15 May – Voting for God

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Easter 5

Revelation 7:9-17
Psalm 148
Matthew 6:1-6

In a sentence:
Regardless of what we believe and hope for, it is all oriented towards God’s promised peaceful kingdom

While flicking through the Australian Electoral Commission’s “official guide” pamphlet to next week’s election, I was struck by a representation of one of those cardboard polling booth set-ups we all know: little enclosed shelters in which we are able to vote without those next to us knowing how we have voted.

In what was perhaps a moment of inspiration, or just as an instance of the odd way brains work – or mine at least! – I thought of Jesus’ teaching on prayer, which we’ve heard today: “whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6.6). It seemed to me that those people pictured in the pamphlet’s polling booths could have been monks praying in their cells, which led me to wonder about the relationship between praying and voting.

Doubtless, some pray while voting. This is the attempt to “supercharge” our vote. In a close electoral race like this one, those who pray this way probably include prime ministers, opposition leaders, and candidates in marginal seats.

Whatever might be said about supercharging our vote in this way, I’m more interested today in thinking about voting as praying – voting as a prayer in itself. For what else are both votes and prayers but the expression of a desire for a particular world not yet realised? Prayer springs from recognising our condition between yesterday and tomorrow. Today is received from yesterday in thanksgiving or lament – in prayer – and tomorrow is sought as an extension or overcoming of today – in prayer as petition and intercession. Voting is entirely the same, the electorate standing between yesterday and tomorrow, embracing or rejecting yesterday for some envisaged tomorrow. To vote or to pray is to express our feeling for the best future.

The campaign slogans of the major parties are revealing in this respect. In the blue corner, we have “Strong economy. Stronger future”. In the red corner, we have “A better future”. In the green corner, there is no central slogan but the first assertion you meet on their website is “The time is now to vote for a better future” (May 13). This is just what we will enact later in today’s service: the time is now to pray for a better future.

The book of Revelation, of course, concerns itself with tomorrow. Yet in Revelation on the one hand, and in a modern political context on the other, the relationship between the present and the future is entirely different. Today, we are highly conscious that the future is something laid upon us to create. In the New Testament – and not least in the book of Revelation – the future is a gift.

This is perhaps – unconsciously – one of the deeper reasons we have an aversion to the book of Revelation. While the apocalyptic genre with its fantastic imagery is difficult enough for modern minds to fathom, more offensive is that God is the only real protagonist in all the action of Revelation. If we have a role in what the book portrays, it is as witnesses – either in the role of John the Seer himself or as one in the multitudes gathered around the throne, praying: “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Revelation 7.10). This is precisely not “Salvation belongs to Scott” or “to Anthony” or the “to the voting public”. The book of Revelation has no place for the political activist which most of us are, except perhaps in the figure of the martyrs around the throne. But their time is also over. Only God truly “acts” in this vision, in the sense of action we understand ourselves to be undertaking in voting or agitating for change.

Or perhaps better: the book of Revelation describes the state of affairs when every vote has been cast. It describes the culmination of all things. Everything has now happened – all monarchy and democracy, all despotism and anarchy. History – all our efforts at creating our own future – has taken place, and is red with blood.

Perhaps this seems hopelessly pessimistic, even if the historical evidence to date is on-side. But pessimism is not the point; the point is seeing more clearly what faithful action looks like. What it looks like is – voting‑as‑praying. We imagine voting to be a technique – something we do to make a political thing happen. We think this way because this is what we thought prayer was: a “religious” technique to make some personal or political thing happen. As we have become more secular as a society, we have simply switched voting in for prayer.

There is no pessimism in the book of Revelation unless we imagine that only our actions matter for our future. We are free to hold to this, but it is not the vision of Revelation. Revelation holds that all votes are finally counted as a vote for the future this God promises.

For, regardless of our political position, what do any of us vote for but John’s vision of

7.15 […one] seated on the throne [who] will shelter them.
16 [That they] will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
the sun will not strike them,
nor any scorching heat;
17 for the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

What does even the rabidly radical right-wing atheist want but an end to hunger and thirst and the wiping away of all tears? The only shock for modern political sensibilities in all this is “the Lamb” – who stands for nothing our political thinking can comprehend. The Lamb, of course, is Jesus, and the reference to this Lamb as “slaughtered” (Revelation 5.6,12) is a reference to the crucifixion. Interpreted through the mechanisms of sacrifice, this is enough to make the whole scenario unpalatable to modern minds.

But, to press the election theme further, the New Testament can be read to present the crucifixion as history’s “vote” on Jesus. It is a vote against him, of course, but we must also see that the vote is offered to God as a prayer. In condemning Jesus to death, the people of God pray, “Let such as him not be our future”. The crucifixion reveals that only history is bloody; prayer is too.

And this brings us to a final strange thing we might have missed in today’s reading but which interprets everything we are and do. The great multitude gathered around the divine throne “have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (v.14). The crimson bloodiness of history culminates in the blood of the Lamb, which now washes history white. In this vision blood, which stains all things, which cannot be washed out and which always reveals the culprit, Now. Washes. Clean.

The real problem Revelation presents to the modern mind – and to ancient ones – is not the religiosity of its wild imagery and language. It is the proposal that, in the end, all things – all good and evil, all generosity and greed, all love and hatred – are resolved in the triumph of the one who sits on the throne, and of the Lamb.

This is to say that every prayer, every vote, desires the same thing and – by the grace of God – finally finds its desire fulfilled: life in the presence of

7.15 …the one…seated on the throne [who] will shelter them.
16 [And they] will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
the sun will not strike them,
nor any scorching heat;
17 for the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

So then, let us vote, let us pray, let us live, for this.

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