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The Struggle for America's Soul 
By Dr. Todd B. Jones
07/03/11

FIRST PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH, NASHVILLE
DR. TODD B. JONES
JULY 3, 2011

The Struggle for America's Soul
Daniel 3:8-30
Romans 12:1-2


Are you a thermometer or a thermostat? A thermometer, of course, reflects the temperature in a given area and records it accurately. A thermometer does nothing to change the environment. It merely reflects the prevailing weather. A thermostat, on the other hand, is quite different. The whole purpose of a thermostat is to adjust or change the temperature of the building. You set a thermostat and the temperature changes in response to it.

Have you noticed that some people are more like thermometers? That is, they merely reflect the environment where they dwell. They go along with the cultural winds they face, the value system of where they live. They don't really challenge or seek to change the world. "Go along to get along," we say. They simply adjust and go along with the culture's trends.

Other people are more like thermostats. They are out to change the world in which they live. If the culture or environment is not what they believe it should be, they are not going to go along with it. They are out to challenge and to change it.

Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were not thermometers. Living in exile in Babylon shortly after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, they were not willing simply to go along with the dictates of their new world. No, they were thermostats; that is, they changed the world in which they were now forced to live.

King Nebuchadnezzar, who had sacked Jerusalem and taken many Jews hostage in the land of Babylon, built on the plains of Dura an idol of gold, ninety feet high and nine feet wide, so that all the people would worship him, as he commanded. The question the exiled Jews asked themselves was, "How can we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?" Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego wished to be thermostats for those captive and in exile in Babylon. Instead of going along with the King, they refused to worship any God but their own. Even to the King's face they said, "We will not worship you!" In a fit of anger, Nebuchadnezzar said, "Then I will throw you into the fiery furnace." He ordered it heated seven times as hot as usual. I love what they said in response to his efforts to get them to go along with his Babylonian order: "God, whom we serve, is able to rescue us; and He will deliver us out of your hand. But even if He does not, we will not worship you."

I love that statement of faith by Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego! "God is able to deliver us…. But even if He does not, we will not worship you." Central to their identities was the worship of the God of Israel. And nothing, no pressure, no threats, no earthly power, could make them compromise or cave in to the Babylonians.

Thrown into the furnace, the King looked in to see and he beheld the three men, not harmed at all by the fire, and he also saw a fourth, perhaps the very presence of God.

Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were not thermometers. They were thermostats. They made a difference through their convictions. They changed the culture around them and witnessed to the other Jews in exile that nothing could compromise. In a very real sense, it was the faith of the exiles that formed and shaped the Judaism we know today. Israel's faith was largely forged and refined by people like Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego during the exile and Babylonian captivity.

In the same way, America was forged and refined by the commitments of our early revolutionary founders. This weekend we celebrate the founding of our nation, marked by the signing of the Declaration of Independence on or around July 4, 1776, two hundred and thirty-five years ago. These people were not thermometers, merely reflecting the temperature of the colonial culture of early America under British domination and control. No! They were thermostats! They were committed to forging a new nation, "conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."

The fifty-six signers of the Declaration of Independence, stated in the last line of the Declaration, that they "pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor." George Washington was not present to sign the Declaration since he was not a member of the Continental Congress, but he left Mount Vernon in the summer of 1776 and would not return home for over seven years. He knew that if he failed in the war for independence, it would cost him his land, his wealth and his life. But he went to Philadelphia anyway, and agreed to head the army, believing he could create a brave new world.

Of the fifty-six signers of the Declaration of Independence, two would become presidents: John Adams, the second President, and Thomas Jefferson, the third President. Five signers would be captured by the British, tortured and killed as traitors. Twelve had their homes ransacked and burned. Two lost sons serving in Washington's Continental Army. Two others had sons who were captured by the British. Nine of the fifty-six died from wounds or hardships that were a direct result of the war.

Carter Braxton, a wealthy Virginia planter, lost his wealth, his home and property and died in rags. Thomas McKean moved repeatedly to flee the British who pursued him. He lost his possessions and died in poverty. Vandals and soldiers looted the properties of William Floyd, Lyman Hall, George Clymer, George Walton, Button Gwinnett, Thomas Heyward, Edward Rutledge and Arthur Middleton. They all lost their fortunes. 

Perhaps my favorite is Thomas Nelson, Jr. At the Battle of Yorktown, he noted that Cornwallis had taken over his home as his headquarters. Quietly he urged Washington to open fire. The home was destroyed and Nelson died bankrupt. Francis Lewis lost not only his home but his wife was jailed by the British. She died there a few months later.

The freedom we celebrate today and this weekend was hardly free. It was bought for us at great price. None of these men were simply thermometers, merely reflecting the cultural milieu that existed. No, they each were thermostats! They were out to change the world, to engage in what Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville would call, "The American Experiment." They gave "their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor" to these principles embedded in the Declaration of Independence, which in many ways was a document influenced by not just John Locke, but also the Bible: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

These were not simply lofty ideals. They were principles that men gave their lives to secure. And at the heart of this vision is the conviction that the Creator God has endowed everyone with dignity that is God-given, and has called all people to freedom. Remember the conclusion of de Tocqueville in the 1830's when he came to America to discover the source of America's vitality and strength? He came to look for America's greatness and concluded that he did not find it until he visited her churches and synagogues. "America is great," he wrote, "because America is good. And if America ever ceases to be good, she shall cease to be great."

I find these words at once inspiring and chilling. They inspire me because I believe they are true. They frighten me because I think we are tempted to trust in our wealth, our power and our might, rather than God and the good to which God calls us. God is calling us to be thermostats, not thermometers. We will not serve this country by simply going along with the prevailing cultural winds of the day. America needs its people to care about goodness and to live their lives in such a way that can change the moral and spiritual climate of our land. We need to be a people committed once again to make this a land where there is "liberty and justice" not just for some, but for "all."

In 1863, Abraham Lincoln spoke from the pulpit of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, a church he supported with his pew rent and where he worshipped as President: "We have grown in numbers, wealth and power, as no other nation as ever grown. But we have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace, and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us; and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us. It behooves us then, to humble ourselves before the offended Power, to confess our national sins, and to pray for clemency and forgiveness."

If that was true in 1863, it is still true today. Let's not simply be thermometers. Let's be thermostats and pay the price freedom always demands.

AMEN.
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