Rev. Dr. Mark Braun - Midweek Lent 6 - Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Text: Matthew 27:15-26

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15 Now it was the governor’s custom at the festival to release a prisoner chosen by the crowd. 16 At that time they had a well-known prisoner whose name was Jesus Barabbas. 17 So when the crowd had gathered, Pilate asked them, “Which one do you want me to release to you: Jesus Barabbas, or Jesus who is called the Messiah?” 18 For he knew it was out of self-interest that they had handed Jesus over to him. 19 While Pilate was sitting on the judge’s seat, his wife sent him this message: “Don’t have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him.” 20 But the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus executed. 21 “Which of the two do you want me to release to you?” asked the governor. “Barabbas,” they answered. 22 “What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called the Messiah?” Pilate asked. They all answered, “Crucify him!”  23 “Why? What crime has he committed?” asked Pilate. But they shouted all the louder, “Crucify him!” 24 When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said. “It is your responsibility!” 25 All the people answered, “His blood is on us and on our children!” 26 Then he released Barabbas to them. But he had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified (Matthew 27:15-26).

Perhaps your experience has been very much like mine.

We grew up in the church, learning Bible stories, even becoming familiar with a “Map of the Holy Land,” looking like three children’s building blocks, stacked atop one another: Galilee, Samaria, Judea. Yet it all could seem to us like another world, a distant geography, and a long time ago. But then, when I was maybe 9 or so, I was looking at a world map. (My wife and my sons would tell you I love to look at maps). I found the Great Lakes, Wisconsin, and Milwaukee; but then, as I looked around the map some more, I found the Mediterranean Sea and Israel and Jerusalem. Maybe that sounds elementary to you, but it was striking to me: this world of Bible stories, this world of Jesus, is also our world.

            Something similar can happen with our view of biblical people. Some of the men and women we meet in the Bible we call heroes and saints, and we fix their images in stained glass. Others we consider traitors and villains. But as we come to know these people better, we see that the saints often struggled with their sins, while the villains may become more understandable. We may even sympathize with some of them.

Pontius Pilate would fit into the latter category. Much has been written about Pilate, most of it speculation. But as we view him tonight, we can see how he was driven to the actions he attempted to take. All our lives we heard one particular verse of this text translated, “Pilate knew that it was out of envy that they handed Jesus over to him.” But this translation says Pilate knew it was out of self-interest that they had handed Jesus over to him. Doesn’t that reveal an entirely different side of the Roman governor, and with it the concerns of the crowd gathered outside his compound? Most of us can be pretty pleasant people, even generous, when things are going our way and when we do not feel that our existence is threatened. This last of the six Lenten sermons this year shows us

HANDS OF SELF-PRESERVATION

I

            When one examines the account of the trial of Jesus before Pilate, as it is woven together from the four gospels, one can see how it falls into three phases. In the first phase, the Roman governor is convinced he was in a position of absolute control; in front of him stood a pathetic-looking peasant, who hardly fit the profile of a would-be challenger to Roman authority. In time the trial entered a second phase, in which the defendant exercised an unexplainable mastery over the judge, not through a display of autocratic authority or brute force but by His unwavering inner strength. Soon this gave way to the third phase, which is where this text begins. Non-biblical histories tell us that Pilate had made at least two significant mistakes in his rule over Judea before Jesus came into his courtroom, and Pilate could not risk a third mistake or survive another complaint to his superiors in Rome. He was in trouble and he knew it. He was desperate to find a way out, to do, as athletes like to say today, “whatever it takes” for self-preservation.

            He retrieved a custom familiar to the crowds, and he would try to manipulate it to his advantage. He would present a choice between this unsettling, unusual messiah and the most notorious figure he could produce, well-known to the crowd. The other gospels say Barabbas was in prison with the insurrectionists who had committed murder (Mark 15:7). The first name of this Barabbas was also Jesus: “Which one do you want me to release. . . : Jesus Barabbas or Jesus who was called the Messiah?” Since Pilate knew the crowd was motivated by self-interest, he was certain they would choose the less dangerous alternative.

            But the chief priests and the elders were also motivated by powerful self-interest. In a hastily convened meeting, they had muttered to one another, "Here is this man performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation." But their high priest, who had managed to hold his post for almost two decades, and who was a master of self-interest and self-preservation, answered them, “It is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish” (John 11:47-50). That was the plan and here was the opportunity. The chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas,” which they thought assumed would solve their problem, but which was no help to Pilate at all! “What shall I do then with Jesus?” Loud: “Crucify him!” “Why? What crime has he committed?” Louder: “Crucify him.”

            Then his wife intervened. She had self-interest. “Don’t have anything to do what that innocent man.” We do not know how much she knew about Jesus, maybe not much of anything; maybe only enough to fear her husband could only make things worse by giving in to the crowd and punishing Him. “Leave Him alone!” But Pilate must have figured he had a better chance of surviving by doing what they wanted. So he staged a desperate act of theater. Basin of water. Drumroll! Elaborate overacting: “I am innocent of this man’s blood. OK—I’ll give you what you want, but it will be on your head.” To which the crowd responded in even more desperate bravado: “Let his blood be on us and our children!”

            Perhaps you have never found yourself in a predicament of this proportion, in which your reputation, your livelihood, even your life itself, was endangered. But maybe you have, or maybe you think you were. What would have sounded preposterous yesterday or last week, seemed to be your only way out. “I’ll do anything to save myself!” But Jesus, who did not say a word throughout this entire exchange, had already addressed such a dilemma: What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?” (Matthew 16:26). Finally, what is at stake is our very souls.

II

            Jesus never said a word, yet He was the one person in the room who was in complete control of the situation. He knew exactly what needed to be done, and exactly what He was going to do. He was the one person, the only person, who was not self-serving, or self-interested, or self-preserving. All along, He had been here to serve us.

            Earlier that night Jesus had prayed that if there were any other way, could these tragic moments be taken from Him? But He knew the answer even as He prayed. Unknown to them all, Jesus was embodying everything they had said about Him. The rescue of the world would require a self-less substitution, the presentation of an unassailably sinless man as a replacement for a notoriously sinful world. This rescue would require not the kind of Messiah so many in Israel thought they needed: one who flashed power, craved luxury, and threatened the annihilation of their enemies, but a Messiah who would choose to be be wounded and bruised for us; so that by His wounds our wounds would be healed. What should Pilate do with Him? What else should any of us do with Him? Let Him go on His way to His cross. What shall we ask for from God? Let His blood be on us and on our children. But the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin (1 John 1:7). It was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed . . . , but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect (1 Peter 1:18-19). No one can wash away sin by a pitiful, theatrical gesture, washing our hands before the crowd, or transfer sins to the crowd, but we have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb (Revelation 7:14).

Barabbas or Jesus? Insurrectionist or Redeemer? Temporary, illusionary safety, or eternal payment and peace for all of our self-centeredness and self-righteousness and self-absorption? Whatever we must suffer for Him pales in comparison to all He has already suffered for us. “Have nothing to do with Him”? We are so blessed to have everything to do with Him.

            I have heard individuals say that the only value to their life was that their insurance policy made them more valuable dead than alive. I have heard a man say that the only solution to his problems was at the business end of a gun? Don’t believe it. The only answer to your fears, the only hope for your self-preservation, is in Him who came to give His life as a ransom for many—not in some other world but our world, not for stained-glass saints but for sinners like us. Amen.