Monday, July 6, 2009

God Bless Our 'Drop in the Bucket'

“Even the nations are like a drop from a bucket and are accounted as dust on the scales; see, he takes up the isles like fine dust” (Isaiah 40:15).

National pride is a universal experience. The World Cup or the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games is proof enough of that. I love my country as much as anyone; despite our mistakes and shortcomings. Saturday night my family and I were enjoying the fireworks display at the Culver City High School athletic field, singing along with a huge crowd. It was the best fireworks display I've seen in years as we sat there with friends from our church and from our community. It brought to mind the line used by a popular radio talk-show host about the United States being “the greatest nation on God’s green earth.” As I sat there watching that display, and listening to the moving patriotic music it was easy to think of all the reasons why I love this country. But with all that said (and all that singing)…how do we reconcile national pride with Isaiah 40:15? Can America seriously call itself “the greatest nation on God’s green earth” or are we in fact just “a drop in the bucket” ? I want to let God’s word answer that question with three propositions…

Proposition #1 America is a great nation; and we should bless & pray for her. I will not presume to call America "the greatest" nation (that's for God alone to judge) but I believe I have good cause both historically and biblically to say she is a "great nation." There is much that is great about America; but here is my short list.

  • I love the genius of our founding fathers who formed a democratic republic based on the intrinsic value of every human being.
  • I love the four freedoms that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt spoke of : the freedom of worship, the freedom of speech, the freedom from want and the freedom from fear.
  • I love President Reagan’s line about America being 'a shining city on a hill' and that we should aspire to be an example to follow.
  • I love the natural beauty of our country – 'from the mountains to the prairies to the oceans white with foam.'
  • I love our judicial system; where one is presumed innocent until proven guilty.
  • I love our respect for science, especially as applied to the treatment of disease, the alleviation of suffering and the expansion of human knowledge.
  • I love our entrepreneurial spirit, that you can do anything, be anything if you are willing to try.
  • I love the fact that long before anyone dreamed up the Declaration of Independence, our national identity was forged in The Great Awakening - a mighty spiritual revival that swept the eastern seaboard and quickened the heart and soul of the colonies; a full of God moment when spiritual leaders like Jonathan Edwards, George Whitfield and William Tennant, were household names a full three decades before anyone had heard of Jefferson, Franklin, or Washington. That's what I love most about America.

Is it wrong to think of our nation as “great”? Consider the fact that Abraham and Sarah were told that God would make of them “a great nation” (Genesis 12: 2). And if Israel was called “great” by God; surely there is nothing wrong with desiring to be a great nation in God’s eyes. When the people of Israel were exiled to foreign lands, they were not told to curse, but to bless and pray for the cities where they found themselves! “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” says Jeremiah 29:7. The very first thing we must do is to pray that our nation might be truly great in God’s eyes. But that qualifying statement brings us back to Isaiah’s sobering perspective on greatness; for like any nation….

Proposition #2 America is 'a drop in the bucket' when compared to the immensity and power of God. For again, “Even the nations are like a drop from a bucket and are accounted as dust on the scales; see, he takes up the isles like fine dust” (Isaiah 40:15). Isaiah literally says, “Behold,” or “pay attention,” “listen up”—the nations are like drops and dust when compared to the immense power of God. I still remember the day my fourth grade teacher pulled down her big world map and pointed out the two major superpowers in the world; the United States and the USSR. Wow, I thought to myself, my nation is a superpower! At times we as Americans have felt a kind of "childish" sense of invincibility because of our super military power, our technology, our worth ethic, or our determination. At other times, we have felt genuinely fearful of other nations: in the late 1930s and 40s, we feared a re-armed Germany; during the Cold War, it was the Soviets; and today, a nuclear armed Iran or North Korea (who, by the way, is supposed to be launching another Taepodong – 2 missile between July 4-8).

God however is neither impressed nor intimidated by even the most “super” power on earth. We’re like a drop of water in a bucket to the Creator! If you are carrying a bucket of water and a single drop is lost over the side; you’re not likely to lose any sleep. If a checker at the supermarket puts your vegetables on a scale to weigh them, he doesn’t get out a feather duster to wipe out the particles of dust. The scale is simply not affected by particles of dust. And so, Isaiah says that all the nations of the world, put together, are like a single drop of water or a speck of dust when compared to the Creator God. They no more affect God and his plans than dust affects your weight on a scale.

But if we are only a drop of water, does this mean we are irrelevant to God? By no means! Because a single drop of water…is also one of God’s greatest miracles! Scientists have spent billions trying to find a single drop of liquid water on the moon, or other planets in our solar system. So far, earth is the only planet we know of with liquid water on its surface. There are over 5 sextillion (a 5 followed by 21 zeroes) atoms in every drop of water (a universe on a pinhead); and when combined with other water droplets, it’s one of the reasons that life exists at all on our planet. Einstein once said, “A single drop of water helps to swell the ocean.” Every drop of water is a gift, and so are the nations in which we live. Isaiah’s comparison should not make us feel irrelevant…but awed & grateful. But if America is both right to aspire to greatness, and rightly humbled before God's ultimate greatness then we must go on to say this...

Proposition #3 America’s future depends upon its willingness to be a humble servant of God among the nations. A few weeks ago, I considered the saying that “Pride Comes Before the Fall.” Nowhere is that more true than among nations. The choice is always before us…pride or humility; arrogance or meekness. One of the great sins we can commit is to substitute nationalism for the worship of God. No ruler, no earthly authority, no government, no political party, has the right to take God’s place in our hearts. One of the reasons that the Bible is an outlawed book in many countries is that the God described therein claims a higher authority in our lives than any earthly ruler and our ultimate allegiance. It has been duly noted and proven by history that without God as our Lord, we will have mere humans as our masters.

Therefore, God says for our benefit, “You shall worship the Lord God, and him only shall you serve,” and “If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, pray, 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). In 1863 President Lincoln did just that when he set aside April 30th as a day of national humiliation, fasting, and prayer. Read these words:

"It is the duty of nations, as well as of men, who owe their dependence upon the overruling power of God, to confess their sins and transgressions in humble sorrow, yet with assured hope that genuine repentance will lead to mercy and pardon, and to recognize the sublime truth announced in the Holy Scriptures and proven by a history that those nations only are blessed whose God is the Lord…. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us. We have grown in numbers, wealth, and power as no other nation has grown, but we have forgotten God."

Friends, it is one of our jobs as Jesus’ followers, to help our own nation to remember the One whom they dare not forget. Once again, ancient Israel is our model here. For the destiny of Israel, from the perspective of Genesis 12:1-2 was to bless other nations and all the peoples of the earth. In other words, the greatness of Israel lay in its calling to help other nations become great for God. French writer Alexis de Tocqueville (tok-veel) after visiting America in 1831, said, "America is great because America is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, America will cease to be great!" Echoing that sentiment, I'm remembering the words inscribed over the entrance of Los Angeles City Hall: “Righteousness exalteth a nation” -- a citation from Proverbs 14:34. The full citation is "Righteousness exalteth a nation; but sin is a reproach to any people." I believe those words will either lift us up, or be our epitaph, as a nation.

How then does a drop of water become great, and not reproachable? Here are three suggestions using that drop of water as a metphor. First, we need to practice Humility. As a nation, America must continue to realize that it is but one atom in that miraculous drop of water…and that our critical leadership role is not as pontificators -- but co-operators; not one over, but one among the company of nations.

Second, we must exercise Responsibility. H20 responds to its environment by changing…from liquid to solid to gas. Responsibility, that is "the ability to respond redemptively in critical moments of historical signficance" is critical in every age and no less in ours. The world needs a nation that is able to respond to the great challenges of our time…upholding the rule of law among nations, using the power of the sword to restrain evil when absolutely necessary, addressing global poverty and disease and threats to the environment, facing humanitarian and natural disasters through international cooperation and the sharing of knowledge and resources for the greater good.

Finally, our age demands Moral Clarity from us. The world needs “clear” water that is free of contaminants and pollutants. The world also needs nations that have a clear and consistent moral vision -- not compromising when it is convenient or beneficial to ourselves to do so. I believe that our constitution, and the godly principles on which it is based, is a gift to the world – if only we will live up to it.

I want to close by telling you an American story; a story about a woman who won the lottery in Kenya in order to come to America with her young son. Although winning the lottery sounds wonderful, to travel here she had to sell practically everything she owned…just to buy the plane tickets and had $5000 left over to start her life again in a new country. Even if she had wanted to go back…she couldn't have; but her faith matched the immense challenge. Even though she had a college education from her home country and had employed a maid in her African home, she found herself working long hours as a security guard. Eventually, she got a job as a teacher’s assistant in Beverly Hills; then worked in the home of one of our church members while putting herself through a degree program at Santa Monica City College. Again, throughout these years she was raising a son by herself (brilliantly I might add), in a strange country, far from home. She finally went on to attend Cal State LA where she enrolled in a masters program in social work (Remember that she already had a college education in Kenya). When a recent illness began to severely affect her vision, our deacons arranged for a church member to drive her to school everyday. Imagine the celebration when just weeks ago she was awarded her Masters in Social Work!

I will not print her name here...but we rejoice with her, not just because hers is a quintessential American story or a heroic Kenyan story…but more importantly because it is part of God’s story…the God who humbled himself in human flesh; who became nothing more than a speck of dust in the universe, less than a drop of water in the womb of his mother; and we confess that it is this God who died for our sins on the cross, and defeated the powers of death on the third day. Why? So that he might give us overflowing bucketfulls of living water that shall well up to eternal life! I'm blessed to be a citizen of this great nation; I'm blessed to be even one part of that drop which is the nations of the earth; and I'm convicted by the fact that God has called us to be more than great -- but a humble servant of the God who alone is greatest.

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