Sunday, March 25, 2012

Jesus on Trial

Jesus on Trial
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
March 25, 2012
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Luke 23: 1-12 

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.

Our journey from Bethlehem, with the child who was in the manger now a man, has taken one step closer to the cross. This week we stand with Christ at his trial. His healings, his teachings, his example, his mission has brought him to this moment, brought forward to be judged. The world of men stands ready to decide the fate of God, or at least that is what appears to be going on. Let's take a look, from the Gospel of Luke, chapter 23, starting at verse 1.

23 Then the assembly rose as a body and brought Jesus before Pilate. 2 They began to accuse him, saying, “We found this man perverting our nation, forbidding us to pay taxes to the emperor, and saying that he himself is the Messiah, a king.” 3 Then Pilate asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?” He answered, “You say so.” 4 Then Pilate said to the chief priests and the crowds, “I find no basis for an accusation against this man.” 5 But they were insistent and said, “He stirs up the people by teaching throughout all Judea, from Galilee where he began even to this place.”
6 When Pilate heard this, he asked whether the man was a Galilean. 7 And when he learned that he was under Herod’s jurisdiction, he sent him off to Herod, who was himself in Jerusalem at that time. 8 When Herod saw Jesus, he was very glad, for he had been wanting to see him for a long time, because he had heard about him and was hoping to see him perform some sign. 9 He questioned him at some length, but Jesus gave him no answer. 10 The chief priests and the scribes stood by, vehemently accusing him. 11 Even Herod with his soldiers treated him with contempt and mocked him; then he put an elegant robe on him, and sent him back to Pilate. 12 That same day Herod and Pilate became friends with each other; before this they had been enemies. [1] 

           This passage has made me think a lot this week. And this week made me think a lot. It was kind of a perfect storm of sorts, of ideas. It all started Tuesday with our Lenten Study. What a great evening that was. We had tables overflowing, and such a good exchange of ideas. I came out of it inspired, by the sharing of our hearts with eachother, but then at the same time at Blue Ridge, it was a tough week. As the head of the discipline committee, any time drugs find their way to campus it means I have a busy week, and they did last weekend. Lots of meetings, lots of hard decisions, and a lot of young kids with changed lives. As hard as it is to do that work, it is fulfilling because it really is front line stuff, fighting the battles and reaching kids on their deepest levels, where their vulnerable heart is laid out on the table. I'm also helping with a class that seeks to get kids asking the "big questions." You know like: what is life about? what is my role? Is there a God? If so why is the world the way it is? We are inviting these kids to ask these questions, to challenge whatever notions they have held and honestly seek truth. This week we were looking at how we can "know" truth. It is amazing, again frontline stuff, not just because of the information, but the level of connection and honest communication going on, the trust built between open hearts.
I'm not sure if it was the Lenten Study that got me thinking, the Discipline Committee Meetings, with all the due process, or that big questions class, as we delved into how truth is known, or the Bible passage that I had selected for this week, but it all seemed to come together this week, working together, giving me cross insights for each other. They all seemed to be connected to the idea of trials, proof, justice, evidence. . . I mean how do we know? I can't tell which is the central culprit for it, but I have not been able to shut my brain off this week. It's been running full speed ahead, but DeAnna can tell you there are some major forgetful side effects to weeks like these. Like heading to the grocery store without a list, and having to call to remember even the first item, trying to put the salt and pepper in the dishwasher, the plates in the fridge, juice on my cereal and milk in my glass, drawing blanks on names, losing my train of thought again and again. You know one of those weeks. So sitting down to organize all of this into one sermon is quite the challenge, but here goes.
Basically my ongoing thought has been this. . . Jesus is still on trial, today, just like he was in this passage. We are still trying to determine what to do with Jesus, and by we I mean the world in general. Let's look at the passage and what Jesus' accusers say about him. He is accused by the assembly of "perverting the nation," forbidding us to pay taxes to the emperor, and him saying that he himself is the Messiah the King. I can't help but see the parallels of then and now.
Perverting the nation: Look at these quotes from the secular world of today, perhaps the man who is the chief prosecuting attorney, against Christianity, Comedian Bill Maher

·         We are a nation that is unenlightened because of religion. I do believe that. I think religion stops people from thinking. I think it is justifies crazies .

·         When we talk about values, I think of rationality in solving problems. That’s something I value. Fairness, kindness, generosity, tolerance. When they talk about values, they’re talking about things like going to church, voting for Bush, being loyal to Jesus, praying. These are not values.

·         I think religion is a neurological disorder 

·         Faith means making a virtue out of not thinking. It's nothing to brag about. And those who preach faith, and enable and elevate it are intellectual slaveholders, keeping mankind in a bondage to fantasy and nonsense that has spawned and justified so much lunacy and destruction.[2] 

If you could summarize and mold together these four quotes, wouldn't they be saying that the idea of Christ is perverting the nation? And therefore should be dealt with accordingly.
Okay, now so, refusing to pay taxes to the emperor. Obviously that is inciting people to be against the government. This also I've heard in today's world. Christianity stands in the way of the government's enlightened rule of the people.
Claiming to be King/Messiah/God: How many times do you hear? Yes I believe Jesus was a very good man, and a great teacher of morality, but Son of God. No way. . . Prove it. So Pilate asks him, flat out, so is this true? Tell me. Jesus says, "So you say," or what do you think, what do you believe, Pilate?
No confession = no conviction. It was good enough for Pilate. This is where some of the events of this week come in for me. I don't want to go into detail about the drug hearings we had this week, but I will say this: Without proof, a confession is key. Without a confession you have one word against another, which means who are you going to trust? And what are you going to base that decision on? A confession makes all the difference. Jesus is no help here. I have a thought on this but I want to wait a minute for it. So with no proof, he decides that he is getting nowhere so he sends him to Herod, maybe he can get somewhere. Herod goes farther than just asking for a confession, he wouldn't have trusted that, he wants real visible proof. Come on Jesus show me, I've been looking forward to meeting you, I've heard so many great things, let me see for myself. The scene is so memorably shown in Jesus Christ Superstar with Tim Rice's line, "Come on Jesus, prove to me that you're no fool, walk across my swimming pool."  But again Jesus does nothing. The accusations are raised again and Jesus is returned to Pilate, then the verdict is made, but not by Pilate and not by Herod, instead it is the crowd that passes judgment: Crucify him.
It is interesting that Pilate and Herod seem to ignore the first two and focus on the third of the accusations. It makes sense, when you think about it. If the third accusation is true then the other two fall apart. If Jesus is really God, then he is not perverting the people, and the taxation issue also seems to fall away. And this is the real issue that Jesus is "on trial" for today. Is Jesus God? And by association, is there a God? There is our modern rub. The trial still lingers.
If that is the case then what is our role? What is the disciples role in the trial of Jesus? It seems like the 12 disciples are nowhere to be found. They've all left, fled, in fear, so we have no real model for what we should do in this situation? I mean what is it? Are we the judge, the jury, Pilate, the crowd what is it? Who are we called to be? What role are we called to have?
This is the thought that kept coming up this week. It seems that we believe we are called to be the defense attorney for Christ. It seems to be that most Christians feel called to work to protect the faith, working to convince others of the truth about Jesus. Point out the evidence, make definitive arguments, remove as much reasonable doubt as possible, making it easy for people to believe the truth. The book, "The Case for Christ" comes to mind. If only we could show the world the evidence that we see, then they would buy it, and believe it. Isn't that what we feel called to be? Isn't that what Fisher's of Men do? Is it our job to be about the business of what is called apologetics, stating the case for Christ. What do you think? How many of you believe that, that should be the disciples' role in the trial of God?
I'll tell you that in many ways I thought that was the case too, but this week has challenged that notion for me. Because look at it, does Jesus need legal counsel? Perhaps,  you could say yes because who in his right mind would not speak up? I can't think of a lawyer, who is interested in winning the case, if not inspired by care for his client, who would not have told Jesus to take some kind of a deal. Come on Jesus speak up, save yourself, show just one miracle. Wouldn't that help. Have you ever thought that? Jesus, if  you would just perform one miracle I could get all of these people to believe. Nothing big. . . just give us something to work with here. I think the biggest one that people want is to have their church succeed, you know by growth. . . Jesus if my church grows, that'll show the world. By sheer numbers we can quiet that noisy crowd, we can have an insurmountable voice that will finally convince the world of your greatness. . . Come on Jesus throw us a bone, give us a sign, you are not helping our, I mean. . .your cause. That is the trouble with the defense attorney role. It is not invested enough because it is detached. It is out for its own interests. It becomes about being right and winning the argument, and the point is missed.
There is a reason Jesus doesn't defend himself. Some of it has to do with last week, and the "let this cup pass / thy will be done" stuff. The mission is not to get acquitted but to be convicted and crucified. Three times Jesus asks and three times it is the only way. I believe that to be true to my soul, but that is not all. There is a reason for why that is true, and that is because the facts of the case are irrelevant. It does not matter what proof is displayed. The mind of the mob has been made up. The world crucifies Jesus every time. The evidence is irrelevant.  
The world already has decided that "All religions, with their gods, demigods, prophets, messiahs and saints, are the product of the fancy and credulity of men who have not yet reached the full development and complete possession of their intellectual powers."[3] The world has already decided that the people who believe such things and who are not ashamed to ignore, totally, all the patient findings of thinking minds through all the centuries since the Bible was written. And it is these ignorant people, the most uneducated, the most unimaginative, the most unthinking among us, who would make themselves the guides and leaders of us all; who would force their feeble and childish beliefs on us; who would invade our schools and libraries and homes."[4] The Jury has come back with the verdict that To surrender to ignorance and call it God has always been premature, and it remains premature today.[5] The minds of many are made up, just like the mob shouting crucify him. Not even the miracle of Jesus standing right before them could change their minds, their minds, their minds. . . so Pete, are you suggesting that we do nothing? Aren't you an education guy? Aren't we called to be fisher's of men? Isn't fishing going out and convincing people to change their minds?
This series of sermons, from Christmas to this morning, has looked at the life of Jesus with the understanding that the life of Jesus models for us the life of a Christian. Why should it change now? Should it change because the stakes are raised? Because they certainly have been raised. Death hangs in the balance, but don't forget that life is around the corner. Jesus doesn't wish to change their minds, he's after their hearts. I've been quoting many atheists and scientists throughout this sermon, and I would like to do one more. This is Albert Einstein speaking about reason and faith, "To be sure, the doctrine of a personal God interfering with the natural events could never be refuted, in the real sense, by science, for this doctrine can always take refuge in those domains in which scientific knowledge has not yet been able to set foot.[6]" Scientific knowledge can explain many things about the world, but it has a hard time with the human heart. Einstein is suggesting that these places, inside the human heart, where "scientific knowledge can't set foot" nor try to explain are dangerous, and he's right. Human hearts are dangerous.
Jesus is turning the world upside down, by letting hearts loose. Passion, emotion, love, caring, affection, hope, kindness, sacrifice, mercy, deep feeling, faith, these are the things let loose on the world. Man are they dangerous. So what then is our role as Christians? It's not as lawyers, standing on the sidelines making the arguments so that other people can decide to follow. No that's way too cheap. There is not enough invested if that is our role. No instead we are called to take up our own cross; to give up our lives; to leave everything behind; to follow even unto the cross. . . and there die, so that our hearts can be born again. To the mind it is a paradox that does not make sense. . . a paradox on which no jury could make a verdict completely forgoing all reasonable doubt. Jesus knows this, so let me ask you one final question in two different ways. . . Jesus knows that it takes the cross, why do we think we could convince the mob today with less than the cross? Why do we think we can ever save the world with less than the cross? God give us the strength to bear the cross. Amen.

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Lk 23:1-12). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
[2][2] Bill Maher. "Religulous," 2008.
[3] Mikhaïl A. Bakunine, Of God and State, 1871.
[4] Canadian Atheists Newsletter, 1994
[5] Isaac Asimov
[6] Albert Einstein, Science and Religion (1941)

Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Prayer in the Garden

The Prayer in the Garden

A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
March 18, 2012
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Genesis 3:1-10
Matthew 26:36-46

This morning I stand in awe of this text. The story of Christ’s prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane is so powerful, so moving, and so important to the Christian life because it shows both the human and the God natures of Christ, but before we get into that,
Let us pray:
God of wonders, what joy it is to sing your praises, to stand in your midst, and to be drawn closer to your being; open our hearts and our minds, fill our thoughts with the knowledge of your love. Stir in us the spirit that challenges, urges, and protects us, helping us all to be strong enough to live according to your purpose unique to each of us. We ask you this, humbly, in the name of our savior, whose sacrifice was great, and whose love is eternal, Jesus Christ your son, our Lord, Amen.
This story is found in part in all four Gospels, but I chose the Matthew version for this morning. Matthew 26:36-46.

36Then Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to them, "Sit here while I go over there and pray." 37He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled. 38Then he said to them, "My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me."

 39Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, "My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will."

 40Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. "Could you men not keep watch with me for one hour?" he asked Peter. 41"Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the body is weak."

 42He went away a second time and prayed, "My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done."

 43When he came back, he again found them sleeping, because their eyes were heavy. 44So he left them and went away once more and prayed the third time, saying the same thing.

 45Then he returned to the disciples and said to them, "Are you still sleeping and resting? Look, the hour is near, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. 46Rise, let us go! Here comes my betrayer!"

Have you ever walked through a garden? You might see the beauty of flowers and other plants. You might see the evidence of great time and effort. You might see the fruits and vegetables that will feed a family through the winter. You might even see the prized vegetable, grown to great size by love, care, and fertilizer that will win the blue prize ribbon at the fair.
I know that some of you have your own gardens. Perhaps you know what it’s like to get down on the ground, hands and knees in the dirt, digging the perfect hole, for that little seed. You mixed in the compost and fertilizer, you tilled the soil making it just right, the perfect environment for that seed to take root and grow. You made sure the little seed had everything you could give it to make it bear good fruit. You protected it from weeds coming up, stealing nutrients, soaking up the water, and blocking the sun’s light, no you cut those weeds before they could steal from your tiny plant. And then your garden grew, and was just as you wanted it to be. Your place, your gift to the world, or your very own sacred offering.
I’ve never been much of a gardener myself, but my father sure is. He can spend hours and hours digging, and planting, and tending, and every single flower or vegetable or piece of lettuce that he picks and gives to the family is like a little trophy. He presents each one to us, and the look on his face is perfect pride.
Gardens are special places because they are one of the few places in this world where the partnership of Man and God is pure and so imminent. Both God and man are needed. You cannot have a garden without that partnership. It does not matter how much fertilizer, how much water, how much care, without God’s help those plants just will not grow. They have natural needs that we just can’t effectively produce artificially. On the other hand a garden is a man made creation, the beauty of a garden many times is the result of our sense of organization and order. The perfect row of flowers, the assortment of colors, both reflect a human eye and taste for details. There is a distinct difference between a field of wild flowers, growing naturally, and a finely crafted garden, both are beautiful, but the field would not be, could not be considered a garden.
It is not by mere chance that two of the most important events in the history of human relationship with God happen in Gardens. The two great temptations and turning points both take place in gardens. We are all familiar with the Garden of Eden story. It is a story that accounts for the change from a pure relationship with God to our turning away. God places Adam in the first garden and takes him on as a partner, creating Adam to till the garden and care for it. Under this partnership the garden flourishes. The garden flourishes until the partnership is broken, by the lie. The serpent plants the deceptive seed and it takes root and that partnership is broken, not by God’s choice, but by our own. We deny the reason and purpose for our creation, and decide that we know better, and make our own way. The serpent tells us that God’s way is not the right way, and invariably we believe him. Believing the lie, Adam and Eve chose to go their own way and we all know the rest of the story. We again and again make the same choice in our life, believing that our own way is better. Our will instead of God's will be done.
But that brings us to the second major garden story in the Bible, Jesus after the Lord’s supper leaves his disciples and goes out alone into the Garden of Gethsemane to pray to God. The setting is so crucial, here we are once again back in a Garden. This time with the second Adam, as Jesus is often called. Jesus, like a garden is that perfect partnership between God and Man. In 451 AD some of the ancient church fathers got together and defined this relationship in the Chalcedonian Definition which reads.
Therefore, following the holy fathers, we all with one accord teach men to acknowledge one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, at once complete in Godhead and complete in manhood, truly God and truly man, consisting also of a reasonable soul and body; of one substance with the Father as regards his Godhead, and at the same time of one substance with us as regards his manhood; like us in all respects, apart from sin;

A whole lot of words to show just what this text shows so simply, that Jesus is fully God and fully human at the same time. I wrote a poem I'd like to share with you that I named "The Dual Nature." It takes some of the major events of Jesus' life and looks at both natures, how each would experience them. Hopefully it will help introduce us to the idea of this double nature a little better.

Jesus, the promise, knew the fears of a virgin,
                                    but also knew the hopes of a nation. 

Jesus, the baby, knew how to cry,
                        but also knew the warmth of a mother’s embrace. 

Jesus, the child, knew the cruelty of kings,
                                    but also knew generosity from the wise.           

Jesus, the boy, knew the loud talkers’ teaching,
                                    but also knew, even so, the truth of scripture. 

Jesus, the carpenter, knew the sound of a hammer to nail,
                                    but also knew the artistry of careful craftsmanship. 

Jesus, the baptized, knew the chill of the water,
                                    but also knew the real presence of forgiveness. 

Jesus, the man, knew the devil’s temptation,
                                    but also knew that the Father would always provide. 

Jesus, the healer, knew the pain of the sick,
                                    but also knew the unending strength of the faithful. 

Jesus, the teacher, knew the frustration of narrow minds,
                                    but also knew the glimmer of seeds planted. 

Jesus, the shepherd, knew the danger of the lurking wolves,
                                    but also knew each and every sheep by name.  

Jesus, the friend, knew betrayal of loved ones,
                                    but also knew the blessings of shared tables. 

Jesus, the leader, knew condemnation of a mob,
                                    but also knew the glory of waving palms. 

Jesus, the tried, knew again the temptation of the self,
                                    but also knew the way, the truth, and the life. 

Jesus, the crucified, knew the thirst of abandonment,
                                     but also knew the promises of a steadfast God. 

Jesus, the Christ, knew the isolation of Hell,
                                    but also the power of love’s resurrection. 

Jesus, the God, felt His people’s pain,
                                    but also knows His people’s promise.  

And it is here in this Garden of Gethsemane where both natures come to light for us, revealing that amazing partnership within Christ. Let us look at the words that Jesus prays, for he repeats the prayer three times.
The prayer has two parts; the first is “Father, let this cup pass from me.” In other words, hey God, yeah, is there any way I can get out of this? Because it’s going to be rough, I’ve seen what these people are capable of, such cruelty. They betray, they deny, they’re going to whip me, they’re going to beat me, humiliate me, and try me. Then they are going to cut into my head with a crown of thorns, force me to carry a cross through a hostile crowd, then nail me to that cross. And I know what nails are like, I was raised by a carpenter, I’ve hammered and I’ve nailed. Then they are going to leave me out to hang until I die. Is there any other way? Any way at all? Huh? Ok, I’ll do what ever you want, its not about me it’s about you. Stop me any time, Father, remember how you stopped Abraham, that might be nice.
The human side of Jesus comes through doesn’t it. We do not like pain and struggle. Of course not, we always prefer the easier way, the most expedient, the least painful. And sometimes the easy way is God’s way, sometimes God’s way is the most expedient, some times God’s way is the least painful, but not always, and not in this case. And Jesus knows it. So he says, “Thy will be done.” But it’s so great, so human, because he doesn’t just try once, but instead three times. Each time finishing with Thy will be done, but giving the Father the chance to stop him. Then after the third time Jesus accepts it, and The Father’s will is done.
Could you imagine that level of faith? That level of acceptance? To knowingly walk into that kind of future? To willingly be betrayed, willingly taken prisoner, willingly torn, beaten, and nailed to a cross. Certainly Jesus could have gotten out of it at any point. Remember the temptation scene in the dessert. Satan tempts Jesus three times, something about that number three, tempting Jesus to renounce his purpose, as Adam had. And three times Jesus resists. Jesus could easily avoid all of this pain he is about to face, but knows that it is God’s will and his very purpose to fulfill the sacrifice.
Have you ever submitted to anything like that? Doing what you knew in your heart was right, despite the pain and the cost? The apprehension and the decision are the hardest part, and I’m not trying to down play the pain involved, but there is a certain level of peace that comes when you have resigned your self to go through something. Something takes you, strengthens you and brings you through it. That’s what the real promise of Christianity is, not that you will never have to go through tough times, not that there will be no pain in your life, but that you will not have to go through it alone, that you will go through struggles with the strength and power and love of God. That God is sovereign and that there is a greater purpose for everything.
In a minute we will sing the Hymn, "Lonesome Valley," because it talks about this very idea. We do have to walk this lonesome valley, and no body else can walk it for us, but the song errs when it says, we have to walk it by ourselves. We do not have to walk it by ourselves. We walk it in full communion with our creator and our savior strengthened by the spirit, and we walk it with each other in harmony with our created purpose.
It is interesting to point out that times of struggle are sometimes the most important parts of life. Often our darkest, hardest moments, are what we can look back on and see our greatest growth. That if you never went through that rough spot, you never would have fulfilled your true potential. Also, remember that it is not God in the wilderness, who promises to end Jesus’ pain and starvation, instead it is that same lying voice, that fooled us in the Garden, telling us that things are in our control, that we can go our own way.
In this world we face this dilemma daily, hourly, minute by minute. We live in a world where we have apparent control, we can many times choose the path of least resistance, putting off the pain and the struggle, but each time we do, we must ask, is this the will of God. Or does God have a reason for this struggle, can I should I bear this pain? Is it God’s will? Imagine if Christ had made a different decision in the garden. How would our world be different, if Christ had sidestepped the pain, taken a bail out, decided to not carry the cross, refused the sacrifice? We would have no concept of God’s will, and we would be still lost in the wilderness with no chance of fulfilling our purpose to tend the garden, and bear fruit.
We have been throughout this season of Lent seeking to look at ourselves honestly to take stock, and we also try daily, minute by minute to discern the will of God, and pray to have the strength to allow that will to be done, regardless of our self interest, regardless of the risk. In a world risk is avoided at all cost, where pain is numbed, where life is planned for ease, where we pray constantly to "let this cup pass" is it possible for us to follow God's will even if it leads to a cross? For then and only we can truly become what Christ was, we become then like Christ, a perfect garden, the perfect partnership of God and man, with God working in us, helping us as his special gardens to bear with our very lives that good fruit that can change our world from the wilderness back to a garden of God.  
Let us pray. . .
Father God, who gives us all, who provides for our need, who stands with us in times of trial, give us the strength to face the trials of our lives, though we are inclined to fear, though we often hesitate in the face of struggle, though we often seek to avoid the times that test us. Help us to remember your presence in our lives; even as we walk through the darkest pathways, Your light illuminates our lives. Amen.

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.