Next week the season of Advent begins. We celebrate the birth of a king, but a very different kind of king. Before we enter the world of a miraculous birth, a young couple and mysterious visitors from afar, however, today we consider the end result. We look at Jesus, the king of kings, standing before the political leader of his world at the time. Pilate represented worldly power in all its brutality and short-lived glory. He held the power of life and death in his hands, but this power was to prove illusive. About two years after this Pilate committed one atrocity too many in Judea and was recalled to Rome permanently. And not too many years after that, Pilate was dead. He died under mysterious circumstances, possibly ordered to commit suicide by the new emperor Caligula. The all-powerful in the world do not remain all powerful forever.
The conversation between Jesus and Pilate is fascinating for many reasons, not least of which is the fact that neither Jesus nor the Jewish leaders behaved in the way conquered subjects of Rome were supposed to behave. Pilate had the military might of Rome behind him. But the Jewish leaders did not treat him with the deference he no doubt expected. They treated him as an official they could manipulate in order to get what they wanted. Pontius Pilate was the fifth prefect of the Roman province of Judaea. He ruled from from 26 to 36, but his tenure was rocky. As with many sent from Rome to rule and subdue to provinces Pilate was arrogant and self-serving. He also appears to have despised the Jews and was incredibly unwise when it came to Jewish sensibilities. At the very beginning of his term he created an unnecessary conflict by bringing images of the emperor into the fortress in Jerusalem. He was forced to remove them. Rome heard about it. Later on he took Temple funds to build an aqueduct for the city of Jerusalem, which from a Roman point of view was perfectly appropriate, but caused an uproar among the Jews. Pilate put down the protest with force. Complaints once again reached Rome. And a year or two before Jesus stood before him he had another conflict with the Jews, this time over the erection of golden shields honoring the Emperor Tiberius. Once more there was bloodshed. Tiberius himself ordered Pilate to move the shields to Caesarea. By the time Jesus was brought before Pilate, his standing with Rome was on shaky ground and the Jewish leaders knew it. When they arrived to deliver their complaint against Jesus they did not come humbly. They refused to enter the Praetorium, the military headquarters Pilate operated out of because they did not want to be defiled and rendered unable to eat the Passover. (Apparently plotting murder was not a defiling act in their minds.) Their intransigence forced Pilate to come outside to talk to them, which must have been galling. Pilate, the leader, was forced to shuttle back and forth between Jesus and the priests.
From the perspective of the day Jesus’ sham trial was nothing new. It was a Roman provincial trial. In this case the high-priestly family requested the trial and presented the charges that Jesus claimed to be “King of the Jews.” Pilate had Jesus brought him before him in order for Jesus to give his defense. But Jesus’ defense was less than clear. He didn’t really contest the charges. He did seem to be acknowledging that he was a king, but not a king of this world—whatever that meant! So he was guilty, but of what? Pilate was aggravated enough with the Jewish elite that throwing the case back in their faces may have been tempting, but he also didn’t want to give them any more ammunition to use against him.
There was nothing subtle about Pilate’s interrogation of Jesus. He just flat out asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?” He probably didn’t expect Jesus to turn around and ask him a question instead. Jesus said, “Is that your own idea, or did others talk to you about me?” That’s pretty nervy of a helpless prisoner who should be trying to ingratiate himself. Pilate tried again, probably with a good deal of sarcasm. “Am I a Jew? Your own people and chief priests handed you over to me. What is it you have done?” Pilate knew that there was more to this than met the eye. Jesus must have done something to earn the hatred of the Sanhedrin.
At this point there may have still been a way out for Jesus. Pilate was unpredictable and narcissistic. He hated the Jewish leaders. If Jesus had appeared to side with him against them, he may have been able to avoid crucifixion. If he had said, “You know, I’ve been critical of these guys and called them hypocrites and now they’re out to get me,” Pilate may have just ordered that he be whipped and released. If Jesus had said, “I’m not a king. The whole idea is ridiculous,” he may have lived. But he did not do that. Instead Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.” This placed Pilate in a quandary. Once more trying to force what Jesus said into categories he could understand Pilate said, “You are a king, then!” But Jesus said, “You say that I am a king. In fact, 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.” To this the cynical Pilate retorted, “What is truth?”
Pilate is sometimes portrayed sympathetically. But he wasn’t being noble when he objected to Jesus’ arrest. He was being petty. In the end, knowing that Jesus was innocent of plotting any violent rebellion, he ordered his crucifixion because it made life easier for him.
Jesus would never win an election in the United States of America. He would likely never win an election anywhere, because when we get right down to it, there is an irreconcilable conflict between the way God does things and the way we do things. We may think that we put in power people who reflect our values, but when we feel threatened or insecure, more often than not we put people in power who most definitely DO NOT reflect our Christian values, but who we think will fight our enemies, keep us safe from outsiders and make us rich. And as for truth? Well, Pilate said it all, “What is truth?”
Regardless of how we voted in the last election or the one before that, in practice we tend to put our faith in worldly power more than God’s power. When push comes to shove we do what we think will keep us safe. And we try very hard not to acknowledge the glaring truth that the way of the kingdoms of this world and the way of Jesus the king are in opposition to one another. We still think we can create something called a Christian nation, but Christian nation is an oxymoron. There is no such thing. Christianity in its very essence goes beyond national boundaries.
A nation is tribal and limited. It is “us” versus “them.” Conflict can erupt when there are competing sub-groups in a nation with each vying for dominance. A nation seeks to preserve and advance its own interests, and those in authority in that nation tend to look after themselves and their own self-interests. Nations are in perpetual conflict internally and externally. And nations by their very nature use force. Nations have laws, courts and prisons. In a nation we do not love our enemies and pray for them. We put them in prison. We go to war against them. We do not turn the other cheek. We arm ourselves to the teeth. No one goes the second mile. No one forgives an offense. No one forgets.
In the kingdom of God we are called to lay down our lives for one another, put others before ourselves, and humbly trust that God will supply our needs. Instead of hoarding for ourselves we are to be generous and share. The kingdom of God is not “us” versus “them;” it is universal. It’s about loving all people for who they are where they are. It is radically inclusive rather than exclusive.
Although it makes us incredibly uncomfortable to admit it, the goals of Jesus our king and our national goals are often at odds with one another at a very basic level. It’s not just “a little bit” different. It’s completely different. And this is true of every other nation on earth too. God’s kingdom is not of this world, and God asks us to rise above human sinfulness and relate to one another in a very different way.
Being a Christian is uncomfortable. A Christian actually should be uncomfortable in the world! Humanly we want to fit in, but if we are truly following Christ as our king, we will find that we can’t. Our values will jar with the values of those around us. We may develop an unsettling knack for spotting hypocrisy and lies. Politicians will disturb us. The frivolous nature of what many people fill their days with will leave us empty. We will find ourselves questioning the pervasive materialism of our culture and struggling to take a stand against it. And when the racism, prejudice and fear that others take for granted jumps out at us we will see it in such vivid colors that we will be left wondering how others cannot see it. Faith in Christ makes us different because when the Holy Spirit is at work in us we no longer belong to the kingdom of this world. Step by step, day-by-day, God is transforming us to see as God sees. But rejoice! We’re not here to blend in. We’re here to bring light. We not here to go along with lies. We’re here to speak truth. Our king is not of this world. And when this world with all its transitory power has passed away, the only thing that will be left is God’s eternal kingdom of love. Amen.
13 “In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. 14 He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.
33 Pilate then went back inside the palace, summoned Jesus and asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?”
34 “Is that your own idea,” Jesus asked, “or did others talk to you about me?”
35 “Am I a Jew?” Pilate replied. “Your own people and chief priests handed you over to me. What is it you have done?”
36 Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.”
37 “You are a king, then!” said Pilate.
Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. In fact, 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.”
38 “What is truth?” retorted Pilate. With this he went out again to the Jews gathered there and said, “I find no basis for a charge against him.