Jerusalem. The feast of Passover. Thousands of pilgrims crowding into the city to sacrifice the lamb, to remember that God delivered them from slavery in Egypt, to tell the great story of plagues of frogs and the angel of death, of a hurried escape under cover of darkness, of Moses and Pharaoh and the charioteers, of walls of water to left and right, the dry seabed at the bottom, and new life on the other side.
Excitement runs high in the city during this feast of freedom. Some people use it as an occasion to stir up the age-old expectation that maybe this festival, this year, the liberating God will do again what God did long ago. Maybe at this festival, this year, the messiah will appear; or maybe at this festival, this year, an insurrection will finally get rid of the Romans…
Jesus’ disciples are thinking like that too—maybe at this festival the Teacher will show his true colors; maybe at this festival he’ll install the kingdom of God; maybe the mysterious ‘hour’ he keeps talking about is now.
They begin a victory chant. They get the crowds to hail Jesus as messiah and king. And once they start shouting, there’s no stopping them. But it would go a lot better for Jesus if they kept still. The louder the crowds, the bigger the trouble.
The Romans don’t care about the festivals of the Jews. What they care about is order. When crowds run riot, they have a no-nonsense way of dealing with it—crucifixion. It’s showy, it’s brutal, it works. As soon as the commotion begins, eyebrows shoot up at headquarters. The rabbi is losing control of his people. Get a cross ready, just in case.
Beneath all the joyful street theatre, an undercurrent of violence is crackling. Every joyous wave of the palm heightens the tension. Jesus rides into the city to shouts of joy, but everyone’s looking over their shoulders.
Soon Jesus arrives at the Temple. If we were reading the gospels of Matthew or Luke today, this is when Jesus causes yet another disturbance, trashing the money-changers’ stalls. But in Mark’s story, the version we heard just now, that provocation doesn’t occur today. It happens tomorrow, the next day.
In this story, it’s quiet at the Temple. Not much going on, nobody there, really. Jesus just looks around. Doesn’t do a thing. Then, the story says, “because it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.”
Because it was already late. Maybe too late. The authorities have taken note.
Jesus walks the two miles to Bethany with his friends. To Bethany, the closest thing he has to a real home, the house of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. To Bethany, the safe house, the refuge and rest. Jesus walks to Bethany. He’s home before bedtime.
Here’s what I wonder:
What went on that night in Bethany after all the hubbub and danger in the city?
Did Jesus sleep soundly, or did he lie awake?
Once he had some space to think about the day, did he toss and turn, worrying that the crowds were so big? That they’d hung their hopes on him? Called him messiah and king?
Does he fret over what might come next? Imagine the forces of order matter-of-factly dispensing with him? Crushing him in the machine of stability?
Jesus got home before bedtime. I wonder what kind of night he had.
Did he stay up, talking with his friends? Had they calmed down, come to their senses? Do they realize what they’ve done in stirring things up?
Does Martha beg him not to go back the next day? Does Lazarus, recently restored to life by Jesus, tell him he should value his life and not foolishly risk it? Do the disciples suggest that he stay out of sight, or issue a conciliatory statement, take a more gradualist approach and defuse the anxiety of the authorities, be prudent and patient and wise?
Does he wrestle with it, pray about it, finally tell them he won’t back off? Won’t hide? Won’t stop teaching, healing, being who he is? Won’t do anything except what he’s always done, which is to trust in God? The God who brought the people out from slavery, led them through the sea, through suffering to freedom, from death to milk and honey on the other side?
And did he explain to them that the next day is not really all that different from any other day—because every day is the day you are called to risk everything for the sake of the world’s healing?
Did they stand and pray with him before going to bed? Promise God and each other that no matter what happened, they would always be his friends, always stand up for him, heart of each other’s heart; and that when the time came, they would wash his body for the grave?
The ancient rabbis used to say that the miracle of the parting of the Red Sea was not that God parted the sea; it was that one fleeing Hebrew, the first in line, dared to step out and go down deep onto that exposed sea bed, a huge threatening wall of water to his right, another to his left.
It’s not news that God wills life and freedom for us. It’s big news, good news, when somebody trusts God enough to risk a step towards claiming it. God always parts the waters for us. Whether we dare walk through them, that’s the hanging question.
God opened a way for Jesus, parted the waters. The exposed seabed beckoned him back to Jerusalem the next day, leading him eventually to a place called the Skull. By going down deep into that mysterious beckoning, Jesus will find life. Indestructible life will rise from his grave. And he will share it with us.
God parts the sea for Jesus and called him to step out. What we fail to consider sufficiently is that he could have chosen not to go. He could have stayed in Bethany.
We know by heart every detail of what happens after he gets out of bed the next morning, says his prayers, breaks his fast, and makes the trek back to the city.
We know every sordid, sad detail of what happens after he makes the choice between buckling under to order, stability, power, and resolutely embracing our human hope for freedom, mercy, and justice. Hope that won’t calm down, be quiet, or go away just because somebody needs it to, just because somebody tells it to, just because someone believes it’s better for harmony, better for the rest of us, to kill all challenge and crucify all question.
Three years earlier, in other waters, Jesus had undergone a baptism; he’d been immersed in a bath of preparation. Did he know right then everything he was preparing for, commit all at once to it all? Or like us, did he have to keep committing and re-committing one day and the next day, saying yes to God again and again, as the way was revealed step by step, and the consequences of each previous choice unfolded?
If that day three years before was his baptism, this night in Bethany is his confirmation. This night he embraces again and with more clarity who he is and what he is called to do.
The next morning, he gets up and he goes deep. He walks the dry seabed into the city, a path lit only by God’s faithfulness and love for his people, and for us.
And ever since that night in Bethany he has been especially present and vivid in all the faith-choosing and faith-confirming moments of our own lives. He’s been especially present and vivid in every daily ‘yes’ we say to God, even when prudence tells us to stay home, when common sense commands us to be afraid, when we know no one would blame us for not risking our lives.
Through all our own long nights in our own Bethanies, those places in us where fear wrestles with faith, where safety struggles with trust, he is with us. In every conversation and discernment, every imagination and dread, every deeper and stronger resolve, he is there.
And every morning that we leave some safe house and go back, back to our own looming Jerusalems, back to God knows what, we will know him. As we walk the seabed, making our way down to the bottom of the things that matter most in this life, the few things that are worth every sacrifice, we will look up and see great walls of threatening water on our left and on our right, and we will see him too, behind us, ahead of us, within us, above us, beside us. Always. Come what may.