Holy Week – Devotion 6 – A Battle of Wills

April 17, 2014

041714 Christ before pilatePilate tried to release Jesus, but the chief priests cried out, “If you release this man, you are no friend of the emperor.”  – John 19:12

It was a battle of wills.  On one side of the battle was Pontius Pilate.  On the other side was the chief priests.  Neither side had any thought of God in their battle of wills.  Each side had only their own selfish motivations in mind.

Some five months before Good Friday, Pilate had erected several shields in Herod’s palace inscribed with the emperor’s name, Tiberias.  The shields were intended to honor the emperor, whom the Romans regarded as a god.  The chief priests protested that Pilate’s shields were offensive, as they elevated Tiberias above God in God’s holy city.  When Pilate refused to remove the shields, the chief priests appealed to Tiberias himself.  In a testy letter, Tiberias ordered Pilate to remove the shields and to respect Jewish customs.

With the memory of his recent encounter with the chief priests fresh in mind, Pilate may well have had a wicked smile on his face when he said to them, “I find no fault with this man, Jesus.”

The chief priests did not back down.  They blackmailed Pilate, threatening that if he released Jesus, they would go back to Tiberias and ask Tiberias to dismiss Pilate as procurator.  Remarkably, the chief priests argued to Pilate, “Anyone who claims to be a king is a threat to the emperor.  We have no king but the emperor.”  In their desperation to condemn Jesus and remove him as a threat to their authority, the chief priests abandoned one of the key principles of their faith:  We have no king but God.

We may justly criticize the chief priests for acting, well, unpriestly.  But we too may sometimes be tempted to sacrifice our faith to a battle of wills.  If we get angry enough at someone, we may be tempted to act in ways that are, well, unpriestly.  In those times when we get caught in a battle of wills, we should remember, “The only will that matters is God’s.  God’s will be done.  Not mine.”

Our Father, may your will be done, not ours.  For yours is the kingdom, the power, and the glory forever.  Amen.


Holy Week 2014 – Devotion 5 – Barabbas

April 16, 2014

041614 barabbasThe crowd shouted to Pilate, “Give us Barabbas, not this man!”  Barabbas was a bandit.  – John 18:40

In the late 1960s, Dennis Lambert and Brian Potter wrote the lyrics to a counterculture classic, “One Tin Soldier.”  The song, which was featured in the film Billy Jack, tells the story of the Mountain People and the Valley People.  The Valley People heard a rumor that the Mountain People owned a treasure, buried beneath a stone.  They demanded the treasure from the Mountain People, who offered to share it.  The Valley People, however, decided to take the treasure by force and keep it entirely for themselves.  They conquered the Mountain People.  And so the song goes:  “Now, they stood beside the treasure, on the mountain dark and red.  Turned the stone and looked beneath it.  ‘Peace on earth,’ was all it said.”

Pontius Pilate gave the Jewish people a choice between Jesus and Barabbas.  They chose Barabbas.  Barabbas was not a common thief.  He was a revolutionary — likely a Zealot who had participated in terrorist activity against the Romans.  (Mark 15:7).  The Jewish people chose a man of violence over a man of peace.

In modern times, our choice may not necessarily be as stark as the difference between violence or peace.  But even so, modern society poses unique challenges; and those challenges often beg the question, “How do we respond when things do not go our way?”  As imperfect humans, it is all too easy for us to choose anger over conciliation, pride over humility, retaliation over forgiveness.  Our treasure is not gold or silver:  our treasure is the peace that passes understanding.  When things do not go our way, we would do well to draw nearer to God, to be still and ask what God would want us to do, and to arise and go in peace.

Lord, help us to be instruments of your peace.  Where there is pain, let us sow comfort.  Where there is sorrow, let us sow hope.  Where there is anger, let us sow love.  Amen.


Holy Week 2014 – Devotion 4 – Annas

April 15, 2014

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Jesus answered Annas, “Why do you ask me these questions?  Ask those witnesses who actually heard what I said to them.  They know what I said.” – John 18:21

In the early 1870s, Lawrence Murphy was the “boss” of Lincoln County, New Mexico.  Murphy owned the only bank and general store in the area.  Local residents despised Murphy, who charged excessive prices.  An enterprising English businessman, John Tunstall, opened a rival store in 1876.  Murphy, however, moved quickly to eliminate Tunstall as a threat to Murphy’s monopoly. On February 18, 1878, Tunstall was shot and killed.  The assassins were Murphy employees.  Tunstall’s death ignited the Lincoln County War, a series of bloody battles between Murphy’s gunmen and the Regulators, a group of former Tunstall employees that included William Bonney — “Billy the Kid.”

Annas was the Lawrence Murphy of his day.  He had formerly been the Jewish high priest, but the Romans had deposed him for carrying out illegal capital sentences.  Even so, the job remained in Annas’s family:  the new high priest was Annas’s son-in-law, Caiaphas.  And while Annas himself was no longer the high priest, he remained the “boss” of the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem, largely because he controlled the Temple markets.  When Jesus booted the moneychangers out of the Temple, Jesus’s actions hit Annas squarely in the pocketbook.  So, after Annas learned of Jesus’s arrest, Annas told the authorities, “Bring him to me.”

In the United States, a criminal defendant may invoke the Fifth Amendment and refuse to answer questions that might incriminate him.  Jewish law is a little different.  Under Jewish law, a prosecutor may not even ask a question that could incriminate a criminal defendant.  Annas, as the former high priest, was certainly aware of the requirements of Jewish law.  Yet, he did exactly what Jewish law forbids:  he asked Jesus to incriminate himself and his disciples.  Jesus reminded Annas of the requirements of Jewish law, effectively telling Annas:  “If you really want to know the truth, then go find witnesses.  You are not entitled to cross-examine me.”

We all must choose where we will store our treasures.  Annas and Lawrence Murphy chose to build for themselves empires on earth, seeking to terrorize or eliminate anyone who might dare to oppose them.  Less than a year after Murphy ordered Tunstall’s death, Murphy himself died of cancer.  Murphy’s empire on earth was useless to him after his death.  So too was Annas’s empire.  Jesus was not a rich man, he was not an influential politician, and he was not a “boss.”  He died as a common criminal.  But he is, and always has been, the King of Kings.  Our treasure is in him.  God’s empire is eternal.

Our Father in heaven, holy is your name!  May your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.  And may we always know that our treasure is in you, not in the things of this world.  Amen.


Holy Week 2014 – Devotion 3 – A Speira of Roman Soldiers

April 15, 2014

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So Judas brought a detachment of Roman soldiers together with police from the chief priests and the Pharisees, and they came there with lanterns and torches and weapons. – John 18:3

During the age of the Judges, the Midianite army, a formidable force of 120,000 soldiers, occupied Israel and terrorized the Hebrew people.  God chose Gideon to free the people of Israel from the Midianites.  Gideon gathered a force of 32,000 soldiers to challenge the Midianite army.  But God told Gideon, “You have too many men.”  (Judges 7:4).  God ordered Gideon to reduce his force to 300 men; and with just 300 men against an army of thousands, Gideon routed the Midianites and pushed them back across the border.

Gideon faced impossible odds.  His tiny army prevailed over the Midianites only because God chose to deliver the people of Israel out of their bondage.  (Judges 7:2).  “Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, says the Lord.”  (Zechariah 4:7).

Judas arrived at the Garden of Gethsemane with a “detachment” of soldiers.  The Greek word is speira.  A speira of Roman soldiers was anywhere from 200 to 1,000 men — a formidable force.  The Jewish authorities did not send merely a few cops to accompany Judas on his trip to find Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane.  Instead, they left nothing to chance:  they sent a battalion of soldiers to arrest Jesus.  Jesus faced impossible odds.  His capture at the hands of a speira of Roman soldiers was the first in a series of awful events that led to his death on a cross.  His death, however, was not the end of the story.  Easter follows Good Friday.

We, too, may face impossible odds.  There may be days when the burdens of life leave us feeling outnumbered, outmanned, or outgunned.  God’s promise, though, is that we do not walk alone.  Sin and death can never defeat us.  God has delivered us out of our bondage.  Draw near to God.  Be still.  Arise.

Lord, we know that sometimes life is hard.  We cannot manage by our own might or power.  We cannot manage alone.  Thank you that you walk with us.  Amen.


Holy Week 2014 – Devotion 2 – Hosanna!

April 15, 2014

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They took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting, “Hosanna!  Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord — the King of Israel!”  –  John 12:13

The word of his deeds spread quickly among the Hebrew people.  When they learned that he was coming to Jerusalem, they decided to greet him as if he were a king.  They lined the streets, and as he passed triumphantly through the city, they waved palm branches in his honor — a symbol of victory.  They sang out to him the conqueror’s psalm:  “Hosanna!  Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”  (Psalm 118:25-26).  The date was 141 B.C.  The subject of the Hebrew people’s adoration was Simon Maccabeus.

Simon Maccabeus was a prominent figure in the Jewish revolt against the Seleucid Empire.  The Seleucid leader, Antiochus Epiphanes, precipitated the revolt by building an altar to Zeus in the Jewish Temple.  Although the revolt began as a guerrilla campaign, it grew into a lengthy military conflict, which ended only after the Jewish army, under Simon’s command, destroyed the Seleucid fortress at Acra.  With the fall of Acra, Israel gained independence from the Seleucid Empire.  The people of Jerusalem heralded Simon “with praise and palm branches . . . and with hymns and songs, because a great enemy had been crushed and removed from Israel.”  (I Maccabees 13:51).

On Palm Sunday, we remember Jesus’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem.  We celebrate the occasion by waving palm branches and singing, “Hosanna!”  We may think that“Hosanna!” means something like “Hallelujah!” or “Praise Him!”  Actually, the Hebrew word “Hosanna!” meant “Save us!”  When the Jews who lined the streets of Jerusalem sang “Hosanna!,” they were saying, “Jesus, save us from the Romans!”  The Jewish people were not looking for someone to save them from their sins.  They were looking for the next Simon Maccabeus.  They were looking for a king.

We may ourselves occasionally fall into the trap of thinking of Jesus as a cosmic superhero who will do whatever we may ask him to do.  Jesus, however, is not in the business of defeating foreign armies, winning athletic contests, or granting material wealth.  He is in the business of saving souls.  Jesus was not the political king whom the Jewish people were seeking.  He is instead the King of Kings.

O God, we are desperate for your grace.  We are desperate to know the joy of your kingdom.  Save us!  Amen.


Holy Week 2014 – Devotion 1 – The Plot to Kill Jesus

April 15, 2014

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Caiaphas said to the Pharisees, “It is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” – John 11:50

 

Sometimes things do not go quite as planned. During the Civil War, a Union force clashed with a small army of Texan invaders on the banks of the Rio Grande in the New Mexico Territory. One of the Union officers, Paddy Graydon, came up with a novel plan for stopping the Confederate troops. He filled two boxes with howitzer shells and improvised two fuses. Graydon then tied the boxes to the backs of two mules, lit the fuses, and sent the mules off on a suicide mission toward the Rebel line. It all might have worked perfectly except for one thing: the mules spooked as they approached the Confederates. They turned around and began galloping back toward Graydon. Boom!

 

After Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, many who had seen his miraculous works believed in him. The chief priests and Pharisees feared that if Jesus gained too big a following, the Romans might perceive him to be a threat and take military steps against Jerusalem, including perhaps destroying the temple and taking away the chief priests’ and Pharisees’ religious and political authority. The high priest, Caiaphas, came up with a novel plan: Kill Jesus. He told his fellow priests, “It is better that one man should die, and that his followers should scatter and never be heard from again, than that our nation should fall to the Romans.”

 

Sometimes things do not go quite as planned. Caiaphas succeeded in killing Jesus, but the grave could not hold Christ our Lord. Jesus’s followers scattered, but they were not silent: they spread the good news of Christ across the world. Within forty years of Jesus’s death and resurrection, the Romans invaded Jerusalem and destroyed the temple. Boom! But by then, God’s son, who had lived among us fully human and fully divine, had freed us from the notion that we could confine God’s presence to a building. We are all temples of God, and God dwells in each of us. (1 Corinthians 3:16).

We were bought with a price — Christ’s crucifixion. Now, we should arise and glorify God. (1 Corinthians 6:20).

Father, our lives are often a bustle of noise and activity. May we be still and listen for your voice. May we draw nearer to you. And may we arise and follow you. Amen.