The Great Acquittal (a sermon)

Then he showed me the high priest Joshua standing before the angel of the LORD, and Satan standing at his right hand to accuse him. And the LORD said to Satan, “The LORD rebuke you, O Satan! The LORD who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you! Is not this man a brand plucked from the fire?” Now Joshua was dressed with filthy clothes as he stood before the angel. The angel said to those who were standing before him, “Take off his filthy clothes.” And to him he said, “See, I have taken your guilt away from you, and I will clothe you with festal apparel.” And I said, “Let them put a clean turban on his head.” So they put a clean turban on his head and clothed him with the apparel; and the angel of the LORD was standing by.

Zechariah 3:1–5

I would speak to you today in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Last summer, as the protests over the death of George Floyd were taking place in countless cities across the country, I took the time to watch a movie that had come out a year earlier about systemic racial discrimination in the criminal justice system. The movie, Just Mercy, tells the story of a novice, Harvard-educated lawyer named Bryan Stevenson, who follows a calling to provide legal representation to individuals who may have been wrongfully convicted.

As his work begins, he meets a death row inmate named “Johnny D.” McMillian. Johnny D. is a Black man who was convicted for the murder of a white woman, Ronda Morrison.

The movie follows Stevenson as he uncovers evidence that McMillian is innocent and fights in the court of public opinion and in the Supreme Court of Alabama for a retrial of the case and a dismissal of all charges.

The movie is powerful and convicting. An innocent man is finally given the justice he is due. We are moved by the stunning partiality of justice in our country and the diligent work by lawyers like Bryan Stevenson to recalibrate the scales of justice. 

We wonder, “what does it mean there have likely been innocent people who were executed for a crime they did not commit?”

The story of Just Mercy moves us for the same reason that law enforcement and courtroom dramas captivate our eyeballs on primetime television. We long to see the wicked punished. We demand to see the innocent freed. We long for justice. Specifically, we long for retributive justice. We want people to receive what they deserve, either good or bad.

Since retribution is the way our brains are programmed, we assume that this is also how God works. The wicked should be punished while the righteous prosper. With authority from the divine, we set up our civil society to punish the guilty and to exonerate the innocent.

Who would dare represent the truly guilty and fight for their acquittal?

In a recent essay for The Atlantic magazine, Elizabeth Bruenig researched innocence programs like the one Bryan Stevenson started in the 1980s. Plenty of idealistic young attorneys now graduate law school interested in freeing the innocent, the wrongly convicted, from death row. They want justice, freedom for the innocent. 

The stark reality is that most of those on death row committed the crime for which they received their sentence. No lawyer wants to take the case of a guilty poor man pro-bono. They want justice, punishment for the guilty: an eye for an eye and a life for a life.

If we are looking for guilty individuals to punish, we don’t have to look very hard.

We are moved to anger and revenge for the deaths of 11 Jewish worshipers at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh at the hands of Robert Bowers and the deaths of 9 at a Black congregation in Charleston, SC at the hands of Dylann Roof.

Justifiably, the dominant cultural voice is to demand “an eye for an eye,” a life for a life.

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Human depravity—our theological term for the human inclination to selfishness and evil—is not new. Scripture is rife with examples of human transgression deserving of punishment. 

The first law in Scripture is also the first law that was broken. As quickly as the words are uttered from the mouth of God, they are disobeyed. “Do not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.”

The law is spoken and the law is disobeyed.

Later, as the people of God are freed from slavery in Egypt, God gives them direction on how they should order their lives as free people. Do not worship other gods, do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not bear false witness, do not covet.

The ten big laws are followed by plenty of more detailed regulations that would help God’s people to know exactly where the line between good and evil, permitted and prohibited, would be.

Before the entirety of that law leaves God’s mouth and enters Moses’ ear, it is broken.

Aaron, the brother of Moses, encouraged the people to collect their gold jewelry and melt it down into the image of a calf, saying, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.” 

The law is spoken and the law is disobeyed. This is how it goes between God and the people of God.

Perhaps the most well-known example of Biblical lawlessness was King David. Despite the fact that he was “a man after God’s own heart” who was chosen by God to be Israel’s righteous ruler, David’s pride, power, and selfishness leads him to break the commandments at the core of God’s law.

David covets Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah, and uses his power as king to commit adultery with her and then, to cover it all up, he has her husband Uriah killed in battle.

The prophet Samuel was right when he said that a king would take sons, daughters, fields, servants, and cattle for his own use. King David showed the depths to which human depravity can go—and he was one of the good ones.

The prophets of God declare with one voice the constant sinfulness of God’s people. Amos charges the people with “trampling the head of the poor into the dust of the earth” and accruing wealth by “violence and robbery.” They made a mockery of the justice of the courts. As a result, the people would suffer by the sword of judgment.

As we have heard from the prophet Malachi over the past few weeks, even the worship of God was corrupted by human selfishness.

God has declared in holy law what is good, what God requires of us, and throughout history we have been unable to do it.

Romans 3 declares powerfully, “there is no one righteous, not even one.”

Still, we convince ourselves that there is a categorical difference between us and those who do evil. We insist, to assure ourselves of self-righteousness, that there are good people who deserve blessing and there are bad people who deserve God’s curse. We convince ourselves that there is an invisible line between human beings that separates the righteous from the sinner. If we could only do away with all the sinful people in the world, we think, there would finally be peace and prosperity.

Jesus challenges that notion in the Sermon on the Mount. Have you kept all ten of God’s commandments? Jesus prophetically declares that while the letter of the law “you shall not murder” may let us off the hook, the spirit of the law implies that “anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.” Have you committed adultery? Everyone who has looked on someone lustfully has already committed adultery in his or her heart.

In the face of the law, none of us are faultless. And that’s to say nothing about the countless laws outside of Scripture that find us lacking. We are constantly told, “you’re not successful enough, skinny enough, happy enough. You’re not from the right place. You don’t have enough of the right things. You don’t work hard enough. You don’t have the right opinions.”

None of this does any good in changing us. As Paul declares, hearing what we ought to do just makes us more inclined to rebel. When we are told to wear a mask to protect our neighbor, our human nature speaks up and asserts our rights to do the opposite of what the law requires. When we feel called out in a sermon for a sin or shortcoming, our shame leads us to double down on our behavior. When we are told about the threat of CO2 to our climate, we purchase bigger, more consumptive vehicles.

This is what is in our human nature to do.

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The law that accuses brings us to the third chapter of Zechariah. 

The prophet is brought into a vision of God standing as supreme judge in the divine court. Joshua, representing the whole people of Israel, stands to the left in the place of the defendant. Satan, in the position of heavenly prosecutor, stands at the right ready to accuse. As prosecutor, Satan has a list of charges for which he knows the defendant is guilty. He has compiled accusation after accusation, testimony after testimony, witness after witness. Satan is prepared to offer them all in evidence in the divine court. 

The LORD stands ready to begin the proceedings. Order is brought to the court. Before the trial can even begin, a judgment comes down from on high. It is not the defendant Joshua, battered and covered in the filth of sin, who is accosted by the judge. No, it is the prosecutor, the satan, who is called out.

The defendant is acquitted. The rags of sin are removed from his body. His guilt is taken away. No longer will Joshua be known as the sinful one. No, Joshua will be known as the one who has been forgiven, cleansed, washed, and made new. The past will no longer define him. Accusations of previous offenses can no longer be offered in the divine court. The defendant is free to begin again. 

If we continue reading from the Sermon on the Mount, this is where Jesus is going with his intensification of the law. It is what Paul will later do in his letter to the Romans. Jesus is finding all guilty under the law so that all may be offered forgiveness under grace. All of us have been bound in disobedience in order that God may have mercy on all of us (Romans 11:32).

It is for this reason that Jesus calls not for the righteous to follow him, but sinners. Jesus calls out to those who know and feel their guilt and shame to follow him so that they can receive forgiveness. There is nothing Jesus can do for one who is righteous, one who is convinced of their own superiority.

When Jesus quotes the law “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth,” he obliterates the principle of retribution. “I tell you,” he says, “do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.”

Whatever a person does to sin against us, Jesus declares that we are to respond in love. We are called to take the steam out of rage and violence rather than responding in retaliation. We are called to prayer rather than revenge. We are called to see even the thief with compassion, knowing that if they are after the shirt on our backs, they probably need a coat as well.

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The Spirit of Grace, the Holy Spirit who stands in defense of the accused, stands in opposition to the Spirit of this world, the Spirit identified by Scripture as Satan. The accuser speaks up every time a wrong is committed and demands the maximum sentence. 

Countless people have been fired from their jobs when one poorly considered social media post has gone viral or something from their past has been exposed. 

When individuals are convicted of violent crimes, the demands for “justice” through the death penalty grow louder. When a life is taken, the best recourse we can muster is to take a life in return.

When an individual is shamed on the nightly news for their worst decision, the social media comments in response go for blood.

In the age of the internet that never forgets, it seems there is no path forward, no future, and no forgiveness for those who have erred.

And yet, we see glimpses in our world of a different way. Grace is in no sense easier than judgment. It is easy to declare the end of a career, a reputation, or a life. It is easy to deny the truth of a wrong that is committed than it is to bring it out into the open. It is much harder to declare the truth of a fault and to absolve it through the power of grace.

In South Africa in the late 1990s, as Nelson Mandela was elected president and the apartheid regime was finally overthrown, the new government sought a different way, a way of grace, to resolve the pain of the past. People had been tortured and killed in defense and opposition to apartheid—the institutional segregation by race which had lasted over 40 years.

Chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission sought to enact restorative justice at an unprecedented scale. It shined a light into the darkness and evil of the apartheid years as the voices of over 21,000 victims were heard and 849 individuals were granted amnesty for their crimes. The truth was exposed and justice came, not through retribution, but through forgiveness.

Desmond Tutu wrote in his book No Future Without Forgiveness, “to forgive is indeed the best form of self-interest since anger, resentment, and revenge are corrosive of that…communal harmony that enhances the humanity and personhood of all in the community.” 

The TRC and the unification of South Africa was not without its faults, but it was a glimpse of the Kingdom of God.

So too have the survivors of tragic violence in this country been witnesses to the power of grace in God’s Kingdom.

In response to the death of five children in an Amish schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, the Amish community reached out to the family of the gunman, expressing sympathy for their loss. Rather than anger and revenge, they sought forgiveness and restoration.

As Dylann Roof stood trial for the massacre of nine worshippers at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, family members of the victims began to offer statements for the prosecution. What happened next was shocking to all involved. The first to testify, Nadine Collier, told Roof “I forgive you…You took something really precious from me. I will never talk to her ever again, I will never be able to holder again, but I forgive you and have mercy on your soul.”

Chris Singleton, whose mother was killed, later said, “After seeing how people could forgive, I truly hope that people will see that it wasn’t us just saying words. I know, for a fact, that it was something greater than us, using us to bring our city together.”

That was God’s Kingdom, coming on Earth as it is in Heaven.

In 2018, our own wider community was struck by unthinkable violence as the Tree of Life synagogue was attacked by Robert Bowers. The U.S. Attorney’s office plans to pursue the death penalty in the case, given the extreme depravity of his murder of 11 worshipers. 

And yet, members of the Jewish community in Pittsburgh have spoken up to plead with the Attorney General not to pursue the death penalty. They argue that a guilty plea with the guarantee of life in prison would not only spare the community from the trauma of a capital trial and appeals, but it would also be more consistant with the values of their faith.

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The testimony of Scripture is that the accuser has been thrown out of the heavenly courtroom. The work of Jesus means that Jesus has taken on the garments of our sin and shame. When we could do nothing to free ourselves from the constant barrage of temptations and the shackles of sin, Jesus came and cast out Satan that we would be given new life, that we would be freed—not only for our benefit, but for the benefit of the whole world.

Our culture demands denial and revenge. The accused never fully admit their guilt and the victim rarely gives up their right to vengeance.

But Jesus came into this world that there might be another way. Jesus came that there might be “one new humanity out of the two” that there might be peace (Ephesians 2:15).

The Spirit of Grace that declares to us the words of acquittal, of forgiveness also reminds us that every single person we encounter is someone for whom Christ died and someone for whom God desires salvation.

Rather than taking the position of Satan in the divine court of justice, we are called to abandon our self-righteous accusations in exchange for mercy. We are called to abandon the tool of shame for that of empathy. We are called to desire the welfare of even the chief of sinners.

The Jewish political philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote in the shadow of the Holocaust that without forgiveness, without being “released from the consequences of what we have done, our capacity to act would, as it were, be confined to one single deed from which we could never recover; we would remain the victims of its consequences forever.”

This is the most important gift we as Christians have to give to our wider society––the power of Grace, of mercy, of forgiveness. It is the power of Jesus who interceded for his oppressors on the cross, saying, “father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” It is the gift that declares the end of the titles “sinner” and “criminal” and replaces them with the garments of the redeemed.

Through his prophets, and ultimately through his Son Jesus, God declares that the past does not determine the future. Sin and Death will not be victorious. Satan, the tempter and accuser will ultimately be thrown down, forever caught in the fire as our filthy clothes, our guilt and shame, is forever taken from us and we are clothed with the garments of celebration. 

By this we will be known as disciples of Jesus—by living as people forgiven by grace who forgive by grace, who are eager and willing to welcome anyone into the forgiveness we ourselves have received.

The grace of the Lord Jesus be with God’s people, now and forever. Amen.

This entry was posted in Sermons.

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