In Jesus' day, the last "King of the Jews" had been dead for well over 500 years. In the interim, the years of exile, conquests by numerous foes, and the current oppression of the Roman Empire made a mockery of the idea of a Jewish King. God's promise to David was arguably an empty one. Yet, the Jews had clung to this hope, at times energetically, longing for salvation and deliverance.
In today's Gospel Pilate asks, "Are you the King of the Jews?'' Jesus an itinerant preacher, healer and exorcist is not an obvious candidate for such a title.
Days after the terrorist attacks in Paris, I saw a news report that the French Air Force launched numerous attacks on ISIS strongholds. My emotional reaction was positive. Of course it was; I am a partisan. I like my team and want my team to win. I grew up in a military family. I played war growing up and was drenched in the mythology of good guys and bad guys my entire childhood. Saviors were good guys who beat the bad guys---whether a knight in shining armor, a lone sheriff staring down the bad guys, or soldier in battle. I internalized the message that a real man is a good man who will fight to protect his family and his country. I fantasized about being a good guy. ISIS has made a strong case that they are bad guys! Crushing the bad guys feels good!
But as Tolkien showed us in Lord of the Rings, Power is seductive. Power used in the cause of righteousness is addictive and consuming. We listen to the lament that the White House lacks direction. We hear the call for strong leadership and a strong military. Few of us would disagree. It just makes sense to us, right? Meet a threat with sufficient force to eliminate the threat. Action heroes are saviors. Power must be used to make the world better.
This is not a new idea. It was certainly present in ancient times. Rome worshiped her conquering heroes as gods! The Jewish Scriptures extol military victories of Joshua, Judges and Kings (and Maccabees). This message of power is echoed in the the Apocalypse. Our God reigns, our God is mighty to deliver us, our God comes in wrath to bring vengeance upon a sinful world! Bad guys are going to get hell and aren't we happy to be wearing white hats.
But there is, as Paul Harvey says, the rest of the story.
In the four Gospels, King Jesus, it turns out, is no conquering hero. The injustice of Roman oppression is not punished. Jesus does not summon an army to release the captives or establish a truly just society. Jesus does not take up sword and shield and lead an army to throw out the Roman occupiers. Jesus is not the King we long for at all. If you were a Jew who thought Jesus was the Anointed King come to save you from Roman abuses, would you be tempted to critique His lack of strong leadership? His inability to act decisively to rescue His people? His failure to rid the world of the Roman threat?
Lets be clear, the mind numbing atrocities of ISIS are repugnant evil. Murdering teenagers at a concert or blowing up innocents on a sidewalk cafe are beyond reprehensible. But, you are ignorant of history if you think that the Roman occupation of Judah was any less oppressive, unjust or malignant. Thousands of Jews were crucified and slaughtered. Thousands. Their lives no less significant because they lived long ago and far away. The horrors of Jesus' day are not any less horrible because it happened to them and not us.
So what am I saying?
I am saying that we know the answer to Pilate's question.
"Jesus, are you the King of the Jews?"
But what kind of King is He?
He is a King who handed Himself over to the Evil Empire of His age---and suffered and died.
By His wounds we are healed.
He is a king who loved the unlovable and embraced the unembracable.
He is a king who forgives the unforgivable and loves those who hate Him.
He is a king who wears a crown of thorns and is enthroned on a cross.
Today we can bomb ISIS into non-existence but tomorrow a new evil will take its place. Remember the great war against Nazis and Fascists? the cold war against communism? There are, 1 John tells us, many anti-Christs. ISIS must be defeated as it is another diabolical manifestation of satan's dark realm. But, ISIS is no the ultimate issue...You and I are confronted this day with a question that runs deeper than current events; an eternal question for every age.
What kind of King is Jesus?
He is a healer. An exorcist. A teacher and a reconciler. A man who loved children and outcasts and prophetically confronted the power brokers of church and state. Our King is the high priest and the sacrificial lamb. He is the light and love of God for a dark and sinful world. He is a king who refuses to summon the army which could save Him from a tortuous death on a cross.
Jesus is the True King of the World...
And if such a man is our king, how then shall we live as citizens of His Kingdom?
It boggles the mind...