Sermon text: John 19:1-37.
I’ve read sci-fi and BYTE Magazine author Jerry Pournelle for years, both as a science fiction buff and as a computer geek. Several years ago, someone started a discussion on Jerry Pournelle’s site regarding the question: Is it good for emperors to go into battle at the head of their armies? Someone pointed out that in the history of our Republic, only 2 of our presidents — George Washington and Dwight D. Eisenhower — have fought in battle, and both of them fought prior to their elections. We have never witnessed a U.S. president personally leading our forces in battle during a war.
This is a good thing, because the record of kings/presidents/ emperors in battle is not very good. Shakespeare wrote of several, but two of the most noteworthy both died: Macbeth and Richard III. There’s a good reason to keep your leaders away from a battle. Battles are deadly, and people in the front tend to get shot at first.
On the other hand, soldiers tend to fight harder for leaders willing to accept the same risks their troops face. In ancient Rome, rare was the emperor who didn’t come up the ranks of the army. Almost no emperor could rule without the title Ave Imperator, which designated someone as worthy to lead the armies of Rome. I think we all remember the reception President Bush received in Baghdad at Thanksgiving. The very fact the president was willing to risk flying into Baghdad, even though the visit was short, greatly motivated the troops stationed there. It also did some good for morale at home to see our President cared that much for our fathers, sons, and friends in Iraq.
We’ve all heard the Church compared to the army of Christ. We know Christ is our head; through the Holy Spirit, He gives the orders, we follow the orders. This setup works really well, as the growth of the Church from fewer than 200 to more than 2 billion today attests.
But the Church has succeeded for one reason: Our King was willing to shoulder our risks, even though it killed Him. Literally.
The Scriptures tonight demonstrate the twisted humor of Pilate and the Romans. In the preceding chapter (which I encourage you to read), the Jews have accused Jesus of declaring Himself a king. Pilate, after questioning Jesus, decides the charges are false and decides to release Him. To elicit the Jews’ sympathy, Pilate has Jesus whipped; the Roman soldiers, hearing this man has called Himself a king, taunt Him. “Hail, king of the Jews!”
But then the Jews play their trump card: “if you release this man, you are not Caesar’s friend.” They knew Pilate was on the hot seat with Rome for his treatment of the Jews and the trouble it caused. Caesar wanted everything quiet in the East, and Pilate wasn’t exactly helping attain this goal. Pilate faced a choice: risk the Jews’ accusation making its way to Rome, or crucifying an innocent man. Ever the pragmatist, Pilate chose the latter, but not before getting one last dig at the Jews: “Behold your king!”
By this point, Jesus looked like anything but a king. Isaiah had prophesied saying, “his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of the children of mankind.” To call Jesus “king” was the ultimate in ironic cruelty. Or so Pilate thought.
I once received a Good Friday e-mail from the Practical Christian Life list. I’ll quote from it here:
In those terms, we may say that God has paid his dues, has earned the right to talk to us about suffering because he has endured it with us. He endured not only physical pain, but the torments of doubt and uncertainty and fear. In the Garden of Gethesemane, waiting for the soldiers to come and arrest him, he was clearly in great distress of mind. Some people think that this shows a character flaw — that a truly great man, or a truly wise man, would say, “I never worry about things I can change, and I never worry about things I cannot change,” and so would not have been bothered by the prospect of torture and death. I reply that a man who did not let such things bother him would have very little to say to the rest of us.
And I take comfort in this; I take comfort in the fact that my King was not just bothered by the prospect of torture and death; He was terrified of them. He knows my fears; He knows the temptation to run and hide, to try to weasel out of trouble. And He faced it and won.
I found this passage in C.S. Lewis’ Letters to Malcom Chiefly on Prayer:
The beginning of the Passion — the first move, so to speak — is in Gethsemane. In Gethsemane a very strange and significant thing seems to have happened.
It is clear from many of his sayings that Our Lord had long foreseen His own death. He knew what conduct such as His, in a world such as we have made of this, must inevitably lead to. But it is clear that this knowledge must somehow have been withdrawn from Him before He prayed in Gethsemane. He could not, with whatever reservation about the Father’s will, have prayed that the cup might pass and simultaneously known that it would not. That is both a logical and a psychological impossibility. You see what this involves? Lest any trial incident to humanity should be lacking, the torments of hope — of suspense, anxiety — were at the last moment loosed on Him — the supposed possibility that, after all, He might, He just conceivably might, be spared the ultimate horror. There was precedent. Isaac had been spared: he too at the last moment, he also against all apparent probability. It was not quite impossible…and doubtless He had seen other men crucified…a sight very unlike most of our religious pictures and images.
But for this last (and erroneous) hope against hope, and the consequent tumult of the soul, the sweat of blood, perhaps he would not have been very Man. To live in a fully predictable world is not to be a man.
At the end, I know, we are told that an angel appeared “comforting” Him. But neither “comforting” in sixteenth-century English nor “ennischuon” in Greek means “consoling”. “Strengthening” is more the word. May not the strengthening have consisted in the renewed certainty — cold comfort this — that the thing must be endured and therefore could be?
Again, this fact comforts me, strengthens me: that Jesus experienced that which we all face as we carry out His orders. For at the moment that Pilate sarcastically declared, “behold your King!”, Jesus was on the verge of winning the greatest battle ever fought. Within a matter of hours, Jesus would win victory over death. Not even the Roman emperor could even attempt to fight death.
What do you face tonight? Fear? Behold your King. Uncertainty about life? Behold your King. Are you waiting for God to answer your prayer, but you’re afraid of what the answer will be? Behold your King.
Christians everywhere tonight have heard the words, and I urge you to look to the cross, witness Jesus’ sufferings, and take the words to heart: “Behold your King.”
“Empire and Battle,” available online: http://www.jerrypournelle.com/mail/mail302.html#Empire. Site copyrighted by Jerry Pournelle, 2004.
James Keifer, “A Good Friday Meditation on an Unlikely Text.”