Friday, April 10, 2009

“We Have No King but the Emperor”

[A sermon based on John 19:14-15 for Good Friday; this is the third sermon in my Holy Week 2009 series Eavesdropping on Holy Week]

He stood there, the blood trickling down his bruised face, the purple robe hanging heavy on his shoulders, the taunts ringing in his ears. Somewhere, seemingly from very far away, he heard the voice of Pilate ring out, “Behold your King!” and the answering voice of the crowd, “Away with him! Crucify him!” Now it was Pilate again: “Shall I crucify your King?” and it was in response to that question that the Messiah, the Son of God, the Savior of the world, heard these words spoken, John tells us, by the “chief priests”: “We have no king but the emperor.”

I wonder if a hush fell over the crowd when those words were heard and as Pilate handed Jesus over to be crucified. I wonder that because the chief priests could hardly have uttered words that would have sounded any worse to Jewish ears with any sensitivity at all. After all, the ideal was that Israel was to have no king but God. True, Israel had for centuries had a human king but the Bible makes clear that having such a king was a concession by God to the desires of the people and the Bible also makes clear that, with rare exceptions, the monarchy in Israel was not a positive thing. Still, God had in a way redeemed the monarchy by promising that the Messiah would be a descendant of King David but didn’t that mean that the Messiah would be the ideal king sent by God?

So the chief priests were, in saying that they had “no king but the emperor”, declaring that God was not their King and that they were not prepared to receive the Messiah. Perhaps they weren’t consciously thinking about it that way—after all, their motive was to get rid of Jesus and whenever someone’s agenda is to get rid of somebody no exaggeration is too great if it serves the purpose; besides, they were playing mind games with Pilate, whom they had earlier pressured by reminding him that no “friend of the emperor” would tolerate the claims of a rival king and so by exaggerating their own claim to imperial loyalty they were tightening the screws on the Roman governor.

And yet…and yet…they said it, didn’t they? They, the religious leaders of their day, came right out and said, “We have no king but the emperor” which implies that God was not their King, although I’m sure that had someone pinned them down about it they would have said, “Oh, now, we meant that we have no ‘earthly’ king but the emperor,” but even that attitude would have indicated divided loyalties, wouldn’t it?

Divided loyalties…we all have them, don’t we? The question, though, is to whom do we give our ultimate allegiance and our ultimate loyalty? It is an appropriate question for this night, because it was earlier in the day on Good Friday that Pontius Pilate ordered that the inscription be placed above the head of Jesus as he hung on the cross that said, “This is the King of the Jews.” By our gathering here tonight—indeed, by our gathering to worship any time that we gather to worship—we affirm that the crucified Jesus Christ is our King; we affirm that “we have no King but Jesus.”

But what do we affirm with our lives? How do we say with our lives that we have no King but Jesus?

When we choose generosity over greed, we affirm that we have no King but Jesus.

When we choose sacrifice over security, we affirm that we have no King but Jesus.

When we choose grace over grudges, we affirm that we have no King but Jesus.

When we choose service over selfishness, we affirm that we have no King but Jesus.

When we choose giving over grasping, we affirm that we have no King but Jesus.

When we choose faith over fear, we affirm that we have no King but Jesus.

When we choose hope over hopelessness, we affirm that we have no King but Jesus.

If we choose the other options, aren’t we in effect choosing another King over Jesus?

Here on Good Friday, as we worship the King who emptied himself until he gave his very life and who loved so much that he died for the sake of it and who served to the point of complete sacrifice, it’s worth pondering whether we will honor our King by choosing, with his help, to be like he was.

Granted, if we do so choose we will look and sound different and odd. Spanish golfer Jose Maria Olazabal is a two-time winner of the Masters Tournament. The “z” in his last name is pronounced “th” and it is pronounced that way because of the development of the language in his region of Spain. But there is a legend—and it is a legend—that explains why that particular pronunciation developed. According to the legend, there was a Spanish king who, when he tried to pronounce the “z” sound, said “th” instead, so, out of respect for the king, the rest of the population adopted his pronunciation. As I said, it’s a legend, but the picture of an entire people adopting a variant pronunciation out of respect for their king is a riveting one.

Will we, out of respect and love and adoration of our King, adopt his “strange” and challenging ways? We have no king but Jesus. Will our lives reflect that truth?

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