This sermon is based on a Lenten sermon series entitled "The Apostles' Creed: Knowing God Perfectly!" authored by Rev. Brent Kuhlman.
“When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but rather that a riot was under way, he took water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, ‘I am innocent of the blood of this man; see to it yourselves.’ Then all the people responded, ‘His blood be on us and on our children.’” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this day is the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ, part four: the Praetorium. Dear friends in Christ, you know God perfectly when you recognize the Light. The world was shrouded in darkness, engulfed in the thick veil that had come on the day of man’s fall. This is the darkness of sin, this is the darkness of unbelief, this is the darkness of rebellion against God. All of creation was the valley of the shadow of death. But into that darkness a light shone. “The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world.” To know God perfectly is to recognize that Light when it enters this shadowed world, to see it and rejoice in its warm, life-giving rays. But when that long-awaited, long-prophesied moment came, when the Light shone, a creation shrouded in darkness refused to receive it. “He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, yet the world did not know Him.” Not just the nations, not just the pagans, but His brothers, His countrymen, the bearers of the promise, rejected Him. “He came to His own, and His own people did not receive Him.”
They did not receive the Light with the joy befitting his coming, they refused to know Him. They scorned the light, for they loved the darkness more. “And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil.” In the beginning of their history, God had given them a gift, the Law. This Law was to be light for their path, showing them how God wished them to live, separated from the uncleanness of the nations around them. This Law, this Word from God, also spoke of a Savior, the Messiah who would come into the world. But when this Messiah appeared, here in flesh and blood to save them, they wielded the Law as their weapon against Him. “We have a law and by that law Jesus ought to die because He made Himself the Son of God.” The One who gave the Law is condemned by that Law. The Law is their weapon, not for truth, not for justice, but to rid themselves of someone they hate. They do not know God perfectly, for they refuse to see Jesus as the Light of the world.
They do not recognize their brother, they do not recognize their kinsman, the One whom Moses promised would come from among them as their final prophet. The entire point of the history of Israel, of the existence of God’s chosen people, was to bring forth the Messiah, but when He comes, He is rejected. God promised them a Savior from their flesh and blood, but when He comes, they choose Barabbas instead. “Pilate asked them again, ‘Which of these two do you want me to release for you?’ And they cried out all together, saying, ‘Away with this man, and release for us Barabbas.’” Barabbas is their Savior, Barabbas is their choice. The terrorist, the murderer, the scoundrel Barabbas. The innocent One, their own brother, is condemned to death. The guilty one, whom they hardly know, is set free. He deserving of death goes forth to live. He deserving of life goes forth to die. They didn’t recognize their brother, they didn’t recognize their Savior; they didn’t know God perfectly, and so they put Him to death.
Pilate had the Light of the world standing before him, shining despite His humility. The very One who gave Pilate all of his authority, his power over life and death—not Caesar, but Jesus, was presented before him. As governor, Pilate had the God-given vocation to punish all criminals and evildoers, pardoning the innocent. And he knows that Jesus is innocent. Three times he declares the innocence of Jesus; three times he tells Jesus’ accusers that their charges have no merit. He knows what justice calls for, but he will not do it. The divinely appointed guardian of truth and justice blows off his duty with a cute phrase—“What is truth?”—and then asks for a bowl of water. “‘I am innocent of the blood of this man; see to it yourselves.’ Then all the people responded, ‘His blood be on us and on our children.’” The blindness is complete; Jesus, the Light of the world, is rejected by those in the bondage of darkness.
They do not know God perfectly; Israel condemns Him, Israel rejects Him, Rome abandons Him. It all happens in one moment of time. “Pilate went out again and said to them, ‘See, I bring Him out to you that you may know that I find Him not guilty.’ So Jesus came out wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. Pilate said to them, ‘Behold the man!’ When the chief priests and officers saw Him, they cried, ‘Crucify Him! Crucify Him!’” He is presented before the world as the innocent One, the innocent One condemned to death. Here Pilate is an evangelist, against his own will; he preaches a sermon, pointing the entire world, pointing you and me, to ‘the man;’ where his finger points is the one place where God is known perfectly. Purple-robed, flogged, thorn-crowned Jesus is the man who gives His life into death. He is the man on whom the sin of all mankind is laid. He is the innocent man that gets counted as sin and the greatest sinner as He bears the sin of the world in His own body.
Pilate, the one-time evangelist, does fulfill his office as governor; he delivers a verdict: “Not guilty,” but he will allow the enemies of Jesus to dictate the sentence for an innocent man. And the enemies of Jesus have chosen Barabbas. But in this choice, the chief priests and elders have also become evangelists. When they call for the innocent One to go free and the guilty one to be condemned, they are telling you where to know God perfectly: in the great exchange. Jesus doesn’t just swap with Barabbas, He swaps with you. He takes all your sin and all its punishment, and He gives you in its place all His perfection, innocence, and holiness. Jesus is condemned, and you are set free.
What Israel could not see, what they did not realize, you know by faith. You know God perfectly in the condemnation of Jesus by the very Law that He gave. You know God perfectly in the perfect life of Jesus lived in your place, His condemnation that was to be yours, His death that you deserved. You know God perfectly because in Jesus you know what to expect from Him: forgiveness, life, and salvation. When Pilate washes his hands, trying desperately to exonerate himself from any blame in condemning the innocent to death, the crowd cries out, “His blood be on us and on our children!” They are evangelists, pointing us where to know God perfectly—in the blood of Jesus, shed on Calvary’s cross and poured out upon you in the Word and holy Sacraments. Yes, may the blood of Jesus be on us and on our children, for it is only by being covered with the blood of Jesus that we are delivered from the darkness of this world.
That darkness schemed and plotted, manipulating the law, subverting authority, in order to overcome the Light. And as Jesus is led away to be crucified, the Light is condemned, rejected, and abandoned, but it is not overcome, it will not be conquered. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” The darkness it itself overcome, for the innocent One could not be contained by the grave; the tomb was forced to release its captive. Now, not Pilate but the Church says, “Behold the man!” the man who conquered death for you. Now, not the chief priests and elders but pastors proclaim, “Release for us Barabbas!” yes, release all Barabbas’s, those in the bondage of sin and death, for Christ died and rose again in our place. Now, not an angry crowd but the apostles say, “His blood be on us and on our children!” the blood shed for the sin of the world. At the empty tomb you know God perfectly, for the crucified One is the risen One, never to die again. In the Name of Jesus, Amen.