A sermon preached on November 25th – Christ the King Sunday – based upon John
18:33-38a, entitled, “Finding the Meaning in Big History.”
This sermon will not be like the vast majority of my sermons. It may sound like something
of an academic lecture, and for that I apologize up front.
But sometimes I find it helpful to step back from the stress and preoccupations of the
present moment in order to ponder the big picture – and by big picture I mean the story of
what has transpired from the beginning of the universe to the present day – what a book
I’ve been reading about science and religion calls “Big History.”
It was the “big picture” or “Big History” that was being pondered by the ancient Jew who
wrote the first chapter of Genesis. I imagine this person stepping back from the stress and
preoccupations of his or her life to perhaps stare up into a night sky, experiencing that
sense of awe and wonder most of us have felt at such a sight – with the question of “why is
there all this and not just nothing?” hovering in the background. In a God-inspired revelry
this ancient Jew conjured up a story lasting a total of six days in which God set about
creating – bringing order out of utter chaos – each day bringing increasing complexity
culminating on the final day during which human beings were brought into being, with an
identity that distinguished us from all the creatures previously made by God – our creation
“in the image and likeness of God.”
When the scientific process was developed and refined leading to ever increasing insights
into the nature of creation, these insights often came into conflict with a literal
interpretation of Scripture. People felt compelled to take sides in a battle centered in the
realm of biology over the theory of evolution. Was creation brought about by God in six
days in the precise manner depicted in Genesis 1 with each separate species made in an
instance, or did Evolution have it right with the long, gradual process it described? There
seemed to be no room for gray. Evolution with its apparently random process of hits and
misses seemed too haphazard to leave room for God.
People felt compelled to choose between believing in God and the Bible or believing in the
logical processes of Science, and that was quite unfortunate.
Last century, the science of cosmology — the study of the origins of the universe — entered
the picture with the surprising discovery that there was an apparent beginning to the
universe – the so-called “big bang”. A lot of the same sorts of Christians who felt threatened
by Evolution seemed to find the big bang threatening as well.
And yet, oddly if you don’t feel compelled to take Genesis 1 literally, both the notion of the
Big Bang and the theory of evolution have a surprising harmony to the intuitions of the
author of Genesis 1.
First, there actually was a beginning to the universe. Before the compelling evidence for
the Big Bang most scientists had assumed that the universe was static, unchanging, — that it
didn’t have a beginning – it just always was. But no, there was as the ancient Biblical
author intuited a beginning. And, as evolution suggested, we human beings came around at
a very late stage of creation after most everything else, living and otherwise had already
come into existence.
That ancient Jew staring up at the sky had no way of knowing what the cosmology
scientists have discovered regarding just how long the universe has been in existence: that
the big bang occurred about 13. 8 billion years ago; that the earth didn’t come along before
another 9 billion years had passed, that the simplest single cell life forms came
approximately a billion years later, and that it took until just a few hundred thousand years
ago for human beings to appear.
To get a sense for this, if the time from the big bang till now were 24 hours then human
beings have been around for all of 2 seconds; a very late entry to say the least.
And as Genesis 1 indicates something altogether new occurred in the “Big History” of the
universe with the late arrival of us human beings; in a certain sense the universe awakened
to its own existence. No creature that came before us had the capacity to ponder the
universe and the mystery of our lives and ask the question, “What does it all mean? Why is
there everything and not just nothing? Is there a purpose to it all? Why are we here?”
Religion has been the realm in which human beings have pondered these questions, but for
the vast majority of human history religion was not much more than human beings
attempting to control the things they couldn’t control that determined survival – essentially
sacrifices made to unseen gods who it was believed controlled the coming of rain or the
movements of animals that would lead to a successful hunt.
But anthropologists who have studied the history of religion say something far more
profound began to emerge a little less than three thousand years ago in different locations
and cultures – a very late development in “Big History.”
To name but a few of these traditions — Buddhism in the East and the great Philosophers of
ancient Athens and the Jewish tradition in Palestine – including the author of Genesis 1 –
differing symbolic language was used to express the intuition that in contrast to this
material world there was a deeper unseen, imperishable reality with a distinctly moral
nature — a deeper level of truth – and that the purpose of our lives was about seeking to
live in harmony with this truth – that there was a right way to live as opposed to a wrong
way to live.
In other words, the sages behind these various traditions asserted that the question, “What
does it all mean?” had an answer: for instance, the author of Genesis 1 intuited an unseen,
good God behind all that was, one who created a good creation — that life itself was
inherently good. That life’s meaning was found in living in conscious relationship with this
God who required a life that refrained as the ten commandments would go on to assert
refraining from things like killing and stealing and lying; that this God cared about the less
fortunate among us and we should too.
Perhaps because of the unfortunate centuries old hostility that arose between religion and
science, the majority of scientists concluded that this distinctive quality of human beings –
our capacity to ask the question of meaning – had no basis in a deeper reality – that the
universe is essentially meaningless — that the only meaning that exists in life is the
meaning we choose to create – a conclusion in which many of us would find reason to
But science simply isn’t equipped to answer the question of “what does it all mean?”
Scientists can point to all kinds of horrible things that have been done throughout history
in the name of religion to argue that the religious impulse was basically an illusion that
needs to be outgrown. One of the things that religion has been used for is undergird the
power of rulers. The authority of Kings was claimed to be divinely ordained which meant
that if you rebel against the king you were also rebelling against the authority of God.
But for the most part, kings are just political rulers who wear fancy garments, and with rare
exceptions, the main drive of political rulers is to solidify their hold on power. For the most
part kings are all smoke and mirrors – a polished exterior that covers the many sinister
deeds the commit to hold onto or extend power.
We don’t hear much about kings these days, but one “king” has been in the news lately: the
Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia. He has cultivated an image of being an enlightened leader
who is trying to bring his country into the 21st century when in fact he is a ruthless autocrat
intent on crushing all opposition. This recently came to light when a Saudi journalist who
was critical of his regime and living in exile was lured into the Saudi embassy in Turkey,
where the Crown Prince’s hit men quickly assassinated him. As it turns out, this appalling
assassination is just the tip of the ice berg regarding the evils committed by the Crown
Prince in his quest to hold onto or extend his grip on power. Thousands of critics have
been locked up and tortured. And worse yet – something little attention has been given to
– is the war that Saudi Arabia has been engaged in against their arch rivals, the similarly
evil regime of Iran – using the small Arabic country of Yemen as the battlefield.
It was recently reported that 85 thousand children have died of hunger as a result of this
war. According to the United Nations, Yemen is the setting of the worst humanitarian crisis
of our times. And Saudi Arabia fights this war with weapons they have purchased from the
So this long, long introduction brings me to our Gospel lesson. It involves the question of
kingship. “Are you the king of the Jews?” asks Pilate, the Roman governor who rules the
region by the authority of Caesar back in Rome. Pilate knows what the kings of this world
are all about. They are political rulers who wheel and deal in worldly power.
But Jesus replies that his kingdom is not of this world. “I have come,” he says, “to bear
witness to the truth.”
Our lesson ends with Pilate asking, “What is truth?” What does Pilate mean by this
question? On one level, it is an expression of cynicism but ultimately of despair. He is
saying there is no such thing as Truth with a capital T, there is no deeper meaning to life.
All that matters is surviving – holding onto the little castle each of us attempts to build for
ourselves where we can have a little pleasure and comfort until we return to the dust.
Pilate clearly recognizes that Jesus has done nothing worthy of execution. The “right” thing
to do would be to release him. But expediency is all that matters for Pilate, and he is in a bit
of a jam here. If he doesn’t sentence Jesus to die the religious authorities may instigate a
rebellion. Back in Rome, Emperor Caesar likes his territories to be quietly subservient and
a rebellion in Judea could lead to Caesar dumping Pilate. So the heck with doing the “right”
thing — he does the expedient thing to hold onto power. He sentences Jesus to death.
Possibly, possibly beyond the cynicism of Pilate’s question, “What is truth?” there lies a
longing for there to be a deeper meaning to it all. Some compelling reason to do the right
thing, but he can’t see it.
The deep irony, John’s Gospel would have us know is that the deeper Truth glimpsed by all
the great sages of the world is embodied in the man who stands in front of him willing to
die upon the cross.
John’s Gospel is very explicit about this from the outset. The first line of the Gospel echoes
Genesis 1: “In the beginning…” It harkens back to the moment of creation and references
something called “Logos” – the Greek word from which logic arises – the aspect of God
translated in English as “Word” out of which God brought order out of chaos – brought into
being everything that is.
In a stunning claim, John declares “and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”
The claim here is that this Jesus reveals the nature of that mysterious, unseen power out of
which all creation was made. To see Jesus is to see the heart of the Creator.
God gave us Jesus, as it says in the famous verse in John 3:16 because “God so loved the
from being handed over to the Jews.”
The whole world. God loves every single human being. God loves every living being. And our purpose here on earth is to live as best we can in harmony with this love.
In response to Pilate’s question of whether Jesus is a king, Jesus says, “My kingdom is not of
this world… If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me
Fighting violent wars that kill people, leaving little children orphaned and starving to death
– that’s not what this King’s Kingdom is about.
This King is the ruler of the unseen reality out of which our lives arises. But this King will
not compel our love and loyalty with anything that resembles violence. This King simply
invites our love, because love can only be given freely.
So we were put on this earth to love… to be kind, to encourage, to forgive, and sometimes
this is costly, as it was for Jesus.
In the end, that is the bing Truth — pure and simple truth of the deepest kind.