Saturday, April 5, 2014

Fifth Sunday in Lent: They thought they were doing the right thing

Reading for this Sunday: John 19:4-22  

It was an awesome responsibility. They had been chosen by God

Just like God provided a deliverer for the people when they were languishing as Pharaoh’s slaves.  Called Moses, right out of Pharaoh’s own household.

Just like God raised up judges each time a foreign power threatened the fledgling nation of Israel, newly established in the Promised Land.

Just like the good Jewish girl Esther, chosen by King Ahasuerus as his queen, was placed in his court by God for just that time and place to avert the murderous plot of Haman to exterminate the Jews.

Sure, Annas, the former high priest, and Caiaphas, the current high priest and Annas’ son in law, both selected for office by the Romans, were not of the correct lineage for high priests.  But who was to say that God hadn’t chosen them for exactly this time and place? Just like God had chosen a pagan king, Cyrus of Persia, called him God’s anointed, and used him to return the people from exile.

Even the recent change of policy in Rome toward Judea and the Jewish faith showed God’s hand in protecting the people.  The faith was to be accommodated, protected.  The leaders treated with respect by the Roman governor.

Who was to say that God called them to leadership for just such a time and place as this?

It was an awesome responsibility.

Theirs was the job of ensuring right worship of the One True God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  In some ways, their job was as difficult as that of the religious leaders in the days of exile in Babylon – temple destroyed, people exiled, they had to discern how to sing God’s song in a foreign land, without causing their oppressors to fear rebellion, without giving cause for further reprisals.

Now it was the job of these men – the chief priests, the members of the Sanhedrin - to ensure right worship of the One True God.  It was vital that every jot and title of Torah was followed scrupulously – improper worship, worship of idols brought about the last exile.  Theirs was the responsibility that Judea did not follow that path again.

But there was another responsibility – to ensure that their oppressors, the Romans, had no cause for reprisals.  There could be no rebellion, nothing to bring the wrath of Rome down on them.  They had to protect the people of God.

They had been chosen by God for this task in this time and place.

It was an awesome responsibility.

And they devoted all their strength, and mind and souls to this task – protect the faith, protect the people.

Whatever the cost.

When Caiaphas said that it was better for one man to die than the whole people to perish, it made
sense.  It wasn’t a comfortable thought.  But something had to be done. “Everyone will believe in him and the Romans will come and destroy our holy place and our nation.”   The kind of crowds Jesus attracted made Rome nervous.  Always on the lookout for rebellion – so prevalent it in this region – Rome brooked no nonsense.  Anything could bring the wrath of Rome down on their heads! The people had to be protected; the temple – God’s home on earth – had to be protected.

Besides, Jesus was claiming equal relationship with the One True God.  “The Father and I are one.”  The nerve!  Calling himself “Son of God!”  Blasphemous!  Healing on the Sabbath – a sinner with no regard for God’s laws.  It was their job as leaders and teachers to ensure the true faith was taught.  Jesus could not be allowed to spout heresy.

It’s a rock and a hard place.

A bad choice and a worse choice.

Which is the greater sin – to cause this one man to die, or to fail in their God-given responsibility?

God has chosen them for this crisis, for this time and place.  Surely God will guide them to do the right thing.

They when to great lengths to make sure they were doing the right thing- or at least had good reasons when they bent the rules a bit.

They wanted to arrest Jesus and hold a trial, but the people loved Jesus’ teachings, loved Jesus.  If they arrested him in the day, the crowd might just riot. The religious leaders were left with no choice but to make the arrest at night, conduct the trial at night.  There could be no chance of inciting a riot.  It was the right thing to do.

Then they have to bring Jesus to Pilate.  Rome is the law.  Rome controls capital punishment.  Besides, it can only help their cause to keep the Romans pacified by turning over someone likely to incite the people. So they take Jesus to Pilate, but they can’t enter this Gentile palace or they become defiled and unable to officiate at Passover rituals.  Which they must be able to do to preserve Torah.  The right thing to do is go to Pilate but stay outside the place.

Pilate must see things their way.  He’s proving uncharacteristically reluctant to follow their wishes and condemn Jesus to death.  He’s must be using this opportunity to get back at them for the times they reported his harsh handling to Rome.  He’s toying with them, stymieing them.  He has to be made to see reason.

Pilate has rejected them out of hand, mocking their fears that Jesus will lead a rebellion.  King of the Jews?  Pilate can’t see it.  Pilate knows kingly ambition – there’s plenty of that in Rome’s higher levels of government, in the provinces where unrest seethes and would-be kings are ruthlessly quashed.

So Pilate gives them a choice – release Jesus, or a terrorist.  In Pilate’s eyes, the choice is between two would be kings – one who has committed murders in his ascent to the throne and one with a ‘kingdom not from this world.  The choice should be obvious.

For the religious leaders, the choice is obvious.  The right thing is to get rid of Jesus.  He is much more dangerous to the status quo than this terrorist.  Barabbas doesn’t have the kind of following Jesus does.  And Barabbas will be caught again, and tried and executed.  Now might be the only chance with Jesus, their only chance to keep the people from believing in him which just might cause the Romans to come and destroy them.

Pilate continues to mock them, mock their faith.  He has Jesus beaten, clothed with a kingly robe and crowned with thorns.  “Here is the man” he says. “Is this the best you can do – this pathetic example of a king?”

It’s a joke to Pilate.  They try again – "Crucify him, he has to die because he’s claimed to be the Son of God."

That’s a serious charge to Pilate.  That is Caesar’s title.  This man claims to be on the same level as Caesar.  He investigates again.  And still finds no creditable charge against him.

Now the chief priests and leaders are desperate.  They must make Pilate take them seriously.  “How can you let him go – he claims to be a king.  What will Caesar think when we tell him you let him go?  Where’s your loyalty?”

Pilate counters with his own loyalty test – Shall I crucify your king, the Son of your God?
And then it happens.

Trying to do the right thing, they do the unthinkable.

“We have no king but Caesar.”

No. King. But. Caesar.

Caesar claiming to be desended from the gods- to be a god himself. God Made Manifest, Common Savior of Mankind, Son of God- those were common titles for Caesar.

They break the 1st commandment.  God is their God and king – not Caesar.  It’s blasphemy, pure and simple.  They who have charged Jesus with blasphemy are guilty themselves.

Caesar claims to be God Made Manifest – The Word made flesh is standing before them – here is the man, here is their king, here is their God….

Whom they reject.

They are so intent on this rejection that they even want to have Pilate amend the charges.  Pilate refuses, leaving the sign above Jesus’ head that proclaims to all the world that here is the true King of the Jews.

They tried to do the right thing and failed.  30 or so years later Rome would quash Jewish rebellion and completely destroy the temple, thoroughly scatter the people.  Israel would not be gathered in the Promised Land again for almost 2000 years.

They tried to do the right thing and failed.

Perhaps they were relying on their own power and not God’s.  Perhaps they were trying to protect more than just the faith and the people.

Perhaps they were trying to protect their own power.

Which wasn’t theirs at all, but from God.

Everything that happened that day was allowed by God.  No power but what is given – God uses even evil to bring about good. God took the evil that was happening in that trial, and on that the cross and turned it into a day we call ‘good,’ bringing reconciliation and salvation.

During Lent we search for God’s will and we pray for God’s kingdom to come.  We try to do the right things.

But sometimes we fail – sometimes we just miss the mark completely.  Sometimes in efforts to preserve our own claim to power, whatever it might be, we proceed down a path that we think is what God wants, but in reality is what we want.

Face to face with this text, standing in next to the religious leaders, who were after all only trying to do the right thing while preserving their power, we admit that have been in their shoes. We compromise all the time, bend the rules a bit, judge who's deserving of God's love, and who isn't -justifying our actions by saying, "This is the will of God, I'm just helping the kingdom to come."

God knows this about us and loves us anyway – enough to die for us.

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