Was this the moment? A veritable legion assembled on the hillside, five thousand men, organised into brigades and companies waiting for the word. That word was ‘Messiah’. Another martyr force, like so many before them. They would die for the cause and for him. They would need to. A succession of rebel leaders had raised a succession of such forces in these Galilean hills, only to see their leaders beaten and brutally crucified. That seemed to be what happened to Messiahs, would-be saviours.
Yet within him he knew the power. He could inspire them and most importantly, feed them. And they were so eager. They were murmuring, indeed clamouring for him to raise the royal standard, to declare against Rome, to reclaim God’s land for God’s people. To be the chosen people requires sacrifice; everyone knows that. Something deeper than patriotism drove them to make these gestures. The memory of triumphs only a few generations earlier still spurred these people to try again. For over a thousand years foreign armies had stormed into their land and it had seemed right to resist. And once or twice they had managed to win a battle, even against the Romans, though never a war. It was more than tradition or duty, it was obedience to God’s will.
Surely this was the moment and he was to be their leader? He felt the power. If he fed them again, they would follow him for ever. He could sense it within him and active through him. In the words of the prophet “The Spirit of the Lord has anointed me”. Now was the moment: he had to choose not whether to be a Messiah or not but what being Messiah really meant.
The crowds waited. His friends waited. Never had the power seemed stronger within him. What did God want of him? As if the whole world stood at some kind of cross-roads. If he led them as an army they might conquer, such was the power with him. They could liberate the land. Would not that victory fulfil so much of the scriptures, bringing the Lord of the Covenant into prominence as the true God worthy of universal honour? How could there be another way?
He felt as he had felt back there in the desert when he first wrestled with his call, the inevitability of being different, with powers of many kinds to be used – for what? He could feed these people, as if the stones turned to bread. He could impress them to the point of amazement but to what purpose? He might even lead them to victory, establishing what God had promised to David. That would be glory indeed.
Why then did he know deep down that he would not go that way? His powers and his charisma were not for that. Somehow he knew it would be wrong, more wrong than he could explain.
His friends were disappointed and puzzled when he sent them away across the lake. They were not to be his centurions. He would deal with this legion waiting for their marching orders on the hillside. He would disperse the crowd more easily without his closest colleagues around to protest. He needed time alone to think, to plan and above all to pray. What was he to do, as someone who knew he was himself the key to understanding God’s underlying purpose in designating a chosen people at all?
Barely a year earlier he had been working in the family business, supporting his mother in her widowhood until his brothers could take over. He had known since childhood that he had to be a rabbi. The scripture was his life, in his head and in his heart. He identified with Jeremiah, that the ‘word was like a fire’ within him. He identified with Ezekiel, that the role of ‘son of man’ was to be his. He identified with the mysterious ‘servant of the Lord’ in the book of Isaiah, a suffering servant vindicated after death. So much in the scriptures seemed to point to himself. He was called, no doubt, but did not know then what it meant. But now he was free from family ties and could follow that call.
Like almost every Jew of his time he had sensed that things were building to a climax. The Roman occupation was stifling and brutal. Someone had to take a stand, to protest against the idolatry, the arrogance, the sheer injustice and corruption of power. He could not share with his cousin John the discipline and fanaticism of the Essenes. Nor was he tempted into the hills to join the resistance, though he knew many who were Zealots. As a Galilean he felt betrayed by the Jerusalem Sadducees, comfortable with compromise, who tried so hard to avoid confronting the Roman power. He did admire the Pharisees, especially their scriptural teaching and the moral authority of the great teachers.
Then word had reached him that John had left the Essenes in their wilderness retreat and was drawing great crowds into a movement for spiritual renewal, with the Essene ritual of baptism transformed into a gesture of personal repentance and re-commitment. Having believed for many years that God’s judgment was at hand, apparently John was now convinced that Day of the Lord had actually arrived. God’s People needed to be ready and John was preparing them. He made up his mind, choosing what he knew to be somehow inevitable: he would join John and probably lead his movement.
As he was baptised, his cousin John knew that he was the one. Deep down he knew it himself, with the power. But nothing was clear at first. He began to interpret the scriptures and their possible references to himself and his own ministry. For a while he was busy in an authentic rabbinic ministry like so many others, bringing God’s healing to hundreds of folk. But with the power he could interpret the scriptures by intuition as much as by acquired learning. Increasingly he found himself declaring in fresh and inventive ways how God wished to rule in human lives and in human society – he was amazed at his own authority. But he could see where it would end. He was not just another rabbi.
Then John was executed and the pressure was on him. He withdrew back to northern Galilee and prepared to make a stand of some kind. Hundreds rallied to him day after day. Then thousands. Then came this day of decision. They wanted a king, an anointed one. His own integrity was on the line, facing not merely the military might of Rome if he succumbed and fought them, but a darker force which still tempted him to use the power – for good but not ultimately for God.
It was hours before he was ready to join his friends across the lake. They were startled to see him coming in the half-light alone, but reassured that he had come back to them and not gone off without them with his legion. As they walked together in the quiet northern valley the next week he asked them “what are people saying about me?” Of course everyone knew of his power, reminiscent of one of the great prophets. God was undeniably with him. And Peter blurted out what they were all thinking, “you are the Messiah, the anointed one”. Anointed like the ancient kings, to be the embodiment of God’s power on earth.
It was time to share with his friends what he had come to believe about his own calling to be just that, God’s anointed one. Not king but Messiah – and not Messiah as king. This was a different anointing. He told them of his own temptations as he wrestled with his call. He tried to explain his strange behaviour the previous day when he had in effect turned the stones into bread and been so grievously misunderstood. The power did not give him a licence to lead a conquering army or even to perform impressive miracles to sway great crowds into following him. The power constrained him to another way, paradoxically more powerful than power.
Consider the works of healing. When he sent away the spirits from the man nicknamed “legion” the pigs charged to their destruction like wild amateur fighters facing Rome’s professionals. His power to heal was always a risk, since it usually provoked people to start typecasting him for the Messiah role of power again, the very thing he was trying to get away from. He would not sacrifice thousands of them as he had those pigs by the lake.
Teaching was another example of the paradox. Why had God chosen this people? If not to rule for God, then why? But again, crucially, how does God rule anyway? Somehow the way of power was wrong, though he already knew that powerful forces would destroy him. Somehow God would vindicate him and what he stood for, if he kept faith with his call to offer God’s people one last chance to fulfil their ancient calling. If they would come with him, together they would try and fulfil the ancient prayer “may God’s kingdom come” by doing God’s will on the earth and showing that God’s saving love is real power, as the scripture taught.
From now on his life, his teaching and his actions, would all be directed to this “kingdom” of God, the rule of the divine righteous love, to understand it and help others to do so, to make it a reality and help others to do so. A few would stay with him. All four Jewish movements would either despise him or conspire against him. And the thousands who had rallied for him would turn away hungry and frustrated, despite the good times, thinking he had missed his chance on that first hillside. The months went by.
“So you are a king, then?” said the Governor. For a moment he was tempted even then. But it was too late now to use the power in that way. There was a kingdom, yes, he said. But after so many months only he could see just how different it was from what everyone assumed and expected. “You wouldn’t understand” he said, glancing at the Governor’s bodyguard. No-one understood. He would not concede his integrity now it had come to this. He had wrestled with that during the previous night. It was not stubbornness but truth, the truth about God that was at stake. No, even if the power left him, he would not be tempted now. The kingdom of God mattered more than all this, more than his life or his death.
As he had acted out the great parable from Zechariah a few days earlier, he had known deep down that it was too late. He had longed for the renewal of God’s people since John had baptised him what seemed like a lifetime ago. Surely it was too late now. He could sense that, one way or another, the old covenant was coming to an end, its representatives would be driven to heroic martyrdom, its symbols broken, its Temple destroyed, its promises set aside and unfulfilled. Even then as he entered Jerusalem he had prayed in tears that God’s people might accept their call, though he knew in his heart that they would not.
“So you are a king, then?” His followers in Jerusalem who had organised the donkey for him turned out to welcome him and the crowds who had come with him. They shouted for a king and acclaimed him as Messiah, but they did not know what they were saying. They would not rise now, even if he fed them.
He had given up even on his friends. They still did not understand; they were so unsure and frightened. At supper the previous evening when he had alluded to a traitor in their midst they had all asked “Is it I?” not trusting their own experiences, each one not sure whether he had somehow let him down. Then they were off arguing over power and status as if they were back in Galilee on that hillside with the legion waiting to march. Had they learned nothing? Surely they knew by now who he was, or rather what he represented. God is like this; “when you have seen me, you have seen the Father” he had told Philip. But how does love outflank power. Would the ‘new covenant’ which he had sought to inaugurate last more than a day? Would they actually remember him? Would anyone remember him when this all ended, as it soon would? He was truly alone.
“So you are a king, then?” The racism of the colonial administrator was clear. If this was another king of the Jews it was only what Jews deserved. Well then, one more death would not cause the Governor to lose sleep, whatever his wife felt. This is what happens to all their messiahs, after all, he thought as he ordered the inscription for another cross.
The burial was a rush. Things had gone so quickly and his friends were not expecting this. At the end a brave supporter offered the temporary use of his own tomb over the Sabbath. He could not be left at the place of execution. He was not an ordinary criminal; even the Governor accepted that when he gave permission.
For everyone concerned, the Sabbath was a break: for his followers a day for the shock and dismay to ebb and flow, for the authorities a holy day when there would be no protest to deal with, and for everyone else a day when attention would shift to the Passover rituals. Soon after the Sabbath his friends would move the body, probably back north. They might build a shrine, to another Galilean would-be Messiah, maybe alongside that of cousin John. “We thought he would be the one”, they said. Their memories would blur and fade on and around their northern lake…
Had the owner of the tomb moved him so early? It was possible. Mary was unsure, in her widow-like grief. Then the gardener turned into him through her tears. He was alive! The men came running after her message. Eventually he appeared to them all, each time a strange mix of day-dream and a sense of real meeting. What was reality, what was imagination? He was somehow not ‘there’ like the old days. Yet he was somehow more ‘there’ than before. And they were the only ones to see him. If only he would now show himself with power to others, to Caiaphas or Pilate, to Caesar. If he did that, there would be no doubt. The world would have come to an end. He would really have overcome the world. Perhaps he would, and soon. But it was not to be like that. At last they heard him; they saw that power will not do, is not the way God rules. They loved him in return.
Sometimes he was with them and they could not see anyone there. They could sense that familiar impulse to care and love, to heal and preach, to follow him – just like it used to be. The words in the air, the determination, the authority, the presence, the vitality, everything bar the physical presence. And they were becoming more like him. His personality though not his person was with them. When they prayed, he was there. When they were scared, he was there. When they were effective, he was there. When they failed, he was there. When they read the scriptures, he was there. When they preached and healed, he was there. When they died, he was there. The king had become the kingdom, the seed grain would become a harvest, the power of love would be embodied for the rest of time.
Then they never saw him again.
To tell the story of Jesus has always required imagination, even on the part of the first evangelists. All four canonical versions of this life are required to tell this story, not least the emphasis on ‘king’ in John.