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Monday, November 14, 2011

Is Jesus who We Want Him to Be? (Matthew 26:47-50; John 3:25-30)

Is Jesus who We Want Him to Be? (Matthew 26:47-50; John 3:25-30)

Matthew 26:47-50

47While he was still speaking, Judas, one of the twelve, arrived; with him was a large crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the elders of the people. 48Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, “The one I will kiss is the man; arrest him.” 49At once he came up to Jesus and said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” and kissed him. 50Jesus said to him, “Friend, do what you are here to do.” Then they came and laid hands on Jesus and arrested him.

Why did Judas Iscariot do that? He was paid 30 coins to hand Jesus over to the chief priests. Thirty coins, a paltry sum! Why, did he really betray Jesus?

Each gospel was written at least 30 years after the resurrection. The story was burned into the memory of the core members of the early church before it was written and circulated, and in that story, Judas was the betrayer and nothing more. Whatever good he did in his life was forgotten. This is clear in the way the Gospel writers portray him. He’s always listed as Judas who betrayed Jesus. Didn’t they all flee? Didn’t Peter deny? Didn’t Thomas doubt? Judas is singled out by Gospel writers for special blame, cast as one of the villains of the story by the storytellers. Are they being fair?

There’s always more to the story. Matthew 10 says Jesus sent out his 12 disciples in pairs and he gave them the power to cast out demons and miraculously heal diseases. Jesus endowed the disciples with the power of the Spirit – all 12 of them. That includes Judas. Knowing Judas as he did, Jesus still blessed him and trusted him as he did the others on this miracle-working mission. Along with the other disciples, Judas was able, on that specific mission, to do the very things that Jesus did. It would have been appropriate to refer to him as the Apostle Judas.

We don’t ever see him that way, though, do we? He’s the betrayer, not the apostle. Apostle Peter, Apostle Paul, Apostle John – it just rolls off the tongue. But Apostle Judas? No, that’s not how he’s remembered.

Judas Iscariot – he’s the crook among the disciples. On top of all the gospel authors telling their stories with him as a turncoat from the very first mention of his name, John’s gospel adds to the negative light cast on this unfortunate person. A woman came and anointed Jesus with costly perfume. All the gospel writers report that the disciples criticized the woman and criticized Jesus for receiving her lavish, impractical offering. Only in John’s Gospel is Judas specified as the vocal critic who is all too willing to challenge Jesus.

From John 12

4But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5“Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” 6(He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) 7Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” 9

The narrator’s editorial comments make it clear that Judas is a hopelessly fallen character from the outset and throughout in the story of Jesus. We’re all sinners. Each New Testament book and especially the Gospels make that clear. Each human being, each reader, each one of us, has sin sticking to us, and our only hope is forgiveness and salvation that we receive as a free gift of God given in the person of his Son, God in the flesh, Jesus, the Messiah. That’s crystal clear. What is equally clear is we have hope because of Jesus. But somehow, because of his specific sin, Judas did not.

So, we can distance ourselves from Judas. I commit my sins and you commit yours, but we weren’t the ones who betrayed Christ. We aren’t that bad, are we?

I have to go back to that moment in the Garden of Gethsemane. Judas led a band of armed ruffians. He called out the title of highest respect, ‘Rabbi,’ and gave the display of honor so appreciated in the Middle East, the kiss. Why? Why did Judas betray Jesus?

Maybe it really was for 30 pieces of silver. John’s Gospel says he was greedy and had his hand in the till. He wouldn’t be the first person involved in a revival movement that was stained with greed and financial corruption. Sadly, the pages of Christianity Today magazine and other media outlets are often reporting on Christian leaders who fall from grace because they cheated the church, took money that wasn’t theirs. And there are many who don’t steal money, but are simply paid exorbitant salaries and after some time come to think they worth the six figure incomes they receive. At 22 years old, when I first said I wanted to go into vocational ministry and believed I was being called to be a pastor; two different pastors gave the same advice, not knowing what the other had said. Watch out for women and money. I thought it was strange, unspiritual advice, definitely not what I expected. Now, 20 years later, I know why they said it. Sexual temptation and greed are things that destroy followers of Jesus Christ. Maybe we try to read too much Judas’ motives for betrayal. Maybe it was a simple a case of old fashioned greed – 30 coins for the life of Jesus.

Maybe it was more than that. Maybe Judas believed what the Gospel of John tells us he said. Maybe he was, sort of, concerned about the needy. Maybe Judas was a pragmatist who saw 300 denarii worth of coins wasted on perfume that was poured over Jesus, and the excess truly irritated him. He might have stolen some of that money, but he also might have truly given a lot of it to help poorer people. Human beings are that twisted and torn. Made in the image of God, we can show great compassion. And in the next moment, fallen sinners in the heritage of Adam and Eve, we turn around and hurt others. Maybe Judas, blind to his own sin and also blind to who Jesus really was, was annoyed at the generous worship shown by the woman who anointed Jesus.

We could speculate further. In Matthew 10, when Jesus sends out his 12 on the mission of miraculous healing and exorcism, Judas is paired with Simon the Zealot. The Zealots were a revolutionary group that wanted to take up arms and drive Rome out of Israel with military force. Maybe Judas was also a Zealot or at least sympathetic to their cause. Maybe he turned Jesus into the authorities because he thought his action would provoke a violent uprising. I am certain Judas did not know Jesus would be crucified. I am positive that in his own mind, he wasn’t sending Jesus to death. I am not clear on Judas’ motive, but I am sure he was surprised by how things turned out.

Whatever his motive, Jesus wasn’t who Judas wanted him to be. Judas did not truly see Jesus as master worthy of complete respect and loyalty, or else he would not have stolen from him. Judas did not accept Jesus as Lord, or else he would not have objected to worship of him and in fact he would have joined in the adoration of Jesus as Peter and the women disciples expressed at different times. Judas did not trust Jesus as leader or trust that Jesus knew what was best, or else he would not have betrayed him. He would not have tried to force Jesus’ hand. Whatever drove Judas; Jesus was not who Judas wanted him to be.

Who do we want Jesus to be? Personal Lord and Savior! No, Jesus is not my personal Lord. Jesus is not mine at all, or yours. I am his. He is the possessor and we the possessions. He is the master and we the servants. Jesus is not our personal god to turn to when we need him. He’s Lord of the universe and our story must conform to His. He is not to be fit into our lives where it works for us. We are to be fully committed to Him.

Who do we want Jesus to be? The one who answers our prayers? Yes, but also no. Yes, we are to pray without ceasing, in all circumstances. Yes, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit are interested in the most intimate and small details of our lives. Yes, Jesus answers our prayers. Yes, we are to take all things to him in prayer. Yes! Yes! Yes! However, Jesus is not the divine wish-come-true, the one who gives whatever we want. Jesus is not a catalogue. In prayer, we seek God’s will. There has to be more to our prayer life than simply asking for things. And when we ask for things, we have to be prepared for what God gives. When we ask to have the thorn removed from our side, we have to be prepared to hear as Paul did, “My grace is sufficient.” And we have to accept that, as Paul did, thorn and all. When we ask that this cup be taken from us, we have to be prepared to drink it as Jesus did. He didn’t want to be crucified, and he asked God for a way out. But he finished that prayer saying, “Not my will be yours be done.”

Who do we want Jesus to be? The one who makes us right and others wrong? We’re with Jesus and the world isn’t or “they” aren’t. Is that how we see it? The Muslims, the Communists, the Fascists, the Liberals, the Occupiers, the Tea Partiers … who would we “they” are? Jesus is for us, and against them. Jesus is the one who justifies us as we live for ourselves. Is that how we see it? Be careful! Bible scholars universally identify Pharisees as the conservatives and the scripture experts. In the world of the New Testament, the Pharisees were the Biblical fundamentalists, and Jesus was constantly refuting them, challenging them, and offering an alternative to the way they said one should live. Yes, it is true, Jesus justifies us, but on his terms not ours. Too many Christians create their own picture of the good life and then slap Jesus’ name on it like a bumper sticker. With the “Jesus tag,” they justify a materialistic, self-serving, hypocritical life. If that’s how we see Jesus, we need to go back again and read the depictions of judgment in the New Testament and also the conditions for which one falls under judgment. Matthew 25 and Luke 16 are good starting points.

Who do we want Jesus to be? Personal Savior? Buddy? Prayer answerer? Label to justify the lives we’ve decided to live? Whatever else we might say about Judas, the one who betrayed Jesus, we can know this. Jesus wasn’t who Judas wanted him to be because Jesus doesn’t conform to man’s expectations. Not Judas’ expectations or the Pharisees’. Not your expectations or mine. He won’t be who the world says he should be or who the church says he should be. I think the issue with Judas has to do with conformity. We might not each do what Judas did, but do we conform to Jesus’ ways or do we want Jesus to conform to our expectations?

In another New Testament person, John the Baptist, we find another posture to be taken toward Jesus. It comes up in a conversation between John and his disciples, who perceived that Jesus was competing with John for followers. Note how John sees it when his most faithful followers show concern over Jesus’ rising popularity.

From the Gospel of John, 3:26-30

26They came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, the one who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you testified, here he is baptizing, and all are going to him.” 27John answered, “No one can receive anything except what has been given from heaven. 28You yourselves are my witnesses that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah, but I have been sent ahead of him.’ 29He who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. For this reason my joy has been fulfilled. 30He must increase, but I must decrease.”

In what situation would we say that our own decrease actually makes us happy, fulfilled? In America today, the most popular sport, by far, is professional football. And the most admired people in the NFL are those who seen as ultra-competitive. Commentators speak in admiring tones when the describe the coach or player is so pathologically competitive that he wants to win at any and everything – checkers, ping pong, everything! He wants to win at all costs. He’s obsessed with winning. We love our NFL and we put on a pedestal the greatest winners.

Now here comes John the Baptist saying Jesus must increase, but I must decrease. John doesn’t care if the Lions beat the Bears next week. John is happy with his own decline for the sake of Jesus’ exaltation. Put more simply, John wants people to forget about him and turn to Jesus. He couldn’t be any clearer about that.

John gets what he wants. His life comes to an end when, after languishing in Herod’s prison, he is beheaded. Everyone who puts Jesus first and dies to self in order to glorify does not die a martyr’s death, but everyone who claims to be a passionately devoted follower of Jesus has to be ready to do just that.

It is a matter of how we approach Jesus. Do we come to him hoping he will be who we want him to be? Or do we come as broken sinners? Do we come seeing him as a loving God who welcomes us with open arms and offers complete forgiveness? In approaching that way, do we have the humility to die to self that we might be made new? Not “a new, improved, better me” that we hear about on diet ads and in self-help books; do we come with such complete surrender that Jesus takes over our lives and we are made new?

Judas died a horrible, lonely death. He was forgotten by all except to be remembered as a betrayer. At the judgment, he will, to his own horror, see openly what he failed to see in his time with Jesus. John also died a horrible, lonely death, but before he did, in this life, he saw the ascension of Jesus, and his joy was made complete. At the final judgment, he will come and see what he already testified to in his life – the love and the reign of Jesus. Then, John will hear these words. “Well done good and faithful one. Enter into the joy of your master.”

May we let go of roles we’d like Jesus to fulfill. May we instead be given eyes to see who Jesus is and when we see Him, may we give ourselves to Him in total surrender.


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