************ Sermon on Mark 15:1-15 ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on March 27, 2011
Remember the police officer who woke up Ruth and I ten days ago? The police saw someone scaling the wall into our sub-division and wanted to make sure we were safe. This past Tuesday we opened the Visalia Times-Delta to read this headline: "2 Fresno men arrested in burglary." The article went on to say this:
Visalia police have arrested two men they believe could be connected to up to 15 burglaries in the area over the past five months. Robert Ice and Thurman Ligons ...You look at the pictures. Ice and Ligons even look like felons. Dressed in black. Black skull caps over their heads. Not the sort of guys you want your kids to hang around with or your daughter to date. Thoroughly disgusting men. The kind you hope get locked in prison for a long time.
Ice was arrested in connection with one count of residential burglary, possession of burglary tools and possession of a loaded and concealed firearm.
Ligons was arrested in connection with possession of a firearm by a convicted felon and possession of burglary tools.
But Visalia police say those charges may be just the beginning ...
Working with law enforcement agencies throughout the valley, Visalia police were tipped off that the pair was working in the city limits. Visalia police say the suspects were spotted driving a 1999 Chevy Tahoe through several southwest Visalia neighborhoods while casing for future burglaries ...
In this season of Lent we meet someone like Ice and Ligons in our Bible reading this morning – another disgusting man, a revolting man, the kind best locked up for a long, long time. His name is Barabbas.
Barabbas suddenly shows up in the trial of Jesus. He shows up at Pilate's second attempt to save Jesus from crucifixion. Pilate knew it was wrong to sentence Jesus to death. But Pilate was also a weak-willed man who was scared of doing the right thing if it meant someone was going to be upset. So what did Pilate do? The first thing Pilate did was send Jesus to Herod. Maybe Herod would settle the case. But Herod only mocked Jesus and then sent Jesus back to Pilate. The second thing Pilate did was offer the people a choice between Jesus and Barabbas – thinking the people would surely ask to have Jesus released. We see this attempt – and the introduction of Barabbas – in the passage in front of us this morning.
I A Few Biographical Details
A The Bible tells us very little about Barabbas but it does tell us some things. We can start with his name. Barabbas is an Aramaic name – telling us that Ba-rabbas was Jewish. One of the sons of Israel. The name Barabbas is composed of two Aramaic words: "bar" meaning "son of" and "abba" meaning "father." So Barabbas means "son of a father" – certainly nothing new or earth-shaking there. However, there is an old, old tradition that his full name was "Jesus Barabbas." If this is actually the case, the crowd was offered a choice between Jesus Barabbas and Jesus Christ.
B We also know that Barabbas hated Rome. Scripture tells us he was an "insurrectionist." A fancy word which means he rebelled and fought against Roman rule.
Barabbas was only one of the many Jews of his day who hated the Roman army of occupation. The Jews, as a people, hated the humiliation of being a subservient people. After all, the Jews were the sons of Abraham, the sand of the seashore people, the ones who had been promised the land. So how dare the Romans occupy the land and take away their freedom and even desecrate the Temple? The Jews were a proud people and wanted their freedom more than almost anything else.
The Jewish people hated the Romans. They hated the taxes they had to pay to Caesar. They hated the arrogant soldiers who strutted through their streets. They hated Pilate and Herod for ruling over them.
The Jewish people hated the Roman rules against speaking the sacred Hebrew language in public. They hated the restrictions put on their worship and on their ability to carry out the law of Moses. They hated the fact that all they could do was endure: endure the situation, endure the hatred, endure the lack of power. So, for year after year most of the Jews endured. In silence. Going about their work. Providing for their families. Raising their children.
However, as we see with Barabbas, not everyone of the Jews had the patience to endure. Barabbas was an insurrectionist. As I already said, this means he rebelled and fought against Roman rule. This further means Barabbas was a Zealot. The Zealots were an aggressive political party whose concern for the national and religious life of the Jewish people led them to not only hate and resist the Romans but to also despise any Jews who sought peace and conciliation with the Roman authorities.
Just to give you an idea of the fervor of the Zealots, in the first revolt against Rome in AD 66-70, the Zealots played a leading role. And, at Masada in AD 73, the Zealots committed suicide rather than surrender to the Romans. Our Scripture reading takes place before those events but it tells us that there was an "uprising" and that Barabbas was a participant.
As if the Zealots as a whole were not intense enough, extremists among the Zealots turned to terrorism and assassination and became known as Sicarii (which is literally translated as "dagger men"). The Sicarii frequented public places with hidden daggers to strike down persons friendly to Rome. It appears that Barabbas was one of these Sicarii. Why do I say that? Because Scripture tells us Barabbas "had committed murder in the uprising" (Mk 15:7). We are not sure whom he killed – maybe a Roman soldier or officer, maybe a Jew who cooperated with the Romans, maybe someone who made the mistake of crossing his path during the uprising.
Are you getting an idea of the kind of person Barabbas was? An angry person. A hateful person. Prone to violence. Bitter. Contentious. Brutal. With a temper. Because of his actions ordinary people, innocent bystanders, got hurt and killed. Do you see how Zealots like Barabbas are not much different from the Taliban in Afghanistan whose hatred and zeal continues to inflict damage on ordinary people, innocent people? It is fair to say that Barabbas was loved by neither Roman nor most Jews.
C Where was Barabbas because of his hatred and zeal? He was in prison. In a Roman jail. And, let there be no mistake about it, he was in jail waiting for death. Not only was he waiting for death, he was waiting for death by crucifixion. The Romans did not coddle their prisoners, especially not those who committed murder and rebelled against authority.
What an ending for someone who, I am sure, started with so much promise. To think that at one time he was a baby – fed and rocked to sleep in his mother's arms. At one time he was a curious toddler who fell, scraped his knee, and ran to his mother for comfort. Like all other children he grew and learned and developed and ran and jumped and played. After his arrest, his mom probably told the Jerusalem Gazette that he was a good boy. In other words, he was a person, a real person, with thoughts and feelings and joys and sorrows. But now he sat in a jail waiting for death. As he sat there, you can bet he was not repentant. That he had no regrets. That was the kind of person he was.
II Pilate's Attempt at Rescue
A Mark tells us that "it was the custom at the Feast to release a prisoner whom the people requested" (Mk 15:6). So, "the crowd came up and asked Pilate to do for them what he usually did" (Mk 15:8). They asked Pilate to release a prisoner.
As I already mentioned, Pilate attempted to use this practice to save Jesus from execution.
Now, try to imagine the scene. There is a crowd. A huge crowd. A noisy crowd. A crowd being worked by the chief priests, the elders, the teachers of the law, and the Sanhedrin.
Standing before the crowd was the One Who was completely sinless and perfect. "What crime has he committed?" (Mk 15:14). Pilate knew the answer. So did the chief priests and the elders. They all knew Jesus was innocent and perfect. "What crime has he committed?" Meanwhile, in a prison cell somewhere in the vicinity, was an insurrectionist, a murderer, a troubler of Israel, a Zealot. Someone who deserved to die.
In this situation, Pilate decided to let the crowd be the judge and the jury. "Do you want me to release to you the king of the Jews?" (Mk 15:9).
The crowd was given a choice: Jesus Barabbas or Jesus Christ. Whose name would they yell? Which Jesus would they pick?
Again, imagine the scene. Maybe a few voices said "Christ. Christ." But the Pharisees had worked the crowd. And were standing in the crowd. So there were many other voices saying, "Barabbas. Barabbas." And those voice got louder and louder. More and more voices. "Barabbas. Barabbas. Barabbas." The crowd had made their choice.
What went through the mind of Barabbas as he heard the crowd roaring his name (Mk 15:11)? How scared did he get sitting in his prison cell. Did he pull himself to the window to look out? Was he so scared that he hid and cowered and whimpered in the corner?
On the face of it, isn't this situation totally bizarre? What judge would let things get so out of control that he tries to bargain with a crowd about the life of an innocent man?
B At this point Pilate loses all control of his reason and his dignity as a judge. He let the now out of control crowd decide what to do with Jesus. "What shall I do, then, with the one you call the king of the Jews?" (Mk 15:12). Again, it started with just a few voices, "Crucify him!" And the crowd got louder and bigger and louder still. "Crucify him! Crucify him! Crucify him!"
C "Wanting to satisfy the crowd, Pilate released Barabbas to them. He had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified" (Mk 15:15).
At this point I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall next to Barabbas. Wouldn't he have thought the crowd was out to get him? That his time was up? That his execution was about to happen? That the crowd was roaring for blood, his blood? "Barabbas," he heard. "Crucify him!" he heard next.
Again, imagine the scene. Suddenly the door of his cell was thrown open. Two rough soldiers grabbed him. He was dragged out, kicking and screaming. He was pulled down the hall. The roaring crowd was outside, "Crucify him! Crucify him!" He was pushed outside. Into the hands and arms of a blood-thirsty mob. Who grabbed him and pushed him and cheered him and put him on their shoulders and made him their hero. Crazy. Absolutely crazy.
Meanwhile, Jesus was flogged. This was not a slap on the hand. This was not a hit with a ruler. A Roman flogging was a brutal beating. The prisoner was stripped, often tied to a post, and beaten on the back by several guards using short leather whips studded with sharp pieces of bone or metal. No limit was set on the number of blows. Often the flogging was enough to kill a prisoner.
Those who didn't die from the flogging were formally executed – in this case, by crucifixion. The cross was not a nice cross. Not a little piece of wood, or a nice bracelet or necklace. It was a brutal tool of punishment and death for those who dared to challenge Rome. Again, Rome did not pamper its prisoners or death-row inmates. At that time it was one of the most inhumane and painful ways to kill a man. And, the Romans had it down to a science. They knew exactly the most sensitive nerves in the wrists and ankles where to pound the nails. They knew how far to bend the arms and the legs to make the death as painful as possible.
III The Great Exchange
A The crowd chose Barabbas instead of Jesus – to be set free. Then the crowd chose Jesus instead of Barabbas – to be crucified. You know the result: Barabbas went free while Jesus went to the cross. Barabbas took Jesus' place while Jesus took Barabbas' place. I call this the great exchange.
Barabbas was set free. He was in prison for his misdeeds. These deeds were so terrible that he was soon to be put to death. Then, in a matter of minutes, he was set free and walked away. This was done because Jesus was condemned and took Barabbas' place. The insurrectionist, the murderer, went free while the innocent One took his place.
This great miscarriage of justice should make us upset for only as long as it takes us to realize that we should see ourselves in Barabbas. No, this does not mean we are zealous insurrectionists. Nor does this mean we are murderers. But it does mean that we, like Barabbas, are in jail. Our prison-house is sin and our jailer is Satan. Our lives are in shambles and the punishment we deserve is death. Yet, like Barabbas, we are set free and able to walk away. All because of Jesus.
B Barabbas was set free because of Jesus. What do you think he did with his life after this? Did he take advantage of the golden opportunity to make this a brand new beginning? Or, did he go back to his old life of mayhem and murder? If he was a smart man he would have started anew. He was no longer a prisoner. He was no longer a hunted man. He was no longer a condemned man. The Romans no longer regarded him as a criminal. What a wonderful opportunity to start life anew.
Again, we are to see ourselves in Barabbas. What does Paul say? "If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!" (2 Cor 5:17). When we are set free by Jesus, we are given a brand-new beginning, a fresh start. As Jesus puts it, it is as if we are born-again (Jn 3:3,7).
C Finally, I wonder if Barabbas went to Golgotha to see the One Who took his place? I wonder if Barabbas, even under his breath, said thank you to Jesus for dying for him? And, if Barabbas didn't go he should have gone. He should have stood at the foot of the cross to say thank you to Jesus. You see, Barabbas was the one who was supposed to die but Christ took his place. Barabbas was a horrible man, an awful man, a murderer, an insurrectionist, someone who didn't care who got hurt. Yet, he was set free. All because of Jesus.
Again, isn't this a picture of you and me? I am the one who needs to stand at the foot of the cross. I am the one who needs to say thank you. "Thank you, Jesus, for dying for me. Thank you, Jesus, for taking my place. Thank you, Jesus, for setting me free. Thank you, Jesus, for giving me a new beginning."
Barabbas. We don't know much about him. But we do know enough to see the greatest story ever told – the story of how Jesus took his place and your place and my place upon the cross so we could be set free.
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