America in Prophecy

Sermon preached at Spring Creek Seventh-day Adventist Church on May 7, 2016.

This morning I turn to a familiar Adventist topic, the role of the United States of America in Bible Prophecy. It is important that we review this from time to time, so that we can be clear in our thinking. So that as time goes forward, we will be discerning. So that when the final crisis starts to break, we will not be swept up in the emotions of the crowd, but may judge all things according to what we know from the Bible.

We live in a time of fear. America is awash in fear today. You see it whenever you turn on the TV or radio, or open a newspaper. This should not surprise us, because Jesus told us this would be the emotion that would dominate at the end. Luke 21:25-26,

And there shall be signs in the sun, and in the moon, and in the stars; and upon the earth distress of nations, with perplexity; the sea and the waves roaring; men’s hearts failing them for fear, and for looking after those things which are coming on the earth: for the powers of heaven shall be shaken.

But we do not need to be afraid. We have a God who is in control, and who knows all, and who tells us in advance what to expect, as we read in Amos 3:7, “Surely the Lord God will do nothing, but he revealeth his secret unto his servants the prophets.”

When we think of God revealing such secrets, we think especially of the prophecies of Daniel and Revelation. Let’s review briefly what the Adventist church has taught about the interpretation of a couple key passages.

In Daniel 2 we read of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of a statue that represented the major successive kingdoms in earth’s history. Daniel received another vision, Daniel 7, giving the same sequence of kingdoms, but now represented as beasts: a lion with wings, a bear, a four-headed leopard with wings, and then a horrible beast with ten horns. All were seen rising from a stormy sea.

The Book of Revelation picks up these themes, but presents them in a slightly different form. We read in Revelation 13, starting with verse 1:

And I stood upon the sand of the sea, and saw a beast rise up out of the sea, having seven heads and ten horns, and upon his horns ten crowns, and upon his heads the name of blasphemy. And the beast which I saw was like unto a leopard, and his feet were as the feet of a bear, and his mouth as the mouth of a lion: and the dragon gave him his power, and his seat, and great authority.

Do you notice, this beast combines all the characteristics of the beasts of Daniel 7. Like them, it rises from the sea. It is part lion, part bear, part leopard, and part beastly. It has seven heads (the combined number of all the heads of all the animals in Dan 7). It has ten horns like Daniel’s fourth beast. John sees both history and his own day in one image, and he sees the future divisions that Rome will fall into, and the terrible things that will be done.

And then, verse 11:

And I beheld another beast coming up out of the earth; and he had two horns like a lamb, and he spake as a dragon. And he exerciseth all the power of the first beast before him, and causeth the earth and them which dwell therein to worship the first beast, whose deadly wound was healed.

A beast that looks like a lamb, yet speaks like a dragon. Let’s look at the clues by which we have identified it.

The lamb-like beast arises after the other nations have risen and fallen and divided. It arises after a period of persecution represented by 1260 days or years.

It arises from land, not sea. According to Revelation 17:15, waters represent “peoples, and multitudes, and nations, and languages.” What then is the land? A place without people. The other nations all arose and acted in the basin of the Mediterranean, in the cradle of civilizations. The new one comes up in a different place, a place far off, a place not as populated.

And it is a contradictory image. A lamb that speaks like a dragon. A kingdom that will seem peaceful, and benign, but will do terrible things. And in the end, will give the Beast its power.

So here’s a question to consider. If this is the United States of America, will the US change from a lamb into a dragonish power? Or has it always been both?

I think the answer is it has always been both. It embodies both now. This thought was reinforced by some adventures I had recently in New England.

It was a rainy day when I pulled into the historic town of Plymouth, Massachusetts. It’s grown up over the past nearly 400 years of its existence, but if you want a sense of what it was like in the 1620s, stand on Leyden Street, which runs from the harbor up to the hill, where First Parish Church stands. Then go south of town, to the reconstructed Plimoth Plantation, which shows how the town looked about 1627. You can stand in roughly the same place, and look up past the wooden homes towards the building that then served as both church and fort.

Imagine a quaint town, hiding a dirty secret. These pilgrims came to the New World to have freedom to worship for themselves—but they didn’t extend that freedom to others.

The same was true in a city to the north founded ten years after Plymouth – Boston. The oldest cemetery in town is King’s Chapel Burying Ground. It holds the graves of many early Puritan settlers, including John Winthrop, who founded Boston to be “a city on a hill” that other people would observe, to see whether they would be faithful to their covenant with God or not. A few steps from Winthrop’s grave is a monument marking the resting place of John Winslow and his wife, Mary Chilton. Mary was the only Pilgrim to relocate to Boston. Mary was a girl of 12 when she came on the Mayflower. John came later. They were my 9th great grandparents.

Neither Boston nor Plymouth had religious freedom. The Puritans and Separatists who founded them fled England to practice their faith, but they didn’t let others dissent. Three Quakers, Marmaduke Stephenson, William Robinson and Mary Dyer, were hanged in Boston in 1659 and 1660.

Roger Williams didn’t experience that fate. He was merely exiled to the wilderness, where Naragansett Indians gave him shelter. He was an orthodox Puritan in all things but his desire to have a church separate from the state. He began as pastor in Boston, then went to Plymouth, and then to Salem. In 1635 he was condemned for sedition and heresy, and ordered banished. He fled to what is now Rhode Island, he founded the town of Providence.

Later on my trip I walked around the green in the original part of Providence. The well dug by Williams still stands. A couple blocks away you’ll find the First Baptist Church, founded by Williams in 1638—the first Baptist church in America.

It was Roger Wililams who gave us separation of church and state—he coined the phrase, speaking of a “hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world.” Williams saw that any linkage of church and state, any weakening of the wall, would contaminate and corrupt the church. And he experienced that in his own life.

This is the tragedy of those early colonies. Those who demanded freedom for themselves, would not share it with others–not with Separatists, nor Baptists, Quakers, Catholics, Jews, nor Native American faiths. Rhode Island was an exception, as were Pennsylvania and Maryland, all founded by dissenters who welcomed other dissenters. But one by one each became a Royal Colony, and the Anglican Church was restored to prominence and privilege.

America was birthed in contradiction and paradox, and seeds sown in colonial times bore conflicted fruit through the centuries.

Religious freedom was guaranteed by the First Amendment, but it has been a never ending fight, in each era, for each new group on our shores. In World War 1, conscientious objectors were imprisoned—Quakers, Mennonites, and Adventists. In World War 2, Jehovah’s Witnesses were targeted for not saying the pledge. When I was young, Protestants questioned whether a Catholic should be president. Today, Presidential candidates question whether Muslims should be allowed entry.

Freedom was guaranteed by the Constitution, but the existence of slavery was assumed and recognized. The founders of our nation, revolutionary leaders who insisted on liberty for themselves, would not free their own slaves. As the decades passed, a northern industrial economy became as dependent upon the fruits of slavery as was the southern agrarian economy. This led abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison to denounce the Constitution as “an agreement with hell.”

Slaves were freed after Civil War, but racism has endured. From the vigilantes of the Klan to Jim Crow legislation to attitudes of hearts and minds, it has infected American society. In my youth, there were still colored water fountains in the south. Students were beaten for sitting at a lunch counter. Children were hosed down and dogs sicced on them because they dared cry out for freedom and equality. We thought those days were past.  My own children seemed to live out the dream of a day when “little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.” And yet the cancer of hate and fear and bias remains.

America seems a land of plenty, but it remains a place of inequality and hunger.

America prides itself on being a land of liberty, but imposes its will around the world by force.

We hallow those phrases, “All men are created equal,” ”Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” – but we deny life to the unborn, liberty to the largest number of incarcerated prisoners in the world, and justice to those who cannot buy the most expensive lawyers. Some truly are “more equal than others.”

We have great ideas, but those ideas sometimes do not gain full implementation in how we live as a society. Our ideas and our practice are in tension, and that tension will increase until our society breaks. We will embrace tyranny, prophecy tells us. But how?

I think it will be our fear, the fear we see around us today, that will be our undoing. This is what will lead the the lamb, in its dragonlike roar, to demand that all worship the beast and his image.

FDR was right. “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

And Yoda was right. “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”

Fear leads us to build walls. It leads us to blame others. It leads us to allow exceptions to our ideals, pauses in their implementation, exceptions to the rule.

America will not embrace tyranny through a dictator forcing his will on an unwilling people. It will embrace tyranny with the people welcoming the tyrant with open arms, begging him to keep them safe, just as the German people, following the humiliation of Versailles and the impotence of Weimar, welcomed one who promised to make Germany great again.

To quote Star Wars again: “This is how liberty dies. With thunderous applause.”

Throughout our history, we have projected our fears onto outside enemies. But when we look at our history, what powers have really threatened our freedom?

It has been the Puritan, free of restrictions on his liberty, who has enforced his religious views on others.

It has been the angry mob, fearful and vengeful, which has sought out scapegoats and cut them out of society; or has shouted down voices they didn’t want to hear.

It has been agents of the state, representatives of law and order like J. Edgar Hoover and Bull Connor, who have spied on Americans, brutalized and humiliated them, used the power of the state to discredit or silence those who spoke truth.

America is now trapped in a cycle of fear that began on 9-11. Our fear and our anger for what happened that day led to fifteen years of war. Led to the Patriot Act which curtailed freedoms in the name of security. Led to the atrocities of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, and to even Christian leaders justifying torture and humiliation in the name of safety and security.

Now, I am a patriot. I have worn a uniform with a crest on it saying, “Pro Deo et Patria,” for God and country. That dual allegiance must always put one in tension—but I find the tension is increasing.

Even within the chaplaincy I have seen frightening trends. We are supposed to speak up for morality, for what is right. One chaplain, James Yee, went to prison for criticizing torture at Guantanamo. Another chaplain, Chris Antal, was punished for criticizing drone strikes on civilians. Another chaplain, Wes Modder, was humiliated and threatened with expulsion for saying that marriage is between a man and a woman.

All these examples and stories illustrate the same point. The lamb and the dragon have always been a part of our national nature. This nation is what God said it would be. The paradox is at the heart of our history (and has embraced “left” and “right” equally).

What should our response be? Let’s embrace a paradox of our own. We can be patriots, loving the ideals of the nation and its founding myths of courage and freedom—and we can be skeptics, questioning those times when it falls short, or even betrays the ideals it claims to represent. We can honor the heritage of liberty, and the transcendental ideals of truth, justice, and freedom, while drawing attention, like Thoreau and Theodore Parker, to where our human statutes fail to represent the Higher Law to which they must point. Like Martin Luther King, Jr., we can “refuse to accept the idea that the ‘isness’ of man’s present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal ‘oughtness’ that forever confronts him.”

This paradox is what Jesus told his disciples, “I send you out as lambs among wolves. Be wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.” This paradox is at the heart of his saying, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” We are to be “be subject unto the higher powers,” but “we must obey God rather than man.”

To help you maintain this paradox, I have some simple advice. Don’t be caught up in the fear and anger that spreads through our society. Turn off the TV. Turn off the radio. Do not be guided by the ideas of the political parties or pundits. Be equally wary of those politicians who seek to banish God and traditional morality and those who seek to promote him and protect him. Do not let any human ideas guide you. But focus on the teachings of God’s Word. Open your Bible. Read and reread the Sermon on the Mount. Be a good citizen as long as you can. Speak for truth, wherever and whenever you can. Stand up for truth no matter what. And be prepared for that day when you may have to stand up before authorities as did Martin Luther and say, “I cannot go against the Word of God. Here I stand, I can do no other. Amen.”