In the very center of our Christian faith is this act of God through Jesus: that Jesus came into the world and suffered and died on a cross and then rose again triumphantly that our sins had been forgiven. This is what we base our entire faith and our trust, our hope, and our joy upon as Christians. For that reason, Easter is the most significant day in our calendar. It's the greatest day of our celebration. But traditionally in the church we have prepared for Easter by a sort of self-examination. More sharply, we have prepared for Easter by looking at that suffering and that death of Jesus in very close, watchful, and faithful viewing.
This period before Easter is called Lent. During these Wednesdays in Lent (there are six of them) we will walk closely with Jesus through the experience that he had going toward the cross. We're going to use Mark as the basis of our story and then we'll take that story in small parts. I will read several verses from Mark and then we will meditate upon those verses: this day, and next week and the weeks to come. Stay with me during this period so that our hearts genuinely understand how dearly and dreadfully we need this forgiveness in Jesus Christ.
SLIDE # 1 [Mark 14:1-2
It was now two days before the Passover and the feast of Unleavened Bread. And the chief priests and the scribes were seeking how to arrest him by stealth, and to kill him; for they said, "Not during the feast" lest there be a tumult of the people.”]
The story starts right here. Here, suddenly, Mark locks his Gospel into time.
In one sense, everything up till now has been preliminary for the crucial event of Jesus' passion. In Mark we have learned who Jesus is (but not completely, because he's been coy about his messianic identity). We've heard his teachings (but words without action make no story). We've watched his miracles, fine little stories in themselves (but these have grown fewer the closer Jesus has come to Jerusalem).
The first thirteen chapters of Mark imply: There's more than this. They say, you ain 't seen nothing yet.
If those chapters were all we had from Mark, we would have a wonder-worker, a charismatic rabbi, a list of ethical lessons, a minor political pest in history—and an enigma. Jesus may have been remarkable, but not essentially different from other notable figures in human memory: no radical revelation of God, no savior of humankind.
There is an odd timeless quality to the appearing and the presence of Jesus throughout Mark, even in Jesus' progress toward Jerusalem. Jesus in history is like a dream in waking reality: almost mythic, strangely untouchable.
But suddenly all of that changes.
Look: in these verses now it's "two days before the Passover.” Suddenly we know precisely the time of year and we can see the rest of the world; we know what the people are doing. Suddenly Jesus is rooted very much in time, terribly touchable, dangerously historical. We grow tense and attentive. A new thing is happening! It's happening within the calendar of human days: it's Wednesday, the thirteenth day of the month called Nisan. This is no myth, this is no legend, no mere lesson or instructive biography. This is the story Mark intended to tell from the beginning. This is the "something else," revelation, the profounder identity of Jesus: the Savior!
Listen! The story is starting right now.
SLIDE #2 [Mark: 14:1, 10-11
The chief priests and the scribes were seeking how to arrest Jesus by stealth, and to kill him.
Then Judas Iscariot, who was one of the twelve, went to the chief priests in order to betray him to them.]
In order to arrest Jesus "by stealth," the rulers need someone like Judas. Enemies must know the habits of their prey—and what better source of such private knowledge than a friend? Enter Judas Iscariot, a friend who is willing to act like an enemy: a traitor.
The contract that Judas now makes with men of murderous intent is so horrendous that we ask, compulsively, "Why? Why did he do it?" We feel that the tale is incomplete without his motive. "Greed!" we figure. Or the more sophisticated among us argue that Judas was moved by a misguided zealotry. In fact, Mark ignores the question of motive altogether. Mark implies that Judas went voluntarily and with no particular plan of his own in mind. But that is absolutely all Mark cares to say of the mind of Judas.
Perhaps there's a lesson for us in this presentation of the sin apart from its causes, as though motives were merely incidental and ultimately beside the point.
Does the motive of a sin—its rationale—make it any less a sin? Isn't the betrayal of the sovereignty of the Lord in our lives always a sin, regardless of the factors that drove us to betray him? Yes! Yet we habitually defend ourselves and diminish our fault by referring to reasons why we "had to" do it. We sinners are so backward that way. We try to justify ourselves by some condition which preceded the sin. Motives console us. That's why we want so badly to have them and to know them.
"Not my fault! He hit me first. I was just protecting myself!" we say.
Or "Don't blame me! My society was a bad influence on me. My parents set bad examples—they abused me, even; never disciplined me. Blame my parents."
Or, "Hey, man, it's dog-eat-dog. I'm only tryin' to survive."
Or "I can't help the way I am. God made me. God gave me my appetites, right?"
We sinners are so backward! We invert the true source of our justification. It is not some preliminary cause, some motive before the sin that justifies me, but rather it is the forgiveness of Christ which meets my repentance after the sin. If I did it, I'm responsible, whatever the reasons might be. Motives are incidental to the sin as a sin and to its expiation. If by excuses I duck my responsibility, I'll never truly repent, and then the forgiveness of Christ will seem incidental to me. But if I own my responsibility, own up to the sin and so repent, then that forgiveness will justify before God even the most horrendous betrayer of Jesus. Even Judas Iscariot. Even me.
Mark’s account is very right: it needs no motive to be complete. For the betrayer’s motive could neither justify nor damn him anymore. The redeeming love of Jesus alone could have written a happier ending to the tale.
SLIDE #3 [Mark 14:17-21
And when it was evening Jesus came with the twelve. And as they were at table eating, Jesus said, "Truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me, one who is eating with me.
They began to be sorrowful and to say to him one after the other, "Is it I?"]
"Stop it," says my friend. (Whatever else she may be, sister, spouse, or child, she is by this very cry proving her friendship to me.) "Stop it," she pleads, though I haven't yet done the deed. She sees it coming. She knows its effect. "Stop it. Please!" she says. "You're hurting me."
Well, and then my tendency is to feel resentment—especially when she's right and I'm wrong. I'm embarrassed by the exposure of my sinfulness.
But that plea, which makes me aware of myself, is no evil thing. It's a gift. Even if my friend is only protecting herself, this is no less than a gift from God intended to benefit both my friend and myself: her peace, my prudence, my obedience, and finally my peace as well. Please! You're hurting me. Oh, let me hear the warning not with anger but with gratitude—and stop.
Judas has no better friend than Jesus.
Loving him, not loathing him, Jesus grants Judas a moment of terrible self-awareness. Jesus says, "One of you will betray me, the one who is dipping bread into the dish with me –"
The deed is not yet done. But Jesus sees it coming and, while yet the sinner contemplates the sin, Jesus gives Judas three critical gifts:
SLIDE #4 [First, Jesus gives Judas knowledge. He now knows the moral quality and the consequence of the deed. This is betrayal and betrayal is wrong!]
SLIDE #5 [Second, Jesus gives him free will. Knowledge frees Judas both from ignorance and from the unconscious compulsion. He now can choose whether to do, or else not to do, that deed.]
SLIDE #6 [And three, Jesus gives Judas sole responsibility. If he proceeds with it, then, he alone shall own the deed.]
What more can a friend do than Jesus has done—especially in the present context? This is the Passover meal, after all. Judas would therefore be "lifting his heel" against an intimate, one who shares custom and kinship and immediate trust with him.
Moreover, they have just drunk the second cup of wine. They have just told the story of Israel's salvation; Jesus, as head of the house, is dipping bread in bitter herbs and stewed fruit. The gesture and the dish are traditional signs of Israel's suffering. But right now, they also symbolize the horror of Judas' sin. If he does not stop, Judas shall become the cause of bitter suffering! Judas shall be to Jesus what Egypt was to Israel. His act shall offend the very salvation God prepared for his beloved. It will outrage heaven.
Jesus shall surely "go as it was written of him." But now Judas can't help but see the true treachery of his sin and he might choose not to be the one by whom Jesus is betrayed. He might choose the quicker, and the lesser pain: with the others to "be sorrowful" and, loudly with the others, to confess, "Yes, it is I." Judas might admit the love in the gifts that Jesus gives to him:
Stop it! Stop it, please! You're hurting me.
The cry of my friend feels harsh. Perhaps I will hear the accusation only and harden myself in my sin and, angrier still, continue.
Or maybe I will realize the love of God in her plea and suffer my conscience to hurt and confess myself a sinner and repent and stop. And stop. And—given three gifts by the grace of the dear Lord stop!
SLIDE #7 [Mark 14:22-25
And as they were eating, Jesus took bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them and said, "Take; this is my body. " And he took the cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, and they all drank of it. And he said to them, "This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. Truly, I say to you, I shall not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God. "]
The Lord Jesus, the same night in which he was betrayed—
When is a mother more inclined to cuddle her children? When they are nasty, an insolent brood, disobedient and disrespectful of her motherhood? Or when they are cuddly?
When will a father likelier give good gifts to his children? When they've just ruined the previous gift, by negligence or by downright wickedness? When they are sullen and self-absorbed? Or when they manifest genuine goodness and self-responsibility?
But the love of Jesus is utterly unaccountable—except that he is God and God is love. It has no cause in us. It reacts to, or repays, or rewards just nothing in us. It is beyond human measure, beyond human comprehension. God's love takes my breath away.
For when did Jesus choose to give us the enduring gift of his presence, his cuddling, his dear communing with us? When we were worthy of the gift, good people indeed? No. It was precisely when we were most unworthy. When our wickedness was directed particularly at him.
Listen, children: it was to the insolent and the hateful that he gave his gift of personal love.
SLIDE #8 ["As they were eating, he took bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them and said—]
With the apostle Paul the pastor repeats: The Lord Jesus, the same night in which he was betrayed, took bread. Oh, let that pastor murmur those words, the same night, with awe. For who among us can hear them just before receiving the gift of Jesus' intimacy and not be overcome with wonder, stunned at such astonishing love? The context qualifies that love. The time defines it. And ever and ever again, these words remind us of the times: The same night in which he was betrayed—
"While we were still weak," says Paul, "at the right time Christ died for the ungodly." No, not for the godly, not for the good, but "while we were yet sinners Christ died for us." Then! That same night! When absolutely nothing recommended us. When "we were enemies." Enemies! In the night when his people betrayed him the dear Lord
Jesus said, SLIDE #9 ["This is my blood of the covenant, poured out for many."] Then he said it! In the night of gravest human treachery, he gave the gift of himself. And the giving has never ceased. The holy communion continues today.
Oh, this is a love past human expectation. This is beyond all human deserving. This, therefore, is a love so celestial that it shall endure long and longer than we do.
This is God’s grace.
And so today we have begun to walk with Jesus. I invite you to be with me every week, all the way through until the resurrection itself. We will look in detail at those events that surrounded Jesus; those things that Jesus did and finally the death. And we’ll do that in such a way that perhaps we ourselves are revealed: the need that we have for forgiveness; the love that we have for the Lord who gave it to us.
Oh Lord Jesus Christ, our ability to look at your suffering is empowered by the fact that you rose. That you are with us even now, whole, and healthy and mighty. That you sit at the right hand of God and at the same time you come in the Spirit to our hearts and our homes. Be with us now. Help us in our preparation. O Lord, let us never make light, either of your death or of the beauty and triumph of your resurrection. Therefore, be the Spirit in our minds and our hearts these weeks as we approach that beautiful day. AMEN