In literature, a good story is comprised of five elements.  They are character, setting, conflict, plot, and resolution.  The characters, of course, are the individuals that the story is about. The author of the story gives us enough information about the characters that we can visualize each person.  The setting is the location of the action.  The plot is the actual story around which the entire story revolves. Every story has a conflict to solve.

The plot is centered on this conflict and the ways in which the characters attempt to resolve the problem.  The solution to the problem is the way the conflict is resolved.  In good literature, it is important that the resolution fit the rest of the story in tone and creativity and solve all parts of the conflict.

          In a really great story, the resolution, the ending is a surprise ending.  It is an ending no one could foresee coming.  Such endings cause us to think, did we miss the signs of the coming ending as the story unfolded?  Could the ending have been different?  What if the characters had behaved differently, would the ending have been as we thought it ought to end?  And finally, we are left with the lingering question, what was the author’s intent in ending the story that surprising way?

          We are here today to explore part of the greatest story ever told.  The story includes characters, setting, plot, conflict, resolution and a surprise ending. And we will indeed be left with the question, what was the author’s intent in ending the story that surprising way?

          This is the story of Jesus’ trial and we come to explore it on the day in which the Christian Church celebrates Palm Sunday, a day of triumph marking Jesus’ kingly entry into Jerusalem some 2,000 years ago. But was the triumph of Jesus to be found in his coming to Jerusalem with palm branches waving or is the triumph to be found in his trial?  The answer may surprise you.

          Let’s visit that setting for a moment.  In the Gospel of Matthew, we would read, “They [Jesus’ disciples] brought the donkey and the colt and placed their cloaks on them for Jesus to sit on. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David!’  ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!’  ‘Hosanna in the highest heaven!’  10 When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, ‘Who is this?’  11 The crowd2s answered, ‘This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee’” (Matthew 21:7-11).

          Jesus coming into Jerusalem was a noisy and joyous. People waved palm branches and placed their coats on the ground ahead of Jesus.  It was a marvelous moment in history as people celebrated the arrival of a man of peace, wisdom, and compassion.  The people saw Jesus as their coming prophet and king.  After Jesus arrived, he called to his side those people who were ill and whose bodies were broken, and Jesus healed them. 

The hope of the people rested in Jesus as God’s anointed one who would usher in God’s kingdom.  The sense of the people was that nothing but good could happen from hereon.  The hero of the story, the kid from the small town, was about to make it big.  This is how we might write the story.

          But the author of the Jesus story, introduced the conflict into the story for his readers.  In just a matter of a few days, the hero, Jesus, had been arrested.  In the dark of night, men armed with clubs and torches seized Jesus.  He had been betrayed by one of his twelve closest friends.  Betrayed by a kiss.

One pastor described the setting of betrayal and arrest this way. “There comes an orange snake eastward through the night.  A snake of fire, a long snake of torches.  Perhaps the disciples glace down from the Mount of Olives and see it and do not understand.  Jesus understands.  It winds the same path they themselves have followed from the city.  It winks through the trees in a smooth and silent, serpentine approach.  It is a fatal snake.  It kills by kissing.”

The snake struck and Jesus was bound.  The disciples with Jesus, his friends, ran into the night. And the one friend who had vowed to fight for Jesus’ sake even if it meant his own life cowered and three times denied knowing Jesus.

          The people living this story were confused and their faces were downcast.  How could things have gone so badly?  This was not the expected outcome of such a great start to the week.  The Son of God does not end up bound by rope and leather! The Son of God does not stand trial! The Son of God cannot be betrayed! Something was very wrong.

          The people had forgotten what they did not want to believe.  This Jesus, this Son of God, had told them, “31 Jesus took the Twelve aside and told them, ‘We are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written by the prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled. 32 He will be delivered over to the Gentiles. They will mock him, insult him and spit on him; 33 they will flog him and kill him’” (Luke 18:31-33a).  Those who heard these words, as well we, have a shared habit of discounting and forgetting the words of a story that do not fit our expectations. But these expectations about Jesus had been told and retold for centuries.

          In the book of Isaiah, written hundreds of years before Jesus’ birth, we would find that the God’s anointed one would be “He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.  Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem…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 its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth” (Isaiah 53:3, 7).

God does not surprise us in the sense of doing something unexpected.  God reveals what he will do before he does it.  God does this so that we can know which events are of God and which events are not.  The arrest of Jesus was not a surprise to God and Jesus, and neither would the trials be a surprise.

          I use the phrase the trials of Jesus because Jesus was subjected to judgement four times.  First, the arresting officials, the religious leaders, put Jesus on trial.  In the darkness of night, the religious leaders called witnesses to accuse Jesus of all manner of things, but the witnesses could not keep their stories straight. 

Then the Chief Priest intervened and asked questioned Jesus, “Are you the Messiah?” dragging out the “s’s” much like the hiss of a snake.  “Jesus replied, ‘You say that I am.’ 71 Then they said, ‘Why do we need any more testimony? We have heard it from his own lips’” (Luke 22:70b-71). 

The first trial was brief with the prisoner being found guilty.  This sentence of death was a foregone outcome before the trial began because the religious leaders focused on only one thing, putting out the light of Jesus Christ.  The light of Christ had been shining brightly upon the religious leaders, too brightly, just as innocence shines upon the guilty.  They dearly wanted to put out the light.

          But the religious leaders were crafty and cunning. They wanted others to do the work to dispense with Jesus.  And so, Jesus’ second trial was needed.  Luke wrote, “Then the whole assembly rose and led him off to Pilate. And they began to accuse him, saying, ‘We have found this man subverting our nation. He opposes payment of taxes to Caesar and claims to be Messiah, a king.’  So Pilate asked Jesus, ‘Are you the king of the Jews?’  ‘You have said so,’ Jesus replied.  Then Pilate announced to the chief priests and the crowd, ‘I find no basis for a charge against this man’” (Luke 23:1-4). Much to the surprise of the religious leaders, Jesus second trial had ended with an acquittal; Jesus was innocent according to Pilate.  That should have ended the matter and resulted in Jesus’ release.

          “But they [the religious leaders] insisted, ‘He stirs up the people all over Judea by his teaching. He started in Galilee and has come all the way here.’  On hearing this, Pilate asked if the man was a Galilean. When he learned that Jesus was under Herod’s jurisdiction, he [Pilate] sent him [Jesus] to Herod, who was also in Jerusalem at that time” (Luke 23:5b-7).  Pilate, perhaps wanting to get out of the middle of a Jewish matter, sent Jesus on to Herod.  And so, Jesus underwent a third trial.

          “When Herod saw Jesus, he was greatly pleased, because for a long time he [Herod] had been wanting to see him [Jesus]. From what he [Herod] had heard about him [Jesus], he [Herod] hoped to see him [Jesus] perform a sign of some sort. He [Herod] plied him with many questions, but Jesus gave him no answer. 10 The chief priests and the teachers of the law were standing there, vehemently accusing him. 11 Then Herod and his soldiers ridiculed and mocked him [Jesus]” (Luke 23:8-11).  The third trial of Jesus had been completed.  The verdict – Jesus was innocent.  That should have ended the matter and resulted in Jesus’ release.

          Instead of being released, Herod “Dressing him [Jesus] in an elegant robe, they sent him back to Pilate. (Luke 23:11b).

          Jesus was experiencing the trials of life and the injustice of the world.  Despite being found not guilty twice by the authorities of law and order, Jesus was no closer to being free now than when he first began.  The world is like that.  Even when the right people make the right decisions, injustices still exist and circumstances do not change.

          Luke tells us that after the third trial, “13 Pilate called together the chief priests, the rulers and the people, 14 and said to them, ‘You brought me this man as one who was inciting the people to rebellion. I have examined him in your presence and have found no basis for your charges against him. 15 Neither has Herod, for he sent him back to us; as you can see, he has done nothing to deserve death. 16 Therefore, I will punish him and then release him” (Luke 23:13-16). 

Pilate reminded the religious leaders tha Jesus not guilty and that he intended to release Jesus.  This is the story Luke’s readers would expect.  When we are judged innocent, we expect to be released.

          “18 But the whole crowd shouted, ‘Away with this man! Release Barabbas to us! ‘19 (Barabbas had been thrown into prison for an insurrection in the city, and for murder.)  20 Wanting to release Jesus, Pilate appealed to them again. 21 But they kept shouting, ‘Crucify him! Crucify him!’ 22 For the third time he [Pilate] spoke to them [the religious leaders]: ‘Why? What crime has this man committed? I have found in him no grounds for the death penalty. Therefore, I will have him punished and then release him’ (Luke 23:18-22).  Again, the verdict had been issued in Pilate’s second trial of Jesus.  Jesus was not guilty and would be released.  The conflict in the story seemed resolved.

          “23 But with loud shouts they [the religious leaders] insistently demanded that he [Jesus] be crucified, and their shouts prevailed. 24 So Pilate decided to grant their demand. 25 He released the man who had been thrown into prison for insurrection and murder, the one they asked for, and surrendered Jesus to their will” (Luke 23:23-25).  The surprising end of Jesus’ fourth trial had been revealed.  Pilate decided that a man named Barabbas, guilty of murder, would be sent free as though he were innocent.  An innocent man, Jesus, would be executed as though he were guilty.

          The Apostle John saw this scene this way, ““19 This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20 Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed.  21 But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God” (John 3:19-21).

          The religious leaders hated the light.  They screamed down the sweeter truth; they condemn Jesus to death in order to put out the light.  They wanted dearly to put out the light.  The guilty person was set free, and, in his place, the innocent man was condemned to death.

          Even though the Scriptures and Jesus foretold what would happen, the conviction and sentencing Jesus to death was a surprise ending. Why would a man guilty of death be set free as though he was innocent and a man innocent of any crime be put to death as though he was guilty?  The story does not make sense, unless we realize that God is the author of the story.

          The arrest, trials, and conviction of Jesus explains God’s plan of salvation.  God did not send Jesus to condemn the world but to save it.  Jesus who is sinless would take on the penalty of those guilty of sin.  And those same sinners would be cleansed of their sins and set free as though they had never sinned.  This is God’s way of telling the story of what he wants for us. 

God wants us to accept Jesus and that our record of sin be exchanged for his record of being sinless.  The wages of our sin would be upon Jesus even though he is innocent.  This exchange may not seem fair, and it is not, toward Jesus. But God’s desire was not to be fair but to be willing to love us and offer us grace despite our weakness and despite our failings. 

You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”  This is the surprise ending of the story and the true triumph of Christ.  Celebrate with Jesus and receive him into your life. Amen and Amen.