Wednesday, November 22, 2006

this weekend's sermon, final ed.

(to be preached without benefit of paper at all, due to the pulpit being excessively large for me.)

Rev. Teri Peterson
Ridgefield-Crystal Lake Presbyterian Church
So, are you a King or not?
2 Samuel 23.1-4
John 18.33-38
25/26 November 2006

Now these are the last words of David: The oracle of David, son of Jesse, the oracle of the man whom God exalted, the anointed of the God of Jacob, the favorite of the Strong One of Israel:
The Spirit of the LORD speaks through me, his word us upon my tongue.
The God of Israel has spoken, the Rock of Israel has said to me:
One who rules over people justly, ruling in the fear of God, is like the light of morning,
like the sun rising on a cloudless morning, gleaming from the rain on the grassy land.

Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate asked him, “What is truth?”

Pilate went back into the palace and called for Jesus. He said, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Are you saying this on your own, or did others tell you this about me?” Pilate said, “Do I look like a Jew? Your people and your high priests turned you over to me. What did you do?” “My kingdom,” said Jesus, “Doesn’t consist of what you see around you. If it did, my followers would fight so that I wouldn’t be handed over to the Jews. But I’m not that kind of king, not the world’s kind of king.” Then Pilate said, “So, are you a king or not?” Jesus answered, “You tell me. Because I am King, I was born and entered the world so that I could witness to the truth. Everyone who cares for truth, who has any feeling for the truth, recognizes my voice.” Pilate said, “What is truth?”


Kings are kind of a foreign thing to us Americans…we haven’t had direct kingly experience since…well, the time of the first Thanksgiving, really. And that wasn’t what you’d call a good experience—if it had been, there would have been no need to toss all our tea into Boston Harbor a few years later. No, kings are decidedly un-American. But we all know what kings are like, right? We know that kings have lots of money, a big army, several palaces, maybe some castles…mmm, castles made of big stones, with tapestries and paintings and candles and torches and rugs and very antique furniture. The great hall has long tables with benches and chairs, and a big gold-plated throne at the head of the table, up on a platform. The king, who is probably overweight, sits in the throne, covered in furs and velvet, with a golden crown encrusted with rubies and diamonds and emeralds and sapphires. The court sits around the table, looking on adoringly. There’s more food than we can imagine, even more food than any of our Thanksgiving tables—whole roasted boars, baskets of bread, huge roasted turkey legs, mounds of potatoes, piles of sweets, and lots of wine. The king’s plate is never empty, his cup is refilled after every sip, and he’s fanned, preferably with fresh palm leaves, by two or three gorgeous young women, who also occasionally pop peeled grapes into his mouth. The king sits around on his piles of money, eating off his golden dishes with his silver spoons, is bathed and dressed and groomed by attendants, goes hunting, gives orders, and generally just enjoys himself all day, every day. Sure, maybe there are wars to be fought, territory to be gained, business to be attended to, and daughters to be married off, but that’s what advisors are for.

The king also has supreme control over everything in his kingdom—from the dinner to the dancers to the jesters to the farmers. When he hears that someone is saying bad things about him, he can just say “off with his head!” and it will be done. He can demand any amount in taxes from his vassals. The farmers, the hunters, the merchants, the local village mayors, the priests—they all pay homage to the king with their words and with their money. And as soon as they don’t, or they do something the king finds displeasing, they end up in the dungeon or on the gallows. What the king says goes. His word is law. His word is the same as God’s. That’s how kings are. Everybody knows that.

Back in the day, when the Israelites wanted a king, Samuel told them what kings are like. His description was pretty similar to mine: a king will take your sons for the army and for hard labor. He’ll take your daughters to cook and bake in his palace. He’ll take the best produce from your fields and vineyards and orchards, he’ll take your grain, your best livestock, and your slaves, plus make you pay taxes, and you’ll be no better off for all of that (1). But they wanted a king anyway. So a king they got. And Samuel was right, of course. The kings took extravagantly in order to live extravagantly. Even David, the best of the kings, a king as wonderful as morning sunlight, murdered a man to take his wife. The palaces of Israel were the envy of neighboring powers, the place to go on holiday from as far away as Sheba and Assyria. Then along came the Romans, with their own brand of extravagance—with more white marble, more gold, fancy sculpture and art. By the time of Jesus, there were probably 4 palaces in Jerusalem, at least (2). Besides the Temple, which is like the ultimate palace, King Herod had a couple, the high priest had one, and the Roman governor had one for when he came to visit. The king must have appeared to have at least as much money as God. And Pilate…well, Pilate had the whole weight of the empire behind him. In fact, he would have said he had a god behind him too—the emperor, who was called the king of kings, being considered god.

I don’t know about you, but this is not exactly what I envision when I think of Jesus as King. To be honest, I’m not sure what I envision when I think of Jesus as king. All I know is that tyrant over an extravagant court of excess is not very Jesus-esque. But this is the understanding of kingship that he walks right into. People started talking about him as king…and since, in some instances, one can be made king by a coup that starts with lots of public acclamation, that’s pretty dangerous. It’s the kind of talk that gets you labeled a “pretender to the throne” or a “traitor,” and those are the kind of labels that get you tossed in a dungeon or headed to the guillotine. The thing is, Jesus doesn’t look much like a king. He’s not dressed in purple robes, carrying a scepter, wearing a crown, making decrees and doing whatever else it is kings do. So of course Pilate walks in and asks this pretender, “Are you the king of the Jews?” And Jesus, naturally, doesn’t answer the question. Instead he asks a question: “are you just repeating gossip, or do you actually know something?” Pilate is appropriately offended—as if he would gossip with Jews!

And then Jesus does it. He stops being a pretender and he takes his rightful place as king…but not in the way we, or Pilate, can recognize. He doesn’t draw himself up, puff out his chest, force Pilate to his knees, and come out with some grand display of power and might. He says, “I have a kingdom, but it’s not all this fluff you have around you, it’s not fur and velvet and gold and roasted boar. That’s not the kind of king I am. I’m not a king like Herod, not a governor like you, not an emperor like Caesar.”
And Pilate, all confused and a little exasperated, says, “so…..are you a king or not?????”

And that’s the question, isn’t it? Is Jesus a king or not? He certainly doesn’t look like one. He doesn’t act like one. He doesn’t sound like one. And, given the bathing customs of the day, he probably doesn’t smell like one either. Well…if it doesn’t look, act, sound, or smell like a king…is it a king? Pilate certainly doesn’t know the answer. Decades of church tradition say that we do know the answer, and it is unequivocally “yes.” Jesus is King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Ruler of all, Sovereign of the Universe, and all the other imperial titles we can possibly think of. But he’s not the world’s kind of king.

So…is he a king, or not?

Jesus is...well, he’s different. He did not worry, like Pilate, about associating with the wrong people. He did not order anyone around. He did not condemn anyone to death—even the bandit crucified next to him received a blessing. He did not look expectantly at the disciples, waiting for them to fill his wine glass at the Last Supper. He did not take money, demand honor, or raise an army.

He did have undesirable friends. He did talk to and learn from women. He did touch lepers. He did wash his disciples’ feet. He did prepare and serve them a dinner on an important festival. He did say, “love one another as I have loved you.” And he did talk about what it means to be great, what it means to have power. Jesus told his disciples, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve.” (3)

Jesus talks and walks a different kind of kingship, a different kind of power. His is not a controlling, coercive, tyrannical power, not a power based on fear. His is a power by empowering, a power that comes through serving, a power based on love. King Jesus, unlike any other king in history, doesn’t say “hey, pay attention to me, do what I say, look at me!!” Instead, King Jesus says, “it’s not about me, it’s about my world.” He came to serve, not to be served peeled grapes and never ending golden goblets of wine. He came to show us how to love and live and serve not a king, but a people and a world. How many kings do you remember like that?

This is a different kind of king, not the world’s kind of king. This is a king who demands not tribute, not taxes, not homage, but service to others. This is a king who says not “give me all your livelihood” but “I came that they might have life and have it abundantly,” a king who is as life-giving as rain on a grassy land. This is a king who says “you are my body, you are a royal nation, you are heirs with me”—a king who makes us a part of the royal family. And this royal family is here to testify to this truth: that whoever would be great must be servant of all, that love and service are greater than fear and violence, that our power comes from empowering and loving and serving others in the name of Christ, not from palaces and wealth and coercive control.

Martin Luther King Junior once preached about Jesus and greatness and service, and in that sermon he said:

“Every now and then somebody says, "He's King of Kings." And again I can hear somebody saying, "He's Lord of Lords." Somewhere else I can hear somebody saying, "In Christ there is no East nor West." And then they go on and talk about, "In Him there's no North and South, but one great Fellowship of Love throughout the whole wide world." He didn't have anything. He just went around serving and doing good.

"And so Jesus gave us a new norm of greatness. If you want to be important—wonderful. If you want to be recognized—wonderful. If you want to be great—wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That's a new definition of greatness.

"And this morning, the thing that I like about it: by giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. You don't have to have a college degree to serve. You don't have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don't have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don't have to know Einstein's theory of relativity to serve. You don't have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. And you can be that servant.” (4)

Thanks be to God.


(1) 1 Samuel 8.11-18
(2) for a photo and “tour” of the scale model of 1st century Jerusalem, click here
(3) Mark 10.42-44a
(4) “the Drum Major Instinct,” preached at Ebenezer Baptist in Atlanta on February 4, 1968.

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