March 18, 2018
Many of you listen to at least some Public Radio. On Saturdays at 11:00 they have a game show I particularly enjoy. It is called, “Wait, wait, don't tell me”. It has a three person panel and they do various quizzes about current news events. The toughest one they do is where each panelist reads a news story about something strange in the news. One is true, the other two are made up. It doesn't sound too difficult; but we listeners discover that truth is often much stranger than fiction. I seldom correctly pick the one that is true. I'm going to ask us to play a similar game this morning.
After Jesus and his disciples arrived in Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma tax came to Peter and asked, "Doesn't your teacher pay the temple tax?" Jesus said to Peter. "So that we may not offend them, go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours."
After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. As Philip cut wood for the fire, his ax head fell into the water. When he showed Jesus where it fell, he cut off a stick, and threw it in there, and made the iron float. Jesus said, “Pick it up.” So Philip reached out his hand and took it. (Elisha)
Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.” So they picked up stones to throw at him. Looking intently at them, Jesus said, “You sons of the devil, full of all deceit and villainy, will you not stop making crooked the straight paths of the Lord? And now listen—the hand of the Lord is against you, and you will be blind for a while, unable to see the sun.” Immediately mist and darkness came upon them. (Paul)
Vote and discuss
I do this quiz for a couple reasons...it was kinda fun making up the stories. And I want us to consider how we understand clues that we read, see or hear. When you decided which story was true and which was false, there was probably something that rang a bell of familiarity, maybe something you recognized at least in part.
We prejudge things all the time; make decisions without all the facts. I heard a disturbing statistic last week, 7% of Americans believe that chocolate milk comes from brown cows! By my calculations, that's 22.8 million people. What they see and what they think are not actually factual.
How many of you watch The Bachelor? I don't, but I heard discussion about the confusion in this last season. The bachelor picked a woman from Minnesota and they were engaged to be married. Then, weeks later, he changed his mind and picked the runner-up to marry. Things are not always what they appear on the surface.
We'll be playing cribbage in an hour or so. How many of you cribbage players have had a hand that looked good...only to try adding points and they just aren't there? A quick glance, a few clues, a false assumption and wrong ideas are hatched.
With this in mind, I want you all to imagine that you are Barabbas. “Now at the feast Pilate was accustomed to releasing one prisoner to them, whomever they requested. And there was one named Barabbas, who was chained with his fellow rebels; they had committed murder in the rebellion.” That's right, you are the murderer being held in a damp, dark dungeon. You have been sentenced and are awaiting your execution. You don't know when, but you do know that this particular day is the day of preparation for the Passover; so you feel pretty confident it won't be today. We are going to follow the clues that we see and hear to draw a conclusion about what is going to happen to us.
Matthew explains what happened next, “The chief priests stirred up the crowd, so that he should rather release Barabbas to them.” John tells us the crowd shouted for Barabbas. “Pilate answered; “What then do you want me to do with Him whom you call the King of the Jews?” So they cried out again, “Crucify Him!” Pilate asked them, “Why, what evil has He done?” But they cried out all the more, “Crucify Him!”
Back to imagining you are Barabbas. You are lying in your cell when suddenly you hear a ruckus. Lots of crowd noises, yelling and hollering. You walk over to the window to listen. And you hear your name being called; “Barabbas!” Pause and again, “Barabbas!” And you wonder just what is happening out there. And then you hear, “Crucify him, Crucify him!” What are you thinking right about now? For some reason the crowd is shouting for your crucifixion. And five minutes later the cell door opens and the guard says, “Barabbas, you're coming with me!” And you know that your sins have finally caught up with you and you are a dead man.
Except you aren't. All the clues have led you to the wrong conclusion. Rather than dying on this day, you are being set free because another man has taken your place. Another man is dying instead of you.
During my Lenten series, we've looked at several characters. Like the two thieves on the cross. As I said, none of the gospels have their names, but every one of the gospels includes the name of Barabbas. Barabbas. Some of you have heard me talk about how names were established at the time of Christ. The prefix B-A-R means “son of.” So Barabbas would be the son of a man with the name of Abba or father. And here is something I'll bet you didn't know. The most ancient manuscripts give his full name as Jesus Barabbas. And if we look at our Jesus, his full name would have been Jesus BarJoseph. Experts believe the gospel writers did not want a wicked person bearing the same first name as the Savior (Origen) and so used only his surname in their accounts.
You, the murderer, you are released; the innocent Jesus, killed. So what's next? There is absolutely no record of what became of Barabbas after he was released. So that gives us a chance to speculate a bit, and to consider some ways this mystery may speak to society today. What we do know is that Jesus was handed over to the authorities out of jealousy or the worry that their positions of power were in jeopardy...or for some a legitimate question of his claims. The same thing happens in our politics of today. Pressure groups, lobbyists, big businesses seek to sway politicians to make decisions as individual favors rather than for the good of the nation. We see in Pilate's caving in to the crowd the same weak response to public pressure that so often gets in the way of efficient and wise lawmaking. Not all, but enough to make us wonder. Our country was founded to protect the minority from the power of the majority. As citizens, we do well to be aware of caring for the powerless in our midst. Jesus stood for them, we are to work for their protection.
One group that is often lost in the shuffle are prisoners. Barabbas was released from prison. He was suddenly in a world where he needn't hide, he was free. But free to do what? We can imagine at least two paths he could have taken. One, he went right back to his evil ways. And why wouldn't he? His only support people were the people who he'd been with before his incarceration. There were no federal agencies to help, no neighborhood support groups. He was on his own. And odds are pretty good he would return to the life he knew before Jesus took his place on the cross. And we see it all the time with released prisoners. Even with government programs and support groups; it is hard to break the cycle of crime. I found this disturbing stat, after five years there is recidivism rate of 76.6%. The church works to help today; there is a local program of Bible Study with the prisoners in the jail here in town. Judy has been involved; she told us some of her experiences in a sermon some time ago. If we can put ourselves in the place of Barabbas on that day 2000 years ago, maybe we can find in our hearts a way to relate to, to pray for, to work for the proper care and treatment of those incarcerated and those who are trying to start a new life outside prison walls.
A more hopeful path that Barabbas could have taken would be that his heart and mind were moved by this Jesus BarJoseph taking his place on the cross. It is not too hard to believe that his heart was changed by the sacrifice of Jesus. It is wonderful to imagine his great relief in being set free led to turning his life around. He may have been determined to change his ways. Maybe he became a Christ follower? Maybe he joined the disciples and was one of the 120 who were in the upper room on the day of Pentecost? Maybe he hung around for the forty days after the crucifixion and heard the disciples preaching on Pentecost? Maybe the sacrifice of Jesus changed his life completely? I like to think it did.
If you look at my sermon title today, “I am Barabbas”. I wrote this because what Jesus did for Barabbas, he did for me. Scripture is clear, we are all sinners and it is equally clear that the cost of sin is death...judgment...hell. Our confessions tell us about sin's cost in the catechism, “everlasting separation from the presence of God...in hell forevermore.” We don't like to talk about it, I don't like to preach about it. It is not pleasant nor uplifting. But there it is. Jesus in fact taught more about hell than he did heaven! No matter how discomforting it is, that is our destination without Jesus. We are like Barabbas, sentenced to eternal death. Unless there is someone who would take our place. And of course if you have followed this line of thought to our conclusion: Jesus has ransomed us, has taken our place.
Again from the catechism, we are told how this is manifested for us, “The grace of God is manifested in that he freely provides and offers to sinners a mediator, and life and salvation by him. The only mediator of the covenant of grace is the Lord Jesus Christ.”
I am Barabbas; you are Barabbas. We misread the clues and the signs if we look at our life and say, “We are pretty good.” “We aren't in danger of hell because we are certainly not as bad as Hitler, or Nikolas Cruz, the Florida High School shooter. We aren't as bad as the guy who cheats on his taxes or shortchanges their waiter with a tip. Overall, we're pretty good people.” The clues we study can tell us we are pretty good people...and we are for the most part. But there is a streak of rebellion, of independence, of pride that means we don't live God's way in all things. Without acknowledging our need of forgiveness, without God's grace, the question of eternity becomes a balancing act. Am I doing enough good to earn my freedom; freedom from the punishment of sin? Barabbas did nothing to earn his. And in our speculating, we hope that he did find and follow Jesus leading to a second redeeming.
As we consider our Barabbas-ness, consider you have the same two choices he had. We can go on living our lives as we did before our awareness of what Jesus has done. Or we can seek out Jesus and follow him in gratitude for what he has done for us. Today is a good day renew your commitment to being a follower of Jesus; not out of necessity but out of gratefulness for what he has done for you.
I like to think that is what Barabbas chose; in thanksgiving, he committed his life to serving his Lord and Savior. His transformation from death to life would have been dramatic and obvious. We don't have the record of sin that Barabbas had, but we still need to study the scriptures and examine our own lives and then recognize our need for a Savior.
You are Barabbas and Jesus has set you free from the chains of death. God calls you as His child, Jesus has ransomed your soul and you are forever God's. Celebrate this good news and live life in gratitude and praise. Amen.
Hymn: Amazing Grace, My Chains are Gone