Psalm 130; 1 Samuel 17:55-18:16
July 4, 2021
- Facing Adversity as Christians in a Nation
[Bring the flag stand up to the pulpit.]
This may be a bit of a surprising thing to do today. At least, I am counting on it being a surprise or strange thing to do, perhaps jarring, even as we recognize the actual celebration of Independence Day today, 245 years after the Second Continental Congress approved the Declaration of Independence severing the fledging American colonies from Great Britain. I might have to watch Hamilton, again, this afternoon. I have always had more of an interest in colonial history than other periods of American history. So much seemed to be riding on the line then. Everything had to be created from pretty much scratch in terms of our system of being and doing. They made up the greatest experiment in democracy ever conceived, and it is still going despite the challenges and problems. Life was so very hard back then, too, and the odds were tremendously against our being able to become our own nation. Still, we did. Every one of our Founders probably gave some thought to the role of Providence in there. This was a way they had of talking about what we would say is God today.
Nevertheless, I propose that placing a flag at the center of worship is a very strange thing to do. Our Founding Fathers never intended us to do it. How can I know that? Simply consider the very First Amendment to the Constitution, the very first thing it says – Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion. It was the deep desire of the founders to make sure America did not tie itself to any church. Underscore, underline. Of course, you might say that it is OUR choice to put the flag in the church. Certainly, Congress is not requiring us to do it. It is our free choice. That begs the question, however, as to whether we are giving our church, our family of faith, to our nation. To invite American sovereignty into a community of faith almost seems like we are trying to put the flag and the cross on equal footing. Is our church American? Or is the Church (and each church by extension) greater than any particular nation, independent from political ties, and subservient to no one but Jesus Christ (who, admittedly, does call us to be good citizens – the best citizens – don’t get me wrong. I am not calling for any insurrection.) I am simply raising a point that every Christian living in America or in any nation of the world should carefully consider. How does being a person of faith connect with our being also a part of a country? I will go ahead and tell you that it is not an easy question to answer but one borne out of love and strife.
We probably all love America on some way, maybe not all with the same intensity, but we all probably do. Like I said, our love for Jesus should be much more by far, and we really do need to love our neighbor as ourselves, but our love for our nation is no less real. Some of us may have fought for it, sacrificed for it, worked for it – giving years of time and service, and some of our members in the past have died for it – giving the ultimate gift for our nation. American does have elements of greatness and her greatness deserves our love.
Now, consider that love when you think about David, son of Jesse. Who has loved their nation, their people, MORE than David? As a child, he was anointed as a future king to Israel. As a child, he also literally went to war for his nation without hesitation in an all-or-nothing fight: one champion vs another. Whoever won determined everyone’s fate. That is a huge burden for anyone to carry which is why no one was willing to accept the Philistine’s challenge but David.
This is where the passage from Samuel picks up today, immediately after David kills Goliath. There is so much love and celebration going on. Saul immediately takes him into his court, Jonathan (Saul’s son) binds his heart to David in a dramatic way, the people love David so much that he is celebrated more than the king. This is a whirlwind few verses where David seems to grow up immediately and never even returns home. He does not even seem to get a choice or a voice. No asks David what he wants, but we know David wants to serve the Lord by serving his king and serving his nation. David loves the Lord with his whole heart.
Loving any nation also has its problems, though. Please realize that back then the Kingdom of Israel and God overlapped a great deal, so the problems are starker. Obviously, the kingdom was NOT God, but God was intricately involved in the happenings: God’s literal seat was with them as the Ark of the Covenant, God’s priests and prophets and servants were there in the midst of them, and their name Israel literally meant to “struggle with God.” This was God’s promised people, God’s chosen ones, and there was a very obvious, deep tie between God and the Kingdom. You could not separate God from Israel.
But no nation is itself a holy nation, not even one named after God. As strongly as one might feel toward their nation, every nation of the world is run by fallible, limited, self-interested people. Our system of government expects this and is founded on this self-interest as a key component of its workings, but every nation, including the one that was supposed to actually be of God, was deeply flawed and failed to live up to its calling for justice and righteousness. Evil can lurk in the hearts of our leaders, too. It would take far too long to go through the list of government abuses in our own history. Every nation needs the voice of Christ, the calling of God, the leading of the Holy Spirit coming from outside in prophetic judgment and correction. That love we place in our nation is also a source of conflict when our nation struggles to live into God’s calling. That struggle itself is a deeply difficult time. We see that today with our emergence from the pandemic. So much is still a daily burden, and it creates strife, worry, fear, and division among the people.
When was the last incredibly difficult thing you tried? I would expect everyone here has embarked on some exceptionally difficult thing in their life. Maybe you have never tried to become a Navy Seal or climb Mt. Everest or memorize all 24 chapters of Homer’s Iliad… in Greek (I met someone who did this seemingly impossible task), but you have no doubt attempted something exceedingly difficult. Even if you did not ultimately succeed, you fought the fight, wrestled the great trouble, carried the great weight.
Childbirth is hard, but actually raising kids is even more difficult. Arranging for a marriage can be a huge ordeal, but living out a marriage is way more difficult. Of course, the idea is that those struggles are worth it. Maybe you had to complete a monster project in school or work, built or renovated a home, or cared for someone with overwhelming needs. There are so many things that might come through our lives that remind us how big life can be and how hard things can get. I want to be clear that the two sides of how we deal with these important struggles are love and strife. We endure because of love; we endure, even when it gets hard because it always will.
When that Second Continental Congress that I mentioned earlier met on July 4, 1776, in Philadelphia, PA to approve the wording of the Declaration of Independence, they had a foreboding sense of what might be coming that we might not appreciate. They had a sense of just what it meant for them to ratify the document and pledge their adherence to its subversive, treasonous, and criminal wording which would pave the way for the colonies to become their own nation by declaring our independence from England. Of the 56 members of the Congress, all of them were marked with treason by the British Government and hunted. All of them were at some point forced from their homes. Twelve had their homes burned; seventeen lost all they had. Nine died from wounds or hardship during the Revolutionary War. Five were captured and brutally imprisoned. Several lost wives, sons, or entire families – one thirteen children. Two had wives mistreated. The individual stories are even more striking than the bare facts. It was no joking matter when Benjamin Franklin admitted, “Indeed we must all hang together, otherwise we shall most assuredly hang separately.” They expected that their signing the Declaration of Independence would be their death warrants, yet not one of them ever regretted, retracted, or recanted their part in the Declaration’s proclamation.
In fact, one of the signers, John Morton, a Tory with English sympathies who lived in a strongly loyalist part of Pennsylvania but who subscribed to the Declaration, was ostracized by his neighbors and even some family for signing. His sensitive and troubled nature could not bear it, and as he died within a year, he confessed, “Tell them that they will live to see the hour when they shall acknowledge that it [the signing] to have been the most glorious service that I rendered to my country.”
They loved their part of the great, glorious American experiment, and they knew that their decision was for what they deemed right. They loved being there in the middle of this occasion and committing themselves to this task of giving birth to our nation, but that very act levelled more strife and suffering and problems than we can easily imagine.
Being a Christian in this nation is a struggle and a service of love. I would not trade this nation for any in the world, but there is a great deal about it that I wish I could change. If I did not love it, I would not care so much, I suppose, but at least no one is looking to throw a spear through this poor preacher.
For now, I have to consider just what my place is here as a follower of Christ and as an American citizen. They will never mean the same thing. My Christian discipleship always has to come first, too. I want to be clear about that. We will always be American Christians and should never be Christian Americans. I was not put on this earth to serve America, but I was given life to serve the Lord. There will be times when the two may not be able to coexist in my heart. I pray my heart will choose the right direction, even and especially when it gets difficult. To God be the glory. Amen.