“Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord”

Topical Scripture: Luke 15

It’s a July Fourth weekend without baseball. The National League was formed in 1876, the American League in 1901. In 1981, the players struck from June 11 until August 10. As best I can tell, that’s the only time in 144 years that the game was not played on Independence Day.

But all is not lost. The players began training camps on Friday with hopes of beginning the season later this month. However, if the games are played, they will be in empty stadiums because of the pandemic.

Enter Chip Messenger, a forty-five-year-old financial planner who is about to become the most popular baseball fan in Southern California. He leases a private condominium in a building in San Diego that looks over the left field of Petco Park, home of the Padres. As a result, he is one of the few people in America who will actually be able to see live Major League Baseball this year in person rather than on television.

His story made the Wall Street Journal last week. As he told the reporter, “I’m sure I’ll make some new friends.”

Even with the pandemic, the recession, and nationwide unrest, I am grateful to be an American. Every time I travel overseas, when I return, I’m so glad to be home. And I pray for my country to be a nation God can bless.

The psalmist declared, “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord” (Psalm 33:12). We are hearing this verse often in these days. I saw it on the sign of First Baptist Church in Mineral Wells while driving Friday, for instance. But what does it mean? And what does it mean for us?

How can we be a nation God can bless? How can you? Where do you most need his blessing, help, and hope? How can you receive them by making God your Lord?

A lost sheep, coin, and son

This summer, we’re in a series called “Hope for Hard Times.” Each week, we’re focusing on a lesser-known parable of Jesus, applying its truth to our lives and challenges.

Today we’ll turn to Luke 15. Here we find perhaps Jesus’ best-known story, the Prodigal Son. I know you know it: a father had two sons. The younger demanded his share of the inheritance now, then spent it in a distant country. Finally, he “came to himself,” as Jesus said (v. 17) and returned home to his Father.

It’s one of my favorite stories. Rembrandt captured it well in a massive painting that hangs in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia. I’ve seen it twice and have a print of it in my office in Dallas. It’s a powerful story.

But before Jesus told us about a lost son, he told a story about a lost sheep. The text begins: “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it?” (v. 4). Shepherds were social rejects in Jesus’ day. Because they lived in the field, they could not keep the kosher dietary laws. They were known to steal from their employers and to lie. They could not enter the temple or a synagogue or testify in a court of law. It is remarkable that Jesus made one of them the hero of his story.

A flock of one hundred sheep would be an average size. Since shepherds often traveled together, this one could leave the flock in the care of a colleague while he went out to find the one lost sheep. This was dangerous business, however. By himself, he could fall victim to wolves or thieves; he could fall into a crevasse or break a limb and die. Nonetheless, he mounts up his courage and goes out to find the sheep that is lost.

Then, “when he finds it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing” (v. 5). This was the easiest way to carry a sheep, with its weight on his shoulders and its legs in front of him where he can hold them. We see Bedouin doing this in the Holy Land still today.

Jesus continues: “And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost'” (v. 6).

Then Jesus told a second parable: “Or what woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and seek diligently until she finds it? (v. 8). Again Jesus makes an unlikely person his hero, this time a “woman.” In a day when women had no social standing or independent means, for her to have “ten silver coins” was probably her dowry, the money that she would bring into her marriage.

These coins are drachma, each worth a day’s wages. Thus, this is only ten days’ salary, not a significant sum but likely all she has. So she lit a “lamp,” a small, oil lamp, and swept the house to seek “diligently” for it. The rough stone floors of the day had many crevasses between them, so much so that archaeologists often look in such places to find coins they use to date discoveries today.

With this result: “And when she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost'” (v. 9).

Two ways to use our freedom

So we have a lost sheep, a lost coin, and a lost son. What makes the first two stories different from the third?

The shepherd loses a sheep and goes to find it. A woman loses a coin and goes to find it. However, a father loses a son and waits for the son to find himself. If he had done what the shepherd and woman did, going after his son and dragging him home, I have no doubt that his son would have left home for the far country the next day. So, the wise father waited for his son to “come to himself” and choose to come home.

In other words, a sheep and a coin do not have freedom, but a son does.

We are celebrating that freedom this weekend. The British writer G. K. Chesterton was right: “America is the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed.” Ours is simple, a statement that was ratified by the thirteen colonies 244 years ago yesterday: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

In a word, freedom.

However, let’s remember our earlier promise: “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord.” How does this promise relate to the freedom we celebrate today?

First, we are blessed when we use our freedom to make God our “Lord.” Peter taught us: “Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God” (1 Peter 2:16). Paul said it like this: “Having been set free from sin, [we] have become slaves of righteousness” (Romans 6:18).

In short, God wants us to choose to make him Lord of all of our selves, every day we live. Not just our Sunday subject but our Monday King. Not just our Savior but our Master. King of every dimension of our lives, every day that we live.

Second, we are blessed when we serve our Lord by serving others: “You were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself'” (Galatians 5:13–14).

When we love and serve God and love and serve others, we make God our Lord. This does not earn his blessing—it positions us to experience it. The more our lives are submitted to Jesus in service to others, the more he can bless us, empower us, and use us. And our nation with us.

How to be blessed

So, name a part of your life where you need the blessing of God. Your need may be medical, financial, relational, or emotional. It may have to do with your past, present, and future. Name it and submit it to God.

Now make him Lord of your life, King of every dimension of your being. And find a way to serve someone in need. These uses of your freedom will not earn your Father’s favor, but they will position you to experience his best.

Don’t wait to be blessed—find a way to be a blessing. Don’t wait for God to serve you—find a way to serve someone else. And in blessing and serving them, you will be blessed and served. As you work, God works. As you give, God gives. As you love, you experience God’s love.

Imagine a nation of people who made God their Lord by serving him and each other. Imagine a nation where Jesus was King of every dimension of our lives and we loved our neighbor as ourselves. What difference would that make with the crime, immorality, and injustice of our day? With the bitterness and rancor of our culture?

Now let’s choose to be the change we wish to see. Let’s choose to be a people God can bless, then pray to live in a nation God can bless. This is the greatest gift we can give our country on her birthday. And the greatest gift we can give ourselves.

Conclusion

It’s up to us. A spiritual awakening must start with God’s people: “If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land” (2 Chronicles 7:14).

I still remember a story our youth minister told us when I was in high school: an elderly man was famous in his village for his wisdom. Whatever their questions or challenges, he had a word for them. So a group of teenagers decided to test the old man. They caught a bird in a trap. Then they went to the old man’s small house, one of them held the bird in his hands behind his back.

They knocked at his door. When the elderly man opened it, the teenager with the bird behind his back said, “Old man, I have a bird in my hands. Is it alive or dead?” If the man said it was dead, the boy would release it. If he said it was alive, the boy would crush it to death. Either way, the wise man would be wrong.

The man looked at each of the boys in their eyes. Then he turned to the boy with the bird in his hands and said, “Young man, it is as you will.”

Will our nation be “blessed”? It is as you will.


What Thomas Jefferson Got Wrong: The Best Way to Serve the Nation We Love

Topical Scripture: 2 Chronicles 7:13-14

Americans celebrated our Independence Day this week by spending more than a billion dollars on fireworks. In addition, more than sixteen thousand fireworks displays were held across the country. Forty-seven million of us traveled at least fifty miles from our home this weekend. July Fourth is one of the biggest days of the year for our nation, and deservedly so.

What a contrast from the way it all began.

My wife, Janet and I toured Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, last year. One day, we made our way to what is called Declaration House. Here we stood behind a plexiglass wall looking into a nondescript room with chairs, a fireplace, and a wooden brown armoire.

Thomas Jefferson stayed at this site for about a hundred days in 1776. It was here that he wrote three drafts of the Virginia Constitution, produced committee reports, authored a position paper, and maintained personal correspondence.

And it was here that he completed the Declaration of Independence.

The house where he stayed for those fateful days was torn down in 1883 but reconstructed by the National Park Service for America’s bicentennial in 1976. As a result, we were looking at a replica of Jefferson’s actual work space. It was deeply moving to stand at the site where a document that changed history was authored.

“When Thomas Jefferson dined alone”

Thomas Jefferson was one of the most brilliant men America has ever known. I have read four biographies about him and remain deeply impressed with his genius.

When I visited Monticello, the home in Virginia he designed, I was struck by the technological sophistication of his architectural brilliance. Jefferson served our country as the author of our Declaration of Independence and Virginia’s Statute for Religious Freedom. He was secretary of state under President Washington, vice president under John Adams, and president of the United States. He was also the father of the University of Virginia.

He could speak English, French, Italian, and Latin, and could read Greek and Spanish. John F. Kennedy famously told a dinner gathering of Nobel Prize winners that the event represented “the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”

However, he also enslaved more than six hundred people over the course of his life. Years after his wife’s death, he fathered at least six children by his slave, Sally Hemings. In fact, as he worked to finish his Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia, he was accompanied by his enslaved servant, Bob Hemings.

I believe the contradictions embodied by Thomas Jefferson and reflected in our nation across more than two centuries are rooted in a single word enshrined in his Declaration.

“The pursuit of Happiness”

The most famous sentence in the Declaration of Independence states: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

These were truly revolutionary words.

In a time when many nations, including Great Britain, believed that a person’s life, liberty, and happiness were subordinated to the will of the monarch and authority of the state, Jefferson claimed that these were “unalienable Rights.” And he stated that these “truths” were “self-evident,” not derived from the government.

But imagine the difference in our nation if he had chosen “holiness” instead of “happiness.”

“Religion and morality are indispensable supports”

In our third century past the adoption of Jefferson’s declaration, our culture has moved dramatically away from the Judeo-Christian worldview upon which our democracy was founded.

In his Farewell Address (September 19, 1796), President Washington told the nation: “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and morality are indispensable supports.” John Adams claimed that “the general principles on which the fathers achieved independence were the general principles of Christianity.”

Even Thomas Jefferson, whose faith commitments have been the subject of much controversy, insisted: “Injustice in government undermines the foundations of a society. A nation, therefore, must take measures to encourage its members along the paths of justice and morality.”

Today, however, “the pursuit of happiness” defines for many the right to “life” and “liberty.”

If we must choose between happiness and life with regard to the unborn, many choose happiness and endorse abortion. If we must choose between happiness and liberty with regard to the conflict between sexual freedom and religious freedom, many choose the first and deny the second.

If we must choose between belief in our Creator and our personal happiness, many choose the latter and deny the former. Banners posted recently in Ft. Worth by an atheist group announced, “IN NO GOD WE TRUST.” Unfortunately, they speak for many today.

“The majority who participate”

I love America and thank God for the privilege of living in my country. When posting our flag outside our Dallas home this week in honor of July 4, I was filled with gratitude for the sacrifices made by so many on behalf of our nation. As I watched the Fourth of July parades and festivities, I joined millions of others in celebrating our country.

However, I also believe that the greatest way I can serve our nation is by helping to meet her greatest need. And I am convinced that America’s greatest need is for a spiritual and moral awakening that would lead us to choose holiness over happiness.

I also know that holiness starts with me. And with you. We can claim today our Father’s promise: “If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land” (2 Chronicles 7:14).

To “humble ourselves” is to admit how desperately we need God’s power, direction, forgiveness, and blessing in our lives and nation. Psalm 33:12 declares: “Blessed is the nation whose God is the LORD.”

To “pray” is to intercede for our nation consistently and passionately.

To “seek my face” is to move from praying for others to praying for ourselves. It is to meet God in worship, prayer, confession, and submission to his Spirit.

To “turn from their wicked ways” is to see ourselves in the light of God’s holiness and respond accordingly. It is to refuse all that displeases and dishonors our Lord.

When we do these things, our Father will “hear from heaven,” guaranteed. He will then “forgive their sin,” separating our sin from us as far as the east is from the west, burying it in the depths of the sea, and remembering it no more. And then, finally, he will “heal their land.” What starts with us will touch out nation.

Conclusion

Thomas Jefferson noted: “We in America do not have government by the majority. We have government by the majority who participate.”

For the good of our souls and our nation, let’s participate in a true awakening of holiness in America, to the glory of God. This is the greatest and most urgent service we can render this nation we love.

In 1921, a soldier who had died in France during World War I was interred at Arlington National Cemetery. A massive marble tomb was placed on the site of the original grave in 1932. An inscription on the walls of the tomb reads, “Here rest in honored glory an American soldier known but to God.”

On Memorial Day 1958 two other unknown soldiers, one from World War II and one from the Korean War, were also buried in the tomb. On Memorial Day 1984 a soldier from the Vietnam War was interred, though he was later identified through DNA testing and buried by his family.

The poet W. H. Auden, thinking of these unknown soldiers, asked pointedly, “To save your world, you asked this man to die; Would this man, could he see you now, ask why?” Freedom is never free. It cost more than one million American men and women their lives. It cost Jesus his cross.

What price will you pay?