Last Tuesday my son and I went out to the front of our home to hang up our brand-new American flag. I have learned over the years that if you are not going to take down your flag every night, then you better not buy a cheap one. Our last one finally needed to be retired so I invested in a beautiful new one. It is one where the red and white stripes are not simply printed fabric, but separate pieces sown together. The white stars on the blue field are embroidered and stand out proudly. As Titus helped me get the right height for the new bracket installation, I could not help but think back to the summers my older brother and I would spend down at my grandparent’s home. In front of their house was a tall flagpole with a large flag flying from it. It was not lit at night, so at an early age we learned to take down and carefully fold the flag every evening and, in the morning, we would usually race out to raise the colors proudly back up. There was routine and ritual involved in it. With those movements came a deep love for the red, white, and blue and the independence it stood for.
The patriotism of my parents and grandparents has certainly left its mark on me. It undoubtedly began in our home, but it was nurtured and really blossomed through my years in the Boy Scouts of America. There the flag was not simply something which hung in the corner of a classroom but was a regular feature of our time together. The flag was a symbol that helped shaped the aspirations of young men. It was a standard we could rally around. Our identity, our understanding of our place in this world was shaped in part by our country and that was nothing to be ashamed of. As Lee Greenwood famously sang, “I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free. And I won’t forget the men who died, who gave that right to me. And I’d gladly stand up next to you and defend her still today. ‘Cause there ain’t no doubt I love this land! God bless the U.S.A.”
The blessings of God were evident everywhere I looked. Most of them were so commonplace, I simply took them for granted. Our freedom of speech and the press, the free exercise of religion, the right to assemble and petition the government for redress of grievances were the norm. I simply assumed this was the standard for all people. So, I will never forget the events of September 11th, 2001, when other ideologies came crashing into our world. Again, my patriotism was inflamed. To this day when I go to a ballgame, and everyone stands for the national anthem, I get choked up. I recall the great strength and solidarity of our nation in those post 9-11 days. Even as I began to travel more and more, as I went to other countries and experienced other cultures for a brief time, I was still happy to come home. What a vast, beautiful, liberty loving place to call home.
In Mark chapter 6, we read about our Lord as He returns home. The Greek word that is translated in the text as “hometown” is the word patris, which means one’s fatherland or native country. You can hear in there the roots of our English word patriot. Jesus goes to His fatherland. He goes to Nazareth. On the Sabbath, He enters the synagogue in His hometown and begins to teach. The reception He receives, to begin with, is quite good. They are fascinated by Him. They marvel at His words and the mighty things He can do. You can easily imagine how, for a moment, they are overjoyed at His coming home, for this One is doing the things Messiah would do. He is a powerful teacher and healer, and He is right here in Nazareth, a hometown hero. But then things shift. What begins as wonder and awe devolves into skepticism and offence. “Wait a minute,” they say, “Isn’t this the carpenter, the son of Mary?” They feel duped. He is not what they wanted or what they had hoped for.
“A prophet is not without honor, except in his hometown and among his relatives and in his own household.” Jesus marvels at the unbelief of His fatherland. He came home but they rejected Him. They did not want this sort of savior. They did not want this type of Christ. Now, I do not know exactly what they were hoping for, but the son of Mary is not what they desired. Perhaps they wanted something more royal, more spectacular, more awe inspiring. If this was the coming of the Kingdom of God, where was the might and glory? It sounds as if they did not want something this familiar. They had their own ideas of how this ought to work and how it all should play out and this Jesus of Nazareth was not the guy they wanted.
Fatherland unbelief is not that uncommon though. In fact, I think it is the usual state of things. For no matter what sort of “Jesus” you are hoping for, no matter what you think His Kingdom ought to be or how it ought to function, the reality is that kingdom is not the kingdom of this age. That promise is not the promise of your fatherland. One is temporal, self-serving, focused on issues of justice and equality and prosperity. The other is eternal, governed by mercy and love. The Kingdom of God will never be governed by the nations of our world, and when they cannot control it, when they cannot corral our Lord’s work or limit His promises, why, they will turn away. They will revel in their unbelief. There will always be a divide between the kingdoms, and every time we try to push the Kingdom of God into the kingdoms of this age, we will see how one will reject the other.
Today is the great celebration of the independence of our fatherland. Today we recall the many blessings of this great nation. We will barbeque and drink beer and light fireworks and bask in the beauty that is the great experiment of the United States of America. Today we will pray and give thanks to God for the abundant gifts He has poured out on this land. But today, let us be reminded that these blessings are temporal. This great land will have an end. For as much as we love the red, white, and blue, it is not the Kingdom of God. For just as Jesus was rejected in His fatherland, so He is rejected in ours. We see this rejection more and more. The illusion of a Christian nation has all but been completely removed from our sight. Our Lord is used more as a political tactic than as a savior to cling to.
But notice what our Lord does when He faces the rejection of His hometown. They cannot handle the coming of the Kingdom of God in Mary’s son, but that does not mean the Kingdom ceases to come. He goes on to other villages and towns. He goes on to work His miracles and teach the Word, to proclaim hope and life in His scandalous and unseemly Kingdom. But he does not simply contain that work to Himself. No, He sends out His disciples to also carry on this work. They go trusting in the Word they proclaim, no need for extra supplies, no need to worry about their prestige or glory and power, just go as He sends them to do the works of the Kingdom. And we are told they do just that. They go and cast out demons and heal the sick. The Kingdom of God does not need the blessing of our temporal kingdoms to accomplish its goals.
And all these years later, this Kingdom continues to go out. The blessings of our fatherland are rich soil to engage in the work of our Lord’s Kingdom. The freedoms we celebrate, the freedom of speech, the right to assemble, the free exercise of religion, these are powerful tools God wields to continue to launch His Kingdom into the hearts and minds of His people. What an incredible opportunity we have. We are citizens of a temporal kingdom which helps the preaching of a far greater Kingdom. Together, we make a stand upon the Word of God. Together, we make use of the riches of the United States of America and turn to our neighbor in love and compassion. Together, we not only say, “God Bless America,” but we say, “God bless you.” For you are loved. You are forgiven all your sins. And long after this age has come to an end, you will still be loved, for His Kingdom has no end.