Barabbas or Jesus? Who would we choose?

(Here is the sermon I preached on Palm Sunday. You can watch the full worship service and hear the sermon at

Holy Week is my favorite time of the Church year.  In this one week, we encounter the culmination and summary of what Jesus is all about – The impact of his message, the true cost of what it means to be Christlike in his tragic death, and his glorious resurrection which truly is Good News – the best news ever.  

The temptation of this week is that we could just hear the triumphant entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem today and then not think about anything that happens this week and show up next week at the resurrection – completely ignoring what took place.  But remember, you can’t get to resurrection without going through death first.  This week invites us to walk with Jesus, to clearly see with our own eyes, and hear very clearly the events of what takes place.  To be really uncomfortable so that we can truly understand what lengths that Jesus is willing to go for us.  To put ourselves right into the story and recognize that we aren’t just causal observers, we’re the crowd who goes from shouting Hosanna! to crucify him!  

And yet we wonder…We wonder how people could go from shouting Hosanna to Crucify him in a matter of a few days.  Is it really all that much of a mystery though?  Are we really any different?  Haven’t we seen politicians go from presidential consideration to has-beens because of a scandal.  

Or how about prominent preachers that everyone loved and listened to whose world and ministry come crashing down with an accusation of an improper relationship or stealing money from the church.  

Businesses that are on top of the world, raking in a fortune, with everyone looking up to the CEO – and all of sudden going bankrupt because a whistle blower steps forward and shows that the business was nothing more than a sham and fraud and the whole house of cards collapses.  

These things happen rather quickly.  It should come as no surprise that the crowd goes from triumphant shouts of Hosanna to Crucify him in a matter of a few days.  We still do it today.  

When Jesus the Christ is on trial in front of Pilate, the Roman authority in Jerusalem – the people are given a choice.  It’s the point of no return.  Whatever decision the crowd makes in that moment, determines the path forward.  

Pilate gives them a choice of two people that represent two ways of living.  Two ways of seeing the world.  Barabbas or Jesus.  

Barabbas, we are told, was in prison with the rebels who had committed murder during the insurrection.  He was a revolutionary who was part of an insurrection attempt against Rome and its authority.  That’s why he had a death sentence.  Rome only crucified those who rose up against Rome and were a threat to Roman power and authority, not common criminals.  

Humanity loves stories about the underdog taking on the large, powerful empire, or corporation, or secret society who pulls all the strings.  Barabbas wanted to throw off mighty Rome – violently if necessary, maybe even preferring violence.  Why not?  Rome was an empire and the people of Israel were familiar with empires.  They suffered under so many before – Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, the Selucids, and now Rome.  Different names, same results.  All empires bring violence, exploitation, abuse, and death. 

The reality is that the people would have been supportive of Barabbas – not fearful of him.  He wasn’t a bad guy for these people – he was one of them.  They wanted what he wanted – an end to Roman occupation any way that it could be done.  This was an easy pick for them.  They wanted a revolution – Barabbas had experience in that field.  Jesus clearly wasn’t interested in the same revolution that they were.  

They wanted to overthrow Rome.  They were angry and they would support anyone who they expected would take action to accomplish that.  They wanted vengeance and blood – a conquering hero who could smash their enemies.  A savior who would ride into Jerusalem proclaiming military victory and destruction of their enemies, not one who proclaimed the Kingdom of God based on peace, love of enemies and forgiveness.  

Look how easily they cry out Crucify Him, Crucify Him! – They wanted blood, regardless of whose it was.  They wanted to do to Rome what Rome had done to them – crush them, defeat them, and exploit them.  

Is it really surprising that they would choose Barabbas over Jesus?  Humanity has been choosing Barabbas and his ways over Jesus and his ways for a long time.  

Jesus didn’t meet the crowd’s expectations.  He wasn’t there to fight Rome militarily. He was up to something far greater.   

Jesus’ way is the way of love.  And love is a far bigger threat than any armed insurrection or mighty army could ever be.  Love upsets the status quo in significant and transformative ways.  It’s why the empire and the temple authorities, the angry crowd, the others being crucified, the soldiers and everyone else treats Jesus with contempt, mockery, violence, beatings, shame, and finally crucifixion. 

He doesn’t say anything – he doesn’t need to.  His very presence is unsettling.  He is the embodiment of love and everyone who sees him is rejecting that love.  His very presence upsets the established norms and they don’t like it.  He’s exposing what the way of Barabbas and Rome are all about.  

The way of love is offensive to the world and its way of being.  And the world will stop at nothing to prevent love from taking hold in our lives, our communities, and our society.  It will sell us all sorts of lies about why redemptive violence is the only way to peace, or why the ends justify the means will bring us to salvation.  

You see, humanity is addicted to violence.  We certainly offer enough sacrifice at the altar of the god of violence, don’t we?  All we have to do it look at the last week – Here’s the list of mass shooting between last Saturday and yesterday.  A mass shooting is defined as any shooting that involves at least four victims.  

  • Philadelphia – 7 injured
  • Chicago – 1 dead, 7 injured
  • Virginia Beach – 2 dead, 9 injured
  • Atlanta – 4 injured
  • Aliceville, Alabama – 2 dead, 2 injured
  • Boulder, Colorado – 10 dead, 1 injured
  • Detroit, Michigan – 1 dead, 3 injured
  • Houston, Texas – 5 injured
  • Dallas, Texas – 1 dead, 7 injured
  • Philadelphia (again) – 1 dead, 5 injured. 

And that’s just the list for one week.  Seven days, 10 mass shootings.  That’s more than one per day on average.  

Can anyone tell me with a serious face that this is healthy?  That this is how a well-functioning society operates?  That this is what a Christian nation is really about?  Can anyone seriously tell me that there is nothing wrong with this?  Who have we chosen to set free in our nation – Barabbas or Jesus?

The way of love is offensive to the world and its way of being.  It pushes back in the worst possible ways, just like it did against Jesus.  The ways of the world mock Jesus and Jesus’ way of love.  Just listen to the response when it is suggested that we do something about all this death and violence.  Yet, love endures.  It never tires.  It keeps going.  And it doesn’t stop.  

Jesus doesn’t raise up an army to violently overthrow Rome.  Jesus doesn’t even try to defend himself when mocked.  He offers no credibility to the ways of violence by responding to it in kind.  He offers no endorsement or credibility to the ways of Barabbas, which are the same ways as Rome.  He offers something far different.  He offers love – something humanity has done its darndest to avoid and reject.  Jesus offers love patiently – something humanity is so afraid of that it will kill the very one who offers it.  

Why?  Because when love gets a hold of us, we are no longer in control or worried about controlling others.  Love changes everything.  Love is the way of peacemakers.  Love is the way of grace and mercy.  Love sees the image of God in all others – even those who would kill them.  Love moves us towards shalom wholeness.  Love forgives.  Love is patient.  Love never ends.  Love is sympathetic.  Love rejects violence.  Love knows that what is most important is not self-preservation, or getting as much as you can get, or overpowering and controlling others, but rather serving others without hesitation, without limits, without worrying about what we get in return.  Love is self-less.  Love is willing to sacrifice itself just so those who would kill it can see that their way doesn’t win.  

For all eternity, it is noted that Jesus didn’t give into the ways of Rome and Barabbas, the ways of violence.  He didn’t attack with physical violence or with violent language.   Rome killed Jesus but didn’t break him or change him – he stayed with the ways of love.  Love wins.  Always.  Even when violence is used against it.  

Because violence requires more violence – there is never enough.  Love builds on itself and is invitational.  Love is a healthier way.  A way that moves us towards thriving life.  A way that invites people into community and trust. A way that lets go of anger and fear.  A way that clears our eyes, allows us to loosen our fists, softens our hearts, and changes what we speak from shouts of hostility to shouts of joy and celebration.  A way of peace that enhances life, not threatens it.  

But you may say, look around – love doesn’t seem to work pastor.  You’re being irrational and naïve pastor.  Maybe.  We always seem to resort to violence don’t we?  Maybe because that’s all society ever tries.  It’s never really tries love.  It never sticks with it.  It quickly gives up on love the moment it becomes difficult and requires vulnerability and trust.  There is a better way.  Jesus’ way.  Why are we so willing and eager to commit to and defend the ways of Barabbas and Rome?  

The way of Barabbas and Rome cannot endure.  Their ways are not sustainable.  Their ways always end the same.  It’s why there have been so many Barabbases and Romes before and after them.  It never works.  It never succeeds, no matter how hard we try or what weapons we use.   

Only Jesus’ ways work.  They always do.  And this is what we celebrate in the triumphant entry.  That is what we see throughout this holy week.  That is what we pledge ourselves to in discipleship and following Jesus.  That is what will change and transform our lives, our communities, and the world from the way of Barabbas and Rome to the way of Jesus.  

In closing I want to quote a poem that Steve Garnaas-Holmes wrote as a reflection on Palm Sunday.  He wrote the following in response to the crowd’s shouting of Hosanna:

Friend, don’t get sentimental about this.
To wave our palms is to rebel.
There is a king already, 
who does not take kindly to this upstart.
There is an empire already,
the dominion of Self,
the kingdom of the habitual, the popular, 
the Dominant Culture. 
To wave your palm is to pledge allegiance 
to a different realm, to take a different way—
not just during this parade
but every moment, every choice of your life.
You will pay for it. 
To bless the Humble One is to risk his fate.
To cry this Hosanna is to take up your cross.
Don’t wave that palm 
unless you mean to resist,
and you’re ready to be labeled subversive,
and to be punished for it. 

If you do, cry out:
Hosanna—save us!
Hosanna in the highest heaven. 

Thanks be to God.  Amen. 

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