This morning we continue our walk with Jesus. Not the Jesus of the old church paintings; that unreasonable creation of the Church that depicts Jesus with a long flowing white robe, the light complexion, the pleasant smile and hallow floating just behind his head. No, we walk with the Jesus that lived and walked and talked and engaged people where they were. He engaged them fully knowing who they were and all that they had done and chooses to reach out to them anyway. We walk with the Jesus that ate with tax collectors and sinners and welcomed people to his feet that made even those closest to him uncomfortable. We walk with the Jesus in whose face we see the face of God. We walk with the Jesus who is the reason we sing and the way of our redemption. We seek to draw so close that we can see the sweat on his brow and feel his breath on our skin. We walk with Jesus because there is nowhere else where we can learn what it means to follow him, to love him, and to understand the depths of what it means to be loved by him.
This morning we our journey toward the cross and the promise of Easter resurrection continues. This morning Jesus has moved from the Upper Room into the Garden, has been seized by the Roman soldiers, and has faced the religious leaders of the day. This morning the tensions continue to rise as Jesus is pushed from one ridiculous court scene to another where the conspiracy for his death is being realized. Remember, as these words linger in the air, that the journey to the cross is not something that happened to Jesus, but is something that was chosen. In the Garden we have already heard Jesus weep and pray; “not my will, by thy will be done.” Now is the moment when the work of the conspirators plays out and when we will hear the shout of crowd that will break our heart.
Our passage tells us that “very early in the morning, the chief priest, with the elders, the teachers of the law and the whole Sanhedrin, reached a decision. They bound Jesus, led him away and handed him over to Pilate.” This is an impressive list. It represents those that were responsible for worship at the Temple, those that taught in the synagogues, and those charged with the spiritual leadership of the whole community. These were the guardians of right religion. These were the enforcers of a defined faith and were presumed to be the voice of God for the people. If we look closely the reflection in the mirror might make us uncomfortable. We should recognize their faces. Their voices should sound familiar. In our era they would be the people of the Church who feel responsible to preserve and protect tradition and “right” ways of worship. Jesus has challenged their traditions, cleansing the Temple and calling the people away from religion toward a relationship with God. Jesus challenged their status, calling people to come directly to God. Jesus has challenged their mores and their morals, engaging with people of questionable character, healing on the Sabbath, and acting out in ways that made these leaders bristle with contempt. They cannot control Jesus, so they tie him up and hand him over to the governmental authorities, asking Pilate to do what they cannot do on their own.
The scene moves to the terrace of Pilate’s grand place. He is the Roman Governor and does not want to be involved, but finds himself with little choice. Pilate’s face should look familiar. He is the face of all of those who seek to use the tool of government to enforce their perception of the will of God. He is the face of those that demand government acts to empower their religious actions and preserve their religious identity. He is the face of what happens with people of faith feel powerless to do what they want and wage the war of politics to enforce their will on others.
In Luke 23 we hear Pilate’s initial pronouncement: 4 Then Pilate announced to the chief priests and the crowd, “I find no basis for a charge against this man.” 5 But they insisted, “He stirs up the people all over Judea by his teaching. He started in Galilee and has come all the way here.” Luke tells us that Pilate thought he saw an exit strategy, he passes Jesus to Herod. But in the end we find ourselves here again on Pilate’s terrace. Matthew tells us that even Pilate’s wife has pled with him not to have a part of what would come next. Pilate tries one more thing to free himself of responsibility. 6 Now it was the custom at the festival to release a prisoner whom the people requested. I have to believe that Pilate might have been quietly pleased with himself when he thought of this option. Maybe this was the answer. Maybe this was his way out.
7 A man called Barabbas was in prison with the insurrectionists who had committed murder in the uprising. 8 The crowd came up and asked Pilate to do for them what he usually did. 9 “Do you want me to release to you the king of the Jews?” asked Pilate, 10 knowing it was out of self-interest that the chief priests had handed Jesus over to him. The contrast between the two men could not be clearer. Jesus was a man of peace, Barabbas a man of violence, his hands stained with the blood of another. Jesus was a man that pointed people toward God. Barabbas was a man that called the people to a failed insurrection. He must have that thought the choice would be easy for the people. But it is clear that he was unprepared for what would happen next. The crowd, stirred by the priests and teachers, calls out for Barabbas.
Pilate made one last attempt. Luke tells us that he again told the priest that Jesus had done nothing to deserve death, that he would punish and release him. But the crowd kept yelling, not only calling for Barabbas, but more. “What shall I do, then, with the one you call the king of the Jews?” Pilate asked them. “Crucify him!” they shouted. “Why? What crime has he committed?” asked Pilate. But they shouted all the louder, “Crucify him!”
I have to wonder how many in the crowd that morning had also been their when Jesus entered the city to cheers of the crowds. How many that had shouted “Hosanna” now lifted their voices to shout “Crucify Him!” I have to wonder how many called for Barabbas because they were looking for a military Messiah and Jesus had failed to meet their expectations. I wonder how many were looking for a “King of the Jews” in the line and light of David, the conquering hero and missed the King of Glory in their midst? Something happens to a crowd. People are willing to give away their own sense of identity and moral values and embrace a mob mentality. This crowd was probably filled with people like you and me; merchants and moms, farmers and people of faith, all caught up in a moment, all calling out for death. This crowd was filled with ordinary people drawn into an extraordinary moment. Together they became a voice of cruelty and pain, of suffering and shame. They, and we, too quickly embrace the arguments of the angry; too easily give up what we believe because louder and more articulate voices can seem so compelling. Each one of them, and each one of us, is accountable for our voices in the crowd. Crowds can be unpredictable. Unfortunately history teaches us that many in politics are very predictable. Wanting to satisfy the crowd, Pilate released Barabbas to them. He had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified.
Our journey to the cross and tomb draws closer, but there are some important lessons we need to take away from this part of the story. Hear that the story of Jesus is intertwined with the powerful and the nameless; the religious and the shameless. Hear that the power of God is wrapped in humility rather than the trappings of power and might. Hear that we need not listen to the ever shifting roar of the crowd expressed in what our culture affirms-embraces-celebrates-but rather the stirring of the authentic voice of God in our hearts. But most importantly, we must find our place in this story. Has our religious devotion become so defined by tradition and preservation of accepted practices we find ourselves among the priests and the teachers of the law? Have we become so defined by the rules and regulations of established church life that we leave little room for Jesus to come and stir among us? Do we resonate with Pilate? Do we find ourselves so willing to please others that we fail to stand up and speak up for voiceless? Do we find our voice in the crowd, getting along and going along, blindly following the lead of others? Do we too easily hear and follow voices on television and radio on the left and right that are the purveyors of anger, conflict and hatred rather than those calling us to community? Do we want things done our way, according to our expectations at the cost of seeing God at work? In finding our own voice with the religious leadership, the politician, or the crowd we come to understand that we share in the culpability of the cross. Our voice, our actions, our sins are a part of the story.
There is a part of us that wants to hold the story of the cross at a distance. We want it something that others did to Jesus from which we get to benefit. But, their story is our story. We carry equal responsibility for Jesus’ journey to the cross. Only in finding our part in the story, our voice among the shout of the crowd, can we find true redemption in Jesus’ sacrificial act of grace and joy in the coming Easter declaration that “he is risen!” Come let us walk with Jesus. Let us draw so close we can see the sweat on his brow and feel his breath on our skin. But know the path he walks, he walks for you and me.