20th Sunday after Pentecost – 10/10/2021
The other day I received an email from a woman who wrote that she was from out of town and had visited one of our services in August. She went on, as she stated, to offer me some advice for my preaching.
She began with an off-handed compliment: "On a positive note," she wrote, "I want to say that I admire your passion." Okay, so far, so good. But her "positivity" immediately morphed into scolding criticism, complete with a yellow highlighter. She continued, "I do, however, have to take issue with your bringing politics into your sermons. Specifically, you said:
"What is the greatest threat you and I face today?" Is it radical Islamic terrorism from such groups as the Taliban or Isis? Is it drugs and gangs pouring into our country through our southern border? Is it the aggressive and expansionistic actions of China? Is it the Deep State or a feckless and incompetent president? Or, as the ever-present environmental alarmists continue to insist, is the gravest threat to the world's population today global warming, climate change, or whatever the latest term is being employed to refer to the environmental Armageddon they insist we are heading for?
She then offered the following "advice": "I recommend you confine your topics and examples to faith issues, biblical issues, good works issues, and the like." You lost me, and I suspect I was not alone when you ventured into politics. It doesn't serve you well to disparage the leadership of your country, either. I can only wonder what you must have said in 2016-2020.
Her comments leave little doubt about where her "political views" lie. In fact, from them, it appears that in her mind, my remarks were unacceptable and "political" was that they didn't square with her views.
I found that to be typical of all of us. We all tend to feel that others who express their views are just political and divisive, but when we express our views, we exercise our right to free speech!
One critical point this emailer failed to acknowledge in her critique, however, is that aside from those three sentences she found "political," the rest of the 20-minute sermon was, in its entirety, an appeal to fear the loss of faith in Jesus Christ and the salvation He alone gives us more than anything else. Hardly a political message, but certainly one of grave spiritual and eternal importance!
All this leads me to ask: What does it mean for a preacher to be "too political?" I concur that it is not my place in a democratic republic like ours to advocate for specific candidates for political office. That would be playing politics instead of preaching the gospel. Citizens can vote for whoever they deem best suited for the office. Speaking derogatorily about a leader or other authority would break the Fourth Commandment and dishonor them. I sincerely ask God that, in His mercy and for Jesus' sake, he forgive me for those times I have done just that in my private life and my preaching.
However, it is worth asking if raising questions about the morality or wisdom of political leaders' policies or laws is too political. When they utilize the clear Word of God, those called Christian preachers of the gospel are not allowed to call attention to society's sins or call to repentance society's leaders, whom even God considers and names as "His ministers" (Romans 13:4-6).
Suppose such preaching truly is too political and, as such, out of bounds. In that case, someone should have told the prophets of old, who not only called their priests and kings on the carpet for their moral failings and ungodly decrees but even publicly chastised and condemned foreign leaders and nations.
Likewise, someone should have told John the Baptizer that he was being too political when he publicly and fiercely called the Jewish tetrarch Herod Antipas of Galilee and Perea to repent of his adultery with his brother's wife. And, yes, someone should have chastised Jesus Himself for being too political when He frequently and very publicly preached against the false teachings and practices of the Scribes and Pharisees, calling them "whitewashed tombs" and "a den of vipers," let alone when he took it upon Himself, not once but twice, to chase all the sellers and moneychangers out of the Jerusalem temple.
Holy Scripture calls God's prophets, his called and appointed preachers, "watchmen." We read in the 33rd chapter of Ezekiel: "So you, son of man, I have made a watchman for the house of Israel." Whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. If I say to the wicked, "O wicked one, you shall surely die," and you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from his way, that evil person shall die in his iniquity, but his blood I will require at your hand. "But if you warn the wicked to turn from his way, and he does not turn from his way, that person shall die in his iniquity, but you will have delivered your soul."
In our Old Testament Reading this morning, we heard Amos from a fiery prophet. He did not confine himself to "faith issues, biblical issues, good works issues, and the like." As we see in the small excerpt of his preaching that serves as our focus today, he is boldly proclaiming God's judgment upon his whole society for its idolatrous practices as well as its unjust system of taxation whereby the rich are favored at the expense of the poor. He rails against the total corruption of the whole judicial system, which has no penchant for establishing truth and true justice but is mired in bribery and the total abandonment of the needy. He rails: "Seek the LORD and live, lest he breaks out like fire in the house of Joseph and devour, with none to quench it for Bethel" (v. 6). How about this for being "political"?
In my view, at the heart of all that Amos preaches here, as well as what is right and proper for you and me to preach and proclaim in our very politically driven society today, is his counsel to: "Hate evil, and love good, and establish justice in the gate." (vs. 14). After all, effective warnings of evil do indeed require true passion! By the way, this verse and v. 15 are central to Amos' book. He is thus signifying that these two verses lay out the central theme of his whole prophecy. Concordia Commentary, R. Reed Lessing, CPH, 2009, p. 333
In Amos' day and society, the city gate was where the city elders would make their judgments and legislate what was good and right for how the people should live, transact business, and conduct themselves in the worship of God. Central to it all is the right and judicial distinction between what is evil and what is good. No city could prosper or survive if its elders were not principled men of integrity, wise in the ways of God's Word, and courageous men of conviction who could discern and name good from evil.
Furthermore, as Yahweh's chosen people were guided and governed by His Word, the very definition of good they were taught to know is of and from the only true God (Yahweh), the Creator, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the true and ultimate Judge of Heaven and Earth, the only Redeemer and Savior of Sinners, and the One who promised to come Himself in human flesh and save fallen man from the beginning (Gen. 3:15). As a result, evil is not something that everyone can decide for themselves, but rather that which is opposed to Yahweh, His will, and His word.
Likewise, if preachers today, God's watchmen, cannot or will not point out clearly and directly in their preaching what in their society and world is evil and what is good in the sight of this true God, then they may as well hang up their Bibles and vacate their pulpits. They are useless to the world, unworthy of their calling, an offense to the truth, and even a detriment to people's eternal salvation.
At the same time, the proper articulation of good and evil cannot happen if the one preaching, or the one pointing to the wickedness, does not personally hate the evil and love the good. Just calling something evil or good is not enough. Just as speeches by speakers who lack passion for what they are saying go in one ear and out the other of the listeners, simply calling something evil or good without the obvious hatred or love for that evil or good will move no one to act.
We hear and bemoan this all the time on the part of so many of our leaders, politicians, and, yes, even so-called pastors. Depending on the audience, they will gladly identify certain policies or actions as either evil or good, but they rarely do anything about it because they need more conviction. They are passionate about getting reelected, securing advancement, or keeping their positions.
Jesus told the church at Laodicea, "I know your deeds; you are neither cold nor hot." I wish that you were either one or the other! "So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth" (Rev. 4:15, 16).
It is causing me grave concern today that we Christians are losing the ear of our society and the cultural war that is going on all around us. Why is this? It is because we are passionate about what is truly good and evil. We could preach and teach ourselves the Ten Commandments and other injunctions from the Holy Bible. And yes, we might proclaim the true gospel of Jesus Christ in church or our classrooms. But when we are presented with public "pulpits," like family gatherings, discussions with friends and neighbors, and public meetings wrestling with the vast array of public policies, we often remain silent under the guise that we do not want to offend anyone.
Truly, in certain volatile circumstances, to maintain a sense of order and civility, the better part of wisdom would be to reserve our comments for a more opportune moment. But often, our silence, when we do have the opportunity to give a clear witness to the truth, stems from our cowardice or lack of passionate conviction for the truth ourselves. For example, do I hate the evil of abortion, which murders innocent children, if I insist that I view the practice as wrong, but I defend a woman's right to choose an abortion? Or how about when those who legislate our laws signal that they will pass a law prohibiting the teaching that human beings are either male or female, and I say nothing? Do I have any passion at all for God's truth? Do I even care? Where is my passionate love for God and His good, created order?
I'm afraid the same cannot be said about the advocates of these evil philosophies and practices we condemn or those who oppose what we preach as true. They are in our faces with bully pulpits in mainstream media, community meetings, and social media. They have no problem passionately expressing their love for what God calls evil or their hate for us and our Biblical preaching!
Amos was passionate about confronting the enemies of truth in his day, acknowledging their hatred for truth and righteousness and calling them to repentance. "Seek the LORD and live, lest He breaks out like fire in the house of Joseph, and devour, with none to quench it for Bethel, you who turn justice to wormwood and cast down righteousness to the earth," he declared.
The aggressive and passionate opposition to God's truth and godly righteousness being exhibited today by such groups as Black Lives Matter, supporters of critical race theory, the LGBTQ community, as well as heterodox Christians who deny the clear teachings of the Bible and proclaim a false gospel of salvation that is nothing more than a permissiveness to do evil, cannot be fought with mild-mannered reason.
These enemies of God are passionate in their love for what God calls evil and their hatred for what God calls good. Their hatred of good and love for evil must be met with our passionate love of God's good and a hatred of what God calls evil. That's the only way. Jesus did not give up His life to save us and all sinners so that we should remain silent in weak resignation! If we have no passion for His truth, we will hardly put forth much effort to proclaim the truth of Christ, which can free you, me, and all people from God's impending judgment (John 8:32).
If people criticize us for being too passionate or political, call us evil, try to silence us, publicly harass us, humiliate us, or even attempt to assault or imprison us, so be it physically! The One who endured the shame and suffering of the cross that we might be declared right in the only court and before the only judge that eternally matters has promised us, "Blessed are you when others revile you, persecute you, and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account." "Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven; so they persecuted the prophets before you" (Matthew 5:10–12).
True, we cannot force people to believe what we know to be true from God's Word. But neither can we allow the rhetoric and propaganda of those opposed to the truth to stand with any sense of legitimacy. These "anti-truthers" views and claims are not innocent. If allowed to continue unopposed, they will lead people to hell. And this is something Yahweh does not want. For the truth is that He "desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth" (1 Tim. 2:4).
May our fervent prayer be what Harry Emerson Fosdick taught us to sing a few minutes ago in his hymn: "LORD, save us from weak resignation. To the evils we deplore..." (LSB 850:4).