A sermon by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ar.
April 18, 2014
By all accounts, Pilate was not a politician. He was a rough-and-tumble, violent, no-holds-barred military man who quartered no mercy toward those who stood in his way. But he was shrewd enough about the political situation to know that truth is relative. Truth is whatever it needs to be, or you want it to be, in any given situation, depending on the circumstances. Truth can be bent and twisted to suit one’s needs, depending on where one finds one’s self and however it is that he has gotten himself there. In other words, Pilate knew what side of his bread was buttered.
No sooner has he gotten into town (“town” being Jerusalem, of course) with his peace-keeping army – to make sure the Jews don’t get out of hand during their festival of Passover – than the authorities bring a criminal to him for a hearing. It is early morning and his breakfast has yet to settle when it becomes apparent to Pilate that this day is not going to be ordinary; not in any sense of the word at all. You’d think they could at least wait a couple days before bothering him with things like this.
He is reminded by his aide that it is the Jewish holy week, not that he needs any reminder of this really, that Passover is coming and the religious authorities are anxious to get this matter taken care of as soon as possible so they could get on with their commemoration. Pilate begrudgingly realizes he is right, that he really has no choice but to deal with the matter and get it over with as soon as he can.
They bring before him a young Nazarene. His face is puffy and bruised. They’ve roughed him up a bit, haven’t they? Oh well, he probably deserved it, and it’s not as if Pilate hasn’t seen this kind of thing before; worse, even. Why don’t they simply take justice into their own hands, he mutters under his breath. But his ever-present and all-hearing aide reminds him yet again that the Jews do not have the authority to put anyone to death.
Death? Are the charges really that serious? Yes they are, or at least that’s what is on the arrest record. How so? “If this man were not a criminal,” the religious authorities tell Pilate, no doubt with a certain sense of smugness, “we would not have handed him over to you. We would have taken care of it ourselves.”
Evidently, Pilate is intrigued enough by Jesus of Nazareth, just by his appearance, to want to find out why they had brought this Nazarene before him. Why is this simple Galilean peasant perceived by the Jewish authorities as such a threat? He doesn’t look like a threat. Why, he looks like he wouldn’t hurt a fly. Well, let’s see what this Jesus is made of.
“Are you the King of the Jews?” That’s the accusation, of course. It’s right there on the warrant.
“Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?”
“That’s the charge brought against you by the chief priest. Hey, wait a minute… I’m the one asking the questions here. I’m in charge; you’re not. I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?”
“My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”
It is a strange response, don’t you think? Strange indeed. I wonder if it seemed that strange to Pilate.
If you, or any of us, were to do an intense study of the teachings of Jesus – as portrayed in the New Testament gospels – there is little doubt that the one, prevailing thread that runs through it all has to do with the kingdom of God; or as Matthew is fond of putting it, the kingdom of heaven. If there was one word that made the keepers of first-century Rome nervous, it was the word kingdom; unless, of course, that word referred to the Roman Empire. When it pointed to any other political reality, Rome’s teeth were set on edge, and the armies were put on full alert. In their minds there was only one kingdom, and that was the kingdom of Caesar. Anything else was perceived as a threat… and rightly so.
And here came Jesus, the Galilean peasant-carpenter-rabbi…
“Repent, the kingdom of God is near!” (Mark 1:15).
“Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).
“Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you” (Matthew 6:33).
If that sounds not only familiar to you but also rather tame, add this to the mix: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34). Doesn’t sound so tame any more, does it?
For Jesus to say that the kingdom of God is at hand “is akin to saying the end of the Roman Empire is at hand.”1 Now do you understand why they brought Jesus before Pilate?
Frederick Buechner says that if anybody else had said, “The kingdom of God is near…we would hoot him off the stage. But it is Jesus who says it. Even people who don’t believe in him can’t quite hoot him off the stage. Even people who have long since written him off can’t help listening to him.”2
Still, even though when Jesus speaks we all listen, we’ve trivialized the kingdom, you know. With our whimsical images of Saint Peter keeping watch over the Pearly Gates, and checking with new would-be entrants to determine if they have their names written in the Book of Life. Streets lined with gold. Angels floating from cloud to cloud playing harps. Mansions to live in and endless bliss to enjoy…
I even did it Tuesday in Rosie’s funeral service, saying how heaven would never again be the same with Janie and Ruby and Rosie whooping it up. But that was really more a commentary on their personalities and their friendship than it was an attempt on my part to paint a true picture of what the kingdom is like. I mean, Jesus endured the beatings of the soldiers, the interrogation of the high priest and Pilate, and the ultimate anger of the cross, in order to bring the kingdom of heaven to bear upon this sinful earth. That, my friends, is serious stuff.
Matthew, in his gospel, likes to compile information. He is an organizer, and categorizes things that Jesus said and did according to themes and ideas. In his thirteenth chapter, he bunches together several parables Jesus told about the kingdom. There is no specific information in any of these parables about the kingdom of heaven itself. You will find no discussion of pearly gates or gold streets as in the Book of Revelation. Fred Craddock has said that it is as though Jesus holds the Kingdom of Heaven up to the light, turns it as one turns a prism in the sun, and these stories are what he sees.3
What you will find here is Jesus telling his followers that the kingdom is so wonderful, it is like the smallest of seeds that becomes the largest of trees. It doesn’t take much heaven to fill one’s heart with the presence and the goodness of God. In fact, it is like a tiny bit of yeast in bread, Jesus says, just a pinch. But it causes the bread to rise and fill the house with a wonderful aroma and the stomach with good food.
The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure found hidden in a field. It is so valuable that the one who finds it, and who doesn’t own the land upon which it has been hidden, goes out and sells everything he has just so he can purchase the field and have that treasure for his very own. Heaven is worth doing something like that, Jesus says, hocking the whole store to have that one valuable thing.
Or how about a pearl? A merchant has dealt with pearls all his life, but one fateful day he comes upon the greatest of them all. It is so wonderful and so valuable he sells all the other pearls he has in his possession so he can purchase it. That is how badly he wants it.
I saw an interview recently with a young professional golfer named Brandt Snedeker. He is from Nashville, a Vanderbilt graduate, who has found, to say the least, some success on the PGA tour. He was being asked about the Masters, the tournament that was just concluded Sunday at Augusta National in Georgia. Now get this: a couple of years ago, Snedeker won the FedEx Cup. You know what it was worth? $11 million! He said his wife might be upset if she heard him say this, but he would trade it all for the green jacket that is put on the shoulders of the Masters winner.
If Jesus had been a golfer, he might have used that as an example of the value of the kingdom of heaven.
We are not given details about how it will actually be in heaven. We are simply told that, if we could know what it is like, we would do anything to insure that we are received into it.
“My kingdom is not from this world,” Jesus tells Pilate. “You’ve no cause for worry or for fear. I do not plan to overcome the kingdom of Caesar.” But he did, didn’t he? Not right away, perhaps, but it did happen. And guess what? Because he was willing to die on the cross, that kingdom – not of this world – is still in this world. And in you and me, in our hearts.
Jesus thought it worth dying for. Isn’t it true that the least we can do is live in such a way that others can see it in us?
Lord, may our prayer be that of Jesus, that your will be done on earth as it is in the kingdom of heaven… through us, in us. In the name of the One who gave his life for us, Amen.
1Reza Aslan, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (New York: Random House, 2013), pp. 119-120.
2Secrets in the Dark (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006), p. 157.
3Fred Craddock, et al., Preaching Through the Christian Year: Year A (Valley Forge, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 1992), p. 382.