Sunday Sermon: "Appearances Can Be Deceiving"
There's an old saying that's been on my mind lately: "Appearances can be deceiving." Do you agree?
I once had a student who I thought I had pegged. He was in my 7th grade English class and, I'll be honest -- I think all of us thought we knew about this student. He sat right in the middle of the class, and he never ever had the right answer when I called on him. The other students, too, used to ask me to call on him sometimes, because they knew he would be day-dreaming, and would just say, "huh?", and they could have a good laugh at his expense. But, appearances can be feceiving. I won't say how -- but it turns out that I didn't have this student pegged at all -- and neither did anyone else. We looked at him in a certain way, and we were wrong, all wrong. Of course, there are other examples, perhaps more common, that you can use to illustrate: "Appearances can be deceiving."
there's always the example of the person who everyone thought to be poor -- who lived as a servant, but who, in the end was discovered to have had secret riches. And there's the opposite of the person who, on the outside, appears quite virtuous, but on the inside, is harboring a terrible secret.
"Appearances can be deceiving."
Our gospel reading today, told by John, is a prime example of the truth of this saying. On the surface, this seems to be a confrontation, a meeting, between two individuals -- Jesus and Pilate. One of them is on trial. It seems to be Jesus. Pilate seems to be in control. In fact, if you read a little farther in John, you will find that Pilate says this very thing: "don't you know that I have the power to condemn you to death or to let you go?" Pilate appears to hold all the cards, Jesus none. but scratch the surface of this story, and you will see that a lot more is going on -- you will see that appearances can be deceiving.
This story takes place during what we call "Holy Week", that week leading up to Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection. Jesus has raised Lazarus from the dead, which has scandalized and terrorized the religious leaders. This Jesus has got to go, they decide. They conspire to turn him over to the Roman authorities, because, "it is better to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed." In the meantime, Jesus is preparing his disciples. He meets with them, washes their feet, teaches them and prays for them. They go to the garden together, where the authorities come to arrest him. Jesus gives himself up. He steps forward and tells the officers to let his disciples go. and later on in the story, when Pilate tells Jesus, "Don't you know that I have the power to condemn you or to set you free?" -- Jesus answers, "You wouldn't have any power if it wasn't given you by someone more powerful than you." This doesn't sound like someone who is not in control, does it? Just who is in charge in this conversation? And who is really calling the shots?
Today is the last Sunday in the church year; we call it "Christ the King" Sunday. We read this story -- Jesus before Pilate -- as our noon Bible study on Wednesday and at least one astute participant asked: "Why are we readeing this story today?" It was a great question -- why are we reading out of the crucifixion narrative on this Sunday we proclaim that Jesus is a KING, that he is the true sovereign of our lives? We don't have kings anymore, so the language might seem archaic to some of us, but we know a few things about kings -- we know that kings are usually not arrested, put on trial, and crucified. They are usually doing the arresting. We know that kings, like generals in a war, usually stay in the back of the battle and make the strategy -- they send others to do the fighting. We know that kings have wealth, and power. They call the shots, for good or ill. And the story we have before us today doesn't sound like that. but, appearances can be deceiving.
There is another reading, of course, that seems more like what we have in mind when we hear "Christ the King." It's the reading from Daniel you heard a bit ago, the one about the Ancient of days and the "one like a human being" -- and about how he is given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him." Ah, we might think -- that's morel ike it -- that's Christ the king, and every knee shall bow to him, and every tongue will proclaim him Lord. so why do we even have to hear the other one? why do we even have to hear the one about Jesus and Pilate, the one where Jesus is on trial -- reminding us that Jesus will be beaten, and laughed at and jeered and crucified?
Well, maybe to remind us that appearances can be deceiving -- then, and now. We are not yet at the end of the world, and our life today much more often resembles the scene from John's gospel than it does the vision of Daniel. But look closely, even at this story, and you will see that even as Jesus is led away, even as he is on trial, even as Pilate pronounces judgment -- Jesus is still in charge. He isn't captured, he gives himself up; when Pilate asks him questions, he asks his own right back, and he doesn't even concede Pilate's power over him. Even on trial, he offers Pilate the opportunity to have a real converesatino with him, and perhaps to follow him: "Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?
So you have to look closely at the Scriptures, at least this one, to see that even on trial, even on the cross, Jesus is still reigning, still the King. And you have to look closely, not just at the Scripture but at life, your life -- to see this. Or perhaps what you need to do is listen -- listen closely.
I have been during the last couple of weeks collecting faith stories from people in our congregation. it's a part of our church's Natural Church Development Initiative for passionate spirituality, and I have been reading and listening closely. Not one of these stories are alike -- they are al different -- some are short, some long, some are dramatic, some ordinary. but many of them share a common characteristic: a growing awareness of God's presence and god's power in their lives, often in the midst of difficult circumstances, when we might be most tempted to doubt.
Is Christ still King when you have lost your job or when you have to move far away from your friends, or when your spouse dies, or when you are separated from those you love by war or disease? Is Christ the King even when it seems like the prevailing voices are the ones who say things like: "Money is king", or "you have to look out for #1, no one else will"? Is Christ the king in the midst of human selfishness, or cruelty?" is Christ the King when you are battling cancer?
One member of our congregation bears witness to the truth that this is so. I want to share just a few sentences of her faith story....
"As some of you know, my husband has spent the last three years battling cancer, living without either kidney, an staying in the hospital far too often. His side effects have ranged from sepsis to seizures. His crises have includfed temporary blindness and tracheostomy....it's been a difficult three years; life has become different than we ever thought it would be....and yet....
"And yet, we wake up most mornings ready to begin again. We face each new crisis as if we are not already worn down....At a local group we attended for our son, many of the most peaceful cancer families had the strength of faith. In tears, those with no faith would say they wished they had what we families of faith had. What is it we have?"
What is it we have? I'll tell you what we have. We have the word of Jesus, the word of truth, the word of promise. He tells us that, all appearances to the contrary, we are children of God, beloved and precious. We have the word of truth, Jesus, and he is speaking in our ears and telling us that despite what we see, despite who eems to be winner sometimes, he is the true sovereign, he is the true King, he is the true Lord -- of this life -- and the next.
All appearances to the contrary, he reigns -- even now -- and he invites us to follow him -- into a life of service, of sacrifice, of abundance -- and of love. AMEN