God and Kings-principles over power

…. God judges a nation by its principles not its power.  National greatness does not come from fire-power or economic clout but from ethics.  Our high minded American forefathers looked to principles as our national foundation: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men (people) are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among (People)” (Declaration of Independence). These eternal truths make a nation great. … (sermon exert)

Lord, be merciful to us; for we long for you.

Be our strength every morning, our salvation in time of distress.

One day, the Lord will fill Zion with justice and righteousness.

The Lord will be the sure foundation for our times,

The Lord is a rich storehouse of salvation, wisdom and knowledge;

Reverence for the Lord is the key.

For the Lord is our Judge,

the Lord is our Lawgiver,

the Lord is our King;

The Lord alone will save us.” (adapted Isaiah 33:5-6, 22)

 

In his inaugural address, President Trump spoke of God, “There should be no fear. We are protected, and we will always be protected. We will be protected by the great men and women of our military and law enforcement and, most importantly, we will be protected by God.”

 

President Abraham Lincoln, a lifelong Bible scholar, looked to God as he faced our nation torn apart by Civil War. Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address lamented: “Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes God’s aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has his own purposes.”  Lincoln then quoted Luke 17:1 suggesting that slavery may be divine judgment; “Fondly do we hope–fervently do we pray–that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether”

 

My pastoral conversations, inbox, newsfeed, gut, and prayer-times tell me many of you are anxious.  I confess my own anxiety in preaching about our Judeo-Christian understanding of government in times of such short-fused partisanship. Is it strange that in a nation claiming to be “one nation under God” we prefer our pastors not preach about politics or never challenge our politics?  In times of loud-mouths and stopped-up ears let us lean in and listen carefully for our Lord’s still small voice. Bonhoeffer, facing rising German nationalism, encourages this nervous pastor to speak: “There is no way to peace along the way of safety. For peace must be dared…peace is the opposite of security… Peace means giving oneself completely to God’s commandment, wanting no security, but in faith and obedience laying the destiny of the nations in the hands of Almighty God.” I covet your prayers.  May the Lord open our ears and eyes.  Let us remember the Lord is our Judge, the Lord is our Lawgiver, and the Lord is our King.  The Lord will judge our actions, inactions, and even our idle words (Matthew 12:36-37 &25) Rejoice, the Lord will one day bring peace through justice and righteousness through love.

 

So what does the Bible say about God and kings? Let us begin with a brief biblical survey.

 

Genesis tells a family story, but Exodus speaks of geopolitics. Exodus describes the conflict between God and the most powerful ruler on earth.  In Exodus One we meet Pharaoh, who fearing rising Hebrew power, casts every Jewish baby boy into the Nile River.  A mother hatches an unlikely plan to save her beautiful baby boy and Moses escapes Pharaoh’s genocide and grows up in Pharaoh’s palace.  Somehow the young prince finds his Hebrew roots and caught in a moment of impulsive rage slays an Egyptian slave-driver.  Moses flees Egypt finding refuge in the wilderness as a shepherd.

 

God finds the former prince and calls Moses from inside a burning bush. Hear the Word of the Lord: “I have observed the misery of my people in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey…The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.” Exodus 3:7-10  What are the Lord’s concerns with Pharaoh? What cries bend back the Almighty’s ears?  The Lord is stirred to crush Egypt for what sounds like years of unrequited toil and work stolen by the lash.  Throughout the Bible our Lord is focused “on the least of these” who know suffering, oppression, and economic injustice. (Matthew 25)

 

Despite the plagues, Pharaoh did not want to lose the economic benefits of the Jewish slaves persisting until his whole army is swallowed up into the Red Sea. (Exodus 14:6) God breaks Egypt for the sin of cruelty, callousness, ruthlessness, oppression and injustice.  God cares deeply about all his children.

 

God judges a nation by its principles not its power.  National greatness does not come from fire-power or economic clout but from ethics.  Our high-minded American forefathers looked to principles as our national foundation: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men (people) are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among (People)” (Declaration of Independence). These eternal truths make a nation great. Pharaoh protected his economic self-interest and forgot the Golden Rule and Second Great Commandment. Pharaoh’s hard heart broke Egypt under the unalienable eternal law of God.  Hearing the groan of weeping mothers and exploited brothers God raised up Moses.   When we only serve ourselves we lose our national soul.

 

What is next for Moses after plundering the Egyptians? Imagine you are Moses! If you can do that easily I suggest you come on down to the altar right now! Moses sent plagues from heaven, held out his staff and divided the sea, spoke to God face to face, and prays and manna comes. Indeed, Jesus refers to the Old Testament as “Moses and the prophets”  (Luke 16:29)  With all this power what title or role would Moses take?  Moses is called: prophet, judge, leader, the lawgiver, biblical author, tabernacle builder, liberator, freedom fighter, and even general.  However, there is one title that you never hear associated with Moses- that title is king!  You see Moses, the humblest man who ever lived, knew that the Lord is our king, the Lord is our judge, the Lord is our lawgiver, the Lord is our savior!  (Numbers 12:3)

 

Surely Moses knew what Bonhoeffer would later assert “The true leader must radically refuse to become the appeal, the idol, the authority of those they lead” for true leadership resides in principles found in God’s eternal law not in persuasion, power or personality. (The Fuhrer Principle 1933) True leaders tireless serve those they lead. So after leading the people from Egyptian slavery Moses does not lead them into a second kind of slavery under their own king. God opposes king-like power.  Let us not delude ourselves thinking our Lord only opposes monarchy; No, James rails about riches (2:5-6).

 

So if not a king, what sort of government does God recommend?  The Lord, our Lawgiver, gives us all Ten Commandments and a few chapters of lesser laws. These lesser laws include ox goring, mandatory tithes, protections for resident aliens, and designs for worship spaces. (Exodus 20-35) The Biblical vision for governance calls for adherence to God’s eternal law. God judges each leader and nation by principles not power or popularity.  As God inaugurates Israel the Lord pleads with the people to “keep my covenant, be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” Exodus 19:5-6.  Some preachers speak of Israel as God’s treasured possession, but Exodus 19 ties any special status to a steadfast national commitment to becoming a holy people and a Nation of Priests.  The role of a priest is to mediate God’s grace for others!

 

The freed slaves become a nation ruled by tribal elders sitting by the gates, priests living among the people, and judges inspired by the people. God plans for Israel to be ruled by laws not kings.

 

But the people long for power.  Listen to 1 Samuel 8. “When Samuel was old he appointed his sons judges over Israel. (The Lord did not raise up these second-hand leaders). Samuel’s sons turned aside after dishonest gain and took bribes and perverted justice. So the Jewish elders came to Samuel saying; “Look, you have grown old, and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now appoint a king for us to judge us like all the nations.” …  Upset Samuel prayed and the LORD said, “Listen to the people for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected Me as being king over them. However, solemnly warn them how a king will reign over them.”  So Samuel told the people “The king will take your sons as soldiers. The king will take your daughters for perfumers and cooks. The king take the best of your fields, vineyards,  and olive groves and give them to his officers, supporters, and  friends!”  But the people answered, “Give us a king like all the nations.”  The Lord, who lets us have our way, relented and the monarchy replaced laws, elders, prophets, priests and judges.

 

I suppose some American Exceptionalism resides in our system of checks and balances.  We divide power between ruler, lawgivers, and judges.   Perhaps in a small way that mirrors God’s displeasure with unchecked power.

 

The judge Samuel fades from the national scene in chapter 12. Hear the theme of his farewell speech to the nation, “Now you have a king as your leader. As for me, I am old and gray. I have been your leader from my youth. Here I stand. Testify against me in the presence of the Lord! Whose ox or donkey have I taken? Whom have I cheated? Whom have I oppressed? From whose hand have I accepted a bribe to make me shut my eyes? If I have done any of these things, I will make it right.”  The people replied “You have not cheated or oppressed us!”    Samuel gets preachy “When you saw the Ammonite King plotting, you cried, ‘We want a king to rule over us’—even though the Lord your God was your king. Now here is the king you have chosen: the Lord has set a king over you. If you fear and serve the Lord keeping God’s (eternal) commands, and if the king who reigns over you follows the Lord your God—good! But if you or your king waiver you will suffer!”  And the people knowing their fate is tied to the king now respond, “Pray to the Lord so that we will not die, for we have added to all our other sins the evil of asking for a king.” 1 Samuel 12 Did you hear the familiar themes? God hates oppression, economic injustice and bribery!  These sins undermine a nation. With ethics and eternal truths God judges a nation!

 

So our Jewish forefathers reject the Lord as their King, Lawgiver, and Judge and the nation suffered.  We at times look at King David, King Solomon or others as the biblical heroes; but God is the only hero.  Even as King David makes Israel a minor world power his glorious reign ends in civil war. King David stands weeping as his own son Absalom dies leading a revolt against David’s own throne. (2 Samuel 18:33)   Forgetting Moses completely, King Solomon uses slave labor to build the Temple (1 Kings 9:15). Without ethics and eternal truths offered to all people the national foundation crumbles and collapses.

 

Strangely, Judaism is spiritually reborn during Babylonian Exile.  With their palace, king and temple destroyed by King Nebuchadnezzar; far from home, utterly defeated and crushed under the rule of Persian Kings the Jewish exiles rediscover God’s law. Without power they find the Jewish people find their ethical identity. (Daniel 1-3) Amid slavery the Jewish people embrace the Torah. The synagogue movement arises not with the power of the kings but within people banded together to follow God.

 

Atop the Jewish Ark of the Covenant sat an empty chair: the Mercy Seat.  In opposition to all earthly thrones, no king sat on the Mercy Seat.  The Mercy Seat was reserved the unseen Lord, King, Judge, and Lawgiver. (Exodus 31& 37, Leviticus 16) The image of an empty Mercy Seat might remind us that the Lord judges every nation, every ruler, and every heart!

 

And so in this season or four years from now, if we are pleased or nervous with the national scene, let us remember the Lord is our King, the Lord is our Judge, and the Lord alone will save us. The Lord is King over all rulers. The Lord is Judge over all laws and courts.  Indeed, the eternal law judges and overturns all immoral human laws. (MLK “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”) We might remember Lincoln’s fear of divine judgement and plea for divine mercy.  The Lord our King will one day ask us: “did we resist evil, injustice and oppression?”   Did we seek power or live for principles? Where we a nation of priests, mediating grace to others?  Were we a holy nation keeping the Greatest Commandments and the Golden Rule?   Did we love our neighbor as ourselves?  Did we treat everyone as we wanted to be treated?  What did we do for the least of these?

 

Let us not stray from God’s principled path of justice, equality, service, goodness, mercy, and love. It is with these principles and ethics that God remakes the world. How strange that Jesus calls us to give up power in order to find our lives?  (Matthew 16:24-25) Divinely revealed or even “self-evident truths” hold a spiritual power that transforms the world.  Let the Lord be our King, our judge, our lawgiver and our Savior. Let us become a nation of priests so that God might bless us and this land that we love. Amen.

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