Sermon: 4th Sunday after Pentecost, 12th June 2016

St.Alban’s Epping, 12th June 2016

“POLITICS, MORALITY AND RELIGION”

Rev. Paul Weaver

(1 Kings 21:1-21; Psalm 5:1-7; Galatians 2:15-21; Luke 7:36-8:3)

Some time ago I was taken aside by a family member who was deeply offended by one of my sons-in-law. He had chipped him about the policies and decisions made by parliamentarians belonging to the party he supports. The comment had caused great offence. “We do not discuss religion or politics in this family”, I was told. I don’t remember ever having this rule at home, and I suspect it was an interpretation of “We avoid arguments in this family”!

Of course, we have all heard of that trio of subjects which are traditionally not raised in polite conversation: sex, politics and religion. And with the election less than three weeks away, all three are coming up regularly. Sex because of the issue of same-sex marriage, and the strong views held on both sides of the debate. Religion not only because of religious input on this debate, but because of a number of other issues on which individual Christians and church bodies have expressed views. And politics? Enough said!

Of course there are many people who say that the church should keep out of politics. Religion is the church’s domain, and Christians should stop trying to force their views on society. Whether it’s gay marriage or the treatment of asylum seekers or overseas aid or school funding or climate change, the views of Christians have been put forward and attacked, particularly in recent times.

But should religion and faith be allowed to influence politicians and their decisions? I remember one particular leader whose religious background was well known. He insisted that he would not allow his religion to interfere with his decisions and actions as a political leader. I would suggest that a faith which has no impact on our decisions is a very strange sort of faith!

And others who are known as Christians sometimes make decisions or take stands that make me ask myself: “How can a real Christian make that decision or support that policy?” And one of the big issues that Christian politicians have to work through is how they make decisions as representatives of a mixed population in a secular society. There will be times when their personal principles and values will differ from those which dominate in our country: when should they be different, and when should they reflect the popular view, or the policy of their leader?

Today’s Old Testament reading points us to a man who represented traditional religion, a man who certainly interfered in politics, a man who was a real thorn in the side of his king. Of course I am referring to Elijah the prophet. The king was Ahab, although the power behind the throne was Ahab’s wife Jezebel, who came from a neighbouring kingdom, and was determined to have her religion and her values established in Israel.

Elijah had challenged the king’s lack of commitment to the Lord, the true God of Israel. The great contest on Mount Carmel, when the Lord had sent fire and Baal had done nothing, had demonstrated that the Lord was truly God. But the Lord’s triumph on Mount Carmel had not really changed things in Israel, and it was clear that Ahab was dominated by the ruthless pagan Jezebel.

Ahab had a palace in the city of Jezreel, and wanted to buy the property of Naboth, who lived next to the palace. He wanted to use it as a vegetable garden. Naboth however was not prepared to sell it to the king: his security was bound up with that land which belonged to him and his family, and he knew that his land was the gift of God, and not to be conveniently sold.

Jezebel sees that Ahab has the sulks and asks him what the problem is. “Aren’t you the boss in Israel?” she responds. “I will get you the land.”

In fact, Ahab is not the boss. The Lord is the true king of Israel, not Ahab. In a real sense, Israel is a theocracy, not a monarchy. The king is to rule as God’s servant: the power he has is to be used for God’s purposes, not his own. But Ahab is not going to ask too many questions if Jezebel will get that land for him.

Jezebel has Naboth tried and executed on a trumped-up charge, and suddenly the land is available. The leaders of Jezreel who delivered the required verdict should have done the right thing, but it was no doubt safer not to go against the clear demands of Jezebel.

Ahab went to claim his land. No doubt his good mood changed when he saw that interferer Elijah. “Have you found me, my enemy?” he greeted Elijah. He knew that the prophet was not going to excuse him just because Jezebel did the dirty work. “You have done evil in the sight of the Lord.” And Elijah pronounces the Lord’s judgement on both Jezebel and Ahab.

Well, was Elijah just another religious zealot interfering with the king’s rights and powers? As I said, kings of Israel were to serve as king under God. Israel was in a covenant relationship with the Lord, and the kings were to fulfil their role within that covenant.

They must obey God’s law, and they must listen obediently to his messengers the faithful prophets. They must never be a law unto themselves. But Ahab and Jezebel were guilty of the corrupt use of power. They used their power for their own selfish ends, not in the service of their people. Instead of serving, they abused their power.

How does this relate to our lives today? Should Christians get involved in politics? If so, what sort of role should they seek? And do Christians and church leaders have a right to speak out on current issues?

Politics is not just about power, how to achieve it and how to hold on to it. Politics is about the life and direction of a state or community. It is about the welfare of communities and people, or sadly it may be about their neglect and exploitation. But for Ahab and Jezebel, Elijah was a political threat, a threat to their power and the way they wanted to use it. He was indeed their enemy.

And what about Christians today? Jesus calls us to love our neighbour, and one side of that is our concern not only for individuals in need, but for the welfare of our community. And involvement in political activity can be one way of expressing that concern. It may be by taking up particular issues, or supporting particular campaigns, or by joining and being active in political parties, or even standing for office. And because no particular political approach has all the answers, Christians might well support or join different parties.

I doubt that any political party is by nature more “Christian” than any other; and I am very wary of parties with a specifically “Christian” name or agenda. Their shortcomings can be very obvious, and their views often only represent a particular kind of Christian.

Nevertheless I am pleased to see people known as Christians who are active in the political life of our state and nation, some of them in very prominent positions. Sometimes I will agree with their statements and stands: sometimes I will disagree with them, sometimes I will be disturbed by their words and actions, sometimes they make me cringe! But I want them to be thinking about how their faith relates to what they say and do. I want them to consider issues in the light of their understanding of God’s word and God’s ways.

In particular, I want to see them acting with integrity, and I want to see them reflecting Christ’s compassion for those in need. I want them to be willing to challenge the thinking and direction of their parties when they find it unconscionable.

And in a democratic country – even a secular one – Christians as much as anyone else have a right and even a responsibility to make their views on issues known – just as anyone else can! Christians won’t be able to force anything on society, if they ever could!

And in any case, Christians do not always agree on political issues, even those with strong moral aspects. For instance, there is the obvious issue of same-sex marriage. Up till recently, Christians generally understood that Biblical teaching indicates that sexual relationships should be heterosexual and in the context of marriage. But society has moved very quickly to accept same-sex and other relationships, and Christians are now divided on the matter. Some Christians will insist that the scriptures must be held to, and that the church should resist what is seen as an ungodly lifestyle, which will do harm to our society. Some Christians will hold personally to a traditional understanding of the issue, but say that it is better to encourage all loving faithful relationships in this secular society, even if they don’t fit in with our ideals. And other Christians believe that we need to radically rethink our understanding of how we understand and apply scripture, so that we find a new understanding of the issue that relates to the realities of life today. And of course there will be other views within the Christian community.

Well, I’m not going to solve the problem this morning. I must admit that I’m still working it through myself! And I don’t have all the answers on our treatment of asylum seekers, the best response to climate change, overseas aid, and many other issues which concern me as I consider how I vote.

Let me encourage you to think prayerfully about how you vote, and not just automatically vote the way you always vote. Be wary of those with loud voices, and do listen to voices other than the shock-jocks! Ask yourself what you see as the key issues, and perhaps also take the risk of asking what Jesus might see as the key issues. Think of Australia as a community, not merely as an economy. And let us pray that those who are elected will see themselves truly as servants of our people, and humbly listen and think and serve for the good of our people, and indeed for the good of our world, which after all is God’s world. Amen.

Paul Weaver