John 18:33-37 (The Kingdom New Testament)
33 So Pilate went back into the [palace] and spoke to Jesus. “Are you the king of the Jews?” he asked.
34 “Was it your idea to ask that?” asked Jesus. “Or did other people tell you about me?”
35 “I’m not a Jew, am I?” retorted Pilate. “Your own people, and the chief priests, have handed you over to me!
What have you done?”
36 “My kingdom isn’t the sort that grows in this world,” replied Jesus. “If my kingdom were from this world, my supporters would have fought to stop me being handed over to the Judaeans. So, then, my kingdom is not the sort that comes from here.”
37 “So!” said Pilate. “You are a king, are you?”
“You’re the one who’s calling me a king,” replied Jesus. “I was born for this; I’ve come into the world for this: to give evidence about the truth. Everyone who belongs to
the truth listens to my voice.”
Revelation 1:4b-8 (NIV)
Grace and peace to you from him who is, and who was, and who is to come, and from the seven spirits before his throne, 5 and from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.
To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, 6 and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father—to him be glory and power for ever and ever! Amen.
7 “Look, he is coming with the clouds,” and “every eye will see him, even those who pierced him”; and all peoples on earth “will mourn because of him.” So shall it
8 “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.”
Welcome to Reign of Christ Sunday. It is kind of like the New Year’s Eve of the Christian calendar. Next Sunday, we begin the New Year with the First Sunday of Advent. Like New Year’s Eve, we have a big send off with a big party. That is known as Christ the King or Reign of Christ Sunday. This is a relatively new celebration initiated in 1925 by the Pope (Pius XI). It is to help us remember to whose kingdom we really belong. It is easy to get sucked into the kingdoms of this world without even realizing it. He thought that people were being too drawn to living in the kingdom of this world rather than in the reign of God. It gives us an opportunity for a perspective check. It helps us remember, despite outward appearances that God is Almighty and is in control.
Are you familiar with the Star Wars movies? When I was a kid, it was almost impossible to avoid. Sequels were being released every two or three years. In between they were on TV all the time. I suppose that’s not so different from now that they’ve revved up the franchise again, but I’m thinking of the first set of movies. You had the original movie where the Rebel Alliance was fighting against the overwhelming power of The Empire. It had discovered the location of the hidden Rebel Base, and the Death Star was coming. If the Death Star could get within range of the Rebel Base, the Rebellion would effectively be wiped out. Spoiler Alert. If you have never seen it, I might be about to give the ending away. Almost every last shred of hope is gone. The Rebel fighters that have gone to meet the Death Star to stop it are almost all lost. Then, at the last second, Luke Skywalker hits the million to one shot in the only vulnerable spot, and *BOOM* the Death Star is destroyed. The Rebels can continue to fight on and resist the evil Empire.
The next movie is The Empire Strikes Back. It is a story of everything that could go wrong does. The Empire no longer has the Death Star, but it has a gigantic fleet. They are going everywhere to try to stamp out the least bit of resistance. The Rebels have to abandon another base. Some of our heroes are captured and tortured. Once again, it looks like The Empire has the upper hand. It looks like it is winning in its quest to have complete control of the galaxy. This is how The Roman Empire appeared around the Mediterranean World during the time of Jesus and for hundreds of years after. Comply or get run over.
Now, with the new Star Wars movies we have the same cycle. We could easily predict the general plot. Why aren’t we bored with these kinds of stories? Some people are, of course, but with the billions of dollars that these movies generate through their lifetime, obviously many people find them compelling. Why do we find them so compelling? They continually represent the world we see around us. Doesn’t it seem like the Empire is winning, and at best, we are rebels trying to push back just enough to give us some breathing space. At worst, we made deals with the Empire to try to maintain some autonomy.
In The Empire Strikes Back, Lando Calrissian makes a deal to keep the Empire’s troops out of his city. Things turn completely upside down, and Lando says, “We had a deal!” to which Darth Vader replies, “I am altering the deal.” Isn’t that always the way with the Empire? We make little deals trying to preserve our peace and our well-being, to what end? The Empire always alters the deal, another expression is “moving the goal posts.”
Then we see a report of another shooting on the news, this time at a place of worship, last time at a school, the other day a nightclub, and this week at a hospital. It was easy to dismiss when it was happening in some other part of the world. Now, it seems to happen in the United States on a daily basis. Is the Empire winning?
It sure looked that way in our reading from John. Jesus has been arrested by the Judean authorities. He has been interrogated all night, and when the chief priest thought that he heard Jesus utter the magic words that Jesus was equating himself with God (c.f. Mt 26:63-66), the high priest sent him to Pilate for execution. (John 18:28-30)
Let’s look at this for a minute. Pilate begins to question Jesus, and Jesus responds with a question of his own. Pilate is the representative of the Empire in Jerusalem. He’s supposed to have all the power, but in this interview, Jesus appears to have the greater power.
Pilate asks Jesus if he is the “King of the Jews,” a political charge where the Empire decided who was king in the areas under its control. Pilate and the people of his time knew more about kings than we do today in the western world. What kings and queens we know about are not absolute monarchs like Louis XIV of seventeenth century France. They are constitutional monarchs that are very limited in their power. They can try to influence and persuade, but the elected leaders are free to go in a completely different direction.
Here in the United States we know even less. Moreover, we can have a hard time wrapping our minds around “kingdom” language. There has been a movement to try to shift it to the term “kin-dom” referring to all of us as kin, as family. That term is great, especially when talking about us as brothers and sisters in Christ. However, when kingdom language is being used in the Bible, it is talking about the operating parameters of existence. There are kingdoms of this world that operate on the premise of amassing power that strain and sever relationships, what I’ve been calling Empire. Then there is the Kingdom of God that focuses on lifting people up and empowering them through relationships with God and each other at its center.
It is the kingdom that the Jesus Creed epitomizes. We’ve been saying it in worship since the middle of October.
Love the Lord your God
With all your heart, with all your soul,
With all your mind,
And with all your strength.
And love your neighbor as yourself.
Only Holy Love
It’s easy for us to say, “Yeah, but what about ….” fill in the blank. We start with Love. God who is on the side of the poor, the widow, the orphan, who loves the unlovable, the least, the last, and the lost. Then we have to love our neighbor as ourselves. Love is the answer no matter what the question.
Earlier this year we talked about love being the answer no matter what the question. Jesus tells Pilate, “My kingdom isn’t the sort that grows in this world … My kingdom isn’t the sort that comes from here.” (John 18:36, The Kingdom New Testament) We see in the beginning of John’s Gospel where his kingdom does come from. “In the beginning was the Word [Jesus], and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1) While Jesus’ kingdom isn’t from this broken world or operate under its rules, it is for and cares about this world.
Under Jesus’ reign we are lifted up to be kings and queens in Jesus’ kingdom based on love.* Earlier this year, we talked about the song by England Dan and John Ford Coley “Love Is the Answer.”
And when you feel afraid
(Love one another)
When you’ve lost your way
(Love one another)
And when you’re all alone
(Love one another)
And when you’re far from home
(Love one another)
And when you’re down and out
(Love one another)
And when your hopes run out
(Love one another)
And when you need a friend
(Love one another)
And when you’re near the end
(Love, we got to love
We got to love one another)
That is what it means to live in the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of Love where relationship is more important than power. In that conversation between Jesus and Pilate, Jesus has the power, but he lays it down for love, the love of us all. Through his crucifixion he provides the power to save us, once for all, and that power has the power to save us, right here, right now.
We can be jaded. We can be cynical. We can be all “what’s the point because things seem to be getting worse and worse!” Tell that to the Christians of the Early Church that were being thrown to the lions. When you are discouraged, you can remind yourself, at least I’m not being fed to lions.
That’s how the kingdoms of this world try to get us. They want us to be cynical, to be jaded, to give up. The closer they are to losing, the more desperate they will become. Think about that!
God is telling us here in the Revelation passage that it is all lies. We have to keep serving the Kingdom of Love because that is where the true power really is. Now, yesterday, and tomorrow. Always and forever.
Did you ever write love notes when you were a kid in school? Even if you didn’t actually give them to the subject of your adore? When I was a kid, it was popular to sign them “Love Always.” Meaning, I will love you always. I feel like I’ve always loved you.
We’re about to start the Advent season, where we remember Jesus’ first arrival in the flesh, and we anticipate his return. It is a season of love, renewed hope. There will be people who feel lost and alone, people who have given up hope, who have been overcome by cynicism. Some of them may be sitting right here in this room. Some of these people will put on the Happy Face in public. Have you ever done that when you feel like you’re dying inside? You won’t necessarily know who these people are. They may even be hostile in the resentment of their pain. Remember to respond with compassion, like we talked about last week. Wherever you go, and whatever you do, be an ambassador of the Kingdom of Love.
You may have heard that Revelation is most popular book in the Bible in areas where Christians are under severe persecution or oppression. Why? It gives them hope that there will be justice. Despite appearances and their situation that God is still in control and will put everything right in the end. In places that are relatively stable we can look at Revelation and think that it’s too hard, too complicated. We may tip-toe around thinking that we don’t belong here, but we do.
In times of relative calm it can be easy to make a deal with the Empire in order to maintain our peace. In times of turbulence we can lose heart and fear that the Empire will win. Reign of Christ Sunday and Revelation are here to remind us that it will not. The God of the universe has the power. God is the Alpha and the Omega, the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet. We would say God is A to Z. He is the beginning and the end, and everything in between. He is the one Who Is, Who Was, and Who Is to Come. Jesus is the King of kings and Lord of lords. The Empires of this world may seem to have the upper hand, just as Pilate did in his interview with Jesus, but we know how that turned out. Yes, crucifixion, but that was only temporary. With resurrection, Jesus showed where true power lays. Other lords and rulers may claim magnificent titles, but there is One that they will all answer to. That is the One who is willing to lay down his life to save the ones he loves.
One of my favorite things about the Star Wars saga is that the worst of the worst, Darth Vader, the one who betrayed and murdered the people who trusted him, even the ones he was supposed to protect, even he could be redeemed. How did it happen, through love. But we aren’t living in a movie where we can write our own script and have things turn out just as we like or even what we think is fair. One thing is true however. We have a powerful God whose reign we live under, and whose overriding principal is a love that saves. As we enter the Advent season, with whom can we share that love?
* Karoline Lewis, “Dear Working Preacher: King of Relationships,” November 15, 2015, http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3728 .