Sunday, November 22, 2015

Disciples of the King (John 18:33-37)

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.”

"My kingdom is not of this world,” says Jesus. No kidding. That seems pretty obvious. Yet at the same time, working for Jesus’ kingdom, praying for “thy kingdom come” is a rather difficult endeavor when it seems so far away from the reality that we know and in which we live. The kingdoms of our world could hardly be more opposite than the kingdom Jesus has in mind.

When we hear the word “king” or “kingdom,” any number of images may come to mind.  Maybe we think of a gilded throne, a crown encrusted with jewels, or a royal palace.  Maybe we think of fine robes, vast riches, huge tracts of land.  Maybe we think of power and authority, giving commands and orders that are followed or else.  All of this is part of a certain image when we think of the word “king,” something regal, something with pomp and circumstance – we have this image from the world around us of who a king is and what a king does, and Jesus just doesn’t fit these notions.

Today is Christ the King Sunday, 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 (2 Samuel 23). When Handel’s Messiah gets performed and played umpteen times across the upcoming holiday season, those who belt out the words “King of kings and Lord of lords” in the famous “Hallelujah Chorus” will be stating it plainly: 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 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.

By contrast, Pilate, the Roman governor, looks the role of a king-like figure. A palace, a garrison of soldiers, the ability to decide another man’s fate with a word or a gesture.  Like any important person, Pilate’s schedule was probably chockfull of appointments and meetings and P.R. appearances.  The last thing he had time for was this man from Nazareth (who looked about as threatening as Murray the Grocer) – this would-be “King of the Jews.”

Pilate almost felt sorry for this Jesus fellow who now stood before him – what a pathetic and preposterous notion that this Jesus could, in any conceivable or credible way, be considered a king.

And perhaps that’s exactly the point.  Jesus just doesn’t fit the part of what we understand about kings and kingdoms.  We’ve taken the sum total of everything we know and have observed about the power structures of this world, we’ve tried to impose those onto Jesus, and Jesus just doesn’t fit the part.

How often have we placed expectations upon someone else?  How often have others failed to live up to our expectations?  Imposing our own set of expectations on other people is a guaranteed recipe for frustration, disappointment, and heartache.  I’ve found that my pre-conceived notions and unspoken expectations on others are an unnecessary burden in my relationships with them.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be the kind of person who is constantly disappointed in others because they didn’t live up to my expectations of what I think they should do and be.  Rather, I want to be the kind of person who can notice and appreciate who they are on their own terms, with their unique gifts and perspectives.  Often, they bring things to the table that surprise me and challenge me and force me to re-think my pre-conceived ideas.  But when our hearts and minds are open and ready to receive and appreciate, we see things that move us past our own understanding and expectations, such that we catch a glimpse of something more.

When it comes to our expectations on Jesus and his kingdom, he confounds and challenges us in the same way.  Jesus’ vision for us is simply, “something more.”  Something more than our expectations, something more than our pre-conceived notions, something more than what we are so often willing to settle for.

Growing up in Western New York, I have always been a Buffalo Bills fan from a young age.  I thought there was a direct correlation between the intensity of my prayers for a Bills win and how they actually performed on the field.  When they won, it was obviously because of whatever God and I worked out in my prayers, and when they lost, it was obviously because I just hadn’t prayed hard or long enough.

For several years, my sister and her husband lived in southern Massachusetts.  They live in Hickory, now, but my nephews are still fans of, God bless them, the New England Patriots.  Can you believe it, the Patriots?  Can anything good come out of Foxborough?

So, you can imagine a scenario in which the two teams are playing one another; I am praying for a Bills victory, my nephews are praying for a Patriots victory, but at the end of the day, only one of those prayers is going to be answered.  Does that mean that God was listening to one side and ignoring the other?  Does it mean that God favors one over the other?  Or, does it mean that, in our smallness, we were both praying for things we wanted and desired, without the realization that God’s desire and will was about something more than the outcome of a football game?

Likewise, could it be that the will of God, the kingdom of God, is about something more than our own personal desires and expectations?  Something more than what we want or demand, because Jesus wants more for us than we often want for ourselves.

The way of his kingdom is probably not the way we would choose.  Not what we desire.  Not what we asked for, not what we wanted.  We have trouble recognizing the kingdom of Jesus because it doesn’t look like what we expected. 

As people of faith, we all want God’s kingdom to come.  We pray for it every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer. But we short-circuit who Jesus is when we forget that the resurrected Jesus was first the crucified Jesus.  David Crowder says, “Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die.”  We all want the gain without the pain, we all want to enjoy the benefits without having to pay the costs.

We all want the resurrected Jesus, the ascended to the right hand of God the Father and reigning in glory Jesus.  We want separating-the-sheep-from-the-goats Jesus, riding in on clouds of thunder Jesus, smiting the evil and wicked Jesus – that’s the Jesus we’re all waiting on, glory hallelujah!  Instead, we get the “my kingdom is not of this world” Jesus, the “if it were, my people would be fighting you” Jesus.

We all want Jesus the victorious, Christ the conqueror, and, yes, the story will get there, but we cannot ignore the road it takes in doing so.

There are countless stories from literature and history of kings and queens who would disguise themselves in common clothes and sneak out to mingle among the people.  The ones I admire most are the ones who were trying to gain an understanding of what ordinary people were going through, taking on some of their situation.

In Jesus, we have a king who did the same thing – one who willingly left the splendor of heaven in order to become one of us, to experience what we experience, to take on the fullness of our humanity with all its frailties and weaknesses, subjecting himself to and taking on powers and forces in our world that are less-than-noble – Jesus did all of that because of his great love for us!  Our King is none other than Jesus who humbled himself and became one of us in order to redeem all of us.

Jesus stands before Pilate with all power and authority at his fingertips, yet he refuses to use it to his own advantage.  Won’t use it for self-preservation or personal gain.  John Wesley said “Love is God’s reigning attribute,” and in Jesus’ resolution to give himself in order to give life to the whole world, we see that primary characteristic of God’s abundant and unconditional love on full display for all to see.

Both the way into and the way of Jesus’ kingdom is the way of self-giving, sacrificial love.  Yet, you and I don’t have the strength or the character or the resolve to love like that, so we look to the One who does, and we ask for his help to live his way, that we might be selfless and generous toward others as God in Christ has been toward us, that as, the recipients and beneficiaries of matchless love and infinite grace, we might show that love and grace toward others.

And friends, that’s the hard part.  For people of faith, we must each come to a point where we stop trying to squeeze Jesus into a box that satisfies our expectations and desires.  Being a follower of Jesus is living such that, by the grace of God, his way becomes our way.

Being a follower of Jesus will be the most counter-cultural thing you can do.  When we find ourselves trying to cozy up to the structures of this world, King Jesus just won’t let us fit in.  Too much forgiveness and turning the other cheek.  Too much compassion and not enough common sense.  Too much practicing peace and not enough displays of power.  Too much love and grace, not enough might when he had every right – that’ll get you killed in a world like ours – what kind of king would go for that?

Our king would, and he did.  He followed that grace-filled path all the way to his death on a cross, where the ironic, upside-down nature of God’s kingdom was put on full display for all the world to see.  No greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends, Jesus’ reign of love and light at its pinnacle when he was lifted high for all the world to see – lifted not to a throne, but on the hard, cruel wood of a Roman cross.  It looks to most like the moment of greatest defeat, but to those who can see it through the eyes of faith, it is God’s greatest victory as his strength is made perfect in weakness.

If you’re looking for the coming kingdom, don’t look to the powerful and wealthy. No, start looking for the scarred ones.  The ones who are burdened, who are bruised, beat-up and broken.  Look to them and treat them with Love, for a king moves among them.

What kind of king is this?  He’s our king.  Not the king we would have chosen, but definitely the one we need.

“My kingdom is not of this world,” says Jesus.  No kidding.  And thank God.

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