When Teddy Roosevelt was running for president of the United States, he was interrupted during a campaign speech by a man in the audience who kept yelling out, “I’m a Democrat.” Teddy Roosevelt was, of course, a Republican, unlike his younger cousin Franklin, who also served as president, as a Democrat. Well, after being interrupted by the heckler a few times, Roosevelt stopped his speech and addressed the heckler, “Why are you a Democrat?” The man proudly replied, “My grandfather was a Democrat and my father was a Democrat. That’s why I am a Democrat!” Roosevelt shook his head and replied, “And suppose your grandfather was a jackass and your father was a jackass. What would you be?” “A Republican,” answered the heckler.[i] Change the word order and the comment works just as well the other way.
Nothing much has changed. Except maybe that people of differing political persuasions call each other far worse than jackass these days. We live in politically confusing, turbulent times. People have strong opinions about what is best for this country, and social media has given everyone a platform to share their views. But far too often, sharing and civil discourse devolve into name-calling, arguing, and shaming. The logical fallacy called “ad hominem,” or the “ad hominem attack” happens daily. That simply means you attack the person instead of the idea. I finally had to tell people who comment on my posts that “I don’t care whether you agree with me or disagree. If your comment includes ad hominem, I’ll remove it. It usually starts with something like “Well you certainly are blind if you think that …” And just this week I removed comments of people who actually agreed with me and left the comments of a friend who disagreed with me. Some of us are out there actually trying to get people to think. Others are just looking for a fight. Most of us are probably a little bit of both.
But we DO live in turbulent times, and sometimes, in the midst of all this, as followers of Christ, we’re at a loss as to how to pray and how to respond in a way that is faithful to our citizenship in the kingdom of God. And as a pastor, I’ve heard many concerns voiced. One concern is the tone of political conversations. We all know of folks, even Christian leaders, who have posted on Facebook, “If you voted for the person I didn’t vote for, I will unfriend you.”
Another concern I’ve heard is for the well-being of the vulnerable among us. We know that God often speaks about doing justice for the poor and the sojourner, people from other countries living among us. And much of our national dialogue over the last several years has been about immigrants and refugees. Show should we respond? And as follower of Christ, how do we take action in regards to our beliefs? Some have expressed concern that if they speak of the need for secure borders or for people applying for entry into the country to follow the laws, they’ll be labeled as uncaring, or worse. I’ve heard concerns about the role and dignity of women. We want Christ Church to be the first place to celebrate that it was God who created women and men equally in his image. And this isn’t just a policy issue.
There have been words and behaviors by our current president that are disturbing to any Christ follower, and others point out – while equally sharing that concern – that there have been other presidents of other parties engaged in sexual scandals, and that if we start critiquing presidential behavior, it’s going to be a full-time job. Some have concerns about leadership style. We currently have a political leadership style and environment that causes some who have felt marginalized and unrepresented by their government to say, “Someone gets it. Someone will fight for me.” While others are concerned that this same leadership style and environment could undermine some of our important democratic institutions, or turn particular nations, races, or ethnic groups into scapegoats, or lead to some people being demeaned and treated without dignity and respect.
And there’s the concern about ethnic divisions within the body of Christ. Exit polls from the 2016 election showed majorities of white Catholics and Protestants voted for President Trump, with many of them citing hopes that the result would restrict abortion or protect religious liberty. But many Christians of other ethnicities, non-white Christians, voted for Mrs. Clinton, and they often citied factors like her support for immigrants or for civil rights.[ii]
People across the political spectrum have legitimate concerns. And yet, St. Paul tells us in Philippians 3:20, “But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” We do hold citizenship and the right to vote in the United States of America, at least most of us do, but our primary citizenship, our most important citizenship and the source of our identity, is in the Kingdom of God. You’ll often hear me refer to our citizenship in the Kingdom of God. So how do we live as citizens of that kingdom, praying with Jesus, “Thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven” in the midst of the noise and turmoil and argument and discord we face today? That’s a question the Old Testament prophet Zechariah deals with.
He was ministering in politically confusing, turbulent times. The time of the exile of God’s people was coming to an end. The Assyrian Empire that had carried of the northern Kingdom of Israel, the northern 10 tribes, had been defeated by the Babylonian Empire, who then destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple and carried off the southern Kingdom of Judah, the southern 2 tribes into exile. And the Babylonians had in turn been defeated by the Persian Empire, and now Darius was king in Persia. And his method of rule and peace-keeping was to allow people to live in their homelands and worship whatever gods they had worshipped as a people. And that included the Jews. So some who had been led away were filtering back to their homeland, with permission and the resources from Darius to rebuild the wall of Jerusalem and the temple to God. These are the events recorded in the historical books of Ezra and Nehemiah. The land is ruined. The people are scattered. Some are filtering back to the Promised Land. The people living in the land for the most part don’t want them to rebuild either the wall or the temple, and actively resist them with strength and also political intrigue in Darius’ court. Thousands had been slain. Thousands more deported. Some wanted to come back. Others didn’t. And then there was the whole question of God’s faithfulness – How in the world was God being faithful to his covenants with Abraham and David through all of this? Was Jerusalem important or not? Was the temple important or not? It was a confusing time to live and try to serve God. Turn with me to Zechariah 7:1-7.
When you placed your faith in Christ, became a follower of Christ, your life was completely reoriented. Before you came to Christ, your life was completely oriented toward self. That doesn’t mean you never did anything good or didn’t love other people or anything like that. Even in that state of being separated from God, you were still created in the image of God and capable of doing good, even legitimately unselfish acts. But the basic orientation of life in that state is still, “I don’t need God’s forgiveness. I can be good enough on my own. My best effort is good enough.” That orientation is the foundation of sin, and it separates us from God because it says, sometimes very politely and with all of the trappings of a good life, “I don’t need Jesus. I don’t need the path God has provided for my forgiveness.” I can do it. MY best is good enough. Self.
But when we place our faith in Christ, accepting Christ’s work on our behalf, our life is completely reoriented AWAY from self and TOWARD Christ. We become citizens of the kingdom of God, first and foremost, and God’s priorities become our priorities. That’s a mark of the people of God – God’s priorities are our priorities. We serve God, not self. That’s the first mark of a faithful follower of Christ during politically confusing times: it’s obvious that they’re serving God, not self. How can we think that Christ taking up residence in our lives, the Holy Spirit living in us and moving through us won’t completely transform us? How can we think that God will come into our lives, look around, and say, “I think I’m going to leave everything pretty much as it was. Your priorities, your desires, your beliefs, your actions, all of it is fine. Carry on.”? No, when God comes into our lives, he spends the rest of our lives transforming those things … not just our actions and beliefs, but our priorities, our dreams and desires, our wills. All of it.
So a delegation from Bethel comes to Jerusalem, which is being rebuilt, asking a question about their worship and religious duty, but God takes the opportunity to reveal to them something about their hearts. They were still focused on self, The people had been fasting regularly on certain days. For them, fasting was associated with mourning, sin, and repentance. They were commemorating the fall of Jerusalem, and the destruction of the temple. And a delegation came to Jerusalem from Bethel asking, “Now that the rebuild has begun, and foundations have been laid, should we keep fasting? Should we switch from fasting to feasting?” What they were really asking is, “Is the exile over?” Jeremiah had prophesied 70 years. This was about 69 years in. They wanted to know if they had been punished enough, had suffered enough. And in doing that, they reveal that they’d completely missed the point all along.
And God says, “The things I said to you through Jeremiah and the prophets in the past are still true. When you feast, it’s all about you, and when you fast, it’s no different. You’re no different than the people who went into exile. Your mourning, your fasting, it looks like genuine repentance, but it isn’t. You’re doing the religious act, but your hearts are far from me. Even their fasting was completely self-serving. They were still oriented toward self. God’s priorities meant nothing to them. The people of God make God’s priorities their priorities. It is obvious that they are serving God, not self.
So how do we figure out what God’s priorities are? By LISTENING to God. Look at Vv. 8-14. “They made their hearts diamond-hard lest they should hear the law and the words that the LORD of hosts had sent by his Spirit through the former prophets … As I called, and they would not hear, so they called, and I would not hear.” The people of God recognize that they serve God, not self, and make God’s priorities their priorities by listening to and receiving what God says, even when it’s hard. Even when it goes against the flow of what WE want. And how does God speak to us? Through his Word as we study ourselves and as godly pastors, men and women, speak it faithfully into our lives. Through prayer, as we quiet our hearts and listen to what God’s Spirit is saying to us. Prayer isn’t just speaking to God, telling him what we want. Prayer is two-way conversation with God, and I recommend listening before speaking. Through faithful friends who are on this journey of following Christ with us. The truth is, God has made his priorities known. Look at Vv. 9-10.
There it is again. Every Old Testament prophet says the same thing: justice, mercy, protecting the vulnerable. The prophets warning the people of the coming exile because of their disobedience. The prophets speaking to the people during the exile. The prophets ministering to the people as the exile ended. They’re like a broken record, because the people refused to listen. They wanted to make their life of faith about anything OTHER THAN doing these things. Actually loving their neighbor. The gospel, in a nutshell, is this: you are loved deeply by God, regardless of your past. Every sin is forgiven in Christ. Therefore, love God and love your neighbor. That’s the gospel. That’s the good news. God loves me deeply, and sets me free from my addiction to self so that I can love God and love my neighbor.
God has been speaking all along. He’s made his priorities obvious. We can’t end the gospel with the sinner’s prayer. It goes further. St. James says “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (Js. 2:14-17). How can we think that the Holy Spirit, alive in us, will not completely reorient our lives, our minds, our wills, our emotions, our behaviors, our thoughts, our priorities?
John Ortberg, popular Christian author and pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in California, shared this in a sermon he preached when our current administration took office: “As a church, we do not get into the business of policy evaluation. I’ll say a word about that. For example, governments have to decide, “Will there be a minimum wage, and where will it be set?” There can and will be differences between well-intentioned Christ-followers about what policy will create the best results. That’s a discussion that requires not only the commitment to help the poor but the wisdom about macro-economics that will lead to not only good intentions, but good results. If a pastor who is not trained in economics pontificates from the pulpit about economic policy, she or he is squandering the moral and spiritual authority of the Scripture.
What is true for a follower of Jesus is that no one can say, “I don’t care about the poor; I just want policies that will enrich myself no matter what.”
Christian political scientist Mark Amstutz notes one of the key scholarly debates around immigration policy is that both national and international well-being involve the tensions between building cohesive national entities (communitarianism) and having wide access into a country (cosmopolitanism). The local church’s job is not to say, “Here’s the right number of people who should cross the border.”
It is my job—and our job—to say that if you are a follower of Jesus, you will gladly and sacrificially give and serve to care for the alien.
It is our job to say that if you are a follower of Jesus and you see someone who is Muslim, your calling as a Christ-follower is to extend the love of Jesus, to seek to be their friend, to welcome them into your life, and to will and work for their good.
It is our job to say the leaders of nations will be accountable to God for the treatment of the alien, and Christians – including some in our congregation – who are trained in that area can do a great service to God and humanity, and we should pray for you and all seek to be appropriately informed.”
How do we remain faithful to Christ during politically turbulent times? By remembering that we serve Christ, not self. By seeking to make God’s priorities our own. And by listening to what God says his priorities are: every human soul, and every human body. You are deeply loved by God and in Christ, he has set you free to love him, and to love your neighbor. Go and do.
[i] Tim Timmons, Maximum Living in a Pressure Cooker World
[ii] John Ortberg, from the sermon National Reflections