Sunday, November 20, 2016

The Job That Jesus Refused

John 6:11-15
Christ the King
November 20, 2016
William G. Carter

Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.” When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.

“Those who seek Christ for something other than Christ himself will find Christ flees from them,
yes, the Spirit of Truth flees from them, too.” – St. Rupert

At the height of frenzy during the recent election season, there was a great new product available online at Amazon. It was a 100% cotton t-shirt, available in steel gray for the low price of $24.99. Word is that these were selling pretty fast, especially after each of the three presidential debates. The sales would also have a good bump after the latest polls were revealed, or after any news story having to do with e-mail servers or derogatory words about women or Mexicans.

It was a t-shirt with a message, and it declared a political preference with perfect clarity: “Jesus for President, 2016.”

Friends tell me that they saw matching bumper stickers on everything from a pickup truck to a Prius. I noticed a lot of people making the same statement on Facebook, especially when it seemed like their favorite other candidate would not win. Some even went as far as to declare the election wasn’t going to matter at all to them, because Jesus was their president, no matter who ended up in the White House.

So I thought about this brief story from the Gospel of John. We have to swap the word “king” instead of “president,” not a difficult exchange to make. They wanted to make Jesus king, and he withdrew and slipped away.

In a way, you can’t blame him. Who would want the job? Really! Especially now. Everything you say is broadcast continuously. Everything you do is criticized. Opponents crawl out of the woodwork to oppose you. Old opponents suddenly become your friends, apparently if an appointment is possible. You can’t even send the second-in-command to a Broadway show without having the cast stand up and make a speech.

Would you want that? Would you want to put your family through that? Who would want to become king?

When I was a fourth grader, I thought it would be pretty cool. You could ride in a limousine and eat whatever you wanted for supper. Best of all, you could boss everybody around and they would have to take it.

I remember seeing an old Peanuts cartoon. Lucy says to Linus, “Do this!” “Do this!” “Do this!” In the last panel, Linus replies, “You’re right. You would make a good queen.” When you’re a kid, the possibility of power and unlimited respect seems like a wonderful thing. But when you see what the job entails, you have to “give up your childish ways.” Or at least, the rest of us hope so.

They wanted to make Jesus king. Why? Reflecting on the text, we can think of a number of reasons.
The first is very simple: their bellies are full. A multitude has just been fed, thanks be to Jesus. Thousands of people were there, the disciples wondered what to do. Jesus borrows a little kid’s lunch – five barley loaves and a couple of fish – and five thousand people are fed.

Everybody was amazed. They had trailed after him because of all the healings that he was doing; maybe he could heal them, too. Then he feeds everybody, and the crowd goes wild. They were saying to one another, “This is the prophet of God!” So they wanted to make him king.

The reasoning went something like this, I believe: Jesus is a miracle worker, and if we make him the king, he will be our miracle worker. We will have whatever we want. Grace will be gushing out of a faucet. We won’t have to worry about looking for bread. We won’t have to prepare our own supper. He will just give it to us, if we seize him and declare him our king.  

And Jesus slips away from their grasp. He doesn’t seem interested in giving people what they want. His mother sneaked up behind him at a wedding reception and said, “They ran out of wine.” He looks at her and says, “Woman, what is that to me?” He’s rude to her. As she skulks away, only then does he turn water into wine. (John 2:1-11) Not because she asks, but because he chooses to do so.

Likewise, his good friend Lazarus is dying. They send for Jesus to come, in the hope that he will heal his friend. What does Jesus do? Don’t know, actually; he sits still until Lazarus is dead. Then and only then does he go to the tomb and call him out (John 11:1-53).  Not because they want him to do it, but because he chooses to give life again.

I suppose that means nobody is going to make Jesus king, especially if it’s because they want him to do whatever they want. No special interest groups to influence the Savior!

OK, fair enough. But they want to make him king. Because if he’s the king, he can handle everything. That’s what kings do, right? Not only do they have the power, they have the authority. They speak the order, they sign the paper, they take charge. They get things done.

The people around Jesus knew that. They were Jews, they had the story in their Bible. They remembered, from their own history, how their ancestors went to the prophet Samuel and said, “Why can’t we have a king? All the other nations have a king. We want a king.”

Samuel said, “You don’t want a king.” But the people said, “Yes, we do. We want to be like all the other countries, and they have kings.”

Samuel said, “You don’t want a king. Kings send your children into battle. Kings take over your fields and reap the harvest. Kings take a tenth of all that you have, your food and wine and horsepower, and use it as they wish. Kings steal your daughters and eat your olives. You don’t want a king.” But the people persisted and complained, until God said to Samuel, “OK, give them a king.”[1] Let them learn the hard way.

And do you know something? According to the history books of Israel, they didn’t have one perfect king. Oh, they thought the next one would be the right one, but they were wrong … maybe because all their rulers were men. Yet they never gave up hope, even after the nation was repeatedly invaded, even after the office of “king” was eliminated. “The next king is going to be good. He’s going to handle everything for us.”

So Walter Brueggemann, the Old Testament scholar, reminds us that a big thick book in the Bible is called “Kings.” The history was so thick that they had to put in two large scrolls, later called “First Kings” and “Second Kings.” Brueggemann says the real title of those scrolls ought to conclude with a question mark: “Kings? You call these kings?”[2]

So maybe we should give up the vain and silly notion that, if only we put the right person on the throne, they will give us what we want. Our earthly rulers can’t ever live up to those expectations. They need our prayers so that they might govern wisely. They need our prayers because they will ultimately answer to the God.

Yet the people wanted to make Jesus king. The notion first arises in the first chapter of John. Nathanael, sassy Nathanael, hears about Jesus and says, “Nothing good ever comes out of the Podunk town where he’s from.” But Jesus throws it back at him, and then lets him know that he has observed a lot more about Nathanael than is comfortable. So Nathanael says, “You’re the king, the king of Israel.”[3] The idea is planted. Like a seed, it starts to grow. The buzz begins to spread.

By the time we get to chapter six, the crowd is cheering and surging: they want to make Jesus the king. And there’s nothing like a crowd, especially when most of them agree with one another. That’s one of the remarkable reports from our recent election. There were mass gatherings of people, everybody in agreement. If you speak against, you might get punched or hauled out of there. And if a huge mob is cheering in unison, it’s hard to say no.

And Jesus says no. They were about to seize him by force and make him king. He would have nothing of it.

Maybe if they had read the Gospel of Matthew, the crowd would have known better. You probably remember the story. Jesus was in the wilderness, working out the implications of his baptism. The Tempter came to him and said, “I’m going to give you all the political power in the world. Just say the word, and the kingdoms of the world can be yours.” According to Matthew, Jesus said, “Go back to hell where you belong.”[4]

Maybe if they were paying attention on Palm Sunday. The Gospel of John says it got pretty noisy. The crowds saw Jesus, they cheered with a victorious Psalm. They called him “king.” They even cut down palm branches, just like they did when they had a political uprising against another empire, almost two hundred years before. “This Jesus, he will be king. He will drive out the Roman army, he will restore the Temple to its full glory, and then there will be no more PeeWee Football or Travel Soccer to interfere with Sunday School. We’ll be in charge.”

But  - and it’s a mighty big “but” - Jesus climbs onto a donkey, just like the humblest leader that old prophets ever mentioned. Because he wasn’t going to be that kind of king.

Maybe if they were listening when he stands before Pontius Pilate. Pilate says, “So I hear you are a king.” Jesus says, “Those are your words.”  Pilate said, “I’m no Jew. What have you done?” Jesus says, “My kingship is not from around here.” So you’re a king? And Jesus says, “For this reason I was born: to point to the Truth.” Pilate doesn’t get it, any more than the crowd who had their bellies filled.

In one final, slick move, Pilate decrees that a sign be placed over the prisoner’s head when they put him on the cross: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” Some of his enemies complain, “He isn’t our king.” But Pilate leaves the sign up there, translated into all the languages of the city. And everybody who passed by wondered what kind of king he was. All the kings they know don’t get crucified. All the kings they’ve ever heard about don’t withdraw from the cheers of the mob. All the kings that the world notices are the ones who love to be in charge.

And yet, Jesus is King. Not because our bellies are full, but because he already is king. Not because he gives us whatever we want, but because he is the Source and Destination of our lives. He is not the king because somebody puts it on a t-shirt, a bumper sticker, or a Facebook post; his kingship does not originate from human acclamation or getting a lot of votes. Rather it comes from the love of God that sends Jesus into a world like this.

I think I know why he disappeared when the crowd wanted to make him king. It’s because he doesn’t need a crowd in order to be crowned. He doesn’t need our approval before he grants us life, or grace, or daily bread. He doesn’t ask our permission before he forgives us or sends us out to forgive. He doesn’t need anything more than our awakened hearts, seeking him, loving him, living like him, following him, giving ourselves for others just like him.

In the words of St. Augustine, “Jesus is sought after for something else, but not for his own sake.”

So there’s our answer: to seek him for who he is, and not for what we want him to be. To live for him and not merely for ourselves. To praise him for his own sake, and to rejoice that the whole world is held in his crucified hands. To love all the people he loves, and to trust in his mercy.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] 1 Samuel 8:10-22
[2] Walter Brueggemann, Knox Preaching Guide, 1 and 2 Samuel
[3] John 1:49
[4] Matthew 4:8-11

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