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Pastor Glenn McDonald: The Last Miracle



Every day during this season of Lent we’re looking at the miracles of Jesus – his spectacular displays of supernatural power that are reported in the Gospels.    

 

Open at random any of the four Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life, and you’re likely to land in the vicinity of a miracle.

 

At least 40% of Mark’s material is associated with some kind of sign, wonder, healing, or exorcism. 

 

But when we arrive at the end of Jesus’ life – especially the final 24 hours that have come to be known as the Passion – miraculous events seem to vanish into thin air.

 

In a way, this bookends Jesus’ experience.  Before his ministry starts, Jesus retreats into the Judean wilderness and is inundated by a Satanic tsunami of temptation (Matthew 4:1-11 provides details).  You must be hungry, says the devil.  Command these stones to become bread.  And you’re trying to win people’s hearts, right?  So do a BASE jump without a parachute right off the highest pinnacle of the temple.  The angels will catch you – because that’s what angels do, right?  That will give people something to talk about. 

 

But Jesus withstands these temptations to use supernatural power to do an end run around his Father’s will. 

 

Now that he has reached the end of his ministry, the sharp edge of temptation reappears. 

 

He can definitely request a bailout.  He says to his disciples and those who have come to arrest him in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matthew 26:53) 

 

But there will be no supernatural power play.  There will be no deliverance from the cross.  Perhaps the greatest miracle of the Passion is divine restraint in the face of sheer evil. 

 

Nevertheless, Jesus performs one last miracle – just one – that is squeezed into the middle of the chaos in the Garden.  We read about it in Luke 22:49-51: 

 

When Jesus’ followers saw what was going to happen, they said, “Lord, should we strike with our swords?”  And one of them struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his right ear.  But Jesus answered, “No more of this!”  And he touched the man’s ear and healed him.

 

From John 18:10, which also describes this event, we learn two important details.  The servant of the high priest is a man named Malchus.  And the disciple who swings the sword is none other than Peter.

 

Shouldn’t it make sense that if our call is to stand up for God in the midst of a fallen world, we will sometimes have to resort to violence?  Jesus thinks otherwise.

 

In her 2020 book Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation, Kristin Kobes du Mez notes that a national emphasis on “militant masculinity” swept conservative churches in the wake of 9-11. 

 

At Christian conferences, men were called to thank God for the gift of testosterone, “pick up their swords” to defend their families against atheists and political correctness, and to eradicate the “wussification of America.”  Speakers urged men to “forget the Jesus who turns the other cheek.”  Christian mixed martial arts academies emerged as a new way to do ministry – “where feet, fists, and faith collide.” 

 

The irony, of course, is that all four Gospel accounts end with the ultimate showdown between Good and Evil.  Jesus enters Jerusalem for the final time.  His enemies are arrayed against him.  This isn’t a movie.  This really happened in space and time.    

 

And Jesus loses.  On purpose. 

 

To the surprise of everyone – perhaps especially Peter and his fellow disciples – Jesus isn’t following the ancient script of the Myth of Redemptive Violence, where might makes right and the only way for Good to triumph is to get Jason Statham, Sylvester Stallone, or Jack Reacher to beat the living tar out of the bad guys.   

 

He is living out a deeper story – that redemption will come not from a God-anointed warrior, but from a suffering Messiah.  The only way to experience the victory of Easter is to lose – or appear to lose – the climactic “final battle” on Good Friday. 

 

Peter and his friends can’t see it.

 

When the disciples ask Jesus if he wants them to fight for his freedom, his response, as reported in the Gospel of Luke, is unambiguous:  "Enough. No more of this!  Those who live by the sword shall perish by the sword."  Whereupon he reaches out and heals the man's ear.

Bible scholar Dale Bruner points out that whenever followers of Jesus resort to physical force, all they end up doing is cutting off the ears of other people, making it harder than ever for them to hear the Good News.

 

Here we should pause to marvel at the fact that even though so many characters in the Bible are unnamed, we actually know the identity of the man who loses his ear. 

 

It must have been interesting when Malchus went home later that night.  We can imagine the moment when his master, the high priest – one of those committed to killing Jesus – asked, “So, did everything go smoothly during the arrest?  Anything unusual happen?”  “Well, sir, you’re not going to believe this, but…”

 

It’s touching that the last of Jesus’ miracles is one of simple compassion. 

Followers of Jesus have sometimes gone to war with crosses on their shields.  It’s tragic that Jesus’ cross – the very place where God made peace with the world – has occasionally been distorted into a military banner.  We can say with certainty that Jesus himself never gave an order to do such a thing. 

 

He did, however, speak plainly about battling evil.  We must always resist.  But we must never, at a personal level, resort to physical violence, except to defend the defenseless.

The opening line of St. Francis' famous prayer is always a safe place to land: "Lord, make me an instrument of your peace."

Does God want us to bet our lives that violence will somehow make our families, our communities, our nation, and our world a better place?

Enough. No more of this.

As the disciples ultimately learned – the hard way – there are so many better ways to conquer the world.

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