Thursday, December 04, 2003

This was first preached on the July 4 following 911.

God’s Hand on America—a Legitimate Claim?

On this Independence Day holiday, making 226 years of America as a sovereign nation, with this nation at war in the first war of the new century, it is right that we who follow Jesus Christ should pause and reflect, to celebrate and to commemorate, to pray for and seek God about this moment in time.

In the 90s, it seemed that endless peace and prosperity would be our happy lot. Business—and vice—both boomed. Private lives of national leaders were dismissed as irrelevant while others quietly found ways to funnel the riches of commerce into personal pockets setting the stage for the recession and scandals of the past few years.

A year ago, a tax cut and a missing Washington intern were the extent of the nation’s concerns. It was the last gasp of triviality before it happened.

And then the attacks came.

A nation stunned, shocked, saddened, but then resolved. Yellow ribbons—symbols of victimization—were retired in favor of red, white and blue—symbols of national defiance, will and unity. The eagle woke from its slumber and liberated a distance land from its oppressors—religious fanatics, servants of a false god, a god of fate and oppression, a god of blood and war.

And people prayed. They prayed in the National Cathedral in Washington the Friday after. They prayed in Temple City Park the Thursday after that, and all across the nation. They prayed for the victims and the survivors. They prayed for justice and not for vengeance. They prayed for young men would soon be in combat on the opposite side of the world. They prayed for victory in a just cause.

And God answered their prayers.

But this conflict is not over. It has just begun. We are at the same point we were in the Second World War after the Battle of Midway in the Pacific. We have demonstrated to the enemy and the world that we can win, but we have long to go to make the victory secure, to truly defeat and take down that enemy. The test of wills has only begun.

We Christians believe that God is sovereign over all nations. In that sense, there can be no doubt that God’s hand is upon America, even as God’s hand is upon Kenya or Korea or Kuwait. But millions of Americans believe that God has a special task for this nation that is unlike any other. Is that arrogant presumption or a secure reality?

How would we know if the Almighty has such a plan for the country? We could look at the unusual origin of the nation: colonies, largely populated by refugees from the tyrannies of Europe, many seeking freedom to worship without the interference or dictates of a king. We could look to the way the nation became a magnet to oppressed peoples everywhere. We would see stains on its record—slavery being the worst—but even that stain was one that that country itself corrected at the cost of rivers of blood.

We could look at the role this nation played in the 20th century. In that century, two great evil ideologies arose in an attempt to re-order and subjugate the globe: first fascism, then communism. It was American heroism that defeated the first, and American resolution that wore down the second. The first was based on race and power, the second on class and revolution, but they shared a hatred of the American ideal: that a free people can freely govern themselves; that birth is not destiny, but that instead free people can choose their path, and that all are equal and have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

These great evils were defeated in the 20th century by American resolve, American values and American heroism. And who can deny that the Sovereign Lord who raised up America for this task of repelling these great evils?

As the 21st century dawns, a new world-scale threat against of that is good has arisen: Islamo-Fascism. I call it that because it has much in common with the fascism of the Nazis: hatred of the Jewish people; a desire to subjugate nations; hatred of the values of freedom—be that political, religious or personal freedom. These are the New Barbarians that we face. This is the challenge of the present hour.

For perspective, we Christians must look to the holy word of God.

A Psalm for the Whole World: Psalm 67

One place we can look is the 67th Psalm. It is a remarkable Psalm for its worldwide perspective, for its tight structure, and for its timeless application.

Understanding its structure is the key to understanding its meaning. It follows what Bible scholars call a “chiastic” structure, where the beginning and end are balanced, the second and the next to last section are balanced, and the middle stands on its own. You can think of it as an “ABCBA structure” (see your message outline). That is, the first and the fifth (the last) sections (vs. 1-2 and vs. 6-7) say almost the same thing. Sections two and four are word for word identical, and only the middle section, vs. 4, is completely unique:

q A: 1-2 Bless us so the nations may know (a hope)

1May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face shine upon us,
2that your ways may be known on earth, your salvation among all nations.

This is expressed as a prayer of hope. May it be so—that God be gracious, bless us, so that that blessing may overflow to all the nations on earth.

q B: 3 May all peoples praise God!

3May the peoples praise you, O God;
may all the peoples praise you.

Notice that it’s peoples, plural: all the different peoples of the earth: whether it’s the people of Argentina or Armenia or Angola or America—all the varied peoples of the world are in view.

q C: 4 God rules the peoples and guides the nations

4May the nations be glad and sing for joy,
for you rule the peoples justly
and guide the nations of the earth.

Even more so! May all the nations (Hebrew, goiim, the Gentiles) be glad and sing for joy—in worship. Why? Because God rules the peoples justly and guides the nations of the earth! God is over all, and wholly just! This is the vision of John in Revelation 4 and 5 in preview: of God enthroned, and worshipped by people from every tribe and language and nation and tongue and tribe.
q B: 5 May all peoples praise God!

5May the peoples praise you, O God;
may all the peoples praise you.

This is, as we said, identical to vs. 3.

q A: 6-7 Bless us so the nations may know (a promise)

6Then the land will yield its harvest,
and God, our God, will bless us.
7God will bless us,
and all the ends of the earth will fear him.

Now this is very similar to vs. 1-2, but not identical. 1-2 is expressed as a hope; here, at the end of this short Psalm, hope has turned into a future tense certainty. The land will yield is harvest…God, our God, will bless us…and all the ends of the earth will fear Him.

Psalm 67…on Three Levels

We have to interpret and apply this Psalm, I think, on three levels:

1. For Israel…the Abrahamic hope and the Aaronic blessing

First, the Psalm was written to and for ancient Israel, and we have to start with the meaning as it would have been understood by its first hearers. It is a Psalm of blessing that reaches back to the promise made to Abraham that his children, the people we call Israel, would be for the blessing of the whole earth (Genesis 12:1-3). It also reaches back to the language of the blessing of Aaron we find in Numbers 6:24-26:

24" ` "The LORD bless you and keep you;
25 the LORD make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you;
26 the LORD turn his face toward you and give you peace." '

What Psalm 67 does it combine the Abrahamic hope with the Aaronic blessing, to say, “We are blessed that the nations and peoples of earth might be blessed.” That was God’s mission for Israel.

2. For the church…the blessing for world is conveyed

But then we also see that the carrier of the blessing in the present is not the nation of Israel but the church. Israel was unfaithful to its call to bless all the nations. Jesus says to Israel in Matthew 21:43, “Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit.” That “people” is not a nation in the normal sense, but the international, inter-cultural people of God, the church. Psalm 67 is being fulfilled as the church proclaims the good news of Jesus to all the nations.

3. For any nation who makes the Lord their God

Finally, there is a third—a distant third way to read this Psalm. This is more an application that an interpretation.

Psalm 33:12 reminds us that “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord”—but even in context, that “nation” is Israel. Proverbs 14:34 however takes that international: “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a disgrace to any people.” What we can say is that in a way that is very unlike the covenant God made with Israel, God certainly does exercise sovereign power over all nations, and looks with favor upon any nation that acknowledges Him in their way of life—in the living by His laws and especially in their regard for the gospel of His Son.

What This Does NOT mean…

1. America is not Israel! There is no theological or Biblical ground is maintain that God and America have a “covenant” along the line of the ones made by God with Israel. That covenant was unique to Israel, and a unique part of God’s plan of salvation.

2. America is not the church! Hopefully, this goes without saying: God does have a covenant—the New Covenant in Jesus’ blood—with His church. And whatever blessings God may see fit to bestow upon America, America is not the church—God’s real covenant people, what Paul calls the true Israel of God.

What This DOES Mean

God’s hand has been upon America since its founding.

In a hundred ways—from the words of the Mayflower Compact, the motivations of its settlers, the invocation of God in the Declaration of Independence, to the words “under God” (not just in the Pledge of Allegiance—those words first appear prominently in Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address), historically, America has been a God-blessed land.

God has used the United States as a spiritual powerhouse and resource

What I mean by that is this: The single largest missionary-sending nation in world history is the United States. American missionaries, and American mission money, has done more to reach the world with the gospel of Jesus Christ than any other nation on earth. Looking the big picture, I think you can say that God has raised up America first and foremost to be the #1 engine of world evangelization. God has raised up—and we continue to pray for—a strong free America so that the gospel can continue to go around the world in power.

God has used this nation to save the world from 20th century barbarism

I made this point earlier: It was the USA that saved the world from the Nazis and the Marxists. If you ever needed an historical validation of God’s hand on America, I think that’s it!

But that also means this sober reminder:

If America abandons God, God will sorrowfully abandon America

That’s what was so offensive about that US Circuit Court ruling about the Pledge of Allegiance: it said, in effect, God, be gone! That’s what’s so destructive about the all-pervasive immorality of American society—whether that immorality is in the bedroom or the corporate boardroom. That’s what so dangerous about the callous disposal of the unwanted unborn children. That’s what’s so alarming about the lowered standards of decency in music, TV, and the movies. We are at the fork in the road, and the wheels are turned in the wrong direction. We are in grave danger, and it is not yet clear what the outcome will be.

This Present Crisis

Which brings us back to this present crisis. God’s hand—a hand of blessing, a hand of sovereign purposes, has been upon America. But His hand may be withdrawn. To change the analogy, our blessings hang by a narrow thread. What are we to do now—in this present world?

I think of Esther. Esther was not a sweet, pious, godly Jewish girl. She was willing to hide her Jewish ethnicity in order to get ahead in the court of Persia. She changed her name from the Hebrew name Hadassah to the Persia name Esther. She engaged in an immoral harem competition to become the Queen of Persia. We see no signs of faith or spirituality in her at all—until a crisis came, and the very existence of her people, the Jewish people, was threatened. Even then she hoped someone else would take action, but her cousin Mordecai urged her to take action. We read in Esther 4:12-16:

12When Esther's words were reported to Mordecai, 13he sent back this answer: "Do not think that because you are in the king's house you alone of all the Jews will escape. 14For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father's family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this?"
15Then Esther sent this reply to Mordecai: 16"Go, gather together all the Jews who are in Susa, and fast for me. Do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my maids will fast as you do. When this is done, I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish."

The crisis created an opportunity. I truly believe that these words mark the spiritual rebirth of Esther. And could it be that God has placed an “Esther opportunity” before the USA? For such a time as this, God has raised up the nation. For such a time as this, God has raised up leaders like George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell and Condolezza Rice. And for such a time as this, God has called His church in the US and around the world to be in prayer, fasting and intercession.

Where—with whom—does the fate of the nation lie? It lies in the hands of both national leaders and in the hands of the people of God. It lies with us—to have hearts fixed upon the Lord and His ways. It lies with us to cry out to God for personal revival, to be right and clear with Him, and to intercede for both the nation, our national leaders and the nations of the earth. Our enemies will not just be brought down with smart bombs and intelligence expertise; the Lord is the one who sets up or disposes.

Therefore, the call of the hour is clear. Seek the Lord. Pray. Work. Trust. Be determined and yes, even defiant. Fly the flag and wear your ribbons. And may our humble prayer ever be, Dear God, bless America. Land that I love. Stand beside her, and guide her, through the night with a light from above. Amen.

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