Although many evangelical leaders are now repenting for syncretizing the Gospel of Jesus with their own political preferences in supporting Donald Trump, they have already done damage to the witness of their wing of the Church and of the whole Church, who get lumped in with them by the world.
I'm no more sanguine about an active pastor being elected to the US Senate from the other side of the political spectrum. Raphael Warnock seems like a good and intelligent person. But there is simply no way that Christian leaders and denominational bodies can prevent the cause of the Gospel being hurt when their political engagement seems to say, "To follow Jesus, you have to agree with these political ideas."
That's an example of "syncretism": conflating the Gospel of new life through repentance and faith in the God revealed in the crucified and risen Jesus with human inventions--political philosophies, human thoughts, political idols.
As much as I love and revere Dr. King, the moral arc of the universe does not bend toward justice. This world is fallen. We are born sinners. We're out for number one, which is why when God came into the world, calling us into His kingdom of love, grace, and justice, we took a pass and nailed Him to a cross to die. By our arrogance, indifference, and antipathy to God and the people God made and for whom Jesus died and rose, we still crucify Him.
We all have our political preferences. As long as we see them as our preferences and don't pretend that they have the imprimatur of heaven on them, we see and act aright, it seems to me.
Yes, the Church, pastors, and laypeople must demand that our leaders not be arrogant, racist, venal, evil, treasonous, or incompetent.
Yes, we should all feel free to have our opinions (though one hopes those opinions will bear some relationship with facts and not just to our feelings, resentments, prejudices, or sense of entitlement).
Yes, Christians are free to engage in politics, run for office, be civil servants.
But when pastors become king-makers or run for office, which I, to my shame, once did and for which I have repented, we hurt the cause of Christ.
In short, I hope that all of us called to positions of servant leadership in Christ's Church--to ministries of Word and Sacrament--will renounce the pursuit of political power and instead, embrace Jesus and His Gospel as our cause.
Pray for those in politics.
Offer advice when asked.
Write to public officials in your private capacity as citizens.
Donate to the political campaigns of your choice.
Publicly call officials and political candidates to the carpet when they misuse Scripture, command us to worship idols (including themselves), or perpetrate, excuse, or otherwise give comfort to injustice.
But don't grab for political power itself.
Our power as proclaimers of the Gospel is perfected in weakness and in the incessant, loving proclamation of Jesus Christ and Him crucified. Period.
A thought I had during my quiet time with God today: Every time I read a Bible verse and think, "So and so should read this" or "This doesn't apply to me," I'm actually the one who needs to read and it applies to me.
Jesus says in Matthew 4:17: "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near."
When God the Son took on human flesh, the kingdom of heaven invaded our world.
When I encounter the God revealed in Jesus, I need to repent.
That means I need--desperately need--to turn when He calls, admit the reality of my sin, frailty, and mortality and, setting aside excuses or rationalizations, receive the gifts only Jesus can give: forgiveness, freedom from condemnation, hope for eternity, His righteousness covering me so that when God the Father sees us He sees Jesus, the Holy Spirit setting me apart for God's good purposes, and God's permission and freedom to love, honor, and enjoy Him and to love, serve, and forgive others.
In short, repentance is a gift of God that always culminates in joy over being restored to the One Who made me and loves me most!
Father, this morning, as I begin my day, I repent. I turn away from sin and death, MY sin that leads to death, I renounce both my pride and my self-loathing, and I trust in Jesus to carry me through life and death here and into eternity with You. Thank You for giving me gifts I don't deserve and help me to submit to the regular habit of heeding You through Word and Sacrament so that Your Spirit can be about the sometimes painful but always perfect process of readying me for resurrection life with you AND allowing me to be Your Child right here and right now, In Jesus' name, I pray. AMEN!
[The painting is The Return of the Prodigal Son by Pompeo Batoni, painted in 1773. It portrays the moment when the younger son of a rich man turns to his father after he has squandered his father's money on prostitutes and wastefulness. It shows what repentance is: In it we turn from our slavery to sin, self, death, and darkness to the One Who freely gives us forgiveness, community, life, and light. He gives us our true selves! Repentance ends in joy! See Luke 15:11-32.)
One of my favorite passages in C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia comes in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.
Four children from our world have entered an alternate universe called Narnia. There, creatures await the return of that world’s Christ-figure, a lion named Aslan, who will make all things new and all things right. The children, who haven’t yet met Aslan, are intrigued and a bit frightened at the prospect of encountering him. So, one of the children asks if Aslan is safe. “Safe?” comes the response. “...Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.” This incident, I think, encapsulates all our human attempts to tame or domesticate the God we meet in Jesus Christ, the King of all kings. We want a safe Savior, compliant to our desires, who doesn’t condemn our sin, who doesn’t insist to have life with God we must take up our crosses and follow Him.
But Jesus is God and He will not be pounded into the molds we try to create for Him. We see this truth underscored in today’s Gospel lesson, Luke 2:40-52. It has been twelve years since Jesus’ birth, twelve years too, since the moment eight days after His birth that He was circumcised and dedicated to God in the temple. Both before and after Jesus’ birth, God had repeatedly confirmed for Mary and Joseph that the child they were raising was not theirs. He was conceived in Mary’s womb, not in the usual way, but by the Holy Spirit; shepherds sent by angels had worshiped the child as God on the night of His birth; Simeon and Ann had declared the infant their Savior and God; wise men had worshiped and made offerings to Jesus; and, most remarkably of all, as Luke emphasizes in today’s lesson, Jesus had been a sinless child who always complied with the Ten Commandments’ mandate that he honor His earthly father and mother, Joseph and Mary. But twelve years was plenty of time for Mary and Joseph to be lulled into believing that this child was really their child, that maybe they wouldn’t have to share Him with the world as “the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world.”
In the end, of course, every parent must realize, for the good of both their children and themselves, that their children really aren’t their children. Children are given by God to parents as sacred trusts to prepare children both for adulthood and for eternal life with God. But God gave Mary and Joseph an infinitely greater trust than He gives other parents and, because this Child was God the Son, they had even less of claim on Him than other parents have on their children. Jesus was, as Paul would later write of Him, “...the image of the invisible God…” (Colossians 1:15) As “the Word [Who] became flesh” (John 1:14), Jesus is “the Lion of Judah” (Revelation 5:5) Who will not be tamed, domesticated, or controlled by our expectations, even the pious expectations of His adoptive parents.
I was inspired a few years ago to write in a song: “But when you’re listening for the Holy Spirit / He may give you a call and you need to hear it / Following Jesus is a Jenga game / He’s going to tear down your bricks, you won’t be the same.” Jesus calls us to leave behind all pretense of being righteous or self-sufficent or in control, to confess our sin and our need of God and His forgiveness. That’s uncomfortable.
Jesus isn’t safe. Following Him isn’t safe. Follow Jesus and He will change you as He fits you for eternity.
But, in spite of the discomfort He causes us, Jesus is good. And following Him is good. In today’s lesson, Mary, Joseph, and Jesus travel to Jerusalem for the Passover. Because in those days, “family” was much more than just the people in one’s household, Mary and Joseph began the return trip to Nazareth certain that Jesus was with some of his aunts, uncles, or cousins. It’s only on the way that they realize the boy isn’t with them. They return to Jerusalem with what must have been both fear and anger. When they finally find Jesus in the temple, conversing knowledgeably about the Word of God with seasoned teachers of that Word, their fear subsides. But their anger is still present.
I imagine that Mary and Joseph felt the way my dad felt the day I became separated from my family during a massive annual lodge picnic. The sun had gone down and when my father finally found me laughing and riding on the playground’s merry-go-round, he pulled me off of it with one powerful hand and swatted me with the other. “What were you thinking?” Dad asked, clearly not wanting an answer. “Your mother’s been worried sick!”
In our lesson today, Mary says to Jesus: “Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.” (Luke 2:48)
The words are accusing. Mary feels that Jesus has failed as a son. Jesus is mystified by His mother’s anger. She seems to have forgotten Who Jesus really is and what His business is in the world.
But Jesus, even now, at the age of twelve, understands and will not forget His identity as Messiah and Lord.
He will not forget His business: to die for sinners in need of salvation and rise again to give life to all who repent and believe in Him.
And so Jesus’ response to His mother’s words are plain and without guile: “‘Why were you searching for me?...Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?’” (Luke 2:49)
Actually, I’m not in love with the last part of this translation of Jesus’ words. In the original Greek in which Luke wrote his gospel, Jesus’ words read, more literally, “Didn’t you know that it’s necessary for me to do the things of My Father?”
The point is clear, isn’t it? Jesus came into the world to save the world. God gave Mary and Joseph an important role in Jesus’ earthly story and He would always obey them as His earthly parents. But nobody and nothing could stand in the way of His fulfillment of His mission to the world, not even pious parents who brought their son to Passover celebrations and put the Word of God in His hands. This reminds me of another incident in Jesus’ earthly life. Peter had become the first of the apostles to proclaim Jesus to be “the Messiah, the Son of the living God" (Matthew 16:14). After commending Peter’s faith, Jesus went on to explain that because He was (and is) the Messiah and the Son of God, He would be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and the people, go through crucifixion, death, then rise on the third day. Peter was as horrified at the thought of losing Jesus to a cross as Mary and Joseph must have been that day in the temple of losing Jesus as their son. Peter, displaying the kind of anger we see in Mary in today’s lesson, tells Jesus, “Never, Lord! This shall never happen to you!” Then, with equal anger, Jesus tells Peter in words that must have stung as those He spoke as a twelve-year-old to Mary: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns." (Matthew 16:23) The Bible teaches us that Jesus can be one of two things to us (1 Peter 2:4-8).
He can be a stumbling block on which all our pretenses of being good enough to merit life with God will dash us to bits just as Mary’s pretense of being right in today’s lesson was blown to smithereens.
But Jesus can also be the life-giving cornerstone on which, with humble repentance and desperate faith, our new lives with God are secured.
It’s only repentance and faith in Jesus that can save us from sin, death, and our captivity to them.
As a new year begins, may we daily come to Jesus and see in Him, not a teacher or a child we can control, but the Lion of Judah Who isn’t tame, but is eternally good to those who trust in Him. Amen