Wednesday, April 03, 2013
Sermon on Psalm 41 for Maundy Thursday, the night when Jesus was betrayed. "Betrayal or Loyalty?"
David wrote the Psalm in a time of crisis—he speaks of his illness, his enemies wishing harm and death upon him, hoping for his death and the end of his legacy. And as if that weren’t bad enough, his close and trusted friend betrayed him. “Even my close friend in whom I trusted, who ate my bread, has lifted his heel against me.” It probably felt like being kicked when you were down….by your friend. Or one you thought was your friend. Betrayal was one of the worst wounds. Psalm 41 may refer to the time when David’s kingdom was in turmoil, with his son Absalom plotting his overthrow and stealing the hearts of the people. One of David’s most trusted friends, his advisor Ahithophel—betrayed him and joined with the treasonous Absalom in the conspiracy. Ahithophel fits the bill for a close, trusted friend, who dined with David, but then betrayed him. And when the conspiracy began to fail, Ahithophel saw the writing on the wall, and hung himself. Regardless of whether the unnamed traitor in the Psalm and Ahithophel were one and the same, they were fitting precursors to Judas—the close table companion who betrayed Jesus, and then hung himself. History had repeated itself.
And Jesus implied as much when He quoted David’s Psalm, “He who ate my bread has lifted his heel against me”—referring to Judas’ coming betrayal. It was all happening to fulfill the Scripture. Just as David’s betrayer foreshadowed Judas, so also some of David’s troubles foreshadowed Jesus’ as well. Jesus faced the same hatred, which peaked on this night of dark actions, of betrayal and plotting, of sham trials and false accusations and empty words. David had said, “My enemies say of me, ‘When will he die, and his name perish?’” Jesus’ enemies might well have been hoping for the same thing. Months or more(?) of plotting for His death, were now culminating in a few final deeds of wickedness. The wheels were in motion, and no one would intervene to stop them. Perhaps they hoped that with Jesus’ death, His name too would perish—His teachings, His legacy, His claims to be Messiah. For any other messiah-pretenders, this had and would always be true. False prophets, liars and false christs were nothing new—and when they died, their movements died as well. But if they hoped the same for Jesus, they were sorely mistaken.
Far from killing off His teachings and His name with Him, the very opposite occurred. As Jesus said, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him” (John 12:24-26). When Jesus died and was buried in the earth, like a seed He sprouted and bore much fruit. Rather than extinguishing the life of Jesus and everything He taught, the crucifixion and death of Jesus was the sowing of the seed that would bear abundant fruit. When Jesus rose from the grave, the power of this miracle became like a sprouting seed that burst forth into many heads of grain, and Jesus’ disciples grew by the thousands.
Like David had prayed: “But you, O Lord, be gracious to me, and raise me up, that I may repay them! By this I know that you delight in me: my enemy will not shout in triumph over me. But you have upheld me because of my integrity, and set me in your presence forever.” God was gracious to Jesus and raised Him up in triumph over His enemies. The day for His enemies to shout in triumph would never arrive. So it continues for Christ’s body the church through the ages. Countless times over the centuries, the enemies of God have forecast the death of the church, the death of God, or the death of faith. But that day of triumph never comes, and their predictions never come true, because as Jesus said, the gates of hell shall never prevail over the church. The church stands unmoved through the changes and chances of history, even despite the hypocrisy and betrayal of some of its own members, because Christ our head is unmovable and steadfast. Jesus could rejoice with David that God upheld Him because of His integrity, and set Him in the Lord’s presence forever. Jesus’ integrity, His innocence, was vindicated—His name was cleared—when God raised Him from the dead. Instead of erasing Jesus name forever, His enemies were part of God’s plan in establishing His name forever. Jesus sits even now at God’s right hand—God’s eternal approval of His life, death, and resurrection—His victory over sin.
Let’s return to the verses from John 12, quoted before: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him.” Jesus speaks of His death, but also of our discipleship. To lose our life, to hate our life in this world, so that we may keep it for eternal life. To serve and follow Jesus, so that we will be with Him. Jesus describes the loyalty and faithfulness of discipleship. The very opposite of betrayal and plotting. If Judas portrays for us the worst failure of friendship and discipleship, Jesus teaches us where true discipleship is to be found.
To be loyal even unto death. To follow Jesus in taking up our cross of suffering, and to follow Him. That when He is scorned and mocked, we don’t stand back to preserve our own life and our own sense of honor—but commit our life and our honor to Jesus and God our Father. That like a true loyal friend we stand in solidarity with Him. That would be the portrait of true discipleship, and it’s what we are called to, to take up our cross and follow Him.
And that’s what Peter promised Him—His undying loyalty—that very night. To lay down even his life for Jesus. The other disciples said the same. But Jesus knew that even this well-intentioned promise wouldn’t be kept. Peter would deny Jesus. Jesus had said, “You will all fall away because of me this night. For it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’ But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee” (Matt. 26:30-35). All the disciples would fall away, because of Jesus! To fulfill yet another prophecy, they would all be scattered away from Him. Cowardice and fear scattered them, and Jesus faced the judgment of sin and the scorn of the enemies alone. He alone could survive it. He alone could endure the strike of death against the shepherd, to spare the flock and carry all our sins down to the grave. Even cowardice, disloyalty, and unfaithfulness. All our abandonment, our rebellion, and running from the cross. “But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee!” He alone could survive it! The Shepherd rises up from the grave to bring the flock back together!
We pray together with David to our Messiah, our Savior, our Deliverer: “As for me, I said, ‘O Lord, be gracious to me; heal me, for I have sinned against you!’” Forgive us for all our disloyalty, and our faltered trust. Forgive us for when we stood back from you to save our own skin. Be gracious to us and heal us. And so He does. He makes us His table companions once again, forgiving our sins, bringing us back to His table as His close friends, sharing with us His body and blood, that paid the price for our redemption. He feeds us on His sustaining life, placing into our hands His very body and pouring into our mouth His very blood shed on the cross for the forgiveness of our sins. He takes our sin and makes it His, and gives His forgiveness and life and makes it ours. He gathers back the scattered flock, reunites them under His living body and blood, and keeps us in His presence.
For we have the pressing need for His very body and blood, so that we may remain faithful and loyal to Him. Scattered from Him we’re weak, cowardly, and fearful. But nourished and fed by Him, joined in body and blood to our very Shepherd, we can take up our cross and follow Him. His very bodily presence strengthens and preserves us in body and soul to life everlasting. As He ever strengthens our trust and confidence in Him—as He loves us and gives out His life for us—He makes us to stand, firm and loyal to Him. He makes us to stand so that we can ever proclaim His praises—the praises of His undying name and glory: “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, from everlasting to everlasting! Amen and Amen!”