St Barnabas and St Michael’s 1st April 2012
Reading – John 12:1-19
On August 16th 1977 Elvis Presley died at his home in Graceland. It was the usual tale of an international superstar whose life was cut short by all kinds of excess. In some ways his death was like that of Jim Morrison or Marc Bolan or Whitney Houston – a tale of a talented person who fell victim to fame. Yet, for reasons I can’t quite understand, there is something about the whole Elvis story which is different. Now as far as I’m concerned I quite like some of Elvis’ music, particularly the early rock’n’roll, but he’s not quite my cup of tea. But I know for others he is the King. They love to listen to his records, wear T-shirts with his picture, maybe even get the haircut.
And some go even further. They don’t just listen to Elvis Presley. They try to look like him. They go to Elvis Presley conventions and meet other people who also impersonate him. They visit Elvis’ home in Graceland, almost in an act of pilgrimage. And indeed there are even a few people who claim that Elvis never actually died, that he is alive somewhere in some backwater in the United States. For them Elvis is indeed the King, and it seems that following him is the most important thing in their lives.
Now today, you may be sorry to hear, I’m not going to talk about the merits of Elvis Presley. Rather I’m going to talk about somebody else who many, many more people claim to be their king – Jesus of Nazareth. I guess you expected me to say that and I am sure that some of you here today are very familiar with the idea of Jesus as king. But in some ways Jesus of Nazareth is also a very odd choice as king. After all, he lived way, way back, long before the days of international superstardom and record deals. He never recorded a song. He never wrote a book. He did not achieve some great feat on the battlefield. He did not build a city or
rule over a powerful nation.
Yet people still called him a king. Why? Because when Jesus was around, extraordinary things happened. People who had been ill for many years got better. Crowds of many thousands were fed from a few loaves and a couple of fish. Those with mental disturbances found peace of mind as evil spirits were driven out. Whoever Jesus was, He was clearly someone very, very special.
And our reading from John’s gospel today starts shortly after Jesus has performed the greatest miracle of all. Verse 1: Six days before the Passover, Jesus arrived at Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. It wasn’t simply that someone made a mistake and Jesus was able to revive Lazarus a few hours later. When Jesus turned up on the scene, Lazarus had already been dead for four days. His body had been all wrapped up and laid out in a tomb. No-one who was there could have doubted Lazarus’s life really had come to an end. Yet when Jesus ordered the tomb to be unsealed and commanded Lazarus to come out, Lazarus came out. Somehow Jesus had power over death itself.
So it is little surprise that people saw Jesus as some sort of king. But that didn’t mean everyone then automatically followed him. Indeed the religious authorities of the day found the whole idea positively ridiculous. They, after all, were the ones with the theology degrees. They were the ones who knew the right way to teach about God and explain what the Scriptures meant. How dare a carpenter from Nazareth teach other people to follow Him! And so we read in this passage of their plans to kill Him, to get Him arrested and sentenced to death. Not because they had a good argument against Jesus, or were able to prove He had done anything wrong, but because as far as they were concerned, King Jesus was bad for business, a threat and a nuisance.
You have to understand the attitude of the religious authorities if you are to understand the events of Holy Week we shall be remembering over the next seven days. The whole arrest, trial and crucifixion was based on the idea that Jesus claimed to be the King of Jews – although He never directly claimed this title Himself. It was the question Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, asked Jesus when He was brought before him – Are you the king of the Jews? (John 18:33) It was the title the soldiers used to mock Jesus when they dressed him in a purple robe. Hail! King of Jews! (John 19:3) Above all it was the words nailed above Jesus on the cross – Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews (John 19:19). From a human point of view, the Easter story is all about how ridicule turns to threats, turns to violence, and leads in the end to death.
But there are other people in this story who have a different attitude to Jesus. First of all, there are the cheering crowds. They have been taught well about the coming Messiah. They know that Jesus has done many of the things the Messiah was expected to do. When Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey, they know the bit of the Old Testament that talks about the coming king, seated on a donkey’s colt. They are ready to cheer, to lay palm branches on the road, to shout out in worship and praise. They are even able to quote the odd bit of Scripture.
Yet only a few days later, when the religious authorities move in to silence Jesus, it is the same crowds who are found shouting Crucify! Crucify! It is a most shocking example of how the public mood can so easily change. Yes, for a time the crowds were willing to believe Jesus was the Messiah they had been expecting. But they thought that once Jesus reached Jerusalem He would kick out the Romans and make Israel great again.
And that isn’t what Jesus did. Instead He drove the money changers out of the temple and began predicting destruction for the city of Jerusalem. So they turned on Jesus. They abandoned Him and went over to the religious authorities, so these people could do their dirty work. And if you asked them what they meant by all that praise and worship, they would have just shrugged their shoulders and said, it wasn’t their fault Jesus didn’t turn out to be the king they wanted Him to be.
So you have the religious authorities. You have the crowds. And then you have right at the beginning of the story Mary, the sister of Lazarus. She has seen what Jesus has done. For her the idea that Jesus is a king is not ridiculous, indeed it is the only understanding of Jesus that makes any possible sense. But she does not praise Him with hollow words, or go along with the mood of the crowd. Instead she takes the most precious thing she has – a jar of perfume worth about a year’s wages, breaks it and pours it over Jesus. It is an extraordinary action. I suppose something similar today would be selling your house or your family jewellery and giving the whole proceeds to some charity or other. As far as Mary is concerned, Jesus really is king and He deserves the very best she can give Him.
Of course from a human point of view the breaking of the perfume jar was a total waste. As Judas Iscariot pointed out: Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.Yes, as John points out, Judas was a thief, and wanted to get his cut on the proceeds of any sale. But he was surely only expressing what plenty of other people were thinking.
And Jesus’ response to Judas is equally puzzling. “Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial.” It’s as if Jesus knows what the religious authorities are planning. He seems fully aware that in a few days’ time He will be nailed to a cross and left to die. Yet He also accepts the honour of being anointed with something so precious it was normally used for important people like kings. So what is going on?
Well, the fact we are still talking about this story two thousand years later is a massive clue. Yes, Jesus was arrested, yes, He was put on trial and crucified. Yes, He was taken down from the cross and placed in a tomb. But that was not the end of the story. Because Jesus, you see, rose from the dead. This man who healed the sick, cast out demons, fed the hungry showed His ultimate power by defeating even the greatest obstacle known to man – death itself.
Now we’ll be looking in more detail at the events of the first Easter Sunday next week. It’s enough for now to say that the Christian faith rests on the most investigated and the best attested historical fact in the ancient world – which is the empty tomb. For the fact of the empty tomb is the reason why we still talk about Jesus today. It is the empty tomb which shows us the real authority of Jesus not just two thousand years ago when all this took place, far away in a distant land, but today, here, right now. For if Jesus is alive, if Jesus is present with us, if Jesus holds power over life and death, then each of us need to consider very carefully our response to Him. What do you make of Jesus? Do you see Him as king over your life or not?
Of course some people’s response to Jesus remains one of pure ridicule. You look at the TV comedy shows, or a programme like Top Gear. What’s the one faith that folk make fun of? It’s the Christian faith and Jesus. Or you look at the bestseller lists or the top documentaries. What’s the one religion they try to disprove? It’s the Christian faith. If Dan Brown had written about anything else, his badly written books would never have sold so many copies. In the world’s eyes the idea that a carpenter from Nazareth had the power to change the course of human history is ridiculous. He was either a fraud or an invention of later church history. And never mind the evidence, it’s always a good source of laughs or conspiracy theories.
It’s interesting, though, that at the same time the Christian faith is being ridiculed, it is also increasingly coming under attack. From the banning of crosses to changing the laws about marriage, it seems at the moment it’s open season on anything based on the teachings of Jesus Christ. You see, as the Easter story itself shows, when you really get to grips with the story of Jesus and who He claims to be, you can’t remain neutral. Either Jesus is who He says He is, or He is a dangerous fraud that needs to be silenced. There can be no middle ground.
For others, their response to Jesus is all about religion. Like the crowds they know a little about the Scriptures. They can be found from time to time in church. Maybe they come for a family event like a baptism. Maybe they sit comfortably in their favourite pew week after week. They are prepared to take part in praise and worship, they may even say they believe Jesus is king. But once they are outside again it’s as if their faith just evaporates. There’s no real connection between what happens on a Sunday and the rest of the week. When they are forced to make a choice between fitting in with everybody else and making a stand, fitting in wins almost every time. Are they really so different from the crowd which shouted “Hosanna” one day and “Crucify” the next?
And then there are some whose response to Jesus is real. It’s not that they go round wearing haloes or even loudly proclaim their faith. Like Mary who poured perfume on Jesus’ feet they may appear very ordinary people, outwardly not at all different like anyone else. But scratch a little beneath the service, and their love for Jesus shines through. They may have chosen a particular job so they can devote their lives serving others. They may have chosen to live in particular area so they can get involved in the life of the local church.
They don’t claim to be better than anyone else, or know all the answers to the world’s problems. But they have discovered the truth that Jesus is alive and Jesus is king. For them, those facts are not a source of ridicule. They aren’t interested in practising empty religion. They want to know this Jesus more and their whole life is directed to serving Him in faith and love, whatever the cost.
Who, I wonder, are you like? The thing about the Easter story is that’s not just a story that we read. It is also a story that reads us and asks us what we believe about Jesus. Is the idea of Him being king simply ridiculous or an empty religious concept? Or is our response to Him real, that we give Him everything we have in faith and love and dedication to Him? Those are the only options open to us. It’s up to you to decide.
But please be aware, if Jesus is alive and Jesus is King, then that means one day all of us will stand before Him. As Paul writes in our reading from Philippians:
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
And that’s why your decision today about Jesus is so important.