Today we enter the last two weeks of Lent. These 14 days were the earliest extended commemoration of our Lord's Passion. So today was commonly called Passion Sunday. It's liturgical name is the Latin Judica. Like all the Sundays in Lent, its named from the first word of the Introit. In Latin it's Judica; in King James English it's "Judge"; in NIV it's "Vindicate".
So what are we being called today to judge? Whom are we being called to vindicate? First we are being called to judge between Jesus and the Jewish leaders so that Jesus, and us to, might be vindicated. Before we go into the last 2 weeks of the Passion where Jesus will suffer immensely, we want to be clear on what is at issue between Jesus and the Jewish leaders. I think this very point is slip-sliding away from us.
It seems to me that many people approach the arrest, trial, whipping, and crucifying of Jesus with an attitude of "you can hardly blame the Jewish leaders." "Come on," a person will say, "the Sanhedrin was specifically charged with judging religious teaching. Jesus comes along challenging their idea of the Sabbath, their idea of holiness, and their idea of religious cleanliness. Jesus comes along challenging centuries of church tradition. Jesus comes along claiming to be God in flesh and blood, claiming to have existed before Abraham, claiming to be the great "I AM" who appeared to Moses in the bush, and what do you expect?" People equate what the Jewish leaders did to Jesus with how we would treat a person contradicting our traditional beliefs while claiming to be God.
This isn't a fair comparison. Do you know what brought about this crisis meeting of the Sanhedrin in our text? Was it Jesus breaking their dearly held Sabbath laws? Jesus throwing the money changers out of the temple? Jesus having a revolutionary view toward women? (All of these are what some people think caused Jesus to get in trouble.) No, it was Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. In nearby Bethany, right before the eyes of the Jewish leaders, Jesus had raised Lazarus who had been dead and buried 4 days. Popular Jewish superstition said that the soul of the deceased hung around the body for 3 days. The other resurrections, the window's son at Nain and Jairus' daughter, happened right after they died, perhaps the Jewish leaders discounted the miracle. Here Jesus had purposely waited 4 days, so Lazarus was good and dead to the point where his sister said in reaction to the Lord commanding the tomb be opened, "Lord, he stinks." Who could deny this resurrection?
And they didn't. In fact, they didn't deny any of His miracles. "Here is this man performing many miraculous signs," they say in our text. They didn't deny Jesus healed disfigured lepers They didn't deny Jesus healed a man born blind. They didn't deny that Jesus fed thousands with 5 loaves and 2 fish. Even one of their own had said, "You have come from God because no one can do the signs you do unless sent from God." Jesus didn't do miracles like charismatics claim today lengthening a leg here or there, removing deafness, making someone who limped walk - none of which by the way have ever been medically verified. Jesus did miracles that not even His enemies could deny: withered limps restored; dead and buried men resurrected; visibly disfigured people made whole.
Stop feeling sorry for the poor Jewish leaders thinking they were just afraid that their childhood religion was being taken away from them. What they plainly say they are afraid of is losing their place in society. They are afraid that Jesus will cause them to lose their worldly situation. They are Enron executives protecting their wealth. They are political officials afraid of being exposed. They're willing to kill a Man they know to be innocent; they're willing to murder a miracle worker sent from God for personal and political reasons. They're willing to kill God the Son so that they could be gods even as Eve willingly took the fruit to be as God.
Do you know why it is so critically important that you see the Jewish leaders as without excuse? Because if they have any excuse for what they did, then Jesus is not totally innocent. If anyone who made Jesus suffer, had a good reason, an understandable reason for what they did, then Jesus wasn't completely innocent. Then Jesus suffered for at least some of His own sins, and therefore, Jesus couldn't have suffered for yours. In order to be a sacrifice for sins Jesus had to be a pure, unblemished Lamb. The Lamb of God couldn't carry away the sins of the world, as John the Baptist preached He did, if He was carrying away any of His own sins no matter how small.
Unless we judge correctly that Jesus was totally guiltless than you and I can't be vindicated before God the Father. Our sins would still be on us; our guilt would still be on us; our punishment would still await us. But if Jesus is sinless than He suffers for our sins. If Jesus is guiltless, then He suffers and dies the guilt of all men and women bearing. If Jesus didn't in any way deserve to be punished then He was punished for our sins. The only way for you and I to stand before God without sin, guilt, and punishment is if Jesus stands before the Sanhedrin, Pilate, and Herod as guiltless. Jesus did so stand before them; therefore, we so stand before God.
There's something else to be judged in this text; we need to judge between good and evil so that God the Father might be vindicated. As you know, mankind fell when they ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. God said after this, "Behold, the man has become like one of Us knowing good and evil." We know good and evil now but we can't rightly distinguish between them. God works through what men call evil. Sickness, suffering, and death our only evil to us in our fallenness. We can't see that in these God is at work for good, so we chafe and strain, fight and complain against God as His good work comes wrapped to us in these evil things.
We've established that the Sanhedrin is moved only by evil. The leader of it was a man named Caiaphas, the high priest at the time. He was motivated by unbelief, hatred of the things of God, pride, and power. What good could come from him? Amazingly the Spirit of prophesy came from his sinful, wicked lips. Make no mistakes; he only meant to speak what he wanted, but he spoke what God wanted. From Caiaphas' point of view his prophesy proceeded from envy and hatred of the innocent Jesus. From God's point of view, it proceeded from grace and love for sinners.
Friends our Lord still works this way today. There are evil people in our lives too. People who speak out of wicked motives to bring about our downfall. Oh how we wish God would just stop them, silence them. But He doesn't. We strain and struggle to free ourselves from them wondering why God doesn't miraculously step in and do something to vindicate us. But from their evil thoughts and plans the Lord works His good for His redeemed children.
What happens to Christ is proof positive of this. Caiaphas and company only intend to hurt Jesus, the holy Son of God. Nothing in all the world can be more barbaric, more demonic, more irredeemably evil. Yet from their plans, God brings about the redemption of all humanity. What in your life could be more evil than what they wanted to do to Christ? Can cancer, heart disease, pain, family turmoil, work problems even come close to being as evil as what the Jewish leaders plotted to do to Christ? If God the Father could bring such good, such glory, such grace from that evil, imagine what He can do through the evil that is in your life? Though what you see before you can only appear evil, something to flee from not embrace, curse not bless, reject not accept, know that God is at work in that very evil embracing you, blessing you, accepting you.
The Jewish leaders formulate nothing but a self-serving plan to preserve their Jewish nation and their prestigious place. It's all about them, their power, place, pride, and position. Yet all the while they are plotting to fulfill their plans, the God of all things is at working fulfilling His promise to preserve His people. The disciples watched as the Jewish leaders' plans unfold surely thinking that all that is good, holy, and just in the world is being defeated. Surely they despaired as Jesus was wrongly arrested, tried in a kangaroo court, tortured without pity, condemned without mercy. Nothing good could come from such a travesty of justice. Yet all that is good, holy, and just in the world would come from Jesus hanging on the cross innocently bearing the sins of the world.
And you know they tried to stop it. In Gethsemane, they drew their swords to stop it. In the crowd, surely some of them were shouting "Release Him," as the rest shouted, "Crucify Him." In the crowd, surely some screamed, "Jesus, Jesus" when Pilate offered the choice between Barabbas and Jesus. Haven't you, armed with your understanding of good and evil, fought against God in some such situation? I have. I thought I was pursuing the good by trying to fight against what was so evil to me. Thanks be to God that not even His beloved children get in His way. Thanks be to God that not even we are able to frustrate His plans to work through evil to bring us a good far beyond our wildest dreams. Thanks be to God that not just evil men but good, righteous, forgiven men are not able to frustrate the glorious plans of God.
God is forever switching the tables. Out of a heartless, evil plain to kill one innocent Man to spare many guilty, God brings many guilty men into the One innocent Man for salvation. Out of this unbelieving, vicious act against Christ, God will bring belief in the crucified Christ for forgiveness. The horrible cross becomes the magnate drawing people into the holy Christian Church. The cross is the universal sign of Christianity, not the empty tomb, not the mighty miracles of Jesus, but a bloody, cross erected by evil men. The cross that the Jewish leaders meant to be sign of cursing, guilt, failure, and death, has become a sign of blessing, forgiveness, victory, and life. That's why we use the cross to mark our graves in death, our babies in Baptism, our people in Church, ourselves in life.
God is always turning things on their head. Jesus is heading for certain defeat and death, yet it turns into our victory over sin and life eternal. You and I are heading for pain, suffering, sickness, and death. Men can sometimes snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, but God brings about victory from the very belly of defeat. Men can suddenly turn something around at the last moment, but God waits until all is lost. God doesn't snatch victory from the jaws of the beast but from the very belly. The grave completely swallows Christ, but from the grave of Christ, He brings our life. So it's a small thing for Him to bring blessing, living, and rejoicing from the beasts that curse, kill, and sadden us. "Judge not the Lord by feeble sense," we sing. What is evil in the hands of men is good is the hands of God especially when those hands have nail holes in them. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Lent V (3-17-02), John 11:47-53