of one and all was: “The preacher! the preacher! the parson! the minister!” 8) That no creature, at least within my hearing, laid anything to my charger, either true or false; having in the hurry quite forgotten to provide themselves with an accusation of any kind. And, lastly, that they were as utterly at a loss what they should do with me, none proposing any determinate thing only “Away with him! Kill him at once!”
By how gentle degrees does God prepare us for His will! Two years ago a piece of brick grazed my shoulders. It was a year after that the stone struck me between the eyes. Last month I received one blow, and this evening two; one before we came into the town and one after we had gone out; but both were as nothing: for though one man struck me on the breast with all his might, and the other on the mouth with such force that the blood gushed out immediately, I felt no more pain from either of the blows than if they had touched me with a straw.
It ought not to be forgotten that when the rest of the society made all haste to escape for their lives, four only would not stir, William Sitch, Edward Slater, John Griffiths, and Joan Parks: these kept with me, resolving to live or die together; and none of them received one blow but William Sitch, who held me by the arm from one end of the town to the other. He was then dragged away and knocked down; but he soon rose and got to me again. I afterward asked him what he expected when the mob came upon us. He said, “To die for Him who had died for us”: and he felt no hurry or fear but calmly waited till God should require his soul of him.
I asked J. Parks if she was not afraid when they tore her from me. She said, “No; no more than I am now. I could trust God for you, as well as for myself. From the beginning I had a full persuasion that God would deliver you. I knew not how; but I left that to Him, and was as sure as if it were already done.” I asked if the report was true that she had fought for me. She said, “No; I knew God would fight for His children.” And shall these souls perish at the last?
When I came back to Francis Ward’s I found many of our brethren waiting upon God. Many also whom I never had seen before came to rejoice with us. And the next morning, as I rode through the town in my way to Nottingham, everyone I met expressed such a cordial affection that I could scarcely believe what I saw and heard.
Jesus himself had narrow escapes before. At one time, a murderous mob had corned him on a cliff and threatened to throw him down but he walked away – right through the middle of them – Luke 4:28-30: “All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff. But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way.” At another time, the mob tried to stone him – John 8:59: “At this, they picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus hid himself, slipping away from the temple grounds.” And there are other references to narrow escapes – John 10:39: “Again they tried to seize him, but he escaped their grasp.” The reason why Jesus could not be arrested is spelled out clearly – John 7:30: “At this they tried to seize him, but no one laid a hand on him, because his hour had not yet come.” God is in control.
When Jesus was arrested, he made an interesting reference to his disciples:
John 18:8-9: “… If you are looking for me, then let these men go.” This happened so that the words he had spoken would be fulfilled: “I have not lost one of those you gave me.”
Why would Jesus lose his disciples, if they were also arrested? This was to be their fate. Most of them – Peter and the others – were to die in persecution. The loss of life would not be their eternal loss! So, why would Jesus lose them, if they were also arrested? On that particular night – (in the olive grove) – they were not yet ready to handle the pressure. They had not yet been filled with the Holy Spirit and they were still lacking so much in understanding and faith. Therefore, Jesus did not expose them to more than they could handle.
You can trust Jesus. He is using the same wisdom with us – 1 Corinthians 10:13: “No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.”
Maybe I also clear up a possible misunderstanding. It was Jesus’ time to be arrested and be accused and be killed. He let it happen to him and he did not answer any of the charges but endured everything patiently. For Jesus, this was the season of sacrifice but it was not meant to be the blue print for Christian behaviour – for passive endurance – in all circumstances of criticism and pressure. Earlier on, Jesus himself did everything to avoid arrest and – instead of being the meek and mild victim – he rather attacked his opposition without mincing his words:
Luke 11:37-54: When Jesus had finished speaking, a Pharisee invited him to eat with him; so he went in and reclined at the table. But the Pharisee was surprised when he noticed that Jesus did not first wash before the meal.
Then the Lord said to him, “Now then, you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You foolish people! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also? But now as for what is inside you—be generous to the poor, and everything will be clean for you.
Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone.
Woe to you Pharisees, because you love the most important seats in the synagogues and respectful greetings in the marketplaces. Woe to you, because you are like unmarked graves, which people walk over without knowing it.”
One of the experts in the law answered him, “Teacher, when you say these things, you insult us also.”
Jesus replied, “And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them.
Woe to you, because you build tombs for the prophets, and it was your ancestors who killed them. So you testify that you approve of what your ancestors did; they killed the prophets, and you build their tombs. Because of this, God in his wisdom said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and others they will persecute.’ Therefore this generation will be held responsible for the blood of all the prophets that has been shed since the beginning of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who was killed between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, this generation will be held responsible for it all.
Woe to you experts in the law, because you have taken away the key to knowledge. You yourselves have not entered, and you have hindered those who were entering.”
When Jesus went outside, the Pharisees and the teachers of the law began to oppose him fiercely and to besiege him with questions, waiting to catch him in something he might say.
Jesus spelled out the harsh truth when it was the time to be blunt and he did not care that it incited further persecution. There’s a time for everything. We just need the wisdom and humility to know the season that we are in. On the night of Jesus’ arrest, Peter misjudged God’s intentions and decided to be the hero – aiming a blow at one of the attackers. However, it was a fisherman’s strike that did not split the man’s head open but severed his ear. Jesus intervened, healed the man and made sure that Peter escaped. Jesus can handle and heal our missteps but he encourages us to grow in discernment.
The (human) powers behind Jesus’ arrest were the religious leaders – (church people if you want) – and this can be rather confusing. If the high-priest and all other priests point the finger at you and say: “What you are doing is not of God,” how can you remain strong in your convictions? Jesus received confirmation in prayer but it usually also helps that Satan overplays his hand. His character and unrighteousness are usually all over the conduct of the people (unwittingly) in his service.
Why would anyone have to kick down Jesus’ door in the middle of the night, when he was at the most public place in the capital – the temple of Jerusalem – every day – talking and teaching people?
Luke 22:52-53: Then Jesus said to the chief priests, the officers of the temple guard, and the elders, who had come for him, “Am I leading a rebellion, that you have come with swords and clubs? Every day I was with you in the temple courts, and you did not lay a hand on me. But this is your hour—when darkness reigns.”
Why would the religious leaders send soldiers with swords when Jesus never carried a weapon? Even from a most superficial level, this was misreading Jesus. Why would the religious leaders violate the most sacred Passover celebration to arrest a man that could have been obtained later on? They could not even accuse Jesus properly before Pontius Pilate – the Roman governor – because they could not enter his palace. This would have rendered them unclean; therefore unable to eat the Passover. Pilate had to come out to them. There was no pressing need to arrest Jesus at this holy time. (At least, this is what you could argue.)
John 18:28: Then the Jewish leaders took Jesus from Caiaphas to the palace of the Roman governor. By now it was early morning, and to avoid ceremonial uncleanness they did not enter the palace, because they wanted to be able to eat the Passover.
Then, to press their case before Pilate – just to have Jesus killed – they publicly contradicted God’s most sacred promises – they surrendered all their hopes of God’s promised Saviour:
John 19:15: But they shouted, “Take him away! Take him away! Crucify him!” “Shall I crucify your king?” Pilate asked. “We have no king but Caesar,” the chief priests answered.
Last but not least, how vile is it to betray a friend with a kiss? This is a lie – unworthy of any righteous discipline which God would hand out – and, in Jesus’ case, what Judas did was blasphemy. The devil overplays his hand and usually discernment becomes clearer and clearer.
The arrest happened and Jesus let it happen. He saw Judas. He saw the soldiers. He saw all of Satan’s army lined up before him to harm and hurt and humiliate him. He knew full well what was coming but his courage would not fail. His love for us would not fail. He did not run away. He was our King. Like King Theoden in Lord of the Rings, he took his stand and took to the battle: “So it begins.”
This is what we honour and revere today and this coming week – Good Friday and Easter – and always. We look to Jesus and who he is and what he has done for us and we thank him and pledge ourselves to him. So it began with his arrest but – more about this next week – on the day of his resurrection, now and in eternity – so it finished with his victory. We love you, Jesus. Amen.