God's presence catches us off guard

John 18:33-37

Sunday Sermon

The Rev. Dr. Thomas A. Thoeni
Rector-elect

November 25, 2018

During the Revolutionary War, an officer experiencing a rare moment of leisure, decided to wear civilian clothes rather than his uniform. On this walk he came across a group of soldiers straining at their work repairing a small redoubt with their commander nearby harshly barking orders. The officer was uneasy about this scene and he approached the commander to ask why he was not helping.

“I am a corporal!” the man returned indignantly.

The stranger in plain clothes apologized but decided to lend his hand to the exhausted soldiers. When the work was finished he approached the corporal again and said, “Mr. Corporal, the next time you have such a job and are short on help, go to the commander in chief.” The corporal looked at the stranger in disbelief. “Go to the commander in chief, and I will help you again.”

The corporal had failed to recognized the stranger as General George Washington. There is ample evidence and numerous anecdotes recounting George Washington’s humility in leading; and he often expressed his reluctance to be named anything approaching the King of the United States. That decision, of course, has had a profound effect on our governance and our national self-identity. We identify ourselves as a folk governed and not ruled. We are led but not dominated. We elect and do not acclaim. Our leaders rise from the populace; they are determined by ballot and not bloodline. Our leaders lead by our choice and our will. Much the same as does our Lord.

Today’s Gospel reading offers us a startling portrait of power and humility. Within the figure of Pilate we have a man of utter power. He held within his hands the authority to dismiss Jesus or to dispense of him. Jesus, a broken shell of a once-heralded Messiah, stands alone to face the power and authority of Rome. Pilate wears the robe of strength while Jesus is wrapped only in humiliation.

But why do we gather this day; to remember Rome’s former glory or the on-going dynamic humility of God?

Today is the last Sunday after Pentecost. It marks the final week of our Christian year. Next week we begin the season of Advent, with its anticipation of the coming of Christ both in the vulnerable babe in a manger and in the triumphant Lord in the skies. This Sunday, in most parts of the Anglican Communion, is celebrated as the Feast of Christ the King, hence the recurrent theme of royalty within our readings. But we in the US, being a democratic republic, are not terribly enamored with the image of Christ as our King. The relevance of this metaphor is not as pertinent to us as it would be to a parishioner in London.

But we still have before us the unmistakable images of power versus humility. This is the central metaphor I would like us to retain as we approach the season of Advent. The season of Advent takes the Blessed Virgin Mary as one of its main symbols. Certainly no one anticipated the birth of Jesus more than she did. But she also offers us a great, heroic image of humility.

Consider for a moment that the only two mere humans that are mentioned by name in the Nicene Creed are Pontius Pilate and the Virgin Mary. This fact has long been for me a source of meditation.

It seems to me that these two individuals, and their place in the basic confession of our faith, offer us a choice. Within Pilate we have a man more concerned with his own personal power and position than to bravely imagine that before him stood the Son of God, a King beyond his wildest imaginings. True authority faced him and yet he chose to embrace the false power of the world. He is now remembered as a sycophant and an historical footnote in the death of our Lord.

Yet, within the Blessed Virgin Mary we have a simple woman with no means nor capacity to do anything but hope. In the moment the angel appeared to her announcing her blessed mission, to bear the Son of God within her womb, her simple answer was, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord, may it be done to me according to your word.” In Pilate we have one who offered the world the death of our Savior. In Mary we have one who offered the life of our Lord. By including each person in the confession of our faith we have a choice of which to follow.

Will we be one so intoxicated within our own sense of self that we cannot perceive God’s presence straight before us? Or will we be one humble enough to surrender fully to the desires and will of God and find our place within them?

Imagine the shock of that corporal when he realized that the man in plainclothes was the father of our country. Imagine the power that stood before Pilate. Imagine the humility of God who sought a lowly virgin to accomplish his plans.

These things, perhaps, cannot be fully imagined, which is, in the end, my point. God’s presence is never where or what we expect it to be. It always catches us off guard. Are we willing to let God be who God is? Are we willing to become whom God calls us to be?

The answers to these questions are not easy and they are not answered only once. But within them is the basis of humility. Are we willing to let God be who God is? Are we willing to become whom God calls us to be? Do we have the bravery to offer our humility like Mary? Or are we as fearful as Pilate and cannot perceive what is right before us. Will we be as Pilate, only remembered for our weak disregard of Christ?

Or will we be remembered as Mary, offering to bring forth God into this world, simply by offering the humble lives, bodies and souls that God has given us. These are simple questions but the answers are complicated, demanding and adventurous. Pilate or Mary? Blinded by pride or blessed with the vision of the humble? Lifeless or life-bearing?

The choice is ours.