Joshua 5:13-15 

Today, February 12, is Abraham Lincoln’s birthday.  Although the President’s Day holiday is next Monday, today is the actual anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth.  Most Americans regard Abraham Lincoln as one of our greatest presidents.  He issued the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing the slaves.  He preserved the Union, even at the cost of a terrible Civil War.  He called our country back to the great principles on which this nation was founded:  “conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”  Abraham Lincoln was more than a political leader; he was almost a spiritual leader.  His speeches were laced with biblical quotations.  He knew the Bible as well as any President, with the possible exception of Jimmy Carter.  Lincoln’s reputation for honesty and integrity was legendary. He was known for his compassionate and magnanimous spirit, his concern for the poor and downtrodden, and his willingness to forgive his enemies.  How ironic then, that Abraham Lincoln was the only President of the United States who never joined a church. 

Perhaps you remember his humble background.  He was born to a poor dirt-farming family in the backwoods of Kentucky.  His parents had limited formal education, though they were devout religious folk, adherents of the hard-shell Primitive Baptists.  The family owned few books, but they did have a Bible, which young Abe read with great care.  He was largely self-taught, receiving only a few winters of formal schooling.  But the Bible had a major influence on his life.  Later in his childhood after his family had moved to Indiana, his father and stepmother joined the slightly more moderate Separate Baptists.  Abe was not keen on the rigidity of the Baptist religion of the time, and he was skeptical about the competing truth claims of the various Christian denominations.  As a young man in Illinois, Lincoln could not go along with the excessive emotionalism in the camp meetings of the traveling evangelists, and he was disillusioned by the doctrinal disputes that divided various churches from one another. 

Because his parents were Baptists, Abraham Lincoln had not been baptized as an infant.  Baptists do not baptize babies.  In the Baptist church, only persons who are old enough to accept Jesus as their personal Savior and Lord, and who make a voluntary decision to become a Christian, are baptized.  Had Abraham Lincoln’s parents been Methodists or Presbyterians or Episcopalians or Lutherans or Catholics or some other denomination, he might very well have been baptized as an infant, and might even have become a church member through some kind of confirmation process.  But in the Baptist church, persons become church members only through their personal decision to accept Christ and be baptized.  Apparently Lincoln never made such a public commitment. 

Because Baptists believe in religious freedom, and only voluntary religious commitment, there is always the chance that some persons, even some who grow up in the church, will not decide to be baptized and join the church.  Over the years there have a few young people who came to this church who never came forward to be baptized.  Despite the best efforts of Sunday School teachers and my own discipleship classes for youth, some never made a public commitment for Christ.  That’s the risk of our church membership system.   We believe that accepting Christ must be a purely personal and voluntary decision.  Persons should not join a church simply because they are expected to do so.  Faith must be personal or voluntary, or it is not faith at all.  In the case of some of those individuals, they probably do believe in Jesus, but they never followed through by making a public commitment and being baptized.  I certainly haven’t given up on them, and I pray that some day they will make a public commitment to be baptized and join this church, or another church.  But that is their choice to make.        

It would have been politically expedient for Abraham Lincoln to have been a church member.  In 1846, when he ran for Congress, his opponent was a circuit-riding Methodist preacher named Peter Cartwright.  Cartwright was well-known throughout Illinois.  It is estimated that during his career as a circuit-riding preacher he preached over 15,000 sermons and baptized nearly 10,000 converts.  Some of Cartwright’s supporters spread rumors that Lincoln was an “infidel.”  They said Lincoln mocked Christianity and disdained people of faith.  Such charges could have doomed Lincoln’s political career, if left unanswered.  Lincoln published a treatise to quiet the criticism.  In it he wrote, “That I am not a member of any Christian Church, is true; but I have never denied the truth of the Scriptures; and I have never spoken with intentional disrespect of religion in general, or of any denomination of Christians, in particular.”  While defending himself against the false charge of hostility toward religion, Lincoln refused to declare exactly what he did believe, keeping his own religious convictions to himself. 

In 1850, after the death of their 4-year-old son, Edward, Mary Lincoln joined the Presbyterian Church, and Abraham regularly attended Presbyterian churches in Illinois and in Washington, although he never became a member.  Lincoln had many theological discussions with a Springfield pastor named, James Smith, who later recalled that unlike most skeptics, Lincoln was “a constant reader of the Bible.”  After Lincoln was elected President, he regularly attended the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in the District.  A second son, Willy, died in 1862, and his wife Mary said that experience seemed to drive Abraham closer to God; that, and the crushing burdens of the Civil War. 

The Civil War prompted many Americans to question the purposes of God.  Both preachers in the North and preachers in the South claimed that God was on their side.  In his Second Inaugural Address, Lincoln acknowledged the contradiction when he said: 

            Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes
            His aid against the other. 

            The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been
            answered fully.  The Almighty has his own purposes.

Lincoln concluded his address with these words:

            Fondly do we hope—fervently do we pray—that this mighty scourge of war
            may speedily pass away.  Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth
            piled by the bondman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be
            sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another
            drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so till it must said,
            ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’

The Civil War was not yet over when Lincoln delivered these words, but the end was in sight.  Yet, instead of proclaiming victory, and God’s vindication of the North, Lincoln spoke of loss and guilt and sin.  Rather than blaming only the South, he blamed both sides for imagining that such a war would be quick or easy.  Indeed, he viewed the Civil War as God’s punishment for the evil of slavery.  The War had wreaked a terrible toll.  It was far more bitter and protracted than anyone could have predicted.  For four long years brother had killed brother.  More than 600,000 lives had been lost in savage bloodshed.  

When a minister from the North told the President that he hoped “the Lord is on our side,” Lincoln responded, “I am not at all concerned about that…But it is my constant anxiety and prayer that I and this nation should be on the Lord’s side.”

In the scripture that we read this morning, Joshua and the Israelites had crossed the Jordan River and were preparing to begin their warfare against the people of Canaan.  Naturally, Joshua assumed that the Lord was on their side.  After all, God had delivered the Israelites out of bondage in Egypt.  The Lord had led them through the wilderness, and now they were on the threshold of the Promised Land.  How could God not be on their side?  But just before the siege of Jericho, Joshua saw a man standing before him, with a drawn sword in his hand.  Joshua asked, “Are you one of us, or one of our enemies?”  The man replied, “Neither.  I have come as commander of the army of the Lord.”

Joshua had assumed that the Lord would be with them in all their battles, but this angel of the Lord had come to remind Joshua that God doesn’t choose sides.  Rather, it is up to us to choose sides.  It is up to us to choose to be on the Lord’s side.  There would be times in fact when the Lord would be the adversary of Israel, when the Israelites strayed from the Lord’s way.  It is a dangerous thing for any nation, or any people, or any political party, or any church, to assume that the Lord is on our side.

Earlier this month the annual National Prayer Breakfast was held at the Hilton Washington Hotel.  The guest speakers for the prayer breakfast were King Abdullah II of Jordan, President George W. Bush, and surprisingly, Bono, the leader singer and songwriter of the Irish rock band, U2.  Bono admitted the incongruity of a rock star addressing the President of the United States and other international leaders.  But Bono was recently named, along with Bill and Melinda Gates, Time magazine’s “Persons of the Year.”  The Gates and Bono were honored for their efforts to combat AIDs, and alleviate poverty, and reduce debt, particularly in Africa and other impoverished parts of the world.  In addition to being a member of one of the most popular rock bands in history, Bono has become an outspoken advocate for human rights.  It is no coincidence that Bono and two other members of U2 are professing Christians.  Indeed, their social consciousness is a direct result of their Christian faith.

In his speech Bono said he had been raised in an interfaith family—his father was Protestant, and his mother was Catholic.  Growing up in Ireland, he was intensely aware of the dangers of any group claiming that “the Lord is on our side.”  

In his speech Bono challenged the President and the leaders of the U.S. Congress to do more to alleviate the suffering of the poorest peoples of the world.  He noted how many Christians in America are extremely generous, even tithing a tenth of their income to the Lord’s work.  Then he noticed that the United States government gives less than 1% of its budget to the poorest people of the world.  He challenged the President and the Congress and the American people to give an additional 1% of the federal budget to aid for Africa.  He spoke of such generosity as becoming a part of God’s ongoing purposes in the world.

Bono said that a number of years ago a wise man changed his life.  Bono was always seeking the Lord’s blessing.  As a Christian, Bono was always saying to God, “I have a new song, look after it; I have a family, please look after them; and so on.”  Bono was always asking God to bless his life and his endeavors.  And this wise man said to Bono, “Stop.  Stop asking God to bless what you are doing.  Get involved with what God is doing—because it’s already blessed.”  Bono said to the prayer breakfast, “Well, God is with the poor.  That, I believe, is what God is doing.  And that is what he’s calling us to do.”

Stop asking God to bless what you are doing.  Get involved with what God is doing—because it’s already blessed.  

You see, we have it backwards.  The question is not, “Is the Lord on our side?”  The question is, “Are we on the Lord’s side?  Am I on the Lord’s side?  Is my life involved in what God is doing in the world?”

Maybe Abraham Lincoln never joined a church because he had trouble finding one that was on the Lord’s side.  Certainly no church is perfect; but when people of faith earnestly seek to discern what God is doing in the world and to become a part of it, the church comes nearer to the Kingdom.  Why should anyone join a church?  It’s a way of showing whose side you are on. 

There’s an old hymn by Frances Havergal that goes:

Who is on the Lord’s side? Who will serve the King?
Who will be His helpers, other lives to bring?
Who will leave the world’s side? Who will face the foe?
Who is on the Lord’s side? Who for Him will go?
By Thy call of mercy, by Thy grace divine,
We are on the Lord’s side—Savior, we are Thine!

Bruce Salmon, Pastor, Village Baptist Church, Bowie, Maryland
February 12, 2006

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