2 Sam 23:1-7
Throughout the book of John, Jesus uses the phrase “I am”. This begins in chapter 6 when he is calming the sea. He says to the terrified disciples, “I am. Be not afraid.” And he continues throughout the book of John, over and over with these phrases that begin with those two words, “I am”. He says, “I am the bread of life”(6:35), “I am the light of the world” (8:12), and “I am the resurrection and the life” (11:25), “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (14: 6), “I am the gate” (10:7), “I am the shepherd.” (10:11), “I am the true vine” (15:1) . Other times he simply says, “I am” in phrases such as “If you don’t believe that I am, you will die”(18:24) and “You will know that I am” (18:28), “I assure you, before Abraham was, I AM” (8:58). Chapter 18 then begins with Jesus saying several times simply, “I am”. All of these “I am” statements are statements in which Jesus is using a phrase that hitherto had only been used to refer to God: it harkens back to the Old Testament story of God appearing to Moses, giving to Moses the name of God as being simply “I am”. John’s readers would have known this and realized what was being said here. We hear in these verses a proclamation of Messiahship. A statement that in him God was to be found, a direct look at who God is, what God is like, what it means to be God in this world through Jesus.
Today then we come to the story of Jesus’ trial before Pilate. I wonder when you think about Jesus what you think his primary purpose here was. We can think of many purposes. A mirror into God, a model for how to live as faithful people, an example of what Love really looks like. But this is not what Jesus himself says. It doesn’t tell us his purpose is death or resurrection, or salvation from sins, or any of the theological reasons we might suppose. No, instead, in this discussion with Pilate, he states very clearly and very simply that his purpose in coming is to testify to the truth. Pilate then ends today’s readings with the simple question, “What is truth?”
But as we know, this “simple” question is anything but simple.
Frederick Buechner says this about Truth in his book Wishful Thinking: a theological ABC: “When Jesus says that he has come to bear witness to the truth, Pilate asks, ‘What is truth?’ Contrary to the traditional view that his question is cynical, it is possible that he asks it with a lump in his throat. Instead of Truth, Pilate has only expedience. His decision to throw Jesus to the wolves is expedient. Pilate views man as alone in the universe with nothing but his own courage and ingenuity to see him through. It is enough to choke up anybody. Pilate asks What is truth? And for years there have been politicians, scientists, theologians, philosophers, poets, and so on to tell him. The sound they make is like the sound of empty pails falling down the cellar stairs. Jesus doesn’t answer Pilate’s question. He just stands there. Stands, and stands there.”
Jesus stands there. The one who has declared over and over “I am” stands there. “I am” stands there. And that is the truth that he presents. His truth is simply that he is. The truth to which he testifies is that God IS.
Today we celebrate Christ the King Sunday. And we know that Jesus was not the kind of king that we all understand every other king to be. He is not the kind of king, as he states in today’s passage, who has guards who will fight for him and prevent him from being killed. He is not the king of power, the king of might, the king of an iron fist. He is not the king who collects all the wealth to himself, the king who says some people are better, more important, more valuable than others. Instead he is the kind of king who allows his subjects to kill him and who dies begging for forgiveness FOR those who are killing him. He is the kind of king who then comes back from death to reassure and offer life to the very people who killed him. He is not the kind of king who caters to the wealthy and powerful, but instead is the kind of king who reaches out to the marginalized and powerless. He is not the kind of king who luxuriates in riches and in being served by others, but instead is the kind of king who serves others continually. He is the kind of king who IS king simply because he IS. He is the kind of king who shows us how to live life by being who he is, by becoming who he becomes, the kind of king who will be who he will be.
“What is truth?” Pilate asks – WE ask. And for an answer we are given Jesus, the king, our king, the one who IS.
Today we also celebrate thanksgiving. And in many ways I feel it is appropriate that Christ the King Sunday happens at the same time as Thanksgiving. Because we are called to be thankful for all that life has given us: all of it. And there are a lot of hard things that we face, including the fact that God as King, Jesus as King, is not someone who will swoop in with power and authority and clean up our mess. Jesus is a different kind of king, and one who, I think in times of stress and difficulty, we wish were someone who would fix everything and make it better. That is what we want. And the call to be thankful, instead, for what we have, for a God whose love goes beyond our imaginings but whose power is given up for our free will – that’s a God that it can be hard to be thankful for in times of trial. And still, on this Christ the King Sunday we are called to be thankful. The good news, as always, is that the free will that is given to all people in exchange for that power is ours as well. We get to choose how or even if we will respond to God’s call. We get to choose a genuine relationship with God: not one that’s forced on us, but one we are invited into. We get to choose to be in relationship with a God who is compassionate not only towards people we like, not only towards those we don’t like, but even for us when we mess up too. The God who stands before us as truth is a God who IS. And that is something to be thankful for!
In so many ways we have an odd religion. We don’t worship a God of power and might and riches. We worship a God of love, relationships, and a king who chooses weakness that we might have freedom. It is odd. But it is also wondrous and amazing. And something worth being thankful for.