War, terrorist attack, financial collapse, flood, famine, earthquake, hurricane, disease, and pestilence are all words that conjure up images of immense suffering on a national scale. The suffering is evident in the loss of lives, property, and any sense of social stability and security.
Before, during, or after such events the question normally arises, “If there is a God, how can he allow such things to happen?” This was the question routinely raised in the media, the marketplace, and the church following the events surrounding the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York. “Where was God? Why didn’t he prevent this from happening? Why did God allow so many innocent people to perish?” These were the questions pastors found themselves struggling to answer the following Sunday.
Immediately following times of national and natural crisis, the grieving need a word of comfort. As at a funeral of an unbeliever, a caring pastor should not preach on the likelihood of the deceased “burning in hell for all eternity even as we speak.” A funeral is an occasion to bring comfort to the survivors. The same is true for preaching to a people who are in the throes of national tragedy. Timing and audience analysis are crucial to preaching. Biblical truth incorrectly timed and applied from the pulpit can be a form of spiritual abuse heaped on a congregation. But a time should arrive where we begin to explore the unpopular and painful possibility of the judicial activity of God in national calamity.
“God Bless America.”
The 9/11 tragedies have reinforced in our culture the typical and popular view of God. “God Bless America” has returned to center stage. People like the “feel-good” ideas about God: love, blessing, heaven, prosperity, abundance, and guardian angels. People dislike the idea that God has predetermined standards of righteousness. Along with the “feel-good” ideas come the truths of holiness, sin, judgment, hell, and wrath. The “feel-good” all-inclusive god of popular culture bears little resemblance to the God of the Bible.
One of the recurring themes in the Bible is that God is Sovereign Ruler over creation. As Sovereign Ruler he demands uncompromising loyalty on behalf of His creation, mankind. The Bible affirms that God raises up and tears down nations. The biblical question in Amos 3:6 is, “If a calamity occurs in a city has not the Lord done it?” Does this verse teach that all national calamities are the direct result of national sin? No. Creation itself is marred by sin bringing it’s own disorder.
Yet we must also be careful not to say the opposite. Biblical history demonstrates how God often has orchestrated a disaster due to the sin of a nation as a wake-up call for repentance. Amos charged, “I gave you cleanness of teeth. . . I withheld the rain . . . I smote you with scorching wind and mildew . . . I sent a plague among you . . . I slew your young men by the sword . . . I overthrew you . . . yet you did not return to me . . .” (Amos 4:6-13). The inability or unwillingness of religious and civil leaders to comprehend the activity of God in national and natural calamities resulted in the overthrow of Israel and Judah by the Assyrians and Babylonians along with the ensuing exiles. An inaccurate or inadequate vision of God during crisis can reap catastrophic consequences for a nation.
In the Pentateuch, God had declared to Israel covenant curses for disobedience and covenant restoration blessings to take effect after their entrance into the Promised Land (Lev. 26:14-46; Deut. 4:25-31, 28:15-68, 29:19-28, 30:1-10, 17-18, 31:17-18, 21, 29, 32:15-43). Thus, the Israelites would experience national prosperity for covenant faithfulness and national misfortune for covenant infidelity. These curses included invasion from enemies, exile, loss of possessions, violations of family, terror, agricultural hardships, pestilence on people and animals, loss of military might and political stability, becoming a debtor nation along with economic instability, loss of security, nationwide psychological problems, population decimation, etc. The language is unmistakably clear that it would be God who would cause all the curses to come to pass. The Minor Prophets drew a direct line between their audience’s past, present, or impending circumstances and the covenant restrictions (demands) that God declared at Sinai.
The list of Gentile nations in Amos chapters 1-2 demonstrates that God claims sovereignty over not only Israel, but over all nations. He appears to hold gentile nations responsible for a basic level of human integrity and morality. The nations are indicted for wholesale deportations of people groups into slavery, war crimes, violent border expansion, abuse of pregnant women, broken treaties/covenants, and an absence of compassion or righteousness. It is interesting to note that these crimes were committed by the nations as much as a century prior to this denunciation. It was only in Amos’ day that they had filled up the measure of God’s wrath (for three sins and for four) and were experiencing divine retribution. The punishment promised by God was that their military might and security in which they took so much pride would be ruined. The fact of God’s taking the long view of history regarding national sin needs to be kept in mind when we look at our own country.
Preaching on judgment concerning national disaster requires serious introspection, and must ask difficult questions. But proclaiming judgment is often abused and replete with dangers. The following guidelines will be helpful in prophetic preaching concerning national crisis.
Call to Obedience
The major emphasis of prophecy was to call people back to covenant obedience. The tendency is to think of prophecy as primarily telling the future. But the prophet’s main role was to call people back to covenant obedience. God was using disasters not to condemn, but to call back. Therefore, any preaching that desires to be considered “prophetic” needs to be anchored in the word of God, with a strong emphasis on calling back, and not condemning.
Future prophecy of coming calamities was given to elicit repentance. If the people failed to respond correctly to past and present disasters, God would visit upon them even greater chastisements up to and including destruction of the nation.
Avoid rushing to judgment.
Caution should be taken in publicly blaming for a national disaster groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union, abortion providers, gay rights proponents, and federal courts that had banned school prayer and legalized abortion. As horrendous as these sins are, we need to be careful of knee-jerk reactions that blame others without first examining ourselves.
Avoid the tendency to remain silent concerning judgment.
Silence in the pulpit may be a misguided attempt to offer pastoral care, affirmation, and consolation when a prophetic call to repentance is needed. Institutionalized religion is often guilty of seeking peace, harmony, maintenance of the status quo, and allegiance to earthly rulers (patriotism) instead of upholding the truth that God demands justice and faithfulness and holds peoples and nations accountable for their actions (Micah 3:1-7). Silence is not always golden; neither is ignorance bliss. Refusal to consider the reality of God’s wrath against evil amounts to willingness to condone evil.
God is love, but his love can be punitive. One sign of a sick nation, people, or priesthood is refusal to consider that their current miseries might be an indication of God’s disfavor.
The Prophets loved Israel because Israel was God’s chosen nation covenantly bound by him to be a priestly nation. The prophet’s love for their country would not permit silence. But the prophets were viewed by the religious leaders and kings as decidedly unpatriotic (Amos 7:10-13). A Prophet’s singular devotion to God allowed him to see his nation’s sin from God’s perspective making his words unacceptable to the religious and ruling establishment. The only Minor Prophet cast as a patriot was Jonah, and he is done so in exceedingly unflattering terms.
Don’t equate ancient Israel and America
Avoid taking God’s covenant promises to Israel and applying them directly to any gentile modern state. The idea of the USA as a “Christian Nation” needs to be seriously reconsidered from a biblical standpoint. Israel was a theocracy, the USA is a democratic republic. Much of God’s covenant with Israel involved conquering, inhabiting and potentially losing the Promised Land. Christians have never been the recipients of a covenant involving “land.” While it is true that “Righteousness exalts a nation and sin is a rebuke to any people” (Proverbs 14:34), nowhere in Scripture do we see God ordaining a political or geographical entity as “Christian” or giving any gentile nation a mandate of evangelism. The mandate to “go and make disciples” belongs to the church, not to any geo/political entity.
Don’t announce ‘the day or the hour’
Avoid citing specific times of national crises as fulfillment of eschatological predictions. Pastors should avoid interpreting a contemporary event as “direct fulfillment” of one’s particular eschatological framework with regards to predicting the nearness of the Second Coming. Many nations have come and gone without the Lord’s return. God is under no obligation to perpetuate the USA until the Second Coming. Since the time of the cross, some Christians in every generation have been convinced that contemporary events proved Jesus was coming back in their time.
Preaching judgment is controversial and painful (both for the prophet and hearers). When a nation is experiencing political and economical instability, wasting diseases, mass terror and insecurity, social upheaval and moral collapse, along with real and potential invasions from enemies such as the USA is experiencing today, then silence may not be golden and continual messages of solace may not be love. I pray that we not be found declaring only comforting messages of, “Peace, peace,” to our country and churches when we should be declaring, “Repent.”
Michael P. Melon is Pastor of Coliseum Place Baptist Church in New Orleans LA. He is a former missionary to Paraguay.