We thought together a few weeks ago how life can take funny bounces. Last week’s scripture ended with one. It said that Pilate suggested that Jesus be the lucky prisoner freed during Passover. There was no doubt, in Pilate’s mind who would be liberated. Only a few hours ago, Jesus had a long ovation in the crowded streets. Surely he will be chosen. It seemed reasonable and certain.
The cry was loud and strong. “Not this man, but Barabbas!” He was a bandit turned political criminal who had taken part in a recent political rebellion. Notice the hypocrisy of the Jewish leaders, who having denounced Jesus to Rome as a political criminal, now sought the release of a real political criminal.
I think that it’s interesting that the word for bandit was the same word that describes those who threatened sheep. The choice between Jesus and Barabbas is the choice between the good shepherd and the one who steals and harms the sheep. The one they had determined to hunt down, the one who only a few hours ago had been hailed with acclamation by enthusiastic crowds lining the street was headed to the cross.
We talked together last week about how Pilate wanted the Jews to crucify Jesus themselves, but this only reminded them of their political impotence. Then they blurt out the real reason for their insistence. Their charge was not really political but religious. Jesus was proclaiming that he was the son of God. This did not motivate Pilate
I briefly mentioned the scourging last week. Of course I have never seen this happen unless you count watching the Passion of the Christ a dozen plus years ago. After seeing that scene, it cannot be forgotten. It is a dreadful tale of horror heaped on horror throughout the long-drawn out agony with hardly one redeeming feature, yet Jesus bore the suffering of insults and ruthless brutalities through which he had to pass. It was a fearsome ordeal tearing the lacerated flesh to ribbons and often causing death.
Sick and dizzy with pain as he must have been, our lord found no touch of sympathy among the guards. Rough soldiers, made callous and brutalized by knocking about the world from garrison to garrison and camp to camp, they saw nothing unmanly or unseemly in taunting and jeering at a helpless prisoner. They whiled away the time in endless merry making.
It was the guards who dressed Jesus in a faded tunic which might pass for royal purple. They wove some thorns into a crown and forced it down on his head. They mocked their loyalty to Jesus as they struck him over and over as each man chose.
This crown made of a thorn bush was an imitation of the victor’s crown which was given to recognize triumph in a game or contest or public honor for distinguished service or military prowess, often it was worn by emperors. Usually it was a garland of oak, ivy, paisley, myrtle, and olive. Sometimes it was made of gold. It was an emblem of joy, reward and glory. Used here, it became a cruel masquerade with only torture intended.
Pilate and the Jews have both gotten what they wanted—the Jews had rid themselves of Jesus and secured their place with Rome. Pilate maneuvered the Jewish authorities into renouncing their messianic aspirations and so secured his place with his Rome superiors.
When I was younger, I, like many people at that time, went through a period of blaming all Jews because the Jewish leaders had crucified Jesus. In addition to protecting their power and wealth, their denial of Jesus as the Messiah was made to preserve what they believed was the correct way to relate to God. The real issue is not who is responsible for the death of Jesus, but the many ways in which the revelation of God in Jesus can be rejected.
Throughout the last week of Jesus’ life we see a struggle for power as well as the
contrast between the power of human institutions and the power which resides with God. Unfortunately, many want power so they can use it to get what they want from people. They are afraid to share power because they may not get what they want. Pilate thought that he had power, but the only power he had was his power to be an instrument in the service of God and Jesus in the fulfillment of Jesus’ hour.
Just as Jesus opened his ministry and proclaimed God’s kingdom outside the traditional boundaries of Judaism including sharing who he was with a Samaritan woman, he also testified to a representative of the Roman government who is clearly shown to be wanting, and who does not respond to the word of truth that Jesus brings because he just can’t take a step or two toward God.
The end of this trial is a tragedy for Jesus’ antagonists, because while he will continue to love and seek them, their response to His love is to turn their backs decisively and absolutely on the Jesus way of living, thereby missing out on the gift of eternal life.
Pilate was given the opportunity to make his decision about Jesus—not his legal decision, but his faith decision. Pilate is asked to decide whether he will recognize and respond to all that God has done in his life, especially in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus. He is asked if he will live for Jesus in all that he does and will allow Jesus to lead his life, his decisions, his choices and his acts.
In their zeal to destroy Jesus, the religious leaders denied the very God in whom their lives are grounded. The chief priest renounced everything that gave them their distinction as God’s people. God had promised a messiah to save his people. In professing allegiance to the Roman emperor, the chief priests ironically renounced all their messianic hopes and aspirations. They were saying that they did not believe in this and didn’t care if it ever happened. In shouting, “We have no king but the emperor”, they denied their allegiance to God. One of the theological themes, of Passover is the celebration of God as judge and king.
The religious leaders thought that the moment of judgment on Jesus had finally arrived, that his “kingship” had come to an end. It was not the end of Jesus as a king, but the prelude to his exaltation and final “enthronement” on the cross.
Jesus’ cross was carried to Golgotha which meant “the place of the skull”. The area has been identified by the shape of the hill and its resemblance to a skull.
The decisive issue that divided the Jewish leadership and Jewish followers of Jesus is how one defines a relationship with God. They acted out of fear instead of in response to God’s love. They offered God grains, oils and animals on the altar to be killed and burned, and they followed rigid religious laws, many of which were pretty silly and had nothing to do with God. The one thing they did not offer was themselves and their hearts. They did not follow out of joy, but acted out of obligation and fear.
We are invited to respond to the truth of God in Jesus. That response is not just a passive observation but a decision from those who hear. The world has to declare itself for or against Jesus, whether they will lovingly, joyfully follow or turn their back on God’s love through Jesus and in declaring itself against Jesus, the world falls under the judgment of God.
Everything is at stake in regard to the choice we make about the revelation of God in Jesus. I’m not trying to scare anyone, just stress the importance. Too many close themselves off from God. Many people out there are at a fork in the road and have to make a decision. We make decisions about everything that we experience in life. We hear a joke, that demeans someone because of their gender, their race, or even a handicapping condition, and we have to decide to laugh or smile or maybe to tell the person that we don’t find it funny or appropriate.
Life is about decisions. We make decisions at school, at work, as young families and in our later years. I grew up in a pretty normal family in the 50’s, 60’s and early 70’s. My life was filled with school, 4th-6th grade theatre, scouts, band, sports, work, family and friends. In each of those areas I had to make decisions about where Jesus fit.
I remember sitting on the hood of my 1968 Oldsmobile Cutlass talking to Don, the associate pastor of my church. Many of my stories involve what car I drove at the time. We were outside an old building that was once a car dealership. Now it was used for dances on Friday and Saturday nights. He stood and listened to me as I rattled on and on about girls and cars and sports. When I finally paused, he looked at me and asked, “Steve, what are you going to do about Jesus?” I could talk about any subject he could have brought up except that one. What was I going to do about Jesus in my life? I had to make a decision. I had gone to Sunday school and worship, been involved in the youth group. I had been an acolyte. I had been through confirmation and said whatever I was asked to say.
Well, I did make a decision. A few weeks later I decided to do my best to let Jesus direct my life. Since then I have had to make many decisions. Sometimes they have been right and sometimes they were not.
So, how to we decide about something? Of course we can just do what others do. We can do what someone tells you to do or pays you to do. We can do what is easiest and safest. We can do the opposite of what people want you to do. We can do what is logical or what is based on emotions. We might do what is logical and based on emotions or based on our experiences. As United Methodists, we believe that we can do what God directs us to do through scripture, tradition, reason and experience.
Some have made this decision. Others are still weighing the pros and cons. In this situation, to not decide is to decide. Deciding to follow Jesus doesn’t mean that you have to be weird or deadly somber, it just reflects your decision to allow the Jesus way of living to guide your choices and steps and that you will try to love like God does in response to God’s love for you.
Is it time to make this decision? It’s something you do on your own. Let me know if you need help taking the step. May God be with us as we decide and then live our lives as examples of our decision. Amen.