Before I go to sleep each night, I enjoy reading for a little bit. It might be a novel, or a biography or history—books I hear about on the radio or through friends. I was in a book club before I went to seminary. I still get their emails with their picks for each month, and I often read those. A couple years ago they were reading a book from a series of historical novels called “The Cousins’ War,” all about the early kings and queens of England. So, I read them, and not long after that I happened to read a biography of the Dowager Empress of China.
The stories all had a common thread—the driving desire to possess the throne. Who had the right to be the king or queen, the emperor or empress, was never clear-cut. Constant jockeying between rival claimants and their supporters led to years of political intrigue and wars and bloodshed. Often, people would change sides if they thought they could improve their chances for wealth and power. I had to keep flipping back and forth between books and chapters to figure out who was on which side and why. For years and years, both in England and in China, the throne and the power that went with it changed hands as kings and queens came and went.
Kingship is at the heart of our passage for today. Is Jesus a king? What kind of kingdom does he rule over? And whose king is he?
As far as Pilate was concerned, Jesus was certainly not Pilate’s king. Pilate was loyal to the Roman emperor. And it was Pilate’s job to make sure no one contested the emperor’s rule. So when “the Jews”—those Jewish leaders who had refused to accept Jesus’ authority—brought Jesus to Pilate, Pilate’s only concern was whether Jesus posed a political threat. There were certainly plenty of those threats around. It was no secret that the Jews had dreams of restoring their self-rule, led either by a Messiah-king or through the priesthood. There were violent extremists roaming around, rabblerousers who could stir up the crowds. And there were the Pharisees, who had positioned themselves to take power if Rome would cut a deal with them. Pilate’s only concern about Jesus’ claim to kingship was whether it challenged the rule of the emperor who appointed him.
As far as the Jewish leaders were concerned, Jesus was not their king either. They had not heard the truth that he had come into the world to testify to. They did not belong to the truth—that he had come from God, bringing God’s kingdom with him from above. And not only did they reject the truth that was in him, in their desire to eliminate this man who time after time had confronted their hypocrisy and their unfaithfulness, they rejected the very God who sent him—the God who had chosen them as God’s people. They made it plain in their closing words of Chapter 19, when Pilate gets one last dig in. “Shall I crucify your King?” Pilate asks. And they responded with some of the most chilling words in the Bible, “We have no king but the emperor.”
They make it clear who their king is. They don’t believe it’s a king of David’s line, who as God’s son would provide God’s people with security and establish justice. It’s not the king who rules heaven and earth. It’s not the sovereign whose kingdom exists now in heaven and will one day be established everywhere and for always, and who will judge the nations. It’s not the shepherd king, who will lay down his life for his sheep. No, they had chosen their king. They chose a king of this world—one whose authority rested in military, political, and economic power. Like the rest of the unseeing, unhearing world, they had no king but the emperor. In their rabid passion to destroy Jesus, they denied “the very God in whom their lives were grounded” (NIB, “John,” 824).
This story of Jesus’ trial before Pilate is one of judgment, but not solely a judgment of Jesus’ guilt or innocence. It is not even primarily about judging Jesus. It is a trial that renders judgment on the lives of those who have accused him. They were being judged—by Jesus, by who he is and by how his identity is revealed in what he says and does. He is the one who is rendering the verdict against them—those who have chosen not to enter into the kingdom that the truth of Jesus revealed. Their own words were testimony against them. “We have no king but the emperor.”
That is where John leaves Pilate and the Jews at the end of the 19th chapter—the conclusion of the trial which began with our passage and Pilate’s questions to Jesus about whether or not he was a king. In refusing to the see the light that comes in Jesus, in rejecting the truth that he embodies, Pilate and the Jews are one. Together, they represent the world that refuses the kingdom of God.
Pilate and the Jewish leaders left no question about who their king was. But as the spectators of this trial, doesn’t that raise a question for us? Doesn’t John challenge us to decide who our king is? Doesn’t this story leave us with the question, “Who is your king?”
It’s easy to say, “Jesus, of course!” But what does it mean to have Jesus as our king? It means hearing the truth that Jesus witnesses to—the truth that he is the son of God, the only son whom God has given so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life. It means accepting the salvation God offers us by grace through faith in Jesus.
Having Jesus as our king means listening to his voice, for that is the only way we enter into his kingdom. We listen to his voice as the sheep listen for the voice of the good shepherd. Listening means more than just hearing. It means paying close attention to what we’re hearing. It means working to understand what we have heard. And it means heeding and obeying the words Jesus speaks to us.
Having Jesus as our King means inviting Jesus to rule over us—to submit to him in all our thoughts, words, and actions. It means allowing him to take his rightful place on the throne of our lives. And where better to put that throne but in our spiritual hearts? The ancient Jews and Christians believed that the heart was so much more than an organ beating in our chests. They believed that it was that part of us that motivates and directs all the rest of the body’s movements and functions. It was the center of moral and intellectual and emotional activity. So, though we now know more about our biological hearts, our spiritual hearts are still the perfect place to set a throne for Jesus, if we do accept him as our king.
What does King Jesus direct us to do as he rules from the throne in our hearts? He asks us to treat each other with love, not just in those times when things are going well, when we are of one mind, when we are all happy together. He asks us to extend to each other the grace he has extended to us in the times when we disagree, and in the times when we feel hurt. He asks us to model the amazing, grace-filled love that took him to the cross—accepting pain and even death rather than returning violence for violence, hatred for hatred, angry words for angry words.
He asks us to love one another, even when it is hard, even when we feel that love is undeserved—especially when we feel it is undeserved. This is a good thing to keep in mind as we meet with the bishop tomorrow and as we approach the General Conference in February, where we will contend with differing views about our beliefs and understandings.
As our King, I think Jesus would ask us to care for ourselves. He would want us to care for physical selves—our bodies—the temples of his Holy Spirit, the bodies that God his Father so tenderly created. But I think he would also ask us to care for our spiritual and emotional selves—to permit ourselves to live in the new life he gives, by repenting when we go astray and accepting the forgiveness he offers, even when we know we don’t deserve it. He would ask us to live in the freedom he gives us to lay down our burdens of guilt and shame before his throne—gifts as precious to him as those the magi laid at his feet.
King Jesus asks us to care for those who have not yet heard his voice. He asks us to speak of what it means to live life in his kingdom—to share the joy of his companionship, the comfort we have when life is difficult and beyond difficult, and the assurance we have that we live in his kingdom now and will live in his kingdom forever.
Peace and joy come with allowing Jesus to be our king. But, although we think we are loyal subjects, with Jesus securely seated on the throne of our hearts, there are other contenders for that throne. In those books I read about the kings and queens, the throne room was always described as a large hall filled with people, often the very people who wanted the throne for themselves. Like those throne rooms of old, I imagine our hearts full of competitors for Jesus’ place.
They have names, these pretenders. Their names are bitterness, and anger, and resentment. Their names are pride and self-righteousness, ambition and selfishness. Their names are discouragement and despair, fear and self-loathing. All these things are maneuvering in our lives, hoping to edge Jesus off the throne of our hearts.
They’re sneaky, too. They don’t stage sudden, full-scale takeovers. They edge their way onto the throne of our hearts, taking up more and more space, slyly suggesting dictating to us the words we should speak and the deeds we should do. Gradually we listen to them more and more, to Jesus less and less.
You know what that’s like if you’ve ever had a small child climb into bed with you. They seem so small at first, but gradually they take up more and more room—an arm here, a leg there—until you find yourself holding on to the very edge of the mattress or you give up and let them have the whole bed. That’s what these pretenders do—they take up more and more room in our hearts until Jesus is deposed—until we are like the Jews who replaced God with the emperor as their king.
Jesus is the king of all who hear his voice. His authority to rule comes from above, from his Father. His kingdom is not of this world. It is incomprehensible to those who think of kingship as involving force and military power, impenetrable borders and great wealth. It is incomprehensible to anyone who will not hear Jesus and listen to his voice.
But although his kingdom is from above and his authority indisputable, he will not come and take his throne by force. He has spoken the words of truth, and he is waiting for us to listen to his voice. Are you listening? Have you heard him? Who is your king? Is Jesus your king? Or has something else taken the place that is rightfully his?
If in your most honest moment of self-examination, you realize that you cannot say that Jesus is your king, hear this good news: It is not too late to repent and clear those pretenders off the throne, whoever or whatever they may be. It is not too late to invite Jesus to take his rightful place in your heart. It is not too late to kneel before his throne and ask for his forgiveness and the strength to live as your king directs.
Next week we begin the season of Advent, that time of remembering that God came near to us in Jesus Christ and that Christ will come again to fulfill the promise of God’s kingdom and reign. But today on Christ the King Sunday, we contemplate what it means for Christ to be our king. We submit ourselves in obedience to his will and to his direction. We offer ourselves in praise and thanksgiving for what the reign of Christ means, in the world and in our lives. We renew our commitment to the way of his kingdom which is not from this world, and we reject the ways of the kingdoms and emperors which are of this world. May we be those who listen to his voice and in all things live with Christ as our king. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young