The church today and through the ages use the days before Easter as a time of pilgrimage. We are asked to make our way with Jesus as he journeys toward Jerusalem. It’s a time of faith, courage, fear, hope, risk, miracle, belief, and prayer. It’s the narrative that forms our faith. Because we know where the story ends (with the cross) and begins again (with the resurrection), it’s worthwhile to consider retelling points along Jesus’ journey with our congregations, especially in their context as pilgrim stories leading us into Jesus’ passion. Below are ten stories to study afresh.
10 Stories Leading Up to Christ’s Passion
Making his way to Jerusalem (Luke 13:22-35)
The text says, “Then Jesus went through the towns and villages, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem.” Luke records this directional choice of Jesus right before someone asks a timeless question: “Are only a few people going to be saved?” What do we want him to say? Saved from what? Jesus addresses the question in relation to a person’s ultimate destination–heaven or hell. We don’t know what prompted the inquiry, but his response gives us a narrow road and matches up with the declaration of Matthew 7:13-14: “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” It’s interesting what happens next. As if Jesus is trespassing, the Pharisees suggest he should leave because the authorities are coming after him. Jesus responds with a compassionate plea for Jerusalem. It’s in this passage we get a wonderful picture of God’s longing. Jesus says, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem… how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.”
Each Passover meal ends with “Next year in Jerusalem!” How can we better instruct our parishioners about future hope and proper perspective, especially in reference to God’s plan?
Who do people say the Son of Man is? (Matthew 16:13-21)
Peter’s response to Jesus’ question about his personhood–”You are the Christ, the Son of the living God”–gives Jesus a measured confidence to tell them more. The text says, “From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.” Jesus seems ready to move forward with his disciples, despite all the bumps in the road, to bring them to his suffering and on through to his victory. What if Peter identified Jesus another way–as a great teacher or great prophet like other people were saying (and that is echoed today)? It would be a safe and true enough answer, but it wouldn’t be complete. It’s Jesus-lite and, in the absence of any effect, there’s no way to follow Jesus, let alone die with him.
Jesus says that his sheep hear his voice and follow. Are we instructing our congregants to correctly identify who Jesus is and what he demands?
Harsh words for the crowd (Luke 14:25-35)
Jesus’ way is not easy. Yes, his yoke is easy and burden light, but that happens when our affections change. Jesus doesn’t count the crowd and determine success. He doesn’t say, “Excellent, my message must be resonating.” Instead he says, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple. And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” Singer/songwriter Keith Green puts it this way, “To obey is better than sacrifice. I want more than Sunday and Wednesday nights. Cause if you can’t come to Me every day, then don’t bother coming at all.”
How often do we preach with a punch to the gut like Jesus? It might disperse the crowds; it might get us killed on a cross or it just might, if the Holy Spirit hovers close, make disciples with guts enough to turn the world upside down.
Easier for a camel (Luke 18:18-30)
The rich man wanted Jesus as another piece in his collection. Jesus knew it. The man didn’t want a relationship; he wanted another notch in his network. The crowd seems confused by Jesus’ response, in part because he didn’t give a straight judgement of wrongdoing. Jesus says that the man ought to give everything to the poor because the needle’s eye, like the narrow road, into heaven can’t accommodate any confidences outside the grace of God. We see this more clearly when those who heard about the camel going through a needle ask, “Who then can be saved?” What is Jesus’ response? If it were judgement alone he’d say, “No one!”, because remember how the passage started with a question of goodness. Jesus clearly says, “No one is good except God alone.” Instead of judgement, Jesus answers with grace. “What is impossible with man is possible with God,” he says. In his response we have the paradox of salvation.
Are we abundantly clear in our lives and through our messages about the call of the Gospel and the inability to merit any good in light of God’s goodness? Do we clearly articulate the impossibility of God’s grace, and, therefore, become more humbled by receiving it as a gift?
We are going up to Jerusalem (Luke 18:31-34)
For a third time, Jesus gives them the lowdown about what will happen in Jerusalem, that he would die and rise from the dead. He was crystal clear. But the text says the disciples, “did not understand any of this”, that the “meaning was hidden from them”, that “they did not know what he was talking about”. That’s three different ways Luke tells us the same thing. It’s no wonder they slept in the garden and put up a fight when the guards came and ran to the Upper Room after the heat was too hot.
It is true that we know in part and will someday know fully (I Cor 13:12), but we know some things, like Jesus’ disciples knew some things about the days to follow. Often the problem is our lack of listening and our own misdirection. How are we instructing our congregants about God’s will for them with the content we already know about being holy and believing rightly?
Son of David, have mercy on me (Luke 18:35-43)
Even a blind beggar on the streets of Jericho knows royalty is present. He cries, “Son of David, have mercy on me”, knowing Jesus has the capacity to change his situation like a king grants a pardon. Jesus stops and asks what seems to be an obvious question: “What do you want me to do for you?” It’s this question that makes us stop in the story. We want to say, “Jesus, isn’t it obvious what this man wants? Why are you asking him?” Maybe we want the blind man to be annoyed with the question the way we might be, having sat there year after year at the mercy of people’s generosity. There’s no annoyance in the air. Instead, the man simply says, “I want to see.” Jesus responds in kind, saying, “OK. See. It’s because of your faith that you are healed.”
Sometimes we want to overcomplicate, overthink, overdue our interaction with Jesus. Are we teachers who never give a simple answer, baptized in the Word of course, but simple nonetheless? This is why I love the story of a broken theologian who returns to seminary only to tell the star professor, “I learned one thing you taught me, one thing I remember: ‘Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so'”.
Perched in a sycamore tree (Luke 19:1-9)
Zacchaeus is the same as the rich man who approached Jesus a few days before. He’s greedy and longing to see this Jesus Christ, this superstar. When he climbs into the tree, he’s high enough to see, but (he thinks) far enough away not to get noticed. He doesn’t want to be picked out of the crowd. Perhaps the other rich man’s story made it to Jericho ahead of Jesus. We know what happens next. Jesus does notice him and even has the nerve to invite himself to Zacchaeus’s house. The next thing we know, Jesus changes Zacchaeus’s greedy, sinful heart. It’s Jesus doing more ministry among sinners, despite all the muttering.
Everyone who comes into our churches, for the first time or week after week, have a posture toward God. They are either looking from the borders or inside the fold and growing. How are we working with other leaders in our churches to know members by name and realize their struggles and strengths?
Jewish opponents pick up stones (John 10:31-42)
We often think about the occasion when Jesus stops a crowd from stoning the woman at the well. We might need a reminder about the time Jesus stops people from stoning him. In John 10, Jesus calms an angry crowd who wants to punish him for blasphemy. Jesus says he’s God and they can’t stomach it. The crowd relents for only a brief moment, allowing Jesus to escape. He escapes across the Jordan (interesting, given Joshua’s, Elijah’s and Elisha’s dealings with the Jordan). Returning to where his ministry started with his baptism by John, the people who gather there say, “Though John never performed a sign, all that John said about this man was true.” Perhaps it reinvigorates this war-whipped Jesus, because many believe there and he’s able to carry on toward Jerusalem.
How often do we invite our parishioners to return to the beginning point, where they started their ministry and the Holy Spirit started his work in them?
Lazarus is raised from the dead (John 11:1-57)
There are several legends about what happened to Lazarus after Jesus’ resurrection. He may have been exiled by way of the Great Sea or remained in hiding before starting a church. Whatever happened, the authorities knew this miracle was a huge threat to Pilate’s lie about Jesus’s body being stolen. If Jesus can raise his dead friend after four days, then certainly three days wouldn’t be too difficult. I think this stay over in Bethany sealed Jesus’ crucifixion more than any other event. Verses 45-57 tells that story. Some Jews take the miraculous news to the Pharisees who pull together a meeting of its top leadership, the Sanhedrin. The verdict for Jesus: find a way to arrest him and kill him. These kinds of miracles can insight a riot among the people and unsettle our power.
Miracles are something out of the ordinary, something inexplicable. The Pharisees don’t like miracles because they can’t be counted on, they are not black and white like the legal code. How are we preparing our congregants to expect miracles and know God continues to invade our time with his work? Whether it goes with the natural order or against it, it doesn’t matter.
Jesus wept (Luke 19:41-44)
Yes, Jesus weeps for Lazarus, but in Luke 19, Jesus weeps again. This one is even more heartfelt because, like Sodom and Gomorra, the fate of Jerusalem is sealed. Their blindness to God’s truth is so severe that Jesus starts weeping when he approaches the city. Perhaps he remembers all the sinful kings and the prophets who kept being silenced, or the parable of the workers killing the son of the master. He likely remembers all of it at once. With tears streaming down his face, he says, “The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls.They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.”
Are we emotional about sinners who outright and continually reject God’s free gift? Do we weep for them? How are we instructing our congregants to be bold and sensitive at the same time? What are the disciplines of faith that make a response like this normative?
All the people hung on his words (Luke 19:47-48)
Jesus is now in Jerusalem. He’s seen the palms waving and he’s gone in and ransacked the Temple of its moneychangers. It’s the day after that fiasco, so the merchants might call it. He’s back in the Temple and he’s teaching a large group of people. The Pharisees are out of ideas. Jesus keeps going, and he does it right in front of their faces, no matter the threats. Their only choice is to find a way to kill him. The people are so attracted to him that Luke says, “all the people hung on his words.”
Do we hang on Jesus’ words? Do we invite others to hang onto them by how we preach the Word and encourage Bible study?
I hope this provides 10 fresh or renewed encounters with the stories leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion. I love how John ends his Gospel. It makes me go back again and again into each story, thinking about and imagining connections. John says, “Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written” (21:25).