Isaiah 32:1-8; Matthew 5:1-18
Well, we celebrate Independence Day this week.
It is always a very patriotic time, at least for most of the nation. So, I have once again changed our readings around so that I might talk about the State of the Union. And I am going to start with the Pledge of Allegiance.
The first thing we should know about the pledge is that it was not composed by the Founding Fathers. It was written especially for children in the summer of 1892 to commemorate that year’s celebration of Columbus Day.
The pledge first appeared in print on September 8, in The Youth’s Companion, an educational publication. In its original form, it read: “I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which is stands — one nation indivisible– with liberty and justice for all.”
Its author was Francis Bellamy, an assistant editor of The Youth’s Companion, who intended it for a one-time recitation by public school children across the country. But its immediate popularity transformed it first into an annual Columbus Day tradition – and then into a daily classroom ritual. It became one of the earliest verses memorized by students.
Since its debut, Bellamy’s pledge has undergone two major alterations. In 1923, the National Flag Conference of the American Legion replaced the somewhat ambiguously personal “my Flag” wording with the more explicitly patriotic “the Flag of the United States of America.” And in 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed a bill that added the words “Under God.”
The pledge of allegiance, then, comes to us in its present form after having been shaped and transformed over time. So too, ours is a nation which has had its character shaped by specific factors over time.
Even the faithful founders, who wrote our constitution, had their characters shaped by some of the very same factors which shaped our national character.
This morning we will examine the state of our union, or our national character, specifically with regard to the influence that Christianity and the Bible have had on this nation. We live in perilous times where history is constantly being attacked by the pen of the revisionist historians and their social agenda. Mind you, I do not seek to persuade you toward any particular political ideology or perspective. I long only to put forth an honest display of the simple truth that Christianity has had a profound impact upon the shaping of our nation and to propose what this implies for modern Americans, Christians or otherwise.
Today there are agenda driven political and church leaders, on both sides of the political aisle, who seek to use the history of our nation to their advantage. There are excesses on both sides of this issue and it matters not whether one is conservative or liberal. There are those who seek to use the Christian heritage of this nation as justification for the church to place its emphasis almost entirely upon seizing political power. The idea is that if we could just take America back for God then we could create the Utopian society that our Pilgrim forefathers envisioned. Many of these people have made the error of equating conservative political ideas with Christian faith. Implying that to vote a certain way is the primary means of expressing one’s faith in Christ.
There are others who, for the sake of their political and social ideologies, would prefer to revise history so as to completely erase and wash away the Christian roots of this nation. For many of these folks, issues such as slavery, oppression of women, and the injustices handed out to Native Americans negate the very notion that early American people – in general – and the framers of our constitution specifically – were Christian people.
This morning I want to share with you what I believe to be a much more balanced view and practical national theology for the modern Christian. Indeed, this nation has an imperfect history – as do all nations – because where there are imperfect people there will always be imperfect results.
O, but it is equally true that this nation is founded upon principals and ideas – so profound – as to be unparalleled in all of human history. It is likely that no greater a document will ever be produced by human hands than that of the beautiful constitution of the United States. The declaration of independence with its soaring ideology is among the most profound promise-laden scripts in modern or ancient history.
Ours is a nation founded by Christian men and women and built upon plain biblical principles of freedom, charity, and liberty. The promises built into our constitution, however, are not strong enough to stand on their own. The promises – made by the framers of the American way of life – are like a written check in which each succeeding generation must continually cash.
Today’s text from Isaiah speaks prophetically with regard to the coming reign of Christ, the Messiah. The prophetic timeline reminds us time and again that this earth is passing away. The things of this world are fleeting. They are all passing away. Or as King Saul put it in Ecclesiastes: “there is a time for everything under the sun.” That is sun spelled with a “u.” The things of God, however, are eternal. Today’s text speaks of another son, one spelled with an “o.” This king will reign in righteousness.
But over the centuries there has been much speculation as to who this king is or will be. There are those who assert that the prophet Isaiah was speaking of King Hezekiah, and King Hezekiah did restore godliness to the throne of Judah.
He served after the model given to him by his great grandfather Uzziah. His predecessor Ahaz had fallen into idolatry and had led God’s people astray. Hezekiah restored temple worship to the one true God of Israel. He was equally adept in dealing with the Assyrian threat, which continually loomed over God’s people. Hezekiah was a great and godly king; even a king who exemplified righteousness. But Hezekiah never opened the eyes that were closed nor did he open the ears of those who could not hear. No, this passage more explicitly points us to the coming reign of Christ. Many scholars believe it points to the end times when Jesus shall return to this earth to fulfill the promise of God to restore the earth to its intended splendor, when the lion shall lay down with the lamb and every tear shall be wiped away.
You see, the biblical message is not that our ultimate home is heaven, though that is the place for saints of God who depart from this life. There is coming a day – scripture declares – that we who are alive by faith in Christ, according to the grace of God, will see this very world restored, this is known theologically as the “millennial reign of Christ” and what a glorious day that shall be! Then we will be caught up into the new heaven and new earth in communion and fellowship with God. Indeed, the king of whom Isaiah speaks is no Hezekiah, though he was a great and godly king. The king of righteousness is Christ himself! Our ultimate hope does not lie in earthly kings or kingdoms.
We are first and foremost citizens of Christ’s eternal kingdom.
In an age of an overly politicized media, of rampant competing social agendas, and their proponents who tug at our ears and hearts, we do well to remember this. We need to look forward to the coming messianic age when Christ shall sit on the throne. Our task is not first and foremost to seize political power because we know that there will be no perfect kingdom until He reigns;
There will be no kingdom free from disappointment and imperfection ..until Christ the King’s.
However, knowing that He will one day return to judge the living and the dead rightly fuels us to be wise stewards of the freedom and liberty that we have been given. Knowing that one day He will make all things new – rightly gives us the hope necessary to fuel us to do what we are called to do today. While our eternal hope for the world rests in the assurance that Christ will one day return, we still have a responsibility to influence the culture around us today. The recognition of our eternal hope does not allow us the freedom to abdicate our responsibility here and now. The light of Christ – shining in us – ought to be boldly displayed to the entire world.
Which is Jesus’ message in today’s Gospel: “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”
No doubt Jonathon Winthrop, the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, was referencing this passage of Scripture when he penned these words in his famous sermon, “A Model of Christian Charity”:
“Now the only way to avoid this shipwreck and to provide for our posterity is to follow the counsel of Micah, to do Justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God, for this end, we must be knit together in this work as one man, we must entertain each other in brotherly Affection, we must be willing to abridge our selves of our superfluity, for the supply of other necessities, we must uphold a familiar Commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality.
We must delight in each other, make others’ Conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor, and suffer together,
always having before our eyes our Commission and Community in the work, our Community as members of the same body, so shall we keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace…
Beloved there is now set before us life and good, death and evil, in that we are Commanded this day to love the Lord our God, and to love one another to walk in his ways and to keep his Commandments and his Ordinance, and his laws, and the Articles of our Covenant with him that we may live and be multiplied, and that the Lord our God may bless us in the land whether we go to possess it…
Therefore let us choose life, that we, and our Seed, may live; by obeying his voice, and cleaving to Him, for He is our life, and our prosperity.” ~ Jonathon Winthrop, 1630
The earliest settlers of this great nation sensed a divine calling to establish a free and Christian society in the new world. To suggest otherwise is to deny or ignore the plain truth of history. And yet there are those who would tell us that though the puritan separatists, the pilgrims, were obviously Christian believers, surely the framers of the constitution were deists, that is, that they were merely people who believed only in a vague and distant conception of God.
If, as many modernists have, and continue to state, the framers were non-Christian people who believed that the Christian religion and ethic had no place in society, then how do we explain quotes such as these?
In 1789 John Adams wrote that, “Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate for the government of any other.”
George Washington, speaking to a gathering of the Reformed Dutch Church said, “While just government protects all in their religious rights, true religion affords to government its surest support.”
I could keep going for hours, but I think it’s clear that the Christian influence on the shaping of the character of this nation is undeniable to any person of intellectual integrity and historical honesty. And yet, even though a majority of US citizens still claim to be Christians the state of the union is one of contention. Take, for instance, the issue of immigration. One side says we must welcome the sojourner while the other side says we must protect our borders. There are truths on both side of that argument, but I was shocked by a recent interview.
While interviewing a young lady about this issue the interviewer asked if she was in favor of – open borders or a sovereign nation.
She answered, “open borders.” And I firmly believe she was able to say that because she has no idea of our country’s history and she has no appreciation the cost put forth to defend this great nation.
We have been given a great legacy. If we fail in our task to handle appropriately the legacy handed to us from those brave men and women, who suffered such great pains for the freedoms that our generation often squanders, what will be the legacy handed from us to the next generation?
American freedom and Christian liberty are both great treasures. I would suggest that in the day to day experience of our lives we would do well to handle both well – and take great care to be faithful stewards of them. We must let the light of Christ shine in us as we celebrate Christ and the liberty and legacy He has given to us in this most blessed of nations.