Monday, November 29, 2010

What Won't Save Us

As I was eating lunch today, I was browsing the most recent TIME magazine.  It's one of those typical end-of-the-year issues.  It contained several articles that looked over significant events of the last several years and tried to assign some significance to them.  The one article I had the time to read was about the election of President Bush in 2000.  It recounted the details of just how close that election was; so close that it seemed the margin of error in counting the votes would always exceed the margin of victory by either candidate.  How the votes were counted depended on who counted them and their interpretation of what constituted a legal ballot cast.

Of course, the articles go on to discuss other important events of the last several years: 9/11, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Hurricane Katrina, and the recent economic meltdown.  As I read this article and pondered these events, one question kept resounding in my mind:

How much more evidence do we need that democracy and capitalism, politics and economics are not our savior?  

Don't get me wrong.  Really, please don't assume I'm saying something that I'm not as so often happen with these topics.  I think government and economic policy are important; very important.  They have their place in our world and we should continue to work to improve our policies and laws as a nation.  I'm even mostly convinced that democracy and capitalism are the best forms of government and economics that we've come up with so far as a human race.

Hear what I am saying: as Christians we are called to work to improve the laws and policies that govern our world while also constantly reminding ourselves that they are not the ultimate answer.   So often we become so impassioned about these things that you'd think all of our hope rested in them.  But shouldn't the events of just the last decade be enough to convince us that these things will ultimately always fail us?  However great democracy is, everyone still laments the current character of our politicians.  Whatever merit capitalism has over other economic systems, it can not inhibit a greed powerful enough to collapse entire economies.  I am not suggesting we all become anarchists.  I am suggesting that while we need good laws and policies to help curb the systemic injustices of our world, ultimately all those injustices, all those evils that laws are meant to prevent arise from the human heart.  At the end of the day, we don't need more laws, we need God's Law written on our hearts.  We need ourselves and our world to be transformed by a God who is greater than us.  In other words, the genuinely Christians politic has more to do with sacrifice and faithfulness, our economy one of mercy and grace.

I think Isaiah 11 expresses this truth well, though in a much more poetic and eloquent manner than I have done here.  The people of Israel and Judah certainly knew the importance of good government.  They had prospered under the rule of David and Solomon but since then they had become divided and weakened by the poor leadership that followed.  Now Assyria stood on their doorstep and Isaiah was already prophesying that God's people would be reduced to a smoldering stump (see Is 6:13), a once mighty tree of a nation reduced to an almost nothing people sent into exile.

But in chapter 11, Isaiah says that out of that stump of Jesse, that kingly family that had been cut down by the foreign nations, a shoot would come forth and a branch would bear fruit.  However, as Isaiah goes on to describe this new king, it becomes clear that he can not be a mere human being.  Just another king who can be corrupted to play in the politics of power will not do God's people any good.  So while Isaiah longs for this new king; he also recognizes there is need of something more than simply improved politics.  The reign of this king must be the reign of God himself.  Isaiah tell us that the Spirit of the Lord will rest upon him, giving him the wisdom to judge justly and righteously, to uphold the cause of the poor, and to effortlessly defeat the wicked merely with the breath of his mouth.  Similar to last week's sermon text, this passage tells us that the king's just reign will lead to a radical peace.  Here it is a peace so complete that it is not limited to human relations but extends to all of creation.  Natural enemies, the wolf and the lamb, the leopard and the goat, the lion and the calf lay down harmlessly together.  Infants play near cobras and adders without fear or harm.  This is a peace possible only when God's will is done on earth as it is in heaven.

Of course, we understand Christ to have fulfilled this role as the one just judge and righteous king.  He is the one on whom the Spirit of the Lord rests, who was not blinded by power and influence, and who attended to the poor in his earthly ministry.  He is the one who we believe in his return will fully establish his reign as king and bring about the kind of complete justice and radical peace that is described in Isaiah 11.  It is not surprising then that John picks up the language of Isaiah 11 to portray the establishment of this kingdom in Revelation 19.  There Christ is portrayed as the one sitting on a white horse who is called faithful and true, who judges and makes war in righteousness.  He has the armies of heaven at his side but he does not need them because "from his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations" which is to say that, like the kingly figure in Isaiah 11, his words, the mere breath of his mouth is enough to defeat all the enemies of God's people.  While the imagery of Revelation 19 is undoubtedly violent, it speaks to the peaceable kingdom that will finally be established when Christ's reign is made complete.  It is that kingdom which we await in the season of Advent.  It is the politics of that kingdom which are the organizing force of our lives even while we wait for it to be established in all its glory.

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