God in the Hands of Angry Sinners
Rev. Mark A. Barber
The Gospel of Mark mentions that the last thing that Jesus and the disciples did at the Last Supper was to sing a hymn. As this was the Passover meal, we know that Psalm 118 was one of the psalms that would have been sung or chanted. If we were to look at the psalm, we would immediately recognize the verse that says “This is the day that the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it” as the praise chorus we open every Sunday worship service here at the Hills church. It helps us to set our mind on the service. But there is a lot more to the psalm than this statement. Verse 26 states “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD”, a verse that should remind us of what the crowds on Palm Sunday shouted as Jesus approached Jerusalem on a donkey from the Mount of Olives. The psalm also talks about a man in distress petitioning the LORD for and thanking Him for deliverance. What is most interesting about Psalm 118 is that right before we read about the day that the LORD has made are the words: “The stone the builders refused is become the head stone of the corner” (AV). This verse was quoted by several New Testament writers as prophecy which predicted the rejection of Jesus by the Jewish nation, and his subsequent exaltation by God. So we can see that the Day that the LORD has made does not refer to a day in general in which people come to worship the LORD. Rather it refers to a particular day, the day in which Jesus would be rejected, crucified, and buried in a garden tomb to be resurrected and exalted on the third day. Come and follow me as we look at this Day, the Day that the LORD has made.
When we say that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, we are attaching significance to what is by itself insignificant and making it stand for the whole. But without taking of the first step, the rest of the journey cannot be undertaken. Many of us can remember the day that the first astronauts landed on the moon in 1969. We can remember the words Neil Armstrong said as he made the first step ever onto the surface of the moon: “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”. With this one small step, the course of history was changed forever. History records that when Julius Caesar defied the Senate of Rome and crossed the Rubicon River, Rome was changed forever. But these steps pale in comparison to the step that Jesus was about to take.
Jesus and the disciples came to the brook called Cedron. It wasn’t much of a brook this time of year and would soon dry up completely as summer’s scorching heat came. So it was no Red Sea or Jordan in the time of flood that had to be miraculously divided. It was a steep descent to the brook, but the brook was easily crossed, perhaps with only a single step. In fact, the only liquid flowing in the brook may have been the blood of the slaughtered Passover lambs from the nearby Temple complex.
The brook had been crossed before by Jesus’ ancestor, King David. He crossed it to escape the wrath of his son Absalom. But Jesus by taking that one little step goes to accept the wrath of His Father. In one step, Jesus seals his fate. If he turns back, then he will find refuge with the pilgrims in the city. If he keeps on going to the desert, he will find safety. But Jesus is not interested in His own safety.
Across the brook is a garden. The other gospels call the place Gethsemane which means “olive press”. This according to Ray Van Der Laan was an underground olive press carved into the bedrock itself. It was big enough to provide shelter at night for Jesus and His disciples. But by going there this night, Jesus was going to his grave. The pit which was supposed to be their shelter for the night was known by Judas, who up to that night had sheltered there with them. But Judas was out gathering a large force, a cohort of crack Roman legionnaires as well as the Jewish Temple guards. They soon will cross that brook after Jesus. But Judas does not know any more than David’s son Absalom that crossing that brook will seal his fate. Soon like Absalom, and perhaps even before Jesus breathes His last breath, Judas will hang from an accursed tree between heaven and earth, pierced, dead, and with his bowels exposed. Unlike Absalom, there will be none to mourn him.
Absalom the son entertains himself by playing in the rooftop garden of the king’s palace with his father’s concubines before pursuing his father, basking in his own glory. But Jesus goes into the garden to pray and to glorify the Father who had sent Him. Absalom was lifted up with pride, but Jesus goes to be lifted up on a cross. What a contrast Jesus makes with a world who is concerned only about themselves. Caesar was not interested in the good of Rome when he stepped across the Rubicon. He was interested in his own glory. But pride kills. The mighty Caesar would soon fall, pierced through by the daggers of the Senate he defied.
It is interesting to note how the Gospels paint their own picture of what happens in the garden. Yet we see the hand of the Holy Spirit in them all. The other gospels do not mention the garden, and John does not mention the temptation of Jesus there. But when the pictures are combined we see a man who is called by Paul the Second Adam being tempted in the garden to seek a way that was independent of the will of His Father. This is in some way similar to the temptation of the First Adam, but in this case, Jesus refuses to give in to temptation. Paul goes on in Romans to say that the First Adam’s failure brought condemnation on us all. But the obedience of Christ brings salvation to all who believe. This second Adam rises from the pit where the olives were crushed under great pressure to release the oil. He takes the same disciples who saw His transfigured glory to the trees of the gloomy moonlit olive grove to show them a different picture. Like the crushing of the olives, the disciples if they had been awake would have seen Jesus so crushed that He sweated blood. The crushing had begun.
John does not mention this, for whatever reason the Holy Spirit has him paint another picture. The other gospels emphasize the humanness of Jesus. But John’s portrait shows His full divinity. It is hard for us to understand How Jesus is both fully God and fully human. Sometimes the best way is to paint two pictures side by side. They are portraits of the same Jesus taken from different angles. The other gospels portray the willingness of the human Jesus to drink the cup of wrath. John’s picture shows the willingness of the Divine Son to undergo humiliation, cursing and death.
John’s gospel also does not mention the famous kiss which Judas used as a sign to identify Jesus to the company which came out of Jerusalem to arrest Jesus. Again we see how the portraits of the scene converge. In the other Gospels, especially Mark, Jesus consistently rebuked the devils when they tried to identify Jesus. In John’s Gospel, Jesus is aware of who Judas is from the very beginning, in fact, Jesus identifies that one of the disciples is a devil or even “the devil” way back in chapter six. So John shows that Jesus is perfectly aware of what is going on and intervenes before the devil, Judas, has opportunity to identify him. When the crowd comes to arrest Him, it is Jesus who takes the initiative. He calls out to them “Whom are you seeking”. He of course knows full well whom they are seeking. When they answer “Jesus of Nazareth”, he replies, “I AM”. Some of your translations may read “I am He”, but the “He” is not there in the Greek text. The Greek text also shows that God reveals himself to Moses at the burning bush in the same manner. Jesus could have said “I am” without resorting to adding the emphatic “I” if he was interested in identifying Himself as Jesus of Nazareth, the man. Jesus in the way He answers them affirms that not only is He Jesus of Nazareth, but also that He is the One who spoke to Moses at the burning bush.
How can we be sure of this? When we look at the text in John’s gospel, it says that when Jesus finished saying this that they all fell backward on their backsides. Instead of falling on their faces in worship, they fall the other way. It would have taken some time for the legionnaires who wore heavy body armor to have regained their feet. In human terms, He could easily have escaped with His disciples. Of course, Jesus being fully God could have ended this charade in a moment. He could have spoken the word, and all those who came to arrest Him would have fallen dead. But Jesus never uses who He is to His own advantage. But it is perfectly clear from the text that all the legions of Rome could not have arrested Jesus. Only in submitting to the will of His Father in fulfilling the plan of salvation would Jesus allow Himself to be arrested.
After the company picks itself from a humiliating throw to the ground, Jesus asks them again whom they are seeking, to which they give the same reply, “Jesus of Nazareth”. Jesus again affirms His Divine identity by replying “I have already told you that I AM. This time instead of falling to the ground, Jesus allows them to arrest Him. Jesus submits calmly as a lamb going to the slaughter. There is an irony here in that Jesus seems to be the only calm voice in the arrest, trial, and crucifixion, even though He has the most to lose. The disciples and later Pilate are full of fear, the people at the fire in the courtyard are full of accusations, and the Jewish leaders as well as the people are full of rage and anger.
But Jesus adds one very important thing to the answer. He protects the eleven by telling the arresting officers to let the others go. Quite often, the Romans would have arrested all of the followers of someone they considered to be leading a revolt against them. I can remember the movie Spartacus in which multitudes were crucified, saving the two ringleaders until last. Spartacus has to watch all of the followers be crucified first, hearing the shouts of pain and rage, at least some of which was directed at Spartacus. With a company as large as the arresting soldiers, it would have been easy to have rounded up the entire group of disciples, some of whom may have been sleeping in the olive pit. But the soldiers obey the voice of Jesus and arrest only him. Perhaps they had already seized Peter, James, and John as the command to let them go implies this. They had come to learn the hard way of the authority of Jesus. Jesus intervenes and saves His disciples. His hour had come, but their hour would come later.
Peter them makes his stand for Jesus by drawing his dagger and slashing at and removing Malchus’ ear. What one man and a dagger could do to stop a cohort of well-armed and trained soldiers is ironic to say the least. It was Peter’s first and last act of bravado. The only person who could have stopped them is Jesus Himself. We know from the other Gospels that Jesus healed the wound Peter had inflicted on Malchus. He reminds Peter that he had a cup which His Father had given Him to drink. When he had finished saying this, He allows Himself to be taken away. God allows Himself to be delivered into the hands of angry sinners. On Sunday, crowds had welcomed Jesus into the city with palm branches. On this dark Friday, Jesus would be beaten with the palms of people’s hands.
Today, we come to this very brook Cedron which Jesus had crossed that day. Tomorrow, the blood of His sacrifice would stain the water red. This red line in the sand is one we must also cross if we want to be Jesus’ disciples. But bad things tend to happen when people cross over this line, they are marked for death. When Absalom crosses this line to go after his father David, he incurs the curse of hanging on a tree. So does Judas when he crosses this line to come after Jesus. Jesus crosses this line and is crucified on a tree of wood. Peter would eventually hang upside down on a tree. The same probably happened to Andrew. Most if not all of the rest suffered martyrdom.
Jesus beckons us to cross over and follow Him. But He also warns us that if we want to be His disciples that we have to deny ourselves, take up the accursed cross, and follow Him. You see the blood of others have stained the brook red. Will our own blood stain it tomorrow? The invitation Jesus gives, if I can put it in the words of Dietrich Bonheoffer is “Come and die!” But instead we see the invitation of Christ all too often as “Come and dine!” That comes later, in chapter 21. But you cannot get there without crossing this red line.
Perhaps we want to think it over and count the cost of discipleship before we step over. Perhaps we might want to return to the city and find shelter. But soon enough, Jerusalem will run red with blood. And there is no sustenance in the wilderness. What I am saying is that this red line of death will be in front of you, no matter what direction you turn. After all Scripture reminds us of the appointment we have with death. We will all cross this line, willingly or unwillingly. There is judgment on the other side. We are reminded of the terrible Day of the Lord that awaits.
There are two ways to cross this red line, in faith and without faith. Death comes to all who cross over, the great curse that was brought upon us by Adam. It even came to Jesus, the second Adam who hung on a tree between the Garden of Gethsemane and the garden tomb in which he was buried. But on the third day, the curse was turned into a blessing when Jesus rose from the dead. If we follow Jesus and cross this line, then the curse upon our lives will be turned into the blessing of eternal life.
But if we cross this line without faith as Absalom and Judas did, we will participate in a curse without remedy. Death is the ultimate curse without the blessing which Christ brings by the resurrection. The red line is before you. How will you cross it?