Some people say that time is a circle, and every beginning is an end,
and every end is a new beginning. It might be that time begins and ends up here or down there, but in either case, every beginning is an ending, and every ending is a beginning.1
In the way that the church tells time, we have come to just such a place where the beginning and ending meet. It’s New Year’s Eve of the church year. We are just about to enter Advent, as we await the promises fulfilled in Jesus.
Over and over again, there’s cyclical time in our chronological lives. As we move through our lives sequentially, from beginning to middle and end, it is punctuated and encapsulated by God’s time where every beginning is an ending, and every ending is a beginning.
It’s only fitting that we tell this story today. A story that points to an end that’s a beginning. A story about the one who is and was and is yet to be. A story that will make all things new.
Pontius Pilate is the brutal Roman governor who has come to town to flex some muscle and show his strength. He lives far from here, by the sea in a grand house that overlooks the Mediterranean. He’s not normally bothered or interested in this place, but he has come to Jerusalem to monitor the movement of people. Hundreds of thousands have come to the city to observe Passover.
The irony might be lost on him: the people have come to remember that God delivers them from slavery. Indeed, the irony might be lost on the people, as well – that God’s intention is for them to live in freedom.
Pilate is known for his cruelty and disregard for human life. Some of the Jews have made a calculation and found it expedient to hand Jesus over to Pilate. It’s better for one man to die than the whole nation, one of them said. It’s better to live under the radar and protect the status they’ve got. It’s better to live with the devil they know than the one they don’t. So they arrest Jesus and take him to Pilate for crucifixion.
There’s a system in place. Not ideal by any means to live under foreign occupation, but they’ve figured out how to get by. Don’t rock the boat. Don’t make waves. As leaders, their position is tenable.
And then Jesus comes along, feeding the hungry, healing the sick, even raising the dead, and promising abundant life. This man draws a crowd, and he doesn’t live quietly by the rules. He’s likely to get us all noticed, they think. So let’s turn him in ourselves.
Jesus’ own disciples are subject to fear, as well. When they realize he’s not going to overthrow the Romans by force, they abandon him. And just before this scene, Peter denies him.
I wonder: What are the kingdoms – the kinds of systems – that control us? What are the structures that we have been willing to allow to guide us, to govern us?
My mom is a retired school teacher. She spent 36 years teaching elementary school, mostly first grade. She loved her job. She loved the kids. She valued her colleagues. A few years into retirement, she started inviting the teachers to lunch. Now it’s become a tradition.
A couple weeks ago, they got together. Mom had been cleaning the attic, and she found a copy of an old newspaper from when my brothers and I were in school. It was the small town, local newspaper. No earthshaking news on its pages. Just local news. Local observations. She couldn’t remember why she’d saved it. There were no photos of her kids or stories that were memorable. Just a couple quotes from high school teachers.
So she brought the newspaper to the party and gave it away as a door prize – but not without reading it out loud for entertainment. My health teacher was photographed and quoted as saying, “Take 15 points off if you put your name in the wrong place!” She now admitted she’d been a stickler for this detail. “Be quiet,” the English teacher had said. “Shut up.” Whoops. The teachers laughed as they saw themselves cited. “We sounded so tough,” they thought.
As a kid, I would have snapped to attention and fallen into line when my teachers told me what to do. I was a rule follower and wasn’t one to raise too many questions or draw too much attention. It was easier to follow expectations. Stay under the radar. Avoid punishment.
Last summer, I connected with my school mates at a class reunion, and we told stories about the old days. We all remembered one spring when the snow melted, and our playground became a pond. We had strict orders not to play in the water. But of course, what happens when kids are near water? They’re attracted to it like a magnet. One day we all came in from recess, and we were met by the principal and his wooden paddle. (Yes, there was a time when corporal punishment was allowed.) An inspection took place, and everyone whose pants were wet went through the line and got a spanking. Then they were sent to the bathroom so they could cry if they needed to.
My friend John went to the bathroom and confessed to our classmate, Joe, that it hadn’t hurt very much. That’s when he saw Joe’s eyes get big and Joe’s face turned red. John glanced at the mirror in front of him and realized the principal was standing right behind him. So back to the hall he went, and he got another spanking.
Me? Well, I escaped the fray that day. I had a worn a dress to school, so when I came in from recess, I pulled off the long pants I had put on to keep warm and hid the soaking evidence in my locker. I walked by the inspection point and got by without notice.
There was a sort of half-truth operating that day. The half-truth told us that we should stay out of the water; we might get sick, or we might track in mud. We might fall and get hurt. Things might get out of hand if everyone was traipsing through the water out of reach, out of control.
Schools in Minnesota don’t punish their students that way anymore. Someone stood up to the system and advocated for the kids. But there was no uprising by the students. We did our best to live under the authority of the system.
It’s not so surprising perhaps that some of the Jews and Jesus’ own disciples were satisfied to maintain the status quo. What are the systems that hold people captive now? What are structures that leave us saying, “It doesn’t hurt me enough to care?” or “It’s easier to just live with things the way they are.” Who gets hurt when things remain the way they are? Who gets hurt by racism and by poverty? Who gets hurt by abusive relationships, abusive systems that take advantage of people? In our families and in our communities, in our work places and in our government – who is being oppressed by those in power?
Jesus came bearing witness to a truth that defies “making the best of things.”Jesus came testifying to Truth that brings justice and freedom for all. Jesus came to bring abundant life to all, to draw all people into relationship with God.
Pilate asked, “What is truth?” It turns out, the question is not, “What is truth?” but “Who is truth?” “I have come to bear witness to the truth,” Jesus said. Truth is the way Jesus lived. Jesus has come to reveal that God is a God of life, not domination, that God is about love, not hate. “And I have come to draw all people to myself,” he says.
Brian Stoffregen says, it just might be that the most important thing about declaring Christ as King is not our understand of Jesus’ lordship – who he is and what he does – but the way we live together under his lordship. “I give you a new commandment,” Jesus said, “that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35).2
Sometimes we find ourselves freed from fears that hold us back, and we experience the in-breaking of God’s kingdom.
A couple years ago, my friend Polly sent an email to her girls telling them about an encounter she had just had on one of her walks. downtown near the river.
That morning as she had crossed under the Hennepin Avenue bridge, she encountered a man sitting on the wall that overlooks the river. He had long, flowing white hair, and a beard. He was homeless. Their eyes met, and she said, ‘good morning.’
He started to talk to her about the eagles he was watching, where their nests were, and what it means to find an eagle’s feather. They talked about places he had lived, about buffalo and Native American wisdom.
She asked if he was Native American, and he said yes, he was part Cherokee.
She introduced herself, and he shared his name, too. They spoke openly about loved ones who had died and how they were struggling with grief. It was a remarkable encounter. The brief conversation ended as she said, “It was nice meeting you.”
We catch a glimpse of God’s kingdom when we face one another, unafraid to engage in conversation.
The kingdom of God comes near when the doors of the kingdom are flung wide open, when boundaries between rich and poor, and insiders and outsiders, no longer separate us, when we see one another as human beings, equally beloved children of God.
When we love and serve one another.
So we tell this story again and again – this story of Jesus who willingly gave himself to die on a cross to draw us to himself.
God is not at a distance, to be discovered by the end of your story.
God is a presence at the beginning, middle and end, calling you by name to life and freedom, calling you to endings that are beginnings, calling you to God’s own life.
As we live our chronological lives, it’s a cyclical story about Kairos, about God’s time, opportune time, about the way God comes to us again and again. May we be open to God’s coming in the days ahead. Amen.