These are my remarks and a pastoral prayer from last Sunday at Grace Community Church of Seal Beach. They’ve been edited for a written format. You can see the video here, starting at 23:53.
This weekend is the 244th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Normally, we don’t make a huge deal of patriotic holidays in worship, because it is not the role of the church to celebrate national holidays.
But this year there is so much hurt, anger, and longing among our community and nation that it is a ripe opportunity to cry out to God. Additionally, all of us need help cultivating a theology of Christian citizenship that will work in the modern-day.
Unfortunately, the models of Christian citizenship most often presented in our culture are at the political extremes. Is there a way we can pray together as a diverse Christian community?
One of the reasons why praying together for our country is difficult is that we often disagree about who “America” is. Specifically, there is a divide between older and younger evangelicals in the US about whether America is more like the biblical model of Israel or Babylon.
For many older American Evangelicals (though not all, of course), our country reminds them of Israel. They remember how God has used America to bring hope, freedom, and the gospel throughout the world. They recognize the deep religious faith of many of the founders and the ways America seemed like the promised land to them. They celebrate the willingness of the American people to sacrifice to bring freedom and democracy in the face of fascism and communion, even at the cost of war. They resonate with Abraham Lincoln’s description of America as the “last, best hope of earth” and see our current cultural moment as the point that where that hope will be either saved or lost (as did Lincoln himself). They are concerned about America facing the same exile and wilderness that Israel faced in the Babylonian captivity. For them, America is losing its essential quality as a Christian nation.
For many younger American Evangelicals (though, again, not all), our country reminds them of Babylon. They see the way that Babylon enslaved and slaughtered people they conquered and they see America’s shameful history of the same. They see how Babylon used their military to enrich itself at the expense of other people, using their offer of freedom as a pretext for extortion, and overlay American foreign policy. And they are concerned that even as Babylon misunderstood themselves as impenetrable, America is on a similar path to divine judgment. For them, America has never lived up to being known as a Christian nation.
So, who is right? Is America Israel or Babylon?
Neither. America is America.
A sign of mature Christian thinking is the capacity for avoiding false dichotomies. (Think about Solomon’s wisdom with the baby, Jesus with the challenge over taxes, or Paul’s response to the question of circumcision.) When we put only two options on the table and say, “You have to choice A or B,” as if they are the only potentialities, we rob ourselves of seeing the broader complexity God offers.
Do we need to say, “Israel or Babylon”? We are certainly not the unique covenant people of God. But that does not mean that we need to assume the opposite is true.
To have an honest and fully Christian view of America, we should thank God for many aspects of how God has blessed America. It would be ungrateful and ahistorical to act as if God has not blessed America. And yet glossing over our many sins as a country is neither honest nor pious. There are also many things we should be ashamed of in our country’s past and present. The presence of one does not need to deny the other.
So, how does a church of both younger and older Christians pray together on the fourth of July? I think the best way is to pray together for revival.
Revival is when God’s people experience the normal means of grace (confession, repentance, and assurance of salvation and forgiveness) in heightened and profound ways. It’s normal grace to a supernatural extent.
Revival is not necessarily a return to a certain point in the past. Revival is neither a conservative nor progressive act. It is a cry for God’s kingdom to come on earth as it is in Heaven.
God has been kind in our country’s history and done this before. Even before the Declaration of Independence was signed, the First Great Awakening swept through our land. Later, the Second Great Awakening brought revival to a new generation. Portions of revivals came during and after some of the darkest points in our country, such as the Civil War and the two World Wars of the 20th century. And in more recent days, certain aspects of the Jesus People movement of the 1970’s experienced revival experiences.
These revivals are not unique to America. Profound revivals have happened in Pyongyang, Kenya, and Wales, among others. (If you’d like to read about revivals, I recommend A God-Sized Vision: Revival Stories that Stretch and Stir by Collin Hansen and John Woodbridge).
When we say we need revival, we confess that we are a people in rebellion against God. We humbly confess. We ask God to return us to the freedom that Christ has won for us on the cross.
1 Peter 2:16 – “Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God.”
On this freedom weekend, why would we ever want to return to a yoke of slavery to sin?
God, you’ve called us to be a part of America. We know that our final home is with you in Heaven and it is there that we have our citizenship. But while we are here, we’re proud to be Americans, whether through birth or immigration.
But that pride in our country doesn’t mean we ignore our sin. We’re grieved by the sins of our people.
God, we confess our country’s many sins against you, both in the past and in the present. We see the ways that we have failed to love you and our neighbor and we are truly sorry.
God, would you revive us? Would you bring life to us as a people? Not so people would come to our side, but so that we would together fall down before you and cry, “Holy, Holy, Holy!”
God, we are grateful for much of our country’s history and we’re grieved by much of it, too. Thank you for those older adults in our church who help us to see the good you’ve done in our past. We don’t want to neglect to be grateful for those things. Thank you for the younger adults in our church who help us to see the ways that we need to change in order to live holy lives before you.
God, we are often overwhelmed at the complexity of the problems facing us as a country. But before we look at the problems in others, would you bring revival and start with us? Would you give us mercy and make us a people of mercy?
In Christ’s name,