Rethinking Politics and Preaching

There are some dangers when preaching starts to sound like American political speeches. Here are a few reasons we need to rethink the way we talk about politics.

1)    There are significant sectors of the church (perhaps people from every church tradition and denomination) that have become convinced that their favorite American political philosophies are in alignment with scripture.

2)    The integrity of preaching is in danger if preaching does not sound any different than other forms of speech about political ideology.

3)    Listeners who trust preachers to proclaim the ways of God may be persuaded to think the bible encourages specific political positions.

4)    The one body of Christ is at risk when other allegiances become so important that followers of Christ debate political preferences to the point of division.

5)    The witness of the church is in danger when the world observes the church behaving as other entities in the world, clamoring for the same power and fighting one another in order to gain it.

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Preaching and Politics of Power

There is a strong possibility that preachers and congregants join with parties, positions, or rhetoric in order to belong to those who appear to hold the power. Although the gospel speaks about power differently than the world does, it remains a temptation for the church to hold some of that power. This is not the first century the church has decided to join the ways of the world in order to accomplish what it perceives to be good. The call to dwell in the world that God so loved in order to influence the world in the ways of God sometimes backfires. Whatever else may occur at this time, it is likely the world begins to see the church as just another group attempting to gain control by grabbing onto the world’s power structures.

The reasons preachers may be tempted to preach a political ideology that is something other than biblical may include; 1) a preacher’s own political bias. 2) an attempt to please congregants. 3) an effort to support a particular political effort. 4) a confusion that some political theory equals the gospel. 5) some other attempt to appear relevant. These may not be the only reasons but I suspect these occur frequently. All of them fall short of preaching the gospel.

A Present Problem

On a personal level, this preacher has experienced; 1) many instances of preaching that encouraged alignment with current political power structures. 2) frustration when preaching sounds like popular forms of political rhetoric. 3) concern about the direction of the church as it hears and responds to political rhetoric. 4) a conviction that preaching should reveal a biblical counter-politic to current political rhetoric.

What is your experience? Do you share these concerns? Do you disagree?

A Clash of Kings

In the Thessalonian correspondence we are saturated with reminders that Jesus is the coming king. This is significant considering our introduction to the Thessalonian church is that they are preaching a king other than Caesar (Acts 17). This is no less than treason. History tells us the city had some level of infatuation with Rome and Caesar. The close ties with Rome were evidenced by a shrine in Thessalonica for the emperor cult. The emperor was seen as the universal savior whose benefactions were declared as good news. Such benefactions were enjoyed and the residents were under some responsibility to protect such a favored status. Added to this was a decree from Caesar banning any predictions of a new king (Witherington, New Testament History, 262).

It was not enough for those raised to be faithful to Rome to hear that this Jesus who had been crucified had also been risen from the dead. Now there was talk about him coming as king. I and II Thessalonians, in fact, cannot stop talking about Jesus as coming king. For those who may have lived their lives desiring to experience a visit from Caesar, the portrayals of Jesus arrival are particularly interesting. What might a coming of Caesar look like? How would a royal entrance be announced? Perhaps with a herald’s proclamation and royal trumpets?

This should not be lost on us when we read about the coming of King Jesus in I Thessalonians 4. Jesus comes from heaven, with a loud command, the voice of the archangel, and the trumpet of God. It sounds so royal. We are almost expecting the text to add that a red carpet is rolled out. On his best day, Caesar coming from the capital city, with a human herald, and roman trumpets is no match for that. And then, if that isn’t enough, II Thessalonians 1 tells us that he comes from heaven in blazing fire and powerful angels. Just saying, if this is a clash of kings, Caesar doesn’t stand much of a chance.

Politics of a Holy Kingdom

I Thessalonians 5.12-24: A Written Sermon

Acts 17 tells us about a church that came to be in what we might call a delicate political climate. Paul and Silas were banished from the city and forced to leave under cover of darkness. A local named Jason, along with others, had been dragged through town and placed in jail. All because of politics. In this church, they were preaching a king other than Caesar. First in the synagogue, now perhaps at Jason’s house. And ever since the letter we call I Thessalonians arrived, they were constantly reminded that this was the message. There is another king, and this king is on the way to establish a new kingdom.

This made people nervous. Especially since, in I Thessalonians this is not just casually mentioned. The reader is reminded in chapter one that King Jesus is coming. And again in chapter two “we will glory in his presence.” In chapter three a prayer that we will be “holy and blameless” when he comes. And in chapter four, nothing less than a royal welcome as a herald announces his coming as trumpets blast. And again, sanctified and blameless at his coming in chapter five. This is not a peripheral message in I Thessalonians. This is not an accidental political statement. The true king is coming to set up his reign.

Caesar had issued a decree. It was against the law to predict a new king during the reign of Caesar. In fact, Caesar declared that he himself was a god.

We cannot escape the fact that when I Thessalonians talks about a king… one who is truly God… it is a political statement. We should not be surprised by this. If we have been reading our bibles, we already know that when the New Testament began it began with a prophet in the desert who kept crying out “repent! A new kingdom is coming.” I think we can hear in his words and actions that he wanted to be sure we understood that this meant a new king was coming.

And then Jesus walked onto the scene. And he came with an announcement “the kingdom is here!” By the end of the gospel we surely understand that he meant “the new king has arrived!”

This conversation about the Thessalonians reminds us there may be tendencies for us, perhaps a majority of us, to become loyal to the kings of the world. We should be able to understand why the residents of the city might get nervous when someone came claiming another king than Caesar. We might be able to understand why they might drag someone across town to restore order. But this conversation about Thessalonians also reminds us that kings like Caesar do not last for long. The fact is, all of earth’s kings are on the way out. We can fall in behind them, but we would be placing trust in a system doomed to failure.

This kingdom I Thessalonians is talking about comes with expectations. We read some of them in our text from chapter five. They come as a list of characteristics that those in the kingdom should exhibit. This is what one with a holy heart looks like. Paul does not spend a lot of time on any of them. We do not get detailed definitions of what any of them mean for us. He shoots them out in rapid fire and we hear things like;

Acknowledge those who work on your behalf and those who care for you. Live in peace with one another. Warn those with idle tendencies and warn those who are disruptive. Encourage the downhearted. Help the weak. Be patient with everyone (sounds so simple, we know it’s not). Do not pay back wrong with more wrong. Do good for one another. Do good for others. Rejoice always. Pray continually. Give thanks in everything. Do not quench the Spirit. Be careful with prophecy.

Reject evil. Yesterday morning, here in PA, an armed shooter entered a place of worship during a naming ceremony and killed eleven people, including four officers. In this kingdom, we hear words like reject evil. We hear do not pay back wrong with more wrong. We condemn such attacks. We pray for our Jewish neighbors. We call on people to turn from violent ways. We call on the church to be God’s agents of love and reconciliation and change.

I Thessalonians is an encouraging message of hope. It tells us peace is possible, but only through the God of peace. We get a prayer here in our text this morning. A prayer that the “God of peace will sanctify you entirely in preparation for the coming of the true King.” Thessalonians calls us to live like we are in the presence of the King.

This is how we are to live on days that seem normal. This is how we are to live when we are seriously wondering if the person driving ahead of us really has a driver’s license. This is how we are to live if forced to leave town under cover of darkness. This is how we are to live if dragged across town for our politics. This is how we are to live if a girl named Gwendolyn steals all our change. This is how we are to live if we encounter one who sends packages of hate to people who think differently. This is how we are to live if someone walks into a place of worship and kills people because of their nationality.

We are a people who live in peace with one another. A people who encourage the downhearted. We are people who help the weak, who are patient, and do not repay wrong with more wrong. We are a people who rejoice and pray and give thanks. We are a people who reject evil.

We are a people who believe in another kingdom, one ruled by the true King – Jesus.

I Thessalonians: Politics, Holiness, and the Coming Kingdom

The historical context that lies behind I Thessalonians may provide some insight into the meaning of the letter. We could start with the back story of Julius Caesar, the one made famous by William Shakespeare. After the assassination, there was a struggle between Octavian and Antony. Thessalonica threw its support behind Octavian who later became known as Caesar Augustus. Thessalonica had been in a favorable position ever since. Therefore, the citizens were very sensitive about anything that might threaten their status with Rome.

Our introduction to the Thessalonians is political. Acts tells us that the preaching in the city was not in vain. Many Jews and prominent Greek women were converted. This aroused anger and perhaps jealousy that led to complaints about Paul and Silas. The complaint is that the men who turned the world upside down are upsetting the status quo by proclaiming a king other than Caesar. As it turns out, the complaint is valid. In defense of the residents, they were only behaving as expected by banishing Paul and Silas from the city and dragging Jason across town to be jailed.

When one considers those things, it makes one wonder about the intention of I Thessalonians when we read;

– About grace and peace that does not come from the emperor (1.1).

– That these people have been chosen by God. For those who were raised with a longing to receive a blessing from Caesar, this may be unexpected but glad news (1.4).

– Of good news that is preached not to receive praise from mortals, not even the emperor (2.4). This may not be a direct slap to Caesar, but is likely a slap to the ways of Caesar’s world. Whatever the intentions, God is the more important audience.

– About a call into the kingdom of God, even better news than being welcomed into the kingdom of Rome (2.12).

– That this is no human word, but God’s word at work in them. Caesar’s tidings do not compare (2.13).

– A reference to a “crown” (2.19), wonder what went through the minds of the recipients?

– A prayer to be prepared for the coming of a king. Holy and blameless are the preparation for this king (3.13).

– A statement about rejection. To reject this word is not rejecting a human, but a rejection of God (4.8). This is more serious than rejecting words from Caesar.

– Of a commanding voice, an archangels call, and the sound of God’s trumpet (4.16). The coming of Jesus is portrayed as a royal announcement. I Thessalonians, as well as Paul’s preaching, was treasonous. It was against Roman law to predict the coming of a new king or kingdom.

– People talking about “peace and security” offered by the emperor, yet destruction will come to those who are unprepared (5.3).

– About breastplates and helmets (5.8). But, Roman attire does not offer the faith, love, or the hope of salvation offered here.

– That it is God who offers “peace” and prepares one with the necessary holiness for the coming of the real king, Jesus (5.23).

I Thessalonians is a letter written during a politically delicate situation to people who live in a pro Caesar city. There was a decree that banned the prediction of a new king. Yet, in a gathering at Jason’s house they keep talking about a king other than Caesar. And now they have in their hand a letter that repeatedly (1.9-10;2.19;3.13;4.16;5.23) announces that this king is coming from heaven. It is difficult to overlook the political tone of this letter.

Preaching Politics and the Book of Daniel

I am knee deep in a Doctor of Ministry program and am at the beginning stages of a dissertation. It is my intention to examine preaching in the church as well as mainstream political rhetoric in order to discover how Christians decide on political ideology. If you would be willing to help when the time comes for research, please let me know. A warning, I will be soliciting some of you for help whether you volunteer or not.

Biblical foundations will play a significant part in the research. Interestingly, we are presently reading Daniel 1-6 together on Wednesday evenings. We are asking questions of the text and examining what the text might suggest for a 21st century church. It is unavoidable to read Daniel without recognizing political implications. So, here in the middle of our reading I am offering the following implications for preaching the book of Daniel. Please feel free to affirm or challenge any of them, I will be very grateful.

  • The state may attempt to sound like the voice of God – but it is not.
  • To align with the state is never the will of God.
  • It is not the intention of the state to encourage Christian discipleship.
  • Preaching includes the role of calling forth a movement of resistance.
  • We can preach an allegiance to God without speaking violently toward the state.
  • Our message includes an invitation for representatives of the state to join us.
  • We preach that God is and has always been a God who delivers, rescues, and saves… “but even if He does not…” we are not going to serve or worship the gods of the state.