Top of Page ILLUMINATING AND THINKING ABOUT THE SERMON
"God Bless America!" We heard that from everyone from Presidents to schoolchildren in the weeks and months following the September 11 attacks, then again after the start of the war in Afghanistan, then again before and during the war in Iraq. In much of America's very understandable move into an "us against them" mentality, we invited God into the fray and urged God to take sides, indeed proclaimed in effect that God had taken our side. Thus, it has always been, as the words of the Psalmists attest in their urgings for God to protect Jerusalem and the people Israel against one outside invader after another.
Again, and again we have heard one party, or another invoke God. One side say that God must be on their side since they are for the weak and oppressed. The other party says that they are much more moral so God must be on their side. It goes on all the time.
As the history of the people of Israel reminds us over and over again, the human response to the holy far too often is the desire to control it, not to listen to it. So, it was for the leaders of Israel past, and so it has been for those in political or even ecclesiastical power in any faith community in the days up to our own time. Any religious person or group who put themselves beyond the control of the political or ecclesiastical powers-that-be becomes a threat. It doesn't really matter what they are saying or doing; the message becomes secondary to the messenger. If the message itself, however, presents a challenge to that leadership, then the messenger is seen as even more dangerous.
For instance, once a confirmation class had been reading aloud in class through the book of Mark. As we got about halfway through the book, one member of the class said, "You know what, I never understood why anyone would want to kill Jesus. I mean he healed people and he talked about sharing and loving, and why would that upset anyone? But now I see that he really irritated the people in charge because he kept not only breaking their rules and hanging out with strange people, but he told others it was okay to do that. What if we did that here in our church or in our school?"
My student, at the tender age of 12, was beginning to see the truth that sometimes even religion can be used by those in power to seek to control people. The Pharisees and other religious and political leaders in Jesus' time sought to use religious ritual and law to control people. Therefore, God needed to find a way to break through that to awaken the people to the true message of the religion they espoused. Jesus was that way, and it did indeed irritate the powerful that had it all under control nicely. No wonder the apostle Paul would announce in Philippians 3 that our citizenship is in heaven; he certainly despaired of any good coming from citizenship in earthly realms!
Lest the preacher think that Jesus' words in this very dramatic scene in Luke's gospel point to the hopelessness of the situation either in his time or in ours, we should note that Jesus' words do not end in condemnation. He clearly says his desire is to take this city, including her rulers, and gather her up under his wings, as a hen gathers the chicks. God loves even the purveyors of power, those who would use religion to further their own ends and so try to control the Holy Spirit out of it. God desires that they should open themselves up to what new things God is always doing. God most of all desires that they would shut up and listen to those sent to lead the nations in the way they should go. Remember that the final vision of the Bible is that of a city made whole and just and joyous.
The caution of this text is to be very wary of any who would use religion to further political aims, especially if they seek to silence opposing voices from others in the religious community. The hope of this text is that even the political entities of which we all are a part might be gathered up into God's arms and find new life. The call to us in the text is to listen to the prophets, even if they are in conflict with the powers and principalities of the world or the way things have always been. It was so with Jesus.
For most of the story, Herod has cast a dark shadow across the page, but he has not until now posed an explicit threat to Jesus. The Pharisees here, who warn Jesus of Herod’s intentions, may have been among the many moderate Pharisees who, like Gamaliel in Acts 5, were happy to watch from the sidelines and see whether this new movement turned out to be from God. They may, of course, have been secretly hoping to get rid of Jesus, to get him off their territory; but Luke gives no hint of that if it was so. What is more important is Jesus’ answer.
Jesus clearly indicates his contempt for Herod. Everyone knew, after all, that his only claim to royalty was because the Romans, recognizing his father as the most effective thug around, had promoted him from nowhere to keep order at the far end of their territories. Jesus also strongly affirms his own strange vocation: yes, he will eventually die at the hands of the authorities, but no, it won’t be in Galilee. Herod will have an indirect hand in it (Luke 23:6–12), but he remains a minor player.
What matters is that Jesus has a destiny to fulfil, as he has already stated (9:22, 44; 12:50). It consists, in picture-language, of two days’ work and one day’s completion. Two days to cast out demons and cure illnesses; ‘and I shall be finished on the third day’. No careful reader of Luke’s gospel could miss the echoes, backwards and forwards: to the boy Jesus, found on the third day in the Temple (2:46); to the risen Jesus, alive again on the third day (24:21).
Jesus’ destiny, then, is to go to Jerusalem and die, risking the threats of the fox, and adopting the role of the mother hen to the chickens faced with sudden danger. But will Jerusalem benefit from his offer? Jerusalem has a long history of rebelling against God, refusing the way of peace (that sentence, alas, seems to be as true in the modern as in the ancient world). As Ezekiel saw, rebellion meant that the holy presence of God had abandoned the Temple and the city, opening the way for devastating enemy attack (Ezekiel 10–11). The only way for the city and Temple to avoid the destruction which now threatened it was to welcome Jesus as God’s peace-envoy; but all the signs were that they would not. When Luke brings us back to this point again, it will be too late.
What can we see from the vantage point of the end of chapter 13? We can see, with devastating clarity, what Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem is going to mean. Israel’s greatest crisis is coming upon her, and he is offering an urgent summons to repent, to come his kingdom-way, his way of peace. This is the only way of avoiding the disaster which will otherwise follow her persistent rebellion. Jesus’ intention now, in obedience to his vocation, is to go to Jerusalem and, like the hen with the chickens, to take upon himself the full force of that disaster which he was predicting for the nation and the Temple. The one will give himself on behalf of the many. (Wright, T. Luke for Everyone [2004, London] p172–173)
This passage shows us Jesus addressing Herod Antipas king of Galilee, who was out to stop him. To Jews the fox was a symbol of three things. First, it was regarded as the slyest of animals. Second, it was regarded as the most destructive of animals. Third, it was the symbol of a worthless and insignificant man.
It takes a brave person to call the reigning king a fox. Bishop Latimer was once preaching in Westminster Abbey when Henry VIII himself was one of the congregation. In the pulpit he soliloquized, ‘Latimer! Latimer! Latimer! Be careful what you say. The king of England is here!’ Then he went on, ‘Latimer! Latimer! Latimer! Be careful what you say. The King of Kings is here.’
Jesus took his orders from God, and he would not shorten his work by one day to please or to escape any earthly king. (W Barclay The Gospel of Luke [2001, Louisville, KY] p220)
In this incident, found only in Luke, some Pharisees who were friendly to Jesus reported Herod’s desire to kill him (13:31). Jesus replied rhetorically that the “fox” Herod would have no effect on his plans. He would continue his ministry of exorcism and healing and on the third day achieve his goal (13:32). For Luke and Theophilus the mention of the “third day” would bring to mind Jesus’ resurrection. The following verse (13:33) is connected to the preceding by the repetition of “today and tomorrow” and serves as a commentary to 13:32. Jesus’ destination was Jerusalem where, as Israel’s Prophet/Messiah, he, by divine necessity (dei), would meet his death. He was to die both “in” and at the hands of Jerusalem. (Stein, R. H. Luke (Vol. 24, [1992, Nashville] p pp. 381–382)
What does it really mean to say, “God is on my side”? What in fact does it say about the person saying such a thing? Is God not on everyone’s side? Is God not cheering for everyone? Are we guilty of being self-righteous or even worse judgmental of others and their motives when we make such a statement? The political world is full of such statements and beliefs. We understand when one side or the other make such a claim. But what should we as followers of Christ say?
Abraham Lincoln once said something to the effect that instead of proclaiming that God is on our side, we would do well to listen long enough to figure out how to get ourselves on God's side. Maybe that is what we need to acknowledge.
Top of Page ILLUSTRATING THE SERMON
The fourth verse of Samuel Crossman's wonderful hymn "My Song is Love Unknown," lifts up the tension of the loving Jesus hated by the powerful. "Why, what hath my Lord done? What makes this rage and spite? He made the lame to run, he gave the blind their sight. Sweet injuries! Yet they at these themselves displease and 'gainst him rise."
Thinking of the oft-quoted phrase attributed to Karl Marx that religion is the "opiate of the people" brings to mind the wonderful scene in the film version of the Wizard of Oz when the Wicked Witch makes a field of poppies appear on the road to the Emerald City. It takes divine intervention, in the form of Glinda the Good Witch and her magical snowfall, to awaken Dorothy and the Lion and send them back on the right road.
Anselm of Canterbury, an eleventh century theologian, meditated at length on the image of Jesus as mother hen. Part of a prayer he composed on the theme goes like this, "Thou soul, dead of thyself, run under the wings of Jesus thy Mother and bewail under her feathers thy afflictions. Beg that she heal thy wounds and restore thee to life. Mother Christ, who gatherest thy chicks under thy wings, this dead chick of thine puts himself under the wing." (quoted in Leonard Swidler, Biblical Affirmations of Woman [Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1979], p. 65) Look at how threatening it has been to the ecclesiastical authorities in some traditions simply to refer to Jesus as Anselm did in this prayer!
Abraham Lincoln was once quoted as saying something to the effect that instead of proclaiming that God is on our side, we would do well to listen long enough to figure out how to get ourselves on God's side.
For all those who claim that the church should not talk about politics, this passage reminds us that Jesus throughout his life had to deal with political leaders, mostly because of their animosity toward him. As he shows here, as well as in his cleansing of the Temple and his trial, he was not shy about addressing the shortcomings of political leaders, especially as they abused religious authority.
The life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us of another one who resisted the control of religion by political powers. He believed, and acted on the belief, that only God is sovereign to the person of faith, and that when prophets are silenced, then war is being made upon God. He wrote this reminder from prison, "We are not lords, but instruments in the hand of the Lord of history." (Letters and Papers from Prison [ New York: Macmillan, 1971], p. 14)
Perhaps the greatest modern-day example of the domestication of a prophet by political powers is the case of Martin Luther King, Jr. How many politicians have quoted his words about having a dream in countless political speeches meant to further their own dreams? That particular speech galvanized a movement whose whole intent was to upset the standing order of both politics and society, and now it is used all the time as though it is a poetic wish. Few politicians turn to King's other writings, which are many, especially those in which he protests the Vietnam War or the economic system on which our society is built.
One of the most spiritually meaningful places I have ever been is the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, built on the supposed sites of Jesus' crucifixion and burial. It is also one of the saddest. The men standing guard outside the church are Saracen Guards, and they are not Christian, but Muslim. When I asked why, I discovered that for many centuries, Muslims have guarded the most holy of Christian sites because the Christians who worshipped there couldn't agree on who would have control over it. People died in skirmishes over which Christian group would be in charge. So in the end they gave control of the building over to the Muslims who, to this day, are there to make sure Christians do not kill each other in an attempt to control the holy. It has always been the case that religious powers are as threatening to God's will as secular ones.
On the Martin Luther King Day following the 9/11 attacks, I heard James Forbes of Riverside Church in New York give a speech at Moravian College in Bethlehem, PA. Forbes talked about two kinds of patriotism which he labeled "pornographic" and "prophetic." Pornographic patriotism is the kind of slogan shouting activity that is done to make the people who do it feel excited and powerful. When those folk shout "God Bless America," Forbes said, they don't really intend God to do anything at all. Prophetic patriotism on the other hand truly asks God to bless America, and the rest of the world, knowing that the Biblical record reminds us that God's blessings are not always easy to take.
This is the rule of most perfect Christianity, its most exact definition, its highest point, namely, the seeking of the common good . . . for nothing can so make a person an imitator of Christ as caring for his neighbors. —John Chrysostom (ca. 347–407)
Our life together can be better. Ours is a shallow and selﬁsh age, and we are in need of conversion—from looking out just for ourselves to also looking out for one another. It’s time to hear and heed a call to a different way of life, to reclaim a very old idea called the common good. Jesus issued that call and announced the kingdom of God—a new order of living in sharp contrast to all the political and religious kingdoms of the world. That better way of life was meant to beneﬁt not only his followers but everybody else too. And that is the point of it.
Christianity is not a religion that gives some people a ticket to heaven and makes them judgmental of all others. Rather, it’s a call to a relationship that changes all our other relationships. Jesus told us a new relationship with God also brings us into a new relationship with our neighbor, especially with the most vulnerable of this world, and even with our enemies. But we don’t always hear that from the churches. This call to love our neighbor is the foundation for reestablishing and reclaiming the common good, which has fallen into cultural and political—and even religious—neglect.
The Christian ethic is not only radical and transformational; it is essential if we are to create a public life that is not completely dominated by political conﬂict, and if we are to articulate what might be in the interest of the common good. Perhaps, if we follow this teaching, we will even ﬁnd some common ground between us.
Living out the neighbor ethic is essential to religion attaining any credibility again. Otherwise, the next generation is just going to move on from religion. Ask this question: Is love of neighbor the primary thing that people think about when they watch the behavior of our faith communities and institutions? Or are they more likely to see self-interest and judgment of others?
Religion makes a big mistake when its primary public posture is to protect itself and its own interests. It’s even worse when religion tries to use politics to enforce its own codes and beliefs or to use the force of law to control the behavior of others. Religion does much better when it leads—when it actually cares about the needs of everybody, not just its own community, and when it makes the best inspirational and commonsense case, in a pluralistic democracy, for public policies that express the core values of faith in regard to how we should all treat our neighbors.
Abraham Lincoln famously said, “My concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side.” That was probably the most important thing about religion ever said by an American president. Presidents and politicians usually want to bring God onto their side, their country’s side, their party’s side, and even their political policy’s side. Right after the American Civil War, the most brutal and divisive war in American history, the winning side was clearly tempted to triumphalism. But Lincoln felt the shame of the horrible conﬂict, the sin on all sides, and the need for humble repentance if there was ever to be reconciliation and unity again. In his second inaugural address, he said:
Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which
it has already attained… . Each looked for an easier triumph, and a
result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and
pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other… .
The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been
answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes… . 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 bondsman’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
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the
right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work
we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall
have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which
may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and
with all nations.
Lincoln had it right. The biggest problem with religion is that people, groups, institutions, nations, and all of our human sides sometimes try to bring God onto our side. When people and groups are sure they are right, they want to conﬁdently say that God agrees with them. Divine claims of righteousness for very human behavior—and often very brutal behavior—have always undermined the integrity and credibility of religion. The much harder task, and the more important one, is to ask how to be on God’s side, as Lincoln was suggesting. And that often means changing our minds and hearts about many things, and learning a whole different perspective from the one we already agree with.
The idea of the common good is missing in politics today. Our public life is dominated and distorted by other interests—economic interests, special interests, and partisan interests. Finding what is right and what works has almost disappeared from our political discourse; solutions have been replaced by fear, blame, and an increasing vitriol. How can we renew a public interest in the common good and then restore accountability to our political leaders—all of them? (http://www.msnbc.com/morning-joe/excerpt-jim-wallis-gods-side)
The Kind of Jesus Christians Believe In Will Determine the Kind of Christianity They Practice A majority of our population professes to be Christian, and if you add our brothers and sisters from Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and other faith traditions, the number of citizens who say they are “religious” or “spiritual” grows even more. But what does this mean for our life together?
Religion is not exempt from the need for conversion from self-interest to neighbor-interest. But the starting point is as simple as turning the profession of faith into the practice of it. What if our faith traditions compelled us to actually do the things we say are important? Imagine the power of divisive religion converted into a spiritual force for the common good in our time. It is as close to us as the renewal or revival of genuine faith.
Jesus’s announcement of the kingdom of God was for the sake of the world and not just for the sake of religious believers. He came to change the world and all of us with it.
The good news is that attention has been shifting away from comfortable Christians bound for heaven to an engagement that ﬁnds Jesus among the world’s least, last, and lost. When Christians and their churches live in comfortable places in comfortable countries, it takes a journey to ﬁnd the poor—in our own cities and communities or across the world. But in reconnecting to their most vulnerable neighbors, Christians are also becoming closer to Jesus again. That journey is the key to the future of Christianity. Matthew 25 was the beginning of my own Christian conversion, and I am deeply hopeful about the ways this text is now leading a new generation to set out on the new pilgrimage.
So, we will start with the Gospels and the words Jesus himself spoke about how he meant to change the world along with individuals. Purely private atonement is at odds with the biblical vision of individuals who are saved into community. Salvation involves personal transformation, of course, but it doesn’t stop there. The gospel of the kingdom creates disciples with public commitments. It spreads throughout the societies in which believers live, changing how they treat the poor and marginalized, setting captives free, seeking the worth and equality of all made in the image of God, encouraging good stewardship of God’s creation, redeﬁning those around them and around the world as their neighbors, and even reconﬁguring how they treat their enemies. Again, who Christians think Jesus is will shape how they follow him.
Another critical question is who deﬁnes our “enemy” today and how we choose to treat those labeled as “the other.” If we take a realistic and biblical view of the human condition and the world, it is inevitable that we will have real enemies, those who would do us harm. But what are the most effective and creative ways of responding to them? Are the current habits of our wars of occupation really working? How might we surprise our enemies with different approaches, and what do the teachings of Jesus and Paul must tell us about that? Understanding what it means to be our neighbor’s “keeper” in a global context can help us better build the international conditions for more safety, security, and sustainability in our world.
What would it mean if people of faith began transferring their human identities from class, racial, and national loyalties to a global identity in a new beloved community created by God? What if Christians really thought of themselves as Christian ﬁrst, with their other identities secondary? Should we be Christian Americans or American Christians? Which comes ﬁrst for us, our sociology or our theology? What’s right and wrong about “American exceptionalism”? Imagine how faith communities from many countries could help bring our “tribes” together when global crisis calls us to do that. (http://www.msnbc.com/morning-joe/excerpt-jim-wallis-gods-side)
Both Liberals and Conservatives Are Needed for the Common Good. Wallis point out that the purpose of his book is to challenge the hateful ideological warfare between the conservative and liberal sides in our ongoing political battles, as well as their inability to listen to or learn anything from each other. I believe the best idea of the conservative political philosophy is the call to personal responsibility: choices and decisions about individual moral behavior, personal relationships like marriage and parenting, work ethics, ﬁscal integrity, service, compassion, and security. And the best idea of the liberal philosophy is the call to social responsibility: the commitment to our neighbor, economic fairness, racial and gender equality, the just nature of society, needed social safety nets, public accountability for business, and the importance of cooperative international relationships. The common good comprises the best of both ideas—we need to be personally responsible and socially just. This is key to ending the hateful conﬂict and beginning to understand the other side’s contributions to the quality of our life together. (http://www.msnbc.com/morning-joe/excerpt-jim-wallis-gods-side)
Faith can subvert our worst and most dominant social narratives or, to use the biblical language, challenge our prevailing idolatries. It exposes lies that control societies and turn human beings away from their created purposes. Faith reminds us what people are created for and should confront what distracts us from that. How do we nurture both families and communities, promote a civil discourse, and approach problems with solutions and hope instead of fear and blame? Religion must change too. How can we redirect faith communities outward? Instead of trying to dominate the public square, faith communities should seek to inform and inspire it. Faith communities should prefer authenticity over conformity, reﬂection over certainty, leadership by example and not control. Faith communities must be committed to “speaking the truth” while respecting the growing religious pluralism of our societies. As we move into a post-Christian world, churches can be free to live a faithful gospel lifestyle that does not require majority acceptance. And that is a great freedom indeed.
Our effectiveness in contributing to the common good will be judged not by who has the superior understanding of doctrine or the most religious adherents but by who has an authentic life, who is meeting the needs of others, who shows what neighbor-love means, who leads by example and not by dominance, who has prophetic independence from the money and power of partisan agendas, and who retains the moral authority and capacity to hold society accountable to the ethics of the common good. We can do better with the public witness of faith in our time—and we can help build a better values culture of opportunity, fairness, compassion, character, commitment, nurture, and hope. (http://www.msnbc.com/morning-joe/excerpt-jim-wallis-gods-side)
Shallowness characterizes our politics, our media coverage, and our popular cultural values. If we are truly committed to discovering what it means to be on God’s side, it is time to go much deeper in seeking a redemptive path forward. It’s time to move beyond our superﬁcial and even hateful politics and media. It’s time to dig deeper in the places that supply our better values and instincts and to revive the practices that renew our faith traditions and ethical priorities. And it’s time to do the spiritual reﬂection that could provide the moral compass that our politics and economics have lost and that even our religions can forget.
How do we remember that each of us is indeed our neighbor’s keeper? We need to recover a personal and social commitment to the common good, and I believe a rediscovered faith can help renew the ethics and practices of it.
To disagree isn’t enough anymore—politicians and media pundits now attack their opponent’s character, integrity, patriotism, and even faith. And the political idea of ﬁnding compromise or working across party lines has been mostly upended on Capitol Hill, where members of different parties don’t have dinner or drinks anymore and don’t know each other’s families or even say hello or make eye contact in the hallways. Political veterans from both parties tell me this is the worst polarization they have ever seen. This paralysis is now a way of life in American politics.
The underlying issues here are deeply theological, spiritual, and cultural, and not simply political. How do we name and unmask the “idols” of politics and lay out the biblical, spiritual, and even secular foundations for an ethic of the common good? How do we move from the politics of fear and blame to the politics of values and solution? How do we build a culture for the common good in an age of selﬁshness? And how can we ﬁnd common ground by moving to higher ground?
Americans are longing to see political polarization and paralysis give way to visible progress on the issues that most affect their lives. But broken systems generally cannot ﬁx themselves; it takes a movement from outside, citizens intervening to bring about change. That many local churches are moving into community organizing is a most hopeful sign. And that the next generation is being drawn to a post-candidate politics, focused more on real people and real issues, is also a sign of change. (http://www.msnbc.com/morning-joe/excerpt-jim-wallis-gods-side)
Here’s a baseball story. I have been a Little League baseball coach for both my sons’ teams over many years. And I’ve learned that baseball teaches us lessons of life.
Last spring, our nine-year-old’s team was down 5–0, and we had already lost our opening couple of games. It didn’t look good. But suddenly, our bats and our team came alive, and all the practice and preparation we had done suddenly showed itself. Best of all, our rally started in the bottom half of the order with our weakest hitters. Two kids got on with walks, and our least experienced player came up to the plate. With international parents, Stefan had never played baseball before, and it was clear he didn’t have a clue. But somehow, he hit the ball, and it went into the outﬁeld. Our ﬁrst two runs scored, and Stefan ended up on second base. Being from a polite British Commonwealth culture, he began to walk over to the shortstop and second baseman and shake their hands! “Stefan,” I shouted, “you have to stay on the base!” “Oh,” he said, “I’ve never been here before.”
Inspired, other kids who had never gotten hits before either also got them now. Then the best hitters started to hit, and we came back to win 11–6. I gave Stefan the game ball. In a long team meeting afterward, the kids couldn’t stop telling each other what they had learned. “We didn’t give up and came back!” “Our rally started with the bottom of the order.” “Sometimes you get what you need from unexpected places.” “We all just kept cheering for one another.” “Everybody helped us win today.” Finally, our star player said, “This just goes to show you, you can’t ever give up on hope. We always have to keep on hoping no matter what.” Lessons of life. Most important, we became a team on that day. And we won most of our games after that!
I believe the same insight is central to our vocation as faith communities: we need to offer unexpected hope to the world. The Christian mission is to proclaim and live the kingdom of God: “Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10; emphasis added). That is what we pray. But while the kingdom of God was the central message of Jesus and the New Testament, it has faded as ours. Finding salvation in heaven is part of the message, getting closer to God is part of the message, but the heart of the message of Jesus was a new order breaking into history, changing everything about the world, including us. (http://www.msnbc.com/morning-joe/excerpt-jim-wallis-gods-side)
Some clergy around the country have become uncomfortable with one part of their job which requires them to become agents of the government. Every time a pastor signs a wedding license, they do so as an agent of the state, for the document is an official government document. It seems a small thing, but the question becomes whether or not one can be a citizen of heaven, owing allegiance ultimately only to God, and do this act in the employ of the state. It is the same question military chaplains must answer on a larger scale. Jesus' words seem to leave the window open, for he does not reject the powers, he only seeks to have them put their power in perspective.
Pastor John Robinson is said to have preached these words to the Pilgrims as they set off on the journey that would eventually take them to North America: "God has yet more light and truth to break forth from the Word."
A news item that could have come from the First Century: "Asked how he feels about the latest diplomatic initiative that could force him to leave his isolated enclave, home now to 200 Jewish settlers, Sat shrugs. 'We're not worried,' he insists. 'We've seen the peacemakers come and go…but nothing ever changes.'" (Joshua Hammer, "Good Fences Make… "[New York: Newsweek, June 9 2003], pg. 32)
It is difficult for us to understand this deep connection to a place and her people that motivates the grief of Jesus. He speaks from the broken heart of God. We change our residences like the cicada, every seven years and we still discard our mates at an alarming rate. No wonder we ask, "What is it about Jerusalem?"
Often it is the case that those who do what they believe God is calling them to do will run afoul of the authorities. Such was the case with three nuns who were sentenced by a federal judge to 41 months in prison. The punishment was handed out in response to the nuns' act of civil disobedience at a missile silo in Weld County, Colorado. Federal prosecutors had sought a lengthier sentence, requesting as much as six to eight years. The three Dominican nuns are 68, 56, and 69. The Denver Post (7/26/03) reported that a jury convicted the women of two felonies-obstructing national defense and damaging government property. On October 6, 2002, the three nuns cut through a chain-link fence and sneaked onto a Minuteman III missile silo, where they used their blood to draw crosses on the silo lid and then went on to strike at railroad tracks with hammers. An hour later soldiers armed with rifles appeared on the scene and found the women singing and praying. The Denver Archbishop denounced the sentencing saying, "The three religious women sentenced today acted symbolically in their missile-silo protest and did no serious damage. I'm disappointed that the sentences handed down this afternoon were not equally restrained and symbolic." Following their arrests, the nuns achieved some level of celebrity status and were invited to speak to a number of groups in favor of disarmament.
We might wish that we would always be able to trust those in power to do the right thing, but experience has often shown us that that is not necessarily a wise thing to do. In The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad, Fareed Zakaria cites polling that found that during the 1960s the overwhelming majority of Americans-more than 70%-agreed with the statement, "You can trust government in Washington to do what is right all or most of the time." Thirty years later the number of Americans who agreed with that statement had fallen to about 30%.
There always seems to be a struggle over whether the culture will ultimately change the church, or whether the church will eventually change the culture. In his classic analysis, Christ and Culture, H. Richard Niebuhr noted the many ways the church potentially could change society for the better. But he sadly concluded that on the whole the United States culture has effectively changed the American church for the worse.
Those in power often feel that they are above the law. A case in point happened outside of Paris this past fall. Reuters (11/11/03) reported how two French government officials were on their way to the unveiling of new radar speed traps outside the capital city. The Transportation Minister was caught going 62 mph in a 43 mph zone, while the Interior Minister was clocked racing 2 mph faster. When police stopped them, both claimed that they should not be charged with an offense because of the special circumstances of what they were doing. It is interesting to note that each year in France speeding accounts for about half of all the deaths on the road. France has about 8,000 highway deaths annually, one of the worst rates in Western Europe.
Walter Wink is one of the preeminent current commentators on the "powers and principalities." His contention is that powers and principalities are present in the world today through the spirits that inhabit the various institutions in our society. According to Wink, in books like The Powers That Be: Theology For A New Millennium, organizations like banks, governments, and local churches all have a spiritual reality, in addition to their apparent physical reality. Our institutions are not merely the conglomeration of human beings and physical assets. Rather, Wink suggests, each institution has an integrally related spiritual essence, or what Wink calls a Power. Based on Wink's theory, the Powers have all been created by God and are intended for good. Yet when the Powers become idolatrous-when they attempt to pursue a vocation other than that which God intends-the Powers become demonic.
One of the ways that the "powers and principalities" oppose Jesus today is not through blatant attacks, but by nominally endorsing Christianity and eventually stripping the faith of its true significance. For instance, in the 1950s President Eisenhower declared, "Our government makes no sense unless it is founded on a deeply held religious faith-and I don't care what it is." As a result, in large numbers Americans professed to be Christians, yet that faith did not always have a measurable impact on people's lives. In Hellfire Nation: The Politics of Sin in American History, James Morone cites a poll that was taken during the apex of mainline Protestantism in the late 1950s which discovered that Americans rated Columbus's discovery of the New World as the "most significant event in world history." Jesus' birth and resurrection tied for fourteenth place, along with the flight of the Kitty Hawk and the discovery of the X-ray.
The powers frequently opposed Jesus because he was a champion for the oppressed. History repeatedly demonstrates that authorities often like to eliminate the weak or those who are considered to be less useful in some way. That sort of thing, however, not only happened in Nazi Germany with the extermination of millions of Jews, Gypsies, and disabled people. The same sort of thing has happened in the United States. By 1931, thirty states had enacted laws providing that men and women who were deemed to be "feeble-minded" should be sterilized.
A recent poll by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press (11/30/03) suggests that there exists a certain amount of division between the kind of political leaders that active church members gravitate toward and the kind of authorities that non-religious people support. The study found that of those Americans who attend worship regularly, they vote Republican by a 2-1 margin, while those who indicate that they rarely or never go to church vote for Democrats by a 2-1 margin.
"If our oppressors 'know not what they do,' if they, too, are victims of the delusional system, then the real target of our hate and anger can be the system itself rather than those who carry out its bidding" (Walter Wink, The Powers That Be: Theology For A New Millennium [New York: Doubleday, 1998], p. 171)
"At its best, Jerusalem keeps available all of the destabilizing dynamism of YHWH; at its most complacent, Jerusalem stifles the dynamism, for a stifled dynamism is required for the founding and maintenance of a great state and a great corporate economy...." (Walter Brueggemann, Ichabod Toward Home: The Journey of God's Glory [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002], p. 63)
"The principality [power or authority], insinuating itself in the place of God, deceives humans into thinking and acting as if the moral worth or justification of human beings is defined and determined by commitment or surrender-literally, sacrifice-of human life to the survival interest, grandeur, and vanity of the principality" (William Stringfellow)
The continued division of the various populations in Jerusalem and surrounding territory is a case in point. Ariel Sharon's government, with its confrontational approach, its determination to stick to the settlement of Israelis in the West Bank, and now its wall-building is symptomatic of the dilemma about which Jesus spoke. The desire for peace must come with some concessions, some recognition of the rights of others, some desire to see justice prevail for all in the region. But it may be that hot heads on all sides of this issue will continue to resist the changes that would be necessary for peaceful co-existence.
Like the hen who gathers her brood for protection, the herd instinct in horses brings security and self-preservation. We once watched a herd of horses move to a new place to graze. All at once, the "head mare" noticed one was missing. She ran to the top of the hill, until she could see the errant colt. She called to him in a loud, clear voice. He instantly raised his head, became aware the herd was missing, and ran swiftly to join them. Only when the mare was satisfied that he had gotten the message and had rejoined the herd did she return quietly to grazing. The safety of one was dependent on the safety of all.
It is obvious in Luke's text that Jesus is neither impressed by nor afraid of King Herod Agrippa, the type of ruler who later the apostle Paul would count among the "principalities and powers" against which he contended. The heroes of a number of films, like Jesus, contend against similar principalities and powers:
In Frank Capra's classic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington idealistic Boy Scout leader Jefferson Smith goes to Washington when he is appointed to fill out the term of an expired U.S. Senator. Everyone, including his new hard-bitten secretary Clarissa Saunders, thinks he is a pushover country bumpkin, chosen by the party bosses in Wisconsin to merely keep the seat warm until a real politician can assume it in the next election. However, when Smith discovers corruption and graft centering on a parcel of land desired by a large corporation for development, the novice senator reveals that he is a man of iron reserve. The land had originally been intended for a Scout reservation, so Jefferson Smith is resolved to do everything he can to stop the land grab. Impressed by his sincerity, Clarissa suggests that Smith mount a filibuster to block the legislation. The principalities and powers arrayed against the idealistic Smith are formidable-all of his Senate colleagues, including the man whom he had regarded as his mentor, the powerful newspapers back in his home state, and the capital press corps. After hours and hours of speaking there is a moment of crucifixion when the exhausted Smith, his throat sore and hoarse, has to give in to seemingly defeat-but then there is an Easter-like victory when, aided by his Girl Friday, Jefferson Smith is able to mobilize the youth whose heritage he is trying to save, and their combined strength of protest wins out over the powerful and elite rulers of Washington.
As with Jefferson Smith, everyone in Washington is under whelmed by Ellie Woods. Seemingly a ditzy blond with terrible fashion sense, Ellie actually is a top honors graduate of Harvard Law School. She journeys to Washington to fight for a bill that will outlaw the use of animals in the testing of new cosmetics. Her mission, she proclaims at one point, is to speak on behalf "of those who cannot speak." Like Mr. Smith, Elle discovers that her mentor U.S. Rep. Victoria Rudd has sold out to "the principalities and the powers." When her fight seems hopeless, she also summons the help of thousands, in her case the members of her national college sorority who stream into Washington for a Million Dog March.
In Born on the Fourth of July Vietnam War veteran Ron Kovic, disillusioned with the war and the U.S. Government, challenges "principalities and powers" when he tries to enter the floor of the Republican National Convention. He is wheelchair-bound because of his war wounds, but the ushers and sergeant of arms, spotting him and his colleagues, with their anti-Nixon and anti-War posters, block his way as he tries to wheel his way down an aisle. Although his words of protest and argument can scarcely be heard because of the noise of the thousands of delegates listening to and applauding the words of Richard Nixon at the podium, those delegates close by who see the posters shout angry words of scorn and contempt at Kovic. He never gets close to the podium. Instead, the guards usher him out of the auditorium. His protest will have to be conducted from afar.
In the TV film Harlan County War miner's wife Ruby Kinkaid at first wants no part of the union's struggle for safe mining conditions and better wages for the miners. However, when her family is adversely affected by the company's lack of concern for mine safety, Ruby, heart and soul, jumps into the union campaign. She is so active and articulate that she is sent to the city to speak on behalf of the miners at a meeting of the mining corporation. The sweetly reasonable seeming CEO tries to downplay the suffering and justice of the miners, but this representative of the "principalities and powers" does not cow Ruby. Her soft-spoken, simple statements arouse considerable interest. She even discovers that the union lawyers themselves, in their three-piece suits with no real knowledge of the miners' plight, would use her for their own agenda. Thus "the principalities and powers" are to be found on both sides of the fight for a just world.
In The Burning Season rubber worker's union organizer Chico Mendes struggles to block a road from being built through their Brazilian rainforest. The workers know that this will bring outsiders in who will slash and burn the forest for cattlemen and farmers, thus disrupting the lives of the peasants whose livelihood depends on the rubber trees. The "principalities and powers" consist of big ranchers wanting to expand their holdings, local and national government officials, and international businessmen eager to profit by investments and the purchase of cheap lumber and cattle. None of them care about what happens to the rain forest or the peasants living there. Like Jesus, Chico teaches the use of nonviolent resistance, and like Jesus, his fight costs him his life but assures a better life for his fellow workers.
Although several artists have depicted Jesus weeping or brooding over Jerusalem, the only hymn writer I know of who has dealt with this incident is Bradford Gray Webster, a Methodist minister born in 1898 in Syracuse, New York, and pastored churches in that state for forty years. His hymn "O Jesus Christ, May Grateful Hymns be Rising" was chosen by the Hymn Society of America as the best submitted for the Convocation on Urban Life in America in 1954. The Council of Bishops of the Methodist Church called the gathering to explore the problems of ministering to the city. After calling upon Christ that hymns of praise will rise from every city, the singers are to pray for "new courage" and strength to serve those in great need in the city, and notably to seek them out (rather than to wait for them to come to our churches) The third (and last) stanza is a prayer that we will see Christ's Spirit "brooding over each city," even as Jesus once wept over the Holy City and would have gathered all together in his healing love.
Right with God
My great concern is not whether God is on our side; my great concern is to be on God’s side, for God is always right.
—Abraham Lincoln in
a reply to a deputation
Reflections. (1999). Christianity Today, 43(2), 72.
What makes the temptation of power so seemingly irresistible? Maybe it is that power offers an easy substitute for the hard task of love. It seems easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people, easier to own life than to love life. Jesus asks, “Do you love me?” We ask, “Can we sit at your right hand and your left hand in your Kingdom?” (Mt. 20:21).… We have been tempted to replace love with power.
—Henri Nouwen in
Henri J. M. Nouwen
Reflections. (1999). Christianity Today, 43(2), 72.
I. What it means to be on the Lord’s side
It means to have done with:
A. The world’s side. When we give in to the pressures of the world and modern society’s emphasis upon materialism, we are on the world’s side. The children of Israel wanted a god they could see, so they made a golden calf. Modern man wants gods he can see such as hard cash and status symbols.
B. Self. God looked at His people and told Moses He saw them as “a stiff-necked people” (Exod. 32:9) that is, hard-hearted, obstinate, going their own way, self-reliant. So are we today; we believe we can manage ourselves in any and every situation. We have even been able to walk on the moon!
C. Sin. Their sin is referred to in Exodus 32:21, 30: “Ye have sinned a great sin.” Today we do not like that word. We blame all our badness and wickedness on environment or something similar. The Bible always emphasizes man’s sin. Man was born a sinner and has continued to practice sinful habits. To be on the Lord’s side means to turn away from sin (repent) and turn toward God, away from self-reliance and from the things of the world.
II. What it costs to be on the Lord’s side
Jesus always urged would-be disciples to “count the cost” before following Him. The cost of being on the Lord’s side is:
A. Confession. “All the sons of Levi gathered themselves together unto him.” They took “one pace forward” like volunteers in an army. They became conspicuous as they stepped over the line, confessing that they were willing to be on the Lord’s side.
B. Siding with the minority. The people of God in the Bible are always a remnant. God has always worked through minorities. We must be willing to stand alone if need be; yet not alone, rather, with Him!
C. Becoming active. Exodus 32:27 says, “Go in and out from gate to gate.…” You cannot spell gospel without gospel. The cost of being on the Lord’s side is obedience to the Great Commission to “go into all the world.…”
III. How to enlist on the Lord’s side
There are three things to be done:
A. Accept the invitation. “Let him come unto me.” Today, Jesus gives that invitation. As Moses was God’s representative, so now Jesus is God’s representative. “No man comes to the Father but by me.”
B. Answer the challenge. “Who is?… let him.” How personal Moses was! Although all the sons of Levi accepted the invitation and answered the challenge, each man had to decide for himself after weighing the pros and cons. You alone can answer the challenge at the beginning of another year and decide to completely follow Jesus.
C. Receive the Savior. Moses was the Old Testament savior or deliverer of God’s people. He promised to make an atonement for them (Exod. 32:30). Jesus made an atonement (an at-one-ment) between sinful man and a holy God when He died (the Just for the unjust) on Calvary’s cross. Now He says that to as many as receive Him, He will give the right to call themselves sons of God, even to them that believe in His name.
Now that you know what it means and what it costs to be on the Lord’s side and now that you see how simple it is to enlist in His army; come at once.
Hayden, E. (1977). Decisive Sermon Outlines (pp. 7–8). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.
Top of Page prayers (WorshipAid)
Leader: The Lord is the light that shines in our darkness! The Lord is the one who saves us from all our fears!
People: Why then should we be afraid? God is our protector throughout all our days!
Leader: Even if our enemies surround us, even if our opponents plot all kinds of evil against us, we can have confidence, because our God is with us.
People: Let us look to the Lord! Let us be strong and not lose heart! Let us worship our God and Savior!
Eternal God, You are the King of all creation. We confess that we hesitate to submit ourselves to Your reign. Instead, we oftentimes seek to place You under our dominion. Through the groups that we are a part of-through our governments, clubs and churches-we make plans to accomplish the goals that we want to achieve. And then we look to You to bless our undertakings. Holy Lord, help us to change. Rather than placing ourselves first, move us to set You and Your will above all else. Enable us to strive not for our own glory, but for Your glory. We ask this in Your blessed Son's name. Amen.
Heavenly Lord accept the gifts that we bring this day. By Your power, use them to accomplish not what we want, but what You want, so that Your kingdom may spread throughout all the earth. In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ we pray. Amen.
Almighty Lord, we are a world bent on accumulating power. In the realm of politics, we witness candidates slinging mud and engaging in bitter campaigns in order to achieve the positions of power that they crave. Among the nations of the world, we see how heads of state exploit situations to enhance their sway over others. Even in our churches and denominations, we are all too familiar with the bitter struggles for power that tear so many communities apart. Yet while we hunger and strive for power, you set Jesus before us, one who seeks not his own greatness, but the welfare of those around him.
Gracious Lord grant us the ability to follow in the way of Jesus. Instead of being content to do whatever the majority thinks is right, inspire to undertake what is right in Your sight. Rather than accepting that others must lose in order for us to win, give to us a vision of how we can find new ways of working together for the benefit of all. And instead of pursuing our own particular agendas, empower us to build bridges with those around us, so that we might look beyond our differences and behold the shared future that You intend for us. We ask these things in Your powerful name. Amen.