On this July fourth weekend, it is perhaps appropriate that we hear a word from some of our political campaigners.*
Towards the end of Isaiah, the “Make Jerusalem Great Again” party is gaining in popularity. The prophet paints a vivid picture of the land of milk and honey, food flowing from God’s glorious bosom, with just a little sweetness from the righteous judgement that will justify us.
“Can a country be born in a day,” asks the prophet, “or a nation be brought forth in a moment? Yet no sooner is Zion in labour than she gives birth to her children.”
I tell you, it’s going to be great.
I heard Walter Brueggemann speak at the Old Stone Church a few weeks ago. I don’t want to put words into his mouth, but I believe that what that Old Testament scholar was teaching us was that the oracles written from a place of Exile about a homeland flowing with milk and honey are written from a place of deep nostalgia and deft denial.
Jerusalem fell because it could not sustain a dream that lifted a few by treading on the necks of too many; the cream at the top of the milk was too rich and too heavy, and it broke down.
Jerusalem fell because it believed in its own greatness over the greatness of God. The prophets warned of it time and time again.
In the epistle of Paul to the Galatians, his new little church is suffering under the campaign of the Make Christianity Great Again. There are people coming to the new converts and trying to persuade them that in order to become Christians, little Christs, disciples of Jesus, they first need to be circumcised. After all, Jesus was a circumcised Jew. So were his first disciples. “To be one of us,” they tell the Galatians, “you first need to be like us.”
Within a single generation, the nostalgia has already started for a movement that raised up an inner circle to a position of prominence. Within a single generation, the nostalgia for a false memory of generic greatness has set in.
Forgotten already is the core of Jesus’ teaching that those who would be great must become servants to all, that greatness is of God, and not something to be grasped. That the Gospel is not a great campaign slogan, but good news for all people.
When Jesus sends out the seventy-odd messengers ahead of him to pave the way of the gospel into the hearts and minds of the people to whom he is coming, they have a fine adventure. They are high on the power of the peace that they bring, amped up by their ability to heal the sick and to cast out demons. And Jesus says, “Yes, I saw Satan fall from heaven, and I knew that you were up to something. But do not imagine that this was to prove your power.”
Do not imagine that your mission was about your ability to make Judea great again. Do not rejoice in your own greatness, but in the greatness of God, who has restored you to a right relationship with heaven and earth, who has written your names in the book of life.
You can cast out demons till the cows come home, but still, there will be people in poverty, overlooked and overwhelmed, and there will be those who lord it over them, reveling in their own greatness, and there will be lightning from heaven to fall and scorch the land and flood the valleys again. Until the kingdom of heaven is come, until the reign of God is complete upon the earth.
All of us, when we talk about making things great again – any of us, left, right, or middle – have a tendency to remember a false past. Whether it is an America in which everyone is White and middle class and lives in a sitcom suburb, or a pre-European Britain, where everyone speaks English and the Empire with its colonies and colonials is far, far away. Since the Brexit vote a week ago, racist attacks in Britain have risen by 57%. Nostalgia for a false past is never a sound or safe basis on which to build our future.
Whether it is a church where every pew is filled with tidily dressed children who are seen but never heard; when we remember how great things were, we only remember how great they were for us. Or for people like us. People willing to become like us, or pass for people like us. We make an idol of our memories, and a religion of nostalgia. We build a campaign out of curses for all that separates us from a past that never really was.
Do not rejoice, says Jesus, in your own greatness, but in the greatness of God, who has restored you to a right relationship with heaven and earth, who has written your names in the book of life.
“See,” said Jesus, “I am sending you out like lambs among wolves.” Cleveland sports aside, greatness is overrated. The Gospel is so much better than that: good news for all people.
*Disclaimer: Jesus never registered as a Democrat, or a Republican, Libertarian or Green. He never even registered to vote; but you should.