John 18 & 19
Right out of the gate, the very first question that Pilate asks Jesus is this:
“Are you the king of the Jews?” (John 18:33)
Decades ago, a few wise men who were following a star asked a similar question
of a would-be monarch named Herod, “Where is the one born King of the Jews?”
From Herod’s halls to Pilate’s headquarters, this question unites Jesus’ birth and death.
From the little town of Bethlehem to the holy city of Jerusalem,
all of the signs given to us through miracles, healings, and teaching lead us here.
To this day. To this hour. Behold our King!
Behold the One who when questioned by Pilate answers cryptically,
declaring, “My kingdom is not of this world.” (John 18:36)
Jesus’ response is startling and provocative.
It confuses Pilate because all he can see before him is an ordinary man,
someone whom Pilate perceives to have found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time, having made enemies with the wrong group of people.
Jesus looks like any other criminal who has been brought before him
and yet here stands one who speaks with authority
— who talks about a strange kind of kingdom
—one without defenses, without competition, without rivalry.
This Jesus looks and sounds nothing like any king Pilate has ever witnessed.
And today like Pilate, we consider, we question what sort of king Jesus might be.
But in order to appreciate what is happening here, we have to go back in time.
Pilate asks Jesus if he the king of the Jews
and so we need to go back to the time of Israel’s first kings.
After wandering around in the desert for a generation,
Israel had finally come into the land promised by God to their ancestor Abraham.
But a little chaos and few judges soon convinced the Israelites
that they were only halfway home.
To truly become a certifiable nation—a force to be reckoned with
—a people to be taken seriously—the people believed that they needed a king.
After all, everyone else had a king.
To be a respected nation—a legitimate power—you had to have a king.
You can’t have a kingdom without one. It’s part of the definition. It goes with the territory.
So, to be just like all the other nations, to be just like her neighbors,
Israel demanded to have a king too.
We’ve spent our Lenten journey this year closely examining
how this initially turned out for Israel.
Over the last few weeks, we’ve witnessed both the sudden rise and tragic fall
of Israel’s very first king named Saul.
By all appearances to the Israelites, Saul had all the bonafides.
Saul looked like the prototype for a king—tall, strong, and handsome.
But as we’re learned, appearances can be deceiving.
When tested, Saul’s heart was found wanting.
Time and again, Saul served his own interests at the expense of others
– particularly, the Lord’s purposes.
And each time Saul was given the opportunity to own the error of his ways
he either blamed someone else or dug in his heels and refused to admit he was wrong.
After Holy Week, when we get back to 1 Samuel,
the crown will pass to David and then much later to Solomon.
In both their cases, as we’ll later discover,
despite a promising start and contrary to how we often whitewash their stories,
they’ll fare no better than Saul as kings of Israel.
Truth be told, all in all, in the long view of history,
kingship in Israel didn’t turn out very well for the people.
Israel was thrown into countless wars, hypocritical worship, and internal conflict.
Her only escape
—Israel’s only way to get out from under the dynasty of failed kings—was exile.
Ironically, the Israelites had to lose everything
in order to be set free from what they insisted they wanted,
what they were convinced they needed in the first place.
Israel’s problem, from the very beginning,
was her failure to recognize that God had promised to be her king
—that the Lord already was her king.
How many times had God provided, protected, and rescued his people?
How often had God defined the relationship—affirmed the covenant
—“I am your God and you are my people”—and yet, the people rejected the Lord as their king.
The truly surprising thing about this history lesson though,
the part that speaks into where we find ourselves today,
is that this God allowed Himself to be rejected by the people.
As we discovered early on in the book of 1 Samuel,
the Lord doesn’t force the issue in terms of His right to the throne of Israel.
The Lord doesn’t call down the thunder and lightning to demonstrate His sovereignty.
The Lord doesn’t engage in debate
using the power of His word to bring the people to their knees.
The Lord lets the people get what they want
in order to learn the hard way what they need
– or more pointedly, who they need – who is their only and one king.
And now, as God has come down in the flesh in the person of Jesus Christ,
we see history repeating itself.
As God in Christ once again shows Himself before Pilate
to be a king whose power isn’t coercive.
The Lord is not a king who forces himself upon those who belong to Him.
Once again, God in Christ proves Himself to be a king
who is willing to be deposed from the throne.
He is willing to be rejected and humiliated,
to be dishonored and shamed—to have His heart broken for the sake of our love.
Once again, God in Christ willingly hands Himself over
– giving the people what they want – His very life
– in order to reveal the hard way – through His death – what we all need
– the forgiveness and healing that comes by way of
unconditional, perfect love and selfless, divine sacrifice.
From start to finish we discover that God in Christ is a king
like no king we’ve ever heard of or seen.
This is why Pilate has such a hard time figuring out who Jesus is.
He asks the obvious question: “Are you the king of the Jews?” (John 18:33)
In a sense, he gets it right.
Pilate’s asking the right question,
but he demonstrates he’s not truly willing to embrace the answer.
That’s why Jesus puts the question back on Pilate:
“Is that your own idea or did others talk to you about me?” (John 18:34)
Jesus is asking the fundamental question
that we must all answer in our lifetime: “Who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16:15)
You get the sense that Pilate wants to acknowledge Jesus as a king.
His later assertion: “You are a king, then!” (John 18:37)
pretty much reveals what he’s thinking.
But Jesus doesn’t fit into the box that Pilate is used to
—Jesus doesn’t line up with Pilate’s understanding of power and kingship and so it throws him.
Pilate reigns as one whose power comes from the sword.
He keeps the peace—he prevents division by extending an iron fist.
He maintains order—he holds his rivals at bay by flexing his muscle every once in a while.
Challenge Pilate’s authority—get out of line—and you will be silenced by force.
Jesus, however, is not that kind of king. He refuses to rule by the sword.
Instead of a fist made of iron, he extends his arms horizontal on the cross.
Rather than flex his muscles to silence his critics, he is pierced for their transgressions.
Jesus is not a king of this world, a king whose power comes from the sword.
He redefines for Pilate and for us all, what it means to be a king
when he once again reveals his mission:
“The reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth.
Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” (John 18:37)
Back in the beginning, before the people even asked for a king,
back with Moses when the Lord knew they would someday reject Him,
God spelled out the central purpose of a king.
It was written down that when Israel wanted to have a king,
that king’s main task—the practice which defined his role
—was to write down the entirety of the Torah and meditate upon it.
A king in God’s eyes, a king made in God’s image
was to be a king who was so immersed in the truth of God’s word,
that he would rule in and through such truth.
What Jesus is saying to Pilate here is what God told the people all along.
The sovereign plan, the divine decree is telling the truth of God’s word
—pointing to it, living by it.
Jesus is redefining kingship as a matter of testimony when he declares, “I testify to the truth.”
Pilate’s response is classic—and sadly, all too familiar as he jadedly retorts, “What is truth?”
Once again, Pilate doesn’t know what to do with this Jesus.
For Pilate, what’s true depends on who controls the information.
What’s true depends on the situation — who you are talking to and what they want to hear.
Hence, Pilate later asserts, “Do you refuse to speak to me?
Don’t you realize I have the power either to free you or crucify you?” (John 19:10)
Pilate’s truth is a self-centered truth.
It is the lie of sin masquerading as “my truth” or “your truth”
rather than yielding before the truth of Christ.
It is seeking to profit the whole world at the expense of one’s own soul.
Pilate’s truth is about pragmatism and expediency.
“Cut a deal to save your life, Jesus.”
“Give a little to get a little.”
“Say what I want to hear – give the people what they’re asking for
— and this can all be over. We can all go home and call it a day.”
That’s good, conventional political wisdom, Jesus.
That’s how you get things done.
That kind of truth will get you reelected rather than crucified.
But Jesus is not that kind of king.
Jesus is not about that kind of truth
—the kind of truth that seeks to preserve one’s own power no matter what the human cost.
The kind of truth that Jesus testifies to—that he gives his life for—
is justice and mercy, compassion and forgiveness, love and grace.
It’s the kind of truth that can’t just be paid lip service,
it has to be practiced no matter what the cost.
It’s the kind of truth that challenges the idea of living only for yourself
by daring us to believe that you actually save your life by losing it.
It’s the kind of truth that sees true redemptive power
– no greater love than in giving our life for another.
It’s the kind of truth that isn’t always proven on paper
but is discovered and affirmed by living into it one step at a time.
It’s the kind of truth that doesn’t make things easier but it sure sets things right.
We have a name for these kinds of realities. Inconvenient truths.
They are inconvenient because they challenge our thinking, convict our hearts,
and rock the very foundations upon which we try to build our lives.
Jesus stands before Pilate as the inconvenient Truth.
What Jesus is living for, what he’s willing to die for
—makes no sense to Pilate at all.
All that Pilate can see in Jesus are shame, loss, and humiliation.
Twice already Pilate has stated Jesus’ innocence.
He wisely doesn’t rush to judgment either.
Pilate takes his time in looking at all the angles.
Deep down he knows enough of the truth to recognize
a great injustice is being orchestrated.
Pilate makes no bones about confessing his reluctance,
his apprehension about passing sentence here.
From his dialogue with Jesus, it is obvious
Pilate senses this is his moment of truth –
that there is more to this guiltless man than meets the eye.
At some conscious level, he flirts, he dances on the edge of
perceiving some divine revelation in all this
– a power and authority unlike any he has ever witnessed.
Standing before Pilate is the very Way, Truth, and Life,
the pearl of great price that in a story Jesus once told
is worth selling all one has in order to possess.
And yet, when push comes to shove, Pilate ends up choosing to exchange the truth for a lie.
Sometimes inconvenient truths are so hard to swallow
that they are just easier to just ignore.
And so Pilate tries to wash his hands of Jesus.
He orders an innocent man to be abused and tortured in order to placate an angry mob.
He becomes a slave to public opinion as the crowd’s death sentence becomes his edict.
He sets free a known terrorist named Barabbas and condemns a righteous man to death.
He tries to wash his hands of all responsibility
even as he is the one who passes sentence – who declares Jesus to be guilty.
Inconvenient truths always become the first victims when you have the power of the sword.
Some truths are better left nailed to the cross.
At this stage in our journey to the cross,
as we stare into the face of Jesus and behold our king,
we need to see that we are more like Pilate than we care to admit.
Like Pilate, we are intrigued by but ultimately reject
royalty that sacrifices rather than wields power.
We’d rather not face the inconvenient truth
that tells us that the way to life goes through the cross.
From where we stand, the way of the cross is at best a tragic error,
at worst an irrevocable mistake.
Outside of a moment of worship – a designated Sunday service –
in our day-to-day lives – when we see anyone or anything
that looks as sweaty, bloodied, and bruised as the One who hangs before us,
we don’t bow down and pay homage.
We, like the crowds, accusingly point and mockingly jeer.
Or we pretend we don’t notice and cross the street and walk the other way.
Like Pilate, we perceive truth, not in a God who willing suffers
but in a God who delivers the success, the status, and the achievement we crave.
We’re fine with the God who hangs on the Cross for our sake
but we’re not as comfortable with the God who tells us to carry the Cross and die to ourselves.
We struggle to perceive any truth to be found in failure, weakness, and humility.
Faced with the complexity of life, we prefer the kind of truth that gets results
—the kind of truth we can control.
And so, we imagine that we should be eternally youthful, always healthy,
continually prosperous, and consistently successful.
We fancy we should be able to have it all even
as we deny there’s enough to go around for everyone.
Like Pilate, we want to wash our hands of this Jesus.
We will do anything to save ourselves.
We’ll play politics in lieu of being true to the faith.
Like the crowds, we’ll blasphemously declare “We have no king but Caesar”
when Caesar is willing to give us what God refuses to endorse.
And so, we lend our ears and cast our votes for the kind of kings
who promise to make our lives great again,
who offer us a world without suffering or sacrifice,
peace at any price, pleasure without pain
and life without death.
We’ll gladly endorse the kinds of kings who assure us
that we are the real victims and who will provide us with someone else to blame.
And who’s a better scapegoat than God
when life isn’t the way we want it, when things are going our way?
“Crucify him?” “Hell, yes. Better him than me.”
We too, like the Israelites, reject this kind of king.
We reject Jesus as our one true King
every time we reject the commission and commandment of His Kingdom.
Our tendency is to look at the Cross from a distance.
We weep and we are saddened when we think of our King
battered and bruised, agonizingly nailed to a tree.
However, Good Friday means nothing.
The cross to which we cling becomes nothing more than
a religious trinket if we fail to recognize that we continue to crucify Christ
every time we see a brother or a sister in need and fail to deny them help
or worse mock their pain through the privilege of our indifference.
Beloved, let us save our tears for Jesus if we have none for each other.
For the truth is not created in our image.
We are fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of the One who is true.
To deny the image of God in each other is to deny Christ. Period.
“What is truth?” asked Pilate.
What is true anymore, we might wonder, after a long year of isolation and separation,
of antagonism and vitriol, of all the carnage borne of sickness and death?
We have only to look up and see the Truth
– battered and bruised but not defeated,
willingly sacrificed but refusing to be exchanged for a lie,
crucified and broken but still stronger than any counter assertion that can be made.
And the truth is our “No!” of the cross becomes God’s “Yes!” in Jesus Christ.
Even when Israel rejects God as their king,
even when Pilate doesn’t have the time to give to Jesus,
even when we drift away, God is still king,
and Jesus still has a place for us in his Kingdom.
The truth is that despite all our wanderings and wonderings,
all our denials and betrayals, this God revealed in Christ says
“Yes, you are mine, even if you can’t see it, even when you reject me,
even when you forget me and find other kings. You are mine. I will never leave you.
I may be forsaken but I will never forsake you.”
The truth is, in Christ, this God always says “Yes!”—that’s the gospel beloved.
That’s grace. That’s the nature of Christ’s kingship. That’s the truth of God’s kingdom.
That’s what makes Good Friday—“good”!
Let us take a long, hard look up at the cross and behold our King.
Nailed to a cross to rescue us from the powers of darkness and sin.
Sacrificial love that costs him everything but gives us all things.
Let us embrace the inconvenient but saving truth of Jesus Christ.
Let us approach the throne of grace and find cruciformed mercy to help us in our time of need.
Behold our King, who reigns over all creation with unconditional love
– the God who so loved the world that He gave his one and only Son to us
– this same Jesus who dies so that we might live – now and forever. Amen.