Sunday, April 17, 2011

6th Sunday of Lent - April 17, 2011

“It is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks.”  What we say reveals a lot about who we are.  During his trial and crucifixion those around Jesus say quite a bit.  Their words paint an ugly picture.  ........

Let’s start with Pilate.  He was the governor of the region, the most powerful man around.  He is aware that Jesus isn’t guilty and he is aware that those who accuse him are motivated by envy.  This is what he says,  “I am innocent of this man’s blood.  See to it yourselves.” 

The first thing we can learn from his words is that he is aware of the standards of justice.  He knows right from wrong.  For instance, he knows that it is wrong to execute an innocent man.  It is not from ignorance that he acts.  We can also know from his words that he is willing to pass the buck.  That is to say, he is willing to let someone else take responsibility for what is rightfully his decision.  Through his words, the picture that we get of Pilate is of a weak man who, though he knows the right, is unwilling to do it.

Then there is the crowd to which Pilate is speaking.  These are the people of Jerusalem and also people visiting the city for the Jewish Passover festival.  Obviously we don’t have a list of the names in the crowd, but likely these contain many of the same people whom we heard in our initial gospel reading this morning, people who were praising Jesus and waving palm branches as he entered the city only days before this trial.  These are their words, “Let him be crucified!” and “His blood be on us and on our children.” 

The first thing we can learn from their words is that they are fickle.  One minute they are giving praise, looking to Jesus as a prophet and a savior, the next moment they have completely changed their minds and are seeking to have him killed.  Fickle people are easily manipulated and can have huge swings of opinion and behavior as we can see here.

The second thing we learn from their words is that they are bloodthirsty.  The governor has told them that he doesn’t think Jesus is guilty of anything, “what evil has he done?” but they are calling not just for punishment, not just for the death penalty, but for the worst form of the death penalty.  There is a bloodthirstiness here that is shocking. 

The third thing we learn from their words is that they are selfish.  They drag their own children into this mob scene by invoking a curse upon them, “his blood be on us and our children.”  They have so little regard for their children that they are willing to put them in harm’s way just to prove how much they want Jesus to die.  Their words show how selfish they are.

Then there is the group of Roman soldiers who are responsible for beating Jesus before the crucifixion.  It is their job to do such things, not to determine guilt themselves, but their words betray something ugly indeed.  “Hail, King of the Jews” is what they say.  They are not satisfied to simply comply with their orders.  With their words they add derision and mockery to the punishment.  That is the first thing we learn.  The second thing is that they are ignorant.  They are actually speaking true words, Jesus is the King of the Jews, but they don’t know it, and so the truth is only a joke to them.

Now we get to the cross.  As Jesus hangs on the cross there are passersby, people who have gone out of their way to exit the city and come to a place of execution in order to speak.  This is what they say, “You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself!  If you are the son of God, come down from the cross.” 

The first thing they reveal by their words are their expectations.  They were expecting Jesus to be a man of power.  This is the meaning of all of that cheering and praising as he entered the city.  A man of power, a true messiah, a true savior, would not just hang there dying.  The Son of God would never suffer the indignity of just hanging there.  At the very least, he would come down off of the cross and prove his power.

The second thing is related to the first.  The words of the passersby reveal that they despise the weak.  Here they are, in the presence of a man who is in agony and who will soon die, and they don’t have the decency to keep silent or offer words of kindness.  No, they despise him because they think that he cannot get down from the cross.  He is weak, and therefore pathetic

And then there is another group of people who come to Jesus as he is on the cross: the chief priests, the scribes and the elders:  They do not speak to him, they just speak about him as he hangs there.  This is what they say, “He saved others; he cannot save himself.  He is the King of Israel; let God deliver him now, if he desires him.  For he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’”

Their words reveal many things and they are ugly indeed.  First, they show contempt for humanity.  They admit that Jesus has saved others, that he has healed the sick, cast out demons, cured the lame and so on.  They have seen it for themselves.  But they don’t care.  These acts of mercy are of no concern to them, the good is of no consequence.  What ultimately matters is power, not goodness.

Also by their words, these leaders of the Jews show their contempt for God.  “Let God deliver him now, if he desires him.”  Where is the humility that should be shown before an almighty God?  These religious leaders should surely fear God and be in awe at a moment of death like this.  But they are not.  For them, it seems God is nothing but a reflection of their own attitudes.  “What would God want with this weak and dirty man who is nailed to a cross?”  In spite of abundant scripture to the contrary, they can’t imagine God having mercy, because they have mercy. 

And finally there were the centurion and his guards, the ones who cast lots for the condemned man’s clothing and perhaps even the ones who had beaten and mocked him before.  They seem like a lone bright spot on this terrible day of cruel words, saying, “Truly this was the Son of God.”  But their words don’t mean quite as much as we’d like.  More than anything they reveal superstition.  At the moment of Jesus’ death they felt the earth tremble and saw some rocks split.  They saw power revealed in the natural world and were therefore moved to confess his divinity.  But the Jesus who had been dying before their eyes for hours on end, this weak and pitiful man?  He had meant nothing to them. 

So what is the sum of all of these words?  What does it all add up to?  I hear two things that come through louder than anything else.  First, these people were looking for power and they hated weakness.  They glorified Jesus when he seemed to come in power and they turned on him in anger when he showed weakness.  As he hung on the cross they despised him all the more because he could not come down.  What good can come from weakness?  The messiah must be strong.

The second conclusion is that though they hated weakness, the people themselves were weak.  Pilate is the most powerful man in the region and he’s too weak to stand up for justice in the face of an angry crowd.  The crowd is weak minded, letting frustration dictate their actions.  What is to be done with the one who disappoints?  Kill him of course.  Exerting such power over those who do not resist makes the weak feel more powerful.  What’s even better is for those same weaklings to go taunt the dying man, the man who isn’t interested in fighting back, the man who couldn’t fight back anyway because his hands and feet were nailed in place.  Instead of saying that “though they hated weakness, the people themselves were weak” perhaps it would be better to say, “because they were weak, these weak people despised those who were weaker than themselves.”  They wanted to be strong.  They yearned for strength and power, if not for themselves, then at least in their leader, in their savior.

At the end of the day, all they are left with is a dead man on a cross and the transient satisfaction of having killed him.  It is a terrible disappointment.  They’ve gone and killed the one who could have saved them because they didn’t recognize him.  What a terrible waste.

Except for one thing.  God is not like them.  And God is not like us.  God chooses to work through weakness.  God chooses to work through what is despised.  God chooses to work through that which disappoints us.  God chooses to work through this dead man on a cross.  This man......

“who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.

THEREFORE God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,  to the glory of God the Father.”

Please rise and we will confess that Jesus is Lord in the words of the Apostle’s Creed:
I believe in God the father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.

I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only son, our Lord,
Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
Born of the virgin Mary
Suffered under Pontius Pilate,
Was crucified, died, and was buried;
He descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again;
He ascended into heaven,
He is seated at the right hand of the Father,
And he will come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
The holy catholic church,
The communion of saints,
The forgiveness of sins,
The resurrection of the body,
And the life everlasting.

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