For this I was born

One who rules over people justly,

ruling in the fear of God,

is like the light of the morning,

like the sun rising on a cloudless morning,

gleaming from the rain on the grassy land.[1]

This hope for one who rules over people justly goes back as far as ancient legends and songs can take us. The hope for one who rules in the fear of God is as old as the persistent reality of rulers who don’t. We smile when we hear the words of Psalm 146, “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help.” We smile because we recognize the wisdom cautioned by experience.

Just a few years before Jesus came to Jerusalem, Pontius Pilate had been appointed governor over Judea, a remote but strategically important corner of the Roman empire. Fully aware that he represented the greatest power in the mediterranean world, Pilate ruled the province with an iron fist. A contemporary of his described him as “rigid and stubbornly harsh, wrathful and of spiteful disposition,” and that his rule was marked by corruption and “ceaseless and most grievous brutality.”[2] Whoever raised their head too high or their voice too much, risked being disposed of as a threat to Rome’s dominance.

Pilate had heard about Jesus, preliminary intelligence reports about a Galilean whom the crowd had greeted at the city gate as king of Israel.[3] “Are you the king of the Jews?” he asked Jesus whom the temple authorities had brought to him at his headquarters. He looked at the handcuffed man before him the way he looked at everything and everyone: through the eyes of those who would decide whether to advance his career or terminate it. Pilate played the empire’s game, and he knew that if he didn’t handle matters in Jerusalem to the emperor’s liking, his next appointment would not be a move up.

I wonder if he asked himself sometimes if keeping a lid on Jerusalem’s restive population on Rome’s behalf was what he was meant to do. Was he living the life he wanted to live, or did he feel like he was just another piece in someone else’s chess game? Was he living somebody else’s life or his own? Jesus told him, “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth,” and I wonder if Pontius Pilate could say something like that with similar clarity, “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world…”

Parker Palmer wrote about waking up to questions about his vocation in his early thirties.

By all appearances, things were going well, but the soul does not put much stock in appearances. Seeking a path more purposeful than accumulating wealth, holding power, winning at competition, or securing a career, I had started to understand that it is indeed possible to live a life other than one’s own. Fearful that I was doing just that – but uncertain about the deeper, truer life I sensed hidden inside me, uncertain whether it was real or trustworthy or within reach – I would snap awake in the middle of the night and stare for long hours at the ceiling. Then I ran across the old Quaker saying, “Let your life speak.”[4]

Palmer was encouraged by those words and thought he knew what they meant: he lined up the loftiest ideals he could find and set out to achieve them. He wanted his life to speak only of the highest truths and values. It took him a while to realize that the words meant something quite different,

Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you. Before you tell your life what truths and values you have decided to live up to, let your life tell you what truths you embody, what values you represent.[5]

Let your life speak, and listen to what it is telling you.

When Pilate met Jesus, their lives embodied two very different realities: the empire and the kingdom. “Are you the king of the Jews?” Pilate asked Jesus rather routinely, to see if the Galilean had any revolutionary ambitions.

And Jesus responded with a question, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Whose question are you asking? Is it your own or is it just another one from the counter insurgency manual? What is it you want to know? Are you open to hear words that don’t fit into the simple frame of your political calculations? Can you imagine a king who has no ambition to sit on Caesar’s throne?

The issue of Jesus’ kingship had been raised before. He had fed thousands by the lake up in Galilee, and when he realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he went away.[6] The empire, of course, excels at controlling the masses with bread and circuses, but the kingdom is a very different story. This king doesn’t command an army of followers who fight to keep him in power. This king doesn’t live in a palace behind high walls and guarded gates. This king bows to wash the feet of his friends. This king tells his companion who still carries a sword to put it back into its sheath. This king insists that should any blood be shed, it would be his own.

“My kingdom is not from this world,” Jesus told Pilate – leaving unsaid that nevertheless his kingdom is for this world and in this world and for the life of the world.

“So you are a king?” Pilate asked.

“Yes he is! Hallelujah! King of kings and Lord of lords!” I hear choirs of angels sing, with the saints above and the saints on earth joining the unceasing praise. Only Pilate doesn’t hear a thing. He cannot see the truth that is standing before him in flesh and blood. His imagination is too small for a king who washes the feet of his followers. He cannot wrap his mind around a king who doesn’t command armies but whose word sets the oppressed free.

Delores Williams remembers Sunday mornings from her childhood when the minister shouted out, “Who is Jesus?” And the choir would respond fortissimo, “King of kings and Lord of lords!” And little Miss Huff, in a voice so fragile and soft you could hardly hear her, would whisper her own answer, “Poor little Mary’s boy.” Back and forth they sang. “King of kings” the choir thundered, and Miss Huff sang softly, “Poor little Mary’s boy.”[7] Together they gave testimony to the reign of Jesus; together they affirmed that “King of kings” cannot be the answer without also saying at the same time, “poor little Mary’s boy.” Each song needs the other for the truth to ring forth and be heard. The triumphant chorus without the humble tune sounds too much like the same old song.

Jesus is turning the language and expectation of “kingdom” upside down and inside out, but Pilate doesn’t see or hear a thing. His position and imagination have been shaped by the empire, by the simple patterns of bribe and force. He cannot imagine a king who refuses to rule with coercion. Many of Jesus’ own followers over the centuries have had trouble with this. They did choose conquest and control to spread what they perceived to be Christ’s kingdom, and it never occurred to them that they were living as disciples of Caesar rather than Jesus.

But by the grace of God there were also those who knew and trusted the power of God’s reign, and who honored king Jesus by serving with compassion, humility and courage. They lived as free citizens of a kingdom not from this world, but for this world and very much in this world.

Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you. Before you tell your life what truths and values you have decided to live up to, let your life tell you what truths you embody, what values you represent.

In the encounter between Pilate and Jesus, one embodies the logic of empire and the other embodies the kingdom of God. Jesus knows what his life intends to do with him, because he is fully in tune with the giver of life. “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.” And the truth is God’s love for the world, this world, mired in blind power struggles and deadly competition as it is. The testimony of Jesus reveals love as the power at the heart of the universe, love that calls and waits, love that serves and does not overwhelm. The truth about God is God’s love for the world, and the truth about the world is God’s love for it.

In Gian-Carlo Menotti’s “Amahl and the Night Visitors”, one of the three kings says,

The child we seek doesn’t need our gold. On love, on love alone he will build his kingdom. His pierced hand will hold no scepter. His haloed head will wear no crown. His might will not be built on your toil. Swifter than lightning he will soon walk among us. He will bring us new life and receive our death, and the keys to his city belong to the poor.

It is a powerful thing to be able to say, “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world.” As followers of Jesus we never stop to listen for our life to tell us what it intends to do with us. We never stop to listen for the voice of God amid the many voices that vie for our attention and allegiance. And we give thanks to God for Jesus who frees us from the love of power and calls us to live in the power of love.

Today is the last Sunday of the Christian year, and we glimpse through the doors of the throne room of life: all idols have been toppled and Jesus reigns

like the light of the morning,

like the sun rising on a cloudless morning,

gleaming from the rain on the grassy land.

[1] 2 Samuel 23:3-4

[2] Philo of Alexandria, Legatio ad Gaium, 33.

[3] John 12:13

[4] Parker J. Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation (Kindle Locations 53-59). Kindle Edition.

[5] Palmer, Let Your Life Speak, Kindle Locations 66-67.

[6] John 6:1-15

[7] See Barbara Lundblad

Looking for audio of older sermons? Check out our Sermon Audio Archive.