Judica, the Fifth Sunday in Lent April 1, 2001
Matthew 27:26, 32
175, 145, 360, 179
Then released he Barabbas unto them: and when he had scourged Jesus, he delivered him to be crucified.
And as they came out, they found a man of Cyrene, Simon by name: him they compelled to bear his cross. Here end our texts.
In Christ Jesus, with Whom we want to become better acquainted during this Passion Season, Dear Fellow-Redeemed,
One day a young gas-station attendant was driving his pickup down a lonely stretch of highway in the desert southwest. He came upon a dusty-looking man hitch-hiking by the side of the road. Being a friendly sort of guy, he stopped and gave the man a ride to the next town. He never thought too much about it. Not until later, that is—when he found out that the stranger had died and left him an enormous amount of money. The stranger’s name? Howard Hughes—the famous multi-billionaire!
You’ve probably heard a few stories like that. Stories about obscure small-town people who, by sheer chance, became acquainted with someone very important. Our text this morning is about two such people. Two men who would have been completely forgotten by the history books.—except for the fact that chance circumstances tied them to the death of the most famous person in history—Jesus Christ! Return with me now to those hours of Jesus’ passion, as we contrast—
We Americans are a people who love justice. Nothing seems to make us angrier than to see a guilty criminal go free. Perhaps you were interested in the case of the famous athlete and movie star who went on trial for murder a couple of years ago. Police had conclusive forensic evidence that placed him at the scene of one of the grisliest murders in California history. The evidence seemed overwhelming and conclusive. And yet, after just a short time spent in deliberation, the jury came back with a verdict of acquittal. What an injustice—you may have thought to yourself—that such a man, clearly implicated in so savage a crime, should go free. But today I’d like you to consider a worse injustice. The case of the arch-criminal Barabbas!
The scene is the public square outside the Imperial Courtroom of Pontius Pilate. Although it’s barely eight o’clock in the morning, the heat is beginning to build in the dusty square. An angry crowd has gathered, whipped into an emotional rage by the Jewish elders. They have blood-lust in their eyes, and only one thought in their minds—a thought put there by the elders—Jesus of Nazareth must die! Any charge will do, so Jesus is indicted on the trumped-up charge of rebellion against the government. It’s all the same to the mob, as long as it gets them what they want. “Crucify Him!,” they scream, over and over. “Crucify Him, crucify Him!”
Meanwhile, in a nearby prison building, a criminal lies in chains. His name is Barabbas, and he really is guilty of rebellion. Mark tells us, “And there was one named Barabbas, who was chained with his fellow insurrectionists; they had committed murder in the insurrection.” Mark 15:6. A very rough character, this Barabbas! He’s a hardened criminal, who’s used revolt against the Romans as an excuse for the worst crime of all—murder. He’s already been tried and convicted. Everybody knows about Barabbas—he’s as guilty as the day is long!
Back in the courtyard, Pilate is feeling the pressure. He knows Jesus is innocent, but he can’t quiet the screaming crowd. So he tries a desperate gamble. “Now at the feast the governor was accustomed to releasing to the multitude one prisoner whom they wished. And they had then a notorious prisoner called Barabbas. Therefore, when they had gathered together, Pilate said to them, ‘Whom do you want me to release to you? Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ’” Surely they wouldn’t allow the terrible criminal Barabbas to go free. Given this choice, they simply had to let Jesus go! “The governor answered and said to them, ‘Which of the two do you want me to release to you?’ They said, ‘Barabbas!’ Pilate said to them, ‘What then shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?’ They all said to him, ‘Let Him be crucified!’ …Then he released Barabbas to them; and when he had scourged Jesus, he delivered Him to be crucified.’”
And so it happened. The height of injustice. The innocent Jesus is sentenced to death, and the guilty criminal Barabbas walks! Imagine the scene as Barabbas sits in his cell, mulling over the death sentence that he so richly deserves. All of a sudden the guard appears, unlocks his chains and points him toward the door! Amazed, he wanders out into the sunlight, squinting against the glare. An incredulous smile begins to play at the corners of his lips—he’s barely able to believe the good news!—He must have asked people why he had been released. He must have been curious about the innocent Man who was condemned in his place. I think Barabbas must have been drawn to Calvary. I can see him standing there, gazing in wonderment at the cross, staring open-mouthed at the Man who was taking the brunt of the punishment that should have been his!
Are we “gazing in wonderment at the cross” this Lenten Season? We should be—because we’re just like Barabbas in many ways! For one thing, we were all death-row criminals. Yes we were! Because in God’s book, any sin—the smallest sin—brings with it an automatic sentence of death. God says plainly, “Be ye perfect, for I the Lord thy God am perfect,” and “The soul that sinneth, it shall die!” And you and I are guilty of many sins—not all of them small! We richly deserved to be bound in chains in everlasting darkness—and yet, here we find ourselves walking free in the warm sunlight of God’s favor. What happened to our death sentence? It was transferred, from us to Jesus! Paul tells us, “There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus.” Rom 8:1. We’re free! No further accusations can be brought against us. Even in our American legal system, a person can’t be tried twice for the same crime. God’s justice is far greater. Since He has declared us not guilty, we’re immune from further prosecution. Sin and Satan have lost their power! Paul says, “Who shall bring a charge against God’s elect? It is God justifies. Who is he who condemns? It is Christ who died, and furthermore is also risen, who is even at the right hand of God.” Rom 8:33-34.
Speaking of justice—justice did a different kind of turnaround in the case of Simon of Cyrene. He was truly a “chance acquaintance” of Jesus. He had nothing to do with Jesus’ trial, and he hadn’t been part of that angry mob screaming for His blood. Simon was just an innocent bystander who was all of a sudden thrust into the middle of the most important event in history!
Cyrene was a city in northern Africa which had a large population of Jews. Those who could afford it would try to make the yearly pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the most important Jewish festival, the Passover. Simon was probably just such a pilgrim: a pious Jew, just minding his own business. He had probably found a place to stay somewhere outside the city (Jerusalem was very crowded at that time of year. It just so happened that he was on his way into town, just as the soldiers and the angry crowd were taking Jesus out. Mark tells us, “Now they compelled a certain man, Simon a Cyrenian, the father of Alexander and Rufus, as he was coming out of the country and passing by, to bear the cross.” They didn’t give Simon a choice—they forced him to pick up the cross where the exhausted Jesus had stumbled under the weight. Simon was probably like a lot of people in our day—he didn’t want to get involved! He had nothing to do with Jesus—maybe he never even heard of Him. But like it or not, he was involved now! Suddenly he found himself turned around 180 degrees. Instead of a quiet walk to the Temple, now he was part of the dreadful death-march of Jesus of Nazareth.
Well, Simon must have asked a few questions of his own. After he delivered his grim burden to the top of Calvary, he must have wanted to know Who this bloody, beaten Man was. What terrible crime had He committed to earn this awful death? Someone may have sneered to Simon, “Why, He claims to the Christ—the promised Messiah! But just look at Him now!” Simon got a good look at Jesus. An innocent man, suffering terrible pain, and the cruel jokes of the crowd, without a word of complaint. And then Simon’s life really made a turn. There’s good evidence in the Bible that Simon later came to faith in Jesus! Simon came to believe that that Man on the cross really was the promised Messiah, and that His suffering had a purpose—to free the world from the guilt of sin!
This chance acquaintance on a street of Jerusalem changed Simon’s whole life. And the same kind of change is still happening in our world today. It’s happened to you, and it’s happened to me. When a person makes the acquaintance of Jesus Christ, things change! Sin isn’t any longer the driving force in your life—God is!
Slavery has been abolished in this country for almost 140 years now. Or has it? The Bible tells us that every human being is a slave—either to sin or to God. Most of those around us are slaves to their own lust and greed and pride—But you’ve become acquainted with Christ, by the grace of God, and that makes you a different kind of slave. Paul says, “But now having been set free from sin, and having become slaves of God, you have your fruit to holiness, and the end, everlasting life.” Like Barabbas, God has freed you from the dark dungeon of sin. Like Simon, God has taken hold of your life and turned you around 180 degrees. Now you’re going a different direction; now you’re bearing the cross of Christ. Jesus Himself urges us, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.” This is what freedom and life are all about! Freedom from the tyranny of sin, and the abundant life of faith. Plus, the promise of never-ending life at the end of the line. Truly, the turning to faith is a good turning, and the cross of Christ is an easy burden to bear!
I was a member of the volunteer fire department in the small South Dakota town in which we used to live. We were often called upon to battle large wildland fires. I’ll never forget the first big grass fire I went to—it was near the town of St. Francis. The fireman riding with me in the tanker truck was good enough to offer some me some tips as we traveled, since I didn’t have the first idea what I was doing. When we got to the fire, I saw a ribbon of blackened earth a half-mile wide cutting through the grassland. The fellow told me to always park the truck in an area that’s black, because no matter how the wind shifts, the fire can never come back over a place that’s already burned. It’s like a safety zone. My Christian friends, the cross is our safety zone. There at the cross the judgement of God upon sin fell, once and for all. It fell upon our Savior, and it can never come again! Anyone who takes his stand at the cross can never be condemned. He is in God’s safety zone! God grant that, during this Lenten Season and throughout our lives, we may make our stand right there, under the cross of our Savior! In His blessed Name, AMEN.
Ministry by Mail is a weekly publication of the Church of the Lutheran Confession. Subscription and staff information may be found online at www.clclutheran.org/ministrybymail.
All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the King James Version.