God and Politics: King Jesus

John 19:1-16
November 1, 2020
Matt Goodale

I’ve only gone skydiving once in my life, and I will never go again…ever. It’s not that skydiving wasn’t exhilarating enough for me, or that it was too expensive. But it’s probably due to the fact that my one skydiving experience was in fact too exhilarating, and that I got too much excitement for money’s worth. That’s what happens when your parachute doesn’t work. But I’m getting ahead of myself in the story.

It was an October morning when a few college friends and I drove an hour south of Spokane to try skydiving for the first time. I was paired with a tandem instructor who would be attached to me for the dive. He was a cool guy and promised we would do a couple of flips or something once we jumped.

We hopped in a small plane that took us up about 14,000 feet to jump. When we reached altitude the back door of the plane was flung open, letting in a cool and howling wind. I had to kneel at the edge of the opening, hanging my body partway out of the plane, while my instructor who was attached behind me prepared to launch us both out. I remember having a moment of doubt, as I’m hanging partway out the plane, staring down at the ground, 14,000 feet below. But before I knew it my instructor rolled us both out of plane and we began falling.

Now the proper skydiving form is to arch your body so that you fall flat rather than spinning and flailing. So I’m arching my body as we’re falling, taking in the gorgeous 360 view that you have. It really was amazing. Finally my instructor pulls the parachute cord and our bodies are jarred into midair suspension. And I’m holding my parachute straps in both hands, looking around, enjoying the view, making sure to get my money’s worth. But I notice that we’re spinning a little bit. So I look up and see my instructor grabbing the parachute cords, trying to shake them out, because they’re tangled up. I ask if everything is alright and he responds, “Yeah, don’t worry about it.”

Probably another 30 seconds or so pass and we start spinning a little faster. I look up again and suddenly hear a string of expletives from my instructor before he tells me to arch my body again. Without warning he cuts us free of the parachute and we start free falling again. And I have never been more terrified in my life. It felt like we were falling for minutes, but in reality it was probably no longer than ten seconds. And you know that thing that people say about your life flashing before your eyes? I’m not so sure about that, because all I felt was pure terror.

After what felt like an eternity, my instructor pulls the cord to our backup chute and suddenly we’re suspended in midair again. I’m probably holding my breath and trying not to wet myself at this point, and next thing I hear from my instructor is “Whew, thank God that chute worked.”

I’m guessing you can imagine why one skydiving experience was enough for me. As I think back on my skydiving fiasco, I reflect on how silly it is—if you think about it—how much trust I placed in a piece of canvas to suspend me thousands of feet above the earth and to carry me down to safety. I placed my hope in that parachute to work, which is not too ridiculous of a hope – I mean, parachutes should work and do work most of the time. But in this particular case, my trust in this piece of canvas was ill-founded. It let me down (pun intended) and left me flailing for my life.

But the trust I placed in that piece of canvas is not so different than the trust that we daily place in things to keep our lives safe and secure. Every time we get in a car or an airplane, it is an act of trust that we will arrive safely. Every time we visit the doctor or the hospital to receive a treatment, we trust the science and research process that has created such a treatment to save our life rather than harm it. And each time we vote, protest, and engage in politics, we are placing our trust in a system of government or in a political party to enhance our lives, rather than diminish them.

Especially during this time of year—Election season—it becomes very apparent how much hope people in our nation place in their candidate or in their political party. We hear this rhetoric all over the place: “If my party wins, then our nation will finally return to a state of stability, or will remain in a state of stability, but if that other party wins then all hell will break loose.” If that’s the case, then come Tuesday—or whenever the election process is decided—half of America will be living in hopeful bliss while the other half fears the worst to come. But we know this is more than just rhetoric. People’s real life hopes and real life fears are not too far from this extremist rhetoric. For many of us, our hope is in our party’s political power, while we fear the threat of the other party’s power.

The dynamics at play in our nation right now can be helpfully illuminated by our scripture reading this morning. In our passage we see the power of fear and the damage that false hopes can inflict.

Jesus, who is given the mocking title “King of the Jews”, is being beaten by soldiers while he awaits Pontius Pilate’s final judgment. Pilate believes Jesus has done nothing wrong, so he is ready to release him. But in a fateful move, driven by fear and a desire for power, the religious leaders try to manipulate Pilate into crucifying Jesus. The religious leaders themselves don’t have power to execute anyone, but Pilate does, so they force his hand by highlighting the charge that Jesus’ title, “King of the Jews”, is a threat to Caesar. There can only be one king, Caesar. Anyone who challenges that claim would earn an execution, and indeed, the nation group or people associated with someone claiming to rival Caesar’s power could also find themselves in a world of hurt.

For the Jewish leaders, Jesus not only threatened their institutions of religious power throughout his ministry, but he also posed a serious threat to their nation’s standing with Rome. If word got out that Israel was harboring and supporting a man who others claimed was the king of the Jews, then Rome’s reaction would be violent and swift. So the religious leaders decide they need to do away with this man, Jesus, before he causes too much trouble for them or for their nation.

They cry out to Pilate, “We have no king but Caesar.” This phrase comes at a climactic moment in John’s gospel, the moment when the Jewish leaders unintentionally and ironically speak in a more revealing way than they realize. Their claim is ironic, because Jesus is truly “the king of the Jews,” and in pledging themselves to Caesar they set themselves against God and God’s reign, leading them to seek to crucify this innocent man. The religious leaders do not recognize the irony of their claim in their grasping for power.

Through this irony, John reveals what happens when we place our hope in someone or something other than God. The Jewish leaders, afraid of Rome’s reprisal for disloyalty, are so concerned with maintaining power and preserving their nation and identity that they completely lose sight of God and turn to Caesar, a false savior.

The Jewish leaders fear the threat Jesus poses. They grasp for power themselves. They offer blind allegiance to Caesar that betrays their true God. “We have no king but Caesar,” they say. Their hope for deliverance is placed in Caesar’s power.

The temptation to place our hope in political power, in a particular candidate or political party is a temptation I think we’re all quite familiar with. As we approach what promises to be a divisive election, what is our hope in? Who do you hope will turn this nation and this world around? Who do you hope will redeem this country from its current state? If most of us are honest enough, or take a close enough look at our actions, conversations and anxieties, they may reveal how little our hope is in Jesus.

Intentionally or unintentionally, like the religious leaders, most of our nation places hope in Caesar—we place our hope in political power to change the world, to turn things around, to secure a “good” life for myself and others. The divisions, the arguing, the hate, the shaming, the unfriending would not exist if this were not the case. Like the religious leaders we grasp for power through a party or candidate to ease our fears.

And what happens when we place our hope in the wrong thing? Well, much like I found out with my skydiving experience, eventually we will be let down; eventually the chute will not work. When our hope is misplaced in a political candidate or party, eventually we will be driven to fear and despair, eventually we will be driven to hurt others with our words and actions. Eventually, we will re-crucify Jesus on the hill of our blind political allegiance with our attempts to grasp for power and eliminate the threat the other side poses.

Too often we treat politics as a savior. We pretend that our political candidate and our party ideals have the ability to save us and our nation. We naively believe that the world can only be saved by power of a certain kind.

And in the midst of our political jockeying, our fears, our worries, our blind allegiances and grabs for power, God put on flesh and came to dwell amongst us as hope. Hope came not in the form of a politician, a political party or great nation. Rather, hope arrived in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus came in the most unusual and unexpected way, confusing even those closest to him up to his death.

Jesus did not show up as a royal king with pomp and power, but one who humbled himself in every way. Jesus was born into this world as a vulnerable baby, devoid of any sort of power. And a week before he was crucified, he road into Jerusalem on a donkey. He could have ridden in on a horse, a chariot or Air Force One. But he chose a donkey. The most lowly and gentle of animals. He came in his humble estate to seek the lost, the last, the least, the sinners like you and me. He came to redeem humanity, to offer hope for all. Hope arrived in the person of Jesus, and it was so much better than we could have ever dreamed.

Jesus came down to save us and to heal us. Jesus came as a king who gave up his power. Jesus came to be our hope embodied. Jesus came to invite us to join him on his mission to bring his kingdom to earth, not through force or political power, but through love, grace, humility and gentleness.

So this week, remember this: no matter who sits in the oval office come January, Jesus remains king. Regardless of what this week’s election results will tell us, regardless of whatever conflicts may arise post-election, Jesus’ kingdom is still near. Even in the midst of chaos and division, God remains sovereign. While some may grow nervous at the mention of God’s sovereignty, don’t misunderstand its meaning. “God’s sovereignty should not be interpreted that God causes everything but, rather, that God is able to do anything” (Eugene Cho). God turned Rome upside down and birthed the most potent movement of hope and redemption the world has ever seen, and God did it all without ever using political power. We worship a crucified God who was born without power and died without power, yet remains sovereignly at work in our world today, bringing his kingdom here into our very midst.

How little we must think of God if we believe God needs our political party in power to carry out his will. What a small god that would be! Our hope is in Jesus, not Caesar, not the President, not Trump, not Biden, not in Democratic ideals nor Republican ideals. Like my parachute canvas, eventually these will all let us down. It’s a little silly to think I placed my life in the hands of a piece of canvas to carry me to safety. Isn’t it a little silly that we place our hope in human institutions, systems and candidates who are flawed and will fail us again and again?

It is not wrong to care about politics; please don’t hear that from this sermon. As Christians I believe we have a duty to be informed and engaged. Remember, politics affect policies which affect people. We must care about politics, without placing our hope in it. As Christians we must engage in politics without placing our hope for salvation in it. We must hold our politics loosely, light as a feather, as we seek God’s kingdom through it, but fully trusting that God’s kingdom is coming either way. “The earth may shake, mountains may fall, disasters may come, and leaders we like or do not like may come into power, but Jesus remains king” (Eugene Cho). Our hope is in King Jesus and his kingdom come. Amen.