Sunday, July 26, 2015

The Good News Begins: A Sermon on Mark 1:1-15

Have you ever been so excited about something you've heard that you've insisted that whoever mentioned it drop everything to tell it to you from the beginning? So enthused that your heart races and you can think of nothing else, can't be satisfied until you've got the whole story up from the very first detail? A couple thousand years ago, a young man named Mark was so excited by the good news he was hearing from his mentor that I can easily imagine them sitting down after dinner one night, and Mark looks to Peter and imploringly asks, “Please tell it to me again, from the very beginning?” And so when he wrote a book based on all he'd learned from Peter, is it any wonder that Mark started from the very beginning of the good news (Mark 1:1)?

And where is the very beginning, as he wanted to tell it? Is it on a hill far away, where stood an old rugged cross? Is it with shepherds watching their flocks by night? No – it's with the words of a six-hundred-year-old book, the sermons of one of God's greatest spokesmen, Isaiah. And those words foretell a messenger leading the way in paving a straight road through a winding desert. “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying in the wilderness, 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight'” (Mark 1:2-3). In the context of Isaiah's prophecy, this isn't merely preparation for some king or leader. Isaiah's Hebrew is clear: In the midbar, the wilderness, you must prepare the way of Yahweh; in the arabah, the desert, you must make straight a highway for our God (Isaiah 40:3). In this straightening, the valleys will be lifted up, the mountains and hills will be flattened out, the crooked things will get straightened out, the rough places will be made smooth – because Yahweh our God is coming to town (Isaiah 40:4). So this messenger's cry is for the lowly and humble to be lifted up; for the prideful to get down off their high horses; for the wicked and wayward to straighten up; for the rough-edged and unruly to become meek and obedient for God's arrival. And then, only then, would Yahweh's glory be made visible, and all people would see it together and understand the Word of God that would stand forever; they would hear the herald of good news preached to the cities of Judah, “Behold your God!” (Isaiah 40:5, 8-9).

So before Mark introduces us to the visible glory of the LORD, the God who's on his way, he has to tell us about this messenger getting people ready in the desert. And that's a man named John, who bursts onto the scene as a public figure – not a great diplomat, not an urbane professor, not a general brandishing a sword, not a pampered man wrapped in purple robes, but just a voice shouting and rebuking, ringing over rocks and sand, from a mouth smeared with locust legs and honey-gobs, atop a slender body wearing Elijah's best hand-me-downs (Mark 1:6; cf. 2 Kings 1:8).

That's pretty important, because up until then, there were two great ages of miracles in the history of Israel, times when miraculous signs were abundant because God was doing something new and radical. The first was the era of Moses and Joshua, when God set the people free, brought them through that very same wilderness, and led them into their promised rest through the Jordan River, which they'd cross to conquer the land and set up the kingdom of God on earth. And the second was the era of Elijah and Elisha, who worked great wonders for Gentile widows and who healed even Gentile generals like Naaman the Syrian through a sevenfold baptism in that same Jordan River (Luke 4:25-27). And here comes John – dressed like Elijah, baptizing in the Jordan like Elisha, looking into the land of Canaan with the kingdom on his mind like Joshua. And if God's doing something new, then maybe, just maybe, the third great age of miracles is on its way. Maybe Isaiah was right. Maybe John's here to get people ready for God's big visit.

So how do the people get ready to meet their God in the flesh? Through this “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4). That's the way that the valleys will be raised up, that's how the mountains will be brought down, that's how the crooked will be made straight, that's how the rough will be made smooth – so that they're ready to receive God. This is actually a pretty radical shift: a common Jewish view was that baptism for purity was needed for people as filthy as outsiders and foreigners, so they needed baptism, but that wasn't necessary for Jews, who were already on the inside, already chosen as part of God's people. Naaman might have needed a dip in the Jordan, but not the people who grew up listening to the Law and the Prophets, the people who bore Abraham's mark in their very flesh already.

John disagrees, and he disagrees like he probably did everything – loudly and sharply. Next to the holiness of Isaiah's God, even the best of the best in Israel are as unclean as Naaman in all his leprous repulsiveness. So, like Naaman, the people need a dip in the Jordan – not a mundane bath, not going for a swim, but a holy act to strip them of their former sinful lives. See, there is no hospitality to the Lord's advent without repentance and confession, without an admission of sin. The popular American distortion of the gospel was summed up decades ago by H. Richard Niebuhr, who quipped: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.” And that's hardly good news.

That's why sin and repentance have to remain forever an integral part of the church's witness: not to harp on the negatives, but because those sins have to be cleared away for the sake of beholding God's glory and his holiness. Because God's glory is central, repentance is an essential corollary for any and all, because “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23) – not just tyrants and terrorists in the Middle East, not just cold-blooded guards standing watch over gas chambers in Nazi Germany, not just libertines in decadent twenty-first-century America, but all, even God's own chosen people. No one is immune. No one is set and can put thoughts of repentance behind them. To all people – including ourselves – we declare this message: yes, there's sin, plenty of it; but it can be repented, healed; now come meet your Maker in the waters and rise anew.

And John was not without his popularity; he was not an exercise in futility. “People from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him” to be baptized by him through the confession of their sins (Mark 1:5). The other Gospels flesh this out. Matthew adds that John saw even “many Pharisees and Sadducees coming” – for what? To gawk? To grimace and scowl and intimidate? “Many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism” (Matthew 3:7). But did they grasp that they needed to repent of their sins? Could they really confess that and mean it?

The whole project of the Pharisees was practically founded on the idea that they, and they alone, were living a holy life, mirroring the purity of God's temple in the midst of the mundane world by building fences around God's Law for the safety and security of everyone. Could they admit they'd trampled God's fences? Could they admit that they were as impure as the people of the land? I hope some did, just like plenty of Pharisees and priests became Christians after Jesus rose from the dead (Acts 6:7; 15:5), but I reckon most didn't listen to John, “neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead” (Luke 16:31). No wonder John calls them a “brood of vipers” – one of the harshest insults available, which in modern language would be unfit for many of the ears here – and tells them not to fall back on being descendants of Abraham (Matthew 3:9). Descent from Abraham is nothing; what matters is repentance and a repentant lifestyle. A one-time act doesn't cut it. This baptism is for repentance that yields actual forgiveness, and such repentance is to have lasting consequences.

So John insists that the time for judgment is coming, when the stakes will be high: if God is coming for a visit, even the Pharisees – maybe especially the Pharisees – need to know that “the ax is lying at the root of the tree” (Matthew 3:10), just like in Isaiah 10 with Assyria: “Behold, the Lord, the LORD of Hosts, shall lop the bough with terror: and the high ones of stature shall be hewn down, and the haughty shall be humbled. And he shall cut down the thickets of the forest with iron, and Lebanon shall fall by a mighty one” (Isaiah 10:33-34). If the ax is at the root of the tree, and its wielder is looking for fruit, then don't let your ridiculous pride keep you barren! Instead, “bear fruit worthy of repentance” (Matthew 3:8). Once-and-done salvation, on demand and without demands, isn't on the table – not for the Pharisees, not for the needy crowds, not for you and not for me. We “have been saved” (Ephesians 2:5), we “are being saved” (1 Corinthians 1:18), and we “will be saved” (Mark 13:13). Forgiveness has no prerequisites – John doesn't say, “Bear fruit that earns forgiveness,” as if we ever could – but this salvation does require fruit worthy of repentance to follow in its wake.

In the wake of this confrontation, the crowds who hear it are in a frenzy: “What then should we do?” (Luke 3:10). What does a repentant life look like? What does it look like to be baptized and then walk the baptismal walk? How does a life look when it's been forgiven? How can we be ready to “see the salvation of God” (Luke 3:6)? What kind of fruits are worthy of repentance? “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise” (Luke 3:11). That's what John said. That's what a repentant life looks like: mercy, charity, sharing. When tax collectors were baptized, John didn't tell them to leave their jobs, but just to collect no more than the law said – and hiking up taxes was the main way tax collectors got rich at everyone else's expense (Luke 3:12-13). What about the soldiers serving in Roman auxiliaries, the people collaborating with the foreign power keeping the Jews oppressed? What should they do? Should they quit the army because military service is evil, like some today also think? Should they quit the army out of loyalty to Israel? “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages” (Luke 3:14).

On all three fronts, John says that the clearest way to see a repentant life is how you treat others in terms of the power and goods that you have. In a repentant life, you'll wield authority righteously. You don't have to give up authority, you don't have to leave your job at the IRS or the Armed Forces. But, says John, you do have to give up any self-serving use of that power. Even if it's normalized by society, you still have to forsake anything that enriches you or pleases you at the expense of others. If the cost of your prosperity is the loss of others, then your prosperity is incompatible with repentance. And if the cost of your property rights is the lack of others, then your property rights are incompatible with repentance. Having John peering over your shoulder as you read your bank statements would seldom be a pleasant experience – but repentance demands that we elevate it above our property rights, our prosperity, our comfort.

If you have two sofas, and someone across town needs one, send one over. If you have more clothes in your closet than need to be there, turn them over to those who need them. If your refrigerator is stocked beyond what your family needs to get by, call up the food bank and bring your excess down. If your bank account is fuller than you need from day to day or month to month, and you know that someone down the road or in Lancaster or across the world is struggling to find the essentials to live – and whether we want to know it or not, it's true for untold millions – then to keep those funds for yourself, suggests John, is not repentance. It's the rough and crooked life of greed and fear, a life on the wrong side of baptism, a life with an ax at your roots – and that's the much more fearsome thing. Oh, we think we don't have so much – but the per capita income in Salisbury Township will get you into the top 10.2% of the world's population. Broaden it to the per capita income in Lancaster County, that'll get you into the richest 5%. Whatever we've got, we've got more than just 'two'. What could be so dire as to come face-to-face with God, with our overstuffed wallets and our luxurious houses, and to see the empty bellies – and, what's more, empty hearts – we could have filled?

I'm just reporting what John said. Too often, when we hear of the plight of others, we instinctively think to take care of our 'own' first, our own close neighbors, our own countrymen, our own kind, our own 'race'. John never said to focus first on the poor of your own tribe. John never said to focus on the 'deserving poor' either. John said to share with anyone who has a need. It doesn't matter if they're from the tribe of Benjamin or the tribe of Naphtali. It doesn't matter if they live close-by in Jericho or far away in a little village in Samaria. It doesn't matter if they're the neighbors who take us out to lunch or the neighbors who break our windows. It doesn't matter if they're American or Ugandan or Syrian or Iraqi. We live in a global neighborhood – “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). If you know about a real need, and it's within your power to meet it, then meet it – period, end of sentence. Who, where – those are irrelevant pronouns. Confession, repentance, self-divestment, mercy, generosity – those are relevant nouns, because there the good news begins.

And John doesn't stop there at those admittedly hard words. As his hearers make a smooth, straight, and level road, they all need to know that John is not the be-all and end-all of God's work. He's a messenger, a herald. His job is to make preparations. His message is about being ready for someone greater to come. And so he has the honesty to say that a mightier figure is on his way, someone vastly greater than John. John's the greatest the world's ever seen – “among those born of women, no one has arisen greater than John” (Matthew 11:11; cf. Luke 7:28) – and yet compared to the one coming, he's less than a household servant. Next to the one who's on the way, even kneeling to untie his shoes is an honor all out of proportion with John's station (Mark 1:7). John's the herald, this one is the Heralded. John brings water, but this one brings the Holy Spirit (Mark 1:8).

It's no easy thing to step down. It's no easy thing to point away from ourselves to someone else. In a way, we all yearn to be the center; when we narrate the story of our life to ourselves, we're typically the hero of the tale, the protagonist. It takes a man or woman of profound courage to hand over the reins and be content with watching someone else ride off into the sunset. But that's the kind of man John was – greater than Noah, greater than Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, greater than Moses and Joshua, David and Solomon, Isaiah and Jeremiah, and all the kings and priests and prophets – and he had the courage to point away, away from himself and toward the Son of God. And so we of the kingdom are called to have John's arms: pointing away from ourselves and toward the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29).

Mark tells the story at a quick clip, moving recklessly from one thing to the next. In those days, there was a man who came from a little Galilean village called Nazareth. His name, Mark tells us, is Jesus – and Mark already clued us in that Jesus is the center of the good news. Jesus takes a dip in the Jordan, baptized by John (Mark 1:9) – John, who wasn't even worthy to handle Jesus' shoelaces – and in that moment, the skies rip open, the Spirit of God flies down (Mark 1:10), and the Father's voice booms throughout the desert, thundering a recognition that Jesus, his Son, is the apple of his eye (Mark 1:11). Here is the glory of the LORD! Here is our God, the eternal Word clothed in flesh like ours, which withers like grass, fades like flowers (cf. Isaiah 40:6-8).

The Spirit anoints him, marking him as the Messiah; the Spirit drives him into the wilderness, the desert (Mark 1:12). For forty days, he lived beneath the hot sun with the sparse wildlife in the empty and barren places where Israel bowed to the golden calf – facing the same conditions and the same Tempter (Mark 1:13), would Jesus give in to temptation like the ancestors of Joseph and Mary did long before? In the desert, a whole generation wandered, lost in their sin and disobedience, for forty years, and an angry God kept them from his rest, locked them out of the kingdom (Psalm 95:8-11). Would Jesus miss out on the kingdom he came to bring? Would he gain the world and lose the very soul of God in the process? Would his fruit fall short of what John announced to the crowds – would he live a self-serving life of using his power for his own gain of food, of instant popularity, of kingship and acclaim? As if there were any doubt: turning again and again to his Father's voice, he shut Satan down and sent him running. Pointing to the words of God found in Numbers and Deuteronomy, Jesus availed himself only of the same resources that the Israelites themselves had, resources we have today – and even at the end of his rope, he stood strong (Matthew 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-13). “Submit yourselves, therefore, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you” (James 4:7).

As John's ministry closed, Jesus returned to his homeland, the familiar Galilean countryside he'd called home for three decades (Mark 1:14). But now, anointed and filled by the Spirit and recharged by the angels' service after his great victory over the Tempter, Jesus came, not as a disciple of the imprisoned John, not as Joseph's apprentice, not as an up-and-coming carpenter, but as a voice: “The time is fulfilled. The kingdom of God has come near. Repent! And believe in the good news!” (Mark 1:15). And so “a report about him spread through all the surrounding country” (Luke 4:14), and after being driven out of his home village of Nazareth (Luke 4:16-30), he “left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea” (Matthew 4:13) – and “from that time, Jesus began to proclaim, 'Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near'” (Matthew 4:17).

What's the good news? What was Jesus saying? The kingdom is coming! What's the kingdom? The kingdom is the world being arranged in order, with God ruling it; the kingdom is people responding to God's call on their lives, living according to his holy love. The time of wicked powers is drawing to a close, Jesus declares, and God is shattering the world open to make his glory known! Words of comfort to God's faithful people, “that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned” (Isaiah 40:2), that the “Lord GOD will come with strong hand, and his arm shall rule for him” as he establishes his kingdom in a new way; and “he shall feed his flock like a shepherd: he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young” (Isaiah 40:10-11). “He is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand” (Psalm 95:7) That's the message of the kingdom, a message of Jesus and about Jesus, and our message too, which we teach with arms pointing to him and repentant hands held open in mercy. “Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning?” (Isaiah 40:21). Yes – yes, it has. Praise God!

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Whether We Sleep or Wake: A Sermon in Memory of Rev. Melvin Stehr

From Genesis 3 through Revelation 20, this world is a tragic world. And because our lives, our psyches, were made to be responsive to the world around us, created to filter and reflect our circumstances, our lives are tragic lives in this fallen world. We know what it means to hunger and not be filled, what it means to thirst and not be quenched, what it means to yearn and not be satisfied. We experience the dreadful gap between how things ought to be and how they are, the chasm between God's design and the wispiness of our fragile life: “For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away” (James 4:14). And so, seeing the chasm in our woundedness, our sickness, and the inevitability of death stalking our every step, we respond to tragedy with grief.

Sometimes, when we're grieving, or when we see someone in the pains and passions of grief, we want to take a shortcut out of the grieving process. We want the quickest route back to sunny skies and the balmy summertime of the soul, away from the cold, cloud-choked doldrums and their dreadful drizzles of despair. We want to pave over the potholes in the road of life, pretend that smooth sailing on stormy seas is the norm. And so we invoke our array of platitudes, trying to prematurely leap from those choppy waters to terra firma.

Or sometimes, we're just so caught up in what the Bible says about the “joy of the Lord” that we can't see how the Christian life leaves any room for grief, no matter the circumstances. Just look at our hymns! “At the cross, at the cross, where I first saw the light / and the burden of my heart rolled away, / it was there by faith I received my sight, / and now I am happy all the day” – happy, happy, happy, is it any wonder we have so little room for grief and silence? So many classic hymns have a sequence that tells the story of a believer up through a confrontation with his or her own mortality, but we excise those final stanzas when we print our hymnals. When we sing “Amazing Grace,” who even knows the lost fifth verse about “when this flesh and heart shall fail, / and mortal life shall cease”? When we sing “O God, Our Help in Ages Past,” what about the verse: “Time, like an ever-rolling stream, / soon bears us all away; / we fly forgotten, as a dream / dies at the opening day”? And though it's in our hymnal, how often do we meditate on some of the closing lines of “Rock of Ages, Cleft For Me” that deal with the time “while I draw this fleeting breath, / while my eye-strings break in death”? For most of us, not so often.

Why? Because in this country, we don't do the cross well. We're drawn to dazzling light, to messages of fantastic prosperity and instant healing. American churches are full of the truncated gospel of the quick fix. We have so little space for lament and outcry; we have no time for stillness in God's presence; if it doesn't resolve, our disquiet speaks volumes. Who preaches the grittiness of Leviticus, the mournful plaints of Lamentations, the dreary outlook of Ecclesiastes, or the psalms of woe? Who would stay to listen? We want a sanitized world of emotional highs and easy plots. Underlying many American churches is the unspoken conviction that the godly life is a life that either escapes tribulation altogether or else bears it undisturbed.

That is not Christianity. That is warmed-over Stoicism in pious coating – but Seneca didn't die on the cross for you. Jesus did, and he models the godly life. And in the Gospel of John, we read how the eyes of the Word-made-flesh dripped and gushed with hot tears in pained anguish over the graveside of his best friend Lazarus, whom he loved dearly (John 11:5). Witnessing the sorrows of his sister, the wailing of her companions, Jesus “was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved” (John 11:33), and he himself “began to weep” (John 11:35). If Jesus, who knew that Lazarus' death wouldn't last even a few more hours, grieved in the face of that most poignant instance of tragedy, the marring of God's creation by death's invasion, who can deny that godliness and grief are compatible after all? “The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning” (Ecclesiastes 7:4). Just so, the Apostle Paul “served the Lord with all humility and with tears” (Acts 20:19).

And so away with our platitudes, away with our shortcuts, away with our secret allegiance to prosperity preaching and our addiction to joyful noises. There is such a thing as holy lament, such a thing as sanctified suffering, such a thing as godly grief. But what is it that makes grief godly, if it can also be ungodly? The answer is hope – hope makes grief godly or ungodly, healthy or unhealthy, by its presence or absence. Paul writes to the Thessalonian believers in a time of distress to reassure them so that they “may not grieve as others do who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13) – not that they won't grieve, but that they won't grieve hopelessly. Hopeful grief is not in vain: “Thou tellest my wanderings: put thou my tears into thy bottle: are they not in thy book?” (Psalm 56:8).

Hope makes all the difference. And this hope is not wishful thinking, not an optimistic outlook, not a wistful expression of desire, like when we say, “I hope it doesn't rain today,” or, “I hope it doesn't get too hot out” – the latter hope being, alas, sorely dashed today. This hope is something else, something greater and more tangible. This hope is a faithful disposition that prioritizes God's promises over current transitory circumstances. That's what hope is. “It is good that a man should both hope and quietly wait for the salvation of the LORD” (Lamentations 3:26). Consider Abraham, Paul's hero of hope. Confronted with the physical reality of advanced age, God asked him to believe the impossible, the absurd, that he would yet father a son who might look upon him with his own eyes, maybe bear his mother's nose and charming smile. As far as the fertility of his own body, Abraham was “as good as dead” (Romans 4:19; Hebrews 11:11-12). Staring death in the face, both then and atop Mount Moriah when asked to make a stunning sacrifice, Abraham chose to look past what his eyes saw and choose faith in “the God who gives life to the dead” (Romans 4:17). Abraham chose the hopeful faith of resurrection. An irrational faith, a faith against reason? No, say the scriptures: “Abraham reasoned that God is able even to raise someone from the dead” (Hebrews 11:19). With reason daring to build on faith's foundation, Abraham saw hope lead him through the valley of the shadow of death and beyond.

Paul says that it's suffering that brings endurance, and endurance that builds character, and character that makes way for hope (Romans 5:3-4). Hope in God's promises emerges out of the endurance of suffering, not out of escape from suffering. Hope is not the opposite of grief, but actually is birthed through the wails of sorrow and distress, when grief is made fertile by faith. Hope is born from the psalmist's words, “I am weary with my moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears; I drench my couch with my weeping” (Psalm 6:6), ultimately issuing in the psalmist's relief that “the LORD has heard the sound of my weeping; the LORD has heard my supplication; the LORD accepts my prayer” (Psalm 6:8-9). But that's just it: there are two ways to grieve – fertile and infertile.

Many in this world grieve with no hope. They don't recognize that God has acted decisively in Jesus Christ, who “died and rose again” (1 Thessalonians 4:14). And in denying outright or giving no space in practice to this world-changing confession, they have to make do with hope-substitutes. Some might try to employ a universal optimism, an unfounded wistfulness that just anyone who dies must surely be in “a better place”. These are just the pirated trappings of real Christian piety, a boiled-down residue that treats heavenly life as a matter of due course and not as an astounding penultimate stage in the radical saga of God's grace bursting into the world in his Son and his Spirit. Those whose lives are hid with Christ in God really are in a better place – not because they were so good, but because Jesus was so good to them and in them (Colossians 3:3).

Or some who grieve with no hope, grieve in godless resignation. They might admit that death is the end, as it appears to the natural eye to be. They might confess that a person's story is, in a cosmic perspective, insignificant. They might concede that this proverbial “tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” finally comes to a close when the heart stops beating; that its epilogue trails off as the casket and its vault are lowered into the earth; that there will be no sequel and no re-make; that “neither have they any more portion forever in anything that is done under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 9:6). And they might try to evade the inevitable ticking clock of their own mortality through distraction. All that's left to do in the meantime is chase after the wind (Ecclesiastes 2:11). But this hopeless grief is too fearsome and vain and pointless a thing to stare in the face.

Yet one need not grieve a hopeless grief. One can grieve, but grieve not “as others do who have no hope.” Our grief can recognize that the Last Enemy has lost its sting (1 Corinthians 15:55). Our grief can recognize that the Last Enemy will be defeated and destroyed forever (1 Corinthians 15:26). Our grief can look forward in anticipation to the final victory given to us by God in Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15:57), the victory that swallows that Last Enemy up and puts it out of sight and out of mind for all eternity (1 Corinthians 15:54). Even our grief, our lament, our sorrow, our flood of tears, can drown the shattered jaw of our Last Enemy.

But what does it look like to overcome? What does it look like to conquer death? In light of the end of the story, the Apostle John calls for “the patience of the saints,” expressed in active obedience: “They keep the commandments of God, and the faith of Jesus” (Revelation 14:12). We need this obedient, faithful patience – a patience expressly rooted and anchored in a God made known to us in the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ; a God who knows what it's like to mourn, even what it's like to be buried in the tomb; a God who offers himself as the “Joy of the Desolate.” Only with such obedient, faithful patience can we have this certain conviction. Only then do “we have this hope, a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul” (Hebrews 6:19), a “hope in the glory of God” (Romans 5:2).

Through such hope, we know the last word on human existence is not, “Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return” (Genesis 3:19). Not even close. Hear these words instead, recorded in the Revelation given to John: “Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord from henceforth.” Death is a curse, death is an enemy, make no mistake; but God holds its leash and uses it to precious ends, even now. Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord, having shown the patience of the saints, having kept the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus. And the Spirit answers, “They may rest from their labors, and their works do follow them” (Revelation 14:13).

Followed by their works they go
    Where their Head had gone before,
Reconciled by grace below;
    Grace had opened mercy's door:
Justified through faith alone,
    Here they knew their sins forgiven,
Here they laid their burden down,
    Hallowed, and made fit for heaven.   (Charles Wesley, Poetical Works 2:189-190)

Just twenty-four hours ago, beneath the heat of the day amidst the greenness of God's persevering earth, the Rev. Dr. Gordon R. Lewis recited the words of Revelation 14:13 in the small village of Pitman, standing at the graveside of the Rev. Melvin H. Stehr – a patient, obedient, and faithful servant of the Lord if ever I've known one. Not too many yards away, in that same hallowed ground, stands a fractured marker above the mortal remains of Melvin's great-grandmother Elizabeth Kehler, whose sixty-six years on this earth didn't last so long as Melvin's ample ninety-two. And on that slim stone slab, barely above the blades of grass, is etched a reference to that very verse. So, like his believing fathers and faithful mothers before him, we know that Melvin is blessed with rest from his labors. It may fairly be said – nor could be gainsaid – that all the way, his Savior led him. He lives on now as a blessed “upper saint / who can praise and never faint, / gazing on [God] evermore / and with flaming heart adore.” The earth has spun on its axis a mere five times since he departed to be with Christ and so gained even in the tragedy of death (Philippians 1:21-23). And while no earthly riches or titles could go where he's gone, the works God worked through him do follow him – and oh, what works! Over a century ago, the great Evangelical preacher William Yost closed his Reminiscences with these reflections:

Had I wrought upon marble, it would perish; had I worked upon brass, time would efface it; had I reared magnificent temples and splendid palaces, they would crumble into dust; but having wrought upon immortal minds and imbued them with sacred principles, with the fear of God, I have engraven upon their tablets something which time can not efface, but which will brighten to all eternity.

As an ardent preacher of the word of God and a minister of his grace, Melvin, too, engraved upon immortal minds the sacred principles that will brighten to all eternity in the lives of each man, woman, and child here today, and so many others who are not – as we should all aspire to do, all being servants of the grace of God and doers of his word. And so the epitaph that Charles Wesley wrote for Thomas Forfitt could be affixed to Melvin just as perfectly, and may we live worthily of it likewise:

Of gracious riches full and happy days,
    A Christian here concludes his glorious race;
Disciple of a meek and lowly Lord,
    He labored on and longed for his reward,
'Til, ripe for bliss, he laid his body down,
    And faithful unto death, received the crown.   (Charles Wesley, Poetical Works 8:434)

What's more, those who rest from their labors now will one day return with Christ, being the first to rise: “For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him. … For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God; and the dead in Christ shall rise first” (1 Thessalonians 4:14-16), being “revealed with him in glory” (Colossians 3:4). The credits have not rolled on the life of Melvin Stehr, nor Elizabeth Kehler, nor William Yost, nor any of our blessed and beloved who've died in the Lord and gone to join the church triumphant. The credits have not rolled. Only the pause button has been pressed, giving rest to them before the face of God and calling us to live, even through grief, in the suspenseful silence of the still screen. But that silence, however truly long and pained and mournful for us to whom a thousand years are a thousand years and not a day (cf. 2 Peter 3:8), lasts only until Jesus descends with the exuberant exclamation, “The pause is over; press play!” And oh, the harmony that awaits when all those stories resume and when we who remain catch up with them!

In light of God's promises, we have a sure and certain hope that shapes the patterns of our grieving. Because we have faith that “Christ died for us” and hope that “whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with him” (1 Thessalonians 5:10), we live out this hope socially in the church. We comfort one another, we build each other up, bearing one another's burdens (Galatians 6:2), sharing our griefs and encouraging one another in bearing them: “Comfort yourselves together, and edify one another, even as also ye do” (1 Thessalonians 5:11). Ah, “even as also ye do” – because at Pequea as in Thessaloniki, we see many examplars of hopeful grief in the face of tragedy. Look around, and you'll see people who know how to put hope into practice.

In supporting each other, our grief does not vanish. It does not disappear in a flash of light. It does not immediately subside and restore us to the freshness of spring. But it becomes something else, something greater than itself, something holy. It becomes part of the life of Christ's body on earth, belonging to that “man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3). And by being made Christ's grief and one another's grief, even our grief becomes a living witness to the hope that will never, ever, ever disappoint (Romans 5:5). That hope will prove true in its time, through the patience of the saints bearing burdens together in obedience to Jesus, our faithful Lord, a Lord who “doth not afflict willingly nor grieve the children of men” (Lamentations 3:33), a Lord who sends his Spirit of Consolation to guide the patient through times of grief and trial. And when the time has come, “may those who sow in tears, reap with shouts of joy” (Psalm 126:5) in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Bread for the Journey: A Communion Message

Has anyone here ever read any of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings novels, or seen the movie adaptations? If you have, then you might remember how they tell the story of the Fellowship of the Ring – that's the title of the first book – and the journey that this diverse band of volunteers takes on a quest to protect Middle-Earth from the threat posed by the One Ring. And you might even remember that, late in the first part of the trilogy, the members of the Fellowship receive a rare gift from the Elves of food for the journey. Not just any food, but a thin wafer called lembas, “waybread,” “journey-bread,” a single cake of which “will keep a traveler on his feet for a day of long labor,” a “long day's march” through the hostile wilderness. No need for hunting, no need for foraging, this is the daily bread intended to get the Fellowship through their task. Because Tolkien, as a committed Christian, knew a biblical truth: you need bread for the journey.

The Israelites learned that lesson the hard way. As the children of Israel came through the wilderness, they fell into the habit of that most common human pastime: complaining. In Egyptian slavery, they remembered, they were fed. In Egyptian slavery, they “sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread” (Exodus 16:3). Scratch out the hardships of labor and the constant abuse, and slavery looks like a nice and easy deal. It promises security and sufficiency: as kept people, you get your rations of food and water, you get taken care of, you don't have to worry about it, because all the thinking's been done for you. That's what the Israelites want. Freedom is a hard thing, because it requires faith to receive food from above.

But that's exactly what God offers the whining Israelites: “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day,” or two days' worth, if it's before the Sabbath (Exodus 16:4-5). And just so, every morning “there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance,” the “grain of heaven” and “bread of angels” that the LORD gave them to eat (Exodus 16:14-15; Psalm 78:24-25). And a jar of manna was saved to be stored in the Ark of the Covenant, reminding Israel forever about how God had given them bread for the journey (Exodus 16:32-34). They ate it until they reached the border of the promised land; for forty years of nomadic life, this was what got them through each day (Exodus 16:35).

The Israelites really did get a daily supply of bread for the journey. Six mornings a week, it appeared, and they just had to pick it up. Between that and a regular diet of quail, they were set! This was real freedom: active trust in God, going forth to gather on the days he said it'd be there, and staying home to rest on the seventh day. Yet the story of Israel in the wilderness stands as a warning. As a generation, they did not have enough faith to make it to the promised land after all: “I was angry with that generation,” God says, and in that anger, he swore that the unfaithful of even this elect nation wouldn't enter his rest (Hebrews 3:10-11). They heard the good news, they got the gospel of their day, but they “failed to enter because of disobedience” (Hebrews 4:6). “They had no faith in God, and did not trust his saving power” (Psalm 78:22). He fed them for the desert, but there they would stay, their journey unfinished.

But we too are on a journey. In this life, all our days are a wandering in the wilderness, roaming through the desert of a world that's not our home. Like the patriarchs, we're “strangers and foreigners on the earth,” desiring “a better country” (Hebrews 11:13, 16). The promise that was set before Israel then “is still open” for us (Hebrews 4:1). Only those who live by faith can enter God's holy rest, the true and greater promised land that fills the whole world in the age to come (Hebrews 4:3). “Let us therefore make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one may fall through such disobedience as theirs” (Hebrews 4:11). But as we journey as strangers through this strange land, pressing onward for a hope of something greater, we need bread for the journey.

Two thousand years ago, on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, a crowd tried following Jesus for all the wrong reasons. Hungry in body and denying the hunger of their souls, they'd stick with anyone who would put bread in their stomachs. So after Jesus fed five thousand men, not even counting the women and children, they were ready to join his retinue. Like the Israelites longing for Egypt, their allegiance was for sale. The price would just be a free lunch.

Jesus challenged their self-serving quest to be satisfied with a free lunch: “Don't work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you” (John 6:27). They protest: they want manna, the same thing Moses gave them in the desert (John 6:31). Jesus corrects them: in their devotion to Moses, they've forgotten that it came from the God whom Jesus calls “Father,” a God who gives “true bread from heaven” to “give life to the world” (John 6:32-33). They say they want it, not getting what he means.

Jesus explains: he himself is the Bread of Heaven, the True Manna, the Life-Giver. Jesus is the Bread who satisfies every hunger: “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry” (John 6:35). But the trouble with this crowd of fairweather followers is that, even having seen Jesus and the sign he already worked, they aren't ready to trust him unless bare physical nourishment without work is a daily occurrence (John 6:36). They care nothing for the Signified, only for the sign. They won't believe him unless he keeps things simple, as simple as food on a plate they can touch and taste with their tongues. They dismiss his claim to be from heaven, not realizing who he really is. In their shallow presumption, they think they know Jesus (John 6:42). They couldn't be more wrong.

I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate manna in the wilderness, and they died” (John 6:48-49). The Israelites in the wilderness lacked faith, so even though they ate the manna daily, it didn't get them to the end of their quest. Their journey fell short, even with daily bread. Daily bread isn't enough apart from faith. But with faith, the real manna lasts: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh. … Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (John 6:51, 53). To feed faithfully on Jesus is to abide in him, and have his life abide in you, “so whoever eats me will live because of me” (John 6:56-57).

Jesus is the solution. As we journey through the wilderness, we know what it means to hunger. We know what it means to come up short. We have so many cravings. God made us with a God-shaped hole that only he can fill. No fleeting pleasures can fill that gap. Not even angel's food cake shipped down from the clouds will do the trick. Jesus is the only one who satisfies. You can't be satisfied, not in the depths of your soul, without the meal that he gives, where the Lord is at once Host and Feast, offering himself to keep our world in motion as we trek daily onward toward the true land of promise, the new creation. And he invites us to his table, not for any ordinary food, but for overcomers to taste their share of “the hidden manna,” the real deal (Revelation 2:17). We don't seek him for what he can do for us. We seek him because he's Jesus. He isn't the means to an end; he is the end, he is the goal, he is the fullness, he is pure satisfaction and perfect joy. And this perfect joy sanctifies the stuff of daily life – a loaf of bread, a cup of the fruit of the vine – and makes it grace, a gift from Jesus of Jesus.

Every time we celebrate the Lord's Supper, we dine with him, and we dine on him, as he gives himself in the eucharist as the viaticum, the “way-bread,” the lembas to sustain our fellowship all this life's journey through and to strengthen us for a Christ-sized task. If you're feeling drained and depleted, seeing the long and hard road ahead, come to this table. If you're feeling distracted and dismayed, unsure of your purpose, wavering in your resolve, come to this table. If you're feeling sorrowed and in doubt, wondering why the road is so dangerous, come to this table. If you're feeling strong, so strong you could almost delude yourself into thinking that you can gain all the sustenance you need by sucking your own soul like a baby sucks his thumb, come to this table. “For my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink,” he says, and those who eat and drink at this table, by grace and through faith receiving it as a sacred sharing in Jesus Christ himself, “have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day” (John 6:54-55). Eat this food in faith, and this fellowship, this Communion of the Saints, will endure beyond death, and in the true undying lands, we'll feast again with all our fellows whose journey has closed – and with our Host himself, knowing as we're known, seeing face-to-face at last. So come in faith, come to life, come to this table.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Cyrus for President: An Independence Day Sermon

On the occasion of the Fourth of July, when Americans everywhere celebrate the foundation of our nation, it's important for we as Christians to reflect on what a nation is, what a nation can be, what roles a nation can play in the plans of Almighty God. As Peter Leithart writes, “Empires may be towers and cities raised in rebellion against God, rods that crush, or sanctuaries and saviors for the faithful.” I'd like to suggest that, between the Bible and Christian history, we're given six general models – not even counting Israel – for what a nation or empire can be like. Now, throughout the writings of the biblical prophets, the great Gentile empires are always compared to wild animals, sometimes monsters. For instance, Daniel prophetically sees Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome as “four great beasts” who rose up “out of the sea,” the Gentile world (Daniel 7:3). But in his vision, all of them are finally trumped by “one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven” to receive an everlasting rule from the hands of God the Father so that “all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him” (Daniel 7:13-14). This human figure represents Jesus as the Messiah, standing for all of faithful Israel, the real humanity following Adam's vocation to exercise righteous dominion over the beasts of the earth – including the nations. And kings and nations are judged by how they treat the true humanity, the offspring of faithful Abraham: “I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3).

So the first model, at one extreme, is that of a vicious beast. That's the sort of portrayal we get in Revelation: a beast “allowed to make war against the saints and conquer them” (Revelation 13:7). A nation who's a vicious beast is an active persecutor of God's people, using violence and bloodshed against them. In at least that respect, and probably more, a Beast-Nation does not respect human rights or liberties. If God's people live within the borders of a Beast-Nation, we will personally know martyrs who died for the faith we share. Look at Christian villagers in the regions ISIS has captured. And it was Babylon being beastly that “burned the house of God, broke down the wall of Jerusalem, burned all its palaces with fire, and destroyed all its precious vessels” (2 Chronicles 36:19), killing even in the sanctuary with “no compassion” (2 Chronicles 36:17). But never lose hope: the Last Adam is a beast-tamer extraordinaire.

I think a second model can be found in Genesis 10-11, the story of Nimrod's city-building leading up to the Tower of Babel. In that story, all the people of the land were united in one common project, a city and a tower, having one common confession of faith or unfaith – and it was not faith in God's promises. A Babel-Nation may not use violence against God's people, but even if it doesn't, it suppresses any dissent from the core ideas by which it operates. Many Muslim-majority nations would be Babel-Nations – God's people are on the social fringes, and if there isn't outright physical violence against us, still we're marginalized from having much of a public Christian presence because it doesn't fit with the totalizing consensus of society that brooks no rivals.

A third model is shown in Babylon under the rule of Nebuchadnezzar, or Persia under the rule of Xerxes. These nations are very conflicted as to how they want to treat God's people. Sometimes, truly vocal believers – people who are genuine disciples, committed to being disciples in every area of their lives, including public life – can rise to high positions and wield some influence. Think of Daniel as one of Nebuchadnezzar's lead advisors (Daniel 2:48-49). Think of Esther as the unwitting queen of Xerxes “for just such a time as this” (Esther 4:14), and Mordecai later raised to second-in-command (Esther 10:3). But serious believers are still the exception among the elite power-brokers and culture-makers, and even the lives of a Daniel or an Esther are fraught with danger. Because that kind of rule can take an abrupt turn toward Babel or even beastly traits. Nebuchadnezzar went from honoring Daniel and his three friends to ordering Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego to be thrown into a furnace for not worshipping his idol (Daniel 3:8-23). Xerxes was all too ready to listen to Haman's Hitler-esque schemes (Esther 3:6-11).

A fourth model, I think, is suggested by Persia under the rule of Xerxes' grandfather Cyrus the Great. Now this is finally a different sort of kingdom! As Cyrus was committed to practicing it, the Persian style of rule was based on a healthy kind of pluralism. When he conquered Babylon, even the Babylonians celebrated him as a liberator. Cyrus intentionally showed respect to every kind of people who lived under his rule, restoring temples and sanctuaries all through his domain; and even though Isaiah made clear in advance that Cyrus was a pagan rather than a believer, still he's presented as a “messiah,” chosen by God to be a protector of his people (Isaiah 45:1-5), allowing them to return to their land and supporting them in their good endeavors (Ezra 1:3-5). A Daniel can survive a Nebuchadnezzar, but Daniel “prospered during … the reign of Cyrus” (Daniel 6:28). The American pastor John Murray, in a sermon given in November 1779, observed:

Sometimes the great Deliverer chooses a pebble from their own brook to prostrate their most gigantic oppressors, and sometimes he moves the heart of an alien to restore them the liberty which their own kings overthrew. Thus Cyrus a pagan prince, unconnected by nation, and by religion an enemy, monarch of the empire that had persecuted their fathers, that had razed their cities, abolished their ordinances and levelled their temple to the ground. – Cyrus, stirred up by the Lord alone, unsolicited by men, and incapable of detriment from any plot of his prisoners, proclaims the remains of oppressed Israel, free and independent in their greatest privileges, those of the religion of the God of their fathers, he rouses every dormant principle of patriotism among them to exert itself on the occasion for the re-establishment of their invaluable liberties, and freely furnishes the undertakers of the work with treasures and all things necessary for the full accomplishment of the purpose.

For the last two models, we have to jump out of the Bible and into the first centuries of the church. After living through some rather beastly emperors, the church was thrilled and relieved when Constantine came to power and became the first Roman ruler to bow the knee to Jesus. Constantine was far, far from perfect, but he made it legal to be a Christian, and because he was personally also a believer, he showered the church with newfound privileges, and some Christian values did impact the laws he made. He didn't initially ban or outright persecute those who weren't part of the church, though he valued religious unity, so he meddled at times in the church's affairs to make sure of it. And by the end of his rule, he was giving orders to tear down pagan temples. Think of him as veering toward a role-reversed Babel style, where it's professing Christians who seek to exclude and marginalize others from acting according to their convictions.

And finally, several decades after Constantine ruled, the emperor Theodosius came to power. Where Constantine just made the church tolerated and then privileged, Theodosius made orthodox Christianity the only legal religion. Visiting the surviving pagan temples became a criminal offense, so did pagan sacrifices, pagan holidays became mandatory workdays, and he refused to give legal protection to pagans or their shrines from mob attacks. If Constantine was working toward a role-reversed Babel, Theodosius waded toward the waters of a role-reversed Beast.

So what was America founded to be? The colonists often took the imagery of Israel and applied it to themselves. They were the new Hebrews, fleeing a new Pharaoh. They were a nation of Davids, pitted against the Goliath of the British Empire. And there are some legitimate parallels there, but also problems. America is not a new Israel, founded by God on God's law and chosen among all peoples of the earth to be the light of the nations. The reason is, there's already a New Israel in town. You've probably heard of it: It's called the church. And from Puritan New England to today, sometimes we've let America get away with pretending to be what only the church is, putting a star-spangled banner where only Christ crucified belongs.

Was America founded to be a “Christian nation,” in the style of Constantine or Theodosius? No, not in that way. The founding fathers of the United States were dead-set against that idea. Their ancestors had run away from exactly that background. For hundreds and hundreds of years, European civilization had been rooted in variations of the Theodosian idea. And when the apparent unity of a Christian Europe was shattered in the Reformation, it was this Theodosian approach that led to massive religious wars – as James Madison called them, “vain attempts of the secular arm to extinguish religious discord by proscribing all difference in religious opinion.” Fleeing from Theodosian nations, plenty of religious refugees made their way to the New World, setting up colonies that kept the Theodosianism to a smaller scale.

By the time of the Revolution, it was clear that no national Theodosianism would work, and many people were just sick and tired of it. So the First Amendment was passed, prohibiting any federal law either creating or removing any establishment of an official church; and in time, our distaste for the Theodosian experiment did away with what few state churches there still were. Many of the Founding Fathers weren't orthodox Christians themselves, though plenty others certainly were. And they had plenty of differences about the proper role of religion in governing America. But these deists, Unitarians, mainliners, and evangelicals all did finally agree on a form of pluralism that would shelter liberty, allow people to practice their religion in public and private as they saw fit, and recognize that this new social project was built on the bedrock of recognizing God as a Creator who gives “unalienable rights” that no government has a right to alter or abolish, knowing that “the Most High rules in the kingdom of men” (Daniel 4:25).

If by “Christian nation,” we mean a Theodosian or even a really Constantinian nation, then we neither are one nor were meant to be one – nor were we meant to be a secularist Babel, either. The nation's first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, while he wrote that “it is the duty, as well as the privilege and interest, of our Christian nation to select and prefer Christians for their rulers” – and by 'Christian nation', he just meant the desirable social fact that most Americans claimed to be Christians – he also stressed in the same letter that “real Christians will abstain from violating the rights of others.” And James Madison famously denounced the idea that “the civil magistrate is a competent judge of religious truth, or that he may employ religion as an engine of civil policy.” Madison declared that “the religion, then, of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate,” since our responsibilities before God are older and more important than our duties to any civil society. “As servants of God, live as free people, yet don't use your freedom as a pretext for evil” (1 Peter 2:16), including forcing the gospel on those who can yet be won with winsome and gentle witness to Jesus Christ.

So what is the United States supposed to be? What are our ideals? Over thirty years ago, Richard John Neuhaus, wrote his book The Naked Public Square, challenging both Christians who wanted a Theodosius-like dominance over the state and secularists who wanted a Babel-style removal of religious voices from public life. He offered these as “characteristics of the project we would call America”:

...a devotion to liberal democracy, a near obsession with civil liberties, a relatively open market economy, the aspiration toward equality of opportunity, a commitment to an institutionalized balancing of powers and countervailing forces, and a readiness to defend this kind of social experiment, if necessary, by military force.

To me, that doesn't sound like Theodosius or even Constantine, and it doesn't sound like a Beast or even a Babel. But it might make Cyrus nod in approval. It's no surprise: many of the Founding Fathers, especially Jefferson, considered Cyrus to be a personal hero. And from my reading of what the Bible says about governments, that's a good thing. The sweet spot is somewhere between Constantine and Cyrus, and probably closer to the latter – especially a Cyrus who's heard and believed the gospel of God's kingdom. But I think the Christian voter would better to mark a ballot next to even a pagan Cyrus than next to either a theocratic Theodosius or a secularist Nimrod – and heaven knows we've elected our fair share of them in recent decades, haven't we?

Knowing that the Old Testament carefully balanced the governing institutions of Israel – making sure that the monarchy, the judges, the priesthood, and the prophets could in principle keep one another in balance under the rule of law – so the Founding Fathers recognized the need to keep federal, state, local governments, executive, legislative, and judicial branches, all in balance. Imbalanced power of any of them was one of their greatest concerns. And above all, they recognized from the start that natural rights are “endowed” by God and only “secured” by government, which has no rightful authority either to grant them or abridge them – so said the Continental Congress 239 years ago.

As we all have seen, the United States of today is not really a Cyrus-Nation, neither the sort it was founded to be nor an improved version. No surprise – good leadership needs constant upkeep, and even Cyrus's own son Cambyses was somewhat of a tyrant. No, America is probably now more of a Nebuchadnezzar-Nation, and the past several years have seen more and more of a tilt toward Babel. On some select issues, America has improved over the last half-century, but in its relationship to religious liberty and to a healthy moral culture, not so much. In the face of a very post-Christian state of affairs, it's easy for us to complain. It's easy to condemn. But on the twenty-third anniversary of the ratification of the Declaration of Independence, a pastor named Cyprian Strong preached:

As long as the people of the United States are well-informed and virtuous, so long they will be free, and their government uncorrupted. It is in their power, to remedy the evils, arising from having wicked and designing men at the head of government – they can lift up and pull down at pleasure. If government be not wisely administered, the fault must be in the people; for the frequent election of every branch of the national legislature, if wisely executed, is a sufficient remedy to all the mischiefs arising from a corrupt administration. … Our rulers, or those who stand at the head of our national government, will be just such men as we are pleased to elect. … Our danger arises from sloth and inattention on one hand, and from prejudices and lusts on the other. It is in the power of the people, to have just such men and just such an administration as they please. If electors are without information, and will give in their suffrages at random – if they will suffer themselves to be wheedled by designing men and artful demagogues, they may forge their own chains and rivet them.

It's almost hard to believe that Rev. Strong said that in 1799 and not 2014, isn't it? But who do we have to blame, if not a divided visible church that can't even agree on the authority of Scripture? Who do we have to blame, if not a church that's bought into the idea that religion is private, or a church that oversteps its bounds by endorsing countless policy recommendations on issues where Christians can fairly differ? Who do we have to blame, if not a church that cares more for the party affiliation of a politician and less for Christian virtues of love, kindness, and Christ-like truth-telling to dominate the style of political discourse itself? And yet still we, even as Christians, so often choose to reflect the same partisan hostilities of a perpetually outraged world.

America was a Cyrus-Nation – at least in theory, not always in practice. But one function of the Fourth of July is to call us back, not to America-the-Nation, but America-the-Notion – to judge the law and culture in light of the idea (for they've always fallen short), and the idea in light of the gospel (for America-the-Notion, too, falls short of God's kingdom). America is now a Nebuchadnezzar-Nation at best. What is the church's job in a Nebuchadnezzar-Nation? Exactly what God told the exiles through Jeremiah: “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the peace of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its peace you will find your peace” (Jeremiah 29:5-7).

We live out our lives as witnesses to another way of living, a way Babylon has forgotten. We stay strong, we remain committed, we do not assimilate, we do not consign ourselves to shrinking away to oblivion. We “obey God rather than man” (Acts 5:29), but still we “honor the emperor” (1 Peter 2:17). We work for peace and for the benefit of everyone, and we pray without ceasing. Don't you think Daniel prayed for Nebuchadnezzar? Don't you think Zerubbabel prayed for Cyrus? Don't you think Paul prayed for Nero? When the opportunity comes to have a hand in how the nation is governed, we work to make it more beneficial for all – not defending our own individual rights (though Paul wasn't shy about asserting his, if he thought it would be useful to his ministry [Acts 16:35-39; 22:25-30]), but standing up for our brothers and sisters and neighbors for the sake of all, knowing that a nation is blessed in blessing Abraham's children (Genesis 12:3) – and Abraham is the father of those whose faith is anchored in Jesus Christ, who died and rose again and has an eternal kingship (Romans 4:16-17; Daniel 7:14).

So with allegiance to Christ and love for America under God, we act by votes, prayer, and Christian witness to put Cyrus in the White House, Cyrus in the governor's mansion, Cyrus in the legislature, Cyrus in the courts – not just for our sake, but to “seek the peace of the city” on behalf of all races, all generations, all creeds, and to support a framework where the gospel can fairly meet and fairly woo in the public square. But our labors in America can never be allowed to obscure our loyalty to God's kingdom above all else. And if time should come that we have little clout in American law and culture, then may our faith remain in the God who raised up Cyrus at just the right time, the God seen with hands and feet nailed to government-issue wood to appease the bloodlust of a mob, the God who promises to make his power abundantly clear precisely in our weakness. In our strength or in our weakness, from the mainstream or from the margins, may God use us to bless America – and all the world – by preaching in word, in deed, and in attitude the gospel of a crucified and risen Savior. For, in the words of Revolutionary-era minister Levi Hart:

What is English liberty, what is American freedom, when compared with the glorious liberty of the sons of God? And what is slavery under the galling yoke of oppression, to the hard bondage of sin and Satan? Let the hitherto willing slaves of sin and Satan then rouse up – there is now an opportunity to escape from bondage; there is one come to preach deliverance to the captives, and the opening the prison to them who are bound. Jesus Christ, the mighty King and Savior, the scourge of tyrants, and destroyer of sin and Satan, the assertor, the giver and supporter of original, perfect freedom: he sets open your prison doors, knocks off your chains, and calls you to come forth.

Praise the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ for “the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free. … You have been called to liberty,” writes Paul, “Only, don't use your liberty as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but by love serve one another, for the whole law is summed up in a single commandment: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself'” (Galatians 5:1, 13-14).