RPM, Volume 15, Number 50, December 8 to December 14, 2013

What a Difference a Day Makes

By Robert Petterson

Christ has risen. He is in the world today. You can't see him, except through the eyes of faith. But, I assure you that he's here. He has atoned for your sins. All you have to do is receive his free gift of eternal life. Ask him to come live inside you. Filled with his Resurrection power, you will experience a Resurrection life that will change you and your world!

Sermon Text: John 12:6

I don't want to throw cold water on your Easter. But I'm so disappointed in Jesus! I had big dreams when I gave him my life. You know that I've preached my heart out, gone on mission trips, and baptized converts. I've covered his face with kisses, and he even calls me friend. Yet I'm so tired. This Jesus gig has gotten me nowhere. So I'm looking out for me, and cashing in my chips before my world collapses. Then I'm heading out, before I come to the end of my rope.

By the way, let me introduce myself to you: my Jewish name is Yehuda Iš-Qriyôth. In the Greek culture of my day, some called me Ioudas Iskarioth. But you call me Judas Iscariot. I see how quickly you recoil in disgust. I know that you number me among history's most infamous traitors like Benedict Arnold, Brutus, and Quisling. But I'm the most despised: the disciple who betrayed Jesus with a kiss.

It wasn't always that way. When my Jewish mother first saw me, she looked up and whispered Yehuda—"God be praised!" Little Judah was her bundle of joy. My father Simon had big plans for his boy Judas. I grew up shrewd, quick with numbers and even quicker to grasp every situation. Jesus had other disciples who were facile with numbers, like Matthew the tax collector. But Jesus entrusted his moneybag to me. He even singled me out as his friend. When he sent the other disciples to preach and do miracles, I went too. After we got back from our mission to the Samaritan villages, he looked at all of us and said, "Rejoice that your names are written in heaven." (Luke 10:20) He then said to all of us, "Blessed are the eyes that see what you see. For I tell you that many prophets and kings wanted to see what you see, but did not see it…" (Luke 10:23&24)

Sure, I had my failings. Don't all disciples of Jesus, including you? St. John badmouths me in his tell-all memoire, The Gospel of John. I can assure you that St. John was no saint. He and his brother James were always getting into barroom brawls. I could dish up plenty of dirt on the disciples too. John forgets his own shortcomings when he writes about me, "…he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put in it." (John 12:6) Matthew piles on when he records me saying to the chief priests, "What are you willing to give me if I deliver him over to you." (Matthew 26:15) He insinuates that I did it only for the money. He should talk. Before Jesus found him, he had betrayed his own country and was stealing from everyone while collecting taxes for the Romans!

Yeah, I stole from Jesus. But so do you, every time you hold back on your tithes and offerings. Maybe you haven't sold out Jesus for 30 pieces of silver, but there've been times you sold him out for pleasure or popularity. We've all stuck our fork in that piece of the pie that belongs only to Jesus. Each of us has cashed in our chips when the going got rough. So be careful not to look down your nose at ol' Judas. Don't turn me into a one-dimensional cartoon villain that you can dismiss. You and I have too much in common. I'm like a car pileup on the freeway. You don't want to look at it when you pass by, but you can't help yourself. You innately know that there's something of ol' Judas lurking in your own soul. So listen well to my story, for it could be yours too.

My origins are shrouded in obscurity. It amuses me to watch people try to unravel the mystery by looking at the name Iscariot. Most scholars think that Iscariot was a nickname. Some say that it means Judas of Kerioth, a region of Judea south of Jerusalem. Kerioth was the center for the resistance movement; a hotbed of patriotic fervor; a recruiting ground for freedom fighters. Most of those Jewish patriots who committed mass suicide at Masada, rather than surrender to the Romans in 73 AD, came from Kerioth. And I'm proud to say that I did too. I was the only disciple who wasn't a Galilean.

But Iscariot has other meanings too. It could mean Judas the Sacarius. That's Latin for dagger-man, and our knives dispatched many a Roman occupier. The Sacarii were a secret society of assassins—the Al-Qaeda of our day. Like the car bombers of Islamic terrorism, we would slip into marketplaces with our knives flashing, striking fear into the hearts of collaborators. Others see the similarity of Iscariot to a Hebrew word that means liar—Judas the liar. Still others look at a similar Aramaic word which means to deliver up—Judas, the one who delivered up Jesus. Others argue for another similar sounding Aramaic word that means constrict or chock—Judas, the one who strangled himself with a noose. Talk about sick gallows humor! Instead of such mean-spiritedness, remember me for what I was: a young Israeli freedom fighter who dreamed of a Messianic Kingdom promised by our Old Testament Prophets.

When I first saw Jesus, I knew I had found the Messiah. One false messiah after another had dashed our hopes. But this one was the real deal. It wasn't easy being the only Judean in a company of hillbilly Galileans. I liked Simon the Zealot, a patriot like me. Matthew the tax collector made my skin crawl. The rest of my Galilean associates were country hicks. I couldn't understand how Jesus could forge a kingdom out of such misfits, or why he attracted so many prostitutes, cripples, lepers, and losers. But when I saw the miracles that he performed, watched the crowds he attracted, and listened spellbound to his mesmerizing speeches, I knew that he had the right stuff. I especially loved his kingdom talk. I really got into that prayer: "Thy Kingdom come…" I wanted to cheer when he lambasted the religious fat cats who collaborated with the Romans while they fleeced the people. I got a rush when he gave me the power to heal the sick, cast out demons, and prophesy. This was going to be some Kingdom! And I was going to be a big shot—like my namesake the legendary Judas Maccabees—the Hammer of God who drove the Greeks out of Israel 150 years before.

I can tell you right now, that I totally missed why Christ came. I wanted a prophet to advance my political ideology; a messiah to remake my world and not a personal Savior. As long as I had my Sacarii dagger and a schemer's ability to outwit my enemies, I could take care of myself. I wanted him to sit on a conqueror's throne, not hang on a Roman cross. I needed Jesus to fulfill my dreams, and was willing to give him everything—as long as he did it my way. When it comes to following Jesus, maybe there's a little of 'ol Judas in you too.

Remember, I was quick with numbers, and a schemer's ability to size up the situation quickly. Those thickheaded Galileans never figured it out. Right up to the Last Supper, they were still arguing over who would get the plumb cabinet posts in Jesus' Kingdom. Even before he ascended to heaven, those numbskulls were still asking Jesus, "Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?" (Acts 1:6) You may venerate Peter, James, and John as saints. But they were just as much in it for themselves as I was. The irony is: I figured out the true meaning of what Jesus was saying way before they did. He had come to die as a sacrifice for the sins of God's lost children. He made it so clear: "For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost." (Luke 19:10) He was hell-bent on that cross. Puff went my dreams of a liberated Palestine!

That's when Jesus broke my heart. Maybe he's broken your heart too. You prayed for him to change things, but he never did. The cancer came back. Your loved one died. Mr. Right never came along. You served him with everything you had, but he didn't give you what you hoped for. What's a follower of Jesus to do when he doesn't lead you to your dreams? I did what embittered people so often do: I began to cash in my chips. I figured that as long as Jesus wouldn't deliver on my dreams, I would get all I could out of my service to him. I stole from the moneybag—like the unloved spouse who begins to cheat, the disappointed child who manipulates his parents, the pastor who abuses his parishioners, the politician who takes bribes on the side, or disillusioned church members who sow dissent.

Before we traveled to Jerusalem for the last time, he said to us, "As you know, the Passover is two days away—and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified." (Matthew 26:2) We were all shattered! The next night we were eating at his friend Lazarus' house in Bethany outside Jerusalem. I was in a sour mood when Lazarus' sister Mary broke open a vial of expensive perfume—worth at least a year's wages—and poured it all over Jesus' feet. By now I knew the cause was lost. So I was going to steal as much as I could from the moneybag. I rebuked Jesus: "That perfume could have been turned to cash to feed the poor." The truth is: it could have financed a new life for me after Jesus. As quick as a flash, Jesus rebuked me: "Leave her alone! It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me." (John 12:7&8) I knew then that Jesus had a death wish. It was over for him, and the rest of us too.

But hope was rekindled the next day. As we came to Jerusalem, revolution was in the air. More than two million pilgrims had crowded into the city for Passover. The Roman garrison was sitting on a powder keg and stretched razor thin. The Fortress of Antonia was vulnerable to takeover—if only the masses could be rallied. The Sacarii had infiltrated the city and were sharpening their daggers. Freedom fighters like my friend Barabbas were taking up positions.

Jesus ordered us to get the colt of a donkey. My ears pricked up. The ancient kings of Jerusalem entered the city on a donkey's colt. As Jesus approached the city on the colt, I realized that we were headed straight for the Eastern Gate—the one that the ancient kings rode through on their inauguration day. This was the very reason we had left everything to follow him! We quickly cut down palm branches and handed them out to people to wave, just as they had when ancient kings entered the Eastern Gate. The crowds got caught up in the excitement, singing the ancient greetings to Israeli kings of old: "Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the king of Israel!" (John 12:13) We threw our coats in the dust before him. After he passed through the gate, he bounded up the stairs to the temple, braiding strands of rope into a whip. He exploded in anger, striding through the outer courts, overturning the tables of the moneychangers, and screaming, "You shall not turn my Father's House into a den of thieves!" It was exhilarating. Religious hucksters were running away in terror. This was our king! In the next couple of days, he walked the streets calling down curses on the establishment. My hope was soaring afresh on eagle's wings.

But then Jesus pulled back, and began to talk about another kind of kingdom—future and heavenly, dying for sins, and the way of the cross. My whole world came crashing down again when he said, "Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies it remains a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds." (John 12:23&24). He was still hell-bent on dying on a Roman cross! Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. It was really over now. His bones would soon be buried with others in the graveyard of failed Jewish Messiahs.

I saw the handwriting on the wall while the Galileans were still counting chickens that would never hatch. So I figured that I could make the most of a bad situation by turning in my chips for at least some return on three lost years. I felt like the betrayed wife: if I had to go to the divorce court, I was going to take him for every penny. Jesus had prophesied that someone would hand him over to be crucified. So I got it in my mind that I might as well be God's instrument. We can justify the worst things by putting a God spin on them. So I went to the chief priests to cut a deal. Those cheapskates were only willing to give me 30 pieces of silver—a slave's price for a king! What an irony! It was a fraction of the worth of that perfume Mary had poured on his feet. But it was the best deal I was going to get. Revenge never pays off the way you think.

Two evenings later we were in the Upper Room. The Galileans were still dreaming of a triumphant kingdom, but I knew better. The longer I sat there, the angrier I got. Then Jesus scolded us for our one-upmanship and told us that we should have a servant attitude. He took off his clothes, wrapped a towel around his waist, and began to wash our feet. I never felt dirtier than when he washed my feet.

I sat silently through the Passover meal. Then Jesus said something that made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck: "Very truly I tell you, one of you is going to betray me." My secret was out! But the rest of those Galilean numbskulls looked at each other and asked, "Is it me?" I relaxed for a moment. But then he turned and looked deep into my soul, then dipped a piece of Passover bread in the sop and said, "It is the one whom I will give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish." (John 13:26) I thought my head would explode when he handed it to me. Jesus knew. He always does. Anger welled up inside; a rage I couldn't control. Matthew later wrote in his gospel that the devil possessed me. I got up and left. I knew what I had to do. I found my way to the chief priest's house, and sealed a devil's bargain. I was glad that, if Jesus insisted on dying, at least I was going to get something out of it. But they were going to get their 30 pieces of silver worth. I would have to take them to Jesus in the night, and identify him with a kiss.

We found him after midnight in the Garden of Gethsemane. The soldiers pushed me toward the disciples. I felt angry and ashamed, a patriot and freedom fighter collaborating with the enemy for 30 lousy pieces of silver. I had betrayed my country, and now I was betraying my master and companions. I wanted to cut and run, but it was too late. Jesus knew why I was there. He gave me a look of hurt mingled with compassion: "Friend, do what you came to do." I was hot with shame. He called me friend, and I was about to put him on a cross. But the die was cast. I screwed up my courage, stepped forward, and kissed him on the cheek. He jumped back as if I had slapped him. "Do you betray me with a kiss?" I felt so small.

I'll never forget how he looked at me. Or the way the other disciples glared at me. The temple guards shoved me away with disdain. I was of no use to them anymore. I wandered the streets in a stupor, filled with remorse. Those of you who have ever betrayed anyone know the shame I felt. Everything I ever stood for had gone up in smoke. Revenge that had tasted so sweet earlier in the evening had turned sour in the dark night. The morning broke with the news that the Sanhedrin had condemned Jesus to death, and were turning him over to the Roman Governor.

I stumbled into the chambers of the chief priests, hoping to stop this travesty, throwing the 30 pieces of silver across the marble floors. "I've sinned and betrayed innocent blood." They just laughed at me and turned away in disdain. "What is that to us? That's your responsibility." (Matthew 27:4) They were right. It was my responsibility. I had sinned, and I had to atone for it. I didn't know that the very one I had betrayed was going to be nailed to a cross as an atonement for sins worse than mine. I could have trusted in his death to make right what I had done wrong.

Instead, I went out and got a rope. Jesus' words kept echoing in my ears: "You betray me with a kiss?" The streets were empty. Everyone had gone to see the crucifixion of the man I had betrayed. I stumbled outside the gates to the city garbage dump. On the edge of the cliff overlooking the valley called Gehenna I found a tree. Down below lepers and homeless beggars were sifting through mountains of garbage. Smoke billowed out of the debris, acid in my nostrils. I remembered that Jesus had told us that this garbage pile called Gehenna was what hell was like. And that's what I felt like I deserved. So I fashioned a noose, put it around my neck, slung the other end over a branch, and jumped out over the abyss. After a failed life, I couldn't even commit suicide successfully. The branch snapped. I landed belly down on the jagged rocks below. Life has its ironies. At the same time, on another garbage dump outside the city, Jesus also hung from a tree. We both went into our own hell. We were both split open. Both of us died an agonizing and bloody death, despised and rejected.

But our deaths were as different as night and day. I was guilty; he was innocent. I didn't have to die to atone for my sins; he had to die to atone for sinners like me. When he died, hell was finished for all those who trust in him; when I died, hell was just beginning for me. I accomplished nothing by my death; he accomplished everything by his. I lived for kingdoms that always die; he died for a kingdom that lives on. He rose from the dead on the third day; my bones still lie buried in an unmarked grave in Potter's field.

And now I've come across the great divide, like the ghost old Jacob Marley in Charles Dickens' Christmas Carol, coming to warn Ebenezer Scrooge. God loves you so much that he doesn't want your life to end like mine. That's why he sent his Only Begotten Son to die on a cross for your sins. That's why he sent me to you today.

No matter where your life is, or what you've done, it's never too late for things to change. No pit that you've dug (or someone else has dug for you) is so deep that God's love isn't deeper still. If Easter Sunday teaches anything, it's this: it's not over 'til it's over, and then it's still not over. I thought that it was over when Jesus said that he was going to die on a cross. My hopes were dashed because I thought he was going to be another failed messiah. So I made a devil's bargain. Maybe you've done the same. You tried to cash in your chips, and the payoff ended up to be your own version of 30 pieces of silver. You ransomed a king for a slave's wages. And now your life is in a mess.

Don't do what I did. There are lots of ways to make a noose, and strangle your life in some act of despair. I knew he was going to die, but I didn't remember that he was going to rise from the dead. If only I had waited. On Black Friday all I could see was the mess I had made of things. But Sunday was on the way. What a difference a couple of days made. My sin was no worse than Peter's denial, or Thomas' doubting, or the rest of the disciples running out on Jesus in his darkest hour of need. They all betrayed him in their own way. Every one of them cashed in their chips too. Each of us has betrayed someone. Mostly, we've betrayed ourselves. For sure, we've betrayed Jesus—more times than we care to admit. If only I had waited, I could have received the same forgiveness that Peter and the rest of them got.

I was so caught up in my disappointment over failed dreams and lost causes that I didn't hear Jesus say that he was coming back from the dead. He said to us, "I am the Resurrection and the Life." He repeatedly said that he was coming back. His bones wouldn't lie in the graveyard of failed Jewish messiahs. If only I had listened. Will you listen? I can hear his voice now. Do you hear it? Listen to him. (Paul Taylor sings, "I'll rise again").

I must go away, back to another place. But he has risen. He's in the world today. By the Spirit of the Living God, he walks the aisles of this church, down the rows, and is standing right in front of you. You can't see him, except through the eyes of faith. But, I assure you that he's here. He has atoned for your sins. You can't pay for them anymore than I could pay the price for my sins. All you have to do is receive his free gift of eternal life. Ask him to come live inside you. Filled with his Resurrection power, you will experience a Resurrection life that will change you and your world!

Copyright 2008-2013, All rights reserved. No part of this may be reproduced without permission from Dr. Robert Petterson, Pastor Trent Casto or Covenant Presbyterian Church of Naples.

Subscribe to RPM
RPM subscribers receive an email notification each time a new issue is published. Notifications include the title, author, and description of each article in the issue, as well as links directly to the articles. Like RPM itself, subscriptions are free. Click here to subscribe.