Monday, April 28, 2014

April 27, 2014 Real Life, Real Faith - Keeping the Faith When Life Falls Apart

April 27, 2014
Job 1:1-12

When I was in college I was often overwhelmed by the amount of reading we were assigned.  In Humanities class, for instance, we had about a week to read Crime and Punishment, which seemed to me to be about 50,000 pages long.  Some years after finishing school, I decided to go back and read some of those books assigned in college that I either didn’t finish or never started.  I found many of them to be very interesting and insightful.

One of those books was Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, which set a template for books such as Divergent and The Hunger Games, if you have read any of those.

Brave New World is fascinating in several ways, but mostly because it portrays a world of the future where suffering is absent.  The world of the future, in Huxley’s view was designed where everyone would have everything they need, everything they wanted, and are always satisfied and comfortable.  What’s interesting is that Huxley paints such a world not as an ideal, but as a very bleak place.  Even more interesting is that Huxley wrote from an absence of religious faith, so in his future world, where religion does not exist, such a world is seen as bleak and undesirable.

It’s an interesting thought to consider.  Can we truly appreciate companionship if we have never known loneliness?  Can we truly appreciate bounty if we have never been in need?  Can we truly appreciate love if we have never felt unloved?  Would life be as rich and as meaningful if we have not known suffering and difficulty?

This morning we begin a new series of messages – Real Life, Real Faith.  The messages come from the book of Job, a book that leads us to think very deeply and carefully about the difficulties and suffering we face in life.  As we journey through this series I should note that this is not the first time we have studied the topic of suffering.  You are in one of three places in regard to suffering this morning – you have suffered, you will suffer, or you are enjoying a respite from suffering, and because of this, I think it is helpful for us to consider this topic from time to time. 

Job gives us an interesting view of suffering and struggle.  On the surface, the book of Job doesn’t appear to give us many specific answers, but I believe that when we dig a bit deeper we find there are some very important answers contained in his story.
It is necessary to talk about some of the most difficult aspects of what it means to be human because the book of Job forces us to confront one of the most difficult aspects of what it means to be human – that we will struggle and suffer.  Isn’t that a cheery message?  If not, it is at least an honest message.

I will add that today’s message doesn’t fall as easily into the usual category of being positive and upbeat.  You may not like this one, because some of what the book of Job has to tell us is tough to hear.  Not all of this message will come across as cheerful, but if I said that your life would always be great and always be wonderful, I would be lying to you, and I don’t want to lie to you, and I don’t think you want me to lie to you.

Our text for this morning is the first twelve verses of chapter one of Job.  I encourage you to take time in the coming days and weeks to read through the entire book of Job, especially if you have never done so. 

In the land of Uz there lived a man whose name was Job. This man was blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil.
He had seven sons and three daughters,
and he owned seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen and five hundred donkeys, and had a large number of servants. He was the greatest man among all the people of the East.
His sons used to hold feasts in their homes on their birthdays, and they would invite their three sisters to eat and drink with them.
When a period of feasting had run its course, Job would make arrangements for them to be purified. Early in the morning he would sacrifice a burnt offering for each of them, thinking, “Perhaps my children have sinned and cursed God in their hearts.” This was Job’s regular custom.
One day the angels came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came with them.
The Lord said to Satan, “Where have you come from?”  Satan answered the Lord, “From roaming throughout the earth, going back and forth on it.”
Then the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil.”
“Does Job fear God for nothing?” Satan replied.
10 “Have you not put a hedge around him and his household and everything he has? You have blessed the work of his hands, so that his flocks and herds are spread throughout the land.
11 But now stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face.”
12 The Lord said to Satan, “Very well, then, everything he has is in your power, but on the man himself do not lay a finger.”  Then Satan went out from the presence of the Lord.

That’s a bit of a strange setting isn’t it?  There are a lot of things contained in the book of Job that we won’t have time to consider, so I hope that if you have questions that I don’t address that you will feel free to discuss them with me.

There are three basic sources of suffering –
As consequences of our own actions.
As consequences of the actions of others.
As consequences of…we don’t really know what.

The test that Job faced was one that would reveal whether or not his faith was real or just a product of his blessed life.  That’s an important test – what happens to our faith when our life is tested by adversity?  Does our faith withstand the test, or does it whither and die?

The theologian Barbara Brown Taylor is featured on the cover article of the current issue of Time magazine, and in the article she affirms the importance – the necessity – of struggle, writing that contemporary spirituality is too feel-good, that darkness holds more lessons than light and that contrary to what many of us have long believed, it is sometimes in the bleakest void that God is nearest (page 38).

We talk a lot about what we call the entitlement mentality in our culture.  We talk about the ways in which people feel entitled to certain things.  But here’s the truth – we all feel entitled.  We feel entitled to a blessed life that is free of tragedy and suffering.  It’s a sign of our tremendously blessed lives that we come to think life should always be that way.  And don’t get me wrong; I wish life could always be filled with blessing and free of tragedy and suffering, but it’s just not going to happen.

There is no hedge of protection we can build around our lives that will save us from the difficulties of life, and the Bible doesn’t guarantee a trouble-free life.  Somewhere, a lot of people got the idea that it does.  I blame the prosperity gospel for that erroneous view of Scripture.  Just a cursory reading of the Bible reveals that difficulty and struggle are a part of life.

Job did everything right.  He left nothing to chance, even offering sacrifices on behalf of his children in the event they had done something wrong.  So why should Job have to be subjected to suffering?  And, more importantly, what would be his response?

Struggle is not always a negative, but we see it is one.

As an example, do you know what my generation does?  When our grandparents talked about their experiences in the Great Depression, what did we usually do?  Roll our eyes.  It’s true, isn’t it?  Why did we do that?  We should admire and seek to emulate their great strength and character.

Struggle and struggles are experiences in life that can shape us in important ways, especially when it comes to our faith.  That is my hope, that we are strengthened through those difficulties.

Hope is instinctual to us.  I look forward to going to the mailbox every day.  Does anybody else get excited about going to the mailbox?  I don’t know why I do, because it’s almost exclusively junk mail or bills.  But I always have hope.  Maybe tomorrow will be the day that somehow, some great news will arrive in the mail.  Or, even better, a big check.  I have no idea why I would expect that to happen, but there’s always hope.

I’ve done a lot of weddings over the years, and my favorite was a wedding for the oldest couple I’ve married.  I have a picture of Thelma and Bill in my office, taken on the day of their wedding, when they were both well into their 80s when they married.  I love their story because they had some Job-like moments. 

Thelma and Bill first met as students years ago at Georgetown College.  They dated a few times but graduated and life took them in different directions.  They both married and the years went by.  Thelma and her husband, many years ago, were coming home from a trip to Florida and stopped at a rest area to stretch their legs.  As Thelma’s husband was walking he was hit by a car and killed.  Thelma’s loss was devastating but she was sustained by faith and the love of family and friends.  Bill also lost his wife some years ago.  Then, years later, they met again at a reunion, started dating and were married.

There were so many things that happened to them throughout the course of their lives, and I doubt that in their 80s they would have ever expected to be married.  They had a couple of years together before Bill passed away, and a few years later I officiated at Thelma’s funeral.

I had known Thelma much longer than I did Bill, but I was greatly touched by both of their lives.  After all the ups and downs of life, after decades of living, they found so much joy and happiness.  It was a great ending to the story of their lives.

I will go ahead and tell you that the story of Job has a happy ending as well.  Fortunately, for Job, he held to his faith.  The adversity that Job faced did not crush his faith, but made it stronger.  This is the great irony of suffering – it can produce one of two results, either the weakening of faith or the strengthening of faith.

The happy ending doesn’t minimize the pain of his loss, just as the happiness that Thelma and Bill found didn’t minimize the pain and loss they had suffered.  But though suffering and hardship is going to happen, the good news is that it does not have to break us, it does not have to bring us to despair, and it does not have the final word in our lives.  This, God has promised.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

April 20, 2014 - Easter Sunday. The Way of the Cross - The Power of Faith

John 20:24-29
John 20:1-18

I want to thank those who have given so generously of their time and talents this Easter season – the Stations of the Cross through this morning.  We are all very grateful for the time and talents of our many volunteers.

Louis CK is a name you may or may not recognize.  He is a very popular comedian who stirred a bit of controversy recently when he declared that he was not an atheist, as many of his fans had assumed.  It wasn’t, though, an overly positive declaration, because he said that while he believes in God, he just doesn’t care.

There are some things that, if true, make it impossible to say I don’t care.  The existence of suffering in the world, I believe, makes it impossible to say I don’t care.  That people suffer should mean something to us.  If a person can be indifferent to the suffering of so many millions they should check to make sure their heart is still beating.  The fact that millions of people are starving makes it impossible to say I don’t care.  That people are starving should mean something to us.  The existence of God makes it impossible to say I don’t care.  The existence of God should mean something to each of us. 

Today is Easter Sunday, and we are celebrating The Power of Faith.  We’ve journeyed through a series of messages leading us to today.  Those messages were built around the theme The Way of the Cross.  Today, we come to the empty tomb and as we do, we consider the incredible power of faith.  After Easter, in the coming Sundays, we will move into a study of the book of Job, and we’ll talk about suffering, faith, and doubt.  The book of Job is a powerful story of faith thriving in the midst of the most difficult of circumstances.

This morning, we consider faith through two lenses – that of the disciple Thomas and the empty tomb.  Thomas is known, unfortunately, as doubting Thomas.  It’s unfair to remember anyone based on a single moment of life, don’t you think?  Pick a moment from your past, preferably a negative one, and imagine being forever remembered because of your words or actions in that one moment. How about Disloyal…  Failure…  Mean…  Discouraging…  Sleepy…

The passage about Thomas’ doubt is representative of the skepticism that we find in our world today.  In recent years there appears to be a rising tide of skepticism about the existence of God.  To be clear, this is not what Thomas was questioning.  Thomas was not expressing doubt about God’s existence, but doubt about the claim that Jesus had been resurrected.  His moment of doubt reminds us that many express in our day and age have doubts, and those doubts reach to the question of whether or not God exists as well as to the hope of the resurrection.

I want to say a few things about faith and doubt this morning, because I think the intersection of faith and doubt is one that is important to address on Easter.

First, some people claim we live in an age known more for its skepticism than for its faith, but that is not true. 
Have you heard this?  Let me assure you, faith is not dying.  Worldwide, faith is growing.  There are places in the world where faith is changing, certainly, such as Western Europe and parts of North American, but faith is blossoming in much of the world, and it is growing rapidly in areas that once, or still, adopted official policies of unbelief and atheism.  In China, faith is growing at a rapid rate.  In fact, a recent study proclaims the news that China is on track to become the nation with the largest number of Christians by the year 2030.

In the countries that made up the former Soviet Union, faith is found among he majority of people, in spite of the decades of an officially atheist stance on the part of the Soviet government.

There are certainly skeptics, but most people continue to make their commitment on the side of faith because of a sense that something greater than this world and this life must exist.

Thomas insisted upon evidence to back up the claim that Jesus had risen.  Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it (John 20:25).  Skeptics love to talk about reason and their belief that faith is unreasonable.  To them, faith is unreasonable and does not pass the test of evidence.  What they fail to understand is that when they expect us to believe on evidence they reveal a fundamental misunderstanding about faith.  Faith is not about evidence.  What constitutes evidence, anyway?  It’s not that faith is unthinking or accepts anything, but faith does not rest upon any proof that removes every element of doubt or convinces beyond any reasonable doubt. 

That is why I don’t put a lot of faith, so to speak, in evidence.  It’s not that I don’t use logic or my brain when considering faith; it’s that when we come to faith and unbelief I believe evidence is an expression of what we already believe.

I have said before that the saying seeing is believing is backwards; believing is seeing.  We see according to what we believe, and that is true of the most devout believer and the most ardent unbeliever.  Evidence will most often confirm what we already believe or disbelief.

Second, there are people who will think we are silly because we are here today. 
There are people who will think we are foolish because we have faith.  There are skeptics who have shaken their heads this week as we’ve observed the events of Holy Week.  To them, what we believe and what we do is foolishness.  As Paul writes in I Corinthians 1:18 there are those for whom the message of the cross is foolishness.

That’s okay. 

I believe we worry far too much about what others think.  I used to need others to validate my faith.  When I was a teenager I used to think of how great it would be if one of my musical heroes had become a Christian.  It wasn’t just because their decision might influence others, but because I needed someone else’s faith to validate my own.

I believe some people adopt doubt and skepticism because they hear the voices of skeptics and don’t know how to counter their arguments.  They raise some points worth considering, but I find their arguments to not be convincing and that their logic has some very large holes.

Third, life has a spiritual dimension that cannot be denied, and the willingness to live life according to that belief is the power of faith. 

I have witnessed enough people in their final moments of life to know that something happens that is more than just a biological process of the body shutting down.  I have seen too much of what happens at the beginning of life, during the course of life, and at the end of life to believe anything other than the fact that there is more to this life than just life and death. 

I believe we are created by God, given a life of purpose and meaning by God, and after the conclusion of life on this earth, welcomed into eternity by God.

We’ve traveled different roads in relation to faith.  Some here have always believed and some here are much newer to faith.  Some are, perhaps, struggling with the very idea of faith.

The reality is this – whatever is true, is true.  It’s hard to reason people to faith.  It’s hard to use logic to bring people to faith.  Debates don’t often bring people to faith.  There’s always someone who makes better use of reason, someone who is more logical, and someone who a more skilled debater. 

It terms of the great truths of this universe, of life and death, it doesn’t matter what I believe or what you believe or what the most staunch skeptic believes; whatever is true, is true.  Our belief does not make something true.  Truth is what it is, and our beliefs cannot change the ultimate truths of life.  Whatever is true about God does not rest upon our beliefs.  Whatever is true about God is true because it is true.

I used to do my exercising in a cemetery.  It was located near where we lived and it seemed that walking in a cemetery was a good motivation.  At times, though, it was a bit awkward.  Sometimes I would alter my course because I didn’t feel comfortable walking by people who were visiting the graves of friends and loved ones.  People were often in the cemetery, and I could often hear them talking to their loved one, sometimes they would sing, and often, they would weep.

Cemeteries are different places because of Easter.  They are different places because of the resurrection of Jesus.  This is the power of faith – that we accept there is something beyond this life.  When we draw our final breath in this life we open our eyes in eternity to take in eternal life, and Easter makes it all possible.

Christ is risen – he is risen indeed!

April 20, 2014 - Easter Sunrise Service: Two Empty Tombs

Two Empty Tombs

I want to thank those who have given so generously of their time this Easter season, from the Stations of the Cross to this morning.  Volunteers are the lifeblood of a congregation, and we are gifted with many volunteers. 

It is Easter morning!  And it’s not snowing!

I hope and pray that the joy of Easter is in your heart this day and will remain so all days.

On Easter we celebrate the empty tomb, and rightfully so.

This Easter morning, I want us to think about not just one, but two empty tombs – the empty tomb of Jesus, of course, but also the empty tomb of Lazarus.

Listen as we read from the gospel of John and then the gospel of Matthew.

John 11:24-27
24 Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”
25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life.  The one who believes in me will live, even though they die;
26 and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.  Do you believe this?”
27 “Yes, Lord,” she replied, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.”

38 Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance.
39 “Take away the stone,” he said.  “But, Lord,” said Martha, the sister of the dead man, “by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days.”
40 Then Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?”
41 So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me.
42 I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.”
43 When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!”
44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face.  Jesus said to them, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.”

Matthew 28:1-10

1 After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb.
There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it.
His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow.
The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men.
The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified.
He is not here; he has risen, just as he said.  Come and see the place where he lay.
Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee.  There you will see him.’ Now I have told you.”
So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples.
Suddenly Jesus met them.  “Greetings,” he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him.
10 Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

Our texts for this morning are both located in cemeteries.  The first – the raising of Lazarus and his empty tomb – is very public and dramatic.  The second – the empty tomb of Jesus – is initially seen by only a few people.

Both these events seemed improbable to the initial witnesses, but they were not impossible.  They were both unexpected by those who were there, but were not unlikely in the plan of God.  They were both hard for some people to believe, but they happened.

There are a several powerful elements in the story of Lazarus.

First, the raising of Lazarus was more public, but still some could not believe. 
This is one of the problems with evidence, which some determine they must have before they can come to faith – people see what they want to see.  Evidence is not always as objective and obvious as we believe it to be.  Evidence is often something people use to confirm what they already believe.

Faith is something determined by a choice that is free will and does not need to be convinced by overwhelming evidence that would, actually, not require any faith.

The philosopher Soren Kierkegaard coined the phrase leap of faith, as he recognized that in spite of logic and evidence, some things never become totally obvious and that at some point, we have to take the leap of faith into what we will believe.

Second, the power over death forever changes the power structures of the world.
The raising of Lazarus is about Jesus, and it is a story that tells us that the world has some problems with someone who has power over death.  What happens if we don’t have to be afraid of death?  What happens if we don’t believe that death is the end?

It’s bad news for those who want to control the world and the destiny of people.

It was the raising of Lazarus that prompted the chief priests and the Pharisees to call a meeting of the Sanhedrin.  It was at that meeting that Caiaphas, the high priest, said, you do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish (John 11:47-50).

Those men who gathered together and decided that Jesus must die were aware that if you take away people’s fear of death you can no longer control them.  And isn’t fear of death the weapon of choice for the tyrants of the world?

If one is not afraid of death there is no limit to what one can do, including calling to account those tyrants who seek to control the world and the lives of those of us living in it.

The power over life and death tells us who is really in control.  It’s not the person with the armies and the weaponry, but the one who gives people the courage to offer up their own lives.

Third, there is resurrection in this life.
I’ve always thought verses 39 – take away the stone, and 44 – take off the grave clothes and let him go a bit odd.  If you can resurrect a person to life from death, can’t you just wave away the stone and the grave clothes?  Why go to the trouble of having others perform those tasks?

I think Jesus wanted those who rolled away the stone and the grave clothes to see the remnants of death up close and personal.  I think he wanted them to get close to death as a reminder of the thin veil that exists for all of us between life and death.

The raising of Lazarus, and Jesus is prophetic of our own rising.  People stand at tombs with many hopes, primarily that there is something after death and that they will see their loved ones again.

As Christ has risen, so too will you rise.  And you will rise in this life and defeat what seeks to break down your life.

But there is also something metaphorical at that moment as well – you can experience resurrection in this life, before physical death.  The reality is this – many people have died time and time again, long before their physical death.  They die a spiritual and emotional death.  They experience a death of hope and love.  There are many types of death that we experience in this life, but just as those grave clothes fell away from Lazarus as evidence of his resurrection from death so too can we experience resurrection in this life.

The empty tombs are a challenge to death.  There will be a resurrection.  But there is a resurrection in this life as well.  We are raised from the depths of our fears and failures, our struggles and our despair.

Fourth, both empty tombs are an invitation to faith.
Both empty tombs raise the same question – will we believe?  The empty tombs pose the great question – what do you think of this?  What will you make of these empty tombs?

Receive the hope that comes from Christ, and may that hope bear you through all of life’s struggles and difficulties.

And when you draw your final breath in this life, know that you will awaken in eternity, bidden there and welcomed by Christ, whose resurrection becomes our resurrection.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

FCC Shelbyville | April 6th, 2014 Sermon

April 6, 2014 The Way of the Cross: Behold, the Man!

Mark 15:1-15

As we continue our series The Way of the Cross, we come today to the account of Jesus before Pilate.  We’ll read Mark’s recording of the encounter.

Mark’s telling of the encounter of Pilate and Jesus is a bit more economical in words than some of the other gospels, so I’m going to fill in some of the events that we learn from the other gospels as we talk about this event this morning.

Mark 15:1-15

1 Very early in the morning, the chief priests, with the elders, the teachers of the law and the whole Sanhedrin, made their plans. So they bound Jesus, led him away and handed him over to Pilate.
2 “Are you the king of the Jews?” asked Pilate.  “You have said so,” Jesus replied.
3 The chief priests accused him of many things.
4 So again Pilate asked him, “Aren’t you going to answer? See how many things they are accusing you of.”
5 But Jesus still made no reply, and Pilate was amazed.
6 Now it was the custom at the festival to release a prisoner whom the people requested.
7 A man called Barabbas was in prison with the insurrectionists who had committed murder in the uprising.
8 The crowd came up and asked Pilate to do for them what he usually did.
9 “Do you want me to release to you the king of the Jews?” asked Pilate,
10 knowing it was out of self-interest that the chief priests had handed Jesus over to him.
11 But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have Pilate release Barabbas instead.
12 “What shall I do, then, with the one you call the king of the Jews?” Pilate asked them.
13 “Crucify him!” they shouted.
14 “Why? What crime has he committed?” asked Pilate.
But they shouted all the louder, “Crucify him!”
15 Wanting to satisfy the crowd, Pilate released Barabbas to them.  He had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified.

Occasionally, we read a story of someone found innocent after years of incarceration.  It’s hard to imagine what it’s like to survive such an experience.  Our system of justice operates on the assumption of fairness, which is very difficult to guarantee.  If people do not believe the justice system is as fair as it can possibly be, their sense of trust will be greatly diminished.  Imagine a system of justice that makes no pretense of justice; this is what Jesus faced in the Roman justice system.  The Roman system of justice operated on two basic principles – power and force.  The Romans held absolute power and as such were able to force their will on their subjects.  Those who lived under Roman rule had no expectation of fairness in their justice system.

In recent weeks we have talked about the betrayal of Jesus by Judas and the subsequent arrest of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. After his arrest, Jesus was taken before the Sanhedrin, which was the religious court, for the first of his trials.  There was nothing fair about the trials – before the Sanhedrin, Herod, and Pilate – that Jesus faced. 

The Sanhedrin was a religious court, and each town could have there own Sanhedrin, but Jerusalem held the Great Sanhedrin, which was the final authority on religious law.  There, before that court in Jerusalem, Jesus was convicted of blasphemy for claiming to be divine (Matthew 26:65-66).  But the religious leaders were not allowed to carry out a death sentence.  Only the Romans, who were in complete control at that time, could carry out a death sentence, so Jesus was taken to Pilate.  Pilate was the prefect of the region, and his responsibilities were to collect taxes, hear legal matters, and keep peace in the region.

Pilate, after an initial interrogation of Jesus, sent him to Herod, who was a puppet king for the region of Galilee and was put on the throne by the Romans.  Herod was initially excited to see Jesus, about whom he had heard a great deal (Luke 23:8).  Herod was hoping Jesus would perform a miracle.  Instead of a show, Herod received only silence from Jesus (Luke 23:9), and so sent him back to Pilate. 
The entire process was a farce, in terms of fairness and justice, and while the religious leaders, Pilate, and Herod believed they were the ones dictating the course of events, they were not.  Pilate and Herod were not on control; neither were the religious leaders.  None of them were controlling these events or determining the outcome.  Jesus, who remained largely silent throughout his trials, was not only in control of these events but was also the one who determined his destiny.  Jesus was not a victim of these events, but the one who determined and controlled them.

Pilate, throughout these events, proves to be a strange case.  As one who had little, if any, hesitancy to condemn others, Pilate appeared to be looking for a way to avoid pronouncing a sentence of crucifixion upon Jesus. Pilate condemned many – revolutionaries, false messiahs, and others, but Jesus was a different case altogether.  Though he sought a way to relases Jesus, Pilate eventually relented to the desires of the religious leaders and had Jesus flogged and crucified.

One of the tragedies we see in this passage, besides the obviously terrible miscarriage of justice and abuse of power, is that the religious leaders present to Pilate the dark, negative, side of religion.  It is no surprise to any of us to know that throughout history there have been unfortunate things done in the name of religion, and those episodes sadden us all.  Prior to the time of Jesus, during the time of Jesus, and all the way to our age, there are people who have used religion to gain power and wealth, and were willing to do things in the name of religion that are as far away from the purposes of religion as can be imagined.

The religious leaders, who professed such concern about religious and doctrinal purity, did not hesitate to do what they had to do in order to have Jesus put to death.  They had no love for the Romans but were willing to turn to the Romans to accomplish their terrible purposes.  They were willing to change their story in order to accomplish their purposes. The religious leaders convicted Jesus on a charge of blasphemy, but presented him to Pilate as a revolutionary who challenged Rome by proclaiming himself king.  They had no hesitation in making a false claim in order to accomplish their purposes.  For them, the end totally justified the means.

I wonder what Pilate thought about those religious leaders.  I am no defender of Pilate, certainly, but he was an astute enough man to see through their charade.  What a terrible example of people of faith they were, showing Pilate their willingness to do whatever it took to get rid of Jesus.  They were certainly a poor advertisement for faith.

The religious leaders, in order to get their way, not only lied about the charges against Jesus, they also stacked the crowd against him.  Mark begins this passage by telling of the unanimity among the religious leadership to execute Jesus – it was the chief priests, with the elders, the teachers of the law and the whole Sanhedrin.  It was not the entirety of the Jewish people who had turned against Jesus.  In fact, among the people at large, Jesus was very popular.  The crowds of people are, unfortunately, often portrayed as being fickle, welcoming Jesus into the city of Jerusalem at the Triumphal Entry and then turning on him, becoming the mob that only days later cried out for him to be crucified.

This is not an accurate portrayal of what happened.  It was not the large crowds of people who had turned against Jesus, but the religious leadership (John’s gospel tells us it was the chief priests and their officials who shouted for Jesus to be crucified – John 19:6).  This is why they wanted to arrest Jesus privately, away from the crowds, because they were afraid the people would riot it Jesus were arrested.  Many of the people were probably not even aware of what had happened until Jesus was carrying his cross to the place of crucifixion.

This is how some people like to operate – in the dark corners of life, away from the eyes of the world.  Their work must be done in secret because it is ugly work that many people would oppose.

These leaders felt threatened by Jesus, and they did not like being threatened.  He was a threat because his teaching was popular, drawing the loyalty of the people away from their leadership.  He was also a threat because those leaders were afraid that Rome would become agitated at the large numbers of people following Jesus and react very harshly.  If Rome decided to respond to what they considered a rebellion, it wouldn’t be just Jesus and his followers who would be targeted, but the religious leaders as well.  The Romans expected the religious leaders to keep the people “in line,” and as long at they did, the Romans would allow them to retain their positions of power and prestige.  These men, then, were out to protect their power, status, and privileged station in life.  Jesus was a threat to all of this, and as such, they had decided that he must be eliminated.

I find it fascinating that, in Mark’s telling of this story, Jesus remains quiet.  Though he faced unjust trials before the Sanhedrin, before Herod, and before Pilate, he remained mostly silent.

I find the silence amazing and impressive.  Jesus, of course, was not out to defend himself.  Jesus was not seeking to avoid the cross.  The cross was, he knew, his destiny and was the culmination of his mission and purpose.  Jesus did not use his power, his verbal eloquence, or his popularity to plead his case, because these events all fit into the divine plan.  But even though Jesus was not seeking to avoid the cross, his silence remains fascinating.  For most of us, when we are in a difficult situation we are far too quick to strike back, and to allow our fear to control us. Jesus certainly did not react in such a way.
But here was his opportunity to set straight the Sanhedrin, Herod, and Pilate, and he said very little.  He had the ear of Herod, the king, and said almost nothing. He stood before, Pilate, the representative of the Roman Emperor, and what an opportunity it was to proclaim the truth of who he was and the nature of his mission, but he offered very few words.

Perhaps Jesus realized that nothing he would say could penetrate those hard hearts or open those closed minds.  Or, perhaps, he was content to allow his actions to speak.  It is actions, isn’t it, which really captures the attention of people.  Far too often we unleash a torrent of words, which have far less impact upon others than actions.  The actions of Jesus had spoken, and would continue to speak volumes.

When Pilate presented Jesus, and proclaimed behold the man, he meant it in a mocking way.  Though Pilate had the wrong attitude, he had the right words – behold the man!  Behold the truth that Jesus is the center of our faith.  It is not our church building, it is not our programs, it is not our worship services, it is not me, it is not you that are the center of our faith; it is Jesus. 

William Willimon tells the story of going to speak at a church and being told we try to avoid the J word around here.  The J word? he wondered, before he realized they meant Jesus.  It’s actually easier to put something other than Jesus at the center of faith because it makes our faith easier.  When Jesus is at the center and we reflect upon his life – in particular those final hours – it is a bold challenge to the status quo of humanity.

When Pilate had Jesus flogged and turned him over for crucifixion, he most certainly felt that was the end of Jesus.  I’m certain the religious leaders agreed.

How wrong they were.

You cannot crucify, kill, and bury the truth.  You cannot crucify, kill, and bury love.  You cannot crucify, kill, and bury forgiveness and grace on a level never before seen by humanity.

God always has the final word.  It doesn’t matter what the skeptics say.  It doesn’t matter what any statistics say about the changing world of faith.  It doesn’t matter how many people believe or don’t believe.  God always has the final word, and God’s final word is Jesus.
Behold the man indeed!