Take heart, he has overcome

I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.

John 16:33

It would be another generation [after the American Revolution] or so before this typology of mission could be fully rendered – before Washington could be enshrined as savior, his mighty deeds expounded, his apostles ranked, the Judas in their midst identified, the Declaration of Independence adequately compared to the Sermon on the Mount, the sacred places and objects (Bunker Hill, Valley Forge, the liberty Bell) properly labeled, and the Constitution duly ordained (in Emerson’s words) as “the best book in the world” next to the New Testament, and the revolution, summarily, “indissolubly linked” (as John Quincy Adams put it) with “the Birthday … of the Savior,” as being the social, moral, and political correlative of “the Redeemer’s mission on earth,” and thus “the first irrevocable pledge of the fulfillment of the prophecies, announced directly from Heaven.”

From The American Jeremiad, by Sacvan Bercovitch (p. 129)

We have a history problem. We think we are the center of the world and the center of the story of scripture. We think God’s prophesies are directly about us in our small hamlet. Of course, this is a temptation for all peoples and individuals. We’d like to make everything about ourselves.

I have been reading this book The American Jeremiad because of an online article I had referenced multiple times over the past two or three years. The article was well written enough to include proper sources, books by proper historians, so I went in search of his academic foundations. What I found are astonishing accounts of what Americans have believed themselves to be. A Jeremiad is a sermon decrying the failing morals of the people. Americans since the 1600’s transformed the Jeremiad into something different. Instead of totally being only a sermon of judgment, Americans also preached of a certain kind of hope because they believed they (and New England in particular) were almost the final Zion and the ideal Christian community. Of course it only took one generation for New Englanders to find out that there is no fully pure Christian community this side of Christ’s second coming. The half-way compromise is the most famous illustration of it: your children may be members if they are baptized even if they are apostates or never attending church.

So this triumphalistic (and wrong) view of the centrality of New England in God’s prophetic plans was transferred in later generations to secular America. The quote above shows us just how skewed popular religion was by the time of the revolution (we could point to many other problematic things such as the early secularization of Harvard). I had not been to Washington D.C. until I was an adult, but you can see the idolatry of our nation and its founding there. When there is an image of the apotheosis of George Washington in the most prominent building, something has gone wrong. The liturgical and religious fervor for our country like this image denies confessional Christianity.

But we should reflect on the fact that this triumphalistic hope is still engrained in our politics today. We think we are the center of God’s plan, and our party is the only saving grace from the end of the world. It is excellent to have a political philosophy and to promote it through our voting or advocacy in various arenas, but something goes wrong when we become the hero saving the world or our party is our only hope, or our agenda (however noble and full of true dignity) will preserve this generation.

The second half of Genesis includes the message: man does wicked things, but what man meant for ill, God means for good. How is it that God brings good out of Joseph’s enslavement? The abuse of Potiphar’s wife? The neglect of the king? How is it that God brings good out of Judah and Tamar’s episode? Or Jacob and Esau’s rivalry? To go forward in the history of redemption, how can it be that I should gain an interest in the Savior’s blood? How can it be that any good should come of the stricken, smitten, and afflicted Christ, the very Son of the living God, light of light, true God of true God? The answer is: it is by God’s gracious and persistent love.

We are entering a new year. With such havoc of the past year, you might have great hopes for it. If we have a release from restrictions it will fuel much revelry later on this year. We might hope to get out from under the thumb of trouble. But we must take care not to have a false view of history or of what will happen. ‘In this world you will have trouble, but take heart because I have overcome the world.’ This year, we must persist in living on the strong foundation of what Christ has done and not on anything else. Perhaps we become a fully socialist nation as some are predicting. ‘Take heart, I have overcome the world.’ Perhaps communism will run rampant, ‘Take heart, I have overcome the world.’ Perhaps the American government will default on its debt, ‘Take heart I have overcome the world.’ Perhaps you encounter financial ruin yourself, ‘Take heart I have overcome the world.’ Perhaps you are diagnosed with cancer, ‘Take heart, I have overcome the world.’ We must lightly hold to the things of this world even though we might have a calling to be diligent in the public square (I am thankful for such people). This is similar to every other vocation. We hold to our work, our wealth, and even in a sense our families lightly, and we entrust them to our Lord who sits enthroned above the earth. We are but stewards until the King returns. It is only in such a humility that the truth of the angels’ song rings clearly. ‘Glory to God in the highest.’ When we have forgotten ourselves wisely, our Lord is rightly exalted in his glory.

So this new year, may we make a resolution to pursue the glory and fame of God and His work whatever may come.

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