What Are You Doing Here?

by Rev. L. John Gable

What Are You Doing Here? by Rev. L. John Gable
November 20, 2016

Much as Eric Kropp is serving as our seminary intern as part of his education and preparation for ministry as a student at Christian Theological Seminary, so we were required to do field education when I was a student at Princeton as a way to help make practical application to the truths and principles we were learning in the classroom.  My first year of seminary I was an assistant youth minister in a church very much like the church I grew up in in suburban St. Louis.  So at the end of that year the Presbytery told me they thought I should “spread my wings” a bit and get a different experience, so my second year I became a chaplain in a maximum security prison in the Philadelphia prison system.  Now that was a different experience, some of which perhaps I have told you about before because even now, 36 years later, I still think back on it with some regularity.

The prison itself was intimidating.  Holmesburg was built in the 1890’s with high granite walls topped with razor wire.  Each time I entered the prison I was required to go through a metal detector and body search, then five different locked door check points before I could see any of the inmates.  It was a congested and noisy place with a very distinct smell and a census nearly double its intended capacity.  I clearly stood out as I mingled with that mass of men dressed in prison garb.  Over the course of the year I got to know several of those men fairly well, but one day I was approached by an inmate I did not know at all.  He was a young man with an attitude and he asked me point blank, “What are you doing here?”  I thought the clerical collar I was wearing should have given him a good enough clue, but I explained to him that I was a student chaplain.  He said, “I know that!  But why are you here?”  As he stared at me I looked at him rather blankly realizing I didn’t really have an answer.  I didn’t really know why I was there and to say, “My Presbytery thought I should have a different experience” didn’t seem to be quite the answer he was looking for.

I was reminded of that encounter as I read our Gospel lesson for this morning.  Jesus is standing trial before Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, on charges brought against Him by the religious leaders.  They wanted to have Him put to death and Pilate was the only one who could do it for them.  In the Roman court of law the governor was both judge and jury.  Though he had surely heard about Jesus Pilate didn’t really seem to understand what either of them was doing there.  This seemed more a matter to be resolved at a church meeting than a civil court.  He seemed not to really care who Jesus was or what He had done as long as he could be confident that this Jesus of Nazareth was not a threat to the peace of Rome in that region.  So Pilate asked Him, “Are you the King of the Jews?”  Seemingly a straight-forward and relatively easy question to answer, but rather than answering Jesus seems more interested in the spiritual condition of the one who is asking it.  In typical manner, Jesus asks a question in response to a question, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about Me?”  Pilate seems to have no interest in going there, so he rephrases his original question, this time taking himself out of the equation by asking again, “What have you done?”  Or in effect, “Why are you here?” To this Jesus answers, “My Kingdom is not of this world.  If My Kingdom were from this world, My followers would be fighting to keep Me from being handed over.  But as it is, My Kingdom is not from here.”  Three times in that short answer He says, “My Kingdom.”

As was often the case in Jesus’ conversations, these two men are now talking on two different planes, about two different realms of authority.  The Roman governor is thinking temporal and political and Jesus is thinking spiritual and eternal.  “So you are a King?” he asks, and Jesus gives a profound answer, “For this I was born and for this reason I came in to the world, to testify to the truth.  Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to My voice.”  In response, clearly not understanding that the “truth” he is seeking is standing right in front of him, Pilate asks his now infamous question, “What is truth?”

What a curious stand-off.  Here is Jesus, the prisoner, standing before the one who presumably holds His fate in his hands, yet who is the anxious one in this encounter?  Not Jesus.  He is as calm as can be.  Though He is the one on trial, He is in total control.  Pilate is the anxious one and in the end he all but admits that he is only doing the politically expedient thing when he announces, “I find no guilt in Him, but if you want I’ll put Him to death.”  Contrast this to Jesus’ answer, “For this I was born.” 

Jesus knew precisely why He was there and what He had come to do.  This was the source of His calm and the purposefulness of His actions.  Jesus exuded a confidence which comes from knowing He was the right person in the right place doing the right thing at the right time for the right reason.  For centuries His coming had been spoken of; for years He had been preaching and teaching and healing; for months He had been making His way toward Jerusalem with this one purpose in mind.  There is an old adage, “If you want to defeat them, distract them”, but there was no distracting Jesus, no deterring Him from His appointed task.  He was acting in complete confidence that God was working His saving purposes out through His sacrificial death.  Such is the confidence of faith, “For this reason I was born.”

What of us, of you and of me?  Do we have any measure of that same confidence that God is working out His purposes through us?  Rick Warren, in his best-selling book, The Purpose Driven Life, addresses this question head-on: What is the purpose of our lives?  What are we doing here?  Is it only to get by as best we can?  To earn as much money and collect as much stuff as we can?  To make ourselves as happy as we can?  Or is there something more we have been given to do, some greater purpose for which we have been born?  This is the question each of us must ultimately ask and answer for ourselves.  Inquire of others and the answer you get will depend on who you ask.  The French existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sarte writes, “Every existing thing is born without reason, prolongs itself out of weakness, and dies by chance.”  And a happy good morning to you, too!  Many in our consumer oriented society will advocate that the purpose of life is to “eat, drink and be merry”, or some variation of that theme, or to take care of themselves and their own without any regard for the other.  But still there must be something more.  I resonate with George Bernard Shaw when he writes, “This is the true joy in life: the being used for a purpose.  Recognized by yourself as a mighty one.  The being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod with ailments and grievances, complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.  I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the community.  And as long as I live, it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can.  I want to be thoroughly used up when I die.  For the harder I work, the more I live.  I rejoice in life for its own sake, for life is no brief candle for me.  It is a sort of splendid torch which I get to hold for the moment.  And I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.”  I believe Mr. Shaw is absolutely correct.  Our lives have meaning and purpose only as we live beyond ourselves in service to a greater purpose, which makes the identifying of that greater purpose absolutely essential.

Return again to our Gospel lesson, when asked Jesus was able to answer, clearly and succinctly, “For this reason I was born…to testify to the truth” and you and I can say exactly the same.  Regardless of our means or methods, for this reason we too were born: to testify to the truth of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ.  Our purpose is wrapped up in His purpose.  He becomes the lens through which we look at everything we do and everyone we see.  He becomes the measuring stick by which we evaluate the effectiveness of our work and witness.  He is the compass who sets the direction of our lives and destinies.  He is the One to whom we turn for answers when we ask the question, “What am I doing here?”

In answer to this very question the Apostle Paul writes to the Corinthians, “I have decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (I Cor.2:2).  For this reason he was born.  Martin Luther, in the 16th century, stood before his accusers who were threatening him with excommunication from the church he loved, and when asked to recant his reformation teachings, he said, “Here I stand, I can do no other.”  For this reason he was born.  Centuries later another great reformer, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, spoke out and led a movement against the evils of segregation and racism, an outspokenness that cost him his life, but led to systemic changes in policies and attitudes in our nation.  That work is not yet finished, but for this reason he was born.  Mother Teresa, a simple woman of incredible faith, saw people on the streets of Calcutta no none had ever paid attention to before and touched those “untouchables” with the love of Jesus Christ and so founded a movement of compassion toward the poorest of the poor around the world.  For this reason she was born.  Each of these individuals found their life’s meaning in a purpose that was larger than they were.

I listen to these stories and others like them of countless numbers of men and women who are doing life changing ministries in the name of Christ, and I wonder, “Where do they get the strength, the boldness, the vision, the confidence to do what they do?”  I believe each of them would answer in essentially the same way, “For this reason I was born.  This is what gives my life meaning and purpose.”   Did any of them set out looking to make a name for themself or to start a movement?  No, they simply discovered themselves in a position where they could do something to make a difference and gave themselves over to that task with confidence and faith.  They became the right person in the right place doing the right thing at the right time for the right reason, somehow sensing, knowing, believing, for this reason they were born.

Viennese psychiatrist Viktor Frankl spent years in a Nazi concentration camp during World War II.  In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, he describes what it was that made life tolerable for some while others simply gave up and died.  He writes, “What was really needed was a fundamental change in an attitude toward life.  We had to learn that it really did not matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us.  We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those being questioned by life, daily and hourly.”   Put that statement in a Christian context and it sounds like this.  “What is needed is a fundamental change in our attitude toward God.  What matters most is not what we expect from God, but what God expects from us.  We begin to stop wondering about what we can get from God and instead think of ourselves as being addressed by God, daily and hourly.”  Elsewhere Frankl writes, “There is nothing in the world which helps a person surmount their difficulties, survive their disasters, keeps them healthy and happy as the knowledge of a life task worthy of their devotion.  You cannot advance in life with any buoyancy unless you are sure that where you are going has purpose and what you are doing has meaning.”

Pilate asked Jesus, “What are you doing here?” and Jesus was ready with His answer, “For this reason I was born…to testify to the truth.”  He knew that He came not only to bear witness to the truth, but also to be the embodiment of God’s truth.  So in Him, and Him alone, we find our ultimate meaning and purpose.

Jesus came to introduce us to God’s reign and rule “on earth as it is in heaven” and to secure for us the way of our salvation by His sacrificial life and death.  For this reason He was born.  On this Christ the King Sunday let us lift Him up in worship and praise as the only King of kings and Lord of Lords, and let lives give testimony to the inbreaking of His Kingdom.

I imagine I will never meet that young inmate from Holmesburg prison again, but I have met many others like him since, each with essentially the same question, “What are you doing here?”  And now I am ready with my answer.  “I am here to testify to the truth of Jesus Christ.  For this reason I was born.”  And what of you?  What answer will you give?