Sermon at St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Suva, Fiji (13 November 2016)

Readings for Twenty-Sixth Sunday after Pentecost:

  • Isaiah 65:17-25
  • Isaiah 12
  • Malachi 4:1-2a
  • Psalm 98
  • 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
  • Luke 21:5-19


In two weeks time we begin the Christian season of Advent. This season is when Christians prepare for the arrival of their savior Jesus Christ. We eagerly look forward to Christmas as a time of celebration and gift giving. And the end of another year will be greeted by many as relief from the tumult of 2016.

But if you are like me, you are already breathing a sigh of relief for those things which have been completed recently, like the end of the academic year. Finally, students and teachers can catch up with friends and housework, and some of us will be looking forward to returning to families and friends in our home islands. Congratulations to all graduates and those who just completed their exams.

So in Advent, we await the arrival of our Lord and Savior who will come to deliver us and set us free. But in the meantime, we must finish our exams, make travel plans, and do all those day-to-day things which keep life moving forward for ourselves, our families, and the others who depend on us in the workplace and home. This is not simply how we live our daily lives, but also how live our Christian faith – working and struggling day-by-day, but also with keen anticipation of the Kingdom of God to come.

In the last week, Americans have already experienced the end of a season like Advent, the period of waiting to see who their new President would be. For some, the election of the Republican Party candidate Donald Trump was a catastrophe, while for others it delivers something like a savior figure.

This election has dominated the news for months. With President Obama being ineligible for re-election, both the Democratic and Republican Parties had to find candidates to contest this election.

Trump’s election as the Republican nominee and then election to the presidency has shocked the world. Many people are asking: “Is the best person American can find to run their country?” Prophets of doom see this as the end of the world, or the end of the United States as we know it.

For our region, it is not yet known what Trump’s presidency will bring. His international relations policy is not well thought out or known, but it is starting to be revealed. But two things seem likely:

  • Trump has said that climate change is a hoax by the Chinese. This cannot be taken too literally – it is surely an example of nasty election rhetoric designed to be anti-Chinese, while appealing to uneducated climate deniers for votes. Nonetheless, his approach to climate change is not encouraging. And the Pacific region, being very vulnerable to the effects of more intense cyclones and sea-level rise, needs to be very concerned.
  • Secondly, Trump is anti-globalization. He is against free-trade and movement of jobs to other countries. This might mean that Pacific countries find it harder to sell their goods to America. This might hurt the Pacific’s export industries. However, if this move by Trump curtails global trade, then it might have a small positive result for climate change.

But my task this morning is not to offer political analysis, but to examine our scripture readings to see what light the light of God can shed on our new global political situation.

Our scripture readings this morning are timely reminders of both catastrophes Christians can expect to live through and God’s peaceable Kingdom.

Beginning with our reading from Isaiah 65, we have a radical vision of peace and harmony; one which continues to offer hope in troubled times.

Isaiah says:

“For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered.”

In this new earth we find the famous image of the wolf and the lamb feeding together. That is Isaiah’s vision of God’s new rule of the world.

From Donald Trump’s rhetoric we might find a distortion of this. Trump might say:

“For I am about to create a new America; the former things of Obama shall not be remembered”.

Isaiah goes on to say, in a vision of economic sovereignty:

“They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat”.

But Trump would say:

“Americans shall build houses and inhabit them (not immigrants); they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit (not import grapes from Mexico)”

I admit that this is a somewhat playful approach to reading scripture and applying it to today’s political situation. But sadly today, much of our political language is a distortion of our theological language and Christian truths. This is a trap for Christians, as what sounds like biblical Christian teaching can be subtly distorted for political ends.

In Isaiah’s vision, it is God alone who establishes peace and harmony. It is not the construction of any human ruler, but it is God’s new creation by God’s own initiative. It cannot be achieved by any Presidential election or governmental decree. God’s new creation is from God alone. We must not confuse it with anything worldly politics can achieve.

The Psalm set for today – Psalm 98 – also celebrates God’s rule. Looking at God’s divine rule, which we can glimpse through the Psalms and others parts of the Bible, has inspired Christian rulers across the ages for their own rule.

Psalm 98 speaks of the universality of God’s rule –  God rules over all the earth. God’s rule transcends national boundaries and is not limited to one people, nation, or region. The God of Israel is the God of the whole earth. This God rules all, and will come to judge all.

Again, we can contrast God’s rule with the earthly ruler, who by necessity and design, rules just for the interests of their nation, and sometimes only in the interests of certain classes or races. The worst rulers rule predominantly in their own interest.

God’s judgment, the model for sound political judgment, is equitable and righteous. This is God’s justice, which will be fully revealed when God comes to rule. This is our expectation and our hope. In the times before that final judgment, we can hope that our leaders take note and judge in the way they would like to be judged by God. Sadly many, if not most, of our rulers, even Christian ones, fall well short of this ideal.

This vision of final judgment at the end of times may seem far off in the future. But for those in the Pacific facing the impact of climate change and the destruction of our fisheries and forests, it can appear that the end times are drawing close.

Christ paints a picture of the end times – with times of conflict, war, and persecution – in our reading from Luke this morning. Luke’s vision of persecution is a reminder of God’s care for us and a further reminder of the differences between earthly rule and God’s rule.

In the face of conflict with authorities, who violently persecute them, Christians are not to defend themselves using violence. Or even prepare elaborate spoken defenses. Their only defense is the word that comes from God. Against the kings and governors and their prisons, we have the word of God. That word, with its power to create and destroy, is more powerful than death. Jesus reassures us that in any battle with political power, we may die, but we will not perish.

Our identity as Christians and followers of Christ does not permit violence against those who make an enemy of us, but ultimate victory over them is assured.

Some would say that an alternative politics of identity can be seen in the recent developments in the United Kingdom with its vote to leave the European Union and in the election of Trump.

This is seen in the slogans “England for the English”, and “America for the Americans”, and in Australia in the resurgence of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party. These events are united by an identity politics of exclusion of the outsider, whereby race and ethnicity and language groups seek to claim some status that defines who is in and who is out.

This is the politics of nativism – an ideology which favors the local people or natives over those who are outside. For some, this is a necessary correction, in which locals or indigenous people can reassert their power against globalization or even imperialism. But in other ways, these categories are reinforced and entrench divisions between people, that some people are worth more than others.

In the wake of the Brexit vote and Trump’s election, the UK and the USA have seen violence against minority groups in these countries escalate. Brexit and Trump’s rise to power have given implicit permission for hate to rise in the hearts of men and women. The haters have been emboldened by leaders who wish to throw out the constraints of human decency and compassion and appeal to the lowest base urges of human behavior.

In the Pacific, we might think ourselves isolated from these sorts of events. But we need to be vigilant that the politics of hate and exclusion do not take root in our countries. For almost 30 years Fiji has witnessed harmful identity politics of race and exclusion.

With perceived threats to the Pacific way of life from globalization or neo-colonization and environmental harm, it becomes easy to focus blame for political corruption and economic exploitation on outsiders and their perverse cultures. It would be tempting to find one’s identity in opposition to the forces of modernity globalization in nationalism and a retreat into one’s culture.

But, the feeling that our lives would be better without the outsider and that we don’t need them is a sinful temptation. Christianity teaches the universal brotherhood and sisterhood of humanity. We need the other in order to show love. Without someone to love we cannot uphold Christ’s commandment to love our neighbor. It is easy to return love to those who love us. But as Jesus says there is no merit in that. Christ-like love loves the neighbor and even our enemies. We do not have love unless we can do that.

Christ himself associated himself with the tax collector and collaborators with Roman occupying powers. In doing so, he transformed them and his identity was itself transformed at times by encountering the outsider.

Our trust in God’s word and Jesus’ command is the basis of our identity as Christians. Our identity as Christians, Christ warns his listeners, comes from his name, as it says in Luke 21:17. This identity can put us into conflict with religious authorities, political authorities and even our cultures, as represented by our “relatives and friends” (21:16).

Our Christian identity is one we should be proud to have and one that makes other identities secondary. We have our identity in Christ.

Part of the Christian identity relates to fear. Two of our readings this morning tell us not to be afraid. Isaiah 12:2 reminds us that surely God is our salvation. We will trust in God, and will not be afraid. And in Luke’s gospel (21:9), Christ tells us not to be terrified of wars and insurrections, because they will pass and soon afterwards, Christ will return.

It is difficult not to be afraid for those things we hold dear in times of trouble. People’s lives are at risk from the forces unleashed by Trump’s election and Brexit. They are afraid and justifiably so. What word does the church have for them? When people’s lives are in danger, pious platitudes will not do. We need to speak and act in ways that show our hatred of evil and our love of others.

Christ’s words from Luke are reassuring, when he indicates that this time will pass. But the question for us is: “How shall Christians pass this time?” Shall we pass it behind locked doors and gated compounds? Shall we pass it in isolation from minority groups who are suffering the outpouring of hate, such as Muslims, homosexuals, and immigrants?

No We shall pass that time alongside them as neighbors and friends. Christians cannot sit aside and allow hate to win. Christians must be prepared to be among the hated, rather than among the haters.

Therein lies our imitation of Christ in these troubled times when politicians wish to build walls to exclude and shame others in need. That is the identity we are given through our baptism into the church of Jesus Christ, and one that we share with Christians of all colors and nations.