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The Week

Simple Faith?
Cycle B Sermons for Lent and Easter Based on Gospel Texts
Note to the preacher:
This message is not presented as a sermon with an introduction, three points, and a conclusion, though you are welcome to rewrite it that way if you wish. My goal for this message is to invite my listeners to experience the events of Jesus’ week, more as he and his disciples experienced them. This message takes us to the arrest in the orchard of Gethsemane. The messages for Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday will complete the journey. My goal was not to explain the stories or use them to create a series of conclusions or points, but to experience the stories once again, and allow God’s voice to add any additional input that might be helpful. Imagine the following presented in the format of a movie with the screen quietly fading to black between each part of the story. A brief, silent pause will provide that for your listeners if you choose to follow my approach. However you choose to use the following story, I encourage you to leave room for the other great storyteller to join in.

(fade up)

The city is busy with thousands of people making final preparations for the Passover celebrations. The streets and marketplaces are crowded. As you walk around your eyes and ears are overwhelmed with everything going on as thousands of people from all over the world return to celebrate the holiday in Jerusalem. It is a serious time, but also a joyous party-time as families get together for huge feasts and activities for everyone from the oldest to the youngest. Kitchens are busy with amazing foods being prepared, living rooms are filled with people and stories as family members make up for the time they’ve been apart. Everywhere you look are the children, running and playing, filled with excitement and wonder as they wait for the mysterious events that are about to take place.

(fade out, pause, then up)

There is a small, dark room in a corner of the temple where it is quiet. A small group of men is speaking in hushed voices. Their quietness is not out of respect for the location in the temple but because they are talking about things they don’t want anyone else to hear. They are the leaders of the faith, the priests of the temple, and the scribes responsible for protecting the Jewish law. They have a problem they need to fix.

(fade out, pause, then up)

At the top of the Mount of Olives, which is a hill just across the valley from the city, is the little village of Bethany. In Bethany there is another room filled with people who have gathered for the holiday, most of them traveling many miles from the north to be here. Jesus is reclining at the dinner table with the rest of the group, watching closely as Mary walks over to him, takes a small vial of very expensive perfume from the cord around her neck, and pours it over Jesus’ head. In his version of the story, John tells us that it was Judas who spoke up first, but Mark says there were several in the group who became angry, upset that the expensive oil had been “wasted” and could instead have been sold and the money given to the poor. They had apparently missed the point that every Jewish woman carried the small vial around their necks. That vial was filled with as expensive perfume as she could afford. It wasn’t for vanity, but it was to ensure that when she died they would have the proper oil and perfume available so she was certain to have a proper anointing when she was buried. Along with the others in the room, Judas was not impressed with the amazing sacrifice she made or the symbolism it carried.

(fade out, pause, then up)

The quietness of the priests and scribes in that small temple hideout is broken when they hear someone approaching and opening the small door into the room. We don’t know if they were actually surprised when they recognized Judas coming through the door. But it brought smiles to their faces as they realized they would now finally have the information they needed to solve their problem once and for all to protect their faith and their jobs. All it took was the promise of a little bit of money — a few coins. Just enough to make Judas feel a little better after seeing that waste of the oil poured over Jesus’ head in that room in Bethany.

(fade out, pause, then up)

The disciples had spent a busy day running around making final preparations for the Passover celebration. They all finally gathered again in a room filled with cushions and a table set up in the middle of the room to recline around and enjoy the feast. If it was like the other gatherings taking place around town, they were telling stories, old and new, and following the familiar steps of the traditional Passover seder meal — traditional until the time that Jesus paused and said that one of them in the room was going to betray him. As the disciples registered shock and began to look at the others gathered in the room, many of whom they did not know, Jesus added that the one who would betray him was actually reclining at the table, eating the meal with him. Now they added their voices to their looking, each of them saying, “Surely, not I?” Jesus then added, “It is one of the twelve, one who is dipping bread into the bowl with me” (14:20). The Passover seder was a unique meal, and the food was set out so that each bowl was shared between two people. This narrowed down who Jesus was referring to as the one dipping into the bowl with him. Mark never actually told us who that person was, but just said it would actually be better for that person if they had never even been born. This is the point at which the other gospel writers tell us that Jesus then looks at Judas sitting next to him and says, “What you are going to do, go and do quickly,” and Judas gets up and runs from the room.

(fade out, pause, then up)

As the seder meal begins, the host takes a piece of bread and tears it into pieces. The pieces are then hidden. In more formal meals, the piece of bread was just hidden underneath the other pieces on the plate. But for family meals that included children, the pieces of bread were sometimes hidden in various places around the room. At the end of the meal, the children were sent to search for the hidden pieces, which were then brought back to the table and passed around as a dessert. We’re not told how it was done this time, but we do know that when the lost pieces of bread were found, instead of just eating them as dessert, Mark tells us that Jesus passed the bread around and called it his body.

Throughout the meal, there had been a cup of wine that had been poured and left sitting on the table. As the meal came to a close, the doors to the house were opened up and several verses from the psalms were recited. According to tradition, this is the invitation for the prophet Elijah to come in and join the group. Elijah had lived during the rule of King Ahab in the ninth century BC. He performed many miracles, including raising someone from the dead, and at the end of his life we’re told he was carried away into heaven by a whirlwind. That cup of wine on the table was called the Elijah cup. Since the prophecy said Elijah would return to the earth as a sign that the Messiah was about to arrive, the cup was put there for him to drink when he arrived. That cup was to be left untouched. But that night, Mark tells us that Jesus picked up the Elijah cup and drank from it. He then passed it around the table and told everyone that it was his blood. Mark does not tell us if the disciples really understood any of what Jesus was doing.

(fade out, pause, then up)

After the Passover meal, the group walked through the streets of the city, which would have been filled with other people out stretching their legs after the huge Passover meal. It would have been easy to pass unnoticed in the crowd, since everyone had enjoyed many cups of wine during the seder and were stuffed from the huge feast. At some point as they walked to the edge of the city near the Mount of Olives, Jesus said that they would all betray him. In fact, he said that before the sun came up in the morning, Peter would actually betray him three times. Peter insisted it was not true, and they all argued with him and insisted they would all remain true to him forever and follow him to the end of the world.

(fade out, pause, then up)

Gethsemane is a small olive orchard at the bottom of the Kidron Valley between Jerusalem and the Mount of Olives near where the town of Bethany sits. It was as safe a place as any for Jesus and the disciples to stop. Mark tells us that Jesus told the group to sit down while he prayed, and then took Peter, James, and John with him to another part of the garden. Jesus began to get upset, saying “I am deeply grieved, even to death” and asked the three of them to stay there while he prayed. Jesus walked a little further by himself and prayed. Mark tells us he began his prayer with the word Abba, which most people translate as meaning “Father.” But that is not quite accurate. The word Abba is the same word used by little children even today when they talk with their father. The more accurate translation would actually be “Daddy.” So Mark tells us that Jesus threw himself on the ground and prayed, “Daddy, anything is possible for you. So, please take all of this away from me.” He paused, and we can imagine he took a slow, deep breath, and then said, “But, it’s not important what I want, but what you want.”

Jesus got up from the ground and went back to the three disciples, who were sound asleep. Jesus asked them to stay awake and pray about the trial that was about to come, then he went to pray. When he came back they were asleep. This happened a third time. We have to be fair to the disciples here. First, they really didn’t understand what was going on, nor what this trial was that Jesus was talking about. Second, they had just finished a huge meal with several glasses of wine. So these guys would have had a really tough time staying awake even if they did understand what was about to happen.

(fade out, pause, then up)

As Jesus was talking with the three disciples, they saw Judas quickly enter the Gethsemane orchard. With him was a group of people carrying swords, clubs, and torches. Some versions of the story suggest that these were some of the priests and scribes who had come to arrest Jesus, but Mark is clear that these folks were from the priests and scribes. Judas had brought a group of thugs to get Jesus. These were people who knew how to do the job and would do whatever they needed to do to earn their pay. Judas walked over to Jesus, called him teacher, and kissed him, which was the prearranged sign to the mob. A brief scuffle ensued, and one of the disciples pulled a sword and cut off the ear of one of the guys in the crowd; we’re told it was one of the slaves of the high priest. Before things got completely out of hand, Jesus spoke up and distracted them with a little sarcasm. The members of the mob refocused their energy on doing what they had come to do.

It all happened very quickly, so it may have been easy to miss a couple of interesting things that took place. First, one of the disciples was carrying a sword. We knew that Judas was a Zealot, and like all Zealots, carried a small knife to poke into any Roman soldier if the opportunity presented itself. But Judas was on the other team this time. Tradition suggests it was Simon Peter who carried the sword. We honestly don’t know, but as we think about everything else we’ve seen and heard from Peter, being that hothead who acts and speaks before he thinks, it does make sense that it could have been him. In one way, it was kind of a nice reinforcement of Peter’s insistence an hour or so ago that he would never betray Jesus and would stay with him forever. Yet as soon as Jesus stopped the scuffle, what happened next? After all of that talk an hour or so ago about never betraying him, Mark simply tells us “all of them deserted him and fled” (Mark 14:50).

(fade out, pause, then up)

Palm Sunday is a day we traditionally celebrate what we refer to as the “triumphal entry” of Jesus into Jerusalem. We wave palm branches and sing songs of peace and joy, thinking about all that Jesus has said and done during his three years of active ministry leading up to this day. We talk about the priests and the scribes and their dirty deeds, and how satisfying it is to see the image of Jesus walking into their temple and throwing things around in his righteous anger. We can close our eyes and fantasize about doing that same thing in many of our own situations today. Palm Sunday is traditionally a day we celebrate a coming victory, and see it as the final announcement that Jesus is about to change the world.

While there was celebration on Sunday, that celebration may not have been what Jesus had in mind at all. He had come to change the world, there’s no question about that. But it’s possible no one really understood just what that meant, so how could they celebrate it?

Let’s move from Palm Sunday to Easter morning one step at a time. Today, let’s keep our thoughts on the amazing transition from the day people gathered on the hillside waving palm branches and singing psalms of praise, to the late night just a few days later that everyone was gone, and the ones closest to him who had promised to remain with him to the ends of the earth had just run off into the darkness to save their own hides. This is real. This is the week that Jesus lived. This is a part of our experience as a people of faith.
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In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. To those who sold doves he said, “Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!” (vv. 14-16)

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