Thursday, April 5, 2007

The tide turned

John 19:1-16
Then Pilate therefore took Jesus, and scourged Him. And the soldiers wove a crown of thorns and put it on His head, and arrayed Him in a purple robe; and they began to come up to Him, and say, "Hail, King of the Jews!" and to give Him blows in the face. And Pilate came out again, and said to them, "Behold, I am bringing Him out to you, that you may know that I find no guilt in Him." Jesus therefore came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. And Pilate said to them, "Behold, the Man!" When therefore the chief priests and the officers saw Him, they cried out, saying, "Crucify, crucify!" Pilate said to them, "Take Him yourselves, and crucify Him, for I find no guilt in Him." The Jews answered him, "We have a law, and by that law He ought to die because He made Himself out to be the Son of God." When Pilate therefore heard this statement, he was the more afraid; and he entered into the Praetorium again, and said to Jesus, "Where are You from?" But Jesus gave him no answer. Pilate therefore said to Him, "You do not speak to me? Do You not know that I have authority to release You, and I have authority to crucify You?" Jesus answered, "You would have no authority over Me, unless it had been given you from above; for this reason he who delivered Me up to you has the greater sin." As a result of this Pilate made efforts to release Him, but the Jews cried out, saying, "If you release this Man, you are no friend of Caesar; everyone who makes himself out to be a king opposes Caesar." When Pilate therefore heard these words, he brought Jesus out, and sat down on the judgment seat at a place called The Pavement, but in Hebrew, Gabbatha. Now it was the day of preparation for the Passover; it was about the sixth hour. And he said to the Jews, "Behold, your King!" They therefore cried out, "Away with Him, away with Him, crucify Him!" Pilate said to them, "Shall I crucify your King?" The chief priests answered, "We have no king but Caesar." So he then delivered Him to them to be crucified.
The trouble started when Magi came from the east, their camels loaded with treasure. As soon as they reached Jerusalem they began asking, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw his star in the east, and have come to worship Him.” Word got around quickly. Herod and the chief priests, scribes, and elders, indeed, all Jerusalem and surrounding communities, were greatly troubled. At that point Jesus was as good as dead.

Herod struck, hoping to kill this infant King; but he missed. So it wasn’t until thirty years later when the chief priests and elders saw their chance. It was the same week when Jesus had come into Jerusalem, to choruses of “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!” The leaders came to Pilate, the Roman governor, and accused Jesus of claiming to be King. You have no idea how disturbing that would be to a Roman. Not even Caesar would call himself king. First citizen of the Empire, maybe. Tribune of the people, counselor to the Senate, even a god. But king, no. The long history of the Roman Republic was marked by very bitter memories of being ruled by Etruscan kings. So in theory, a Roman subject declaring himself king would mean a lot more than thumbing your nose at Caesar; it would strike at the very identity of the Roman people.

Of course, Pilate didn’t buy it. In his first conversation with Jesus, he soon figured out this “King of the Jews” business had to do with a spiritual kingdom, not of this world. He couldn’t think of anything Jesus had done wrong. Nevertheless, the title “King of the Jews” stuck with him to the end—it was even posted above his head on the cross. In fact, it was the only legal rationale for putting Jesus to death.

Things had been going well for Jesus, lately, though at the same time the danger against him grew and grew. Thousands were following him. The elders and chief priests were afraid to make a move against him, because they didn’t want Jesus’ followers to come after them. But now the tide turned. Here was their chance: make Pilate the bad guy, let the Jews blame him for their Messiah’s death. Pilate must not have been happy about this. He was in a lose-lose situation. Let Jesus go, and word would get around that he was soft on people calling themselves “king.” Put Jesus to death, and he would have innocent blood on his head. Either way, a large number of strong-willed, middle-eastern Jews were sure to be honked off at him. Watch the news if you don’t know what that’s like.

Poor Pilate! And poor Jews, too! How would you feel if a popular, outspoken fellow who does miracles and has thousands of followers started calling you hypocrites, challenged everything you taught, and accused you of being children of the devil? Suppose he threatened to tear down your temple—which he really didn’t—or made himself out to be the Son of God—which he did? Not only Pilate, but many of the leading Jews were afraid of this man. So when the Romans got hold of him, they dressed him in an absurd costume and slapped him around and said, “Hail, King of the Jews!” And when Pilate brought him before the Jews and said, “Behold, your King!” they screamed, “Away with Him, away with Him, crucify Him!” “Shall I crucify your King?” Pilate challenged. “We have no king but Caesar!” they yelled back.

It wasn’t a good day to be the King of the Jews. It was, in fact, a lose-lose day for all concerned, especially Jesus. Admit it, there’s a downside to being whipped, beaten, and pierced with thorns, forced to carry a solid wood cross and then crucified on it. But the alternative was to turn his back on mankind, and let God down. His job as the King of the Jews, according to Scripture, was to suffer and die for our sake, and thus rescue us from sin and hell. Otherwise all mankind would be lost in sin, doomed to perish for all eternity. Jesus got a raw deal on Good Friday, but the result is salvation for all who trust in Him.

When Pilate heard that Jesus had called himself the Son of God, he became frightened. The decision he was about to make was crucial to his career, if not his life. I suppose he made his decision based on fear that if he didn’t get rid of Jesus, the Jews would get rid of him. It seemed likely, considering the mood they were in and the seriousness of their charge against Jesus. Pilate could hardly have foreseen that every Christian would repeat his name for thousands of years afterward, naming him in our creeds as the one responsible for Jesus’ death. But such is history in the making. If Pilate had foreseen what really happened, maybe he wouldn’t have crucified Jesus…and there would be no Gospel for you today.

At that anxious moment in the palace, Pilate scolded Jesus for refusing to answer him: “So you’re not speaking to me? Don’t you realize I have authority either to release you or to crucify you?” But Jesus said: “You have no authority over me that wasn’t given to you from above; for this reason, he who betrayed me into your hands has the greater sin.” Pilate isn’t guiltless, but compared to Judas, for instance, or the Jews who cried, “Crucify!” his is but the guilt of a weak ruler who allowed public pressure to override justice.

Whether you blame the Jews or Pilate, the result is the same. Jesus was handed over to be crucified. This is the point of no return, friends. Until now he has only been an innocent man under arrest, going from trial to trial. Now he’s convicted and sentenced, precious few steps away from the place of crucifixion. Why haven’t the heavens opened up? Why haven’t angels dropped down to deliver him? It’s as if God has turned a blind eye, strange as that might be since Jesus is God. But there it is. He’s mocked and mistreated. He’s thoroughly beaten. He’s presented to the people as a pathetic spectacle: “Behold the Man!” He is so unregarded that the people who want him dead don’t even want to dirty their hands on him.

I’ll bet that in some small way, you know how it feels to be in a fix like that. The tide turns against you, events are swirling around you, things are out of control. Those who have been in car accidents know what it’s like, seeing the unavoidable draw near and having time to think, “Oh, boy. Am I going to live through this?” Sometimes you do and wish you hadn’t. Sometimes you don’t live through it. Jesus didn’t, but he suffered plenty before he died. And he suffered for all of us, for our sake, whether we know what it’s like to look death in the face, or not.

Whether death sneaks up on you or takes you head on, whether life treats you well or things spiral out of control, you have seen the effects sin has on the world and on human lives in particular. You have seen what our fallen world is like, corrupt and decaying. Lives begin with promise and end in disappointment. Families and careers fall apart. Bodies and minds betray their owners. Nature wreaks its awful destruction on property and people. Crime, war, and yes, injustice take their toll on human lives. This is because of sin, and to atone for all this—both for the victims and for the people responsible—Jesus died.

All these things will come to an end, but those who trust in Christ await a new life in an indestructable world to come. What seems out of control really is under control, and with a purpose and will God steers all things toward your salvation. For when the world was at its worst, and the tide had turned against God’s own Son, he was in fact winning his victory. By his death he triumphed over death and all that is evil in the world. His loss is our gain; His cross is our salvation. Mortality will put on immortality. And those who have fallen asleep, will awaken never again to die.

Now we can look at the unavoidable disasters of our life and see in them the cross of Jesus. There we see him delivering us from this fallen condition to an everlasting joy, in a glorified body, in the blessed presence of God and all saints, where evil and pain and death will never be seen again. Just when the world seemed most hopeless, hope was born: hope that looks through trials and suffering toward the bliss to come, which Jesus has won for us.

Yes, it was a bad day to be King of the Jews, and things seemed to be spiraling out of control for Jesus. But in fact, everything happened according to his plan, and from his throne on the cross he established a new Kingdom in which you and I are subjects. Bought by his blood, made alive by his death, we live to serve our King the Son of David with eager hearts, hands, and voices. Christ has all things in his control, and orders all things for the good of his people; to Him be all praise and thanks forever!

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