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  • Joshua Ziefle

Burning Hearts

The following text represents a manuscript version of the sermon I will be delivering today at the Northwest University chapel service. The biblical text is Luke 24:13-32. In the interest of space, I will not be adding it to this post. If you would like to read it first, please feel free to follow the hyperlink above.


Tomorrow will mark the 20th anniversary of the first presidential election in which I was legally allowed to vote. It was quite an experience. In November 2000 I was a junior at a small Christian college similar to Northwest. In those days, at least, my circle of friends were fairly conservative. At one point, when I was wavering back and forth between voting for Bush or Gore, let’s just say there was a least one intense conversation about my wavering position back in our shared living space. I’m sure you can understand what I mean.


America must have been having a similar feeling of being split that year. The Electoral College total was quite close, in the end coming down to who had won Florida. The final recorded margin in that state: just 537 votes. It took over a month for all of this to be legally settled, and in the end George W. Bush became the new President. For those who voted for Gore, my guess would be that this past week has caused them to relive no small amount of electoral PTSD.


I used to think that was a special year. And then we got to 2016…and 2020. To all of you for whom this is your first presidential election, welcome aboard. And I’m sorry. This election, this season, this year—it has been something else. A long campaign season in a time of crisis has led, these past few days, to a flurry of vote totals and statistics. Now, it seems, we find ourselves in the aftermath.


In the 24th chapter of Luke, we hear a story of another kind of aftermath. As we learn from the text, this episode takes place after Jesus’ betrayal and death upon the Cross. You know the story well. Women later go to the tomb only to find it abandoned and two apparent angels relaying a message of resurrection. But Jesus? Neither his body nor his person was anywhere to be seen. Confusion and wonder was the order of the day, and to some, at least, some it seemed like nonsense.


In Luke 24:13, two disciples are on the road to Emmaus, seven miles from Jerusalem. The Bible tells us they are talking amongst themselves in an effort to process the events of the long weekend. You yourselves have probably some of the same kinds of conversations this past week. We might call it the “post-game analysis.” Ok, then, but what are their thoughts in the wake of these momentous occurrences? That’s just what the stranger walking up to them wanted to know.


In response, they tell him the story of Jesus the prophet. A man they believed in but who had been executed by the chief priests and rulers. As they relate their story, they openly confess their hopes—now seemingly dashed—that this man, this prophet, this (dare we say?) Messiah—would be the one that redeemed Israel.


When we hear the word “redeem” or “redemption,” we as 21st century Christian believers are likely to interpret it as being about spiritual matters. But for these two disciples—indeed, perhaps for many Jewish people of the time—this was no question of simple piety. The redemption of Israel, a people group subjugated under the heel of the Roman Empire and its legions, could have political connotations as well. Tying this man—this Jesus—to God’s redemption of Israel, then, may have meant nothing less than active divine intervention to fix their problems. That would mean freedom from Rome and a national rebirth for Israel and its people. Finally setting things to right, in other words—at least in the ways these two disciples would have it.


To them, this man Jesus may have represented a victory in the gritty world they lived in. Jesus was, in their minds at least, a path towards their politically oriented goal. That was their hope. That was what they wanted, perhaps more than anything. And that, perhaps, was where their horizon stopped.


Although it is certainly clearer now, when I started writing this message on Wednesday morning, it was not yet entirely clear who would win this year’s election. But I did know that whoever won, it would make a huge difference in the road ahead.


Now, I know what you might think I’m supposed to say. I should probably just go with the easier thing and say that it doesn’t matter who wins, because Jesus is on the throne. And while the latter half of that statement is certainly true, I’ll be honest: I do not think the first part is.


You see, it matters who wins elections. It matters whether Joe Biden or Donald Trump has been elected. They are very different men with very different policies and very different personalities. The decisions they will make—or would have made—have significant impact on our nation and our world. What they do or do not do will affect us all.


I used to think elections didn’t matter. At the age of 40, having lived more than half of my adult life in the wilds of the 21st century and having voted in my sixth election, I now know that they do. And so here we are, in the aftermath of the big day on our own roads to Emmaus, thinking about what’s happened. Talking amongst ourselves. High-fiving the new changes coming in our nation or experiencing a sense of loss related to our preferred vision for the country.


Coming here today, I knew that I would be speaking to a mixed audience of members who supported different candidates. A group of Christian believers—faculty, staff, and students alike—who honestly and faithfully ranked their priorities in a different order. We may feel quite strongly about the choices that were before us, and we are very right to do so. Lives, freedoms, rights, justice, and livelihoods are at stake.


The results, though not final, have clarified somewhat. As his path to victory has become more obvious over the past few days, those who voted for Joe Biden likely feel a sense of accomplishment or relief. Trump voters, however, probably feel nervousness, disappointment, or sadness. And lest we are tempted to dismiss one group or the other, take a look at the numbers. There are a lot of both, and there are our neighbors and fellow citizens.


Because elections matter, the results we have learned this week mean that things will likely be moving in a different direction. Over the next few years there will be some positive changes, and other developments likely not so rosy. And we will, of course, come to debate which is which. Just as there would have been strong disagreement over the merits of the next four years if things go the other way. Successes, failures, justice, injustice, hope, and disillusionment: all are part of the often-flawed human political process.


But here’s the thing; even knowing this, the siren’s call and lure of the ultimate political solution beckons to us all. In this way we—me and you—can come to cling fiercely to our political hopes—perhaps no more so than every four years on Election Day. At times it can feel almost overwhelming.


So now here we are, in our own post-game analysis. Such attention to the political makes sense, of course. What we’ve decided as a nation this week is significant. It means change. It will have impact. At the same time, though, it misses something. Something else that is going on.


Friends, we face a temptation. A temptation to focus our gaze, just like those two disciples, on the limited horizon of the political. Feeling that this is it. That this is the end of the story. That if it doesn’t get accomplished at the ballot box or via political machinations, we have lost. Or that if the votes turns our way, we’ve won. This is a problem. Because both you and I know that while we pray and strive for God’s will to be done on earth, it is not within our power to perfect it all. We are far too human for that.


So while our political choices have consequences, they do not represent the whole picture. The horizon is broader than that.


For the disciples walking to Emmaus that day, Jesus in the form of an unrecognized stranger took time to explain the Scripture and the true purposes of the Messiah. In other words, he told them the rest of the story. The part they didn’t, couldn’t, or perhaps weren’t willing to see.


The two of them were focused on the relatively limited vision of the redemption of Israel. And they’re adamant: “Don’t you realize!? This was about Israel’s redemption. This could have been it.” And we, considering this election now three days past, might say: “Come on. The is the biggest election of our lives. This is about America being great again! This is about America rejecting Trump and all his ways!” or something similar.


To the disciples heading to Emmaus, Jesus pulled back the curtain to reveal a larger picture. I daresay He wants to do the same for us today. While He doesn’t necessarily need to review the whole course of his life, death, and resurrection in light of the entirety of the Scriptures, we still need help. Like that long-ago duo, we need to be issued a corrective to our all-too-easy temptation to believe that the political solution is the final word. I think what He might say is this:


Disciples, even though Rome is still repressing Israel and despite your desires God is not going to overthrow their reign like you hoped, there is something else you haven’t considered.


Friends, while elections matter and the policies of the winning administration will have significant effect, they aren’t the only thing that does. There is something else at work. Something else that matters even more: the Kingdom of God.


The Kingdom of God, under God’s authority and rule, is what Jesus came inaugurate. By his grace we have been adopted into this Kingdom. And this is not meant to be a special “members only” self-serving private club. It is meant to be a society on the road and in action, comprised of Christian believers and motivated by the Spirit of God. No matter how positive or disastrous the electoral results, this kingdom marches on.


In a world that wants to tack all of our hopes on Democrats or Republicans, red states and blue states, and 270 electoral votes, I believe Jesus says, actually, that this is shortsighted. That there’s a reality that challenges both parties and calls us forward as his Kingdom people to live for him in the world.


And what does this broader horizon look like? What is this overarching Kingdom all about? What are its commitments and values? To get a better sense of the heart of the King, and the work the Lord has for us in the world, it makes sense to go back twenty chapters in Luke to hear what we might call Jesus’ own announcement of his message, ministry, and the qualities that will characterize such gospel work:


"He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:


'The Spirit of the Lord is on me,

because he has anointed me

to proclaim good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners

and recovery of sight for the blind,

to set the oppressed free,

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.'


Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, 'Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.'” (Luke 4:16-21)


Having realized that it was Jesus who had walked with them on the road, the two disciples who had journeyed to Emmaus looked back on their conversation, as Jesus explained the Scripture, and asked “Were not our hearts burning within us?” When I hear the words of Jesus quoting Isaiah here, I have to confess I feel something similar.


By the power of the Spirit and in the lives of Christian believers, this Kingdom of God is breaking into the world. It beckons us to remember that while Biden or Trump make a real difference, they are not the final word, and there is work for us to do in the meantime: no matter who leads us. Work for us to do in the daily lives we live. In our families. In our cities. In the places where our lives interact with the broken systems that threaten to bind and overwhelm us. On our streets and with our fellow citizens—those who are like us and those who couldn’t be more different. Very few of us will have ever national profiles or impact, but there is real and immediate work for us to do whatever places we find ourselves.


That work? It continues as we Christians live and grow and serve. It is a call to be humble and active peacemakers, speak truth to culture and truth to power, live as people of Christlike love in tangible and specific ways, and pray and work for justice and against injustice in a Biden administration, even as we have been called to do during the Trump administration. It is about the kinds of things Jesus talks about in Luke 4 and elsewhere in the gospels. It involves voting—absolutely—but it also goes far beyond it.


So today, instead of thinking about how good it will feel to have “won” or the things that could have been if you hadn't "lost," hear instead of the voice of Jesus, let your hearts burn within, and go forth with the knowledge of the ongoing years of the Lord’s favor that need to be poured out in our world in the ways we live our lives each and every day. Let our hearts burn with THAT.


For while the politics of this world matter, the politics of the Kingdom and the way we live them out matter more. Let us be God’s people, together.

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