Wednesday, July 29, 2015

A Solemn Epithalamion*

The two of you have moved into a mystery,
Not in the modern sense of stumbling through a maze
Of thievery and mayhem, murder and deception,
Confusion, ignorance (though some have made it that);
And not into the great and highest mystery,
The world of opening doors into infinity...
Not yet that mystery, but the one next like it!
So prepare for last rites, the sentencing of self.
For you must give your life to gain the unforeseen:
Love’s trans-personal life (almost a trinity).
You carry in yourself the soul of your beloved.
You know your own soul gone, subject to the other.
Your life is drawn away...only from separateness.
Here is good death and life, whether we like or fear:
Finding a self that breaks as fragrant as ripe fruit,
Pregnant with seeds that live to burst and grow yet more.
Brother Martin called it Sanctification’s School;
And, with Mother Church, it calls for deepest union.
By mutual exchange the two are one, yet two;
And all grace is required to bring this union, whole,
Into eternity, into the Father’s home,
By the Son’s agony, and by the Spirit’s prayer.
It is a solemn task, a pilgrimage to joy,
Based on the energy of God’s love loaned to you.
To true initiates the marriage-mystery
Unveils the end of life you were created for.

Dennis Evans,
September 1988

*Epithalamion was the nuptial song sung in ancient Greece, by a chorus of youths and maidens, as they led the procession of the bride and groom to the bridal chamber.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Know God - Thank Goodness

Preached on Sunday, July 19, 2015

Scripture readings: Psalm 107; Mark 4:35-41

A family was sitting down to supper together. It was their practice to pray before their meal. That day they asked their little son to say the prayer of thanks. Before he started, he asked his parents, “Do I have to give thanks for the broccoli?”
Doesn’t the Psalm say this? “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his broccoli endures forever.”
Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County: June 2015
“Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever. Let the redeemed of the Lord say this….”
The Lord is good. His love endures forever. Let the redeemed say this. These are not three different things. They are inseparable things. The whole psalm is a definition of God being good. The whole psalm is a definition of God’s love. The whole psalm is a definition of God as the redeemer and of us as the redeemed.
The message is that people in the jaws of calamity can know God’s goodness and love and redemption. What is redemption? Redemption means being free. It means being set free, but there is always some drama to it. Redemption always comes as some form of rescue. The psalm gives us some poetic pictures of rescue.
God is in the rescue business. What are the pictures of calamity? What are the scenes of rescue?
There is a great wilderness rescue. But it’s not like rescuing lost hikers. The lost people in the psalm are more like refugees or immigrants. You could think of it as a group like the Donner Party, back in 1848, when the trails to California were not yet very well marked. They got delayed, stranded, and stuck in the high Sierra in the middle of winter. Of course it was all their fault (or the fault of the man they chose to be their guide, who didn’t know what he was doing).
Perhaps it’s a picture of some of the people of Israel returning to their homeland from their long exile in Babylon. They had been gone so long that there was no one with them who knew the way, and so they got lost in the desert.
They were exiled because of their parents’ unfaithfulness to God, but they were an innocent generation; as innocent as we are. God was their rescuer. God stopped their exile. God showed them the way home.
Some of the rescued in the psalm were chained up in a dungeon as rebels against God, and God was their rescuer. God broke into his own dungeon and broke the chains that they deserved to wear.
The psalm tells us that God rescued fools. In the Bible a fool isn’t a dummy. A fool is someone who knows better and yet they think and they do exactly what they know they shouldn’t.
In the psalm these fools who know better live their lives in a way that makes them sick. In fact they almost die (they almost kill themselves) because they did what they knew not to do. The psalm tells us that God rescues them.
I love the next part. “Some went down to the sea in ships, doing business on the great waters; they saw the deeds of the Lord, his wondrous works in the deep.” (Psalm 107:23-32)
I see nothing wrong with them. They had a good idea. They were brave and ambitious and they simply got into the kind of trouble that brave and ambitious people run into.
I love the fact that the storm was one of the wonderful works of God, because storms are. I love to stand on a cliff high above the ocean and watch the waves break on the rocks. The only problem with storms as the wonderful work of God is that we get in the way of the storm. God rescued those brave and ambitious people from God’s own work.
In all of these calamities: God is good; God is great in his love; God is a rescuer. And in all of these calamities and more, we are supposed to be able to say so. We are supposed to be able to say this. The first words of this psalm say it: “Give thanks to the Lord.”
There is this challenge of four things going together; not three things: God’s goodness, God’s love, God’s rescue, and our thanks. The redeemed (the rescued) know this, and they say this. If we are not thankful, then we don’t know God’s goodness, we don’t know God’s love, and we don’t recognize God’s rescue, because they all go together.
They do all go together, but it’s not that bad. God knows we forget. This psalm tells us that God rescues the people who have forgotten these things. He gives us messages like this psalm to help us remember what we have forgotten.
Are there any conditions we must meet in order to be rescued from calamity? No, there are no conditions.
What about faith? Is faith a condition for being rescued? The story of Jesus, with his disciples in the storm, gives us the answer. They yelled for Jesus to help them, but they didn’t think he could do it. It came as a complete surprise to them. Jesus knew this. Faith isn’t a condition.
But the people in the jaws of calamity prayed. “They cried to the Lord in their trouble.” It’s like school prayer: as long as the schools do testing there will always be prayer in the schools. When you go to a basketball game, and someone on your team shoots for a basket, don’t you lean your body to push their shot through the hoop even though you’re sitting a hundred feet away? It’s not a very good prayer, but it is a prayer.
God responds. Does he? Always! But not always the way we want. In the Book of Acts Peter was arrested and held in jail for trial.
We aren’t told that he prayed, but he probably did. We are told that others were praying for him. They were probably praying for Peter to be brave and faithful. They were probably praying for things to go well for Peter at his trial. Peter was probably praying for the same thing.
Nobody expected Peter to be rescued (who would) but God did rescue him. God sent an angel of rescue. It was quite the surprise. Peter thought it was all a dream until he found himself on the street outside the jail with nothing to do but go home to his friends, and then go into hiding. (Acts 12:1-19)
Peter was in jail more than once for his faith. In the end he was arrested in the city of Rome. He was put in jail and condemned. Then he was led out by the guards and crucified upside down. Peter did this because the Lord was his rescuer. The Lord was his redeemer. The Lord is good.
There is something about the love of God in the Bible that should be clear to see. We should be able to see that God’s love is different from our love. God’s love is better than ours.
There is actually a special word in Hebrew for the kind of love that God gives to us. The Bible seldom tells us of humans loving anyone with that love. That special love is the word for God’s love in this psalm.
There is no good way to translate it. Our New International version just translates it as love at the start of this psalm; and then tells us that this love is unfailing. The King James Version uses the word “mercy”. The New American Standard Version uses the word “loving kindness”. The Revised Standard Version uses the word steadfast love, and I do like that translation, because God’s love is steady. It’s steadfast.
It could be translated “covenant love”, or (perhaps) “loyalty love”. “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is thy faithfulness.” (Lamentations 3:22-23)
Those are the conditions for the rescue of those who get caught in the jaws of calamity. Those are the conditions for our rescue. Jesus is the steadfast love of God made flesh. He is the unfailing love given without condition, or without any more condition than a cry for help.
The covenant means a promise made by God. That is what Jesus showed in the storm. That is what Jesus was teaching his disciples (including us) to trust: God’s promise. God’s promise is as extreme and as frightening as the cross.
Jesus, in the storm, was God with his people in the jaws of their calamity. Jesus, on the cross, is God with us in the jaws of our calamity. Jesus, on the cross, is the promise of God leading us through our lostness in the desert, breaking our chains in our prison, healing our stubborn and deadly foolishness, stilling our storm and bringing our battered boat to safe harbor. “Give thanks to the Lord for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever.”
I love the Apostle Paul, and especially his second letter to the church in Corinth. In Second Corinthians Paul writes this as just one example of the goodness of God, and how Paul learned to give thanks for that goodness. I’m going to read it at length: To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:7-10)
We really don’t know what Paul’s thorn in the flesh was. We can only guess. It doesn’t matter. Paul cried to the Lord and the Lord showed Paul his goodness, his love, and his rescue. Paul gave thanks to the Lord.
Even the thorn in the flesh was something that Paul could recognize as the Lord’s goodness; the Lord’s rescue. Paul gave heart-felt thanks for it. It all goes together.
The psalm tells us to give thanks. Paul commands it. “Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)
The rescue work of God in this psalm takes forms that give us this message. It’s the message that God can do anything. I have known that God can do anything for a long, long time; only sometimes I forget.
Recently, I decided that if God could do anything, then he could make me give thanks to him last week when I wasn’t feeling very thankful. I imagined my unthankfulness as an army of invading barbarians raising dust in the distance. I could hear the cries of their unthankful voices.
Then I cried to the Lord and he delivered me from my trouble. He really did take that part of my brain under his control (at least for the time being).
It wasn’t a very good prayer, and I wasn’t sure it would even work (meaning I wasn’t sure if it would work the way I wanted it to work). Especially, I wasn’t sure that I would let the prayer work. I wasn’t sure that I wanted to be rescued from my unthankfulness.
How about you: are you thankful? And how about us: are we a thankful church? You would know. Do you have a heart-felt desire that God would fill us with the energy of thanks: the energy that comes from knowing that the Lord is good, and that he is good to us all the time; the energy that comes from knowing that his love endures for ever, and that it endures forever for us all the time?
It wouldn’t have to be the kind of prayer that meets a lot of conditions. It would simply need to be a heart-felt cry for help.
Just how heart-felt is your desire to be thankful? This will come to you when you find how heart-felt God’s love is (for you and for everyone). This cry to the Lord will come from knowing that you and everyone else are the targets of that love.
Sometimes I don’t think that I really want to be thankful. I want something else more. Sometimes I would just rather be crabby and angry without any interruption. If I see nothing to be thankful for, then I can find a reason to quit. There are just a few of the many advantages to not being thankful.
The redeemed aren’t individuals functioning on their own and charting their course as individuals. The redeemed are a people. They are a body, a family, a tribe, and a network of people.
They are brothers and sisters who experience God’s rescue work together. They are sisters and brothers who carry the message of God’s rescue business and they partners in that business. They rescue others.

The word of God tells us to give thanks as a body of people who are being redeemed and rescued. We can say (right here and now) that the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever. Are you happy, now, with your thankfulness, and are you ready to be thankful for the calling to which God’s rescue-business will take us?

Monday, July 13, 2015

Know God - Holiness

Preached on Sunday, July 12, 2015

Scripture readings: Isaiah 6:1-13; 1 Peter 1:13-2:3

When I was in kindergarten it was a long time ago. It was back in the days when little children weren’t expected to learn by reading, and writing, and doing arithmetic. In kindergarten, I think we did most of our learning by playing.
South Coast of Orange County CA
Vacation: June 2015
There was a huge play house in our huge room. The play house had more than one room in it. It had a living room, and a dining room, and a kitchen. But it didn’t have a bedroom and it didn’t have a roof.
One day there was a girl who wanted me to be her husband in the playhouse. I got an inspired idea for something really funny for me to do as her husband. I came home from work, yelled that I was home, sat down in my chair, and went to sleep. I was snoring and snoring, and my wife tried to wake me up, but she couldn’t, because I was so sleepy. Then she got mad at me and quit, just as I had intended.
When my dad came home from work every day, he would come in, and kiss my mom, and sit down in his chair, and go to sleep. So, in my short stint as a husband, I was simply playing at being my dad and learning how it might work out. I certainly learned important lessons about marriage that day.
When I was five I wanted to be just like my dad. I wanted to learn how to resemble my dad in the things that were serious and in the things that were funny.
I want us to think about what it means to know God. We need to know that we cannot truly know God unless we know that God is holy, and we cannot understand holiness without understanding that if involves a kind of resemblance. Holiness is a kind of resemblance between God and us: or between us and God.
We are created for resemblance. In the story of creation, God says, “Let us make man (let us make the human) in our image, in our likeness.” (Genesis 1:26)
When God did this, God also gave the man and the woman charge and responsibility over the earth and over everything in it. God’s gift of resemblance to humans was a gesture of trust and honor on God’s part. This quality behind God’s gift is part of the image of God. The image was nothing if it didn’t have this quality. The image is the face of God, but the fact that it was given in trust and honor is the heart of God: the image within the image.
God’s image is the image of a giver, not a taker. When Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, in the mistaken attempt to know what God knows, they were being takers, not givers. By taking a greater chunk of the details of resemblance, they lost the heart of their true resemblance. They lost their holiness when they tried to take it.
The story of the whole Bible is the story of God recreating the holiness in us that would make us more truly like him. In Second Corinthians, Paul says, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come.” (2 Corinthians 5:17) In Colossians, Paul says, “…you have put off the old nature with its practices and have put on the new nature, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.” (Colossians 3:9-10)
This is the gift of God. It is what we call grace. It is also work. It is God’s hard work. Peter says, “You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your fathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot.” (1 Peter 1:18-19)
It is also hard work for us: “Therefore, prepare your mind for action; be self-controlled….) (1 Peter 1:13) “Therefore rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind.” (1 Peter 2:1)
In the Biblical languages “holy” means a kind of separateness. Christians, at their worst, are tempted to make being holy into a kind of separateness from joy and happiness. They make holiness into the rules of “Don’t do this” and “Don’t do that”.
The first thing the Bible calls holy is the seventh day. (Genesis 2:1-3) The seventh day is separate from all other days because nothing happens on that day except for rest, blessing, and enjoyment. It is a day without a sunset or a sunrise. In that sense it is different from all other days because it has no beginning and no end. It is a day that overlaps into all days and into eternity.
It’s about pleasure in the creation; and its message is that (as good as creation is) none of the creation can be called holy unless it contains appreciation and enjoyment. Life isn’t holy unless there is thanks and joy in it. Holiness is about a devotion to building such a world and living such a life.
Holiness is a kind of separation that takes this blessing seriously. Holiness is clean because it is not sloppy, or indifferent, or careless about what is good and beautiful. Holiness never says, “Whatever!”
Paul says, “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe your selves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.” (Colossians 3:12-14)
Being holy means separating yourself from anything that keeps you from creating such relationships, and making such a life, and building such a world. This is why God’s people, as individuals and as the body of Christ (the Church) are called to be holy. This is what holiness means.
The fact is that this can be very hard work. The separation of holiness means focusing with intensity and concentration for the sake of a way of life. Such devotion can build a life that can be enjoyed with intensity and concentration. That enjoyment is where you can find true rest. Maybe all the really good things in life require such intensity and concentration; as well as rest, and enjoyment, and thanks. The really good and abundant things like a garden, or a family, or golf require a kind of intensity and concentration for the sake of enjoyment and rest.
Isaiah had his amazing vision of God in the year that Uzziah, king of Judah, died. Uzziah (also called Azariah) ruled for fifty-two years.
Those had been long, good years, and the new king made the future look even better, but there was something missing. Most of the goodness was nothing more than respectability. It was mostly for show.
The faith and the spirituality of the people looked good enough when they went to the Temple, but it wasn’t real at home. It wasn’t real in the world of work. It wasn’t real in how people treated each other.
Does it seem cruel to say that God was not going to stand for all that phoniness and shallowness? God was concentrating intensely on giving his people the honor of resemblance to him when they thought that God ought to be impressed with them just the way they were.
They wanted the pleasures of success and control and so they worshiped those gods on the side. God wanted them to share the resemblance of doing justice and loving mercy. God wanted to walk him as he had walked with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. (Micah 6:8; Genesis 3:8-9)
When Isaiah had that amazing vision of God, he felt his own phoniness and shallowness. He felt the falseness of his people. He called it “uncleanness”.
Isaiah had been speaking for God with a holy concentration and intensity. Isaiah’s goal had been a cure for his people. God’s goal was more than a cure. God’s goal was a new creation, and that new creation is still in the works. It’s still in the making, even now.
Isaiah saw God enthroned in the Temple, and there had been a throne in that Temple for a long, long time. There was a throne long before there was a Temple. The throne was called “The Ark of the Covenant.” The covenant is the law of God and it is also the promise of God that binds God and his people together.
The Ark was the box that held the law and the promise, but it was a box built like a throne. The arm rests were angelic beings called cherubim who must have been cousins of the seraphim in Isaiah’s vision.
The throne was a holy place for the presence of God. It was a maker that reserved a place for the presence of God in the hearts of God’s people. The throne was the place where the blood of the sacrifices was sprinkled. It was the place where there was to be no separateness between people and God.
The sacrifices were an offering of a life in order to take away sin and to make God and his people one. That action of making God and people one is what the word atonement means.
The sacrifices of atonement in the Temple were pictures of the actual atonement that God, himself, would give to his people. God would come to earth in Jesus to offer his life on the cross as a sacrifice to make us, and the whole world, one with him.
That was the sacrifice that would make us into a new creation. Jesus is “the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” (John 1:29)
Isaiah saw and heard the holiness of God in ways that no words can do justice to. He heard that the whole fallen world was being pushed by the glory and weight of God’s holiness. Isaiah saw and heard that neither he nor his people had an inkling of the greatness of the movement of God in this direction.
The holiness of God was a separation into a groove of devotion, and concentration, and intensity to build a holy people to be the core of a holy world that would move in the grove of a holy resemblance. It would be creation existing as a single family; a great home of love and joy and fullness.
We pray to be fixed. God is determined to bring us to the end of ourselves and make us new. We try to show and tell others God’s way, and we end up showing and telling more about ourselves, and the world is not impressed.
Think of that burning coal from the altar of God. Think of that burning coal as the holiness of God dying as an atoning offering for you on the cross. Think of the coal as a melting of your heart and soul. Think of the coal as Jesus melting precious metal, and burning away all that isn’t pure, and beautiful, and useful.
It’s a process that takes time and work. What has Jesus purified in you? What has Jesus needed to burn away over time?
How has Jesus been making you holy? What has Jesus been separating you from?
The burning coal of Jesus makes you what you didn’t start out to be. The burning coal of Jesus makes you what you cannot be without him.
Isaiah asked, “How long?” In the work of the new creation, God is willing to take as long as it takes. That is part of the vision of holiness. It is the work that Isaiah was called to share, and it is the same work that we are called to share: to take as long as it takes.
We may watch God turn a tree into a stump. The holiness of God is willing to work with a stump to make it a tree again. God has been working through all the generations of Israel. God has been working through all the generations of the world, and the church, since the cross, to make that new creation.
The cross is the secret behind what God is doing. God takes death itself and makes it into life again.
What is it that seems like a stump in your life? What, in the world, looks like it is done, and done for? Whatever that is, it is like a cross that Jesus can turn into a tree of life.

God’s holiness is his ability to devote himself to this and to get it done. Our holiness is a resemblance to him that gives us the faith, and the faithfulness, that we need to share this work with God.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

A Nation Formed by God

Preached on Sunday, July 5, 2015

Scripture readings: Psalm 33; Deuteronomy 10:12-22

Let’s look at the idea of a whole nation having a special relationship to God.
Photos taken Independence Day, Desert Aire, WA
July 4, 2015
Our reading from the book of Deuteronomy, this morning, says: Yes, this is possible; this has happened. A nation has belonged to God. A nation can belong to God. In fact, it’s God’s intention for all nations to belong to him. Israel was only meant to be the beginning of this. (Isaiah 19:24-25; Matthew 28:19; Revelation 21:24-26)
Many times, God spoke to the people of Israel about how he wanted them to live as a nation. It was typical for them to ignore and reject the Lord’s message. They worshipped gods invented by human beings. They worshiped their own desires and ambitions.
But there were times when the people were consumed with a desire to commit their nation to the Lord. They wanted to be God’s people. They recognized that the nation needed God.
They were nothing without God. And the Lord’s will, the Lord’s direction for them, was better than having their own way. God’s plans were better than their own plans.
The times when they saw this were rare, and the times when they saw this seldom lasted for long. Yet those people were, and are, God’s people. They are Israel. They have continued to have a special relationship with God that has always been stronger than they ever deserved. But the whole point of that fact (that truth) is what gives us hope as a nation.
The scripture we read from Deuteronomy is an awesome word, because it is so full of patience, and mercy, and faithfulness, and warning. God’s people are never chosen because they are worthy to be God’s people. God’s choice is mercy. And, once they are chosen, God calls them to be people of mercy, just as they have received mercy.
How can a nation survive by being merciful? That was the great challenge for Israel. How can a nation survive by being merciful? That is also the great challenge for us in our times.
The times when Israel was best at being God’s people were the times when they had failed the most, and came to their senses, and repented. They had their best times when they got into trouble, or when the world became scary and difficult. Then they remembered what they had forgotten, and they turned to God; not because they were great and holy, but because they saw how great their need was.
Those who first came to this country, especially to New England, were overwhelmed by the sense that God was doing something very important by driving them so far away from their homes (and many of them were definitely driven; forced to come here to keep their convictions and beliefs, or driven by desperation for survival). And they had the sense of being planted in the new world by God.
John Winthrop, the first governor of Massachusetts, wrote, “Thus stands the cause between God and us, we are entered into covenant with him for this work,” …., “for we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill.”
In the years just before the Revolution, a British governor reported this to England. He wrote, “If you ask an American, who is his master? He will tell you he has none, nor any governor but Jesus Christ.”
Israel, as a nation, often forgot and neglected its covenant with God, but God never forgot. As a nation we may have forgotten our covenant, but God does not forget.
You see a special relationship with God happening in a nation when there are people in that nation who know the Lord, and who pray for his kingdom to come, and for his will to be done. You see a little bit of the kingdom at work among them. Or you see those people at work, making things happen the way they would happen if only people were listening to God. “And now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you but to fear (or reverence) the Lord your God, to walk in his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and soul.”
Moses pairs up a fear, or reverence, for God with walking or living in God’s ways. He pairs up loving the Lord with serving the Lord with all you’ve got. Wherever there is reverence and love something has got to happen, beyond mere talk. You should see people being kind, fair, just, and compassionate and sharing the need for this way of life, as a community and as a nation, with others.
This can happen. The people who know grace and power of God in Christ are essential for making this happen. What they know about God enables them to know what to do in the part of the world where God places them.
A nation will begin to change its ways to fit God’s standards. It’s what Moses means when he says that God is, “mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality, and accepts no bribes. He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the alien, giving him food and clothing.” Moses is basically telling them (and us): “Now you better be careful to love all those people too.”
A nation where people love God will pattern their laws after God’s laws. They will also pattern their compassion after God’s compassion and God’s heart.
The movements to abolish slavery in this country, and to give women the right to vote, were begun by Christians. The movement to have safe food and medicines had Christian motivation. So did the movement behind our child labor laws. So did the civil rights movement during the fifties and sixties.
Moses told his people to remember the lessons they should have learned from their own history: lessons of compassion. Israel immigrated into Egypt as refugees from a famine in their homeland. At first they were welcome. Gradually, as they grew in numbers, they were feared, and hated, and enslaved; until the Lord came to their rescue and got them out of Egypt. In God’s eyes, Egypt was not good enough for them.
Most of our ancestors came here because they were in some kind of trouble. In colonial days Britain sent prisoners to America as a punishment for their crimes. (After our revolution Great Britain used Australia for that purpose.) Some of our ancestors came as refugees from persecution or the threat of arrest and the fear of punishment. Some came to America to escape from the effects of poverty, or at least they came in search of a better life.
A legend on the Polish side of my family says that one of our ancestors came to America because of what he did in his hometown in Russian-ruled Poland. The Russian Empire had ruled most of Poland for more than a hundred years. My ancestor did his dangerous deed during a parade that the Russians were staging on the czar’s (the emperor’s) birthday. He threw a rotten egg at a big picture of the Russian czar that was being carried in the parade.
My ancestor knew that everyone would see him do this. He made his statement anyway and, then, it was time for him to run away to America.
One of my ancestors came from old England to New England in the 1650’s. He left a lot of records in his new country. He became a miller and that meant he was a success. But there is no record of where he came from in the old country. I think this was because he was in some kind of trouble there.
It is as if God says to us, as a nation, something like what he said to Israel: “You were small, and weak, and hungry, and I made a place for you. You do the same for others.” If a nation yearns to be God’s nation then they must know that God wants to give them his laws but, more than that, they must know that God wants to give them a heart like his own heart. This often requires more than we plan for.
We forget that our Revolution did not grow out of human ideas or plans. For one thing, the Revolution came about as a last resort, after the people of the colonies seemed to run out of other options. But, more than that, the revolution came about because those English colonies had been experiencing a spiritual renewal (a change of heart) that had the effect of uniting them.
There was a time in our history called the Great Awakening. It began in the 1730’s. It grew out of a sense of spiritual hunger and a desire to be God’s people. It was fed by preachers such as George Whitefield, and Jonathan Edwards, and the followers of John Wesley, traveling through the colonies preaching about the reality of the love of God in Christ.
Christians in the separate colonies began to travel back and forth, and to write to each other, to share what God was doing in their churches, and towns, and lives.
People in Connecticut raised money for orphanages in Georgia. And people from Virginia, like James Madison, went to school in New Jersey where a new college, later known as Princeton, had grown out of a desire for an education that balanced learning with faith.
It was the Great Awakening that began to make us one nation even before the Revolution.
In those days, a preacher in Boston wrote these thoughts: “’That the Son of God came down from heaven to make us free indeed,’ and that, ‘where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty,’ this made me conclude that freedom was a great blessing… and who knows, our liberties being thus established, but that on some future occasion, when the kingdoms of the earth are moved and roughly dashed one against another… we or our descendants may even have the honor to ‘save many people alive,’ and to keep Britain herself from ruin.”
The train of thought in that old preacher’s head turned out to be prophetic. Our nation has not only fought for itself. Our own people have volunteered many times to go abroad in the daring hope to “save many people alive.” More than once our own people have gone out to keep Britain herself from ruin.
The Great Awakening transformed hearts and souls, but it also transformed a whole culture. It created the only nation that would eventually have the strength to stand up against the evil empires of the world and overcome them, over the last century; during the First and Second World Wars, and in the Cold War, and in the wars of this new century.
There are many people who are discouraged about the way our nation, and our world, and our churches are going. They don’t see how the trends can ever turn and change for the better.
In a way, it’s true that trends can’t change: not by themselves. Trends never change by themselves. A trend is like a wave of energy. Change always requires a new wave from a different direction, and you can never predict that change by looking at the old wave.
The world makes waves, but God’s waves are greater. God can create new trends of his own, in his time. God can inspire his people to act as his agents by making waves and setting seemingly impossible trends in motion.
This is where the fear of the Lord comes in, just as Moses says: “And now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God ask of you but to fear the Lord your God.” The fear of the Lord is where hope comes from. The person who knows what it is to have a healthy fear of the Lord will not fear anything else.
How can hope come from fear? Often preachers soften the word fear. They tone it down. They retranslate it as reverence. I often do this. It is true that the fear of the Lord means to live with a proper reverence for God.
But maybe there is a healthy side of fear; like climbing a mountain for the excitement of reaching the top. The fear of the Lord is like the fun of using a chain saw. The fear of the Lord is like the joy of driving a car fast, or flying an airplane, or riding a motorcycle. The fear of the Lord is like setting off fireworks on the Fourth of July. The greatest things in life are not to be avoided for fear of the disappointment that might come if the great thing goes wrong. If everyone lived by such fears, no one would live at all.
The fear of the Lord is what helps us live actively and boldly with the love of God because, if we fear the Lord, we will not be afraid of anything else. This is true for a nation, for a community, and for a church.
So we can trust that absolutely any nation (even our own nation) can belong to God, and serve God’s purposes. And we can work for that goal, and pray for that goal.
We are not afraid to pray for our nation to turn to the Lord. We are not afraid to work for the kingdom of God within our nation, because we know who God is, and what he asks us to do.
If we ever reached the logical conclusion that our nation had ceased to belong to God, our true faith would not believe it. True faith would not allow us to give up. True faith will make us never give up working for the kingdom of God within our nation. True faith will give us the dream of giving our nation a greater resemblance to a nation whose God is the Lord.
It has always been this way. The typical picture of Israel is a model for the way it usually goes. Israel, as a whole, typically didn’t place a high value on God’s laws, or God’s ways, or God’s heart.
In the Bible, the typical picture of God’s people is of a nation that is not being faithful to God and yet there are people in that nation who refuse to give up. There are a few people in that nation of God’s people who are listening to God, and working for God.
History tells us, as a nation, what Moses told his people, that the Lord has been with us all along. The Lord has done great and awesome things for us many times in the past, and the Lord has not changed. So fear him, follow him, love him, serve him, and work for him. Prayerfully commit our country and our society to the Lord.

(Many of the unattributed quotes in this sermon can be found in “The Light and the Glory” by Peter Marshall and David Manuel.)