Thanksgiving Prayers for All People and Our Leaders
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Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
I must tell you: I started to think about this theme about six weeks ago, long before the recent presidential election, but certainly during the heat of the campaign when the outcome was still undetermined. It is not intended to be a celebratory spike of the ball in the end zone. It is not intended to be a sore loser’s lament. It is not intended to be political in any way—though given today’s climate in which even one’s choice in entertainment, fashion, or food source, is seen to have political ramifications, I realize this is a futile goal.
In our text, St. Paul exhorts: “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way” (1 Timothy 2:1-2). In Romans, Paul instructs: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God… Therefore pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed” (13:1-7).
I must confess: I’ve failed miserably. I’ve failed to honor and respect our leaders as I should. I could try to give you all sorts of reasons why they are not worthy of my respect, but God’s Word doesn’t give me that latitude. I’ve failed to thank God for providing the leaders He has given. I’ve failed to pray for them. I’ve sinned against God, who has bestowed His authority on these servants.
Paradoxically, while failing to honor and respect those in authority, I’ve also somehow managed to stake too much on who is in authority at a certain time. The psalmist writes: “Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation” (146:3). Sadly, I have too often failed to trust God rather than princes.
I remember 16 years ago, staying up all night waiting for the returns of the presidential election, because I was just sure it was “the most important election of our lifetime.” Four more such “pivotal” elections have come and gone, some things are better, many are worse, but it becomes more and more evident that no matter who we elect our problems are not all going to be immediately fixed. And it is not reasonable to expect that they would be. We live in a fallen world; the last utopia was in Eden in the day before the fall into sin.
That is where our problem with authority began. When desiring “to be like God,” the first man abdicated his headship and the woman ignored the one authority on earth God had placed over her, and, consequently, both of them ended up seeking to rule over one another. I would suggest that the problem each of us has with authority began at that moment, when Adam and Eve exchanged paradise for the fruit of the forbidden tree, the authority and will of God for their own will.
So, what is our problem with authority? At its root, the cause is the sinful human nature we inherited from our first parents. Our old Adam is a natural born anarchist who wants to rule the roost himself. He will not submit to God’s rule, and he certainly won’t submit to the rule of law unless under duress. Old Adam has no king but himself. He hates order, government, submission—all the words associated with authority. Each of us want to write our own rules, or at least bend the existing ones to suit us. We want to determine for ourselves what is best for us.
You can see the sinful nature at work very early on in our children (and grandchildren) in their defiant “no!” to a parent’s command, or that coy little way they have of not doing what they’ve been told to do, then trying to make the rebel look cute with a cheesy grin. The “inner brat” is in you and me, too. Don’t think you grow out of being a sinner. Even as baptized believers, we remain to our dying breaths, sinners in the flesh of Adam. Hence, the gift of government.
“Gift?” you ask. “Pastor, didn’t you see the recent political campaign with all its negative ads, gossip, slander, deceit, and name-calling? How could you possibly call government a gift?” Short answer: because God says so in His Word. Longer answer: Government is a good gift of God. A 1st Article gift—along with clothing, shoes, food, drink, house, home, and all that we need to support this body and life. Gift as in “daily bread,” under which the catechism lists “good government” as one of those things for which we pray—even in the Lord’s Prayer.
Luther says, when we pray “give us this day our daily bread,” we are praying that God “give wisdom, strength, and success to emperors, kings, and all estates, and especially to the rulers of our country and to all counselors, magistrates, and officers. Then they may govern well and vanquish the Turks and all enemies. We ask that He give to subjects and the common people obedience, peace, and harmony in their life with one another.”[i]
Some people call government a “necessary evil,” but government isn’t evil. It is a “necessary good,” a gift from God to curb our sin, to keep temporal order, to provide protection, to judge disputes, to keep us from infringing on our neighbor’s peace and liberty. Even if the whole world were Christian, we would still need a police force, laws, and a military, because we remain throughout our lives 100% sinner. Justified for Jesus’ sake, yes, but a sinner nonetheless.
In Romans 13, Paul calls the governing authority “God’s servant.” But make no mistake, this is no servant of the Gospel. Don’t expect the government to forgive sins and preach Jesus. The government is a servant of God’s wrath against the disorder sin brings into the world. The government is God’s left hand of power to punish the wicked with temporal punishments like fines and jail time, and, in certain cases, taking your life. This presumes, of course, that the authorities know the difference between right and wrong, good and evil, which should serve as a guide for what kind of people we elect to such positions of authority.
We have a peculiar form of government in our nation. Paul certainly wouldn’t have recognized “of the people, by the people, for the people.” We are, in a sense, rulers and the ruled at the same time. When Paul was writing about praying for and honoring our rulers, his ruler was Nero, the Roman Caesar later known for his great persecution of the Christians, including the beheading of Paul and the upside-down crucifixion of Peter.
We elect our own government officials to exercise this authority of God’s left hand. When they abuse or misuse this divine authority, we can peacefully get rid of them and put others in their place. Our forefathers wisely recognized the corruption of our humanity, and rightly didn’t trust anyone to exercise full authority. Instead they spread executive, legislative, and judicial authority across three branches and let them fight with each other, sometimes even to the point of gridlock. The last thing we need is for government to be “efficient.”
Scripture clearly indicates that the main purpose of government, as divine authority, is to punish evil and reward good. Essentially to keep order and temporal peace. Not redistribute wealth, not to create a “great society” or an equitable society or any other sort of society, not to engineer social change, not to provide a safety net against our recklessness. Government is given by God simply to punish evil, reward good, adjudicate disputes, keep the peace, and protect the people. God didn’t give government to save us. There is only one King given to save us, and He died on the cross in order to save us from sin and death.
And what is our calling with respect to God’s gift of government? What do we owe? Taxes to whom taxes are due. Revenue to whom revenue is due. Respect to whom respect is due. Honor to whom honor is due. Who would have thought that paying taxes is a spiritual act of worship, a living sacrifice to God? Who would have thought that when we dishonor and disrespect the governing authority, we are dishonoring and disrespecting God, whose authority it is in the first place?
In addition to taxes, revenue, honor, and respect, I would add one more thing that we owe: our prayers. Paul says, “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way” (1 Timothy 2:1-2).
It may surprise you that in urging us to pray for “all people,” St. Paul zeros in on one group: “kings and all who are in high positions.” Perhaps he does so because we so readily forget prayer in behalf of those in authority over us. This is especially true if they are heathen and oppressive rulers. As I already mentioned, the Caesar of the Roman Empire during the time Paul wrote our text was Nero. I don’t care what you think of Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, or Barack Obama: none of them are as dangerous to Christians as Nero was. Those who govern need our prayers. It is not an easy thing to be the instrument of God’s left hand.
A stable civil government allows Christians to carry out their vocations unhindered and without harassment. The uncommon prosperity and peace of the Roman Empire opened many doors for Paul to carry his ministry throughout the Mediterranean world. What a blessing when the Church can worship and proclaim the saving Gospel, unhindered by burdensome restrictions, war, and violence!
In praying for “all people,” including our leaders, the Church can know that we are doing what “is good” and “pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself as a ransom for all” (1 Timothy 2:3-6).
With these words Paul shows why it is so important to come to a knowledge of the truth. There are not numerous gods, each providing truth and salvation. One, only one, is God. Between this God and us human beings there is only one mediator, the man Christ Jesus, who at the same time is also true God.
Sin has separated all of humanity from God. Jesus came as our mediator, “who gave Himself as a ransom for all.” A ransom is the payment made to free, or redeem, someone from enslavement. Our enslavement carried with it the penalty of sin, which is death. Jesus said that He came “to give His life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28). Inherent in a ransom is the idea of purchase, to give in exchange. “To give His life” is to sacrifice it, that is, to die as our substitute. Jesus has redeemed [you], a lost and condemned person, purchased and won [you] from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil; not with gold or silver, but with His holy precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death”[ii]
Jesus willingly subjected Himself to the government of His day. He obeyed the laws of the land. He perfectly honored father and mother and every other temporal authority that in His humility was placed over Him. He did that for you. Jesus became a citizen of this world, under a less than perfect government for you. He stood before Pontius Pilate, Caesar’s local representative, falsely charged with treason, for making Himself a king. He reminded Pilate that his authority to judge Jesus, either to free Him or crucify Him, came “from above,” from God. And He confessed that His own kingdom “is not of this world.” Jesus was the willing victim of gross injustice, an abuse of the Roman system of justice. God used it all for the salvation of the world, for your salvation.
Christianity, following Jesus, does not try to “change the world” through government. It doesn’t even try to change government. It doesn’t seek to establish a “Christian nation” or world government the way Islam does. It does not seek to establish the kingdom of God on earth. The reason for that is that we are Christians are in the world but no longer of the world. We live as resident aliens in this world, hold “dual citizenship” in whatever country we live, praying for and supporting the governing authority, yet always recognizing that Jesus died and rose to rescue the world from its own destruction, and now reigns as Lord of heaven and earth.
Like the Israelites in Egypt or Babylon, we live as pilgrims, going home but not yet home. This country is our temporary home, and we pray for it, we participate in it, we honor and respect its government, and we pay our taxes. We are good citizens. This is our home away from home. And we know that there is coming a Day when the kingdoms of this world, including this one, will cease. Until that day, we live as obedient children of God, and citizens of the nation in which we live. And we pray for all people, especially those in high positions.
Let us pray.
Lord God, on this Day of Thanksgiving, as we pray for all who are in authority, we thank you especially for the form of government given us in our beloved country. Give us the grace with our fellow citizens to value the officers and the magistrates of our government as those sent by You. Instill in us that respect and honor that is due them. Lord, endow them with wisdom for their several duties, with a spirit of sacrifice for the common welfare, with mercy and justice, with uprightness and kindliness. Correct the evils of selfishness, greed, a vain desire for honor, or abuse of power among us as well as in the other governments of the world. Grant that the true purposes of government may prevail, safeguarding peace and prosperity, so that we may live soberly and uprightly in Your sight and have opportunity to tell of You and Your kingdom. These petitions we direct to You because in Jesus we know You as our Father and Lord. Amen.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.