(This sermon was preached in the chapel of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.)
When I was applying to study here at Southern Seminary, I probably should have noted on the application there was a little bit of a moral problem in my life in my background back there because I came really close one time to being excommunicated. I wasn’t excommunicated from a church; I was about to be excommunicated from the Cub Scouts.
I was in the Cub Scouts, and we had badges we would earn; every once in a while one of us would earn a badge for learning water safety or learning camping safety. One of the badges we had to earn was the God and Country Badge, and we earned it by all of us going to this Methodist church there in the community. A Methodist pastor came and talked to us about faith and how faith was really important to be good citizens.
However, I was kind of distracted when I went there, because in my elementary school we had a kid who somehow had seen a rerun of this old movie The Exorcist. So he had come in and was telling all the rest of us the things that went on in this movie, and he said, “You just wouldn’t believe it. This girl, she was possessed by a demon and so her voice turned strange like this,” and he would imitate the voice of the demon.
Then he said, “Her head would go all the way around, and she would levitate in the air, and it was really creepy.” So I had this on my mind, and I was really burdened about this because I wanted to make sure that never was going to happen to me or to anybody I knew while I was there.
So we went to the Methodist church; and the Methodist pastor was talking to us. He said, “You have to be people of faith, because America is built upon faith. So, if you’re going to be good Americans, you need to be the sort of people who trust in God, because trusting in God is going to give you good character and good morals. These things are necessary in order to build up a good country and a good republic. Those countries that haven’t had good morals and good values rooted in faith are those countries that have fallen apart, and they don’t exist anymore.”
Then he just opened up the floor for questions and answers about whatever we wanted to talk about. I immediately raised my hand and said, “Can a Christian be possessed by a demon, or does the presence of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Christian keep the Christian from being possessed by a demon?” (That’s probably why I studied systematic theology later.) His response was, “Well, you have to understand that in the ancient world, they had to come up with metaphorical representations for illness, mental illness and social structures; so you have to understand these things.” I didn’t understand what he was talking about. So I said, “Yeah, but the question is: Can a Christian be possessed by a demon, or does the Holy Spirit counteract that?’
We kind of went round and round with this for several minutes until he finally said, “Look, there’s no such thing as demons,” and I said, “Oh, but there are. Look here in the Gospel of Mark we have right here.” He said, “I know it says that, and I know they believed that in biblical times; but I’m telling you, I don’t think demons actually exist.”
This was the first time ever in my life I had encountered a pastor, a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ, who didn’t believe the Bible. As he went on and started talking about faith and God and how important God was to country, I realized he wasn’t trying to immerse us—or sprinkle us—in New Testament Christianity. Instead, he was trying to get us into the right kind of religion, the right kind of generic faith, which probably would be Christian in name only at least, but it’s the sort of faith that had an object in mind, and the object in mind was to create in us good citizens for the American republic.
Now, what he was trying to do in that session with this group of kids is something that is always the temptation for any culture and any country: to use an idea of faith, generically defined, or to use an idea of God, generically defined, in order to prop up what you really want, which are well-behaved people who will support the society as it is.
God and Country is much, much easier than Christ and Him crucified.
When we think about what’s happening in terms of speaking of God in this way and speaking of faith in this way, this text we just read some moments ago may be the most often-used text to get to that end. How many Fourth of July sermons have we heard that come from 2 Chronicles 7:14 in order to speak about how to fix America? How to fix America is, “If my people called by my name humble themselves, pray, seek the face of the Lord, repent of their sins, then God will heal the land.”
It becomes very clear in the preaching of that sermon that the people are the American people and the land is the American land. So, as one scholar said of this text, 2 Chronicles 7:14 is the John 3:16 of the American civil religion. Indeed, it is.
The idea is that we need to get America back. Let’s reclaim America for Christ. When that is said, the question has to be asked: Get America back to what? Get America back to the founding era, or get America back to the 1950s, or get America back to the 1980s? The implication is to get American back to whatever the time was before everything fell apart, as though everything fell apart at a certain blip during the whole time the United States of America has existed. However, 2 Chronicles 7 is speaking about something much deeper.
This passage was written to a people, to the people of God who were coming home from exile. They were coming home from a time in which they have been under the domination of a foreign power. This was a group of people who needed to be reminded of the promises of God, to be reminded of the power of God, to be reminded of who they were. So, this text is written pointing them to Solomon’s reign, reminding them of what Solomon did when he built the temple, the house of the Lord, the place of the gathering of the worship of God.
It was written to a people who were uneasy and insecure because it seemed as if the promises had failed. It seemed as if the house of David was gone. It seems as if even after building a new temple, it wasn’t the old temple; it wasn’t the place it was before. So, the question is: Where is God, and what is our future as the people of God? In that, this text does not point us to a bloodless civil religion. This text points us to the cross.
The Cross Defines the People of God
Scripture says here in that famous chapter in 7:14, “If My people…” In order to understand what the Spirit is saying to us, we have to understand what God means when God says, “My people.” He says, “If My people, who are called by My name…” He’s speaking here of a covenant He had made with a people, a covenant that is in the background throughout this entire section of Solomon’s dedication of the temple. The Scripture speaks of this location of Mount Moriah, the place where Abraham went to sacrifice Isaac.
They are reminded of the promise God made to Abraham: “I will be your God, and you will be My people.” They’re reminded of this place in the threshing floor, where God appeared to David and made this promise: “You won’t build a house for Me, but I will build a house for you, and I will put your son upon the throne, and he will reign forever and ever and ever.” They were reminded as the instruments of worship were being brought into the temple, as the sacrifices were being brought into the temple, of the covenant God made with Moses, that He will be God to His people. All of these promises are here, all around as they were moving into this temple.
If we don’t understand the question of who we are first and foremost as the people of God, then we are going to miss this. If we take this text and we bypass the people of God, as we apply it directly to the mass of people in American culture, or to the mass of people in Bible Belt American culture, or to the mass of people in any culture in any civilization—as though we are existing as Americans or Canadians or Australians in a covenant relationship with God in the way God put Himself in a covenant here with the people of Israel—then the problem is not just that we are misinterpreting the text. The problem is that we are missing Christ.
This is not just a series of generic principles. According to Romans 9, God’s relationship with the people of Israel is in order to bring them to the Christ, who is the God over all. We are the people who are united to Christ. That’s the reason this text comes after Solomon prayed: Solomon, who was anointed with the Spirit of God; Solomon who had received the kingship. Solomon prayed here in 2 Chronicles 6:42: “Oh Lord, do not turn Your face away from Your anointed one.”
Who are we? That is the most important question we can ask about how we are going to move forward in the culture God is sending us into now. For too long we have assumed that what we ought to be agitated about is getting America in step with the church, as though 2 Chronicles 7:14 is a recipe for getting America in step with the church. Second Chronicles 7:14 is not a program for getting America in step with the church. Second Chronicles 7:14 is a program for getting the church out of step with America.
You are the people—regardless of where you are, regardless of what has happened to you—you are the people who are called by My name, here in My temple, God says; and as this happens, He is present with His people. That is being defined according to a gospel that God is revealing that ultimately will come to fulfillment in the cross of Jesus Christ; but it’s not only the people of God who are defined here. The presence of God also is defined here.
Often when we hear this sort of God-and-country civil religion, it is very bright, shiny, patriotic and inspirational. If you take only 2 Chronicles 7:14 out and crochet it and hang it on a wall, you can have that illusion. However, 2 Chronicles 7:14 is in the middle of 2 Chronicles 7, and 2 Chronicles 7 reeks of blood.
Scripture says here that Solomon was not emphasizing to the people the importance of faith. He was not telling the people the importance of values. He was coming into this temple with thousands of corpses of animals, with the shedding of blood, and Scripture says that when this happened, the people of Israel saw fire coming down from heaven, consuming the sacrifices. They saw the glory, the cloud of God’s presence, all throughout the sanctuary, so much so the people fell on their faces and cried out, “The Lord is good. His steadfast love endures forever.”
Why were they doing that? It was not because they were saying, “Can you believe we get to see something as cool as this?” It was because God was accepting the sacrifice. They were standing before God through a veil of blood, and God was receiving them. That’s why God, when He spoke then to Solomon in this night vision, he said, “This is the place I have chosen, where I will put My name; and I will put My presence. This temple—and if My people, who are called by My name—if they will humble themselves, if they will repent, if they will seek My face, if they will cry out, then I will hear,” He said, “from heaven, and I will heal them.” He was speaking here of His manifest presence in the temple.
That temple doesn’t stand, because we have come now to a temple that is not made with hands. We come now to a temple in the broken body of Jesus of Nazareth, who is building a royal priesthood, a temple made up of living stones. Further, more so than in this temple constructed by Solomon’s hands, God’s presence is with His people through union with Jesus Christ—our God with us—through the mediation of Jesus Christ. We now are being sent out into the nations, but we are not being sent into the nations alone. We are being sent to places, where we cry out to the Father and are heard because we are coming through a veil of blood, through the poured out blood of the Lord Jesus Christ.
This means that if religion is just a way to make us better Americans, then we can find other ways to be good Americans, and we can find a religion that will do that better. However, we can be Americans best if we are not Americans first. We recognize and know there is something more important than the state; there is something more important than the culture; there is something more important than the community. More so than this group of people gathering in front of the fire and in front of the cloud and smelling the smell of the blood, we right now are joined to a cloud of witnesses that no man can number, gathered around the throne of the triumphant Jesus Christ; and that defines for us the fact that we have access to come boldly into the presence of God.
That does not disengage us from our responsibilities as citizens, it shapes and forms our consciences about how best to do that. One of the biggest problems I face right now advocating for religious liberty all over the place is that most of the people who want to restrict religious liberty are not evil people; most of them are not wicked people, plotting somehow to shut down churches and pave over consciences.
Most of them are people who don’t understand religious motivation, so they assume there really must be some other motive involved. It really must be about power or money. There are all sorts of things you and I can do—and ought to do—to plead, work and fight for religious liberty; but the first thing we must do to stand for religious liberty is recognize and know that above state, society and community we have come to the heavenly Mount Zion, where we stand with blood around innumerable angels confessing Jesus is Lord.
The presence of God is here with His people in this temple. He hears them from there, because that’s where He has chosen His name to be. The reason it’s easy in American culture to say “God,” the reason it’s easy for that chaplain who is worried about getting in trouble with his commanding officer to end a prayer with “In Your name,” is because the name of Jesus is so specific in the way God meets His people that you can say “God” and assume any number of higher commitments; but when you say “Jesus,” you are speaking of the place where God has chosen to meet His people, in His temple, in His sacrifice, in His King, in His Priest.
Yet it’s not only that…
The Cross also Defines the Promises of God
God said to Solomon that if My people humble themselves, if they repent of their sins, if they seek My face, He said, “I will hear them, I will heal their land.” The way this so often is interpreted is to say that for us to humble ourselves and repent of our sin is for us to be angry enough about the sins of other people in the culture around us. For God to heal the land is for God to prosper our country and culture. That is not what God was promising here to Solomon.
What the prosperity gospel teachers always want to do is take the promises and curses of God from Deuteronomy, for example, bypass Jesus Christ and go directly from Deuteronomy to viewers such as you. So, if you are obedient, then God is going to prosper you and give you health; if you are disobedient, God is going to give you suffering. This bypasses what Scripture teaches us in Galatians 3, which is to say the obedient man God prospers and gives life to is only one human being who keeps the law of God. The curses we suffer for disobedience, laid out in Deuteronomy and elsewhere, have fallen upon that man as he is hanging on the tree, and cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.
A prosperity gospel is not just a different shade of Christianity. A prosperity gospel is no gospel at all. It is a Canaanite fertility religion that has nothing to do with the gospel of Jesus Christ. A prosperity gospel doesn’t work any better for nations than it does for individuals. If you bypass Jesus and apply these promises, or you apply these curses to a nation, any nation, apart from the mediation of Jesus Christ, you do not understand what the Spirit is saying in Scripture.
God tells us to care about the flourishing of the people around us, to care about our nation. He says that not only when the people of God are in Israel; He says that when the people of God are in exile in Babylon. God tells us that we need to be concerned about justice. That’s the reason the apostle Paul pled his case all the way up to Caesar.
These ultimate blessings and curses Scripture talks about now are blessings and curses that aren’t about a prosperous economy. They are not about a more moral society. Instead, they are about when God says, “If you are disobedient to Me, I will tear this temple down, and I will see to it that everybody who passes by will become a proverb and byword, and this house that was exalted, the people passing by will say, ‘Has the Lord done this? Has the Lord abandoned His people?’”
Brothers and sisters, that is exactly what happened when the Lord Jesus of Nazareth took upon Himself the curse—not for His sins, but for ours—and for the house of Judah. As He was there under the weight of the curse of God, what did the passersby say? “If God is with You, come down from that cross.”
That is what happens when you are on the wrong side of God and the blessings promised here. I will heal your land, not GDP, not people behaving morally, not Ten Commandment signs in the classrooms, not whether people say “Merry Christmas” to you instead of “Happy Holidays.” The blessing is: I will heal your land. That is exactly, through the gospel, what God did when He took the cold, dead, cursed, abandoned corpse of Jesus of Nazareth, enlivened it with the Spirit of God, and the pilot project of the new creation walked out into the sunlight, ascended to the center of the universe, seated Himself upon the throne, and is now waiting for all of His enemies to be made a footstool for His feet. That is what it means to see a land that is healed.
When heaven and earth are joined together and God’s will is done on earth as it is done in heaven—that’s what it means to heal a land. It’s to look and say, “No matter how we are suffering, no matter how we are persecuted, no matter how we are marginalized, our identity is not in whatever is happening to us right now. Our identity is seated at the right hand of God, and He is feeling just fine.” Just as this word was meant to do for the house of Israel, it frees us from fear.
Your ministries are moving into a time of cultural tumult all around you, and you are going to be afraid. Some of you are going to be so afraid that you are going to want to negotiate away parts of the gospel. Some of you are going to be so afraid that you are not going to want to be present in the lives of people who are sinners for fear that some Christian protection racket will say you shouldn’t be talking to such people…tax collectors, sinners, and what not.
However, the gospel is defined in such a way that we are able to claim the promises of God, to claim the presence of God, to see ourselves as the people of God within that cross so we know the worst thing that possibly could happen to us—the worst thing that can happen to you—is not getting fired from a church; the worst thing that possibly could happen to you is not being disinvited from Thanksgiving from your parents; the worst thing that ever could happen to you is not being thrown into a Middle-Eastern prison; the worst thing that could happen to you is not being beheaded by jihadists. The worst thing that could happen to you is being abandoned to your sin, being cursed by God, being crucified outside the camp…and that already has happened to you.
The best thing that ever could happen to you is not that you will have a successful ministry; it is not that you will have acclaim in the culture; it is not that you will have a picture-perfect family; and it is not that you will exist in a culture that has traditional family values. The best thing that can happen to you is being raised from the dead to newness of life in fellowship with the living God and being assigned by Him a mission as an heir of God and joint heir with Christ…and that has already happened to you, too.
So, if the right Man is at the helm of the universe; and if the sacrifices are already present there in the heavenly temple; and if you are in the cloud of the glory of God, then what on earth are you worried about? This Word is meant to give a word of warning: Judah, don’t disobey God, don’t walk away from God. It is meant to give the listeners the power and courage to say, “You might not see the house of David right now, but there’s a stump coming up and there’s a Son of David coming. You might not see the glory in the temple right now, but there’s a temple coming that is so glorious you can’t imagine right now. You might not be able to get through all of these sacrifices in order to deal with your guilt, but there’s a sacrifice coming from the Lamb of God, who permanently will take away the sin of the world.”
If that is true, then let’s crucify our generic civil religions and our discount-rate prosperity gospels and hear behind all of them the gentle lowing of golden calves. Let’s instead define ourselves not by the generic god of American values. We do not serve that god.
We serve the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God and Father of Jesus Christ, and the promises He has made. They will outlast Mount Rushmore, and the presence He has given to us tells us who we are and where we are going because He’s promised us in the short term a cross on our backs, and He has promised us in the long term a crown of life; but He never promised us a God and Country Badge.
Russell D. Moore is president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention in Nashville, Tennessee.