Hoping for the McRib

He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.-Isaiah 2:4

4ecebbc1-6bc0-4657-b354-5f0bf3066edeA week or so ago, I went in search of late night fast food. The undergrad in front of me was palpably excited about purchasing a McRib, declaring his intentions to all around him long before he got to the front. Unfortunately for him, he was quite drunk and we were at Whataburger, not McDonald’s.

As the commendably patient cashier tried to explain to him why he wouldn’t be getting a McRib at Whataburger, his look of pure befuddlement spoke to me because I recognize it. I’ve worn it before, at least spiritually, and I’m afraid the church in America has joined me quite frequently.

Today is the first Sunday of Advent, a time the church has traditionally reserved for reflection, preparation, and anticipation of Christmas, mirroring the long wait for Messiah’s arrival. Many attribute certain ideas to each of the four Sundays, and today is set aside for Hope.

I’m not sure how to keep hope during centuries of oppression, but then again I’m not always sure how to keep hope in 2016. It feels like every new poll confirms we’ve set worse and worse record lows for trust in politicians, the media, and even each other. It’s a good and appropriate time to preach hope in Christ and Christ alone, as many on both sides of the political aisle did surrounding the election. But what if when we look to Jesus, we’re looking for things we won’t find in Him?

In Christ we find hope, but not necessarily the kind of hope we recognize at first. Hope takes our American expectations of glory, prestige, and respectability and flips them on their heads. Hope was born in a manger, not oppulance, fleeing as a refugee instead of enjoying what He deserved. Hope walked dusty roads with the sinful and dangerous rather than marbled halls of power with the important and respectable. Hope preached justice for the oppressed instead of singing the praises of their oppressors, whether they came from within the faith community or not. And in the end, the very embodiment of Hope was tortured to death, rose again, and invites us to do the same. The more time we spend learning from this Jesus, the slaughtered-yet-risen Lamb, the more our hope will look like the coming of the Kingdom He preached…and the more we’ll enact it as we wait for fulfillment.

Maybe we’ve decided that hoping in Christ means hoping for progressive social policies. Or the cutting of entitlements. Or globalism. Or the renewal of America as a global superpower. Or any of the other various things we think will restore our world. Don’t get me wrong, we all have our individual hopes and opinions on what will make life better (I was certainly hoping for a Bama win in the Iron Bowl yesterday), but hitching any of that to the expectation of Messiah will leave us looking as foolish as an inebriated McRib fan in a Whataburger.

Hoping for the McRib

2016: the year of the Lord’s favor

I preached this morning. A long time before a hotly contested election tied to race, gender, and social strata, I made plans to preach from the infamous household codes in Ephesians 5. God certainly has a sense of humor. But the text of my sermon wasn’t the only one looping through my mind.

84ed9598-5223-4036-b6fc-695bc87cf1732016 has been no cakewalk for many of us. Honestly, it’s been pretty rough for me, both in current affairs and my personal life. This week didn’t help. I spent Tuesday night, regardless of my disagreement with the winner himself, watching so many preexisting fault lines explode into undeniable pain. I slept horribly, face down on my couch as Scrubs played on the TV.

I woke up Wednesday, hours before my alarm, and within minutes God pushed a text into my mind. I don’t like putting words in God’s mouth, but I was far too sleepy and cumulatively depressed to think of this one on my own. That’s the text that has been washing over me for most of a week now.

It’s a story about another sermon, one of the best (and shortest) sermons ever preached. At its core, a good sermon is a piece of Scripture with an explanation connecting the then to the now. And that’s exactly what Jesus did in Luke’s account upon returning from the temptation in the wilderness. On the Sabbath, Jesus spoke at his local synagogue. He began by reading from Isaiah:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
     to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
The crowd would have loved this. This was the “next year in Jerusalem” of ancient Judaism. In it the downtrodden could find hope that Messiah was coming, the angry could find strength to shake their fist at the oppression of Israel, and all could know things wouldn’t always be like this. It was deeply political and outright treasonous but, like how we reduce much of Christianity today, ultimately toothless as long as it remained as wishful thinking. Then something radical happened. Jesus said, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” The entire moment shifts from a longing sigh for the future to a carpenter’s son claiming that, right now in all the hell and horror, “one of these days” is today. Jesus claimed now to be the year of the Lord’s favor, the ultimate Jubilee and resetting of the world. In the midst of devastation, Jesus set out a feast.

I know this radical, treasonous hope makes little more sense to those who live in terror today than it did to those in Jesus’ time, but my heart can’t escape the call to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor with my mouth and enact it with my hands and feet. Maybe you aren’t there yet, and that’s ok. Sit as long as you need to. Cry. Grieve. When you’re ready, there’ll be a plate waiting at for you the table.

Christians, and fellow ministers especially, we have some people scared and hurting in our churches and wider communities. Fear of the future, the loss of previous cultural expectations, economic loss, and even bodily injury or death. No matter who we voted for, we can stand with the oppressed or we can stand against Jesus. It really is that simple. This is the time to be the church. If we follow the Middle Eastern former refugee who proclaimed a new day in the depths of oppression, not being an oppressor isn’t enough. We can weep like Jesus. We can be angry like Jesus. We can get between oppressor and oppressor like Jesus. We can give up our life like Jesus. But we can’t find solace in not being the bad guy. Because in troubled times, our Savior has proclaimed the year of the Lord’s favor.

2016: the year of the Lord’s favor

“But at least…”: Christians after an election

jesus-is-king-300x285It’s been an action-packed weekend for me. In the last 24 hours or so, Baylor (where I got my MDiv) got blasted off their own football field, Alabama (where I got my BA) stayed undefeated, and I preached my last sermon before the 2016 election. As we’ve gotten closer and closer, I’ve seen an increase in social media posts reminding us that no matter what happens, Jesus is still King. Amen!

But I feel like I’ve seen a pattern emerge over the last few elections, and it deeply troubles me. It’s no secret that many evangelicals found themselves at odds with Barack Obama. It’s also no secret that Donald Trump pulls a significant albeit noticeably decreased share of evangelical support, nor that most outlets have predicted an impending Trump loss. As recent election losses have piled up and more possibly loom just over the horizon, I’ve seen a growing trend of “Jesus is still King” posts implicitly (through outspoken candidate support) or even explicitly tied to consolation. “But at least…” It’s not dissimilar to how I’ve handled Baylor’s two-week losing skid. “But at least Bama…”

Using my alma mater as an emotional fallback, however, cheapens their accomplishments, diminishes the importance of my personal ties to UA, and undersells that I’m genuinely excited to see where this team goes. If it’s true of something as ultimately inconsequential as sports, how much more is it true of how we talk about the Kingdom! Is Christ a reassurance in troubled times? Of course! One of the most famous commands of Christ is tied to His promise to be with us always. But if that’s all He is to us, that’s a real problem. Even if that isn’t how you feel, before you speak or post consider how patterns might look to the world. You may know Jesus is more than a fallback, but a string of full-throated posts for a candidate suddenly slammed up against the sureness of Jesus’ eternal throne doesn’t communicate that well. That’s “opiate of the masses” stuff. Meanwhile, the percentage of white evangelicals who disconnect personal and public morality in elected officials has more than doubled in just five years. With these trends combined, can we really be mad if the world accuses Christians, white evangelicals in particular, of being more concerned with secular wins and losses?

Last week I wrote about how the Sermon on the Mount functions as Jesus’ party platform announcement to be the Messiah of an unending Kingdom.  If this is true, assurances of Jesus’ reign aren’t a consolation prize for the also-ran in a political scrum; instead this should be the source of our joy and a cause for unrestrained celebration! Every political cause in history has had its ups and downs. Let’s be a people who celebrate our King clearly during wins, losses, presidential cycles, midterms, and even those rare moments when political ads fade away. Only then do we have something to offer that the world can’t match.

“But at least…”: Christians after an election

Jesus announces His candidacy

I believe it is critical as a preacher to find a way to connect the ancient context of Scripture with the modern reader. There is nothing in human history which is not a product of its time, so we miss out on amazing breadth and depth if we do not attempt to bridge that gap. I could spend several blogs on explaining the fascinating milieu of imperial power and messianic hope into which Jesus the itinerant teacher appeared…or I could just tell you to turn on the news.

candidacy-announcementA culture pressed and torn between the competing forces of past and future, tyranny and freedom. A religious hegemony in decline, desperate for a political machination which God can use to make their country great again while others clamor for a new and different future. A large crowd, fatigued and distraught, feeling increasingly left out by the elites and their power struggles, gathers in the hopes of hearing hope and promise in the words of one who would lead them.

Matthew tells us that in this eerily similar context Jesus delivered the set of teachings we remember as the “Sermon on the Mount.” Whether you’ve never read it or see it frequently, I invite you to click the preceding link and read it unabridged. Between the theological content so central to Jesus’ mission and the way Matthew positions this distinctly at the outset of Jesus’ ministry, in a different time Matthew might have called this the announcement of Jesus’ candidacy and platform. That isn’t nearly as anachronistic as it sounds. Based on the surrounding culture, we can be sure that many gathered to hear Jesus saw him as a potential Messiah, the anointed hero of God who would restore Israel (and, as a natural consequence, remove the rule of pagan Rome). Their expectation of Messiah was decidedly political. Matthew’s telling has Jesus striding forward to declare candidacy for Messiah, but in a way the original audience likely never expected.

Jesus didn’t announce how to use the tools of empire to defeat empire. Jewish history was cluttered with the executed corpses of those who had proposed such a solution and found Rome waiting for them. His project was not limited to the restoration of a political kingdom; instead, Jesus was announcing the coming of a Kingdom built on humility and quiet service rather than pride. Its laws, familiar to the Jewish audience, were not heights of morality to which to aspire or a means to protect oneself but rather a minimum above which greater righteousness and selflessness could be achieved. Perfection, completeness, wholeness of the citizenry was to be the standard. The integrity of this Kingdom would be protected through counterintuitive sacrifice, not redemptive violence or revenge. Love would be its banner, and hope its song. And, as the disciples would eventually learn, this Kingdom lacked the borders of land or race, instead open to all who would come.

Jesus’ call runs just as counter-culturally today as in its original context. We prize wealth and power, looking up to those who possess them; Jesus warns against their entangling power lest we are possessed. We want to be able to fight back at those who hurt us; Jesus reminds us that greater goals await than our own personal vindication. We want to look out for ourselves and those like us. A prominent pastor even says he would run “as far as possible” from a candidate who echoed the Sermon on the Mount. But Jesus tells us that perfection like God in Heaven is found in love for all, even our enemies, and taking up a cross on their behalf.

Exactly a week before what may go down as the ugliest election in US history, we find ourself at November 1st, All Saints’ Day, on which the church pauses to remember those heroes of the faith who have gone before us. I find this timing to be too perfect to be ignored. The ranks of the saints are comprised of those who, across countless human boundaries and eras, heeded the call to stake the core of their identity on citizenship in this Kingdom above any other ties or unities which we humans have created. The leader who captured their allegiance didn’t rely on decades of prominence, nor did He arrive to announce Himself on a golden escalator. They realized our means of Kingdom and His means of Kingdom are mutually exclusive, not just different or auxiliary. Just as Jesus promised, the storms of life came. Projects built on human strength fell away, while the Kingdom endured. This is still true, right now. I tell you with surety that glory fades, the purest gold grows dim, and the administration of whomever wins on November 8th will turn to ash. But the Kingdom of Jesus goes on.

Jesus announces His candidacy