Christ came to bring peace and we celebrate His coming by making peace impossible for six weeks of each year… He came to help the poor and we heap gifts upon those who do not need them. (A.W. Tozer)
Irony can be an extremely helpful literary device. It allows the main point to “come in through the back door.” It allows the hearer to experience the “Aha moment” on their own, without the speaker or writer having to spell it out for them.
The Bible, and particularly the Gospel of John, is filled with irony. I have a friend who wrote his doctoral dissertation on the irony found in John’s Gospel. Irony is everywhere in John. In John 20, we find one of the stories about Jesus’ Resurrection. Mary runs to the tomb to find it empty. She sees Jesus, but she does not recognize Him. Instead, John says, “She thought he was a gardener.” At first glance, this seems like a silly mistake by Mary. Until you recall the words of Jesus in John 15. There, He says:
I am the vine and My Father is the Gardener. He removes every branch that does not bear fruit…In fact, Mary did see a Gardener at the Resurrection…THE Gardender! Or, what about the second chapter of John when Jesus predicted He would destroy the temple and raise it up again in three days? Everyone in the crowd thought Jesus was referring to the earthly, physical temple. Instead, Jesus was referring to His own body. He was going to destroy the Creator of the Temple, who would be resurrected 3 days later. Finding these bits of irony in the text give added meaning to scripture. They help drive the point home that much better. I think God knew what He was doing when He made so many of the most crucial points of Scripture with irony.
This text is filled with irony…
Hear the Word of the Lord
Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what he had done. So the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the council, and said, “What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.” But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all! You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” He did not say this on his own, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus was about to die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the dispersed children of God. So from that day on they planned to put him to death.
Jesus therefore no longer walked about openly among the Jews, but went from there to a town called Ephraim in the region near the wilderness; and he remained there with the disciples.
Now the Passover of the Jews was near, and many went up from the country to Jerusalem before the Passover to purify themselves. They were looking for Jesus and were asking one another as they stood in the temple, “What do you think? Surely he will not come to the festival, will he?” Now the chief priests and the Pharisees had given orders that anyone who knew where Jesus was should let them know, so that they might arrest him. (John 11:45–57 NRSV)Did you hear the irony? In verse 50, Caiaphas is thinking about what is expedient to preserve the status quo and remain in power. But John tells us in the next verse that it was actually God who prompted him to say what he did. Because what he said was filled with deeper meaning. Listen again:
If we let Him go on like this, everyone will believe in Him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.” But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all! You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.Now Caiaphas didn’t realize it, but he was actually preaching the gospel there! One man would die. That man would be Jesus, and that one man’s death would save an entire nation…and even the world! Don’t you just love this? Caiaphas had no idea what he was really saying! He thought he was protecting his own power. But God was showing Him who really had power. Why do you suppose God chose Caiaphas to make this ironic statement? I think God’s choice of Caiaphas here is not by accident or chance. Caiaphas was the High Priest of Israel. At this point in their history, there were few people who held as much power as the High Priest. Rome may tell Israel what to do politically, but the High Priest still had control of religion. We know from history that Caiaphas was High Priest in Israel from AD 18 to 36. Now, that bit of history makes John’s words here very intriguing. John writes about Caiaphas…
But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year…Don’t you find it curious that John phrased it that way? The high priesthood was a lifetime appointment. Caiaphas was High Priest for 18 years. Why say that Caiaphas was “High Priest that year”? Under Rome, a breath could make or unmake a High Priest. John wanted us to notice here the fragility of human power, especially when that power is set against the absolute power of God. Those, like Caiaphas, who sit so uneasily place political expedience above the Word of God. Caiaphas was not God’s man; he was not even his own man. He was Rome’s man…and he knew it. Ironically, in his attempt to maintain control of his power, he made a prophecy that would result in his absolute loss of power and our loss of power. Because when Jesus died and rose from the dead, His power took over. Through God’s power, we were given life. Through God’s power, our sins were forgiven. Through God’s power, all of God’s people came together. When God’s power fully came into this world, our need for power and control went away.
You know, we may be too hard on ol’ Caiaphas. The fact is: most folks have a lot in common with Caiaphas. We cannot stand the thought of losing control. The very thought of not being able to control our surroundings terrifies us. Sometimes we will do almost anything to maintain control. It is tempting to read a text like this one and think only of futile quests to maintain political control, to think that those guilty of following in Caiaphas’ footsteps are those who have an unhealthy thirst for political power. But sometimes we try to maintain control for more admirable reasons.
Can I just say it: We’ve had a rough few weeks here in the Glenwood family! In the last few weeks, we’ve had to say good-bye to some of our beloved brothers and sisters. In rapid succession, we had funerals here for Faye Huckabay, Lilly Lawrence and Avery Womble. Many of us prayed and prayed and prayed for a different outcome. We wanted to control life and death, and in the end, we just couldn’t do it. A couple of weeks ago, I received a frantic phone call from my brother and friend, Taylor Hemness. “Katie is in labor. It’s only 31 weeks!” I arrived at that hospital to see a father who had no control over the situation. It’s not a fun place to be, is it Taylor? I know, I’ve been there! Howard and Betty Waldrip have been members at Glenwood for 63 years! They were charter members of this family. In a few weeks, they will be leaving us for Oklahoma to be closer to their children. Howard has lived a wonderful life, but as we age, we lose a bit of control. And losing that control is sometimes terrifying! And everyone here knows about the tragedy the Tollesons experienced just over two weeks ago. Tad is in the burn unit in a Dallas area hospital. He is experiencing pain that most of us have never experienced. Julie, Wesley and Cassidy are all experiencing a kind of pain that difficult for most of us to imagine. We all lack control and it is difficult to go through life without control. Losing control makes us feel especially weak.
I don’t have any magic words to say this morning that will take hurt and pain away. I don’t have all of the answers. All I can say is that we live in a fallen, imperfect world. A world where people age and get sick, a world where people get burned, a world where people die. But I can also say this: God came to rescue us from all of these things. He came to take control of the world. He came to set things right. Because of what Jesus did shortly after His conversation with Caiaphas…one day there will be no more sickness or disease or death.
This summer, we have been looking at texts in John that highlight how outsiders see Jesus. Ironically, Caiaphas was as much an insider as one could possibly be, he was the High Priest! But even from where he sat, he was outside of Jesus’ inner circle. Sometimes those who appear to most to be on the inside, ironically, they are often times on the outside looking in. Whether or not Caiaphas was inside the walls or outside the walls is irrelevant, because all of us, inside and outside, we all face the struggle of losing control. It makes all of us feel a kind of weakness that is difficult to put into words.
One day, we will experience ultimate relief. In the meantime, perhaps we can find solace in these words of Paul…
… a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong. (II Corinthians 12:7c-10 NRSV)