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Jesus has come to be humiliated, though he is the saving King (Mark 15:16–32) — September 11, 2011

Jesus has come to be humiliated, though he is the saving King (Mark 15:16–32)

When Jesus comes to claim his throne, a coronation ceremony is held. But it’s not meant to honour him. It’s meant to disgrace him.

Jesus has been betrayed by the leaders of his own people; now their Roman overlords have sentenced him to death. He has been identified as “King of the Jews” by the Romans. This would be their way of calling him the Messiah, God’s anointed king. The Gentile soldiers bring him into the palace and gather the whole battalion around him. Before this assembly, they dress him in a royal robe of expensive purple dye, place a crown on his head, salute him as they would their Caesar, and kneel down in homage to him.

The catch is that his crown is a wreath of twisted thorns whose spikes are pressed into his skull. Their salutation, “Hail, King of the Jews!” is a sarcastic barb. When they kneel, it’s meant as nothing more than a charade. They strike him on the head with a reed and spit on him. Even the lowliest conscript in the Roman army can slap him around without consequence. They can defy the man who claims to be God, just as the serpent in Eden promised, “You will not surely die” (Genesis 3:4).

They strip Jesus of the royal garments and lead him away to an ominous hill—Golgotha, or Skull Place. He is so weakened by the scourgings that another man is forced to carry his cross for him. But when Jesus arrives at Golgotha, he refuses to drink any wine. Whatever he is about to face, he will do so without an anesthetic.

Mark records simply, “They crucified him.” They hoist him on a wooden cross and nail his hands and feet to it. Mark doesn’t need to write any more, because crucifixion is a horrible and shameful death, practically taboo in polite company. The empire of Rome means it to be a public spectacle. It demonstrates that this man, once a rebel against the empire, has now been crushed under the boot of Caesar. When Jesus is crucified, Rome is saying that he is nothing more than a man, a subject of the empire. He has no property to call his own, not even his clothes—the soldiers gamble over who will get to keep them. His crime is posted for all to see: “The King of the Jews.”

Make no mistake: Jesus is not being crucified for being a good moral teacher. No one gets crucified for telling people to love each other. Jesus’ message runs much deeper than that. Mark summarizes it with these words: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). When asked by the Jewish leaders whether he was the Messiah, the Son of God, Jesus has replied, “I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven” (Mark 14:62). Jesus is crucified for claiming to be God’s anointed King over all the earth, and a divine King at that—the Son of God himself.

His disciples, James and John, once asked their King, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory” (Mark 10:37). But now they are nowhere to be found. Instead, Rome crucifies two criminals with Jesus, “one on his right and one on his left.”  These are the royal members of his court. His audience passes by and ridicules him by shouting, “Ha! You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself, and come down from the cross!” The religious leaders join them: “He saved others; he cannot save himself!” This man is no Saviour. He is no King.

Look at this horrible spectacle of a bleeding, dying criminal! To think that anyone had faith in this man! “Let the Christ, the King of Israel, come down from the cross that we may see and believe,” they taunt him. And then, even the criminals who are crucified with him begin to revile him. Jesus is humiliated and condemned by everyone—Jew and Gentile, ruler and criminal, priest and sinner.

Why does his coronation look like this? Why the shame without even a trace of honour? It is because Jesus must be validated as King through shame, suffering, and death. Here in God’s world, “whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all” (Mark 10:43–44). By becoming the lowest man in the world, Jesus has established that he is the greatest. And by refusing to save himself, he is able “to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).

Perhaps today Jesus is well-liked and popular and a good teacher. But he remained on the cross, bleeding and dying, to save a people for his own kingdom. That is why he is Lord.

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Jesus has come to be rejected as King and condemned in place of rebels (Mark 15:1–15) — August 8, 2011

Jesus has come to be rejected as King and condemned in place of rebels (Mark 15:1–15)

Authority figures like to hold on to power. Politicians in the USA campaign constantly in order to hold onto their elected offices. Dictators such as Bashar al-Assad of Syria kill anyone who questions their rule. When you’re king of the hill, you fight to stay on top.

So what in the world does Jesus think he’s doing?

“Are you the King of the Jews?” That’s the only question Pontius Pilate cares about. If Jesus is simply a maverick religious leader, then Pilate isn’t interested in the case. He is the Roman governor, and he has no interest in getting entangled with Jewish religious matters.

However, if this Jesus is claiming to be a Jewish king, as the Jewish religious leaders insist, then Rome has no choice but to act. There can be no king but Caesar.

But when Pilate asks his question, Jesus simply responds, “You have said so.” It’s a terse way of telling Pilate, that yes, he is King of the Jews, but he’s not the kind of king that Pilate is thinking of. Beyond these words, Jesus says nothing to defend himself against his accusers. Pilate is shocked. Doesn’t Jesus realize that his life is at stake here? Why won’t he say a word to defend himself?

Pilate instinctively suspects that the only thing Jesus is guilty of is being the object of the chief priests’ envy. They are afraid of his growing influence in Israel. So he looks for a way to escape this awkward situation. He doesn’t want to enrage the chief priests; the last thing he needs is an uprising. His opportunity comes when a crowd gathers in his courtyard to ask him to pardon a prisoner, which is his custom during the Passover. So he appeals to the crowd, “Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?”

What Pilate hasn’t foreseen is that the chief priests have already gotten to the crowd. They demand that Pilate release a murderer named Barabbas. Mark comments that this man “committed murder in the insurrection”—a recent revolt against Roman rule. So instead of calling for Jesus, their rightful king, the mob cries out for Barabbas, a rebel and a murderer.

Pilate is at a loss. “What shall I do with the man you call the King of the Jews?” he asks. “Crucify him!” the crowd shouts.

“Why? What evil has he done?” Pilate is a cruel governor, but even his conscience is bothered by this injustice. Without giving any reason, the mob roars, “Crucify him!”

Pilate gives in. He wants to spare Jesus, but if sacrificing an innocent man is what it takes “to satisfy the crowd,” he’s willing to dispense with this obscure Galilean rabbi. He orders Jesus to be crucified, after being viciously scourged by his soldiers.

Up to this point, it has been the Jewish leaders who have rejected Jesus. Now, Pilate rejects him as well. Both Jew and Gentile conspire to crucify the Son of God. They stand in judgment over him and condemn him as unworthy of life.

Our English translations say that Jesus was crucified between two “robbers.” In fact, the word translated robber was used by the Jewish historian Josephus to describe insurrectionists who opposed the Roman government. Rome had no interest in crucifying common thieves; crucifixion was a public spectacle meant for rebels against Rome. This Passover, three crosses have been prepared for three rebels. But on the central cross will hang a King in place of a rebel. Jesus will die so that Barabbas may live.

The crucifixion is horrible and beautiful. The rightful King is put to death by his own people, the Jews, and by the Gentiles to whom he offers hope. He is a threat to their power, so they attempt to eliminate him. But all this is part of his plan to die as a substitute for rebels who oppose the kingdom of God.

Nobody escapes guilt here. You and I fight every day to maintain control over our lives, to try to manipulate God and other people to give us the security and power and approval that we want. Each of us wants to be king. So we are the chief Priests, we are Pilate, and we are the hostile mob. And we are Barabbas, alive and free because our King was crucified in our place.

May we praise our King and give him the honour he deserves, because he came “to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).

Jesus has come to be unrecognized, yet he is a true witness (Mark 14:53–72) — August 2, 2011

Jesus has come to be unrecognized, yet he is a true witness (Mark 14:53–72)

Words are cheap. Emotions are cheap. There’s a difference between youthful infatuation and true, loyal love. And there’s a difference between saying you’ll be faithful to Jesus and then truly acknowledging him when the people around you begin to get hostile.

Jesus has been arrested and is being led off to a preliminary hearing at the home of the Jewish high priest. Following him “at a distance” is Peter, the disciple who claimed that he would never deny Jesus. We’ll get back to Peter in a moment.

Mark records that “the chief priests and the whole Council were seeking testimony against Jesus to put him to death.” In most trials, the charges are already in place, and the question is whether or not the defendant is guilty, and if so, what his sentence should be. In this hearing, it has already been decided that the defendant is guilty and the sentence is death. Now, his judges simply need to find a charge. They need an excuse to get rid of Jesus, who is a threat to their authority.

False witnesses are paraded before the Council, each one accusing Jesus of wrongdoing. But they are contradicting one another. Things are not going well for this kangaroo court.

The high priest takes control of the situation. He confronts Jesus, asking, “Have you no answer to make? What is it that these men testify against you?” Jesus says nothing, fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah 53:7. The charges are absurd and don’t deserve a response. Jesus is totally innocent of wrongdoing.

Finally, the high priest demands, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” Jesus has never said so publicly, but his actions and his parables have strongly implied it. Finally, his enemies challenge him to reveal how he sees himself. Will Jesus back down in order to save his own life?

“I am,” he replies, “and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.”

Not only does Jesus agree that he is the Messiah, God’s anointed king, but that he is the Son of God. He also claims to be the Son of Man, a divine figure whom God grants authority over the whole earth (Daniel 7:13–14). He is both God and man, deserving all power and authority as the Lord over all creation.

“You have heard his blasphemy!” the high priest shouts as he tears his garments in rage. The Council has been standing in judgment over this maverick Galilean preacher, and now he claims to have authority over them! And he even sets himself up as equal to God!

He deserves to die, they decide. The members of the council spit on him; they blindfold him and slap him, mocking him by demanding that he prophesy to them. They release him to the guards, who beat him with closed fists.

As Jesus is being abused and condemned to death, Peter is also facing a deadly threat: the teasing of a servant girl. The poor man is just trying to keep warm by a fire while waiting for news of Jesus, but this girl recognizes him as a Galilean and pipes up, “You also were with the Nazarene, Jesus.” Peter denies it and abandons the fire for the safety of the darkened gateway, while a rooster crows ominously. The girl finds him and identifies him again, and others agree, “This man is one of them.” Peter denies it again, but they persist in identifying him with the criminal, Jesus. Finally, he begins to lob curses, and he swears, “I do not know this man of whom you speak!”

The rooster crows a second time, and at once Peter remembers what Jesus told him: “Before the rooster crows twice, you will deny me three times.” Peter was brimming with self-confidence at the time, and he refused to believe it. Now, his self-esteem has been stripped away, and he sees himself for what he really is. He is a failure, a coward and a traitor; he has abandoned his Lord to avoid disgracing himself. He is ashamed of Jesus and his words (Mark 8:38).

Peter breaks down and weeps. For the first time in Mark’s gospel, he is broken. There is no more hiding from his sin.

We leave Mark’s account at a dark and miserable place, and the story is only going to get uglier. But there is hope here. We know that Peter has failed to confess Jesus as his Lord. But Jesus has not failed. He has insisted on his Lordship even when faced with death. He succeeds where Peter fails.

That’s where our hope comes from. If you see yourself as a stalwart defender of the Christian faith and an all-around great person, you’re going to be broken. God loves you; he will not let your self-confidence harden you into a creature fit for hell. He will break you down first. And then you will see that Jesus is your only hope. You cannot remain faithful to him; you will fail to acknowledge him as your Lord in your actions and words. That’s why Jesus did it all for you that night. And this act of courage and faithfulness belongs to you now; it’s what God sees when he looks at you. Jesus stood in your place before his bloodthirsty enemies, and when asked if he was their Lord, he declared, “I am!” Then he was “despised and rejected by men” (Isaiah 53:3) so that you would never be despised and rejected by God.

You are not good. You are not strong. But Jesus was. And that’s all that matters.

Jesus has come to be abandoned, but he will never fail (Mark 14:26–52) — July 18, 2011

Jesus has come to be abandoned, but he will never fail (Mark 14:26–52)

You will fail.

That’s not a popular message. The Atlantic recently featured an article by Lori Gottlieb entitled “How to Land Your Kid in Therapy,” in which the author explained that parents are afraid to let their children fail, because they’re afraid it will damage their self-esteem. The result is that their children are unable to adjust to the anxieties and difficulties of life outside of their parents’ umbrellas. After years of working with college students, I know firsthand that this is true. Parents are terrified that their children may fail and even be unhappy sometimes (gasp!).

Jesus, on the other hand, knows his disciples will fail him. Rather than shielding them from the fact, he tells them to their faces that they are weak and pathetic sheep.

Before Jesus was betrayed and crucified, Peter never struggled with self-esteem. He was a self-assured individual, not afraid to assert himself in front of Jesus. So when Jesus warns all the disciples, “You will all fall away,” Peter is not happy. Where is Jesus’ faith in me? he thinks. He announces, “Even though they all fall away, I will not.” Rather than backing down, Jesus gets in Peter’s face. “Truly, I tell you, this very night, before the rooster crows twice, you will deny me three times.” Unfortunately, Peter’s self-esteem bubble still hasn’t been popped, and now the other disciples begin asserting their loyalty as well.

Their failure begins at Gethsemane. Jesus takes Peter, James, and John (his inner circle) deep into the garden. At this point, Mark writes, he “began to be greatly distressed and troubled.” The hour of his death has drawn near, and whatever is about to take place is overwhelming Jesus. He tells his inner circle, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death. Remain here and watch.” They are to stay alert and keep their eyes open for trouble.

Jesus prays on his own for a while, then returns to his disciples—and they have all fallen asleep. Jesus singles out Peter, telling him, “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not watch one hour? Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Twice more he leaves them to pray, and twice more they fall asleep.

As if this weren’t enough, a mob approaches them, led by Judas, one of Jesus’ closest friends. Judas identifies Jesus by greeting him with a kiss—a horrible act of betrayal! Chaos ensues; Jesus is seized and arrested, swords are drawn and swung around wildly. “Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs to capture me?” Jesus protests. They are treating him like a common criminal.

As soon as his disciples realize that Jesus will not be resisting arrest, Mark records, “they all left and fled” with their tails between their legs. Most shameful of all is the desertion of a young man who would rather run away naked than stay with his Lord during his darkest hour.

The failure of the disciples is total. They begin the evening by boasting of their loyalty, then fall asleep while their Lord suffers and desert him when confronted by a mob. Their boasting only aggravates their shame.

Were it up to our own strength, you and I would abandon Jesus as quickly as his disciples do. “The flesh is weak,” and we are afraid of what other people can do to us. You and I have nothing to boast about.

God is leading us to esteem not ourselves but Jesus. At the centre of these events, we are allowed to listen in on his “loud cries and tears” (Hebrews 5:7). He calls out, “Abba! Father! All things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me!” He pleads with his Father to take away the “cup of the wine of wrath” (Jeremiah 25:15) from which rebels against God are forced to drink. No doubt his words “watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation” are not meant merely for his disciples but himself. He resists temptation and chooses to follow the will of his Father, conceding, “Not what I will, but what you will.”

Each of Jesus’ disciples failed to “deny himself and take up his cross” (Mark 8:34). None of them submitted himself to the will and authority of God. But Jesus has done it perfectly. He is the only man who has.

You may think that you are a loyal and faithful servant of God. But you are much weaker than you think; you are easily tempted away from doing his will. This is why you need Jesus. He sought another way—any other way—to accomplish the mission God gave him. But he never wavered in his commitment to doing what his Father required. If you trust him instead of yourself, his goodness and faithfulness is what God sees when he looks at you. He doesn’t focus on your failures but on the success of his Son, who became a man to represent you and become “the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him” (Hebrews 5:9).

God knew you would fail him when he chose to save you. That’s why he gave you Jesus.

Barry G. Webb, Five Festal Garments, p. 35 — June 29, 2011
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