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God Bless America But Please Hurry!

Genesis 26:12-22

Bob Whitehead, a member of our church, spends a lot of time on the road, traveling in his work. He is forever jotting down humorous or thought-provoking lines he sees on bumper stickers or billboards—and then he shares them with me. His recent travels have taken him past two billboards which caught his attention. The first one read: “Remember when you sang ‘God Bless America’—and believed it!” The second billboard read: “Remember when you sang ‘God Bless America’—and expected it!” Well, Bob is convinced that there must be a third billboard out there somewhere which he has not yet seen, but which he believes will say: “Remember when you sang ‘God Bless America’—and other people sang with you!” He shared that with me the other day—and this sermon was born. Let’s take it a billboard at a time…

“Remember when you sang ‘God Bless America’—and believed it!”

America is utterly unique among the nations of the earth because America began as “one nation under God.” Edward L. R. Elson said it like this: “You can never understand or celebrate the birth and the emergence of this nation except in spiritual terms.”

There was no question in the minds of those who set out to build this land that America would exist with the purpose of extending God’s righteousness. The night before the Pilgrims landed on these shores, they crowded into the ship’s cabin to sign their names to the “Mayflower Compact,” a document which contained these words: “We whose names are written here, having undertaken for the glory of God and the advancement of the Christian faith, a voyage to plant the first colony…do solemnly combine ourselves into a civil body politic.” It is quite clear that America was established in order to show what could happen to any people who cared and dared to follow God in Jesus Christ.

Did you see the recent article in the newspaper where a California history professor declared that “the founding fathers deliberately excluded God from their new science of politics”? He then went on to say that “a blending of piety and public service would have troubled the men who laid the foundation of the American system? That’s rubbish! That man has a strange way of reading history. I prefer to let the words and the actions of those who founded this nation speak for themselves.

For example, George Washington’s strength lay in his faith. In his first inaugural address, he gave credit to God for the guidance and protection that brought our nation into existence. Then he said: “No people can be bound to acknowledge and adore the Invisible Hand more than the people of the United States.” That was no pious gesture for political effect. Washington believed what he spoke. Read his prayers which have been preserved and you see a great man of faith seeking God’s blessing upon this new land.

Or what about Benjamin Franklin? He is often portrayed as an unbeliever. No so. The statement from his autobiography is emphatic: “I have never doubted the existence of God, that He made the world and governs it by His providence.” And remember, please, it was Franklin who delivered this ringing affirmation at the outset of the Constitutional Convention: “I have lived a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth, that God governs in the affairs of men.”

Or look at Thomas Jefferson. Some claim that he had no religious bent and that he sought to separate the workings of government from the things of faith. But listen to the man’s prayers and tell me what you think. On one occasion, he prayed: “Almighty God, who has given us this good land for our heritage, we humbly pray that we may always prove ourselves a people mindful of Thy favor and glad to do Thy will.” Then listen to the words he wrote—words like these: “The God who gave us life, gave us liberty.” If he wasn’t a man of faith who understood the spiritual underpinnings of this nation, then he sure fooled me.

My friends, it was a profound faith in God which inspired the founding of this nation and which empowered her people. That’s the way we began and that’s the only way we can survive. America is so much a product of this religious spirit that when religion ceases to infuse and inspire our national life, America will cease to be the nation God intended it to be. Do you remember when you used to sing “God Bless America”—and believed it? That’s the way we started out here.

There was a second billboard. “Remember when you sang ‘God Bless America*—and expected it!”

There is no more hackneyed word in the English language than the word “freedom.” We misuse it terribly. It does not mean the license to do as we please, but the liberty to do as we ought. People say: “Don’t fence me in! No rules. No regulations. No restrictions.” People who say that misunderstand the meaning of freedom. It does not mean that at all.

Go back and read the writings of Abraham Lincoln and you will discover that he used the word “responsibility” as often as he used the word “freedom.” We must never forget that. We live under laws. And here is a paradox: The more we keep the laws, the greater our freedom. A hymnwriter put it this way: “Make me a captive, Lord, and I shall be free.” Therefore, the more we live like God calls us to live, the more we can expect His blessings upon us. The more we dedicate ourselves to the noblest traditions of our country, the greater our freedom becomes.

I can illustrate that from one of my most humiliating experiences. Several years ago, our ministers and their wives took a Sunday evening and all day Monday retreat at the beach. The purpose was to get to know one another better and to deepen our faith. After several hours of intense work, we decided to take a break and go to a movie. We all loaded up in the church van. I was driving. Because I wanted to be sure we made the movie on time, I let my foot get very heavy on the gas. We were really rolling when suddenly I realized that we weren’t alone. A blue light was flashing. I pulled over with the ridicule of my partners in ministry raining down on my back. That was bad enough. What was worse was that policeman then walked up to me and said: “You’re Dr. Edington, aren’t you?” I replied sheepishly: “Yes sir.” He then said: “Well, I watched you this morning on TV and I watched you tonight on radar.” By this time, I was rolled up into a ball of shame and humiliation. He didn’t give me a ticket. He did something worse. He said: “Let me give you some of your own advice. ‘Go and sin no more’.” Do you hear what I am trying to say? I was jeopardizing my freedom that night, and the freedom of everybody in the van with me, and the freedom of everybody on the streets because I was breaking the law. We no sooner begin to do as we please than what we do doesn’t please us or anyone else—and it certainly doesn’t please God.

There is an old Indian legend that tells of a young Indian boy who climbed a high mountain to prove his manhood. When he reached the summit, he felt the rush of great pride in his accomplishment. Then he heard a sound at his feet. It was a deadly snake. The snake spoke to him. “Help me,” the snake said, “it is too cold for me up here. I have no food. I am about to die. Put me under your shirt and take me down to the warmth of the valley.” The boy replied: “No. If I pick you up, you will bite me and your poison will kill me.” The snake said: “No so. If you do this for me, I will not harm you.” The boy gave in, tucked the snake in his shirt, carried it down to the valley and carefully placed it on the ground. Suddenly the snake coiled and struck, biting the boy on the leg. “But you promised,” said the young Indian. The snake replied: “You knew what I was when you picked me up.” And the snake slithered away.

The point is clear. If we embrace that which violates the law of God, we cannot expect His blessing. If we pick up the serpent of aggression or ruthlessness, eventually it will bite us. If we handle the serpent of prejudice and hatred, ultimately it will poison us. If we embrace the serpent of selfishness, it will strike us and bring us down. Do you remember when you sang “God Bless America”—and expected it? As a nation, we can expect God’s blessings only when we live as He wants us to live.

There is perhaps that third billboard, “Remember when you sang ‘God Bless America’—and other people sang with you!”

No war is good, but sometimes some good comes from war. Surely what good came from the war in the Gulf must include the binding together of the people of this nation.

As I look back at that war, certain images are forever frozen into my brain! The picture of President Bush soberly announcing the start of ground war…the image of yellow ribbons everywhere, on trees and doors and gates and lapels…the image of little children writing letters to Mrs. Bush expressing their concern—one little girl telling the President’ s wife that she prays for the President every night and that as a P. S. thanking Mrs. Bush for breaking her toe in that sledding accident, saying “No other First Lady would have done that for us”—and a little boy writing to say that if his father stationed in the Persian Gulf didn’t come home soon, “then God would make President Bush eat broccoli for a whole year”…the somber picture of hundreds of burning oil wells darkening the earth at noonday, combined with the painful image of people in Baghdad drinking and bathing in the Tigris River, one of the most polluted rivers on earth…the unforgettable scene of Iraqi soldiers surrendering by the thousands; the picture of the Saudi Arabian soldier helping a weakened Iraqi soldier out of his bunker and then seeing the Iraqi soldier smile and reach over and kiss the Saudi soldier in gratitude…the strong picture of General Schwarzkopf giving that now famous press briefing on how the Allies had conducted the war, prompting Paul Harvey to comment: “When General Schwarzkopf says ‘sit down,” you don’t even look to see if there is a chair!”…the picture of people by the thousands dancing in Kuwait City celebrating their freedom…And then there is the picture of Christine Mayes from Pennsylvania who got engaged on February 17, who on that day left for Saudi Arabia, and who just a week later was in her barracks when a scud missile slammed in, killing or wounding 128 young Americans. Christine Mayes died. She had been engaged for 8 days. She was 22 years old—a great young American Heroine. Let us remember her and all those brave young Americans like her, who were willing to lay down their lives for freedom’s sake. And let us be moved by their spirit to bind ourselves together again as a nation.

Not long before his death, Daniel Webster prayed this prayer: “When my eyes shall look for the last time at the sun in heaven, may they not see it shining on the broken, dismembered fragments of a once glorious nation. Rather let them gaze on a strong-limbed, clean-minded, healthy-souled people!” That is my prayer. I hope it is yours as well. Do you remember in the Book of Genesis when Isaac returned to his homeland only to discover that the Philistines had filled up all the wells and thus destroyed the sources of water so important to the welfare of the people? Do you remember what Isaac did? The Bible says: “Isaac dug again the wells of water dug by his fathers”. I am not advocating here a return to the old-fashioned ways of doing things. The only good thing about the good old days is that they are gone. But I am pleading for us to recapture the kind of faith in God on which our forebears founded this nation—and to do it before it is too late.

So…

Do you remember when you sang “God Bless America”—and you believed it, you expected it, and other people sang with you? I remember, and that is why I pray today:

“God, bless America again—but please hurry!”

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