Sermon: Barabbas or Jesus? (Mark 15)

Text: Mark 15:1-47
Sunday of the Passion, also called Palm Sunday
Listen to the sermon here.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 

Welcome to the beginning of Holy Week. We start our week with shouts of Hosanna! and end it with cries of Crucify! They don’t fit together nicely, do they? It’s a collision of two agendas, two kingdoms, two crowds and two messiahs. On the one hand is Barrabas. On the other hand is Jesus of Nazareth. Whom would you choose? Whom do you choose?

Pontius Pilate’s main goal as Governor of Judea was to prevent riots, to get through the Passover season without a major incident. He isn’t particularly worried about having a fair trial. And so, we see a strange custom. To appease the anger of the crowd, and to win favour with them, Pilate had the habit on certain holy days, to release a prisoner, giving the crowd permission to choose. At this feast “the crowd came up and began to ask Pilate to do what he normally did” (Mark 15:8). Pilate liked to assert his own authority over against the chief priests, who were always playing little power games against him. On this occasion, Pilate “realized that it was out of jealousy that the chief priests had handed [Jesus] over,” (Mark 15:10). So, Pilate is trying to intentionally antagonise the religious leaders when he asks the crowd if he should release “the King of the Jews.” So far, this is an ordinary day in the Roman Province of Judea. 

The question hangs for a moment. Then, the choice is proclaimed in a wild, disorderly cry for the release of Barabbas. There is a swap, an exchange of prisoners. Barabbas for Jesus. 

Barabbas’ name means “son of the father.” Barabbas was not just a common criminal. He was not a raving maniacal killer. Barabbas was a rebel, a would be messiah. What we today would call a terrorist, a fanatical right-wing zealot. He would stop at nothing, he would use force, kill if necessary.  He was one of many who attempted to form an army to overthrow Roman rule and restore the throne of King David to Israel. He had the ability to be able to organise and mobilise and inspire;  to get people whipped up into such a frenzy that they are willing to die for the cause. 

So which will it be: Barabbas, the son of the father, or Jesus, the Son of the Father? The world picks Barabbas. The crowd chose a murderer over the one who brings the dead back to life. They chose evil over the one who was truly good. 

Jesus is innocent. Even Pilate knows he’s done nothing wrong; he hasn’t been leading a revolt, he wasn’t leading the normal sort of messianic revolt. Pilate didn’t bother to round up any of his followers. Not only is Jesus the innocent, but Barabbas is the guilty. Jesus is innocent and has done nothing deserving death. Barabbas is the rebel prisoner, carrying with him guilt deserving death. Jesus is clearly innocent. Barabbas is clearly guilty. But the crowds roared to free Barabbas and to crucify Jesus. And Pilate was more concerned about preventing an incident, than justice.

What happens on Pilate’s stage is an enactment of what happens on Jesus’ cross. The world picks Barabbas every time, because the world thinks the way Barabbas thinks.  The uncomfortable truth is that Barabbas is us. You are Barabbas. I am Barabbas. We are insurrectionists against God’s kingdom, rebels against the reign of God. We are clearly guilty before God. Rebels deserving death. Sinners. We sit in a spiritual prison, bound helpless, awaiting the day when we will receive the just punishment we deserve. We sit on the death row of all death rows waiting to be dragged out to death not knowing when God’s righteous judgment will come down.

There’s a the difference between Barabbas and Jesus. The blood of Barabbas cannot save you. In fact, he wants your blood to save him. He wants you to die for the cause. He wants you to join his rebellion. He wants you to take up arms with him and die with him on the battlefield against the rule of God.

But the good news is that Jesus is the King who was killed for the treason which the rebel committed. Jesus literally took Barabbas’s punishment for him. Jesus even marched to his death just as Barabbas would have. This was not a mistake or an accident. It was not plan B. The crucifixion of Jesus was God’s plan to save you. Jesus the Messiah, is the one who rides on a borrowed donkey, the one who has thorns for a crown, all for you. He is scourged for you. He sheds His blood for you. He offers to suffer your death in your place. He offers to give you his life back in exchange. He offers His blood to pay what you owe to God, the price to release you from your spiritual prison, the price to get you off of death row. 

So which will it be: Barabbas, the son of the father, or Jesus, the Son of the Father? We are part of both crowds. We are both sinners and saints. We are with the pro-Jesus crowd and the pro-Barabbas crowd. One crowd waves palm branches; the other brandishes swords and weapons. Barabbas or Jesus, that the choice every one of us is called upon to make. In our daily life we have to choose which path we will go. Will we hail Jesus as our King, or follow Barabbas into rebellion? Do you wave your palms and sing your Hosannas on Sunday but on Monday is it back to rebellion with Barabbas? Each moment in your life, you make the choice: Barabbas or Jesus? Rebellion against God, or allegiance to his King. 

As we read the story of the guilty man freed and the innocent man crucified, it should not be hard for us to identify with Barabbas, and to view the rest of the story and think, ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’ The more we understand ourselves, the more we’ll be able to admit, “I am Barabbas.” I am the one so clearly guilty and deserving of condemnation but set free because Jesus was substituted in my place. By identifying with Jesus, through being united with him by faith, his death is our death. His life is our life.

The Creed summaries it so succinctly: He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. All of it to save you. To rescue you from the power of Sin, Death, and the Law’s condemnation. You were why He endured this. Your salvation is what his death was all about. All this He did so that you may be His own, and live under Him in His kingdom, and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.

Never was there a greater exchange. Never was there such love. Never was there such a King. Hail King Jesus! Hosanna in the highest!

May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

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