One of my favorite record albums of all time is Bob Dylan’s “The Times, They Are a’Changin’”, which was released in 1964, in the middle of the Viet Nam war.
Among the prophetic protest songs on that album is one that’s particularly poignant and kind of hard for me to listen to.
And it’s supposed to be that way.
It’s called “With God on Our Side,” and, being that it’s a protest song, Dylan obviously is questioning that long-held belief that it’s OK to fight in wars and kill human beings as long as we believe that God is on our side.
At the end of one of many similar verses, Dylan sings:
“But I learned to accept it/
Accept it with pride/
For you don't count the dead/
When God's on your side.”
Now, I was brought up in a military family.
Every other uncle and cousin seemed to have served in every war from World War II to Viet Nam.
My own father was sent overseas in World War II in the Army infantry, and when he returned stateside, he immediately gained employment on the Air Force base in my hometown until his retirement 43 years later.
I grew up in a city where giant B-52 bombers, KC-135’s and the enormous Hercules jets flew 24 hours a day overhead doing touch-and-go maneuvers;
where Airmen and women lived, learned and prayed alongside of us;
and where every kid had at least one green nylon flight jacket, an old footlocker for a toy box and and endless supply of those black U.S. Government ballpoint pens in our pencil boxes for school.
I never knew there was another kind of pen even made.
We sang “Our Country Tis of Thee” every school-day morning, hands over our hearts.
And Francis Bellamy, who wrote the original version of “The Pledge of Allegiance,” is buried in my hometown.
I grew up believing that the United States was a blessed nation, and that we were the better than all other nations because God was on our side.
And I believed other nations, like the then-Soviet Union — our most staunch opponent and threat of my childhood — did not have God’s blessing.
As I grew up I — maybe a bit like Bob Dylan — began questioning whether God was truly on our side, like I had been raised to believe.
Because there were a lot of things wrong with the U.S.
We’re human. We make mistakes.
And we try to convince ourselves that we’re blessed, maybe even when we’re not acting like it.
A few moments ago, Michael Young came up here and read a very important essay he wrote about Memorial Day.
I am so thankful that he offered this to us today.
In the essay, Mike said “The American flag represents all that is good about America.”
Sure, some will be critical and say that it also represents all that is bad about America, too, sometimes.
But that’s not our intent. Mike is right: That flag should represent all that is good about America.
Because we should be a nation that strives to do good.
In other words, it should remind us that with the great power that we have, well, as the saying goes, we also have a great responsibility.
Sometimes we forget that.
We should always strive to honor those who helped bring light to our world, and we honor them not in our words, but in our actions.
But let’s face it: Again, we are humans living in a broken world.
But if we use that power responsibly, will God be on our side?
The Israelites were blessed by God.
A tiny nation with hardly any military might, nestled precariously among the super powers of the world as we knew it in ancient times.
And In Jesus’s day, their national identity was being diluted by the Roman Empire.
The borders of Israel would never grow, nor would its military prowess.
It’s economy was that of a vassal state to Rome, its autonomy reduced to reporting to Caesar.
We can look at Israel with our own American or even Western definition of “blessed” and say, well, no… the blessing was gone….
I mean, by our own definition of “blessed,” it must have been gone.
Or are we missing what the blessing was altogether?
Because from this little nation, a baby was born.
The baby grew to be a man.
And that man did nothing short of changing and saving the world.
In the Book of Acts, we see the disciples traveling throughout the world as they knew it — into Europe, the entire Mediterranean, the Middle East, into Asia and down into Africa to do what?
To spread the Gospel.
To spread the story and the Good News of Jesus Christ.
And that ministry today has not stopped.
God blesses the ministry of sharing and practicing the Gospel.
We could say God is on the side of those who share the Good News.
Is that to say God is against those who do not know the Good News?
God wants them to believe, too.
They are God’s children as well, and God wants them back.
At the height of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln was asked if God was on his side.
And he answered:
“…My concern is not whether God is on our side. But my greatest concern is to be on God’s side, for God is always right.”
Which means we’re not always right.
In our reading today in John 17, 1-11, this is Jesus’s final scene at the Last Supper.
This is what happened after Judas leaves the table, but before Jesus is arrested.
And while still at the table in the upper room, Jesus prays to God out loud.
And these 11 verses are part of that prayer.
But notice, all that is about to happen — Jesus is about to handed over and killed — and his concern is for the disciples.
He is praying for his friends.
He is praying for what we might call the Christian community.
After he tells God how he has followed everything God wanted him to do, Jesus, in Verse 9, asks God “I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours.”
What is Jesus asking God to do?
He’s asking God to help and protect the disciples.
Not only because Jesus loves them; but because they are being sent out to change the world with the Gospel.
Jesus is saying, “God, be on their side.”
It’s clear, Jesus isn’t asking for God to be on the world’s side, but on the disciples’ side.
Jesus left heaven and came to earth as a baby.
As a man, he followed God’s plan and commands.
Jesus revealed God to his disciples through himself.
And now the disciples will reveal God to the world through their testimony and with the power of the Holy Spirit.
Jesus is asking for God’s blessing on the disciples for Jesus’s mission that they will continue!
Jesus entrusts the Christian community to God’s care.
In other words, Jesus is asking that God be on the side of those who work and live for the community — the community of the Jesus Way — to change the world.
Remember: The Jews who believed in Christ as their savior, as the messiah, thought that Jesus was coming to save their country, not their souls.
To restore their nation to greatness.
To free itself of the Roman Empire’s control.
But God didn’t do any of that.
God didn’t give them military might,
God didn’t expand their borders,
God didn’t protect their national interests…
Jesus Messiah meant something else altogether.
They were being saved, yes, but saved for something so much bigger than their nation.
Saved for eternal life and the kingdom not just at the end of their lives, but the kingdom right now.
The peace, love, salvation and promise of Christ.
God isn’t concerned so much with being on a people’s side;
God is concerned with the people being on God’s side.
Israel was chosen to witness Jesus’s birth, ministry, death and resurrection.
Then to go out and spread the Gospel to all nations.
Again, Jesus is not asking for God to be on the side of Israel, but on the side of the Christian community working to spread the Good News.
Is that what we’re asking God’s blessing for?
Or are we asking for God’s blessing like the Jews did: For their nation?
They missed the point. And we will too if we’re not too careful.
I feel so blessed to be living in this nation.
I did nothing to deserve it. I was simply born here.
It seems so arbitrary that I was born here, and not in India or Russia or Mongolia.
My great-grandparents emigrated from Italy and Poland under great hardship and in difficult times to come here.
I did nothing.
And so I am thankful, and I do feel blessed.
The disciples probably felt very blessed to be called by Jesus as Jesus’s own and to be Jesus’s closest friends.
But Jesus prays for their safety and the strength of this new community.
He asks God to “…protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” Verse 11.
I think if Jesus was praying audibly to God in front of me, and he asked God to protect me, I might wonder why I need protection.
I might even worry about it.
I might think, “Why? What’s going to happen to me?”
And that’s a great example of the power we receive from Jesus’s blessing.
And, consequently, the responsibility that comes with that blessing.
We want God on our side, we sure do.
But it also costs us something; and that’s what Jesus shows us here.
It causes us act in Christ’s name.
Otherwise, the blessing sort of goes to waste.
We can receive a blessing for God’s protection, as Jesus asked for his disciples, but what would have happened if they did nothing to spread the Good News?
What would the blessing have done?
The blessing isn’t just so we can have a comfortable life.
That’s great, amen! I’m all for comfort…
But what’s the point?
We have gifts, talents, resources and wisdom as blessings in our lives.
What do we do with them?
Imagine the blessing of having an extraordinary artistic talent, like DiVinci, Monet or Picasso.
What a wonderful blessing that is, amen?
But what if they decided to never use that blessing, or to never share it?
Wouldn't that be a waste of the blessing?
The same goes for our nation.
What incredible gifts we have here.
Some of the greatest minds in the world.
Some of the greatest resources on the entire planet.
And the freedom we’ve worked hard and paid dearly to maintain.
But what if those great minds never invented anything, or they just used them for their own selves?
What if we left the resources untapped, or only used them to improve the lives of just a few people?
And what if that freedom didn’t do anything to help others enjoy a life as free as ours or escape religious or political persecution?
We might say, “What’s the point of the blessing?”
Are we really so blessed? Perhaps.
But we will never know it unless we do something with it.
The only way to know the blessing is there is to share it.
Mother Teresa once said “Let no one ever come to you without leaving better and happier.”
She wasn’t talking with wealthy Americans or Westerners.
It’s for anyone and everyone; It’s for individuals, and it’s for nations.
And it’s for all people of God who share God’s blessings.
We want God on our side.
And as Christians, we have that.
We have the Holy Spirit dwelling within us.
And for most of us, we barely tap into the Holy Spirit if we think about what Jesus says when he tells us we can have the kingdom here now in Verse 3.
Or when he tells us we can do greater things that he’s done in John 14.
Or that we can do all things through Christ who gives us strength, in Philippians 4.
But what good is it to know this and never do anything with it?
As a great nation, we can be the blessings for millions of others around the world.
But with all the Christians in the world, how come so few missionaries?
With all the churches in the world, why such little sharing of the Good News?
With all the blessings, why are so many people still suffering here and all around the world?
I don’t at all think it’s too idealistic to say that if we can share the Good News with more people — around the world, and right here in our own community — the world will be a much better place.
See, if we can share the blessing, we don’t have to worry about whose side God is on; because we’ll be on God’s side.
Then we don’t have to write protest songs, like Bob Dylan, that reveal to ourselves and others that one person’s blessing is not another person’s curse.
And instead, we are able to think more like Lincoln, trying to make sure we’re not trying to harness God onto our side, but we’re instead attracted to God because we want to be on God’s side.
And everyone else, too. Can you imagine that world?
To be one, as Jesus prays?
Pass It On
In the old campfire hymn, “Pass It On,” Kurt Kaiser sums up not that we have to pass on the blessing, but we should want to.
“I wish for you my friend
This happiness that I've found
You can depend on Him
It matters not where you're bound
I'll shout it from the mountain top
I want my world to know
The Lord of love has come to me
I want to pass it on.”
See, we can change the world if we want to.
We have the blessing to do just that.
The U.S. alone owns about 42 percent of all the world’s wealth.
With that abundance, with those gifts, with those blessings that we have right here:
We could end poverty;
We could end diseases such as malaria;
We could end sex-trafficking; and
We could end starvation.
We could do that, simply by recognizing that we are on God’s side.
Asking God to be on our side would be like asking God to condone our mistakes and our very brokenness in the world.
I don’t want that…
But God is perfect, and we will do no wrong if we’re truly on God’s side.