So far in this series, I’ve told you about the two of the most important documents in our nation, the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. One completely set our country free from Great Britain, the other was created to protect our individual freedoms. Today, I want to tell you about a third document that not only set the country in a better direction, but that gave freedom to some who should have had it in the first place according to our Declaration of Independence.
In the preamble to the Declaration of Independence, it says:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
It’s self-evident, obvious, undeniable that everyone would know that we are all created equal and that we are gifted by God our Creator with certain Rights. In other words, your individual rights came from God. We don’t have rights because the government gives us rights. We have rights because God gave us rights. But like many other times in history, man decided to create their own ‘rights’ and dishonor others.
Another document I’d like to tell you about today became one of the greatest documents of human freedom right here in the United States; the Emancipation Proclamation. The Emancipation Proclamation was a declaration and executive order issued by President Abraham Lincoln on January 1, 1863 during the Civil War. It changed the legal status under federal law of more than 3.5 million enslaved African Americans in the ten states that were rebelling against the United States from slave to free. As soon as a slave escaped the control of the Confederate government, either by running away across Union lines or through the help of federal troops, the slave was permanently free. No going back.
The remaining slaves were freed either by state action during the war or by the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution that was ratified in December 1865 after the war had ended.
Slavery was a key issue in the war, but so was states’ rights. In fact, that’s what started the war. When Abraham Lincoln became President, immediately four states broke off from the United States because they knew President Lincoln didn’t agree with rights they wanted to have. Three more followed shortly after.
The Southern states wanted to assert their authority over the federal government so they could abolish federal laws they didn’t support, especially laws interfering with the South’s right to keep slaves and take them wherever they wished, like to the western states.
So this Proclamation was a war tactic; it was issued under the President’s war powers, since he was the commander in chief of the armed forces. It was not a law passed by Congress, not yet anyways, not till after the war ended. All in all, the freedom of the slaves still hung on the Union winning the war. The Proclamation did not compensate the owners, did not outlaw slavery, and did not grant citizenship to the ex-slaves. But in addition to the goal of reuniting the Union, it became a strong war goal.
Although it was presented chiefly as a military measure, the proclamation marked a crucial shift in Lincoln’s goals on slavery. The Emancipation would redefine the Civil War, turning it from a struggle to preserve the Union to one focused on ending slavery, and set a decisive course for how the nation would be reshaped after that historic conflict.
Immediately when the Emancipation Proclamation was written, thousands of slaves in regions where the Union had already taken over, were free. And as the Union army took control of more Confederate regions, the Proclamation provided the legal freedom for about 3.5 million slaves.
As we know well – living so close to Gettysburg – there are many stories of amazing men and women, both white and black, from the Civil War era. One of those stories is about a slave who was among the FEW slaves set free when the war began, even before the Emancipation was written. His name was James Parks.
James Parks was born and raised as a slave on the Arlington Estate and spent his entire life living and working on the property. It was also here that he was freed under the terms of the will of his deceased owner just a year before Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. His owner was George Washington Parke Custis who was the step-grandson and adopted son of President George Washington. Custis’ daughter Mary inherited the Arlington plantation who was also the wife of Robert. E. Lee, commander of the Confederate States Army.
As a freed person, James Parks lived in Freedman’s Village — an organized community for former slaves, created by the federal government in what is now part of the cemetery. Never leaving the Arlington property.
In May 1861, when Robert E. Lee and Mary Custis Lee vacated their estate and federal troops occupied it, Parks began working for the Army, helping to build Fort McPherson and Fort Whipple. When the Army authorized military burials on the Arlington property during the Civil War, Parks’ duties turned from fort-building to grave digging and cemetery maintenance, on what is now called the Arlington National Cemetery.
The very first graves in the cemetery were actually dug by James Parks, and he continued to serve the U.S. Army in this way until his death. When Parks died in 1929, the Secretary of War granted special permission for him to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery with a full military honor funeral, even though he was a civilian, since he served his country at the cemetery from the very beginning of it’s existence.
He is the only person buried at the cemetery who was born on the property. The American Legion paid tribute to him with the plaque at his grave site.
Why was he set free by his owner before even the Emancipation was written? I believe God had a plan for his life, his freedom, and his service.
The life of James Parks parallels another man who was born a slave and died a free man. Another man whose life, freedom, and service were God’s plan. This man was born a slave, when set free by God, became the commander of the Israelite army and an aid to Moses. We know him as Joshua. Joshua may have been born an Israelite slave to the Egyptians, but he became a great servant of the Lord.
Following the death of Moses, Joshua became the commander in chief not only of the army, but also as the leader of all the Israelites. Joshua was called to lead the Israelites into the Promise Land after living in the desert for 40 years due to the Israelites lack of faith and disobedience.
But just before Joshua was about to begin this journey of conquering the Promise Land from his enemies, he encountered an angel sent by God. This angel was of superior rank; He was the commander of the Lord’s Army. Much like Lincoln at the time of the Civil War as commander in chief, this angel also had a message to get out.
When Joshua was near the town of Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing in front of him with sword in hand. Joshua went up to him and demanded, “Are you friend or foe?”
“Neither one,” he replied. “I am the commander of the Lord’s army.”
At this, Joshua fell with his face to the ground in reverence (with respect and admiration). “I am at your command,” Joshua said. “What do you want your servant to do?”
(Instead of being scared by seeing this mighty man with a sword standing in front of him, instead of being scared that an angel of the Lord has approached him, instead of hiding his face in uncertainty, Joshua already had a strong relationship with God. He knew God. He spent time praying on his knees, building a trust in God that whatever God did or said to do was for not only Joshua’s good, but for God’s will and master plan to be fulfilled. So on his face, he asks…)
The commander of the Lord’s army replied, “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy.” And Joshua did as he was told.
He may have been there to give Joshua specific marching orders for the conquest of Jericho, but the angel had an even bigger message – take off your sandals for the place where you are standing is holy.
As a sign of the upmost respect, Joshua does exactly what he is told, he takes off his sandals. Joshua may have been Israel’s leader, but he was still subordinate to God, the absolute Leader. Something we should all keep in the forefront of our minds. We too should recognize God’s power, authority, and deep love, and our actions should model our absolute reverence for God. Respect for God is just as important today as it was in Joshua’s day.
And what was so holy about the land Joshua was about to enter that he needed to take off his shoes? It was the land that God had promise his ancestor Abraham, when Abraham was 99 years old.
I promise that you will be the father of many nations. That’s why I now change your name from Abram to Abraham. I will give you a lot of descendants, and in the future they will become great nations. Some of them will even be kings. I will always keep the promise I have made to you and your descendants, because I am your God and their God. I will give you and them the land in which you are now a foreigner. I will give the whole land of Canaan to your family forever, and I will be their God.
There were at least 500 years between God’s promise to Abraham and this message to Joshua. With goes to show, God doesn’t forget, that God will continue to fulfill his promises even if we don’t get to see them.
So here’s the city of Jericho, the edge of the wilderness, the boarder of the Promise Land. But the promise land itself was not a picture of holiness. It was covered with the enemy. With men who thought they were the only gods.
But looking at the bigger picture, it was holy. Not for what it was, but for the plans God had in mind for it. It was holy ground because the Lord was with Joshua fighting for him and all of God’s people. It was holy ground for the mission God gave Joshua – take the land and redeem it for me.
I compare the situation with Lincoln because, Lincoln too believed that this country was holy because it was built on God. Very similar to Lincoln’s mission.
We too have been set free from slavery and death through Jesus Christ. We too have been given life and freedom for a purpose. There too is a purpose for our service.
We are told to put on the armor of God and to be ready to go and push boundaries and to be ready to serve the Lord. And I full heartily believe that we are called just like Joshua – take the land and redeem it for God.
We are also standing on holy ground, and I’m not talking just this church. We have been given a mission to do big things in our communities, in our country, and in our world.
This time, we are not called to conquer the land by violence. Instead, we are called to do just the opposite…with peace – to go in peace and humbly redeem it from the slavery of sin through the power of God.
Our mission is the Great Commission.
Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.
We can force people to be disciples, in fact it’s on even completely our job to do. God has a part and we have a part. But we must do our part. If we have the upmost respect for God, won’t we too answer yes to God commands?
We were all born into slavery…slavery of our sin. But through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, we can live and die free. I want to share that. Wouldn’t it be great to see millions more in this world experiencing this kind of freedom? A freedom that no matter how rough this life gets we can still feel peace.
It’s all because of what Jesus did that we are standing on holy ground. So the question becomes how are we going to show our respect. It may not be our custom to take our sandals off anymore to show our respect, but maybe we need to. Maybe we need a straight up reminder of how we do live on holy ground.
What if we looked at the ground we live on as holy? What if we walked outside and stopped to appreciate the ground we have been given, the ground we live on and serve on? What if we looked at it as God’s holy ground with a mission, a purpose, a beautiful thing that was given to us for a purpose. There is much work to do, not doubt, but it’s not all ours to do. You better believe we have a part, but the Holy Spirit promises to be with us forever too.
God’s Promise to us:
…And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
Instead of looking at this world for what we can see with just our own eyes, let’s look at it from God’s eyes, and the plans He has for it. How does it look different and what are you going to do with that image?