TAKING THE LONG VIEW – NOVEMBER 11, 2018

TAKING THE LONG VIEW

A sermon based on Psalm 146

First Baptist Church of Lynchburg

November 11, 2018

By Paul Dakin

May the words of my mouth and the mediations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, o Lord our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.

 

I do not know about you, but I am glad it’s over.

 

The 2018 mid-term elections have come and gone. I am happy about that! It means that, for at least a short amount of time anyway, we are finally free—Free from all the nuisance robocalls encouraging us to vote for this or that candidate. Free from pollsters calling to ask about our political preferences and whether or not we intend to vote. Free from the campaign yard signs that litter our neighborhoods and mar the landscape everywhere you look. Free from the unwanted campaign materials that have appeared in our mailboxes on a regular basis. Free from all the shrill and hateful campaign rhetoric that has filled the airwaves and internet. Free from all the negative campaign ads, warning us that, if we do not vote for a particular candidate, then the American republic, as we know it, will likely be doomed forever. Free from people that we don’t even know coming to our house to knock on our front doors to talk to us about their candidate.  “Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, I’m free at last!”—we are free…at least until the next campaign cycle begins in earnest for the 2020 presidential election…Then we get to start all over again…

 

Earlier this week, it was reported that the 2018 mid-term elections are projected to have been the most expensive mid-term elections ever held in the history of our nation. All told, the Democratic and Republican parties together spent a grand total of almost 5.2 billion dollars. Let me say that again—FIVE BILLION, TWO HUNDRED MILLION DOLLARS was spent on nothing more than trying to elect a slate of candidates to Congress and to state offices.[1]

 

I’ve been trying to wrap my mind around that all week. Regardless of what your political leanings are or regardless whichever political party that you support, I think that we can all agree that that is an obscene amount of cash that was spent by the main political parties on campaigning. Think about it with me. All that money was raised…and donated…and spent just so that particular candidates might be elected to political office. That’s all. Nothing more…

 

The question that has been bothering me this week is this: Is that really the best way that such a huge sum of money could have been put to use? One example—today is Veterans Day, a day set aside when we honor those who have served our country in the armed services. It is no secret for the last several years that the Veterans Administration needs fixing. Everybody knows that. It is also no secret that the VA needs additional funding to help our nation keep its promises to its veterans. Could not that money have been better spent in helping our veterans than being spent on financing political campaigns?…

 

Or consider this: over the last few years, college loans have become the single largest source of consumer debt among all Americans. It seems to me that the injection of that cash into student aid programs would have gone a long way in helping to ease the financial burden of our young people trying to attain their higher education goals. Don’t you think so? Wouldn’t that have been better use of that money?…Or think about this: How many hungry and homeless people in our nation could have been fed and housed with an influx of 5.2 billion dollars donated to various nonprofit organizations—organizations whose mission it is to care for “the least of these” among us?

 

All of this staggers the imagination. But instead of being spent in productive ways that would have made our nation a better place, the money was given and squandered attempting to elect professional politicians to office. I frankly think it speaks to the brokenness of our political system…and to our messed up priorities…and to the messed up priorities of the leaders that we continue to elect…

 

However, in some ways, this kind of situation is really nothing new. Pinning our hopes on politicians and leaders—regardless of who they are and despite what they may say they stand for—is a losing proposition in the end. Today’s passage from Psalms speaks to that very issue. Psalm 146 calls on us to take the long view of history—the long view of power. And it calls us to a greater hope than any hope that earthly leaders can offer to us.

 

Psalm 146 is one of the psalms that has been designated by scholars as a “post-Exilic psalm.” The term “post-Exilic” is a fifty-cent seminary word that means that it was written in the period after the final capture of Judah, the last remaining portion of the nation of Israel, in 587 BC. You may remember that, on that day, the city of Jerusalem was sacked, the magnificent Temple built by Solomon three centuries earlier was destroyed so that not one stone was left upon another, and many of the people of Judah were carried off into captivity. To these people, it must have seemed like the end of the world. Everything had come crashing down around them. These post-Exilic psalms were poems written by devout Jews to remind other devout Jews of God’s faithfulness—even in the wake of total political disaster. They were also written to give them hope for their future prospects.

 

After an opening declaration of praise to God in verses one and two, Psalm 146:3-4 says, “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help. When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish.”

 

The Old Testament story of the nation of Israel is a sad, sad tale. The United Monarchy of Israel was established around the 11th Century BC and thrived under the leadership of its first three kings—Saul, David and Solomon. Then a civil war, following Solomon’s reign, split the kingdom into two distinct nations—Israel to the north and Judah to the south. Both nations continued to exist side-by-side for roughly two hundred years. Then the northern kingdom fell to the Assyrian army around 723 BC. The southern kingdom continued on until it too was swallowed up by the Babylonian Empire about 150 years later.

 

The point of rehearsing this bit of dry ancient history is this: Altogether between the United Monarchy and then the two divided kingdoms, Israel had a total of 42 kings. Out of those 42 rulers of God’s people, the Bible says that only 11 of them could be counted as have been righteous. That’s all—only 11 out of 42. That is not a very high percentage, is it? And frankly, even some of the best of those rulers who were considered to be righteous, were less than they should have been.

 

The most obvious example is King David. David would be considered by most people to have been Israel’s greatest king. True enough. The prophet Samuel described David as “a man after God’s own heart.” David was to the one to whom God promised a dynasty that would reign over God’s people forever. But I do not have to remind you that David was a flawed leader at best. You all know that his reign was characterized by adultery, murder, a cover up that was spectacular in its failure, and plenty of palace intrigue that dogged him for many years—even to the point when he lay dying on his death bed. Not exactly the model of a godly king…

 

Or here’s another example—consider his son Solomon. He was the last king to rule during the glory days of the United Monarchy of Israel. It is said that Solomon was the wisest man who ever lived. It is also known that he was fabulously wealthy—so much so that his fame spread far beyond the borders of Israel. And yet we also know that his lavish lifestyle and his expensive building projects were financed through heavy taxes that he levied on the people. And we know that toward the end of his reign, Solomon allowed his many foreign wives to introduce the worship of their gods into the nation. He built altars to those foreign gods, and worshiped those gods right along with his wives. He was a ruler who started well…but he did not finish well at all…

 

After the division of Israel into two separate kingdoms, none of the kings of the north followed the ways of the Lord. There were twenty of them—and every one of them ruled with v various degrees of wickedness. The southern kingdom was more fortunate.  It had better leadership from time to time, but even then, the rulers of Judah often failed the people in demonstrating what a godly ruler should be.

 

Hezekiah was known as a king of Judah who “did what was right in the eyes of the Lord.” But he was stricken with leprosy during his reign and eventually trusted in political alliances with Egypt and Assyria to protect the nation from the encroaching Babylonians. That was not God’s plan. And it was a fatal mistake, for sure.

 

Or consider Josiah. Josiah was a king who started off well enough. His religious reforms reversed decades of decline due to pagan worship in Judah. He tore down those pagan altars and restored the worship of the one true God to its rightful place among the people. But Josiah died in battle around the age of 38. The writer of 2 Chronicles notes that he died because he ignored the word of the Lord as spoken through King Neco of the Egyptians.[2]

 

With that kind of history, is it any wonder that the writer of Psalm 146 counseled, “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help?”…

 

We live in a different day and age politically than the ancient Hebrews did. We get to vote for and choose our leaders. They did not. Back in those days, rulers came into power via succession because they were members of the royal family. Or they came into power by force. The people had little-to-no say over who would rule over them. They had no voice at all in the process. Even though our situation is different, it would still be fair to say that the words of the Psalmist are true for us as well: don’t put your trust in your leaders. They are here today and gone tomorrow. And when they die, they take their plans and accomplishments to the grave with them. It is God alone who is worthy of trust in our lives. He is the one that we are to rely on…and him only…

 

Notice that Psalm 146 makes no distinction as to the nature of the leader. The leader may be good or bad; the leader may be competent or incompetent; the leader may be godly or ungodly. It does not really matter. The fact is that ultimately his or her merits are not the point. Rather, what is important is their human condition. Leaders, like all humans, will come and then go to the ground. And when they die, all of their plans will go with them. The Bible says that we are to take the long view of things and not that of our temporary circumstances…

 

Then how are we to respond to our leaders—both to the leaders that we like and to the leaders that we do not like? What is the solution to the problem of obsessing over our leaders and giving them more importance than they really should have? The answer lies in verse two…

 

Psalm 146:2 says, “I will praise the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God all my life long.”

 

An alternate translation of this verse shows us that our lives are not only the timeframe in which we praise God, but our lives are also the means by which we praise God. In this translation, the verse two reads, “I will praise God through my life as long as I live.”[3]

 

What the psalmist is saying is that the very way in which we conduct our lives should be an act of praise illustrating God’s character and faithfulness. Our lives—in and of themselves—then become acts of praise—more than simply the praise that we offer to God on Sunday mornings. And as we live our lives as expressions of praise to God, we show our Lord’s values of truth, justice and responsiveness to those in need. Psalm 146 describes for us what this life of praise looks like in verses seven through nine. In those verses, the Lord is the One who executes justice for the oppressed; he is the One who gives food to the hungry; he is the One who sets the prisoners free; he is the One who opens the eyes of the blind; and he is the One who lifts up those who are bowed down. As we follow our Savior, these things will come to characterize our lives as well. These things are the marks of the Kingdom of God. When we follow these things, then our lives will become living expressions of praise to God.

 

The idea of our entire lives being an expression of praise to God is a profoundly counter-cultural concept. That is the case because such an attitude goes against the very grain of our culture, of the values that our society holds most dear. This is especially important to remember in our day and age when politicians try to co-opt the Christian faith for their own political advantage. It is transparently cynical for politicians to even attempt to use the Christian faith in that way. Truth be told, it really cannot be successfully done…because the values of the life lived in praise to God fly in the face of the values of power and government. They are entirely incompatible…

 

What are the kinds of values that characterize the life of praise? Here are some examples: Interest for the well-being and safety of others—regardless of who they are—instead of being primarily concerned with the protection of ourselves…the importance of service to others over valuing whatever makes us feel comfortable…the concern for justice and equality even when it may cost us something…the virtue of giving back to our community instead of the madness of seeking to continue to enrich ourselves by acquiring more possessions…actively promoting fairness for everyone as opposed needing to always win at any cost by using any means necessary. These things describe what the life of our Lord looked like. And because of that, they are also descriptive of the life of praise lived unto the Lord. Values to be reflected in our personal lives…and also values that inform our participation in the political process…

 

Yes—the midterm elections are now in the books. Whether you are celebrating the outcome of Tuesday’s election or whether you are lamenting the final results, the writer of Psalm 146 says this to you: Don’t put too much importance in the political system. Remember that the people that have been elected are all temporary. And so will be their legacy and influence. Instead, put your trust in the eternal Lord who made heaven and earth. And live your lives like you are citizens of his kingdom—praising him with lives that reflect that you are being transformed from the inside out through the work of his indwelling Holy Spirit. The Psalmist says that, ultimately, this is the only thing that really matters. And in reality, that is the only thing that can help to bring order to the chaos that exists in the nation—and the world—in which we live.

 

To God alone be the glory! Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] www.opensecrets.org/overview/cost.php (Accessed November 5, 2018)

[2] 2 Chronicles 35:20-27. That the Lord would speak to the king of Judah through a pagan Egyptian king is intriguing to me—perhaps something worth considering in another sermon on another day.

[3] I am indebted to Esther M. Menn, Professor of Old Testament, Lutheran School of Theology, Chicago, IL for this insight.