Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Kingdom of Truth 
John 18:33-38 
November 25, 2012[1]

This Gospel Lesson is one that we usually read on Good Friday as part of a much larger story.  There is so much going on when we read the events of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday that we have little time to focus on this dialogue between Jesus and Pilate.  Within these few verses, Pilate manages to ask Jesus two huge questions that, on the surface, hardly seem to have anything to do with each other:  “Are you a king?” and “What is truth?”.  On this Sunday that we call “Christ the King Sunday,” these seemingly unrelated questions intersect in the person of Jesus Christ.

“Are you a king?”  As Americans, we have cultural baggage with that question. 

It’s hard for me to understand the whole notion of “royalty” in which someone like Louis the XIV reportedly claimed without blushing, “the State—it is I.”  (I read this morning that there is no proof that Louis actually said those words[2]—but even the rumor suggests volumes about how people viewed the monarchy in Europe.)  In my lifetime, kings and queens, princes and princesses have been an anomaly.

So many of us developed our perceptions of royalty from reading the Grimm Brothers fairy tales or by watching their portrayals in Disney movies.  From the handsome prince and princess to the wicked queen stepmother to the kindly but somewhat dimwitted king, somehow they all intertwine to develop a story in which the prince and princess prevail, get married, and live happily ever after.

Any romantic image of royalty went out of style in the American colonies almost two hundred fifty years ago.  The King of England became the villain that everyone could hate.  The history of Virginia was forged at a time when the rallying cry became “Give me liberty or give me death.” 

Today, the idea of kings and queens, princes and princesses, dukes and duchesses seems quaint.  We watch with curiosity as a modern nation such as England takes such cultural pride in an institution that has no political power.  We see the royals at weddings, funerals and an occasional charitable event.  We see the Brits follow the exploits of the family and accept, overlook and forgive their shortcomings.  Photographers literally will follow them to their deaths (as they did in the loss of Princess Diana—could it really have been fifteen years ago?) and risk almost everything to invade their privacy.  I understand that just this past Friday, the editor of the Irish Daily Star who dared to publish certain photographs of Kate Middleton resigned in disgrace over the uproar.[3]

Pilate had trouble relating to Jesus as King.  He was accustomed to rebels trying to free that troubled part of the world from Roman rule.  He could treat them harshly.  But the man he saw before him in the wee hours of that morning hardly seemed like a rebel.  I can almost hear the sound of astonishment in his voice as he asks his question to Jesus:  “are you King of the Jews?”

John does not tell us what was going on in Jesus’ mind as he responded to that question.  I can imagine, though, that Jesus could see clearly that there was no acceptable answer to Pilate’s question.  If he answers “yes,” his answer will be misunderstood.  If he answers “no,” he will be denying who he is.  So Jesus answers Pilate’s question with a question:  “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” (John 18:34).  Jesus was seeking the question behind the question.

Jesus’ next statement reveals a bit more about why Jesus was slow to answer Pilate’s question.  Jesus knew that people would misunderstand.  He tells Pilate, “My kingdom is not from this world…” (John 18:36).  He is telling Pilate, in effect, that he can relax, Jesus is not a threat politically or militarily. 

Pilate says once again, “so you are a king.”  (John 18:37).  Jesus tells him, in effect, that those are Pilate’s words, not the words of Jesus.  Jesus announces that He came into the world for one reason and one reason only:  “to testify to the truth.”

This answer from Jesus certainly would have resonated with Pilate—Pilate was a man of the world who, though Roman, undoubtedly knew of the influence of Greek Philosophers on the intellectual elite of the Empire.  These events were taking place roughly 350 years after Aristotle, and signs of Greek influence had made their way into the thought and life of the eastern Mediterranean.  That was plenty of time for the Romans to soak up the best of Greek thought and incorporate into the public conversation of the upwardly mobile.

Jesus tells Pilate that he has come to testify to the truth.  Pilate responds to Jesus with another question:  “what is truth.”  (John 18:38).  What a deep question!  Just the sort of question you would expect to find in John.  There are so many places in John’s Gospel where Jesus uses that word “truth.”  Let me remind you of a few of them.

Do you remember the story of Jesus meeting the woman at the well in Samaria?  The woman, recognizing the cultural gulf that separated the Samaritans from the Jewish people, asked whether God should be worshiped on the mountain in Samaria or at the Temple in Jerusalem.  Jesus told the woman that the “hour is coming … when the true worshipers shall worship the Father in spirit and truth….”  (John 4:24).  Jesus was able to bring this woman face to face with who she really was.

In John 8, Jesus tells the Israelites who are following him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”  (John 8:31-32).

And in John 14, Jesus comforts his followers with the assurance that “in my Father’s house are many dwelling places,” that he is going to prepare for them.  Thomas asks Jesus how they can know the way.  Jesus replies, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”   (John 14:6).

In all these places, Jesus identifies himself with truth, but I must admit that it is hard for me to grasp what he is saying.

We respond to this word “truth” in many different ways.

We think of objective, scientific facts as truth.  We measure and quantify.  We look for predictability, repeat-ability.  We use a scientific method to make sure that we eliminate the human, subjective factor.  But for all the scientific truth that we have accumulated, we still have a world that is hungry, at war, worried about the world-wide economy.

Some think of truth as something to be twisted, manipulated.  Of course, I never did that in my previous occupation, but I have heard that some of my fellow barristers did.  In our political debates, it has become standard for the so-called “fact checkers” to investigate and report on the truthfulness of the candidates.  When a candidate crosses the line dividing truth and lies, the candidate is branded with the childhood designation “pants on fire.”  I can’t believe that they really think this is a good thing.

In reality, there are some things for which truth is tough to determine in a vacuum.  Sometimes, truth requires interpretation, and we have to draw conclusions before we have all the facts.  We take our best shot.  But in doing so, we run the risk that truth will become purely subjective. 

I had to laugh when I was working with a young couple preparing for their marriage.  I usually take at least three sessions with a couple to help them explore how well they know themselves and each other.  This one young bride to be told me about an event in her childhood.  Her mother had confronted her with the facts about something the girl had done wrong.  The precocious child responded to her mother by saying “that is your truth; here is my truth.”

Yet, there is a subjective side to truth.  There are some areas where the truth is not just a fact to be memorized, but an experience to be encountered and lived.  You have heard me mention my dad several times in the past few weeks.  There is an objective side to the truth about my dad:  Raymond Albert Frost, born on June 13, 1926 to Harlan James Frost and Margaret Anna Frost.  Married on October 16, 1947 to Alice Elizabeth Wright.  Father of five children.  Carpenter who became Vice President of Operations for Ben Rudick & Son, a construction company.  Died on December 3, 2011.  Is that the truth of my dad, or is the truth more to be found in memories of my personal interactions with dad—the good times and the bad times and memories that sometimes are accurate, sometimes not.

Pilate asks the question, “What is truth.”  It’s a complicated question.  But I read a commentary this week that suggested that Pilate asked the wrong question.  He asked “what” is truth, as if truth was an object that could be possessed.  The commentary I was reading says that “Truth is a ‘who,” not a ‘what.’  A matter of personal encounter and relationship, a matter of worship and commitment that is experienced in the power of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth who guides Jesus’ disciples into all truth…  [4]  Pilate was asking “what is truth” and failed to recognize the truth that was before his very eyes, speaking to him, engaging with him.

Are we all that different?  We have had the benefit of almost two thousand years of teaching, preaching, witnessing to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Yet, based on what I see and hear, the truth seems to evade us.  We continue to try to put Jesus the King into a pigeon hole that we can understand, that we can feel safe with:  the Baby Jesus, Jesus the Teacher, Jesus the Healer, Jesus the Good Shepherd.  Why do we do this?  

Probably for a lot of reasons.  I suspect that some people want a Jesus that they can control.  Some can’t take on the difficult work of moving from truth as abstract to truth as an encounter with the holy.  Some can’t take truth as requiring them to look at the mirror, at their own motives, facing their own shortcomings. 
“Are you a King?”

On this Sunday, as we celebrate Christ the King, our Christ reminds us his kingdom is not of this world—he is not an earthly King.  Instead, Christ our King comes to testify to the truth—the truth about who God is and who we are.  Just as he did with the woman at the well, this Christ confronts us with the truth of who we are—and like the woman, he tells us everything that we have done (John 4:29).  Christ our King calls us into a relationship with Him.  A relationship that starts with repentance, a change in direction.  But this relationship doesn't stop there.  Our King invites us into a relationship that is on-going, that cuts through our own tendencies to deceive ourselves.  Our King invites us to join Him in a journey that takes Him to a cross and an empty tomb, and He invites us to take up our own cross to follow Him.  This is the truth on which Jesus would build his Kingdom. 

Pilate asked two questions:  Are you a king?  What is truth?  Pilate didn't make the connection, but his two questions were answered in the very person standing before him.  Instead of answering Pilate with words, Jesus demonstrated with his very life that He was and is “the way, the truth and the life” by which we can come to God.

How did Pilate respond to this truth-king?  Pilate washed his hands, proclaimed himself to be innocent of this Man’s blood (Matthew 27:24) and handed Jesus over to be crucified (John 19:16). 

These two same questions come before us today.  Is Jesus your King?  Have you come face to face with the truth that He reveals—the truth about who God is and who you are?  Have you taken up your cross to follow the One who is the way, the truth and the life?

Copyright © 2012 by Thomas E. Frost.  All rights reserved.

[1] Preached at Cunningham United Methodist Church in Palmyra, Virginia on Christ the King Sunday.
[4] M. Eugene Poring & Fred B. Craddock, The People’s New Testament Commentary (Louisville, KY:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 350. 

Monday, November 19, 2012

An Attitude of Thanksgiving 
1 Thessalonians 5:12-22; 1 Samuel 1:4-20 
November 18, 2012[1]

My dad was not a college graduate.  He never completed High School.  He was not a poet.  But I cannot begin to guess how many times I heard him quote this little poem:

Laugh, and the world laughs with you;
Weep, and you weep alone.
For the sad old earth must borrow its mirth,
But has trouble enough of its own.
Sing, and the hills will answer;
Sigh, it is lost on the air.
The echoes bound to a joyful sound,
But shrink from voicing care.[2]

After awhile, I started to think I was "sophisticated" and I became skeptical about my Dad’s wisdom.  My college English professors would not have been very complimentary about this poem, about its literalism, about the sing-song nature of its rhyming patterns.  It sounded more like something reprinted from The Power of Positive Thinking than something from a book of poetry called Poems of Passion, the volume in which it first appeared. 

Yet for my Dad, this poem was not a surface-level “don’t worry, be happy” sort of thing.  This poem spoke volumes about the way he approached life.  Don’t be mistaken, my Dad knew tough times.  He was a child of the depression.  His father died when my dad was about 14 or 15, and my dad soon struck out on his own.  He tried his hand at working on the railroad and got bored with it.  He tried working in the shipbuilding yards in Norfolk, but he couldn’t stand it.  He joined the army, but he soon got a medical discharge—I was never quite clear if the discharge was because of a hearing problem or asthma.  But he served enough to qualify for the GI Bill, which allowed him to go to apprentice school to learn carpentry.  Outside of his God and his family, building was his passion in life.

My dad put me to work so that I could earn my way through college.  He was not an easy man to work for.  I wouldn’t have lasted long if, in the middle of a tense moment on the job, I would have started quoting this poem!

But my Dad was fair and he was respected.  You always could count on him to be looking out for the guys who worked for him.

In his later years, he would quote this poem more often—especially after Mom died.  He explained it this way.  He said, “I decided that I could go around being miserable and making everyone around me miserable, or I could make the best of things.”  And he did.  For him, the way of joy and thanksgiving was not a surface level emotion; it was an attitude that governed the way he lived.  Though he felt pain, he also felt thanksgiving for his God, for the woman whom he cherished until the day he rejoined her in heaven, and for his family.  So in his later years, every day he would get up in the morning and begin his day by singing "Holy, Holy, Holy!  Lord God Almighty!"

This all came to mind as I read these words from the Apostle Paul to the Church in Thessalonica:  “give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus” (1Thessalonians 5:18, NIV).  On the surface, these words often have struck me as falling into that same genre, “laugh and the world laughs with you; weep and you weep alone.”  Don’t worry.  Be happy.  But I started digging a bit further into these words this past week. 

This first letter to the Thessalonian Church is the oldest piece of Christian literature in existence.  It was written just twenty years after the death and resurrection of Jesus.  This puts it sometime around the year 50 A.D.  The scholars tell us that Paul was probably in Corinth when he wrote this letter, a long distance from Jerusalem.  This was before Rome began the intensive persecution of the Jews and the Christians that ultimately led to the complete destruction of the City of Jerusalem. 

This letter was written years before Paul was carried off in chains to Rome, before he suffered shipwreck and imprisonment.  It was written long before the words he wrote to the Philippians about how he had learned the hard way to be “content whatever the circumstances” (Philippians 4:11).

Yet Paul already knew something about persecution—because in his earlier years, he was one of the biggest offenders in promoting the rift between the Jewish leaders and the rapidly growing sect of Jewish Christians.  He also knew what it was like to have to flee under cover to escape with his own life.  He also knew of controversy, as the Jewish Christians debated the circumstances under which they should be preaching the Good News to the Gentiles and baptizing them. 

Paul had spent substantial time in the city of Thessalonica and had developed a strong bond with the church there.  He wrote this letter in response to a report that he received back from Timothy saying that there were some problems brewing with the church.

As he nears the end of this letter, Paul begins this rapid fire series of instructions—we use the fancy word “exhortations”:  “Be joyful always; pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances.”  But lest his readers dismiss these words the way a college student dismisses advice he receives from mom about laundry, Paul claims high authority for these instructions:  “this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”  (1 Thessalonians 5:18). 

Paul was not talking about being polite.  Paul was not teaching people to say “thank you” the way we teach our children to say “thank you.”  Paul was not even tackling here the question that he would deal with later about suffering for the sake of the Gospel, although his words certainly would apply in that situation.

Paul was addressing a way of life, an attitude of life that we can grow into, a way of life in which our underlying attitude does not fluctuate with our moods as we bounce from one event to another.  Think about how often we fall into the trap of tying our moods, our emotions to our external circumstances.  It’s easy to be thankful when we have a full stomach, when we have a roof over our heads, when we are surrounded by those we love.  But let a job fall through or illness strike or lose a loved one or receive a bad diagnoses, our comfortable life is disrupted and we fall apart.

Paul is inviting us to see our lives differently.  He is not trying to tell us to ignore reality.  He is inviting us, instead, to a different way of seeing, a way of experiencing that whatever events take place in our lives, God is with us!  Even as Christians, we are so used to thinking about God as being a part of our lives; Paul is inviting us to see that we are part of God’s plan.

But so many times, we can’t see it.  In our Old Testament Lesson, Hannah could not see God’s plan at work.  Day after day, she would visit the House of the Lord at Shiloh and pray for a child.  She told God that if she had a son, she would offer Him to the Lord’s service.  She prayed so hard that Eli, the priest, actually accused her of drinking too much!  She explains her situation to him, and Eli offers her a blessing.  Hannah and her husband return home, and a miracle occurs.  She is with child! (1 Samuel 1:4-20).

So Hannah makes good on her commitment to God and she presents her young child to Eli.  Then Hannah offers her prayer of dedication.  It is as though God has removed a veil from her eyes and has given her the rare opportunity to glimpse just a bit of her part in God’s plan.  She speaks of the tendency of God to act in ways that we don’t expect, to break the bows of the warriors, to reverse the fortunes of the rich so that they beg for food, while those who used to be hungry are hungry no more.  She praises the God who has taken the barren woman and given her children.  And she alludes to the future kings of Israel who her son will anoint by saying that God “will give strength to his king and exalt the horn of his anointed.”  Could it be that she had some inkling of the One to come, the Anointed One that would be called the King of Kings and Lord of Lords?!  Hannah did not merely thank God for a good result in her case; rather, she was able to see that her life had a place in God’s design for the world.  For that, she could say, “my heart rejoices in the Lord.”  (1 Samuel 2:1).

So often, we approach Thanksgiving, (if we give thought to it at all) as a time to say thank you for specific individual blessings, for things that go right for us.  I can even recall hearing an atheist commentator on the radio saying that he was thankful for being able to experience another Thanksgiving Day, despite his cancer, although he wasn’t sure who he should be thankful to… a sad thing, indeed. 

I would like to invite you, this year, to approach Thanksgiving differently.  In addition to thanking God for giving us what we want, can you thank God for allowing us to be a part of God’s plan for the world? 

Can you look at your life and see the hand of God at work, bringing you to this time and place, to share in His work of ushering in the Kingdom of God?  Can you look at your part in God’s world and say “Thank You, Lord?”

Can you think of the people who have had an influence on your life this year, the past month, the past week, who have encouraged you in your faith, who have reminded you of God’s love, can you think of their part in God’s plan and say, “Thank You, Lord?”

Can you look at some of the circumstances where things didn’t go the way that you wanted—but despite your disappointment, your suffering, your loneliness, can you see the hand of God at work in your life supporting you, upholding you, and continuing to encourage and lead you in your journey?  Can you look at the hand of God at work in your life and say, “Thank You, Lord?”

In another letter from the Apostle Paul, he was able to do just that.  In his letter to the Church at Rome, Paul told his readers that, “I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:38-39, NIV). 

To give thanks in all circumstances is to see our lives as part of God’s plan, and to know that as a result, whatever happens, God is with us.  To live like that is to live in an attitude of Thanksgiving.  And it is in that spirit, that I invite you to live in an attitude of thanks-giving.

Copyright © 2012 by Thomas E. Frost.  All rights reserved.

[1] Preached at Cunningham United Methodist Church in Palmyra, Virginia on the Sunday before Thanksgiving.
[2] Ella Wheeler Wilcox, “Solitude,” from Roy J. Cook, One Hundred and One Famous Poems with a Prose Supplement, Chicago, IL:  The Cable Company, 1929), 72.