Monday, March 01, 2010

Bethany Bullet - March 2, 1010

The year was 1863 and a short story was published in The Atlantic Monthly penned by Edward Hale titled The Man Without a Country. While a piece of fiction most likely to promote the Union cause, it was published as a true account of a young United States Army lieutenant named Philip Nolan who is tried for treason. During his testimony, Nolan bitterly renounced his nation and shouted, “I wish I may never hear of the United States again!” Upon his conviction, the judge grants his wish and Nolan is sentenced to spend the rest of his life on warships of the United States, in exile with no right to ever again set foot on U.S. soil, and with explicit orders that no one shall ever mention his country to him again.

The sentence is carried out to the letter. For the rest of his life, Nolan is transported from ship to ship, living out his life as a prisoner on the high seas, never once being allowed back in a home port. None of the sailors are allowed to speak to Nolan about the U.S., and his newspapers are censored. Nolan is unrepentant at first, but over the years becomes sadder and wiser, and desperate for news. One day he says to a young officer, as he is being rowed over to another ship on which he is to be held, he beseeches a young sailor never to make the same mistake he made, and to: "Remember, boy, that behind all these men..., behind officers and government, and people even, there is the Country Herself, your Country, and that you belong to her as you belong to your own mother. Stand by her, boy, as you would stand by your mother...!"

Deprived of a homeland, Nolan slowly and painfully learns the true worth of his country. He misses it more than his friends or family, more than art or music or love or nature. Without it, he is nothing!

Imagine, if you will, living a life without a country; without a sense of geographic identity. Perhaps, this sounds good to you in the midst of partisan bickering in Washington, but think of the consequences, it is not a very sweet life.

If you have paid attention to the winter Olympics the past two weeks, NBC has made a big deal about patriotism. Seven of the top 8 television shows last week were Olympic coverage. Patriotism and national pride have colored the broadcasts with emotional medal ceremonies and stirring renditions of The Star Spangled Banner, O Canada, and Deutschland Uber Alles among others.

Indeed a big deal has been made over a sporting event and in some ways there is something good to be seen from this. Citizenship and patriotism are ideals held in high esteem in our culture.

In our New Testament text for today, Paul reminds the church in Philippi, and us today of our true citizenship. From Philippians 3:20, “But we are citizens of heaven.” This would be a subject that would hit home to the Philippians. The city of Philippi was a Roman colony in Asia Minor. It was separated from the capital by distance and culture. The people of Philippi were citizens of Rome. In the 1st century, citizenship conveyed the right to hold office, the privilege of appeal to Roman courts, and protection anywhere in the empire. Citizenship indeed had its privileges. This was a big deal.

Paul, himself, was a Roman citizen and on more than one occasion it served him well and helped the spread of the Gospel. For Paul, citizenship was protection. And in Philippians, Paul says that his true citizenship is in heaven, not Rome.

To understand what Paul is saying theologically, we not only need to grasp Roman citizenship, we also need to know what it means to be a citizen of the world, the flesh, the sinful nature. It would take just a peek into the mirror for most of us, but Paul spells it out in great detail.

“I often warned you that many people are living as enemies of the cross of Christ. And now with tears in my eyes, I warn you again that they are headed for hell! They worship their stomachs and brag about the disgusting things they do. All they can think about are the things of this world.”

How often have you placed your mind on the earthly things of, power, position, profit, or pleasure? How often have you given in to temptation and fallen victim to the god in your guts, and not given glory to the God of the universe? How often have we failed to make a big deal about God?

With tears in his eyes, Paul describes those who live as enemies of God. This is not living in the sweetness of Jesus. Indeed, often times, we are like the man without a country. We have turned out back on our citizenship and unless help comes, we are destined to wander, without a home, without a purpose and without peace.

But Jesus beckons us to come to the sweet spot. Through His word and through His spirit he calls us to himself for he has written our names in the citizenship registry of heaven. He has placed in our hands the passport to heaven. He has secured our entrance, and he desires us to be in heaven with him.

It reminds me of the time I was visiting my brother-in-law in Moscow. I was headed to the US embassy with my friend and we were to meet him there. As we arrived we saw a large crowd at the door, waiting to get in. It was quite chaotic. We pushed our way through the crowd and told the Marine at the gate why we were there. He looked on his list, checked out passports and led us in. We got into the embassy because our names were written on the list, but they were on the list because of the intercession of another. Without help, we would have been stuck outside unable to enter and enjoy the benefits of citizenship.

Paul reminds us that our names have been written in the Book of Life. Jesus came to intercede for us. He came to take our place and suffer and die so that we would no longer be called enemies of God. Because of Jesus, our destiny is not destruction but life eternal, our God is found, not in our guts, but hanging on a cross, our glory is not in the world but in the living Christ, and our mind is on heavenly things. Because of Jesus, our names are written in heaven, our passport has been guaranteed, and the sweetness of heaven is ours.

This is something to make a big deal about. This is the sweetest spot in creation.

Paul continues, “We…are eagerly waiting for our Savior to come…Our Lord Jesus Christ has power over everything, and he will make these poor bodies of ours like his own glorious body.”

This has been a comfort to me this past week. Last Sunday I learned that one of my seminary classmates Clyde Elliot, lost his battle with cancer. He was set to graduate this spring and be ordained soon after. But instead, his passport has been punched, he has entered heaven as a citizen with all the rights and privileges, and indeed his body has been transformed. And then this past Wednesday I got the news that little Nolan Johnson, Ingrid Johnson’s nephew also had his passport punched. The cancer that had ravaged his little body is now gone as he can now run and play in the fields of heaven. This Nolan does have a country, and it is heaven.

I know that everyone here has similar stories and I bring them up not to make us sad, but to stand firm. Paul continues, “Dear friends, I love you and long to see you. Please keep on being faithful to the Lord. You are my pride and joy!”

I know that both Clyde and Nolan have stood on the podium to receive the crown of life. I know that they have heard the anthems of the heavenly chorus. I know that someday, I too will join them and all the saints, not with gold around our necks, but with gold beneath our feet. For we do have a country to call our own, we belong in heaven with Jesus. This is something to make a big deal about! For we find protection in the sweet spot of citizenship.

John writes this about the Saints in the book of Revelation:

"they are before the throne of God
and serve him day and night in his temple;
and he who sits on the throne will spread his tent over them.
Never again will they hunger;
never again will they thirst.
The sun will not beat upon them,
nor any scorching heat.
For the Lamb at the center of the throne
will be their shepherd;
he will lead them to springs of living water.
And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes."
-Revelation 7:15-17
So, with tears in my eyes I say again to you:
I’m but a stranger here, heaven is my home.
-Pastor Seth Moorman


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