Rev. Joel L. Tolbert
Sermon - "God's Plan?"
Maundy Thursday Preached April 9, 2020, at the 6:30 pm Virtual Worship
Scripture Matthew 27:11-20
11 Now Jesus stood before the governor; and the governor asked him, “Are you the ‘King of the Jews’?” Jesus said, “You (might) say so.” 12 () when Jesus had been accused by the chief priests and elders, he didn’t answer. 13 Then Pilate said to him, “Don’t you hear how many accusations they are making against you?” 14 But Jesus gave Pilate no answer (to this), not even to a single charge so that the governor was greatly astonished. 15 Now at the festival, the governor was accustomed to release a prisoner for the crowd, anyone whom they wanted. 16 At that time they had a notorious prisoner, called Jesus Barabbas. 17 So after they had gathered, Pilate said to the people, “Whom do you want me to release for you, Jesus Barabbas or Jesus who is called the Messiah?” 18 (because) Pilate realized that it was (only) out of jealousy that they had handed Jesus over. 19 While Pilate was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent word to him, “Have nothing to do with that innocent man, for today I have suffered a great deal because of a vision about him.” 20 Still, the chief priests and the elders persuaded the people to ask for Jesus Barabbas and to have Jesus (the Messiah) killed.
This is the word of the Lord…
Just a month ago, Sunday, March 8, we gathered for worship here. There were rumors on the horizon. I did elbow bumps instead of handshakes at the back of the sanctuary, but that Sunday felt almost normal. We were all allowed here, and many of us were here. There was coffee. The fellowship table was full of treats. Many of us stood at normal distances from one another and shared stories and laughter. There were hugs. There were no facemasks. When we parted that day, we weren’t yet at the point of seeing the reality of the pandemic all around us, because seeing it changes everything.
That night long ago, when Jesus and his disciples went into that upper room, they sensed something might be coming over the horizon. Jesus imagined it for them. He warned them about it, what could happen to him, what the disciples and priests and government and people might do to him. The disciples didn’t want to believe it could happen to Jesus, nor did they want to believe they might play a role in making it happen.
Sometimes, Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion are talked about as if it was all part of God’s plan, as if God designed all of it and made it happen, as if God was steering everyone on the stage, putting the words and actions into Peter, Pilate, the Priests, and the People.
I tend to resist that kind of language about God’s plan. I believe God has a plan. Jesus calls it the Kingdom of Heaven. That Kingdom, that new way of doing community is God’s plan, and it is coming, and in who Jesus is and what he did, that community is revealed, and is already true, even if it’s not yet fully true on earth like it is in the heavens. But I don’t believe every little word and action we take is part of God’s plan. In fact, many of our words and actions resist God’s kingdom coming.
Jesus knew this too. In tonight’s readings, Jesus sensed their weakness and could imagine them betraying him or denying him. They didn’t think they would, but he knew them. When Jesus pulled aside to pray and asked them to stay awake, they didn’t. They slept. When Jesus was still speaking, one of his own identified him to the authorities. Another betrayed him by pulling a weapon and wielding it against another. There are no weapons in the Community of God. Even if it was pulled in self-defense, it was a betrayal of Jesus and of the community of God, God’s plan. The ones who say they love him the most scatter. In the community of God, the people don’t run away but run toward God. The Community of God is God’s plan, yet all these words and actions don’t look much like God’s community.
Pilate, the one we sometimes blame for crucifying Jesus, understands the jealousy the other religious leaders have for Jesus. Jesus is teaching the scriptures differently and they don’t like it. Jesus is lifting up the lowest and poorest, and lowering the powerful and wealthy, and they don’t like it. Jesus is granting God’s grace without temple strings attached, and they don’t like it. In God’s plan, the community of God, that kind of jealousy and greed and betrayal don’t happen, so this isn’t God’s plan.
Pilate tries going around the religious leaders and offers the people an easy way for Jesus to continue. But the people believe the manipulated stories of their religious leaders, and get afraid, and get riled up, and choose to have Barrabas released, and demand Jesus be crucified. In God’s plan, the community of God, there are no lies there, no crucifixions there. No one manipulates or is manipulated for power or money or control, so this isn’t God’s plan.
It wasn’t God who did this. The disciples did it. They didn’t want to believe it could happen and didn’t like to think they might help. But the disciples crucified Jesus, not God. Pilate had the power to derail it but didn’t. Pilate allowed Jesus to be crucified, not God. The religious leaders slandered Jesus and stirred up the crowds. They crucified Jesus, not God. And the people, they went along with all of it. Jesus being in town was causing trouble, and they just wanted things to go back to normal. If sacrificing one man would make things go back to normal again, then yes, the people crucified Jesus, not God.
Imagine if the disciples had stayed true to Jesus. Imagine if Pilate had used his political power to protect Jesus on behalf of the poorest, the sickest, the immigrants. Imagine if the religious leaders had read the scriptures through Jesus’ eyes, and stopped protecting their own idols but led others in worship and service of God’s just and loving community. Or imagine if the people had said no, no to the weakness of their political leaders, no to the jealous judgments of their religious leaders, and said yes. We want Jesus of Nazareth. We want our city, our nation, every city, every nation to look like the place Jesus calls the Kingdom of Heaven, where the sick are healed, the hungry are fed, the mourning are comforted, the oppressed are lifted up, and the shackled are freed.
When we come out of this pandemic, I pray we do not go back to normal. Instead, I pray we see. I pray we see the ways we the people, we the religious leaders, we the believers and followers of Christ, and we the political leaders… I pray we see the reality of the pandemic of injustice and jealousy and greed and lies all around us. Those things are not God’s plan, but ours. They continue to resist God’s community of love, justice, healing, and wholeness becoming true for all God’s children. So I pray, we see, and let our seeing change everything to look more and more like God’s plan, God’s kingdom, the great beloved community of God.
To this God be all the glory and honor, now and forevermore. Amen.
Now, Blessing, laughter, and loving be yours, and may the love of a great God, who names you and holds you as the earth turns and the flowers grow be with you, this day, this night, this moment and forevermore. Rev. Joel L. Tolbert Pastor, Presbyterian Church of Chestertown