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The Question Facing Us

On the bicentennial celebration of the signing of the Constitution, Halverson hopes the U.S. will recognize God as the source of our liberties.

"We, the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, ensure domestic tranquillity, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this constitution of the United States of America."

I'm not going to ask you to raise your hands, but how many have read the preamble to the Constitution in the last year? The preamble just read, to me, is one of the most remarkable paragraphs ever conceived by the human mind. It is my hope this bicentennial of the Constitution will draw us in the United States back not only to our legal and political roots, but back to our moral and spiritual roots as well, perhaps even more than the bicentennial in '76 did.

What happens when we cut ourselves off from our roots?

Rarely in the 43 years that Doris and I have been married have I purchased for her an orchid corsage. The corsage is always handled the same way. It's worn on the occasion for which it was purchased. When we get home she places it in the cotton batting in the box, sprinkles a little water on it, and puts it in the refrigerator. She wants to preserve the fragrance and the beauty of that orchid and wear it as often as possible. But both of us know sooner or later that orchid is going to have to be consigned to the trash can because it is dead. It has been cut from its roots.

In the thirty years I have lived in Washington, D.C., a conviction has been growing and deepeningand come to a kind of explosive climax in my heart in the last five years since I've been the chaplain of the Senatethat this is precisely where we are in national life today. We are seeing a futile effort to preserve the beauty and the strength and the order of our national life, forgetting that if we cut ourselves off from the roots, there is no life in us, and we are doomed to the trash can. I hope the bicentennial of the Constitution will bring remembrance of, and commitment to, our roots.

"We, the people of the United States . . . do ordain and establish this constitution of the United States of America." We the people establish and ordain this. Can you imagine the revolutionary, radical sound of those words at a time when monarchy was the political system? When kings were sovereign, and people were subjects? When thrones were ascended by royal progeny and everybody else was a commoner? Can you imagine how radical and revolutionary those words were? "We, the people ..."

To the extent that our government becomes godless, human rights go out the window.

Now of course it would be wonderful just to explore what lies behind that incredible, revolutionary idea in the preamble: "We, the people . . . do ordain and establish [the] constitution . . ." Certainly we can see its origins in the first chapter of Genesis, where God created a perfect world, a perfect environment, a perfect universe, a perfect human couple; and placing them in this perfect human environment, made them stewards over everything on the earthin it, over it, under it, and around it. The people were partners with God in governing the earth!

There are two sentences in the Declaration of Independence that bring this into focus.

"We hold these truths to be "that is, they're indisputable; they're obvious; there's no debate about them"that all people are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights"those rights are sacrosanct, in other words; they cannot be touched, because they are given by God the Creator"among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

"To secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed," or the consent of the people. The people in our political system consent to the powers that government has. It has no power not given to it by the people. That's our incredible political system.

Now let me work my way back through those two sentences. Sovereign people, not a sovereign government. Sovereign people who consent to the power their government has. The purpose of this government is to secure human rights, because those rights are endowed by a Creator God who created all of us equal. Take God out of the equation, and the whole thing collapses. No equality. No human rights.

Illustration: Recently in the main rotunda of the Capitol we received Anatoly Scharansky, fresh from his liberation in Russia. Bob Dole, the majority leader; and Robert Byrd, the Democratic leader; and Tip O'Neill, the Speaker of the House; and the senator who was responsible for the serviceevery one of those speakers reminded us that Anatoly Scharansky was the victim of a godless government. Godless governments couldn't care less about human rights, and to the extent that our government or our political system becomes godless, human rights go out the window. The whole political system of the United States rests upon those two sentences: a sovereign people; a government receiving its power from the people; its purpose to secure human rights, which are ordained by God.

If we disconnect from our roots, our destruction is absolutely certain.

Now, if we disconnect from those roots, our destruction is absolutely certain. I want to read first from the Torah: the fifth book of the Torah, Deuteronomy; the eighth chapter; beginning with the eleventh verse. Moses, who has led the people of Israel for forty years, is preparing them to cross into the Promised Land. Even he, because of his disobedience, is not going to get in; he can only see the land. And this is one of his instructions to the people. Now hear this:

"Moses said, 'Take care lest you forget the Lord your God and fail to keep his commandments.' " Now this was written, or said, hundred years ago. " 'When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses to live in, and your herds and flocks have multiplied and your silver and gold have increased, and everything you own has prospered, beware.' " Isn't that incredible? Beware prosperity? Well, isn't that what it's all about in America?

Moses said, "Beware prosperity, lest your heart grow haughty and you forget the Lord your God, and you say to yourselves, 'My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me.' Remember that it is the Lord your God that gives you power to get wealth."

Just a footnote here: There's nothing wrong with wealth. You can't build a case against wealth from the Bible. As a matter of fact, Moses reminds us that it is God who makes wealth possible. The problem is, wealth replaces God. Wealth becomes God. So Moses' warning: "Remember that it is the Lord your God who gives you the power to get wealth. If you do forget the Lord your God, and follow other gods to serve them or bow down to them, I warn you this day that you shall certainly perish. Like the nations that the Lord will cause to perish before you so shall you perish." Because you're wealthy? No. Because you did not heed the Lord your God.

Jesus said, "No one can serve two masters."

Jesus understood this. "No one can serve two masters, for he will worship the one and reject the other, or he will love the one and hate the other. You cannot serve God and mammon." Mammon is a Semitic word for money. Jesus said, "You cannot serve God and money." You have to choose. Money, more than anything else we handle, can become God in our lives and push God out of our lives. The peril in prosperity.

In the book of Revelation, God speaks to the seven churches of the Revelation. The last one is Laodicea, and he says to the Laodicean church, "You are neither cold nor hot. And because you are neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth." Lukewarmness is an abomination to God. A lukewarm church is intolerable to God. It makes him want to vomit.

One of my dearest friends, now in heaven, was president of Mutual of New York. Roger Hull used to say,  "I believe that the greatest danger we face in America is the casual Christian." I believe it. You know, I'm not bothered at all by atheists. They're not the problem in America. The problem in America is the people who profess to believe in God and live as though God is nonexistent, the people who profess faith in God and live as though it doesn't make any difference. I'm not concerned about the secularists and the humanists and the secular humanists in America. I'm concerned about the evangelical who with all of their protestations about secularism and secular humanism, themselves have embraced the secular way of life: materialism, the love of money. That's where the danger is in America.

Now what was the symptom of that Laodicean church? "For you say, 'We are rich and increased with goods and need nothing.' " Not even God. That's lukewarmness: needing nothing. And God's assessment of that church was, "And you don't know that you're blind and naked and poor and wretched." It is to that church that he speaks when he says, "Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to him and sup with him, and he with me." I'll tell you, America has a lot of lukewarm, casual Christians who need to listen to the knock of Jesus Christ and open the heart's door and let him in, or we're doomed as a nation.

Four quotations emphasize our country's dire need for God:

I want to conclude by reading four quotations.

The first is a Life magazine editorial written April 11, 1949. Here is the paragraph: "Communism is not the only threat to Western civilization and perhaps not the greatest threat. The greatest threat to our civilization comes from within that civilization itself. Our euphemism for it is secularism. A much blunter word is godlessness. Our civilization, for all its churches and all its churchgoers, is predominantly a secular, godless civilization."

David Lawrenceone of my favorite people; he's in heaven nowwas the only nonsenator who was a member of the Senate prayer breakfast. He never missed and often was asked to speak. He was the founder, and at the time he wrote this, editor, of U.S. News and World Report. David Lawrence wrote this editorial on May 5, 1956, on the subject of the North Atlantic Treaty: "It is a temporary answer to the threat of world disturbance that we face. The North Atlantic Treaty is temporary. The United Nations is temporary. All our alliances are temporary. Basically there is only one permanence we can all accept. It is the permanence of a G world, for the power of God alone is permanent. Obedience to his laws is the only road to lasting solutions to man's problems."

The next quote is from General of the Army Douglas MacArthur, on the deck of the battleship Missouri at the surrender ceremonies with Japan. He said, "Military alliances, balances of power, leagues of nationsall in turn have failed, leaving the only path to be by the crucible of war. The utter destructiveness of war now blots out this alternative. We have had our last chance. If we do not devise some greater and more equitable system, Armageddon will be at our door. The problem basically is theological and involves a spiritual recrudescence and improvement of human character that will synchronize with our almost matchless advance in science, art, literature, and all of the material and cultural developments of the past two thousand years." Here's his last sentence: "It must be of the spirit, if we are to save the flesh." Are you hearing this?

In 1863 President Lincoln designated April 30th as a day of national humiliation, fasting, and prayer. National humiliation, fasting, and prayer. Let me read a portion of his proclamation on that occasion. "It is the duty of nations, as well as of men, who owe their dependence upon the overruling power of God, to confess their sins and transgressions in humble sorrow, yet with assured hope that genuine repentance will lead to mercy and pardon, and to recognize the sublime truth announced in the Holy Scriptures and proven by a history that those nations only are blessed whose God is the Lord. The awful calamity of civil war which now desolates the land may be but a punishment inflicted upon us for our presumptuous sins, to the needful end of our national reformation as a whole people. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us. We have grown in numbers, wealth, and power as no other nation has grown, but we have forgotten God.

Jefferson said, "God, who gave us life, gave us liberty." That's indisputable in his mind.

Now the question: "Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed the conviction that these liberties are the gift of God?" Now you'd better answer that. And I'd better answer that. And we'd better answer that.

He that has ears to hear, let him hear. God bless you.

The late Richard Halverson served as Senate chaplain and pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church near Washington, D.C.

(c) Richard Halverson

Preaching Today Tape #46


A resource of Christianity Today International

  "that" is a word often deleted in the decluttering process.

  Contractions are fine, but "it'll" is an informal and not preferred contraction

  "humans" preferable to "man" since "man" is understood by some readers as "males only"

  Hull was speaking not to meetings like the one Laodicea was in, but to meetings like the one Halverson was speaking in

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Sermon Outline:


I. What happens when we cut ourselves off from our roots?

II. To the extent that our government becomes godless, human rights go out the window

III. If we disconnect from our roots, then our destruction is absolutely certain

IV. Jesus said, "No one can serve two masters."

V. Four quotations emphasize our country's dire need for God