John 11:45-53 Therefore many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, put their faith in him. 46 But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. 47 Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin. “What are we accomplishing?” they asked. “Here is this man performing many miraculous signs. 48 If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.” 49 Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, “You know nothing at all! 50 You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.” 51 He did not say this on his own, but as high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the Jewish nation, 52 and not only for that nation but also for the scattered children of God, to bring them together and make them one. 53 So from that day on they plotted to take his life.
I’m not sure it’s fun to think about, but I think it’s fair to say that scheming is as embedded in the American experience as baseball or apple pie. I’m guessing I’m blissfully unaware of most of the scheming that goes on, but sometimes schemes do show up on my radar. There’s Bernie Madoff and Aiken’s own Jay Brooks. There are the stories of people who buy a new house only to find out that the materials and construction are so cheap and shoddy that their house is falling apart already in year three. There are the smooth political operatives who say what they need to say not because they actually believe it, but because it keeps them in power. And there are the people who get phished on-line or once again get an e-mail claiming that someone wants to give me an inheritance from England.
Of course, while it is an American experience, it’s by no means a uniquely American experience. It’s a human experience. I think that’s why this history that John shares with us here is so immediately recognizable to us. We get it. We all know what it feels like to get played. Scheming is everywhere. You can just see it here. The power players in ancient Palestine have a “Jesus problem.” They don’t call it that because they don’t want to dignify it or give it power by naming it. So they refer to “this man” and talk about how “this man” is definitely a problem for them.
And why is “this man” a problem for them? The problem they have with Jesus is so backwards it’s almost laughable if it weren’t so evil. They don’t have a problem because Jesus is hurting kids or stabbing people or threatening leaders or anything horrid like you might expect. You know why they have a problem with Jesus? The religious leaders have a problem because Jesus raised a guy named Lazarus from the dead. Seriously. That’s why. Think of how backwards and twisted that is. “Jesus, how dare you stop a body from rotting in the grave. Jesus, how upsetting it is that you stopped up a whole clan’s tears and turned them to cries of joy. Jesus, how wrong of you to show that your power to help people extends to our greatest enemy, death. Jesus, how dare you!” And, yet, that was the problem. “Some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done.” (v. 46) Can’t you just picture that? The tattle tales run to the top religious folks and they breathlessly report, “Jesus has struck again. This time he raised a guy from the dead.” Like that was actually a bad thing.
And then the political and religious gears start to turn. “The chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin.” (v. 47) They got together the political and religious top brass of the time for an impromptu meeting. And all their fear and anxiety about Jesus comes spilling out. It’s really interesting how poor their organization is. They have no agenda for their meeting. They have no direction for their conversation. They’ve got nothing, but their fear and anxiety. And it all comes out. “What are we accomplishing? Here is this man performing many miraculous signs.” (v. 47) They’re like trucks stuck in the mud. They’re just spinning their wheels with anxiety over what to do about Jesus and his miracles.
Meanwhile, you can just imagine Caiaphas, the high priest, presiding over what he views as these anxiety ridden, weak kneed, religious peons. You can just see how he intentionally lets them get all worked up into a tizzy so they’re ready accept his leadership and his ideas. Here’s the conversation that was playing out in front of him, “If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.” (v. 48) They named their fear. They were afraid they wouldn’t keep their place. They were afraid they wouldn’t keep their positions and their power. They were afraid they were going to lose their money. And in their fear, Caiaphas saw an opportunity. Pigs would fly before he would waste a good crisis. Caiaphas was that calculated. While everybody else was anxious about what the next move would be, Caiaphas was seeing the end game. It’s what he did. It’s why there were three high priests in as many years before he came on board. It’s why his tenure lasted a good thirty years so. Caiaphas was good. And I do mean good.
Finally, Caiaphas knows the moment has come. And it was a moment! Caiaphas drips swagger. He oozes condescension. This is what he says, “You know nothing at all!” (v. 50) No nice words. No poetry. No hearting winning. He douses the whole room with an insult. He wants to show them who the boss is. He wants to shut them down. He wanted to belittle them so they’ll all get in line. Only then does he lays out the end game. And make no mistake how brilliant he is in how couches it. He doesn’t just come out with it. He doesn’t just say, “Off the guy.” He’s smarter than that. He knows he has to get political cover. So he does. Here’s what he says, “You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.” (v. 49) Do you see the card he played? Caiaphas played the patriotism card. He said, “There’s really only one honorable thing to do in this situation. We need to be good patriots. He’s going to have to go for the good of the nation.”
So cold. So smooth. So calculated. And so murderous. He pulled the right strings. He led the right people. He gave himself the right political cover. You know what? Just a little while later Caiaphas actually pulls this off. He catches a massive break in the case when Judas shows up. Then he orchestrates a mock trial where he gets Jesus to claim he’s the Christ. And that, of course, gives him the perfect chance to show fake outrage by tearing his robes. It was just magnificent. He got to convince everybody how right they were to condemn Jesus to death. Genius. Perfect. Caiaphas won the day. Caiaphas got his checkmate. Caiaphas got what he wanted. At least, that’s how it looks.
And that bugs us. At least, it does me. Because it pokes at the traumas and hurts in our own life experiences. It reminds us yet again that it looks like evil wins. And that stings. I still remember when I was growing up how I had to run to the defense of my older sister. And why? Because she has Down’s Syndrome and kids would pick on her because of it. And that’s nothing to some of the stories I’ve heard about evil in this world. Fathers who check out on their kids or check in on them in all the wrong ways. Employers who squeeze their employees like oranges just ‘cause they can. Kids who get taken into a home not to be loved, but for a welfare check. You can’t even read a Dear Abby column in the Aiken Standard without hearing about a spouse who schemes to get away with cheating. It can seem like this is Caiaphas’ world.
That’s why we needed to hear about The Schemer. We needed to understand him. See him. Get him and appreciate him. We had to see The Schemer in this story. No, I’m not talking about Caiaphas. He’s actually not the Big Schemer in this story. Did you catch that? Caiaphas’ scheme got trumped. See if you catch it this time as I read this, “You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.” (v. 50) Do you see it yet? Caiaphas was right. He didn’t mean to be right, but nonetheless was right. He said that it was best that one man would die for the people. Do you see what Caiaphas just did? Caiaphas unwittingly and unintentionally shared the gospel. The whole nation shouldn’t get placed on the eternal trash heap. Just one man should. One man for the world. The just for the unjust. The Son of God in place of guilty sinners. He took the punishments. He suffered in our place. Better he should die for us than we should die in our own place. Caiaphas had unwittingly and unintentionally shared the gospel. Caiaphas wasn’t this history’s greatest schemer. God was.
And just so we’re clear about the power of God in this moment, John gives us some important commentary on how Caiaphas arrived to this gospel statement. “He did not say this on his own, but as high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the Jewish nation, and not only for that nation but also for the scattered children of God, to bring them together and make them one.” (v. 51-52) Do you see it? Caiaphas got used. The player got played. The schemer got schemed. Think of how beautiful that thought is. A guy who meant to speak only words of condescension, sarcasm, and murder unwittingly speaks the most life giving words on earth. A guy who is bent on evil is unknowingly bent on the greatest good. He didn’t even know this was happening. God didn’t possess him. God didn’t whisper these words in Caiaphas’ ear. Caiaphas spoke of his own free will. Think of what that means. God arranged the moment, the personality, and the perfect words to come from the mouth of Caiaphas and he did this at one of the darkest moments of human history.
Do you see what that tells you about God? God governs the worst moments and the worst people to do his saving work. That’s the power of God. God has a mind-blowing capacity to take evil and make it good. Or to say it another way, God is playing salvation level chess while everybody else is playing checkers. And that matters. Do the math. If God can arrange to preach the gospel out of the mouth of one of history’s most fervent Jesus haters, then he can also arrange to save you. And he has. Understand something. God used Caiaphas in this moment not only to share the gospel, but also to arrange for the gospel. Caiaphas became one of God’s pawns in making sure Jesus saved us. Did you notice how clear John was about that? I love this so much because it shows John was already thinking about us. He went way out of his way to say that Jesus would die not just for the Jewish nation, but also, “...for the scattered children of God.” (v. 52) I’m not sure how much clearer he could’ve been for us saying, “Hey Aikenites, I mean you. One man died for you. You’re off the hook. You’re saved. You’re in. Believe it.”
And now think about this. After saving you, everything else is like child’s play for God. Seriously it is. It’s like cutting through butter with a hot knife. It’s like adding 1+1 for a math genius. It’s easy. If you can take the thoughts and actions of one of mankind’s most sophisticated bullies and use him to spit out gospel truth. If you can take history’s most evil momentum and use it to make sure that one man dies in place of everyone else. If you can take Satan’s most diabolical plan and turn it into a perfect sacrifice. Then understand this: You are a God with perfect power. You are a God with ultimate knowledge. And you are a God with overwhelming grace for people.
There’s only one thing left for us to do. Trust that in our lives. The beauty of this dark history is that it doesn’t get any more diabolical. It doesn’t get any more sinister or chaotic or bad or evil. This is as bad as it gets. This was a plot on the life of God. And right there in the thick of that darkness God put the gospel in the mouth of a man who hated him. Do you see what that means? God makes light shine in the darkness. Always. That truth allows us to do life trusting God every day, and every hour. It allows us to say to ourselves, “If God orchestrated events and people surrounding Jesus’ death to save people including the words of one of history’s greatest Jesus haters, then I have every reason to believe that’s he’s doing the same for me right here and right now.” It’s child’s play for God. We can live safely in a world that can seem awful full of schemers because we’ve got The Schemer who’s got our back. Let me tell you about this Schemer. He’s playing salvation chess for you while everyone else is just playing checkers. Amen.