Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 22, 2015
John 18:33-37 Commentary
Comments and Observations:
He doesn’t look like a king. More like a car accident victim. Or someone who went one too many rounds with Rocky Balboa in the boxing ring.
Whether you call this last Sunday before Advent “Christ the King Sunday” or “Reign of Christ Sunday,” there is a kind of delicious irony to be savored by reading this snippet of John 18. After all, we celebrate this Sunday precisely because of our Christian belief that Jesus is the King of kings. He is the fulfillment of the covenant made with David to forever have one of his heirs sitting on the cosmic throne (cf. the Old Testament lection for this Sunday and David’s last words from 2 Samuel 23). When Handel’s oratorio Messiah is performed and played umpteen times across the upcoming holiday season, those who belt out the words “King of kings and Lord of lords” in that oratorio’s famed “Hallelujah Chorus” will be stating the quintessence of the gospel: namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.
Jesus is King.
But in John 18 we encounter that King in a most compromised and humble station. Hands bound behind him, his lip split and his cheek puffy from where one of the high priest’s officials had whacked him (cf. John 18:22), Jesus looks nothing like a king. Meanwhile he is being interrogated by a man who did possess at least some of the outer trappings of worldly power and might. Pilate was no doubt arrayed in his governor’s attire with a retinue of other well-dressed associates at his beck and call and with armed soldiers standing by also at his command.
Pilate looks the role of a king-like figure. And as such, he’s vaguely bored with this little sideshow that the Jews were foisting upon him. Pilate’s schedule was probably chockfull of appointments and meetings and P.R. appearances as it was. The last thing he had time for was this pathetic little man who was alleged to be a royal pretender, a usurper of Roman authority, a would-be “King of the Jews.” (By the way: if as you read this you hear echoes of Frederick Buechner’s indelible presentation of Pilate from his book Telling the Truth, you are no doubt correct: I read that years ago but have never forgotten it!).
For some reason this man from Nazareth (who looked about as threatening as Murray the Grocer) had his compatriots all stirred up. They did see him as a threat but couldn’t quite bring themselves to get rid of him on their own and so were looking for a little outside (Roman) help to make it all official.
It was the last thing Pilate needed that day. So there Pilate was sitting behind his marble desk, idly drumming his fingers on his ink blotter. He barely even looked up at Jesus as he distractedly asked, “So, are you the king of the Jews or what?” He stifled a yawn while awaiting the man’s response.
The man’s reply made Pilate look up after all: “Is that your own idea or did someone else tell you that about me?” Since this Jesus guy was in no position to be cheeky, the answer took Pilate aback. It also made him about burst out laughing. Of course someone else had told this to Pilate because no sane person looking at this Jesus would tumble to the conclusion he was a kingly figure! So Pilate tells Jesus that he knows full well this charge came from others and so then asks, “So just what did you do that got your peers all shook up about you?”
“My kingdom is not of this world,” Jesus says. Were it a court of law today, the lawyers for the other side would surely arise and say, “Objection! Move to strike—answer is non-responsive!” And they’d be right: Jesus’ reply was a non-sequitur. And yet what it indicated was that Jesus was no threat to the powers that be in this world. If he were, a pitched battle would already have been fought to prevent Jesus’ arrest. But he did not resist arrest and was apparently not going to resist anything at all. The kingdoms of this world really had no need to mess with Jesus, and Pilate senses this pretty keenly. This man may or may not be a nut case but he clearly was not gunning for Pilate or Herod or the Caesar and so . . .
“People who know the truth listen to me,” Jesus says in the end. And though the Lectionary grinds us to a halt at verse 37, even moderately literate biblical readers know (and so cannot help but hearing) what comes next as Pilate says “What is truth?”
Was Pilate being cynical? A relativist? A postmodern philosopher 2,000 years ahead of his time? Was he being flippant or ironic? It’s hard to say. As some have pointed out, Jesus did not answer Pilate’s “What is truth?” question, maybe in part because Jesus was the truth. The Truth was standing right in front of Pilate and so what more could The Truth say?
But maybe we can hear in Pilate’s question the desperate pleading that all people make eventually—or at least a great many people arrive at a point in their lives when they just wonder “What’s it all about anyway? What is the truth? What is the secret of life?” Our human attempts to answer those questions typically lead us in the direction of this world’s Pontius Pilates: the rich, the powerful, the beautiful, the well-dressed and upwardly mobile types to whose rising stars we gladly hitch our aspiring wagons.
But the “truth” of John 18 tells us that’s all backwards. The truth of that scene in Pilate’s office is that the beat-up, dirty, handcuffed man who spoke softly and confusingly really was the King of kings. The upside-down nature of the kingdom—and of the gospel—is on lyric display in this “Christ the King” / “Reign of Christ” passage. “What is truth?” Well, it’s not what you think it is. The secret of life, the way to life everlasting, and the true path to shalom turns away from the Pilates of the world and in the direction of the humble man from Nazareth who was even then preparing to sacrifice himself for all.
As Jesus goes on to say in verse 37, he is a king. But altogether too many people then and now would say “I don’t want to be a citizen in any kingdom of which some loser like that is the king!” In a week we begin Advent once again and for a few weeks, all the world is OK with the idea of God’s Son coming to the world in a form of a baby. Babies are so cute. But what we tend to forget is that baby grew up to be a man who impressed very few people who judged him by his outward appearances alone.
And it all comes to a head here in John 18 when Pilate rolls his eyes over this disaster of a human being standing in front of him and responds with the incredulous question: “Are you the king of the Jews??!!”
Yes, he is. Blessed are those who see the truth and enter, by grace alone, the kingdom of light. Blessed are those who can say “Jesus is King” without snickering, without irony or eye-rolling but with the sincere conviction that they are in touch with The Truth.
As Frederick Dale Bruner points out in his commentary on John (Eerdmans, 2012), all four of the gospels have Pilate asking Jesus the exact same question at the outset of their encounter: “Are you the king of the Jews?” In the Greek the word “you” or su in Greek comes first, making it an emphatic. One could very nearly translate it, “You? Are you the king of the Jews?” It was as if Pilate were saying, “You, of all people? You don’t look like a king. You don’t look like much of anything at all. So YOU of all people are standing before me? You?” It is an instance where a 2-letter Greek pronoun packs a very great deal of theological punch!
In one of his fine sermons, Tom Long tells a story (not sure of his source) that illustrates one of the central dynamics in John 18. The story claims that Mother Teresa was once in the United States to raise funds for her work among the lepers in Calcutta. One morning she was to meet with two high-powered Wall Street executives who had decided ahead of time that they were not going to give her any money. As the meeting began, the diminutive little saint from Calcutta shuffled into the room and took a seat at a shiny mahogany table across from the two men in Armani suits. “We appreciate your work,” the exec said, “but at this time cannot commit any funds.” Mother Teresa nodded quietly and said, “Let us pray” and then proceeded to ask God to open their hearts. After she intoned a quiet “Amen,” the man again said, “Look, I’m sorry but at this time, we are unable to make any commitments.” “Let us pray” Mother Teresa said, at which point both men took out their checkbooks and wrote fairly fat checks!
Jesus before Pilate: it was another one of those David and Goliath scenarios but those who can see the Truth Jesus spoke of have a funny way of seeing who is really the tall one and who is really the little guy after all.
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