Today’s worship is all about ugly becoming beautiful. It’s about things that we would cringe at, becoming things we cherish.
Our first reading from Isaiah was all about feet. There are plenty of vain people in the world. But there are few people who would pry off their shoes to show off their feet. Oooh, look at those beautiful toes. See how I got that little bit of fungus on that one. And I got some dry skin and some calluses there. Wow, these are beautiful feet.
Feet just aren’t pretty. And yet they become beautiful when those feet bring you what you need. When you’re starving, the feet that bring you food, THOSE FEET are gorgeous. When you child is missing, the feet that return her to you are precious.
In our New Testament reading we see ugliness turning to beauty also. We heard about a harsh letter that the apostle Paul had sent to the Corinthian Christians. A letter that rebuked them for their bad behavior.
Paul was sad to have to write such a letter. He didn’t enjoy pointing out his friends’ sin and making them feel remorse.
But Paul didn’t regret sending the letter either. When Paul showed them their sin, that led them to hate their sin. To turn away from that sin. To turn back to God, trusting in Him for forgiveness. Paul’s letter led them to repentance in the full sense. Sorrow over the sin that they had done, but also confidence that God forgave them because of Jesus. Their ugly sorrow was turned to joy.
In our sermon reading we’re going to see an ugly scene from the life of Jesus. It takes place on morning of His death. He has been brought to Pontius Pilate to be judged. It is one of the darkest, ugliest events that took place before His crucifixion.
We’ll see REASON AFTER REASON why they should have let this innocent man go free. We’ll see a PARADE OF OPPORTUNITIES to release Him, shunned.
Yet this ugliness becomes beautiful when we see that IT WAS JESUS who ignored each reason for His release . IT WAS JESUS who shunned each opportunity to escape.
He knew somebody was had to suffer for sin, and He didn’t want it to be you and me. He wanted us to live with Him and the Father and the Spirit - forever. THAT is what makes this ugliness beautiful. He experienced this for YOU and ME.
Matthew 27:15-31 (NIV)
15Now it was the governor’s custom at the Feast to release a prisoner chosen by the crowd. 16At that time they had a notorious prisoner, called Barabbas. 17So when the crowd had gathered, Pilate asked them, “Which one do you want me to release to you: Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?” 18For he knew it was out of envy that they had handed Jesus over to him.
19While 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.”
20But 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 Christ?” Pilate asked.
They all answered, “Crucify him!”
23“Why? What crime has he committed?” asked Pilate.
But they shouted all the louder, “Crucify him!”
24When 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. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said. “It is your responsibility!”
25All the people answered, “Let his blood be on us and on our children!”
26Then he released Barabbas to them. But he had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified.
27Then the governor’s soldiers took Jesus into the Praetorium and gathered the whole company of soldiers around him. 28They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, 29and then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on his head. They put a staff in his right hand and knelt in front of him and mocked him. “Hail, king of the Jews!” they said. 30They spit on him, and took the staff and struck him on the head again and again. 31After they had mocked him, they took off the robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him.
The Roman Governor knew Jesus was innocent from the beginning. Pilate’s own intelligence sources told him that the religious leaders wanted Jesus dead out of envy.
When Pilate personally interrogated Jesus, His innocence became more obvious. He simply wasn’t a robber, a murderer, or a revolutionary. The kingdom Jesus talked about was a spiritual one, which in Pilate’s estimation, didn’t constitute a threat to the Jewish people or to the Roman government.
Pilate also had the unusual testimony of his wife. There he was, sitting on the judgment seat for goodness sake, and a note comes from his wife? She told her husband not do anything he might regret, because this man was innocent.
Now, it’s my guess that the Governor’s wife didn’t frequently send notes to him telling him who was guilty and who was innocent. Yet, in this case she did. Even though this case was being considered unusually early in the morning, she did. This would have caught Pilate’s attention for sure.
And the REASON she believed Jesus to be innocent should have stopped Pilate dead in his tracks. It wasn’t because she was the close friend of Jesus, or one of His followers. It was because she had a painful dream. This was a supernatural warning, not to be ignored.
The testimony in Jesus’ favor was heavy. Their envy, Pilate’s interrogation, his wife’s testimony and the strange dream - all suggested this was an open and shut case. Jesus was innocent. That’s why throughout the proceeding we see Pilate attempting to get Jesus set free.
First, Pilate simply says, I don’t find this man worthy of the death penalty. But the angry crowd doesn’t accept his verdict. So, Pilate tries to force their hand.
There was an old tradition of letting some condemned criminal go during the Passover festival. The people usually got to pick, but Pilate figures he can get Jesus set free with a little trickery. He says, Okay, I’ll give you two choices, Jesus, you know the guy who’s been healing the sick, giving sight to the blind, feeding the five thousand, casting out demons, etc. OR I’ll release a violent murdering robber. What do you say?
But that doesn’t work either. They actually pick the murderer. Numerous times. What’s really unusual here is the Pilate gives them chance after chance to do the right thing. This is out of character for Pilate.
This Roman governor didn’t like the Jews and they didn’t like him. He was routinely cruel and hurtful to them. History says that Pilate went out of his way to offend the Jews when he could. Eventually, that’s what got Pilate called away from Palestine. But here, he’s strangely kind. Well, kind when compared with his usual tactics. History tells us that Pilate would keep riots under control by dispersing armed, disguised soldiers throughout a crowds. If the blood of Jews had to be spilled in order to make an example – so be it, thought Pilate.
But here, Pilate is shaken. He’s not being a bully at all. And that’s strange especially since HE was being bullied by the religious leaders. You would think he’d respond to their manipulation with a lesson teaching flex of his military might. But instead Pilate tries to lobby the Jews into letting Jesus go. This should have gotten THEIR attention. Should have made them back up a step and examine again why they were pushing so hard for the brutal killing of one of their own.
Pilate’s hand washing is an moving example of how he was appealing to the Jews. This was a Jewish thing to do, a Jewish symbol, not a Roman one.
Turn to Deuteronomy 21. This is what the people of Israel were instructed to do if they found the body of a murdered person.
“1If a man is found slain, lying in a field in the land the LORD your God is giving you to possess, and it is not known who killed him, 2your elders and judges shall go out and measure the distance from the body to the neighboring towns. 3Then the elders of the town nearest the body shall take a heifer that has never been worked and has never worn a yoke 4and lead her down to a valley that has not been plowed or planted and where there is a flowing stream. There in the valley they are to break the heifer’s neck. 5The priests, the sons of Levi, shall step forward, for the LORD your God has chosen them to minister and to pronounce blessings in the name of the LORD and to decide all cases of dispute and assault. 6Then all the elders of the town nearest the body shall wash their hands over the heifer whose neck was broken in the valley, 7and they shall declare: “Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it done. 8Accept this atonement for your people Israel, whom you have redeemed, O LORD, and do not hold your people guilty of the blood of an innocent man.” And the bloodshed will be atoned for. 9So you will purge from yourselves the guilt of shedding innocent blood, since you have done what is right in the eyes of the LORD” (Deuteronomy 21:1-9 NIV).
And there are other places in the Psalms that speak of washing your hands in innocence. This wasn’t a typical Roman custom. Pilate was trying make them see they were murdering this man, through their own symbols. But they didn’t care. They said, Let His blood be on us, and on our children.
Pilate tried one more thing to get the crowd to release Jesus. He appealed to their compassion. This doesn’t come out so much in our reading from Luke. Luke ends by saying that Pilate had Jesus flogged and sent Him to be crucified. After that Luke records the details surrounding Jesus’ flogging, that the soldiers also mocked Him, dressing Him up as a pathetic king.
But this wasn’t merely one last act of cruelty done to pass the time while others prepared the needed implements for crucifixion. John’s Gospel informs us that Pilate had the soldiers do this so that he could show the crowd a broken man. A pitiable creature who had certainly endured enough.
Pilate pronounced Jesus “not guilty” one last time and then presented the scourged and bleeding Christ to the crowd saying, Behold the man.
And there He stood. Dripping blood. With a rough, castaway soldier’s cloak on His shoulders. A sharp crown of thorns pressed into His head. His face puffy and battered from numerous fists. There was a silly reed placed in His hand as a scepter. It was all meant to show them this was enough. It was one last opportunity, in a parade of opportunities, for the crowd to say, Fine, let this pathetic king go.
But their response was to yell, Crucify!
Finally, Pilate gave in. And still, here was ONE MORE opportunity for Jesus to escape. For all his manipulation and arguing and pronouncing and appealing, Pilate STILL had the power to release Jesus. And he should have, with all the evidence stacked on Jesus’ side. He should have, for that’s what judges are supposed to do! Let the innocent go free!
But Pilate turned to the soldiers and echoed the crowd saying, Crucify Him.
And still, there was one more person who could have ended this ridiculous abuse of justice. One other person who could have declared Jesus’ innocence and removed Him from danger.
Jesus Himself could have done this. He had walked safely through murderous crowds before. He had walked on water. He had still storms at sea. He could have escaped at any moment He chose. But He didn’t. And here is the beauty of this ugliness. He didn’t walk away. He didn’t abandon the HARD road to His HARD death because He loved sinners. All of them. You and me and everyone we know.
And through the ugliness of His deliberate suffering and death, we are made beautiful in God’s sight. In Christ’s blood our repulsive words and disgusting deeds are WASHED CLEAN. He was made ugly so that we might become beautiful. God the Father looks on all those cling to Christ, all of us scrabbling sinners, and what does He see? Precious, beautiful people, because they were bought by the death of His precious, sinless Son.
In 2002 pop star Christina Aguilera released the hit single, “Beautiful”. In the song Aguilera implies that beauty is found in our own self-perception. If we love who we are, than we are beautiful people no matter what anyone else might think or say.
Now, beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but we don’t merely want to be beautiful in the eyes of other sinners. Nor merely beautiful in our own estimation. We want and need to be beautiful in the eyes of our Creator.
As we continue to look at Christ this Lent, we’re going to see more ugliness. We can’t escape it. Betrayal, crucifixion and death are hideous things. But let’s also see the beauty. This was done for our benefit. And through Jesus, because of Jesus, and only because of Him, we are beautiful.
The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.