Truth and Truths; hope and hopes

[This message was given at Perinton Presbyterian Church on 11/21/21, Christ the King Sunday. The text is John 18:33-38. It can also be viewed on the Perinton Presbyterian Facebook site.]

“That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you have ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives […] [E]very king and peasant, … every revered teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.” The quote haunts me with its beauty, as those photos thrill me as we see our planet from a distant place in the universe. We now know more about the vastness of the universe than we ever have. And that makes this planet we call home smaller than ever. Yet it is teeming with life, with beauty and with problems. We don’t know if life like ours exists elsewhere in the universe, but we do know about this planet and the life that calls it home. Carl Sagan wrote the opening quote in his book Pale Blue Dot (1994). Sagan wasn’t sure about God. He couldn’t call himself an atheist, because he wasn’t sure. And he couldn’t call himself a believer in God, because he wasn’t sure. But he was enthralled by the fragile beauty of this planet. I am a believer and I share his wonder at this planet.

My understanding of this planet’s significance and importance is shaped by one truth above all: God the creator sent Jesus to be born on this planet, to live among us on this planet, to suffer and die for us on this planet, to be raised to new life on this planet. This, as J. B. Philips once said, is the visited planet. Our little planet has this honor: God once visited it in Jesus and God continues to visit it by the Holy Spirit. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:16-17)

Today we mark the culmination of the church year with Christ the King. Next Sunday we begin another church year. Today we are thrust into a trial 12 years shy of two millennia ago. St. John puts the spotlight of the ages, the cosmic spotlight on two people, one judging and one being judged: Pilate and Jesus. Jesus stands trial before Pontius Pilate without a dream team of attorneys representing him. Jesus and Pilate.

Who is Pilate? Historically, he was governor of Judea, serving at the pleasure Emperor Tiberias in Rome. Jesus was born during the reign of Augustus, a more consequential emperor. Tiberius was a kind of placeholder emperor after his father Augustus died. Emperor worship had taken hold under Augustus and Tiberius continued it. A would-be king of no standing in Judea was hardly a threat to the emperor in Rome. But it was Pilate who served at the pleasure of the emperor and his role was to keep the Roman peace, a peace enforced by military strength and mandated worship of the emperor. Pilate is a second-rate politician doing his duty when Jesus is brought before him.

Who is Jesus? That is what Pilate is trying to figure out. We in the Church know, but do we really? Remember that opening quote from Carl Sagan about every king and peasant? In Jesus we have the king of kings, yet he comes as a peasant. No wonder religious and political leaders are suspicious of him. He looks and acts nothing like a king. It is almost comical to see him as a king, except his followers are growing in number and tell of his might deeds. He does things no one else does. He teaches as no one else does. He is tender toward the needy. He is humble. His glory shines in the ordinary. He restores the image of God in the broken.

And so we have a trial. The most enlightened religion in the world, Judaism, and the greatest empire in the world of that day, Rome, work together to crucify the Lord. Beware of church and state ever getting too close; the church always loses when it craves political power and when it caves to political power. Pilate, representing the Roman Empire, asks four questions.

  1. “Are you the King of the Jews?”
  2. What have you done?” 
  3. “So you are a king?”
  4. “What is truth?”

Jesus responds: “My kingdom is not from this world…. 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.” The great theme of our gospels is that in Jesus the kingdom of God is at hand. Close. Nearby. Here and now. Jesus is the true king and, hence, wherever he is, wherever he is working, the kingdom of God is present.

About 22 years ago I walked the American Cemetery in Normandy, France, near the shores where World War 2 was finally won. Over 9,000 American soldiers are buried there, and over 1,000 yet not found are remembered there. When I walked that hallowed ground, I was walking on American soil, though it was within the boundaries of France. Because of the American blood shed by those buried there, it has become American soil. So it is that where Jesus has been has become holy and where Jesus is present, the kingdom of God is present. That includes where we are worship right now.

Pilate’s fourth question, “What is truth?” is probably not a philosophical enquiry, but an expression of his impatience. Pilate has work to do to keep Rome happy with him. He isn’t much interested in a philosophical discussion about the nature of truth. But the question has greater import than Pilate knows.

Jesus has personalized truth. He says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” (John 14:6) He never points us to a doctrinal statement; he points us to himself. Truth is no longer an arguing point, a debate, but a relationship with the one who is truth. We don’t argue people into believing; we point them to Jesus. We witness to the truth we find in him, the embodiment of the kingdom of God. Our hope is in Jesus, God’s truth made flesh.

I have no hope that any political party can bring about the kingdom of God. I have no hope that any political agenda can address all the challenges of life on this little planet. But I am filled with hope about what Jesus comes to do, to bring us God’s truth in personal form. But there is a role for us. We are called to cooperate with what Jesus is doing. We are called to participate in the work of God’s kingdom.

Jesus makes his intention clear: “And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’ Also he said, ‘Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.’” (Revelation 21:5) Jesus, the Lord of Glory, the peasant King, comes to make all things new and to restore us to right relationship with God our creator and with one another.

Two brothers farmed for a generation side by side on land their parents left for them. They shared tools and workers. Then, after decades of cooperation, they had a minor disagreement. And it grew into a major feud. Finally the younger brother took their bulldozer and plowed a ditch between their homes, which soon filled with water. One morning, a day worker with a carpenter’s tool box knocked on the older brother’s door. He asked if there was a day’s carpentry that he could do. The older brother took him to the side of the yard, then pointed to the side of his barn, where there was a large stack of lumber. He told the carpenter what his younger brother had done and said that he wanted a fence built, eight feet high, so the brothers couldn’t see each other. The carpenter said he understood and he would use all that lumber that day. The older brother had business to do in town and left. At dusk the farmer returned and saw not a wall, but a bridge reaching over the stream. It was beautifully done, with handrails. Before the older brother could say anything, the younger brother crossed the bridge, with his hand outstretched. “You are quite a brother to build this bridge after what I did.” They embraced on the middle of the bridge. The carpenter gathered up his toolbox and started to walk away. The farmer said, “Wait, stay a few days. We have other projects for you.” The carpenter said, “I’d like to stay, but I have other bridges to build.”

What, then, are we to do? We certainly cannot bring about the fullness of God’s kingdom; only God can do that. What, then, do we do? I think you know the answer. We cooperate with God. We participate in what Jesus is doing. Every prayer uttered, every kind deed done, every bridge repaired, every need met, every burden shared, every broken relationship restored—all that we do and say are intended to get alongside Jesus in the work of his kingdom.

This pale blue dot of a planet has been visited. The kingdom of God has shown up on planet earth. This planet is significant and we are significant: God has come near in the carpenter named Jesus. The carpenter king. The peasant king. The king of kings.

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