Sunday 5th March 2017 – Easter as seen by… #1
There are various festivals, celebrations and events that mark the passage of the years. Some are family things like birthdays and wedding anniversaries, weddings – and, sadly, funerals; others are public events like “la fête nationale”, fête de la musique, Trooping of the Colour on the Queen’s birthday; and then, too, there are the Christian festivals of Christmas, Easter and Pentecost.
We have an interesting attitude to the ways we celebrate: there are things that we include in our celebrations year in and year out, without fail. Not to have them as part of what we do would be almost unthinkable. So, on the Queen’s birthday for instance, the red-coated and bearskin-hatted guardsmen line up on Horse Guards’ Parade and Her Majesty rides up from Buckingham Palace, then the regimental colours are trooped round so everyone can see them. Every year the ceremony is virtually unchanged (it did change in 1987 when, after 36 years of riding a horse at the event, the Queen began riding in the Glass Coach.
On family birthdays, and at Christmas, traditions build up as children grow – often they like to do certain things in exactly the same way – opening cards and presents on their parents’ bed, for instance (or having the “birthday Smurf” figurine appear in a surprise place at some point during the day, and then on the birthday cake!).
But we also like to do things in a fresh way sometimes – anniversary surprises, weddings on beaches… Things that celebrate the event, as is right and proper, but that do it in a way that – because it is different – make us see it differently and perhaps appreciate the significance more.
And it can be the same with the Christian festivals. For those who like to follow the Church Calendar – the liturgical way of learning about and celebrating our faith throughout the year – you’ll know that we have just entered the season of Lent. Lent is a time of preparation leading up to Easter: the central event of the Christian message that Jesus, the Son of God, was crucified in our place and then rose again from the dead three days later. Over four days, the Church celebrates this event at Easter. Often people will fast during lent to help them focus their mind on the spiritual preparation for the celebration. Small, midweek groups might look at a study series specially conceived for the lent period. And pastors will usually preach on a particular theme – possibly on the actually events recorded in the gospels that lead up to the arrest, trial, crucifixion and resurrection; possibly on the prophetic passages in Old and New Testaments that foretell the Easter events; or, and this is what we are going to do, looking at Easter through the eyes of some of the people who were there.
For the next few weeks, we are going to take various people who appear in the Gospels and look at their relationship to Jesus and what part they played in the crucifixion & resurrection; how were they involved?; what was their reaction? I’m hoping it will help us see Easter in a fresh way, and help us hear God speaking to us about how we ourselves should react to it.
There’s a long list of characters we could choose from and I’ve picked out twelve that we’ll take – as they say on the reality TV shows – “in no particular order”, because they were all there at the same time, and who’s to say whose point of view will speak most to you.
These are our Top Twelve:
– two different Marys; the disciple John; King Herod; Nicodemus & Joseph of Arimathea; Judas Iscariot & Caiaphas; Peter; Thomas; Jesus himself; and Paul (OK, he’s taken from the book of Acts rather than the Gospels, but you’ll see why he’s included when we get to him).
There are not twelve weeks to go before Easter Sunday – it’s on April 16th – but on two Sundays we’re going to look at two people together. And we’re also going to carry on for three weeks after Easter, as we consider how some of them reacted after the resurrection.
So, fasten your seatbelts, and here we go!
There was a man whom God had spoken to about the Messiah that Israel was waiting for: the Anointed one; the one who would save them and bring in God’s glorious kingdom; the Christ. God had told this man that he would not die until he had seen the Christ, and so he was waiting. And then one day the Holy Spirit moved him and led him into the temple and there he saw Jesus and recognised him for who he was – the Messiah, the one he was waiting for. Jesus was not alone in the temple, and the man went up to the little group and spoke to them. He prophesied over Jesus and then he blessed the two people that were with him and then said something to one of them in particular,
‘This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, 35 so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.’ (Luke 2.34-35)
You’ve probably guessed: this took place when Jesus was a baby. The man’s name was Simeon and the couple with Jesus were Mary & Joseph. And so it was to Mary, Jesus’ mother, that he spoke these words: ‘And a sword will pierce your own soul too.’
Mary: what was it like for her bringing Jesus, God’s Son, into the world; watching him grow up into a man; beginning his ministry; being followed by thousands but also rejected by the religious authorities; being arrested, tried and crucified?
When we look for her in the Gospel narratives, there’s no point in looking for someone called “The Virgin Mary” because, not too long after what we’ve just read, she progressed beyond that and, with Joseph, had four more sons: James, Joseph, Judas and Simon; and at least two daughters (Matt 13.55 & Mark 6.1-3). Instead, she is often called simply “Jesus’ mother”; and often referred to as Mary the mother of [one or more of her other sons].
And so we find her, immediately after the encounter with Simeon in the temple, fleeing from Herod to Egypt for two years until it was safe to return to Nazareth. It’s another ten years before we see Mary again, when she and Joseph “lose” Jesus on the way back from a visit to Jerusalem for a festival. (Luke 2.48-50)
Mary actually seems cross with him – can you imagine? Annoyed with Jesus because he wasn’t where she expected him to be, doing what she expected him to do. Does that ever happen to you? Mary’s problem, here, was that she hadn’t yet realised that Jesus had different priorities to hers, and that she needed to get herself in line with his and not the other way round. We need to keep check on what Jesus is wanting us to do and where he wants us to be. Otherwise we may find ourselves out of step with him.
There is another even longer silence in the Gospels, maybe nearly 20 years, and then we find Mary and Jesus together as guests at a wedding in Cana, Galilee (John 2). I do love the interaction between the two of them here. Mary obviously understands that Jesus can do something, possibly something miraculous, to save the host family from a terrible loss of face as people discover that there is no more wine (perhaps because more people turned up than were expected; who knows?).
‘They have no more wine,’ Mary says to Jesus.
‘Woman, why do you involve me?’ Jesus replied. ‘My hour has not yet come.’
Mary says to the servants, ‘Do whatever he tells you.’
There is so much unsaid there, between the lines. What’s really being said is,
– “They’ve run out of wine, Jesus. It will be terrible for them. Will you do something?”
– “Oh, Mother! I wasn’t really planning on taking the limelight here – it’s the couple’s day, not mine. This really isn’t the time for me to step out and start doing miracles.”
– “I know, son, but think of the shame the bride’s father will feel. He’ll never live it down.”
– “You are incorrigible, woman! But I love you for it.”
– (to the servants) “Do whatever he tells you”.
What’s this got to do with Easter? I believe we need to see the love and the trust that existed between Mary and Jesus. She knew him, loved him and didn’t doubt who he was and what he would be prepared to do for people. Mary was prepared to bring people’s needs to Jesus’ attention. He was aware of them already, of course he was; but this incident encourages us to work with Jesus in caring for others.
It also helps us understand what’s going on the next time we encounter Mary.
Things were beginning to hot up between Jesus and the religious authorities, in Matt.12. Unwilling to accept who Jesus was and the authority that he had to say and do the things he was doing, they were actually accusing him of being on Satan’s side and of using Satan’s power to drive out demons! It was becoming obvious that a flashpoint was coming and that the authorities were going to end up trying to get rid of Jesus – permanently.
While Jesus was still talking to the crowd, his mother and brothers stood outside, wanting to speak to him. (Matt 12.46)
We don’ know what they wanted – but it seems likely that they wanted to persuade Jesus to be careful; maybe to tone it down a bit for his own safety. What it doesn’t mean is that they disagreed with him or didn’t believe in him.
In fact, it’s clear that Mary was part of the small group of women who were part of the larger group of disciples that went around with Jesus. Mark’s Gospel tells us that, at the crucifixion,
Some women were watching from a distance. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joseph, and Salome. 41 In Galilee these women had followed him and cared for his needs. (Mark 15.40-41)
(Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joseph = Jesus’ mother)
So, we see that Mary was very much a part of Jesus’ ministry team – helping on the practical side. And that his brothers were concerned about his welfare (we’ll see them again in moment). Let’s not super-spiritualise ministry: spreading the message about Jesus. Much of it is to do with practicalities. And those practicalities are important and being involved in organising them and carrying them out is something we can all be involved in (think how the 12 disciples were involved in the practicalities of feeding the 5,000 etc).
So, Mary followed Jesus, and was present at the crucifixion of her own son. This was surely the moment Simeon had foretold when he said it would be as if a sword pierced her own soul. It is said that it is a terrible thing to see one’s own children die. And Mary was not spared that suffering. Her son, whom she knew also to be the Son of God, died the most cruel and agonising death that Man had yet devised; in front of her own eyes.
We need to understand that, like Mary, for us too, following Jesus will not always be a bed of roses. There will be heartache as we see the results of people turning away from Him, the one we love.
John gives us a couple of interesting bits of information about Mary:
Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. 26 When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing near by, he said to her, ‘Woman, here is your son,’27 and to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ From that time on, this disciple took her into his home. (John 19.25-27)
One thing is that Mary had a sister and that this lady, Jesus’ aunt (Who knew?!), was also at the crucifixion. Presumably she, too, was a follower, a believer in Jesus. These women were showing Jesus their love at this horrendous time – possibly at some risk to themselves, especially as all but one of the male disciples (John himself) had fled. They were also providing support to one another. It is no wonder, with such strong and faithful examples, that women continue to be at the heart of church life. May you continue to do so! And, men, may we be willing to learn from their faithfulness – often their faithfulness is stronger than our own!
Mary and the other women were determined to follow through on what they had committed to. Not only had they followed Jesus right to Golgotha, but now they followed Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus as they took Jesus body down from the cross and carried it to a tomb to be buried. (John 19.38-42 & Mark 15.47)
We’ll be looking at Joseph & Nicodemus later in the series, but here were two secret disciples who finally stepped up to the mark. And Mary, Jesus’ mother, supported by Mary Magdalene, were the only two of the public disciples who were prepared to take it right to the line. In the dark, with Jerusalem in turmoil, soldiers everywhere – both Temple soldiers and Roman ones – all the men fled, Judas Iscariot having betrayed Jesus to his enemies and Peter having denied him three times; and Mary was prepared to go as far as she possibly could, still following Jesus.
The result of that faithfulness became apparent a couple of days later. That was Good Friday, the eve of the Sabbath. Mary and the other women had wanted to finish off the task of anointing Jesus’ body with embalming spices. (Did Jesus’ mother perhaps remember at this moment the myrrh that the Wise Men had brought at his birth? They had to wait until after the Sabbath and so they came back to the tomb at dawn on the Sunday). And they became the first people in all the universe to discover that Jesus had risen from the dead! What an amazing privilege. (Mark 16.1-8)
God honours our faithfulness and our desire for intimacy with him. Mary had spoken with an angel right at the start of the Gospels, when Gabriel announced that she would become pregnant with Jesus. Now another angel (maybe it was Gabriel again, but he doesn’t say) tells her and the others that Jesus is risen and gives them instructions to tell the other disciples.
And that could be the end of Mary’s story: faithful to Jesus and loving him right the way through from his birth to his resurrection – seeking to follow God’s plan for her life and to have a close relationship with His Son – and being rewarded with the privilege of God’s confidences. But Mary can also teach us that Easter doesn’t stop with the resurrection. She carried out the angel’s instructions to tell the others – and then she carried on:
If we turn the pages into Acts we find that, after Jesus ascended into heaven, the larger group of disciples
“all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.” (Acts 1.14)
Yes. Mary and her other sons were part of the church as it formed and grew. She and they would have been present on the day of Pentecost. James, Jesus’ brother, became leader of the Jerusalem church while Peter and others went out on missionary journeys. Another brother, Jude, is probably the Jude who wrote one of the Epistles.
Easter was not an ending – it was a glorious explosion of God’s power to bring life and love to mankind. And we are at the ever-expanding finger-tips of that explosion as God continues what began that weekend.
Let’s be excited, encouraged and filled with Holy Spirit enthusiasm for what is to come!