You Gotta Serve Somebody | Wayne Massey

John 19:1-16a

Jesus sentenced to be crucified

Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged. The soldiers twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on his head. They clothed him in a purple robe and went up to him again and again, saying, ‘Hail, king of the Jews!’ And they slapped him in the face.

Once more Pilate came out and said to the Jews gathered there, ‘Look, I am bringing him out to you to let you know that I find no basis for a charge against him.’ When Jesus came out wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe, Pilate said to them, ‘Here is the man!’

As soon as the chief priests and their officials saw him, they shouted, ‘Crucify! Crucify!’

But Pilate answered, ‘You take him and crucify him. As for me, I find no basis for a charge against him.’

The Jewish leaders insisted, ‘We have a law, and according to that law he must die, because he claimed to be the Son of God.’

When Pilate heard this, he was even more afraid, and he went back inside the palace. ‘Where do you come from?’ he asked Jesus, but Jesus gave him no answer. 10 ‘Do you refuse to speak to me?’ Pilate said. ‘Don’t you realise I have power either to free you or to crucify you?’

11 Jesus answered, ‘You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above. Therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.’

12 From then on, Pilate tried to set Jesus free, but the Jewish leaders kept shouting, ‘If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar.’

13 When Pilate heard this, he brought Jesus out and sat down on the judge’s seat at a place known as the Stone Pavement (which in Aramaic is Gabbatha). 14 It was the day of Preparation of the Passover; it was about noon.

‘Here is your king,’ Pilate said to the Jews.

15 But they shouted, ‘Take him away! Take him away! Crucify him!’

‘Shall I crucify your king?’ Pilate asked.

‘We have no king but Caesar,’ the chief priests answered.

16 Finally Pilate handed him over to them to be crucified.

Bob Dylan sang ‘You gotta serve somebody – the devil or the Lord.’ Might sound a bit dramatic, but we can see what he meant and learn some lessons about that choice from the way Pontius Pilate behaved.

The first lesson is: don’t serve the crowd. Pilate knew Jesus should be set free, but he wanted to placate the crowd who were shouting for Jesus’ crucifixion.

Crowds can be very powerful, as can peer pressure. Look at fashionable clothes or home decoration through the decades. Some of it looks ridiculous or downright ugly, yet at the time we were all so cool! Because the ‘crowd’ said we were. Crowds are also easily led, and dangerous for that reason, and they are fickle. The crowd shouting on Palm Sunday for Jesus to be king had become a crowd baying for his blood a few days later.

Pilate mocks Jesus in front of the crowd, saying ‘look at him – he’s nothing. Just a poor weak man.’ Our culture seeks to have Jesus diminished, cut down to size. Sometimes this is done by admiring and focussing on his humanity, his love and care for others, his teaching, but all this at the expense of his divinity. Jesus – the admirable human being, but not the living Lord whose love is a challenge for each one of us.

As a Church, how much do we placate the crowd? -Focussing on Jesus in his human life and his love but not so much on his death on the cross, nor on his holiness and his claim on our lives.

Secondly, don’t serve Caesar. Caesars are all-powerful and demand everything. In the Roman Empire, Caesar and the culture were all of a piece. Today in Britain, there is no political figure who commands that position. But within our society are cultures that are just as all-demanding as any Caesar. One only realises this if one tries to live in a radically counter-cultural way.

Did you feel a shock when you read that the chief priests declared ‘We have no king but Caesar’? Yahweh was the only true king for the Jewish people. But Jesus was right when he said ‘You can’t serve two masters’, and that day the chief priests made their choice clear.

Pilate also has to choose who he will serve. Both the crowd and Caesar are powerful and dangerous, and he chooses them, rather than the true King who is standing in front of him. Jesus is all-powerful like the crowd, but unlike them he isn’t fickle. Yesterday, today, tomorrow, he is the same. And Jesus is all-powerful like Caesar, but he serves you and gives you everything first.

So who or what do you serve? Take a look at the decisions you make, the way you respond to situations, look at your ambitions and dreams, the hopes you might have for your kids. What does all that reveal? Are you serving the crowd or Caesar? Or are you serving the one who came to set you free, to take your place in death, and who offers you life now and in eternity?

Pilate went down in history as the man who wasn’t able to do what was right. He served the crowd and Caesar. Yet Jesus was inviting him to a different sort of service, just as he invites each one of us.

Wayne Massey