[The Gospel reading set for the the Fifth Sunday in Lent is John 11:1-44. You can find a sermon base on that reading here. John’s Gospel the event that precipitates the plot that leads to Jesus’ death is the raising of Lazarus. So the verses which follow that story serve as a prelude to everything that happens in the next couple of weeks.]
So from that day on they [the chief priests] planned to put him [Jesus] to death.
This plot emerged following the dramatic events which took place in Bethany. Many who had seen what had happened believed. Jesus has just accomplished the greatest sign of his ministry to date. Lazarus not only dead,
but dead for four days, cold and decaying in the ground, Lazarus has been restored to life by his friend Jesus. As Lazarus emerged from the tomb Jesus uttered the understated summary of his whole mission:
Unbind him and let him go!
Witness to his real power to transform, many people believe Jesus. When they see the difference Jesus can make, when the experience the liberation from all the things that might hold them down or hold them back, they place their trust in him. Even when they only see it happen for others, or hear about what Jesus can do, many people acknowledge the Jesus is the one. He is one in whom they can trust to make the difference that they really need. It is probably not unreasonable to assume that pretty much everyone listening to or reading this sermon falls into that group of people. We are the people like “many of the Jews who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did.” We will all have stories, either first hand, or witnessed, of the way in which Jesus has changed lives. Of the way Jesus brings new life where there only seems to be death. Of the way Jesus brings hope where there only seems to be despair. Of the way Jesus brings healing and wholeness where there only seems to be sickness. Of the way Jesus brings welcome and love where there seems only to be alienation and rejection. Of the way Jesus brings forgiveness where there seems only to be condemnation and guilt. Of the way Jesus lifts and liberates where there seems only to be oppression and captivity. To people like us, how the story of Jesus continues after the raising of Lazarus comes as something shocking; How can it be? How can it be, that Jesus, who only does good, how can it be that Jesus, who only helps those in need, how can it be that Jesus, who makes the world a better place, how can it be that Jesus is conspired against, is pursued and persecuted and is done to death? For those of us who see in Jesus only the fulfilment of our deepest and most meaningful longings, that anyone would want to kill him, must surely mystify us. One of the most difficult questions for us to answer is, why did Jesus die?
Again, perhaps for most of us paying attention to this sermon, there is something else that mystifies us. We are puzzled, why doesn’t everyone believe? Seeing what we have seen, hearing the same good news that we have heard, how is it that some people simply don’t place their trust in Jesus? As the crowd dispersed from Bethany after Lazarus had been restored to his sisters Many, perhaps most, of those who knew what had happened went away convinced that Jesus is the Messiah, the Holy One of God. They are sure he has been sent by God to set the world right, to restore creation to way in which God intended it. Whereas some, probably a minority, who had been that day knew no such thing, believed no such thing, consciously or unconsciously, explicitly or implicitly they rejected Jesus. Possibly the proportions are reversed now. When the Good News is spoken and when the power of God in Jesus is demonstrated, many perhaps most, hear nothing, see nothing that makes any difference to them. They hear a fairy story, a fantasy, a wish fulfilment, something too good to be true. So they conclude it must be false. They hear something that they conclude can make no useful or practical difference to their lives as they are lived now. They hear nothing that challenges them, or opens them to the possibility that their lives might be transformed. And now it is only some, almost certainly a minority, who are so captivated by what they hear about Jesus, that they must act upon it. We know, because for most of us our congregations are dwindling, that the best we can expect of most people in response to the news of Jesus is a shrug of indifference, “So what?” And those people, the ones who hear nothing when the Good News is told, whether they intend it or not, they become allies with another group: Those whose vested interest in the world staying as it is, those who don’t want the world to be changed by the love, justice and mercy that Jesus ushers in, those who think the world is just fine as it is. Because it seems to be to their advantage for it to be that way. Even they may recognise that the world is not as it should be, but at least they’re running out ahead. Slavery may be a bad thing, but perhaps its only a problem if you’re a slave. Poverty isn’t good, but where’s the problem when you aren’t poor. Injustice should be condemned, but if you’re the beneficiary of it you’re not going to complain.
The Chief priests know the world isn’t as it should be. Their nation is captive. They are not to free to serve and worship God as the might like. Everything they do has to be done under the watchful eye of the Roman authorities. But they have managed to accommodate themselves enough to feel that they are over all running out in front. They do still have a Temple to run. They are left mostly to their own devices, so long as they stick to their own spiritual religious activities and don’t meddle in politics. They may not be at the top of the tree, but there are still plenty of people below to look up to them. And there is plenty of money to made, wealth to be possessed, a tolerable slice of the cake, so long as Empire is left to take the biggest piece. The one thing the chief priests don’t want is anyone rocking the boat. And the vast majority of people in the world, who are benefitting from the way the world currently is, are still making that kind of a calculation. They don’t want things disrupting. So the chief priest don’t want anyone stirring things up enough to make the Romans pay attention. The last thing they want is some prophet from Galilee coming along reminding people of Israel’s special vocation to be a light to the Gentiles. They don’t want some wonder worker healing people and releasing them from their demons and reminding everyone else that world isn’t the way God intended it to be. And worse still, making them think that it could be different. They don’t want anyone raising the dead and giving people the idea that they might be the Messiah capable of turning the world upside down. The world may not be they way it should be, but plenty of people think it suits them, and reckon it’s better for them than the alternative.
Why would anyone be killed just for doing good? Well it doesn’t suit some people to have everyone else reminded that the world isn’t as should be, those people for whom just now the world is working to their advantage. The chief priest and the Pharisees called a meeting. One of the things that strikes me is that I think the chief priests, those in charge in Jerusalem knew exactly who Jesus was! The more they heard about Jesus, the more clear it became. The good news was being brought to the poor. Release was proclaimed to the captives. Sight was restored to the blind. The lame walked. The oppressed went free. Perhaps the sign in Bethany was the final, convincing piece of evidence: The dead received new life. It wasn’t the case that they failed to recognise the Messiah when he came. They recognised him all right, it was just that the consequences of the Messiah’s arrival didn’t suit them. They could see that the Messiah would unravel the very careful accommodation they had made with the Romans. They had done a deal with the world and it suited them to leave that deal in place. The sad thing to be said about the Chief priests is that they probably believe that Jesus is Messiah. But they don’t quite believe in God enough! Confronted with the power of the Roman empire. Confronted by the world as it is. They don’t believe that God is stronger. They don’t believe that God can overcome the power of Empire. They don’t believe that the Messiah really can transform the world, remake creation the way God intended it. What they believe is that Jesus will only provoke the Romans. And bring the power of the Romans down not only on his head, but destruction on the whole nation.
The Chief priests are quite simply afraid. They are afraid of the Romans. They are afraid of the power of this world and the death and destruction it might bring. They are afraid they will lose what they have. They are afraid because they don’t, when it really comes down to it, they don’t actually believe in the God they say they believe in. Whatever the God they do believe in it is not the God who made the world out of nothing, who loves that world and intends to remake it for the good of all his creatures.
It is better for you to have one man die.
Caiahpas is a shrewd man. He knows the ways of the world. There can be little doubt that in any place or time in the world Caiaphas would have been a successful politician. People like him are always successful in politics. He is the very embodiment of the way the world works. Caiaphas knows that Jesus is the Messiah, the one chosen by God. The trouble is that Caiaphas doesn’t believe in God enough. He doesn’t believe that God is stronger than the Roman Empire. Caiaphas would rather do something more reliable, more effective, perhaps more predictable than trust in God. Caiaphas would rather make the best accommodation he can in the world as it it Caiaphas is one of those who has done a deal with the power in the world as it is. And he doesn’t want one man unravelling it all.
“You know nothing at all!” He bellows at the assembled council. “You do not understand!” Caiaphas knows that there are ways in this world to get things done. You are going to have to get your hands dirty to get it done. You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs. “.”But it is better that this one man die, than he bring disaster on everyone. His death will save the nation.” Yes he knows this is unjust, but better Jesus’ death than the nation’s, and more especially better his death than the nation’s rulers should experience any loss.
One of the worst condemnations that we could make about the world as it is, is that is expedient for the innocent to die. Everywhere we look that seems to be the calculation. The phrase that was created in the Vietnam war for this was “collateral damage,” a typically mendacious euphemism created by people who wield the power of this world to obscure the reality of their deeds. Protecting our cherished values, protecting our loved ones, protecting the innocent who live close to us involves using the expedient methods of coercion violence and war Which means that the innocent will die. The precision missile strike, the unmanned drone, are never as precise as you would like them to be. So even if you can justify in your own minds killing the guilty, you’re also going to have to admit that “innocent” bystanders will die with them. Those who justify their means by the supposed ends they serve shrug their shoulders and say, “Regrettable but necessary. Better that those far away should suffer much that we can avoid suffering at all!” We seldom believe in God enough to think that God will achieve what God proposes. We’d much rather do something that looks as it will work instead. Even at the cost of inflicting the very suffering on others that we seek to protect ourselves from. And this is the way of world, whether we like or not, we are all implicated in.
Jesus came into the world to show the human race that there is another way. That God will use no coercion, no violence, there will be no collateral damage to bring about God’s reign of justice, mercy and love. Jesus comes into the world to put God’s way on display and invite us to follow. So Jesus died because his death is the inevitable consequence of God’s will and God’s way coming into confrontation with human expediency and effectiveness, human wilfulness and wickedness. The Romans will come and destroy. The tragedy of the conspiracy between the Chief priests and the Pharisees is that it didn’t work. Their fear, their fear that the Romans would come and take everything from them, that Romans would come and tear down the temple, would come and destroy the nation, would come and remove from them what little power and wealth and prestige they had, killing Jesus didn’t prevent their fears from coming true! Maybe it delayed that terrible end for a little while. Maybe they were able to hang on to what they had for a time. Maybe the postponed the inevitable for few years. But within 40 years the catastrophe came. The end of the world as they new it happened. And nothing that they had done prevented it!
The tragedy of the expedient methods still deployed by those in power is they don’t work. A war on terror in the end only creates more terrorists down the way. You cannot fight fire with fire, that way you only end up with an even bigger conflagration. The peace created by the sword can only last for a short while and is never the peace that passes all understanding offered by God and God’s messiah. Jesus was about to die for the nation and not for the nation only. The glory of the cross, and it is glorious, is that God takes the worst that humans can do and brings about human salvation with it. God takes human means and brings about his own victory against those means. The bottom line about human misbehaviour. The bottom line about the actions of Caiaphas and the others. Is that for the most part it is driven by fear.
Jesus’s life and death show that there is nothing to fear. The raising of Lazarus is the first sign that chief priests and everyone who fail to put their trust in God are wrong. There really is no limit to what God can do. You don’t have to do something that looks as though it will work, you can trust God and the peaceful methods which God calls us to adopt
God’s power is greater than death. The world can do it’s worst. It can wield it’s final sanction, the shedding of innocent blood, and God still brings victory to those who trust him. Jesus does not need to resort to expedient, and therefore lethal, methods because he trusts in God’s power to bring about final victory. Jesus dies because he doesn’t need to try to hang onto life in order for God get the last word. Jesus is free from fear because God gives life to those who trust him. Jesus’ death demonstrates to us that that power is for us if we place our trust in it We too can be set free from fear. And live the life God intends for us. Jesus died that we might be set free from death.
The Plot to Kill Jesus by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0