Thursday, February 29, 2024

Talk for the Funeral Service of one of our parishioners at Christ Church, Heiloo.

Talk for the Funeral Service of one of our parishioners at Christ Church, Heiloo.

Reading: John 14:1-3

Physical contact is such an important part of our lives as human beings, isn’t it? We are physical beings, and we know and are known through our senses. When this physical contact is broken in any way, we find ourselves in a state of crisis. But when death is the cause of this broken contact, the crisis is severe. We use words like mourning, sorrow, and grief to describe the sensation of emotional upheaval, but nothing can describe that feeling of utter helplessness, loneliness, and emptiness that we experience when a loved one dies. In one way, it can be depicted as having some unseen torturer ripping you open and tearing you apart.

But it is this human need for contact that presents us with one of our biggest difficulties when it comes to dealing with death, and that is our own physical mindedness. We think mostly in terms of what we can experience with our senses. But death forces us to acknowledge another aspect to life that transcends the physical, and that is the spiritual. Death compels us to exercise another usually untrained sense….our spiritual sense.

As Jesus tried to prepare his disciples for what would most certainly be one of the most distressing days of their lives, he spoke about this need for contact. He told them that they should not be unsettled, because in God’s house (and please note that this word is singular) there are many rooms (and this word is plural). One house, with many rooms. A vast house, to be sure, but still only one house that can accommodate many. 

Then he added that what he was about to do for them on the cross would secure for them a place in this house so that where he would be they would be also. True, the contact would take on another form, especially after he was removed from them at the ascension, but it would not be broken. 

Many years after these events, Paul attempted to describe this unbroken contact by saying that when God made us alive together with Christ, he raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Jesus. In other words, all believers from the moment they put their faith and trust in Jesus move into God’s one singular house. 

As followers of Jesus, we believe that he died for us so that whether we are in this physical body or not, we will always remain in him. There is only one Body of Christ. There is only one Church. There is only one sheepfold. There is only one house. Once we are in that house, we may shift from one room to another or one side of the house to the other…we may discard the physical to be clothed with the spiritual…we may change from what is visible to what is not visible…but we always remain in Jesus. 

Yes, physical contact may be broken, but an eternal contact that can never be broken was already irreversibly established when XXXX gained admittance to that one house. To quote the words of the angels to the women when they stood weeping at the empty tomb…do not seek the living among the dead. While we may mourn the loss of what is physical, we find our hope in embracing what is immortal. In one sense, XXXX has not left. If you are in God’s house, you are never closer to XXXX than when you are worshipping at the feet of Jesus. 

 Jesus said: “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out.” John 6:37

Let us pray:

Almighty God, grant us, with all who have died in the hope of the resurrection, the fullness of life in your eternal and everlasting glory, and, with all your beloved children, to receive the crown of life promised to all who share in the victory of your Son Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.

Wednesday, February 28, 2024

The Price for Life

Psalm 89:1-2, 14-18                  Hebrews 2:14-18                      John 12:20-36

The Price for Life

A lot of people, at least in the West, have a tendency to take life for granted. We face few significant threats, and, for the most part, that which we consider catastrophic could be more accurately labelled an inconvenience. Only a small number of us genuinely grasp and appreciate the value of life. 

Unfortunately, this tendency is also present in our expression of Christianity. How many of us truly appreciate the full reality of what it cost to grant us this gracious and free salvation that is ours in Jesus?

In our Gospel passage for today, Jesus spoke straightforwardly about the cost of redemption. And yet, even as he contemplated the horror that lay before him, he was more concerned that those around him understood enough to be able to respond appropriately. The central theme of his teaching here is the main purpose of his incarnation, namely that he took upon himself the form of a human so that he might give us life through his death.

In verses 20-26, Jesus laid down the principle of substitutionary atonement…one dying instead of or on behalf of others. Using a kernel of wheat as an illustration, he parabolically revealed what he was about to do. 

Jesus told this parable because “some Greeks” requested an audience with him. Now, the word John used here indicates that these people were most likely proselytes of pure Greek extraction. Strangely, they approached Philip first possibly because his name was Greek. But, if you recall, when Jesus sent the disciples out, he instructed them not to go to the Gentiles or the Samaritans, but only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel (Matthew 10:5), which is probably why Philip first went to Andrew before approaching Jesus. He needed some “backup”. 

This request from the Greeks seemed to have been a signal for Jesus that the climax of his ministry or, as he called it, “his hour” had finally come. Why? Well, I think it is because his atoning death would benefit all nations and the fact that the group seeking an audience with him were Greeks and not Jews of Judea, Galilee, or the Diaspora heralded the beginning of the new era in which both Jew and Gentile alike would worship God side by side in spirit and in truth. In a certain sense, this confirmed what the Pharisees had said in verse 19: “Look, the whole world has gone after him!”

Now as we have already observed, these Greeks were hesitant if not uncertain in their approach. They first came to Philip and not directly to Jesus. This may indicate a respect for the Jewish social custom of not associating with non-Jews. If you recall, the Roman Centurion also showed this kind of thoughtfulness when he considered himself unworthy of having Jesus enter his “unclean” house to heal his servant. (Matthew 8:5-13; Luke 7:1-10) 

However, the synoptic Gospels insert a second cleansing of the temple at this point. This is significant because the selling of the sacrificial animals and the exchanging of currency took place in the Court of the Gentiles. And so, these Greek “God-fearers” would have been prevented from entering the space for prayer. So, it may be that they sought an audience with Jesus because he was the one who had cleared the designated area so that they might enter freely to worship. 

Why John did not include the second cleansing of the Temple is anyone’s guess but if we insert that dramatic confrontation at this point it explains this sudden request for a meeting between Gentiles and this whip-wielding Jewish Messiah. His action opened the way for them to worship God, and his words recalled the prophetic utterance of Isaiah (56:7): “My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.”

Nevertheless, as I said earlier, their approach signified to Jesus that his hour to be glorified had come, and so he responded to this request with a parable concerning the immense cost of securing an entrance, not just into the Court of the Gentiles or even into the Temple itself, but into the Kingdom of God. Portraying himself as a kernel of wheat, Jesus said that as long as he remained alive in his present incarnate state, the new creation could not be launched. Just as one single seed remains a single seed until it is buried in the ground, sacrificing itself in a sense so that it might be transformed into a plant that would produce many more seeds, so Jesus indicated that his death was purposefully designed to bring to life “seeds” (re)born from him.

This sacrificial act of Jesus is a principle we are urged to imitate. As John said in his first Epistle, “By this we know love, because he laid down his life for us. AND we also ought to lay down our lives for the brethren.” (1 John 3:16) Imagine if all who call themselves followers of Jesus were to live according to this principle? Laying down our lives for others just as Jesus laid down his life for us.

In the book of Revelation, John described the first followers of Jesus as those who conquered the accuser of the brethren “by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death.” (Revelation 12:11 ESV) Like their Lord, they laid down their lives so that others might share in the salvation given to them through Jesus’ substitutionary death on the cross. 

But does this sacrificial living, encouraged and demonstrated in the New Testament, accurately describe our behaviour in the modern Church? Does it cost us something…anything at all…to follow Jesus or are we more like the world, doing a good job of looking out for number one? Me, myself, and I.

Do we perhaps love our life on this earth a little too much? Jesus lived to give…do we live to get? If I were to stand next to Jesus right now, how would I measure up? Am I like him in any way at all? 

But even though self-sacrifice seems to be a high price to pay, it also offers a great blessing. While we may be called upon to serve Jesus by following in his footsteps so that we might quite literally be wherever he may be, we are told here that if we do this we will be honoured and valued by the Father. Perhaps this is what Paul meant when he said in Ephesians 2:4-6, “God, who is rich in mercy, because of his great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ…and raised us up together, and made us sit in the heavenly place in Christ Jesus.” Being raised together with him means being honoured together with him too. 

A price was paid so that we might live in and through Jesus, and we too ought to be prepared to pay an equal price so that others might share in this sacrificial yet free gift of life. But surely the benefits far outweigh the cost.

True, it wasn’t easy for Jesus to face the cross. As he realised that his hour had arrived, the full force of the horrors that awaited him hit him like a freight train. The betrayal, desertion, and denial of his closest friends…an unjust trial…the mocking, the brutal beatings, the scourging, and then finally, the excruciating pain of death by crucifixion while he absorbed and annulled the weight of the curse for sin…it is possible that all these things came flooding into his mind at this moment, and he was deeply disturbed. 

The next few sentences seem to be a short form of verbal self-deliberation followed by a public declaration. “I am overwhelmed by terrifying thoughts,” Jesus seemed to say to himself. “How then should I respond to this debilitating fear? Should I pray for the Father to deliver me from this? No, I can’t do that because I came into this world to die for it…it would negate the entire reason for the incarnation. I would be like a kernel of wheat preserved but not sown. So no, I will rather say, Father, glorify your name!” 

Jesus’ deliberation here would be repeated once more in the Garden of Gethsemane. “Father, if it is your will, remove this cup from me; nevertheless, not my will, but yours be done.” (Luke 22:42) In both instances, there was a desperate cry of anguish before a bold declaration of obedient surrender.

Here the purpose of his life overrides his terror-filled agony. Jesus demonstrated the principle he had just revealed. He did not love his life above all else…rather he willingly gave it up as a ransom for many. And it is this self-sacrificial act that brings glory to God.

The voice from heaven, mistaken by some in the crowd for thunder or the voice of an angel, assured him that his sacrifice would achieve the divine design…that his death would fulfil the promise made by God to overturn the effects of the Fall (Genesis 3:15). However, Jesus indicated that this voice was in reality, not for his benefit, but for theirs. 

In many ways, even today his struggles here may help us when we are deliberating difficult decisions in our lives. As Jesus had previously warned his disciples if he was persecuted, they too would be persecuted, and we are told by Early Church historians and traditions that all but one of the disciples were martyred for their faith. The suffering of Jesus addresses our own.

In his first Epistle, Peter tells us that it is better, if it is the will of God, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil. And then he compared our suffering with the suffering of Jesus who also suffered as a just man so that he might bring us to God. (1 Peter 3:17-18) 

Now, in one sense, of course, we can never compare our suffering to the suffering of Jesus. Nevertheless, one of the goals of suffering does create a favourable comparison. Jesus’ goal was the glory of God. Suffering because of our faith in Jesus also glorifies God as it is a declaration to both the visible and the invisible world that our love for God is greater than our love for what this world has to offer. 

It has often been said that it was the bravely borne suffering of the First Century Christians that brought many spectators in the Colosseum to faith in Jesus. In his Apologeticus, Tertullian wrote: “We multiply when you reap us. The blood of Christians is seed,” perhaps an allusion to our Lord’s use of a wheat kernel as an illustration.

Nevertheless, it is a good question for us to ponder. What is primary in my life? Is God glorified in everything I say and do?

Now, because this voice from heaven sanctioned not only the teaching ministry of Jesus but also his ministry of reconciliation through his vicarious substitutionary death, his disciples especially needed to understand that the sudden and unexpected transition from the enthronement anticipated the day before in the triumphal entry, to his actual enthronement on an instrument of execution a few days later, was not a defeat or a mistake, but a fulfilment of the divine purpose and plan. “Now,” Jesus said, “is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” 

What would soon take place on the cross was nothing less than the restoration of the world to its rightful state. The ruler of this world, Satan the usurper, would be overthrown, publicly disgraced, and disarmed at the cross. (Colossians 2:15) The death of Jesus on the cross signifies not a judgement, but the judgement of all time as the consequence is a total takeover. 

As John wrote in his first epistle, “For this purpose, the Son of God was manifested that he might destroy the works of the devil.” (1 John 3:8) The author to the Hebrews took it a step further when he said in 2:14-15, “Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared in the same, that through death he might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage.”

As far as I can see, according to the testimony of Scripture, Satan was defeated and cast out at the cross. Now, this victory holds both a blessing and a curse. Because the cross itself was at once the decisive moment in which judgment was rendered on sin and on Satan, as well as the deciding moment of judgment in which subjects would be drawn to Jesus, it follows that the one who absorbed the curse thus voiding it of its power, becomes the judge of all. Again, as the author of Hebrews says in 1:3, “…when he had by himself purged our sins, (he) sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.” Not only was Satan defeated at the cross…not only did the expunging of our sins take place at the very same time…but also, because of the cross, Jesus was enthroned as King and as Judge over all. 

And so, it is because of this overwhelming victory that all humanity indeed is drawn to stand before Jesus the righteous Judge. As he said in Matthew 25:31-46, it is as he sits on his glorious throne that all nations will be gathered to him for judgement. It is the cross that separates the sheep from the goats. 

That Jesus meant that this would take place through his death on the cross is confirmed not only by John’s comment in verse 33, but also by the misguided statements of the Jews. They could not understand the concept of a dying deliverer because they had been led to believe that the Messiah would be a warrior king who would remain forever. Of course, this is true as ultimately Jesus does reign for all eternity, but his ascension to the throne was to take place through the cross.

Ignoring their questions, Jesus responded rather with a promise that contained both a warning as well as a reward. “You are going to have the light just a little while longer,” he said. “Walk while you have the light before darkness overtakes you.” 

Now, the image of a light that is different to that which radiates from the sun and other planets originates in Genesis 1:3 where light is created before the creation of the cosmic luminaries. This light appears to be something other than what we would consider “natural” because in Exodus 10:21 and following, during the 9th plague in Egypt, God provided light to the Israelites while the rest of the land languished in a supernaturally thick darkness. Again, in Exodus 14:19-20 the presence of God depicted in a Pillar of Cloud by day and Fire by night came between the fleeing Israelites and the pursuing Egyptians and throughout the night the cloud brought darkness to the one side and light to the other side. 

Then the prophets also spoke of a coming deliverer in terms of a light that would ultimately overcome the darkness and thereby bring salvation to the Gentiles. John applied this directly to Jesus in the opening chapters of both his Gospel as well as his first Epistle. 

So, we can safely say that ‘walking in the light’ is not a New Testament concept. Often the Old Testament prophets exhorted and encouraged God’s people to walk in the light of the Lord so that they might not be engulfed by the darkness which would come because of the Lord’s withdrawal of his presence due to their sins. And this is precisely the same picture Jesus sketched here for his listeners. The light stood before them and (if I may borrow Exodus terminology here) if they refused to follow him out of bondage, they would remain enslaved in the darkness. That was the warning.

But the reward was for those who put their trust in the light and followed him. They would become “children of light”. Just as the moon reflects the light of the sun, those who walk in the light of Jesus reflect him. Those who follow him become like him. In Matthew 5:14, the one who referred to himself as the light of the world applied the very same imagery to his disciples. “You,” he said, “are the light of the world.” In other words, people ought to see Jesus reflected in and through us. 

But this wonderful reward is a result of selflessly giving up what we will for what God wills, just as Jesus gave up his will so that he might fulfil the Father’s will. Jesus purchased this reward for us at the cost of his precious life…and we are called upon to follow in his footsteps. So, we ought to love God more than our lives. 

Jesus’ purpose was to lay down his life for us…our purpose is similar and yet different. While we cannot provide atonement for sin, we can “sacrifice” our lives or give up what we want for our lives, so that others might embrace the atonement we have received through Jesus. This was not easy for Jesus, and it will not be easy for us either. 

He openly asked God to save him from that very thing that would secure our salvation if it were possible. But even as he faced horrors we cannot begin to imagine with our finite minds, he obediently accepted and surrendered to the task and, as Hebrews 12:2 tells us, “for the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame”. And because of his obedience even unto death on the cross, he subsequently was elevated to the right hand of the throne of God, drawing his children up with him.

As those who both walk in the light and are children of the light, we too have a responsibility to take his light into the darkness of this world, regardless of what it might cost us. We are not only called to repent and believe in Jesus…we are not only called to trust and love him…we are also called to follow him, to be like him, to reflect him, and to be conformed to his image.

And so, dearest beloved brethren, let us put our absolute trust in the light so that we might be children of light.

Shall we pray?

© Johannes W H van der Bijl 2024



Wednesday, February 7, 2024

Dealing with Personal Contradictions

 Jeremiah 2:1-13                                       John 12:9-19

Dealing with Personal Contradictions

In his book, The God Who is There, Dr Francis Schaefer told a story about the late contemporary American Composer by the name of John Cage.  Mr Cage evidently believed that the universe is impersonal by nature and that it originated only through pure chance. In an attempt to live consistently with his personal philosophy, Cage pioneered a form of composition called “indeterminacy” in which some parts of the work are left open to chance or to the interpreter's individual imagination.  He used, among other things, the tossing of coins and the rolling of dice to ensure that no personal element entered into the final product. The result is music that has little to no form or structure and, for the most part, no appeal. (https://youtu.be/XlBo7_3EXqk?si=0cf-_iQ0RAqiAkG2  https://youtu.be/Rlyf9_gkP1A?si=urfKzbRj5mqErXDb).

Now what is interesting about this gentleman is that although his professional life accurately reflected his philosophy, his personal life did not. One of his favourite pastime activities was mycology, the study of fungi and mushrooms. But because of the potentially lethal results of ingesting the wrong sort of mushroom, he could not approach this activity on a purely by-chance basis. Concerning this personal contradiction, he apparently said that he became aware that if he approached mushrooms in the spirit of chance operations, he would die.

John Cage believed one thing but practised another. Faced with the certainty of creation, he chose to ignore the obvious signs of ordered design in the universe and stubbornly clung to his own novel theory. You may well ask, how was he able to live with such a glaring personal contradiction? Surely, if he had seriously reflected on this incongruity, he would have had to admit his inconsistency and change his theory. But well-entrenched presuppositions tend to override any attempt at serious reflection because the alternative has already been rejected outright without any form of proper investigation. 

True, most people live with contradictions in their personal lives, some major, some minor. So, it is not a question of whether or not we have them in our lives, but rather what we do with them when they are discovered. In our Gospel passage for today, we have three main responses to having our contradictions exposed by the truth: the removal or the avoidance of truth, the recognition and re-evaluation of truth, and the rejection of truth.

As we have already seen, the Chief Priests and Pharisees had decided Jesus was dangerous and that he was leading the people in a direction that was potentially harmful to them. Consequently, they began to plot against him, to eliminate him. But while they entertained thoughts of murder in their heart, Jesus did something that brought them face to face with a question that demanded an answer. If Jesus was a liar or a deluded lunatic or yet another megalomanic revolutionary, then how could they explain the raising of Lazarus? Anyone in their right mind would think that this incomprehensible miracle would have brought them to their senses…that they would have been forced to reconsider their position and admit that they were wrong concerning their conclusions about Jesus. 

But they didn’t do that, did they? Instead, when confronted with the truth, they simply ignored it by seeking to remove it…and so, even though it boggles the mind, they considered murdering Lazarus because his mere existence testified against them. Now we marvel at such a ludicrous decision, but how often haven’t we done something similar? We dogmatically defend our position in an argument, only to find that we are wrong…and then we either admit our mistake and change our opinion, or we attempt to avoid the person and/or the subject, which can be problematic depending on the level of the relationship. That’s how church hopping, and church splits happen. 

 Yet the strangest thing is that if we were able to question the Chief Priests about this conflict in their thinking, they would more than likely have denied that there was an inconsistency. No one likes to admit the discrepancies in their philosophy of life…no one enjoys admitting they are wrong, especially if they have really made an issue about it or hold a position of authority. Pride is one of the most difficult things for humans to deal with. But if we are ever to benefit from the truth, we will have to learn to eat humble pie often, because none of us are exempt from flaws and errors. 

Think of how the lives of the Chief Priests would have changed had they confessed that their conclusions about Jesus were incorrect. If they had faced the truth with humility, they would have changed their opinions concerning him and would have come to a saving knowledge of his person. But sadly, they determined to remove whatever challenged them and to eliminate whoever exposed their ignorance and hardness of heart. 

You can stop your ears all you like…you can run and hide…you can attempt to ignore or eradicate the truth…but truth will not be obliterated. Truth will come to light, as the Bard said.  It will confront you again and again throughout your life and in the end, as you stand before the Throne of Judgement, truth will have to be acknowledged even if only through clenched teeth. And as John wrote in the Revelation,  those who rejected the Way, the Truth, and the Life…"those who pierced him", to use his words, witnessed with their eyes his universal sovereignty when that which they endeavoured to protect and preserve was destroyed by the Roman forces in AD 70.

A better way to deal with truth is to recognise it for what it is and to re-evaluate your own present position in the light of that truth. When Jesus entered Jerusalem on the back of a young donkey, the crowds recalled the many great things he had said and done and concluded that he was the long-awaited Messiah, the King of Israel. But truth not put into practice soon becomes a stumbling block. It’s easy to believe something when it's simple and obvious and when you are in the majority. But the test of whether truth has been understood and integrated into your belief system is whether it will continue to govern your way of life when the going gets tough and you find that you are in the minority. 

Many in this same crowd of enthusiastic participants turned quite nasty a few days later, didn’t they? Yes, some may still have clung to what they believed to be true, but if the reaction of the disciples at the arrest, trial, and crucifixion is any indication of the general response of the people, then that number was not very large.

However, it is possible to recognise and accept the truth, to lose that truth in a moment of strife or intense pressure, and yet to regain that truth after some recollection and reflection. This was true of the disciples, at least. Triumphantly, they marched by the side of the Master as he rode into Jerusalem. Confidently they openly acknowledged him and fearlessly supported him. Little did they know that they would be cowering behind locked doors only a few days later, having abandoned him or even denied him either by word or deed.

Yet, after the resurrection, when Jesus took them through the Scriptures, showing them the many things written about him from Genesis through to Malachi, they returned to the truth. For the first time after those awful three days, the confusing events surrounding what was surely the most stressful time of their lives, all made sense and they could once more embrace the truth and overcome their momentary unbelief. 

Often, throughout the New Testament, we read that the authors remembered what had been written about Jesus and then they would quote the relevant passages to substantiate or validate the truth of what they were writing. By recalling the things written about Jesus as well as the things said by Jesus, and by reflecting on what he had done, they concluded that this man they had followed for three years was, in fact, God incarnate. 

And this called for radical change in their thinking and their way of living…a hundred-and-eighty-degree turn in their philosophy of life. They had to discard all that they had learned and believed before to accept what they now knew to be true. To many Jews, a suffering and dying messiah was ludicrous…even though it is all over the Scriptures…so they invented their own ideas about who this messiah would be. 

Most believed that he would be a warrior-king who would free them from the tyranny of Rome and re-establish the Davidic kingdom once more. Right up until the ascension, we see that even the disciples thought this was what he was going to do. Remember their question in Acts 1:6? “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” 

I don’t think we realise how difficult it must have been for them to recognise the truth, let alone accept it! But that is why they needed the Holy Spirit to help them comprehend the truth and also have the wisdom and ability to articulate that truth in such a way as to make it understandable to those to whom they spoke and wrote. 

That is why we too need the Holy Spirit. He substantiates and validates our testimony to the truth. His internal work turns even the most stubborn and wicked persons into humble believers…we see this in the Scriptures, but also in our lives and in the lives of other followers of Jesus. He convicts us of sin, of righteousness, and of judgment. He takes out the heart of stone and replaces it with a heart of flesh. He upholds us with a new and willing spirit. He gives us the power to be obedient. 

Only God can change the hearts of people. If the Gospels teach us anything it is that no sign, no wonder, no miracle, no argument, or logic will ever turn a corrupt and wicked heart…only God can do that. So, when confronted with truth, it is only those who have been prepared or regenerated by the Holy Spirit who will believe. According to Paul, “The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit.” (1 Corinthians 2:14) And so even when faced with the impossible, these Chief Priests could not see the truth because the truth had no part in them. 

And this leads to the final way folks deal with truth and that is rejection. One of the most tragic kinds of people in the Church are the lone crusaders. That’s where many splinter groups have come from. These folks somehow convince themselves that they alone are right in spite of the overwhelming historical and biblical evidence against them. Think of people like Joseph Smith, Jim Jones, or David Koresh. 

But sadder still is the fact that these people always succeed in attracting followers because most of them tend to be rather persuasive and dynamic or they tend to be forceful, violent, unpredictable, and irrational and their followers fear them. The latter was certainly true of the Pharisees as those who disagreed with them were threatened with excommunication. As we saw in the case of the man born blind, there was no reasoning with them…you were either in or out. 

And we have the same thing here…even though they saw that many of the people were persuaded by the raising of Lazarus, they dug in their heels and rejected the obvious. Same with the resurrection of Jesus. They chose to bribe the soldiers to lie about what they had witnessed rather than confess and change.

Throughout the book of Acts, these same men were confronted with the truth as taught by a growing body of believers. They were confronted with bold and determined witnessing. They were confronted with signs and wonders done by those who believed in the name of the one they had crucified. But what did they do? While some did believe, most of them rejected the truth. 

Could they explain the healing of the man born blind? No. Could they explain the resurrection of Lazarus?  No. Could they explain the resurrection of Jesus? No. Could they explain the changed lives of the disciples? No.  On multiple occasions, they were faced with a contradiction in their philosophy of life, and they only had three options…removal or avoidance of the truth…removing the messenger of truth or moving themselves out of the way, which we would call ignoring the elephant in the room…re-evaluation of what they thought was the truth…or the outright deliberate rejection of the truth…facing it, acknowledging it, but consciously denying it anyway.

We also have the same three choices. The first and the last, removal and rejection, are relatively easy because they conform to our sinful and proud fallen nature, but they exact a very high price tag. The second is the more difficult path to follow as it demands great humility and self-discipline, but its rewards are peace and love and true joy. God’s ways are never easy for fallen humanity because they are contrary to what we want in life, but they are always the best.   

You can live with contradiction if you suppress the truth as John Cage and many others have done. But who really wants to risk living a lie?

Shall we pray?

© Johannes W H van der Bijl 2024

Friday, February 2, 2024

Acceptable Service

Isaiah 1:11-17                        Revelation 2:1-7                           John 11:55-12:11

Acceptable Service

There are many stories of hypocrisy, treachery, and betrayal in the history of the world. From Genesis three onwards we are confronted by humanity’s uncanny ability to lie, cheat, and steal while maintaining an appearance of innocence…in this respect, we resemble the father of lies who can appear to be a messenger of light (2 Corinthians 11:14) more than we do the Father of truth in whom there is no darkness (1 John 1:5). 

Sadly, this flaw can be found even in those who claim to be followers of the Way, the Truth, and the Life. From Cain’s feigned surprise when confronted by God for the murder of his brother…to Kings who were expected to live by the Law of God and who yet resisted and persecuted and executed Prophets…to Prophets who quite happily prophesied falsely in exchange for fame and fortune…to Priests who perverted God’s Law to suit their lucrative grip on political power…to many throughout the ages who chose to challenge, contradict, twist, or void God’s Word for the sake of personal gain. 

Throughout the Gospels, Jesus often confronted the political and religious powers of his day exposing their practices by citing Scripture. Worship devoid of truth is meaningless because God is truth. The basic message to the church in Ephesus in Revelation 2:1-7 was that although they possessed many virtues and it appeared that they had their act together doctrinally, they had lost their first love and consequently they were exhorted to repent and to do the works they did at first…in this case, it seems John was alluding to Jesus’ statement that if we truly loved Jesus we would keep his commandments (John 14:15)…love and obedience always go together. 

So, the conflict between Jesus and the church in Ephesus then concerned their bizarre inconsistency.  For all their religious purity and rigorous rules, they were in actuality not obeying God’s Word. Subsequently, as a church that claimed to be something they were not, their witness to Jesus was not faithful…in fact, they were nothing less than bold-faced liars and Jesus threatened to remove them as light-bearers because the light in them was no longer light, but darkness (Luke 11:35).

Unfortunately, people such as these often believe themselves to be right, and they will defend their position even to the point of duplicity and deception, defamation and betrayal, or when all else fails, murder. But surely the saddest part of it all is that this is not confined to those outside the Fellowship of Christ. While it was the Sanhedrin who plotted to kill Jesus, it was Judas who betrayed him to them. 

Now, in our Gospel passage today, we have several contrasts between those who are light and those who are posing as light. 

John informs us that many went up from the countryside to Jerusalem to be purified before the Passover. Timewise quite a lot had happened since Jesus left Jerusalem to go to Ephraim, but you will have to read the other Gospels to fill in these blanks. For instance, we know from the other Gospels that Jesus came to Bethany via Jericho where he had brought Zacchaeus back into the fold. Now obviously, the excitement concerning the resurrection of a decomposing corpse had not abated…if anything it had probably increased by word of mouth and the Chief Priests were contemplating the assassination of Lazarus as well as Jesus because his very existence preserved the problem of an unexplainable miracle by an unwanted messianic figure.

So, here comes the first contrast. The pilgrims, whom we are told were excitedly looking for Jesus, arrived early to be purified in the many pools for ritual cleansing located at the foot of the southern steps on the Temple Mount so that they might observe the holy festival. But at least some of those administering these rites of purification were themselves impure as they carried in their hearts thoughts and plans of hatred and murder. 

Now, John tells us that Jesus arrived in Bethany six days before the Passover. That year Passover fell on the Sabbath, making it a special High Day (John 19:31). According to Judean reckoning (remember the Galileans counted days from sunrise to sunrise, while the people from Judea counted days from sunset to sunset) , this would have been the first day of the week, or Sunday as we call the day now. I believe this is significant because Jesus was arrested and tried on Thursday night (and early Friday morning) but he was crucified on the Friday, or the day of preparation, the day before the Passover when the lambs were being slaughtered. 

He was then hurriedly bundled up in cloth and spices before sunset that Friday and he “rested” in the tomb that Saturday. Then shortly before sunrise on Sunday, the women, who had come to complete what had not been completed on Friday, were told by angels that he had risen from the dead. In other words, this feast recorded in our Gospel lesson for today, occurred exactly one week before the resurrection. 

Is it possible that John was trying to draw our attention to the imagery of creation and the Exodus? Mankind had been created on the sixth day. God had “rested” from his creative labours on the seventh day. If we believe that the cross began the reversal of the effects of the Fall, it may be that John was following a recreation timetable here…a sort of final countdown, if you will. As humans were created on the sixth day, so they were recreated on the sixth day, at the same time when the people were remembering the night when the angel of death passed over all those who had the blood of the lamb daubed on the lintels of their doorways. 

Once more, on the Sabbath God “rested” from his labours, but this time from the labour of recreation. Remember Jesus’ words on the cross, “it is finished”…words that may echo what was said of creation at its completion in Genesis 2:2. Jesus then rose again on the first day of the week to usher in this new beginning. The raising of Lazarus had served as a picture promise of this glorious reality. And, of course, one cannot miss the obvious table fellowship imagery. In six days’ time, Jesus would quite literally give his body and his blood to sustain the spiritual life of all his people. Together, they would then shortly feast again at the table of the Marriage Supper of the Lamb.

But as important as the timeline and the recreation imagery may be, I think the main point of the immediate passage is to contrast those whose religion is purely external with those whose devotion wells up from an inward reality. Whereas the Sadducees and Pharisees went about their meaningless duties, harbouring hatred and murderous thoughts in their dark hearts, the followers of Jesus gathered around him to savour every moment and every word and to honour him as best they could.

It is interesting to note that John tells us how each one of our famous family from Bethany honoured their Lord and friend in different ways using their obvious gifts. God gives every one of us specific but different gifts. 

Gifts such as cooking and cleaning and gardening can be every bit as spiritual as preaching and teaching – remember the craftsmen Bezalel and Oholiab who were filled with the Spirit of God, with ability and intelligence, with knowledge and all craftsmanship to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, to work in every craft. (Exodus 31:3-6) Their artistic craftmanship was a gift from God. And we are well pleasing to God when we use our gifts to honour him. 

Martha, as we would expect, was serving. That was her gift. Lazarus, John tells us, was among those who were reclining with the Lord at the table, which, when we understand that this feast took place at the home of Simon the Leper according to Matthew 26:6-7 and Mark 14:3-9, means that he was as much a guest as Jesus. However, itinerant Rabbis were often invited to lecture at meals and so one would expect Lazarus to be there as a student or a disciple.

And then there was Mary. We know from Luke 10:38-42 that there was some friction between the sisters as Mary did not share the same practical homebuilding skills with Martha. That in itself is a lesson we would do well to learn. Just because someone does not possess the same gift as you, does not make their gift any less. But, as we learned from their respective responses to the Lord following the death of their brother, Mary was certainly the more sensitive and openly emotionally expressive of the two sisters. 

Be that as it may, Mary’s form of devotion here is startingly sacrificial. Spikenard, which is also known as nard, muskroot, and nardin, has a woody, spicy, earthy fragrance. It is derived from a plant known as “Nardostachys Jatamansi”, a flowering plant of the Valerian family that grows in the Himalayas. It is mentioned in Mark 14:3-9 as an oil used by an unnamed woman to anoint Jesus before the crucifixion. It is also mentioned in the Song of Songs 4:14. It was used as incense in the Temple and in the preparation of bodies for burial. A pound or pint is about 473 millilitres or 324 grams or 12 ounces. A jar would normally contain no more than an ounce, so Mary would have been enormously extravagant here. 

John tells us that this ointment was worth a year’s wages for an average worker so one is not surprised when Judas (as well as the other disciples according to the synoptic Gospels) criticises her apparent wastefulness. Many scholars believe that this jar of expensive perfume was a form of “life savings”. Assuming that she was not married as no husband is ever mentioned and the siblings appear to have been living together, should anything happen to Lazarus, the sisters would be left with nothing but their personal possessions. So, this jar of spikenard would then offer a form of security against poverty. 

When you think about this it seems that the anointing was more than just devotion. It was a statement of faith. What she was pouring out on his feet was her insurance, if you will…her pension, as it were…her future. Like the widow in the temple treasury who gave all she had.

The contrast then with Judas (and the other disciples) is certainly a glaring one! On the one hand, we have Mary who gives all and then on the other hand we have Judas who is portrayed as one who habitually steals and who will ultimately betray his Lord. Another contrast will come four days later during another meal…an embarrassing scene where it seems none of the male disciples were willing to demean themselves by performing the task of a servant in washing the feet of the travellers. 

Now this is quite a challenge for us who often only remember the great things people achieve. It seems that it is the apparent insignificant things…like the giving of a cup of cold water or performing the tasks considered beneath our dignity…it is the insignificant things that are remembered and valued by our Lord.

John mentions that the fragrance of the spikenard filled the whole house. Knowing John, we should not skip over this as a mere trivial observation. It may be that he was indicating that her sacrificial giving was a well-pleasing aroma to the Lord, like the burnt offerings in the Old Testament and the frequent use of this term by Paul referring to sacrificial giving and sacrificial living. Through Isaiah God made it clear to the preexilic community in Judea that the multitude of their sacrifices were meaningless and gave him no pleasure…the sweet-smelling incense was detestable to him…because their deeds were evil. Gifts given with incorrect motives are better not given at all. 

But then comes the sad contrast. One of the many reasons I believe the Gospels are genuine is because of the inclusion of such embarrassing moments as these. The pseudo or apocryphal Gospels and letters never make the heroes look bad. But this event casts such a poor light on the male followers of Jesus that one marvels that they included it at all. 

Remember, these men were disciples…they had walked with Jesus for three-plus years, and they had learned at his feet. It is amazing to think that they were just six days away from the crucifixion of the Lord…and what were they arguing about? Perfumed oil. But it is always the so-called little things that break up friendships and fellowship, isn’t it? That’s why Solomon warned us to catch “the little foxes” that destroy the vineyard (Song of Songs 2:15). If only we could major on the many important doctrinally central things we agree on, we would not tend to trip over the fewer or more peripheral things we disagree about! 

But what is even more startling here is that they (Judas and the other disciples) condemned what their Lord had already accepted. Surely by now, they ought to have learned that their Master would have objected if he deemed the action inappropriate! But sadly, all too often the followers of Jesus think themselves more righteous than him! And so, they begrudged him this act of devotion with a pious reference to the poor, perhaps referring to the custom of giving to the poor on the evening of Passover.

But John reveals the true reason behind the objection…Judas was a thief and had been for some time. He had apparently, been given charge over the communal purse but he was lining his own pocket all along. When compared to Mary we see a man who had little faith in God’s provision. While she abandoned any thought of future security, quite literally pouring it out at Jesus’ feet, he was feathering his nest and we know exactly where that took him. 

Now, Jesus’ reply to this objection is interesting. Firstly, he referred to what would be his hasty burial six days later, when there would not be time for such an anointing with oil, something none of them could have predicted…but somehow Mary’s action became prophetic. Did she have some sort of intuition? Had she discerned something the others did not? 

It is quite possible that while Martha was bustling around in the kitchen, and while the men were arguing about position and authority in the kingdom, sometimes even callously in the context of Jesus’ statements regarding his betrayal, trial, execution, death, burial, and resurrection, Mary was listening at a deeper level and somehow perceived that something monumental was about to happen. 

But then secondly, Jesus appeared to quote from Deuteronomy 15. Concerning giving generously to the poor, Jesus said “You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.” Jesus was not saying that they should not give to the poor…but rather that they needed to balance priority and timing. 

What Mary had done was more than a simple act of devotion…she had anointed Jesus for his burial…the only proper anointing he would get because of later haste. But I think there’s more to this than that. There are images of sacrifice here for sure, for both Mary and Jesus, but perhaps there is also a hint as to what would happen after his sacrificial death as the Lamb of God who would take away the sins of the world. Unknown to her and everyone else in that room, Mary was anointing the future universal king. Her anointing pointed forward to his priestly royalty…to the fact that he was a sacrifice destined for exaltation via the suffering of his substitutionary death. 

Everyone seemed to have missed all this…they all seemed to have missed the significance of this sacrificial act of devotion because their focus was elsewhere. The number of times the disciples were yet to stumble over the concept of servanthood rather than arrogance and swaggering remains to be examined in future sermons. 

But to bring this home, one would have thought that by this time, with two centuries of church history behind us, we would have learned to be more like Jesus. But even today, pride seems to be more prevalent in the Church than humility. We just love to lord it over each other, don’t we? 

In our Gospel passage for today, we have two sad examples…on the one hand, we have those who are reprobate despite their elaborate religious observances and then on the other hand, we have those who are followers of Jesus and yet are blinded by their own values and ambitions. Perhaps if we allowed the love of God, which he has poured out abundantly in our hearts, to direct us as it did Paul who viewed it as the supreme virtue, we would be more like Mary and less like the Sadducees, Pharisees, and, in this case, the disciples…especially Judas. Paul teaches us that if we do not love, our lives are as jarring as a clanging cymbal. Perhaps if we were less concerned with ourselves – if we were less concerned with always being right – crossing all our t’s and dotting all our i’s, we would be able to love each other as God has commanded us to love.

Giving up our pride may be as difficult and as risky as Mary’s sacrifice of her future investment. It will certainly render us more vulnerable to each other as Mary’s act made her vulnerable and exposed her to severe criticism and censure. But ultimately, we must ask ourselves a rather uncomfortable question: whom do I wish to impress? God or humanity? 

Shall we pray?

© Johannes W H van der Bijl 2024

Friday, January 26, 2024

Profound Bindness

Psalm 94:8-11                           2 Samuel 20:14-22                         John 11:45-54

Profound Blindness

Have you ever discovered, right in the middle of a debate or a discussion or an argument, that you were wrong and yet you still chose to continue to defend your position? I'm ashamed to admit that I have done this in the past…more so when I was younger than now…but I still remember the day when I decided to make a concerted effort to stop doing that. To rather admit that I was wrong as soon as possible and apologise because I found that the longer you wait to concede the more difficult and painful it becomes for all concerned. 

But have you ever wondered why people do this? I’m sure you have also been on the other end of such a discussion or perhaps you have been an exasperated witness. It is mind-boggling how people can still uphold their opinions when all logic is heaped up against them. Or worse when they base what they believe on how they feel! We all know that feelings can change with the weather or with a bad bit of steak! But besides that, how on earth can you argue with, “Yes, I know that is what the Scriptures say, but I feel, blah, blah, blah”? It’s enough to tear your hair out. Such people simply will not hear because they are not listening. Often such deliberations end in anger and things are said and done that may (or may not) be regretted later.

Now, last week we examined the possible reasons why Jesus allowed his dear friends to suffer such prolonged anguish and grief when he basically could have healed Lazarus even from a distance. The resurrection of a four-day-old, rotting corpse was an indisputable sign that Jesus was more than a good man, a virtuous teacher, or a mighty prophet. 

Interestingly, just as an aside, some Jewish Rabbis believe that the soul of the deceased remains present for a while after death – some say until the burial or a few days after the burial (see Shabbat 152b). The soul is even believed to mourn over its discarded and decomposing body, at times even hanging around for a while because it feels homeless. Now you know where ghost stories come from! 

But, as far as I know, no one ever contemplated the possibility of a soul returning to the body once the process of decay had set in because the body was no longer habitable. “According to Dr. Arpad A. Vass, a Senior Staff Scientist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Adjunct Associate Professor at the University of Tennessee in Forensic Anthropology, human decomposition begins around four minutes after a person dies and follows four stages: autolysis (or self-digestion) , bloat, active decay, and skeletonization.” 

After four days, given the climate of that region, Lazarus would have been well on his way to stage three of this process which explains Martha’s horrified reaction to Jesus’ command to remove the heavy stone covering from the mouth of the cave or tomb. Resurrecting a person who had just died was one thing…resurrecting an actively decaying body was unthinkable. 

And for this reason, many of those who witnessed the startling event believed in Jesus.

However, disturbingly, John tells us that some went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. Whether the intention was good or bad, we are not told, but this report sparked off a series of events that led to the murder of Jesus. 

Now, as I said before, the raising of the decomposing corpse of Lazarus was an indisputable sign pointing to the nature of Jesus…no one had ever raised a rotting corpse before, so the miracle was undeniable. However, remember what Abraham said to the rich man in Sheol? “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”. As with Lazarus so also with Jesus…they would not believe…

But what I’d like for us to consider today is the reason why they would not believe. 

So, let’s start with what the Sanhedrin had to say: “What are we to do? For this man performs many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.” The fear expressed here is that they will either lose their position as rulers or lose the Temple itself or lose both as well as the nation as a whole. But why? What was the basis for this fear? 

Well, the backstory here is long and complicated, so I will try my best to keep it simple and to the point. This fear really began with the destruction of the Temple by the Babylonians. So many Judeans had believed that their God would not allow his Temple to be destroyed even though the prophets had warned them that because of their life choices and lifestyles, God had abandoned them as well as their city and their temple. They had abandoned God by not obeying his Word and therefore God had abandoned them. Now, for reasons we can’t go into now, they had erroneously believed that the destruction of the Temple meant their God had been defeated by the gods of the invaders. 

Imagine their surprise when the prophet Ezekiel described to them what must be one of the most bizarre visions of all time. In his vision, Ezekiel saw God coming to his people in their place of exile, outside the Promised Land, on a mobile throne. Remember the wheels, the eyes, the angels etc? But while the vision might have been obscure and weird, the lesson was clear. God was enthroned above and over the universe and the God of the universe does not live in buildings made by humans. He is not like the false gods of the unbelievers. So, the destruction of the Temple was a sign of judgement on the people, not of the defeat of God. To the contrary. The destruction of the Temple meant that God was very much in control and would not be toyed with even by his own people. 

However, when the exiles were allowed to return under the Persians, they were encouraged to rebuild Jerusalem and the Temple. Why? Well, because the City and the Temple were the unifying objects of the Jews. That’s what the major struggle between Sanballat on the one hand and Nehemiah and company on the other hand was all about. The Samarians, if you recall, had built a rival Temple on Mount Gerizim based on their understanding of the instructions in the Torah because they did not accept the writings and the prophets as Scripture and, consequently, they did not accept the Davidic dynasty nor the primacy of Jerusalem and its Temple. 

Remember, before the exile, Judah was a monarchy under the Davidic kings, a dynasty with a claim to divine investiture, an investiture spelt out in the writings and the prophets, but not the Torah. And their reign was inextricably linked with Jerusalem, because it was the City of David, and also with the Temple which was built by his son Solomon. 

So, any shift concerning the placement of the Temple was a shift in the locus of power and therefore a threat to Jewish identity. Jerusalem and the Temple were central to everything Jewish. So, it was imperative and inevitable that the Temple be rebuilt in Jerusalem. What was not rebuilt, however, was the Davidic monarchy. Various governors serving under the Persians and the Greeks ruled in their stead. The code of law declared by Ezra in the early 4th century BC served as the legal ideal of a theocratic state, but one ruled by priests rather than by kings.

Now, jumping ahead several years to the Greek period, the Greeks allowed the Jews to manage their own affairs, without much interference by the government, but leadership was given to the High Priest, not a king. Sometime in the first century BC, an historian by the name of Diodorus Siculus said that because of the Greeks, the Jews never had a king because authority over the people was regularly vested in whichever priest was regarded as superior to his colleagues in wisdom and virtue. 

This form of government continued after the Maccabean revolt, and it was sealed by the eventual establishment of the Hasmonean Priest-Kings. The descendants of David all but faded into obscurity. 

So, the emerging Jewish religion now had a sacred centre in Jerusalem that became the focus of regular pilgrimages and the beneficiary of generous gifts and taxes due to the sanctuary and its officials. That was a dramatic shift for people who thought that Judaism needed to be a Davidic kingdom. Many still believed the prophetic promises that God had made to his people that Israel was to be a kingdom ruled by Davidic kings sanctioned by God himself. However, at some point in time, many of the descendants of David moved to Alexandria in Egypt and stayed there. Those remaining in Judea and Galilee became labourers and tradesmen. 

All of this further empowered the priests as they moved from being cultic officials to being wealthy politicians. They became the political leaders of Judaism, establishing themselves as a kingdom of priests, a term taken straight out of the book of Exodus, and they never relinquished that power from then on. Rather, they depicted themselves as the realization of God's purpose for Israel. But you may well ask, what about God's other prophetic promises regarding a future Davidic king? Well, that created national tension because some folks steadfastly believed that the Davidic Covenant still stood.

But then to complicate matters even further, when Pompey finally conquered Jerusalem, after years of friendly cooperation between the Jews and Rome, a puppet king by the name of Herod was installed to rule over the Jews. Now, Herod's ancestors were Edomites who had converted to Judaism, and his mother was Jewish, but although he had been raised as a Jew, he nevertheless was not widely accepted by the general population and so he married a Hasmonean princess to legitimize his claim to the throne. 

But as Rome transitioned from a Republic to what eventually became an Empire, they soon became overlords and oppressors controlling the cooperative leaders of the Jews (the Herodians and the Sadducees especially) and destroying any form of opposition like the zealots and especially self-proclaimed messiahs. This created an atmosphere ripe for messianic fever. But what was this messiah going to be? A warrior liberator like Joshua? A priest-king like the Hasmonaeans? Or would he be a Davidic descendant? And what would that mean for those currently in positions of power?

So, you can imagine why things were a little tense in Jerusalem when a descendant of David was becoming more and more popular gaining an ever-expanding following. If there was an uprising among the people that would challenge Rome, the current leadership would be in deep trouble regardless of who won the day in the end. 

However, we must remember that we are dealing with men who were steeped in the teachings of Scripture, so one would have expected their primary concern to be spiritual, but whenever the lines between political and religious entities are blurred the outcome is usually some form of compromise or outright rejection of biblical truth. So it is important to realise that the major concern of the Sanhedrin was about power and position and posterity, not truth. 

Instead of acknowledging the signs for what they were and the Man for who he was, they feared that politically things could get out of hand. The High Priest at the time, Joseph ben Caiaphas (who held office from AD 18-36), had been appointed in AD 18 by the Roman prefect Valerius Gratus (who preceded Pontius Pilate) after his father-in-law, Annas had been deposed. So, the threat of deposition or removal from office hung over the heads of anyone whose action displeased Rome. 

Consequently, their fear, then, was for their positions of power, the Temple that unified and controlled the people and served as a lucrative source of income, and the nation should they dare to rebel. Obviously, the zealous Maccabean blood had run cold by this time. The sad irony here is that the very thing they feared and sought to protect at all costs, became reality in AD 70 when Rome finally squelched the Jewish rebellion and razed Jerusalem to the ground. 

Be that as it may, the Sanhedrin rallied together, and expressed their anxious thoughts one to another, hoping that someone would come up with a viable solution to their dilemma. It is instructive to note that there is no mention of divine consultation. No prayers, no Urim and Thummin, no lot, no ephod, no prophet…nothing. But their carnality did not stop God.

When Caiaphas unveiled his diabolical plan to remove their problem, John says that he inadvertently uttered a prophetic word from God. Like Balaam, he prophesied unconsciously. What he meant was that if they would sacrifice one man, they would demonstrate their zeal for the supremacy of Rome. Remember their statement at the trial before Pilate. When the pagan governor said to them “Here is your King!” they shouted back, “Away with Him! Away with Him! Crucify Him!” Stunned, Pilate asked, “Shall I crucify your King?” And what was the reply of the chief priests? “We have no king but Caesar!”

But Caiaphas’ recommendation was in direct violation of Exodus 23:7 where God warned, “Keep yourself far from a false matter; do not kill the innocent and righteous. For I will not justify the wicked.” Likewise Proverbs 17:17 bluntly states, “He who justifies the wicked, and he who condemns the just, both of them are an abomination to the Lord.” So how did they get around this? Well, as you can imagine, there is quite a bit of debate about this, but some scholars believe that Caiaphas was citing a principle derived from the story found in our Old Testament lesson for today, about sacrificing one man (Sheba) to save the inhabitants of the city. The application of this principle in the context of saving a group of people, was that an individual might be sacrificed to save the whole. (The Talmudic concept of Yehareg ve’al ya’avor)

So, in the eyes of Caiaphas, Jesus was no less a worthless fellow than Sheba as his actions threatened them, the City, the Temple, and, indeed, in their opinion, the whole nation. But we must remember that they had been wanting to get rid of Jesus for a long time now, and what they had desired was now determined in council.

So, Jesus once more withdrew from the area to a town called Ephraim which, interestingly means “to be fruitful”. As we know, the death and resurrection of Jesus would be the first fruits of a global spiritual people of God. And so once more we see that even the evil decisions and deeds of wicked people are used by God to bring about his sovereign purposes. As the Early Church noted in their prayers in Acts 4, the actions of Herod, Pontius Pilate, the Chief Priests, and others all worked together in the crucifixion of Jesus to achieve the predetermined will of God. 

Of course, this is nothing new…from Joseph’s brothers to Pharoah, from Nebuchadnezzar to Cyrus, from Caiaphas to Judas…God controls and overrides evil. The earth is the Lord’s, the Psalmist reminds us, and the fulness thereof…the world and those who dwell in it. The sovereignty of God is completely universal.

As such, our God can guarantee that all things work together for the good of those who love him. He instructs the nations. He rules over both the deceiver and the deceived. He establishes rulers and removes them from office as he wills. Indeed, as Proverbs 16:33 tells us, our God controls even the most arbitrary of actions such as the rolling of dice. “The lot is cast into the lap,” Solomon wrote, “but it’s every decision is from the Lord.” 

That is why we can trust God, even in the face of overwhelming difficulty. We may not know how God will use all things for our benefit, but that is what faith is all about. If God could use the evil decisions of the Sanhedrin to bring about such a great salvation as is ours, then we can be assured that he will lead and guide us according to what he knows is best.

It is interesting to note at this point, that we no longer find any mention in John’s Gospel of more Jews believing in Jesus. It seems as if Jesus withdrew from public ministry to spend more time with his disciples, to go deeper with them, as it were, to prepare them for what was to come. The lesson for us as we reflect on this is that our God is extremely gracious in preparing us for future events and through His Word, he helps us to understand his ways regardless of circumstances. 

Yes, it is sad that there are such things as unteachable people…people who will not acknowledge the truth even though it is presented as an irrefutable fact…such as the resurrection of a decomposing body. 

In his book, City of God, (Book 2, Chapter 1) written between AD 413 and 426, Augustine said: “If people were humble enough to accept the clear evidence of truth without resisting it…those who express sound ideas would not need lengthy explanations to debunk baseless speculations. However, the prevailing and harmful mental weakness today hinders this, leading people to cling to unreasonable beliefs even after the truth is plainly demonstrated. This might be due to profound blindness or stubborn obstinacy, necessitating more elaborate discussions on already clear points, aiming to make the truths palatable even to those who choose to close their eyes. Yet, if we constantly respond to those who resist and speak against us, especially those who either can't grasp our arguments or stubbornly contradict, our discussions would become endless, fruitless, and burdensome.” 

Sadly, it seems, not much has changed. However, we can rejoice knowing that God has a purpose in everything and with everyone he sends our way. Unlike the worldly counsel of humanity, we have a Word that has been challenged for centuries and yet has remained true. So, let us not be disheartened by adversity. We know the one who sits in heaven. 

Shall we pray?

© Johannes W H van der Bijl

Wednesday, January 17, 2024

What's the Point?

Luke 16:19-31     Daniel 12:1-4.    John 11:17-44

What’s the point?

In 1899, French Archeologist Carles Clermont-Ganneau published a report regarding, what he described as "Judaeo-Christian Sarcophagi", found in a tomb on the Mount of Offence, not far from Bethany. The Hebrew inscriptions present the names Martha, Eleazar (the Hebrew equivalent of the Greek Lazarus), and Mary, some with the sign of the cross.  It is possible, although not certain, that these ossuaries contain, among others, the remains of the sisters Mary, and Martha, and their brother Lazarus. Dr Eleazar Lipa Sukenik, a scholar considered the greatest authority on Jewish ossuaries, believed this was a 1st Century Christian burial site and argued that the cross had become a sign for believers earlier than previously thought. Interesting, but not conclusive…

However, regardless of whether or not these ossuaries contain the remains of the famous family from Bethany, the fact is that despite the miracle of bodily resurrection described in our Gospel passage for today, all three of them died and all three of them were buried…or, in the case of Lazarus, the poor sod had to die all over again and be buried all over again and the mourners had to mourn all over again.

So, what was the point of this miracle? 

Death is not a trivial matter for those dying nor for those watching them die. Let’s face it. Death is difficult to deal with, whether it be the death of a favourite pet, the death of a friend, of a grandparent, of a spouse, or the worst of them all, the death of a child. Why then create a situation that will lead to a repeat performance for this already traumatised family?

And we may well ask, what is life other than a long (or short) prelude to death? 

No, the winter weather is not getting to me nor am I reading too many Russian plays.

Seriously, think about it. We are all going to die. There’s no escape plan other than if the Lord returns right now. 

So, what’s the point of life? 

It doesn’t matter how well-educated you are, how wealthy, how powerful, or how uneducated, poor, or weak, you are going to die. So, why not just die in the womb or, better still, not be conceived at all?

I’m not the first to ask such questions and I most certainly will not be the last. Job asked: “Why did I not perish at birth, and die as I came from the womb?” (Job 3:11) Jeremiah echoed this sentiment: “Why did I ever come out of the womb to see trouble and sorrow and to end my days in shame?” (Jeremiah 20:18) Or what about the cheery writer of Ecclesiastes? “A good name is better than a good ointment, and the day of one’s death is better than the day of one’s birth.”

So, what’s the point? Why resurrect a man who had already ended this pointless exercise of life and make him go through it again? 

In my humble opinion, we move way too quickly through this passage, charging ahead to get to the “happy space”…dead man walking here…in this case, quite literally. “You see,” we say, “there was a reason for the delay!” And then we wax lyrical about persisting in prayer. 

But what about the times when there is no end to the delay…when there is no healing or resurrection? When there are no answers, only questions?

 And whether or not the delay ends, and whether or not the prayers are answered, what about the emotional struggles, doubts, fears, grief, anger, denial, bitter questions, hurt, tremendous pain, anguish, numbness, and shock? These are things we all go through and then there’s no rushing through to the happy place.

And then there’s another question we need to ask ourselves as we walk through this story, and that is the question: why are we, as followers of Jesus…as followers of the one who said he is the resurrection and the life…why are we so afraid of death? Some say we face the unknown alone and that that is what we fear, but are we alone in death? Is that what the Scriptures teach?

John tells us that by the time Jesus arrived in Bethany, Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Now, I had to help once with an autopsy of a man who had been dead for three days – not four – but it ranks in the top five most unpleasant things I have ever done in my life. You don’t get that smell out of your nostrils for days.

Now, typically in the 1st Century, the hands and feet of the deceased would be tied together with strips of cloth (as well as the chin to keep the mouth closed), and then the body would be wrapped up in a shroud with spices together with a separate square cloth for the head.


The cadaver would then be laid out on a shelf and left to decompose for one year after which the family would return to collect the bones and put them in an ossuary to be placed in one of the niches along the inner wall. Mourning would last for seven days (called shivah) during which the family was cared for by the community.  

How Martha knew that Jesus was coming and why Mary remained in the home is not known, but from what we know about Martha’s nature, she had to be active, so it is possible that she simply could not sit still like Mary, and she was, therefore, the more likely candidate of the two to be out and about. 

The conversation between Martha and Jesus is interesting. Was her opening line a simple statement of fact or a statement of reproach? “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Many mourners are often “angry” with God for allowing their loved one to die and this anger manifests itself in various ways. 

Be that as it may, she hastened to soften her remark with a statement that has puzzled scholars for years. “But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” 

If one compares this statement with her astonishment and horror in verse 39, “Lord, by this time there will be an odour (or in the KJV “by this time he stinketh!) for he has been dead for four days!” – if you compare these two statements, Martha could not have meant that she was expecting a bodily resurrection. 

More than likely, her understanding of the resurrection was based on various Old Testament passages such as the one we read in Daniel, that there would be a general resurrection of the righteous on the last day. This is what Jesus himself taught in John 6:39-40: “This is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.”

So, whatever her initial statement of faith meant, it certainly did not include what happened. Perhaps she believed that Jesus was about to usher in the last day right then and there and thereby bring about the general resurrection, which, in one sense (depending on what you think is meant by the term “the last day”), she may not have been too far off the mark. Matthew (Matthew 27:52-53) does allude to some form of general resurrection at the time of Jesus’ own resurrection, but that’s another topic for another sermon. 

Mary then came on the scene, repeating the same words as those of her sister, but with a greater degree of emotion. Now, the few verses that follow are very important. I think some followers of Jesus believe it is wrong to mourn or to grieve as, to them, it is a sign of unbelief. This is what some call “grief shaming” and it comes in many forms. 

“You do believe they’ve gone to a better place, don’t you?” 

“We should be rejoicing that it’s all over.” 

“They wouldn’t want you to grieve.” 

No. In the face of grief, the Word made flesh was silent. Instead, Jesus wept. Mary wept. The community wept. Paul instructs us to weep with those who weep. He says we mourn, not like those who have no hope, but we do mourn. No recrimination here. In fact, we should weep, because death was never meant to be. Death is the sign of everything that’s wrong with this world…it is a sign of the curse brought about by sin. 

For Jesus, this must have been especially painful because he is the exact opposite of death. He is life. And so, death is still a sign that all is not as it should be. Only once we cross that threshold do we encounter life as it was intended to be. 

This goes back to my initial opening statements. Why bring one who has already crossed over to real life back for a repeat performance? Why resurrect him? What’s the point?

Well, I believe that what Jesus was doing can be compared to the release of the captive in Plato’s Cave allegory. 

  Plato’s Cave allegory is a philosophical metaphor found in his work “The Republic.” It explores the concepts of reality and perception. In the allegory, prisoners are chained inside a dark cave, facing a wall where shadows of objects are projected by a fire behind them. The prisoners perceive these shadows as the only reality. But when one of the prisoners escapes and discovers the outside world, he realizes that the shadows are mere illusions.  In Plato’s mind, the allegory represented the journey from ignorance to enlightenment and the philosopher’s duty to enlighten others.

So, what has this to do with the resurrection of Lazarus? Well, Martha and Mary were no different from any other human being…we are all material, and we think in terms of the material. Anything beyond the material is an abstraction and hard to comprehend. That’s why the biblical authors often used figures of speech and images to explain what they otherwise could not explain. Dragons and beasts and fruit trees and fountains.

Very few of us have been beyond the veil of death and lived to tell the tale. So, how do you make an abstract comment about “life after death” material? 

Well, someone must leave the cave (in this case quite literally) and then come back…for all to see and hear and experience…

Just as an aside, I do think it strange that Lazarus did not write a book about his ordeal. “My trip to Sheol and back.” Or “What I saw in the Great Beyond.” Or “How I Survived Death.” Or “I went to Eternity and all I got was this Life back again.” Well, maybe it was because Someone else would write that book…

Nevertheless, I think that is why Jesus resurrected Lazarus. To make an abstract concrete and therefore understandable.

Now, before we move on to the actual resurrection, allow me to explain what I believe happened to Lazarus. According to various Old Testament texts, the dead all went to a collective place called Sheol or Hades or a resting place with the fathers. In a sense, one could call it a kind of waiting room.

This place was best described by Jesus in the “story” of Lazarus the beggar and the rich man in Luke 16:19-31. If you recall, Lazarus the beggar and the rich man both went to the same place after they had died, where they were awake and able to communicate. But while Lazarus was said to be in Abraham’s bosom, the rich man was in flames, the two distinct areas separated by an impassable gulf. 

 I do believe that this is where Jesus went at the time of his death, together with the two thieves, one on each side of the gulf. 

Now, according to Matthew 27:52-53, at the resurrection of Jesus, a number of the folks from the righteous side (called “saints” or holy ones) rose with him from the dead and were seen doing a short walking tour of Jerusalem. 

But the most important thing for us to note here is that this is the last reference to any collective place of the dead. From the resurrection on, according to several New Testament texts, death ushes followers of Jesus right into his presence. 

For instance, in 2 Corinthians 5:8 Paul wrote: “For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands.… We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord.” Absent from the body, present with the Lord.

In other words, at the ditching of this earthly body, we are immediately escorted into the presence of Jesus in heaven. No more collective place of the dead. No more waiting room. After all, we are already in him, and we have the Lord and giver of life living in us even now.

As to the raising of our discarded bodies at the end of time, that’s another sermon for another time…

But back to the story. Martha here revealed the limit of her grasp of what resurrection meant to her when Jesus told her to have the heavy stone covering removed from the mouth of the tomb. Unlike most 21st-century folks, she knew what the four-day-old corpse smelled like. But that was exactly the reason for the delay. Ultimately the “delay” was for the sake of God’s glory, but it also closed the door to any speculation about Lazarus just being in a coma or a deep sleep or that everyone had mistakenly thought he was dead. No way. No sleeping human smelled like that! 

At this point, Jesus revealed that he had been conversing with the Father for quite a while already…no doubt ever since he first received news concerning Lazarus’ illness…and that his vocal prayer at the tomb was purely for the benefit of those around him at the time. The point was for the people to know and believe that Jesus was the resurrection and the life. They’d already seen him or at least heard about him resurrecting people who had just died, but this was on a whole different level. No one, not even the prophets of old had ever raised a rotting corpse.

The rest is, as they say, history. Lazarus was raised and what happened afterwards is the subject of next week’s sermon. 

But, as David Ford says in his theological commentary on John, “The thrust of this chapter’s response to (the problem with belief in a loving God who yet lets people die) is to face the harsh facts of illness, death, and decomposition, and do justice to the realities of loss, grief, and anger while trusting that they do not have the last word. The relationship with the living Jesus in love and trust is more fundamental and embracing. Living in that trust and love can begin now, and the relationship with Jesus is not destroyed by physical death. Jesus himself does not avoid grief, danger, suffering, and death, but offers a life that has come through them and sustains others through them.” 

The challenge for us who still live in a material world and think in material terms is to get beyond an abstract faith in Jesus and embrace him for who he is…the one who created us and who sustains us…the one who went through the portals of death as one of us so that he might annul the penalty and the curse once for all who believe in him. Jesus is not one story among many…he is the story. He is not an ideology or a philosophy…he is a person who can be and must be known.

So, my prayer for us today is for us to emerge from the cave, as it were, and to see Jesus for who he really is…the resurrection and the life. To see him crowned with glory and honour, seated at the right hand of God the Father. To leave behind the shadowy abstractions and to engage with the spiritual reality of life in him. 

Yes, we will die…and it will not be easy for us or those around us as we go. But besides his clear promise to be with us always…we have the witness of countless believers in Jesus who have shared glimpses of what they have seen as they passed over the threshold into eternity…as that barrier that hinders us from seeing the reality that lies beyond death faded and allowed them to hear and see and experience that reality before passing into it, sharing their reactions with us in smiles and happy mumbles…so we know that Jesus is with us, even through the darkest valley of death.

Shall we pray?

© Johannes W H van der Bijl 2024

Thursday, December 28, 2023

Inward or Outward?

Philippians 3:1-11                            Luke 2:15-21

Inward or Outward?

At this time of year, many people make vain pronouncements which they call “New Year’s Resolutions”. Usually, these declarations involve something one has not done or something one should have done better during the past year. Then the so-called “new” year begins and for a while renewed effort and delusion work together to convince the person that they are succeeding until the busyness of life gets in the way. Reality heaves resolution overboard and the ship sails on.

Of course, resolutions have been around for centuries, in fact ever since Eve resolved to embrace a life of self-actualisation, deciding that she wanted to be her own god. Of course, failure to meet expectations and the realisation that perhaps the resolution was not such a good idea after all has been around for the same amount of time. 

So, it is interesting to explore the rationale behind making such pronouncements. Aristotle (and here I hasten to insert an apology to Connie and other philosophy majors for my gross oversimplification) maintained that we become what we do and so he resolved to act right so that he might be right. Plato went in the exact opposite direction, perhaps after observing the repeated failure of his teacher. He believed that right action followed from right thinking and so he resolved to think right so that he might act right. 

And then in 1826, in his book “The Physiology of Taste: Or Meditations on Transcendental Gastronomy with Recipes”, the French Lawyer Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin stated: “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are,” an idea later incorporated into various food ads by Farmer Brown and KFC and shortened to something like “you look so good because you eat so good”. Just testing to see how many of you are still awake since Jurgens unequivocally gave you permission to sleep during my sermons. 

But seriously, while there is some truth to what Aristotle and Plato and perhaps even Brillat-Savarin taught, they skipped over a very important detail…they all missed the essential and foundational fact that no human being appears to be able to act right or think right consistently. Even a cursory glance over the pages of history will confirm this. If we are honest, we will admit that despite our best resolutions we always seem to stumble and fall at some time or other. 

Scripture gives us the reason for this universal dilemma. In Jeremiah 17:9 we are told that the heart (or the core of humankind) is corrupt, deceitful, and desperately wicked…and Proverbs 23:7 tells us that humans are outwardly what they are inwardly – in their heart or in their innermost being. 

So, from the very outset, any unaided reason or resolution is doomed to failure.  This is why Paul declared in Philippians 3:3 that we ought to have no confidence in the flesh. In other words, if we are going to make any kind of decision for change, we must start from a point of moral and ethical bankruptcy, looking for radical inner renovation from a source other than or outside of ourselves.

And, again at the risk of oversimplifying the matter, this is what the Good News is all about. God is in the heart exchange business. The prophet Ezekiel spoke about a time when God would take out the dead heart of stone and replace it with a living heart of flesh…but more than that. He promised to give us a new life – to fill us with his life-giving Holy Spirit…to take up residence within us…to come down upon us as he did on the Tabernacle and the Temple, and to dwell among us and in us – Immanuel – God IS with us…so that his Spirit might cause us to live as we were created to live…to walk in his statues and to keep his commandments to do them.

Biblically, what followers of Jesus do is a result of who we are in him…from what the prior grace of God makes us and allows and assists us to become. Consequently, any resolution we make as believers must be based upon what God has already done for us in Jesus. Any changes we need to make in our lives depend upon the divine aid of the Author and Finisher of our faith. Without him, even our best efforts are as useless as filthy rags. In short, if we are to succeed at life we must live out and practice and embrace what we are in him.

We can see this clearly in the life of Paul. The Apostle lived out what he was in Jesus and accordingly was not derailed by adverse circumstances. 

Paul had been a rising star in Israel…schooled by the best and advancing well beyond his peers in religious fervour. He apparently moved in high circles, rubbing shoulders with the Jerusalem elite. He was so arrogantly sure of himself that he resolved to kill anyone who did not live according to his principles. 

Then, in a single moment, everything he held to be of value was exposed as worthless. On the road to Damascus, Paul met the God he thought he knew, and his life was never the same again. 

But then, once he had his life turned right side up and he wanted to tell the whole wide world about his eye-opening discovery, it seemed the whole wide world was not all that enthusiastic about the message…in fact, they were downright hostile. Suddenly, he found that the hunter had become the hunted and he had to defend himself, flee for his life, deal with rejection, misunderstanding, imprisonment, death threats, and actual attempts on his life. 

Gone were the days amongst the elite…his former friends and colleagues were now his worst enemies. And, if that was not bad enough, he had to constantly deal with the waywardness of various church members.  One of the reasons Paul wrote the letter to the Philippians from prison, was because he had received news that the church was being torn apart by two former female co-workers of his, Euodia and Syntyche…or as someone once renamed them, odious and so touchy. Their interpersonal disagreement was threatening the unity of the church! 

It was in the context of his current imprisonment and this painful division that he took up his quill and wrote: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” You may well ask, how on earth could he write that given the circumstances? 

I believe the key to Paul’s inner serenity was a radical inner renovation. He could resolve to rejoice because of what the grace of God had made him and was making him. His eyes were firmly fixed on what God intended him to be in Jesus…he considered all other things…even those things he once thought so very important…he considered them totally peripheral…they faded in the light of the glory that was his in Jesus. Circumstances hadn’t changed…if anything, they had got worse…but Paul, the person, had been progressively changing from the inside out since the time he first met Jesus. 

And so, even though life was hard and harsh and even though he was disrupted and disturbed by the consequences of his shortcomings and the shortcomings of others, Paul could rejoice and tell the struggling church to rejoice with him because he knew what God had done and what God was doing…and that nothing in all creation could ever change that or derail that.

For Paul, all the many resolutions and restrictions and rituals from his past counted for nothing in comparison to knowing Jesus and the power of his resurrection. Participation in his sufferings and his death meant that he could rise in and with Jesus to life as it was meant to be. And that was worth more than all the riches this world could afford.

You see external observance means very little when there is an internal contradiction. This was our Lord’s contention with the Pharisees. He called them whitewashed tombs which appeared outwardly beautiful but inwardly filled with death and decay. And Paul had been one of them. In our Epistle reading, he listed his many accomplishments. But even the Old Testament pointed out that circumcision of the flesh without the circumcision of the heart meant nothing (Deuteronomy 30:6; Jeremiah 4:4; cf Romans 2:29). Jacob and Esau demonstrate that fact perfectly.

The outward is really nothing without the inward. You can make as many resolutions as you like this year, but if the Lord has not changed you and, indeed if he is not changing you day by day from the inside out, you might as well write your decisions in water. 

Better to pray and ask God to graciously resolve to change and empower you to do his will…to love him with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love your neighbour as you love yourself. Things might get better, things might get worse, but you can be certain of one thing. Regardless of the circumstances, you will be able to rejoice in the Lord, because your focus will no longer be on yourself…rather your focus will be on the prize for which God has called you heavenward in Jesus. Your focus will be centred on his resolution to conform you to the image of Jesus. Once you make his will and his goal and his purpose more important than yours, you will gain the peace of God which surpasses all understanding. 

If all the things the world strives for become as dung to you in comparison to the surpassing worth of knowing Jesus and the power of his resurrection, then you will be fulfilled, and content come what may.

So, rather than making useless “New Year’s Resolutions” this year, compare the sides of the ledger of your life. Anything and everything you once highly valued on one side…and Jesus and his kingdom on the other side. The choice is simple…but never easy. May God in his grace grant you the inward conviction to choose to live as he would have you live outwardly.

Shall we pray?

© Johannes W H van der Bijl 2023