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A PROPHETIC JUDGMENT ON OUR POLITICS - Chapel Sermon, McAfee School of Theology, Atlanta, GA

November 27, 2012


Chapel Sermon

Mercer University, McAfee School of Theology

November 27, 2012


Dean Culpepper, Dr. Gushee, Dr. Massey, and other members of the faculty and administration, members of the student body, brothers, sisters, and friends.  Thank you for extending me the honor and privilege of worshiping God and speaking with you today.  Visiting McAfee is good medicine for anyone concerned about the future of Baptist involvement in the theological endeavor.  


          With that endeavor in mind, let us ponder the election of 2012 from theological and prophetic perspectives using this passage from the third chapter of Luke's Gospel.


Luke 3:1-6


3In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler* of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler* of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler* of Abilene, 2during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,
‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
   make his paths straight.
5 Every valley shall be filled,
   and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
   and the rough ways made smooth;
6 and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” ’


          Tiberias Caesar, Pontius Pilate, Herod, Philip, Lysanias, Annas and Caiaphas would have been front page names had there been a Jerusalem Times newspaper.  Gardner Taylor has said that "[w]hen you start calling these names, it sounds like a roll call of the people who really mattered and on whose side the future lay and to whom the coming generations belonged."[1]


          But for all the prestige and influence ascribed to them, they are mentioned as mere sideline characters to set the stage for something infinitely more profound.  In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler* of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler* of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler* of Abilene, 2during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.


          Unlike Tiberias and Pilate, John held no Roman citizenship or title.  Unlike Herod, Philip, and Lysanias, John did not operate from the seat of social privilege.  And unlike Annas and Joseph Caiaphas, his son-in-law, John was not part of the religious establishment.  Nobody would have considered John a deliverer.  He was merely a voice in the wilderness.


          But as Gardner Taylor has said, there were strange wheels in John's head and a strange light in his eyes.  Somehow, John got the notion that God had spoken to him.  That notion affected John so much that In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler* of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler* of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler* of Abilene, 2during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas,  the really important news was the prophetic word of God that John son of Zechariah, was preaching in the wilderness.


          Barack Obama and Mitt Romney were the major candidates for president of the United States.  Scott Walker, Jan Brewer, Rick Perry, John Kasich, and Robert Bentley were the governors of Wisconsin, Arizona, Texas, Ohio, and Alabama. Karl Rove, Charles Krauthammer, and Grover Norquist were the gurus of neoconservative politics.  Franklyn Graham, Richard Land, James Dobson, and Tony Perkins were high priests among the people who self-identify as "evangelical religious conservatives." But in 2012, the vision of salvation came from ordinary people out of wilderness of U.S. public policy.


          During an interview on National Public Radio the day following the 2012 presidential election, Dr. Albert Mohler, President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, called the election "an evangelical disaster."  I present his observation for our theological inspection and prophetic dissection from the perspective of this passage from Luke's gospel.


          God speaks to us in strange ways.  John came preaching about repentance, certainly a central element in evangelism.  One does not speak about repentance without having a sense of the wrongness and wrongfulness of the status quo.  But John was a strange messenger.  He didn't fit in with the religious establishment.  His preaching was not sanctioned or authorized by Annas and Caiaphas.  If anything, John's preaching amounted to a direct challenge to religious orthodoxy.  The word of God came from the wilderness. 


          Like John's preaching, the election of 2012 was an outright condemnation of the status quo and a demand for repentance.  Voters condemned the pervasive partisanship of our politics as wrong and wrongful.  They rejected the notion that people from different political parties shouldn't work together to advance the common good.  Their condemnation of partisan bickering was no "evangelical disaster."  It was a prophetic demand for repentance.   The word of God came from the wilderness. 


          Serious talk about repentance deals with sin and the reality of evil.  Judging from the messages uttered and warnings issued by the high priests of moral commentary before the 2012 election, it was as if the chief moral evils threatening our time involve abortion and sexuality. 


          But there remains this warning from Proverbs.  There are six things that the LORD hates, seven that are an abomination to him:  haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that hurry to run to evil, a lying witness who testifies falsely, and one who sows discord in a family [Proverbs 6:16-19].  The election of 2012 was a referendum on lies told about things ranging from affordable health care to whether Chrysler would close its domestic plants and move production of Jeep vehicles to China.  That wasn't "an evangelical disaster."  It was a prophetic judgment. The word of God came from the wilderness. 


          The Bible is full of healing stories.  Jesus healed people and never collected a fee.  He sent his closest followers throughout the land on healing and preaching missions and told them to not to even take a purse.  After years of fussing and fighting and glaring health care disparities, the 2012 election was a referendum on "Obamacare."  By a decisive margin, voters rejected attacks on expanding access to affordable health care.  That was no "evangelical disaster."    The word of God came from the wilderness. 


          The record of God's grace and truth is full of immigration incidents.   Abraham and Sarah were immigrants in search of a homeland.  Jacob and his clan were immigrants from famine to Egypt.  Moses led a band of immigrants from oppression in Egypt across a wilderness to Palestine.  Along the way Moses learned that any right sense of justice includes immigrants among the people who deserve special care and protection.  Jesus and his parents were immigrants in Egypt while hiding from a vicious despot.  And near the end of his ministry, Jesus told his followers that how we treat strangers affects the divine judgment on every life.  But the high priests of evangelical orthodoxy have not confronted our society with this perspective of justice. 


          So in 2012, a nation of immigrants—the people mentioned in Scripture as "aliens" and "strangers"—turned out to vote against, ethnocentrism, xenophobia, and bigotry.  The word of God came from the wilderness.


          Despite alarmist talk that caring for vulnerable people will bankrupt our nation fiscally and morally, people from every background affirmed, without quoting Scripture, that we are responsible for one another.  They rejected political advertisements that glorified private and corporate greed and crass materialism.  The word of God came from the wilderness. 


          Since President Obama was elected, he has been denounced as a non-citizen by people who claimed that his birth certificate is counterfeit.  Three weeks ago the voters issued a prophetic response to the whole "birther" nonsense.  The word of God came from the wilderness. 


          Self-anointed and media acclaimed high priests of evangelical orthodoxy were strangely silent for years while a frontal assault was made on voting rights.  They passed by on the other side of the road and did not object when the Supreme Court gave judicial cover to people who hijacked the presidential election in 2000.  But despite naked attempts to prevent and intimidate them from voting, poor people and people of comfortable means, white people and people of color, elderly people and young people, stood in long lines and voted.  The word of God came from the wilderness.


          From the historical wilderness of inequality, gays, lesbians, and straight people rejected the notion of marginalizing people on account of their sexual orientation.  Marriage equality was enacted by popular vote in four states and gay and lesbian people were elected to office because religious people who are not high priests embraced political and social inclusion over discrimination based on sexual orientation. The word of God came from the wilderness.


          The 2012 election result was no "evangelical disaster."  It was a prophetic statement about salvation spoken in a historically unique way by people from the wilderness.


  • From the wilderness, voters called for us to straighten crooked processes and politics.
  • From the wilderness, people voted to fill the ruts and valleys that stand between struggling people and opportunity.
  • From the wilderness, workers, poor people, the weak and vulnerable rejected obscene appeals made by super-powered political action committees to make government operate to benefit the proud and arrogant.
  • From the wilderness, people from diverse backgrounds and beliefs rejected the false dichotomy of "red states and blue states."
  • From the wilderness, they affirmed a preference for transforming the United States into something more like the Beloved Community about which Howard Thurman and Martin King preached about. 
  • From the wilderness, voters rejected callous sexism and paternalistic appeals aimed at subjugating women.
  • From the wilderness, voters who did not quote Jesus and who did not cite a Biblical text rejected the "makers versus takers" self-centered amoral world view of Ayn Rand. Many of them may be uncomfortable viewing the election as a theological and prophetic reflection on public policy. 
  • But from the wilderness, people from every tribe and language, every religious perspective, and from every socioeconomic category affirmed a decided preference for being Good Samaritan kind of people in a Jericho Road world. 


          From the wilderness, voters made a prophetic statement.  We do know how long it will take to straighten crooked paths, but we must do straightening work together.  We cannot know how long and what efforts will be needed to fill opportunity gaps, but we must work together on filling the ruts and valleys.  Together, we must dedicate ourselves to tearing down mountains of pride and prejudice.  Together, we must smooth out life's rough spots that cause vulnerable people to suffer needlessly. 


          Now the question is what will we do who hold ourselves out as leaders of people who follow Jesus?  Will we, like Brother Mohler, treat their judgment with alarm and chagrin?  Or will we join their prophetic vision of a society where people from every tribe, and tongue, every creed and faith, every color to history, and of every sexual orientation live together, work together, struggle together, forgive together, repent together, overcome together, and hope together as equals?  Do we, leaders of people who profess to follow Jesus, now have the moral imagination of Howard Thurman, Martin King, Samuel DeWitt Proctor, Dorothy Day, Fannie Lou Hamer, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Cesar Chavez, and—dare I say his name—Jesus? 


          We are confronted by daunting public policy challenges.  Yes, there are many uncertainties and risks.  Yes, there is much sin and death in our collective past that burdens us, haunts us, and hinders us. 


          Yet the real gospel declares that God's love conquers the power of sin and death for everyone who accepts that love and faithfully lives it.   The real gospel declares that when that love is embraced and faithfully lived, we will see every hungry, naked, sick, alienated, and struggling person as an opportunity to love God. 


          This is the true vision of salvation God has revealed in Jesus Christ.  God will have that vision proclaimed even if it takes strange voices doing it from the political and religious wilderness of our society.  A voice cries out:  In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.  Every valley shall be lifted up [exalted—KJV], and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places.  Then [catch that, now]the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together; for the mouth of the LORD has spoken. [Isaiah 40:4-5]


          God will have that vision proclaimed.  Even if it takes prophets from strange corners of our experience, those strange voices will champion God's call to have that vision lived out.  God will do it, yes, even if we complain about it.  God will do it, yes, even if we mischaracterize and misrepresent it.  God will do it, yes, even if we denounce and condemn it!  Yes, God will do it to reveal the majestic glorious of oneness that God envisions for all creation because the mouth of the LORD has spoken.  


          Anything that points us toward that vision of salvation isn't a disaster.  It's a reminder and a prod for people who hold themselves out as followers of Jesus to reaffirm God's vision, celebrate it, proclaim it, and lead others to live it for God's glory.  As followers of Jesus, let this be our passion and purpose with glad hearts and a strong faith built on prophetic hope.  Amen.


©Wendell Griffen, 2012


[1] Sermon by Gardner Taylor, The Strange Ways of God, from The Words of Gardner Taylor, Vol. 4, p. 101 (compiled by Edward L. Taylor), Judson Press (2001).