Prayer: The Psalmist says, you, O God, are king. Your throne is established from the foundations of the world. And your commands are faithful; your words give life. As we meditate on your words, may they transform our lives that we may be a house for your life in the world. Amen.
The kingship of Jesus is rooted in the history of the people of Israel. Early in the story of the Old Testament, as Israel was emerging as a regional power, the people asked God for a king just like all the other nations had. Even though God thought it was a bad idea, God let the people have what they wanted; God let them engage in a kind of political experiment.
First came Saul—a tall, strong, and handsome king. But that didn’t last very long. Saul cared more about obtaining power and wealth than staying true to God’s commands. Then came David—boyish and cunning, a lowly shepherd turned celebrity warrior. But that didn’t turn out very well either: he abused his power and made more enemies than friends. Even those closest to him, his own family, turned against him and they became a family of enemies.
Kingship in Israel didn’t turn out very well for the people. The kings stole the poor’s land, they repeatedly led the Israelites into wars and ultimately into exile—which may have been a strange kind of blessing; exile became a way to get out from under Israel’s dynasty of kings.
Part of the problem with the whole political experiment of kingship was that, from the beginning, Israel already had a king. God had promised to be Israel’s king. But the people of God wanted to be a legitimate power. They wanted to be a respectable nation— to resemble the other nations, to be like all the other peoples, like their neighbors. And every other nation had a visible king which the rest of the world could see; it’s part of the definition.
I mean I get it; it’s understandable. After wandering around the desert for so long, after tumultuous experience and tumultuous experience, after having to wait again and again for God to raise up another prophet or judge, the people of Israel wanted some stability. They wanted to blossom into a glorious nation. And to be a certifiable nation, you needed a king. Everyone else had a king. So the people of Israel asked for one too. Well, it’s more like they demanded a king from the prophet Samuel. But Samuel knew this was a bad idea and told God all about it. When God heard the news about Israel’s desire for a king. This is what God said to Samuel: “Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king” (I Sam. 8:7). The people rejected God as their king.
But what’s so striking to me is that God is a king who lets the people reject God’s rule, whose power isn’t coercive. A king who lets the people experiment, even though God knows it won’t turn out very well. God doesn’t defend God’s claim to the throne of Israel. God doesn’t make a case for God’s kingship. God doesn’t offer the people spectacular displays of power and authority, signs and wonders, to persuade them of God’s qualifications for the job. God doesn’t set up a debate with other prospective kings, and hammer them away with skillful rhetoric to show the power of God’s word. God doesn’t force Godself upon the people of God. Instead, God refuses to compete, to be stuck in some rivalry with human kings. God recedes, God fades away and is deposed from the throne of Israel. Even when God knows the foolishness of their decision, God lets the people walk away. And God continues to love this stubborn people anyway. What kind of king is this? What kind of king does this? Giving up of one’s power instead of fighting to the very end. Clearly, God is a king like no king we’ve ever seen or heard of.
It’s this same strangeness of God’s kingdom which Jesus witnesses to in our passage this morning. Our text for today takes us to the morning of Good Friday, to the first interaction between Jesus and Pilate. And if we stop to think about it, this should seem pretty odd. For when we talk about Jesus’ kingship, we don’t read about his coronation. We don’t read about the resurrection. We don’t even read about one of Jesus’ miraculous healings. Instead, we read about his humiliation. We read of his imprisonment, his sentencing to judgment, we are reminded of his impending death. Once again we are forced to ask: What kind of king is this?
This is the question which Pilate is wrestling with as well. And Pilate isn’t able to comprehend what this man named Jesus is all about. So he comes right out and asks Jesus: “Are you the king of the Jews?” (Jn. 18:33). Pilate wants to know where Jesus fits in the world; he wants to know what kind of box to put Jesus in.
But Jesus slyly refuses to give Pilate an answer that fits with his idea of power and politics. So he gives an answer that is so ambiguous that it both negates and at the same time affirms the regal condition of Jesus: “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.” Jesus won’t be put in a box; he isn’t a king like Pilate, or Herod, or Caesar.
Here, like when Israel demanded a king, we see that God’s’ kingdom is not one that can be defended against rivals. It is a kingdom which refuses to be compete. Jesus is not a king of this world, a king whose power comes from the sword, a king who acts as commander and chief of the armed forces. God’s kingdom is one which would rather be deposed of, one that would rather recede and disappear, instead of being one which resembles the kingdoms of this world.
Pilate is flabbergasted. He has no idea what to make of Jesus’ response. So he asks again: “You are a king?”. To this, all Jesus responds is by saying, that’s what you seem to be implying. At this point, Pilate exits. And it is clear that Pilate recognizes that Jesus’ isn’t a threat to the forces which determine Pilate’s world.
The rest of the the extended exchange between Pilate and Jesus can be seen as a form of mockery against the kind of king which Jesus proclaims to be. Immediately after this exchange, Pilate returns to the Jewish crowds and gives his decision: “I find no case against him.” This man poses no threat to my kingdom. “Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?” He mocks Israel for even imagining this man to be a threat or a King. And after the Jews refuse Pilate’s offer and call for Barabbas to be released instead, Pilate flogs Jesus, then trots him out in front of the crowds wearing a crown of thorns and adorned in a purple robe. He makes a mockery of the entire situation. It is almost as if Pilate doesn’t even see Jesus as worth his time. He has better things to do.
But my favorite scene relating to Jesus’ kingship is the final scene of the trial. After Pilate realizes that the Jews are set on having Jesus crucified and that there is no way he could release Jesus while also maintaining his power. His only option is to hand Jesus over the bloodthirsty mob.
However, in this final scene the text gets incredibly murky. And I think this murkiness is intentional. In John 19:13, we read: “Pilate led Jesus outside and sat on the judge’s bench.” Who is it that sat on the judge’s bench? The conventional answer is Pilate. Pilate is the ruler, after all. Only he can sit on the judgment seat and pronounce rulings. However, there is a long and old tradition which instead insists that it was Jesus who was sat on the judge’s bench. The apocryphal gospel of Peter has Jesus as the one on the bench with the Jews mocking him by crying out: “Judge justly, O King of Israel.” Similarly, Justin Martyr in his apology also argues that it is Jesus who was placed on the judge’s bench to scornfully invite Jesus to exercise the role of earthly king. To pronounce judgment, to rule and be the the kind of king which Israel always wanted.
If this reading is correct, this scene of mockery is also a scene of temptation. And here again Jesus must battle the desire to compete, to coerce, to rule. Here again Jesus must wrestle with those demons which long for him to abandon his mission, to take control and have the power to make everything right in the world. And here again, Jesus refuses to exercise the function of judge which belongs to earthly kings. He will not render a verdict. He cannot even judge, not even himself. This reading, fits well with Jesus’ words throughout the rest of John’s Gospel. For in John 3, Jesus proclaims: “God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world,but to save it.” And also what Jesus says in John 8: “You judge according to the flesh; I judge no one.” Judgment has no place in Jesus’ kingdom which is not from this world.
This morning, we are reminded, once again, that the cross is where we best glimpse the kingship of Christ. The cross is where we see Jesus ultimate display of power. He is a king will not rule. A king who will not coerce. A king who will not command. Instead, he would rather embrace nothingness, he would rather enter into the abyss and allow himself to be put to death, than to get caught up in the games of rivalry which strip us of our humanity. The cross reminds us that God is a new kind of king who came to change us from within. To free us from the impulse, the temptation, to be over others.
And the cross reveals God’s judgment much like the cross reveals God’s kingship. Jesus will not judge us. For Jesus will not even judge himself. Jesus would rather remain silent, he would rather humiliate himself, than execute judgment over another. That’s hard for us because we want to judge. We want the ability to declare what is good and what is bad. To affirm what is right from what is wrong. And most of all, we want the ability to think of ourselves as innocent. The cross reminds us that Jesus judgment is always a non-judgment. For again and again, Jesus refuses this role. Instead he elects to be the judge, judged in our place. In doing so, he liberates us from the need, and the anxieties, of pronouncing judgments, ever again.
But must of all the cross reminds us that God is a king who refuses to rule over us. And that means that the cross reminds us that Jesus is always radically and totally for us. It is a miracle that Jesus didn’t come down from the cross. That he was able to stay there, that he outlasted our hatred, our cruelty, our enmity. After everything humanity could throw at him, physically and verbally, he still hung there. And this endurance demonstrated that he is a King whose love will never let us go. His perseverance showed that nothing can separate us from the love of God. From now on, forever, we can connect to God, not through our ruling nor our striving, but through Jesus suffering. We can connect to God his abiding, his willingness to stay with us no matter what nightmares we might face.
I’m convinced that we are much like Israel. We want God to be the kind of King who is all powerful. We want God to be the King who is always in control. Who is self-sufficient. Who offers us stability. In other words, we want the Jesus who comes down from the cross. The Jesus who rules from the seat of judgment. We want Jesus to be the King who rights wrongs, ends pain, corrects injustice, sends the wicked away empty, sets the record straight, and makes all well with the world. We want the Jesus who heals us when we are sick, and protects us when we are vulnerable. We want answers. We want solutions. We want a technological Jesus who fixes all our problems. And we want those problems fixed now. We want Jesus the King who comes down from the cross.
But that is not the God we need. We need Jesus, the King, who remains on the cross, who bears all things, endures all things … and never ends. We need a King who is always totally and radically with us, no matter how bad things are, and no matter however long it takes. A king whose love preserves, abides, and remains present to us. What we need is a love that sticks around, a love that stays put, a love that hangs on. That is what the cross is – a love that hangs on. “He is always there for you,” is none other than a description of the crucified God.
That is the irony of the cross. If Jesus had saved himself, he couldn’t have saved us. His powerlessness displays his power, for it shows us the endurance of God. Jesus hangs on the cross to show us the love that always hangs on. Hang on to that love. It will never let you go.