A sermon on Mark 14:53-72 by Rev Richard Keith on 14 April 2019.

I grew up in the suburbs of Sydney where the night is never truly dark. Instead, house lights and street lights create a dim but constant twilight. Of course, as a boy I didn’t know any different. But all that changed when my family went on a holiday and we stayed in a caravan park. I went to the gents to brush my teeth before going to bed, and on the way back to the caravan I saw my shadow on the ground in front of me. I looked up and there were no lights. There was no moon. But above me the stars of the Milky Way spread from horizon to horizon and shone so bright they cast a shadow. It was dark. Pitch black for the first time in my life. But in that dark the light of the stars shone all the more brightly.

It is the same with Jesus. In our journey through the gospel of Mark, night has descended. It is dark and with each scene the darkness grows. It was not just night time on that Thursday evening when Jesus was arrested. The darkness seemed to flow from the hearts of those involved, from the actions and choices that people were making. It is almost impossible to believe the ignorance and pig-headedness, the fear and, to call a spade a spade, the evil that the religious leaders were capable of. But in that darkness the light of Jesus shone more brightly.

In the passage we are looking at today, two men were on trial. Jesus and Peter. In a way they are both still on trial today. Jesus had been arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane. What little support Jesus had in the twelve disciples melted away into the night. Except one. Peter. Peter followed at a distance all the way to the high priest’s palace. Peter warmed himself by the fire in the courtyard with the servants while Jesus was inside on trial for his life.

The chief priests needed witnesses. They needed evidence against Jesus. They couldn’t risk just getting rid of him. They couldn’t risk making him a martyr, a hero forever in the eyes of the people. They had to prove that Jesus was wrong, and that they were right to get rid of him. They needed evidence, so they brought in their witnesses, one by one, but the stories didn’t match up. They couldn’t agree. Everyone could see that they were just making things up. Another lot told a story about destroying the temple and rebuilding it three days later. We know from John’s Gospel that Jesus did actually say something like this. But he hadn’t meant that he would destroy the temple in Jerusalem personally, but he challenged his hearers that if they destroyed the temple of his body, he would raise it in three days. They had misunderstood him and used his own words against him. But even still, the details of their testimony didn’t match up.

They were getting desperate when the high priest himself took over the interrogation. Jesus’ silence in particular got under his skin. When Jesus refused to answer the accusations, it made him even more convinced of his guilt. Finally it came down to one question, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?”

On the face of it, it looks like a simple question. It requires either the answer yes or no. You know, like one of those questions you get on the phone at about dinner time. “Am I talking to the manager of the business?” “Am I talking to the person in charge of ordering the printer ink?” “Yes you are and stop bothering me!” It seems like the high priest was looking for information. But because he’d already made up his mind about Jesus. Because he’d already written Jesus off, because he didn’t need evidence, just an excuse to condemn Jesus, the high priest’s question really meant, Are you guilty? Are you as worthy of death as we think you are?” “Are you the Christ?”

To which Jesus answered, “Yes I am.” To his enemies, it was just the excuse they were looking for. But to Jesus, it was just the truth. I mean, he knew what game they were playing. He knew what they stakes were. He knew his life was in the balance. But Jesus wasn’t going to play along. The truth had served him well all his life and he wasn’t going to change. He was passionately committed to the principle that it is the truth that sets you free. He taught it. He lived by it. At the same time, we must remember that Jesus wasn’t planning to escape alive from this situation. He wasn’t going to beg or plead with his life. He wasn’t going to bend the truth to save his hide.

And so he looked the high priest in the eyes and said,

And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.

If anyone had been in any doubt before, Jesus claimed to be the Messiah, the Son of God, the one who would rule in the kingdom of God. Like the star that shines most brightly on the darkest night, like the real qualities of a man are shown when he is put under pressure, so the truth of Jesus’ divine nature and power was made most clear in front of those hostile priests and judges. Or to put it another way, they thought Jesus was on trial. But in reality, they were on trial. Because Jesus did not just speak the truth. He was the truth in human form. The plumb line, the spirit level of truth by which all other truth is measured and evaluated. And they had no other weapons to use against him except their hate and their fear and their lies. In the light of Jesus’ truth and courage, the twisted nature of their souls was only made plainer.

The high priest had asked Jesus a question “Are you the Christ, the Son of God?” And to Jesus’ honest answer, he had no response, but to tear his clothes and to say, “Why do we need any more witnesses? You have heard the blasphemy. What do you think?” They pronounced an innocent man guilty. They accused the man of truth of telling a lie. They sentenced the author of life to death. They spat on him. They covered his head and beat him and told him to guess who it was who had hit him. Do you see what I mean? They thought Jesus was on trial. But he wasn’t. They were and they showed their true colours. Evil always does.

Peter didn’t know it, but he was on trial too. What he was doing at the high priest’s palace, I’m not exactly sure. Maybe he hoped that Jesus would put up some fight. Maybe he just couldn’t cope without knowing how it would all end. But Peter was completely unprepared to respond when someone came up to him in the dark and said, “Hey, you, you’re one of Jesus’ disciples.” It was one of the serving girls. Peter had been prepared to die like a hero with Jesus. But he was not ready to look like a fool in front of the servants. If Jesus wasn’t going to fight back, why should he?

And so while Jesus told the truth inside in his trial whatever the consequences, outside Peter hid in the dark. He hid behind a lie. “I don’t know what you are talking about.” Once the lie was out, there was no going back. When Peter inched closer to the back door in case he needed to make a quick getaway, the serving girl followed him and said to the bystanders, “This man is one of them.” Again he denied it. When one of the bystanders backed her up, noticing from Peter’s accent that he came from Galilee, Peter cursed. He not only said that he didn’t understand what they were talking about. He denied that he ever knew Jesus.

When we read this passage, we feel sorry for Peter. We understand his fear. We sympathise with him. There is a strong temptation to make excuses for him. We understand him, because we are afraid that we would have done the same in his position. But  God was giving Peter the perfect chance to stand up for Jesus. Peter didn’t have to wait for an opportunity. He didn’t have to create one out of thin air. He didn’t have to go knocking on doors. He didn’t have to start preaching on the footpath. God was giving Peter the perfect chance to tell the people the truth about Jesus. But every time he chose to lie. Peter failed in the high priest’s courtyard, because he had failed in the Garden. He did not watch and pray like Jesus said. He did not prepare his heart for the test ahead. The spirit was willing, but the flesh was weak, and so he fell into temptation.

There is a strong temptation to make excuses for Peter. But when we do so, we cover up his sin. What Peter did was wrong. He had spent three years with Jesus. Peter had learned from the Master. He’d seen Jesus’ glory. He had been Jesus’ right hand man. And Peter denied him. Inside Jesus had said, “Yes I am.” Outside Peter said, “No, I’m not.” Jesus was going to die for telling the truth. Peter escaped by telling a lie.

So when we make excuses for Peter’s sin, we are condemning ourselves to repeat it. Peter was on trial, and he failed the test. He ran away weeping. And the truth is, Jesus is still on trial. And so are we. Celebrity atheists like Richard Dawkins openly mock God, the story of creation, the miraculous claims of Jesus and the stupidity of those who follow him. It just goes to show that no matter what Jesus has done, no matter what good his followers have done in his name, Jesus is still on trial. Many people remain unconvinced about Jesus’ claims. Others have already made up their mind against him and are hoping to see him fall. For whatever reason, Jesus is still on trial. And so are we. Like Peter we mingle with Jesus’ supporters and enemies. Sometimes we hope to hide in the dark. Keep our head down and stay invisible. Attract no attention. But God is good and doesn’t let us wriggle out of it. Sometimes he just sends that person who points at us and says “You’re one of his followers.” And we face to the same choice as Peter. To confess Jesus. Or to deny him.

One verse in the Bible   has three pieces of good advice when we are put in this situation: 1 Peter 3:15. “Firstly, in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord”. Jesus passed his test and is seated at the right hand of God. He is the king of kings. The Lord of lords. The judge of the living and the dead. If you follow him, then follow him.

Secondly, “always be prepared to give a reason for the hope you have”. We hope to obtain the glory of heaven. Jesus is our hope. His cross is the reason. So be ready. Peter failed because he did not prepare his heart in the Garden. He was not ready and he fell into temptation. Don’t make the same mistake. Don’t hide behind a lie. “I don’t know him. I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Because the truth will set you free.

And thirdly, do so with gentleness. God does not call us to win arguments, but to win people for Christ. I don’t know many people who have been argued into the kingdom, but I do know a lot of people who have been loved into the kingdom. Gentleness can achieve what arrogance never will.

Jesus is still on trial. And so are we. Watch and pray, so that when it comes, you will pass the test.