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“Questions at the Cross: What Is Truth?”
John 18:38


Pastor Kevin Vogts
Holy Cross Lutheran Church
Dakota Dunes, South Dakota
Lent Service V—March 13, 2013

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

During Lent this year, for both our special evening and Sunday morning services, we are considering “Questions at the Cross,” questions asked by Jesus and others during the first Holy Week.  The entire sermon series is listed on the back of this evening’s bulletin.

Tonight’s “Question at the Cross” is probably the most famous question of all time, which Pontius Pilate asks Jesus in this evening’s Gospel Reading: “What Is Truth?”

The television and radio personality Larry King was once asked if he could interview any person from all of history, and if he could ask that person only one question, who would it be, and what would he ask?  Mr. King responded that he would choose to interview Jesus Christ and find out from him whether or not he really was born of a Virgin, because every other important question in the world would be settled by the answer to that one question. 

Although Larry King is not himself a Christian believer, he recognizes the pivotal role of Jesus Christ in human history, he understands what it means for the world if Jesus of Nazareth really is who he claimed to be.  Two thousand years ago there was a man who had the opportunity to interview Jesus Christ.  He was not a journalist or celebrity interviewer, but a government bureaucrat with a big problem.  His name was Pontius Pilate.

In his less-than-successful career as a Roman civil servant, Pontius Pilate had managed to mess up rather royally at several outposts of the Roman Empire.  He was “rewarded” for this with the Roman governorship of Palestine, considered the Siberia of the Roman world.  From a Roman governor’s point of view, the people of Palestine were alligators who chewed up and spit out one ruined governor after another.  Pontius Pilate was determined to redeem himself in the eyes of Rome, to prove himself by successfully governing this unruly province.

But, already there had been two serious incidents, riots which were not really Pilate’s fault, but still he got the blame.  The local leaders had sent letters of complaint to Rome, and just before the Passover of 33 A.D. Pilate had gotten back Rome’s humiliating reply: Three strikes and you’re out.  We’re not moving you again; Palestine is your last chance.  If we get just one more compliant about trouble in Palestine, you’re fired.

The greatest threat to Pilate’s governorship would be Passover week, when Jerusalem swelled with pilgrims to five times its normal population, from 50,000 to 250,000.  The yoke of pagan Roman occupation was particularly hard for the Jewish people to bear that holy week, and the crowds would riot at the slightest provocation.  Pilate was supposed to keep control of all this with just a few thousand soldiers, barely enough to protect him if a riot broke out.  More than one Roman governor of Palestine had been booted out of office after problems during Passover.

So, as far as Pilate was concerned, the timing couldn’t be any worse when during Passover week the local leaders bring him a prisoner whom they demand be crucified.  “And they began to accuse him, saying, ‘We have found this man subverting our nation. He opposes payment of taxes to Caesar and claims to be Christ, a king.’”  That was the most serious charge you could bring against anyone in the Roman Empire: treason, claiming to be a king in opposition to Caesar. 

On the one hand, Pilate couldn’t overlook such a serious charge.  But, on the other hand, what if he did crucify this popular rabbi from Galilee, who just a few days ago adoring crowds had welcomed into Jerusalem?  Maybe that would be the big mistake that would start another riot and end his career as a Roman governor. 

“Pilate then went back inside the palace, summoned Jesus and asked him, ‘Are you the king of the Jews?’  ‘Is that your own idea,’ Jesus asked, ‘or did others talk to you about me?’ ‘Am I a Jew?’ Pilate replied.’ It was your people and your chief priests who handed you over to me. What is it you have done?’ Jesus said, ‘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.’ ‘You are a king, then!’ said Pilate. Jesus answered, ‘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.’ ‘What is truth?’ Pilate asked.”  Unlike Larry King, Pontius Pilate does not recognize the pivotal role of Jesus Christ in human history, or understand what it means for the world if Jesus of Nazareth really is who he claims to be. 

Jesus gently tries to break through to Pilate with the Good News about a spiritual kingdom, not of this world.  But Pontius Pilate is too preoccupied with his own little earthly kingdom.  Isn’t that how it often is with us?  So preoccupied in our lives with the things of this world that we forget about God?  Like Judas Iscariot, who betrayed his Lord for 30 pieces of silver.

Standing right there in front of Pilate is THE King of Kings and Lord of Lords, but what is Pilate worried about?  What a mere earthly king in Rome will think.  Isn’t that how it often is with us?  Attuned more to what the world thinks and wants of us, rather than whether or not we are pleasing and serving our Lord?  Like Peter, who when questioned about his faith denied his Lord three times.

Just think how ironic it is: THE one person that even Larry King says has THE ANSWERS to all the important questions in the world, “The Way, the Truth and the Life,” he is right there in front of Pontius Pilate, and yet Pilate asks, “What is truth?”  Isn’t that how it often is with us, when we have questions and problems?  We do not turn to “The Way, the Truth and the Life,” or his Word, or take it to him in prayer.

“What is truth?”  Pontius Pilate KNEW the historical truth that Jesus was innocent of the charge of treason against Caesar.  Three times Pilate declares Jesus not guilty: “I find no basis for a charge against this man.”  But, Matthew reports: “When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead a riot was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood,’ he said. . .  Then he . . . handed him over to be crucified.”  The sad truth is, Pontius Pilate sacrificed the life of Jesus simply to hold on to his own position and prestige as a Roman governor.

“What is truth?”  The hard truth is, although Pontius Pilate issued the order, none of us is innocent of Jesus’ blood, as Peter says: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross.”

“What is truth?”  The wonderful truth is, your sins are all forgiven on account of Jesus Christ, as Paul says in 2 Corinthians: “God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself, not counting men’s sins against them.”

“What is truth?”  Paul beautifully summarizes in Romans the greatest truth of all, the Christian Gospel: “If you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”

Amen.

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