Advent One Sermon| November 30, 2003| Rev. Rolf Preus| St. John 18:33-37
Then Pilate entered the Praetorium again, called Jesus, and said to Him, “Are You the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered him, “Are you speaking for yourself about this, or did others tell you this concerning Me?” Pilate answered, “Am I a Jew? Your own nation and the chief priests have delivered You to me. What have You done?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight, so that I should not be delivered to the Jews; but now My kingdom is not from here.” Pilate therefore said to Him, “Are You a king then?” Jesus answered, “You say rightly that I am a king. For this cause I was born, and for this cause I have come into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.” St. John 18:33-37
Today is the first day of the church year. It is the First Sunday of Advent. Advent means coming. There are three advents of Christ. His first advent was when He was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. His second advent will be when He returns to judge the living and the dead. Christ also comes to His church today wherever and whenever His gospel is purely preached and His sacraments are rightly administered. At Christ’s first advent, the shepherds learned to identify Him by the sign that God gave to them through His angel. They were to look in Bethlehem for a Baby wrapped in strips of cloth and lying in manger. Had they looked for a baby lying in a crib in an inn they would not have found their Savior for they would have been looking in the wrong place. They had to listen to God.
Being a faithful Christian is not a matter of personal strength, intelligence, or even devotion. Many fight valiantly in their spiritual struggles only to fail again and again. Others are blessed by God with amazing intelligence but they remain locked inside of spiritual prisons of their own making from which they can find no release. Still others devote themselves, their time, their talents, and their treasures to a regimen of religious devotion and prayer and yet find themselves bogged down in one debilitating error after another. No, being a faithful Christian is not a matter of personal strength, intelligence, or devotion. It is a matter of listening to the truth that God speaks.
Consider the crowd that praised Jesus at His triumphal entry into Jerusalem. What did they cry out? “Hosanna to the Son of David. Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest!” Why did they see in Jesus their Savior? They listened to the word of God. Jesus was fulfilling the words of the Holy Scriptures. He said and He did what the Bible, the word of God, said the promised Savior would say and do. God spoke through the prophets. Listening to the prophets, they saw Jesus as their Savior from sin. God spoke through His Son. Listening to Jesus, we also cry out, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna, hosanna, hosanna in the highest.” Then the Lord Jesus comes to us and gives us to eat and to drink of His body and blood as His words clearly teach us. The reason we kneel down at the Altar and take into our bodies the body and the blood of the Lord Jesus is not because we are strong, smart, or devout. We are weak, foolish, and prone to every error. We are invited to eat and to drink Christ’s body and blood by Him who speaks the truth. He says concerning the sacramental bread and the wine, “This is my body, which is given for you for the remission of sins, this is my blood, which is shed for you for the remission of sins.” He speaks the truth. Jesus speaks the truth.
Pilate was no fool. One did not ascend to such an important office in the government by being stupid. He was an intelligent and educated man. And he wasn’t completely lacking in character. After all, he tried to save Jesus’ life. He did his best to calm down the mob. He publicly declared that Jesus was innocent. When that did not persuade them, he had Jesus’ whipped in the hope that seeing Him suffer would cause the bloodlust of the mob to dissipate. Pilate did not set out to do any harm to Jesus. He only caved in to the demands of the crowd when he saw that he could not persuade them. He must have reasoned to himself that if Jesus refused to speak out in His own defense he – Pilate – had no obligation to do so. Why should Pilate care about this truth to which Jesus was willing to testify and for which Jesus was willing to die?
In St. John’s Gospel – more than in the other three Gospels combined – Jesus speaks of the truth. In his prologue to the Gospel, St. John writes of the Word become flesh, “We beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14) Jesus taught of true worship as worshipping the Father “in spirit and in truth.” (John 4:23-24) Jesus told the Jews the same thing that He later told Pilate, that He had come to bear witness to the truth. He promised that His disciples who continued in His word would know the truth. (John 8:32) He called Himself the way, the truth, and the life. (John 14:6) He referred to the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of truth (John 14:18; 15:26; 16:13). He promised that this Spirit of truth would lead His disciples into all truth. This is how we know that the apostolic writings – what we commonly call the New Testament – are God’s own truth. Jesus promised it. When Jesus was offering up to His Father His so-called High Priestly Prayer – interceding for His church on earth – He prayed, “Sanctify them by Your truth. Your word is truth.” (John 17:17)
Right after Jesus spoke the final words of our text to Pontius Pilate, Pilate replied with the famous and cynical question, “What is truth?”
This is what our generation asks. But it does not expect an answer. What is truth? People don’t believe that truth can be known. There is my truth, your truth, his truth, and her truth, but the truth is not objectively true. It is only true if I make it true for me.
For about two hundred years the western world was dominated by a way of thinking known as Rationalism. Rationalists argued that what was not reasonable could not be true. Rationalism rejected the miraculous because miracles cannot be explained in a rational way. Rationalism took over the minds of many opinion makers, university professors, leading theologians, and political leaders throughout the western world during the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries. It did a great deal of harm to the church, as preachers no longer taught God’s people the holy and saving mysteries of the faith. Rationalists rejected the Bible as God’s word because they couldn’t figure out a reasonable explanation for the many miracles taught in the Bible. Rationalists had no use for the teaching of the Holy Trinity because they could not understand how God could be three persons and yet only one God. They denied also the teaching of the incarnation of the Son of God. How could this man Jesus who could hunger and thirst, suffer and die, be at the same time the almighty God who created all things? It wasn’t reasonable so the Rationalists denied it. How could the suffering of Jesus on Calvary pacify God, take away His anger against sinners, and bring to us all salvation? It simply made no sense to Rationalists so they rejected it as primitive and outdated. The sacraments suffered the same fate. How can water be joined to Christ’s blood that washes away all sins? Impossible! How could the speaking of a man impart God’s forgiveness and actually give to the penitent the absolution of God? Impossible! How could bread and wine be Christ’s body and blood and the means by which God saves us from death and hell? Impossible! Rationalism attacked historic Christianity at every point.
But then something happened. It happened within the past generation or so. Rationalism went off into the corner and died. Rationalism could only criticize traditional Christianity. It could offer nothing of value in its place. It could only tear down. It could not build up. It had no life. It led only to empty churches and the destruction of faith. Christians who had lost confidence in the saving mysteries of God ended up without anything. They could not find God by their own reason or strength. No one depending on his own fallen human reason can find God. The most brilliant thoughts of which the human mind is capable cannot lead to the truth about God. Rationalism did not succeed in convincing people that the truth about God is reasonable, knowable, and available to everyone who learns how to think. To the contrary, Rationalism succeeded only in convincing people that the truth about God is utterly unknowable. So we have witnessed in our generation an abandonment of both reason and the revelation of God’s truth in the Holy Scriptures.
What is truth? It is unknowable. So says the modern religious seeker who will take a little bit from Hinduism here, from Christianity there, from secular humanism over here, with perhaps just a dash of pop psychology for flavoring, and that mixture of contradictions becomes his faith. And, of course, nobody has the right to challenge anyone’s faith! One faith is as valid as another! So says a generation that has lost faith altogether.
It is to our generation that Jesus speaks. He speaks of a kingdom. The very idea seems strange at first. The world has learned that power comes either from the barrel of a gun or from a free election in which the majority decides what is good and bad, right and wrong. Where does a king or a kingdom fit into all of this? Well, it doesn’t. But that won’t silence Jesus. He came to testify to the truth of His kingdom and He won’t remain silent.
Christ’s kingdom is not of this world. This doesn’t mean that it is not in this world. It most certainly is. And it doesn’t mean that His kingdom is not for this world. It is. Rather, Christ’s kingdom does not depend on any power or authority that comes from this world. It is a heavenly kingdom. Heaven is where God lives. Christ’s kingdom is heaven come down to earth and remaining here on earth among us. But where do we find heaven on earth? We don’t find it in any human institutions or systems of human philosophy. We find heaven on earth where we find Christ.
Listen to St. John again from his prologue to this Gospel, “For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him.” (John 1:17-18) The kingdom of God is not of this world, but it is in this world wherever Christ reveals to us our heavenly Father. We cannot find our heavenly Father by means of our own reasonable speculations as the Rationalists imagined. And we cannot find our heavenly Father by inventing our own so-called spirituality by picking and choosing from whatever strikes our fancy. We can find God, our Father, only in Christ. Jesus is the King to whom God the Father has entrusted the Kingdom.
Jesus does not govern His kingdom by laying down the law. He governs His kingdom by fulfilling the law. He governs His kingdom by bearing the penalty the law imposes upon those who disobey it. Pontius Pilate put a title above Christ’s head on the cross that read, “Jesus of Nazareth, The King of the Jews.” It was written in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. The chief priests of the Jews were outraged by this and demanded that Pilate replace that title with one that said, “He said, I am the King of the Jews.” Pilate refused. On that single issue the cowardly politician stood his ground. He said to them, “What I have written, I have written.” (John 19:22) Pilate was speaking for God whether he knew it or not. The point is not just that Jesus is identified as King of the Jews. It is where and how Jesus is identified as King of the Jews. It is on the cross! It is in His suffering! It is as Jesus, the truth incarnate, reveals the true God to the world. You cannot see God, embrace Him in faith, confess His truth, or know Him as a loving Father except as you see God in the suffering of His only begotten Son on the cross.
Some think of the truth as an intellectually coherent system of doctrine that fits neatly together like a refined machine. Others say the truth is centered in a personal relationship with Jesus in which you by an act of your free will surrender yourself to Him and promise to make Him Lord of your life. Still others say the truth is made known in spiritual gifts flowing through you, empowering you toward victory over life’s obstacles. But you come to know the truth only in the crucifixion of the Son of God in your place. That is where the truth of God’s word is centered. Jesus submitted to the law that condemned us all. See in His submission your righteousness. There, in that humble obedience you are made righteous. See in His suffering your punishment. There, as He suffers in your place, your sins are punished and you are set free from them. In Jesus’ crucifixion is the truth that makes you free. There it is that you are forgiven, justified, and delivered from every evil of body and soul.
“My kingdom is not of this world,” Jesus said. “If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight, so that I should not be delivered to the Jews; but now My kingdom is not from here.” His servants did not fight. He fought against all the power of evil on the cross. The grace and truth that Jesus brings He brings only by way of the cross. In bearing the deceit of all sin He brings His truth to us. In satisfying the demands of all justice He brings His grace to us.
We are here where we belong this morning. What brings us to church to hear Christ’s gospel and to receive His sacraments is more than a religious urge or devotion to our Christian duty. We come to church because the same Jesus who won the kingdom on the cross rules as King of the kingdom where the fruit of His holy passion to given to sinners who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Here He satisfies our every spiritual hunger. Here He quenches our thirst. Here His righteousness is reckoned to us so we go home justified and at peace with God. Jesus was born and came into this world so that you would know this truth, believe it, and find eternal joy in it. That is the truth that we confess. Amen.