Sunday, July 3, 2016

Exalting a Nation: Sermon for Fourth-of-July Weekend

The year is around 850 BC. The king sits in his palace, sunlight streaming through the windows, illuminating his throne. As he deals with the usual intrigues of the court, a gaggle of dirty, panting men burst through the door, causing a stir. The nobles murmur among themselves; the guards tense up, ready to defend the king. 

The men stagger in, crying out, “O king, live forever! We have terrible news!” They tell the king that a large army – Moabites, Ammonites, and more – has gathered at Hazazon-Tamar, preparing to attack. The kingdom is in grave danger! What's to be done? Can we call up enough trained men in time? 

The color drains from the king's face. Any other king would call for his generals, begin hashing out military strategies. But this king is Jehoshaphat. He calls for his messengers. Tells them to be ready to spread through the city and country, tells them it's time for a national day of prayer and fasting – a practice often followed millennia later by some folks across the wide blue ocean in a land called America. But Jehoshaphat doesn't need to know that. What Jehoshaphat does need is for the people of Judah to assemble. And he needs to get to the temple.

There it stands – gleaming gold beneath the cloudless sky. The temple court was the only sensible place to meet the assembly. There's only one option in Jehoshaphat's thinking. They need to pray. And so he does. And stretching out his hands, raising his eyes toward that cloudless sky, squinting against that hot sun, Jehoshaphat raises his voice and calls out, “O LORD, God of our fathers, are you not God in heaven? You rule over all the kingdoms of the nations. In your hand are power and might, so that none is able to withstand you” (2 Chronicles 20:6). 

Jehoshaphat called out to no generic god of mild, milquetoast civil religion, of tiresome fads and bland formalities, of empty gestures and empty hearts. No, this is a God with a name – LORD, Yahweh – a God who calls Israel his special people, a God distinguished in history by Abraham's devotion, a God whose temple gleamed in one holy city. And later history will unveil him as the Father sending the Son, the Son sending the Spirit, the Spirit filling a special people called from many tribes as one new humanity.

But see, Jehoshaphat had the holy audacity to say that this god – not Chemosh, not Ba'al, not Lady Liberty, not the Star-Spangled Banner, not a Divine Butler or a Cosmic Therapist, not a vague “Great Spirit” or “Universe Force” or “Ultimate Concern” or “World Soul” or whatever – that this particular god was set apart from all other options, all other possibilities, because this god “rules over all the kingdoms of the nations,” without exception. 

This God, the God of Jehoshaphat's fathers, the God of Abraham, rules over the kingdom of the Moabites, the kingdom of the Ammonites, the kingdom of the Edomites, the kingdom of the Russians, the kingdom of the English, and the ragtag kingdom of a bunch of disgruntled colonists called the Continental Congress. This God “rules over all the kingdoms of the nations.” And that's why we're here today.

But just what is a nation? Here, in this verse, it's a people – a cultural and political community, broadly defined – together with the government that has sway over the people. That's a nation. And every nation – every people and every government – is accountable to this God, accountable to the LORD. The Bible continually proclaims that “God reigns over the nations” (Psalm 47:8); that “kingship belongs to the LORD, and he rules over the nations” (Psalm 22:28). The God of creation, the Redeemer of souls, is called in Scripture “the King of the nations” – Old and New Testament alike (Jeremiah 10:7; Revelation 15:3). Every people is accountable to God, and so is all government.

Remember, in the Bible, human government traces back to Genesis. “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image” (Genesis 9:6). We are authorized to carry out, as best as we can, God's justice. And he calls it a requirement: “From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man” (Genesis 9:5). We are required to have government to live in a fallen world. And so those who adopt special roles in governing a people are called God's servants, and the ruler “does not bear the sword in vain” (Romans 13:4). 

In justice, we enjoy together the gifts God has given us; and to “secure” this enjoyment, for such a reason “governments are instituted among men” – so saith the Declaration of Independence. But just the same, every government is obligated to be just, obligated to serve the purposes of the God who rules over all kingdoms. And 240 years ago, the Americans believed, rightly or wrongly, that separation from the governing systems of the British Empire was warranted because that government became, not merely lax or sloppy, but actively “destructive of these ends” through “a long train of abuses.”

So every nation – every people with its government – is accountable to the God who is King over all nations. And sometimes this King chooses to build up or plant a nation or a kingdom. Again, over two centuries ago, against daring odds, God granted success to the Continental Army in defense of the “free and independent states” that had been declared by thirteen seceding colonies. And God saw fit to draw the war to a close with the Treaty of Paris, thus making it clear that God had planted a nation called the United States of America. And God has since seen fit to build us up – not because we're special, but because he chose to. 

But even when he declares it, take note: that nation, that kingdom, is accountable. Consider the words given through the Prophet Jeremiah: “If at any time I declare concerning a nation or kingdom that I will build and plant it, and if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will relent of the good that I had intended to do it” (Jeremiah 18:9-10). Now, Jeremiah goes on to apply these words to a very unusual nation named Israel, but the principle is general – the Book of Jonah makes that clear. It doesn't matter what reasons we have to think we're great. Even if God himself has blessed us, planted us, built us up himself, if we choose evil and refuse to listen, then we risk missing out on the good he had in store.

Clearly, it matters how a nation looks in God's sight. If only there were some wisdom telling us what God is looking for! But we have one more verse to cover – and let me tell you, this verse was a popular one in the colonies. I found so many dozens of sermons and letters quoting it, I didn't even have time to look at them all! And here's that verse: “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people” (Proverbs 14:34). 

One pastor in 1769 called it “a maxim founded on the experience of all ages.” Another said that we should hear it because Solomon was the greatest politician to ever live. Several men quoted this verse in letters to our early presidents, offering it as a reason to abolish slavery. President John Adams quoted it in a national fast day proclamation in 1799, praying that God would make all Americans “deeply sensible” of its meaning for our life.

But let's look at the verse. This old-timey word 'exalt' – literally, it means “raises high.” This verse is about what raises a nation high – what makes a nation honorable, what puts a nation on top – maybe not in strength, maybe not in wealth, maybe not in media or cultural influence, maybe not by any worldly standard whatsoever, but in God's measurement, by God's standard, in God's eye. 

And what does it? What exalts a nation? That's the question of this morning's message. And this verse has the answer. “Righteousness exalts a nation.” In the early years of the Revolution, a pastor named Eden Burroughs preached a sermon on this verse and summarized it as saying, “Righteousness is that wherein the real dignity and honor of a people consists.” 

There it is: 'righteousness.' But what's that? Oh, there are so many definitions of 'righteousness,' so many angles and uses and contexts, so much lexical debate and theological wrangling, it's hard to know where to begin!

But let's try this. Let's say that righteousness is what happens when God appoints somebody to an office, a station, a role, and they fulfill its responsibilities with virtue, and they use its powers and privileges rightly, according to what God intends for that office, station, or role. 

Now that's an important definition this morning. Here's an example: In creating the world and then dividing the peoples, God appoints himself as “King of the nations,” and because he fulfills that responsibility with perfect virtue and uses his power rightly to do good to us, we call him “righteous.” And in making a covenant with Abraham, God appoints himself Savior of Abraham's family – and because God is faithful to that role and uses his saving power rightly to redeem for himself all those who have faith, since Abraham is the father of all the faithful, well, because of that, we call God “a righteous God and Savior” (Isaiah 45:21). 
Another example: In creating us, God appointed us to be priests and kings of creation. But we abused that power – we didn't fulfill our responsibilities, and we didn't use those privileges rightly – and so the Bible tells us, “None is righteous, no, not one” (Romans 3:10). In following Adam's colossal blunder, we fail to be 'righteous' before God, even if some in the Old Testament get called 'righteous' in a relative sense. Through our repeated failure, we've been impeached and evicted from office. But through Jesus Christ's resurrection, God re-elects us, now with the power of his Spirit in us, and so in Christ, we have what Paul calls “the righteousness of God that depends on faith” (Philippians 3:9).

Now, what does this mess all have to do with exalting a nation? Well, there are plenty of offices we hold. Office isn't just for somebody elected president, senator, representative, mayor, county clerk; office isn't just for somebody appointed judge or to a cushy cabinet post. Being a citizen of a nation is an office. Being a citizen of the United States is an office. 

Whether elected official or simply a citizen, being faithful to God's purposes with the powers of our office is righteousness, so far as that office goes. And when a nation is faithful to God's purposes – of justice and generosity and mercy and humility – that sounds to me like a nation where there is righteousness. Righteousness sure exalted Jehoshaphat's Judah over the Moabites, and other nations are called to be exalted by righteousness, too. And a nation is exalted in God's sight to the degree righteousness is there.

Isn't that a beautiful thought? That's what Zabdiel Adams meant in the midst of the Revolution when he gave a sermon and said, “'Righteousness exalteth a nation'; it gives dignity, strength, and firmness to every body politick.” That's what Joseph Buckminster meant five years later, after the war's end, when he preached to New Hampshire's General Assembly and said, “As in divinity there can be no faith contrary to reason, so in politics there can be no wisdom contrary to righteousness. 'Righteousness exalteth a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people.' Righteousness is the rule of God's administration, and ought to be the rule of theirs who reign and decree justice by him.” And “We The People,” not just those we nominate in April or elect in November, hold office and need righteousness.

Now, it's easy to look out the window and complain. Easier still to read the newspaper or flip on the TV and complain. We do it all the time – I speak from personal experience. However you plan to vote or not vote come November, I think it's fair to say that virtually no one in America looks at the apparent candidates for elected office and thinks, “Yes, these are two very reasonable options.” Scarcely anyone thinks well of even the candidate they plan to vote for. As a nation, we're not excited. We're angry, we're scared, we're frustrated. We are neither united nor exalted. And like one pastor quipped 217 years ago tomorrow, “If government be not wisely administered, the fault must be in the people.” This year increasingly reminds me of the Bible's description of God 'giving people up' to the rotten fruit of their sin.

It's easy to get frustrated and complain about the government. It's easy to get frustrated and complain about the culture. It's easy to get frustrated and complain about our neighbors. But a righteous nation starts one and only one place: with a righteous me... and a righteous you. We hold office. As Americans, we hold office as citizens. Some of you hold the office of parent or grandparent; some of you hold the office of employer. As Christians, we hold the office of priest and ruler. Each of those comes with responsibilities, powers, and privileges. Each calls for virtue; each offers opportunities for us to either squander or use – use to love God and love our neighbors and neighborhoods. A righteous nation starts here. An exalted nation starts here.

A century ago, one of our United Evangelical pastors – H. B. Barshinger – wrote a Christian Endeavor message called “An Ideal Nation.” He wrote that: “It does not matter how much we philosophize or materialize, it still remains true that righteousness is just as essential to the strength and permanence of a nation as to the welfare of the individual. … Every lawful activity, no matter on what side it touches humanity, needs to be brought into harmony with what God demands.” And he went on to pose the question of when our nation would be ideal – meaning 'righteous.' Do you know what he came up with?

When we as a nation practice what we put on our coins: “In God we trust.” As long as we continue to harbor our national sins and put our trust in an increased army and an augmented navy, we are simply inviting disaster. [We will be ideal] when each individual strives to be an ideal citizen. … When sacred office comes to be regarded as a sacred trust. … When there is a supreme regard for the welfare of the masses and not the greedy affluence of privileged classes. When a poor widow has just as much a chance to obtain her rights before a civil court as the millionaire. When it is no longer true that the man who steals a chicken goes to the penitentiary, while the man who loots a bank goes to Canada. When great public evils are no longer permitted to flourish in order to fill the pockets of a few capitalists.

But then he asked what we can do – how we can make our nation ideal – how we can foster the righteousness of our nation. And the first thing, before anything else, is by focusing on our own hearts, our own lives, and then those around us. Righteousness is grassroots. “This may be done,” said Barshinger, “by each one sweeping before his own door, and when that is done, helping his neighbor if he has not yet finished his job.”

Second, Barshinger called on the church to have a larger vision – not a politicized gospel, but to see every field of human endeavor, every office or role with its activities, as accountable to God. God is not content with the 'churchy' hour of your week. 'Church member' is an incredible office – but God is Lord over all your offices and all your actions. God is Lord over all of you, and all of your neighbors, and all of America's people, and all of America's government, no matter who likes it. As Americans, as humans, we're all God's subjects; but how great it is, through Christ, to be citizens of God's kingdom! “Our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Philippians 3:20).

Third, Barshinger said, “The ministry of the country must bend to its stupendous task of awakening and educating the public conscience. Every minister must come into his pulpit red hot with a 'Thus saith the Lord,' and not labor to find what suits the people.” His words! But what good words! This one's on me, and I try to live by it – to focus on what God has said, to hear his voice for us each week, and to proclaim it without regard to popularity. But your prayers, your encouragement, and your real engagement go a long, long way.

Fourth, Barshinger invites us to be our whole selves, even in church – or, in his words, “Every citizen should not only vote as he prays, but pray as he votes.” And what he means is that, if we don't wear a mask to church, if we really had to confess our votes in prayer here, then we might learn something from what we can confess with a good conscience before God's people. 

Now, I don't think Barshinger was being literal – I don't think Barshinger meant that, after the election, we should have a prayer service where we go around and say out loud who we voted for. But didn't he have a point? So often, we get mired down in pragmatism when we think about anything we call 'political.' But pragmatism gets swept away as soon as we're forced to confess – not just our votes, but our actions and attitudes – and face the demands of, not only conscience, but the gospel's truth.

And fifth, Barshinger ended his lesson by saying, “We must determine our political acts in the light of the obligations which God's wonderful providences in our history impose upon us.” In other words, once again, we are accountable to God. And even if we seem to be failing, even if we seem to be struggling, there is hope. Because there's another half to Jeremiah's message: “If at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, and if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I intended to do to it” (Jeremiah 18:7-8). But that turning starts, not with the president, not with the candidates, but with you and me – here and now.

As Christians, we are called to have Jehoshaphat's faith – to see that the Lord we serve, the Lord who showed his face as Jesus, the Lord who paid for our unrighteousness on the cross, the Lord who buried our sin in his tomb, the Lord who rose again to deathless life and re-elected us to office as his co-heirs and as citizens, not just of America, but more importantly of God's kingdom – to see that that Lord is the God who “rules over all the kingdoms of the nations.” 
Jehoshaphat's faith in the LORD wasn't in vain; the Moabite coalition collapsed in on itself at God's command, leaving the people of Judah nothing to do but stand by, watch, and gather the spoils. Nor will our faith be in vain, if the one we trust is the same Lord who died and rose so that we could stand free from our burdens, watch his beauty unfold in history, and gather the treasure of heaven, even eternal life. In his hand are power and might – and a vacant but impenetrable hole the width of a Roman nail.

If we live by that faith, if we trust him and follow him and love him and serve him, if we rely on his Spirit and not on our strength, that's what he reckons to us as righteousness, and that's what we live out in all our roles here and now. And then, only then, will we know the truth of what Daniel Batwell preached in 1775, in these closing words: “Were we but all convinced that righteousness exalteth a kingdom, whilst sin is a reproach to any people, and did we sanctify this conviction by practice, what a glorious, what a delightful scene of things would immediately present itself to our view!” O LORD, God and Father of Jesus Christ, King of the nations, make us righteous in this trying hour! Amen and amen.

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