Tuesday, July 12, 2011

A Sermon on Judas and Providence

I don't usually publish my sermons in manuscript form, but a few folk have asked for this one in writing. So, here it is, preached on July 10, 2011 at First Baptist Church Gaithersburg. John 17.12 is the main biblical text, alongside John 14.15-31.

A child arrived just the other day. He came into the world in the usual way. What was unusual is that his parents accepted $15,000.00 for the naming rights to their son.

The name? GoldenPalace.com. Yes, that’s the boy’s first name.

Even more stupefying is that he’s not the first child to be named thusly. The online casino has been buying up odd things like naming rights to babies, tattoos on people’s bodies, and even paid $40,000.00 for a box of Justin Beiber’s hair.

You might scoff, as I did, but one thing’s for sure. The child’s future will definitely be influenced by his name, and in many ways in his destiny will be co-opted by the naming rights. You might even say he is predestined. Who names their kid “GoldenPalace.com?”

Or Judas. Who would name their kid that?

It’s likely that Judas Iscariot’s parents hoped to script for their son a glorious life, but the name became synonymous with “traitor” when Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus to the Jewish officials in exchange for 30 pieces of silver. Formerly the name Judas was a valiant, heroic one among the Jewish people. Now the word Judas evokes strong and violent images of betrayal, suicide, even the phrase “son of perdition.”

Despite the noble heritage of his name Judas played against the script, choosing to exert his will over Jesus, attempting to usurp the power of God, and manipulating the Jesus movement for his own causes and reasons. We know things didn’t work out so well for Judas, but a question remains stuck in my craw: Did Judas really have a choice? After all, the Gospel of John records in Jesus’ prayer a reference to Judas as “one destined to be lost.” (17.12).

Did Judas betray Jesus of his own free will? Or did he do it because it was destined from the beginning of time? It’s a question you’ve asked and it’s a part of the sermon series “Go Ahead and Ask” for July at FBC Gaithersburg. I hope you’ll explore this tough question and ponder our own freedoms before God’s providences.

Today I aim to draw two Biblical texts into parallel with one another. The first passage is the frustratingly mystical words of Jesus’ prayer to the Father just before he is handed over for trial. The prayer spans all of chapter 17 in John’s Gospel, and perhaps you’ve noticed that there is a natural 3-part division to this prayer.

· 1-5 – Jesus prays for himself, asking for the Father’s glory as the “hour” has come.

· 6-19 – Jesus prays for his disciples who will be left in the world after his death, resurrection, and ascension. Jesus prays for them particularly because he knows that life is about to get very difficult for his followers, as it is for him, too.

· 20-26 – Jesus prays for the church universal so that love might indwell all of his followers. Looks like God are still working on that prayer.

It is in the middle, largest section that our first text is sequestered. It’s almost secretly placed and if you’re reading in a hurry you’ll miss it. “I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled.” (v. 12)

In exploring this passage, I’ve come to note that there are some competing manuscripts that are equally reliable or trustworthy and read instead of “the one destined to be lost” but “the son of destruction.” Some translations use the phrase, “the son of perdition” – perhaps your personal Bible reads with one of these variations.

Son of Perdition – a phrase that appears twice in the NT – once in our passage today, and once in the writing of Paul – 2 Thess 2.3. It is also thought by many Bible scholars that the apostle John was making a reference to this concept in Revelation 17.8 and 17.11 in his use of the phrase, “the beast that goes into perdition.” We can’t state this with 100% certainty, but it is a reasonable conclusion.

The word perdition has both a Greek and Aramaic root meaning that are similar in nature to one another. The bottom line is that the word means “utter loss, eternal destruction, and disassociation.” So, you see then, the variant translation “the one destined to be lost” is really quite the same concept.

In calling Judas a “Song of perdition,” Jesus leaves me in a quandary – an apparently it leaves you in one, too, prompting the question of whether or not Judas was truly free as a human to choose to betray Jesus, or if he was created from the beginning of time to do so.

Son of perdition – one who is doomed. Perhaps you’ve known someone who was fated? Bad luck, bad choices, bad karma, bad whatever…just over and over badness. Are they destined to be that way? Sometimes it seems so. But it doesn’t mean they aren’t free to change.

For me, that’s the tension in this story. Judas is free – he goes to make his deal. As it says in John 13.26, “Satan entered into Judas’ heart.” But I don’t believe it happened suddenly, over night, or in the dipping of his bread. Instead, the stage likely had been set for a very long time. We get glimpses of Judas throughout the Gospels. In one scene he is the treasurer, keeping the money of the disciples as the travelled about. In this context he is called a thief.

In another story he is critical of Mary for wanting to anoint Jesus’ feet with the expensive perfume, proposing that the money could have been used for the poor. If indeed Judas was a thief, then he’d have wanted that money in the treasury for his own gain – we don’t know that for sure and it’s certainly hard to measure the intentions of others. Many of us assume things about others, and many times our assumptions are correct…however, not all assumptions we make are right or true.

Judas will be forever remembered as the traitor of Jesus. At his hand, Jesus was led to a mock trial, torture, and execution in a brutal fashion. When we look for villains in the Gospels, Judas is the first one we think of. But there were others.

  • · Pontius Pilate was one, the Roman procurator, literally washed his hands of judging Jesus.
  • · The Jewish Sanhedrin that conducted the mock trial in the “name of justice” were another.
  • · The Pharisees who raised the bribe money for Judas should be counted as players in the betrayal.
  • · Even Judas’s fellow apostles also abandoned Jesus in his hour of need. Who among us does not know of Peter’s triple denial of Jesus? In my study is a beautiful little French painting of St. Pierre, and prominently placed in the landscape is a rooster, proud and tall on a fence, the sign and symbol of betrayal by way of denial. Odds are high there’s a rooster or two running around in your back yard.

It is fair to conclude that Judas’s betrayal was the darkest one, because he sealed it with a kiss and collected a substantial sum of money for his work. It was easy work but held some uneasy consequences.

At the Last Supper, “As soon as Judas took the bread, Satan entered into him” (John 13:26). But later that evening, when a mock trial condemned Jesus to death, Judas “was seized with remorse and returned the 30 silver coins to the chief priests and elders. ‘I have sinned,’ he pleaded, ‘for I have betrayed innocent blood.’ So Judas threw the money into the temple and left. Then he went away and hanged himself” (Matthew 27:3-5).

This suggests that Judas intended something else by his betrayal than a monetary reward, and that line of thinking has led other scholars to conclude that Judas betrayed Jesus so that he could force Jesus to react to the arrest and become the political liberator of Israel from the Roman oppressors.

There is much to know from Judas’ name. Judas’s name Iscariot implies that he belonged to Sicarii, the most radical Jewish group, some of whom were terrorists. The story of the Sicarii reads like a movie script. Their very name means “dagger men” before the time of Jesus and by the time of Jesus the name meant “contract killer.”

They used stealth tactics to murder their targets. They would hide their sicae (small daggers) underneath their cloaks and then at crowded events such as pilgrimages or high holy days they would sneak up on their target, assassinate them by stabbing them when no one was watching, and then blend immediately back into the crowd. Their targets were usually Romans, Herodians, or rich Jewish sympathizers who were comfortable with Roman rule because of the financial gain.

The Sicarii are cited in the work of historian Josephus as a group who banded with the Zealots in 70 AD in committing atrocities to provoke the country to war with Rome, and leading ultimately to the Roman destruction of the temple in retaliation.

I stress all this information because you need it to fully understand the nature of Judas. I am convinced by my research and study that Judas – the Son of Perdition – was really "lost" before Jesus got to him. He had given himself over to a way of thinking that you could properly equate with modern day terrorism, which at it’s roots is a way of thinking that puts the value of human life beneath the value of political principles and ideals.

I am equally convinced that Judas’ intentions were to force Jesus into battle with Rome, the notion of which was entirely antithetical to Jesus’ teaching about establishing the Kingdom of God – not as a political party or a geographic region, but in the hearts of all humans. So what we really see in Judas and Jesus is competing ideologies – one of political nationalism over against one of building up the Kingdom of God.

It leads me to wonder in what ways the church – and in particular our church – may have become somewhat like Judas Iscariot when we focus on building buildings and establishing legitimacy by the standards of the world rather than working to build the church in the pattern after the kingdom of God; that is to say, in the hearts and minds of followers of Jesus, not in the brick and mortar of our edifices.

Quote from Inception: What is the most resilient parasite? Bacteria? A virus? An intestinal worm?

An idea.

Resilient... highly contagious. Once an idea has taken hold of the brain it's almost impossible to eradicate. An idea that is fully formed - fully understood - that sticks; right in there somewhere. The smallest seed of an idea can grow. It can grow to define or destroy you.

As surely as the ideology of the Sicarii had gotten into the head of Judas, it destroyed him. But God used that for good, a part of the plan, as it were, to bring about the redemption of the world through the death of His son. But it’s also possible for the ideology of the Kingdom of God to seep into our brains and become an idea that grows and defines us as a church. As we push forward into our vision and our future, we have to be captivated by this idea of the kingdom of God and put down each and every notion that we have of church which is like Judas.

What would happen if we did that? Would our energies be consumed paying off mortgages and bonds and building bigger better church barns? Or would we be consumed with building better hearts and minds, making for better people, which would make for better families, which would produce children not consumed with consumerism, but people – real people – who would be taken, dare I say “raptured” by the concepts of the Sermon on the Mount, or praying truly “thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven?”

Scriptural commentators note that Jesus chose Judas, not the other way around. Jesus called him “friend,” suggesting that Jesus’ redemptive death somehow required their partnership. Jesus was convinced that he must suffer and die in order for humankind to live. I had a mentor who once said “God calls some of us so that He can keep us.” Maybe that’s true – I can certainly testify that my thinking and devotion and practice and belief of Christianity are much deeper because of my vocational life as, what Lonnie Brown calls a “Paid Christian.”

But it might be equally true that God calls some of us to be lost – to be those Sons of Perdition. I don’t like that notion, it doesn’t line up with the God I believe exists out there and all around us. But frankly, I don’t think it matters whether or not I like that notion of God, because God is going to be God in God’s own way – no matter what I try to do, say, or think.

We are not to first to ponder these things about Judas and Jesus. In WB Yeats’ short play called Calvary, there is a made up dialog between Judas and Jesus as Jesus is dying on the cross. Allow me to share a line or two from the play:

Christ: My Father put all men into my hands.

Judas: That was the very thought that drove me wild.

I could not bear to think you had to but to whistle

And I must do; but after that I thought,

‘Whatever man betrays Him will be free’;

And life grew bearable again. And now

Is there a secret left I do not know,

Knowing that if a man betrays a God

He is the stronger of the two?

Christ: but my betrayal was decreed that hour

When the foundations of the world were laid.

Judas: It was decreed that somebody betray you –

I’d thought of that – but not that I should do it,

I the man Judas, born on such a day,

In such a village, such and such his parents;

Nor that I’d go with my old coat upon me

To the High Priest, and chuckle to myself

As people chuckle when alone, and do it

For thirty pieces and no more, no less,

And neither with a nod nor a sent message,

But with a kiss upon your cheek. I did it,

I, Judas, and no other man, and now

You cannot even save me.

Christ: Begone from me.

For Yeats, Judas had freedom and his betrayal was an exertion of will, to betray a God must be a mighty heady feeling, as if you’ve outsmarted the smartest being in the cosmos.

It was not until Jesus rose from the dead that his disciples began to grasp that his kingdom was truly not of this world. And still, 2 millennia later, we struggle to grasp this truth. So the question we’ve asked: Did Judas have free will – is really not the essential question. It’s not the essential question because it is truly unanswerable…unanswerable because your choices in answering the question are either a) God predestined Judas to be lost and he had no free will…thus raising more questions about the deeper nature of God and whether we are simply pawns on a chess board; or b) Judas was freely given over to his own devices, and God foreknew the outcomes; or perhaps c) Judas had free will to not betray Jesus and God would have looked for and found Judas # 2, or #3, or #4 – counting on the fact that humans are ultimately gloriously vain creatures.

The answerable and important question lies within you and me about ourselves: Are we going to strive for our own kind of kingdom? Or are we going to strive for the Kingdom of God? It is the choice that confronted Judas, Peter, James, and John. It is the choice that has confronted every Christian in the line that is between you and Jesus, person to person, down the hallways of time.

What’s it all mean to you and me?

1. There’s no “devil made me do it.”

2. I believe Judas was forgiven – he confessed his wrong when he threw the money back into the temple. – He was truly one for whom Jesus had died. By that inference, we can conclude logically that no one is too far from the reaches of God.

3. All of us have the capacity for great good and great evil.

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