We need to slow down a bit. We need to get into the scene.
There is a story about how, once upon a time, long before the Romans arrived with their empire and their emperor… Israel was a great nation.
At first, the Lord ruled Israel directly. When the people did what was right in the sight of the Lord, and walked along the path of righteousness, they enjoyed peace and prosperity. And when the people strayed from the path, they suffered death and destruction. But the Lord would raise up a leader, and deliver them from their oppression, and bring them back to the path of righteousness, and they would enjoy peace and prosperity again.
And then, the people looked at the nations around them and saw that they had kings. So they asked the Lord for a king. And the Lord wasn’t thrilled with the idea; but the Lord gave the people a king. And while there were issues with the first one, the second one was great.
There is a story about how, once upon a time, long before the Romans arrived with their empire and their emperor… Israel was a great nation, with a great king.
Eventually it fell apart. The people strayed too far from the path of righteousness. And their kings strayed too far from the path of righteousness. And ever since then it’s been Assyrians and Babylonians and Romans. But…
There’s this promise—there’s this hope—that a descendant of that great king will arise and restore Israel to its former glory. There’s this promise—there’s this hope—that a descendant of that great king will arise and lift Israel to eternal glory… and that the Lord will make a feast of rich food and well-aged wines for all people… and that every knee will bow and every tongue will confess.
And there are people who are saying that this Jesus is that descendant. There are people who are saying that this Jesus is the new king who will restore Israel and raise it to glory.
And there are people who are saying that this Jesus is even greater than that. There are people who are saying that this Jesus is the Lord, who has come to rule the people directly… to make a feast of rich food and well-aged wines for all people… and that every knee will bow and every tongue will confess.
And the Romans do not like that. Because they have one emperor… whose name is Tiberius… who is the son of the divine Augustus.
And the Jewish authorities do not like that. Because the Romans have soldiers and legions of soldiers. And they are without mercy.
So here we are… in this moment when Jesus is standing before Pontius Pilate and the Jewish authorities…
…in this choice between two kings.
I want to be fair. The Jewish authorities are in a bad position. And the Gospel According to John isn’t always kind to the Jewish authorities. And Christians have spent generations using The Gospel According to John to justify cruelty against Jews. And we all imagine that we would do better. But…
There’s a saying that gets passed around: if you want to know what you would do in the face of slavery, or in the face of the Holocaust, or in the face of any other genocide… look around at everything that is happening in the world… and look at what you’re doing… right now.
Because the truth is that most of us want to believe that we would stand up. But the reality is that most people did not stand up then… and we are not that different from most people… and we could be standing up right now… but the couch is so comfortable… and tweeting something or sharing a meme—or preaching a sermon—is almost like standing up… so…
I have never stood—unarmed and unarmored—before the representative of the Empire, the representative of the emperor, the representative of the son of the divine Augustus, who has soldiers and legions of soldiers, and told him to… well, there are words I’m not supposed to use in church.
But the point is that I have never stood—unarmed and unarmored—before the powers that be and put my life on the line.
So I am not about to blame the Jewish authorities for their choice; I’m not about to blame the Jewish authorities for looking at this upstart preacher from Nazareth of all places… and the representative of imperial power… and saying, “We have no king but the emperor, thank you very much, we’ll see ourselves out.”
The truth is that we are all standing in front of rows of kings. And some of them are offering power and privilege and prestige. And some of them are offering wealth and comfort. And some of them are offering to not hurt us… or to not call us losers… and our monkey brains think that those are pretty much the same thing, so…
And one of them is showing us this path that leads through the valley of the shadow of death. And he’s telling us to pick up one of these crosses and drag it along behind us. And he’s showing us the way into a tomb.
And he’s whispering a promise to us… of a life that is wild and dangerous and full of grace… of a kingdom where there is no power, but where there is power; where there is no wealth, but where there is wealth; where there is no comfort, but where there is comfort.
The truth is that we are all standing in front of two kings: the world-as-it-is… and Christ. And in every moment of every day, Christ is asking us to choose.
And the truth is that…
Look, that would be an easy choice to make if it was just about showing up for worship and singing How Great Thou Art. It would be an easy choice to make if it was just about devotional bumper stickers and inspirational Facebook posts. It would be an easy choice to make if it was just about calling Christ, Lord—if it was just about shouting, “Christ you know I love you; did you see I waved?”—and then living like most people.
But the truth is that it is a hard choice to make. Because it is—at least a little bit… at least a little bit more than we’re comfortable with—about standing up… unarmed and unarmored… in front of the powers of the world-as-it-is… for Christ.
The Christ who is the word who was in the beginning with God and who was God. The Christ through whom all things came into being and without whom not one thing came into being.
The Christ who is the Lord, who will make a feast of rich food and well-aged wines for all people. The Christ before whom every knee will bow and every tongue will confess.
The Christ who lives in every pleading face and outstretched hand… who stands in line at every soup kitchen and food pantry… who suffers in every psych ward and prison cell… who travels mile after mile to escape violence and find a home in a new nation… who cries themselves to sleep because they are not welcome at home or at school or at church… who walks through the valley of the shadow of the death, dragging a cross behind him, on his way to a tomb.
It is at least a little bit about standing up, unarmed and unarmored, in front of the powers of the world-as-it-is… for that Christ.
And that… is hard.
This is the fifth Sunday of Lent. And Lent is a season of confession and of repentance… of fasting and of prayer… of getting down into the muck of who we are… and who we have failed to be.
It is a time to admit that there are times when we have made the easy choice… that we have been the easy people… that we have acquiesced to the world-as-it-is… that we have said, “We have no king but the emperor.”
And when I say we, I mean we. Because I have done it, too. I still do it, too. I will do it, too.
I know us; I know what we are capable of. And in every moment of every day, Christ is asking us to choose between the world-as-it-is… and Christ. In every moment of every day, Christ is asking us to choose between the world-as-it-is and the world-as-it-could-be… between the world-as-it-is and the world-that-God-is-calling-into-being.
And I know us; I know what we are capable of. We can choose Christ.
We can give food to the hungry and drink to the thirsty. We can welcome strangers and clothe the naked. We can care for the sick and give fellowship to the prisoner We can bring good news to the poor and proclaim release to the captive. We can lift the yoke off of the oppressed… and help people see the world-that-God-is-calling-into-being.
We can choose Christ. We can stand up for Christ. We can walk right through the valley of the shadow of death, dragging a cross behind us, and into a tomb, for the sake of Christ.
And we can step out of that tomb, into a new life, that is wild and dangerous and full of grace.
We can do the work… of Easter. And that is good news.