Calamity Brings Clarity

The following is an adapted version of a message I preached during the chapel service at Geneva College, just hours after our nation elected our new President.  In God’s kindness, the message seemed to strengthen some stricken hearts. Whatever your emotional state after an exhausting election season, I hope it’s a blessing to you, too.   It was written to be spoken, but hopefully comes across clearly enough in this format.   Or, click here for an audio link if you like.   

A loss can be very hard to take; but sometimes, so can a win.

We have a new President of the United States.  He won in dramatic fashion, in the early morning hours, and like the campaign season itself, the angst-ridden process left the American public emotionally and physically exhausted, and for so many of us, feeling profoundly sick.  One of the saddest parts of this sick feeling is that had the election gone the opposite way, it likely would have left us feeling much the same, though for different reasons.  Either way this race would have concluded, there was no way for a victory at the top of the ticket which was not also a reason to weep.  We’ve seen so much ugliness, vitriol, and dishonesty out of both camps and both candidates and all throughout the candidates’ respective careers.  The campaign is over, but for the next for years, what are we in for?  And as a Christian institution, and for all of us here who personally identify with the Lord Jesus Christ – what is to be our posture of heart this morning, and moving ahead?

First, and this is why we sang Psalm 51, – we repent.  We have to recognize, based on the standards of God’s holy word, and the standards to which he holds all people, and political leaders, the standards the Lord always told his people to seek whenever they were to appoint leaders … we have to admit that what happened early this morning, was a calamity.

If we are to seek first God’s kingdom and righteousness, as we thought about several weeks ago, if we are to pray for God’s name to be hallowed, for his kingdom to come and for his will to be done, how can we see either outcome as not essentially calamitous, when as a nation we forced a choice between candidates who in their own respective ways represented, and openly boasted about, and have spent their lives advocating and advancing, so much of what God says he hates?  As Christians, we have to have a deep measure of sadness this morning.  We need to cry with King David in Psalm 119:136, “My eyes shed streams of tears, because people do not keep your law.”

We can rightly call this whole Presidential election season, and the profound national sin which preceded and gave rise to it – we can call it all a disaster, a calamity.  It’s been heartbreaking.  But in the midst of our grief, we must also give thanks.

We can thank God for one of the consequences of calamity. Friends, calamity clarifies.  Out of calamity, comes clarity. 

You might think, “Things are more confusing now than ever!”  In some ways, yes, but ultimately, no, not really, not when we look through the eyes of our Savior, the sight given to us by the Holy Spirit through Scripture.

We’ll focus our hearts this morning on two points of clarity brought to us out of our national calamity.

 First, calamity reveals our true loyalties.

Which is the deeper love and loyalty for you this morning?  The kingdom of God, or the US of A?  You might ask – why do they have to be separate?  I’m not saying they should be separate, but those affections must fall in line, and in order.  Jesus says, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.”  And as he summarizes the ten commandments, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” And then, guided by that first love, comes the second command, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Our new Geneva College President, Dr. Calvin Troup, was reminding faculty and staff last week that this is what Geneva’s motto really means.  Pro Christo et Patria – for Christ and country – is not, “For Christ and America.” It’s “For Jesus and our neighbors.”  The neighborhood in which the Lord has placed this college is America.

One of the things that’s become clear in this election cycle is that Christians can be very confused about the relationship between America and the kingdom of God – sometimes, we’ve equated the two.  If you doubt that, just listen to certain conservative pundits who unabashedly refer to America as the city shining on a hill about which Jesus speaks in the Sermon on the Mount, or who say that “Democracy is the solution to the human condition.”

Please don’t misunderstand me.  Let me speak in personal terms.  I love my country, and when I think of my country I  can’t help but think of its military, men and women who risk their lives to carry out its interests.

Both my father and grandfather served in the United States navy, proudly.  They were submariners in their respective eras of service, and I have profound respect for them, for their service, and for those who do likewise in our day, including a dear friend of mine who’s serving right now.

My friend is one of the godliest men I’ve ever known, and he’s is in the Army special forces.  One day, several years back when I was a pastor in Pittsburgh, he gave me a call at my office, which was in the basement of my house.  He was calling from a cave, in Afghanistan.  Special ops guys get all the cool toys, including phones that work from caves on the other side of the planet.  He and his unit were lying low for a bit, having been hunted recently by the Taliban.  So I proceeded to tell him about my hard day; my stapler had broken and my chair wasn’t tall enough to get me level with my desk.  It’s good to suffer together as brothers.

A few years later, my friend left the Army.  He was deeply discouraged at what was being done to our military by ungodly political maneuverings back home.  The government telling military chaplains to no longer pray in the name of Jesus, the one who is the Resurrection and the life, and yet that same government sending soldiers to fight and perhaps die, to enter eternity sometimes in the name of highly suspect foreign policy, on soil dedicated to a false god.  That was his view of things as a Christian and a soldier.

But not too long ago, he re-upped, and he’s out there again in the field.  He’s willing to die in the service of his often misguided country, but that’s not fundamentally why he went back.  There’s a deeper loyalty at play in his soldier’s heart.  As any soldier will understand, it’s about his fellow soldiers, making sure they get home alive even if he doesn’t.  He knows that God has equipped him to do things that relatively few people on the planet can do, or would even try.  Calamity clarifies.  He hates what’s happening in and to our military, but he loves those soldiers and is uniquely gifted to protect them.  It is his sense of Christian duty, deep in his soul, and not his sense of patriotism, which drives his service to America.  He loves the Lord, and he loves his fellow soldiers, God and neighbor.  And yes, he loves our nation, but for him, America can come or go; it’s God’s kingdom that counts.

I’m not sure that we as Christians in America are entirely clear on that point.

During the election coverage last night and this morning, news anchors reported massive evangelical Christian voter turnout, higher than it’s been in decades, ostensibly in favor of the now Pesident-elect  But this turnout didn’t start in the general election.  It began way back in the primaries stage, with Christians of significant national influence jumping aboard the Trump train very early, and very eagerly. No matter about his owning strip clubs, bragging about his sexual conquests and instances of marital infidelity.  When the infamous recording of his crasser-than-crass comments came out recently, several evangelicals jumped off the train, apparently insufficiently offended by what we knew already, and some remain and rejoice in his victory today.

It all raises the question, what does it even mean to claim to be a Christian in this country?  What do outside observers think it means to be an evangelical?  That conversation is too complex to have this morning, but it is happening now on a national level, and this is good.  It’s a conversation long overdue.

In significant ways, at least in terms of pop culture and conventional wisdom, we are indeed in a post-Christian era in our country – but so often in history, it’s in these times that Jesus really begins to reveal himself as alive and well.  Because Jesus is alive, what dies in an anti-Christian or post-Christian culture is not the gospel, but the ways in which we’ve compromised it.  Churches which no longer preach a risen Christ are hemorrhaging members; they’re dying.  And those of us who believe that Christ is risen are sobering up to just how quickly and willingly we gave ground on his commands when it came to supporting someone who openly bragged about defying those commands.  Christians are waking up, and are repenting.  This election season has offered many excruciatingly uncomfortable moments, but it’s also given rise to a moment we’ve needed for a long time, a moment in the history of Christianity in our country in which we ask, in humble horror, “What have we become?”  It’s a moment very similar to what Isaiah experiences in our text, Isaiah 6.

Isaiah was a prophet to the politicians.  He ministered the word of God to various kings in Judah, during the days of the divided kingdom, about 700 years or so before Christ.  And in our passage, Isaiah and the southern kingdom are facing calamity.  A good king had turned to evil in his final days, and he and his reign had come to a shameful end.

King Uzziah began to reign when he was 16 years old, and he reigned for 52 years.  He gets a whole chapter of coverage in 2 Chronicles 26 – Verse 4 – “And he did what was right in the eyes of the LORD.  2 Chronicles 26:5 He set himself to seek God in the days of Zechariah, who instructed him in the fear of God, and as long as he sought the LORD, God made him prosper.

But in his power he grew proud.  The king tried to claim the privileges of the priesthood; he tried to burn incense in the temple…the Lord struck him with leprosy in the presence of the 80 valorous priests there to confront him in his sin.  The king died a leper.

Now, in the background of all of this, the kingdom faced a terrifying threat from the foreign power Assyria.  If you want to know what Assyria was like, imagine ISIS – as an empire.  So in Isaiah’s day we have a leader whose God-granted power goes to his head, and the rising threat of ruthless people who serve a false god and slaughter in the most barbaric ways everyone who opposes them as they carve a path of blood across the Middle East.  Sound familiar?

Here’s a question with which our hearts must find familiarity this morning, one that would have burned upon the heart of Isaiah and his countrymen – What do we do in terrifying times, in the absence of godly leadership?  We look to God himself, who is constantly present.

Verse 1 – God gives Isaiah a blazing, crippling vision of his glorious reign at a crucial time in the life of the kingdom – in the year that King Uzziah died.  Just when conditions within the kingdom and outside the kingdom could have been terrifyingly confusing, God brings clarity.  And the first thing that is stunningly clear to the prophet, is his own sin, and then the sin of the kingdom he serves.  Out of calamity, comes clarity:

And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”

What a pitch-perfect confession of sin for our times, for our nation, and with all due respect to him, to our President elect!  Isaiah focuses on words, speech – how corrupt, and how filthy, have words been in this Presidential election cycle and before?  Scripture tells us that out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.

But notice that Isaiah puts himself at the front of the line of sinners when it comes to confessing national sin.  As Christians, we must follow his lead.  Look at the great prayers for national repentance throughout the Bible – in Daniel and Ezra, for instance – the prophets realize in humility and horror their own great sinfulness, and the sinfulness of the people whom they represent.  Sometimes they’re so overcome by their personal sin and the sin of the nation to which they belong, that they fall on their faces as if dead.  Just like in our passage this morning.

And notice also that the Lord cleanses his humble, contrite servant and commissions him to preach his word to an increasingly godless nation, in a time of great national compromise and corruption.  His work will not be easy.  The following verses make it clear that his preaching will actually harden the hearts of his countrymen.  Faithful service to Christ is not always well met by God’s people, let alone pop culture.

That brings us to our second and final thought this morning about what calamity clarifies for us.

Calamity reveals the need for Christian Courage.

Courage in Christ is our chapel theme for the year.  Christian courage is rooted in the certainty that the Lord is ruling from heaven not despite these circumstances, but through them.  These calamites do not diminish Christ’s rule, they declare it.

It was in the year that King Uzziah died that God revealed himself to Isaiah, blazing in holiness and regal glory and power.  God is not ruling over these calamities in a way that the ref is supposed to rule over a basketball game – allowing the athletes to play until they cross clearly defined lines – God is calling the shots and moving the players – not like a puppet master, but with no less mastery.

To put it in theological terms, God does merely allow; he ordains the evil times which come upon us – and he does so for the sake of salvation.  Our sins, individually and nationally, are truly ours.  We own them.  God does not download from heaven our thoughts and words and actions and force us into them.  We sin because we want to … our sin is truly ours.  We own them.  And God is truly God – he owns us, and the world, and is moving it all toward its appointed end.  There’s mystery involved in this – but the Holy Spirit makes it crystal clear that this is how life is.

Listen to how Peter puts it all together with stunning succinctness, on the day of Pentecost:  From Acts 2, “Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know– this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it . . .

Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.”  Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?”

Oh that our nation, in humility and contrition, would ask that question!

And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. … Save yourselves from this crooked generation.” So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.

The church thrives when her tear-stained eyes are set clearly and without compromised heart upon her king.  And that’s happening around the world in our day.  It’s happening in our country behind the fuss and bluster of the political scenery, among faithful people who won’t make the headlines, but who humbly hold forth the Word of Life and minister the tangible touch of Christ’s mercy to their neighbors.  It’s happening across the world, in places which are openly and as a matter of public, punitive policy, violently opposed to the gospel.  In some of the coldest, darkest spiritual climates in the world, true Christianity is blooming like spring, and that’s because Jesus is King.

If there is hope for America, if America is to be truly great, truly free, then we must recognize that America has a sovereign ruler, and it’s not the man we just elected, nor was it the woman he just defeated.

Let us, as individuals and as an institution, offer ourselves to our King, for whatever service would please him.  May we like Isaiah say, “Here am I, send me!”

People of God, put no confidence in princes – or in presidents – but let us all place all of our confidence in the King.

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  1. Calamity Brings Clarity - - November 11, 2016

    […] Etheridge is Chaplain of Geneva College in Beaver Falls, Penn. This article first appeared on Gentle Reformation and is used with […]

  2. Calamity Brings Clarity - November 12, 2016

    […] Etheridge is Chaplain of Geneva College in Beaver Falls, Penn. This article first appeared on Gentle Reformation and is used with […]

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