A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
February 21, 2016: The Second Sunday of Lent
2 Samuel 12:1-13, Colossians 3:12-17, Matthew 26:14-25
He came in the seventh on the all time list. That’s right, seventh. He came in behind Lincoln, Reagan, FDR, and even Clinton and George W. He came in the seventh. That’s where Americans a few years ago ranked the Father of our country. The poll asked folks to choose the nation’s greatest presidents, and Washington came in the seventh. Now, it was a popular poll—in other words, people who don’t necessarily know much history were participating. Undaunted, George Washington supporters across the nation mobilized in an effort to revive the first president’s image. Instead of the pale face and powdered wig of dollar bill fame, George’s supporters circulated images of Washington as a youthful frontier explorer and surveyor, as a confident and determined general in midlife. The most popular image of Washington, aside from the dollar bill, is the painting of Washington crossing the Delaware River by Emmanuel Luetze, standing boldly with one foot on the bow of the ship, cap waving in the wind behind him.
The popular survey about the greatest president in our history illuminates the fact that popular opinions about famous people typically have very little to do with what the person actually did, and everything to do with how people feel about what they think that person did. This is why image makeovers work: with some good PR, and a little cooperation from the press, people can recover from a negative public image. Image makeovers do work.
Image makeovers are nothing new. History is littered with the attempts—some have been quite extraordinary. Of all the attempted image makeovers, though, perhaps none is as ambitious or as important as the attempt to remake the image of Judas Iscariot. The image of Judas attracts the attention of scholars from all areas: Scripture, Jewish history, and even psychology and sociology. These scholars have attempted to put together an image of Judas that begs our sympathy rather than our judgement. But, most of us are more familiar with the remakes that appear in movies in books. In these venues, Judas is portrayed sometimes as simply a bit too greedy and money-hungry; other times he is depicted as a confused and disillusioned idealist who is discouraged by Jesus’ way of doing things. Sometimes the remake is altogether sympathetic and Judas is the hero of the Jesus story—he’s the man with the courage needed to set in motion the confrontation between Jesus and the leaders that finally settles the questions about Jesus and his mission. It would be nice if one of these remakes would succeed, I suppose. At least it would help us sort out this unsettling story and help us come to terms with the actions of Judas.
It helps if we can provide some sort of rationale for the traitorous actions of Judas. We can, after all, understand the reasons for the actions of many of the characters in the story: the Romans were doing what they always did to people who threatened the peace, Pilate did what he had to do to quell a riot, and the soldiers were doing what they’d been trained to do. Even the actions of the Jewish leadership make sense: they were just trying to sustain their own ideas of what was right. You may not like what they did, but you can understand what they did and why they did it. They acted true to form in reasonable and expected ways.
But not Judas. His actions don’t add up. That’s why so many, inside and outside the church, are so interested in trying to explain, understand, and remake the picture of Judas. This is necessary work because, as the story stands, this part is simply too terrifying and too unnerving. So we offer explanations and solutions to the problem of Judas. Maybe Judas was just a bad apple—you know, rotten from the start and it just took a while to show. Or perhaps the sudden temptation of money, the lure of power, or some disillusionment pushed Judas over the edge. These explanations help us get a handle on Judas, they make him more understandable and logical. And it’s important that we are able to do that—explain and rationalize and understand—because if we can’t do that with Judas, we have a problem.
If Judas can’t be explained, we are left with a traitor without reason. If we don’t have some reason, we are left with one of the twelve most blessed men ever to live, a man who spent two or three years walking, talking, eating, laughing and learning with Jesus, a man hand-picked to be one of Jesus’ closest friends, a man who could ask Jesus anything he wanted whenever he wanted, a man who had been chosen to be an apostle of a faith that would transform the world forever—we’ve got a man with all of that who rejects it all, betrays it all, and tries to destroy it all. How can we be anything but completely perplexed? It just doesn't make sense…and that’s the scary part.
Think about it: if someone who had all of that going for him could still turn traitor and betray his Lord, what about us? If one of the chosen twelve blew it and fell prey to sin and evil, then what makes us think we’re secure? If Judas could reject Christ for no good reason, then what’s keeping you and me from doing the same? No, it will simply not do to have Judas as a good disciples who inexplicably, illogically, faithlessly, and suddenly go bad and betray Jesus. We can’t calmly live with this reality because then no one is safe and no one can ever be sure that it won’t happen to them. The story of Judas is scary because it offers no explanation. It should shake us to the core because Judas when falls, we have to admit that there is nothing separating us from him…nothing. Judas, created in God’s image and blessed by God, could still betray God. You and me, created in God’s image and blessed by God—we can still betray God. And we do. We might not sell Jesus out for a bag of silver, but we are tempted to other forms of betrayal. However it manifests itself, it is a matter of broken trust.
Broken trust lies behind or at the bottom of so much of the suffering and hurt that people experience in their lives. The statistic is unchanged from year to year that 50% of marriages, of all forms, end in divorce—and that number only rises for Christians. Most of these marriages attribute their end to one or more betrayals of trust. Infidelity, indifference, and apathy kill marriages; each is a symptom of betrayal, a refusal to invest in and love the other. Children are betrayed when parents don’t have the time to talk to them or the courage to discipline them or the commitment to listen to them. Children betray their parents when they mock, neglect, or dishonor them. Betrayal of the other shatters homes, strains work relationships, and destroys friendships. And we betray the Lord when we ignore his truth and remain silent when truth must be spoken; we betray the Lord when we ignore the opportunity to proclaim his gospel out of fear of the opinions of others. These are all acts of betrayal. They all break trust. This is the very nature and definition of sin. Sin is failure to honor God and trust God’s Word and promise. Sin is broken trust.
When trust has been broken, an image-makeover is not sufficient—that is the tragedy of betrayal and broken trust. There are few experiences more crushing than breaking trust with someone and standing face-to-face with the hurt and searching gaze with nothing to say. What can you say? The deed is done. Apologies ring hallow and do not restore trust. There is nothing left but regret, anguish, and bottomless emptiness. Inside, our souls hurt, they feel faithless, unworthy of trust ever again. When trust is broken, we think, it cannot be repaired. An image makeover does no good at all—that is just avoiding the problem. What’s needed is an identity makeover. You’ve got to start from scratch. Trust must be re-created, and you and I must be remade.
And that is where the treachery of this story turns to very good news. Re-creation is the work of God, re-making you and me is what God is so very good at doing. God gives us a new identity…God re-creates trust…God gives us a chance to start from scratch. Now, and always.
David’s sin probably hits closer to home for us than the sin of Judas. At the heart of David’s affair with Bathsheba is stuff we know well: jealousy, the desire to have more than we already do, the willingness to do just about anything to get what we want. David took these to the extreme by having Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, killed on the battlefield just so he could satisfy his hunger for pleasure and dominance. But even after David had annihilated every ounce of trust between himself and his kingdom, God gave David a new identity, re-created that broken soul, reestablished the trust that was broken.
Nathan came to David and told him a very unwelcome parable. A rich man was unwilling to take a lamb from his own flock to feed a passing guest, so the rich man takes the one and only lamb from his poor neighbor for the feast. David is enraged, saying that the rich man deserves to die! “You are the man!” Nathan yells back. Nathan promises that the sword of the Lord will always be on David’s house, essentially a death sentence for David’s family because of his affair with Bathsheba. But then David confesses. “I have sinned against the Lord,” David says. No fancy words, no detail of his sin, just an honest confession of fault. This confession, this recognition that he has broken trust and broken hearts and souls, immediately turns God from anger to forgiveness: “Now the Lord has put away your sin; you shall not die.” David got a new identity: forgiven. David was a new creation.
God gives you and me the same opportunity when we sin against God and one another, when we break trust with the Lord and with our neighbors. When we confess our sins, as nasty and embarrassing and complicated as they may be, God gives us a new soul, makes a new creation out of you and me. It is not a new face or a new image, it is a completely new you, a new identity: forgiven. Forgiveness from God is a complete about-face from a life of treachery and betrayal to a life of trust and holy relationships. The Holy Spirit breathes into us God’s forgiveness and grace, which then pushes us to courageously seek forgiveness from those that we have hurt and betrayed, and offer forgiveness and grace to those who have hurt and betrayed us. God has forgiven us and the trust we break; the calling of faith is to then offer and seek that same forgiveness at home, at work, in the Church, with ourselves, with each other, and with all of creation.
Such remarkable forgiveness came at a high price for God. The betrayal of God, the willful sin against the Creator, the rebellion of creation means the betrayal of the Son, the rejection of the Savior, the crucifixion of the Lord. Jesus took our penalty. The shame, the emptiness, the suffering are his; the forgiveness, the freedom, the joy are ours. He died and gave up his spirit so that the Spirit would breathe into you and me a new life, a new creation, a new identity.
We don’t need to give Judas an image makeover, or find an explanation that makes sense of his treachery and betrayal. It’s better this way; it’s better that the gospel writers offer no easy explanation. It is better that the story of Judas is left wide open and incomplete, because that is where God gets in and completes the story. And God does, every day, forever.
Brothers and Sisters in Christ, believe in this very good news: you have been forgiven. You have been forgiven! The broken trust in our relationships, the broken heart from sin, has been made new, re-created, and restored in Christ. This does not mean that trust will always be kept, that sin will never wreck havoc on our lives. It means that broken trust, sin, and evil will never again have the final say. You are a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come. Live as a new creation! We did not deserve it, and we can do nothing to make God take it away; it is simply the goodness of God that makes it real. Embrace God’s forgiveness today. Seek forgiveness from one another; offer forgiveness to all who seek it from you.
And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, crucified and risen, giving thanks to God through him. Amen.