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Sermon, August 29, 2021 | Grace Reformed Church

Pragmatism
Sermon Series: 
Proverbs 17:11-15
John 11:45-54
Date: 
Sunday, August 29, 2021

I hope you all enjoyed last week as we reveled in the great miracle that was the raising of Lazarus. What confidence it gives us that the King that we serve is the one who has the power over life and death. Because that is really what we really need, isn’t it? We need to be rescued from the awful thing that sin is, and from its punishment, which without the blood of Jesus is always death.

In the story that we get to look at today, which is another one of these “aftermath” accounts—what happens after Jesus does something miraculous, we are going to again look the bondage of sin square in the face. That bondage that holds our thoughts, our reason, our motives, our desires, holds all of that captive until we are set free by Christ. That bondage is so profound that it can take the most miraculous, incredible thing you could ever witness—the raising of the dead—and turn it into a problem. Jesus says, and shows, that he is the Resurrection and the Life, it should be good news, great news, a cause for celebration, but to some it was a crisis.

Turn with me now to John 11, and follow along as we read the account of the aftermath of raising Lazarus. John, chapter 11, verses 45-54, listen this is God’s Holy Word.

45 Therefore many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. 46 But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. 47 Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin.

“What are we accomplishing?” they asked. “Here is this man performing many signs. 48 If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.”

49 Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, “You know nothing at all! 50 You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.”

51 He did not say this on his own, but as high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the Jewish nation, 52 and not only for that nation but also for the scattered children of God, to bring them together and make them one. 53 So from that day on they plotted to take his life.

54 Therefore Jesus no longer moved about publicly among the people of Judea. Instead he withdrew to a region near the wilderness, to a village called Ephraim, where he stayed with his disciples.

The Word of the Lord.

So this is what happens after Lazarus is raised from the dead. As I was reading to prepare to write this sermon, one commentator mentioned something that struck me as kind of what I was thinking. He made the point again that John’s gospel, as it has been from the beginning, is extremely Christo-centric. Everything points to Jesus, every event shows us something about him, there seem to be no wasted words at all, no rabbit trails, really no other characters developed other than Jesus, our central focus. 

And he made the comment at exactly this point in the scripture because John gives us no more details about the raising of Lazarus. My curiosity can’t stop! What did Lazarus do next? What did he look like? Who did he hug? Did he dance or sing, or run, I don’t know! No, we may be curious about such things, but John immediately shifts the narrative to what it all means in the story of Jesus. It’s not how they would have done it in Hollywood, but that’s OK, this story is all about Jesus.

So let’s put Lazarus aside and look at this aftermath of the greatest miracle—what happens next? Well, unsurprisingly the people that saw the miracle are amazed and some of them believe.

Therefore many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.

I’m not surprised at that, are you? You were just consoling Mary and Martha, weeping with them, and then you watch as Jesus raises the one you were mourning, calls him out of the tomb, and he is suddenly in front of you, struggling to get off these graveclothes, maybe ones you even helped put Mary on him! That would be a cause for belief, I would say. And Jesus used this miracle to absolutely bring in some of his flock, to harvest some of the crop, some of them believed. But there’s always a “but.”

46 But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. 47 Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin.

Remember that the crowd who would witness this miracle was a mixed bag. They were from Jerusalem, a couple of miles away, some of them were acolytes of the Pharisees, I’d bet. There were some there who had certainly come down on the side of the Pharisees when all of the Jesus-drama happened every time he was in Jerusalem. And they, upon seeing this miracle do not respond with belief. Instead, they run to the Pharisees and tell them what Jesus had done, knowing that it would be distressing to them that he had done this. The report of the miracle, they know is going to be something that pushes buttons.

Now, this may surprise us, because witnessing someone rise from the dead should be a no-brainer, right? If you see that, how could you not believe that Jesus is the Christ? It’s impossible not to, isn’t it? I grant that would be a difficult thing to overlook. But it also explains the rest of this story, and is explained by the entire rest of the gospel here up until this point.

The first big point, which is one we make often, is that faith is a gift from God. Faith is not a logical exercise. Faith is not something that arises from convincing. Faith does not arise from within ourselves. It is always and only a gift from God.

Is that to say that we are not convinced by various things that Jesus is our Savior? Of course not. We read the bible, read a story like this and it gives us confidence. Some of that confidence is logical, but it is always because we have been given faith that we believe it. Every time I read Exodus I am flabbergasted—maybe you are too—at the unbelief of Pharaoh. Moses says I represent a God who wants his people freed to leave so they can worship him. Here, look, Aaron’s staff can become a serpent, and even though your sorcerers can do that too, make their staffs serpents, Aaron’s is going to eat all of theirs. That’s a pretty powerful witness right there.

But it’s not enough to convince Pharaoh. So, the Nile is turned to blood for a week and all the fish die. Then frogs, then gnats, then flies, in quantities we can’t even imagine. Then all of the cattle die. Then everyone is struck with boils all over their skin, then hail comes down and destroys all of your crops, robbing Egypt of its riches. Is that enough to convince Pharaoh that God is God? Nope. Then if that’s not bad enough, what vegetation is left after the hail gets devoured by locusts, and then three days of utter darkness. None of this convinces Pharaoh that God is God.

Then the big one, the death of all the firstborn of Egypt. Pharaoh relents and lets them go, but then changes his mind and chases them to the Red Sea, where he and his army is ultimately destroyed. The whole time you want to just slap Pharaoh in the face, shake him and say “wake up!” Isn’t it pretty clearly the real God that has this power?

But it is not a logical exercise, is it? Pharaoh didn’t see God in the plagues because he wasn’t given to. He was left to his sinful motives, his sinful thoughts, his sinful reasoning, and responded to the clear revelation of God through those plagues exactly the way his sinful self wanted to. He was following his heart, following his nature.

It’s the same point Jesus has been making for chapter after chapter in John. You don’t believe because you’re not my sheep! You don’t see because you are blind, you don’t hear because you are deaf. If you are not my sheep, if you aren’t born again, you will not have faith in Christ. The reaction to everything Jesus does is going to be guided by who you are in him. You are either of his flock, or you aren’t.

And that’s why we can have a group of people witness the raising of Lazarus, the most miraculous thing any of them will ever see, and some react by believing Jesus is the Christ. And then others run to the Pharisees, saying, “they’re going to want to hear about this! They’re going to be mad!”

To close out that point before we move on, treasure the faith that God has given you, don’t take it for granted. Feed it, water it, with things just like this. With scripture, with prayer, with doctrine, with conversation between you and others of his family here. Those things will bring you more faith. The beautiful thing is we don’t need to see miracles to believe. The Spirit is working in us without that. Miracles only bring confidence to those who already believe. Are there people you know, unbelievers that you’ve been praying for and ministering to for some time? Do you ever think something like, “man, if Jesus would just heal that person from their affliction, their illness, then they’d believe! Then they’d know God is real.” You might be tempted to that, but that isn’t how it works. Look at Pharaoh, look at the witnesses to Lazarus, look at the Pharisees in front of us. Thank God for your faith, because it is always a gift, if he did not mean for you to see, you would not see. If God didn’t pluck you out of the bondage of your sin, you’d still be bound. Bound to be what we see as this story progresses. Back to the meeting of the Sanhedrin—how do the Pharisees react?

“What are we accomplishing?” they asked. “Here is this man performing many signs. 48 If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.”

Well, as we expect, they don’t react with faith. Surely there was more said than only these things, but notice something about the hardening of the Jews as we’ve progressed through this story. This time, they don’t even question whether or not the miracle took place. There is no investigation like we had with the blind man, no attempt to establish the voracity of the story. They are presented with an unequivocal, uncontested, account of the greatest miracle, and what are they worried about? They are worried about their status and position.

They are worried that too many people might believe these signs, there might be a stir in the public, and that could lead to Rome taking away their relative independence. Because, on the whole, though under the Roman Empire, the Jews were allowed to more or less govern themselves. They were allowed to worship according to their customs, keep their temple, levy their own taxes and hold their own trials.

And Jesus threatened all that. If there was a skirmish of any sort over this Jesus fellow, the Romans might take that away. They wouldn’t be rulers anymore. All of that was at risk, and it was a risk they weren’t willing to take.

49 Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, “You know nothing at all! 50 You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.”

Caiaphas. Could he have said anything more dripping with self-interested pragmatism? And he wrapped it all up in a package that made it look like he was doing it for the people. Better that one man die than we risk the whole nation! Oh, the self-sacrifice. If you look closely, he doesn’t even say that it would be better for the nation that one man die, he says that it would be better for you—the gathered Sanhedrin, the religious elites, the political power brokers—it would be better for you that Jesus die and not risk all this. Cloaked in self-righteousness, couched as a pragmatic sacrifice, but emanating ultimately from a heart of stone and from greedy lust for power.

I said before that the way John writes his gospel doesn’t really develop any character except Jesus, but that’s not entirely true. In the gospel, as we’ve gone along, we have seen an inverse character arc between Jesus and the Jews. John has given us seven signs that point to Jesus as the Messiah, and each one of them gives us confidence, supports our faith. Each time he says “I am” something we stand up and cheer. Even when he did something simple like make water into wine, he already had the power to raise Lazarus, but we just see it unfolding with each new sign, he manifests his power more clearly, more convincingly, and by the time we get to Lazarus we are jumping up and down with our pom-poms cheering for King Jesus with huge smiles across our faces!

What does the inverse character arc do at each of those turns? Hardens. It starts back with the investigative committee that is sent to check on John the Baptist, curious. Then Jesus heals a cripple—Sabbath-breaker, they say! He says he is the Light of the World—arrest him, they say. He heals a man born blind--demon-possessed, they say. He says he and the Father are one—blasphemer, they say. He raises a man from the dead—kill him, they say. It’s to save the nation, we must. As Jesus rises, they harden.

We shouldn’t be surprised by this, it’s only sinners, just like Pharaoh, following their natures. It’s why we’ve said before we shouldn’t be surprised at our world today. We see moral decay, shocking as it is, but it is just the world being the world, doing things that world wants to do. We’ll get to it later in John, but it’s pretty clear that we’re not suppose to fit in. And there are seasons in history in nations where Christians will feel like they fit in more, or fit in less, but we will never truly fit.

And in his great mercy, we also shouldn’t be surprised that God would use the words of Caiaphas to write a different story than Caiaphas was intending. God allowed him to prophesy something true, but not in the way he intended.

51 He did not say this on his own, but as high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the Jewish nation, 52 and not only for that nation but also for the scattered children of God, to bring them together and make them one.

Jesus would die for his nation, for his people, but not for their power structure. He was going to die for the elect, for all of the scattered sheep over all time. Caiaphas was right, but not in the way he thought. I wonder if John had a chuckle as he wrote this, remember the foolishness of Caiaphas and how God was really using it for his own purposes. We know what God thinks of the schemes of man, Psalm 2:

Why do the nations conspire

    and the peoples plot in vain?

2 The kings of the earth rise up

    and the rulers band together

    against the Lord and against his anointed, saying,

3 “Let us break their chains

    and throw off their shackles.”

4 The One enthroned in heaven laughs;

    the Lord scoffs at them.

5 He rebukes them in his anger

    and terrifies them in his wrath, saying,

6 “I have installed my king

    on Zion, my holy mountain.”

 

What you mean for evil, God means for good. The Sanhedrin, completely arrogant and selfish, says “we need to kill this man.” And that itself is the means by which God will save people. They mean it for death and he means it for life. Yes, the one enthroned in heaven scoffs at the plans of men.

The paradox is incredible, and we’ll see it on full display as we march toward the cross in the next two chapters. When they believe Jesus to be weakest, he is actually the strongest. They are carrying out God’s plan as he planned it. That is a motif that is throughout scripture. The humble will be exalted, the weak made strong. Everything the world does to try to defeat God is worthless, but not only that, not only ineffective, but having the opposite effect.

I’m reading a book right now called Antifragile. The premise is that invented word, antifragile. It was coined by the author because we didn’t have a word in English, or any other language, that referred to a thing that got stronger as it is stressed. He notes right away that the opposite of fragile is not robust or hardy—if glass breaks when you throw a rock at it, the opposite of that is not a piece of steel, that does not break when you throw a rock at it. No, the opposite of fragile is antifragile, something that actually gets stronger the more rocks you throw at it. The stresses make it stronger. I think one of the most obvious examples of this, once you have the concept in mind, is your muscles. You stress them, work them out, and they grow, get more able to handle even bigger weights. It’s an interesting concept, and he finds many applications in economics, politics, security, safety, and other things.

But there’s always a caveat to the antifragility, that the stresses that make something, like a muscle, stronger, only work to a point. For instance, if you tried to lift a weight that was so big that it tore your muscle or dislocated a joint, you’ve gone too far, found the point of fragility. Fear not, I’m getting to the point. The point is that the plans of God and the spread of the gospel prove themselves, like this prophesy of Caiaphas, to be the most antifragile thing ever. Of course, the plans of God are immutable and unchangeable since before time, so they have no need to actually get stronger, they are infinitely strong. But, we see Christ’s church spreading in that antifragile way.

The Sanhedrin decides to get rid of Jesus, plans to kill him, and what does that lead to? Through his death, Jesus satisfies the wrath of God against the sins of the elect, raises from the dead and even more people believe. At that moment on the cross, the devil must have thought it his greatest triumph, just like his children, the cheering, jeering masses of Jews shouting “Crucify him!” He thought he’d won something, but it was really his defeat, it was the crushing of the serpent’s head.

And what about after Jesus ascended and ushered in the age of the building of the church? Antifragile. No matter how hard the Romans tried to stop the spread of the Christian church, it just kept growing. The more martyrs they made, the more converts it led to. All the apostles but John were martyred! It didn’t stop the spread of the gospel, it only strengthened it. When we look through the history of the church, it is always the times of greatest challenge to the gospel that we see the greatest revival. It feels backward, but it is when the church is persecuted that it is the strongest. Do we really believe it?

Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,

    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.

Jesus said it, not me. Is any of this a surprise? If we don’t truly fit here on earth as saved people, should it feel like we fit? This is the story of Christians in the fallen world. And at every turn, God is turning weakness into strength. How many passages are this exact story, of the weak being made strong? Go back to the rest of the Beatitudes, these are promises, this is God telling us how it works:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,

    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

4 Blessed are those who mourn,

    for they will be comforted.

5 Blessed are the meek,

    for they will inherit the earth.

 

The story of history is all about the weak being made strong. We might not feel strong here because all of those promises are of future glory, not necessarily here. But take comfort in that great paradox that Jesus has been talking about throughout the gospel of John. The future is the opposite of what we have here, not just an incrementally better version of this. There, the blind will see, and the seeing will be blind. The first will be last, and the last will be first. The humble will be lifted up, and the proud will be brought low.

So as we journey forward in this life as a people, remember that. It’s easier to be liked. It’s easier to give in. It’s easier to gain approval from the world. It takes very little effort today to gain approval from the world, all you have to do is sacrifice the gospel.

Sometimes it feels like the practical application to this kind of message is to retreat, withdraw, hide in the world until it’s all over, but that’s not the case. No, there is a confidence here that cannot be understated. When we read that Caiaphas, in the process of saying the most wicked thing he maybe ever said, was actually unwittingly prophesying about the beautiful gathering of the church from all tribes and nations, we know God is in control and we have nothing to fear.

It’s been a very difficult week for our nation, and we overemphasize the dishonor that we’ve experienced as a nation and forget that we’re trying to get our people out of a terrible situation, but once we are out, it is a situation that an entire people is left with, tortured with. What of politics, who is really in control?

I’ll end with this point. What should the Pharisees have done? We know that they were seeking to secure their own power, to not lose it to the Romans, and they declared that was the best thing for their people, the Jews, that they not lose their political power. That’s why Jesus had to die in their eyes. But what should they have been concerned with, if not that?

They should have been concerned ever and only with seeking the will of God. If they had truly tested Jesus against the scriptures that they knew so well, they would know that he was who he said he was. Let us not be similarly blinded, distracted by our own motives. There is only one will that matters, and it’s God’s will. It takes humility to step back and seek only that, God’s will. We don’t know the plans he has for us here, which is why we pray and we live in his Word. We don’t know the details of our lives—following God’s will may lead to power, material blessings, and they just as often will not. The point is to rest in the fact that it is not my will but his be done.

We can remember the joy that Paul showed us in his letter to the Philippians about the plans and will of God. He was in prison, and he rejoiced that that meant the gospel was spreading through the guards. He rejoiced that he was in prison because it had inspired others to take a leading role in the church. He rejoiced that people who hated him with bad motives were preaching, because at least they were preaching the gospel.

So go with these things in your heart – celebrate, treasure the faith that has been given to you, ask for it in abundance. Know that God is working through everything whether we see it or not, and that his kingdom will not fail. In fact, we see the fire burn the brightest when it is the most attacked. And seek the will of God wherever it leads, because he is doing a good work in you, and will finish it. Have that joy, like Paul, to be able to say confidently with him, to live is Christ, and to die is gain. Amen. Let’s pray.

Dear Heavenly Father,

We are so often pained by what we see in the world around us. Give us that faith, that confidence to know that you are working out your purposes. Even when things look to be at their worst, when we are weak, you are strong. Show us how we rely on you continually, so that we can use all of the work of our hands to point constantly to you and not ourselves. Truly not ours, but your will be done in our lives. In Jesus’s name, amen.

 

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