This sermon was written and preached by Debbie Brown, current council president and faithful member of Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in South Hadley, MA.
33 Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ 34Jesus answered, ‘Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?’ 35Pilate replied, ‘I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?’ 36Jesus answered, ‘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.’ 37Pilate asked him, ‘So you are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. 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.’ 38aPilate asked him, ‘What is truth?’
Screenshot from the game Civilization by Sid Meyers.
I hear a lot of complaints from parents about the amount of time their kids play on video games. And anyone who has spent more than a day with a gamer will understand why. Bill and I were fortunate enough to have our grandsons Jaleel and Tyrese living with us for a couple of years. While they were with us, both of their computers were on either side of the dining room. So I got a chance to watch them play a variety of games. Although some of the games were definitely cause for my concern, I especially enjoyed watching them play Sid Meier’s Civilization.
The game involved creating civilizations and building cultures in historical time periods. Each of the boys had their own style of play with differing strategies. When they first started playing, Jaleel decided he wanted a civilization based on a form of socialism. He made sure everyone had an abundance food, water, a roof over their heads, and a meaningful job. It soon became apparent that this tactic wouldn’t work. Without challenges for growth, his people became lazy. They had no incentive or need to excel at anything. As a result, his civilization collapsed when stronger civilizations overpowered them.
Tyrese on the other hand decided to be a heavy-handed dictator. Any infringement on the law was rewarded with jail time and/or execution. Before he knew it, he had more people in prison than free. The prisoners soon violently revolted, resulting in complete anarchy. It wasn’t a pretty sight. His civilization rapidly collapsed and he was killed.
With each successive try, the boys learned more about what motivates human beings and how to be an effective leader. Jaleel built a strong economy, supported the arts and humanities, and provided for his people. But his brother had an even better idea. He created a strong faith-based civilization, sent missionaries into Jaleel’s territory and stole everything from him. Jaleel’s only recourse was to buy his own missionaries to convert Ty’s people who would then tithe, making him enough money to pay even more incentives to his missionaries.
Ty summed up his experience to me like this, and I quote, “Jaleel wanted to let me have some power while also maintaining his supremacy. I only had the leg up on him once in our many games. It always came down to me trying to kill him before he killed me. Any alliance with Jaleel was a ticking time bomb. We each wanted to win, but we couldn’t without breaking the alliance.”
Ty’s insight was spot on. It turns out the game is programmed to follow what is known as the 4X theory of power. Players achieve victory through four routes, “eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate.”
Does this sound at all familiar? It seems to be the same story played out over and over again throughout history. Worldly power, both secular and religious, attempts to maintain itself, to win at all cost using any means necessary. It is manipulative and can even present itself as being altruistic and faith-based.
In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus finds himself on the wrong side of people with great power. The Jewish leaders see him as a threat to their fragile existence under the Romans. They want him gone, so they twist the truth about his teachings and accuse him of blasphemy. But they don’t have the power to put him to death. They plot to have him killed by taking his teachings out of context and making a case for him to be brought to Pilate as a traitor to the Roman Empire.
We have to give some credit to Pilate. He doesn’t really buy their accusations. But this situation was turning into a political nightmare for him. He questions Jesus about the charges, asking him if he is the King of the Jews. But Jesus takes control of the conversation, putting Pilate on trial so to speak. Was Pilate wondering for himself or only repeating what others told him?
Pilate avoids the question and asks Jesus what he did to deserve death if he isn’t a king? Jesus reassures Pilate that his kingdom is not of this world and that he has no aspirations to become an earthly king… wouldn’t his followers have put up a fight if he were? Confused, Pilate scoffs…. oh, so you are a king? Jesus reminds Pilate that HE is the one who referenced him as a king and went on to explain that his purpose has been to testify to the truth.
Pilate then responds with the very famous line, “What is truth?”
I don’t know about you, but lately I have been thinking a lot about truth. With terms like alternate truths and claims of fake news, I have been left asking the same question as Pilate’s…. “What is truth?”
We spent some time talking about this at one of our adult Bible studies on John. Like Pilate, I was focused on truth as it applied to statements, events or stories. But Pastor Anna reminded us that everything in John’s Gospel is meant to be a revelation of Jesus.
He is God’s word, originated beyond time and space, made flesh, and lived among us in human form. Throughout his life, he did God’s work as a healer and miracle worker. He is the bread of life, the light of the world, the gate, good shepherd, and true vine. He is the way, the resurrection and the life. He IS the truth.
Jesus may be sitting in the presence of one of the most powerful men in the known world, but he is very much in control. His kingdom is not of this world, and his power does not manipulate and destroy like human power does.
Pilate was all too familiar with the workings of kings and their power over the people. Kings used their wealth and knowledge of the human condition to manipulate them by invoking fear of punishment, hunger, isolation, and even fear of the other in order to motivate loyalty.
Conversely, Jesus’ power is evident at his crucifixion. In that moment, his love is displayed on the cross where he willingly gave up his life to free all people from the power of sin and death. HIS power is centered in love and self-sacrifice rather than in wealth and self-preservation.
We may not be governed by kings anymore, but we are still subject to the never-ending cycle of earthly power in our lives. Worries about safety, health, wealth, hunger, loneliness, unworthiness, and powerlessness are a result of fear – fear that threatens to snuff out the hope we have in the one who came to set us free from the power of sin and death.
Jesus’ willingness to lay his life down for us is proof of God’s love. God provides us with an abundance of resources, a community of faithful followers, and the ability to reason and think creatively. Under Jesus’ reign the destructive cycle of earthly power governed by the 4X principle of “eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate” is broken.
Instead, we are gathered into the kingdom of God, joined together in our baptism and at the table where we receive food for our journey. We are not motivated by fear or armed with wealth and weapons. Instead, we are armed with Jesus’ instruction to love one another as he loved us. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. This undeserved, unearned love has the power to transform all of life.
On this day, at the end of the church year, we celebrate Christ the King Sunday and are reminded that Jesus loves us, freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom…..priests serving his God and Father.
With Jesus as our King, we are freed to live a new life based on a principle that I call the 4V principle: serVe, loVe, forgiVe, and inVite others.
Next week, we begin the season of Advent. Using Luke’s Gospel and the prophetic readings, we will be challenged to come face to face with our need for freedom from the earthly powers in our lives.
This Advent, may you be fed in body and spirit, may you be freed to serve others and proclaim God’s love for all people, and may you be transformed by a greater power … the power that is TRUTH…
References to Sid Meier’s Civilization taken from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Civilization_(series)
References to Advent themes taken from: https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?m=4377&post=1985