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.)


  1. Thank you, Dennis, for the post. Your article reminds me of the colonial proclamation, "No King but King Jesus!" If you interest, I just released the first book in a series about Francis Asbury. As you may know, Francis Asbury preached to many of our nation's founding generation. The website for The Asbury Triptych Series is www.francisasburytriptych.com. Enjoy the numerous articles on the great men and women who mentored and labored along with a young Francis Asbury. The opening book, Black Country, details Asbury's early circuits in England, something never attempted since his death in 1816. Again, thank you for the post.

  2. The Great Awakening...I am thinking that sounds like something that we need right now.