Ezekiel 34:11-16, John 18:28-38
November 23, 2008
Believe it or not, this is the last Sunday of the year! (I know, you’re thinking, “did I miss something?”) Of course, I’m talking about the liturgical year! I’m talking about that series of celebrations throughout the year that remind us of the various events in the life of Jesus. And the liturgical calendar starts with the First Sunday of Advent. Well folks, that’s next week! That’s hard to believe, too! Isn’t it? (By the way, how many have finished all their Christmas shopping? How many have started? How many haven’t even thought about it!!)
This last Sunday of the year is designated “Christ the King” Sunday. We celebrate two things this day. We celebrate the kingdom of Christ among us, and we look to his coming kingdom. And those two things are very important to us. Lest you think they aren’t, remember this. Every week, we pray to God, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Maybe we say those words, but we aren’t sure what they mean! Or maybe we aren’t sure that we mean them! Do we really want God’s kingdom to be lived out among us? And, do we really want God’s eternal kingdom to come.
That’s the focus for today. The kingdom of Jesus Christ among us, and the kingdom that is to come. And first let me tell you that the word “kingdom” is an important word in the Bible. It’s used almost 160 times in the New Testament alone. That’s as many times as it’s used in the whole of the Old Testament – and they actually had kings!
John the Baptist used this word at the very beginning of his ministry. Matthew tells us that John came preaching in the wilderness, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 3:1-2) And those are the exact same words Jesus used at the beginning of his ministry! In the next chapter, he says, “From that time Jesus began to preach , saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 4:17) Same words! And in saying those words, both men were referring to the kingdom that is in our midst. The kingdom of heaven is not just something we look forward to. It is here among us already! And that calls us to live lives that are different. It calls us to that “higher level of living” I’ve talked about before.
Jesus told many parables about the kingdom of God. For example, he told the parable of the merchant, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it.” (Matthew 13:45-46) Jesus also talked about the kingdom in his Beatitudes. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3) Again, the kingdom was in their midst, and that should make a difference in their lives.
Jesus also spoke of the coming kingdom. We looked at one of those passages last week in Mark’s Gospel. That was where he told them about the events leading up to the future kingdom on earth, and how we are to “stay awake” and “watch.” You can re-read that passage if you’d like. It was Mark chapter 13. Jesus also spoke of the coming kingdom in his parables. He said, “The kingdom of heaven is like the man giving a wedding feast.” and, “The kingdom of heaven will be like the ten bridesmaids…” Those parables taught the people about being ready.
I was thinking about all that this week. And I was wondering which passage (of those 158 references!) I would use on this Christ the King Sunday. There were many possibilities! But the more I thought about it, the more I was drawn to this place in John’s Gospel, where Jesus was on trial before Pontius Pilate.
This is a powerful story. Jesus is standing before Pilate, he’s bound, he’s beaten, he’s accused, and he’s exhausted. And Pilate asks him about the charges against him. He asks, “Are you the King of the Jews?” That was the charge. And that question of earthly power – who had it and who aspired to get it – was very important to this man of great earthly power before whom Jesus stood. And the interplay between this Roman leader, with armies at his command, and this small, weak, beaten Jewish man with no power of his own – or so it seemed – is all very interesting. This conversation about kingship seems almost out of place. And the real story of kingly power that day was truly other-worldly! As readers, we know who held the real power! And that makes for incredible irony here!
Of course, even that “accusation” was ironic, because that’s what the people had been looking forward to for hundreds of years! They wanted a “King of the Jews” and it’s so ironic that such was the charge they brought against Jesus. It turns out that his real crime was saying exactly what he was! The only difference was whether or not the people believed him. And of course, many did! And many others were open to it, though they were not sure.
Jesus tells Pilate “my kingship is not of this world.” We understand that statement, but it was hard for this representative of a great empire. We know he mean a spiritual kingdom, but Pilate is almost confused here. “So you are a king?!” He’s not sure what to make of that. But at least he decides Jesus is no threat to his power, and he tries to release him. But the people call for Barabbas.
So, after this scourging – which is horrible even to describe! – Jesus stands before Pilate again. And he’s not pleading for his life. He is silent, which makes no sense to this hardened soldier. Pilate had seen other men in that same state. He knew what “normal men” did in that position. Not this Jesus. Frustrated, he asks, “Why will you not speak? Do you not know that I have the power to release you or the power to crucify you?!” And Jesus tells him he has no power over him “unless it were given you from above.” Again, that spiritual kingdom. And it even surpasses that of Rome!
Again Pilate reacts by trying to release Jesus! His is an interesting position in history. He tries his best not to do the very thing he would be associated with throughout history – the punishment and execution of Jesus. (We say that every week, too!) But the crowds wouldn’t hear of it. They even used their mock allegiance to Caesar as their king.
This is an amazing story. And for me, the interesting thing about this was the way Pilate pondered the accusation about Jesus. Was he really a king? He didn’t ask him about the charge in a legal way, though he was charged with determining his guilt or innocence. He didn’t say, “Do you wish to become a king?” or “Are you planning a revolution against Rome?” or “Do you think you’re a king?” Over the years, I have come to see Pilate’s question as an honest one. Looking at this man with no semblance of power of any kind, seeing the intensity of his accusers, Pilate truly wondered. “Are you a king?” “Could this be true?”
Pilate’s question, his wonderment, is the same that’s before us today. We wonder, is Jesus king? Yes, he was an immensely popular speaker 2000 years ago. He has been called a great teacher. He has been worshipped as Savior by millions – probably billions – since then. But in the end, is he king? When compared to the worldly empires and nations and superpowers, does he really measure up? Pilate probably wondered that very thing, as he stood there representing the greatest empire the world had ever known.
We are compelled to ask, “What do we believe about Jesus?” Was he just a great teacher, a great Rabbi, who gave some wonderful insights into life and faith? Some are comfortable with that alone. Was he savior? That’s the next level in our understanding. His sacrifice was the atonement by which we were brought back into relationship with God. And many are fine with just that, as though Jesus truly is that “balm in Gilead” who heals our soul, but not much more.
The celebration today tells us that the final step in that progression is that Jesus is king. That’s the culmination of the Church year. It’s the culmination of his life and ministry. Finally, at the end of that progression, at the end of all time, Jesus is king. Do we believe that about him? Is he teacher, Savior, and King?
That’s not as easy to accept as we might think. Some of us might be struggling along that progression somewhere. We might even find ourselves at different places along that progression at different times in our lives. Like Pilate, our vantage point is being part of the most powerful nation the world has ever known. Does it make sense in our minds that this one man, this rabbi from Galilee who lived all those years ago, even begins to measure up in earthly power? Do we find ourselves asking in all honesty and true searching, “Jesus, are you a king?”
I challenge you to consider that question for yourselves. I can only tell you he is. That’s my job. It’s your job to accept it or not. I can’t do that for you. But I ask you to do that. I ask you to take seriously this question that was before Pontius Pilate long ago. “Is Jesus king?” Is he, not just teacher, not just savior, but king?
I invite you to think today about his kingdom among us – his kingdom in our midst. How is that different than the kingdom of this world? Do we live our lives differently when our allegiance is to God’s kingdom? I believe that’s what Jesus was trying to get across to those people.
Then, as we begin to bring this year to a close, as we truly move one year, one month, one day closer to the culmination of all history, do we look to the time when the kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our Lord, and of his Christ? …And he shall reign forever.
Eternal God, we thank you that you loved the world so much that you decided to step down into history and become one like us. We thank you for the example you gave us in Jesus. We thank you for his atonement by which we are brought back to you – the atonement represented at this table. And we thank you that Jesus reigns in power with you, Christ the king, for all times. Help us to know we are part of his kingdom. Help us to live our lives in allegiance to him. For this we pray in his name, Amen.