Transcript of a talk given at Moortown Baptist Church, 4th April 2023. You can listen to the talk here.
I want this evening in this talk, to share the story of Jesus as I’ve come to know it, or at least part of it, and very imperfectly. You don’t have to agree with me. But I’d like us to be encouraged to look at Jesus for ourselves, either again or for the first time. And then in our discussion to explore the call and way of Jesus with one another.
Jesus: I want to say Jesus is, not Jesus was. Of course Jesus has a past. Jesus is–the present tense–is very important: Jesus is God, living humanly. Jesus is a human person, living in oneness with God. Jesus lived a human life on Earth, in given time. And Jesus, I believe, is the archetypal human being alive who images God for us all.
Now the headings for the discussion are Galilee, Gethsemane, Golgotha, and Global, which are taken from places that Jesus moved to from time to time in his life. But they also symbolise and represent aspects of his being and meaning. And while the periods of his life follow one after the other in chronological order, the meanings flow backwards and forwards, and interact with each other and penetrate each other. As I hope we’ll see.
Galilee – Sunny days
So we begin with Galilee, which I have called Galilee Sunny days. And when I look at the story of Jesus, I think of the Galilee period as sunshine, for three reasons.
The first is that I have such sunny memories of when I first really noticed the early chapters of Mark’s Gospel, when I was helped to read them by a nice old lady, who was teaching a group of eight-year olds, in preparation for the National Sunday School Union Scripture Exam in 1946. And she had us in her home, and she took us through the first six or eight chapters of Mark. And I still remember the impression it had on me. Although I’d grown up in the church hearing all these stories, I had never actually really been asked to read them and look at them and get to know them week after week, and hear them talked about like that. (And of course I think the weather when I was young was mostly sunny. Or good snow.)
The second reason why I think of Galilee as being sunny, is that I found it to be sunny when I visited it, with a friend called Colin Bevington, who became a good clergyman. This was in 1958 when we were both doing national service in Cyprus and we went hitchhiking round Israel for a fortnight together. And that was very good.
Most of all, it’s sunny because of what Matthew said. The Gospels tend to begin the story of Jesus with his coming into Galilee. Matthew and Luke have infancy stories about his birth and so on. But then they jump and begin the story where Mark begins it absolutely, in the first verse. ‘The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ…’ is the first sentence. And then Mark goes immediately to say: ‘John was baptising in the Jordan’. There’s nothing about Jesus being young. And John’s gospel of course, starts the story of Jesus in the roots of eternity, ages ago, in the beginning, and then jumps again straight to the coming of Jesus into Jerusalem and Galilee.
And Matthew writes:
12 When Jesus heard that John had been put in prison, he withdrew to Galilee. 13 Leaving Nazareth, he went and lived in Capernaum, which was by the lake in the area of Zebulun and Naphtali— 14 to fulfil what was said through the prophet Isaiah:
15 “Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali,Matthew 4
the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan,
Galilee of the Gentiles—
16 the people living in darkness
have seen a great light;
And that’s how he really begins the story of Jesus, with a bang.
And Jesus goes around to Galilee for some time, as it describes in Acts 10:38. When Peter was preaching a sermon, he says:
how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.
I like that verse very much. I think that’s really got it. Jesus went around doing good, telling stories, opening up questions, making suggestions for life. Trying to persuade people to respond to the light that was shining, in all the signs of God’s Kingdom. He talked about signs given in the birds of the air, and in everyday human living, by the direct word of God.
And it was a sunny, hopeful message that Jesus was spreading: the Kingdom of God is coming near to you. Turn towards it, welcoming it, because it’s a good thing. The word repent that’s used in the translations has a meaning for us now, that says, ‘you are very guilty, you better repent. You’d better show remorse or you’ll be imprisoned for 42 years.’ That’s what repent means now. But basically it means: turn towards what is coming to you, what God is bringing. Turn towards the Kingdom of God, which is near. And this is so joyful and so sunny.
And in the gospel, the message is that the Kingdom is welcoming God by welcoming others–including those hard to welcome. One key message, right at the beginning, is love your enemies. Even in sunny Galilee. For God makes his son to shine on the righteous and the unrighteous. It’s a very important text from Matthew 5:43-48. And it goes with the other saying from Matthew 5, the Beatitudes: ‘blessed are the poor, for theirs is the Kingdom of God.’ And so on.
And again and again in the Gospels. The early preaching and action of Jesus is summarised in these kinds of ways. The poor hear good news. Heal the sick. Loosen the bonds. Let life abound. Lost sheep are searched for and till they are found. The lame walk. The deaf hear. The violently disturbed come and sit clothed, and in their right mind before Jesus. (Luke 4 and 7). And the disciples are called to be with Jesus. They are called to be with Jesus, and to be sent out to proclaim the Kingdom of God. And they’re sent out on the basis that freely you have received, freely give. (Matthew 10:7.) That’s a fundamental principle of the way of Jesus.
But from the beginning, there were clouds as well as sunshine. Jesus was beset by critics, opponents, conspirators and even would-be killers. It was often not comfortable for Jesus. And I remember the story here of when he went to Nazareth and preached, reading from the prophecy of Isaiah: ‘The spirit of the Lord is upon me. He’s anointed me.’ And then he said afterwards. Now look, you people. You think this message is just for you and especially for you, because you’re special people. But let me tell you, if you read your scriptures a bit more, besides Isaiah, you will find that God went to the outsider. Who got help from Elijah in the days of Elijah? It was a widow outside the boundaries of Israel. What you hear today, when I say the spirit of the Lord is upon me, is to bring blessing, to bring liberty to the captives, to preach the gospel to the poor. The Lord has anointed me to do this. But you people in Nazareth have got to think: God is equally taking it to other people. And if you’re not open to them getting it, then you’re missing it.
They were so angry at that, at the attack on their assurance. They were so angry that they went, they got together, took him out and were going to throw him over the brow of the hill. And it says, very nicely, he just walked through them and got away. Jesus could get a boat and go over to the other side of the lake and get away from these people, and find space for positive good. And he did.
And the crowds followed him into the wilderness because there they weren’t under the eye of the restrictive authorities and the suspicious people, and the common people heard him gladly. And you know the occasion when they stayed all day in the wilderness listening to his teaching and at the end of it, they were hungry? Jesus said I’m concerned about them being hungry. But his disciples? They could quite often be negative. They said to Jesus: Send them away. Let them get their own food in the shops. Let them look after themselves. We haven’t got all that money. And Jesus said to them, you give them something to eat. Jesus reminds disciples of their call to serve, not to be privileged.
And the question arises, you see, very sharply for disciples. Are the disciples with Jesus in spirit? It runs through the gospel. It’s a question: Jesus called disciples to be with him. But how close are they with him, really? How far will disciples risk going with Jesus in his self-giving generosity? Will they resist his call? After all, isn’t it reasonable to draw a line to protect themselves? Shouldn’t Jesus care for their comfort? They’re his disciples. Does not Jesus have an employer’s duty of care towards the disciples? Jesus is saying all the time to the disciples: Stay with me on my way. And that translates into: on this occasion, you give them something to eat. Don’t excuse yourself from discipleship. You have chosen to follow one who is giving his life a ransom for many. If anyone would be my disciple, let him say no to himself and take up his cross and follow me.
The gloomy turn
Now you have the gloomy turn. You see if it went on lovely in the sunshine of Galilee, there would be no story for us today, really. That would be out of our league. But there’s a gloomy turn. when Jesus, it says in Luke 9:51, ‘set his face like a flint to go to Jerusalem’. (It’s a matter of much discussion, and we can discuss it, about why Jesus turned to go to Jerusalem. I think actually a part of the meaning I see in it is certainly that he was going because he thought God said that was the way to go. That’s what he wanted him to do. I also think he thought: Jerusalem is the great city. I must go and get into politics. Politics is in the city. In the wilderness, when you’re gathering your adoring crowds and feeding them, you don’t have much politics. But Jerusalem? It’s a gloomy turn. It’s a gloomy turn towards Jerusalem.)
‘Set his face like a flint to go to Jerusalem’: that suggests great determination. It also suggests that there’s something here that you’ve got to steel yourself for. ‘At that very hour, at that very hour, some Pharisees came and said to him, “get away from here. For Herod wants to kill you.” And he said to them,’ (I do love this story), ‘go and tell that Fox, Herod, “behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow.”’ (Luke 13). I’m just going on my way. And the third day, I finished my course. Nevertheless, I must go. On my way today and tomorrow and the day following, for it cannot be that a prophet should perish away from Jerusalem.
Something that comes out very strongly in John’s gospel is that Jesus had an intense sense of living in a limited time. In John’s gospel, he says, ‘While it is day, it’s given to us to work, and while it is day, we must work, because the night’s coming when no one can work and the time is coming.’ He keeps saying in John’s gospel, ‘the time comes when I’m going away and you’ll be left without me.’ So we’ve got to use today. And Jesus says, while it’s today, then I’m going on doing my work that’s been given me by God, I’m not being put off. Even though he can see at the end of it that he’s going to the place where prophets get killed. (That’s a good question. Why should Jerusalem be so dangerous for prophets or other good people?)
This saying of Jesus, that I must finish my course, in a sense, I think, echoes with and anticipates the cry of Jesus on the cross, in John’s gospel, when at the end he said ‘it is finished’. I said at the beginning that Jesus is, not Jesus was. And that is true. But it’s still the case that Jesus lived with a sense that there is now. And then, the time ends. And there’s change. He wasn’t so inhuman, so elevated above humanity, that he wasn’t living in time and the limits of time.
When he says to Herod, I’m going on, and I’m going to finish my course, and I shall perish in Jerusalem, that thought then gives rise to another thought:
oh Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you, how often would I gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings and you would not behold your houses forsaken and I tell you, you will not see me until you say. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.Luke 13
What Jesus is saying is (in terms of the way I’ve structured this talk tonight), I must carry Galilee forward with me. Even though Golgotha, the place of crucifixion, is waiting for me. And I must carry it forward, I must carry Galilee forward, this sunny place, I must carry it forward to this sad, sad city. It’s not that I can stay in Galilee and just keep this to myself. It’s got to travel, it’s got to move and it’s got to go into the hardest places.
Now this meeting of Galilee and Golgotha is, I think, really an interesting thing to consider just after Palm Sunday. Because what happens on Palm Sunday, you see, is that the last bit of Galilee really comes into Jerusalem. This great rejoicing crowd, and all the children misbehaving. They all come into Jerusalem with the joy of Galilee about them and the King riding with them. In the sort of Galilee way. He comes riding meek on a donkey. The one who said when he was in Galilee, he said to people: come to me, all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest. For I am meek and lowly, and you will find rest for your souls. He rides meek on a donkey into dark Jerusalem.
But you see, that’s where also in this text that we’re looking at, Gethsemane and Golgotha cast their shadow forward. Jesus weeps over Jerusalem. He can see that it’s a very dark place. A city that does not recognise what makes for its peace. So we come to the next G: Gethsemane.
And Jesus is in struggle here. You know the story. On the night when he was about to be betrayed. They go to the garden. And he sees what’s happening. He knows what he’s going to do, and it gets to him. And he is in deep trouble, deep, deep struggle for his own integrity. The spirit is willing, he said, but the flesh is weak. It would be very easy to opt out, even at this late stage, to save himself. Jesus is put on the spot here. In a way that we haven’t seen before in the story of Jesus. What is he really committed to, when the chips are down? Where does he stand as a human being? What does he make of himself? What is his decision about his worth? His purpose, his dignity? Would he simply run away? What really is his commitment to God and to himself? He’s not yet in the hands of his enemies. He still has a choice. He could run back to the wilderness. And his flesh is weak in the face of what he sees coming to him. So he prays in agony, fighting through the crisis.
He prays as he taught others to pray when he was in Galilee. And this is again a thought that I like. That the Lord’s prayer is not a prayer that Jesus taught his disciples, not a prayer that we say because he taught it to us. It’s the prayer that he learnt by living. And it’s his prayer before it’s ours. And here in the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus is praying the Lord’s Prayer, which says, your will be done on Earth as it is in heaven. And here in this moment, he says, not my will, but yours be done. And so by his own choice before God, with God, Jesus went on to Golgotha.
I remember a story I heard from Donald MacKinnon (a great philosophical theologian who I owe a lot to, who taught in Cambridge when I was a student). Donald MacKinnon said that the one reason why he could believe in Jesus – and he did profoundly believe – was because of Gethsemane. Because there he saw that Jesus had voluntarily accepted his death. It hadn’t been forced on him. It wasn’t simply the power of Pilate and all that lot crushing him. It was the way he chose. Gethsemane.
So we come to Golgotha. It means the place of the skull, and it’s a mountain in Jerusalem. That’s where they took Jesus to be crucified. (And I say Golgotha here and not Calvary as we usually do because I want my Gs, you see, for this talk, that’s all. It’s just a trick.)
Now the thing about Golgotha, about the crucifixion of Jesus, is that here you see hate, cruelty, arrogance, greed, fear, wilful ignorance. They all manage the earth, destroy the creatures of Earth. The meek do not inherit the earth. Jesus fails, God is dead. There was darkness over the land for three hours in Matthew 27. Golgotha symbolises and bundles together our various human ‘NO’s to Galilee. It adds up, you might say, to the great refusal: we will not have this man to reign over us, they said.
Shall we say, in the light of this, ‘Oh, please excuse us. We would like to go on with Jesus on his way, but it’s just not practical, in the world as it is. The world is real. God’s Galilee is a lovely dream. Vaporised again and again.’ In spite of the cancellation, Jesus carries Galilee to Golgotha. In weakness, he carries on the work given by the Father. The Galilee seed falls into the ground and dies. It will bear much fruit (John 12).
It’s taken me 80 years to get to this, but I’m quite clear now, that nothing that happened on Golgotha would save the world, if Jesus had not taken Galilee there. If Jesus were not the kind of person, the Son of Man and the Son of God. Without what we see in the Galilee story, what would the death of this one mean? It would just be another poor citizen, or non-citizen, in the Roman Empire, getting swept away. It’s the spiritual bulk, the ethical strength of Galilee, that actually feeds meaning into this dying. Without Galilee, Golgotha would be empty of the promise and the call of the Kingdom of God.
And so I want to look for Galilee – can you see Galilee living on in Jesus’s words from the cross? The words of Jesus on the cross give us some clue about what he might be thinking and feeling in those hours. And do they show Galilee? I think they do.
‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.’ – ‘And he went about pronouncing people’s forgiveness, freeing them from their sins when he was in Galilee.’
‘Today thou shalt be with me in paradise.’ – It’s all part of the kind of promise of life that he brought.
‘Woman behold thy son, behold thy mother.’ The way he brought people together.
‘My God, my God, why has felt forsaken me?’ That, I think, is something that maybe is not so easy to find in Galilee …
‘I thirst’ – This reminded me of his being by the well in Samaria, when he asked the woman to give him, and he offered her, water, the water of life.
‘It is finished.’ Well, we’ve already talked about it is finished.
‘Father into thy hands, I commend my spirit.‘
I think that these words, again and again, reflect or come from what was in Galilee. And here, it lives on in this broken man, in his dying moments, in his weakness. It occurs again, in fragments, in little seeds, seeds falling into the ground to die. And out of the ground, there comes much fruit. And the fruit is global.
We all know after Golgotha came resurrection, we’ll all say the proper word when it comes to next Sunday: resurrection. Of course, I hope we don’t get wrong ideas about resurrection. It is not the resuscitation of a corpse. But you see, I have my little scheme. I want to talk about 4G. Jesus and Resurrection doesn’t give me a G. I got ‘Global’ because of things I’ve been reading about over the years. About the resurrection story stories and and and what they mean. And I’m particularly grateful to a theologian called Willli Marxsen (a liberal German of all things, and a very learned theologian who wrote a book about the resurrection of Jesus, that I used in a seminar, 50 years ago or more, in the department, and it opened my eyes and stuck with me ever since). And what Marxsen says, is that when you examine the resurrection stories, as we call them in the New Testament, you find that nobody ever saw or reported Jesus rising from the tomb.
What happens is that Jesus comes again to his disciples after he’s died: he comes again. He appears to them. He speaks to them. He’s seen by them. And being seen by them, he gathers scattered followers. He restores broken, frightened and ashamed people. They see him and they hear him, as they got to know him in Galilee. He said ‘Mary’ to a woman who thought she’d simply lost him. And she recognised the teacher she knew and loved. Others recognise the talkative stranger who walked with them on the way back from the disaster at Golgotha. They recognise him suddenly when he breaks bread, because Jesus used to do that in Galilee. And an Angel meets him in Galilee, and they find him cooking breakfast by the sea. And when they hide behind sealed doors for fear of the Jews, Jesus somehow, who knows, gets in and calls them to carry on Galilee mission to the end of the earth. Because this is what Jesus does.
He says to these broken, failed disciples: Here I am, Jesus, who got you started in Galilee. Here we are together again. And I’m not going out of this world. I am with you until the end of the age. I’m not taking you to heaven in a flash. I’m not making you rulers of the world. I’m not making you rich and comfortable in the world that negated me. I led you in the Galilee way. All the way through Gethsemane to Golgotha. And now we’re starting again. The way we were going in Galilee was not a mistake, or a feeble idealism. It was then, and is still, the way we will go with God into all the world. It is the God-given way, the way of the Son who is anointed. And well-pleasing to the Father in heaven. So he says to them ‘as I was sent, so send I you. I send you to confess that Jesus is Lord and to love, serve and hope for all. Receive the Holy Spirit.’ As Paul might add, ‘let us not be weary in well doing.’ And let us not forget Galilee.
Questions for discussion:
- In our personal experience, are there experiences that we’ve had that somehow resonate with Galilee, Gethsemane, Golgotha, and the global dimension? And we can also think of social experiences, with other people, with family situations, whatever, and ask the same sort of question: does this story that we’ve been thinking about, does it illumine any of this? And when you think widely about the world, even about our wicked government: is there any connection? Is there any relevance?
- We’ve been thinking about the G moments one after the other. When we consider each one: what would be lost in our understanding and following of Jesus if this G moment went missing–if we were to avoid it, dilute it or distort it?