But their final verdict on this day will not be decided by a court of law. It will be decided by the mob. For this day is the Day of the Passover Feast. And by tradition, the governor, also on the dais with these two prisoners, had a custom of releasing a prisoner to the people that day.
And while these two men had futures that were destined for the same destination, their pasts could not be more different. Although, in a way, you could say that their goal was the same: freedom for their people.
One man was a member of a group of at least 3 rebels, 3 insurrectionists who had incited a riot, trying to overthrow Roman rule and who had committed murder in the process. These men were more than likely a part of a religious sect called the Zealots and were even more likely members or a group called the “sicari” because of their habit of hiding daggers in their cloaks which they used to assassinate their victims. At the heart of their acts, wrong as they were, was a great desire to see their nation free from the pagan rule of their Roman overlords.
The other man was the leader of a group of 12 men. These 12 men and their rabbi were a rag-tag band. Their leader was a carpenter or stone mason turned rabbi. His merry band of men was made up of fishermen, a tax collector, an accountant, a Zealot, a doubter, and others. They followed this rabbi and assisted him in his itinerant ministry of preaching about the kingdom of God and healing the sick, the diseased, the blind, the lame, the lepers, the demon possessed, the broken down and the broken hearted. At the heart of their ministry was a singular desire to see their people free – truly free from the rule of their Roman overlords and to see the kingdom of God realized.
Both men on the dais that day were named Jesus. Jesus, bar-Joseph, the son of a carpenter or possible a stone mason form the region of Galilee who was being called the Messiah. The other man was named Jesus bar-Abbas, a Zealot and a member of the “sicari” – a dangerous man.
While having the same name and, in many ways, the same desire; while they were both the victim of beatings and floggings; while they both stood with a death sentence over their head, they couldn’t be more different.
One man was a terrorist, the other a holy man. One man advocated violence and force to overthrow the government, the other advocated peace and taught that the kingdom of God was within. One man defied Rome, the other defied a faithless Jewish religious establishment. Within the last few days, one man incited a riot, while the other rode into Jerusalem on a donkey amid palm fronds being hailed as a Messiah.
Two men stood on the dais that day. Between them stood the governor, a man named Pontius Pilate. Pilate saw these two men for what they really were – one guilty, the other innocent. And yet, the Jewish religious establishment was calling for the death of this innocent man. Backed into a corner because of previously bad decisions when it came to governing the Jews, Pilate hatches a plan to get himself out of the bind that the Sanhedrin is trying to put him in: executing an innocent man. That plan is the prisoner release program.
And so Pilate calls for the other Jesus… Jesus bar-Abbas; insurrectionist, murderer, terrorist. And he asks the crowd, “Who would you want me to release to you?”
The answer was an obvious one: “Give us the man who is our Messiah. Give us the man who can heal our diseases and cure our blindness and treat our lameness and drive out our demons. Give us the man who can both treat the matters of body and soul. Give us the man for who rode into Jerusalem on a donkey – the one for whom we laid down our cloaks and our palm fronds – the one who we sang, ‘Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!’ Give us Jesus bar-Joseph! Give us Jesus of Nazareth! Give us Jesus who is called the Christ!”
But the crowd did not answer that way. Instead, stirred up by the Jewish religious establishment who made their way through the crowd, whispering lies and inciting people into a frenzy, they cried, “Give us bar-Abbas! We want bar-Abbas!”
“And what would you have me do with Jesus, who is called they Christ,” Pilate asked.
“CRUCIFY HIM!” They cried, as one.
And with that, their cry for one Jesus condemned the other. With that, they set in motion a chain of events that concluded with the event we commemorate tonight: the death of Jesus bar-Joseph who is called the Christ, the Messiah.
But instead of dwelling on the actual crucifixion, I’d like us to draw our attention for a few moments to the two condemned men on that dais and the choice of the crowd.
One man – the terrorist – was called Jesus, bar-Abbas. His name means, “Jesus, son of the father.” The other man was Jesus, bar-Joseph – Jesus, son of Joseph. But he referred to himself as the Son of God, the Son of the Father. One man was Jesus, son of the father: lower-case “s,” lower-case “f.” The other man was Jesus, Son of the Father: capital “S,” capital “F.”
The choice of the crowd that day was not between a teacher and a terrorist. Instead, it was between the true and the counterfeit.
And before we condemn the fickle nature of the crowd, might we look at ourselves for a moment to see that faced with the same choice, we often respond just as the crowd did.
We don’t call for the death of an innocent man, mind you. But we often choose the counterfeit over the real. We choose a man-made path rather than God’s plan. We choose what can be seen and the immediate rather than what is unseen and must be taken on faith.
We choose the son of the father rather than the Son of the Father.
We do it every time we follow choose, “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the boastful pride of life.” We do it when we choose “selfish ambition and vain conceit.” We do it when we favor the temporary things we can touch which we think will satisfy us (but never do), over the eternal things that are often invisible and which require faith but are eternal and which will satisfy us completely.
The choice of the crowd is the choice we face each time we ponder our way or God’s way, flesh or spirit. Will we choose the counterfeit – Jesus bar-Abbas (Jesus, son of the Father) – or will we choose Jesus who is called the Christ (Jesus, the eternal Son of the Most High Father).
The result of the people’s choice that day was the release of a guilty man and the execution of an innocent man. We know, because we know the end of the story, that the sacrifice the Jesus made on the cross led to our redemption. We know that it was all a part of God’s plan.
This Good Friday, we remember the dark that must have closed in around the followers of Jesus. We remember the fear and the despair. Here, the one who was to save them had just died. The one who had led them was gone. The one who had power – who raised people from the dead was himself powerless and lay dead in a borrowed tomb.
And the cold dark night of that first Good Friday was anything but good. The hopes and dreams of 11 men – and it is only 11 now, as one of their number was a traitor, betraying Jesus with a kiss for the pieces of 30 pieces of silver (a traitor that himself now lay dead from suicide by hanging) – those hopes and dreams were being snuffed out, as one snuffs out the candlelight. Eleven men who, on that first “Good” Friday drifted into an uneasy sleep that night, not knowing what the next day or week or month would bring.
The darkness had won. The light was gone. The Messiah was dead.
And yet… we know that a light still shone.
We know that hope was not dead.
For even in the darkness, even in death, there was hope.
Because the light had not been snuffed out. And in 3 days time, that light would burst forth in glorious power on the first Easter morning, shouting “Grave, where is your victory? Death where is your sting?” And that light still shines today, as brightly and as brilliantly as ever, its power never weakened, its intensity never dimmed.
But this day, we stop and we feel the darkness. We remember the hopelessness. We let the fear seep in just a little bit so that we can remember what those 11 men felt: the defeat; the depression; the fear; the helplessness.
We remember those things so that the light of Easter will shine that much brighter on Sunday morning.