The court of Religion has found Him guilty of blasphemy. Now the court of Politics has its turn with Jesus. Religion says He is worthy of death, but only the state could do the killing. The Kings of kings stands before Pontius Pilate, an appointed governor of the Roman state.
“Are you the King of the Jews,” Pilate asks. The court of Religion asks, “Are you the Christ, the Messiah?” The court of Politics asks, “Are you the King?” Some thirty years ago, King Herod, the self-appointed “King of the Jews” tried to kill King Jesus. Now the true King of the Jews stands before Pilate, and the world awaits the answer.
“You’ve said so,” Jesus replies. He is a king but not in the way Pilate perceives it. Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world. Here stands the Son of David, the promised successor to David’s throne. Royal blood flows through His veins. Yet the King is silent, refusing to credential Himself, refusing to justify His lordship before the court of Politics. He lets the charge stand as testimony. Pilate is deeply troubled, as he should be.
Pilate was a practical man, a shrewd politician who knew what it took to guard his appointed position. Keep the peace. He had a little custom with the Jews. Every year at Passover, he would release a prisoner of their choice. Here was an opportunity to wash his hands of the situation. He had in custody another man Barabbas, whose name means, “son of the Father.” Barabbas was a notorious prisoner, a political terrorist, someone who had organized an uprising and murdered people in the cause of Israel. Perhaps Barabbas even took on that name “son of the father” to reinforce his own messianic ambitions.
So which one will it be? Barabbas, the son of the father. Or Jesus the Christ, the son of God. A power messiah who is willing to kill for the cause? Or a merciful messiah, who would rather be killed than kill, who would lay down His life as a ransom for the many?
The choice is always before us too – the way of power and might or the way of weakness and the cross. We say we prefer the cross, and we bow before it. But our guns are locked and loaded. When push come to shove and our backs are against the wall, we choose the power option most every time. Which do you prefer when threatened? A prayer or a pistol? What sort of messiah would you choose? A power messiah who would flex some muscle in your favor or a crucified one whose power is perfected in weakness? You know the answer.
At the instigation of their own religious leaders the crowd votes for Barabbas. The majority is seldom right, especially when it comes to Jesus. The much prized system of Roman justice utterly crumbles. Mob justice rules the day. Pilate leaves the fate of Jesus in the hands of the crowd “What would you have me to do with Jesus the Christ?” “Crucify him.” they shout, and demand that an innocent man be executed.
The guilty one goes free, the innocent One goes to his death. It’s a picture of our salvation, played out on Pilate’s stage. The guilty one is freed; the innocent One is condemned to die. “Unfair,” you say. “A miscarriage of justice.” Yet, in the strange, backhanded way that is God’s way, this is divine justice. In His baptism, Jesus was treated like a sinner, immersed in John’s baptism of repentance. It was, to quote Jesus, “to fulfill all righteousness.” The cross too is “to fulfill all righteousness.” “God made Him (Jesus) to be sin for us, who knew no sin, so that in Him we might became the righteousness of God.” Jesus was baptized to His death.
On the Day of Atonement there were two goats. A “scapegoat” on whom was laid the sins of the people. He was let loose in the wilderness. The other goat was sacrificed, his blood poured out on the mercy seat of the ark. Life for life. Blood for blood. The unblemished lamb dies, the sinner goes free.
Luther called it the “sweet swap” or “happy exchange.” You and I are Barabbas, rebels in revolt against God, terrorists deserving to die. Deserving damnation. Yet Jesus the Son of God goes to the cross for us. He is innocent, without any sin, and yet with our sin He goes to put our sin to death in His death. He literally becomes our sin – our blasphemies, murders, lies, betrayals, adulteries, denials, thefts, slanders all are embodied in His own broken body. He becomes our sin, and we, in Him, become the righteousness of God.
Justice and mercy collide. God’s justice to sin is done to death; God’s mercy to sinners is shown. God is vindicated, and we are justified.
An entire battalion of soldiers takes custody of Jesus and mocked Him. They dress Him in royal purple and push a crown of thorns on His head. They salute Him in mock homage, speaking the truth in derision. “Hail, King of the Jews!” King is what He is. King of the Jews. King David’s royal son. King of kings and Lord of lords.
But what sort of King is this? His royal robes – borrowed. A beggar King. His crown – thorns, the sign of God’s curse on the earth. A cursed King. When He was only a little child, wise men from the east came and gave Him royal gifts and worshipped Him. Now there are no worshipers, only mockers. Instead of gold, incense, and myrrh there are insults, slaps,and spit. They lead the King to His throne – a cross.
Such a king this world has never known. Kings expect people to die for them. They command armies to carry out their orders to fight their holy wars. They talk of soldiers making the “supreme sacrifice” to die for the nation. But this King goes to battle alone, unarmed, undefended, silent, empty-handed. A cursed beggar King in a kingdom of beggars.
Behold your King. He’s not much to look at by the world’s measure of kings. Even our Presidents pack more royalty than Jesus. But this is the only King who can save you, the only one who has saved you by His death, the only one who will save you in the coming day of judgment. This is the King who will fight to the death for you, who will lead you through your death to eternal life. This is the King who drew you to Himself in His death and who will draw Himself to you in your death. “Trust not in princes, in mortal men who cannot save.” Trust not in Pontius Pilates and King Herods by whatever name or title they come. Don’t trust them for a moment. Trust King Jesus, who alone can save you.
We live in a day when Religious and Political institutions are crumbling. The idea of a king seems to foreign to our modern ears, so ridiculous in a world where it’s every man, woman, and child for themselves. Who needs a king when you can be king? But think again of this humble, silent, broken Man on the cross. Jesus the King the world didn’t ask for. Or want. And by His death and resurrection, you are given to live as kings under this King in His kingdom, and serve Him as priests in His eternal righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.
O Conqueror renowned!
O Source of peace ineffable,
In whom all joys are found.
(Lutheran Worship #274)