In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone was coming into the world.
He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. ( John testified to him and cried out, “This is he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’”)From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace. The law indeed was given though Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him know.
That’s how John’s gospel starts. This soaring back and forth between heaven and earth—from the inner life of God to the dust of the wilderness; from the Word that enlivens all things, creates all things, restores all things, to the Baptizer covered in camel hair and eating bugs, and then back again—this wild conversation sets up everything John the evangelist wants to say. It’s such an important first note that if we’re listening, we can’t help but hear that it’s still echoing by the time we arrive at our passage for today. It’s still swirling behind and above, in and through this rather different back and forth, between Pilate and Jesus.
By this point, Jesus has spent years calling people into a kingdom-of-heaven way of life. He’s healed sick and forgiven the heart-sick, fed the hungry and raised the dead. He’s taught his disciples that the way of God is more than religious observance, and invited the least and the unlikely to experience life filled with grace and mercy, a life buzzing with hope and joy beyond all circumstance. It’s been a ministry that upends so much of what is taken for granted, socially, politically, religiously, economically, personally. All of which has been wonderful for some and less than wonderful for those tasked with keeping things more or less the way they are. His is good news for the poor, not terribly so for the well-established.
By this point, the Jerusalem establishment has finally had enough of Jesus and his disruptions. He’s been arrested and bound, questioned by the priests, punched by a guard and denied by Peter, and finally—when everyone’s had a turn with him—handed over to Pilate. The way that the story is told, it’s clear that Pilate is the embodiment of real power, political power—Roman power—in Jerusalem. The ultimate keeper of the status quo, even more than the religious elite. For his part, he seems to feel kind of sucked into this conversation, that he’d really rather not be bothered with. He’s got important things to do, and seems annoyed to have to deal with what he sees as an insignificant conflict about religious rules and regulations. But somewhere along the way, he catches wind that Jesus has made some kind of claim about being some kind of king—the Messiah, King of the Jews, YHWH’s king.
And that can’t go unaddressed. Now, Pilate is in the conversation, whether he likes it or not. Because Rome has a fair bit of tolerance for whatever religious-type things the people they control want to get up to, so long as their quiet about it; but claiming to be an opposing ruler, challenging the Empire’s grip—well, that can’t be tolerated. This matters, because John wants us to see that Jesus isn’t just on trial over an argument about doctrine; he’s not being tried as a heretic. He’s on trial for insurrection. This isn’t about the particularities of Jewish belief, regardless of what Pilate thinks; it’s about ultimate control, about who’s really in charge. Who is the rightful king?
The trouble is, Pilate can only think in terms of a very particular kind of kingship. The familiar kind. He can only think of the Caesars, even the Davids, of the world. He can only think in Empire terms: the conditions maintained by power and might, by threat and control and manipulation. He can only think within a fairly strict set of possibilities, and those possibilities are just kind of how things are. The powerful rule, the biggest and best armies win; the Imperial throne dictates how things will be, and sets the boundaries for what’s possible. In a way, Pilate embodies not just Rome’s power, but a particular imagination for what is and can be. Dressed in his Empire-issued authority, he represents the way things are.
But Jesus is never all that impressed with the way things are. My kingdom is not from this world; if it were, you’d be in for a fight—my followers would be trying to break down the doors, and take down as many of my opponents as possible. But my kingdom is not from here. It’s something else altogether. And now that Jesus is talking about kings and kingdoms, Pilate tries to grab hold of the conversation but it’s pretty plain, pretty quickly, that Pilate’s categories are too narrow to get a handle on things. I mean, he’s going to try. We’ll see that he’s going to give it his best shot as he takes legal control of Jesus and sends him to be tortured and killed as an example of what happens to anyone who challenges Rome’s vision of how things are and ever shall be.
But even before we get there, in the middle of this conversation, we’ve already heard the first unsettling rumblings, deep beneath the sand of the way things are. You say that I’m a king—you want me to shrink down to the size of your imagination—but that’s not what I was born for. I was born, I came into the world, to testify to the truth, to the way things really are, and everyone who belongs to the truth—everyone who has an ear to hear another possibility, a holy possibility, a new-world possibility—hears the truth in my voice.
You can hear Pilate snort, as he asks his famous question, What is truth?
And here’s the marvellous thing: instead of an answer, instead of rolling out facts and strategies, instead of pontificating about the vague and metaphysical, instead of detailed explanations and profound insights into the furniture of heaven and the temperature of hell, Jesus stands there. He just stands there. He doesn’t allow truth to get flattened out into a concept, he doesn’t lay out a carefully crafted alternative political vision, he doesn’t offer a clever philosophy. He just stands there. Silent. The truth that Jesus is on about won’t be explained into abstraction, it won’t be tamed by objectivity: it will only be embodied; it will only be lived. It’s not an ethereal idea; it’s a truth that takes on flesh and moves into the neighborhood.
And so he stands there, silent. It’s a jarring silence in the face of Pilate’s question. Looking on, we might even think that Jesus has been finally dismissed with an Imperial shrug.
But if we listen, what we hear echoing in the silence isn’t Jesus at a loss for words; it’s John’s opening poem. If we’ll stand still a moment and just look at Jesus—unlikely king of an impossible kingdom—we begin to see and really hear what that wild vision, that unexpected conversation between heaven and earth, was all about. John is making clear that if we want to know the truth, if we want to know how things really are, we don’t get distracted by Pilate, or the raging crowds outside, we look to Jesus. We don’t wait for an official proclamation from the kingdoms of this world about what is possible or permissible, we look to Jesus. We look at this rebel king whose kingdom isn’t like any other; the One whose rule and reign shapes and changes everything. We don’t cower before the might and majesty of Rome’s throne; we stand in the river that flows from heaven’s. We don’t let truth get trumped by the narrow possibilities of this world; we live and move and have our being in the marvellous Truth made known in Jesus.
What do we see when we pay attention to Jesus standing there, under Pilate’s dismissive gaze? We see the startling truth that God is with us and for us. We might be surprised to see that truth in an underwhelmingly human form. But holy truth doesn’t have us floating somewhere between heaven and earth—it plants our feet firmly on the ground so that in the presence of Jesus we see what the theologian Irenaeus called the true glory of God: a human being, fully alive—fully attentive to the divine will, moving perfectly in time with heaven’s song, unflinchingly committed to making the Father known, come what may.
We see the God who doesn’t shy away from dusty wilderness, but who really will move into the neighborhood, bringing new life, new possibility, making deserts bloom, upending systems of injustice, pushing over barriers meant to keep people from God. In the contrast of Jesus and Pilate—Jesus bound and bruised, Pilate pompous and powerful—we see the Beatitudes coming to life; we see that God really does have a thing for the broken and the poor, for the desperate and the destitute; that it really will be the peacemakers and the merciful who will have pride of place when God gets the world God wants. We see the lengths to which God will go to be identified with us—to be our God that we might be a holy people: a people who show the world what God is like, a people of hope, peace, joy, and love.
As he stands there silently we see the servant king, who will not protest his suffering, if it means our freedom. The one who won’t grasp at power, but lets it all go for our sake; the One who doesn’t take all he can get, but gives all that he is. We see Isaiah’s words (ch 53) coming to life: He was oppressed, and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth…Out of his anguish he shall see light; he shall find satisfaction through his knowledge. The righteous one shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities.
If we’ll keep our eyes on him as he’s sent from the Imperial headquarters through all the violence the world can throw at him, to the place where the trouble makers end up, if we’ll watch him stretched out on the cross and laid in the tomb, we’ll see heaven’s heart laid bare. We’ll see the lengths to which God will go to overcome the distance between heaven and earth. And if we’ll keep watching, even through fear and trembling, we’ll see that no matter the darkness the world, his light will never be quenched. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness did not overcome it.
Look at him, standing in defiance of the way things are. Look at Jesus, standing in defiance of religious systems that create burdens too heavy to carry, that tell some people that they’re loved and others that they’re not, that look more like the principalities and powers of the world than the kingdom of heaven. Look at Jesus, standing face to face with the powers that be: with ways that are all take, take, take; toe to toe with the authorities committed to the current order of things, the stagnant social arrangements that mean that some of us are in and some are out, some of us get and most of us don’t. Look at him defying powers that tell us our religious commitments are ok, as long as they don’t disrupt systems of greed, and violence, as long as they don’t threaten established boundaries, as long as things like extravagant grace, and unsettling generosity, and radical forgiveness can be practiced quietly, in a corner, on our own time.
Look at Jesus, staring down the way things are, come what may. Watch as he trusts in the One whose heart he knows and whose heart he makes known, even to death and then well beyond. Watch as his kingdom begins to take root in the silence, as he’s still, knowing God is God; the first shoots of a new world pushing up in his refusal to answer the blustering demands and dismissiveness of worldly power. Watch and know that we can’t straddle both sides of the room. See that Jesus’ call is to another way. The world Pilate represents and the world Jesus represents are incompatible, and they’re on a collision course. They are as opposite as death and resurrection.
And look at Jesus and know that he’s called us—even us—to his side. Let him heal our imaginations for what’s possible. Know that he’s given us “the power to become children of God,” to be ambassadors of another way—not restricted to our earthly births, but part of a holy household. This king is not stingy with his power; he pours it out on us. He makes a way for us to move in this world but not of it, with our sights set on a wider horizon, a bigger possibility.
He draws us into a truth that won’t be contained or restrained, that doesn’t have us thinking our way out of this broken world, but loving our way into it, just like he does. He calls us into a kingdom that isn’t obsessed with endless progress, where the markets are not actually the only thing that matters, and self-preservation isn’t actually all that interesting, but where we’re invited into a kind of downward mobility, an openness to give of ourselves, to broaden our circles rather than lock our doors, to welcome the stranger, and feed the hungry, and love the poor, to care for creation, and heal the sick and raise the dead, and plant gardens in the wasteland; to be good news in our neighborhoods, to make friends with our enemies, and pray for our persecutors, to refuse the ways of violence and greed, to move to the rhythm of heaven’s song, the syncopations of love and justice and righteousness, even if it costs us everything, even if the Pilates of the world kill us for it, because we know we’ll rise to dance again.
Look at Jesus and see, beyond all expectation and reason, the One who was in the beginning and will be in the end, whose love made and redeems us and all things, whose life is the light of our lives, and whose promise is that that light will never be quenched.
May his kingdom come, his will be done, here and now and forever.