Sermon delivered by Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min. on November 21, 2021
Today is the church’s New Year’s Eve. Today marks the final day of the church’s liturgical calendar year as we prepare to flip the page to a new season that inaugurates the advent, the coming of Jesus. Next Sunday, we begin our walk to Bethlehem; today, we culminate the church year by celebrating the cosmic reign of Christ over all that is, was, and is yet to be.
Our text this morning seems to come from an odd location in the Jesus Story as it is Jesus’ trial before Pontus Pilate on the day he was executed. It’s a conversation about who is in charge and directing our lives, Caesar and the kingdom of Rome, or was it Jesus and reign on God. As you listen to the interchange, notice how the conversation is like the old Abbott and Costello schtick, “Who’s on first?” in that a conversation is going on but those talking with each other are talking about two entirely different things. Hear the Word of the Lord.
33 Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” 34 Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” 35 Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” 36 Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” 37 Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this, I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” 38 Pilate asked him, “What is truth?” After he had said this, he went out to the Jews again and told them, “I find no case against him.
As we hear this Story, it’s helpful to remember that it serves as a freeze-frame in the midst of a flurry of activity. Jesus has had dinner with his disciples; they have gone to the garden later that night for prayer; Jesus was arrested, and the disciples prepare for an armed confrontation with the mob; Jesus is hauled before and whisked between two different religious tribunals where he’s interrogated and beaten. By this time, the sun has come up and he is finally dragged to the Roman Governor for a verdict regarding sedition; ironically, because the religious authorities didn’t want to get ceremonially impure by stepping foot in Pilate’s palace, Pilate pulls Jesus inside in order to have a conversation without all the yelling and screaming outside. Finally, some quiet.
Finally, Jesus can converse rationally with another person. Or can he?
People carry their own agendas into the conversations they begin, and Pilate was no different. His agenda was quite simply to keep the peace and politically keep all the players happy from the Jewish leaders to the Jewish people. Pilate only wanted to keep his political clout with the Emperor and the way to do that is to keep the people in line. In Matthew’s account, Pilate’s wife even sent him a note during this conversation urging him, “Don’t do anything to do with this innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him.” Pilate ignored the advice of his wife, which after all these years of marriage I have learned is not a good thing to do! Pilate was only concerned about Pilate; he just had to make sure Jesus was not a political rival. So, the questioning began. “Are you the king of the Jews?” And it’s at this point Jesus takes control of the conversation and makes it personal.
Jesus does not answer yes or no but simply throws the question back to Pilate so he would have to wrestle with the answer. Jesus moves the conversation from the theoretical and makes it a personal conversation with what Pilate is thinking and feeling. “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” By this time, Pilate is hooked and realizes he is not dealing with some country hayseed from Galilee. Pilate presses Jesus, “What have you done?”
Jesus doesn’t answer that question directly either as he knows that he is not before Pilate for anything he has done; no, Jesus is standing before Pilate for who he, Jesus, is. “My kingdom is not from this world…my kingdom is not from here.” Jesus’ response to Pilate is a question he poses to you and me. As Professor and pastor, Rodger Y. Nishioka says, the essence of Jesus and Pilate’s conversation boils down to a question of belonging.3
Either a person belongs to the realm of worldly, culturally driven rules or one submits to the realm of God and lives by heaven’s rules. Jesus has just elevated the meaning of their conversation and in the process, he elevates his conversation with each of us and the church. Friends, the question Jesus raises on this Christ the King Sunday is the question of fidelity and belonging: Are we sons and daughters of the earthly realm or the heavenly realm? Jesus frankly informs Pilate his Kingdom is not of this world because if it was, Jesus would not be in this predicament.
“So, you’re a king?”
“You say I am a king. For this reason, I was born…to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Jesus did not say, “whoever listens to the truth listens to me.” Neither did Jesus say, “whoever talks about the truth listens to me.” Nope, Jesus makes it crystal clear it’s only those who belong to the truth listen and hear Jesus.
What happens next is the question each of us must answer. Pilate immediately asks Jesus, “What is truth?” And what was Jesus’ answer? Silence. Dead silence.
Presbyterian minister and author, Frederick Buechner, describes this scene like this: Pilate asks, “What is truth?” and for years there have been politicians, scientists, theologians, philosophers, poets, and so on to tell him. The sound they make is like the sound of crickets chirping. Jesus doesn’t answer Pilate’s question. He just stands there. Stands, and stands there.” Later, Buechner says, “Pilate asks his famous question, “What is truth?”, and Jesus answers him with a silence that is overwhelming in its eloquence.”
Silence is one of those things that causes many people great anxiety. People do not know what to do with silence. If the silence feels like it’s going too long, we get uncomfortable and fill it with noise or distraction. Silence is that moment when you and I can turn everything off and simply listen. Silence in our screened digital world is truly a gift should we embrace it. It’s in the necessary sound of silence that you and I are asked to do what Pilate had to do. Silence allows us to reflect upon who we belong to, who this church belongs to. Silence forces us to ask ourselves, “What is truth?”
On this Christ the King Sunday when we are invited into the sound of silence to truly listen, to really determine who’s we are and what truth we follow. As we walk out the door today, we are thrown into a world that will shout at us about where our allegiance should lie. Do we get caught in the riptide of a swirly, distracting cultural Christmas or do we consciously slow down and thoughtfully make our way through Advent?
Beloved, this week as we begin our tryptophan-laced sprint to the new year, your pastor is asking you to pull aside and listen to the sound of silence. Listen to your life, Church, and hear what it tells you and others about whose kingdom you belong to and reflect. Jesus is silently standing with us in silence to hear what we have to say. Amen.
© 2021 Patrick H. Wrisley, Pastor, First Presbyterian Church, 401 SE 15th Avenue, Fort Lauderdale, FL. 33301. Sermon manuscripts are available for the edification of members and friends of First Presbyterian Church, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and may not be altered, re-purposed, published, or preached without permission. All rights reserved.
 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
 Matthew 27:19.
 See Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ) (Feasting on the Word: Year B volume) by David L. Bartlett, Barbara Brown Taylor.
 These quotes were taken from Buechner’s reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary themes “Weekly Sermon Illustration: Truth — Frederick Buechner” found at www.FrederickBuechner.com.