FROM YESTERDAY’S SERMON:
A pastor from a nation in Africa was telling me about politics in his country. He said the political groups are divided not only by political differences, but they are also from different tribes. Their tribal heritages go back many centuries, and these deep loyalties to their own tribe and their age-old conflicts with other tribes, add great complexity to the political process in a nation trying to form a democracy. They are trying to emerge from many centuries of a dictator king, followed by twenty years of an oppressive communist government. Now, they are trying to form a democracy, but it is difficult, he said. He added that in some African nations, like Rwanda, these tribal differences have erupted into violence with terrible results. Then he said, “It is so much better here in the United States, where even if you belong to different political parties and have huge political differences, you can still get along as friends and neighbors.”
Yes, I thought, that is good when we can do that, and I hope we do not lose that ability. But it seems every election becomes more divisive and angry, with very strong opinions and plenty of bad feelings on both sides. Political news and commentary has, on many programs, become a form of entertainment, and to keep the ratings high the commentators become very one-sided, often exaggerating the worst aspects of the opposition. They go out of their way to become negative and controversial. I used to like to discuss politics, but I don’t enjoy it as much anymore because it has become more and more difficult to have a friendly discussion over differences of opinion. Discussions have become so much more negative, emotional, and even bitter. I hope this is not a sign of things to come, and I hope we do not lose what my African friend admires about us: our ability to live together with our differences and with peace and good will in a free and open and democratic society.
A while ago, I read a poem that gives a wise perspective on these things. I did not keep it, so I cannot quote it exactly, but I can give you the gist of it. The setting was in Ireland, and the Irish had just won their independence from the rule of the English. There was a big parade and everybody was cheering the freedom fighters as they were about to take over as the new leaders. But included in the poem were a few words from one common laboring man to another. “Well, my friend,” he said, “we can cheer all we want today, but tomorrow it will be back to breaking stones for us, won’t it.” He was saying that even though the English were out and the Irish had self rule, the day to day life for the laboring man would go on pretty much the same. Yes, it is important to vote, and yes, good leaders and good government are very important; but it is a mistake to attach any sort of ultimate value to such a thing as politics. As the Bible says in Psalm 118: “It is better to rely on the Lord, than to put your trust in rulers.”
Today is Christ the King Sunday, the last Sunday of the church year. The focus of this day is looking to Christ as our ultimate ruler and the one on whom to depend for our deepest hopes and dreams. For all the hype and all the energy and all the strong feelings that go into the election process, the political process is always flawed and incomplete and frustrating. There is no way that all the promises can be kept, and each election brings disappointments; certainly to the losers, but also, usually to those who are victorious.
In today’s Gospel reading (Luke 23:33-43), Jesus is proclaimed King of the Jews. But that proclamation was made on the cross. There was a sign that said This is the King of the Jews, and that sign was nailed up over where Jesus was hanging on that cross. It was put there by Pilate, perhaps to mock Jesus, perhaps to irritate the Jewish leaders, and perhaps for both reasons. But for whatever reason it was put there, there it was for everyone to see and make fun of– which they did. The soldiers saw it and said, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself.” It certainly looked like more of a joke than anything else. Kings have power, but Jesus did not seem to have any power at all. Rather, he was being executed by those who had the power.
Yet, those who were listening to what Jesus was saying from the cross heard a man who looked like he was very much in charge, even from there. Pilate and the religious leaders had put Jesus on trial that very day, as if they had the power to be judge over him. They had judged him to be guilty and worthy of death. But then, from the cross, it was Jesus who did the real judging; and in his very first words from the cross, he declared them all guilty. The judgment was made indirectly, for you have to be guilty before you need forgiveness; and the first words of Jesus from the cross were, “Father, forgive them, for they know do not know what they are doing.”
One of the criminals on a cross next to Jesus was so impressed by that prayer that he became a believer in this King who could rule even from a cross. With great faith, that thief said to Jesus, “Remember me when you come into your Kingdom.” Jesus, speaking of that ‘other Kingdom,’ not of this world, replied, “I tell you the truth, today you shall be with me in paradise.”
Month after month in the campaign we heard from the candidates all sorts of promises about cleaner government, fairer taxes, better health care, a safer world, better education, a stronger economy, and so much more. Those are all important matters, and I hope everyone in every office will be able to keep all their promises. But most of all, I want a King in my life who can do for me what Jesus did for that thief, promising him on his dying day that he would be all right, and that Jesus would keep him safe, in paradise, for all eternity. That must have seemed impossible; but Jesus proved to everyone that he would be able to keep such a promise when, on the third day he rose from the dead.
Pilate and Caiaphas and Annas and all the others who seemed to have the power on that weekend when Jesus went to the cross, all passed from the scene rather quickly after that. But Jesus, who they thought they were eliminating, is still the King of all creation.
The story of Napoleon is one of the most incredible in all of history. In just a few years he rose from being a minor officer in the army to being the ruler of France and conqueror of almost all of Europe. Upon being named emperor of this vast empire, Napoleon’s mother had a brief, but realistic reply. She rolled her eyes and said, “Well, I wonder how long this will last.” It turned out to last not very long at all. There were a few great years, but then a rapid decline, and finally, an early death; and that was the end of that little tyrant. That is how it goes for all earthly rulers; and that is why the Psalmist tells us not to put our trust in them.
That doesn’t mean that none of them can ever be trusted, nor does that mean that the political process can do nothing at all. Our form of government has brought to this nation great blessings of peace and prosperity, and we can thank God for that and for those who have struggled to bring us to this point. Some forms of government are better than others. Some candidates are better than others, and it is our freedom and privilege to decide and vote as a people on who we trust the most to do the best job. But even at its very best, politicians and government will never satisfy our deepest needs. We need a different kind of ruler and a different kind of kingdom for that.
Politics, like the Bible, is full of promises; but the promises in the two realms are of a completely different nature. While the political process is worthy of our attention, and it is our duty to take part, it is not where our ultimate hope lies, and we can be glad of that.
The purpose of politics is to make the best of a bad situation, that is, to keep the peace in a world in which sin is always attempting to rule. But it is Jesus who brings the forgiveness of sins. Political solutions and the politicians themselves are always of a temporary nature. But Jesus, even from the cross, is able to speak an eternal word. And the promises of politicians will at best be kept only partially, and perhaps not at all. But the promises of God are sure and certain and for all eternity.
Psalm 118:8-9 — It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in humans. It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in princes.
King Tut; once a powerful ruler
Psalm 146:3-4 — Do not put your trust in princes, in human beings, who cannot save. When their spirit departs, they return to the ground; on that very day their plans come to nothing.
Psalm 118:14 — The Lord is my strength and my defense; he has become my salvation.
EVENING PRAYER TO OUR KING:
Glory to Thee, my God, this night
For all the blessings of the light;
Keep me, O keep me, King of Kings,
Beneath Thy own almighty wings.