A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
March 5, 2017: The First Sunday of Lent
This past week we began the observance of the season of Lent on Ash Wednesday. At our worship service that night I introduced you to our theme for the season: Crossroads. Lent is a period of 40 days leading to Easter. People of Christian faith are called during Lent to examine themselves, repent of sin, and recommit to doing the work of the Gospel. Think about Lent like this: a farmer, before ever touching a seed, spends hours and hours tilling and turning and fertilizing the soil so that the field is ready to produce a good crop when the seed is planted. Lent gives us time to till and turn and fertilize the soil of our hearts and minds so that when the seed of Easter, of resurrection, is planted, it will produce a good crop in and through us. Over the next 40 days, we will encounter some characters from the Bible and examine the choices they made when they came to a crossroads. Their experiences will ask us to examine our own, and lead us to more obedient, more faithful, and more loving ways to respond when face the inevitable crossroads of our lives.
There is a lot of speculation as to why Judas Iscariot did what he did. Most people think it was for financial gain. The Gospel of Mark, the earliest account of Jesus’s life, confirms this. Mark writes that the high priests in Jerusalem agreed to pay Judas if he led them to Jesus. The Gospel of Matthew, written well after the Gospel of Mark, also confirms this. Matthew writes that Judas again went to the chief priests, but that it was Judas who asked to be paid. The chief priests agree to the exorbitant amount of thirty pieces of silver. The other eleven disciples also believed that it had something to do with money. In the Gospel of John, when Jesus says to Judas, “Do quickly what you are going to do,” the other disciples believe it had something to do with Judas being the group’s treasurer.
The gospels of Luke and John tell a slightly different story. Luke writes in chapter 22, “Then Satan entered into Judas called Iscariot, who was one of the twelve; he went away and conferred with the chief priests and officers of the temple police about how he might betray him to them.” Luke also says that there was an exchange of money, but that it was Satan who inspired the whole thing. John says something similar, but at a different point in the story. John writes that after Judas received a piece of bread from Jesus that, “Satan enter into him.” John makes no mention of money. For Luke and John, Judas betrays Jesus because he was possessed by the devil.
I want to suggest to you today is that regardless of whether Judas betrayed Jesus to get rich or because he was possess by the devil, the real issue here is identity. Judas stood at a crossroads. Down one path was Jesus; down the other was money and Satan and betrayal. Judas chose the second of these. Why? Why, when the choice was so clear, would Judas turn on his friend in such a wicked way?
When Jesus broke onto the scene in the regions around Jerusalem, he made a splash, but not a big one. He gots folk’s attention at the Jordan River at his baptism when a dove came down from heaven and danced on his head, but the early years of his ministry were nothing unusual. Sure, Jesus healed people who hadn’t walked in years; he confronted demons and cast them out of men and women and children; he turned water into wine; he had clashes with the religious establishment. Believe it or not, these were actually common things in the first century. With so little understanding how of things worked, first-century people were easily duped. Every town had a magician who claimed to have great power. Really, the magicians just had good assistants who could switch a pitcher of water for a pitcher of wine when the audience wasn’t looking. Every town had a medicine man or woman who claimed to have the power to heal. Really, the paralyzed and sick were good actors who could ‘miraculously’ get up and walk or say they were healed. And every town had a few religious fanatics who were always picking fights with the powerful. In this, Jesus was nothing special.
But then, on a mountain outside of Jerusalem, Jesus sat down and preached in a way his followers had never heard before. He told them that they were blessed when they mourned, blessed when they were persecuted for their faith. He told them that children were particularly important to God, and that if any of them wanted to enter the Kingdom, they had to become like children. He told them to never return violence for violence, but to give someone all of their clothes even if they were just asked for a coat. He repeated this phrase over and over: “The Kingdom of Heaven has come near; repent and believe the good news of the Gospel.” He talked about the importance of the laws of Moses, and how he had fulfilled them all by being born. He pointed out the hypocrisy of the religious and political establishment, and warned his disciples to steer clear. In all, he proclaimed a Kingdom that would institute a new order on earth: one of peace, justice, reconciliation, equity, and equality.
Many of Christ’s followers took Jesus at his word, including Judas. Judas and the other disciples championed strong leadership, and when Jesus talked about replacing everything with a new Kingdom, they were on board 100%. For most of them, this meant a total reversal in life: crushing taxes would be lifted, knick-picky religious laws would be abolished, all would be free to pursue life and happiness as they saw fit. They saw in Jesus the leader they had been waiting for, one who would go into the courts and halls of the capital city and wipe the slate clean…literally. If that meant with a sword and violence, fine. If that meant with new policies and good diplomacy, that’s fine too, just not as exciting. Either way, they saw a new regime rising to power and they wanted to ride that shooting star as far as they could.
Everything was going as planned until something terrible happened: on the day when it would have been perfect to upset the whole thing—dethrone the government, change the rule of law, peacefully or violently transfer power—Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey. Yes, on a donkey. We call this day Palm Sunday. It was on that day that the disciples, and Judas, thought that all their hopes and dreams would be fulfilled. They thought it would be day that Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a white stallion, with a sword in one hand and the flag of the new government in the other. They thought it would be the day that everything changed. Instead, Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, the lowest of work animals, and instead of carrying a sword and a flag, people waved tree branches and laid their clothing in the streets. After all the preaching and the teaching and the healing and the miracles, Jesus turned out, to them, to be a big disappointment. He was just like every other good preacher they had heard: good a whipping up a crowd, but weak, ineffective, and disposable.
Judas, ironically, must have felt betrayed. And when one feels betrayed—you, me, Judas, every person alive—there are many unattractive things that suddenly become attractive: money, power, sex, violence, just to name a few. When one feels betrayed, there is an immediate urge to protect the self, and if that mean’s betraying a friend, a spouse, a co-worker, a fellow human being, than so be it. When one feels betrayed, there is not much one won’t do in order to feel safe again, in order to feel powerful again, in order to feel good and secure again. Judas thought Jesus had failed him and betrayed the trust he had put in him, and the money, the devil, the opportunity, the darkness of that night, looked way better than continuing to follow this preacher who turned out to be a fraud.
This is the crossroads that Judas faced. Down one path was Jesus, someone who he thought was a fraud and a waste of his time. Down the other path was betrayal, but it was littered with money and power and a certain amount of fame. Who among us would not have chosen as Judas did? Don’t the means justify the ends? How many among us can say we haven’t done as Judas did? The truth is not many us, if any at all. None of us want to be identified with a weak, ineffective, or disposable savior; none of us want to be any of things, with our without a savior. We all want to enjoy financial security, a bit of sway at work and home, a little notoriety. If it means turning our backs on God for a little bit, while we get what we want or get what we want however we can, we are really good at telling ourselves that its fine. If cutting corners, literally and figuratively, means a bigger paycheck or meeting a deadline, we say that’s OK. We give up on our friends and neighbors, but that’s alright if it means we feel superior in the end. We continue to consume and dispose, demand and reject, degrade others while we puff ourselves up, without any regard for the significant impact it has…as long as I’m OK, everything is OK. Judas did it and we do it too.
All of this, all of it, is to forget not only who we are, but also whose we are. Betrayal is not a crossroads; it is one of many results of the choices we make when we come to the crossroads of identity. From birth, God has known our every breath and every thought. Even before we were born, God knew you and me inside and out; not a single bone in our bodies or hair on our heads is outside the understanding of God. When God filled our lungs with the breath of life, God pronounced a blessing over each one of us…the same blessing God pronounced at the start of creation: “You are very good.” That is who we are: we are very good. And this is whose we are: we are God’s. This is our identity. When we choose a path that says anything otherwise, as Judas did, we are headed straight into the arms of betrayal: of friends, of family, of God, of the goodness in which we were created. And not just betrayal but infidelity, violence, murder, and hatred also. This path may be covered with all the things we want—money, power, fame—but the end result is always the same: death. The end result of the other path, the path of Jesus, the path of our identity as God’s people, is also always the same: life.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, Judas presents us a very valuable lesson in identity and what happens when we chose to be identified as anything other than God’s beloved children. Yes, choosing another way is easy…it is attractive…it feels good. But it is death, and God’s desire for each one of us is life. That is why Jesus taught us to pray. That is why Jesus healed all those diseases and helped all those people walk. That is why Jesus fed the hungry and gave water to the thirsty. That is why he rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, and that is why Jesus gave himself over to suffering and hatred and a terrible death. He did all of it to give us the gift of life. He taught us to pray so that we can ask God for our needs. He healed and helped because we are the sick and helpless. He gave to the hungry and thirsty because we are the hungry and thirsty and he always has enough. He rode into Jerusalem on a donkey to show us the way of peace. And he died so that when we die, we can be raised to new life. This is who we are. This is who God created us to be.
So I call to you today to chose the way of life; chose and claim your identity as God’s beloved child. You are not how much money you make; you are not how many friends you have; you are not how much charitable work you do in the community. You are certainly not the need or the problem some make you out to be, and you are not an issue that needs to be fixed or solved. You are a child of God. You are a child of God. You are a child of God. And as a child of God, you are loved; deeply, without condition, and forever. Chose and claim this as your identity today and betrayal, violence, hatred, discord, and suffering…all of it will come to end; the world will know and understand reconciliation and there will be no more fear. Chose and claim today that you are a child of God. You are a child of God. You are a child of God. You are a child of God. That is the good news of the Gospel. That is the good news of our faith. That is the good news that will lead to life. May it be so. Amen.