The decorations are up! Carols - secular and sacred - are playing quietly in the background to set the mood - to get us in the mood to celebrate - and spend!
But there's more to Christmas than that, we protest. Christmas is for family and friends. And then there's the story about the Baby - the Baby in the manger!
But what's so special about that? argues the sceptic. Babies are born every day - every minute! Every baby is special to their own family circle. But why stop the world? Why have a world celebration? That was all so long ago - two millennia ago - why keep the tradition alive?
The sceptic's questions are good and healthy, deserving an answer - if he really wants one!
Today's reading is set in the events which led to the death of Jesus - whose birth in Bethlehem we celebrate at Christmas time.
Jesus grew up in the obscure northern town of Nazareth. No one took much notice of him. He was just the carpenter's son. But when he was thirty, word spread rapidly that John, a rough prophet from the wild country, had come to the Jordan River. John was calling on people to repent of their sins because the Kingdom of God was at hand.
That was when Jesus emerged from obscurity. He joined the crowds at the Jordan and insisted on being baptised by John. Then he went around preaching, teaching and healing people. Like John, he had a great deal to say about the Kingdom of God. He gathered a group of disciples. They seem to have had an idea that he would take political control over the affairs of Israel - with key positions for them! But his teaching was about the sort of people they needed to be - the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those hungry and thirsty for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers (Mt. 5.3-12).
Crowds followed, but the Jewish leaders were jealous of him. He exposed their false motives - he had to go. In the privacy of their Council, they charged him with blasphemy - claiming to be the Messiah, the Son of God. (26.63). For the Jews, blasphemy was a capital offence, but, as a subject nation, they couldn't carry it out themselves. And the charge of blasphemy was hardly serious to the Roman authorities. Before governor Pilate, they accused him of treason - claiming to be a king and setting up a rival kingdom against the Romans (as in Lk. 23.2; Jn 19.12).
In our reading, we see Pilate hedging - he doesn't really want this case - yet, so other records tell us, complaints about his administration had already gone to Rome. He can't easily dismiss the whole case. He has to examine the man himself to see if there is any substance in their charges.
So Pilate has Jesus brought into the palace. There he will be free from the pressure of the Jewish leaders. We are told, "to avoid ceremonial uncleanness the Jews did not enter the palace; they wanted to be able to eat the Passover" (Jn 18.28).
"Are you the King of the Jews?" (v. 33)
"Is that your own idea," Jesus asked, "or did others talk to you about me?" (v. 34)
Luke records their accusation before Pilate's question - "We have found this man subverting our nation. He opposes payment of taxes to Caesar and claims to be Christ, a king" (Lk. 23.2).
"What is it you have done?" There must be some reason why the "people and chief priests have handed you over to me" (v. 35)
"My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place" (v. 36).
"You are a king, then!"
"You are right in saying I am a king. In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me" (v. 37).
It is clear to Pilate that Jesus wasn't talking about a political kingdom which might threaten Roman rule. There was "no basis for a charge against him" (v. 38).
Jesus' kingdom (or kingship) is "not of this world." It is "from another place" (literally, "not from here"). He was born and came into the world for the express purpose of testifying to the truth. Do you grasp that? Jesus didn't say he was born to become King. "My kingship," he is saying, "is from another place." In other words, Jesus was King before he was born. He wasn't born to become King, but to testify to the truth. That also means they can't stop Jesus from being King by having him executed!
"The King of the Jews"? Pilate had it written on the inscription on the cross. It was his sharp jibe at the Jewish leaders who had rejected Jesus and wanted him out of their way (see 19.19-21).
Christmas is almost here! It is the "Christ"-mas, the time to reflect again on the story about the Baby - the Baby in the manger!
And why is that so special? Why stop the world? - not that we mind having the celebration! Why should this story of what happened two millennia ago still have any significance for us now?
In today's world, people may debate whether there should be monarchies at all - whether all the remaining monarchies in the world should give way to republican states. It is argued that no human being should be "born to be king or queen" - groomed throughout life for a future status and role at the end of the present reign.
But Jesus was born King - already King from heaven. But will earth receive him and welcome him?
John began his Gospel by talking about the Word - who was in the beginning with God, the Word who was God (Jn 1.1). "He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him" (v. 11). "The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth" (v. 14).
Born King - his glory concealed during the days of his humanity - just a few little glimpses shining through.
King forever! They crucified him, but he rose from death. Risen and glorious! Let us receive him! Let us welcome him! Let us trust him as our Saviour and Lord!
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