Holy Week and Unholy Politics

I was honored that my pastor invited me to preach on Palm Sunday. The topic I chose was hard: How does God’s Gospel relate to Politics? Well, as they say, “It’s complicated!” God’s King and God's Kingdom are above and beyond the world’s politics. You can hear or download my message on “The Gospel According to Caiaphas.”

What might we have read in a Jerusalem newspaper published just after Jesus rode into Jerusalem with crowds shouting,
“Hosanna — God, please save us!” We have no digital archives. But you might have read something like this in the print edition:

Jerusalem Post. Dateline: Spring AD 33. 5 Days before Passover

Yesterday, the Capital City was shaken. A Prophet from Galilee entered the city on a donkey, causing a major stir. Citizens were overheard asking, ‘Who’s this?’ Crowd size estimates differ widely. But all agree that a man named Jesus was greeted like a new king David.

This newspaper asked various citizens for opinions and comments. Herod’s officials already knew about this so-called Prophet. They had recently challenged Jesus on the legality of paying Roman taxes. King Herod is appointed by Caesar, and so his political cronies don’t want anyone to upset Rome.

Our Post reporter also talked to a few firebrands just added to Rome’s terror watch list. These zealots claim that Jesus can provision a small army by multiplying scarce rations. One of them said, ‘If Jesus doesn’t overthrow the puppet Herod, we must start to plan a violent revolt against Roman occupation.’

We asked some aristocratic rulers of the Temple. The High Priest would not speak on the record. So we interviewed some other mainline liberal priests. They are very upset by recent reports that Jesus raised a man from the dead out in the city suburb of Bethany.

To get a middle class perspective, we talked to leaders of the local houses of worship. We thought that these family-values conservatives would be more sympathetic to Jesus. And they do believe in miracles. But these popular Bible teachers are also upset — since Jesus is cozy with so many sinful people. And Jesus apparently has claimed that he plans to fulfill God’s law.

We sent a Post reporter into the desert to talk to a reclusive group that won’t come near Jerusalem. They think Judaism is beyond redemption. But, from their study of sacred books in their caves, they say that one of last prophets wrote that Israel’s true king would ride on a donkey — like a Prince of Peace, and not like a Roman man of war.

So everyone is now asking: “What will the Roman governor do?” Pilate and Herod seem to be talking once again. Jesus may think that he is a Prince of Peace. But all hell may break loose — and very soon — right before the Passover.

Sometime around AD 33, King Jesus was crucified by Bible-believing, family-values moral conservatives. But he was also crucified by secular, liberal, well-connected elites. And executed by the deep state of imperial colluders. To understand how the Gospel of God’s Kingdom is above and beyond the world’s politics, I invite you to listen to “
The Gospel According to Caiaphas.”

God's Resident-Foreigners

The first Hee-Haw of 2019 is based on words from the donkey’s owner, Balaam. Although a pagan seer, Balaam recognized a unique place for God’s people in this world. “From the hills I behold him; behold, a people dwelling alone, and not counting itself among the nations.” (Numbers 23:9)

Jesus prayed for his followers to be
“in, but not of” the world. As people “set apart by God’s Word of truth,” Jesus sends his people “into” the world. (John 17:11-18)

Jesus’ later spoke to Pilate, Rome's Procurator:
“My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting.” (John 18:36) As I look back on 2018, I often saw Jesus’ followers fighting over political loyalties.

If the church's highest loyalties are shaped by the world's politics — conservative or progressive — this represents a sad misconception of the church’s identity and calling in the world. Do the values, norms, and goals of our culture supplant the Gospel in shaping our mindset and agendas? This new year 2019, our society will increasingly politicize. Jesus’ followers will speak truth to power, even to Caesar. But will Christians be identified by Gospel words and deeds, or by political agendas?

The Apostle Paul challenged Jesus’ followers in the city of Philippi. What shaped their values, mindset, and agendas? Philippi enjoyed a special status in Macedonia, a directly governed Colony of Rome
(Acts 16:12). Philippians enjoyed all the freedoms and legal protections of Roman citizenship. Paul urged them to divest themselves of pride in any worldly power or social status in order to share and reflect “the mind of Christ.” (Philippians 2)

A more ultimate loyalty, a kingdom agenda is offered.
“Our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Philippians 3:20) The word “citizenship” here relates to “politics” or “polis” [city]. The church is a political entity, but a polis shaped by the Gospel, not by government granted or legally protected status. Jesus’ followers are Citizens, Ambassadors, and a Colony. But of God’s kingdom, and not Caesar’s Empire.

I am reading a 25 year old classic:
“Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony,” by Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon. It is a book that speaks incisively about the church’s relationship to the culture around us. Is the church shaped by political agendas (Left or Right) or by God's truth that sets apart his people in this world. Each week of 2019, I plan to post a short quote from this insightful book. For starters:

“God, not nations, rules the world ... the boundaries of God’s kingdom transcend those of Caesar ... the main political task of the church is the formation of people who see clearly the cost of discipleship and are willing to pay the price.”

Advent and the Original Ass

Balaam’s donkey (the "original ass") was owned by a pagan prophet who refused a bribe from the king of Moab to curse Israel. God even sent the Angel of the LORD to block the pagan seer's path.

At first, only Balaam's donkey saw the Angel with a drawn sword. When his ass refused to budge, Balaam beat him. God miraculously allowed the beast to rebuke his master
(the "first hee-haw").

“How can I curse whom God has not cursed?” Balaam said to Moab's king (Numbers 23:8). This pagan prophet even predicted the coming of a Promised One, born of a woman, to fulfill God's promise of salvation to Adam and Eve: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.” (Genesis 3:15)

Balaam foretold the doom of all the enemies of the LORD and God's people:
“I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near: a star shall come out of Jacob; a scepter shall rise out of Israel; it shall crush the forehead of Moab.” (Numbers 24:17)

Balaam's prophecy, if widely circulated, may have motivated the Magi to search for the Christ, after they saw a remarkable royal "star" rising over the western skies in Judea.

Twenty-six years ago, I served as the pastor of a community of God’s people whose lives were devastated by hurricane Andrew. Some thirty church families lost their homes. Many were living in FEMA trailers during the Christmas season of 1992.

To make that Advent special — for more joyful reasons — I wrote some “Advent Stories,” delivered as first-person narratives during the Sundays of Advent. Over the past decades, stories have been added, widely shared, and appreciated by friends.

You can download these
Advent Stories here. Share them with your loved ones. Enjoy!

The Arc of History bends toward God’s Kingdom

I have been reflecting on my 2016 visit to the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. And on visions that Daniel interpreted to Nebuchadnezzar II (604–562 BC) of Babylon. And on God’s words that Jeremiah brought to the Jews exiled in Babylon.

Jerusalem fell to Babylon c. 587 BC. God’s Temple was destroyed. The Jews were sent into 70 years of exile, chastened by God. C. 575 BC, king Nebuchadnezzar built the Ishtar Gate in the city walls of Babylon, in full view of the Jewish exiles. One of the original Seven Wonders of the world, the
Ishtar Gate and its Processional Way are reconstructed and seen today in the Pergamon Museum.

Babylon’s gods were put on full display at the Ishtar Gate: the chief god
Marduk (depicted by snakes), Adad (depicted by ancient cows), and Ishtar (depicted by lions, the goddess of beauty, sex, protector of military and political power). These gods were celebrated each year, to affirm the supremacy of Marduk and Nebuchadnezzar as his political ruler on earth. At the Gate, an inscription reads, “Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, the pious prince appointed by the will of Marduk, the highest priestly prince …”

So how could the Jews — and how can God’s people —
“sing the songs of Zion” while sitting “by the waters of Babylon?” (Psalm 137) Or while watching the military and ceremonial parades through the Gate of Ishtar to celebrate the gods of Babylon?

The late Sen. John McCain once said, “Our values are our interests, and our interests are our values.” But now, as Peter Bergen observes, our national
interests trump America's traditional values. Even some religious commentators argue that America's economic interests are more important than traditional morality. So, the ends justify — or at least ignore — the immoral means.

America’s gods are money, sex, military and political power. The land of our sojourning either ignores, mocks, or despises the values of Zion. But Jeremiah and Daniel offer Jesus’ followers restored perspectives — both short term and long term.

For present perspective: In Jeremiah 29, God tells his people to live as Babylonian exiles — “Build houses … plant gardens … multiply … seek the welfare [shalom] of the city where I have sent you … pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare [shalom] you will find your welfare.” Or, as American exiles, “Seek the shalom of your country, pray for its officials, build healthy institutions, pursue commonwealth, and vote your conscience (the Jews in Babylon could not vote).”

For future perspective: In Daniel 2, Nebuchadnezzar learns through a dream that God “changes times and seasons … removes kings and sets up kings.” Mighty Babylon was destined to fall to other kingdoms. Finally, a stone not cut by human hands, God’s kingdom, would break all earth’s kingdoms into pieces — and become a great mountain that fills the whole earth. In Daniel 4, Babylon’s king goes mad: an object lesson that rulers with arrogant hubris can become like beasts [as illustrated by English poet, painter and printmaker William Blake]. Nebuchadnezzar’s sanity only returns only when he acknowledges God’s sovereignty: “the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will.”

I am thankful for restored perspectives for this present and the future. Because
“… my steps had nearly slipped … when I saw the prosperity of the wicked … when I thought how to understand this, it seemed to me a wearisome task, until I went into the sanctuary of God; then I discerned their end.” (Psalm 73)

Who is right? Only One

After watching the Senate Judiciary committee proceedings, I worry and pray for my three grandchildren. Two grandsons and one granddaughter will enter adolescence in an increasingly corrupt society.

Victims of sexual abuse, assault, and violence have been forced to relive their painful stories. Who will listen? Presumption of innocence until a full investigation and trial has been denied.

There is a silver lining: those who have been sexually assaulted are starting to find their voices, and to speak out, and to vote.

The reputations of both a judicial nominee and a sexual assault victim have been publicly questioned — and who is right?

Republicans were condemned for being tone deaf, and lacking compassion for sexual abuse victims. Democrats were charged with smearing a man’s life and work.

Both the nominee and the accuser were used and abused by politicians on the Left and the Right for political goals. This judiciary nomination process has lacked mercy and justice.

Each party blamed the other party’s actions, motives, and goals — to justify their own party’s actions. And yet both parties have delayed confirming judicial appointees (Garland, Kavanaugh) until after national elections.

A national commentator exasperated, “Dissolve the Senate.” Our nation is in conflict and anguish. But non-partisan Bible truths offer a MRI/EKG of our society’s ills. More importantly, the Gospel offers hope for a kingdom more unshakable than any Republic.

  • Psalm 14:3: “They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good …”

  • Ecclesiastes 3:16: “I saw under the sun … in the place of justice, even there was wickedness …”

  • Isaiah 16:5: “… a throne will be established in steadfast love … on it will sit in faithfulness, in the tent of David, One who judges, and seeks justice, and is swift to do righteousness.”

  • Isaiah 42:3: “A bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench…”

  • Isaiah 59:14: “Justice is turned back … righteousness stands far away … truth has stumbled in the public squares …”

  • Micah 6:8: “He has told you … what is good … what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

  • Romans 2:1: “… you have no excuse … in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things.”

  • Hebrews 4:13: “No creature is hidden from [God’s] sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of the One to whom we must give account.”

Thankful for the Good News: only one Person in history is perfectly right, the righteous Hero and Worthy Victim. Only in Jesus are “justice and mercy … reconciled, [do] steadfast love and faithfulness meet; righteousness and peace kiss each other.” (Psalm 85:10)

None of us — whether Republican, Democrat, or Independent — can vindicate our lives by claiming personal virtue, or by blaming or playing the victim. We cannot justify ourselves by anything we have accomplished or by what we have suffered.

I am grateful for the one and only Hero who unjustly yet willingly took the abused Victim’s place, was violently assaulted, and absorbed my blame. Only God is the righteous Judge, and the justifier of those with faith in Jesus.

I pray for my grandsons to be godly, chaste, and respectful men. I pray for my granddaughter to be a godly, chaste, and a strong woman. I pray that all of my grandchildren will heed the words of Psalm 146:3: “Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation.” LORD, have mercy. Come, Lord Jesus!