By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
November 25, 2018
John 18:33–37 (NRSV)
33 Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” 34 Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” 35 Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” 36 Jesus answered, “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.” 37 Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. 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.”
This week we bear witness to something spectacular. We see the clash of two worlds. The world of thanksgiving where we express the thankfulness for all the blessing we have. The blessing of family and food. A celebration that was initiated by followers of Christ to express their gratitude for all that God had given them. Then before the food has settled people line up to participate in a different expression of life. The lifestyle of desire and envy. I have nothing against holiday shopping to be honest without it many people in the world, including me, would not have jobs. The problem I have is that the two busiest shopping days have such vastly different attitudes attached to them. The first is a rush to get stuffing and cans of green beans before the stores sell out, so we can share with others. Then the next day people are lining up to get TV’s and iPads for discounts. Sure, they are buying them as gifts, but the feast of thanksgiving has not even digested before we rush into the desire for more.
I will confess that I have a bad attitude about this. Thanksgiving used to be my favorite holiday but working in retail has caused me to miss eight thanksgiving dinners with my side of the family. And this year I missed seeing James who was able to come home on leave for the holiday. I am grateful for the job, and I love the people I work with, but this lifestyle causes us to miss so much. This lifestyle has really weighed heavy on my mind as I read today’s passage. It causes me to take a step back and consider and reexamine life in general. What do we really live for?
Today we meet Jesus after his betrayal and imprisonment, and the authorities are beginning their interrogation. Pilate enters the scene. When King Herod died just after Jesus’s birth, the kingdom that included Israel was divided between his children and sister. The reason this happened was because Rome did not want a single strong province that could potentially rally together and cause a revolt. The Provence of Judea which Rome called Palestine was first ruled by one of the sons. This was an important province because of the city of Jerusalem, and because of the temple of God that was in that area the ruler of this province had influence over the other three. Oddly enough the nation of Israel did not really like the idea of living under the influence of Rome, and Rome knew this. We often forget that for a brief period after the closing of the Old Testament and the New Israel was free. The celebration of that freedom will begin on December 2nd. But many of us do not understand the significance it.
The people of Israel were allowed to go home and rebuild their temple while Persia ruled over them. Israel and Persia had an interesting relationship, yes at one-point leaders within Persia tried to eradicate the Jewish people, which you can read about in the book of Esther, but for most of the time Israel was under the lordship of Persia they were great allies. This is why the wisemen from the East come to honor the Jewish king. These wisemen, or Magi, were most likely people that worked closely with the prophet Daniel during the time of Judah’s exile.
Persia had an enemy though. One of the greatest military generals ever to live, Alexander the Great, had a desire to conquer Persia because Persia continuously threatened to overtake their lands. Alexander pushed Persia back, he conquered Israel by simply marching into Jerusalem. He then conquered Egypt, and after that he marched into the heart of Persia. His army march and conquered nearly the entire Persian Empire, which at that time stretched from the Mediterranean deep into India. And in the conquest of India Alexander met foes he could not conquer. Elephants and disease. After his death the Hellenistic Empire was split between his generals and one governed Syria which included Israel. Eventually this dynasty with their desire to bring the Greek culture to everyone met resistance with the Jewish people who only wished to worship their one God. They resisted to the point that their ruler marched into the temple of God with a swine. Some stories say that he rode this swine up to the very alter where it was sacrificed in honor of Zeus. The temple was desecrated, and this caused the people to revolt. This seemingly insignificant group of people started a war with one of the greatest militaries of history to restore their temple. They reclaimed the temple and immediately set out to purify it, but they only had a small amount of sacred oil, only enough for one day. As the armies fought and pushed back the Hellenistic forces, this oil lasted not one but eight days. Enough time for the purification of the temple, and the blessing of more oil. Every year since they celebrated the festival of lights or the feast of dedication. Even Jesus celebrated this holiday.
But this triumph gave people a strong nationalistic view. They were free, yet they were constantly threatened by the Hellenistic Syrians wishing to reclaim the lands of Israel. So, the kings formed an alliance with a new emerging empire. With the idea that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. This is how Rome eventually came into possession of Israel. They were initially invited to pursue a common threat, but they did not leave. The people of Israel were full of pride and wished to be free, so they then began to rebel against Rome, and these revolts caused Rome to tighten their grip. They removed the king of Palestine and place a governor appointed by the Emperor to rule the province. And Pilate was one of those appointed governors.
Pilate was not exactly in the good grace with the emperor though. To get an appointment like that you must know people. And the person that recommended Pilate to this position eventually became a threat to the Emperor, so anyone that was connected to him was being watched closely. Pilate was a governor over a rebellious people that required a standing army to maintain order, while Pilate was attempting to keep his job and life, the people of Israel proved to be a constant threat, and eventually his downfall. This trial is important because it speaks to not only our salvation but the entire political climate of that day. Everyone was living on a thin line between pride and fear. And if those two forces were to come into contact war would erupt. Jesus spoke about this war that was to eventually come, we looked at that last Sunday. A war that would decimate the very monument that represented the center of life of Israel.
Pilate comes to Jesus, with disdain and bitterness brewing within. At every turn they are capturing religious and nationalistic zealots bent on purifying the land of Israel from the pagan influences. At this very moment there is one of those zealots in their prison a man we know as Jesus Barabbas. Pilate comes in and asks Jesus a very important question, “Are you the King of the Jews?” This is important because if Jesus is the king then he is a threat to Pilate’s life and the peace of the Empire. Pilate does not have a great love for the Jews, they are a constant source of trouble and this week as every Jew of the Empire travel to Jerusalem he is afraid that violence erupts. “Are you the king of the Jews?” he demands.
Jesus remains calm and asks his own question, “Do you ask this or did someone tell you this?” And Pilates disdain shines by the response, “I am not a Jew, am I? your own people handed you over.” I am paraphrasing of course, and I am sure that even John edited Pilates words a bit. To this Jesus says, “My kingdom is not from this world. If it were my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over.”
I want us to think of this for a moment. That response is filled with such weighty words. My kingdom is not from this world. What does Jesus mean when he says this? Every one of his disciples wanted him to be that kind of king. They wanted Jesus to unite the tribes, to reclaim the throne of David, to push back the pagan overlords and usher in a new golden age of Israel where they could live and worship in the ways they saw fit. Yet so many times Jesus refused. They did not understand, they desired to sit in the seats of honor in court, yet Jesus said this is not something that I can offer, because it is not mine to offer. He said things like for you to be first you must become a servant of all. If you want to lead you must take the lowest ranking honor. Stooping so low that you must be willing to wash the feet of those around you.
They wanted a worldly king, but Jesus refused. He would say things like love your enemies, do good to those that persecute you. If you love your life you will lose your life, but if you lose your life for his sake you will gain your life. He spoke in crazy riddles, and he lived a radical life of worship, prayer, and serving others. His lifestyle did not resemble the ways of our world. Because he did not respect or honor the things that this world honored.
My kingdom is not from this world. The idea of world can mean many things. It can literally mean this earth, or it can mean orders of mankind. In this case I believe that Jesus is referring to a system an ideology of man. This idea of power and influence by force and authority. It is a system of man, a system of might gives right. This is not the kingdom or influence that Jesus desires nor has. Yet this is often our attitude.
We get so worked up over elections, because we might lose some perceived power or influence over mankind. We might lose might and then we might lose the right to rule. Jesus said that we will hear of wars and rumors of wars, because might has right. This must happen he says because we live in kingdoms of men, and men use force to gain authority and when they lose authority or wish to extend authority, they gain it through the power of the sword, in whatever form it may be. This is not the way of Jesus. When Jesus lifted his hands, it was not to brandish a sword, but to bless bread, or to touch the eyes of a blind man. When Jesus spoke, he did not command those that listen to take up arms, but he encouraged them to pray, “Our father who art in heaven hollowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, they will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
My kingdom is not from this world. His influence is not derived from the wisdom of mankind. Think about this. Think about it deeply, let it soak into your minds, peculating deep into the very center of your hearts. Jesus’s kingdom is not a kingdom derived from the wisdom or the systems of mankind. Our nations of the western world often like to say that they are Christian nations, yet they rule from the systems of this world. Each one of these Christian nations have fought against one another, they have conquered other nations and brought them into their various empires all under the banner of Christ, yet Christ himself says that my kingdom is not from this world. As we watch the news of a missionary going to a remote island in India only to meet his death at the hands of the people there, we hear people debating that it is yet another attempt of colonization by the church against those that see it as a heartfelt attempt to share the gospel. I do not know the heart of the man, but I understand the debate. We have used religion to extend the empires of men, and in doing so we have in many ways diluted the true gospel of Christ.
Jesus does not say that he does not have influence. He knows he has influence in this world. He even says that as it is his kingdom is not from this world. He uses both concepts of world in this paragraph, one meaning creation and one meaning systems of men. As it is his kingdom is not from this system, but he does have a kingdom in this world. And that kingdom is built on the influence of truth. We did not read it in this section, but the next verse is probably Pilates most famous statement, “What is Truth” It is a question that we all ask at some point. It’s a question that I hope we ask often. The concept of truth in this sense is sincerity, honesty, reliability, something that we can trust. We struggle with truth, because we want it to be something that it is not. The question of Pilate is nearly the motto of the post-modern cultures. What is truth? Last week I mentioned that faith is not about everything turning out okay, but faith is about being okay no matter how things turn out. This is truth. Our churches struggle because we have placed our faith in the wrong place. Our sincerity, our reliability, our trust is placed on things of this world, the systems of men. When Jesus is saying that his kingdom which is built on truth is built on things outside that system. It is built on people being the embodiment of truth. People being trust worthy, people being reliable, and sincere. It is about people living the love of Jesus out in their communities even though it might cost them personally.
Our churches are struggling because we have replaced Christ with an imposter. Wealth is our king. Power is our king. Security is our king. But what happens when the company we work for downsizes and king wealth is not more? People often say that younger generations do not have a work ethic like previous generations. They say they are not loyal to companies and refuse to invest their lives in them like previous generations. I ask why should they? How many of the parents of this current generation have been downsized? Their parents built their lives on a king that was toppled, and we wonder why this generation is not faithful. The world around us is based on systems of mankind, built on the wisdom of men, even our churches and we wonder why the younger generation does not keep the faith. Is our faith in the right place?
Israel wanted a king. They wanted an earthly king that could push back Rome like they pushed back Greece. They wanted a nation of their own. But they nearly forgot the miracle within their first taste of freedom. The festival of light or Hanukkah does not honor the war, but worship. It honors the source that allowed the presence of light. The oil lasted when it should not have lasted. The nation should have turned to God and continued to focus on that grace. The scarcity of resources can miraculously be extended when we focus on God. But instead they wanted a king from this world. The wanted power and influence not oil for a lamp. That desire led to war. That desire for a king within this worldly system led to the destruction of everything they built their life on. They built their life, they developed their faith on something other than truth, on something that was not reliable. What is truth? Jesus is truth. His lifestyle is truth. His holy rhythm is truth. The rhythm of worship, prayer, and service to others is truth. If we build our lives of that, if we live our lives devoted to that we will see amazing things happen. When people see that even though the world might crumble around us, yet we remain steadfast in truth they will ask why. And we will be given an opportunity to testify and give an answer. It is not about power, but love. It is not about wealth but service to others for mutual profit. It is not about us, it is about those around us.
Who is your king, and where is the kingdom?