“My kingdom is not of this world”

Our weekly devotion from the sainted Rev. Earl Feddersen:

Daniel 7:13-14
Revelation 1:4-8
John 18:33-37

This coming Sunday is the last Sunday in the Church Year. Some call it “Sunday of the Fulfillment” or “Christ the King Sunday.” As is often the case this time of the year, two of the Scripture readings come from apocalyptic literature. The first lesson is from Daniel; the second is from Revelation. The Gospel lesson is the story of a power struggle between Jesus and Pilate when the Roman governor had our Lord on trial.

When we think about Jesus being a King, we usually think about His future coming with great power and authority or we imagine some mystical, supernatural, unearthly kingdom that is invisible and, for the most part, irrelevant to our everyday lives. I believe that when Jesus told Pilate, “My Kingdom is not of this world,” He was not trying to say that His rule is extraterrestrial, supernatural or metaphysical. I believe that Jesus was saying that His power, authority and way of ruling are quite different from the world’s way of thinking about these things.

Before looking at the story itself, draw your attention to the Annual Report of the Massachusetts Board of Agriculture, 1875. Just in case you don’t have a copy, I’ll tell you about it. More than 100 years ago a Massachusetts farmer, named Rutherford Platt, got interested in the growing power of expanding apples, melons and squashes. He harnessed a squash to a weight-lifting device that had a dial like that of a grocer’s scale to indicate the pressure exerted by the expanding fruit. As the days passed he kept piling on counter-weights. He could hardly believe his eyes when he saw his vegetables exerting a lifting force of 5,000 pounds per square inch. When nobody believed him, he set up exhibits of harnessed squashes and invited the public to come and see. The results of his amazing experiments are a matter of public record.

When Jesus stood before Pilate, He had the appearance of a captured criminal. You have probably seen artists’ depictions of the scene–His hands are bound and His head is bowed in subjection before His captor and judge. Later in the trial, His condition is even more pitiful as He is stripped half-naked and His scourged back and thorn-encircled head are bleeding. I find the whole scene objectionable, if not disgusting, but on one score I would disagree with all the artists’ renditions I have ever seen. The conversations between Jesus and Pilate do not reveal any sense of subjugation on our Lord’s part. He endured humiliation but was not humiliated. Jesus was the one on trial, but Pilate was the one who was afraid. Jesus’ attitude taunted and intimidated Pilate.

Samuel Johnson and James Boswell, of English literary fame, were good friends. Boswell had an annoying habit and one day Johnson confronted him: “Bozzy,” he affectionately said, “why is it that you always answer my questions with a question of your own?” Boswell responded, “Do I now?”

Jesus did the same thing to Pilate at the beginning of His trial. He immediately put Pilate on the defensive. Pilate asked five questions. He began with: (1) “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus responded, “Is that your own idea, or did others talk to you about me?” Somewhat flustered, Pilate blurted out, (2) “Am I a Jew?” Then he continued the interrogation. It was your people and your chief priests who handed you over to me. (3) What is it you have done?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place.” Pilate said to Him, (4) “You are a king, then!” Jesus answered, “You are right in saying I am a king. In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” That’s when Pilate asked, (5) “What is truth?”

It is relatively impossible, from our perspective, to know what was going on in Pilate’s mind. I numbered his questions for the sake of brevity. They are at least cagey and reveal ulterior motives of some kind. His first is a leading question. The second is a dodge. The third is a loaded question. The fourth is a trick question. And the last could have made all the difference for his life, if it hadn’t been facetious. The standoff between Jesus and Pilate is a classic illustration of the difference between worldly authority and real power. Pilate appears to be totally in control of the situation–the kingdoms of the world depend on control–it gives them an appearance of power. Pilate had that appearance, but I have a feeling that he knew the ropes on Jesus’ hands were kind of like a cotton clothesline around a Rutherford Platt squash. It was only a matter of time …

Years ago, an escaped convict from a Tennessee prison surprised Nathan Degranifried outside his modest home in Mason, Tennessee. The convict had a gun, and with that gun he had control–apparent power. He forced Nathan into the house, but then the situation suddenly changed. Nathan’s wife was not afraid of the gun. The short, black, grandmotherly lady told the convict to put his gun down while she fixed him some breakfast. She calmly and boldly spoke of her faith and how a young man such as he should behave. Before long, he surrendered and was on his way back to prison. The escaped convict had control, but Louise Degranifried had power.

As long as kingdoms and citizens of this world continue to rule and think in terms of control, we will continue to ask the wrong questions, give the wrong answers and find the wrong solutions. By its very nature, control limits, prevents, inhibits, weakens and kills. Real power frees, enables, improves, strengthens and enlivens. Control must be kept selfishly or it is lost. When power is shared it increases. Power is greater than control. In fact, over the long run control is virtually impossible. Human history can be divided into chapters that begin with an assumption of control and end with its loss. Sooner or later the controlled gain control.

The U. S. Constitution empowers the longest running government on the face of the earth. It should come as no surprise that it is based on freeing the power of the people rather than controlling them. If that long run every stops, it will be because of the increasing popularity of something called “governmental controls.” Our foreign policy leans more and more toward control. We keep trying to control through guns, warships, embargoes and covert activity. What ever happened to the real power of freedom, goodwill, understanding and democracy?

As parents, when our children are young, we must exercise some control over them. Once the basic lessons of childhood training are learned, however, only the real power of love, mutual respect and trust will enable them to become the people we hope they will be. That is why Jesus chose power rather than control. God wants to empower, enliven and free His people.

I wonder why that is either so hard to remember or so easy to forget. It may have always been so, but contemporary people–even the faithful–seem to be preoccupied with finding the answers to the wrong questions. People keep asking why God allows such things as sickness, natural calamities and human evils to continue. The questions are valid if we think that God controls human destinies and fortunes. The King who came to bear witness to the truth has shown us that God does not control. He empowers us to endure, surmount and eventually triumph. With His disdain of control, and with His self-denying, cheek-turning and enemy-loving ways, our King unleashed a force on earth that has been dramatically changing people’s lives for nearly 2,000 years.

Our King is described in Sunday’s lesson as a “faithful witness” to His Father’s love. It was not some warm feeling He had or some words He mouthed. It was His life and action. He confirmed His love for us by His death on a cross. He set us free from sin and all our sins–including our desire to control our own little kingdoms. We are His dominion–a dominion of priests–more faithful witnesses. He has sent us into the world on His mission.

What is the power of God and how great is it? God’s power is the only real power any parent has—His love. One of the great collects (prayers) of the church says that God demonstrates His power chiefly in showing mercy. St. Paul says it is His grace. As for how great, well, maybe it’s time for a story. A man went to buy a Rolls Royce. He had already made up his mind to buy it, but he asked the salesman to tell him all about its outstanding features.

“Well, it’s the most famous car in the world.” The salesman said. “Some Rolls are still running after 50 years. The ride is so quiet you can hear a whisper inside….” The glorious praise continued for some time, and then the purchaser asked, “What is the horsepower of the Rolls Royce?” The salesman said, “No one has ever asked me that. I’ll have to look it up.”

He checked in all his books but couldn’t find the answer, so he sent a wire to London asking what the horsepower was. A telegram was immediately returned with a typically British, one-word reply: “ADEQUATE.” We could not comprehend, nor do we need to estimate the power of God. It is adequate…and then some.

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