Yesterday I preached what was probably the hardest sermon of my ministry career. I told my congregation that - while I am all for things like prayer and fasting - I think there are important reasons NOT to do so tomorrow, in attachment with election day. That was a shocking comment, and not one I made lightly. I attempted to explain it and would like to elaborate here.
The entire sermon was an attack on the ways we make an idol of politics. My community is a military community and we, of all people, in our closeness to the activities of the state, are tempted in the direction of political idolatry. I fear that I made too little of the anguish that my parishioners feel as they watch our country arrive at this new low point. Many of them have given their lives in service to our nation, and the heartache that is their current portion is significant and warranted. It was not my intention to make light of it.
But where that heartache means total despair, it reveals the presence of an idol. This is what I find so alarming about the way American Christians are calling for prayers and fastings in association with the voting process. On the very day when the impotence of our idol is being exposed, we still cling to it with our eyes tightly shut refusing to acknowledge the judgment and truth. We can pray and fast and hope it ain't so. But there it is. Our politics cannot save us. We are not going to vote ourselves out of this mess.
Politics is very limited institution, mostly negative in it's power of enforcement and authority. Law brings guilt, as the Apostle says, not life. To look for solutions or lifegiving power from a political swordbearer is to put our trust and hope in a prince, which Scripture famously warns against. It is like giving a farmer a hundred plowed acres, but only allowing him to use pesticide and a machete while expecting a bumper crop. These are tools of excision, not growth.
A call to fast and pray is usually regarded as a call to repent. Yet, at the top of the list of the sins we need to repent of nationally, are our political idolatry and our childish hunt for quick fixes to profound problems. Yet, paradoxically, connecting a call to pray and fast with a political election will mostly likely simply reinforce and perpetuate both of those sins!
Our nation is like a morbidly obese man who is seeking relief from a peddler of pills. The problem is that his own living throughout the decades of his life is what is killing him, and no pill will cure him of his own behavior.
Furthermore, I fear that calling for prayer and fasting on the day of elections is like that obese man calling his family to pray and fast on the day of his doctor's examination. But the damage has already been done. He ought to call them to pray and fast as he is driving to the grocery store, or as he is looking to join the membership of a gym, or pulling into the parkinglot of a buffet. On the morning of the doctor's exam, it is too late. Abraham told Dives, your time is up. You had your fun. The season of prayer has come to an end.
And this gets at the point. Civil Government is not intended to solve our problems. So stop praying that God would use it in that way. We need to repent of thinking that our social problems have political solutions.
If you want to pray and fast for our country on a level that matters and on the day that counts - pray and fast on the first day of Christian school year - and then on the first day of summer break. Pray and fast when your children are baptized or when a church building is under construction or when a neighbor moves in next to you, or a nursing home closes. Pray and fast during Advent, Lent, and Holy Week - and repent of your own sins with the same zeal that you bring to bear when discussing taxation policies, illegal immigration, or gun rights.
Further thoughts ...
An election is simply a time when we get back the results from the people about what they want and where they want to go.
So to put it in perspective – and I don’t know the exact answers to these questions … but you can go home and if you have the heart and/or stomach to do so – look up the answers –
In America … over the past few years, what were the top selling novels?
Top selling video rentals?
Top selling video games?
Top ranking TV shows?
top billboard songs … can you even read the titles of these outloud in polite company or are they too explicit?
Now … with that in mind … ask yourself – what is so magical about a voting booth that the same group of people who made all those songs and movies blockbusters … and they feed their souls on all these TV shows every night … what is so magical about a voting booth that this same people group, when standing inside of it, is going to suddenly care about virtue, self-sacrifice, and acting in accord with nature and nature’s God?
What reasonable person would expect this? An election is just the results coming in. It is like hoping that the bone will be healed by the x-ray developing improperly.
So … one way to summarize my sermon is – Don’t worry, America’s problems are much deeper than you probably thought.
Our current situation reminds me of a chess match ... caught in a fork. Our finger is off the piece. We are facing a loss. With the next move, we will lose either our rook or bishop and while, in a vacuum, one is ranked above another, in this situation, it is hard to know which is worse.
As C S Lewis’s Screwtape observed - Satan’s trick is getting God’s people to reach for their fire extinguishers just as the flood waters are arriving.
Christians all over America are worried sick that Hillary is going to be elected and make it illegal for them to read their Bibles. But if they were honest - they would have to admit that because of Netflix and the NFL Network, a law like that would be largely unnecessary and a huge waste of time.
We read Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 in which a tyrannical dictator outlaws all books and burns them up, and last week, we commemorated the brave stand of Reformers within the Church who faced oppression and whose books were burned.
But I want to call you to acknowledge that the real danger we face isn’t from some outsider somewhere who is going to swoop in and confiscate all our copies of Calvin’s Institutes. Our real danger is that we’re going to spend all our spare minutes on Facebook or playing Video games or shopping for new shoes or hanging out with our friends in some club - and our precious Bibles and the great classics of the Christian Reformers will never do anything but collect dust on our shelves - hidden in plain sight.
We are here together at the table of our Lord Jesus. So let’s be honest with one another. What is actually going to keep you from reading your Bible this year? A tyrant? Political persecutions? Or a hundred, happy little pleasant distractions everyday? Your own self-indulgent and lack of discipline [SELF GOVERNMENT]?
Let’s be honest - what’s going to actually keep you from making it to worship on Sunday morning? A law? A tax penalty? A government watch list? The threat of a terrorist attack? Or buy-one-get-one-free mojitos to go with the late Saturday game at your favorite waterfront restaurant?
Let’s be honest with one another before the LORD - these are the most clear and present dangers we face as American Christians.
Now, I in no way want to belittle the very real problems we face as a nation and the valid place that politics has. I simply want to put politics back in its right and limited place in your thinking and remind you that you cannot vote a culture back to life. And I want to remind you that our biggest problems as a Church are not forced down upon us from Washington DC.
Our biggest problems as a Church come from places much closer, and much deeper, and much more painful.