Sunday, December 09, 2012

The Trial Of Jesus: His Theology, Politics and Superpowers

Download the audio sermon here

Let’s start with a quiz. What do these pictures have in common? They are all sensational trials or court cases that became hot conversation topics in mamak stalls, kopitiams all over Malaysia. While presidential candidates in other countries debate boring stuffs like “Do we want a big or small government or how to create more jobs in the economy?” we Malaysians get to be entertained by court drama full of C4 explosives, sex, lies and videotapes.

Who framed Anwar Ibrahim? Can Azlina Jailani (Lina Joy) have the freedom to change her religion? What’s the motive of Altantuya’s murder? These are trials of shadowy political intrigue and explosive theological controversy…

But when the media buzz subsides, people do tend to forget them after a few years, don’t they? After some time, they get numbed and so tired of reading the same things daily in the papers. And they move on to the next sensational hype that comes along – Gangnam Style or something like that.

In the Bible we read of another trial full of shady political drama, police brutality and theological controversy. It’s the trial of Jesus before the Jewish and Gentile authorities shortly after he was betrayed. It was a trial that made front page news in Jerusalem. Is Jesus the king of the Jews? Is he a threat to Caesar’s power? Is He the Son of God?

These questions still confront each of us today: Who do you say is this Jesus of Galilee? After more than 2000 years, people are still talking about it… Hollywood and Broadway continue to churn out movies, plays and songs surrounding these events. Every year, on Good Friday, Christians all over the world reenact the story of Jesus’ trials and rejection. They continue to remind us how and why humanity (both Jews and Gentiles) would nail Jesus to the cross. For the last few weeks, we saw how various individuals have responded to God’s calling… but today, let us take a look at those who chose the opposite and missed the boat… 1) The Jewish religious elite who were unhappy about His theology, 2) Pontius Pilate who was unimpressed with his politics and 3) Herod Antipas who was disappointed with His superpowers. People whose lives intersected with Jesus but missed the opportunity of a lifetime…

Jesus on Trial: Luke 22:66-71; 23:1-2566 At daybreak the council of the elders of the people, both the chief priests and the teachers of the law, met together, and Jesus was led before them. 67 “If you are the Messiah,” they said, “tell us.”Jesus answered, “If I tell you, you will not believe me, 68 and if I asked you, you would not answer. 69 But from now on, the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the mighty God.”70 They all asked, “Are you then the Son of God?”He replied, “You say that I am.”71 Then they said, “Why do we need any more testimony? We have heard it from his own lips.”Then the whole assembly rose and led him off to Pilate. And they began to accuse him, saying, “We have found this man subverting our nation. He opposes payment of taxes to Caesar and claims to be Messiah, a king.”So Pilate asked Jesus, “Are you the king of the Jews?”“You have said so,” Jesus replied.Then Pilate announced to the chief priests and the crowd, “I find no basis for a charge against this man.”But they insisted, “He stirs up the people all over Judea by his teaching. He started in Galilee and has come all the way here.”On hearing this, Pilate asked if the man was a Galilean. When he learned that Jesus was under Herod’s jurisdiction, he sent him to Herod, who was also in Jerusalem at that time.When Herod saw Jesus, he was greatly pleased, because for a long time he had been wanting to see him. From what he had heard about him, he hoped to see him perform a sign of some sort. He plied him with many questions, but Jesus gave him no answer. 10 The chief priests and the teachers of the law were standing there, vehemently accusing him. 11 Then Herod and his soldiers ridiculed and mocked him. Dressing him in an elegant robe, they sent him back to Pilate. 12 That day Herod and Pilate became friends—before this they had been enemies.13 Pilate called together the chief priests, the rulers and the people, 14 and said to them, “You brought me this man as one who was inciting the people to rebellion. I have examined him in your presence and have found no basis for your charges against him. 15 Neither has Herod, for he sent him back to us; as you can see, he has done nothing to deserve death. 16 Therefore, I will punish him and then release him.” [17] 18 But the whole crowd shouted, “Away with this man! Release Barabbas to us!” 19 (Barabbas had been thrown into prison for an insurrection in the city, and for murder.)20 Wanting to release Jesus, Pilate appealed to them again. 21 But they kept shouting, “Crucify him! Crucify him!”22 For the third time he spoke to them: “Why? What crime has this man committed? I have found in him no grounds for the death penalty. Therefore I will have him punished and then release him.”23 But with loud shouts they insistently demanded that he be crucified, and their shouts prevailed. 24 So Pilate decided to grant their demand. 25 He released the man who had been thrown into prison for insurrection and murder, the one they asked for, and surrendered Jesus to their will.

Here is the context of that passage: Jesus was earlier arrested and put on trial before the high priest on that very night.. But why would you hold a trial in the middle of the night? It was not lawful according to Jewish laws (Mishnah). It looks and smells like a kangaroo court. It is a mock trial in which the principles of law and justice are ignored or perverted. So at the first sign of dawn, they quickly brought him to stand on trial before the Sanhedrin (something like the Jewish parliament) to give an appearance of legitimacy to the decisions reached the night before. And the Gospel of Luke picked up the action from there in the passage we have just read.

The religious leaders all asked, “If you are the Messiah, tell us.” Are you the Christ? And by the way, “Christ” is not Jesus’ last name like Bond is the last name of James Bond: “Hi! My name is Christ, Jesus Christ…Nice to meet you Mr Christ.”  No, it is actually a title…

They are asking: Are you the Promised One? Many first-century Jews were expecting a Messiah who would pick up the sword and ride out to destroy their Roman enemies. Are you this kind of Messiah?

Jesus answered, “If I tell you, you will not believe me, and if I asked you, you would not answer. But from now on, the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the mighty God.”

This is not the first showdown Jesus had with the chief priests and experts of the law. In Luke 20, Jesus was questioned: Who gave you the right to do those things you do? Jesus was healing people and saying things like: “Your sins are forgiven”. But in those days, you can only get that sort of assurance after going to the temple and offer animal sacrifices to the priests and so on. But here he was: offering forgiveness of sins without going through the temple rituals. Jesus is not-so-subtly claiming for Himself what only God can say and do. Instead of going to the temple to meet God, people are encountering God in Jesus. Amazing, isn’t it?

To make things worse, when the triumphant king returns to the city from battle, he is supposed to be cheered on by people and ushered into the temple where the priests would bless and receive him… but here was King Jesus, after His triumphal entry into Jerusalem just earlier that week, (accompanied by shouts of Hosanna! Hosanna!) He went into the temple and symbolically cleansed it, giving a prophetic rebuke against the greed and violence of the temple administration. “You guys have made God’s house of prayer into a den of robbers (or a den of revolutionaries.)” He overturned the money changer’s tables and disrupted the sacrifice system. It’s an act of judgment. There are sinful idols of greed, corruption and violence in God’s own house that would bring down divine judgment and like in the days of Jeremiah, the temple itself would soon be desolated. And indeed, this is fulfilled later in AD 70 when the Roman army burnt it to the ground.

From then on, Jesus’ fate is sealed. The temple priests wanted him dead. It’s one thing to teach veiled parables to people. It’s quite another to cleanse the temple. It’s one thing to criticize politicians with twitters or facebook. It’s quite another to camp out at Dataran Merdeka or burn a flag. Symbolic actions speak louder than words. For the temple priests, this is like someone trying to issue passports at the IOI mall without going through the Immigration office. So it’s a rhetorical question: “Who do you think you are? Who authorized you to do things like that? You are bypassing the temple…You are leading people astray with your teachings.”
How did Jesus answer them? He said: “Let me ask you another question – John’s baptism. Is it from heaven or from men?” John the Baptist was the forerunner who paved the way for Jesus’ own ministry. Is his work from God or man? So they discussed among themselves: “If we say it’s from God, then why don’t we listen to him? If we say it’s from man, then we get into trouble because the people saw John as a prophet.” So they squirm their way out by saying: “I don’t know.” It’s the politically correct thing to say. So Jesus replied: “Ok fine. Since you don’t want to answer me, neither will I answer your question.”

That’s why when they ask if Jesus was the Christ, his answer was: If I tell you, you will not believe me, and if I asked you, you would not answer. Are you really interested to know the truth? Can you handle it? Or are you just asking from ulterior motives? It’s not truth you want. And I wonder if the Lord is asking some tough questions about our own priorities and commitments today. About the place He occupies in our lives? Is His kingdom agenda an optional add-on to our pursuit of the Malaysian dream? And can we honestly answer His searching questions or do we also play games with Him?    

This time round, it seems like the religious leaders finally had the upper hand. They managed to arrest him in secret, but they needed an excuse to justify killing him: “Are you the Anointed One, the Chosen One of God that will restore the kingdom of Israel? Are you then the Son of God?

Generally the Jews did not expect the Christ to be divine or God incarnate. 

But Jesus amplified the meaning of the Messiah by identifying himself as the Son of Man: “From now on, the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the mighty God.” What does he mean? These experts of the Torah know the Bible inside out and they would have known what the Son of Man means from Daniel 7. For modern readers, this may need some unpacking .

Here’s the background: In 167 BC, the king of Syria called Antiochus Epiphanes persecuted the Jews who refused to accept Greek culture. Some Jews (called the Maccabees) took up weapons and fought a successful war against his empire. They longed for divine judgment against all oppressive empires past, present and future. In the book of Daniel, the empires of Babylon, Persia, Macedonia and Rome are associated with chaos and horrible monstrous beasts.

In that vision, a heavenly trial was held before God’s throne against all these major empires. The kingdom of Antiochus IV was described as an arrogant mini-horn. But these beastly kingdoms will be replaced by the Son of Man. Daniel 7:13-14 – ““In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.”

The oppressive empires are symbolized by beasts but the kingdom of God will be given to this heavenly figure called the Son of Man. Daniel 7 is a liberating vision that the beastly kingdoms that oppressed the people of God throughout the centuries will be judged and overturned by the Son of Man, who will establish an everlasting kingdom.

So when Jesus claims to be the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of God, coming on the clouds of heaven and judging the entire world, He is saying that all authority belongs to Him to judge… and He stands above all imperialistic kingdoms. When you take all that He says and does together, it is impossible to miss Jesus’ outrageous claim to be equal with God Himself. In Him, we find forgiveness of sins that only the temple offers. Judging the world is God’s job description but Jesus claims it for himself. To make such a claim, Jesus must be either mad, bad or God incarnate.  

No wonder the Jewish leaders said, “Why do we need any more testimony? We have heard it from His own lips. That’s blasphemy... a crime punishable by death.” They have finally found a reason to justify killing Him. Here’s the irony: The Judge of the world stands judged by the world. And the judges themselves will one day be judged.   

These are expert theologians who spent their whole lives studying the Scriptures. Yet they fail to come to the One that all the Scriptures prophecy about to receive eternal life. These are the guardians of the temple, who perform prayers, burn incense and offer sacrifices day in day out. And yet they abused their powers, they are greedy for money, perverted justice and murdered the Reality of which the temple is but a shadow. The temple is not a bad thing; it is a true signpost pointing to God. It is where heaven and earth meet. But they are looking so hard at the temple itself that they miss out on the Reality to whom it is pointing. They are so obsessed by the signpost and they cannot see the true Temple in whom God dwells in bodily form. And when that happens, religion becomes idolatry... 

Friends: Reading the Bible is wonderful, but Bible knowledge in itself should not be mistaken for a real, living relationship with Christ. Theology should fuel our worship, not replace it. Great music is a blessing and a gift from God… but when the music fades and all is stripped away, it’s all about Jesus isn’t it? So is everything we say or do in church, our activities and ministries, they are all precious things but they are not ultimate things. They are means of grace showing us the way to the Real thing… to the person of Jesus Christ. In the new heaven and new earth, there will be no temple because Christ is the true temple. We come to Jesus to meet God where we find grace, forgiveness, reconciliation, peace… With His presence at the center, our music and learning and service all comes to life. Apart from Him, everything gets distorted and falls apart.

Now, the Jewish leaders found an excuse to kill Jesus but there is one small problem. They don’t have the legal power to pass the death sentence. Only the Roman authorities have the right to do that. So they must cook up a story to get Pontius Pilate the governor to do it. But there is another problem: Pilate doesn’t really care about their religious beliefs or theology. He’s not interested in what the Scriptures say about the Messiah. He won’t bother with their opinions about the temple or anything.

So they accused Jesus of something else: “We have found this man subverting our nation. He opposes payment of taxes to Caesar and claims to be Messiah, a king.”

If Jesus is a political threat to Caesar, now that’s something else. Then he must be put to death for the sake of Roman peace (pax romana). If Jesus was questioned for his theology before the Sanhedrin, now he is tried for his politics before Gentile rulers.

There was a naughty boy who went around asking other kids this question: “Hey, does your mother know that you are stupid?” I don’t know if anyone ever tried to give him an answer. It’s more likely that he got into a fight right after that. Because how would you answer a tricky question like that? No matter what you say: A straightforward yes or no means that you have already accepted the underlying assumption loaded behind the question: that you’re stupid.

Maybe some questions do not deserve an answer. 

We find similar loaded questions being thrown at Jesus when He was tried before Pontius Pilate.
 Pilate sarcastically asked Him, “Are you the king of the Jews?”

“You have said so,” Jesus replied.

In the Broadway musical, Jesus Christ Superstar, which is a distortion in many ways but still quite interesting to see how modern culture looks at Christ, there is a song sung by the Pilate character:

Oh so this is Jesus Christ, I am really quite surprised
You look so small - not a king at all
We all know that you are news - but are you king
King of the Jews?

In the play, the Jesus character replied: That's what you say. But that sounds too negative. It sounds like a denial. The NKJV translates it as: “You rightly say that I am”. But literally, in Greek, it actually reads: “You say”. It’s a qualified yes, but why did Jesus give such a vague, ambiguous reply?  

Well, it’s probably because Pilate’s question is like that naughty boy’s question. It comes loaded with so many dangerous assumptions: “Are you the king of the Jews? What’s your politics, Jesus? What kind of revolution are you starting? Are you political or non-political?”

And Jesus did not give a simple, direct answer. You say.

If He answers “yes”, it means that he is a political king just like Caesar or Herod. The kind of king that rules with coercion from above, control over, power on top of people. If He answers “no”, it means that he is apolitical. He’s just interested in your private spirituality but denies any claim to be the Lord of every area, every dimension, every corner of our lives.

That sounds like the kind of questions faced by the Malaysian church today, doesn’t it? The mother of all elections is coming soon. The war drums are beating. Are you for BN or Pakatan? And it is tempting to fall into the trap of partisanship – “preach it, pastor, use the pulpit to tell people to vote for Ajib Ko or vote against Ajib Ko.” Or the other extreme is to say that the church is totally apolitical. “We don’t bother about public issues, we just want to attend church and be spiritual (being ‘spiritual’ here is defined as I don’t care about what happens out in the world).”

What then is the politics of Jesus? Is he a king? Yes, but not that kind of king. His kingdom is not built by coercion from above, by control over, power on top of people. It is the kingdom of God. It is the power of humility that comes under people to lift them up. It’s the power to give up control, to die to self and to serve. It is the power of the cross… the power of love and sacrifice.

In the Gospel of John account, Jesus says to Pilate: “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place. You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”

Jesus confronts Pilate’s false pretensions, unmasking them for what they really are: “You don’t have any power over me unless it is given by God.” As Eugene Yapp wrote: “Earthly thrones are merely provisional and temporal and subjected to the higher claims of God” Pilate misses the boat because he thinks of greatness in terms of coercive power, the power to make people do things for you. The high and mighty thought Jesus was weak because he won’t live and die for the power they seek. For Pilate, everything is power play… “What is truth?” Truth is a form of control. But actually everything (including politics) boils down to faith. Where do you put your trust? Is your faith in the sovereign God or faith in being in control? Is your security found in Christ or being in power?

If politics is your idol, then you pin all your hope on your policies and your favorite politicians to win and call the shots. You’d be devastated when they lose. You will despair, drop out and plan to leave the country or demonize those whom you disagree with. You will polarize the nation.

In one sense, Jesus is no threat to Caesar. He was falsely accused of opposing taxes to Rome. Actually Jesus told them to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s. Give the coin that carries the image of Caesar to Caesar. But in another sense, Jesus is a radical challenge to Caesar. Give to God what belongs to God. Give your whole being to Him because you are image-bearers of God. You are made in His likeness. You belong to Him. Pay your taxes to Caesar, but don’t sell your soul to him. Offer your heart and mind and body (your ultimate allegiance) to God.

And Pilate knew that Jesus is not the violent rebel type like Barabbas who would terrorize the countryside and be a threat to peace. “I find no basis for a charge against this man.” But instead of doing the right thing, he taichi to Herod Antipas: “He’s from Galilee, that’s under Herod’s territory. Let him decide”. He tried to wash his hands and pass the bucket like politicians often do. But every Sunday, Christians all over the world confess their faith like this: “I believe in God the Father, Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth: And in Jesus Christ, his only begotten Son, our Lord: Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary: Suffered under Pontius Pilate; was crucified, dead and buried: He descended into hell: The third day he rose again from the dead”. That’s how history would judge him. His name is famous for all the wrong reasons.

But how does the kingdom politics of Jesus apply to us today? For some of us, there is a call to social activism. When we do this we join hands with Malaysians of all races and religions to pursue our common good. In the coming general elections, we all have a responsibility to vote, and vote wisely for a clean, just and fair government. I’d be casting my vote in Ipoh Timur and you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to know that I’d be voting Rocket. As a Christian I don’t need to hide my personal conviction that absolute power corrupts absolutely so we must have strong checks and balances in government. I don’t want a monopoly in the Parliament.

At the same time, the church as a whole cannot be partisan to any political platform. So I would draw the line and not use the pulpit to formally support to anyone. We need to maintain a prophetic distance to be free to challenge the powers-that-be with God’s word. In Christ, there is neither Pakatan nor Barisan, ok… If my brother or sister who worships with me is from Gerakan or MCA, I need to reach out across the divide and see how can we find common ground and work together for the good of the rakyat. So we don’t put too much faith on election results to make this country a better place. Whoever wins or loses, life still goes on… that’s not where my ultimate hope lies. We are in the world but not of the world.   

More importantly (yes there is something more important than election results), as followers of Jesus, our politics should be shaped by the cross. It is the power to be humble, to serve, to give up control so that others may have life. In this community here, we must be who we are (the body of Christ) and model the values we want to see in society.

Among other things, it means we should embody the way of Jesus by becoming
- a community where all people are welcomed and embraced regardless of sex, ethnicity or class
- servant leaders who are not self-serving, quietly serving the poor around us
- free from the corrupting love of money
- reaching out to the weak and marginalized in our midst
- a church where people find healing, justice and mercy.

Won’t you like to be part of a community like that? The revolution Jesus is starting is a mustard seed group of people that brings reconciliation and hope and real transformation in His name. That’s the kind of revival we should pray for in Malaysia. By giving up his power to serve others, Jesus is the most influential king who ever lived.   

So Pilate taichi to Herod and as we will see, Herod tachi back… They were not the best of friends. There was once Pilate was so insensitive or arrogant he installed shields bearing the image of Caesar in Herod’s palace. So the Jews went to the streets in protest because it is deemed offensive and idolatrous. But Pilate did not want to lose face so he ignored them. And Herod had to write a letter to Tiberius Caesar and Pilate got rebuked and forced to take the shields away. On another occasion (we don’t know why) Pilate suppressed and killed some Galileans while they were in the temple, making sacrifices.

But that day, they became friends. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, perhaps? Herod was greatly pleased to see Jesus. For a long time, he wanted to meet this miracle worker after hearing so much about him. Now Pilate sent him over for an audience.

There’s a Herod song in the Jesus Christ Superstar musical that sums up his frivolous attitudes:

“Jesus, I am overjoyed to meet you face to face. You're quite famous all over the place. Healing cripples, raising from the dead. At least, that's what they all said.So, you are the Christ, you're the great Jesus Christ. Prove to me that you're divine; change my water into wine. That's all you need do, then I'll know it's all true. So, you are the Christ, you're the great Jesus Christ. Prove to me that you're no fool; walk across my swimming pool. Feed my household with this bread. You can do it on your head.
He’s not interested to hear what Jesus had to say. He just wanted to see him perform some miraculous signs or magic tricks to entertain him. He asked Jesus many questions, but Jesus gave him no answer. Some questions do not deserve an answer.

For biblical faith is not a circus. Sad but true, many people have a lot in common with Herod when it comes to Christ. They are very curious with the spectacular, the sounds and lights, the signs and wonders. They may even be interested in some intellectual stuff. However, they do not have a saving faith in Christ. When a decision has to be made between following Christ and one’s own self interests, they act just like Herod. They may demand a miracle, ask some interesting questions but when it costs something, when they have to pay the price of obedience, they will mock and scorn at the truth. How deep or shallow is our own faith? Are we more impressed with the spectacular than with simple, quiet but costly obedience?   

One of my favorite singers, Chris Rice, has a song about a young boy who was obsessed with magic tricks but as he grew up, he realized that:

The only way to really change
Is simple choices everyday
Obey the Spirit-whisper in my soul
With the help of God, a little time
Can change a heart, renew a mind
Without a magic wand, God will work a miracle...

And Jesus does not put on his miracles for a show. He would not turn stones into bread even when He was starving in the desert. He opened the eyes of the blind. He cleansed the lepers and raised the dead to meet the relieve the suffering of others. But that was not His only reason. Jesus’ miracles had a deeper meaning. Signs and wonders are clues that he was indeed the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of God, the Son of Man. They are evidence that God’s future kingdom is breaking into the here and now, the present world in which we live. 

Herod wants miracles, he wants something spectacular; but Jesus will not layan (entertain) him.

Or maybe He did perform a miracle, after all? By his silence, by choosing not to defend himself, Jesus was preparing for the greatest sign and wonder that we will ever know. It’s a miracle greater than parting the Red Sea. But it was not something Herod would expect.

Jesus is going to the cross to accomplish the plan of salvation. He will go to the cross suffer and die for our sins, to die the death that we deserve for breaking God’s holy law, and then three days later, He will conquer death by being raised to life again. Herod will get the sign that he wanted: the resurrection proves that Jesus is indeed the Son of God, the promised Messiah. But he is too blind to see it.

Friends: do you see? We are like Barabbas – thrown into prison, found guilty for our rebellion against God and waiting for our death sentence. The payment for sin is spiritual and physical death. But Jesus had done no crime. He was innocent and without sin. He didn’t deserve to be crucified.

We hear the crowd kept shouting “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” The door is opened and we are pushed to stand before the cross. But our chains fell off. We have been set free. The guard says, “You have been released. You are free to go”.

What’s going on here? Why am I being released?

Because Jesus carried my cross… He was crucified on our behalf. Jesus is not just a victim of injustice. He’s in control throughout to carry out God’s plan to save the sinners just like us. 

Behold the Man upon a cross,
My sin upon His shoulders
Ashamed I hear my mocking voice,
Call out among the scoffers
It was my sin that left Him there
Until it was accomplished
His dying breath has brought me life
I know that it is finished

The sinless Son of God took upon Himself the guilt and wrath that we deserve because of his breathtaking love. He died that we might be alive in Him. And He lived again that we might die to sin. Won’t you give your life completely to Him today and call him your Savior, Lord and Friend? Let us pray. 

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