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Prof explores what it means to say, ‘God Bless America’

NEW ORLEANS (BP)–Since Sept. 11’s terrorist attacks, the words “God Bless America” can be seen and heard everywhere. In the halls of Congress and in the Oval Office, in public buildings and in houses of worship, it seems that Americans are seeking action from God.

“We can’t escape it, we don’t want to escape it,” Jim Shaddix reflected during a New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary chapel service. “It’s been fresh, it’s been invigorating.”

Shaddix, dean of the chapel and associate professor of preaching at NOBTS, noted that even those who have been opposed to prayer in school and mention of God in culture are being forced to respond to the God Bless America “heart cry.”

“It has caused me to wonder, what it is we are really asking?” Shaddix said. “What is it we are really asking God to do?”

The plea for God’s blessing is not only coming from America, he noted. Reading a statement from Osama bin Laden released after the attack, Shaddix illustrated how the terrorists as well as the terrorized are seeking God’s blessing for their cause. Each group wants God to change their situation.

“Can we really know what it’s going to take for God to bless America?” Shaddix asked during his Oct. 10 message. “Everybody is asking and expecting God to bless their particular side. It raises the question, is there a word from God in which he tells us, ‘Here is where my blessings lie’?”

Drawing from Matthew 5:1-10, Shaddix pointed to the Beatitudes in answering the question. In this familiar passage of Scripture, which introduces the “Sermon on the Mount,” Jesus gives insight into the nature of the blessing of God.

“The blessing of God begins with an admission of spiritual bankruptcy, not an alteration of physical circumstances,” Shaddix stated. “I’m very concerned, in our day and time, that the echo of ‘God Bless America’ from our lips is really a heart cry for God to intervene in our physical circumstances.”

Things have not changed all that much since the days Jesus walked on this earth, Shaddix continued. After Jesus had healed many of the sick and hurting in Galilee, great multitudes began to follow him. Shaddix pointed out that the people following Jesus were primarily seeking a change in their physical circumstances. It was in this context that Jesus pulled aside his disciples to teach them about the true nature of God’s blessing. The message that Jesus delivered on that day is one that Americans need to hear and heed in these trying times, Shaddix said.

“What God desires for your life is not merely the altering of your physical circumstances, but it is to do something spiritual in your heart,” Shaddix said.

“Does he tell us what that is? I think he does.”

Jesus gives an indication of what he desires to do in the hearts of his followers in the first Beatitude — “blessed are the poor in spirit.” The word used for “poor” in this passage carries the meaning of absolute poverty, Shaddix said, noting that the blessing of God begins when people “realize they have absolutely no resources to offer God, that is the beginning point according to Jesus Christ.”

God desires to hear people cry out for him out of spiritual bankruptcy not out of the hope for change of temporal, physical circumstances, Shaddix said. This utter poverty of spirit and realization of sinful helplessness is the point at which people come to cry out for the grace of God and his salvation, and it is where the blessing of God begins, he asserted.

“The agenda of God is much bigger than this country. It is much bigger than the war on terrorism. It is a spiritual agenda,” Shaddix said. “That must always be at the forefront of our preaching, our teaching and our counseling as we give guidance to people in these difficult times.”

Secondly, the blessing of God is neither random nor indiscriminate, Shaddix said, explaining that the blessing comes as the Christian progresses toward maturity. He noted that the Beatitude text progresses in two dimensions. The first is vertical (in relationship with God) and second is horizontal (in relationship with others). Shaddix noted that when Jesus was asked about the most important commandments he echoed this two-dimensional relationship. He said that the greatest command is to love God above all and the second is to love neighbor above self.

“We need to understand that God doesn’t just throw his blessing out there and say, ‘Hey, anybody and everybody, live like you want to and I’ll bless you,” Shaddix said.

“We’ve got to understand this in America today. We’ve got to understand this in our churches today, that the blessing of God is directed and poured out primarily within the confines of kingdom citizenship.”

The last beatitude illustrates that the blessing of God is realized in the celebration of persecution, rather than in the elimination of persecution, Shaddix said. Many Americans are crying out to God to “end the persecution.” But in verse 10, Jesus explains that the pinnacle of the blessing of God is found in persecution for righteousness’ sake.

“Do you realize that we have not been attacked in America because of righteousness?” Shaddix noted. “For whatever [reason] it is, it is not because we are a righteous nation.”

If Americans and American Christians are only seeking the face of God to end terrorism, they are not truly seeking the blessing of God, he explained. God’s blessing is much deeper than the physical; it comes through righteous, radical missions and evangelism, he said. This type of witness by the church will lead to the persecution Jesus spoke of in verse 10 — persecution for the sake of righteousness.

“We need to ask ourselves, ‘Are we ready for the blessing of God?'” Shaddix said.

“When you are persecuted because of the bold stance for Christ, rejoice in it because you are in good company, celebrate because therein is the blessing of God,” he concluded.
To view this chapel service, in addition to the various chapel services throughout the year, visit NOBTS’ website at www.nobts.edu/chapel.