Covenant Presbyterian Church – Athens, GA

“The Ruler of Kings” (Isaiah 32:1-8 and John 18:33-38) 11-25-18

Of all the political commentaries and editorials or personal memoirs from Capitol Hill – or Sunday sermons too – that you’ve heard through the years about speaking truth to power, surely the best is encapsulated in this slice of life we read today from the Gospel of John, this moment in time when the power of Rome came face to face with the power of Love.  It’s such a brief encounter, yet it is an everlasting portrayal each generation can identify with, as we learn about life in this world of “might makes right,” while we faithfully try to change it.

Irony abounds in this story.  As Rome’s representative, Pilate is supposedly on TOP of the power pyramid in Jerusalem, there to keep the peace at all costs during the volatile & overcrowded feast days of Passover.  Yet almost comically we see in the larger context that he’s caught between Jesus and the Jewish religious leaders, scurrying back & forth between them like a mouse in a maze, seemingly unable to make a decision on his own.  Meanwhile, the Jewish priests are trying to stay pure for the holy days, by not setting foot inside Pilate’s pagan halls, but they are also blatantly unclean as they plot & plan Christ’s execution, blind to the insults they are casting on their God.  And last but not least, the irony of Jesus himself, derisively called the King of the Jews even as he sits in prison – yet the Son of God holds full sway on the ultimate power of all creation as the Lord of faithful love, as the Messiah who will conquer death even as he gives up his life.  He’s the very one the people have been awaiting – for centuries – to free them from oppression, yet they choose to remain imprisoned by their own fears and illusions of power, caught in the unending circle of “doing unto others before they do unto you.”  So on one hand, Pilate is wise to ask “What is truth?” in the only world he knows, but on the other, he is looking truth right in the eyes and cannot discern the wisdom he needs.

Oh, how often each of us finds ourselves in such a similar situation, when we can’t see the forest for the trees, nor see what’s authentic & real because we don’t recognize it anymore.

What is truth?  It’s the question of our culture today too, right?  In our world of fake news, spin, and marketing, we only hear what movers & shakers want us to hear, at the right moment to make an impact, to appeal to our own fears and desires, to scratch the itch of greed, to make us feel important & powerful, the center of the universe, leaders of the “free” world.  And we fall for it every time, every place, every century, wherever there are old, festering wounds of body and soul, or traditional feuds that we feel disloyal to abandon.  So we fall for the one who speaks in grandiose generalities of greatness, while painful particulars persist at grassroots.  We fall for the one who preaches prosperity, rather than practicing a self-denial that ensures the needs of all are met.  Jesus nailed it, when he said “my kingdom does not belong to this world,” to this kind of world, this power-hungry Pax Romana that depends on force.  IT IS though God’s intention for all of creation, as Christ’s kingdom is forever & always meant to be fleshed out in what we say & do, as we follow him, our ruler and our guide.

Today’s ancient words from Isaiah are fairly new to me.  Maybe we’ve skipped over this passage as pure folly in our world.  Sadly, the description of a king with integrity is hard to believe in any age, but there it is, in chapter 32, God’s promise of leaders who will one day practice justice, with their eyes & ears open to the needs of the people.  Wow.  They will say what they mean.  They will be honest & forthright.  And they WILL not spend their days thinking up ways to make money off the poor, keeping everyone hungry & thirsty & unfulfilled.  Rather, these leaders will be patient & understanding & seek the rights of all.  Sounds too good to be true, the impossible dream, these miracle workers.  Yet there it is – the word of the Lord.  Thanks be to God.  And each will bring healing to their people – as providential as the shade of a huge boulder in the scalding sunshine, or a life-giving stream flowing in the driest desert, or a protective shelter from the storms of life.  I hope you’ve known people like this in your private life, those who’ve nurtured you with grace & mercy, as a child of God.  And may we continue to pray into existence these same healers & leaders for our public life together, as God has promised can be, and as a truly “free” people would desire for all the world.

As the church year comes to a close on this Christ the King Sunday, we’re reminded of the cycles of life – how the seasons change and another year has passed.  Now the darkness seems to be winning, with the shorter days and the returning rains, and with all the continuing stories of shootings and disasters, of faithless commitments and broken promises.  So we wonder how anything holy like grace & mercy & love & truth can endure?  Yet in that very moment of doubt, when we think hope is in vain, we remember – that the dawn will come, that the tide will turn, for we live each day in the fullness of God’s presence with us, who sent Christ to clear our vision and inspire our journey.  The church year ends on a high note, with Christ as the ruler of all the kings of the world, so far & beyond those who assume they’re in charge, and so far & beyond even our very best efforts, led by a Lord who is forever surprising us – – with limitless, creative ways of living into the power of truth and love shared – as we serve one another with the hands & feet of Christ, as we welcome the stranger to become guest and friend, as we shine a caring light into the dark corners of fear and depression, as we work to lift the economic burdens of life’s essentials, or as we sing a song of freedom for all God’s beloved creatures, great and small.

Yesterday, today & tomorrow, we celebrate the One who was & is & ever shall be – Christ the King of Kings – who empowers each of us to share the joys we have received from our Lord, and so to spread the good news that God is with us, both enthroned in light and asleep on the hay beside us.  Together then, let us live in that blessed strength of Spirit which comes from knowing God’s love and speaking God’s truth, for by sharing such a touch of grace, then we will see Christ’s kingdom come at last, heart by heart by heart.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Beecher Mathes