A Different Kind of King
Text: John 18:33-37
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
There is a legend about Alexander the Great, the mighty emperor, that when his mother Olympia was pregnant with him, she dreamed about a flash of lightning that shot out from her womb, causing a sheet of fire to erupt and spread out in every single direction. A sage interpreted this as meaning that the child in her womb, Alexander, would go on to conquer in every direction he went, which he did. Similarly, when the father of Caesar Augustus found out his wife was pregnant, he went to the oracle to learn the future of this child to be born. As the oracle was pouring a wine sacrifice over the altar, it was said that a flame shot up, jumped over the roof of the temple, and into the sky. Only future great conquering rulers received such signs before their birth, so it was known that these kings-to-be would be powerful, defeating every enemy through fire and sword, taking the world by their strength.
This is the Last Sunday of the Church year, sometimes known as Christ the King Sunday. And so, appropriately, we have before us another King in our reading today. And as we might expect, this king is found in a government official’s headquarters. He’s talking with a lower-level ruler, Pontius Pilate. But this King standing there did not arrive with signs like leaping fire or lightning bolts. He did not march imperiously to greet underling rulers like Pilate; He met this governor bound and under arrest. This does not match the appearance of kings as we know them. Nor did He match the appearance of kings as Pilate knew them. Pilate had to ask Jesus point blank, to be sure: “Are you the King of the Jews?” But Jesus, unlike Alexander, unlike Caesar Augustus, who would have no problem announcing their kingship, answers a bit indirectly, “Do you say this of your own accord? Does it appear to you that I’m King of the Jews? Or did others say it to you about me?” Pilate was getting tired of this drama from the people he was supposed to be ruling and controlling for Caesar. “Am I a Jew?” he asked, exasperated. “Your own nation, that you supposedly rule, and the chief priests of your own religion have handed you over to me. What have you done to deserve this?” Jesus, seeing the opportunity to correct Pilate’s misunderstanding about His kingship, answers, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” Finally, Pilate thinks, He’s said it. “So you are a king?”
Yes, Jesus is a King. He’s the King of kings, as He’s called in Revelation. But this King is not like the other kings, the kings of this world. Kings like Alexander and Caesar were born to conquer and burn and destroy and dominate. This King, Jesus, says that He was born for an entirely different reason: “You say that I am a king,” He answers Pilate, “For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth.”
This King has not come to send marching troops in every direction, like a sheet of fire. He’s not come to burn like a meteor in the sky in impressive shock and awe. He’s come for one reason: to bear witness to the truth. That alone is a striking difference from other rulers. Kings, emperors, congressmen, presidents—all these politicians lie. They lie so much that it’s become a cheap cliché. Kings like Alexander lie to themselves that they can truly rule the world. Kings like the Caesars lie to themselves that they are gods. They even built temples in the places they conquered, demanding worship. Even Pilate, a small-time governor banished to a backwater unruly province like Judea, sneers at this talk of truth from Jesus, as he replies, “What is truth?” And we, in our own age, speak of different truths—your truth, my truth, their truth—as if there were no single, overriding Truth that Jesus has come to bear witness to: that God is God and we are not; that we must be rescued from the state we’ve made for ourselves; that we cannot save ourselves from our sins, from our corruption, from our death. It takes two to lie: one to tell the lie and another to believe. And if we’re not telling these lies, we’re the ones believing them.
But why? Why is it that we find ourselves lying about who we are, what we are? Why is it that we believe the lies of other fallen mortals about what the truth is? Because the lie makes us powerful, or so we think. The kings of the earth tell stories so that they can receive worship, so that they can get loyalty. Politicians lie so that they can maneuver and build up their base of support. Lies and half-truths move people to one side or the other. They silence and get rid of opponents. And if they’re said often enough or loud enough, they can persuade or intimidate others into subservience and subjugation. And again—it’s not as if it’s just something that happens out there. It happens with us—in our hearts, in our minds, in our interactions, in our daily lives. The lie that we have no need of saving, or that some little part of our life has no need for a Savior. The lie that we can rescue ourselves. The lie that takes someone down a peg or two, puts them in their place and wins us allies. The lie that God doesn’t care what we do with the lives and gifts He’s given us. The lie that we can be little gods and goddesses over our own corners of the world, over our own lives. The first lie, told in the Garden of Eden, that we can be like God. It takes two to lie, and if we’re not playing one role, we’re playing the other when it comes to these lies.
But Jesus has come to bear witness to the Truth. This is His single-minded focus as King. And it can seem like such a weak thing, the Truth, as it stands there before Pilate, hands bound and tied. It can seem a weak thing as the Truth is nailed to a cross. The Truth can, and has, been buried, hidden, put into a tomb. It happened then, outside Jerusalem. It happens now. The truth is rarely as flashy as fiction. It’s doesn’t have as much hype as a half-truth. But in spite of all that, this is how Christ the King rules—by the Truth. And in an even stranger twist, making Him even more different from the kings of the earth—the Truth He comes to bear witness to is utterly different from the truth the world and its kings and citizens try to embrace.
The truth the world holds is that you have to prove yourself to your king, whoever that is, even if it’s God, or some version of Him. The truth the world claims is that you have to build yourself up. The truth of the world is that you have to earn favor from your kings, your gods, whatever it is that you trust. And every time we try to prove our worth to God, every time we try to earn something good from Him through our actions, we follow that lie, what the world calls truth, what the hungry kings and gods of this world demand.
But the Truth of Christ is different. You don’t have to prove yourself to this King. He’s already loved and valued and cherished you from before time began. You don’t have to build yourself up. Instead, you humble yourself in love and service, as your King has humbled Himself, even to the point of death. You don’t have to earn your King’s favor. He’s given it to you freely, by grace. He gives you every good thing because He honestly likes you. He loves you. Your value to Him is infinite, and so your worth is determined not by how good you are at something, or how impressive you might be, or anything that the world and its kings would demand. Your value was set at the cross, when your King was willing to die in order to win you back, to wash you clean, to make you priceless.
That is the Truth Christ rules by. The world is confused by it, even enraged sometimes. It will sneer like Pilate and ask, “What is truth?” It will try to stop this Truth, like Pilate did, like the ancient emperors who hated and feared this Truth of Christ, the King of kings. It will try to stomp out this truth, like the modern powers of the world, like the socialist dictators and secular rulers of every form have tried. The kings of the world will offer things other than this Truth—alternate truths, the glitter of worldly glory, the promises of kings and politicians. But these are really nothing more than the world’s same old lies dressed in newer clothes.
But the Truth does persist. Kingdoms fall, empires crumble, even modern nations collapse or simply run down. But the kingdom of Christ, the Ancient of Days, as He’s called in our Daniel reading today, “his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.” And on this side of eternity, that kingdom may be quiet sometimes, it may be hidden from our physical eyes, but it persists. It endures. Many have tried to destroy it, but no worldly king or emperor or president or prime minister has been able to. And in spite of His enemies’ best efforts, there will come a day when that kingdom is made known, when the King returns and every eye will see Him and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. That’s what we recognize today, the Last Sunday of the Church Year, Christ the King Sunday. This kingdom is coming; or rather, it’s here—but one day that Truth will be openly visible for all to see, at the end, when our King is enthroned once more.
Christ is a different kind of king. He rules with forgiveness and mercy. He doesn’t destroy His enemies, but He calls them back to Him. He gives of Himself for the good of His subjects. He provides for all their needs of body and soul from His own hands, from His pierced side, from His body and blood. Our King reigns, and will reign forever and ever. In the name of Jesus, King of kings and Lord of lords, Amen.