Unintended Consequences, John 11:45-57, 3/10/13

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Mar 112013

Jim Zazzera, Faith Presbyterian Church

Today we have a simple and powerful story. Having heard it, I bet almost any of you could retell it. After Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead (in the previous passage), people heard about this miracle and began to share it far and wide. Many began to trust in Jesus, but some (whether they had a growing faith or not)

decided they needed to tell this news to some of the Jews known as Pharisees. The Pharisees shared this with some in the Jewish leadership, and together they decided to call a meeting of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish religious council in that place and time.


Their concern was clear, somehow Jesus was now doing such powerful signs That many would believe in and follow him. They were worried that this following of Jesus would raise the ire of the Romans, who were the occupying force of the Jewish nation. You see, no matter the power the Jewish leaders pretended to have, the Romans were really the ones in charge. Not far down the road, troops were garrisoned and at the ready to put down any rebellion.[1] So when the council asked “what are we to do?” they did so in genuine concern that they would lose privilege, power, and the (limited) freedom that the Jewish community possessed.


Caiaphas, the high priest, boldly, almost rudely, confronts the rest of the Sanhedrin about this issue:

“You don’t know a thing!” he says. Caiaphas then offers one of the most tried and true solutions to any political or religious conflict. Like leaders from the dawn of history until last night’s news, he seeks to find a scapegoat, to find one man to blame for any problems that are arising…


“Can’t you see that it’s to our advantage that one man dies for the people rather than the whole nation be destroyed?”[2]


In other words, “can’t we pin all the problems we are facing right now on this one man (Jesus) and preserve our own power and position?”


And right after this question comes is the most interesting comment, possibly THE most important sentence in this whole passage. Listen to what the writer says:
He (Caiaphas) 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.[3]


Jesus was to die for the nation.


These are not the words of Jesus or Caiaphas, but the Gospel writer as narrator offering us the Word of God through his perspective. What John is tells us is this: Caiaphas, the high priest, may have thought he was only protecting a nation of Jewish people or the power of the Jewish leaders, but ironically, he was uttering a much deeper prophecy. While he was seeking political expediency and power, we are being offered one of the deepest truths of our faith: Jesus was about to die for the nation of Jews and so that all God’s exile scattered people will be gathered together into one.[4] This is the core of this story to which I will return in a moment.


The passage then concludes quickly and understandably. The council decides to put Jesus to death without any formal trial. Jesus then goes to a town not too far fromJerusalem, off the beaten track,

to await God’s call for him to appear. As the Jewish people enterJerusalemfor the celebration of Passover,

the air is thick with discussion about whether Jesus will show up. The religious leadership puts out the word to all that any “Jesus-sighting” should be reported to them—so they could arrest this trouble maker. The story is filled with tension, conflict, and power play. And the passage puts us on the threshold of Jesus’ journey intoJerusalem, the journey whose end would be his execution as a common criminal on a cross.


Allow me to change directions for just a moment. How many of you have heard of the “law of unintended consequences?” [response] Though this concept has its roots in the history of economics, we use this idea more informally now to refer to as situation when, “outcomes that are not intended by our purposeful actions.”[5] In other words – we do one thing to cause a second thing to happen, but because of that action a third thing, a fourth thing, a fifth thing, etc. happen. Unintended consequences come about.


Some times the consequences are positive things. For example, aspirin, initially used as a drug to relieve pain, is now known to be an anticoagulant that can help prevent heart attacks and reduce severity and damage from strokes Unintended consequence.


Some times the consequences are negative things. Prohibition in the 1920s in the U.S was intended to suppress the alcohol trade, but drove small-scale suppliers out of business and ultimately had the effect

of consolidating the hold of large scale organized crime on the alcohol industry. Unintended consequence.


One can only wonder about the unintended consequences of things that even now appear in  news programs, magazines, and internet blogs: Unmanned military drones (what could go wring here?). The congressional sequester. The retirement of a Pope. And the most worrisome of all, the possibility of no U.S. Mail delivery on Saturdays!


Actions always have consequences – many of which we can never predict.


So you see, unintended consequences have a place in today’s passage. Caiaphas, the high priest, apparently was only trying to protect the Jewish nation from a crisis. Or if you are more suspicious like me, you might believe he was also trying to protect his hold on personal power and position. All he intended was to show Jesus who was boss. And sentencing Jesus to death seemed a good way to do that.


But the Gospel writer tells us is that God had something else in mind. Like the Joseph of the Old Testament who said to his brothers who tried to kill him:


Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.[6]


Some thing else is going on here when Caiaphas declares that “one man should die for all.” I think it is fair to say that God is at work here. Remember that the gospel writer says of Caiaphas “he did not say this on his own…”[7] Caiaphas may not have intended it, but God intends a good thing to come from this situation.

Actually, God intends two good things.


Now good thing one probably jumped out at you from the first time you read this passage. The last part of verse 51 reads, “…Jesus was about to die for the nation.” Jesus was about to die for his people, for the Jewish people.


This sounds strangely like what we often say about Jesus: “Jesus died for your sins.” OR “Jesus was the just sacrifice, paying the penalty for our wrongdoing.” OR “Jesus died in our place.” Clearly, this way of thinking about Jesus dying for the nation is reflected in Scripture, and has been affirmed throughout Christian history.[8]


But I would like to invite you to suspend that way of thinking, if only for a moment. Because the phrase “Jesus died for the nation,” can be seen in other ways. In fact, our own Presbyterian Book of Confessions in the Confession of 1967 reminds us of the possibilities:


God’s reconciling act in Jesus Christ is a mystery which the Scriptures describe in various ways. It is called the sacrifice of a lamb, a shepherd’s life given for his sheep, atonement by a priest; again it is ransom of a slave, payment of debt, vicarious satisfaction of a legal penalty, and victory over the powers of evil. These are expressions of a truth which remains beyond the reach of all theory in the depths of God’s love for humankind.[9]


You see, we can never fully understand God’s reconciling work, and as the confession says, it is a “mystery” which “remains beyond the reach of all theory.” Yet we try to understand. It is what we humans do. And we preachers try to explain.


So I would like to share with you an alternate way of viewing Jesus death that may be a little different than you have heard before. Like any description of the work of God, if it is true, it is still only partially true, yet for me it seems both faithful to scripture (especially this text) and helpful in addressing my struggles with the way we usually think about Jesus death.


It goes like this. We as human beings are people of desire—there are many things that we want. And we often desire exactly what others have. When we do so, we seek to take it from them. Now you can call this sin, or at least one category of sin. (I invite you to read the Ten Commandments if you want to be reminded how often our sin is rooted in taking things—or wanting to take things— that belong to another.)


When we seek to take what another wants, we often do so by violence. Of course, if we do this, we experience violence in response. This seems to be the way of humanity. But if as humans all we did was fight, if all we did was hurt one another, human community could never survive. So we have developed a mechanism by which we maintain community and still get what we want. We call it  lynching, or scapegoating, or mobbing.


We find a person to blame, often someone who is innocent of the crime he/she is accused of, and do violence to that person. We identify a victim and have him killed. We find a scapegoat and take her life. We invest all our evil in that person and cast them out of the community. And in a strange way this action (as evil as it is) binds us together as people. We sometimes describe it as having a ”common enemy.”
So now, when you think about this story, is any of this sounding familiar? It should. Caiaphas and his people WANT power and control, and have much to protect. Jesus (conveniently) rises up as an enemy of the way they do things, of the way they understand God. And so they decide “isn’t it better to have one man die than the whole nation destroyed?” Classic scapegoat. Perfect victim.


Except there is one problem. Jesus is totally innocent. Jesus is in perfect communion with God. And you would think from that position of purity and power he would rise up in violence to “take out” his enemies.

(We can see plenty of images of this in the OT, when God “smites” God’s enemies.) But for some reason God doesn’t do that here. And that is what gives us a problem.


I think this is why the church has had to spend so much time and so many years talking about the meaning of Jesus’ death. Because it doesn’t make immediate sense. Those who seem to deserve punishment don’t get it. Now one popular resolution for this problem is to say that God demands blood,

that God demands “justice” for our sin. Someone must be punished. And that someone is Jesus. And here is where I struggle.


You see, I have a hunch that God can forgive without having some “demands of justice” satisfied. I believe God has that power and demonstrates it in Jesus. Look at how radical Jesus is in talking about and living out grace in the Gospels. Just read a few of his parables. Don’t you find yourself as bitter as the older son whose father offers so much love and forgiveness to the (supposedly) prodigal younger one? Aren’t you even a little bit angry that the workers in the filed who worked one hour get paid the same as those who worked eight?


Or maybe you remember what Jesus said when he was accused of hanging out with the wrong people, the unclean, the sinners? Listen to his words in Matthew 9:12 -13:


But when he heard this, he said, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.’[10]


I desire mercy and not sacrifice. So if God doesn’t need to punish Jesus for our sins, then why does he die in this way? If Jesus doesn’t need to go through some sacrificial process to offer us grace, then why must he suffer and be executed?


Well here is my thought, and it is not original to me.[11] Maybe, just maybe, Jesus allowed himself to be subject to violence so that he could undo violence. Maybe this was his way of attacking sin at its root. He let lynching, mobbing, scapegoating, and violence take its course so that he could demonstrate it had no power. He let sin reign so that he could show it had no more control over us.


After all, isn’t that what God the council so riled up in the first place? When Jesus raised Lazarus, he showed he had power over death. When he brought a man back from the grave, he demonstrated that “death had lost it’s sting.” No wonder Caiaphas was so ticked off!


Jesus takes down violence by submitting to violence. He undoes the sacrificial system with his “divine judo move,” in which he uses the very power wielded against him to destroy that power.[12] He makes violence stand out in stark relief to show the world that violent sinful acts have no ultimate power.

(Remember, he doesn’t just die, he rises again!) Jesus demonstrates that God (who he is) will not utilize violence (even sacrificial violence) to achieve God’s purposes.


Listen to how one writer puts it:


Imagine the power, serenity and spaciousness of someone who, because he is not driven by fear of death, is able to undergo an absolutely typical lynch death at human hands and to do so deliberately—and by doing so show that rather than death being definitive and powerful, it is no more than a frightening mirage.[13]


So for Jesus to “die for the nation” is to transform our whole way of thinking about sin, about justice, about death. Jesus’ is the forgiving victim—in Jesus God sacrifices God’s self to us, to change forever our relationship to violence and sin.[14]


I know this is not an easy, traditional, concept that most of us have grown up with. But it is worth thinking about, at least as an alternate way of viewing the work of God in Christ. You see, I believe that Jesus was the Lamb of God. I believe him when he says, “this is my body broken for you…” I believe that sin is real. And I believe Jesus’ death and resurrection is God’s response to our sinful, broken world. What I struggle with is how it all works. And looking at it this way helps me.
Now, I told you there was one more “good thing” that God intends here. Good thing two can rightly be described as what scholar Dale Bruner calls, “the coming world party.”[15] Here in this passage the gospel writer tells us that Jesus’ death for the nation will be an occasion  for the “gather[ing] into one the dispersed children of God,” or as Bruner calls them, “the scattered children of God everywhere.”[16] The gospel writer is actually mirroring a theme that can be traced throughout the OT.[17] This thought is best exemplified by the prophet Isaiah when he speaks these words:


Do not fear, for I am with you;

I will bring your offspring from the east,

and from the west I will gather you;

I will say to the north, “Give them up,”

and to the south, “Do not withhold;

bring my sons from far away

and my daughters from the end of the earth—

everyone who is called by my name,

whom I created for my glory,

whom I formed and made.

Bring forth the people who are blind, yet have eyes,

who are deaf, yet have ears!

Let all the nations gather together,

and let the peoples assemble.[18]




By the power of God’s work in Jesus, we will see the coming world party, to whom all are invited, Jew and Gentile alike.


Jesus death (and resurrection – do not forget that!) brings about our freedom from death and sin. Jesus death and resurrection are also the call that draws all people who hear it together. This, my friends, is good news! Because what humans intended for harm God intended for good. Praise God for unintended consequences!





Next Step – 3-10-13


Read the John 11:45-57 again, perhaps even in a different translation.  What stands out to you or surprises you? What do you wonder about?

Have you ever taken an action that you thought would solve one problem but had some additional effects/consequences?  Did it have ill effects or positive consequences?

Why do you think that these leaders wanted to kill Jesus? What were they afraid of? Can you think of any parallels in our world today?

Do you think God works through the political maneuverings of our day? If so, where and when have you seen that happen?

What does it mean to you that Jesus “died for the nation?” How would you explain that to someone who knows very little about Jesus?

How might Jesus be a threat to our position and situation in the world today? What do today’s religious leaders have to protect that Jesus might challenge? What do today’s political leaders have to protect that Jesus might undermine? In what way might Jesus and his message challenge or threaten who we are?

Read verse 52 again. Who is the “nation?” Who are the “dispersed children of God everywhere?” What is the Gospel writer saying here? Dale Bruner (a biblical scholar) says that this passage describes “a coming world party” where many are gathered around the presence of God. Does this make any sense to you?

This story comes right before Jesus’ entry intoJerusalemand his ensuing crucifixion, death, and resurrection. How does this passage prepare us for that reality? What clues does it give us about the meaning of Jesus’ passion?


[1] John for Everyone, N.T. Wright,

[2] Verse 50, The Message

[3] Verse 51-52, NRSV.

[4] Verse 51-52, NRSV & The Message

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unintended_consequences; some of my examples here are from this article.

[6] Genesis 50:20, NRSV.

[7] Verse 51

[8] https://www.togetherweserve.org/wp-content/uploads/Lecture-1-Dr-Greg-Love-Feb-26-2012.pdf, summary of Gregory Love, SFTS Professor, lecture, February 26, 2012.

[9] The Confession of 1967, 9.09

[10] NRSV

[11] One great article that addresses this way of viewing the work of God in Christ is by S. Mark Heim, “No More Scapegoats,” pp. 22-29, The Christian Century, September 5, 2006. This way of thinking can also be found in the work of Rene Girard, James Alison, and others.

[12] Not sure where I picked this up, but the implication is that just like in judo, the power of an attack can be used against the attacker to defeat him/her.

[13] James Alison, “Violence Undone,’ p. 30, The Christian Century, September 5, 2006.

[14] James Alison, “Violence Undone,’ p. 32 The Christian Century, September 5, 2006.

[15] The Gospel of John, Dale Bruner, p. 693.

[16] The Gospel of John, Dale Bruner, p. 693.

[17] See Isaiah 2:3, 42:6, 43:5, 45:21, 49:6, 56:7, Amos 9:11-12.

[18] Isaiah 45:5-9, NRSV.