Sermon for Christ the King, Sunday November 21st, 2021
When the people had a choice, they chose Barabbas.
Never forget that. In the very next few verses of this gospel, Pilate gives the people a choice, he lets them vote. The people may choose Jesus, the prophet and teacher that some people are hailing as the Messiah, or they may choose Barabbas, the murderer and bandit who was arrested for leading a riot against the Roman oppressors. Well, the choice is obvious, isn’t it? Obviously, the choice has to be Barabbas. He’s the stronger leader. Barabbas isn’t taking any prisoners or suffering any fools. Barabbas is a man of action. Barabbas is more popular.
What has Jesus done? Yeah, it is rumored that he has some magical powers, some people even say that they saw him bring a dead man back to life, but if that were really the case then why doesn’t he show his power now? But here Jesus stands all chained up and beaten, bloody, frail and weak, and mostly quiet. Does Pilate actually think that the people are going to vote for this man? I’m not so sure.
Pilate is a cynic, he’s not a fool. Despite his protestations of finding no fault with Jesus, he knows that this little vote isn’t about giving justice to this condemned man. This isn’t about right and wrong; this is a popularity contest, plain and simple. If Pilate were actually concerned about what is right, if he cared about true justice, and if he believed Jesus to be innocent, as he says, then he would set Jesus free; he has the power to do that. But what Pilate cares about is political expediency and popularity. I have a hard time believing that the man who asks that famous cynical question, “what is truth?” is actually surprised when the people choose Barabbas. No, he’s not surprised.
We should not be surprised either.
Because truth is not always popular, in fact, truth is often deeply unpopular. The will of the majority, has very little to do with the will of God. Popularity is not justice, and popularity is not truth.
Fulton Sheen, in his magnificent “Life of Christ” notes that:
“Truth does not win when numbers alone become decisive. Numbers alone can decide a beauty queen, but not justice. Beauty is a matter of taste, but justice is tasteless. Right is still right if nobody is right, and wrong is still wrong if everybody is wrong. The first poll in the history of Christianity was wrong!”
The people had a choice, and the chose Barabbas. Don’t forget that. I know this may come as a shock to some people, it may even anger some of you, but it needs to be said: Democracy is NOT a biblical ideal. You will not find in the scriptures any endorsement of the idea that the will of the people is equal to the will of God, in fact, what you will find is ample evidence of the exact opposite. There are plenty of reminders in the scriptures that God does not see things the way we see things, and that the will of the majority is not in accord with God’s will: Moses wandering through the desert with the Children of Israel, who wanted to turn back at every step; Samuel who anointed David as King over Israel, the weakest of Jesse’s sons, the one nobody would have voted for; You can pick any one of the prophets, who each called out the masses for their perversion of God’s will; and of course, in the gospels people are given the choice to vote for Jesus, and the choice they make is Barabbas. Humans make bad choices. If you don’t get anything else out of reading or hearing scripture, if you don’t get anything else out of this sermon, please get that. Write it down on your palm; make yourself a note and stick it to the refrigerator. Humans make bad choices. We do it as individuals, and when you put us together in groups, we do it as groups. If human will were always in accordance with divine will, we wouldn’t need government, and we wouldn’t need laws. But alas that is not, and never has been the case. Government and human law is our extremely imperfect way of mitigating the damage of human sinfulness. It can do some good things, but a lot of time it is just mitigating damage. It is at the same time a product of and subject to human sinfulness. It is a temporary solution to living in a world with humans that make bad choices. But because we are prone to making bad choices, we have discovered that some forms of government are better, or at least less cruel, than others.
Winston Churchill once famously said:
‘Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.…’
Democracy, whether it is an American-style republic or the British-style constitutional monarchy, may be the least-worst form of government we have, but that doesn’t make it perfect. As we recall from our Remembrance Sunday service last week, democracy and freedom may be something worth fighting for, and dying for. It is definitely something worth praying for; but we must never assume that the free choices we make are righteous based solely upon the number of people that are voting with us. Righteousness doesn’t work that way. As Bishop Sheen said: “Truth does not win when numbers alone become decisive.”
Democracy may be our form of government, but it is not God’s form of government, not in his kingdom. Because democracy is about public opinion and popularity; democracy is about the numbers. What do the poll numbers say today? But God doesn’t need to know the will of the majority, because the only will that is going to matter in the kingdom of God is his will. Numbers matter in this world, but Jesus reminds us in the gospel today that his kingdom is not of this world. The numbers don’t matter to God. Popular opinion doesn’t matter to God. What matters to God is truth. That is what Jesus’s kingdom is about, truth, and guess what, truth is NOT something that you get to vote on. It just is.
This has become an increasingly hard pill to swallow nowadays, because we are all told on a daily basis how much our opinions and how much our feelings matter. Every phone call wants me to take a survey afterwards. Everytime I take my car to the shop, I am sent a survey afterwards and God forbid I don’t fill it out with all 10s or all 5s or whatever. Facebook is a giant altar to your personal feelings and opinions, wherein you may worship them night and day. The news you read, that is all shaded to conform to your already held opinions. Even Stew Leonard’s has a big sign out front that says, “the customer is always right.” As someone who has worked in retail, I can tell you with authority that that is an absolute lie. The customer is most certainly NOT always right. NO ONE IS. Humans are not always right. And humans make bad choices, even in the best democracies.
Today we celebrate the Feast of Christ the King, and I want to make something very clear here: this service has nothing to do with the politics of THIS world. I am NOT asking you to vote for Jesus today. Don’t get me wrong, I think everyone should vote, should exercise their right and duty as citizens of this democracy to make it as strong and as good as it can be. I wish people would vote wisely, although I usually keep my expectations pretty low on that one. But the United States of America, no matter how good it is, is NOT the kingdom of God. It is a kingdom of this world. We aren’t here to celebrate a kingdom of this world today. We are here to recognize that there is another kingdom that is coming, we can see it on the horizon. We can see it breaking through in the most unlikely places. Jesus’s kingdom is IN this world, but it is not OF this world. Big difference. We may have a place in that kingdom, but we don’t have a vote. God might want you to vote here, in this kingdom, but he doesn’t need your vote in his. We are not here today to campaign for Jesus or to poll your opinions. We are here to proclaim a truth. The truth. Jesus is Lord. Jesus is King. Jesus will be judge and ruler over all. Your opinion about that doesn’t really matter. It does not matter how that makes you feel. There will be no referendum on the Ten Commandments or the Sermon on the Mount there; you won’t have a vote on what is true.
Jesus is not putting his kingship up to a vote. That is Pilate’s job and we know how that voted ended. We know what choice we made.
Whether or not Jesus is going to be King is not a choice you get to make, so let’s stop worrying about that. The choice that is before you is: how are you going to respond to this king? How are you going to serve him? Are you going to serve him? Now, humans are not known for doing this, but I am begging you and urging you, please, when it comes to this decision, make a good choice.