Friday, December 1, 2006

Sermon for November 26, 2006 -- Christ the King

Serving the King
Revelation 1:4b-8 / John 18:33-37

When you think of Jesus - what image or metaphor do you comes to mind? Sometimes I think of Jesus as my brother and my friend -- someone who walks the journey of life with me, someone who talks with me and counsels me on the way, someone to whom it’s comfortable to talk and share life.

When you think of Jesus - what image or metaphor do you most often use? Some people think of Jesus as the good shepherd -- as one who guides and leads -- as the gentle savior who seek out the lost and injured sheep and carries the wounded and the lame on his shoulders till they are safe back in the fold.

What image do you have of Christ? How about Jesus as King? We don’t talk about that one much. Today we celebrate Christ as King. When I think about kings, here’s what comes to my mind:
« fairy-tale kings: benevolent, often dead, with a wicked queen
« king of the hill: the game where the strongest pushes everyone else off the hill
« “king me” -- checkers king jumps in all directions, taking over and winning
« The King - Elvis Presley - of which no more needs to be said
« the king in the “Wizard of Id - a self-centered bumbling dictator
« king o' the road - a wanderer with no cares
« A chess king - one of limited movement and power to protect
« Burger King – the only place on earth where you can have it your way.

Think about your images of Jesus and kings as we listen to an event from the life of Jesus as recorded in the Gospel of John.

John 18:33-37
Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ Jesus answered, ‘Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?’ Pilate replied, ‘I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?’ Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.’ Pilate asked him, ‘So you are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’ (NRSV)

Let’s try to place ourselves in the year 31 AD. We are in Jerusalem in the Roman province of Palestine. In the eyes of Rome, this is a small but troubled land. The Emperor Tiberius has placed 500 Roman soldiers in the area under the full command of a governor named Pontius Pilate. It’s his sole duty to keep this tiny province under control at all costs. Pilate is an effective peacekeeper, but he is unpopular with the Jews in the area.

Whenever Pilate marches into Jerusalem, his guards carry Roman flags, topped off with a bust of the emperor, whom the Romans viewed as a god. The Jews consider this idolatry. They have asked Pilate to remove this image of the emperor before he enters the city -- not an outrageous request. Other governors had done it in the past. But Pilate refuses to pander to the superstitions of the Jews. Once day, when Pilate left Jerusalem for his palace in Ceasarea, a number of enraged Jews followed him home. Pilate evaded them for five days. Finally, he told the Jews to meet him in the amphitheater. The Jews arrived to the drawn swords of Roman soldiers. Pilate ordered the Jews to either withdraw their requests or be killed immediately. The Jews bared their necks, tempting the soldiers to strike. Not even Pilate could massacre these defenseless men. From that point on, the Jews knew Pilate could be manipulated to follow their will.

In another incident, Pilate took money from the treasury of the Jewish Temple to build an aqueduct. The people resented it and rioted through the streets. Pilate dressed his soldiers in civilian clothes and gave them concealed weapons before sending them into the surging crowds. At a given signal, the soldiers attacked the mob, stabbing and clubbing many Jews to death.

Once again, Pilate straddles Roman custom and Jewish law. Before him sits a Jewish prisoner from Galilee named Jesus. Religious leaders accuse the man of calling himself the King of the Jews, and they demand his execution. Pilate doesn’t have time to bother with these nagging people, so he gets right to the point and asks the prisoner, “Are you the king of the Jews?” The man calmly responds with another question. “Is that your own idea, or did you hear others saying that?” This upsets Pilate. He’s supposed to be asking the questions, and now this criminal is putting him on trial. “Am I a Jew?” Pilate cries. “Your people handed you over to me, not the Romans. What did you do, anyway?” The accused man is silent for a moment, then he answers the first question. “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest, but my kingdom is of another place.” Pilate thinks this is so strange. The criminal is not really defending himself. “So, are you a king then?” Pilate asks. Jesus replies, “You could say it that way. I was born for a reason–to come into the world to testify to the truth.” Pilate is getting confused. The prisoner is obviously not a military king, but he is still claiming to be a ruler. Pilate’s verdict: this man is harmless. He might be slightly crazy, but he’s innocent. He poses no political threat to the Roman Empire. Unfortunately, like most of his decisions, his choice to release Jesus will only make more trouble with the Jewish leaders. Pilate will ultimately cave into their demands and have Jesus put to death.

In this scene, Pilate is confronted with the true nature of Jesus’ kingdom. Jesus’ kingdom doesn’t fall within geographical or political boundaries. He has no soldiers to fight for him. Jesus is not a national hero. He doesn’t tame his subjects with force or manipulation. The kingdom of Jesus is different. King Jesus persuades men and women to follow him in spirit and in truth. Christ the King rules with love, and asks his subjects to love God and one another in return. In his kingdom, people relate to one another as servants. King Jesus rules the human heart and conquers the world with love, one single person at a time.

In one brief encounter, Pilate faced the reality of Christ’s kingdom. And Pilate has some choices to make. He can declare him an innocent man and let Jesus go free. Or, Pilate can accept the reality of Jesus’ words. He can allow the kingdom of Christ to do its transforming work of love in his own heart.

In the end, Pilate doesn’t make a decision for or against Jesus. He tries to remain neutral. He allows others to decide for him. Pilate will not even face the invitation of Jesus. He hides behind a compromise. First, he offers the Jews a choice–release Barabbas the insurrectionist or Jesus. When that doesn’t work, he has Jesus whipped and publicly humiliated, hoping that will meet the crowd’s taste for violence. This too fails. And with that failure comes Pilate’s fall from neutrality. Pilate fails to hear the truth, and orders the execution of Jesus, knowing the whole time that this King of the Jews is an innocent man. By the world’s standards Pilate was a successful man. He had made it to the top of civil service. Yet, here in the presence of this simple, disturbing Galilean, Pilate fails to see and accept the truth of Jesus.
History judges Pontius Pilate harshly. He was not necessarily an evil man. He had ambitions, and he misused his power. In the end, he was just an ordinary man. Perhaps we are more like Pontius Pilate than we care to admit. Like Pilate, we have goals and ambitions. Most of us are ordinary people. Today we come face-to-face with the simple honesty of Jesus Christ–the divine Lord who sits before us, inviting us allow him to rule the domain of our heart. He’s not going to force his way in. He’s not going to manipulate us or give us a guilt trip. He’s not going to play games in order to win our devotion. He simply presents us with the truth and waits for us to make a decision.

Like Pilate, we can stay neutral as we avoid Christ’s request to be in control of our hearts. We can choose to see Jesus as a harmless person who has no effect on our spirits. We can ask, “Jesus, are you a king?” but close our ears to his answer. We can see him as some great historical figure who has no impact on our lives today. But when it comes to Jesus, I have learned an important lesson: there is no neutrality. Being uninvolved only puts off the day when you will have to decide–are you part of Christ’s rule on earth, or are you working against it?

It sounds confrontational, but this is exactly what I have found so encouraging in my own life. Jesus loves us. He wants to be part of our lives. He is our sovereign leader and he calls each one of us to be a servant. I made a decision 18 years ago that changed my life. I said “yes” to Jesus and asked him to govern my life. Each day I get up and try to align my choices with what God wants from my life. Sometimes I don’t do very well. On a good day I take time to ask, “How can I serve the aims of your kingdom, Jesus? How can I yield my own will and my own desires to what you have planned for me today?” When I take time to be aware of God’s presence, I find that God usually sends someone into my life: someone who needs help, someone who needs to talk, someone who needs to be connected with the truth of the gospel, or someone to encourage me. It’s demanding work. It’s not something I do because I’m a minister. It’s what I do as an inhabitant of the Kingdom of God.

Jesus is our King. He is Lord of all. We don’t vote Jesus in by popular election. We don’t hold a convention to nominate him to the position. God has made him our leader. Jesus rules forever and ever. And one day, like it or not, every nation, every state, every individual person will see Jesus as he really is, The Christ, King of kings and Lord of lords, the Alpha and Omega, the first and the last, the one who is, who always was, and who is still to come.

Is Jesus the sovereign Ruler of your life? Do you find you are part of Christ’s growing kingdom, or are you working against it by resisting his new government? Jesus calls us to hear, to decide, and to follow.

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