our scandalous hope: reflections on the 2016 election

the following are the impromptu reflections i offered to the students of focus (fellowship of college and university students, the university ministry of first presbyterian church of berkeley) the day after the election results were announced.

something happened this morning that has never happened to me since moving to the bay area just over a year ago. on my way out the door, i turned to jen and said, “i wish I didn’t have to go to work today.”

it’s not that i don’t want to be here with you—worshipping and praying with you all is exactly what i wanted and needed. but the responsibility of speaking into this moment was not something i felt i had the energy nor the expertise for. to be honest, i didn’t feel i had anything edifying to offer.

i broke down crying several times today: at home, at the gym, in my office. and yet, i recognize that speaking to you all, when things are tough as well as when things are great, is my job.

so i spent much of the day in prayer and reading. what I have to say to you is, in large part, what i need to hear myself.

also, i feel like i should tell you that i had another message i was planning on giving tonight, but i felt like it would be inappropriate. this reflection will be unusually brief and less polished than normal. i apologize. but i hope it’s helpful.

lastly, i want to be honest about the political and theological diversity in the room. one reason i love this group so much is that we’re not all alike! this is the church—you all are the church—not an affinity group. so i don’t want to assume that we all voted alike.

this is not a political party talk; this is a call to reflect on and remind us what it means to be christian at a time like this.

Kingdom of God ≠ kingdom of the state

Jesus’ triumphal entry (mark 11:1–11) is a familiar scene for most of us. Jesus enters jerusalem during the passover celebration, riding on a colt. when he did, he was celebrated by those present, like a celebrity, or a popular political candidate. this is a great start to the week! unfortunately, His week ends with the same crowds shouting for his execution.

why was Jesus crucified after being so warmly welcomed? because He threatened to disrupt their religious and political way of life. if Jesus came to offer the kind of kingdom that fit with the state’s values, he wouldn’t have been killed. but the Kingdom Jesus came to preach was an entirely different Kingdom.

rather than entering in a powerful way, say on a tank or on a private jet with the word JESUS emblazoned on the side in bold letters, Jesus enters riding on a lowly donkey.

i hope you see the humor here. i hope you see the disruption. this was a humiliating entrance! but He did it to show that God’s Kingdom is not what the people were expecting. not what we were expecting.

Jesus’s triumphal entry denounces triumphalism. Jesus’ Lordship rejects our approach to kingship. the Lordship of Christ is not one who rules by domination and might, nor by forceful imposition. Jesus rules as a servant.

to say, “Jesus is Lord,” is to give up the temptation to be in control, because that’s part of caesar’s kingdom, not God’s. Jesus’s Kingdom doesn’t fit the kingdom of rome, which cost Him his life.

christianity didn’t begin with a healthy relationship with its political authority, but under a political (and religious) authority that executed its Lord as an enemy of the state. Christianity began with no false assumptions that the state was there for the benefit of the early church, or God’s in-breaking Kingdom.

there were no false assumptions among early Christians that those in power were responsible for bringing about God’s Kingdom. God’s Kingdom was, instead, happening because of God’s work in the disciples’ life together, through their life in the world, enacting an entirely new reality.

one of our problems today is that we fall in love with the idea of electing the right leader(s). we have been tempted to think that, particularly when our political authority approaches certain characteristics of God’s Kingdom—maybe when candidates talk about providing shelter for the stranger in our land—we get excited, and put what should be our expectations of God’s Kingdom on the state. when that falls through, we are deeply disappointed.

but the Kingdom of God is not a democracy. the Kingdom of God is not coming into fruition by of our vote, but because of God’s continued work in the world, in history, in our story.

the theologian stanley hauewas preached on election day at duke divinity school, offering this reminder:

We are told on Election Day, this is the day the people rule. That sounds like a good idea, but you need to remember that there was a democratic moment in the Gospels and all the people asked [not for Jesus] but Barrabas. Jesus was not trying to create a democratic coalition…We did not elect Jesus to be President. We did not elect Jesus to be the second person of the Trinity. We did not elect him messiah or savior.

Thank God, God’s work does not depend on our election.

if God’s Kingdom ≠ the kingdom of the state, is our life together giving others a taste of the reality of God’s in-breaking Kingdom—regardless of who’s in office?

is our life together posing a threat to the Enemy’s ways of lies and destruction upon so many lives here in Berkeley?

if not, it matters little who’s in office, for our allegiance to Jesus is in question, the One whose true, ultimate authority is not based on any election.

our Savior is not a candidate, nor is our Enemy

on that point, as Christians we do not believe any elected official is our capital “s” Savior. we most certainly ought to do our due diligence, learning all of the candidates, and cast our vote for the candidate we believe best embodies and envisions a nation that shares as many Kingdom characteristics as possible. but we never imagine any candidate will be perfectly aligned with the reality that God promises.

i don’t remember much from high school math, but one concept i remember is the asymptote. like an asymptote, a curve that approaches a line to infinite, without ever touching that line, even the best political individual approaches, but never totally aligns with the Kingdom of God.

we celebrate when elected official’s vision and values approach God’s Kingdom values, but we don’t assume God’s Kingdom will come from political authorities enacting it. this prevents us from despairing when a certain official is not elected–or another is.

things are at their worst in the history of Christianity and the State when religious leaders are too in love with their State leaders. dangerous things happen when we lose sight of who God is and what God is about, in placing our focus and hope on a particular political leader.

our capital “s” Savior is not found in any particular political party or person, nor is our capital “e” Enemy. our greatest Enemy is not located in any political party or even elected official, but in the one Scripture calls Enemy, Satan, the Thief.

in a democracy we ought to do our best to avoid electing anyone who’s values look more like the Enemy’s ways than the Kingdom of God. what are these ways?

“the thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy,” Jesus says. “I have come that you may have life, and have it abundantly,” (john 10:10).

an elected official whose vision means theft, destruction, and death do not match the vision our Savior came to bring to earth, and who called us to embody in our life together.

but we don’t lose hope when elected officials do not look like God’s Kingdom values. this is a very scary, and provocative reminder, i know, but God may still work through them to accomplish God’s purposes. the old testament book of Isaiah reminds us that God uses a political enemy to help His people. it is scandalous, i know. and the God’s people struggled to believe it then.

i am not saying that this is what we find happening today.

but we must remember that the Living God exceeds our imagination and expectations. God will work through God’s people and otherwise, a people that does not align perfectly with civil authorities.

also: Christians bear the difficult reminder that our real problem is never ultimately with anyone else. ultimately, the real problem is inside of us. and that manifests itself in ways that are difficult to face, including an election result.

but we are the ones that need Christ’s reconciliation and redemption. it is for me that Christ came. i need saving, often even from myself.

hope in the darkest of darkness

we started the evening by reading the scene from Jesus’ entrance into jerusalem from mark’s Gospel. what we didn’t read is the ending, though I did refer to it, and though we’re likely all familiar with it.

after lifting up Jesus as their long-awaited hope for the throne, at the end of the same week, the same crowd insists on Jesus’ death. they got their way. He was executed publicly, following an unfair trial, as an enemy of the state.

that’s how the week ends for Jesus and His followers.

and what you must see, friends, what you have to realize, is that this was the darkest moment imaginable. all of their hopes and dreams, not just for the next four years, but for the next millennia, were now shattered.

the One who they were banking on to finally set things right with their oppressive government; the One who would finally end hunger for so many working poor, starving children; the One who would finally lead not with arrogance and power and force, but with humility and love; all hope of that was now lost.

His body is now lying in a tomb somewhere, and they’re hiding in fear and disappointment. what we have to imagine is that, at this point, they cannot see, let alone imagine, what hope would even look like. hope cannot now fit into the disciples’ imagination. and for some of you, that’s exactly how you feel now.

so what, then?

in the dark days, we mourn, we lament. some Christians act as though morning and lament is not proper for us. but that’s a dangerous lie. Christ Himself wept in the face of death—even as He knew He was going to bring the same man back to life!

why? because He knew this is not the way things are supposed to be. the proper response to the way of the Thief—death, destruction, lies, power over others, oppression—is grief.

as Christians, we grieve with the best of them. but we do not grieve without hope (1 thessalonians 4:13)!

as Christians, we know that the dark and our tears will not last for all time, but only for a while. because death and despair is not the last word, but only the second to the last word.

hope is the last word.

two ways to mourn

after Jesus’ death, we see two different ways of disciples mourning.

following Jesus’ execution and the loss of all they had placed their hope in, the traditional disciples lock themselves in a room, afraid for their own life.

but there is another group of disciples; we’ll call them the alternative disciples: joseph of arimathea and nicodemus. unlike the other disciples, they move toward Jesus’ body, in love and great courage, preparing his body for the grave, wrapping it carefully with fine linens and expensive spices (john 19:40).

the first disciples mourned without hope, frozen in fear. the second disciples mourned with active love.

but there were other alternative disciples: the women who followed Jesus were also there at the tomb (rather than hiding in fear). and they were the first to see the Hope of God in Christ, resurrected!

but it was a hope that the traditional disciples could not have imagined, they could not yet see, given how dark the days were. they could not yet imagine what God was up to. the darkness was blinding.

scandalous hope

in the midst of that darkness, we must never forget the scandalous nature of Christian hope: that God took the State’s greatest symbol of power, control, and fear in that time—the crucifix—and God turned it into our source of greatest hope.

don’t lose hope, friends. don’t lose hope. don’t lose hope.

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