Sermon for 04-01-12: “God’s Passion, Part 3: Pilate and Barabbas”

This tile floor inside the Antonia Fortress is the likely spot on which Jesus was mocked and beaten.

Jesus Christ died for us and in our place. This is a hard concept but today’s scripture gives a concrete example of what this means in Barabbas. He becomes the first sinner for whom Jesus died. As Barabbas was walking away from the prison, a free man, did he appreciate the gift he had been given? Do we?

This sermon explores the meaning of the cross and challenges us to receive the gift of salvation that God makes available through it.

Sermon Text: Mark 15:1-20

There’s a cliché in romantic movies in which the woman in love will be arguing with the man she loves about some misunderstanding, and that’s when he does it: He pulls out the wedding ring, drops down on one knee and says, “Will you marry me?” And this person who was so articulate and full of words the moment before is suddenly rendered speechless.

Have you ever been speechless?

Jesus is speechless in today’s scripture, just as he was speechless in last week’s scripture. Last week, in his trial before Caiaphas when so many witnesses were bringing false charges against Jesus, Caiaphas gets frustrated: “Aren’t you going to respond to the testimony these people have brought against you?” Jesus speaks not a word in his defense. And today, when the chief priests are trying to convince Pilate that Jesus is guilty of sedition, leading a rebellion against the Roman Empire, Pilate asks Jesus, “Aren’t you going to answer? What about all these accusations?”

I read last week that the Solicitor General seemed a bit nervous and tongue-tied when he argued before the Supreme Court defending the new health care law. Who can blame him? I can’t imagine a more intimidating environment. But the justices on the court who were sympathetic with his position were saying things like, “I think what you’re trying to say is…” “I think your argument is that…” Like a drama teacher standing in the wings, feeding lines to the actor who forgot his lines.

Pilate is trying to help Jesus out, and he’s amazed that this clearly intelligent and articulate man standing before him refuses to say anything in his defense. Why? It doesn’t make any sense?What’s Jesus up to?

Jesus knew exactly what he was up to. He was living out those words from Isaiah 53:

He was oppressed and afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;
he was led like a lamb to the slaughter,
and as a sheep before its shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth

I believe that Jesus faced the temptation to alter his destiny, to run away, to avoid the terrible consequences of his obedience the night before, in the Garden of Gethsemane. There he asked God three times if he could get out of it, saying, finally, “Not what I want, but what you want.” Having discovered what his Father wanted, now he has nerves of steel. Now he knows exactly what he’s got to do. Now he knows that the suffering and death that lie in front of him are part of God’s rescue operation for the world.

Jesus Christ, who is God in the flesh, the Second Person of the Trinity, is going to make an exchange: his life for your life and my life. We can relate to this, can’t we?

If we’ve read The Hunger Games we can! I read it last week. Loved it. Beautifully written. The premise is disturbing, and it’s not for kids: In some distant future, in what used to be North America, a totalitarian regime requires two kids between the ages of 12 and 18, selected by lottery from each of the country’s 12 districts, to participate in a grisly reality TV show once a year called “The Hunger Games”—think Survivor with knives, spears, and swords. The kids fight to the death. The last survivor “wins.” This reality show is punishment for an attempted rebellion against “The Capitol” many years earlier. The Capitol hosts the games each year to remind their oppressed population who is really in charge, who has all the power and who doesn’t.

The hero of the novel is a 16-year-old woman named Katniss from a poor mining family in what used to be Appalachia, the poorest of the 12 districts. Her dad died years earlier in a mining accident, and she’s been the family breadwinner, supporting her mentally ill mother and her little sister. It’s her little sister’s first year to be eligible for the Games.

But the unthinkable happens: To her horror, her 12-year-old sister gets selected in the lottery. So, to save her sister’s life—even though, from her perspective, it surely means her own death—she volunteers to take her place. Her life for her sister’s life. And she does it out of love.

We parents can relate to this kind of courageous love, can’t we? Sacrifice, including a willingness to lay down our own lives, is part of the deal, a price we would gladly pay, if it means saving the life of our child. I’ve said this before, but I knew the moment my first child was born that I would take a bullet for her; I’d jump in front of a speeding locomotive; I’d rush into a burning building without a second thought. I’d do that for my beloved children just as Katniss did it for her little sister.

But who else would I do it for? I just don’t know. Do you? Volunteering to die for someone else. Well, we can think of other inspiring examples of sacrifice. I think of that first wave of soldiers headed to the beach at Normandy on D-Day. They willingly died for others. It’s true they had a fighting chance, but they surely knew the odds were against them. The firefighters rushing into the Twin Towers on 9/11. They willingly died for others. They at least accepted the risk when they ran into the buildings.

These examples point us in the direction of Jesus’ suffering and death—by all means! But as remarkable and courageous and inspiring as these examples are, I would humbly suggest that what Jesus does in today’s scripture is on another level entirely: After all, Katniss wasn’t laying down her life for some sadistic fatcat living in the Capitol, watching children kill one another for sport. The soldiers at Normandy weren’t laying down their lives for the German soldiers firing mortar rounds at them from the mountain above the beach. The first-responders rushing into the Twin Towers weren’t laying down their lives for Osama bin Laden or people who flew the planes into the towers.

By contrast, hear these words from the Apostle Paul about what God did for us in Christ: “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” Paul goes on to say, “For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.”

What God did for us in Christ, he did for the sake not of friends but of enemies. Our sin kindled God’s justifiable anger toward us. Our sin separated us from God. Our sin made us enemies of a holy God who cannot abide human pride, idolatry, injustice, oppression, murder, exploitation, and genocide. Our sin made us fit for hell, not heaven. The ironic thing is that the religious authorities convicted Jesus of blasphemy, a sin deserving the death penalty—when all along we were the blasphemers! Pilate convicted Jesus of insurrection, a crime deserving the death penalty—when all along we were the ones rebelling against our one true God and king! The death penalty was really for us; but Jesus Christ—God from God, light from light, true God from true God—stepped into human history to die the godforsaken death that we deserved to die. In Jesus, God himself suffered the penalty that we deserved to suffer.

What I’ve just described is the primary way of understanding how God uses the cross to bring forgiveness of sin and reconciliation with God. What I’ve described, in theological terms, is “substitutionary atonement,” or penal substitution. Christ takes our place on the cross. Christ suffers our death. Christ receives the punishment our sin deserves. This might be a hard concept to grasp in a day and age when we routinely tell ourselves that sin isn’t really such a big deal, but Mark gives us a concrete example in today’s scripture of what substitutionary atonement looks like. And that example is Barabbas.

Barabbas is no common thief. He’s no petty criminal. He’s a murderer. He’s a terrorist. Not that the Romans were especially concerned about justice, but they were in this case justified in sentencing a man like him to his death. And Barabbas would have died… if not for Jesus. Barabbas was set free. Jesus, meanwhile, an innocent man, was crucified in his place. As Adam Hamilton says, “Barabbas would be the first sinner for whom Jesus died.” Fortunately for us, he wasn’t the last. Hamilton continues:

An ordinary person could not die for all humankind; but Jesus, being God in the flesh, could die for the sins of the entire world. He paid a price he did not owe, giving us a gift of grace we did not deserve. This is what we see in Barabbas walking away free from the prison and Jesus hanging on a cross.[1]

Brothers and sisters, have I introduced myself? I am Barabbas. Are you? Do you think Barabbas saw Jesus hanging on the cross later and said, “There but for the grace of God go I. What amazing grace has been lavished upon me. Thank you, Jesus”? I hope so, because otherwise… what a waste, you know? To be given this amazing gift of salvation and eternal life, gift-wrapped and addressed to you, postage-paid, and to just leave it sitting there, at the doorstep of your heart, unopened. What a waste! Friends, the gift is here, ready for you to receive it. And you know how much the gift is worth because the receipt’s in the box and the price that God paid is clearly printed on it. Before you walk away from Calvary and get on with the rest of your life, turn around and look at the cross and understand that you yourself were supposed to be hanging on it! And I was supposed to be hanging on it. There but for the grace of God go you and I!

If it helps, consider this: If God’s Son will give his life in order to save someone like Barabbas, he’ll do the same for you.

But something else happens through the cross. And, what do you know, The Hunger Games does an amazing job illustrating that as well.

Katniss and her friend Peeta, a fellow Hunger Games “contestant,” contemplate what’s about to happen to them the next morning, after the Capitol sends them off to the arena to fight to the death. Peeta tries to tell Katniss how he wants to die, but he can’t find the words. Peeta says, “‘I don’t know how to say it exactly. Only… I want to die as myself. Does that make any sense?’” But it doesn’t make sense to Katniss, at least not at first. She wonders, “How could he die as anyone but himself?” Peeta explains: “‘I don’t want them to change me in there. Turn me into some into some kind of monster that I’m not.… I keep wishing I could think of a way to… to show the Capitol they don’t own me. That I’m more than just a piece in their Games.’”[2]

The two of them will spend the rest of novel demonstrating a willingness to die as themselves—to not let this evil system change them, own them, or turn them into monsters. To refuse to become just another tool in their enemies’ twisted game. To refuse to let the system prevent them from loving and showing compassion—no matter what it does to them. And in so doing, they defeat the system. Love defeats the system. Love conquers their enemies.[3]

And in a similar way, on the cross, all the evil forces of the world conspired to do their very worst against God’s only begotten Son—to make God the Son become something other than what he was: the embodiment of Love Itself. They did their very worst to change him, to own him, to turn him into a monster, to make him into another tool for the Enemy. And they failed. Christ won the victory. Love won the victory. Christ defeated sin and death. Love defeated sin and death. God defeated sin and death… On our behalf.

I’ll spend the rest of my life, the rest of my life, trying to figure out how to say thank you. In the meantime… I’m speechless.

[1] Adam Hamilton, 24 Hours That Changed the World (Nashville: Abingdon, 2009), 67.

[2] Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games (New York: Scholastic, 2008), 141-2.

[3] Katniss talks about this victory over the Hunger Games on p. 358.

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