On the Unlikeliest of Kings
November 21, 2021
2 Samuel 23:3-4
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?”
Today’s sermon is titled, On the Unlikeliest of Kings.
Just the mention of the word “king” sends my mind in one of two directions. Depending on my mood, I suppose, I can easily go the romantic route and conjure images of a benevolent ruler with a kind queen by his side, ruling all people in fairness and with faithfulness to an even greater power in God. It sounds like a fairytale, I know. The other direction, the more realistic direction my mind trends in thinking about kings, can find no pleasure in the long velvet robes and ermine fur trimmings, no pleasure at all in the opulent atmosphere of Lords and Ladies at court because I imagine outside the palace gates lives the seamstress of those robes and gowns, struggling to work while caring for children. Outside the palace gates lives the trapper of those ermine who must also think of feeding his hungry family. Outside the palace gates live all the “essential workers,” scrapping by as best they can in the shadow of a system based on imbalance of power, imbalance of privilege, and imbalance of progress. That sounds more realistic, does it not?
There is another model of kingship, though; it’s one that my mind would never go to by default because it is so foreign, so unlikely, and so unexpected. True to form, it is Jesus that presents such a scenario. In the scriptures for today, we are invited into the following scene: Jesus has been betrayed by his friend, as he predicted, Jesus has been arrested, as he predicted, and now he is being questioned by Pontius Pilate, the Governor appointed to rule over the occupied territory of Jerusalem. Pontius Pilate is charged by the Roman Emperor to preserve peace in the region, to walk that fine line of ruling with enough might so as not to incite revolt, while also insuring the people are fairing well enough to keep their anger and resentment at bay. Pilate has a difficult job on a normal day, but on this day, he has inherited a problem, possibly a threat, and definitely a liability…Jesus of Nazareth.
Some of the Pharisees and Sadducees that make up the local governing body, the Sanhedrin Council, have kept close tabs on this upstart, this healer, this prophet known as Jesus. We must be careful to remember that the segment of the Jewish population that felt threatened by him was a small but powerful minority. The Jewish people are not the antagonists of this story, as has often been interpreted. The antagonist is the small, mighty minority that hold local power under the Romans, the ones who, after over a year of investigations, have finally gathered enough evidence to suggest that Jesus is not only a threat to the religious order of the day, but a threat to the political structure, as well. How do they do it? With the use of one four-letter word: king. It’s a brilliant and manipulative move on the part of the Sanhedrin Council. The Council knows that the Roman government officials are already uneasy. Passover is on the horizon and there will be thousands of Jews coming into the city of Jerusalem from far and wide. The Romans are 2,500 miles away from their seat of power in Rome and they are vastly outnumbered by those whose lands they occupy. The Sanhedrin Council presents Jesus as a political threat, a want-to-be king on the rise, and someone popular and influential with the masses on the outskirts of the city.
By some mystery that we can not decipher, Jesus had the knowledge of what he must do, what he must endure to fulfill his calling. So as Pilate receives the unlikely prisoner, surely he is expecting to find some of the traditional trappings of kingship, at least a big ego and perhaps an even bigger attitude full of anti-Roman sentiment. What Pilate finds in this prisoner, charged with sedition and insurrection and blasphemy is so much less than expected, and yet so much more.
The prisoner, Jesus, says, “You say that I am a king.” But I ask you, Friends, what kind of a king has no possessions? What kind of a king would go willingly to his death, not as a hero on the battlefield, but as a criminal on the cross? What kind of king would seek out the sick, the lonely, the downtrodden, and the oppressed to surround him as his court? That kind of king is described in our reading from 2 Samuel, “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.” That kind of king does not pontificate about what is true and what is not, that kind of king trusts that his power lies in the recognition and the allegiance to the truth others perceive in and through him. “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice,” says our unlikely King. And then we are left with the final, unanswered question, “What is truth?”
I pray you will never catch me trying to answer that question from this place, from this or any other pulpit. All I can genuinely and unreservedly say is that truth finds us if we allow ourselves to be found. The truth finds us because we are part of it, thank God. How do we know it to be truth and not fallacy disguised as such? I go back to the ancient words we heard this morning from Second Samuel. The truth is like the light of morning, like the sun rising and gleaming from the rain on the grassy land, obvious yet unthreatening, bold yet impartial, undeniable and irresistible; we know the truth when it finds us.
In closing, and as we look ahead to the season of Advent, I hope we can use this portrait of an unlikely king to more fully appreciate the scope of Jesus’s influence as we once again turn to his unlikely beginnings on this earth. Heralded by angels, born of a virgin, he grows to become scholar, prophet, teacher, guru to the masses, and devoted disciple of God. In glimpsing how Jesus faces the end of his life on earth as a prisoner, perhaps we can re-experience his beginning, his birth, with deeper compassion and tenderness. May we prepare our hearts to receive the Christ Child as if for the very first time. So be it. Amen.
In the stillness of this moment, Lord, lead us closer to that place within us where You are all that is. In your omniscience, you are aware of needs that have no voice…needs for healing, for forgiveness, for support, and for acceptance. Grant us clarity that we may discern truth from falsehood, and help us in our relationships, in our families, and in our workplaces to use our influence to bring about positive change. May we become part of the solution, part of the remedy, part of your holy design that mends the broken. Shine your light on opportunities to right our wrongs, so we may experience a clarity of mind, that is otherwise impossible when conflicts sit unresolved. Remind us, God, that through your love, all things are possible; through your love, the unimaginable becomes reality, and through the Christ Child, we can approach aspects of ourselves that need your unquestioning healing and grace. The power of prayer is ours in every moment, as Jesus promised, when he gave us these words of The Lord’s Prayer…Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Lead us not to temptation, but deliver us from evil, for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever and ever. Amen.
From the book of Jude, Chapter 1, verse 20:
“As for you, Beloved, build up yourselves upon your most holy faith, praying in the Holy Spirit. Keep yourselves in the love of God…unto life everlasting.”