May the grace, mercy and peace of God our Father be with us in the name of his son, our risen Lord and Savior Jesus Christ; Amen.
Messy. That's the adjective that goes a long way these days; messy. When I walked into my son's college apartment a couple of weeks ago and looked around it was the first word that popped into my mind: messy! When I thought about the football games that Ohio State has played in this year (especially in light of yesterday's loss to Michigan State and our game with the other Team Up North this coming week) the word I think of is “messy”. As I try to decide which candidates are best suited to lead our country following next year's election, “messy” is just one of the words that come to mind. Things are messy, and even though I am the kind of person who can live with a certain amount of mess in my life, things are getting a little too messy even for my tastes!
After a week away for rest and golf last week, I returned to Columbus late Friday night without any preparation for today's sermon under my belt: No Tuesday lesson study to get me moving earlier in the week, and even though I had some down time on the trip, I wasn't in the mindset for starting the sermon process. I was in “vacation mode” and this was the last thing on my mind. This all provided a perfect opportunity to read and discuss the lessons with the three other gentlemen who joined me yesterday at Panera Bread for our monthly Men's Bible Study. After all, being in vacation mode the last week, I hadn't prepared any lesson for that study knowing that many times this group of friends works best when we simply read a text and start to talk about it. Yes, we are a group that kind of likes things a little bit messy!
Our conversation about the Gospel lesson for today was rich and helpful for me, not only as a preacher preparing this message, but for me as a disciple of Jesus – the King of Kings. This is Christ the King Sunday, after all, and since none of us has lived in a land or during a time when we are subjects of an earthly king, we really don't know what that is all about. In many ways it is a lot less messy than living in a democracy, or a republic, or whatever it is that we call this form of government in the United States. I once remember hearing the opinion that the best form of government that a country could have would be a “benevolent dictatorship” – where one person exercises absolute political power over the state, but makes all of his or her decisions for the benefit of the population as a whole. There is limited power given to advisors or elected representatives, but ultimately decisions are made by the one person. It should be noted that this is a theoretical form of government – sometimes the label benevolent dictator has been applied to people in history, but it has never been carried out as it is theorized, primarily because of human sinfulness on the part of the one executing the power. After all, we know that absolute power corrupts absolutely! That is why we prefer our government to have three branches with checks and balances, even though I think we all would say that this government is very, VERY messy indeed!
In our gospel lesson, Jesus stands before the representative of the earthly ruler of his day – the Roman emperor or Caesar. Pontius Pilate has the authority of Caesar in the area known as Palestine – a name for that region of the world which was also a form of insult, since it comes from the name, “Philistines” one of the chief enemies of the Jews from way back at the time of Samson and the Judges. There was no benevolence in the Roman dictatorship. Everything was for the benefit of Caesar and Rome.
But Pilate doesn't understand why the Jewish religious authorities have brought this man to him. He claims to be a king, but even he claims that his kingship is a spiritual one and not a physical one. He is no threat to the Roman Empire, is he? He is certainly a threat to the Jewish religious leaders, which is why they brought him here. But is he a threat to Rome? Well, this is one of those conversations in the Bible that, hearing it with 21st century ears, is rich with meaning. We all know that Jesus will be crowned with thorns. We all know that he will be exalted on a cross. We also know that he will be raised again, will ascend into heaven to sit at God's right hand, and that the Roman Empire will meet a terrible ending, imploding mostly because of sin, greed and corruption. Things got messy for Rome. Much like they are messy for us today.
Messy is the word that the four of us used yesterday at Bible study to describe the state of the world today. Politically, we are a mess in this country and the world with conflict and terror in Paris, Mali, Iraq, Syria and so many other places. We empathize with those innocent people whose homes have been levelled by the conflict in Syria, but knowing the reality of the tactics of some people, we resist accepting them into our country or state. We wonder who is our enemy? Who is our friend? Who can we trust? What should we do? Is there no more black and white? Is everything some shade of gray?
I wish I could give you all of the answers (like Pilate wished Jesus would answer his questions), but I cannot. The reality is that we live in a messy world and it will keep being messy as long as we put our trust in the physical, earthly rulers alone. Jesus may be a spiritual king, but the spiritual is the driving force behind everything that happens in the physical world! As one of our guys said yesterday, “If we think we can convince ISIS or other jihad groups by logic or physical reason that what they are doing is wrong, we are deceiving ourselves. They will only be convinced based on spiritual reasons.” I couldn't agree more. Bombs, guns and soldiers will not defeat those whose actions are directed by spiritual motivation – no matter how extreme their actions may be! As a matter of fact, bombs, guns and soldiers often encourage those of spiritual motivation because they create martyrs for causes which stoke the fires of hatred and revenge.
Our focus as a church is to be on the spiritual. Jesus went to his death knowing that it would stoke fires within his followers as well – but as one who was raised from the dead, he directed the heat of this fire not toward hatred but toward love. At the end of our short Gospel reading today, Jesus says that he came into the world to testify to the truth, and that everyone who belongs to the truth listens to his voice. In the very next verse, Pilate asks Jesus a question that is answered with silence: What is truth? In his silence he stands before Pilate as the answer to his own question; Jesus is the truth. His very life is the truth of God's presence with us in the midst of this messy world to ground us and comfort us and direct us spiritually, so that we may somehow respond in love through our physical existence. This is why it is SO important that followers of Jesus put an emphasis on prayer, on gathering together to hear and discuss God's word, being in Jesus' presence for worship, and reaching out side by side in Jesus name to try to bring some kind of hope to this messy world. We are the church, and as such we are subjects of Christ the King, so that our spiritual connections can be strengthened and so that we can make a difference in our world every day.
Friends, it is a messy world out there. But it is our world, and it is God's world. And we live in it under whatever earthly authority is in power knowing that it is only temporary. The one true permanent authority is our spiritual one – Christ the King; The truth. Thanks be to God for being with us in the mess of the world. Come soon, heavenly King, to make this messy world perfect as you intended it to be; Amen.