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Worship Series: The Hands of the Passion
Worship Theme: Hands of Self Preservation
Message: The Hands of the Passion - Hands of Self Preservation
Pastor Jake Schram
Look at your hands. You can tell a lot about someone by looking at their hands. You might be able to tell if they do manual labor or instead work inside an office. You might be able to tell if someone is young or old simply by looking at their hands. Almost all of us use our hands for just about everything. Your hands are capable of so many things. They can accomplish great good. They can accomplish horrendous evils. Just take a moment and think about some of the things that your hands have done this past week. Hands can be used to dribble a basketball, write poetry, build a home, show emotion, display comradery through handshakes or high fives. They can do so many things and yet hands can also do nothing. Today, we talk about hands that refused to do anything. Hands that stood-by when they should have done something. Hands of self-preservation. Today, we talk about the hands of Pontius Pilate.
Let’s begin by fast-forwarding several weeks after the events related in our sermon text. This was several weeks after Good Friday, after Jesus’ death and resurrection, after his ascension into heaven, and after Pentecost. Peter and John were on their way to the temple to pray when they were stopped by a man who had been lame from birth. He was looking for money, but Peter gave him something much better. In the name of Jesus, he commanded the man to walk. And when the lame man got up to his feet, he did more than just walk. He couldn’t stop running and jumping and praising God.
All this commotion got people’s attention, and a crowd came together outside the temple in Solomon’s Colonnade. Peter addressed them, and as he spoke, it didn’t take long for him to start accusing them. He said: “You are guilty of killing the one who made this miracle possible. You disowned Jesus. You abandoned Jesus. You handed Jesus over to Pilate to be crucified, though he had decided to let him go.” (Ac 3:13).
If you are familiar with the events surrounding Jesus’ Passion, then you are familiar with Pontius Pilate. We will soon see that Pilate did many different things on Good Friday, but there is one thing he didn’t do. He didn’t do what he had decided to do. Instead of letting Jesus go, he let the enemies of Jesus have their way. And Pilate will forever be remembered as the man who sentenced the author of life to death.
Pilate must have found Jesus to be one interesting man. When Pilate first met him, Jesus said nothing. The chief priest and elders were accusing him of anything and everything, but Jesus said nothing. He didn’t protest his innocence. He didn’t plead for mercy. He didn’t say a word in his own defense, and Pilate was amazed. Think about that. When you and I are accused of something, what do we immediately do? We defend ourselves. We try to reason with others to show we aren’t guilty. Or maybe we know we are guilty and we try to cover up our guilt. We try to blame someone else to distract people from our own guilt. Jesus, completely innocent, just sat there. He knew he was innocent and Pilate would too.
Jesus did open up when the two men were alone, and the things he said made an even deeper impression on Pilate. “My kingdom is not of this world. . . . the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. . . . you would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above” (Jn 18:36,37; 19:11). No one spoke to the Roman governor like that. Come to think of it, no normal person ever spoke like that. And Pilate was beginning to realize that this man was no ordinary human being.
If Pilate found those statements a bit unsettling, imagine how he felt when he received that message from his wife. Now it might be interesting for you to know that every other dream mentioned in the book of Matthew comes from God. So it would make sense that this dream might also be from God. She didn’t need anyone to interpret her dream because the meaning was clear. Don’t mess with that man. Don’t have anything to do with handing over that righteous man (if he did, he would regret it).
At this point, Pilate understood what was going on. In many ways, Pilate was a smart guy. Pilate didn’t get to his position by being naïve and easy to manipulate. He could see what the Jewish leaders were trying to do. He knew that they were jealous of what Jesus had become. And Pilate was convinced (we know it because he said it more than once) that Jesus was no criminal. He was innocent. Now something you should know is that Pilate is the only guy that can put Jesus to death here. The Jews were not allowed to kill without Roman authority and Pilate had been put in that position of authority. When it came to the lands of Judea and Samaria, Pilate was the prosecutor, judge, and jury. It came down to Pilate to decide to kill Jesus or not.
That doesn’t mean Pilate didn’t try to get someone else to take Jesus from him. He tried to get the Jews to deal with him according to their law. They knew they weren’t allowed to kill him without his consent though so they brought Jesus before him. Pilate tried sending Jesus to Herod. Herod said he seemed innocent and sent Jesus right back. Pilate was running out of options. So he tried one last ploy to protect the innocent and protect his position. His last and best chance was a Passover custom to release a prisoner chosen by the people. To make the choice obvious, Pilate proposed two men: Jesus and a notorious prisoner named Barabbas. Barabbas was a criminal, guilty of rebellion and murder. He was so bad that he would make anyone else look good. At least that’s what Pilate was hoping. I mean, it would be like asking you to release either Mr. Rogers or Ted Bundy? Which one would make the streets of Jerusalem unsafe? With Jesus and Barabbas the distinction between them was even so much greater. Perfection vs. Sin. But Pilate’s plan backfired when the chief priests and elders persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas’ release. And the crowds shouted “Crucify him! Crucify him! Crucify him!” (v. 23). The people had chosen sin.
Pilate was responsible for keeping the peace, but his attempts to free Jesus had started a riot. He needed to do something. He needed to decide: “Do I do what I know is right or do I do what I think is best for me?” In the end, Pilate chose himself over Jesus. He sentenced the world’s only truly innocent man to die, while maintaining his own supposed innocence in the process. “He took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood,’ he said. ‘It is your responsibility!’” (v. 24).
Now I want to make this next part very clear. Pilate washing his hands did absolutely nothing to cleanse him of his guilt. It did nothing. You can’t wash off the guilt like that just like you can’t withhold food from your kids, starve them and say, “I washed my hands, I’m not guilty” You can’t murder someone and say, “It’s fine. I washed my hands so I’m clean.” In the same way no amount of water or ritual washings will ever make those guilty hands clean again.
It was bad enough that Pilate condemned an innocent man. What made his actions even worse was that he condemned the sinless Son of God. It was bad enough that Pilate the judge blatantly disregarded justice. What made his actions even worse was that he was too much of a coward to admit his own cowardice. Even though he washed his hands with water, Pilate’s hands were still hands only of self-preservation. It doesn’t get any worse than that, or does it?
It does. All I have to do is take one look at myself. Take a look at my own hands and all the things I’ve done. Take a look at your hands and all the things you’ve done. Those hands of self preservation. In the church, in the safety of this sanctuary, surrounded by the saints, it is so easy to sing God’s praises, but out there it’s a different story. When I’m with my coworkers or my classmates, when I get together with a group of my friends, not all of them are Christians. And some of them can be pretty outspoken. They know what I believe. They aren’t afraid to question what I believe. Sometimes they even make fun of me for what I believe. Or maybe someone is in pain and you know just the message they need to hear. One of my friends calls those moments, shoulder taps from God.
When you and I find ourselves in those situations, we know we should say something. But how often have we said nothing? And after the opportunity has passed, when we have time to think about it, when we are feeling guilty about it, we might try to come up with excuses for our silence: “It wasn’t the right time . . . I didn’t want to get into an argument . . . I don’t want to lose my friends . . . I don’t want to lose my job.” Our hands become hands of self-preservation.
Now tact is important, but if you never tell anyone about Jesus, then when was the right time to do it? On the Last Day, Pontius Pilate will have to answer for choosing himself over Jesus, but we need to remember that he didn’t believe in Jesus. I suppose you could say that was his excuse. We are Christians. We claim to be followers of Jesus. So what’s our excuse? We have no excuse. And when Jesus declares, “Whoever denies me before others, I will also deny before my Father who is in heaven” (Mt 10:33 EHV), we have to shudder when we realize that those condemning (or heaven’s-gates-slamming) words are aimed at us. Just like Pilate we can’t wash off the guilt and shame away by washing our hands or simply taking a shower. Scrub as we might, we can’t wash the guilt away.
But there is someone who did wash the guilt away. Pilate wasn’t the only person who was in a position to take action. Jesus could have come to his own defense. Jesus could have called down legions of angels to destroy his enemies. Jesus possessed the divine power to do everything Pilate failed to do and more, but he chose not to use it. All this because he was washing the sins of the world away.
It is good and right for Christians to praise our Savior God for everything he has done to save us, but this evening let’s focus on everything Jesus didn’t do and everything he allowed others to do to him to save us. He allowed his enemies to arrest him. Praise God! He allowed the soldiers to mistreat him and humiliate him. Praise God! He allowed a crooked court to convict him and a weak judge to wash his hands of him. Praise God! He allowed himself to be numbered among the transgressors to fulfill prophecy and to pay for the world’s sins. Praise God! Jesus allowed his own life to be taken from him so that we might live in his presence forever. Praise God!
You see, God had a choice too. He could release people very much like Barabbas, just as sinful as he was. That’s us. Or he could have chosen to release his son, his very self. He chose to free us. And he used even Pilate’s hands of self preservation as part of his plan to save us all and truly wash away our sins. Jesus’ death on a cross has made us clean, forever.
“THIS IS JESUS, THE KING OF THE JEWS” (Mt 27:37). He’s the king of the world. He would wear a crown of thorns for a short time, but that would soon be replaced with a crown of glory. Our King’s rule extends all around the world, and yet his kingdom is not of this world. His rule is primarily spiritual. He claimed us to be his own through the washing of rebirth. He rules in our hearts through the faith he created on the day of our baptism. And the gracious way Jesus loves us and leads us moves us. As his humble, grateful subjects, we want to follow him. We eagerly seek out opportunities to serve him. And as we pray for his kingdom to come and his will to be done on earth, we look forward to the day when we will reign with him in heaven. Amen