What Kind of King?

Psalm 132:1-12, John 18:33-38, Christ the King Sunday, November 22, 2015

Today is the last Sunday in the church year. So you can think of the Joyful Noise offering as a sort of New Year’s Eve type of revelry. Next week we’ll start the four week season of Advent, the time when we prepare for the coming birth of Jesus, the one we call Lord and Savior. We start the year getting ready for the birth of a baby, but we end it with Christ the King Sunday.

Christ the King is a concept that I have difficulty with, and I know from numerous conversations I have over the years that many of you also struggle with the idea of royalty.

So much of our identity as citizens and residents of the United States is that we are a nation founded after a revolution against royalty. Our constitution even forbids the government from granting royal titles. “No title of nobility shall be granted by the United States.” [Article 1, Section 9] In the 1920’s some people even objected to giving Babe Ruth the nickname “Sultan of Swat.” None of us has ever lived in a place that has been ruled by royalty and so this is a concept that feels unfamiliar and foreign, if not actually wrong. I was thinking about royalty Tuesday morning as I drove to church and I remembered about the only thing I own that is even remotely royal is this two CD set I always keep in my car: Queens of Country Music. It serves two purposes, really. First of all I sincerely enjoy country music—and the Time-Life people have assembled a really good collection—but also, my sons have a strong aversion to country music, so when they were younger and acting up in the car I could say, “Don’t make me play Donna Fargo!” and they would always settle down.

The hymns for Christ the King Sunday are really stirring, they are filled with images of grandeur, praise, power and devotion. The first one we sang today, “All Hail the power of Jesus’ Name” and the hymn we will close worship with “Crown Him with Many Crowns” are both tunes that get the trombone player in me marching. And perhaps that’s a good thing, because these hymns will help us feel the idea of royalty, and many of us have a hard time thinking about it, so let your feelings lead your mind in worship this morning.

Today it is not only the concept of royalty that is difficult to understand. Both our lessons also need a lot of explanation—and even then, I’m confident that confusion will linger. We had a very fruitful discussion of these readings at Bible Exploration last week, the more we talked, read, listened and thought the more there was to see.

The psalm for this morning is a song that worshippers sang when they celebrated the completion of the temple. Different groups of worshippers took different parts, and we got a sample of that because we read it responsively. They celebrated the temple as the place where the Ark of the Covenant finally found a permanent, fixed home. The Ark of the Covenant was the box, more of a treasure chest, really, that contained the tablets of the 10 Commandments, the rod that Aaron used during the Exodus and some manna, the miraculous food that God provided to the Hebrews while they wandered. They carried the ark everywhere they went. It was sort of a portable object of worship that kept the people connected to the living God.

One time the Philistines captured it in battle—that’s the part you read, “We heard of it in Ephrathah/we found it in the fields of Jaar.” The Philistines had really suffered because of that, they were afflicted with tumors, so they put the ark in a wagon and hitched a couple cows to it and sent it back to the Israelites. The Ark was considered the Lord’s footstool, and the people believed that they were secure and confident in God’s protection when they sang and remembered that the ark resided in the Temple…and a descendant of David, they believed would be God’s king forever. All of the times you’ll hear about the City of David and Royal David’s City and a shoot from the stump of Jesse—Jesse was David’s father—next month—these all go back to David. David planned the temple, but his son Solomon was the one who saw to its completion.

The idea of living under a royal government is foreign to us. The Old Testament lesson is complicated because so much history and historical liturgy is packed into it. I hate to say this, but the Gospel lesson is also very difficult and complicated. Again we had a rich conversation about this text around the lunch table last week. And we reached a consensus: if you’re confused by the conversation between Pilate and Jesus, you’re probably understanding it pretty well!

This story takes place early in the morning on the day we know as Good Friday. Jesus has been arrested, taken to Annas, a priest and questioned, then Annas sent him to Caiaphas, the high priest, who was also Annas’s son-in-law. Caiaphas then sent Jesus to Pilate, the Roman governor and this morning’s lesson takes place at Pilate’s headquarters. At this point, the legal proceedings against Jesus have left the religious court and gone into the civil court, to put it somewhat modern terms.

The religious officials who sent Jesus to Pilate did not go inside. So Pilate went out to them and asked what Jesus had been charged with. They replied, “If this man were not a criminal, we would not have handed him over to you.” There’s nothing like answering a question, and this is nothing like answering a question. Pilate tells them to try Jesus in their religious court, but the officials tell him that they do not have the authority to put someone to death, only Pilate has that authority.

OK, so now we’re up to the lesson and the conversation between Jesus and Pilate. This is a famous scene and one that is a turning point in many movies about the passion of Christ. There is a lot of sarcasm—probably—between Jesus and Pilate, and the conversation is taking place on multiple levels. All the modern interpreter has is the words. Maybe Pilate said, “Are you the King of the Jews?” with a sneer in his voice. Certainly after being up all night, Jesus would not looking his best.

Jesus then asks Pilate whether he wanted to know for himself, or perhaps, if others had told him that Jesus was the King of the Jews.

Pilate replies, “I am not a Jew, am I?” As if to say, how could I know who the King of the Jews is? He’s showing that he’s an outsider to the situation that he has been asked to rule on. But he goes on to point out that the religious leaders of Jesus’ own people had brought him to Pilate’s headquarters, something is going on here…Pilate asks “What have you done?”

Jesus replies that his kingdom is not a worldly, earthly kingdom. If it were his followers would be fighting for his protection. But, Jesus concludes, “my kingdom is not from here.”

And maybe Pilate responded, “So you are a king!”

Then Jesus’ response is really, really difficult to interpret, “You say that I am a king.” In seminary I was taught that this was a respectful, deferential thing for Jesus to say, it’s as though he saying to Pilate, “your saying I am a king makes me a king.” Jesus, according to my professor was not being coy, but honest, and humble. And yet, as I read this exchange I see it not in a respectful light but in a mocking, insulant way.

Then he goes on to explain that he came into the world to testify to the truth. “Everyone who belongs to me belongs to the truth.” The concept of truth is a big deal in John’s gospel. The word appears 25 times in John and only a total of six times in Matthew, Mark and Luke.

Pilate then utters his most famous line, “What is truth?”

I always imagine David Bowie in the role of Pilate in “The Last Temptation of Christ” at this point. Bowie utters the question with supreme indifference, as though even uttering the word is too much bother.

It’s too bad that Pilate comes into the story so late. Back in the 8th chapter of John’s gospel Jesus tells some people who believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

But, like Pilate, these people did not understand what Jesus was talking about. They said, ”We have never been slaves, what do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?”

But Jesus was talking about being free, not of the chains of slavery, but a different kind of slavery, suffering for the consequences of sin. Following Jesus would bring them a different kind of life, an abundant, even daring life. But those cannot perceive themselves as slaves never seek freedom.

What does it mean that today is Christ the King Sunday? What kind of king is Jesus? What kind of freedom do those who live in his kingdom enjoy? Amen.