CHRISTMAS AND POLITICS

Christmas radically qualifies the importance of politics.

If your candidate loses, don’t feel too bad, because the result is not all-important. If your candidate wins don’t celebrate too much, because he or she will accomplish far less than promised.

Please don’t misunderstand. I am not saying that politics is irrelevant. Elections are important—perhaps especially in 2020 in the US. Their outcomes shape decisions that help or harm billions of people.

But God was aware of that when he chose to send the Savior of the world to a lowly carpenter’s home in an unimportant colony rather than to the emperor’s family at the center of global power. Furious debates about momentous political decisions were taking place in Rome when the eternal Word became a baby in Bethlehem in 4 BC. Those political debates mattered. If faithful followers of Yahweh could have bent them toward greater peace and justice, they should have. But something vastly more important was happening in Bethlehem.

For centuries a tiny people group called Jews was scattered across the successive Babylonian, Persian, then Greco-Roman empires that dominated a huge part of the world. This minority believed that their god was the only God, the Creator, and the ruler of heaven and earth. They believed that someday God’s Messiah would appear—to overcome evil and injustice, bring peace and goodness for all, forgive sins, transform sinners, and usher in a new time of Messianic shalom. That’s also what Jesus believed as he started his public ministry.

With this difference: Jesus believed he was God’s Messiah sent to begin this marvelous new day. And he rejected violence as the way to inaugurate God’s new kingdom. Instead, he said the wonderful, long-expected kingdom of goodness and peace would grow slowly, like a mustard seed, as more and more people believed in him, decided to follow him, and began to live what he taught.

Was Jesus’ message political? No—and yes. Jesus was not arguing about the current policy questions being debated in Rome. He rejected the notion that military force could bring in the new age of shalom. He did not try to become the next Caesar.

But Jesus’ message and claims were deeply political. At the very center of the Jewish hope that Jesus embraced was the expectation that the Messiah would come to conquer evil and bring peace and justice, not just for the tiny Jewish community but for the whole world. That’s who Jesus said he was. And his death and resurrection were central to the arrival of this new period of history.

As the early Christians reflected back on the astounding events of Jesus’ three short years of public ministry, they confessed that Jesus had been right. The new time of peace and justice had begun. Jesus was—at that moment—King of kings and Lord of lords. Those early Christians dared to make the astounding claim that all authority in heaven and on earth had already been delivered to him.

The big difference from earlier Jewish expectation, of course, was that the old age with its injustice still remained alive and powerful, even as the new kingdom was arriving slowly while more and more people embraced Jesus’ vision and way.

And this way was political, but not in the way Rome was political. Even though Caesar claimed to be “Lord” and “Son of God,” it was really Jesus to whom those titles belonged. Whenever Caesar demanded things that contradicted Jesus’ way, the early Christians followed Jesus, not Caesar. They believed that Jesus’ new kingdom, not Caesar’s policy decisions, would be the most important fact in transforming the world into what the Creator intended.

Does that make Caesar’s—or the president’s—policy decisions irrelevant? Not at all. These decisions greatly affect people’s lives, so whenever we can nudge them toward greater wholeness, we should. But we know that only at Christ’s return will all evil disappear.

Until then, you and I must live out the Christian confession that Jesus alone is Lord. That certainly means  that he must be  Lord of Christians’ personal political decisions.   But it also means that in some basic sense, he is already Lord of presidents and prime ministers, parliaments and congresses—even though it seldom looks like it. 

Christ has chosen the church as the place where his reign is to become most visible and powerful.  And that means that Christians must live and promote biblical values about truth, justice, freedom, life and peace both in their personal lives and their political decisions.  It also means that no matter who wins elections or what politicians do, God’s reign continues to take shape on this earth. When politicians are at their worst, defying Christ and promoting evil, Christ’s kingdom can still advance. (Although when people who claim the name of Jesus join evil politicians, God’s kingdom suffers serious setbacks.) And when politicians are most sympathetic to biblical values, they are still a mixed bag of good and evil, and everything they do is less important than proclaiming the gospel and living as Jesus’ new redeemed body of believers.

I will keep urging Christians to push for wise political decision—especially in 2020! But never forget that politics is not nearly as important as living as Jesus’ new kingdom community and inviting others to embrace his wonderful gospel. 

Bethlehem, not Rome (or Washington), is the center of the universe.

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