NOTE: As this post is being published, an increasing number of Americans are reporting instances of harassment, discrimination, and assault because of their religion, race and/or ethnicity.
Others are engaging in violent protests. Elections ARE important and do have consequences.
If anything, though, these isolated instances of violence and racism serve to further illustrate the smallness of the Empire and to underscore the need to re-double our efforts to speed the arrival of the in-breaking Kingdom of God.
The things of the Empire will ultimately be destroyed. But the Kingdom of God will last forever.
This is an edited and adapted version of a sermon from our "God and Country" worship series. It was originally delivered at the end of July as part of a series that anticipated this week's presidential election.
The Current Situation
We’re in the middle of an election in America right now. In 100 days we’ll go to the polls and elect a president for the next four years. People are saying, “It’s the most important election of our lifetimes.” People are saying, “Never have the stakes been so high. Never have the choices and contrasts been so stark.”
People are saying, “The future of our children, America’s standing in the world, our way of life, and the very future of the republic may hang in the balance.”
And this IS an important election. Every election is important. And, I think we’ll all acknowledge, there are dynamics that make this election unique.
But guess what? I’ve heard that “most important” rhetoric about EVERY election in my lifetime. And I don’t care how old you are, you have, too.
In some of the previous “most important” elections, your candidate won. In some of them, your candidate lost. And guess what? We’re still here. Our families are still intact--although the rhetoric in this election leads some to wonder how long that will remain true.
So far, though, life goes on.
This year the United States celebrated 240 years of independence from Great Britain. In those 240 years we have expanded our territory and influence considerably with states and territories and military outposts that now literally span the globe.
We are a powerful empire—one whose influence dominates the globe in a manner unrivaled in human history. But...
But, in the grand sweep of history, at least so far, the American empire is but a blip on the map, not even approaching one-tenth of the staying power of ancient Egypt (3000 years). Today, we’re more than 1000 years short of the influence of Rome (1500 years).
Were they important? Egyptians and Romans surely thought they were at the time. But memory fades, and history has a way of leveling things out.
We give priority to the present in a way that inflates its importance, and we always have.
So how does the present moment—the current election—compare? Where does it fit into the big picture?
What The Bible Teaches
Scripture, I think, can help us.
In Revelation 18 and Revelation 21 we are presented with two visions—two pictures of what our world is destined for. One is of Babylon—the Empire, a representation of the world we live in now. The other is of New Jerusalem—a representation of the in-breaking kingdom of God, the world as it one day will be.
In the first vision, Babylon is destroyed, and it’s a gruesome sight. The Empire is gone and gone forever.
In the second vision—the one of New Jerusalem—we get a decidedly more pleasant picture. Something comes to replace Babylon. Something comes to replace the Empire. And it’s incredible.
A new city comes to replace the old city. A new vision to replace the old vision. A rising reality emerges to replace the decaying and destructive reality of the present age.
The New Jerusalem is a vision of a place and time where God will reign forever and ever. It’s a vision of the Kingdom of God.
The Book of Revelation is full of symbols and intentionally coded language. It can be very hard to make heads or tails of it. But everybody at least agrees that Revelation teaches this: The Empire WILL NOT last. But the Kingdom will.
The Empire doesn’t last. But the Kingdom of God will last forever. As citizens of the Empire, we don’t want to hear that the Empire won’t last; it’s one of the hardest truths that Jesus came to teach us.
We want to be able to place our trust in princes and governments, to believe that God will use the traditional authority and power of this world to usher in God's Kingdom.
Jesus teaches something different, though. In fact, Jesus is a specific and explicit repudiation of the idea that God will use the political power of the Empire to achieve God’s kingdom purposes.
But that’s not always easy for us to see, especially when it’s hard to imagine anything more important than the present moment—or the current election.
What We Can Learn From Scripture
Contentious elections have great potential to skew our perspectives so that things that are closer to us look really big while things that are farther away look really small. Like when you hold out your thumb and close one eye to blot out the moon.
Now is one of those times when our perspective might be skewed.
The American Empire has endured for 240 years and counting.
But God’s Kingdom is way bigger than the American Empire, and God’s reign dwarfs our 240 years.
We sing about the scope of the Kingdom of God in our “Glory Be” doxology most Sundays:
“Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost. As it was in the BEGINNING, is now and EVER shall be. World without end. Amen. Amen.”
In the grand narrative of God’s story—a story extending from even before the creation of the world and into an eternal future—our 240 years of American history look pretty small. And a 4-year election? Even smaller.
So as we move through a contentious election, let’s do it with a little perspective.
When we talk about God and country, we tend to hold those two things equally—our responsibility to the nation in one hand and our responsibility to the Kingdom of God in the other—as if the two are more or less of the same size and importance.
But they’re not.
God is first and last. The alpha and the omega and everything in between. When we put everything in its proper perspective there really is nothing else. There is only God and God’s Kingdom.
Sometimes, in our skewed perspectives, when we hold the Empire up just so, it seems big enough to blot out our vision of the Kingdom. The Kingdom, though, will always be the moon to the Empire’s thumb.
How Does What We've Learned Change Our Approach To The Current Situation?
So...with things in their proper perspective, what are we to do? As citizens of the Empire and citizens of the Kingdom, what are we to do?
That’s pretty clear. We are to give the Kingdom priority and live out our kingdom values now.
For nine weeks over the summer at HERITAGE we prepared and distributed about 400 lunches five days a week to hungry children in our neighborhood.
Whatever the Empire says about the importance of making sure that everyone is fed, whatever your empire politics tell you about your responsibility toward the poor, there can be no mistake about your kingdom responsibility.
The Kingdom of God exhibits a distinct bias TOWARD the poor and the hungry and the child and the least among us. So in the Kingdom, we feed hungry children.
Every time we hand out a lunch, we take a stand for the Kingdom. And each lunch is in its own way a subversive threat to an Empire that has failed to care for needy children or feed the poor--or even to believe that those things are important enough to do.
But we say they are important enough to do, because whatever they are to the Empire, they are priorities in the Kingdom.
Whatever the empire says about immigration, about welcoming the stranger, and loving your neighbor, there can be no mistake about our Kingdom responsibility to our neighbors.
So for nine weeks this summer, five days a week, with hundreds of lunches a day you have welcomed the immigrants in our community by feeding their children. I don’t know if most of you are aware, but the majority—maybe even the vast majority—of the lunches we so lovingly prepare and distribute in the name of Christ, go to help people who are regularly and consistently demonized on your TV screens each night—undocumented immigrants and their children.
That, by the way, is also true of the backpacks we’ve just prepared and are getting ready to distribute through Give a Kid a Chance.
Every time we handout a lunch or distribute a backpack, we take a stand for the Kingdom. And each lunch and each backpack is in its own way a subversive threat to an Empire that has failed to feed the poor or welcome the stranger, or even to believe that those things are important enough to do.
And you know what? It makes your pastor proud, because those subversive little sandwiches add up. And they lend significance to our ministry—to who we are and what we do.
Our lives, if they are significant at all, are significant because we have devoted them to things that are eternal.
The baloney sandwich in the brown paper bag, of course, isn’t eternal. Neither are the glue sticks and notebooks in the backpacks. But the love of the Kingdom represented in each of them IS eternal.
The things of the Empire will ultimately be destroyed. But the Kingdom of God will last forever.
So, is this election the most important election of our lifetimes? I don’t know.
But I do know this. Our perspective is skewed. We tend to overestimate the power of presidential elections and underestimate the power of baloney sandwiches.
The Kingdom of God is only advanced through one of them.
The election is over. The Empire will never advance the work of the Kingdom. That's up to us. Back to making sandwiches.