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Power Principles

A sermon delivered by Wendell Griffen, Pastor, New Millennium Church, Little Rock, Ark., on November 11, 2012.

Psalm 146

1Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord, O my soul!

2I will praise the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God all my life long.

3Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help.

4When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish.

5Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God,

6who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them; who keeps faith forever;

7who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets the prisoners free;

8the Lord opens the eyes of the blind. The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down; the Lord loves the righteous.

9The Lord watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.

10The Lord will reign forever, your God, O Zion, for all generations. Praise the Lord!

The presidential election of 2012 is finally over!  What did it determine?

  • The United States will not have a leadership change in the executive office next year.  President Barack Obama has been re-elected.
  • The United States Senate will not have a leadership change next year.  Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate’s Minority Leader who exposed more about himself than he knew when he declared that his only priority was to make President Obama a one-term president, now has fewer senators for his obstructionist caucus than he ever imagined, and must deal with another Obama four-year term to boot.
  • The United States House of Representatives will not have a leadership change.  Speaker John Boehner will continue leading that body.  Congressman Paul Ryan will return as Chair of the Budget Committee.  So much for plans to repeal the Affordable Care Act that has come to be known as “Obamacare.” 

More than $2 billion dollars were spent.  That campaign fund-raising and spending was invested in the biggest amount of negative advertising in political history. 

Karl Rove collected $300 million dollars from wealthy people and tried to defeat President Obama and elect politicians who wanted to expand the gap between the wealthy greedy and the unhealthy needy in the United States.  His plan was brought to ruin on last Tuesday.  Instead, people from diverse backgrounds rejected the racist, sexist, elitist, greedy, war-mongering, and imperialist path he and his political cronies hoped the nation would take.

So what did the presidential election of 2012 reveal?  Based on the Christian moral and spiritual perspective found at Psalm 146, the election exposed some timeless principles about power. 

The ultimate test of power is justice, not politicsPsalm 146:3-9 provides a sobering critique of all politics and political movements.  In that passage the Psalmist mentions “the oppressed,” “the hungry,” “the prisoners,” “the blind,” “the bowed down,” “the righteous,” “the strangers,” the orphan and the widow,” and “the wicked.”  According to the Psalmist, power is held to accomplish justice. The Psalmist is not alone in this perspective.  This is the familiar theme of social justice we find throughout the Bible.

Biblical notions of power do not turn on the personalities and particulars of political campaigns.  The names of powerful people appear in Scripture incidentally, not ultimately. That’s because political personalities aren’t of ultimate importance. 

What’s ultimately important about power is justice.  What matters most from the Biblical perspective is how vulnerable people are affected by how power operates. 

The Bible is concerned about what happens to people who are oppressed.  Beginning with the personal oppression Cain exercised by murdering his brother Abel, the Bible constantly exposes the idea that power can be abused for unjust purposes and to produce oppressive results. 

The history of those freed Hebrew immigrants that we encounter in the Exodus narrative shows us how true power operates.

  • True power sets oppressed people free.
  • True power feeds hungry people. 
  • True power heals people who are disabled. 
  • True power lifts people whose lives and hopes are crushed because of calamities, defeats, and despair. 
  • True power stands with people who stand up for what is right even when they are outnumbered and seemingly out-armed. 
  • True power welcomes, protects, and provides fair treatment for immigrants (“strangers”).
  • True power safeguards people who are weak and easily mistreated (“the orphan and the widows”). 
  • True power frustrates the plans and schemes of people who would use their power and influence to work injustice (“the wicked”). 

In short, true power accomplishes justice!  Justice is the standard by which we are to measure every political and social system.  Justice is the standard that defines whether a ruler is a success or failure.  Justice is how we know whether a ruler loves something bigger than popularity.  Justice is the way we distinguish rulers who are righteous from rulers who are wicked. That is because justice is the acid test for grading how power is used.

Politicians aren’t God!  The Psalmist expresses this principle with these words:  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.  (Ps. 146:3-4).  The Psalmist emphasizes the mortality of every emperor, king, president, prime minister, premier, and other political leader. 

In doing so, the Psalmist cautions against placing ultimate hope in temporal beings.  It’s unwise to place eternal hope on time-limited people. Politicians come and go, the Psalmist reminds us.  Politicians aren’t God! 

The Exodus narrative isn’t about the political aspirations of that unnamed Egyptian pharaoh and Moses.  The real lesson is that the leader of an unjust political system (which abused its immigrant population) was no match for God no matter how many soldiers and chariots his nation claimed.  As we sing in the spiritual, “Pharaoh’s army got drowned in the Red Sea.”

The prophet Isaiah served a king named Uzziah.  Uzziah died. God remained.  Isaiah’s greatest claim wasn’t in being part of Uzziah’s entourage.  It was in trusting and living for God.

The prophet Samuel anointed the first two kings of Israel:  Saul and David.  Samuel’s claim to fame wasn’t in his association with those men.  Samuel is remembered because he trusted God.

Jeremiah and Daniel were advisors to kings and emperors.  Eventually, each man was disappointed by the powerful heads of state they knew.  Despite that disappointment, Jeremiah and Daniel lived and remained faithful because they placed their ultimate trust in God. 

Every political figure enters and eventually will exit the stage of time.  None of them endures forever.  Each one exits to be replaced by someone else.  The Psalmist cautions us about putting ultimate hope and trust in people who share our finite and frail existence.  Instead, we’re encouraged to trust God, who lives and reigns forever.

Trust and Praise God, who does Justice AnyhowThe Psalmist proclaims that God does bring justice to pass.   The Hebrew immigrants had no army.  Their freedom from slavery showed up anyway.  Praise the Lord!

African slaves had no army or arms to fight their way to freedom. They had no money to purchase friends or support. Their emancipation showed up anyway.  Praise the Lord!

Women had no votes to give or deny any politicians in the United States.  Their suffrage showed up anyway.  Praise the Lord!

Wage-earners had no Washington lobbying group to persuade politicians to set up a system that allows them to earn a basic wage and have a pension during their last years.  The minimum wage and Social Security showed up anyway.  Praise the Lord!

Senior citizens and poor people are no match for insurance companies, hospital associations, pharmaceutical companies, and medical societies when it comes to having money to lobby politicians.  Medicare and Medicaid showed up anyway.  Praise the Lord!

Some politicians have objected to the idea of government helping people.  They claim that the strong should dominate the weak, not care for them. Federal emergency relief for events such as Hurricane Irene in September and Hurricane Sandy in October showed up anyway.  Praise the Lord!

Some politicians tried to rig elections across the nation.  The time for early voting was shortened in some states.  New laws were enacted in several states that required people to present government identification documents in order to vote.  Mis-information and outright false information was used to discourage and suppress voting by poor people, former felons, and other people.  But these groups voted anyway.  Praise the Lord!

Despite all the money and negative advertising, God cannot be stopped.  Despite all the half-truths and outright lies, God cannot be fooled.  Despite all the obstructionism, scheming, and grand-standing, justice cannot be hijacked. 

The Psalmist sums this all up by saying “Praise the Lord!”  Praise the Lord because the Lord reigns forever. 

  • Praise the Lord who provides for and protects the vulnerable. 
  • Praise the Lord who frustrates the wicked schemes of powerful people in high places and mean people in low places. 
  • Praise the Lord whose truth prevails over lies, whose freedom prevails over oppression, whose mercy prevails over cruelty, and whose gracious generosity always prospers and prevails over greed and self-centeredness. 

Praise the Lord, who does justice anyhow, somehow, and even when we don’t understand how.  Praise the Lord who lives forever!  Praise the Lord who knows our situations.  Praise the Lord who elevates people to be champions for justice.  Praise the Lord who humiliates people who think they can deny justice. 

Praise the Lord! 

Praise the Lord! 

Praise the Lord!

Amen.