The lessons for the Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost are…
Old Testament Malachi 4:1–2a
Psalm Psalm 98
New Testament 2 Thessalonians 3:6–13
Gospel Luke 21:5–19
As I write this post it is the day of mid-term elections. Polls show that apocalyptic thinking might come out on top. Too many people have their minds poisoned by others who sow fear and feed on polarization.
A Pew Research poll from just this October shows that three fourths of Americans believe religion is losing its influence, and almost half believe that the country should reestablish itself as a Christian nation. The same poll shows that 75% of Americans of every demographic and political grouping you can think of believe they themselves are losing out in the politics and life of the nation.
Another poll from the American Enterprise Institute from last year shows that 4 out of 10 Republicans believe if the people we elect don’t use violence to save the nation, then individuals should do so; and a full 27% of white evangelicals believe the Q Anon hoax that Donald Trump “has been secretly fighting a group of child sex traffickers that include prominent Democrats and Hollywood elites.”
People like erstwhile general Michael Flynn, is a heroic champion of Christian zealotry, gathering to himself a small but extremely loud sector of people who seem to think of themselves as Christian patriots, girding their loins for holy war. Why? Because their faith, their political identity, and their sense of nationhood are all tightly bound up together; and because they see themselves as losing a battle for survival. Too many of our citizens are leaning toward violence because they have been seduced by the drumbeat of fear and polarization.
I hope and pray that the pollsters aren’t right. But sick religion and distorted interpretation of the Bible is feeding these trends toward stridency and violence.
And, unfortunately, there is much in the Bible that also leans toward the violent–and for the same reasons. Much of our Bible came to be written in a time of stress—a time when the faithful felt their survival was at stake. And when the writers wanted to convey that there is a God who cares for them, and is powerful enough to defend them against their many vicious enemies, they thought in terms of violence. In terms that their audience would understand they proclaimed that this God, like any earthly king worth his salt, would protect and defend as long as Israel was loyal in return. This God would reward loyalty with life and punish disloyalty with death. It was all that black and white.
Our Psalm for today, calls us to rejoice because this God has “remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness.” But we Christians who go to vote must understand the full dimensions of this biblical idea of love. It is not gushy, tingly emotion. It is not mere sentiment. It is faithfulness to the covenanted, committed relationship. We can rely on God. We can count on God. Martin Luther might say, “If we put our ultimate fear, love, and trust in anyone or anything other than the God of Jesus Christ, we are fools, and we will be betrayed. But our God is one who loves us by always and everywhere fighting for us against the powers that would bring us down.” That is what steadfast love means.
But the Psalmist, and Malachi, and just about all the biblical writers, use metaphors of violence to paint a picture of a love that is that committed. The wanted pictures of victory and vindication to convey that idea of “steadfast love and faithfulness.” Malachi’s favorite image comes from the blacksmith: the cleansing or refining fire that burns away impurities. The smith’s fire may seem destructive, but it destroys to bring about new creation.
In fact, one of the most dangerous virtues that the Bible speaks of is zeal; and the Hebrew word, cana, used for the zeal of God and zeal of the super pious, is related to this re-creative act of the refiner’s fire. But what good is zeal without covenanted love? Zeal without love is nothing. “If I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.”And this election day I pray that everyone would understand that Christian patriotism not at the service of love is absolutely nothing.
And the message of Malachi is that “the day is coming.” In other words, such fire is coming soon, and so will be in the Lord’s hands. It is not our doing. We never have the right, as Christians, to decide that we are the ones to do the refining.
Our lesson from 2 Thessalonians is a lesson for people who do indeed believe the day is coming—the day of the Lord’s doing—but author and audience knows the day may not be immediate. There is a great in between—between the time we Christians are leaving behind—a time of innocent suffering and injustice—and the day of the Lord’s judgment. The lesson therefore is that we are not to take up sharp edged weapons, but to creatively distance ourselves from the slackers who wait for the day by doing nothing at all. And don’t treat those we disagree with as enemies, but warn them as believers. This too is good advice as we go to the polls. In our zeal to be Christian patriots we must not be eager to label those we disagree with as unbelievers or foes. Such zeal is a disservice to God and nation.
Finally, in this Sunday’s Gospel reading we learn from Jesus that no Christian should think that an appropriate way to prepare for the coming day is to dress in camouflage and stock up on assault rifles and ammo. The time of trial is an opportunity to testify. Often the metaphorical pallet morphs toward the good news side of things when we hear that the sword we are to wield is the sword of the mouth—the words of God’s healing.
And thank God that the first and second generations after Jesus were not ones to take up a zealous battle for the survival of the believers. The apostles did not kill, but died for their faith. They lost their lives to gain them. They survived by their emptying of themselves. Their identity was tied not to an earthly nation, but to a heavenly commonwealth. It was not imagined as an embattled island battling against an alien society, but as a family with the mission of being a blessing to every other family on earth.
I finish this reflection knowing that I will soon begin to hear how the election went. I believe the warnings that if the other side wins it will be the end of democracy have been greatly exaggerated. Ditto for the warnings that you and I are God’s final and only hope. I believe that the God of Jesus Christ is a God of steadfast, covenant love and faithfulness.
No matter how bad a day I am having, I trust that when I open the door to our kennel, five Border Collies there will squeal with delight, wag their tails, follow me for a run in the fields, and take every opportunity to come to me and thrust their heads under my hand for a pet. They love me steadfastly, and nothing that happens at the polls today will change that. Dog is God spelled backwards.
Just so, I think it’s a very good bet that no matter which party takes over congress with this election, the One True God will still be the Ruler of the universe.
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