Sunday, August 7, 2022

Sermon: “God’s Embassy on Earth”, Psalm 33:12-22/Hebrews 11:1-10, 13-16 (August 7, 2022)


Over the past several years, Christian nationalism has been on the rise. And we here in the United States aren’t the only participants in this trend: the Wikipedia page for “Christian nationalism” lists Canada, Russia, the United States, and Yugoslavia as modern examples of countries that have, to one degree or another, embraced this ideology. In some cases, Christian nationalism emerges out of the best of intentions – a belief that Christian policies and laws would improve life for everyone. In others, it’s a tactical strategy – if an individual controls both the state AND the Church, then there’s very little that can stand in the way of their political aspirations. Regardless of where on this spectrum a person’s motivations lie, the objective of Christian nationalism remains the same: a blurring, if not outright removal, of the line between Church and state.

Many Christian nationalists turn to scripture itself in order to justify their position. As you might imagine, Psalm 33:12 is a popular choice: “The nation whose God is the Lord, the people whom God has chosen as his possession, is truly happy!” It certainly SOUNDS like scripture is conflating patriotism and religion, doesn’t it? When I did a google image search for Psalm 33:12, a clear majority of the results (15 out of the first 25) had this text placed on a backdrop of the American flag. 
The creators of these images clearly believe that our country is the subject of this verse. Now, obviously I would never stand here in the pulpit and tell you that God doesn’t care about the United States. And certainly, there’s nothing wrong with pride in one’s country. But the fact is that, contrary to what google images might lead you to believe, scripture does NOT tell us that the United States is supposed to be a Christian nation.

An interpretation of Psalm 33:12 as a call to Christian nationalism not only ignores the context in which it was written, but it ignores the rest of the psalm itself. The psalmist immediately goes on to say, “The Lord looks down from heaven; he sees EVERY human being. From his dwelling place God observes ALL who live on earth. God is the one who made ALL their hearts, the one who knows everything they do.” WE may be thinking of God’s chosen nation in terms of modern political divisions, but it sounds like God has their own idea of the nation that they want to claim – and it isn’t defined by any human boundaries.

See, I suspect that what scripture is actually trying to say is not that the United States is an especially beloved political entity (or Russia, or Canada, or Yugoslavia, or even modern Israel, for that matter). Instead, Scripture is describing a different patriotism that has nothing to do with where you were born, where you live, or which government orders your life. Secular nations are necessary to order society and helpful in forming our identity, but scripture is telling us that they’re ultimately not the place where our greatest fidelity should lie.

Long before someone is born as the citizen of any particular nation on earth, their creator has already laid a powerful claim on them. Christ is the very first ruler of every single heart that has ever existed. Therefore, our actual homeland is not where our bodies were born, but where our spirits were forged, where our truest being was first known. Our real native country isn’t a location on earth at all, but a kindom in heaven: the kindom of God. Every human being who has ever lived belongs to this heavenly nation, but we must willingly accept the duties and responsibilities that come along with the privileges in order to claim our full citizenship. Therefore, the nation spoken of in Psalm 33, the one that God has chosen as their possession, is one made up of all those who choose GOD.

Now, God created love to be so expansive and limitless that we can feel it towards many people, places, or institutions. Secular patriotism is not, by itself, antithetical to God. The problem only arises when it tries to make itself equal or even superior to our loyalty towards God’s kindom. In the sermon on the mount, Jesus tells us, “Seek FIRST the kingdom of God and his righteousness.” God does not forbid us from loving the place where we were born, but scripture makes it clear where our primary duty always lies.

So, having pledged our ultimate allegiance to a nation not of this earth, those of us who choose to accept citizenship in God’s kindom necessarily live our lives here as expatriates. We certainly do love the nation that we’ve made our home, but we refuse to relinquish that which makes us citizens of heaven for the sake of fitting in. This is why Hebrews 11 describes the heroes of our faith as self-confessed “strangers and immigrants on earth.” They lived in the world both out of necessity and because it was God’s will, but they recognized that no country on earth could ever be their true homeland. They maintained their devotion to a place they hadn’t even seen, because they understood its unique and authoritative claim on them. The faith described in this passage is an expression of these heroes’ loyalty to God’s kindom in the same way that patriotism is an expression of an expatriate’s love for their native country.

But it's never easy to remain loyal to a country you’ve never seen. It’s really tempting to equate the kindom of God with your kingdom-of-choice on earth: if there’s no distinction between the two, then you don’t have to wonder where, exactly, you’re placing your allegiance, and you can completely avoid the tension of two distinct entities vying for your devotion. It’s easy to see how Christian nationalism can grow out of a desire to simplify matters of loyalty. But we’re fooling ourselves if we believe that this is what God wants. God’s nation is entirely different than anything anyone on earth could ever create; no one country, no matter how great, could ever even come close.

Fortunately, when it comes to our heavenly national identity, we don’t just have to wing it. God has graciously established an embassy in this world to remind us of our true heritage and to encourage us when we feel homesick or tempted to give in to secular assimilation. A sanctuary in the midst of all the worldly powers demanding our loyalty. This embassy is a place in which human governments hold no sway, where we’re free to remember what it means to be a citizen of heaven and to practice living out our obligations to each other – where we learn how to remain faithful even as “strangers and immigrants on earth”. The earliest Christians called it the Ecclesia; we call it the Church. Not the building in which we gather, but the community in which we take part. Governmental leaders have been using the Church to further their political goals since the time of Constantine the Great, but it was never intended to be a reinforcement or extension of the state. The Church is literally supposed to be an autonomous representation of heaven on earth.

At its best, the Church reminds us what it means to be a citizen of the kindom of God. That it’s who we’re meant to be. It’s a gift that makes it possible for us to live as expatriates in a world that wants us to conform to its culture and values. But it’s not all about what we receive from the kindom’s embassy. As JFK famously noted, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” An important part of belonging to the kindom of heaven is carrying out the duties that come with it – remember, that’s how we know we’re citizens. One of the most important responsibilities we have is to serve as earnest ambassadors for our original homeland. We know from Psalm 33 that this doesn’t mean proving how powerful God’s army is, and it doesn’t mean recruiting others by a show of strength – heaven doesn’t need earthly forces to defend it. It means sharing our experience of God’s love and explaining how others can claim their own birthright in God’s kindom: “the Lord’s faithful love surrounds us because we wait for God, who has indeed prepared a city for us.”

God’s kindom is the only one that exists for our sake, and it’s the only country *I* know of that we can be certain would never take advantage of its citizens’ loyalty. So we owe it to ourselves to think carefully about where our greatest allegiance lies, we owe it to one another to fulfill all of the duties that come with citizenship in the kindom of heaven, and we owe it to God to serve as ambassadors to this divine nation. Let’s stop imagining that any earthly kingdom deserves the same loyalty that God does. Let’s stop trying to cling to safety and power by means of human politics. Let us instead live our lives as the expatriates that Abel was, that Enoch was, that Noah and Abraham were. Let us believe in the promises of God’s heavenly country and choose to embrace the only citizenship that exists for our sake alone – the only citizenship that matters. Amen.

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