Posted by: Johnold J. Strey | March 21, 2013

Sermon on Luke 23:8-12


Lent Sermon Series: The Minor Characters of the Cross

Text: Luke 23:8-12


Some names from the Bible are popular, even today, nearly two millennia after the final book of Scripture was written.  You don’t have to look too far to find someone named Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John.  You probably know a Sarah, Mary, and Elizabeth. There are a good number of Pauls and Joshuas and Adams and Davids.  But then there those names that aren’t so popular.  I have yet to meet anyone so cruel as to name their child Judas.  The first murderer, Cain, does not find his name in too many books with suggested baby names.  Pontius Pilate, the ruthless governor of Judea who gets dishonorable mention in the Creed each Sunday, has not had his name resurrected in the twenty-first century.  And among those Bible characters whose names have not made a comeback is Herod, the Jewish ruler over Galilee who makes a cameo appearance in Luke’s account of Jesus’ Passion history.  Tonight’s minor character of the cross is Herod Antipas, one of the sons of Herod the Great, the man who tried to kill the boy Jesus after the Wise Men from the East came to worship the Christ child. Tonight we will spend a few moments thinking about Herod’s role as a minor character of Jesus’ great passion drama.  Listen to these words from Luke 23:8-12.

“When Herod saw Jesus, he was greatly pleased, because for a long time he had been wanting to see him. From what he had heard about him, he hoped to see him perform some miracle.  He plied him with many questions, but Jesus gave him no answer.  The chief priests and the teachers of the law were standing there, vehemently accusing him.  Then Herod and his soldiers ridiculed and mocked him.  Dressing him in an elegant robe, they sent him back to Pilate.  That day Herod and Pilate became friends—before this they had been enemies.”  


The trial before Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor ruling Judea, had convened on Good Friday morning.  Pilate is looking for some way, any way, to free Jesus, whom he has concluded is innocent.  In the course of this impromptu trial that suddenly took place before the palace, he learns that Jesus is originally from Galilee, the region to the north of Judea and Samaria.  And that gave Pilate an idea.  Herod was the Jewish King—or really, tetrarch—that ruled over Galilee, and Herod was in Jerusalem for the Passover celebration.  Why not send Jesus over to Herod?  “Yes, Herod can deal with him.  Maybe an examination before Herod will get this angry mob out of my face and calm them down and end this whole abrupt awakening to my Friday morning.”

The relationship between Herod and Pilate was complicated at best.  The Herods were the Jewish rulers over what was once the larger nation of Israel.  After Herod the Great had died, the region was ruled by his sons, who each reigned over different sections of the kingdom.  But the region was ultimately under Roman government control.  And the Romans had sent their own governor, Pontius Pilate, to rule the region, suggesting that the job the Herods were doing wasn’t good enough.  On top of that, you may recall the incident mentioned in the Gospel for the Third Sunday in Lent (Luke 13:1-9), where Pilate murdered some Galileans—people from Herod’s region—as they were worshipping in the temple.  Not exactly an “olive branch” gesture.  You can see why Pilate and Herod weren’t exactly “BFF’s.”  But this incident changed that.

Jesus is escorted to Herod’s temporary quarters in Jerusalem.  And Herod is immediately pleased, because he is hoping to be entertained.  He has heard about Jesus, the miracle-maker, for quite some time.  And so when Jesus was brought to him, Herod wanted to see a miracle.  He wanted to be entertained.  But Jesus did not oblige.  Jesus’ miracles were always meant to confirm and create faith, not to provide cheap entertainment for the heathen.

Jesus’ unwillingness to entertain Herod led to Herod “[ply] him with many questions.”  “Well, if you won’t show me any miracles, at least tell me how you do them?  Did you really heal all those people?  I’ve heard about that guy who just brought back to life!  What’s your secret?  And then those crowds—those big crowds you get!  Why are you so popular? But why have all these religious leaders turned on you?  What’s your deal, Jesus?”

Jesus gave answers to legitimate questions, even when he was on trial before the Jewish court overnight and before Pilate in the morning.  The Jewish court had asked, “Are you then the Son of God?” and Jesus replied, “You are right in saying I am.”  Pilate had asked, “Are you the king of the Jews?” and Jesus said, “Yes, it is as you say.” (cf. Luke 22:70; 23:3).  But Jesus was not going to entertain Herod even with answers to his questions, nor was he going to respond to the Jewish religious leaders who had tagged along to Herod’s quarters and answer their questions.  Just as the Old Testament writer Isaiah had predicted through God’s direction 700 years earlier, “He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth” (Isaiah 53:7).

Since Jesus would not entertain Herod, Herod decided to entertain himself at Jesus’ expense. As if the previous two phony trials hadn’t been enough, here we essentially have a third trial—or at least interrogation—as the officers with Herod mock and ridicule Jesus.  They dress him up in what the original language calls a “bright” or “shining” robe—something that sarcastically implies royalty.  If Jesus won’t entertain this worldly man, then this worldly man will find his entertainment by ridiculing Jesus.

The end result of this incident is that the hostility between the Roman governor Pontius Pilate and the Jewish ruler Herod Antipas ends.  We’ve already noted the possible reasons for the bad blood between the two of them.  Whatever reason was behind their previous hostility, it was now just water under the bridge now that Herod had his wish fulfilled and found some cheap entertainment in Jesus.


We find it no surprise that the world finds Jesus entertaining.  The world is entertained by the story—even to the point of the History Channel turning the Bible into a multi-part miniseries.  But the world does not necessarily believe the story.  If anything, the world is entertained by the idea that people would actually believe the story of a death and resurrection.  The world is entertained by the idea that people like you believe that Jesus’ miracles are real, the values he taught are divine, and the salvation he brings is the only possible way to connect with God.

Perhaps what is more troubling is when the church finds Jesus to be entertaining.  I remember hearing another clergyman say that worship is supposed to be entertaining.  I can think of all sorts of church advertizing campaigns for Christmas or Easter, inviting you to attend worship that will be cool and entertaining—as if the incarnation, humiliation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus are on the same plane as the rock star that is tomorrow’s one hit wonder.  And there is an inevitable result that occurs when the church tries to make Jesus entertaining.  There will be no cross.  There will be no talk of sin.  There will be no Passion history account of a betrayal and trial.  No unfair sentencing of Jesus and no unjust punishment upon Jesus.  No suffering under Pontius Pilate, no crucifixion, death, or burial.  The “Jesus” that appeals to the world and the Jesus that is often promoted by the church is entertaining, but he is not saving.

Good Lutherans hear that and think to themselves, “That’s right.  What a shame that Jesus is converted to an entertainer in so many corners of American Christianity.”  It is a shame.  It is sad.  But is it something that Liturgy-loving Lutherans are immune from?  Perhaps the sin of Herod hits closer to home that we’d care to admit.

Isn’t there a part of us that likes it when the preacher lets the world out there “have it”?  Isn’t there a part of us that almost enjoys hearing the foolishness of the rest of the church “out there” and thinks, “I’m glad we don’t do that!”  Isn’t there a part of us that finds some pleasure, some joy, some supposedly sanctified entertainment as we look at the foolish conditions within the churches around us and our inner Pharisee says, “Can you believe what’s out there?”  And isn’t there a part of us that likes worship not so much for the message but for the ambiance.  To be sure, I’m the biggest supporter of symbolism in this room, when symbolism and ceremony and ambiance help to underscore the message of the day.  But we can also treat ambiance as an end to itself.  What do we love most about these services?  “Ah, it’s quiet!  Peaceful.  Beautiful organ and piano music.  Subdued lighting.  It puts me in the right mood to end the day.”  Those are all good things in and of themselves, but when we forget that those things are meant to connect with the Lenten message we proclaim, we need to ask ourselves if we have merely found sophisticated entertainment in the ambiance that surrounds us instead of peace for the soul in the message that ought to envelop us.  If worship becomes an experience in religious ambiance and spiritual self-satisfaction, have we not fallen into a sophisticated version of the very same Herodian sin that we would rightly condemn, the sin that turns Jesus from eternal Savior into temporary entertainer?

What would Jesus say to that?  Well, what did Jesus say to Herod?  What does he say to you?  He says nothing.  He says not a peep.  He just acts in silence.  “He was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.”  He acts in silence.  Silently he stands before Herod and his accusers, all the while as the clock ticks and the hour of the cross draws near and the hammer blows come closer.  Silently he endures the ridicule and mockery.  Silently he bears the guilt of everyone who wanted him only for personal entertainment—the Herods of his day and the Herods that reside in our hearts today.  And silently he carries the sin of the world, including your guilt and mine, all the way to the cross.

And at that cross, you will not find entertainment.  The nails that pierce his flesh and tear at his nerves are not entertaining, but in the midst of that Jesus breaks his silence and says, “Father, forgive them.”  And then to forgive the sins of his enemies and to forgive your sins and mine, his Father turns his back on his only Son while God’s full wrath for our sin is poured out on Jesus and paid in full by Jesus.  And Jesus again breaks his silence and says, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me”—hardly entertaining.  The eternal weight our sin is placed on Jesus and permanently removed by Jesus’ death, not to entertain you, but to reconcile you to God, and Jesus cries out, “It is finished!”  There is nothing pretty or entertaining or amusing about the cross, and yet what happened at Jesus’ cross is the most beautiful, enthralling, and astonishing event in human history.  In the silent sacrifice of Jesus, we find reason to rejoice eternally in the full and free forgiveness that he won for us 2,000 years ago and that he applies to us today through faith in him and his sacrifice for us.


Politics makes strange bedfellows.  Pilate and Herod went from enemies to friends in a single day because Pilate sent Jesus to Herod, who all the while hoped to be entertained.  How sad.  But through it all, something grand and glorious took place.  For God in heaven and we on earth went from enemies to friends in a single moment because the Father sent Jesus to the cross, all the while planning and carrying out our salvation.  And in that salvation you and I do not find entertainment; we find forgiveness.  We do not find temporary amusement; we have eternal peace with God.  We don’t find an emotional escape on earth; we find a permanent spiritual refuge in heaven.  What great blessing you have right now, dear friend, when the Spirit leads us to see Jesus not as our entertainer, but as our Savior and Redeemer, our Lord and our God.  Amen.



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