We know that the word “trial” most often refers to the formal examination of evidence presented before a judge and jury to determine the guilt or innocence on an accused person. When I was growing up, everyone loved to watch the television show, Perry Mason, a criminal defense attorney. Perry Mason starred Raymond Burr, with supporting characters Della Street, and Paul Drake squaring off against the district attorney Hamilton Burger. It seems as though in every episode Perry Mason would come through with some surprise evidence right at the end of the hour that would not show his client’s innocence by leading to a confession by the real culprit. Recently, the news was flooded with a trial in South Carolina of a prominent attorney who was accused of killing his wife and son. That trial lasted six weeks with testimony from the accused occurring for many hours over four long days. In the end, the accused was judged guilty after about one hour of deliberations began. There was no surprise Perry Mason ending to in that case.
Today, in our Old Testament reading from the Book of Isaiah and from our New Testament reading from the Gospel of John, we heard about trials and verdicts. What was remarkable about these trials and verdict was not so much what was said as much as how little was said. There can be a great deal to be learned in what is not being said.
In the gospels there are two examples of people place on trial. In both cases, the trials were a matter of life and death. In one case, a woman under trial was set free. In the other case, the man under trial was executed. Let’s look quickly at the trial of the woman. We can find that trial in the Gospel of John, Chapter 8.
“2 At dawn he [Jesus] appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he [Jesus] sat down to teach them. 3 The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group 4 and said to Jesus, ‘Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. 5 In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?’” (John 8:2-5).
Suddenly, a place and a time for prayer, worship, quiet reflection, and study of God’s Word had been overtaken and changed into a rancorous criminal courtroom for a death penalty case. A woman was on trial for her life, accused of adultery, meaning either this woman was married and found to be in a sexual relation with another man or she was single and found to be involved in a sexual relationship with a married man.
The woman stood accused in front of this gathering in the temple. Though accused she said nothing nor was she invited to speak. Instead, she was silent before her accusers. The group bringing charges against her were not interested in what she had to say. John said, her accusers “6a Were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him [Jesus] (John 8:6a).”
In the silence, “6bJesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. [Jesus said nothing.] 7 When they kept on questioning him, straightened up and said to them, ‘Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.’ 8 Again he [Jesus] stooped down and wrote on the ground. 9 At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there” (John 8:6b-9).
The accusers were rancorous and peppered Jesus with questions. Jesus said nothing. Instead, with his hands free, Jesus wrote on the ground. Then when Jesus was ready, he spoke only a few words. The silence, the writing on the ground, and Jesus’ few words convicted not the accused but convicted the accusers. Innocent silence in the face of injustice can be very convicting. One writer put it this way, “Innocence accuses its accuser.” We understand there is much power in innocence.
We heard about the power of innocence and silence earlier today when we read Isaiah’s prophetic words from Chapter 53 of the book bearing his name. Isaiah was speaking about the coming anointed one of God who would set right the things of an unrighteous world. Isaiah foresaw that God’s anointed, “7 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 53:7). Isaiah was revealing that under God there is a relationship between silence and innocence and that God’s anointed would show that relationship while under oppression and affliction, while being subjected to injustice. The relationship of silence and innocence would help people to understand who the Messiah was and would help people understand the significance of that Messiah.
Isaiah foresaw the Messiah would be placed under trial or should we say trials. We see these trials unfold in the life of Jesus. First, the religious leaders who arrested Jesus secretly in the Garden of Gethsemane 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. As the judge, jury, and witnesses argued among themselves, Jesus remained silent amid the lies hurled at him. Then the Chief Priest intervened and asked questioned Jesus, “70b ‘Are you the Messiah?’ Jesus replied most briefly, ‘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). At this trial, Jesus never spoke in defense of false charges against him, but only spoke to acknowledge truth said about him, namely, that Jesus is the Messiah.
The first trial was brief with the prisoner being found guilty and subject to death. This sentence of death was a foregone outcome before the trial began because the religious leaders focused on only one thing, trying to make guilty he who was innocent. Why did they want to do such a thing? They did so because, innocence shines. Innocence illuminates everything near it. It is the illumination of innocence that has power, real power. Jesus showed innocence beaming at sin like light into the darkness. At the first trial, those assembled wanted to put 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, a second trial of Jesus second trial was needed. Luke wrote, “Then the whole assembly rose and led him off to Pilate. 2 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.’ 3 So Pilate asked Jesus, ‘Are you the king of the Jews?’ ‘You have said so,’ Jesus replied.” Jesus was silent against all the false accusations made against him and spoke only to affirm the truth. “4 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.
“5 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.’ 6 On hearing this, Pilate asked if the man was a Galilean. 7 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.
“8 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. 9 He [Herod] plied him with many questions, but Jesus gave him no answer.” In this trial there were only false accusations. There was no true to affirm. “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. He was falsely accused and he said nothing in his defense. Jesus only spoke to affirm the truth. Despite being found not guilty twice by the authorities of law and order, Jesus was no closer to being free than when he first began. The world is like that. Even when the right people make the right decisions, injustices still exist, and circumstances may 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 that Jesus was not guilty and that Pilate 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 with innocence.
“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 set free as though he were innocent. And an innocent man, Jesus, would be executed as though he were guilty. And through it all Jesus remained silent except to affirm the truth about himself.
The scene Isaiah foresaw had been played out. Innocence had been silent, silent as light that shines into the darkness. Light makes no sound and yet speaks powerfully. 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 innocence of Jesus. They hated that Jesus’ innocence shined like a 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 disturbing ending to the story. Why would a man guilty of death be set free as though he was innocent, and a man innocent of all crimes 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. “16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (John 3:16-17). 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.
“6 You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. 7 Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. 8 But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:6-8). This is the surprise ending of the story and the true triumph of Christ.
Jesus taught us that as his followers we should not care and try to defend ourselves against all manner of malice and false accusations made about us. If we follow Jesus, then we have his innocence. If we follow Jesus, then we reflect his light. If we follow Jesus, then we need to only be concerned with telling the truth. Instead, we are to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15).
Everyone here will have trials in life. A few may face or have faced formal prison over those trials. Some trials involve the trials of life circumstances with pain and suffering. Those trials can lead us to informal prisons that hold our spirit, our sense of purpose, and our sense wellbeing. We must resist the temptation to speak against false accusations that we receive during these trials. False accusations may come from others or even from us. False accusations that suggest God does not care about us, or that these trials are happening because somehow our faith is defective are just that, false. Instead, we should responding to these false accusations we should affirm the truth.
- “This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son.
- And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life.
- God didn’t go to all the trouble of sending his Son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was.
- Jesus came to help, to put the world right again.
- Anyone who trusts in him is acquitted.
In our trials, we need to affirm the truth and be able to say to ourselves and others, “Because I have given my life to Jesus, I am innocent. Because I have given my life to Jesus, I am loved. Because I have given my life to Jesus, the light of Christ shines in me. We are and will be undefeated in the trials of life. Amen and Amen.