Sermon Text: Mark 14:12-17
On the first day of the Festival of Unleavened Bread, when it was customary to sacrifice the Passover lamb, Jesus’ disciples asked him, “Where do you want us to go and make preparations for you to eat the Passover?”
13 So he sent two of his disciples, telling them, “Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him. 14 Say to the owner of the house he enters, ‘The Teacher asks: Where is my guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ 15 He will show you a large room upstairs, furnished and ready. Make preparations for us there.”
16 The disciples left, went into the city and found things just as Jesus had told them. So they prepared the Passover.
17 When evening came, Jesus arrived with the Twelve.
It is called the Cenacle, a word derived from a Latin word that means “dining room.” However, this particular dining room has been important to Christian pilgrims for some 1,600 years. Why? The claim is made that the Cenacle, located on what is called Mount Zion, a nickname given to a portion of Jerusalem’s western hill, is the same upper room where Jesus and his disciples celebrated the Last Supper. Making the site even more impressive, it is said that the Cenacle, an upper room, is built over the ancient location of King David’s tomb! On the lower floor you will find Jews regularly gathering and praying in what has, in effect, become a synagogue.
Yet the Cenacle that pilgrims visit today can hardly be the same room where Jesus once invited his apostles, “Take and eat. Take and drink.” Although the foundations for the building seem to go back to the third century, the Cenacle you’d visit today, perhaps on a guided tour of the Holy Land, is a massive room that boasts soaring Gothic ribbed vaults. It’s nothing like the architecture of Jesus’ day, and most archaeologists and historians agree that it was likely constructed by crusaders, perhaps sometime around A.D. 1200. Yet it seems to make no difference. Thousands upon thousands of religious pilgrims visit the Cenacle each year. Someone once made the comment about the Cenacle, “Here the church was born, and was born to go forth.”
Maybe. The precise GPS coordinates of the upper room have been lost in the vault of the past. But the pull of the upper room, especially for Christians who gather together for worship on Maundy Thursday, remains as strong as ever. Tonight, we go there again on a quiet pilgrimage of faith that is guided by God’s Spirit speaking to us through the accounts of the gospel writers, in particular Mark. Our Savior’s inspired tour guides are careful to tell us how His Final Steps Led to the Upper Room. 1. A Room Where His Disciples Carefully Prepared For Passover. 2. A Room Where God’s Lamb Carefully Prepared To Die.
Before you and I step any further into God’s inspired record, permit me to share with you a disclaimer about this message on the upper room. It will feel different from most of our faith-pilgrimages there. How so? When you and I visit the quiet upper room, we go there fully expecting to hear about the Supper. To hear the Lamb’s gracious command: “Take and eat; this is my body . . . Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:26-28). We travel to the upper room in spirit because we yearn to hear how Jesus gave this visible gospel as a tangible gift for believers of every age, something we can see, smell, taste, and touch. And when we stand at the Communion rail, a weight as heavy as hell itself is lifted off our shoulders by our Savior’s guarantee! A guarantee made by Jesus’ servant distributing the Lamb’s Supper, when that servant comes past us one by one, looks us squarely in the eye, and speaks words guaranteed to be true by the Lamb’s own blood shed on his cross: “for you,” “for the forgiveness of sins.”
Though this sermon will focus more on the setting than the Supper, the Lord’s visible gospel is not being swept aside in tonight’s service. Our entire Maundy Thursday service — its liturgy and hymns — is centered on the Supper: on preparing for it properly with our heartfelt confession of sins, in hearing Bible readings that teach us about the Supper, in receiving the Lamb’s Supper at the rail, and in this way being restored to live a new and holy life for the Lamb who gave his life for us all!
And yet, though Maundy Thursday is all about the Supper, it’s not a bad idea for us all to realize that the Supper didn’t just fall out the skies fully prepared by angelic caterers. The Lord’s Supper itself was carefully and purposefully rooted in the Old Testament celebration of Passover. And Passover took hours of careful preparation on the part of the disciples.
The meal itself lasted several hours because Passover is elaborate. Passover is scripted. Passover is a millennia-old ritual that consists of multiple carefully prepared dishes. That includes the karpas — an appetizer of a small piece of parsley, onion, or boiled potato dipped into salt water; matzah — unleavened bread made of nothing but flour and water; charoseth — a pastelike sauce made of fruits, nuts, and wine; maror — bitter herbs, usually horseradish; a roasted egg to represent the offering brought to the temple. Each course is eaten solemnly, slowly. Each course is accompanied by a script passed down through the generations, teaching how the Lord freed his people from bondage in Egypt. There were also four cups of wine served at intervals during the dinner.
All of this is done in an elegant setting, as if a state dinner, with the finest dishes on the table and the finest of accommodations in which to host this formal affair.
A lot of meticulous care went into preparing the setting we know as the upper room, a room, by the way, that had been ceremonially swept the day before to make sure every last crumb of yeast was cleaned out of every nook and cranny of the home where the meal was hosted! So when Jesus told two of his disciples to go into the city and find an owner who would show them “a large room upstairs, furnished and ready” (Mark 14:15), the disciples must have been ready to dance a jig. Hours of careful preparation had already been done!
Was any preparation left? Have I forgotten anything? Oh, yes, of course, the lamb! The centerpiece of Passover! That in itself meant hours more of time-consuming preparation because Jesus’ disciples couldn’t just waltz over to the nearest market and bring home a preroasted lamb. The sacrificial lamb had to be purchased, perhaps at an inflated price, because it had to pass the inspection of the temple priests. The lamb had to be slaughtered early that same Thursday afternoon at the temple, and then it was roasted carefully before the evening meal.
A lot of work, to be sure! So time-consuming it boggles the mind of 21st-century chefs like us who get frustrated when the microwave needs an extra minute to finish heating a slice of pizza. But I haven’t even mentioned the most daunting task that lay ahead: finding a quiet upper room. Josephus the historian tells us that Jerusalem’s population swelled to some two million people during Passover. And everybody was looking for a quiet upper room in the city because the Jewish Mishnah (commentary) forbade carrying a lamb slaughtered in the temple outside the city walls! Large upper rooms, big enough for Jesus and his apostles, were hard to find. They were a hot commodity. Furnished and ready? That seemed an impossibility.
But not for the Lamb who later with “his apostles reclined at the table” (Luke 22:14). Not for the Lamb who said, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. For I tell you, I will not eat it again until it finds fulfillment in the kingdom of God” (Luke 22:15,16). Not for the Lamb who knew how vital the upper room was in God’s plan to save you and me. So God’s Lamb sent Peter and John into Jerusalem with directions that were fail-safe, even though they seem bewildering and vague to you and me: “Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him” (Mark 14:13). That servant fetching water might as well have been wearing a blaze orange hunting jacket, with targets painted on the front and back for good measure! At that time and in that culture, men simply didn’t fetch the water needed for drinking or for the elaborate Passover meal ritual washings. That was women’s work. But Jesus, the Son of God, could see this man among the millions in Jerusalem and then tell his disciples, “Say to the owner of the house he enters, ‘The Teacher asks: Where is my guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ He will show you a large room upstairs, furnished and ready. Make preparations for us there” (Mark 14:14,15). Was the owner of the home a devoted follower of Jesus? It may have been. Otherwise, why would the title “the Teacher” be enough to secure the upper room?
It was no accident that his final steps led to the upper room. Hours of careful preparation by the disciples were required to make the evening celebration happen, preparations that would have failed if not for the divine guidance of God’s Lamb. But failure wasn’t possible, because an eternity of careful planning by our Lord went into securing that upper room.
It’s almost as if a death shroud covered the Savior who reclined at the table with his apostles in the upper room. The Savior who regularly departed from the centuries-old Passover script on that first Holy Thursday, sometimes in ways that were shocking, as when he paused and warned, “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me — one who is eating with me” (Mark 14:18).
No less shocking were Jesus’ references to his coming slaughter as the Lamb of God. In the Supper itself: “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many,” he said to them. “Truly I tell you, I will not drink again from the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God” (Mark 14:24,25). In his stern warning shared with his disciples: “This very night you will all fall away on account of me, for it is written: ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered’” (Matthew 26:31). Add to that this anguished warning directed at Peter: “Truly I tell you, today — yes, tonight — before the rooster crows twice you yourself will disown me three times” (Mark 14:30).
On top of that, add all our Savior’s words so carefully crafted and so graciously preserved for us in the pages of John’s gospel! The Lamb’s legacy, the Lamb’s last will and testament! Life-changing words: “My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you?” (John 14:2). Life-giving words: “I am the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6). Life-saving words for times like now: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:27).
The Savior gave us all those words, and so many more, all because his final steps led to the upper room. He knew he needed a secluded spot, where God’s Lamb carefully prepared to die — a safe place, hidden away from the crowds and unknown to his enemies, where he could enjoy a few final hours of fellowship with the Twelve one last time before his cross.
He knew all this ahead of time. And he made that ever so clear in those instructions he gave his disciples, leading them to the man fetching water who in turn would lead them to an owner who needed to hear nothing more than, “The Teacher asks: ‘Where is my guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’” (Mark 14:14). And voila! An upper room, furnished and ready, fit for the King of kings who became the servant of all!
And yet, when we carefully piece together all the gospel accounts about the message Jesus passed along for the owner of the upper room, we learn there was a tad bit more than what Mark records, a bit of essential information that added urgency to the Lamb’s request. We find the detail in Matthew’s record. Listen closely: “The Teacher says: My appointed time is near. I am going to celebrate the Passover with my disciples at your house” (Matthew 26:18). The appointed time! The time our Lord had set from eternity itself was now at hand.
The set time for all our Savior’s final steps! To the upper room. To the garden. To Judas who betrayed him with a kiss. To the trials. To the scourgings. To the spitting. To the stone pavement and the trial before Pontius Pilate. To the Via Dolorosa — the road of sorrows. To the center cross on Golgotha, where God’s Lamb would forever finish the messy business of washing away the stench of humanity’s sin. Yours and mine included.
But this is where this Maundy Thursday message needs to get somewhat more personal. For, you see, the same Savior who could peer into a city of two million gathered for Passover and could pick out a man carrying a water jug and an owner who would open up his home after merely hearing, “The Teacher says . . . my time is near,” is the same Savior who hung on the cross, because he peered down the corridors of time to see us. And my Savior could see that my life is not a string of endless refrains of “Hallelujah,” “Praise the Lord,” or “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.” Instead, it’s moments of weeping, of worry, of fear — flitting seconds of questioning my Father’s plans and even brief flashes of anger. Because, you see, there is a squatter, a trespasser staying with us, and it will do no good to call the sheriff to throw him out, because it is my sinful nature. We all have a sinful nature. This explains why sometimes, especially when life is hard, we can get on each other’s nerves. We can get testy. We can get crabby. We can get a little worried, more than a little fearful.
But God’s Lamb knew all about that. And he paid for all of that too. Because nothing takes our Lord by surprise. Nothing, no one, not death, not even the gates of hell can undermine his plans. His final steps led to the upper room, exactly as planned. The gospel writer Mark matter-of-factly reports: “The disciples left, went into the city and found things just as Jesus had told them. So they prepared the Passover. When evening came, Jesus arrived with the Twelve” (Mark 14:16,17).
The next day his final steps led to the Place of the Skull, exactly as planned. Amen.
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