Scripture: Daniel 7:9-10 & John 18:33-37
Originally Given on 11/25/2012 at the United Presbyterian Church of Amsterdam, NY
If one were to watch the news from the last couple of days, it would not be hard to conclude that the world were coming to an end. That is, if one were to see the coverage of the annual explosion of hyper-commercialism that is “Black Friday,” it would not be hard to conclude that the world was coming to an end. Amid reports of fist fights and screaming matches, guns being pulled and kids being left behind by their parents, stores competing for your dollars by opening earlier and earlier until the sacredness of familial time around the Thanksgiving table was done away with by retailers on the backs of the poor and working-class who found themselves having to come in early on Thursday to prepare for the evening rush. On Thursday night, I was in the process of driving back from my in-laws in Rockford, IL, where we had spent Thanksgiving and we had pulled over for the night at around 9:00 in a small town in Indiana and as I drove around the town it was eerily quiet. It was a town where it seemed the sidewalks had been rolled up on Wednesday evening not to be replaced until Friday but for one place. The Walmart in town was filled to the brim with cars circling the lot waiting for a spot, any spot, to open up so that the occupants of the car could join in the rush of eager shoppers to get the best possible deals they could on the wares of the Walmart. It is easy to believe that the sense of Thankfulness that we were each practicing had been decimated by the desire for slightly cheaper wares. And in the midst of this scene, it would be easy to conclude that we had lost our collective minds and that the world was coming to an end.
Now, folks shopping on a Friday (or Thursday evening) after Thanksgiving is not actually a sign of the end of the world. And perhaps talk of the end of the world has become somewhat overdone in recent times. From the preacher, Harold Camping, who predicted that the world would end last year to the literary interest that arose a few years ago with a series of books known collectively as the “Left Behind” series to those folks who look at the Mayan calendar that comes to an end on December 12th, 2012, there has been much talk recently about the universe reaching some kind of climax. And there is a fair amount of Biblical text that has been devoted to thinking through the way things will end. Within the Biblical tradition, there is a whole class of writings called “apocalyptic literature” that uses the imagery of the end of the world as its backdrop. Around the time of Jesus, a community of separatists known as the Essene community viewed the world through an apocalyptic lens in which they sought to prepare themselves through seclusion and asceticism for the coming of a Messiah. This community of apocalyptic believers had a great impact on the way in which the Gospel narratives are understood. Even today, when we talk about Jesus, we talk about the “second coming” of Jesus in an historical sense in which many Christians seek everyday to deduce all the signs of impending doom and destruction while looking up to the sky for Jesus to reappear and save all the faithful. And this is no small number of people.
And I can understand that desire, that need to draw the world to a close and to return to the ground of being. I can understand that for many, the struggles of the world seem to be too great and the only relief seems to be from Divine assistance. I can understand that many look at the manner in which we, in our brokenness, have taken for granted the goodness of life while through our actions denied that goodness to others and maybe that is only redeemable by a radical infusion of grace from God. I understand all those temptations to look some sort of apocalyptic ending. And so it is that we approach our first text for this morning from the Book and Daniel and maybe we all secretly wonder if the author had some amount of prescience in the way he wrote. We wonder if maybe God had whispered some secret words about the end times that he then obediently recorded and shared with the world. We wonder if in reading his words we are not given some degree of knowledge about how things will be brought to an end and maybe feel we gain some level of comfort from reading these words. And the description of the events that go on before the author’s sight are magnificent and bold. They describe a coronation of sorts happening against the backdrop of the heavenly realm in which an “Ancient One” takes his place amidst streams of fire and thousands upon thousands of servants attending to him. And then coming out of the clouds of heaven comes a second figure who is presented before the Ancient One and to this new figure is given dominion and glory and reign over all the world. And we wonder if this is how it is all actually going to happen, if this is a description of the final chapter in existence. And maybe we start to also turn our eyes to the sky and our minds to the brokenness of creation and the struggles of humankind to be good to one another and the wars and pestilence that cover so much of the planet and the horrific manner in which we too often treat one another and the way in which we divide ourselves and our greed for more stuff and our need for more things and our love of race or gender or creed or class and the way that some people still aren’t really considered people and the way in which the poor and working-class really do hold up most of the troubles of the world on their backs and the manner in which we treat our planet and our women and our children and maybe we wonder if what is required is for the Ancient One to reappear and bring this new figure with him and just bring it all to some kind of a glorious end because the other option is that we are called to do something about it now. But is that the only way to think about God’s presence with us? Is that the only way to perceive the movement of God within the world? Is is possible that we just have to adjust our sights just a bit to see the realm of God appearing right here, right now?
Pilate came into the room and after summoning Jesus he asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?” And you have to know that Pilate really wants nothing to do with this whole situation. And in asking him, “Are you the king of the Jews?” at least in part, he is saying, “why do I have to adjudicate over a Jewish squabble?” Pilate, being a Roman has little foundation upon which to judge a Jewish matter and this is essentially what Jesus is saying to him. Jesus asks, “Do you really want to know or are you just repeating back something that someone said to you?” Pilate answers, “Well, it’s your people who are turning you over to me. It’s your own people who seem to take issue with what you are saying, what you are doing?” “What kind of a king can’t even control his own people?” But listen to Jesus’s response, “My kingdom is not from this world.” That is to say, “You are trying to understand me by the ways of this world, by the ways of the old order in which kings have power and might and crush their enemies and sit high atop thrones and condemn those under them to death and imprisonment. You are trying to understand me by the old order but I am the bearer of a New Being, of a new order, of a new way of living in the world and you and your position and status cannot begin to understand that.” And Pilate must have been on the edge of coming completely unspooled as he returns to the original question, “So you are a king?” And I wonder if Jesus rolled his eyes, or shook his head, or more likely looked at him with all the love that one can muster towards another who simply doesn’t get it. “You say I am a king because that is the only way that those in the old order can understand power but 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.” And all Pilate is left to do in his confusion, all he is left to say in his place in the old order of the world is, “What is truth?”
We are in the last Sunday of the Christian year. The Sunday traditionally called, “Reign of Christ” Sunday. And so it is an interesting juxtaposition, these two passages; one that looks to the end of the world and the other that demonstrates the reign of Christ in the here and now. And as we bring this Christian year to a close we are reminded that Christ rests both at the end of time but also in the midst of the now. That Christ prepares our place at the great feast of heaven in which we will sit and break bread in the eternity of forever but also that Christ resides in the body and blood of the communion table now. And as we gather here today, the temptation is to cast our eyes both out into the horizon. To think about the sweet by-and-by in which all will be made right and justice will flow like a mighty stream. In which Jesus will wipe every tear from our eyes and death will lose its sting. In which the struggles that we face today will be given relief and that there will be a balm in Gilead and that weeping and gnashing of teeth will be no more. But that is not where we are called to be. The temptation to look to the future is strong because in the future, we believe that all will be made right but we cannot be there, not yet. We cannot be there because there is too much work to be done in the here and now. We cannot be there because Jesus still walks with those who suffer, those who are often considered the “least of these,” those whom most of society would just prefer pass on the other side of the street. Jesus walks with them and so too are we called to walk with them. We cannot be there because there are still those who need to be fed now and who can’t wait for the end of the world. They are hungry now and with nothing to eat it gets hard to wait. We cannot be there because there are still those who earnestly seek to be allowed into the doors of the church and who continue to be driven away by the old order of the world in which Jesus only calls some of us to serve, some of us to attend, some of us to be loved. We cannot be there because we are here and the cries of those who struggle still ring out, the wails of those who hurt still sting our own ears, the screams of those who just want to know that someone, somewhere cares at all about them continue to break the silence of the complacent.
In his confrontation with Pilate, Jesus confirms to all with ears to hear and eyes to perceive that his reign is not in a far off place and a far off time but is in the here and now. Jesus confirms that in his living and his dying that a new way to exist is made apparent for all those who will step out in faith just a single inch. Jesus confirms that we need not cast our eyes out in the distance but rather testify to the truth here. The truth of God’s unfailing love for all creation. The truth of God’s justice that is now washing over creation. The truth of God’s peace in which swords are beaten into plowshares and war is studied no more. The truth of God’s call to share with all who need now. The truth of God’s desire to treat every person with dignity. The truth of God’s desire for us to take care of the world and all the creatures within it. The truth of God’s new being, ushered in by Jesus for all the people of the world to live into.
Friends, as we end this year on the Christian calendar and begin to prepare our hearts and minds for the appearance of the special child of God in a manger in the town of Bethlehem, let’s agree to not simply look for Jesus to come in on the clouds of heaven to save us all for ourselves, but let’s agree to look for Jesus in the struggles of all those who dwell in the here and now. Let’s walk with Jesus when he reaches out to those who have been forgotten by the world. Let’s walk with Jesus when he goes into the war-torn areas of the world and seeks to sew seeds of peace. Let’s walk with Jesus when he feeds those who hunger, clothes those who are naked, offers sight to the blind, release to the captives, good news to the poor, freedom for the oppressed, and the year of God’s favor for all people. Glory be to God in the highest and on earth peace amongst all God’s peoples. Alleluia, Amen.