(Originally preached at Alger First UMC on 11/22/2015)
Scriptures: 2 Samuel 23:1-7; Revelation 1:4b-8, John 18:33-37
Well how are we doing today? It was kind of nice to spend two weeks away from the pulpit, but it’s good to be back with you today. How did Jaired do last week? I’ve heard good things, and told me that he really enjoyed the opportunity to worship with you and preach for you last week.
I don’t know how closely you’ve been watching or reading the news over the past week, but it’s becoming harder and harder to stomach what’s going on in the world. There were the Nov. 13 terrorist attacks in France, killing 129 and injuring many others. The day before, 43 were killed in suicide bombings in Beirut, with over 200 wounded. ISIS claimed responsibility for both attacks. To make it worse, our politicians are using these and other terrible events for their own political gain-they’ve turned to absolutely poisonous anti-Islamic rhetoric, calling for discrimination against our Muslim brothers and sisters, wanting to keep all refugees out and blaming their Muslim faith, just because that’s the faith claimed by the perpetrators of these terrorist attacks we’ve been hearing about-as if these terrorists are actual representatives of the Muslim faith. In the mist of all of this international grief, a new report from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development said that there are over 500,000 people across the US who are homeless, with several cities and states declaring emergencies because of these high rates of homelessness.
Now, I normally try to not sound too doomy. But when I hear all of this news around the world and in our country, it feels to me like hope has lost some of her footing in my life. Hope hasn’t fallen away, but she’s certainly lost some ground hearing about these terrorist attacks, divisiveness, homelessness, and all the other evils in our world today.
Have any of you experienced this same feeling? The feeling that hope seems to be missing from the picture, that light is increasingly hard to find in the midst of all of this darkness? Have any of you felt this tinge of hopelessness as you’ve read or watched the news lately?
I think the passage for today can help us with this, maybe not understand it, but I think it can at least give us some hope that we’ve lost.
33 Pilate went back into the palace. He summoned Jesus and asked, “Are you the king of the Jews?”
34 Jesus answered, “Do you say this on your own or have others spoken to you about me?”
35 Pilate responded, “I’m not a Jew, am I? Your nation and its chief priests handed you over to me. What have you done?”
36 Jesus replied, “My kingdom doesn’t originate from this world. If it did, my guards would fight so that I wouldn’t have been arrested by the Jewish leaders. My kingdom isn’t from here.”
37 “So you are a king?” Pilate said.
Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. I was born and came into the world for this reason: to testify to the truth. Whoever accepts the truth listens to my voice.” (John 18:33-37, CEB)
Who remembers what the lectionary is? In case you don’t remember, the lectionary is a calendar that gives you 4 assigned Scripture readings for each Sunday and theme for how the readings relate to each other for each Sunday. I haven’t used it all summer, but today I’m moving back to the assigned texts for the lectionary because it’s a really helpful way to bring us through the big seasons of the church, like Advent, starting next week.
So the lectionary calls this Sunday “Christ the King” Sunday. That’s what all the Scriptures you heard talk about-Christ’s kingdom, the reign of Christ. Now, when I think of kings and queens, I think of King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table, right?
I also think of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Who’s seen that movie? Who wants to admit that they’ve seen this movie? Hilarious, right?
But those are the models I have for understanding Kingdom and monarchy and all of that stuff. And I’m sure the rest of you are in a similar situation-we don’t live in a monarchy, so we’re a little limited in our understanding of kings and royalty, right?
The thing is, we still refer to Jesus as King of Kings and Lord of Lords-those are big titles for Jesus, especially on this day, Christ the King Sunday. But we don’t have a great context for understanding who and what a king really is.
However, I think we do understand the idea of authority, right? And what kind of authority a king might have. And what we see in that passage from John I just read for you is a clash between two huge figures of authority.
If you can picture it like a boxing match, in one corner, there’s Jesus, the Son of God, the supposed King of the Jews, right? In the other corner, we have Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor the area. This happens after Jesus was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, he’s on trial before Pilate, and it’s these two authority figures in conflict, right?
Now, to understand what’s really happening here, we have to know that Jesus is totally placed completely within the context of the politics and authorities of 1st century Palestine. His message was addressed to the political and economic situation of those living under the authorities of 1st century Palestine.
We can really see this in Jesus’ birth stories, right? In the beginning of Luke 2, where we read about Joseph and Mary traveling to Bethlehem, it says “In those days Caesar Augustus declared that everyone throughout the empire should be enrolled in the tax lists. This first enrollment occurred when Quirinius governed Syria.” Jesus was born in Bethlehem because that’s what the political situation at the time dictated. We also read in Matthew about the Magi, the Wise Men going to Herod, the local ruler and authority figure, before going to Jesus. Completely situated in the political authorities of the time.
So to understand what’s really going on here, I want to give us just a quick snapshot of what the political situation of 1st century Palestine, where Jesus was born and where he did ministry, looked like.
Jesus was born as a Jew and lived as a Jew, and the Jews in 1st century Palestine had been in tension or under oppression for hundreds of years by the time Jesus came around.
In 600BC, the nation of Babylon defeated the Jews and took them into captivity, away from their homeland.
About 50 years later, the nation of Persia conquered Babylon and let the Jews return to their homeland around Jerusalem, but they were still under the authority of Persia.
After that, the Jews were passed from the Persian Empire to the Macedonian Empire to the Seleucid Empire to the Ptolemaic Empire. The names aren’t important, what matters is that this stretch of several hundred years was a time of huge political upheaval for the Jewish people. They would be under the authority of one empire, then another empire would take over, then another one.
Towards the end of this, the Greek empire was spreading around the Mediterranean, and one emperor decided to force Greek culture on the Jews. The Jewish people were very proud of the fact that they had their own culture that was very separate from the culture of the rest of the world around them. But this emperor decided that the Jews were going to be Greek, not Jewish anymore. So he forbade the Sabbath, completely defiled the Jewish temple, outlawed circumcision, and made it almost impossible to be a practicing Jewish believer.
By 164 BC, the Jews had had enough of this disgrace, so the Jewish people rose up in what’s known as the Maccabean Revolt, and for a while, they threw off all foreign oppression and authority and became their own Jewish state.
But in 63 BC, the Roman Empire conquered the Jewish people and put Roman governors over them. The Jewish people continue under Roman rule, hating it but figuring out how to live in it, under AD 70, a few decades after Jesus’ death and resurrection, when the Jewish Temple is destroyed and the Jewish people scattered.
So you can see, there are a LOT of political tensions here and tensions between the people and the authorities over them. The Jewish people are hating that they are controlled by a foreign power. And for a while, everything seemed to be falling apart. But now, when Jesus, the supposed King of the Jews, is talking to the Roman governor Pontius Pilate, 1st Century Palestine is in a time of relative peace.
But here Jesus comes as a new authority, threatening to upset the delicate peace Israel has. He says to Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, the representative of Caesar-the Roman Emperor, who was normally believed to be a god, Jesus starts talking about his own kingdom, and how it’s not from here, it doesn’t originate from this world. You can understand why Pilate would get upset about this-the Romans don’t want someone talking about their own kingdom, because that would be equivalent to revolting against Rome, right?
So why in the world does Jesus talk about his kingdom like this? Jesus has been arrested, tried before the High Priest, and brought before Pilate so that the Jews can put him to death. Why in the world would Jesus start talking this nonsense about a kingdom that doesn’t come from this world? This is liable to get him killed, right?
So what is this kingdom that Jesus is talking about? What I think Jesus is doing is drawing a contrast between the Kingdom of Jesus and the examples of kingdoms around him, that I told you about in the snapshot of the situation in 1st century Palestine, right? The kingdoms of the world are always grasping for power. They’re always oppressing and trampling down the marginalized, the weak, the disenfranchised, because they always seek power and glory for themselves, right?
The Jewish people, who had been passed from one kingdom to another, from one empire to another, for hundreds of years, this was the only model they had of what a kingdom looked like and how it worked. Oppressive, grasping for power, demeaning, and selfish.
Do we see any parallels to this today?
But Jesus is saying “My kingdom is different from all of the other ones that you’ve seen.” My kingdom is different, my authority is different, my power is different from all the examples you have before you today. If Jesus’ kingdom and power and authority were the same as the world’s, wouldn’t Jesus’ disciples have fought to keep him from being arrested? Peter did try to fight in the garden, he cut off the ear of the High Priest’s servant, but Jesus stopped him from doing any more harm. And what’s more, Jesus healed the ear of this man helping to arrest him. That’s wild, right? This is a different kind of kingdom.
Now, when I think of Christ’s kingdom in this way, and when I think of how we profess Jesus to be the king of kings, lord of lords, governor of governors, authority of authorities, there’s something in my mind that says there’s something about those titles that’s not quite in line with reality.
How can we say that Jesus Christ is the king, how can we say that Jesus Christ is in charge when so much in the world seems like it’s falling apart? Remember what I said at the beginning? So often, our news headlines are devoid of hope because of the awful things human beings do and say to each other. How can we say that Christ is indeed in charge when so much of the world seems like it’s falling apart?
Is the kingdom Christ talks about just an inward and spiritual kingdom, keeping us for heaven, but not having any effect on the world outside of us? Is that all it is? I don’t want to believe that.
But how can Jesus talk about his own kingdom of goodness and righteousness and peace, how can Jesus talk about that in the midst of a world where it seemed like evil was winning and good was losing?
Here’s the only way I can think of to resolve this: by trusting in the kingdom of Christ, we are saying that the calamities, misfortunes and tragedies of the world do not have the last word. Jesus Christ does.
We are saying that terrorism does not have the last word. Prejudice and discrimination against a people just because of their beliefs and faith, that doesn’t have the last word. The evils of homelessness and poverty do not have the last word. Jesus Christ does.
Not only that, but the governments of the world, however good or bad we think they are, do not have the last word in our lives. This is what Christ was saying when he talked about his kingdom with Pilate. Jesus was making the audacious political statement that the huge, strong, powerful beast that was the Roman Empire does not have the last word. Jesus Christ does.
The politicians, the queens and kings, the governors, despots, the dictators, the presidents of our world do not have the last word. Jesus Christ does. And I think that should be a beam of hope to us. Because we live in a broken world. And so much of what we see attests to that simple fact-there is something broken about human civilization. Even if we like and agree with certain authority figures, people are still hurt. Individuals and groups are still oppressed. Those on the edges of society are still left out. But our belief and faith in the coming kingdom of Christ says that none of that has the last word. Brokenness, evil, hatred, prejudice, pain, suffering and death do not have the last word. Jesus Christ does.
What would it look like if we actually lived as people of Christ’s kingdom, not letting fear of the calamities of the world, of anger and pain surrounding us, what if we didn’t let that dictate our actions and views? What would it look like if we trusted that Christ will have the last word, and we let that hope and faith guide our actions instead?
So this week, when you hear of the next tragedy or disaster, when you hear the next poisonous and hurtful remarks of politicians and leaders, when you hear of another reason to lose hope, remember that Christ has the last word. Not the brokenness of the world. Have hope that there is a good future ahead of us. And remember that as followers of Christ, we are called to embody that hope of Christ having the last word. What can you do to not embody fear, but embody hope in this coming future in Christ?