Sunday, April 17, 2011

On the Road to Jerusalem [Third-Day Stories]

Old Jericho Road
In first century Palestine, walking was not a form of recreation, it was a form of transportation.  The journey from Galilee to Jerusalem is a strenuous distance of 120 miles -- a trip which Jesus made on foot several times in his adult life.  The journey ends on the Jericho Road...a trail winding through the mountains to the Holy City where pilgrims ascend 3000 feet in fifteen miles.  At 20 to 25 miles a day, that's a journey that would have taken about a week...but Jesus intended to go much further than that for us.  Because the greatest Third Day Story of all, begins with suffering willingly endured…from us and for us.  Let’s begin by looking at the loneliness of Jesus as he set his face toward Jerusalem.  

(i) As Jesus went up to Jerusalem, no man walked beside him. “They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them…”  (Mark 10: 32).  The fact that Jesus was out ahead of his disciples, walking alone  reveals what William Barclay refers to as the loneliness of Jesus as he neared the defining moment of his earthly ministry. Remember that Jesus had already told his disciples twice, and was about to tell them a third time, that he was going to Jerusalem to face certain death.  His disciples had already expressed their shock and fear.   This was beyond their ability to understand.  Jesus walked alone because his disciples were afraid to go up to him. 

There are some decisions which we have to make by ourselves, which no one else can make for us.  There are some burdens which we have to bear by ourselves, which no other human being can help us with.  There are times of loneliness which we will all experience… things nobody else can fully understand.  These are the times we need to remember that though no man walked beside him, Jesus knew the Father was there.  Christian psychologist Larry Crabb tells a story of a time when as a 3 year old he locked himself in the bathroom and began to scream, “Get me out of here!  I want to play!”  Minutes later, his father went around the house opened the bathroom window…and then, after climbing in, turned the lock and opened the door.  “Thanks Dad!” Larry said, as he ran out the door to play. “That’s how I thought the Christian life was supposed to work.”  To paraphrase Crabb: “When I get stuck in a tight place, when my life feels lonely or scary, I scream, ‘God, get me out of here!’ and God comes in and rescues me so that I can go out and play.  But what Crabb discovered is that when we scream for help, the Father does come in to that little room, but then (instead of opening the door and letting us out) he often sits down on the floor with us and says, “Come sit with me!”  God seems to think that what we need most is not always to be rescued but to sit down with him in the midst of our troubles… and get to know him better (see Larry Crabb, The Pressure's Off, WaterBrook Press, 2002; pp. 222-223).  Jesus was comforted by the Father in the same way. “I will be with you always,” promises the Savior.  And please know that in your loneliest hour, in the darkest valley, when you can’t think of anything else to do… the One who knew the loneliness of that Jerusalem road, still walks with you… still sits with you, and will never leave you.

(ii) As Jesus went up to Jerusalem, the cross was before him – and he knew it. “He took the twelve aside again and began to tell them what was to happen to him, saying, "See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again" (Mark 10: 33-34).

As I said, this is the third time that Jesus described the events that were about to take place in Jerusalem, and each time the picture looks more forbidding. The first time (Mark 8:31) Jesus predicts that the religious leaders in Jerusalem would reject him.  The second time he hints at the betrayal of one of his own disciples (Mark 9:31); and the third time he speaks of how he would be executed by the Gentiles… the Roman authorities (Mark 10: 33).  In other words…It was not just the religious leaders, the pastors and bible teachers who rejected him… It was not just the political authorities who rejected him, it was his own disciples. Mark tells us as much after Jesus is arrested, “All of them (speaking of his disciples) deserted him and fled” (Mark 14: 50). The prophet Isaiah writes:  All we like sheep have gone astray…. and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”  Isaiah is speaking of the Suffering Servant… the One who by his death, would bear the weight not just of Israel’s sin, but the sins of the whole world…bringing God’s salvation to the ends of the earth (Isaiah 49:6).

Jesus knew that this was his mission. For he says that they will “mock him, spit upon him, flog him (referring to the terrible Roman scourging that left a man half dead) and then (as would often happen after scourging) they would kill him by crucifixion… a practice so inhumane, that it was abolished in 315 AD. Jesus knew all this was before him…and yet he continued to set his face toward Jerusalem.  Barclay observes that there is a courage which is an almost instinctive reaction; a kind of reflex that responds in the heat of the moment. Then there is the courage of the one who sees the moment approaching but far ahead; the courage of the one who has plenty of time to turn back or avoid the issue completely…but decides to confront it anyway. This is the courage we see in Jesus.  As he went up to Jerusalem, no man walked beside him, the cross was before him…and nothing could make him turn back.  And yet, and yet….

(iii) As Jesus went up to Jerusalem, his disciples still followed him.  “…they were amazed and those who followed were afraid…” (Mark 10: 32). As Jesus walks alone, we see the loneliness of Jesus.  As Jesus walks toward the cross, we see the courage of Jesus.  And as Jesus’ disciples follow we see the love of Jesus.  Consider this: Jesus’ disciples were sure of two things.  First, they were sure he was the Messiah, as Peter had declared days before (Mark 8:29); the One whom God had sent to deliver Israel and the whole world.
Secondly, they were sure he was going to die if he went to Jerusalem.  Now these two facts, when put together, made no sense …and yet they followed him anyway.  

They didn't yet understand the reason for the cross… they didn't yet understand how God would lay upon his Son, the iniquity of us all.  They didn't yet understand how Jesus would get from the first day to the third day; from the cross to the empty tomb, from despair to hope… and from death to risen life. All they knew was that he loved them, and that they loved him; that they intended to follow him and to trust him as Messiah and Lord no matter what. Jesus does not ask us to analyze him.  Jesus does not ask us to write theological treatises about him.  Jesus does not ask us to debate him.  He asks us to follow him, which means he wants us to trust him, to place our faith in him, to imitate him…to love him… and to know that in him all the promises of the Third Day have come to glorious life.

The walk from Galilee to Jerusalem is 120 miles… but Jesus walked much further than that to show you his love.  He walked all the way to the cross. Two thousand years ago, the cross was a symbol of oppression, death and despair, an emblem of suffering and pain that no man walked toward….but Jesus did; he walked toward the cross, he walked toward what other men shrunk back from with appalling and terror.  But because he did walk toward it; because he was willingly crucified there, and not only died but rose again on the third day, this cross has been changed into the greatest symbol of faith, hope, and love the world has ever known. Therefore, we do not walk to the cross alone but with God, we do not walk to the cross in fear but with courage, we do not run away from the cross, but follow HIM there….because at the foot of the cross we receive his forgiveness, we experience his healing, and know at last the truth of his self-giving love.  

King Jesus, when you set your face toward Jerusalem, you could see beyond the celebration to Friday’s shame. Those who followed saw you walking alone, facing down fear and death itself; so that lifted up, all people might be drawn to you (John 12: 32): “Surely, you have born our grief and carried our sorrow. For you were wounded for our transgressions, and upon you was the chastisement that made us whole” (Isaiah 53: 4-5).  Responding to your sacrifice we turn from everything we know is wrong.  We honor, bless, and praise your holy name.  We thank you for bearing our sins upon the cross, for offering us forgiveness and the fullness of your Spirit.  We ask you now to come as Savior and cleanse us; to come as Lord, and take control of us, that we might serve you with your other disciples, forever.  Amen! 

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