Sunday, March 11, 2012

Not What I Ordered

Not What I Ordered. . .
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
March 11, 2012
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Matthew 26: 14-16
Matthew 27: 3-10
Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives      
For your eyes show the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

This morning's gospel lesson deals with the fall of the man Judas. His fatal decision that has made him possibly the most hated and most infamous character in all of history. Your bulletin shows the text from Matthew 27, which recalls the end of the story. I'd like to include the Beginning and the climax of this story in what we read. So, for those who'd like to follow along, I will start by reading Matthew 26: 14-16, which is the beginning; Matthew 26: 47-50, the climax, and then conclude with as the bulletin shows Matthew 27: 3-10.

Let us begin.

Judas Agrees to Betray Jesus

(Mk 14:10–11; Lk 22:3–6)

14 Then one of the twelve, who was called Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests 15 and said, “What will you give me if I betray him to you?” They paid him thirty pieces of silver. 16 And from that moment he began to look for an opportunity to betray him.

The Betrayal and Arrest of Jesus

(Mk 14:43–52; Lk 22:47–53; Jn 18:1–11)

47 While he was still speaking, Judas, one of the twelve, arrived; with him was a large crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the elders of the people. 48 Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, “The one I will kiss is the man; arrest him.” 49 At once he came up to Jesus and said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” and kissed him. 50 Jesus said to him, “Friend, do what you are here to do.” Then they came and laid hands on Jesus and arrested him.

The Suicide of Judas

(Acts 1:18–19)

3 When Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus was condemned, he repented and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders. 4 He said, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.” But they said, “What is that to us? See to it yourself.” 5 Throwing down the pieces of silver in the temple, he departed; and he went and hanged himself. 6 But the chief priests, taking the pieces of silver, said, “It is not lawful to put them into the treasury, since they are blood money.” 7 After conferring together, they used them to buy the potter’s field as a place to bury foreigners. 8 For this reason that field has been called the Field of Blood to this day. 9 Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah, “And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of the one on whom a price had been set, on whom some of the people of Israel had set a price, 10 and they gave them for the potter’s field, as the Lord commanded me.”

In this full story of the fall of Judas, we see him make his choice, carry it through, and then unable to live with his guilt, he makes a decision to end his own life. It is truly a tragic story. I challenge you to come up with a person from history who has fallen so far, so fas,t so fully. I mean here is one of the twelve chosen by Jesus, who then becomes a betrayer, forever to have his name synonymous with the idea of betraying. The famous American traitor, Benedict Arnold, was referred to as a Judas, and this 1700 plus years later. In one of my favorite movies, O Brother Where Art Thou, when the character Pete's brother turns them in to the cops, Pete yells out calling his brother, Judas Iscariot Hogwallup. I mean what was Judas thinking? Why? What possible rational reason could someone have for betraying the Prince of Peace, the Son of God, Emmanuel, a man who has healed so many and set so many free? I mean we cannot fathom it. The possibility is so far from our understanding, and we have wondered as Christians, and people, for the last 2000 years, why,  and for just 30 pieces of silver. . .

Much study has been put into the whys of Judas. When I took New Testament in seminary the idea was given a full week of study. I remember many of the hypotheses of why Judas does what he does. Here are a few:

Is it "Love of money?" Does he do it purely for the 30 pieces? Seems pathetic to be something so fleeting as money, especially when you see the eternal infamy he gained instead.

Is it jealousy of the other disciples? Does he want to make a name for himself? If that is the reason, he certainly does so, but I'm not sure the old adage that no publicity is bad publicity is the case when you think of Judas.

Did Judas have an inescapable fear of the inevitable outcome of Christ's ministry, you know getting in trouble with the authorities? Is it that kind of instinct for self preservation which made him turn state’s evidence in order to save his own skin? Did he see the writing on the wall, that it all was going bad, well before Peter was forced to deny three times? Was it some kind of preventive strike? But you'd have to think there would be other ways to weasel out of the guilt by association wrap.

My favorite, which seems the most logical to me, is that Judas wanted something more from Jesus' ministry, but there is really no way of knowing for sure because Judas exits the scene by his own hand before anyone could get the real scoop in that all important exclusive interview. You know, where he sets the record straight, telling for once and for all his side of the story. Maybe Judas wanted something more. Maybe he was growing more and more dissatisfied with the brand of Messiah that he had signed on with. This is the Judas depicted in Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's Rock Opera, Jesus Christ Superstar. The brooding Judas wants Jesus to be a military leader. He wants Jesus to overturn the Roman occupiers, and instead Jesus is walking around talking about the coming of the Kingdom of God. In the famous song he proclaims that Jesus' "followers are blind, have too much heaven on their minds." Yeah, great. Jesus, is getting too heavenly minded and then as the saying goes is no earthly good. This is not what I signed on for. . . all this healing and talking and walking and riding into Jerusalem on a donkey. Where is our army Jesus? You have the power, or at least I thought you did, when is it going to happen? When is the mighty hand of Justice going to sweep down and set us free? When Jesus, when is going to be our turn, our time, when does the real stuff start. This, Jesus is not what I ordered.

With this understanding of Judas there are two possibilities for his betrayal, one could be that he is trying to force Christ's hand, to really be the Messiah. You know entrap Jesus so he has to fight the Romans, has to reveal his power, has to, I mean he can't just go down without a fight can he? Can he?

The other possibility lies within himself and his worldly hopes for justice on earth to be finally done, and when it doesn't happen his hope is finally crushed and this disappointment turned to spite and spite became hate, and his hatred of Jesus, the situation, the disillusionment, the inaction turns to the action of out and out betrayal. There is some evidence for this view of Judas. Most scholars believe that the Iscariot part of Judas' name refers to a place, Kerioth, that Judas is simply Judas from this place Kerioth, but another possible way of understanding the name is that it refers to Judas as an assassin. The word sikarios means assassin in Aramaic. It is possible that the name could refer to Judas as being a radical revolutionary much like Simon the Zealot is thought to be. If this is the case, one could surely see that Jesus' brand of Messiahship would not be what Judas had ordered. Another possible clue to Judas having a very different view of Jesus from the other disciples is that Judas never refers to Jesus as Lord, but rather never calls him anything more than Rabbi, Teacher, as he does in the betrayal scene, anywhere in any of the Gospel accounts. I found that to be fascinating. Is it possible that Judas was following the man Jesus, but thought of him in very different terms, and when Jesus began to show those true amazing colors, Judas wished to jump ship, that He fell from apostleship because even though Jesus was right there with him he didn't have that genuine relationship to the Jesus as Lord?

It makes the tragedy so much more heartbreaking, for sure, for him, but also for us because it brings us into it. Who is the Jesus we follow? And what would it take for us to become disillusioned enough to become betrayers, Judas Iscariots ourselves? What have we ordered from Christ, and what is Christ delivering? Is it the same thing? What are you looking for your Messiah to do? What happens when he doesn't deliver in that exact way? It seems this is a big part of our world today, in what many call a Post Christian world. Why is it Post Christian? Basically, it is considered that because Christianity was supposed, according to many, to produce something, and in many people's minds it has failed to do so. Christ has failed to deliver. Hey, Jesus, this is not what we ordered.

We ordered peace, and security, and inclusiveness, and love, and social justice, and everyone to get along, and everyone to be accepted, and a church where everyone agrees, and a church that doesn't torture non believers because hello everyone would believe and agree, where church leaders do not molest little children, or claim that hurricanes and earthquakes are caused by sin, a world where people can, must, and do stand on their own two feet, a world where Jews are not placed into gas chambers, and a world where nuclear weapons do not exist, a world where babies are not aborted, or where women are not raped, where kids are not bullied, where kids do not go into their schools with weapons and bad intentions, where teachers are respected and paid well. I could go on and on, and all of these things have to do with why many people's faith has been tested, or challenged, or why many believe that "God is Dead", and rightly so. . . if you tie your religion to all of those things, or one of those things, or any of those things how can you believe that God exists, or that Christ is the Messiah?

So you get slogans around about how religion is doing what you're told regardless of what is right, and t-shirts like "If the fetus you saved from being aborted turned out to be gay would you still fight for his rights?" or "God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve." You get movies like Religulous, where Bill Maher presents all believers as ignorant, or movies like Left Behind where believers may just prove him right. We see it on both sides of the so called Culture Wars. It is the packaging and selling of Christ in ways that fit our needs, our wants, our desires for power. These ways, the ways that we package Christ, set him up to be tested like other material things again and again, making him vulnerable to being proven wrong, proven futile, proven nonexistent, and when they are proven nonexistent, Christ dies a little more because we are betraying the true Christ, selling him for our own gain, our own 30 silver piece of our vision of the way the world should be, and when we see how Christ dies, we are left empty. We are left empty because we  like Judas, have betrayed the truth of what Christ is, by shaping Christ in our image of what we think he should be, of what we think he should do, and when we and the world find that image to be lacking and faulty, we leave and betray Christ to be crucified.

But like Judas, we find that the crucified Jesus isn't what we ordered either. . . the world we have been left with is without meaning to us. It is futile. It is evil. It is irredeemable. We become cynical, or worse we give up completely. And like Judas we commit suicide, perhaps not physically but certainly spiritually. Isn't this what we see? Isn't this the world I described a minute ago, the one consumed with so much evil? Nuclear bombs, holocausts, and the like. We find it a self perpetuating downward spiral. We create what God should provide, mandating it to God, then when God doesn't provide we blame God, then seek new God's who can we think give us what we want, idols, money, power, the government, but those things can't deliver and the world falls further and further and further. There must be something to break this spiral.

And that is fostering a real relationship with Christ. Forging a relationship with the Christ who is, not the Christ, who we want to be. The Bible is filled with people called by God, called into relationship with God. Abraham is a good example of this. Abraham is called by God to leave his people, to forge a new nation, to do many great things. . . and many things you know Abraham questioned. Where am I to go? Is Sarah too old? Am I too old? Are you sure I should leave everything behind? Are you serious about this whole circumcision thing? And from our Old Testament lesson for this morning, I'm supposed to do what? Kill my son? The child I love, the child you promised to me? The child we waited so long for? Are you sure? This is not what I ordered. . . but Abraham does, and so does God. You could say the same about God's relationship with Moses, and Noah, and Joseph, and Jonah, and David, and Esther, and Gideon, and Deborah, and Joshua, and Ruth, and Hannah, and Mary, and Joseph, and Paul, and St. Augustine, and Martin Luther, and Martin Luther King, and Mother Teresa. . . This is not what I ordered God, but not my will but thine.

"When Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus was condemned, he repented and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders. 4 He said, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.” But they said, “What is that to us? See to it yourself.” 5 Throwing down the pieces of silver in the temple, he departed; and he went and hanged himself."

Judas does not do this. He does not seek this relationship with the true Christ. He cannot wrap his mind about the possibilities that Christ, the real Christ offers. He cannot fathom the possibilities of love and forgiveness. Can we? Can we extend our minds for the grace of Jesus Christ to be big enough to include Judas? I used a poem I wrote a number of years ago as the prayer of preparation this morning, called "Judas." Let me read that now. . .

If he didn’t give up,

Would Jesus have

Called even Judas,

By name,

To meet Him in Galilee?

For all had gone away,

None stayed,

All had denied,

even Peter,

And Peter was called.

It didn’t happen,

We don’t know, but

I’d like to believe

He would have,

Removing all limits to grace.

Remember Peter denies Jesus, which you could say is a very similar act. . and in Mark, the risen Jesus asks for Peter by name to come and meet him in Galilee. Could you imagine if Judas had not quit, but persevered, would Jesus have asked him to come, too? Is grace that big? I believe it is. I believe it is so because I believe that God is that big, and if God is that big, forgiveness is that big, love is that big, and Grace is surely that big. And if Grace is big enough for Judas the betrayer, it is also certainly big enough for the betrayers us, and the entire world to figure it all out, to be welcomed into the loving arms of relationship. . . to come to know the possibilities of that real relationship. . . Jesus the Messiah is much bigger than the Roman Empire was, bigger than that cross they nailed him to, and bigger than that tomb they tried to lay him in. He is much bigger than any box we could try to put Him into, too. In a few weeks we will celebrate Easter, and the idea that despite how we wish to enslave Him, and in doing so enslave ourselves, we can be set free by knowing that Jesus Christ, our Lord is also very much free. Amen.

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Mt 26:14-16). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
[2]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Mt 26:47-50). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
[3]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Mt 27:3-10). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.