(A sermon for Reign of Christ Year B — November 25, 2012 — John 18:33-37)
It’s a quiet game, at the highest levels, played in hushed surroundings by intense, intellectual competitors.
It’s played in parks, by old men joking with their neighbors.
It’s played in school clubs, by the smart nerds.
It’s even played in Harry Potter, with pieces that move themselves and endanger the opponents.
Always, it’s played by the same special and specific rules. Each piece in chess has its way of moving, its particular purpose and its individual merit.
The watchwords are concentration and strategy.
That’s all true unless the players are a sister and brother, 11 and 9. Their father receives a chess set as a gift. He gives them a rulebook to read and the board to play with, but he is too busy at first to make sure they understand the rules. The older child, the sister, is a better reader and memorizes the moves the pieces may make. The younger child, the brother, is not as particular. But his sister won’t know that until they are half a dozen moves in, when the boy tries to move his Queen just like a Knight. He thinks the Queen can do more than move in all directions. He thinks she can move just like all the other pieces.
The story plays out the same way, over and over again: the opening moves, the hope by the sister that her brother would not do the same thing he did last time…and the time before…the move of the Queen, leaping forward two and over one, just like the horse-shaped Knight; the patient explanation of the rules; the downward spiral into an argument over the move, and finally, the throwing over of the board.
Because you can only excuse a certain amount of rule-breaking, even from a younger brother; eventually it seems not just ignorant, but deliberate.
And we like our rules, the accepted ways we are meant to play the game.
Jesus was born into a culture with a lot of rules: religious and personal and social. People knew their places. People knew the expectations. The earthly kingdom values were clear. They knew which violations could be remedied by a sacrifice or an offering, and which would really get a person shut out of family and community. This may be hard for us to understand. We live in a time when change happens quickly. We’re no longer accustomed to a world where things stay the same. News travels fast. Technology revolutionizes our lives. Waves of social change move us whether or not we are ready. Things we used to fear would leave us ostracized no longer seem so terrible to other people.
But it was not that way for the people around Jesus. It’s easy for us to forget. Maybe we never even think about it. They had one understanding of King and Kingdom. A King had power. A Kingdom was absolutely controlled by the King. And although that worldview had been disturbed by more than one invading army, and although it was disturbed by the Romans at that very moment, the religious powers held onto the idea that the King, the One, the Savior, the Messiah would come from God. He would come from God to throw over the board set by the Romans. He would give them the chance to reset the pieces and continue playing the game of life by the rules they knew so well.
The pawns are there to be sacrificed. The Bishop moves on a diagonal. The Knight leaps forward two and over one. The Queen can move in any direction – but not like the Knight. Be sure you remember that rule if you ever play the game with me. The King is dignified. He can move only one space at a time. All the other pieces protect him, because when he is gone, the game is over.
Check and mate.
When he came, the Messiah, he didn’t play by the way people expected. The religious authorities found themselves playing against him instead. They got his piece off the board and thought they had won. But the game did not end simply because crucifixion looked like Checkmate. Christ came as a different kind of King, a monarch who changed all the definitions.
Hear how he talked to Pilate:
“My kingdom is not from this world.”
My power does not look like the world’s power.
“If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews.”
If my power looked like the world’s power, I would let my pawns die to keep me safe from the religious authorities and the earthly power structures.
“But as it is, my Kingdom is not from here.”
You don’t understand anything I’m saying or doing.
Pilate struggled with it. The priests and the Pharisees could not grasp it. God was supposed to send a King who would overthrow the enemies, the Romans. This man could not be the one! He did not look the part. His supporters did not play the game the right way. He would not be able to save the Jews from the rule of the Romans, and that was clearly what they needed a savior to do.
They could only excuse a certain amount of rule-breaking; eventually it seemed not just ignorant, but deliberate. We still have trouble understanding what he was doing. This King did not sacrifice the pawns to save himself. He gave his life to save the pawns, the lowly, the earthly kingdom’s expendable people. He gave his life for us.
I have made a claim that our world is different from the one in which Jesus lived. He was born into a human family in a very specific Jewish culture with religious and social expectations that were communicated clearly. We’re different. We no longer have a set of unyielding rules and shared expectations. What we have instead is a divided community, a diverse culture broken almost down the middle on most matters. We ask one social issue question – where do you stand on abortion? Marriage equality? The death penalty? – and then guess what the other person’s opinions are for the rest of the questions on the list. We are uncompromising. We’ll argue over anything and never listen to the other person’s point of view. We are defensive. Those values seem to override everything else. They are the new rules of the chess game. If I argue you into submission, check and mate.
On TV and on the radio and on the Internet, we play the game. We’re adrenaline junkies. When we move into argumentative territory, we do it with heart pounding, thrilled by the confrontation.
“So you are a king?”
“You say that I am a king.”
Checkmate avoided, for the moment.
This King, or Not King, would momentarily be sentenced to crucifixion, because the Jewish crowd asked for it. His own people felt threatened by the new rule he offered, a way of being in relationship with God based not on laws but on grace and forgiveness. It wasn’t the solution people were looking for; maybe it still isn’t. It stretches us, demands we move past the limits of our contemporary rules and expectations and ask ourselves whether we are listening to his truth. God is not the one with the biggest armies or the largest advertising budget. God’s power doesn’t look like earthly power. Jesus overturned that expectation long ago. We’re the ones who have trouble accepting it. And we continue to use him to try to win our arguments, to prove that we are right, to talk so fast and so loud that there is no time to notice whether we, or anyone else, is actually listening to his voice.
Checkmate. It comes from a Persian phrase meaning “The King is helpless.” In earthly terms, he was. He allowed himself to be. He did not raise his voice or his hand or a weapon to defeat his enemies. Jesus threw the board over not because people broke the rules but because the rules themselves were broken. This King would sacrifice himself to show God’s love—his love—for us.
“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.”
He showed us strength in love, power in truth and victory over death. His voice has never been the loudest. Will we listen?