- Centered around the most famously insignificant governor of all time, Pontius Pilate;
- Open and closed with anecdotes involving funerals;
- Took a title from a relatively obscure Steve Winwood song while also referencing Lynrd Skynrd and Pink Floyd;
- Landed at this bottom line: When it comes to Jesus, indecision is the worst decision of them all.
Some time ago, I was involved in hosting a really sad funeral here. The man who had died was only distantly connected here, he had died suddenly & tragically, and his wife of only a couple of months was quite literally in shock throughout. The service itself involved a lot of moving parts and there were all kinds of competing voices for who gets to do what and say what as we remembered this man. Finally, on the day of the service, we’re starting in an hour or so, this beleaguered wife told me that one more person had put in more request just that morning to have a role in the service, and she concluded by saying, “I cannot make another decision on this. You decide yes or no on this one. I am all out of decisions.”
You may know what that’s like. Where there are either no good options or TOO MANY GOOD ONES and the responsibility of making a decision is so very heavy. Especially if you’ve already made a bunch of weighty decision, and each decision you made ensured that certain people were unhappy. I know there have been many times here when, while meeting with leadership over some vexing problem or dilemma, my insides were crying out, “Can I step out of the room, get a drink of water, and come back in and you all have decided? I’m just out of decisions and I’d like for you all to give a guy a break!”
You’ve had that. Some of you, when younger, it was Do I take HIM or HIM? Or is it HER or HER? Goodness, I bet for some of you THAT kind of decision was last week. Or last night! And then there’s THIS SCHOOL or THAT SCHOOL. This coach or that coach. This house, that house. Southwest Charlotte or Fort Mill or Lake Wylie? And don’t forget Belmont! Even IS IT GONNA BE GOOD SHEPHERD OR ELE …. Well, NOT Good Shepherd? So what do you do when you don’t know what to do, when you can’t make up your mind, when you’re out of decisions?
And so in this series we’re looking at the effect that Jesus had on the people he encountered in Scripture. Particularly those he ran into in the last days of his life. What did they do? How did they respond? What was the Jesus Effect on these random people who didn’t ask for but nevertheless received supporting parts in the defining drama of human history? Among the most interesting of all these is Pontius Pilate who is the most famous insignificant governor in the history of the human race. The best known no name ever. Why? One line in the Creed – suffered under Pontius Pilate. So Jesus suffered “under” PP, but what did PP himself do as a result of Jesus?
Here’s the scenario. The religious leaders have already found guilty of blasphemy – claiming to be God – and it is a capital offense The problem is that the religious leaders in the Roman Empire don’t have legal authority to pass a death sentence. So they gots to get the government involved. That’s where Pilate comes in. He’s not Jewish, but Roman, not a religious leader but a civil one. Pilate, will you do our dirty work for us? Will you DECIDE? And in Matthew’s hands what follows is full of twists, turns, eye rolls, and the kind of insights that make you see Pilate’s not the last one to have his particular kind of Jesus effect.
Look at 27:11:
11 Meanwhile Jesus stood before the governor, and the governor asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?”
“You have said so,” Jesus replied.
What’s behind the “meanwhile”? What has come just before? Poor Judas and his betrayal and suicide. So betrayal hovers all around this story. But Pilate cuts to the chase: ARE YOU KING OF THE JEWS? It’s interesting the Jesus doesn’t exactly dignify the question with an answer, which as you’ll see in a moment is something PP is going to need to get used to. Look next at 26:12-14:
12 When he was accused by the chief priests and the elders, he gave no answer. 13 Then Pilate asked him, “Don’t you hear the testimony they are bringing against you?” 14 But Jesus made no reply, not even to a single charge—to the great amazement of the governor.
Huh! No answer again!
Then it gets even more intriguing in 26:15-18:
15 Now it was the governor’s custom at the festival to release a prisoner chosen by the crowd. 16 At that time they had a well-known prisoner whose name was Jesus[a] Barabbas. 17 So when the crowd had gathered, Pilate asked them, “Which one do you want me to release to you: Jesus Barabbas, or Jesus who is called the Messiah?” 18 For he knew it was out of self-interest that they had handed Jesus over to him.
Which Jesus (which was a relatively common first name)? Jesus Son Of Abbas or Jesus Son Of God? Jesus Criminal or Jesus Christ? And notice that these are more questions that hang in the air, sort of unanswered. You think he’d get the message! And verse 18 – talk about irony. He knew that had handed Jesus TO HIM out of self interest … as you’ll see, he is fixin’ to return the favor.
Then another twist, and Matthew is the only biographer who includes this nugget in 25:19: 19 While Pilate was sitting on the judge’s seat, his wife sent him this message: “Don’t have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him.”
So: is he gonna listen to her or to the quickly animating crowd? Guys, that’s a decision that really should be no decision. But maybe we just have the benefit of a couple of thousand years of hindsight!
And then look at 27:20-23:
20 But the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus executed.
21 “Which of the two do you want me to release to you?” asked the governor.
“Barabbas,” they answered.
22 “What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called the Messiah?” Pilate asked.
They all answered, “Crucify him!”
23 “Why? What crime has he committed?” asked Pilate.
But they shouted all the louder, “Crucify him!”
Finally they answer at least one question! Barabbas! And a second one: Crucify him! But the third one they DON’T answer. What did he do? WE DON’T CARE! CRUCIFY HIM!! And you KNOW, don’t you, that these are some of the same people who had five days earlier cried out “Hosannah!” when Jesus entered the city. Some people.
So with the crowd ratcheting up its intensity on the one hand and his wife whispering in his ear on the other, what Pilate does next is just classic. Look at 27:24a:
24 When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd.
Ah! Performance art! Look at me! The victim here! I am washing my hands of this, of him, of you, and maybe, just maybe, of my wife. Then his words in 27:24b: “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said. “It is your responsibility!” I AM INNOCENT (No you’re not!) IT IS YOUR RESPONSIBILITY (No it’s not!) Lie, lie, lie. Hey PP, your irresponsibility just became someone else’s responsibility! Which they did in 27:25-26: 25 All the people answered, “His blood is on us and on our children!” 26 Then he released Barabbas to them. But he had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified.
YOU CAN’T DECIDE, PP? WE’LL DECIDE FOR YOU! WE’LL KILL HIM DEAD.
And you get to the end of the scene and you realize with a thud that the effect of Jesus on Pontius Pilate was to dither. To waffle. To evade. To hesitate. To flip flop, in the finest “I voted for the war before I voted against it” kind of moment. And history has long tried to decide whether or not Pilate is a villain. And honestly I say he’s not. He’s not a villain. He’s something worse. He’s a shame. Because here’s the deal: When it comes to Jesus, indecision is the worst decision of them all.
What I’m thinking of is a bit like the actor Hugh Jackman (AV). Now Julie says he is, like, REALLY handsome, but I don’t see what all the fuss is about. Anyway, after being raised in a church setting he has forged his own spiritual path which he summarized this way: “Its basic philosophy is that Buddha and Krishna and Jesus were at a dinner table together they wouldn’t be arguing. There is an essential truth. And we are all limitless.” (AV) Hey, I don’t think they’d be arguing, either. But only one would be reigning and two would be worshipping. He’s not a member of committee sharing leadership. He is Lord of all. When it comes to Jesus, indecision is the worst decision of them all.
Or it’s like this photo of a street with a stripe in the middle separating the two directions: AV. You know what happens if you stand in the middle, straddling that line, don’t you? You get hit by traffic from both sides! When it comes to Jesus, indecision is the worst decision of them all.
Or it’s like a tie in sports. What do they call it? Like kissing your _____________. Right! Satisfying to exactly no one. This is why most sports that USED to have ties have gone to elaborate overtime schemes to make sure there is a decision, one way or another. When it comes to Jesus, indecision is the worst decision of them all.
I’m telling you all this because I know that a lot of you here like Jesus, usually like him better than church. But despite the fact that you like him, you’re not all there. You haven’t decided. Jesus is something you do when you come here on occasion. He’s not someone you are when you wake up every morning. You’re still deciding. Or delaying. Some of you just want to have a few more months or a few more years of good times, not realizing that what you’re getting is hollowing you out from the inside. You’re chasing the counterfeit and acting like it’s real. Every wild oat you sow, young people, will one day grow into thorns. REFRAIN
And then some of you, a lot of you, are like that old song when it comes to Jesus: comfortably numb. Blasé. It’s really been like an inoculation. You know what they do in an inoculation, don’t you? They give you just a little bit of the disease that guarantees you never get the real thing. For a lot of you, a weekly (or monthly or quarterly or annual!) trip to church has been that inoculation … you got just enough of him to guarantee that you don’t get the real thing. Bleh. Because so many people have found it easier to disengage than to dig in. To trust what you’ve heard about Jesus or think of Jesus rather that exploring and inviting him. The scary thing is that I believe he would prefer our contempt to our complacency REFRAIN.
And the scarier thing is that if you don’t decide about Jesus, someone else will decide for you. That’s what happened with Pilate! He couldn’t decide what to do with Jesus and so the crowd did it for him! For you, it could be that philosophy professor at college – who never had to make a payroll or turn a profit and has had three wives but has convinced you he is way smarter than Jesus or Paul or the rest. It could be that actor or actress you see on TV and for some reason you think their uncanny ability to play someone else on film makes them an expert on matters of religion. Or even that parent who you so deeply respect – or truly fear? – and they’ve made their way in life without Jesus OR religion, thank you very much. And others have left you thinking he is either irrelevant or a relic in a museum or hosting an imaginary dinner party of religious equals. And none of that is true because all of the others stayed dead. Jesus didn’t. REF and I don’t want your Jesus irresponsibility to become someone else’s responsibility.
And then, and then, a lot of you HAVE decided. And you’re just realizing today that the Jesus decision – where you say, “Yes, you can have my life, not as accessory or add on but as the whole outfit, the center of it all!” – is a decision that in so many ways asks for a daily re-up. A daily re-commitment. A daily reinforcement of a long ago decision. Are you going to dig into Scripture? Are you going to pray? Are you going to share your faith? Are you going to respond to that call you’re sensing to ministry? To the mission field? Are you going to give? To resist temptation? To go to a meeting? Gulp. Listen: it’s never not worth it. I didn’t say easy. Just worth it. REF.
Because your decision … is already swallowed up by the fact that he decided FOR YOU a long time ago. He endured the cross. He vanquished the grave. That was his decision for you and about you. What did Pilate ask him? Are you the King? Yes … and there is no other.
It’s all like what happened – at a funeral, incidentally – with a preacher and his wife:
I went to a funeral where the preacher pounded on the pulpit and looked over at the casket. He would say, “It’s too late for Joe. He might have wanted to get his life together. He might have wanted to spend more time with his family. It’s too late for him, but it’s not too late for you. You still can decide. You are still alive. It’s not too late. Today is a day of decision.”
Then the preacher told how a Greyhound bus had run into a funeral procession once on the way to the cemetery, and that could happen today. He said, “You should decide today. Today is the day to get your life together. It’s too late for Joe, but it’s not too late for you.”
I was so angry at that preacher. One the way home, I told my wife, “Have you ever seen anything as manipulative and as insensitive to that poor family? I found it disgusting.” She said, “I’ve never heard anything like it. It was manipulative. It was disgusting. I was insensitive. Worst of all … it was also true.”