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Who Will You Choose?

March 18, 2018 Sermon
Who will you Choose?

First Scripture Reading: John 19:1-7

19 Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged. 2 And the soldiers wove a crown of thorns and put it on his head, and they dressed him in a purple robe. 3 They kept coming up to him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” and striking him on the face. 4 Pilate went out again and said to them, “Look, I am bringing him out to you to let you know that I find no case against him.” 5 So Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. Pilate said to them, “Here is the man!” 6 When the chief priests and the police saw him, they shouted, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” Pilate said to them, “Take him yourselves and crucify him; I find no case against him.” 7 The Jews answered him, “We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die because he has claimed to be the Son of God.”

Second Scripture Reading: John 19:8-16

8 Now when Pilate heard this, he was more afraid than ever. 9 He entered his headquarters again and asked Jesus, “Where are you from?” But Jesus gave him no answer. 10 Pilate therefore said to him, “Do you refuse to speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?” 11 Jesus answered him, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above; therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.” 12 From then on Pilate tried to release him, but the Jews cried out, “If you release this man, you are no friend of the emperor. Everyone who claims to be a king sets himself against the emperor.”

13 When Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus outside and sat on the judge’s bench at a place called The Stone Pavement, or in Hebrew Gabbatha. 14 Now it was the day of Preparation for the Passover; and it was about noon. He said to the Jews, “Here is your King!” 15 They cried out, “Away with him! Away with him! Crucify him!” Pilate asked them, “Shall I crucify your King?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but the emperor.” 16 Then he handed him over to them to be crucified.

Who Will You Choose?

Why did Jesus have to die?

As I consider how I would have answered this question at various points in my life, I KNOW the answer has changed…for me.  

Why did Jesus have to die?  As a child and youth, I likely would have responded in terms of God.  Jesus had to die because God wanted Jesus to die. But as I grew, as a I matured, as I had children, I started to wonder: did God really WANT Jesus to die?  Even if it was God’s will that Jesus die, does that mean God MADE it happen…or does it mean something else?

By this point in my life, I’ve opted for “something else”.  Maybe you have, maybe you haven’t. It’s ok.

Hopefully, you can agree with me that today’s reading from scripture provides some significant insight into the mechanism by which Jesus died, which also has something to do with the question of WHY Jesus had to die.  I mean, if, way back at the beginning, God gave people free will…which is something we learn in Genesis and keep being reminded of throughout the scriptures…if God gave people free will and continued to LET people have free will, the reality of Jesus dying wasn’t COMPLETELY up to God; it was up to the people in THIS story.  Jesus’ death was the result of:

  • Judas’ choice to betray Jesus;
  • The Jewish leaders who conspired with Judas and whose power Jesus threatened;
  • The high priest and chief priests;
  • The Roman Governor, Pilate;
  • Even the crowd gathered around Pilate, the people who cried out about Jesus “Crucify Him”;

Why did Jesus have to die?

It was God’s plan, right?

Do you know what else is God’s plan, clearly communicated throughout the entirety of scripture and most especially through Jesus of Nazareth, God’s Son, the Christ?  It is God’s plan that the whole of the earth will become God’s kingdom, that the whole earth will choose God and God’s desires over ANYTHING else?

Just out of curiosity, in the 2,000 years since Jesus communicated THIS plan of God’s, how has THIS plan of the whole world becoming God’s kingdom worked out?

And isn’t it also God’s plan that goodness will vanquish all evil?  I mean, it’s GONNA happen, right, because it’s God’s plan? But, why hasn’t it happened YET?

So, getting back to the point.  God most definitely had a plan for Jesus to die…but God didn’t FORCE it to happen.  People had to go along. People had to choose. Most interestingly, people actually had to choose AGAINST God, AGAINST God’s Messiah, in order for this particular plan of God’s to become reality.   Which, in my estimation, is exactly how God KNEW this particular plan would work. Because it seems to me that when it comes to most of God’s plans, since God gives people the ability to choose for or against God’s desires – in the short-term anyway – people have a tendency to choose AGAINST God’s desires.  

So…this particular time…God gave people – both people who proclaimed to be people of God and people who had no interest in aligning themselves with God – the opportunity to choose, and God was pretty confident they would choose something that was both God’s plan and OTHER than what I believe God really wanted:

  • The Jewish leaders chose to hand Jesus over to Pilate to be executed;
  • Pilate, in a bit of a tricky political situation, initially chose to let Jesus go;
  • But the Jewish leaders pushed and pushed, even insinuating they would tell the emperor Pilate was a traitor if he didn’t comply (they gave Pilate a choice between Jesus’ death and his own death);
  • So Pilate chose to crucify Jesus;
  • And the seemingly bloodthirsty crowd – in John’s gospel a crowd comprised of people controlled by the religious leaders – chose a worldly king over God’s king;

In the back-and-forth between the Jewish leaders and Pilate in this scene, the gospel writer John provided one sentence that communicated clearly what was at stake, what is STILL at stake today and what I want to focus upon for the rest of our time together:

“If you release this man, you are no friend of the emperor. Everyone who claims to be a king sets himself against the emperor.”

  • The Jewish leaders had a choice to make: worldly power or God.
  • Pilate had a choice to make: worldly power or God.
  • The soldiers and police and other members of the crowd and every person involved in any way, large or small, had a choice to make: worldly power or God.
  • The people of the Church in the time of the gospel writer John had a choice to make: worldly power or God.
  • And y’all, we, YOU, have a choice to make: wordly power or God.

Let me take a few minutes to explain what was going on in the time of John to help explain why John may have been so concerned with this kind of choice as to emphasize it so strongly in his recounting of these events.  You may know that Rome destroyed the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD. The implications for God’s people, both Jews and Christians, was HUGE. Worship of God became centered in synagogues instead of the temple. In these synagogues – and the communities surrounding them – different factions within Judaism, including Christianity because it was still a subset of Judaism at the time, different factions within Judaism struggled for power and prominence in setting the religious identity of God’s people.  And somewhere around 85-90 AD Pharisaic Jews grabbed enough power to begin expelling practitioners of other forms of Judaism, including Christianity, from the synagogue. At the same moment in history in which the gospel writer John was WRITING about the Jewish leaders choosing emperor – worldly power – over God in the time of Jesus, a choice that directly led to Jesus’ crucifixion, at that same moment in history John and other followers of Jesus were struggling because certain Jewish leaders were AGAIN choosing worldly power over God and were essentially excommunicating the followers of Jesus.  Can you see why this issue of “who will you choose” became such a focal point for John’s gospel?

Can you see why it should be MORE of a focal point of our lives, as individual followers of Jesus and in community as congregation, as Church?

Y’all, there are tough choices, DIFFICULT choices, COMPLEX choices out there all around us:

  • How are we going to deal with the issue of a seemingly increasing number of people deciding to use the available technology to kill large numbers of people?
  • How are we going to deal with the imbalance of access to God-given worldly resources that allow for people in one house or one city or one country to have more than anyone could ever need while the people in another house or another city or another country don’t have enough resources to survive another day?
  • What can we do about issues of depression and loneliness that lead at best to difficult quality of life and at worst suicidal thoughts and actions right here in our own community at an alarming rate?
  • Is there anything we can do to ensure there will even be enough resources left for the future generations who will inherit the destruction left in the wake of generation upon generation of excessive consumption and outright destruction of the world’s resources?
  • Or how about the complicated issues surrounding medical ethics?
  • Or artificial intelligence?
  • Even within the Church – just like within the synagogue in the first century – there are tough choices to be made, tough choices about coming to grips with what it means to follow God’s will as we age, tough choices about how to invite ever more people in and include them in the decision making processes even as we know they will likely follow God in ways different than we have been following God all these years;

Y’all, there are BIG issues facing our society and our Church today.  There are difficult choices that will have to be made.

And someone, SOMEONE, is going to have to make them.  We can try to convince ourselves that the big societal choices fall outside the purview of faith, but, historically, empirically, you know that’s not true.  When it comes to dealing with the big issues of life, that’s where faith has always come into play, that’s where faith must at least GUIDE our decision making.  Which means we’ve got to start talking about this stuff. By the way, notice I didn’t say we all have to AGREE on the solutions; I just said we need to let our faith guide us in conversation.  We need to let whatever it is we understand about God and what God wants from us and for us guide the decisions, the choices, and even the conversations ahead on the big issues.

Because when people say you should take faith out of the equation, what they’re really saying is that when it comes down to the choice between worldly power and God, there’s ONLY worldly power to be considered.  Well, I disagree…because we know from our scripture reading, we know from the history of the world, how things work out when worldly power gets chosen.

Why did Jesus have to die?

I believe God discovered that people’s hearts were so stuck that they were going to make the wrong choice.  And, God being God, God figured out a way to work with THAT. God figured out a way to work with the most horrible, awful choice people could make.  God figured out a way to work with Jesus’ crucifixion. God figured out a way to turn worldly sin into Godly victory. That’s what I believe.

And…God can STILL do that….regardless of what we choose.

BUT…through Jesus, and through the gospels, God ALSO encouraged us, over and again, to make better choices, to do the hard work of figuring out what it looks like:

  • to choose God over what everybody else is choosing;
  • to choose God over emperor or government or whatever the modern equivalent would be;
  • to choose God over worldly power or prestige;
  • to choose God over what’s easy or comfortable;
  • To choose God over EVERYTHING else, anything else.

If you do, maybe crucifixion won’t be required.  Maybe something BETTER can happen. And God will use THAT.

What will you choose?  Amen.