Sermon on Proper 29B, John 18:33-38

Didn't last week I just say I don't preach much on the end times?
It's not something I find inspiration from, or concentrate on, since so many predictions have failed, and, even more, we always approach the end times, each individually each in our own lives.
But Scripture compels me to wrestle with it, again this week. The readings are apocalyptic the book of Daniel again, adding to it this week not just a "mini-apocalypse," but the real thing, the beginning of the Book of Revelation. And then we have today's Gospel, with Jesus brought before Pilate, accused of being a king.
And not in a good way.
All of this leading us into the season of Advent, beginning next week.

What is scripture telling us? What is coming?

And current events compel me to wrestle with the end times, as politicians and pundits predict apocolyptic peril from violence and wars, present and future.

As I wrestled with these scriptures, I was led to the words of the British poet W. B. Yeats, and his poem "The Second Coming," (especially as sung by Joni Mitchell).

Here is the original:

 

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: in the waste of the desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

 

Written in 1919 in the tragic aftermath of the Great War, a war that was the worst war European Civilzation had ever experienced; a war that was supposed to end all wars. But wars didn't end, did they?
So, what does this poem mean?
Like much great poetry, or scripture, it is open to interpretation.
Surely it is Yeats trying to wrestle with the horrors of the slaughter in blood-soaked fields of France.
Blood everywhere.
Innocence drowned.
Our leaders unable to control events.
The poet evokes a vision: a monster, the sphinx--is it war?
Such a riddle moves to be born in the Middle East, in Bethlehem, in our own age, leading us to our apocalyptic doom.
Of course, the imagery draws on scripture, as we enter the advent season, leading to the Christmas season, where we remember that child born and laid in a manger.

In our scripture today from the lectionary, Jesus places his whole life and mission within this framework. Jesus says "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."
The scripture passage doesn't end there, of course.
It leads toward Jesus's death on the cross.
But for me, the immediate next words after our gospel passage are some of the most confusing, challenging, frustrating, exalting, glorifying, terrifying words in the whole Bible.
Pilate responds to Jesus: "What is truth?"
And Jesus does not answer the question.

That is monstrous silence.

We have to fill that silence by defining the truth of Jesus.
In what we read today, He does not define truth, he merely identifies with it.
So what is the "THIS" of which He speaks?
What was HIS truth?
Which words, which commands, which parables, which miracles, which deeds?
All of them? That's an awful lot to make sense of.
How do we categorize, prioritize, realize His truth?
Especially twenty centuries after He lived and said it.

What would He have us hear?

What do you hear?

Do you hear what I hear?

On this festival of Christ the King, in the passage of scripture this morning, I hear that Jesus is saying He is NOT another king of this world.
Those kings die and remain buried. Their earthly kingdoms rise and fall. The Jewish kingdom, gone. The Roman kingdom, gone.
What endures is the heavenly kingdom.

And what do we do to deserve to become a refugee in that place of peace?

In the most important way, we do not deserve it. We have gained entrance to heaven only as a divine gift of grace. Grace created by Jesus's submission to the cruelty of His enemies.
Surely if Jesus had asked it, He would have called on a legion of angels to devastate his enemies,
storming down from heaven on clouds of fire, screaching like fighters, or falcons, in fiery flame.
Destroying without discrimination.
Jesus did not.
Instead, He died on the cross and opened to us the gates of heaven.
IF we are to be worthy of the kingdom of heaven, how do we act in this world?
How do we open the gates to others?
Is Jesus a King of Power? With warmongering and bombs and guns and hatred and fear?
Or is Jesus a King of Humility? With peacemaking and sharing and love and mercy?
Yet, surely, we are not to meekly submit to the evil of our enemies and allow ourselves to be tortured and killed? That would be unheard of … except for the story which we read in the Bible today.
But we are not Jesus, are we?
None of our sufferings or deaths can serve the same purpose, can they?

So what do we do to live out His truth?
Choices, always choices.
To show kindness and risk harm?
To show belligerance, yet still risk harm, although maybe to a lesser degree?
These choices about imitating Jesus are not easy.
If they were easy, everyone would do it.
If they were easy, we would not have needed Jesus's first coming in Bethlehem.
If they were easy, we would not have to fear a Second Coming as an apocalypse.
We would have created a heaven on earth by now.
Listen to His voice.
Do you hear a merciless king of this world whose followers fight?
I hear a merciful victim about to enter the next world, who gives us grace.
What truth do you hear?

Delivered at St. Stephen's Pro-cathedral 2015 November 22

 

Written in the aftermath of terrorist attacks in France.

Last Updated: 2015 November 24
URL: <http://therev.brianpavlac.org/srms/20151122.html>