The following post is my sermon manuscript from yesterday. I delivered this message to the people of my church as a reminder that this election, while significant for many reasons, is not the end-all be-all of our existence. While I didn’t read the manuscript verbatim, I did read the majority of it; I was that scared.
Some people will find the content offensive. Others might find it reason to never read the blog again. After yesterday, I’m okay with that. But regardless of how you feel when you finish reading, and no matter who wins tomorrow–Mr. Obama or Mr. Romney–God will still be the only One in whom we can find salvation, deliverance, and peace.
Back in September, President Obama framed the coming election for the delegates to the 2012 Democratic National Convention. During his acceptance speech for the party’s nomination, he said:
“But when all is said and done – when you pick up that ballot to vote – you will face the clearest choice of any time in a generation. Over the next few years, big decisions will be made in Washington, on jobs and the economy; taxes and deficits; energy and education; war and peace – decisions that will have a huge impact on our lives and our children’s lives for decades to come.
“On every issue, the choice you face won’t be just between two candidates or two parties…It will be a choice between two different paths for America…A choice between two fundamentally different visions for the future.
The last few weeks have reinforced that notion for us: that what we will decide at the polls on Tuesday will not just determine the outcome for the next four years, but realistically set the table for the next 10 or 20. With multiple Supreme Court positions likely to open up in the near term, the ongoing issue with American solvency, a world economy on the brink of utter chaos, and the multiple challenges we face in an increasingly changing culture, the stakes would seem to be highest.
It’s been reflected in the passion people have put into this election. Whether for Obama/Biden or Romney/Ryan, the amount of heat and urgency seen in this election is different from even the last 20 years. If you’re Red State, you’re really Red State; if you’re Blue State, then you’re really Blue State. Both sides are equally committed to the fundamental notion that their candidate is the one who can lead America out of the great morass, and into a future of great change and hope.
Well over one-third of Georgia’s eligible voters have already cast their ballot in this election; with over 1.5 million votes already in the ballot box, our citizenry has mobilized to make sure that their voice is heard, their candidate supported, their vision of the future registered and agreed upon. We may very well see numbers greater than the historic turnout in 2008, and if so, we’ll witness one of the greatest displays of non-wartime citizenship in our nation’s history.
Whatever the outcome, we will be able to say on Wednesday, November 7th, that the people of this great country, man and woman, conservative and liberal, religious and non-religious, were moved to exercise their rights and duties as citizens in order to guide this great nation into its future. We will be able to say that we who ran for office, campaigned for a candidate, volunteered for the polls, and cast our ballots were the very embodiment of what it means to be a patriot and member of the United States of America.
And we will be immensely proud of that fact.
In fact, one of the key components of being an American is pride in our citizenship. It may be expressed variously – either in the flag-toting, anthem-singing fervor of some or the self-examining, finger-pointing words of another – but we are at heart closely connected with the idea of not just living in this country, but being a piece of it. Being an American is not just residing within its boundaries, but placing yourself into the very fabric via your vote, your voice and your life’s work. As such, we see ourselves not merely as boarders in this wonderful land; we see ourselves as folks given a birth-right.
We are smart to understand and appreciate the power and privilege of being an American. We would be smarter to also believe that it is, at best, a worthless privilege.
Philippians 3:1-21 reads like this:
1 Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things to you is no trouble to me and is safe for you.
2 Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh.3 For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of Godand glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh— 4 though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. 7 But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. 8 Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— 10 that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
Straining Toward the Goal
12 Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13 Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.15 Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. 16 Only let us hold true to what we have attained.
17 Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. 18 For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19 Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. 20 But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.
Now, I realize I left you hanging on a statement that might be charitably considered horrible, if not borderline blasphemous. I intentionally did so because I wanted you to feel as intensely about the subject of citizenship as the Apostle Paul did. In writing this letter to the Philippian church from a Roman jail cell, Paul was most concerned about reminding the saints in Philippi of the joy we have in Christ. And in the culmination of his argument, chapter 3, Paul outlines why, exactly, such joy can be found: because we are citizens destined for something greater. A better place. Another land.
We are, as the adopted sons and daughters of God, citizens of His Kingdom.
Now, Paul was a citizen of Rome. He was a citizen of Israel. He lived in this world, in this space and time, and as such he was under the rule of temporal authorities (and, interestingly enough, considered them as agents of God not to be disrespected – see Romans 13, Titus 3). But he lived his life as a citizen of Heaven; that meant that while he participated in the governments of this world, he did not find his fulfillment in them. He found that in Christ alone.
Take a quick look at what Paul so casually calls rubbish in the first eleven verses:
- His citizenship: “circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews”. Never forget that Paul was first a Jew. His entire life, prior to meeting Jesus on the road to Damascus, revolved around being a Jew. He committed himself to his people, his religion, his law, and his God. He gave himself completely to the ways and ideals of his people, and became a model of what it meant to be Jew, which dovetailed into the next item:
- His religion: “as to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.” Being a Jew meant embracing their faith, and Paul embraced the Jewish religion that he devoted his life to the study of its Law. He was a student of Gamaliel, a Pharisee of the highest order, so consumed with the perfection of God’s people that he willingly hunted down and murdered those who stepped beyond its prescribed boundaries. His race, his country, his people came before anything else, even his own personal life; it’s hard to be married to a woman when you’re so committed to God.
- His reputation: “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ.” The book of Acts tells us that people bowed down to Paul – whether he was giving approval for the stoning of Stephen or securing court documents granting him expansive powers to hunt down, try and execute heretics, people knew him, knew his drive, and gave him what he wanted. Paul had power, and the early church shook at the mention of his name.
And yet he gave up all of it because of Christ. Not because he wanted to follow Christ, but because Christ showed Himself to be so much greater than all of those things combined. Paul looked at the essence of what it meant to be a Jew – one of the chosen of God! – and called it “dung” compared to being a servant of Christ.
Think about that for a minute – the magnificence of Christ outweighed what it meant for Paul to be Paul. Everything that defined Paul – his race, his religion, his reputation – was meaningless, worthless garbage compared to the person of Jesus Christ. Paul did not to commit to Jesus because Jesus promised him something; he did not commit to Jesus as an extra on top of his already impressive resume. He committed to Jesus because when he saw the face of the Risen Savior, he immediately knew Him for who He is: God made flesh.
And Paul knew nothing else mattered. Nothing.
Paul was like the man who found a pearl in a field, re-buried it, and then sold everything he had to buy the field. Compared to the pearl, everything else was meaningless.
Now contrast that with the rich young ruler, who had kept the entire law without failure. Jesus said, “Sell everything you have and give it to the poor, and come follow me.” And the young man went away very sad because he had great wealth.
You want to be a citizen of Heaven? Then you must be a citizen of Heaven.
It’s not a matter of trading this world for that one; there are plenty of us here today who have tried that exchange and found it lacking. We’ve given up things we find pleasurable in the hopes of gaining things eternal. That’s not what Paul did. Paul gained Christ and because of His surpassing greatness, Paul gave up the things of this world. Too many of us attempt to hold on to the things of this world while hoping to earn heaven in the meantime.
And far too many of us feel like we’ve already accomplished the feat.
But look at what Paul said: “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you.”
Paul is saying, “Look, I don’t consider that I’ve earned my trip to Heaven. I consider myself in the process of getting there, chasing after Christ with my very life, straining towards the day when I am finally made complete in Him.”
But then he goes on. “For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.”
Do you hear those words? To borrow an oft-referenced line from Star Wars, as Admiral Ackbar says, “It’s a trap!” This world, the things you desire, what you hunger for, they are your undoing! We want things that end up killing us, instead of submitting to the One who will give us life.
Tell me you don’t feel this tension lately. That niggling sense that no matter how you vote, things are only going to get marginally better. That no matter who is in office, the challenges that face this country and this world are going to be beyond their ability to truly fix. Tell me you honestly believe that Barack Obama or Mitt Romney is somehow going to change the hearts and minds of millions of people in a way that makes this world measurably better.
You don’t. If you did, you wouldn’t be here.
In the end, we are like Paul. We feel that who we are is good and important, and often we strive to be our best selves because we think it is what we are supposed to do. But the reality is that our best selves are garbage compared to Jesus. Our home-brewed righteousness is filthy swill compared to the pure Living Water. We can hope and change and restore all we want, but the fact is we’re not going to make things better. We’re not going to move forward.
We’re going to remain stuck in our sin.
The only answer for the tension you feel, the angst you have about the future is to acknowledge there is NO future apart from Christ. He alone is the answer. He alone is our hope. We do not turn to Him because we need help; we turn to Him because there is nothing but Him “who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.”
The psalmist warned us not to put our hopes in horses or chariots or men, because such things will surely fail. But the hand of the Lord, the power of God and the work of His Spirit, will always bring about what is necessary for the Kingdom to come. For God’s will to be done, on earth as it is in Heaven.
We are here today on the precipice of history, not because we will elect a president in two days, same as we have for 200 years, but because we have the opportunity to kneel before the God of all creation, and in obedience to His Holy Spirit, by the grace offered to us through the death, burial and resurrection of His Son, Jesus Christ, say to Him, “Not my will, but Yours be done. Take me, Oh, God, and make me Your servant.
Today, there are two futures, both mutually assured: one is a future in the Kingdom of God, an established and unshakeable Kingdom that is fulfilled and will be consummated without question. The other is a future outside of that Kingdom, separated, cut off. The Holy Spirit is moving, calling out for those who will hear and receive the gift of salvation, will you submit?
Can you so clearly see the beauty and majesty of Jesus that you hold your life as rubbish compared to Him? Can you see His life, His death, His burial, His resurrection and His return as so precious that everything from your American citizenship to your membership in a church to your very blood relations are as nothing when compared to that grace? If so, the altar is open for you. Obey. Come. Receive.
But for those of you to whom such a transaction sounds too extreme, who find offense that the cross of Christ calls us to lay everything else aside, may I leave you with a thought? As grand and wonderful as our lives here can be, C.S. Lewis said it best:
“If we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea.
“We are far too easily pleased.”
Let us pray, and may God’s will be fulfilled in our lives.