April 7, 2019

The Price of Popularity
Matthew 27:11-26

Each month, I meet with a group of pastors for study, support and fellowship. We’ve been meeting for over 15 years and, in those 15 years we’ve gotten pretty honest with each other.

In one of our meetings we discussed the topic of “Prophetic Preaching.” As you probably know, “prophetic preaching” is preaching that confronts the congregation with biblical issues they’d rather avoid. Prophetic preaching tends to make congregants uncomfortable and sometimes it makes them mad. Bottom line: prophetic preaching is the kind of preaching that can get you fired.

As we discussed prophetic preaching, we confessed to one another that we probably don’t do enough of it, and for good reason. Prophetic preaching makes you unpopular, and while most of us preachers don’t like to admit it, we want you to like us. So we tend to avoid those issues that will make us unpopular.

But you know what? We preachers aren’t the only ones who protect our popularity. Whether we admit it or not, most of us want to be liked. We want to be popular.

To be popular, sometimes we do nothing, when our hearts tell us we should do something. Sometimes we remain quiet, when our consciences tell us we should speak up. Sometimes we even circumvent our integrity, simply to fit into the accepted social norm. Yes, in the end, we’ll give up a lot of things, but don’t ask us to give up our popularity.

In this season of Lent, I’ve been asking you to give up those things that hurt your relationship with Christ. I’ve asked you to give up grudges. I’ve asked you to give up your divine assumptions. I’ve asked you to give up your excuses, and today I’m asking you to give up your desire to be popular, because that desire for acceptance is often the biggest stumbling block between you and your Lord.

Today’s text is about a man faced with a difficult choice. He could do what was popular or he could do what was right. Our text is found in Matthew 27:11-26. Listen, as Matthew details the trial of Jesus Christ before Pontius Pilate.

11 Meanwhile Jesus stood before the governor, and the governor asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?”
“You have said so,” Jesus replied.
12 When he was accused by the chief priests and the elders, he gave no answer. 13 Then Pilate asked him, “Don’t you hear the testimony they are bringing against you?” 14 But Jesus made no reply, not even to a single charge—to the great amazement of the governor.
15 Now it was the governor’s custom at the festival to release a prisoner chosen by the crowd. 16 At that time they had a well-known prisoner whose name was Jesus Barabbas. 17 So when the crowd had gathered, Pilate asked them, “Which one do you want me to release to you: Jesus Barabbas, or Jesus who is called the Messiah?” 18 For he knew it was out of self-interest that they had handed Jesus over to him.
19 While Pilate was sitting on the judge’s seat, his wife sent him this message: “Don’t have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him.”
20 But the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus executed.
21 “Which of the two do you want me to release to you?” asked the governor.
“Barabbas,” they answered.
22 “What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called the Messiah?” Pilate asked.
They all answered, “Crucify him!”
23 “Why? What crime has he committed?” asked Pilate.
But they shouted all the louder, “Crucify him!”
24 When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said. “It is your responsibility!”
25 All the people answered, “His blood is on us and on our children!”
26 Then he released Barabbas to them. But he had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified.

In this passage, Jesus is on trial before the Roman Governor, Pontius Pilate. He’s been accused of being a political insurrectionist, or in the language or our day; he’s been accused of being a terrorist, intent on overthrowing the Roman government.

It was clear to Pilate that Jesus was innocent. In verse 18, Matthew tells us that Pilate knew the Jewish leaders brought Jesus to be tried out of self-interest, not out of some crime he had committed. Repeatedly, Pilate kept asking, “What crime has this man done?” and the only response he got from the crowd was “Crucify him.” Even Pilate’s wife could see that Jesus was innocent and begged her husband to treat him justly.

But Pilate had a problem. Standing before him was an innocent man who should be acquitted and released. But the movers and shakers of Jerusalem were also standing in front of him. If Pilate made these people angry, he would lose what little popularity he had and, if they broke out into a riot, he could even lose his job, because Rome did not look kindly upon Governors who failed to keep the peace.

So Pilate had to make a decision. Would he do what was right and free Jesus, or would he do what was popular and allow him to be killed?

Like politicians of our day, Pilate tried to straddle the fence with some fancy political maneuvering. “It’s Passover Season,” he said, “and during Passover I customarily release one of your Jewish prisoners. Now, who should I release today? This innocent man, Jesus, or this terrorist named Barabbas?”

I imagine Pilate thought he was making an expeditious move. He was pretty sure the crowds would choose Jesus over Barabbas. But they didn’t. They called Pilate’s bluff and cried to release Barabbas and to crucify Christ.

Finally, when Pilate realized he could not finesse his way out of the situation, he took the coward’s way out. He washed his hands before the crowd and said, “I wash my hands of this situation. I’ve decided to make no decision at all. So I’m leaving the verdict up to you.”

In the end, Pilate made his decision. He chose popularity over justice. He was more interested in doing what was expedient than in doing what was right.

The title of my sermon today is, “The Price of Popularity.” I chose that title to remind us that popularity always has its price. Sometimes we pay for popularity by giving up our integrity. Sometimes we pay for popularity by denying justice to those who have no voice. Sometimes we pay for popularity by silencing the voice of conscience; but, in the end, we always pay for popularity by selling out our souls. Yes, whenever we choose acceptance over justice, popularity over righteousness, we pay an ungodly price.

Of course, the opposite is also true. When we choose integrity over popularity, we pay another price. Sometimes our integrity causes us to lose our money. Sometimes integrity costs us our friends. Sometimes integrity costs us our social standing. But, in the end, if we’ve been true to the teachings of Jesus we may lose our popularity, but we save our souls.

Is it any wonder Jesus said, “What good is it for a man to gain the whole world but to lose his soul?”

In 2004 Victor Yushchenko ran for the presidency of the Ukraine. The ruling party strongly opposed his candidacy and did everything possible to insure he was defeated. At one time, he almost lost his life after being mysteriously poisoned.

On the day of the election, Yushchenko was comfortably in the lead; at least he was until the ruling party tampered with the results. In the end, the state-run media reported that Yushchenko has been decisively defeated.”

In the lower right-hand corner of the television screen a woman by the name of Natalia Dmitruk provided translation for the deaf community. As the television commentators acquiesced to the lies of the regime, Dmitruk refused to translate them. Instead, she signed out this message, “The government is lying and I will not translate those lies. Yushchenko won the election and should be our president.”

The deaf community sprang into gear, and the news quickly spread of Dmitruk’s act of integrity. Soon other journalists chose to risk their safe status and began reporting the truth. Over the coming weeks the “Orange Revolution” occurred as a million people wearing orange made their way to the capital city demanding a new election. The government was finally forced to meet their demands, and in the new election was Victor Yushchenko became president.

I think this story paints a vivid picture for you and me. Most people choose to be part of the “big screen” picture. They choose to say what they’re supposed to say, to do what they’re supposed to do, and if need be, they will turn a blind eye to truth and justice simply to be accepted.

But as followers of Jesus Christ, you and I are called to be “corner screen” people. We’re called to shout out against the lies of the big screen. We’re called to tell the world that truth lies not in the things that make us popular. Truth lies in the teachings of Jesus Christ, teachings that most often lead to rejection than acceptance, teachings that are typically rewarded, not by a pat on the back, but by a place on the cross.

In the end, “big screen” people rarely change the world. They just blend in with it. It’s the “little screen” people who make the difference, people who choose to forgo acceptance, even if their choice leads to a cross.

Popularity. Can we give it up? Surely, we must if we would walk the way of Christ.