I Am Barabbas

Pontius Pilate declares Jesus’ innocence three times. Nonetheless, the mob of people scream for Barabbas to be set free. Barabbas knows he is a criminal and yet he is set free. I know I am a sinner, and yet, I too am set free because of what Christ did on the cross. That is unmerited favor. We call it grace.

Sermon Series: “Relentless Grace” Part II ~ I Am Barabbas ~ January 12, 2020 ~ Luke 23:13-25

We are in the gospel of Luke this morning. I began last week a sermon series in January focused on God’s grace. This morning we’re in the gospel of Luke. Governor Pontius Pilate has Jesus before him. Now, as the governor, Pilate had the unenviable task of having the final say when it comes to capital punishment – to the death penalty. And that hasn’t changed. If you watch the news or see a movie, and you have that convicted criminal who’s being strapped to the gurney getting ready for their lethal injection or, you know, tied to the electric chair – they’re waiting for the phone to ring, for that pardon. They want to be set free. And that phone call is not coming from the mayor, it’s not coming from the sheriff, it’s not even coming from the president. It’s coming from the governor. Same was here. Capital cases were decided by the governor. Pontius Pilate happened to be the governor in Jerusalem and Judea at the time.

In this particular case, Jews, as a people, had unprecedented freedom in Roman society (in comparison to many others). As long as they kept the peace; they didn’t cause any trouble; as long as they paid their taxes, they were allowed a wide berth of self-governance. One thing they could not do, however, was put somebody to death. Only Rome could do that. That’s why Jesus stands before Pontius Pilate to be judged, not the Sanhedrin. Please join me in the unison prayer as we prepare to study the Word of God. Would you pray with me?

Lord, upon the pages of this book is Your story. It is also our story. Open our eyes that we may see, our ears that we may hear, our minds that we may understand, and our hearts that they may be transformed. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Gospel of Luke, chapter 23, beginning in the 13th verse.

Then Pilate called together the leading priests and other religious leaders, along with the people, and he announced his verdict. “You brough this man to me, accusing him of leading a revolt. I have examined him thoroughly on this point in your presence and find him innocent. Herod came to the same conclusion and sent him back to us. Nothing this man has done calls for the death penalty. So I will have him flogged, and then I will release him.”

Then a mighty roar rose from the crowd, and with one voice they shouted, “Kill him, and release Barabbas to us!” (Barabbas was in prison for taking part in an insurrection in Jerusalem against the government, and for murder.) Pilate argued with them, because he wanted to release Jesus. But they kept shouting, “Crucify him! Crucify him!”

For the third time he demanded, “Why? What crime has he committed? I have found no reason to sentence him to death. So I will have him flogged, and then I will release him.”

But the mob shouted louder and louder, demanding that Jesus be crucified, and their voices prevailed. So Pilate sentenced Jesus to die as they demanded. As they had requested, he released Barabbas, the man in prison for insurrection and murder. But he turned Jesus over to them to do as they wished.
Luke 23:13-25

Pontius Pilate, as you can see, is really hesitant to condemn Jesus. But please don’t confuse this with any sort of idea that Pilate was a man of mercy or compassion. That is not the case. According to the Greek historian Josephus, Pilate was later removed as governor of Judea after he slaughtered a group of Samaritans in a village called Terithana, near Mount Gerizim. They had simply gathered there hoping to dig up some artifacts that had been buried by Moses. He was so brutal, his superiors removed him. So, Pilate was no friend of the Jews, and not a man of grace.

What was going on here? Maybe he didn’t like being pushed around by these uppity Jews who seemed to have a little bit more authority than he believed they should have. They wanted this guy dead, he was going to push back and say, “I’m not going to give them what they want. I’m tired of these folks. They should be put in their place like everyone else.” I don’t know.

Maybe he was listening to his wife, who had said in Matthew 27:

“Leave that innocent man alone. I suffered through a terrible nightmare about him last night.”
Matthew 27:19

I don’t know. Either way, Pilate declares Jesus innocent three times, to no avail. The mob shouted louder and louder, demanding that Jesus be crucified, and their voices prevailed. Pilate saw he wasn’t getting anywhere, and that a riot was brewing. So, Matthew’s gospel tells us he sent for a bowl of water, and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood. The responsibility is yours!” and he gave into their demands. That was the decision he thought he should make based on the information that he had at that place, at that time.

Now, I am inclined to give Pontius Pilate a little bit of leeway. I am not saying he was a good man; he was not. I am saying, in this case, at least he wasn’t sure. He didn’t know, was Jesus guilty of what He was being accused of? Was He who He said He was? He wasn’t sure. He made his decision based on the information that was available to him at the time. He made the best decision he could make, for himself as well. Pilate was told by the Caesar, the king of the Roman Empire, if there were any more uprisings, any more violence, any more rebellion in Judea, his head was going to roll! So, when he sees a riot brewing, he knows he needs to do whatever he can to keep the peace; and if it costs Jesus His life, what is it to him? He made a decision based up on the information he had at the time.

In my office, I have a Beta fish. His name is Ichthys Mortimer Carpivicious – actually, the IV now. The III went to be with the Lord last week. Why Ichthys? (It’s Icky for short.) Ichthus is the Greek word for fish! Makes sense! Also, Ichthys is an acronym. Perhaps you’ve seen this somewhere, maybe on the decal on the back of someone’s car. Looks like I X O Y E, but they are Greek letters. The I is iota. It’s the first letter in the word “Iesous.” You see, there’s no J in the Greek language, so Jesus is spelled with an I. So, “Iesous,” iota. The second letter, the chi, is the first letter of “Christos,” which is Greek for Christ. The third letter, it looks like the O is the theta, the first letter of “Theou,” which is Greek for God. The “upsilon,” the Y is the first letter of “Huios,” which is Greek for Son. And the S, the sigma is the first letter of “Soter,” which is Greek for salvation. So, that acronym that you see, IXOYE is actually “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.” So, when you see that go by on the back of someone’s car, that’s what they’re proclaiming – “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.” Ichthys. So, in English, that’s what it translates into – “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.” It also means fish. So, you see why my fish is also named Ichthys. Mortimer is a nod to my Honey Bunches of Oats. For those of you that know, Walt Disney originally named his mouse Mortimer. He was Mortimer Mouse at first, later they changed his name to Mickey. Who wants to be named Mortimer? His last name, Carpivicious, kind of a double entendre there. Carp is a fish, but Carpivicious is actually my little Lithuanian grandmother’s maiden name. So, it’s Ichthys Mortimer Carpivicious IV (as of Friday). Hey, Icky III lasted almost two years, so he did well.

But I want to tell you a story about Icky II. Icky II wasn’t doing all that well, and I was doing everything I knew how to do (I wasn’t quite yet a doctor), and he wasn’t responding to any of my treatment. (Ever try to massage a little fish?) And finally, one day, Icky II hadn’t moved for quite a while, and I called it. So, I went and bought Icky III, I brought him to my office, and I got my little net. I went down and scooped up Icky II and I walked into the bathroom and I was about to give him a burial at sea. And just before I tip him into the bowl, he wiggles! Crap! He’s not dead! Well, if you know anything about Beta fish, you can’t have more than one. You put two Beta fish into a tank, and they’ll kill each other. They’re very violent. Pretty, but very violent. So, I’m standing there with a fish in my net, and another fish in my office. What do I do? I’m sorry, I made the decision based upon the best information I had at the time. I thought he was dead! So, I gave him a little burial at sea.

Now, look, I know this pales in comparison to what Pontius Pilate is facing; I’m just saying, sometimes we make decisions based upon the best available information we have at the moment. I did, Pilate did. He needed to keep the peace. So, if that means Jesus needs to have a burial at sea, that’s what it means. I cannot have any more rebellion. Besides, he didn’t know if Jesus was who He said He was; and Pontius Pilate was a pagan, so what does he care? So, Jesus is the so-called Jewish Messiah. What difference does it make to him? He knew He wasn’t guilty of the charges they brought before Him, but he also saw that He could be guilty of causing a riot, and that was unacceptable.

But I always try to give Pontius Pilate a little bit of leeway. He was standing there, above the bowl, made the best decision he could at the time.

Barabbas, on the other hand – Barabbas was a revolutionary, and Rome had learned to deal harshly with revolutionaries. They had just fought a war 80 years earlier, led by a revolutionary named Spartacus. It cost a lot of lives. Rebels like that needed to be made an example of. The punishment had to be so severe that it would serve as a deterrent for others to try to do the same thing. That’s why crucifixion. Crucifixion was the most horrible, painful, torturous and humiliating form of execution possible. I mean, if the Romans simply just wanted to kill someone, execute someone, there were plenty of other ways; such as beheading – it was quick, it was easy, you didn’t have to nail someone to a cross and then lift up the cross, and then wait until they died, then take them down from the cross. No, you kneel them down, put their head in the blocks, done. That’s how the apostle Paul was martyred. He was beheaded under the Emperor Nero. So, there were plenty of other ways to execute criminals. Crucifixion was reserved for special cases, like escaped slaves or rebels – enemies of the state. Barabbas had been caught taking part in an insurrection against the government. That made him deserving of death. If justice is getting what you deserve (which we talked about last week), justice is getting what you deserve, mercy is not getting what you deserve. Grace is getting what you don’t deserve. If justice is getting what you deserve, then Barabbas deserved death. According to the Romans, a rebel, a revolutionary, needed to be crucified.

Now, Pontius Pilate may not have been sure about Jesus, but Barabbas knew he was guilty. He knew it. And he knew what the punishment would be if he ever got caught. So, to be set free was a total shock to him. And yet, that’s what happens, isn’t it? Jesus is condemned; Barabbas is set free. Barabbas doesn’t get what he deserves; he gets what he doesn’t deserve – grace. And I wonder, I’ve always wondered, as Barabbas walked away, did he turn and look at Jesus in stunned disbelief? He had his life back, because Christ took his place on the cross.

And that’s when it hit me. I am Barabbas. I know I’m a sinner. I know I’m guilty. It’s not a matter of discernment, it’s not a matter of using the best information you have at the time – I know the things I have done. I know the things I have said. I know the things I have thought. I know the inappropriate jokes I have told. I know the inappropriate things I have looked at on a computer screen that I should not have. Do you think I have never lied about my children’s’ age to get them in at a cheaper price?

I know what I’ve done. I don’t forget any of it. I remember when I was barely a teenager, and one day I was left in charge of my younger brother. You ever been left in charge of a younger sibling? Isn’t that awesome? Well, that particular day, I was in charge of making John lunch. I don’t know about you, but when I was growing up, when we made soup, soup wasn’t ready to eat. You opened up the can of tomato soup, and this gelatinous glob fell into the pan, and then you had to add a liquid to make tomato soup. And my entire life growing up, my mom always made tomato soup with milk. I thought that was tomato soup. I had no idea it was different. But I’m reading the can, as I was preparing to make lunch for my little brother who was irritating the snot out of me. “Look at that, you can make tomato soup with milk, or with water!” When you make it with milk, it’s actually Cream of Tomato soup. I didn’t know that! He didn’t know that! I just discovered it. So, I ask, “Hey John, do you want tomato soup, or cream of tomato soup?” He didn’t know. He said tomato soup, expecting he was going to get what my mother always made. So, I made him tomato soup, with water. And I made it for myself with milk. I mean, it’s such a small thing; forty years later, it still bothers me!

I know the things I’ve done. I know the things I’ve said. I know the things I’ve thought. I am Barabbas. That’s what hit me. And like Barabbas, I have been set free because of what Christ did on the cross. Because of God’s relentless grace.

Set free. Set free, what does that mean, to be set free? We use that a lot. “If you want to be set free, you have to give your heart to Jesus!” Set free from what? It’s kind of like when we use the word “saved.” “Are you saved? When did you get saved? We have to help people get saved! Saved!” From what? From justice. From getting what we deserve. From Matthew, chapter 7. One of the most difficult Scriptures in the whole Bible, I believe, when Jesus says:

“Not everyone who calls out to me, ‘Lord! Lord!’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Only those who actually do the will of my Father in heaven will enter. On judgment day many will say to me, ‘Lord! Lord! We prophesied in your name and cast out demons in your name and performed many miracles in your name!’ But I will reply, ‘I never knew you. Get away from me, you who break God’s laws.’”
Matthew 7:21-23

Wow. Those who break God’s laws aren’t going to enter into the kingdom of heaven. Those who break God’s laws. You see, when I listen to that story, usually (I’m just being honest), I just think it’s about the other guy. But I have broken God’s laws. I still do. And if I’m not going to enter into the kingdom of heaven, then where am I going? There are only two options. I am either wheat or chaff.

Earlier in the gospel of Luke, he tells the story about John the Baptist, and how people thought that John the Baptist was the Messiah. And they ask him, “Are you the Messiah? Are you the one?” And John says, “No, it’s not me, it’s a guy coming after me.” And he says in chapter 3 verse 17:

“He [this person coming after me] is ready to separate the chaff from the wheat with his winnowing fork. Then he will clean up the threshing area, gathering the wheat into his barn but burning the chaff with never-ending fire.”
Luke 3:17

The wheat are the believers, who will be gathered up into the barn – heaven. The chaff are those who break God’s law, and will be tossed into the never-ending fire. What is the never-ending fire? Hell! Hell is justice for those who break God’s laws. And I am Barabbas.

But I need to remember which Barabbas I am. See, verse 19 tells us Barabbas was in prison for taking part in an insurrection, and for murder; I am not that Barabbas. I am not the Barabbas in chains for rebelling against the government and breaking God’s laws. I am the Barabbas who is walking away in stunned disbelief, because Christ has taken my place. And that’s what I need to focus on. Why is it so easy to think about all the things I have done wrong in my life; all of God’s laws that I’ve broken? I don’t know. But that’s where I tend to go. That’s what I tend to do. And I need to stop it. This is the evil one trying to get me to ignore how the story ends. Barabbas walks away. Yes, I am Barabbas, and like Barabbas, I am guilty. But that’s why He sent Jesus. Barabbas didn’t get what he deserved, and I won’t get what I deserve, because our God is a God of grace. Remember that, Adam. Focus on that.

It’s like a place kicker. We’re in the midst of the playoffs. Picture yourself a place kicker on a football team, and your team made it all the way to the Superbowl! And it’s the fourth quarter, and time is running out, and your team drives down to the 11-yard line. The score is tied, so on you trot to the field. All you need to make is a 28-yard field goal – you’re on the 11, there’s a 10 yard endzone, the ball is placed seven yards behind the line of scrimmage, so it’s a 28-yard field goal, it’s what they call a chip shot. Easy! You line it up. You’re going to be the hero! You kick, and you shank it left. You miss. Your team goes into overtime, and you win! Your team wins! You are now a Superbowl champion (you obviously don’t play for the Jets). You are a Superbowl champion! You’re all excited! World champions! And all you can think of – how did I shank it left? I can’t believe I missed it.

Why do we do that? Why do I do that? I don’t know. I have to stop spending so much time thinking about all the field goals I have missed, all the ways in which I have failed, all the laws I have broken. Barabbas was an example. God wanted to show us, even though he was in prison for insurrection and murder, he can receive what he doesn’t deserve. I do too. Yes, I am Barabbas, and that means I have received God’s grace because of my faith in Jesus Christ. I have been saved. And if you have faith in Jesus Christ and what He did on the cross, you have too. So, stop thinking about the charges Barabbas faced, and remember the verdict. You’re walking away! Please, hear me. On judgment day, believers will walk away from hell itself because of God’s relentless grace. Focus on that, not on the Campbell’s soup cans. Not on the field goals you have missed. Not on the laws you have broken. Focus on the fact that Christ went to the cross so you could walk away. If you want to hear about all the field goals you have missed, you’ve come to the wrong address. If you want to hear about how God’s relentless grace, about how God loves you so much that He went to the cross in your place, welcome to South Congregational Church. I want us to focus on the fact that we walk away. I’m going to try to look back and give thanks. I am blessed because of God’s relentless grace. You are blessed because of God’s relentless grace. Focus on that. Would you stand and pray with me?