“Only God is Great”
Romans 13:1-10 & Psalm 146
Louis XIV was one of the greatest kings that the world has ever known. He sat on the French throne for over 70 years and is still famous today for solidifying the power of the monarchy and claiming Divine Right of rule. He was called the Sun King, and he was called Louis the Great. In 1699 he called a priest named Jean-Baptiste Massillon to be his personal chaplain. When Louis died in 1715, he had left meticulous instructions with Massillon about has lavish funeral. He wanted a dramatic affair worthy of such a great king of France. He was to lie in state in a golden casket at the Notre Dame cathedral so that his subjects could come and pay their respects to him. The funeral was to be lit by a lone candle in the vast cathedral, for dramatic effect. Father Massillon carried out Louis’ instructions to a ‘t’, but when it came time to deliver the funeral sermon he added his own touch. As he began his sermon he went to the candle that stood over the King’s casket and snuffed it out, saying, “Only God is great.” (1)
We gather tonight in the midst of the hustle and bustle of the election eve to tell the world, “only God is great.” Whomever we elect, whomever sits in the Oval Office, real power and hope and authority resides in Jesus. Best of all, we don’t vote for him, we don’t have to elect him, he is already the one who is Elect, the One called by the Father in the strength of the Spirit to be our King and Lord and Master, to save us and to redeem the world. His Kingdom has come, is here, and is coming. We get to the live into that reality, remembering that the gospel means that Jesus resides not just in our hearts, but in our homes and places of work and in our neighborhoods.
We gather tonight as a sign of unity in the world divided; the talking heads say that this is the most divided campaign season in decades. It could be a long time before we know who the next President will be. We have spent recent days and weeks being bombarded with phone calls and fliers and commercials. Some of us have gotten into arguments with friends and family about who to vote for; others of us have dodged those conversations like the plague. I’m a preacher and I find politics interesting, which means I can never have a polite conversation anywhere I go!
Where do we put our real trust and hope? Christians are called to remember that Jesus does not want to be a part of our lives, but the center. Jesus is not one ruler among other rulers, the “spiritual” authority alongside other authorities, he is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. If we believe the hype, our hope and security and future rest in a candidate, not on God. How many ads have you seen whose purpose is to frighten you into putting your hope into one of the candidates? If we take the advertising at its word, everything is up to the next President: your health care, your jobs, your personal safety, your gym membership, your tomato patch, and whether or not you will have to replace your spark plugs this year. If we believe the practical atheism of the election season, it’s all up to the President.
The Bible has some different thoughts about this. I thought of Louis XIV’s funeral story when I read the opening of Psalm 146: “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help. When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish.” Human authorities have their purpose and their role, but don’t put your trust there. Trust God. Romans 13 is one of the clearest statements in the Bible about the purposes of worldly power, reminding us that our rulers (when they are doing their God-given work) are instruments of God to maintain peace and order. Paul says to be subject to the state because it is God’s servant, and give what is due (whether taxes or honor or respect) to all. Above all, give love, because love does not wrong a neighbor.
And love is in short supply these days. We don’t know how to disagree without being disagreeable, we get so wrapped up in holding the right position that we forget that being a Christian says something about HOW we hold our positions. John Danforth, a longtime US Senator who is also an Episcopal priest, writes “The problem is not that Christians are conservative or liberal, but that some are so confident that their position is God’s position that they become dismissive and intolerant toward others and divisive forces in our national life.” (2) As Jesus followers we are called to a different way: the way of peace, the way of reconciliation, the way of unity and love. We go to the Table tonight to remember the things that bring us together, the things that cannot be won or lost by a vote, the things that are God’s good gift to His children: faith, hope, and love.
Today, like many of you, I voted. Before I voted, I went to the bank. As I drove from my branch to the Presbyterian church where I vote, I thought, “this is where the world says all the power is.” The world says that power is found in the dollar, in bank accounts and hedge funds; that peace and wholeness and hope can be voted in or out of office. As Christians, we are called to say a defiant “no” to a world that has forgotten the truth. Jesus is Lord. To be a Christian is to cast your vote not for a President or Governor, but for a Savior, Lord, and Master. It is a vote for the poor, for the oppressed, for the prisoner and widow; to vote for Jesus is to vote for all of those the world would rather forget. Politicians go on and on about who will represent the middle class; Jesus says to remember “the least of these.” Politicians say, “peace through strength,” Jesus reigns from a cross. Politicians say, “vote for me,” but Jesus says, “I died for you.” Do not put your hope in kings, in Presidents, in any earthly power. Jesus is Lord. Let the church worship her king, and remember her first loyalty.
I close with a prayer from Stanley Hauerwas:
“Sovereign Lord, foolish we are, believing that we can rule ourselves by selecting this or that person to rule over us. We are at it again. Help us not to think it more significant than it is, but also give us and those we elect enough wisdom to acknowledge our follies. Help us laugh at ourselves, for without humor our politics cannot be humane. We desire to dominate and thus are dominated. Free us, dear Lord, for otherwise we perish. Amen.” (3)
- From: http://massillonchurches.com/JBMassillon.phtml
- John Danforth, Faith and Politics (New York: Viking 2006), 10.