Note: this short message was delivered in two parts during the course of an all-age service. The service was held on Palm Sunday, but the Anglican lectionary set this passage, covering the trial and crucifixion of Jesus, and I was anxious to try to do something worthwhile with it within the time (2 x 6 minutes) available to me.
Text: Matthew 27:11-25; 33-54
This is, of course, the most famous trial in history. And it’s obvious who is on trial here. Or is it? Everyone knew, and we know, that Jesus was innocent. So who is really on trial here?
(a) Pilate, the Roman governor: he knew that Jesus was innocent, and tried to wash his hands of the whole affair. And yet in order to avoid a scene he allowed the innocent man to be executed, and a guilty man – Barabbas – to go free. Was it not the weak and compromising Pilate who was guilty, rather than Jesus?
(b) The chief priests and elders: they were supposed to be guardians of God’s law and pillars of justice. And yet they who hounded Jesus, and paid Judas to betray him. It was they who persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas, rather than Jesus, to be set free. Was it not the proud and self-righteous Jewish leaders who were guilty, rather than Jesus?
(c) The crowd. I don’t know how many people in this Good Friday crowd who shouted, “Crucify!” had been in the Palm Sunday crowd, shouting, “Hosanna!” But clearly public opinion has turned from adulation to hatred in just a few days. Was it not the fickle and bloodthirsty crowd who was guilty, rather than Jesus?
(d) Ourselves. How often are we like Pilate, knowing what we ought to do and then doing precisely the opposite? How often are we like the Jewish leaders, so proud of our precious principles that we end up with hateful and hurtful attitudes? How often are we like the crowd, going with the flow of public opinion rather than standing up for what is true and right? Is it not we who are guilty, rather than Jesus?
So why was it Jesus, and not any of these others, who was standing there mocked, abused, and condemned? Well, let’s hear what he himself had to say about it. He had previously said that his death would not be an accident, or even a supreme instance of martyrdom. It would be an offering:-
Mt 20:28 “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
And so we begin to see that the most tragic miscarriage of justice was, in fact, a day that changed the world; nothing would ever be the same again.
It was not Jesus, then, who was really on trial that first Good Friday. It was Pilate, and the chief priests and elders, and the crowd, and it was you and me.
But there is one other person who I’m going to put in the dock this morning: and that is God himself. What was God doing, allowing his Son to be treated like this? He had declared, Mt 3:17 – “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” How can he now stand by and do nothing as his beloved Son cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
(a) Do you see something? As Jesus hangs there on the cross, the sky is growing darker and darker. Remarkable, isn’t it? Just as the light of an unusual star shone over Bethlehem to herald Jesus’ birth, so an extraordinary darkness falls over Calvary at the time of his death. This speaks eloquently of God’s attitude towards the sin and guilt that brought his Son to that lonely and tortured death.
(b) Do you hear something? At the moment of Jesus’ death, the curtain in the temple is ripped from top to bottom. Now that curtain separated off from the rest of the temple the holy of holies. It was there that God was especially said to dwell. And that place could only be entered once a year, by one person – the high priest – and then only with sacrifice and ceremony. But now the curtain has been torn in two. This is a graphic and dramatic sign that from now on, and there is free access to God for one and for all.
(c) Do you feel something? The ground is shaking. It’s an earthquake! But this earthquake is not bringing death, but life out of death. Some of the nearby tombs are breaking open, and, before long, the bodies of the holy men and women inside are going to be walking and talking again. Wouldn’t it be interesting to know their names? I wonder what became of them afterwards? But Scripture doesn’t satisfy our curiosity on those points. But what we do know is that at the very moment of Christ’s death new life was beginning to break forth. Resurrection life.
So then, God was not standing by silent and motionless while his Son was executed. He was in it all along.
Rom 5:8 ‘God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.’
It seems to many to be a puzzle, a scandal, and an offense. But this is the heart of the Christian faith. God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. And our proper response is to be reconciled to God. And everything that flows out of that: our love for God and others, is sheer, uninhibited, overflowing, gratitude.