Sermon: By the Rivers of Babylon
07.06.2014 Preaching Text: “Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy.” (Psalm 137:6)
On March 4, 1865, with the Civil War within days of ending and slavery almost at an end, Abraham Lincoln delivered his famous Second Inaugural Address. Here is a small section of it:
“If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense come, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’”
What is striking about these words is that Lincoln, standing on the precipice of victory, offers no words of triumphalism, no demonization of his foes, nor even a clear sense that his judgments had been right. Rather, what comes across is humility in the face of God’s holy providence. Equally significant, he critiques the entire nation, both North and South, rejecting any cause for boasting or celebration.
This kind of humility is virtually absent from today’s America. As Ross Douthat points out, in general, today’s progressive politics are directed toward a future perfection, a utopian promised land where all life’s stubborn problems are finally eliminated.
In conservative political circles, this same utopian vision exists, but is directed toward the past, toward the nation’s founding, its Garden of Eden moment, if you will. Heaven on earth is achieved by rolling back historical missteps and returning to that once perfect moment.
Despite their seemingly opposite objectives, they both share the same humanist assumption: that the American experiment can achieve perfection here on earth (if only the other side could be defeated, that is).
But, again, note Lincoln’s humility, his complete lack of such humanistic utopianism. There are no illusions about America’s role in the world, only a prayerful hope and promise.
One sees this as well in Puritan John Winthrop’s famous sermon, A Modell of Christian Charity, preached sometime before or after his ship, the Arbella, set sail for the New World in 1630. This is, as I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, his famous “City on a Hill” sermon.
It is often cited as an example of American exceptionalism, which can be seen, as I say, in both progressive and conservative varieties (though, as I say, they come at it with decidedly different perspectives).
“Consider that we shall be as a city on a hill,” Winthrop later wrote his daughters, “the eyes of all people are upon us, so that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken and so cause him to withdraw his present help from us, we shall be made a story and byword through the world.”
Winthrop’s point, as Douthat points out, “is not to boast of the new colony’s virtue, but to demand that it live up to its highest ideals.” For Winthrop, the image of a city upon a hill is one of responsibility, not triumphalism.
Today we heard two passages from scripture, from Psalm 137 and Jeremiah 29. Both depict life for the Israelites living under Babylonian Captivity.
In Psalm 137, we witness their profound sorrow at being off from their native land. As they gather by the rivers of Babylon they are cruelly taunted by their captors, forced to sing what were once joyous songs of their homeland, of Jerusalem.
“How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” they wail. “Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy.”
But in our reading from Jeremiah, the prophet, in a letter sent to the exiles, startles by speaking the words God has given him to say, “Build houses and live in them,” he writes, “plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But 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.”
Theologically, this fits within the views of both Winthrop and Lincoln. Here is found one of life’s inescapable truths. While here on earth, we are but strangers in a strange land, foreigners whose true home is far away.
And we are to never to forget our true home, heaven. In the meantime we are to build houses, plant gardens, have families, and seek the welfare of our world, for in its welfare is to be found our welfare.
This assumes, of course, the converse, that heaven is not to be found here on earth, and any life strategy that denies this will necessarily fail horribly.
With proper perspective, however, with our priorities straight, and with appropriate humility, we can thrive in this world, assuming we accept the sovereignty of God, whose truth and justice alone stands over and against the best of human strivings.
The Puritan’s onetime “errand in the wilderness,” and the subsequent founding of this nation almost 250 years ago, has been dubbed the “American Babylon.” Though it exists in the world, it is not properly of the world. This nation, at its best, seeks instead to discern and live out God’s will, in humble acknowledgment that God’s judgments are not only superior to ours, but are often hidden from human perspective.
In Winthrop and Lincoln, we see this kind of humility and trust in God’s absolute sovereignty. For them, this nation is great only to the extent that it heeds this basic truth.
G.K. Chesterton once famously described America as “a nation with the soul of a church.” To the extent that this is true, it nonetheless does not imply that America is the church. Which is to say, it never has been, is not now, nor shall it ever be. It is not a utopia, nor can it ever be heaven on earth.
While it is right to celebrate our founding, and the good our nation has wrought, it is essential that we as a people passionately adopt Lincoln’s caution, humility, and deference to our transcendent, providential God. For only in this can we hope to find genuinely true and everlasting freedom. Amen.