A King’s Gift

Emilie Bouvier, "Springing"(Cowling Arboretum; Northfield, Minn.)Image © Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

Dear Working Preacher,

I can’t remember the last time Christ the King Sunday fell after Thanksgiving. I’m sure it’s happened, but I don’t remember when. And that means, among other things, that an already archaic and somewhat confusing festival seems this year even more archaic and confusing because, let’s face it, once Thanksgiving comes and goes we’re pretty much all thinking about Advent (okay, most of our people are actually thinking about Christmas, but we’ll call it Advent to make ourselves feel better). And of course the text we’re assigned isn’t even from Mark, the gospel we’ve been reading all these weeks – but instead from John, in a passage traditionally read on Good Friday. Given these ecclesial, biblical, and liturgical obstacles, what’s an honest Working Preacher to do?

While it may be tempting to choose another text – and I’d certainly understand if you picked Mark’s version of the scene with Pilate (Mark 15:1-15), for instance – we might split the difference between straddling Christ the King and Advent by noticing something really interesting about John’s account. To do so, though, you need to read the whole scene (at least to yourself) of Jesus’ encounter with Pilate (John 18:28-19:16).

I call it Jesus’ “encounter” rather than “trial” because, truth be told, it’s Pilate, not Jesus, who is on trial. And, quite frankly, he doesn’t fare all that well. Let’s set the scene.

In fact, let’s treat it as a scene, not just in literature but one that might be set on a stage. If that were the case, we’d notice that the stage would be split in two. One half would be occupied by Pilate’s headquarters; the other half would be devoted to the portico, or patio, just outside his headquarters. And standing on the patio at the beginning of this scene are the religious leaders who have brought Jesus to Pilate for a trial about whose outcome they have no doubts.

The scene begins, then, with Pilate coming out to greet them. And then John does something pretty interesting – he gives us stage directions, focusing our attention on Pilate as he moves between his headquarters and the patio not once, not twice, not even three times, but a total of seven times. That’s right, Pilates wavers back and forth between Jesus and his accusers like a drunken sailor trying to walk from the pub back to his ship.

And that’s just the point. Pilate wavers: he knows what is right…but he also knows what is easy, what is politically expedient, and he’s torn between the two. Ultimately, he takes the easy road, caving into political pressure and denying the truth that he sees right in front of him.

And here’s the thing just two days after “Black Friday” – which actually this year became “Black Thursday” – I think a lot of us know what it feels like to feel pressure to cave in to the cultural impulse to “shop ‘till you drop.” I mean, how many of us really feel that our life will be diminished even a little bit if we don’t slog our way through the crowds looking for that elusive bargain. And who really believes, to turn it around, that our lives will be enriched by wading through mall traffic to buy one more gift our kids or spouse or sibling or co-worker will probably not even remember three months from now.

Of course we don’t believe it. Most of us, in fact, are just a tad sickened by the profound commercialization of Christmas, and yet we participate in it fully, if not joyfully. Why?

Because we have been taken captive by a false idea that things make us happy, so much so that, urged on by an insatiable consumption-oriented culture, we either relentlessly consume more and more or we feel inadequate that we can’t. In fact, I’d argue that a whole lot of us waver between feelings of compulsion to buy and spend more (whether we can afford to or not) and feelings of guilt knowing that this isn’t helpful to us, to those around us, or to the planet.

But must Pilate’s fate be ours? Because here’s the thing – Jesus makes Pilate a promise: “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate doesn’t listen, but we might. And if we do, what will we hear Jesus say? It’s simple: that we are enough. That we are worthy of love and honor and respect. That we don’t have to do anything – or buy anything – to earn God’s love because God has already given us that love freely and abundantly in Jesus Christ. In fact, from the very first verses of John’s Gospel, when we hear that the only begotten Son and eternal Word has taken on our flesh in order to reveal to us the Father’s heart (1:1,14,18), we are assured of God’s love, a love so big it encompasses the whole cosmos (3:16).

We are enough. You are enough. I am enough. Our people are enough. Knowing this – believing this – grants us the freedom to celebrate with joy rather than frenzy, to buy and give only out of love rather than out of insecurity or compulsion, and to give thanks for all that we have been blessed with rather than focus on what we’ve been told we lack.

You are enough. A message so simple it can be summed up in just three words, yet so important that God sent the only Son to bear that message in his flesh and blood.

Simple, profound, compelling. Yet still difficult to hear. Why? Because the cacophony of voices in our culture screaming that our worth is derived from our possessions regularly threatens to drown out the simple message that God has already called us worthy.

Which means, Working Preacher, that two days after Black Friday and a full week before the start of Advent may just be the perfect time to dedicate the four Sundays to come as a time to announce to each other the profoundly simple and simply profound message that God accepts us as we are, loves us as we are, and declares us worthy as we are. Us, as we are – not the person we’re trying to by, have promised to be, or intend to be – but us, as we are, right now. This is the kingly gift Christ bestows on us this and every Sunday.

And perhaps, if we can remind each other of that, we can also remind each other that we don’t have to shop ‘till we drop, we don’t have to derive our worth from the presents we receive or give, we don’t need to inundate our loved ones with gifts they don’t need, and that we’re free instead to tend to the needs of those less fortunate than we are. Indeed, we are free to love others as we have been loved.

This can be a tricky message to preach, I know. It’s hard, after all, not to sound shrill or scolding when we talk about restraint in the face of the media onslaught of potential gifts and gadgets. But it’s not gifts I’m concerned about; it’s the relentless insecurity that drives us to believe that we don’t have and, indeed, are not enough. It’s not, quite frankly, that I want our people to have less, but rather that I want them to have more…more peace, more joy, more contentment, a more profound of belonging and more clear idea of just how precious they are to God, the giver of all good things. And maybe, just maybe, our folks aren’t just ready, but actually eager, for a message like that.

Thanks for hearing me out, Working Preacher. I appreciate your partnership in declaring the gospel to people simply starved for a sense of meaning, worth, and belonging, a people, of course, that includes me.

Yours in Christ,

P.S. If you want to bring this reading to life, brings folks up front to represent the religious authorites on one side, Jesus on the other, and Pilate shuttling between them as you read the story (or you can have folks read their lines).

P.P.S. Thanks to Patricia Harris for a great conversation on the Christ-the-King-after-Thanksgiving predicament.