>The following was preached at Veedersburg and Hillsboro UMC on Sunday, November 22, 2009. The text for this week’s message is John 18:33-37.

It may seem like an odd time of the year to be looking at today’s passage. After all, it’s not Good Friday, and we aren’t in the middle of the season of Lent, which is when you would expect to hear this particular passage. Really, on the surface, there is no reason why we should be looking at John 18 in the middle of November. We would assume that the lectionary would give us some kind of passage on how important it is for us to give thanks. Thanksgiving is this week, so surely there is something related to giving that would be more appropriate this time of the year. It defies our expectations of what we should be reading in mid-November. But sometimes, our expectations need a little recalibration. Sometimes our expectations and our assumptions do not line up with the reality that surrounds us.
What I want to do this morning is walk through the passage one step at a time and look at some of the expectations that were blown out of the water. Then I want to take a few minutes to talk about some of the expectations that we might have, and see if we need to do a bit of self-calibration as well.
First off, let’s get the full picture in view. These few verses are found in the larger section of John’s gospel where we begin to look at Jesus’ final day on earth. At the beginning of John 18, Jesus goes out to the garden with his disciples. He knows what is going to happen, but he goes anyway. We all have at least a very vague sense of what happens there. The gist of it is that Judas shows up with a handful of Jewish officers, and Jesus is arrested.
The soldiers take Jesus to see the father-in-law of the high priest, Annas, who himself was the high priest a decade or so before this takes place. Then he is taken to Caiaphas, who is the high priest at the time. John skips most of the details of what happens at this trial, if it can be called that. But we know from the other gospels that Jesus is accused of blasphemy and, according to Jewish law, this is a crime punishable by death.
However, what’s the political situation at the time? The Romans are the ones that are in control, and as such, they are the only ones who can sentence somebody to death. In order for the Jewish law to be carried out, Jesus needs to be given capital punishment by the Romans. So, the Jewish leaders take Jesus to Ponitus Pilate, the governor of the region.
Because it is on the eve of the Passover, the Jewish leaders refuse to enter into Pilate’s residence. Doing so would make them ritually unclean and, consequently, unable to take part in the Passover meal. Now, first of all, I find this to be quite ironic. These Jewish leaders have no problem wrongfully trying Jesus in the middle of the night; trumping up bogus charges, gathering false witnesses, and falsely accusing him of a crime that is punishable by death. However, they don’t want to go into the house of a Gentile because it will make them unclean. Makes you wonder a bit about priorities, doesn’t it?
Secondly, I image that it is pretty early in the morning. Remember, they arrested Jesus in the garden after he and his disciples had their last meal together. The trial went on through the night. I cannot see any way in which Pilate would have been in a welcoming, receptive mood, which, of course, may have been exactly what they wanted in the first place. Can you imagine somebody waking you up in the morning wanting you to settle a case that you don’t even really care about? I think Pilate’s first words may have been unrepeatable, and his second words would have been somewhere along the lines of, “What do you want?”
Right before today’s passage, we are told that Pilate does ask why they brought Jesus to him. He wants to know what accusation they have against him. And notice how vague their response is, verse 30, “If this man were not doing evil, we would not have delivered him over to you.” Another reason why I think this was really early in the morning – that kind of logic only works in the morning. Seriously though, Pilate tells them to judge him themselves, to which they reply, “It is not lawful for us to put anyone to death.”
Now, this would have done one of two things. First, it would have made Pilate wonder what was so bad that they would want to execute this Jesus-guy, and second, it probably would have made him even grumpier. He’s just trying to pass it off so that he can go back to sleep, but they just won’t let it go. And this is the state that Pilate is in when we come to today’s passage – tired, grumpy and pretty annoyed.
So, Pilate walks back into the headquarters where Jesus is sitting in a chair in the middle of the room with a giant interrogation spotlight shining down on him. And tired, grumpy, annoyed Pilate gets straight to the point, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Now, this is a very politically focused question. Pilate’s major role as governor was to ensure that people paid taxes to Rome and that they didn’t rebel. There were a handful of rebellions during Pilate’s reign in Jerusalem, and they were typically dealt with swiftly and decisively. Pilate wants to know whether or not Jesus poses some kind of political threat to the Roman establishment.
Pilate knew that members of the Herodian family were officially kings throughout Judea, and had been for some time. Perhaps you remember the story of Jesus’ birth when Herod the Great was king. His sons were now the ones who were put in place as kings by the Roman Emperor. Pilate wants to make sure that Jesus isn’t making some kind of claim to the kingship of Judea. By doing that, Jesus would be committing treason against the Roman Empire, an offense punishable by death.
But Jesus does something unexpected. He turns the questioning around on Pilate. This is totally unheard of. Pilate, already in a grumpy mood, would not like to be questioned by this Galilean, because, according to one resource I read this week, Galileans were like the hillbillies of Judea. He is totally destroying any sense of social order. It would have totally thrown off Pilate.
Jesus’ question here is very piercing for us as well. He says to Pilate, “Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?” In other words, do we declare Jesus to be our Lord and Savior simply because everyone else around us is doing so, or do we make that confession of our own accord? Is our faith a product of socialization? Do we believe because everyone around us does, or is it because we have been affected by the living God?
That is a crucial question that we all need to ask ourselves from time to time, and we have to be honest about the answer as well. If our faith is just a matter of socialization, or “that’s the way we were raised,” then it is a shallow faith. Our faith needs to be a dynamic relationship with the living God, not just something that we do for a couple hours each week. The church is not a social club. It is a gathering of people seeking after God, trying to make sense of the world around them. Do we say that Jesus is our Lord and Savior of our own accord, or do we say it because that’s what others are saying?
We have a choice when we start asking ourselves these questions. We can honestly look at ourselves and evaluate where we are in our faith, or we can get frustrated with the questions and ignore them. When Jesus asks Pilate this question, he does a little bit of both. You get the sense that he is a little more annoyed, especially given that the roles have been reversed – Jesus was the one asking the questions, not Pilate. But Pilate also begins to understand that there is maybe something more going on behind the scenes.
Pilate’s response in verse 35 shows signs of empathy. Pilate is trying to show that he is really impartial. All Pilate really cares about is whether or not Jesus is committing treason against the Roman Empire. Does he pose a threat to the Roman order in Judea? Pilate points out that it was the Jews and the chief priests that brought Jesus to be questioned and executed. And now, he wants to know what it was that Jesus did to get them so riled up.
I think, in Jesus’ response, we see Jesus framing his understanding of what is going on. When Jesus says that his kingdom is not of this world, which he says twice in verse 36, he is alluding to the book of Daniel, which, of course, Pilate probably doesn’t know anything about. But in Daniel, chapters 2 and 7, there is talk of God establishing a kingdom that will never be destroyed. Jesus is basically saying that he has a kingdom that is different than anything else Pilate has ever seen or heard of, a heavenly kingdom. It doesn’t pose a threat to the Roman Empire. It is not that type of kingdom. It is a kingdom not of this world.
Pilate latches onto Jesus’ talk of kingdom and asks him if he is indeed a king. It is almost as if Pilate still doesn’t quite understand what Jesus is talking about, but he knows there is something different going on than what he expected. Finally, Pilate is open to hear what it is that Jesus has to say.
And Jesus tells Pilate what his purpose is. Jesus lets Pilate know why he was born – to bear witness to the truth. Pilate was expecting a day just like any other. Pilate was expecting to talk with some guy who was planning treason against the occupying Roman forces. Pilate was expecting to address a potential threat. The reality is that Pilate had a profound encounter with the truth, in the form of Jesus Christ. This Jewish hillbilly was far beyond anything that Pilate expected. The reality is that Jesus is far beyond anything that we expect as well.
What is interesting about the lectionary reading is that it too is not what we would expect. It is not a story about giving or being thankful. It doesn’t even give us the full story of what happens afterwards. If we just look at today’s reading, we don’t know that Pilate could find no fault with Jesus and was willing to let him go.
According to the Christian calendar, today is Christ the King Sunday. It is a time when we celebrate the kingship of Jesus before we enter into the time of preparation known as Advent. When we hear about a king, we expect all the bells and whistles that come with royalty, but in Jesus, we don’t get what we expect.
We get a king whose kingdom is not of this world. We get a king who gently breaks down our barriers and opens us up to seeing that there is far more to this life around us than we realize. We get a king who wants us to know him in a very real way; a king unlike any other king that we have ever seen before. We also get a king who challenges us to hear his voice; to seek after the truth, and that is our challenge this week. Can we look at our lives and truly say that Jesus Christ is king?