A Sermon preached by Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church of Palo Alto
Sunday, November 22, 2015
Text: John 18:33-37
The drama continues. Perhaps it concludes this week. After all, it is the end of the liturgical year, the Sunday in which we celebrate the Reign of Christ. Next week comes another Advent as we once again anticipate the birth of a baby, the Word become flesh, the light that shines in the darkness. So at least one cycle ends and another begins.
For the past few weeks we have been considering the teaching and events in Mark’s gospel that lead to his account of the Passion of Christ. We have watched Jesus challenge the religious authorities, attack their twisted version of biblical faith and practice, and engage, quite literally, in actions that underline his attack on what he has come to see as rotten religion. In today’s text we jump to John’s gospel where we find Jesus face to face with the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate. However, the same dramatic thread unravels as Jesus continues to confront the powers that be.
We’ve all seen elegant representations of Jesus’ trial in classic art of every medium, but I wonder what it was really like on that day. It must have been hot. Jesus had been up all night, dealing with the religious leaders who had arrested him, held him, questioned him, tried him by their own self-serving standards. By the time he faces Pilate, he must be exhausted. He hadn’t had a chance to bathe or change clothes (if he even had a change.) He was tired, sweaty, dirty. In contrast to all those handsome, clean cut images we have seen, I like the representation above of what a Semitic Jesus might have looked like – short, dark, hooked nose.
The point is there was nothing about Jesus that shouted “king.” He was an itinerant rabbi, a peasant from Galilee, about as common as you could imagine. There he stood before the representative of Rome, Caesar’s man in Palestine, dressed in all his Roman finery, tall and regal by contrast.
“So, are you a king?” Pilate asks. It seems a curious question. Obviously this is no king. Anyone can see that. But Pilate’s dilemma is that that is the charge the religious authorities have brought against Jesus. Pilate would probably like get out of this sticky intrigue altogether. But in order to do that he has somehow to unravel the charade. Perhaps, Jesus will just deny the charge and Pilate can be done with it. But it won’t be that easy.
First a little pretrial flashback. Remember the scene when Jesus cleared the temple courtyard of the moneychangers and the sellers of doves and refused to let people mindlessly trample the temple grounds? Remember his rationale – “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers”? Remember the reaction of the religious authorities – “when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him”? Why? Mark claims, “…they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching” (Mark 11:17-18)?
So the die was cast early in the week. Jesus’ challenge to the religious authorities was more than they could bear. They were determined to do away with him. It seems like a lot of power to give a peasant preacher from the provinces. But there is the crowd to consider. He does have a way of stirring up the crowd – mostly the mindless rabble. Still, they could not afford any sort of insurrection, whether it challenged them directly or indirectly undermined their uneasy alliance with the Romans.
Next scene, these religious authorities have hatched a scheme to arrest him in the dark of night, when he is virtually alone except for a few of his backwoods followers. In fact, they have recruited one of his own to pick him out of the midnight gloom, betrayed by a kiss, not of friendship but of deception, from a disappointed disciple. Clearly Jesus had not been the king Judas wanted him to be, the Messiah who would come with heavenly power to overthrow the oppressors and restore the rightful rulers in Israel. So Judas settles for 30 pieces of silver, trading his dreams for a bag of coins.
Now the authorities have him where they want him. They plan to get the sordid mess over with before the break of day, before the people can awaken and possibly rally on his behalf. His own close followers desert him. A king with no one following? Hardly seems worth considering. The religious authorities charge him with blasphemy, a charge with merit, I suppose, if you consider their rotten religion to be the real thing. But they know they are forbidden to execute anyone and they want him dead. Only the Roman authorities have the power to execute but they will be laughed out of court if they bring him up on charges of blasphemy. Pilate has no interest in entering into a religious squabble. It’s hard enough to rule this rebellious bunch with Roman law without blending church and state.
The truth is that Pilate has already made some serious missteps in ruling Palestine, errors that have landed him in hot water with Rome. He certainly does not want to risk another. He doesn’t want to upset the religious authorities nor does he want to upset the people, if Jesus does indeed have some influence with them. He looks into the tired yet piercing eyes of the Galilean peasant, standing patiently before him and asks, “Are you the King of the Jews?” “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Wait a minute, who’s in charge here? It’s the governor’s job to ask the questions, not the prisoner’s, isn’t it?
Pilate’s sarcastic question has not gotten any response he expected or wanted. There is a little confusion, a bit of defensiveness in his comeback. “Hold on. I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” Suddenly the great Roman governor, the representative of the power of empire, is rattled as he realizes there may be more here than he first thought. He’d better proceed with caution.
Jesus’ response is no help. His answer is indirect again, a curious claim, “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.” Now the old warrior understands the part about how a king’s army would be fighting to defend him. Hadn’t Pilate made a career of just such practice? But kingdom from another world? What could that mean? Is the man daft?
Pilate continues carefully, “So, you are a king?” And again a sort of non-response, “You say that I am a king.” This interrogation is getting out of hand. Pilate has never encountered a prisoner like this. It all seems so absurd, and yet…
Well, the charge is sedition, a purported claim to kingly power and authority. The prisoner is not exactly denying it. He’s not helping his case. At the same time, there is something compelling in the very presence of this strange little man who stands before Rome, showing no fear. “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.” Pilate is blown away and Rome, the religious authorities and all who can neither hear or see with him. Truth confounds and liberates, even in the face of dominating empire.
Our text ends abruptly here. Of course, we know how the tale ends. Against whatever is stirring in his own heart, Pilate will eventually order the execution. He can find no other way to appease the religious authorities and he certainly doesn’t want them reporting him to Rome, not over some scruffy Galilean peasant, no matter how compelling those eyes or how intriguing his arguments. The question remains for us to answer for ourselves –“So, are you a king? And, if so, just what kind of king are you?” We’ve wrestled with this issue before. We don’t really deal with kings if we can help it. US history is grounded in a revolt against kingly rule. We are a fiercely independent people and profess a certain egalitarian belief. What would it mean for us to claim allegiance to a king, even if it this king claims his kingdom is not from this world and is centered on truth-telling?
We may not have a king in this country but we know something about power and authority. It may not always be clear where that power and authority actually rest but we see the consequences of its exercise everywhere – in the massing of military might, in wars and rumors of war, in accumulation of great wealth at the expense of people and the earth itself, in the stigmatization, marginalization and outright oppression of whole populations. This may not be Rome. There may be some rule of law. We may not have a king or queen, but we do know about the powers that be, about political intrigue, economic manipulation, false security founded on weapons of mass destruction, border walls, self –aggrandizement, fame and fortune. Is it really so different than what Jesus confronted in his time? Is our empire so far removed from Rome and our religious practice so divorced from that of those ancient religious authorities that we don’t recognize where we are trapped?
Here is the truth, the truth that promises to set us free, if only we would let it. To use the old language, the king we serve is the King of Love. The kingdom he came to proclaim, the Kingdom of God, is the Beloved Community. Instead of pressing us into service, he calls and patiently waits for us to follow. It is our choice; there is no conscription here. We know the old literature, the stories and teachings, the poetry and wisdom that make up the religious tradition through which this kingdom comes – the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, the Woman at the Well, the Syro-Phoenician Mother, Zacchaeus and Mary Magdalene, the Great Commission, the Great Commandments, the letting go of self-absorption to find one’s true self in service, and so much more. These all speak of radical welcome, extravagant generosity, prodigious compassion, peace that passes understanding, amazing grace, overwhelming love, especially for the least and lost, the stigmatized, marginalized and oppressed.
“So, are you a king?” we ask. Well, now it all depends on what you mean by king, doesn’t it? But if any of the truth laid about above appeals to you, then come along. You won’t be disappointed to follow, even if it is a strange little peasant man, slightly unkempt, with tired but piercing eyes. You might even come to call him king of your life. Stranger things have happened.