Sermon - John 18:1-27 - The Short Memory of the People of God
Hopefully some of you will remember the sermon I gave a month ago about Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane. It's possible that you recall that I was planning to go on from that sermon into Jesus' arrest and trial, and that's what we're going to do today.
Let me tell you where we're going:
Okay, does anybody remember anything from last time?
If you weren't here for that sermon and are filled with a strange desire to find out what I said you can find the sermon at http://neil.publication.org.uk/RelPhil/Sermon1.html.
Let's read the first verse of John 18:
Read John 18:1
We've had the last supper, where Peter he was determined to follow Jesus all the way, even if it meant laying down his life. Our party left the upper room at the end of chapter 14 "Come now; let us leave", and through chapters 15-17 have been heading down to Gethsemane. That's frequently misunderstood, partly because some translations render 18:1 as 'went out', the Greek is closer to 'went forth'. The metaphor of the vine and the branches might well have been inspired by passing through a vineyard, and when in 17:1 Jesus looks toward heaven he's not staring at the ceiling!
After all this talking we come to Gethsemane, literally 'oil press' - olive oil of course. There the action we discussed last time takes place. Compare Jesus' distress then, and his composure as we read this chapter.
Read John 18:2-14
Let's paint in a couple of details:
The word in verse 3 translated 'detachment' in the NIV, is a large number of soldiers, the word can be used of thousands, we're probably dealing with less than that here, but the force sent here is certain immense. Probably the Jewish and Roman leaders had observed the popular support Jesus had and feared that arresting him would result in an enormous brawl. But no, Jesus has retreated away from that danger, and now offers himself to them. Note what one commentator describes as the "By now familiar ambiguity" of the 'I am' in verse 5 and 8.
Yet the soldiers fall back, what is going on here? Is there some dim sense in these people of what it is they're about to do, arrest the King of Heaven? Perhaps. I suspect for most of them it's a simple case of fear. They've seen him perform incredible miracles, and now he stands there with regal poise, I wouldn't want to be the first one to lay a hand on him, would you?
Back in John 10 (v17b-19a) Jesus declared "I lay down my life--only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again." Nowhere is that more clearly borne out than here, Jesus' arrest is no high speed car chase event, only caught due to the invention of helicopters with infra-red cameras; his life is given, not taken. He even has to offer it to the soldiers a second time!
In v11 Jesus asks "Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?" What does he mean? A cup is the symbol taken used by the prophets for God's wrath, for example have a look at Isaiah 51:17-23 and Jeremiah 25:15-28. Usually we go to the letters to see what exactly it was the Jesus was doing on the cross, but here it's given to us in the gospel of John: Jesus is drinking the cup of God's wrath against sinful people, down to the dregs, so that no wrath is left for us to face. Him in our place, taking our punishment. Let's just pause for a moment to reflect on that in our own hearts.
Verse 14 refers to John 11:49-52 which reads:
'Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, "You know nothing at all! You do not realise that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish."
He did not say this on his own, but as high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the Jewish nation, and not only for that nation but also for the scattered children of God, to bring them together and make them one.'
Read John 18:15-24
You might be suffering some confusion at this point, I certainly was, who exactly is the high priest? Is it Annas or Caiaphas, come on John pick one, you can't call them both that!
Well, actually he can. You see Annas had been high priest from 8 AD to 15 AD, it ought to have been a lifetime appointment but he obviously got up the Romans' collective noses because Pilate's predecessor deposed him. You can imagine how impressed the Jews were at the Romans trying to tell them who their religious leaders were. In the intervening years no fewer than four of Annas' sons held the position of High Priest, and now his son in law is in that capacity. Although officially Caiaphus is high priest, Annas is the real power behind the throne, and so he claims first go at Jesus.
The exchange with Annas seems a little bizarre to us - sure there were other people there, Jesus, but so were you, why don't you tell us what you taught?
Jewish trials worked like this: witnesses would be brought in who would testify against the defendant, the Sanhedrin - that's the council of the Jewish leaders - would interrogate the witnesses, not the defendant, and if, under interrogation their testimonies agreed they would sentence the defendant accordingly.
Annas is trying to bend the rules here, trying to get some evidence to use against Jesus for when the Sanhedrin meet, and Jesus' rebuff amounts to 'hold a proper trial', call in witnesses, interrogate them as the law requires you to do. Frustrated that Jesus' integrity gives him nothing to work with Annas sends him on to his son in law, Caiaphas, the official high priest.
The next section of the action is well documented in the synoptics - Matthew, Mark and Luke, but absent, possibly for that very reason, from John. Allow me to summarise it for you. The Sanhedrin meets and spends some hours with various false witnesses, trouble is their all lying and so none of them agree. Finally the high priest says to him:
"I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God."
"Yes, it is as you say," Jesus replies. "But I say to all of you: In the future you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven." (Matthew 26:63b-64a)
The oath is the strongest in the Jewish tradition, it not merely requires that any answer given be truthful but that an answer be given and at once. Jesus of course replies truthfully, and is charged with blasphemy.
Ever since Douglas Adams penned his introduction to the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy you'll keep coming across people who state, in an offhand manner, that Jesus was nailed to a tree for saying we should be nice to one another. Whenever someone does you should contradict him vehemently. With the notable exception before us, the Pharisees were all in favour of being nice to people, strong ethical and moral standards were the central pillar of their teaching. The charge Jesus is crucified on is blasphemy - the crime of claiming to be God. A lot of people don't seem to realise that Jesus claimed this, and claimed it time and again. Stripped of the fancy language and allusions to the 'Son of Man' in Daniel's vision this exchange reads:
"Are you God?"
He doesn't disagree with them, he doesn't say "no no, I'm not God! What I meant was ..." because he is God, that's exactly what he means. Share this with the non-Christians you know, a lot of them will be shocked to discover that the man they view as sweet, mild and 'saying a lot of good things' was a man who claimed to be God.
Read John 18:25-27
What is going on with Peter, why on earth is he denying Jesus. What do you mean he's scared? Scared of what? He's seen Jesus perform dozens of miracles, he beheld the transfiguration, before all the other disciples he figured out that Jesus was God. What can a bunch of Roman soldiers and Jewish officials do against God?
This isn't the first time that this problem, a problem I've coined 'The short memory of the people of God' has reared it's ugly head. The Israelites in Exodus were the classic:
"There's no water, we're all going to die! We'd have been better off in Egypt."
Folks, you've seen ten miraculous plagues that afflicted Egypt, they've seen the red sea part, and then rush in against on the pursuing Egyptians. They've been fed by manna from heaven, and accompanied by a pillar of cloud and fire. Do you not think he might be up to a glass of water?
But somehow they've written all of those off as 'don't actually deal with my thirst' and forgotten the God who revealed himself through those miracles. Peter's done the same, he can't see any further than the swords.
It's easy to criticise them, but are we honestly any better? I'm not I keep losing all sense of perspective in the face of adversity.
When we face trouble the first thing we need to do is remember. It's one of the many good reasons for keeping coming back to this book - the Bible.
Some people find hordes of paper recording answered prayer really useful here, if it's you record them, and read them! If all you ever do with a prayer diary is write in it, it's a dead waste of paper!
Personally my life is full enough of paper already, I find it more helpful to pick just a couple of things to remember - Jesus death for me and his resurrection are the key ones for me, you take whichever ones most powerfully remind you what God is like, and how far you can trust him. Then, when trouble strikes, stop, and remember.
Finally let's remember the end of this story, in John 21 Jesus forgives Peter and reinstates him, and then in Acts we see God powerfully using Peter.
Now we've gone through the chapter I want to zoom in further on Peter, because I think there's something very important going on here that's often overlooked.
The great change from the Peter of the gospels to the Peter of Acts is often wholly attributed to the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Certainly that is a change of enormous significance, but the Peter of Acts 1 is not the bumbling enthusiast we meet in the gospels. No a change in Peter of enormous significance happens in our passage.
Why do you think Jesus makes a point of telling Peter that he'll deny Jesus three times, before the cock crows? He's never bothered telling Peter about all the other mistakes he's going to make. This is no random rebuke, Jesus tells Peter this so that as the cock crows the enormity of what he's just done will hit Peter. Back in v17 he denied Jesus, and it didn't seem to affect him. It's not until the cock crows and he remembers his bold declarations "Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will!" (Matthew 26:33), and is faced with the stark contrast between his claims and his behaviour.
Before Peter can be the rock of the church he must be broken. He has to be shown that the house built in confidence on him and his ability is a house built on sand. Here is the storm that flattens it, so that he can start over, this time building on the rock, not of self dependence, but of God dependence.
I hope the application here is blindingly obvious, I'll draw it out just in case. Your strength, and my strength, are not adequate to the task of building the kingdom of God. As long as you and I struggle on to do God's work in our own strength we are just building on sand. Our grand proclamations may not collapse today, but they will collapse.
I wonder if you're as rubbish at this as I am? Leading on Transformers is a classic case for me. I keep trying to do it in my own strength, collapsing after a couple of days of little achieved, falling back on God because I don't have any other options, and suddenly discovering that he's accomplished his purposes through me. Wouldn't it be more efficient, and more importantly, far less painful, if I fell on him without him having to push me over?
Alright, how do we actually do that? This is the point where the sermon gets dangerously interactive, what suggestions can you offer me? How do I go about depending on God's strength, not my own?
Let's pray through those suggestions to close.
Lord God, we confess that apart from you we are nothing, but that we've mistaken our pathetic spiritual muscles for power enough to sustain us. Naturally we are so far from you that it took your son going through all that we've read about today, and on to the cross to reconcile us to you. Thank you that you went through all of that for us even when we were rebels against your kingdom. It awes us that you make your power available to us today to do your work. We're sorry Lord for the times when we've shunned your generous provision in favour of our own weakness, and for the times we've mistaken your treasure in us, for our jar of clay. Thank you for your patience which still holds out your power for us now. Please help us to take on board the ideas we've discussed for relying on you from the start. Please bring them to our minds whenever we're tempted to run off something in our own strength, apart from you.