Hallelujah! The Lord Reigns

Here is one pastor’s attempt to address politics from the pulpit. I usually will do one sermon sometime during a presidential election year on church/state, Christian citizenship issues. I preached this sermon on July 5. If you are willing to wade into this potential quicksand in your own congregation, this may be a guide of some sort. [Note: please pardon the formatting which didn’t cross over very well from Word to this website.]

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HALLELUJAH: THE LORD REIGNS (Psalm 146)

            The ever-quotable C. S. Lewis dropped this line in The Weight of Glory:

I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen, not only because I see it but because by it, I see everything else. 

Lewis is writing about a Christian’s gospel lens—the first portal through which we look at everything: family, work, relationships, church, politics.  For a believer, that should be our first lens, but for many, it is not.  Especially when it comes to politics.  Instead of first looking through our gospel lens, we look through our Republican lens or our Democrat lens or our Fox News or MSNBC lens.  We let people tell us what we should think about this candidate and that issue, and many of us swallow it hook, line, and sinker without ever looking at it through our gospel lens.  Mark Sayers recently observed …

We‘re in a moment where many are increasingly skeptical about their faith while dogmatic and even fundamentalist about their political ideology.  Flip it.  Be passionately steadfast in your faith and radically skeptical of your own and anyone else’s political ideology.

         That’s what we’re going to try to do today: flip it.  We’re going to try to get the gospel in its first place and let it serve to correct our political vision where it needs correcting.

            The psalmist can help us.  I invite you to open your Bible to Psalm 146.  A few weeks ago, in my morning devotions, my psalm for the day was 146.  I’ve read it 100 times, but it never struck me like it did that day.  Because I do my devotions for me rather than you, it’s rare when God takes a text I’m reading and says, “Preach this.  This is not just a word for you, this is a word for my people.  Preach this psalm.”  So with the Spirit’s help, that’s what I’m going to do today.

            Psalm 146 is the first of five praise songs that conclude the Psalms.  In a book with a name that means “praises,” the last five psalms are one big exclamation point to end the book.  Each of the five begin and end with a hallelujah.  After praying through lament and anger, confession and thanksgiving, after praying creation, exodus, and wisdom themes, Psalms ends on a high note of praise—a crescendo of praise from …

Psalm 146:1 – “Hallelujah! My soul, praise the Lord!”

to

Psalm 150:6 – “Let everything that breathes praise the Lord. Hallelujah!”

From one voice to every voice (cue the tympanies and cymbals): “Hallelujah! Praise the Lord!”  This arrangement is not accidental.  It reminds us that no matter how much mud and hell and enemies and darkness and guilt and sickness and sadness and suffering and grief we experience in our walk with God, the last word is praise—always praise.

And that goes for our politics too.  Psalm 146 has a political edge to it.  It reminds us who’s in charge, who to trust, and what matters most to him.  Hear the word of the Lord … (read the text).

I

The psalm begins with profound praise …

My soul, praise the LORD.

I will praise the LORD all my life;

I will sing to my God as long as I live.

This is not lip-service praise.  This is not perfunctory praise.  This is extravagant, soul-deep praise.  In Hebrew thinking, the soul is not just some ethereal part of who we are; the soul is who we are—a person doesn’t just have a soul; a person is a soul.  So when the psalmist offers this praise, he offers it from the deepest parts of who he is, from head to toe, from heart and mind, from life and lips he offers God praise.  And it’s not a one-shot deal either.  He intends on praising God as long as he lives.

            The psalmist doesn’t just know about God, he knows God—has a relationship with God, is intimately acquainted with God, calls him “my God.”  And he can’t stop singing and talking about God.  This is a God-centered, God-saturated psalm.  The psalmist refers to God 15 times in just 10 verses.  He uses God’s covenant name, Yahweh—the LORD—11 times and God’s title, Elohim—God—4 times.  The Lord is his God, and he makes no bones about it.  Doesn’t leave us guessing.  Doesn’t leave us wondering where he stands with God, what he thinks of God.  According to A. W. Tozer, What comes into our mind when we think about God is the most important thing about us.”[1]  This psalmist leaves no doubt what comes into his mind when he thinks about God.  He can’t get God off his mind, off his lips, or out of his eyes.  A little boy and his grandfather were watching a sunset at the beach.  “Pops,” asked the boy, “do you ever see God in a sunset?”  Pops replied, “Anymore, I hardly see anything else.”  That’s a gospel-lens and that’s our psalmist.  He begins this God-saturated psalm with profound praise.

II

And then he sweeps up politics in his praise.

            He begins with a warning in v. 3 …

Do not trust in nobles,

in a son of man who cannot save.

            What does he mean by nobles?  He means princes, kings, powerful people—in our context, presidents and politicians.  Israel had a slew of kings across their history.  Other than David, Solomon, Hezekiah, Josiah, and a couple more, most of Israel’s—and when the kingdom divided, Judah’s—kings were a bunch of chumps, and their reigns were summed up with this phrase, “he did what was evil in the sight of the Lord.”  Even Israel’s greatest kings had their faults.  David had his sins; Solomon lost his way.  Not a single one was perfect.  Not a single one could save.  They might have appeared to be as powerful as God.  They could win battles here and there.  They could build alliances that made for temporary peace.  They could make shrewd trade deals and move the nation’s economy in the right direction.  They could speak like an angel and snort like a bull.  But they couldn’t save.

            They couldn’t even save themselves.  Look at v. 4 …

When his breath leaves him,

he returns to the ground;

on that day, his plans die.

            If there’s one thing every king, every prince, every president, every prime minister, every pope, every pastor, every politician has in common it’s this: they all die … (except Queen Elizabeth who’s like 112 and still kicking—but one day she’ll die too.)  We have economic problems.  We have stubborn social injustices.  We have strained relationships with traditional enemies.  We have immigration issues.  We have massive national debt.  Politicians can make a positive dent in some of these issues, and many have, but they can’t make a dent in the death issue: “If elected,” says candidate Smith, “I promise to end death as we know it.”  Nobody promises that.  They can’t change death, legislate death, fix death.  They can’t fix it for their constituents.  They can’t fix it for themselves.  They can fix some things, but they can’t save anyone.

            And even the things they fix often don’t stay fixed.  Because when the politician breathes his last and bites the dust, somebody takes his place and changes the plans.  This is especially true in a day when American politics is more polarized than ever.    That’s why every American election is framed by the politicians and the media as “the most important election in our lifetime.”  The Democrats want to change everything the Republicans are doing.  The Republicans want to overturn some things the Democrats did when they had the power.    But mostly all they do is blame and fight and divide and insult and posture.  Ernest Benn said, “Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it whether it exists or not, diagnosing it incorrectly, and applying the wrong remedy.”  I have a higher view of politics than that but not as high these days as I once had.

            This psalmist didn’t have the highest regard for politicians either.  He says, “Don’t trust them.  They can’t save.”  They rarely keep their promises.  And if they do, when they are out of power, their plans leave with them.

            The psalmist’s imperative, “Do not trust in nobles,” is another way of saying, “Don’t put your hope in them.”  And if there’s one thing we’ve seen in the last 40 years in American politics, it’s this: well-meaning Christians are quick to put their hope in politicians and their political parties …

  • He said he’d end abortion—we still have it and still funnel millions of dollars to that slaughterhouse called Planned Parenthood.
  • She said she’d appoint conservative judges—but even then, as we’ve seen this past week, no one can’t predict how judges will rule in specific cases.
  • He said he’d champion religious liberty—but in secular America that will be constantly tested.
  • She said she’d create more opportunities for minorities—we’ve seen great progress, but there are still miles to go.
  • He said he’d get the economy roaring and cut my taxes—but who could have predicted a pandemic, and what do we do about people who get left behind in a roaring economy?

In other words, don’t put your hope in politicians to solve your problems or the nation’s problems.  They can make a dent.  They can do some good.  But then comes a pandemic.  Then comes Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd and legit protests and riotous anarchy and the Chop Zone and attacks on police and posturing politicians and general chaos.  It reminds me of G. K. Chesterton’s astute observation that in making the world …

God had written, not so much a poem, but rather a play; a play he had planned as perfect, but whichhad necessarily been left to human actors and stage-managers, who had since made a great mess of it.[2]

            Don’t trust, don’t put your hope, in politicians.  I’ve seen some Christians go beyond trust to worship.  They think their hero can do no wrong or they cover their eyes to lousy character because they like his or her view on some issue.  As Christians we need to court a little more skepticism about our favorite politicians and our favorite political party.  In reflecting on these lines in the psalm, Eugene Peterson put it this way … 

Admiration is healthy; it is a clear glass through which we see in others gifts and attributes to which envy is blind.  But hero worship introduces a distortion; it confuses mere humans with the near divine.  Hero worship is a first cousin to idolatry.[3]

There are some good men and women, people of integrity, that serve in politics.  Pray for them because as one man put it, politics is “the Devil’s playground.”[4]  Temptations are plenty.  Corruption is always one decision away.  And the voices in a politician’s ears are so loud and so many, it can be hard to discern the voice of God.  How any of them maintain their integrity is a gift of God.  So pray for them—those you like and those you don’t. The Bible tells us to (1 Tim 2:1-3). 

And it’s okay to admire worthy politicians, to respect them.  But don’t put hope in them.  Don’t trust that any politician or party is going to set everything right.  Daniel Akin observed that many believers “put more hope in Capitol Hill than Calvary’s hill!  They put more hope in a government than they do God!”[5]  Don’t fall prey to that.  You’ll be disappointed.  No politician is up to that challenge.

But our system requires politicians.  We need good people to serve.  We need Great Commandment Christians to serve.  We need the kinds of candidates where we don’t have to hold our nose when we vote.  And Christians need to vote.  Just do it through a gospel lens.  Don’t sell your soul or your mind to a political party or a political candidate.  Don’t look at them through rose-colored glasses.  And don’t jump on board with a politician just because your favorite preacher does.  Do your own work.  Research candidates and issues and organizations, look for integrity, look for positions on issues that reflect the kinds of things the Bible reveals that God cares about, make informed decisions, pray for wisdom, and vote.  Give them your vote, but don’t give them your hope.  Even the good ones will term-limit out, be defeated in reelection, retire, or die, and their plans will go with them.

III

Do this instead: put your hope in the Lord God (v 5).

Happy is the one whose help

is the God of Jacob,

whose hope is in the LORD his God.

            Don’t see God through your politics.  See your politics through God, through a gospel lens.  And one of the things you’ll quickly realize is that when your hope is in God, you can be happy regardless of who lives in the White House, who makes laws in Congress, and who sits on the bench of the Supreme Court.  That’s right, happy.  As Beth Tanner explains, the Hebrew word translated happy in v. 5 means …

not a passing or superficial happiness, but a deep abiding contentment with the human condition and one’s God.  It is life as it is supposed to be, and it is achieved by having God as one’s help and hope.[6]

Christians can live in abiding contentment regardless of the outcome of elections because our contentment doesn’t rest in Donald Trump or Joe Biden or in the Democrat or Republican parties or their policies.  Nor does it rest in whatever kind of economy the nation is experiencing in the moment.  Our contentment rests in the Lord our God.

And knowing that, our psalmist gushes a chorus of praise to our God, “the Maker of heaven and earth, the sea and everything in them.”  God is not a flawed, failed creature; he is Creator of all that is.

And unlike the empty promises of most politicians, God is forever faithful to implement his policies of justice for the exploited and food for the hungry, doing for his people what government cannot or will not do. 

And as the psalmist lays out God’s platform in vv. 7-9, “he names the Name [Yahweh] five timesIn naming the Name, the psalm under its breath debunks and dismisses every other name.”[7]

  • “The LORD [not Donald Trump] frees prisoners.”
  • “The LORD [not Joe Biden] opens the eyes of the blind.”
  • “The LORD [not Democrats] raises up those who are oppressed.”
  • “The LORD [not Republicans] loves the righteous.”
  • “The LORD [not the President or the Congress] protects resident aliens and helps the fatherless and the widow.”

And on top of all this, the LORD “frustrates the way of the wicked.”  He throws down obstacles.  He spoils the works.  He short-circuits their evil plans.  He brings to light deeds done in darkness.  He overcomes disasters evil brings on his people and on nations.  And sooner or later he will have his way. 

  • When it seems like wrong is on the throne and right is on the gallows, take hope because it won’t always be that way. 
  • When it seems like the inmates are running the asylum, and self-interest is the only interest a politician has, it won’t always be that way. 
  • When babies are slaughtered in abortion clinics, when black Americans are denied justice, when immigrants are treated like animals instead of human beings, it won’t always be that way.
  • And when children are abused and abandoned by their parents and left on a stranger’s doorstep, it won’t always be that way either.

Politicians can help make these things better, but even when they can’t or won’t, God will find a way through his people and his church.  And if not in this life, then in the next—when God’s kingdom comes in full, and his will is done on earth as it is in heaven.  Because unlike political systems and the politicians that run them, God can save, and God will save.  God is eternal, so neither he nor his plans will ever die.  He will bring them to pass in his time and in his way someday.  Take hope in that.  Take hope in him.

Not in politics and politicians.  Put your hope in our forever faithful God.  And when you look at politics and everything else through a God-lens, a gospel-lens, you will see things clearly, you will feel hope, you will experience happy contentment in spite of circumstances.  Teresa of Avila gives us wise counsel here:

Let nothing disturb thee; Let nothing dismay thee: All things pass; God never changes.  Patience attains all that it strives for.  He who has God finds he lacks nothing: God alone suffices.[8]

Yes, he does.  He always does when we put our faith and trust in him more than in anything or anyone else.

IV

So the psalmist ends where he began: with resounding praise (v. 10):

The Lord reigns forever;

Zion, your God reigns for all generations.

Hallelujah!

            The Lord reigns even when it doesn’t look like it in the moment.  Did it ever look worse than it did when politics killed Jesus?  Parties who detested one another could agree on one thing: Jesus needs to die.  So the Jewish leadership worked with their hated Roman occupiers to kill Jesus on a cross.  And in a nod of grudging respect toward Jesus or to poke the Jews in the eye, Pilate had a sign written in Hebrew, Latin, and Greek tacked on the cross above Jesus.  The sign read: “This is the King of the Jews” (19:19).  Get it?  This is what happens to any would be kings who dare defy Rome.  It doesn’t end well for them.  And it sure looked like it didn’t end well for Jesus.  But that was Friday.

            Come Sunday, Jesus got up out of that grave King of Kings and Lord of Lords, Victor over sin and death, Savior of all who turn from their sins and put their trust in him.  He was dead.  Politics conspired to kill him.  But he rose from the dead.  You can’t keep a forever King down.  He reigns for all generations.  

            So put your trust and your hope in God.  He is Lord.  He reigns forever.  He alone is worthy to break the seal on the scroll of history because he is Lord in history and of history.  It is his-story.  And he’s the only King who merits forever worship from the lips and lives of people from every nation, tribe, and tongue.  The Lord is King.  No one can outdo him or undo him.  Robert Smith said it just right …

God puts up and God takes down.  The only throne that’s never vacant is God’s throne.  You don’t elect him.  You can’t impeach him.  You can’t vote him out.  He just keeps on succeeding himself.  And the reason why he keeps on succeeding himself is because he is God all by himself.  So therefore, we need not become so out of sorts with this world.  He’s still in charge.  This is still my Father’s world.[9]

            And it always will be no matter what happens in elections.  No matter what happens in economies.  No matter what happens with this virus.  No matter if the good old USA runs its course, dies its death, and becomes, like every other kingdom in history, just another chapter in a history book.  Doesn’t matter.  Doesn’t change God or the plans of God.  God is still in charge.  God is still on his throne.  “The Lord reigns forever.”

            So look at life, look at politics, through this gospel-lens, the King Jesus lens.  Study issues and candidates through this Jesus-lens.  Do your duty, cast your votes, do the Christian thing to bear with and love those who disagree with you.  But don’t trust in nobles and presidents and political parties.  Don’t trust in men and women who cannot save and whose plans die when they do.  “Happy is the one whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD” … because 

The LORD reigns forever;

Christian, your God reigns for all generations.

Hallelujah!

He is worthy!

Praise the Lord!

                                                                        Preached: July 5, 2020

                                                                     First Baptist Church, Hot Springs, AR

                                                                        John Scott McCallum II


[1]A. W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1961), 9.

[2]G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (Colorado Springs: Waterbrook Press, 1994 – original © 1908), 113.

[3]Eugene H. Peterson, Praying with the Psalms: A Year of Daily Prayers and Reflections on the Words of David (San Francisco: HarperOne, 1993), December 23.

[4]Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw, Jesus for President (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008), 85-86.

[5]Daniel Akin in his sermon “Our God is an Awesome God,” danielakin.com.

[6]Beth Tanner, “Commentary on Psalm 146” workingpreacher.org (Nov 8, 2015).

[7]Walter Breuggemann, The Psalms and the Life of Faith, ed. Patrick D. Miller (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995), 127.

[8]E. Allison Peers, ed. and trans., The Complete Works of St. Teresa of Avila (London: Burns & Oats, 2002), 288.

[9]Robert Smith, “Quotable,” Arkansas Baptist News (Feb 10, 2011), 8.

Some I’ve Learned in 25 Years at the Same Church

June 3rd marked my 25th anniversary as pastor of First Baptist Church, Hot Springs, Arkansas.  While plenty of pastors have stayed longer in the churches they serve, a 25-year tenure is worthy of reflection.  For years I’ve been asked, “What’s the secret to your long tenure?”  My first response is one I borrow from another long-tenured pastor’s answer: “No pulpit committees.”  But seriously, folks, here are some things that have contributed to my quarter-century in the same congregation.

  1. Show up every day.  When you do, days turn to weeks, weeks to months, months to years, and 1995 has become 2020.  Show up.  Go to work.  Do your job.
  • Focus on my current church not some future one.  I’ve pastored two churches in 39 years.  Didn’t seek either one.  God made both happen.  I figure that if or when he wants me to move, he will take care of that, so I don’t have to.  Some pastors use too much energy dreaming about the next church, scoping out future fields, circulating resumes, instead of digging in and working the field in which God has placed them.
  • Keep learning new things.  I read (a lot and widely), listen to some podcasts, pay attention to the news, watch some documentaries, try an occasional new hobby.  Stay fresh.  Expand your mind and your capacity to think well.
  • Bold initiatives every 4-5 years to keep the church changing.  Same old, same old courts boredom for church and pastor.  A purposeful new challenge, a bold goal, a transformative change troubles complacency and stirs hope.  Don’t be content with yesterday’s ways and yesterday’s dreams.  Ask Jesus for a new dream, his dream for the church.  Change worship a little; tweak small groups, engage in some new mission, launch a fresh ministry.  Jesus is not tame.  He is on the move, on the loose, doing new things.  Join him.  Invite the church to join him.  And the more tenure, the more willing the church is to follow.
  • Love the people—even the hard ones.  Learn their names and use them.  Know some particular thing about them.  Take interest in their lives.  Weep with those who weep; rejoice with those who rejoice.  Pray for them and with them.  Follow up when you hear of needs.  Some are easy to love.  The church I serve provides my best friends in the world.  But not all relationships between pastor and people are warm and encouraging.  Hey, that’s just ministry.  That’s just the church.  Love them anyway.  Bear with and be patient with the ones that try you. (You probably try some of them more than you know.)  Forgive them when they hurt you.  Point them to Jesus in all things.  Jesus said the Father is gracious to the ungrateful and the wicked (Lk 6:35).  If it’s good enough for him, it needs to be good enough for me. 
  • Admit when you screw up.  Own your mistakes.  Don’t rationalize, justify, excuse, or deny.  Don’t blame and don’t cover up.  “I was wrong” is enough.  Depending on the nature of the mistake, sometimes you need to add “I’m sorry.”  Humble yourself and ‘fess up.  I’ve found over the years that the more grace I show others, the more they show me.  And I need lots of grace.  
  • Build a team that compensates for your weaknesses.  It’s okay to have weaknesses.  Know them and staff for them—whether paid or volunteer.  If you don’t need the glory, if you’re more invested in how the church does than in how you look to others, you’ll find people to fill in the chinks in your armor.  Plus, a good team mitigates some of the loneliness, shares some of the burden, and adds to the joy.  Teamwork can get messy and can be hurtful, but that goes with the territory.  On balance, “we” can do more for the kingdom than “I” can.  And it’s about the kingdom, not me.
  • Seek Jesus every day.  I can’t imagine going into a day in ministry without having lingered a bit in Jesus’ presence in Scripture and prayer and solitude.  It’s his church after all.  Why would I think I could do his work without him?  If I’m going to speak for him on Sundays in the pulpit and in conversations with his people through the week, I better make some time every day to say, “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.”  My time with Jesus is often mundane and without fireworks and warm fuzzies.  So is much of my time with my wife, but I still seek time with her every day.  I seek it with Jesus too. Don’t think so much about the moments; think about the life long relationship you’re nurturing day in, day out, till you see him face to face.  Don’t wait for time with Jesus to happen; make it happen.

There you have it: a few of the things I’ve learned in my long years in the same church.  Maybe God will give you long tenure, maybe not.  If he does, maybe these things will help in that direction.  There are lots of perks to long tenure (that would be another post), but none more than this for me: it’s made me a better pastor; it’s made me a better Christian.