Greater distance in time between us and our heroes makes admiration easier. This is one reason why some Evangelical Christians stumble over Martin Luther King Day, but not over President’s day. King is too close, and his warts can still be seen at the distance of 33 years. But George Washington stands 201 years away from us and through the haze of time we do not see so clearly that his Anglican faith was largely a social convention; that he seems never to have taken communion.
John Adams, the second president was skeptical of traditional Christianity. Thomas Jefferson, the third president scoffed at the notion of the Trinity and the deity of Christ. And James Madison, the fourth president drifted toward the deism typical of men of his standing in Virginia in the early 1800’s. (Mark Noll, A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada, 133–135, 404). But from a distance we don’t feel the same indignation about the flaws of our heroes that we feel when they are so close that their sins feel threatening.
From a distance we can make distinctions. We can say: this was an admirable trait, but not that. This we will celebrate and that we will deplore. I suggest we do that with Martin Luther King. He was a sinner, as he well knew, especially when he was caught in some of his less than admirable behavior (Stephen Oates, Let the Trumpet Sound: The Life of Martin Luther King, Jr., 322). But he was probably more of a Christian than most of our Founding Fathers whom we memorialize.
A Greater Dream
I was seventeen when, on August 28, 1963, King stood before the Lincoln Memorial and said,
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. . . . I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
Martin Luther King articulated and symbolized a great dream — and it is not yet realized. What I want to do this morning is ratchet that dream up to a full-blown biblical vision of God’s purpose for the world, and then call us as a church to consciously be a part of it. The biblical vision is much bigger than how black and white people relate to each other.
“You can learn your reason for being by looking at the goal of God in Revelation.”
King knew that. It’s about people from every race and every language and every tribe uniting with a passion for the supremacy of God in all things. One of the ways to see the purposes of God that drive history is to look at the end of the history that God describes in Revelation. This is where he is taking history. This is what history is about. This is what Bethlehem is about and what Minneapolis is about and what the USA and all the nations of the world are about. You can learn your reason for being by looking at the goal of God in Revelation.
In Revelation 5:9, John tells us why Jesus is worthy to open the book of the end of history so that things unfold according to the plan of God. Jesus is worthy because of how his death relates to all the races and tribes of the earth:
Worthy are you to take the book and to break its seals; for you were slain, and purchased for God with your blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to our God; and they will reign upon the earth.
All Races United
The reason Jesus has the right to open the book of history is that by his death he ransomed people for God — for the glory of God and the worship of God — from every “tribe and tongue and people and nation.” So it was God’s design in the atonement — in the death of Jesus to ransom some from every kind of race and language and make them into one “kingdom.” They would all have one king. That is, they would all live with a passion for the supremacy of God in all things. That is what would unite them — the greatness and the supremacy of their one and only King.
And they will all be “priests” from all the races and nations and languages. That is, they will all be full-time worshippers. Jesus died to ransom subjects for the King and worshippers for the King from all the races and languages. You can see the vision fulfilled in verses 13–14:
And every created thing which is in heaven and on the earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all things in them, I heard saying, “To him who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb, be blessing and honor and glory and dominion forever and ever.” And the four living creatures kept saying, “Amen.” And the elders fell down and worshiped.
This is what all creation was designed for, and Revelation 5:9 says that the reason Christ died and is worthy to bring creation to this great climax is that he ransomed people from all the tribes and languages to praise God as priests and not as punished rebels in hell.
Now that is what history is about. That is what nations are about. That is what races are about. That is what languages are about. This is the meaning of all created things: all things exist by Christ and through Christ and for Christ (Colossians 1:16) — and for the Father who sits upon the throne: “From him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever” (Romans 11:36). That is the meaning of history, and the meaning of our nation and of your life — joyfully and savingly, or in the end, begrudgingly and without hope.
The death of Christ was designed by God to unite races in a passion for the supremacy of Christ and of God the Father. Christ died to ransom worshippers from every race and every language.
Now this has a huge implication for our mission as a church. For example, there are about 6,528 languages spoken in the world today (Ethnologue database, Dec. 1992). Besides these, there are tribal and ethnic divisions within languages. Christ died to ransom people from them all. That is why we are passionate about missions to unreached peoples at Bethlehem and have the 2000 by 2000 prayer goals.
United in Their Passion for the Supremacy of God
But another implication of the purpose of God in the death of Christ is that the redeemed who come from all the races be united in their passion for the supremacy of God. They are ransomed to be priests and to sing with all redeemed creation, “To him who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb, be blessing and honor and glory and dominion forever and ever.” That means black and white and brown and red and yellow and every shade in between.
It is inconceivable that we should believe that this is the goal of God in history and the aim of the death of his Son and not care about racial harmony now in this city and in this church. This is why the Mission Statement of our church (1996) includes “Values” like “Eager openness to new people and the avoidance of cliquishness” (p. 4b #2), and, “Determination to welcome people different from ourselves for the sake of Christ” (p. 6b #12), and, “Being more indigenous to the diversity of our metropolitan cultural setting, both urban and suburban.” (p. 6b #13). And it is why the Statement includes “Fresh Initiatives” like #3: “Against the rising spirit of indifference, alienation and hostility in our land, we will embrace the supremacy of God’s love to take new steps personally and corporately toward racial reconciliation, expressed visibly in our community and in our church.”
What have we done? Not enough. There is always more, and we have a long way to go. But I’ll mention a few:
Many in our church have chosen to live in racially diverse neighborhoods to say with their presence and interaction: “We want to break down the walls that build up with de facto segregation.”
Many are seeking personal friendships across racial and ethnic lines.
Corporately, we enjoy an ongoing relationship with Bethesda Baptist down the street and the Laotian Church of Peace and value the pastoral relations between us.
The international class and the ministry of Jim and Merry Backstrom in particular have brought an increasing international, multi-ethnic flavor to the congregation.
Efforts to befriend some of the newer ethnic groups, like the Somalis and Ethiopians have risen such as by teaching English.
Transracial adoption may prove to be one of the most significant long-term impulses of racial harmony and diversification among us.
And there are others as well (for example, cross-cultural apprentices from Cameroon, Myanmar, Northern Ireland), and, of course, the entire foreign mission enterprise which aims at bringing diverse peoples to King Jesus.
That’s a beginning. There is more that can be done. I call you to dream with us what that more should look like. We are much more interested in long-term relationships than in short-term events. It is relatively easy to have a big reconciliation event. It is harder to make a friend from another race and to simply enjoy hanging out together (as Tom Skinner taught us) or to join in a common vision together.
Why Did God Create Different Races and Languages?
But to spur you on to this vision that God has for a united passion for the supremacy of God in all things, let me refer to several reasons why this is the way God has designed history. Why is it that God ordained that there be different races and different languages? I have suggested at least four biblical reasons at the end of Let the Nations Be Glad. But let me just mention two or three here.
“God means for his praise to be great. And unity in diversity is greater than uniformity.”
There is a greater power and depth to the praise that comes to God from unity in diversity than simply from uniformity. Psalm 96:3 says, “Tell of his glory among the nations, his wonderful deeds among all the peoples.” Why? The next verses answers: “For great is the Lord and greatly to be praised.” In other words, the nations must be summoned to participate because the greatness of the praise depends on it. God means for his praise to be great. And unity in diversity is greater than uniformity.
The strength and wisdom and love of a leader is magnified in proportion to the diversity of people he can inspire to follow him with joy. In Romans 15:18 Paul says, “I will not presume to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me, resulting in the obedience of the [nations].” Christ is in the business of winning a following — winning obedient worshippers from diverse nations. If he can only win people from a few tribes and races, then his leadership will not look universally compelling. But if he wins followers from every tribe and tongue and people and nation, then the glory of his leadership will look more like the greatness that it really is.
By gathering his redeemed from all the races of the earth, God undercuts ethnocentric pride and throws us back on free grace where we give him all the glory instead of thinking that we are chosen because we are white or black or Asian or whatever. This is what Paul was stressing in Acts 17:26 when he preached to the proud Athenians. They boasted over other peoples that they were superior because they sprang from the Athenian soil without common ancestry with other peoples. So Paul said, “God made from one every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation.” In other words, you Athenians and the Barbarians and the Jews and the Romans all come by God’s design from the same origin.
The point of all this, on Martin Luther King weekend, is that his dream was a beautiful one. But it was a partial one. God has the ultimate dream, and the ultimate purpose for all the nations and all the races and all the languages. United in a passion for the supremacy of God in all things. That is our passion. And I call you to dream your own personal dream and corporate church dream, and a city-wide dream and finally a kingdom dream, and to pray and to act by God’s grace to make it a reality.