Four Pages: Jesus the Lonely Victor
Though the crowds that surround Jesus have shrunk since Palm Sunday, at our text’s beginning his friends still surround him. At its end, however, those friends are nowhere to be found. Jesus’ persistence in the face of their desertion says something about both them and him.
After the sun sets on the last full day of his life on earth, Jesus’ disciples and he do what their ancestors have done for centuries. And what their descendants will soon do right here in our own neighborhood. They celebrate the Passover.
But theirs is a Passover supper with what Tom Wright (Mark for Everyone, Westminster John Knox: Louisville, KY) calls “a difference.” After all, while one lamb has already been slaughtered for the sake of Jesus and his friends who surround him, another Lamb will also soon be butchered. That lamb, however, will be slaughtered for not just those disciples, but also for the whole world.
Mark has already reported that Judas will help facilitate that slaughter. Yet Jesus never identifies him as his betrayer. So his warning that one of his disciples who still surrounds him will betray him triggers twelve responses.
We sometimes assume their, “Surely not” I’s are denials. However, I wonder if they’re actually saying something different. Since Jesus’ warning saddens his friends, they may be anxiously asking something like, “It won’t be me, will it, Jesus?”
The gospels at least suggest that Judas is one of Jesus’ friends who surround him at the Passover meal. In fact, Mark doesn’t separate him from the rest of Jesus’ disciples until he leads the religious leaders to Jesus in Gethsemane’s Garden.
So Mark at least implies that Judas is not just Jesus’ friend who eats and dips his bread in the bowl with him, but also one of the “all” whom Jesus predicts will fall away. We might, then, imagine him joining the chorus of Jesus’ friends’ in not just asking “Surely not I,” but also promising to stand by Jesus all the way to death.
Yet have you ever wondered just why the gospels imply that Judas is one of Jesus’ friends who surround him until almost the very last minute? Might they be putting all of Jesus’ followers in that group of Jesus friends who begin our text surrounding him?
We, after all, dine with Christ at various meals. Jesus warns that we too will be at least tempted to fall away from him. We too have pledged to follow Jesus wherever he leads us.
Yet when we’re honest with God and ourselves, we must confess that we have failed Jesus in those ways and countless more. In fact, we haven’t just fallen away from Jesus and then been restored. We also keep falling away and, as a result, needing to be forgiven and restored.
Jesus pleads with his friends not to fall away, but to stay with him by watching and praying while he battles the principalities and powers in Gethsemane’s darkness. Yet even as he begs his heavenly Father to spare him from that war, they begin to fall away from him. Jesus’ friends don’t stay awake long enough to even keep watch, much less pray.
So we may be less surprised than Jesus’ friends that all of those friends totally fall away from him when the authorities arrest him. That when the going gets tough, the tough get going … as far away from Jesus as possible. That one of Jesus’ friends who’d promised to stay with Jesus to the end is in such a hurry to fall away from Jesus that he even lets his clothing fall away.
In fact, the closer Jesus gets to the cross, the more people fall away from him. Peter, of course, manages to follow him at a safe distance to Jesus’ courtroom.
He initially stays within shouting distance of the one from whom he’d insisted he’d never fall away. But when those who surround Peter question his relationship with him, he completely falls away from Jesus by denying knowing him. When his companions press him to own up to his relationship with Jesus, Peter disowns him. He leaves Jesus all alone to face his enemies.
That’s, in fact, Mark’s gospel final report on Jesus’ disciples who’d promised to stick with him to the end. By that end, they’re all gone. Even the handful of women who stick closer to Jesus than them only watch his lynching “from a distance.”
So Jesus has no one to walk with him through his valley of the shadow of death. No one to encourage him when he’s tempted to turn away from the horrific battle before him. No one but his enemies to offer him something to drink when he’s thirsty.
In fact, by the time Jesus gets to Calvary’s cross, even his enemies tell each other, “Now leave him alone.” Even his heavenly Father with whom he’d enjoyed eternal fellowship, support and encouragement somehow abandons him. Jesus must endure the worst Satan, sin, and death can do to him all by himself.
When Russia escalated its war on Ukraine, President Zelenskyy said that his country had been “left alone” to defend herself against the invasion. People have almost endlessly debated about just how alone the West has left Ukraine.
Yet no matter how alone we think Ukraine is, can we at least admit that feeling alone heightens our sense of fear in the face of an enemy? That it is hard enough to face suffering when people surround us. It is horrific to have to face it by yourself.
Fifteen years ago my cancer diagnosis terrified me. Yet almost as quickly as I received that diagnosis, people literally and figuratively surrounded me. Many of you supported and continue to surround me in ways no one surrounded the suffering and dying Jesus.
Of course, Jesus stood all alone against a far more powerful and dangerous enemy than cancer. That’s our text’s bad news. Here’s part of its good news: even though he’s all by himself, Jesus stands up to the alliance of Satan, sin, and death. And he did so for the sake of you, me, all of God’s people, and the whole creation.
Even as one of his best friends betrays him, Jesus stays faithful to his mission of saving the whole creation. Even as everyone else falls away from him, Jesus walks straight into captivity. Even as one of his closest friends disowns him, Jesus takes ownership of his rescue mission.
Even as the crowds that had once admired him taunt him by twice inviting him to come down from the cross, Jesus continues to dangle between heaven and earth for our sake. Even as his enemies tempt him to save himself, Jesus stays true to his task of saving not himself, but the world.
Yet Jesus’ faithfulness to his task should surprise us no less than his friends’ faithlessness does. After all, Jesus didn’t promise that the religious leaders would just try to condemn him to death and hand him over to gentiles who would lynch him.
In Mark 10:33-34 he promises, “The Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death, and will hand him over to the Gentiles, who will mock him, spit on him, flog him and kill him.”
Jesus knows what’s coming. His disciples first try to reject that notion. Then they promise to stick with him through all that. Yet they eventually left him to face his enemies all by himself. At the end, the Jesus whom the crowds and his friends once surrounded is all alone. Yet all by himself he graciously fights the good fight for our sake anyway.
When we think of what happens on Calvary’s cross, we often think of Jesus taking our place or being a sacrifice for our sins. But the Scriptures also allude to how the crucified Jesus battled Satan, and his henchmen, death, and sin. That at the cross the war between God’s kingdom and the kingdom of darkness in some ways reaches its apex.
Thanks be to God – Jesus won that decisive battle and disarmed those enemies. But this morning’s text reminds us that everyone left him to fight it all alone.
Of course, only Jesus, because he was both fully human and fully divine, could both fight and win that war against Satan, sin, and death. Yet he had no one to walk beside and encourage him.
The only people within shouting distance of Jesus suffering and death were the crowds, religious leaders, and criminals. Yet Jesus never turned away from his saving work. He suffered and died by inches on the cross, in the darkness, all by himself. Yet he never flinches, because he loves you and me so deeply. Out of his love, not just for us, not just the whole creation, but, yes, also even for his enemies that Jesus endures his suffering all by himself.
Images of the suffering Russian troops are inflicting on Ukraine are horrifying. Ukrainian bravery in the face of overwhelming odds thrill and encourage us. But the Russians’ cruelty and Ukrainians’ bravery are only pale imitations of Jesus’ enemies’ cruelty and his courage in the face of their merciless assault.
Russian firepower is frightening. But Jesus had to face all the firepower Satan, sin and death could muster. They focus all that attention and might with laser-like intensity on the One, Jesus Christ. And on top of all that, he did so not only all alone, but also without trying to defend himself. We see in that horror the wondrous love about which the hymn invites us to sing with such awe. Jesus endures all of that suffering because he loves us so unconditionally.
He fought and conquered the powers and principalities all by himself for the sake of his friends who betray, fall away from, and disown him. We live, not just now, but also forevermore because Jesus willingly died all by himself.
And because Jesus died all by himself, Christians always live an accompanied life. Because Jesus was willing to go all the way to the cross all by himself, we’re never left by ourselves.
When the Lord’s angel informs Joseph of Jesus’ conception, Matthew announces that his son will be called “’Immanuel’ – which means, ‘God with us.” Just before Jesus returns to the heavenly realm, Matthew also tells us that he promises his disciples, “I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
There may be times when you feel abandoned. But the Scriptures insist we won’t go anywhere this week by ourselves. The Jesus Christ who died alone goes with us from the moment of our conception to the moment we pass from life to Life
So when you walk through the deepest waters into which life can plunge you, those waters may threaten you. But they won’t drown you. Because the Spirit of the Risen Christ walks right through them with you.
When various fires threaten to destroy you this week, they may burn you. But they won’t destroy you. Because the Spirit of the Christ who walked through the fires by himself walks through your fires with you.
Friends of Jesus Christ, there is nowhere you can go this week where Christ’s Spirit doesn’t go with you. Not to peek over your shoulder to make sure you’re staying in line and measuring up, morally, spiritually, or professionally. Instead the Spirit of the risen Christ stays with you so that he can show you his deep and abiding love.
Yet just as God’s adopted children are never alone, our ascended Elder Brother, Christ, whom everyone once abandoned is no longer alone either. Revelation 5 paints a picture of the One whom everyone once abandoned as now surrounded by not just countless angels, but also every creature in heaven and on earth.
So you may sometimes feel alone in your walk with Jesus. You may long for people to walk with you in a way that makes you feel less lonely. We, your fellow Christians, then, have let you down.
Thanks be to God, then, that the One who walked to his death by himself never lets us walk toward our death by ourself. By his Spirit, Christ accompanies us all the way into the new creation where a vast crowd awaits. The new earth and heaven where no one will ever again have to feel as lonely as Jesus did for our sake.
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