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Hope–a verb: a sermon on politics

May 4th, 2008 by isaac · 5 Comments

Here’s sermon I decided not to preach. I think it’s good, but I realized that it’s not necessarily what my church needs to hear—the Holy Spirit led me elsewhere at the last minute (it seems like God always interrupts a good thing). If you’re into politics, it may be interesting for you. The idea for this sermon came to me when a friend gave me a Barack Obama campaign sticker. It’s awesome. But it’s also dangerous…

According to Acts, hope is a people’s movement. As I say at the end, Power and Hope can’t be abstracted through representation—it’s ours.

It will probably make more sense if you read the sermon… Hopefully.

Disclaimer: this isn’t really about Obama in particular. It’s about election politics in general. More importantly, it’s about our true hope. As Nicholas Lash has taught me, Christianity is an iconoclastic movement—that is, we point out how images and icons lead us astray. (Paul Murray’s essay on Lash is a decent place to start.)

Hope looks like Obama

Title: Hope—a verb.
Date: May 4th, 2008
Texts: Ps 68:1-10, 32-35; Ac 1:6-14; I Pet 4:12-14, 5:6-11; Jn 17:1-11.

Nests and hope. That’s what I preached about the last time. I told you about the blue birds who moved into the birdhouse in my front yard near the road. I described how they show us what hope looks like in our world today. Despite all the dangers, all the threats to life, those birds still build nests, right smack in the middle of it all. That’s what birds do; they build nests that provide space for the birth of new life. And that’s what we do; we surround each other with the love of Christ, we sustain each other with the Holy Spirit, we offer one another the embrace of God’s love. We are God’s nests of hope, nests for the birth and re-birth of life, abundant life, life upon life. We show, with our lives, how hope is a verb—it’s something we do through the power of the Spirit. We become a reason for hope.

Well, my neighbor told me this past week that he saw a cat climb up that blue bird house in the front yard while Katie and I were in France. Apparently the dangers birds face are more real than I imagined—as real as a cat reaching it’s deadly claws into a nest of baby blue birds. My neighbor scarred the cat away before he left for work. But in the evening, when he got back, he peeked into the bird house and found that all the baby birds were dead. The cat killed them all and left them. The nest of abundant life turned into a grave.

What can I say now? I felt pretty good about my hopeful sermon about nests and abundant life. In fact, in my completely unbiased opinion, I thought it was one of my better sermons over the past few months. I felt good about that hope—and ya’ll gave me reason to believe it because of your care for one another. But, reality has a tendency to get in the way of hope and rain on our parades of hope. That nest, full of abundant life, gets killed. Reality stinks.

So now what? My bird house isn’t a sign of hope anymore. Dead baby blue birds—that’s all I see when I look out my front window. And it’s a lot of what I see when I look at the world; and it’s what I see in the lives of some of my friends—completely hopeless situations.

(pause)

When will hope happen? When will the promises of abundant life be realized? When will the kingdom come? In Acts, after Jesus’ resurrection his followers ask him a question: “So Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” (1:6). Jesus has been raised from the dead and he’s hanging out with his disciples. The disciples are looking around the room, maybe even whispering the question to each other. They’ve witnessed some crazy events—incredible stuff just happened in Jerusalem. Their friend and leader, Jesus, was killed. No one expected that to happen. They all thought that Jesus was going to establish this kingdom he kept on talking about. Finally a time for peace, for justice, for restoration, for healing. The kingdom of God come to earth.


And all those hopes are crucified with Jesus on the cross. Hope dies. The kingdom crumbles. Everything comes to an end.

But then comes Easter, and something even more unexpected happens—the tomb is empty. How can this be? Jesus comes back. Is it really possible? He’s alive. Completely unexpected. This stuff just doesn’t happen. But there he is: Jesus, alive, eating and drinking, talking and sitting.

They are all gathered together: the resurrected Jesus and his followers. Now is the time. This must be the moment we’ve been waiting for, the disciples whisper. It’s here. We’re on the verge of the kingdom.

They get serious and turn to Jesus, “So Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” We’ve been waiting for this Kingdom, the Reign of God, the Day of the Lord, they tell Jesus. Is it going to happen now? We’re ready. Let’s do it, Jesus.

And how does Jesus respond? Verse 7: Jesus says, “It is not for you to know the times that the Father has set by his own authority.” It’s a strange reply. Jesus doesn’t say yes or no. Jesus won’t give them the knowledge they want. The disciples don’t get an answer that they can rest on. Their questions aren’t settled; they’re aren’t put at ease. No. Instead, disciples are given a task.

Verse 8: Jesus goes on, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Those are his last words. The disciples want to know if the hope of the kingdom has arrived, and Jesus answers by telling them to receive the power of the Holy Spirit to be witnesses, to go, to proclaim, to be God’s kingdom.

It’s all about whoWho will establish the kingdom? The disciples are waiting for Jesus to make it happen: “Lord,” they say, “is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” And Jesus turns that “you” around and says, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes… and you will be my witnesses.” Jesus refuses the mantle of their hope for change, and instead sends the people on their way to spread this message of hope, of good news. This is your task; be my witnesses; be my hope for the world.

If the kingdom is all Jesus’ responsibility, then the disciples are off the hook. Once they help put Jesus in power so the kingdom can finally get started and hope will have a chance, then the disciples can take a back seat and watch Jesus do his work. No, Jesus says. I’m entrusting the work to you. “You will receive the power.” Hope is not someone else’s job.

Yes, this is about politics. And yes, I’m taking some cheap shots the presidential campaigns. But I can’t help myself since political leadership and power for change is exactly what’s at stake in the disciples’ question: “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” As we all know, lord, is a common way to address a leader, the person with power. And kingdom is political organization—a regime. The disciples are waiting for the regime change.

Now, please don’t mishear me. I’m not saying that Jesus is our president and that means we can’t vote for another one. I’ve heard interesting arguments about that, but they aren’t mine, and that’s not what I’m trying to say.

All I’m saying is that I think Jesus calls us out; he identifies our temptation to think change is always someone else’s job. Once so and so is elected, then… No. For us, hope came two thousand years ago. And it has a name: Jesus. And this Jesus, God’s hope for the world, has passed his mantle to us. That’s what this talk of the Holy Spirit is all about. The Holy Spirit is the enlivening power of God that was present in Jesus throughout his ministry, and now present through us.

In his first book, Luke tells us all about how Jesus is God’s healing love for the world. And then Luke continues the story in his second book, Acts—The Acts of the Apostles, as it’s been called since the 2nd century. And in Acts Jesus continues his work of hope, his work of change, of justice, peace, love, solidarity, unity, reconciliation, salvation, liberation, eternal life—Jesus continues this work through us, in you.

You have received power, the power of Jesus, through that same Holy Spirit that hovered over Mary when Jesus was conceived, that same Holy Spirit that sent Jesus into the wilderness, and that same Holy Spirit that empowered Jesus to proclaim good news for the poor, freedom for prisoners, sight for the blind, liberation for the oppressed.

Then Jesus leaves, and tells us to keep the work of hope going. He distributes his power to the people. The kingdom is a people’s movement—and that means it’s profoundly personal, the power of the Spirit of Jesus moving through your life, as hope for the world. Power can’t be abstracted through representation—it’s ours.

This may stretch an analogy too far, but I’ll say it anyhow: Jesus is the president that wins the election—he’s victorious—and when he’s about to take the office, the throne, he bows out, he disappears and says, “You will receive the power; it’s your job to give someone reason for hope.”

And if you’re looking for a place to start the job, to embody God’s hope, to change things, Psalm 68 gives us some clues. Verse 5 talks about parenting orphans and protecting widows. Verse 6 says that the work that God is up to in the world is to give the hopeless a place to live and make prisoners prosperous.

To be a Christian means that we have received a task. It’s not a job we can hand over to someone more qualified or more charismatic.

And the good news is that Jesus prays for you; we are not left on our own; our power is not from ourselves—it’s the Holy Spirit, continually breathed into our lives through the prayers of Jesus. In John 17 we hear Jesus praying to the Father, “I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours.”

Jesus never ceasing to pray for us, that God will sustain us, that we will receive the strength and power of the Spirit. Jesus is now a life of prayer, utterly devoted to you. Our hope is named Jesus Christ; and Jesus is currently at work hoping that we will continue his mission, through the power of the Spirit.

Tags: current events · sermons

5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Annie Wilbur // Jun 16, 2008 at 10:46 am

    probably the reason that you haven’t gotten any comments is that people are having trouble reading between the lines. If you have something to say about Obama just say it. I read this sermon twice and I still don”t get the point.

  • 2 isaac // Jun 16, 2008 at 2:14 pm

    Annie, thanks for reading this post. I think the reason why no one has commented is because no one reads these things! But thanks for your comment.

    As I said at the beginning, “this really isn’t about Obama in particular.” Maybe that’s why you didn’t find what you were looking for.

    This sermon is about the way the American political system wants abstracted (i.e., representative) power. Change happens from the top down. Technically speaking, the United States isn’t a democracy; instead, it’s a republic. The Federalists made sure politics was professionalized; definitely not a people’s movement.

    From my Christian perspective, hope for political change is a people’s movement. We are empowered to change the world through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. It’s not something we can ask a leader to do. Hope for change isn’t abstracted. The picture of Obama displays how the powers want us to think about politics: our hope for change is someone else’s job; it’s the job of whoever we elect.

    Hopefully that’s helpful. Below are some pieces of the sermon that may make this point more clear:

    “If the kingdom is all Jesus’ responsibility, then the disciples are off the hook. Once they help put Jesus in power so the kingdom can finally get started and hope will have a chance, then the disciples can take a back seat and watch Jesus do his work. No, Jesus says. I’m entrusting the work to you. “You will receive the power.” Hope is not someone else’s job.”

    “Jesus identifies our temptation to think change is always someone else’s job. Once so and so is elected, then… No. For us, hope came two thousand years ago. And it has a name: Jesus. And this Jesus, God’s hope for the world, has passed his mantle to us.”

    “Then Jesus leaves, and tells us to keep the work of hope going. He distributes his power to the people. The kingdom is a people’s movement—and that means it’s profoundly personal, the power of the Spirit of Jesus moving through your life, as hope for the world. Power can’t be abstracted through representation—it’s ours.”

    “Jesus is the president that wins the election—he’s victorious—and when he’s about to take the office, the throne, he bows out, he disappears and says, “You will receive the power; it’s your job to give someone reason for hope.”

  • 3 isaac // Jun 20, 2008 at 2:15 pm

    I should also say that my thinking on democratic politics is indebted to Sheldon Wolin. His new book is a must read: Democracy Incorporated.

    You can read this post from a while back if you want to learn more about Wolin: Fugitive Democracy.
    http://www.rustyparts.com/wp/2006/04/25/fugitive-democracy-sheldon-wolin-and-contemplating-the-local/

  • 4 Maria Randall // Jul 14, 2008 at 2:32 pm

    Isaac, I thought that this sermon was very valuable. I think that American Christians need to hear at least one of your points much more often: that Christ has left us—each of us—to do his work. That is one of the most satisfying and terrifying parts of Christianity—that we are co-laborers with Christ, that he has entrusted his mission on earth to us, that we have work to do which is of profound importance to our fellow human beings, that we are his way of bringing hope and change.

  • 5 isaac // Jul 17, 2008 at 12:42 pm

    Maria, thanks for reading my sermon and for making a comment. You are so right: it’s exciting and terrifying that God has made us servants in Christ’s kingdom. As God said to Abraham: you will bring my blessing to the nations. And that’s our project as well. Hopefully we make ourselves available to the Spirit’s work in our midst. It’s so easy to get weighed down with silly things. I’m pretty lazy most of the time. But I’ve been trying to put myself in places where the Spirit might catch me up in the work of the kingdom. I’m learning patience and discipline. Presidents can’t be patient—their only have a term or two to get the job done.