1213) Government as a False God

——————————————-

By Chuck Colson (1931-2012) , 2001, at:  www.breakpoint.org

—————–

     Congress recently shot down a constitutional amendment that would have required the federal government to balance its budget (note the date– this was 2001; The national debt has more than tripled since then).  In essence Congress said, “We can’t do it.  We can’t do what it takes to balance the budget.”  It was a major admission of defeat.

     Politicians have been promising to fix the deficit for years.  In 1976 both presidential candidates made promises to balance the books.  But today the debt is bigger than ever, and growing.  And it’s finally beginning to dawn on people that government is not able to deliver on a lot of its promises.

     For most of us, that’s a hard lesson to learn.  We instinctively turn to government to solve our social problems.  It’s a habit reinforced from the time we’re young.

     Listen to these quotations from the Teachers’ Edition of a fifth-grade social studies textbook.

     “Today, when people lose their jobs,” the textbook says, “they can get some money from the government.”  A few pages later the book says, “Today, families who do not have enough money for food can get money from the government.”  And a few pages later we read, “Today families who cannot afford to pay their rent can get help from the government.”

     The message is obvious:  Government is the solution to every social need.

     And here’s a quotation that sums it all up.  It’s from a junior high civics textbook, explaining why the national government has grown so large.  The book says that over time, “People were no longer content to live as their forefathers had lived.  They wanted richer, fuller lives.  They wanted the government to help make their lives rich and full.”

     What is this book teaching kids?  That government can make our lives “rich and full.”

    This goes far beyond the traditional philosophy of limited government, in which the state is given only certain specified tasks, such as operating a police force and regulating traffic.

     Modern societies have fallen prey to what political writer Jacques Ellul calls “the political illusion”:  the idea that government is actually capable of creating the good life, the good society.  It’s a modern form of idolatry, which treats the state as a god.  But like all idols, the state inevitably disappoints those who worship at its shrine.  A government that can’t even manage the simple accounting task of balancing its budget is certainly not capable of making people’s lives “rich and full.”

     And it was never meant to.

     Biblically speaking, government is simply one of the many social structures ordained by God, each with a specific task to do.  The job of the state is to promote justice and restrain evil.  The hope that it can do more than that– that it can make people happy or fulfilled– is doomed to failure and disappointment.

     There’s only one way to make life “rich and full”– not by turning to government but by turning to God.  The kingdoms of this world rise and fall, but the Kingdom of God will rule in human hearts for eternity.

********************************************************

Exodus 20:3  —  (The Lord says), “You shall have no other gods before me.”

Psalm 146:2-5  —  I will praise the Lord all my life; I will sing praise to my God as long as I live.  Do not put your trust in princes, in human beings, who cannot save.  When their spirit departs, they return to the ground; on that very day their plans come to nothing.  Blessed are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God.

Luke 20:25  —  (Jesus) said to them, “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

*******************************************************

Look mercifully, O Lord, we beseech Thee, on the affliction of Thy people; and let not our sins destroy us, but let Thine almighty mercy save us; through Jesus Christ, Thy Son, our Lord.  Amen.

Lutheran Altar Service Book, 1958, Augsburg Publishing House

Advertisements

1202) Land of the Free (c)

————————————-

     (…continued)  Europe today has total religious freedom, but very little religious conviction anymore.  Muslim nations have strong religious convictions, but very little sense of religious freedom.  The First Amendment has helped the United States maintain this delicate balance, but there are dangers now as there always has been.

     First of all, there are those who despise religious faith, and want to use the First Amendment to discourage any and all religious expression or influence.  We are seeing more and more of that these days.  There are many who celebrate the Supreme Court decision on gay marriage not only because it allows gay marriages, but also because they believe it will lead to further restriction on the influence of religion in our society.    But restricting this positive and necessary influence on our society is something we, as a free nation, must not do.  So said the Founding Fathers who created our terrific form of government, this beacon of light to the whole world; and, as Abraham Lincoln put it, ‘the world’s last, best hope.’

     Secondly, there are those, even in the church, who want to say that religion should be kept private, and need not influence one’s life outside the walls of the church, such as in political discussion or decision-making.  Both are dangers which must be avoided.

     There is much more to be said about all this, but let’s hear a word from George Washington.  He talked about his very thing in his Farewell Address in 1796 at the end of his presidency.  He said: “Religion and morality are indispensable supports of political prosperity, and no true patriot would oppose them.  Where would the security for property, reputation, or life be without the sense of religious obligation?  Morality cannot be sustained in a nation without religion.”  Similar quotes by other Founding Fathers could fill a huge book.  Those men had a wide variety of religious beliefs, but all believed in the importance of the moral base that religious faith gives to a nation.

     Os Guinness tells of a speech he gave to Christian businessmen in China.  Afterwards, one of the Chinese businessmen had a question.  He said: “We see in the United States a country that works, and we want to learn from you.  So we have been reading about history and political science and your Founding Fathers, and we have seen how important religion is to your success.  But then we see in your newspapers how so many people in your country are trying to get rid of religion.  Are we missing something, or what is the matter with those people?” 

     The Chinese are trying to learn from the success that we take for granted, and they are learning the clear lessons from our history that we have neglected.  From what I have read, a student can major in History in most of the colleges in this country, and in four years, not hear one word of any of this.  That’s how it is in today’s anti-religious culture.  But this is our heritage and what has formed the fabric of our society.  If we lose this moral foundation, everything else with unravel, and we will not remain strong or safe.

     To say that the Founder Fathers tried to build a government that encouraged virtue in its citizens is certainly not to say our government or citizens have always been virtuous.  No government action can guarantee virtue, but the goal is to enhance and encourage it.  The Founding Fathers were well aware of the sin in every person, and also worked to establish a government that provided checks and balances to restrict the sinful ambitions of those who ruled– but that is another story.  One can argue about how well that has worked.  But what cannot be argued or denied is that people from all over the world dream of coming here; and very few dream of leaving here, even among those most critical of what this nation stands for.

     I started with the words of Paul in Galatians, and I will let him have the last word.  The book of Galatians was written to clarify for the people of Galatia how we are made right before God by the Gospel and not by the Law.  It is a very religious question, and Paul’s argument is theological and not at all political.  But as I said, a by-product of religious faith is moral behavior that makes good citizens.  With that in mind, read these words from Paul:  

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.  Stand firm then…  You were called to be free, but do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love.  The entire Law is summed up in a single command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  So I say, live by the Spirit… and the fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

—————————————–

To hear Os Guinness give his speech Can Freedom Last Forever? go to:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hw6BQXOHod4

***************************************************************

A PRAYER ON INDEPENDENCE DAY, from The Prayers of Peter Marshall, page 186:

 God of our fathers, whose Almighty hand has made and preserved our nation, grant that our people may understand what it is they celebrate today.  May they remember how bitterly our freedom was won, the down payment that was made for it, the installments that have been made since this Republic was born, and the price that must yet be paid for our liberty.  May freedom be seen, not as the right to do as we want, but as the opportunity to want to do what is right.  May it ever be understood that our liberty is under God, and may our faith be something that is not merely stamped upon our coins, but expressed in our lives.  To the extent that America honors Thee, wilt Thou bless America, and keep her true as Thou hast kept her free, and make her good as Thou hast made her rich.  Amen.

1201) Land of the Free (b)

 

     (…continued)  As the government of this new nation was being formed, there was much talk about the three legs of a golden triangle, like three legs of a stool.  All three legs are needed, and each depends on the other.

     The first leg of the stool, the first principle, is that freedom requires virtue, a free nation needs people of virtue.  John Adams said, “The only foundation of a free Constitution is pure virtue.”  Ben Franklin said, “As nations become more corrupt and vicious, they have need of more masters.”  If you must have harsh laws strictly governing every move anyone makes, and multitudes of law enforcement people to enforce all those laws, you will not have a free society.  In order to have a relatively free and open society, you have to have people of good character and good will who obey the law even when the police are not watching, who freely help each other out, and who can, for the most part, get along without constant government interference.  In no society will everyone always be like that, as we all remain sinners.  But if a society is going to be free and open, it must have a majority of the people who are of basically good character (of course, this is not in the sense of being justified before God by our good works, but that we behave as good citizens).  Freedom requires virtue.

     The second leg of this school is that virtue requires faith.  People will have a better chance of being good even when the police are not watching, if they truly believe that someone else is watching, which is to say they believe in a God who sees everything.  Atheists can, of course, be good people.  But overall, there is a better chance of people being of good character if they truly believe they are accountable to a greater power.  The most effective inspiration to virtue is faith.

     Therefore, freedom requires virtue, and virtue requires faith, and then, in order for faith contribute its part, faith needs to be free.  That is the third leg of the golden triangle:  faith requires freedom.  Churches need to be free to do their work, teaching about God and about living good and holy and productive lives for God, because if people are living good and godly lives, they are better citizens.  Again, this doesn’t always work for everyone, but for the most part, people of faith don’t steal, they don’t cheat, they try to keep their families together, and they help their neighbors– and all of that helps build a better nation.

     So the Founding Fathers said, “We want a free nation, and in order to have and keep a free nation, we need good and virtuous people, and to enhance that there must be freedom of religion;” thus, the three legs of the stool– virtue, faith, freedom.  Religion needs freedom and freedom needs religion.  

     Therefore, the very first words in the Bill of Rights are:  “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”  This was never meant to restrict the practice of religion, but was intended to encourage its practice in every way possible.  Two things are included.  First, the government must not establish any one religion.  Second, the government must not restrict the practice of religion in any way.  The history of Europe before 1776 had shown the Founding Fathers what many Muslim nations are showing us now– that when religion and government are too closely tied together, there will be trouble.  Therefore, any religion could practice freely without restriction, and, no one religion would be favored.

     This was a new and brilliant concept in government.  This First Amendment brings together strong religious conviction, which is necessary, while at the same time, encourages good will among the many religious differences.  Good Christians, good Hindus, good Muslims, and good Buddhists, can all live by the American rules and help build good citizens.  We are Christians, and our job as people of faith consists of more than making good citizens.  We want to talk about truth and faith and eternity and prayer and piety, and so much more.  Making good citizens is just a by-product of what we do.  And the government says, “Good, we want you to do what you do, and we’ll take the good people as the side benefit.”  But says the government, “Do your work as a church, but don’t expect Congress to make any laws requiring everyone to be Lutheran, or forcing them to give money to your church.”  The Founding Fathers knew the history of Europe after the Reformation, with war after war fought over what religion the government would support.  They wanted to keep and encourage strong religious conviction, and they wanted to allow for the freedom of all religions.  Thus, the First Amendment, which is a huge part of our freedom and our success as a nation, and we can thank God for it.

     Europe today has total religious freedom, but very little religious conviction anymore.  Muslim nations have strong religious convictions, but very little sense of religious freedom.  The first amendment has helped the United States maintain this delicate balance between conviction and freedom.  (continued…)

—————————————

***************************************************

Romans 13:1a  —  Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities…

I Timothy 2:1-2  —  I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers,intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people—  for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.

Psalm 119:44-45  —  I will always obey your law, for ever and ever.  I will walk about in freedom, for I have sought out your precepts.

***************************************************

Almighty God, you have given us this good land as our heritage.  Make us always remember your generosity and constantly do your will.  Bless our land with honest industry, truthful education, and an honorable way of life.  Save us from violence, discord, and confusion; from pride and arrogance, and from every evil course of action.  Make us who came from many nations with many different languages a united people.  Defend our liberties and give those whom we have entrusted with the authority of government the spirit of wisdom, that there might be justice and peace in our land.  When times are prosperous, let our hearts be thankful; and, troubled times, do not let our trust in you fail.  We ask all this through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Lutheran Book of Worship, Augsburg Publishing House, 1978, (#169).

1200) Land of the Free (a)

     In Galatians 5:1 the Apostle Paul says, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.   Stand firm then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.”  Paul got this idea from Jesus, who said, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free; and if the Son sets you free, you shall be free indeed” (John 8:36).  And the freedom Jesus was talking about was already a big part of God’s activity in the Old Testament in which the central, defining event was when the Hebrews were freed from the years of slavery in Egypt.  Freedom is a big theme in the Bible.

     Freedom is also a big theme in the United States of America.  On July 4, 1776 the Declaration of Independence was signed, declaring our freedom and independence from British rule, and, the intent to build our own government, one based on freedom for all.

     The spiritual freedom described in the Bible, and the political freedom we try to maintain as a nation, are not the same thing.   But they are not totally unrelated.

     In Galatians 5:1 Paul warned that freedom may be lost.  Stand firm, he said, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.  Spiritual freedom can be lost, is what Paul implied by giving that warning.  The political freedom that we have come to take for granted can also be lost.  In a 2012 speech Christian scholar Os Guinness asked, Can Freedom Last Forever?  He was referring to political freedom, and his warning was that yes, indeed, that freedom can be lost.  But the most interesting part of what he says is that political freedom is best maintained by allowing religious freedom. 

    In fact, Guinness said that the main thing to remember about politics is that politics is not the main thing.  Religion, he said, is the main thing.  Politics is necessary and useful for our brief time on earth, but religion– our faith in God– is necessary for all eternity.  Religion is also necessary for our political freedom and life together as a nation.

    Guinness then described political freedom.  There are three parts, he said, to a nation’s freedom.  First of all, there is the winning of that freedom.  That fight to win that freedom began in 1776 with the Declaration of Independence and lasted until George Washington defeated General Cornwallis at Yorktown in 1781.  It was an extremely difficult five years for the colonists, but in the end, the Revolutionary war was won, and freedom was achieved, and the United States of America was born.

     The next part of freedom was to prove even more difficult.  The second part is the ordering of that freedom; the formation and establishment of a government in which people could live and work together with freedom for all.  After the war, the thirteen colonies were free from Britain, but now those thirteen independent colonies had to find a way to maintain their freedom while at the same time work together.  The ordering of freedom was accomplished in the writing and ratifying of the United States Constitution, that document which orders our free life together.  That was another long and difficult process, taking more time to complete than it took to win the war.  But it was completed in 1787, ratified over the next two years, and life as a nation under the new president George Washington began in 1789.

     The third part to freedom in a nation, and by far the most difficult, is the sustaining of that freedom.  First, freedom had to be won for the colonies; then the new nation had to order itself; and then, if done well, that ordering would sustain that freedom for many years to come.  In 1789 the French won their freedom from an oppressive government, and in 1917 the Russians overthrew their corrupt government.  But in both cases, the quest for freedom failed and chaos resulted, because the freedom was not properly ordered or sustained.  After 240 years we Americans are still free, but it remains a challenge to sustain that freedom amidst the many challenges and threats from within and without.

     The Founding Fathers knew their history, and they knew that one of the basic lessons of history is that nothing ever lasts.  Nations, empires, kingdoms, and governments all come and go.  But the founding fathers set as their goal to defy history, and to do something that had never been done before.  They wanted to create something that would last.

     The new nation had one big advantage and one great danger.  The great advantage was they were relatively free of enemies.  They had just defeated Great Britain, the most powerful nation on earth.  They were able to do so because a great ocean separated them from Britain, and for the time being, that same ocean would keep all other threatening nations at a safe distance.  The United States was able to develop as a nation without threatening enemies.

     But the Founding Fathers knew that not only did nations fail because of outside enemies, but the even greater danger was that successful nations would be corrupted and rot from within.  This, after all, had been the fate of the Roman Empire, the greatest empire the world had ever known.  The hard-working, loyal, noble, and just Romans who had built that great empire, deteriorated into spoiled, greedy, immoral pleasure-seekers, who lived only to be entertained, caring not at all for character, courage, justice, or loyalty.  If the United States of America was to remain a free nation, it would depend a great deal on the goodness and virtue of the people who were being given such freedom. 

     This is where Os Guinness’s discussion turns to religion, and this is the most important part.  (continued…)

*****************************************************

John 8:36  —  (Jesus said), “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”

Galatians 5:1  —  It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.  Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.

II Corinthians 3:17  —  Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.

*****************************************************

Almighty God, we give you thanks for giving us a land in which we are free to read and hear your Word, to confess your name, and to labor together for the extension of your kingdom.  We pray that you grant that the liberty given unto us may be continued to our children and our children’s children, and that the Gospel may here abound, to the blessing of all nations of the earth, and to your eternal glory; through your Son, Jesus Christ  our Lord.  Amen.

–Adapted from an old Lutheran hymnal

1148) Martin Luther and Politics

Martin Luther  (1483-1546)

     The New Testament gives some guidance for our understanding of our duties and responsibilities as citizens.  It does not give specifics, but it does set parameters.  Government is to be respected, obeyed, and appreciated; but it is not to be followed blindly, nor should it be obeyed when obeying means disobeying God.  But working out the details of this has always been a problem.  Always.  We should not be surprised at our frustrations today, nor should we be surprised at how vehemently Christians can disagree, even though they might all be trying to obey God.  Even the most brilliant and most godly people have struggled and failed in this area.

     The person in church history I have found most helpful in understanding the role of the Christian in government is Martin Luther.  And, the writings and political work of Martin Luther has had a huge influence on the government and politics of the modern world.  He is considered by many to be among the three most influential people of the last one thousand years.  Luther’s work challenged and changed not only the church, but many aspects of society, including government.  But even though he opened the doors to much needed reform, and taught so clearly on so many of these issues, he made some of the biggest mistakes of his life when he got embroiled in politics of his own day.

     Luther did not choose to become tangled up in politics, but his involvement could not be avoided.  The church and state were so interconnected in those days that one could not make a move in one without causing waves in the other.  Luther was the first to work to pry these two apart.  The separation of church and state we hear so much about now (and still have a hard time defining) goes back not to Thomas Jefferson, but to Martin Luther.

     Luther’s involvement brought him endless turmoil, great danger, many failures, and much regret– even though he was not acting selfishly and had no interest in gaining political office or power.  He just wanted to serve his neighbor in Christian love and help make things better– but he could not.  

     For example, at first Luther supported and encouraged the common people in their struggle to become free of the tyranny of and oppression by both church and state.  But he then regretted what he unleashed when the people’s struggle for freedom led to violent rebellion and lawlessness.  Then Luther supported the government in the use of its legitimate God-given authority to restore order.  But the king sent an overwhelming force, killing men women and children by the tens of thousands.  Then Luther regretted having anything to do with the authorities.  But by then the damage was done, and Luther never regained the near universal support of the people that he had once enjoyed.

     Throughout Luther’s life his work in the church brought him into conflict with the government.  Though he was one of the most brilliant human beings who ever lived, he awkwardly muddled his way through the politics of the day, oftentimes doing more harm than good.

     Even the best and brightest get muddied and bloodied in this arena.  Sin clings to each of us and to everything we do.  This does not mean that everyone is equal in the political realm.  There are foolish, greedy, and wicked people in politics, and there are people who act with great wisdom and nobility; but it is a messy process and it stains all involved.  And it doesn’t help that the citizens they serve, we who vote for or against them, are also selfish, foolish, fickle, and wicked.  We are endlessly irritated at government incompetence and corruption, but if we took seriously the presence of sin, we would be surprised that anything gets done at all.

     And some things do get done.  For example, most of us leave our homes each day and drive on roads that our government somehow manages to build and maintain.  Our government provides this, and much more to be thankful for.  Paul was right when he said it is a gift of God provided for our well being.

     G. K. Chesterton was an English journalist of a century ago who had much to say about religion and politics.  He had a sharp wit and could be very critical of everything, but his main overall approach to life was one of gratitude to God.  There are two memorable quotes by him on government, coming at it from those two different angles, criticism and gratitude.  His critical side came through when he said, “As long as we go on cursing the system, the system is quite safe.”  His gratitude came through when he said, “The way to love anything is to realize that it may be lost.”  We have seen on the news what happens to nations when the government loses control.

     All his life he cursed the sin in the system of government; but then with gratitude to God, Chesterton could still love its many blessings, knowing how much worse off we would be without it.

**********************************************

Romans 13:1a  —  “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities…”

Acts 5:29  —  Peter and the other apostles replied: “We must obey God and not men.”

I Timothy 2:1-4  —  I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers,intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.  This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.

**********************************************

Almighty God, supreme Governor of all, incline your ear, we beg you, to the prayer of nations, and so overrule the imperfect counsel of human beings, and set straight the things they cannot govern, that we may walk in paths of obedience to places of vision, and to thoughts that purge and make us wise; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

–President Woodrow Wilson  (1856-1924)

1146) A Sermon for Memorial Day (b)

Vietnam Reflections, by Lee Teter, 1988

——————-

     (…continued)  Four Scripture passages that speak to this issue…

     I Samuel 17 tells the familiar story of David and Goliath.  David, probably only 15 or 16 years old, accepted the challenge to fight the giant warrior Goliath, and David killed him on the field of battle.  God, who many years later punished David severely for the sin of adultery, had no objection to David killing this giant enemy soldier whose army was making war against Israel.  In fact, the text clearly implies that it was God who made David’s unlikely victory possible.

     Romans 13 discusses God’s work through government and the Christian’s duty as a citizen of his or her government.  Verse one says, “Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established.”  This does not mean that Kim Jong-un in North Korea and others like him, have been hand-picked by God and have God’s blessing.  What is meant in the passage is that the authority of government in a general sense is an authority that God works through to bring peace and order.  Certainly governments can go wrong, and these verses are qualified and limited in the Bible by verses such as Acts 5:29.  There, Peter said he would not obey the authorities who were telling him to quit preaching, saying, “No, we must obey God and not men.”  

     In day to day life this can all get very messy, and that too is described in the Bible.  Here, in Romans 13 Paul called government the servant of God, but in Revelation 13, that same Roman government a few years later is symbolized by an evil beast which, said John, received its power and authority from the devil.  Government in general is a gift of God through which he can do his work, just like God can work through individuals.  But governments can, like individuals, become evil, and then must be opposed by other governments so that people may be protected.  As I said, this gets messy; and, as Paul said elsewhere, we walk by faith and not by perfect seeing, and so good Christian people might well disagree on what to do and when to obey and when to resist.  But Romans 13 makes it clear that we must at least begin with a respect for the authority of the government.

     It is not my purpose here to examine the justice of individual wars.  Some would have more merit than others.  The need for, purposes of, and procedures followed in the Vietnam War, certainly the most controversial of all our wars, are still being debated decades after the last soldier fell.  There are many who think getting involved in Vietnam was a bad idea from beginning to end; and others who argue very powerfully for its necessity in slowing Communism’s rapid advance.  If now, almost a half century later, the experts are still debating the merits of that war, it would be expecting far too much of an 18 year old draftee to have all the answers in 1967.  Most Americans have simply responded to the call of duty.  But those are other questions for other times.  Today we honor and remember those who were willing to serve in war and in peace.

     In Luke 3 John the Baptist had been calling on people to repent of their sins, change their ways, be baptized, and prepare for the coming of the Lord.  Some soldiers asked John what they should do.  If there was anything wrong with being a soldier, we would have heard about it here.  John was not one to mince words, and if he thought that those men should get out of the military and become conscientious objectors, he would have been the one to tell them, and this would have been the time to say it.  But John says no such thing, and instead tells them to just do an honest job of it:  “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely and be content with your pay” (verse 14).  He did not even say don’t kill anyone, because he knew that a soldier might have to do that sometimes.  Jesus also met a Roman soldier one time, a centurion, one in charge of a hundred men (Matthew 8).  Jesus, like John the Baptist before him, also did not tell this soldier to give up his soldiering.  Rather, he granted the centurion’s request, healed his servant, and then even praised the centurion for his great faith.

     In John 15:13 Jesus said, “Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”  Jesus was talking about his own life that he was soon to lay down for his friends, friends that include you and me.  But those same words can be applied to our veterans; those who did or were willing to lay down their lives for others.  We have all been the beneficiaries of those sacrifices, and on this day we honor them.

*******************************************

I Samuel 17:45-46a  —   David said to the Philistine (Goliath), “You come against me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the Lord Almighty, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied.  This day the Lord will deliver you into my hands…

Luke 3:14  —  Then some soldiers asked him (John the Baptist), “And what should we do?”  He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely— be content with your pay.”

John 15:13  —  (Jesus said), “Greater love has no man than this: to lay down his life for his friends.”

*******************************************

Lord God of Hosts, in whom our fathers trusted, we give thee thanks for all thy servants who have laid down their lives in the service of our country.  Unite all the people of this nation to defend the freedom for which they lived and died.  Grant, we beseech thee, that the liberty they bequeathed unto us may be continued to our children and our children’s children, and that the power of the gospel may here abound, to the blessing of all the nations of the earth, and the thine eternal glory; through Jesus Christ, thy Son, our Lord.  Amen.

The Book of Common Worship, Presbyterian Church U. S. A., Westminster, 1946, page 317.

1145) A Sermon for Memorial Day (a)

——————

St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, Hanover, Minnesota; May 30, 2016

     Pacifism is defined as “opposition to war or violence of any kind, and the refusal to serve in the military because of one’s beliefs.”  There is, in the history of the Church and in the history of the United States, a long and noble tradition of Christian pacifism.  In every war, there have been Christians, like the Amish and Quakers and others, who when called upon to serve their nation in the military, have said “No, because of my religious convictions, I cannot do so.”  Many of them also said, “I will gladly serve our nation, but I will not serve as a soldier who may be called on to kill another human being.”  Our nation has provided for these conscientious objectors alternative forms of service, as medics or chaplain assistants or perhaps even in some non-military social service.  In other times and places, not in the United States of America, but other places, such options were not always given, and Christian pacifists would go to jail or perhaps even be executed for refusing to serve as soldiers.  One can admire such individual courage and faith, and at the same time appreciate that our government allows such freedom of conscience.

     On the other hand, the majority of believers in the history of the church and in the history of this nation have held a different opinion.  Thus, there is also a long and noble tradition of Christian soldiers, followers of Jesus Christ who believed they were serving God by serving their nation, even when that meant taking the life of others.  From the early days of the church there has been what is called the ‘Just War Doctrine,’ which recognizes that in this wicked world there are evil people who seek to conquer and kill and destroy, and they must be stopped.  Therefore, sometimes lives must be taken in order that many more lives may be protected and peace can be preserved.  This does not mean that every war is a just war, and it can all get very confusing.  But it does say that the commandment against killing has to be applied differently in a time of war.  The intent of that commandment is to protect life, and many times wars must be fought and some people must be killed so that many more lives can be saved.

     While I can admire the faith and convictions of the pacifists, and while they may at times be correct in refusing to fight, I do not agree with them.  And certainly, most Christians in most times and places have not been pacifists, but with or without knowing it, have been in agreement with the Just War Doctrine.  Most people, if their lives, families, and homeland are threatened, are willing to put up a fight, rather than submit to the threat.  Jesus did tell us to turn the other cheek, but that has usually been understood as having to do with getting along with others individually, and not intended to direct government policy.

     In fact, the Bible declares that governments must not turn the other cheek.  Romans 13 says that God has given governments the task of restraining evil.  Government is ‘an agent of God’s wrath,’ it says, to bring ‘punishment upon the wrongdoer.’  And how can the government do that work except through people?  And that must include Christians who are told in that same chapter to obey the governing authorities.  This is all far too complex for one sermon, but I want to say a few things about how this applies to Memorial Day.

     Good and honest Bible believing Christians have disagreed on all this, and there is room in the Church for such diversity.  I have never served in the military, but I am not a pacifist, and if I had been called on to serve, I would not have been a conscientious objector.  I have a deep appreciation for all who have served, and am grateful for our strong military.

     There is a quote on this question that is well worth pondering.  It is a little hard to determine who said it, but it has most often been attributed to the English writer George Orwell, who died in 1950.  If he did not say it, it certainly expresses his beliefs.  George Orwell was at first a pacifist, so in one war he was a conscientious objector, serving as a stretcher bearer to carry the wounded.  Then he changed his mind, and in the next war Orwell served as a soldier and carried a gun.  Here is the quote:  “We sleep peacefully in our beds only because rough men stand ready in the night to do violence on those who would do us harm.”  I have also seen it stated in these words:  “Those who protest against violence are free to do so only because others are committing violence on their behalf.”

     This is not to say that every act of war by every nation is always justified.  That is another question.  But Christians must not have a knee-jerk reaction against the violence that soldiers are trained to do.  I do realize I might be preaching to the choir, and that most of you here today are probably already with me on this.  However, I know that many veterans have an uneasy conscience about what they were called on to do in the military, and they should know that one can serve God as a soldier just as well as one can serve God by being a minister.

     As American citizens, we have much to be grateful for to you, our veterans, and especially to those who are not here today because they lost their lives on the field of battle.  The freedom and prosperity we enjoy, and, our government ‘of, for, and by the people,’ have been often threatened, and hundreds of thousands have died to preserve it.  It is still being threatened, as we all well know.  A strong military is needed even in peacetime, and so we remember and honor also those who served in the military and were not called on to go to war.

     Without the sacrifices and service of our veterans over the last 240 years, we would not have survived as a strong and free nation.  I agree with Abraham Lincoln who said a long time ago that the United States of America is the world’s last, best hope.  Therefore, not only for our own sake, but for the sake of the whole world, we want to preserve what God has given us here.

     Not only as citizens, but also as Christians, we have reason to be grateful.  One of the most basic of those freedoms that has to be defended is the freedom of religion, which is, in the history of the world, a rather recent freedom.  If you look around the world today, you see that the freedom of religion is a most fragile and vulnerable freedom.  Even in nations that are attempting to build democracies, religious freedom often takes a back seat to the need to settle ethnic differences.  The religious freedom that we have taken for granted here all of our lives is not automatically guaranteed, and again, we can thank our veterans for its preservation thus far.  (continued…)

************************************************

Romans 13:1-4  —  Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities,for there is no authority except that which God has established.  The authorities that exist have been established by God.  Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.  For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong.  Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority?  Then do what is right and you will be commended.  For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good.  But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason.  They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.

************************************************

O Judge of the nations, we remember before you with grateful hearts the men and women of our country who in the day of decision ventured much for the liberties we now enjoy.  Grant that we may not rest until all the people of this land share the benefits of true freedom and gladly accept its disciplines.  This we ask in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Book of Common Prayer

562) God’s Wrath on the Wrongdoer

        “I don’t get mad, I get even,” is what we used to say on the playground, trying to sound tough as we plotted our revenge.  The Bible, however, has a different approach to the matter.  “Love your enemies and pray for those who hurt you,” it says.

     But then it also says something else.  Romans 12:19 says, “Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written, ‘It is mine to avenge, I will repay,’ says the Lord.”

     What’s this?  God will seek the revenge?  We should ‘leave room for God’s wrath’ and let God repay the evil?  Isn’t God supposed to be all-loving and forgiving?  What’s all this talk about wrath and revenge?

     First of all, the Bible is indeed clear– if someone does me harm, I should not try to get even.  Instead, I am to return good for evil and leave the paybacks, if there are to be any, to God.  In that same section it says, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil.  Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody.  If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everybody…  Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good…  and if your enemy is hungry, feed him…”

     These are nice ideals, but it is fair to ask, does any of this work in the real world?  Or do we just pay lip service to these kinds of nice thoughts on Sunday morning, knowing full well that it will have little application to our life on Monday morning?  Will thieves stop robbing us if we don’t stop them?  Will murderers cease killing just because we treat them nicely?  Will ISIS stop beheading people if we ask them politely?  Won’t evil run amok if we leave it unrestrained and unpunished? 

     The answer is, of course it will.  Sinners con’t stop sinning out of the goodness of their hearts, because for one thing, our hearts aren’t good.  So how can we who live in the real world follow Paul’s advice to never avenge ourselves, advice which seems so other-worldly and impractical?  If we don’t stop evil, who will?

     The answer to that question is in the Bible verse I began with.  Who will stop evil?  God will.  God will stop the evil.  And how does God do that?  Well, there are a few ways he does that, but this meditation will be about how God deals with evil through his designated representatives.  God’s designated representatives in the world to fight evil are described in Romans chapter 13, where Paul writes:  “Be subject to the governing authorities, because they are God’s servants, established by Him, to execute wrath on the wrongdoer.”  There’s that word wrath again, and Paul is telling us here is that one of the ways God brings his wrath upon the wrongdoer is through the governing authorities.  In other words, the government has something to do with stopping evil, by God’s own design.

     But as soon as one starts talking about government things get complicated, so I’ll illustrate this with a less complex setting– the family.  

     Let’s say little brother hits big sister.  Now big sister has at least three options.

     Option #1 is she can just ignore it.  If she does that, she runs the risk of little brother hitting her again– and again– and again.  That’s how these things work.  If the violence is allowed to work to bad guy’s benefit and go on without consequences, the aggressor will become bolder and even more wicked.  In time, little brother may really hurt big sister.  Obviously, that is not a good outcome.  Option one, to just ignore the injury, is not a good idea; not for big sister who is getting hit, and also not for little brother who, if unrestrained, will just get worse, and may turn out to be a thoroughly bad person.

     What else can big sister do?  Option #2 is that she can hit little brother back.  This is, of course, what the Bible says not to do.  ‘Do NOT avenge yourselves,’ it says.  But let’s say big sister doesn’t want to go by the Bible, and, since she is bigger, she is able to pound the daylights out of little brother, and perhaps even injure him.  This is not a good outcome either, and, goes to show why it’s not a good idea to leave vengeance in the hands of the wronged party.

     So what else could big sister do?  You already know what option #3 is because that’s what usually happens.  Big sister goes to Mommy and complains that little brother has hit her.

     Now Mommy probably doesn’t want to have to deal with this, but she must.  She would rather that her kids play without hitting, but when the hitting starts, she knows she has to get involved.  So what follows is a little trial.  Mommy asks the accused if he hit big sister.  Little brother insists that he did no such thing.  In a courtroom, this would be called, “pleading not guilty.”  In the family, its called ‘telling a big fat lie’ (at least in this case).  Mommy has already examined the forensic evidence, and she has seen the red mark of a chubby little hand on big sister’s cheek.  So, Mommy pronounces the sentence:  “Go to your room,” she says, or perhaps, “Sit in the corner,” or perhaps, worst of all in the mind of little brother, she might say, “Give your sister a big hug and apologize.”  Justice is done and the evil is stopped, at least for the time being.

     This is not Mommy’s favorite part of being a parent, but she knows she has to do it.  It is part of her job.  Mommy is, to use Paul’s words, “a servant of God, there to execute wrath on the wrongdoer.”  Parents are the ‘governing authorities’ in their families, which is why the fourth commandment does not tell us to love our parents, but to HONOR them.  Honor includes love, but it is more than love.  It also means, as it says in the catechism, that we are to respect parents, obey them, and serve them.

     This little domestic situation is really a miniature of what government is supposed to do, according to the Bible.  If we as individuals are not to avenge evil, then who will stop it?  God will stop it through his designated representatives– parents in the family, and, in the larger society the governing authorities, who are servants of God to ‘execute wrath on the wrongdoer.’

     If some stranger on the street mugs you, you don’t run to Mommy.  You call the police, because they are the arm of government authorities appointed by God to deal with that kind of problem.  Police, judges, juries, soldiers, and armies– these are all servants of the government to restrain evil.  That is why, says Paul, we are to be subject to the governing authorities.  We don’t have to like them.  But we do have to respect, honor, and obey them.  Their job is to protect us from each other, and from outside threats.  It is not their job to forgive the wrongdoer, and we do not expect them to be non-judgmental.  Their job is to judge and punish the wrongdoer.

     Governments do many things.  Sometimes they do horrible things, like commit mass murder against their own citizens.  Those authorities who do that will have to answer to God.  Other times governments do very good things, like build roads and maintain schools.  And sometimes governments do downright silly things.  But God has authorized the governing authorities to do one thing above all else– to execute his wrath on wrongdoers so that evil may be restrained, and the citizens of that government be protected.

     It also must be said that the authority of a government is limited by God.  If the governing authorities tell us to do that which is contrary to the Word of God, then we must not obey.  In Acts chapter four Peter and John were told by the authorities to stop telling others about Jesus.  The disciples refused to obey them, saying, “We must obey God and not men.”

     As citizens under the authority of government we are called to vigilance and to virtue.  Virtue is more than just abiding by the law because we are afraid of what might happen to us if we don’t.  Virtue is doing the right thing freely and without coercion.  It is what the Lord wants from us, and the Founding Fathers of this nation said many times that liberty cannot survive without a godly and moral people.

     These are just a few words on just one aspect of what the Bible says about the governing authorities; and it doesn’t even begin to answer the question of why God doesn’t stop all the evil– except to say that He someday will.  In the meantime, the good news is that Jesus sends his Holy Spirit to us to lead us and to guide us into all truth and obedience.  Jesus, who was, you remember, crucified by the governing authorities, now lives and reigns in heaven.  All authority on heaven and on earth is now His, says the Bible.  And when Jesus comes again in glory, the kingdoms of this world will come to an end and our home will be in the kingdom of God, and Christ shall reign forever and ever.

**********************************************************

Romans 12:17-19  —  Do not repay anyone evil for evil.  Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone.  If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.  Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written:  “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord.

Romans 13;1a…4  —   Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established…    For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good.  But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason.  They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.

**********************************************************

Oh God, Almighty Father, King of Kings and Lord of Lords, grant that the hearts and minds of all who go out as leaders before us, the statesmen, the judges, the men of learning and the men of wealth, may be so filled with the love of thy laws and of that which is righteous and life-giving, that they may be worthy stewards of thy good and perfect gifts; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

–Knights prayer, 14th century

————————