Dr. Chris White Dec 15th 2013
If you are a moviegoer, you know that we are in the age of superheroes and legends. It is the age of The Avengers, Iron Man, and Thor. It is the age of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. It is the age of the Hunger Games. It is the age of power vs power. It is the age of action piled upon action, bodies and powers moving against one another and as fast as the animation will allow. Even if, as in the case of The Hobbit, there is an unhappy dragon in the original story, directors still feel the need to introduce new characters and broader conflicts of power. If you’re going to make or attend movies today, you have to accept that powers are clashing and creating endings where only one power will stand.
We’re about to read John 19:1-16, a passage of Scripture with a lot of moving parts. They are real people in real time and place, and note that each person is exercising power as they face off over Jesus of Nazareth, a man most likely standing bound and without a supportive voice to be found. He is essentially powerless before all the great powers of his day. But, in God’s way, he introduces an interruption on all their versions of power.
Read with me, please, John 19:1-16.
Let’s note the players briefly. There is Pilate, the governor of Judea. He is a man with the authority for any number of outcomes for Jesus. As he says in v. 10, he has the power to free him or crucify him. He could have Jesus released without charge. He could have him lightly flogged and released to please the religious leaders. He could also have Jesus flogged nearly to his death and follow it with crucifixion. He sits on a judgment seat (v. 13) and utters the justice of the Emperor. There are the soldiers who hold the power of Pilate’s orders and their strength. They ate well, trained hard, and extended the Roman Empire through a ruthless efficiency in war. They were physically stronger than a common man, and they were daunting to anyone who dared to fight a fair fight, so a bound man like Jesus was easy prey.
Then there are the Jewish chief priests and officials. They are the top of the religious food chain in Jerusalem, placed there both for religious and political reasons. They dealt with Roman governors as well as ritual at the temple. One did not stroll into such power, and when the stability and the ritual was threatened, power was a ready resource for them to restore order. They hold the power of defining blasphemy, and with that they can call Jesus a blasphemer (v. 7) and call for his death. Above all, they hold the real trump card when they liken Pilate’s mercy for Jesus as opposing Caesar (v. 12). And then there is the crowd. A mix of the curious and the cruel, they will not only call for Jesus to be taken away but for Barabbas, a man accused of insurrection, to be released in his stead.
On this stage where everyone is flexing muscle, only Jesus can interrupt the proceedings. And he does. But no one recognizes it. When Pilate reminds Jesus that he, Pilate, has the power to free him or crucify him, this is Jesus’ answer in verse 11: “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above.” Jesus recognizes the power Pilate has over him, but this power is not really Pilate’s power. It comes from above, from the will of His Father. Everyone has had a chance to exercise power over Jesus, and he could have done anything and everything he wanted in response, but he did nothing. He did nothing because of His trust in the power of His Father. His silence was not silence to Pilate as much as it was an open Yes to His Father in heaven. To not save Himself was to trust God’s power. This is the power that will win the day.
For us, we are aware of power and tempted by it. We’re tempted by power because power works. We dropped powerful atomic bombs on Japan because it would break Japan and warn the Russians. Athletes risk the side effects and penalties of steroids because they deliver what they promise. People daydream about money, influence, beauty, and talent because they are factors of power in this world. Even for the sake of doing good people daydream about power. We daydream about having more and being more because we are certain with “more” we could do more: more power and influence equals more change. Knowing power like we do, few people today daydream of being powerless, without influence, or more vulnerable. Few people daydream about rejection by crowds and threats of death. Few people of that day believed that any kind of real power was being exercised by Jesus. And few people believed that God’s power on that day was greater than Pilate’s power, a priest’s power, or a crowd’s power.
And that leads to the great challenge of Christmas and the birth of a child as our Savior. God did not choose the way of obvious power. Jesus was vulnerable when delivered bare as an infant and he was vulnerable when laid bare by his executioners. He was vulnerable when his mother made the long trip to Bethlehem and vulnerable when he fled before Herod’s soldiers. He never owned power like we daydream of owning power. He didn’t change the world by the power we are certain will change the world. But the Scriptures tell us that God was exercising His power in and through Jesus. His power through Jesus, however, was not to win a pitch with emperors, governors, priests, soldiers, or crowds. God was exercising power in and through Jesus to reconcile us to God. This power led Jesus to die a death of a powerless man to save a powerless world. It was in mercy, the power to forgive, that God exercised redemptive power greater than all the power for death held by Jesus’ accusers and executioners.
There are two types of people here today and God’s power is available for both. The first type is the one who has not yet accepted God’s forgiveness for sins and found reconciliation with God. Paul describes this life-before-forgiveness in Ephesians 2:1-3. The Scriptures speak of this separation from God as dead in transgressions and sins, as if alive but not breathing. It is to be so wired to the world and Satan that disobedience to God feels like a comfortable norm. It is to resist all effort to live beyond simple cravings and, by extension, to live in resistance to God. It means to be lost, to not walk in the light or the direction that God wills for all humans. It means to be like the prodigal son who is away from home, away from resource, away from the help of his father. It means to suffer a distance from God that is not necessary. It means to live at a distance that Jesus meant to mend. God is offering forgiveness of sin and a reconciled life in a Christmas child.
The second type is the one who has accepted forgiveness and needs yet more help to live near God. Ephesians 2:4-10 reads this way. God’s power is offered as life, awakening, and this by grace. God’s work in our lives was a rescue, and He who had power on that day to save us has power on this day to bridge the gaps, cross the hurdles, and level the mountains that have arisen since we asked Christ into our lives. This God reaches out to us with the power of kindness, the power of grace, the power of a gift. He never asked us to impress Him or convince Him. He isn’t asking that today, either. He is offering Himself as our great help. And His help remains the power of forgiveness through Jesus.
Close: Will we let God use power as God wants to use power?