In the previous post, we discussed pastors and the 4th of July. Here is a sample sermon I preached on the July 4th weekend, 2015. I don’t always address the 4th. That year I did. Summer headlines: “ISIS murders Christians” and “Supreme Court legalizes same-sex marriage.” I’ve preached a number of July 4th sermons across the decades. This is just one example. If it stirs your thoughts as you preach on this American holiday, then I’ll be grateful.
GOD BEFORE COUNTRY (Isaiah 40:10-15, 21-31)
For much of American history, churches have used the Sunday nearest the 4th of July to hold God and Country services. And some of them have been real blowouts: an armed color guard presents the flag, the people are asked to say the Pledge of Allegiance and sing the national anthem. Sometimes on that Sunday churches will hang in the sanctuary an American flag big enough to make a car dealership jealous. Of course, all the good old patriotic staples are sung in worship. The church spends an hour or so celebrating the fact that we are Americans, and the preacher uses his or her time to speak in glowing terms of our great nation.
But some years ago, as America began distancing herself more and more from God, those services started changing a bit—a little less congratulations and little more criticism, a little less “Hooray for America” and a little more “Help us, Jesus,” a little less “God bless us” and a little more “Woe is us.” And after last Thursday’s Supreme Court decision making same-sex marriage the law of the land, I wonder what kind of services evangelical churches will be having today.
As you know, we don’t really do God and Country services in this church. We may sing a couple of songs that are tied to American history, but we don’t wave the flag and try to make better patriots out of whoever shows up. I’ve taken some flack for that over the years, but I’ve held steady. I love God, and I love our country. But I don’t like the phrase “God and country”—never have. We can do better than that. How about God before Country? How about God first? God before Country helps us get our heads right and our doctrine right and put first things first. For a follower of Christ, God and country are not on equal levels. In our hearts and in our actions, God must come before country every time.
Just in case you ever get this confused, let me remind you that …
Barak Obama is not Lord. Congress and the Supreme Court are not the heavenly host. The Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution are not infallible guides to Christian faith and practice. The “original intent” of America’s founders does not guarantee national righteousness. The American flag is not the cross. The Pledge of Allegiance is not the creed. And the song God Bless America is not the Doxology.
Not God and Country but God before Country. And I don’t say this to rag on America. Across our 239 year history, America has been in so many ways a gift to the world. It’s safe to say that many, if not most, of America’s founding fathers and mothers believed God’s hand was at work in the formation of this nation. Noted historian David McCullough concluded his book, 1776, with these words:
Especially for those who had been with Washington and who knew what a close call it was at the beginning—how often circumstances, storms, contrary winds, the oddities or strengths of individual character had made the difference—the outcome seemed little short of a miracle.
God has blessed America and made America a blessing to the world. America has provided a haven of religious freedom, a harbor for immigrants and political refugees, food for the world, and care for her needy and poor. America has sent more missionaries into the world than any other nation. America is usually first on the scene with an open hand when earthquakes rumble and tsunamis roll anywhere in the world. With the blood of many of our best and brightest sons and daughters, America has fought tyranny and fascism and helped liberate millions of people who lived under an iron fist. America has done many things well. We’re quite a nation!
But we’re not perfect, we’re not innocent, and never have been. We’ve got some blood on our hands. Just ask the American Indian. Just ask the families of African-Americans who were segregated and lynched because of the color of their skin and who are still fighting for an equal playing field. Just ask the millions of unborn babies whose mother’s womb became their tomb through the atrocity of abortion on demand. And now this latest Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage. We’ve got plenty of national sins and a few skeletons in our closet. And even though we’ve made great progress in race relations in the last fifty years, the racial divide in America seems more pronounced now than in some time.
So while there is much in America that is good, America is not God, and Americans are not God’s chosen people. It’s not God and Country. It’s God before Country. Always has been.
And the prophet Isaiah helps us keep our heads straight on this matter. In Isaiah 40 the prophet was speaking to a group of people in exile—strangers in a strange land. And they were in exile precisely because as a nation they got too big for their britches. They were Judah of Israel —children of Father Abraham, recipients of the magnificent Law of Moses, ruled by descendants of the great King David, God’s chosen people and the apple of His eye. They thought they were invincible, bullet-proof, unconquerable. “God is on our side!” was their boast.
Problem was—they weren’t on God’s side. God gave them the law; they disobeyed it. God sent them prophets; they ignored most, killed some. God called them to repentance; they persisted in their arrogance and sin and worshiped any number of idols alongside their lifeless, lip-service worship of God (Isa. 29:13). And when God’s longsuffering patience was finally exhausted, He lowered the boom on His own people. Their land was ransacked, their temple looted and burned to the ground, their ablest people carted off to Babylon. Now in exile, they had their doubts. Would they ever go home again? Would they ever become a nation again? How could this defeated people stand up in the face of Babylon and other nations who were so much stronger and greater than they?
And that’s where Isaiah set them straight. It’s not really about nations, he said; it’s about God. A sovereign nation is not the issue; a sovereign God is the issue. It’s not God and country; it’s God before country—any country and every country. Get your eyes on God. Isaiah uses this chapter not to rag on his country but to brag on his God. And that’s a good word for us too. Hear the word of the Lord through Isaiah … (read the text)
These are some powerful words—God before country, God above country, God in a whole other realm from every country on the face of the earth.
What are nations to God anyway? They are nothing. They are like a drop in the bucket, like dust on the scales. And what about the rulers of those nations—how do they measure up to God—these pompous, larger than life, intimidating, powerful kings, prime ministers, and presidents? How do they measure up to God? They’re not much either. Compared to God they’re about the size of a grasshopper. They come to power, they shore up their power, they work to protect and extend their power. And just when they feel like they’re secure and in control, God blows on them and they wither; God sends a whirlwind and they are swept away like a West Texas tumbleweed. In the greater scheme of things, nations and rulers don’t amount to much—they fret and strut their hour upon the stage and then are heard no more. They are full of sound and fury, signifying … not much. They do some good, they do some bad, and sooner or later they wither into dust and become little more than a page or two in a history book. That’s been the case for every nation and ruler that has ever existed.
At one time, Egypt was the deal—the strongest, largest, most powerful nation on the earth. But look at them now—just another little country in the Arab world with some really cool pyramids—but no great player on the world’s stage. Their greatest days are in the past.
And what about Israel? Under King David and King Solomon, Israel’s territory stretched for miles in every direction. They were the kings of the middle-eastern hill. They were the wealthiest and most feared nation on the earth. But after Solomon’s death they split into two countries and in due time, because of their rebellion against God, both of those countries were invaded and destroyed, their people scattered. And even though Israel returned to their homeland, they were little more than a puppet state, an occupied country. Eventually the nation of Israel ceased to exist altogether until they were given back some of their land in 1948. That’s Israel.
Then there was Assyria—the biggest, baddest bully on the block for two or three centuries. They were ruthless, heartless, and violent. Assyria had everybody shaking in their sandals. But once the Babylonians destroyed them there has never been an Assyria anymore.
Nor is there a Babylon anymore. Nor is there a great Greek or Roman Empire anymore. The French and British empires had there day and are but a shell of what they once were. Hitler’s Third Reich, which he predicted would last a thousand years, was destroyed after a tyrannical run of just over a decade or so. The Soviet Union, once a major player and superpower, imploded after only 71 years of history. And many observers would say that the good old USA is not what she once was and never will be again.
Nations come and nations go. Some have their day in the sun and even become major players on the world stage for a time. But sooner or later, nations decline and fall from their heights of glory. Just read a history book and you’ll see. Nations come and nations go.
But God is here forever. And that’s what Isaiah is trying to make clear in our text.
Do you not know?
Have you not heard
Has it not been told you from the beginning?
Have you not understood since the earth
God is here forever. In the beginning … God. Isaiah describes God in majestic, glorious terms. We only read a few verses, but Isaiah uses this whole chapter to tell us about God.
- God is the Sovereign Lord who comes with power and whose arm rules for Him (v. 10).
- But God is not some maniac tyrant. God is the shepherd who tends His flock and gathers the lambs in His arms, carrying them close to His heart (v.11).
- God is the Creator who measured the waters in the hollow of His hand (v. 12). “I’ll put the Pacific Ocean here, the Atlantic over there. And the Indian Ocean in this spot right here.” When we cup our hand we hold just enough water to get a sip or two. When God cups His hand he holds enough water to make an ocean. That’s a big hand!
- And when God measured the breadth of the heavens, which scientists tell us are a bazillion light years deep, God used His hand to mark off its boundaries (v. 12).
- God holds the dust of the earth in a basket and weighs the mountains and hills on the scales (v. 12). Did you know that our God is this large, this vast?
- And smart too (vv. 13-14). Madame Curie was brilliant. Einstein was a genius. But even smart folks like that had to be taught to read and write. They had to learn their way along. But not God. God needs no instructor or counselor since He knows everything there is to know and all true knowledge has its source in Him.
- And God sits on a throne (v. 22). But not some pipsqueak earthly throne—no matter how large or ritzy it may be. No earthly throne is big enough for God. He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth, said Isaiah. He stretches out the heavens like a canopy and spreads them like a tent to live in. You go camping, you pitch a little tent. God goes camping, He pitches a universe. This is some God, huh?
- This is the God who brings out the starry host one by one and calls them by name (v. 26).
- This is the God who is everlasting—no birth date for this God and you’ll find no tombstone for Him either—never will (v. 28). He is everlasting.
- This is the God who does not grow weary and tired, the God who never needs a nap or a vacation, who never has to sit down and catch His breath, the God who never even needs a coffee break (v. 28).
- This is the God whose understanding no one can fathom, the God who gives strength to the weary and power to the weak, the God who lifts up those who trust in Him (vv. 28-31).
- This is the God of Isaiah 40, the God of the Scriptures, the Sovereign Lord of heaven and earth.
And Isaiah lifts up this God against nations and rulers and reminds God’s people like you and me that no nation has ever measured up to God. Could these qualities of God that Isaiah described ever be used to describe a nation? Do you know any nations who create? Any nations who are everlasting? Any nations with perfect understanding? Any nation that never grows weary or tired? Of course you don’t. Only God can be described in such glowing, glorious terms. “‘To whom will you compare me? Or who is my equal,’ says the Holy One” (v. 25). And the answer is obvious: no one—no nation, no ruler, or none of the many idols we manufacture in our hearts and minds. No one compares to God. That’s why God is always first, always deserves more from us than even our beloved nation.
God deserves our highest allegiance—higher than the state, higher than our political parties, and higher than our rulers.
- That’s why when kings and the people told Jeremiah to quit preaching, he said, “No—God has put a fire in my bones and I have to preach it out.”
- That’s why when Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were told to worship the king’s idol or be pitched in a fiery furnace, they said, “Pitch us in. Our God can save us but even if He doesn’t, we’ll worship the one true and living God, not your stupid, lifeless idol.”
- That’s why when Daniel was told, “Quit praying for thirty days or get tossed in the lions’ den,” Daniel replied, “I love God more than I fear lions. I’m going to keep praying like I always have.”
- That’s why when Jewish authorities told the disciples to quit preaching Jesus in Jerusalem, they replied, “Not a chance. We must obey God before man.”
- That’s why when many Christians in the first three centuries were told to say, “Caesar is Lord” or be killed, they were martyred because they said, “Jesus is Lord.” They caught a glimpse of the Eternal City, bought for them through the blood of Jesus Christ who died for their sins and rose from the dead, who knows the way to heaven, and who can get his martyrs all the way home.
- That’s why when many Christians in the Middle-East and in Africa were told by Islamic jihadists, “We’re in charge now. Convert to Allah or off with your head,” they chose to lose their head rather than lose their faith in Christ. They believed Jesus’ words, “I am the resurrection and the life. He that believes in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live. He that lives and believes in me will never die.” So swing your swords, and shoot your bullets. You can take our life, but you can’t have it. Jesus has defeated death and he will have us forever.
Our highest allegiance belongs to God and God alone. Believers hold citizenship in a larger kingdom than America—a kingdom that includes persons from every tribe and nation and tongue. And believers submit to a higher authority than a king or a president or a dictator. We submit to the one before whom someday every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father (Phil. 2:10-11). That’s our God.
And that’s who we worship. That’s why we don’t make a big deal out of God and Country services. The church’s mission is not to make patriots but to make Christian disciples. There are plenty of other venues in our culture to create patriots. The church needs to point to that higher kingdom and higher authority of the Sovereign God before whom all nations (even our own) are like a drop in the bucket, and all rulers (even our own) are like grasshoppers. And on the holiday where we celebrate our Declaration of Independence, the church needs to celebrate a declaration of dependence upon God and His grace and His righteousness and His word and His ways. The church needs to worship the true and living God—not our country, not our forefathers, and not our heritage. The church needs to worship God and join Isaiah in saying that it’s not about God and Country; it’s about God before country.
This doesn’t mean we can’t love our county. I love our country, and I suspect you do too. I have a deep appreciation for those who serve our country in the military and for many in politics. As Christian citizens in a democracy we have a moral obligation to engage at some level in our country’s political arena. Who knows? We could make some difference along the way. Many have. So at the very least vote, and some of us need to speak up and run for office if God leads you to do so. Just don’t put all your eggs in that basket. And don’t base your hope for America upon our political process, or your hope for the church and the world upon America. God is our hope. Our Creator, Sovereign, powerful, all-knowing God is in control so we don’t have to be. He’s in charge so we don’t have to worry. Our hope is not in America and not in our rulers; our hope is in God. Lord, please send a revival!
And lest you think this sermon is a reaction to the Supreme Court decision last Thursday, I want you to know that I preached pretty much this same sermon (with minor changes) in this church on July 3, 2005, ten years ago. This is not reactionary; this is foundational. This is not emotion; this is historic Christian doctrine. We who call Jesus Lord better get our heads and heart right about this because I believe it’s going to grow more difficult in coming years for Christians in America who won’t spout the party-line. But I’m not preaching this to rag on America; I’m preaching this to brag on God—our Creator, our Savior, our Lord, our hope, our peace, our present, our future, our God!
So it’s fine and good for us to share our stance on issues
in the hopes of changing some minds, but let’s do something more that
could change both hearts and minds:
as Christians and the church, let’s humble ourselves, seek God’s face, repent
of our sins, get our own house in order, pray like never before for our nation,
cry out for revival, and proclaim in word and deed and love any way we can,
anywhere we can, to anyone we can, the glory of our great God who in His
Son Jesus Christ and by the power of His Holy Spirit continues to save sinners,
spare nations, mend broken lives, sanctify His children, and build His
kingdom—the only kingdom in history that cannot be shaken and the only kingdom
that will last forever.
David McCullough, 1776 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005), 294.