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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville
The Dangers of Popular Opinion
By Dr. Todd B. Jones
06/10/12
 
1 Samuel 8:4-11
Mark 3:20-35
 

I do not need to remind you that this is an election year. If you are alive at all, you know it. The airways and news sources are full of one political story after another. This past week it was Scott Walker's recall vote in Wisconsin; next week it will be another story. One of the practices that goes hand-in-hand with election campaigns is political polling. We use polling in America to learn all kinds of information, and I daresay that only a fool would run for an important political office without retaining a good pollster to gauge what the important issues are and how one is doing in the market of public opinion. I have a dear friend and former parishioner, a man named Q. Whitfield Ayres, who is one of the most successful and highly regarded pollsters in American political life. When Whit moved from Atlanta to Washington, D.C. about ten years ago, he said to me, "If you are in country music, you have to go to Nashville to do it. If you are in politics, you have to go to D.C."

Let me add that I have rarely read a national poll on a set of candidates or an important political or social issue that did not interest me. I am as interested as the next person in reading about popular opinion. But in both of our Biblical passages this morning, we see the limits and dangers of popular opinion.

In 1 Samuel 8, we find ourselves at the close of the period of the judges, where God would raise up judges in times of crisis to guide the people of Israel. Samuel himself, the greatest of all the Lord's judges, was growing old, and his own sons "did not walk in his ways." The people gather to plead with Samuel to appoint them a king so that they can be like all the other nations. Samuel is displeased by this, and prays to the Lord about his deep displeasure. But the Lord says to Samuel, "Hearken to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them." The people had forgotten all that Yahweh had done for them, and now they want from Samuel, the man of God, a king to rule over them. Samuel warns them what it will mean to have a king, but the people refuse to listen to the voice of Samuel. "No!", they say, "but we will have a king over us, that we also may be like all the other nations…." So God gives them a king and grants them what they want. The result is one bad king after another. It is a sober reminder that popular opinion is not always what is wise or the best means by which to make one's decisions.

In our New Testament lesson, Jesus has just selected the twelve at the beginning of Mark's Gospel, the very earliest of the four to be written. The crowds gather in Galilee to hear Jesus as He begins His public ministry, so large that Jesus and His disciples "could not even eat."

When His family heard of what crowds were gathering around Jesus, "they went out to seize Him," for people apparently were saying, "He is out of His mind." That was the talk among the people of Galilee. That was the popular opinion of Jesus at first. "He is crazy." No wonder His family tried to seize Him. They were worried about His safety, yes. But they may have also been worried about His sanity. It must have been embarrassing. "He is out of His mind." It is interesting that only Mark among the four Gospel writers reports of this. I wonder if Matthew, Luke and John were not a little embarrassed as well, for they never mention it.

But Mark does. The people were saying, "He is out of His mind." And the scribes who came from Jerusalem, the big city, the religious and civil experts, agreed. They said, "He is possessed by Be-el zebul, and by the prince of the demons He casts out demons."

It must have been painful for Jesus' family to hear all this criticism, this cascade of popular opinion running against Him. And it must have been embarrassing. You know how families are. All families have their issues, their embarrassments, and we are always tempted to cover them up, to do whatever we have to keep them quiet. (I once paid $400 to learn about my family tree. It cost twice as much to cover it up and keep it a secret!)

We try to tidy up messes like this one, so that is what Jesus' family also tried to do. Today we would call this an "intervention." And even today, we try to tidy up the mess that has formed around Jesus. Because even today, Jesus attracts all manner of people, some of them always of questionable sanity.

When C.S. Lewis wrote his magnificent apology for Jesus called, Mere Christianity, Lewis noted how Jesus' followers in his time, those enamored with the modern project, tried to tidy up Jesus, to make Jesus more acceptable and relevant to their own age and time. "Forget about all those embarrassing miracles. Forget about the Resurrection and the Virgin Birth," they said. "Jesus is a great teacher, a moral leader, an excellent example." Because among intellectuals and academics of Lewis' time, and ours as well, to say that Jesus is God Incarnate, to say Jesus is the only Savior and Lord, can be embarrassing.

So Lewis faced this argument that Jesus was just a teacher, just a wise moral example, head on. He wrote, "A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would be a lunatic – on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg – or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a mad man or something worse." Lewis understood what Mark alone spoke in his Gospel. Jesus was either the very Wisdom of God or a nut – or something worse. And popular opinion will never be the best way to figure out this most important of all truths, or any important truth for that matter.

This issue of truth, or the issue of right and wrong, is never determined by the polls, or by what is popularly held. And in an important way, both of these passages are linked by a crucial reality. The reason Samuel was displeased by all the clamoring for a king was maybe in part because he felt he was being rejected. But the reason God was displeased was because God realized that the people did not want to live as if God alone was King. They wanted to be like all the other nations around them, and God wanted Israel to be different from all the other nations. God wanted the people to trust in God alone, their Creator and their Redeemer.

And the reason so many of the people thought Jesus was out of his mind? I think it is because Jesus lived as if God alone were King. Jesus announced in fact, that the Kingdom of God, or the reign of God, had come. His coming ushered in this reign. And even though Caesar was King of the Roman Empire, and everyone who wished to live safely would live in fear of Caesar, Jesus lived another way completely. Jesus feared no one but God.

Jesus lived as if God really was King, the only true King. And Jesus lived as if all that mattered was God, the only true King. Jesus announced that the Kingdom of God, the reign of God had begun. And what is more, Jesus lived as if He himself had ushered it in. And when Jesus ushered in His kingdom, the Kingdom of God, He taught His disciples how to pray. And He taught them to pray for the reign of God. "Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth, as it is in heaven." Jesus really wanted this, believed in this, more than anything else. Do you?

And Jesus not only lived as if God alone were King. He died as if He himself was that King. All four Gospels attest that the sign on Jesus' cross said, "The King of the Jews." John tells us it was written in Latin, Greek and Hebrew so that everyone in the Empire could read it. Because Jesus really believed that this world does not belong to any earthly ruler, but to God alone, who is Sovereign and King.

And Jesus will always seem a little crazy to those of us who live as if God's reign will never come in fullness. He will also seem a little like the Man of La Mancha, the hopeless dreamer, to those who do not believe that one day God will wipe away every tear from our eyes, and death shall be no more, and there will be neither sorrow nor sadness nor suffering. Jesus will seem a bit crazy to those who do not believe there will ever be peace on earth, or that the poor will never rise, or that the hungry will never be fed, or that justice will never roll down like the waters, like an everlasting stream. Because Jesus believed all these things were absolutely true, and were sure to come, in God's good time. Jesus lived as if they were already a fact, an important given, a fait accompli.

And Jesus wants you to live that way as well. He wants you to live every day as if God alone is King, as if God's is the only opinion that matters. Jesus wants you to live as if peace and justice are the things God is sure to bring. And Jesus wants us, all of us, to join in God's intention, God's promise, to make them so.

This spring, right after Easter, Connie and I flew to Prague. The first day there, I was tired, but needed to take a walk. I wandered down the street in old Prague to the central train station, and right next to it was a lovely, but utterly forgotten statue of Woodrow Wilson, built by Czech and Slovak people from all over the world to honor this man's commitment to build a more just world, and to enable them to rule themselves freely. Wilson is largely a forgotten figure in the world. And in a way, that is sad. Because Wilson believed passionately in a world where all nations of the world would work together for peace and justice. Wilson believed in it because he believed in God, the God of his Presbyterian forbearers. Wilson died a broken man, his vision of the League of Nations, a vehicle to promote the values of democratic rule and international justice and peace, rejected by his own people, by popular opinion.

But in at least one small corner of this green earth, Woodrow Wilson still stands tall. I stood and looked at this forgotten statue, and thought about Wilson's life and how sadly his presidency ended, and I thought, "I would rather die having worked for the right things, for God's will and way in this world, than succeed in serving myself or in being popular."

Because I learned a long time ago that one person on the side of God is always a majority. "Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven."

Amen.

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