Title: Christ our King
Texts: Dan 7:9-10, 13-14; Rev 1:4b-8; Jn 18:33:37
Date: Nov 22, 2009
Before I get started, let me say something about where we stand today in the church calendar. We stand at the edge of Advent. Next Sunday is the first Sunday of Advent. And during Advent we wait with Mary for the coming of the Messiah, the birth of Jesus.
I think I’ve said before: it’s interesting that the Apostles’ Creed, that ancient confession of the church, mentions only two humans by name, other than Jesus, only two supporting characters in the story. The Creed says Jesus was “born of the virgin Mary, [and] suffered under Pontius Pilate.” Mary and Pontius Pilate—“the one who says ‘yes’…and the one who says ‘no’” (Rowan Williams, Tokens of Trust, p. 76). Mary, the one who lets Jesus enter her life, quite literally, since he is born from her life, from her womb; and Pilate, the one who says “no”, the one who walks away, the one who washes his hand of the whole Jesus problem.
Mary and Pilate: those are the two supporting roles we find in the Apostles’ Creed, and they represent two options for us—to say “yes” or to say “no.” During Advent we begin to find ourselves waiting with Mary for the birth of Jesus. As we follow that story, we find ourselves learning what it means to say “yes” to the advent of Jesus, to say “yes” to the birth of Christ in our world.
But that’s for next week. This week we find ourselves with Pontius Pilate, who is confronted with Jesus, confronted with a strange kind of king who talks about a strange kind of kingdom—one without defenses, without competition, without rivalry. One who is willing to lose an argument, to fall silent, to let go of the future. Today we stand with Pilate, and ask about this strange kind of king.
Prayer: As the Psalmist says, you, O God, are king. Your throne is established from of old. And your commands are faithful; your words give life. As we meditate on your words, may they transform our lives that we may be a house for your life in the world. Amen.
Early in the story of the Old Testament, as Israel was emerging as a regional power, the people asked God for a king just like all the other nations had. Even though God thought it was a bad idea, God let the people experiment with their wants; God let them engage in a kind of political experiment.
First came Saul—a tall, strong, and handsome king. But that didn’t last very long. Then came David—boyish and cunning, a lowly shepherd turned celebrity warrior. But that didn’t turn out very well either: he abused his power and made more enemies than friends, even among those closest to him, his family, a family of enemies. Kingship in Israel didn’t turn out very well for the people. They were led into wars and ultimately into exile—which may have been a strange kind of blessing; exile became a way to get out from under Israel’s dynasty of kings.
Part of the problem with the whole political experiment of kingship was that, from the beginning, God had already promised to be Israel’s king. But the people of God wanted to be a legitimate power. They wanted to be a respectable nation—just like all the other nations, just like all the other peoples, just like their neighbors. Every nation has a king; it’s part of the definition.
After wandering around the desert for so long, the people of Israel wanted to grow into a glorious nation. And to be a certifiable nation, you needed a king. Everyone else had a king. So the people of Israel asked for one. Well, it’s more like they demanded a king from the prophet Samuel. But Samuel knew this was a bad idea and told God all about it. When God heard the news about Israel’s desire for a king. This is what God said to Samuel: “Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king” (I Sam. 8:7). The people rejected God as their king.
But what’s so striking to me is that God is a king who lets the people reject him. God is a king whose power isn’t coercive. God is a king who let’s the people experiment, even though God knows it won’t turn out very good. God doesn’t defend his claim to the throne of Israel. God doesn’t make a case for his kingship. God doesn’t offer the people spectacular displays of power and authority, signs and wonders, in order to persuade them of his qualifications for the job. God doesn’t set up a debate with other prospective kings, and hammer them away with skillful rhetoric to show the power of his word. God doesn’t force himself upon the people that belong to him, the people who are tied to him whether they like it or not, the people who are utterly dependent on him, whether they acknowledge it or not. God is wiling to recede, to fade away, to disappear, to be deposed from the throne of Israel.
If God is a king, God is a king like no king we’ve ever seen or heard of. And that’s why Pilate has such a hard time figuring out what Jesus is all about. He comes right out and asks Jesus, “Are you the king of the Jews?” (Jn. 18:33). But Jesus doesn’t give Pilate an answer that fits with his idea of power and politics. Pilate wants to know where Jesus fits in the world; he wants to know what kind of box to put Jesus in.
But Jesus won’t be put in a box; he won’t be a king like Pilate, or like Herod, or like Caesar. Jesus won’t fight for a place in Pilate’s world of shrewd politics, his world of balancing acts to keep everyone happy, his world of constant rivalry. Jesus says, “My kingdom is not from this world” (v. 36). The power of Jesus, the politics of Jesus, the kingship of Jesus, does not depend on the forces that determine Pilate’s world.
You see, political power in Pilate’s world is determined by Caesar’s military. Pilate reports to Caesar in Rome; and if life in the Roman kingdom gets chaotic, Pilate can call upon Roman troops to get the people back in line. Rivals to the throne are silenced through violence, through a show of brute power. But Jesus refuses to be a king like that. He says, “if my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over… But as it is, my kingdom is not from here” (v. 36). The authority of Jesus doesn’t come from the same place as the authority of Pilate’s power.
Jesus is not a king of this world, a king whose power comes from the sword, a king who acts as commander and chief of the armed forces. Those kinds of kings don’t really care about the truth, especially when it’s inconvenient. When you have the power of the sword, truth is usually a matter of pragmatics, of expedience. Truth is the first victim of power. When you have the power, and have to worry about your rivals, all truth becomes tactical truth—what you can say and to whom you can say it, what facts you can use against your enemies and what you have to keep from going public. And when you have a gun, inconvenient truth can be killed, disappeared, hidden from public scrutiny.
And that’s what happens to Jesus. He testifies to truth that Pilate can’t control, and Pilate has to get rid of the truth—for the sake of his power. He doesn’t want a riot. Pilate doesn’t want to give his rivals a reason to question his leadership. And, ultimately, Pilate doesn’t want to wrestle with the truth. He doesn’t want to be bothered. After Jesus tells Pilate about his mission of truth, Pilate responds with a classic line—this is from verse 38, the end of our passage from John: “Pilate asked [Jesus], ‘What is truth?’ After he had said this, he went out…”
What is truth? Pilate doesn’t stick around long enough to find out. He doesn’t wait for an answer. He doesn’t have to listen to Jesus. He doesn’t have to be drawn into a conversation with Jesus. Pilate asks a question and sends Jesus off to his death before he has a chance to answer. Pilate gets on with his life without listening for what Jesus has to say for himself. Pilate won’t be bothered with the truth of Jesus.
So, like I said earlier, Pilate shows us what it means to say “no” to Christ, to refuse Jesus into our lives. And, for Pilate, his “no” is not even a true “no.” He doesn’t say, “Well Jesus, what you’re saying is nice and all, but I think you’re wrong.” Pilate says nothing like that. He doesn’t give a flat out “no”; it’s not a decisive rejection of Jesus.
Pilate, instead, simply wanders away from the presence of Jesus; Pilate gets enough from the conversation, and then goes on with his business. After all, he has a lot on his plate—a lot of responsibilities, a lot of power to manage, a lot of people to keep happy. Truth is only a curiosity; it doesn’t have anything to do with his life.
We stand with Pilate most of the time. Or maybe I should only speak for myself. There’s something about the complexity of life that makes me feel like, at some point, I can’t help but wander away from Jesus. At some point, I have to move on and get something done, and it’s hard to see how Jesus could have any bearing for every situation. What does Jesus have to do with my debt repayment plan? with my mortgage? with my retirement strategy?
I don’t know what it is for you. Maybe the question is: What does Jesus have to do with your business deal? What does Jesus have to do with how you think about moving, of changing jobs, or a career? What does Jesus have to do with your money, or your time? What does Jesus have to do with your messy relationships, and the balancing act you have to go through every week? How do we resist being like Pilate in all these matters? How do we stay with Jesus and wrestle with the truth, even when we don’t have time to be bothered.
If we confess Christ as our king, if we confess that Jesus is our Lord, then we are saying that somehow Jesus has something to do with everything, that our life depends on his truth, his guidance, his direction, his wisdom. To say that Jesus is king, is to come back, again and again, to his presence and wait for God’s truth.
That’s why we gather for worship; that’s what church is all about. Church is how we wait with Jesus, how we talk with God, how we return to the truth about our world and ourselves. Every week we read the story of Jesus, we meditate on the Word of God together with our prayers and our songs—and all of this is how we wrestle with the truth, how we hold onto Jesus, how we refuse to let go of God.
But we are like Pilate a lot of the time. We do wander away, too busy to even say no—we have important matters to wrestle with and so we don’t even give God the time of day to tell him “no”. After we leave our worship service on Sunday, we might not give God a second thought during our week.
Yes, in our day-to-day lives we may reject Christ, we may be too busy for God. But the good news is that Christ doesn’t reject us, that God isn’t too busy for us. Despite all of our no’s, despite all our wanderings and wonderings, God always says yes. That’s the gospel. That’s grace. That’s the nature of Christ’s kingship: Christ reigns with grace, unceasing grace, uninterrupted grace, invisible grace. Even when Israel rejects God as their king, even when Pilate doesn’t have the time to give to Jesus, even when we wander away, God is still king and Christ still has a place for you in his kingdom. We can never wander out from his loving gaze; we can never escape God’s loving embrace. Nothing can change the truth of God’s kingdom, the constant flow of God’s loving reign.
The truth is that God looks at you and says “yes”; God says “yes, you are mine, even if you can’t see it, even when you reject me, even when you wander, even when you forget me and find other kings. God says yes, you are mine. I will never leave you nor forsake you.” As our passage from Daniel says, “His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed” (Dan. 7:14).
But sometimes it’s hard to believe all this good news. It’s hard to believe that God hasn’t rejected us, that Jesus doesn’t leave us the way we leave him, that Jesus is always receiving us in his kingdom, despite our attempts at deposing him, despite the ways we forget about him. I’ll be the first to admit that sometimes it’s hard to believe that God is always there, still there, at my fingertips, there—before my next step; there—giving me my next breath; that God is always just there.
Maybe that’s why our Communion celebration is always so significant for me. At the Lord’s Table, God offers us another taste of his kingdom, whether we think we deserve it or not. God is just there, in my sister’s and brother’s hands—available, a welcoming presence. We become a kingdom of priests—giving and receiving God, resting into God’s presence, in a meal, at a table.
Maybe we can read John’s vision in the book of Revelation as what happens at Communion. When we eat together, we may find our king who loves us and freed us from our sins and made us to be a kingdom (Rev. 1:5-6). So we approach our meal with expectation: “Look!” it says in Revelation, “He is coming…every eye will see him, even those who pierced him” (v. 7).