It is unlikely that John Winthrop intended his now famous reference to Jesus' parable of a city set on a hill link to be understood as it now is. It was not an expression of what we now call American exceptionalism. It was a call to a small band of Christian men and women who had traversed the sea from England to America to fulfill God's call upon them, to walk the walk and not merely talk the talk of Christian faith. I do not criticize Winthrop. But I do find the permutation of this idea in later Christian circles - and often in political circles - to be a failed vision and for those of us who, being Christians, should know better, a failure to understand deeply the message of Scripture.
Shall we - by which I now mean the United States of America - be the embodiment of the Christian principles and culture of 1630 Massachusetts Bay Colony? Some Christians think so. And knowing that America in 2010 is culturally far from the Puritan colony of 1630, they attempt by means that are more the means of the world than the means of God to repaint America in the colors of that long ago ideal.
It cannot and will not be done.
In fact, that ideal to which many Christians aspire was a very brief moment in our history. And even at its zenith in that first generation there was a dark side that became evident in the colonists' relationships with the Indians and then with other Christians who just did not fit in. Roger Williams was one example.
Finally, the Puritan dream faded when the next generation did not personally hold the faith of their fathers. Faded? No. More like morphed into a political rather than a spiritual dream.
It is that ideal, now politically driven, that we see promoted by the conservative right today. (The liberal left has spun its own version of the city-set-on-a-hill ideal through the rhetoric of John Kennedy, John Kerry, and Bill Clinton. It is equally misguided.)
Whether conservative or liberal, they are both a distortion of Winthrop's hope. His hope was that through people whose hearts have been changed by God and whose lives reflect the character of God now alive in them the culture of Massachusetts Bay Colony would be a living demonstration of God's goodness ATTRACTING PEOPLE TO HIM.
Note that the genius was God dwelling among us. In Winthrop's words: "the Lord will be our God and delight to dwell among us, as his owne people and will commaund a blessing upon us in all our wayes, soe that wee shall see much more of his wisdome power goodnes and truthe then formerly wee have beene acquainted with."
We have sought today to enjoy the community of which Winthrop spoke apart from the unity of the Spirit that was its foundation. We have sought to legislate it or to wrest our culture from decline by good deeds, hoping that good-will will become contagious or that we would create an social environment in which goodness naturally finds root and grows. Those are all false hopes.
Let's be biblical. God promises no reign of goodness apart from repentance, reconciliation with him, and transformation from within as his Spirit dwells within us. Anything other than that is the whitewashing of sepulchers.
As for our nation or any other in history, it is at best a momentary thing. No earthly kingdom or nation is God's nation - except Israel, and they await the revival of the last days. No nation shall endure but God's eternal kingdom.
So church, we must repent, turn from the ways of the world, no matter how wise they sound, and pray that God will so transform us that we individually and collectively as believers would be the "city set on a hill" of which Jesus spoke, a light in a dark world and the salt that preserves it until Jesus returns to set up his eternal kingdom.
In the words of a wise old country western gospel song, "This world is not my home, I'm just a passing through," only eternity really matters. Let's not think that we can transform our world or that this is our mandate. Let's stay with our calling of introducing people to the transforming God.