Scripture: Deuteronomy 30:11-20
Richard Nixon is remembered by history for a lot of dubious reasons. Even though corruption largely stains his presidential legacy, Nixon does hold a notable first among U.S. Presidents. He was the first president to close an address to the American people with the phrase “God Bless America.” While neither Ford nor Carter picked up on this trend, President Regan did and every President since then has regularly closed addresses with some variation of the phrase. Given how commonly the phrase is used now, I was surprised at how recently it entered the political lexicon. Actually as I dug back a little more, I was surprised in general how recent the phrase is in general, because “God Bless America” is not a common notion that traces back the founding fathers. The first recorded instance of the phrase in printed media comes from the New York Times in 1885, while reporting on the remarks of an actor visitor from England who uttered the statement. The song, which has become a patriotic stable, also is fairly recent. It was not first recorded until 1938, and it rose to prominence during World War II. All put together this means the idea of asking God to bless America, is really a phenomena of the 20th century.
It is a phrase that we are all familiar with, and it is a sentiment that many of us probably agree. After all God blessing America seems like a really good thing, right? However, I have to wonder what does it actually mean? When a president, or anyone for that matter, says God Bless America, just what are they asking God to do? Is God’s blessing reflected in national GDP? Is God’s blessing for the country something tangible that can be measured or is it more of a nebulous idea of general peace and prosperity?
Since today is Independence Day, the day we celebrate the best ideal that our county is to represent, it is a day we will likely hear the phrase “God bless America”. Again, many of us might even feel that it is an appropriate prayer for the day and that is fine. However, if our prayer is indeed that God bless the United States of America, then we should be able to define what exactly we mean by that. Furthermore, we should ensure that our idea of blessing lines up with God’s idea of blessing. “God Bless America” is a sentiment that is deeply rooted in the 20th and now 21st century. However, this morning’s scripture gives us perhaps the best understanding of what it means for God to bless a nation. It is not an exact match, because nation states as we understand them today was not really a concept that existed in the late bronze age. However, in this morning’s scripture God speak through Moses to offer the Israelites as a people a way of blessing. As we consider what this morning’s scripture communicates, I think what we discover is to fully live into God’s blessings we have to be a blessing to others.
This morning’s scripture comes from the end of Deuteronomy. The Israelites are on the cusp of ending their wanderings in the desert and entering the land promised by God, a land flowing with milk and honey, a land that is destined to be theirs. Moses knows that he is not to enter the land with the people, so he brings all of the Israelites together for a final assembly before they enter the promise land. During this time, they renew the covenant to be God’s people, the read the law given by God, and we get this scripture where the practical nature of honoring God and following the law is put forth as a simple choice: A way of blessing and life or a way of curses and death. The difference between these two ways is simple. Verse 16 spells out the way of blessing and life: “For I command you today to love the LORD your God, to walk in obedience to him, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws an the Lord your God will bless you.” We have in this scripture, God telling the Israelites as a people group, the closest thing to a nation in antiquity, how they can be blessed. So as we consider what it means to ask for God’s blessing, there are three aspects this particular scripture brings up.
First, we have to define what exactly is meant by the world bless. The word bless or blessing shows up all over the bible. However, there are a couple of different words in Hebrew or Greek that get translated as blessed and they have a few different meanings. First, blessed can be used a way to honor someone. Scripturally to say someone is blessed can be used to say they are special and worthy of honor. Essentially it is a holier way to say “You are awesome!” The second way bless or blessing gets used is that it can be used to convey God’s specific favor. For instance, when Mary is called blessed among women it is because she has the very specific favor from God as giving birth to God’s son. The final understanding of blessing can is that being blessed is living a fortunate or happy life. That is the idea of blessing that is being conveyed in this morning’s scripture, and that is probably the idea of blessing that we have in mind when we say God bless America. The other two aspects from this scripture really point to how we find that definition of blessing.
The second aspect for us to consider is that in the scripture, the way of blessing is already there. It is defined by obedience to God and keeping God’s command. God’s blessing on the people of Israel is not from the top down. The way of blessing was already laid out, and they simply had to follow it. Of course, you have read much of the bible, especially the Old Testament, the Israelites did not do such a great job at that. God told them exactly how as a nation to be blessed, but generation after generation they turn against God, they did not keep God’s commands, or walk in obedience to God. By the New Testament era the Jews were doing better, but were still kind of missing the point. Jesus’s greatest critique of the Pharisees is that they were keeping the letter of the law, while ignoring the heart of it. They were like a cup that had a clean and polished outside while the inside was still filthy. They had taken this way of blessing and made it transactional. They had taken what is laid out in this scripture and transformed it into if we do exactly what is written then we will earn God’s blessing. Obedience to God is not about earning God’s blessing, a blessed life is the natural result of obedience. A way of blessing is not about following the letter of the law it is about living out the heart of the law. The law is a set of best practices to live at peace with one another and with God, and doing that will lead to a blessed life, a life that is marked by happiness and favor.
So God’s blessing is less about asking God for prosperity it is about obediently following the path that God has already laid out. We can look elsewhere in scripture to get a good idea of what it means to obediently follow God and simply stated what the way of blessing is. Through the prophet Micah God defined obedience to God as “act justly, and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” This morning’s scripture states that the way of blessing is following God’s commands and laws, but then Jesus himself states that all of the law can be summed up in two commands: Love God with all of being and love our neighbors as ourselves. The law found in the Old Testament gives detailed ways to do that, but it is not about the letter it is about the heart- it is about our hearts. We should not seek obedience to God as a means of being blessed. We should seek obedience to God, because God is good, because God is loving, and because God’s love has changed our lives for the best. When we obediently love God with humility and when we treat others in a way that prioritizes justice and mercy then we have found the way of blessing.
Simply doing these things will lead to us living a blessed life. When we prioritize loving God and building that relationship with our creator, then we are quicker to see God’s love, God’s provision and God’s work all around us. We begin to realize just how blessed we are because God’s goodness is already there. When we prioritize loving others and putting them first, we find that we live at peace with other people. We find that life stops being a competition of who is getting more than we are and we begin to value the sacred worth that all people have has God’s beloved creations. Living in this way does not earn us God’s blessing, but it leads us to discover what a blessed life truly looks like: A life defined by joy, peace, love, faithfulness, and hope.
The final aspect that we have to consider in this morning’s scripture is that what it presents is the way of blessing is a choice. The Israelites were given a way to live their best life or not. Verse 11 even states that the choice is not too difficult or beyond their reach. The way of blessing and life was before them to choose to follow it or not. This is still relevant today. If we truly want God to bless America, then it begins with a choice. The way of blessing and life is still open and we find it when we seek to humbly walk with God and put others first. As a country we will find this way of blessing when we stop being obsessed with being #1 and we pour our energy into humbly acknowledging the God who created us, created everyone else too. We will find this way of blessing when collectively are most pressing question stops being “what about the economy” and it becomes “what about the least of these.” We will find this way of blessing when we truly value all of neighbors, especially the ones who look different and think differently than we do. We cannot compel everyone to love others selflessly and walk humbly with God. We cannot will a nation to walk the way of blessing and life, but we most certainly can. We can radically love others through our actions, our advocacy, and our attitudes. In doing so we can walk the way of blessing in our own lives, and we can invite others to do the same.
In the same way, remember one of the other meanings of bless is an honorific, as a way to declare the awesomeness of someone. When we are obedient to God, when we act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God then we bless God. Our lives declare that God is worth following, that God is awesome, and that God is blessed. So perhaps our prayer on days like today should not be God bless America, because God already has. It is our choice to follow that way of blessing or not. Perhaps our prayer should be that God will change the hearts and minds of this nation, Our prayer should be that the Holy Spirit would work through the people of God across this country so that all of our fellow Americans would know they are valued by the God that created them. Our prayer should be that the disciples are made and the world is transformed into a more kind and loving place so that America blesses God. As Christians who are fortunate enough to be citizens of the United States of America, perhaps that should be our prayer for the land that we love.