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Pilate: When Winning Is Losing!

Matthew 27:15-26

You’re a businessman. It’s your first day on the job. It’s hard to get a job with the economy like it is, so you’re doing your best to please. You listen closely to your manager; you pay attention at sales meetings; you ask good questions. Then about 5:00, the manager sticks his head in your office and says: “Welcome aboard! Glad you’re here! By the way, we have a tradition here that when somebody new comes on board, we all go down to Rachel’s and have a few drinks. We’d like you to join us today.” Well, you know that Rachel’s is one of those gentlemen’s clubs where gentlemen don’t act like gentlemen. So you’re on a judgment seat. You have to make a choice. You have to make a decision.

You’re a teenager. You have been wanting to go out with a particular group of guys and gals. One of them has a nice Bronco. They are all good-looking and popular. They seem to have it all together. Then they invite you to join them at a party on Friday night. They pick you up in the Bronco. You get in the back seat, right behind the driver. They take off, everybody is laughing and having a good time, and you think to yourself: “This is great!” Then the driver reaches down under the seat and pulls out a fifth of Jack Daniels and takes a big swig. He passes it on and the next one drinks even more. It’s like they are going to kill the whole bottle seeing who can drink the most. Suddenly the rules for the evening are being set. The right of entry into the group is being defined. There you are, watching the bottle work its way around the car, coming to you. You’re sitting in the judgment seat. You have to make a choice. You have to make a decision.

You’re a single parent. You work ten hours a day to pay the bills and then you work what seems like another ten hours a day taking care of the kids. You’re doing your best; you’re giving it all you’ve got; you’re paying your bills; you’re trying to hang out with the right people; you’ve got some regrets, but things aren’t looking too bad. But there is that empty bed you climb into every night. It’s so lonely. You can’t remember when you’ve had any affection or intimacy. Then that good looking guy or girl moves in next door. That next weekend, the kids are spending the night at Grandma’s and you’ve got the weekend by yourself. There’s a knock at the door and an invitation to come next door just for a while. You’re on the judgment seat. You have a choice to make. The decision is yours.

Pontius Pilate had a decision to make. He was the Roman governor in the city of Jerusalem. One Friday morning, he came down from his apartment at about 8:00. He walked over to an open area known as the “lithostrata” or “stone pavement.” The area was encircled by heavily armed soldiers guarding a small band of prisoners. Pilate walks over and sits down upon what is known as “the curule seat”—”the judgment seat.” It’s actually a folding chair because it needs to be portable so that it can be taken to different parts of the city, or even out into the country. Whenever Pilate takes his place on that seat, he becomes the judge. On that particular day, Pilate would have to render judgment in the case of one known as “Jesus of Nazareth.”

I like to give Pilate the benefit of the doubt. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe he was a scoundrel not worth the dirt upon which he walked. But when I read what transpired in this case, it seems to me that Pilate wanted to try to do what was right. Four different times in the course of these proceedings, Pilate tried to let Jesus go. Three different times in the course of these proceedings, Pilate declared Jesus to be innocent of all charges. Maybe earlier in his life or in his professional career, he would have been strong enough to do the right thing. But that was a hundred compromises ago. That was a dozen rationalizations ago. Give a little here, take a little there, and before you know it, your moral strength and courage are gone. So now Pilate was seated on the judgment seat. He had a choice to make. He was confronted by a noble and innocent man on the one hand, but on the other hand he had a crowd of people screaming for that noble man’s blood. He had to choose between the tender voice of Jesus and the loud voice of the crowd. He had to make a decision. So what did he decide to do? The Bible says: “So Pilate handed Jesus over to them to be crucified.”

Today I want us to look at this day in the life of Pontius Pilate and hopefully draw from it three exhortations: Don’t follow the crowd! Don’t climb the ladder! Don’t straddle the fence! You see, in just a few hours that day, Pilate did all three.

Number One: Pilate teaches us here that when we’re forced to make a choice, don’t follow the crowd!

Look at what Pilate does. In Matthew 27:17 we read: “After the crowd had gathered, Pilate said to them, “Whom do you want me to release for you, Barabbas or Jesus, who is called the Messiah?” Whose opinion is he asking here? He’s a politician. He’s consulting the voice of the crowd. He wants to know what the polls are saying.

Dear friends, never ask the crowd how to live your life—they’ll tell you and you don’t want to hear what they have to say. Don’t ask the crowd how to live your life. Don’t let other people make your decisions for you. Don’t live your life saying: “But everybody does it.” Did you hear about the school principal who asked the teenage girl why she was wearing one green sock and one yellow sock? She said: “I just wanted to make my own statement. Besides, everybody’s doing it!” Peer pressure is like that. It leaves the impression that you’re making your own decisions in life, when in reality everyone else is making them for you.

Let me put it like this. There is a difference between fitting in and falling in. Does that make sense? There is a difference between fitting in and falling in. There is nothing wrong really with trying to fit in. For example, I don’t really see the purpose in this necktie I’m wearing, but I wear it because it seems appropriate and it will help me to fit in. We all do certain things to fit in, yet there is a fine difference—but a very distinct difference—between fitting in and falling in. It’s like the story of the two boys, one in a mud puddle, the other not. One filthy, the other clean. The dirty one said to the clean one: “Will you get in here with me and get dirty so that I will look cleaner?” Society says that to you and me. Will you come down to my standards so that I’ll feel better? Will you be dishonest with me so I won’t feel so bad? Will you climb in the back seat with me so I won’t feel so guilty? You see, the crowd lives vicariously through our mistakes. Mark it down. You can either stand up for the truth and for Christ in your life or you can fall in with the crowd. Pilate was more concerned about the crowd than he was about the Christ.

My beloved, don’t follow the crowd. Wise is the one who can stand before the cruelest king and fear only his God. Don’t follow the crowd.

Number Two: Pilate teaches us that when it comes to significant decisions in life, don’t climb the ladder.

Again look at what Pilate did. We go over to John 19:12 for this text. “Pilate tried to release Jesus but the people cried out: ‘If you release this man, you are no friend of the emperor. Everyone who claims to be a king, sets himself against the emperor.’ ” Suddenly, Pilate saw his position threatened; his perks of power endangered; his invitation to the annual banquet in Rome reneged; his hold over the people put at risk. That got his attention. You see, the people were saying to Pilate: “If you don’t do what we want, we’re going to tell the big guys in Rome about you and your reign as governor will be history.”

Let me tell you something, friends, fame is fleeting—if you’ve got it, enjoy it, because it won’t be there tomorrow. Joe Namath was in a restaurant recently. You remember Joe Namath, don’t you? Broadway Joe. He won a Super Bowl a decade or two ago. He was in a restaurant and a young boy came up to him. He knew what the young boy wanted or so he thought, and so he took out his pen and he scribbled his autograph on his menu and he gave the menu to the boy. The boy said: “No, thank you, sir. I already have a menu. I just wanted the ketchup.” Fame is fleeting. People forget. You can only be at the top of the ladder for so long, so don’t go for something that’s going to be gone. Pilate sacrificed an incredible opportunity for a measly position.

Ruthless ambition—the relentless pursuit and possession of power—has destroyed more people than just Pontius Pilate. Where did that word “ruthless” come from? I’m not sure, but here is an intriguing thought: what if it came from the story of Ruth in the Old Testament? Ruth is the symbol of love and loyalty, thoughtfulness, and faithfulness. She put others before herself. We see it in what she said to Naomi, her mother-in-law, “Do not ask me to leave you or to turn away from following you. Where you go, I will go; where you live, I will live; your people shall be my people, and your God shall be my God.” She is the paragon of unselfish love and loyalty. To be “ruth-less” then must be the opposite—that is, to be without the spirit of Ruth. That was Pilate’s problem. He was without the spirit of Ruth. All he wanted was to get and to keep a position of power and the power of that position. Poor Pilate. Look at him. Don’t climb the ladder. It’s like the wag said: “There’s no such thing as the ‘ladder of success.’ It’s a greased pole!”

Number Three: Pilate teaches us that when confronted with a choice, don’t straddle the fence!

It’s not comfortable sitting on a fence, is it? Some fences are made of barbed wire and it’s even more painful then. Yet what Pilate tried to do was to climb up on the fence and sit down. He didn’t want to do anything bad but he didn’t want to do anything good either. So look at what he did, Matthew 27:24: “So when Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took some water and washed his hands before the crowd saying, ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood, see to it yourselves.’ ” He tried to straddle the fence.

As you know, many classic pieces of literature came out of the terrible days of the Holocaust. The words of Dietrich Bonhoefer, Anne Frank, Corrie Ten Boom, Viktor Frankl and other great people of faith have moved and inspired people all over the world. But do you remember the very poignant piece written by Martin Niemoller? Niemoller, a German Lutheran pastor, was arrested by the Gestapo and sent to the Dachau concentration camp in 1938. Amazingly, he survived and he was ultimately set free by the Allied Troops in 1945. Later, Niemoller wrote these haunting words: “In Germany, the Nazis came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me—and by that time there was no one left to speak up for me.” The point is clear. When it comes to being a Christian in this world, we can’t straddle the fence. We can’t bail out or run away. We can’t stand to the side or wash our hands.

History tells us that ultimately Pilate fell out with the Roman emperor. He was banished to an island. Legend tells us that Pilate died on that island, and his body was thrown into a lake. And legend tells us that, to this day, Pilate comes to the surface of that lake every morning washing his hands, trying to rid himself of the guilt, not for something he did but for something he could have done. You see, I could write Pilate’s epitaph in one word, six letters, A-L-M-O-S-T. Almost. He almost performed the greatest act of mercy in history. He almost stood up for Christ in the face of public pressure. He almost did what only he could do. He almost did what was right. Almost.

Is your life an “almost?” Almost counts in hand grenades and horseshoes, but not in the kingdom of God. Let your “yes” be a “yes” and let your “no” be a “no.” Pilate tried to let his “yes” be a “no” and his “no” be a “yes.” It didn’t work. He ended up thinking he had won, when in fact he had lost. The choice Pilate faced is the same choice we face. Will it be Christ or the crowd? Well…

The choice is yours.

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