We knew not whether we were in heaven or earth, for on earth there is no such vision or beauty, and we do not know how to describe it; we know only that there God dwells among men. - Envoys of Prince Vladimir of Kiev, upon seeing Constantinople for the first time, 987 C.E.An early Slavic chronicle says that Prince Vladimir, a descendant of the Viking rulers of Rus (Russia), decided it was time to abandon the paganism of his ancestors and adopt the religion of one of his powerful neighbors: Roman Catholicism, Orthodox Christianity, or Islam. He sent envoys to the surrounding territories, and the emissaries who returned with the most glowing report were the ones sent to the city of Constantinople, the home of Orthodoxy. In contrast to the cities of the western Christians and the Slavic Muslims, Constantinople glistened with gold and silver, had architectural marvels like the church of Hagia Sophia, and exuded both wealth and power. Vladimir's conversion, it seems, was based more on an impression of what the Christian God (as worshiped in the East) promised to bring to himself and his kingdom than on his being convinced of the truth of the religion.
The prophet who composed the lines preserved in today's reading from Isaiah lived in Jerusalem during the time of Persian hegemony over Israel. The Jews who had returned with such high hopes from Babylonian exile had expected a quick restoration of their fortunes, but even though they had rebuilt the temple and begun work on restoring Jerusalem, the city was still a mere shadow of its former greatness. In contrast to the general malaise that permeated most of the populace, the prophet looked forward to a time when the fortunes of Jerusalem would be so great that people of other nations would be attracted to its splendor, as the Russian envoys were impressed by the glory of Constantinople. Wealth begets wealth, the prophet suggests, and foreign dignitaries would shower the already rich city with gifts such as gold and frankincense (cf. Matthew's narrative of the birth of Jesus). This prophetic vision of a glorious future was intended to encourage the faithful of Jerusalem and its surrounding towns and villages. Although Jerusalem never again became a city characterized by great wealth, it did become a city considered holy by the three Abrahamic faiths, and thus a destiny for pilgrims of those faiths from many nations.
When the British colonized the east coast of the North American continent, the new colonies were sometimes compared with Jerusalem, a city set on a hill that shines its light to all nations. After the American Revolution, citizens of the new nation called the United States often saw themselves as especially blessed by God, perhaps more so than their ancestors in Europe. For proof, they pointed to the wealth in natural resources, in land, in agricultural products, and in commercial enterprises that characterized the country. After its successful forays into war--such as the Mexican-American War, the Spanish-American War, and the two World Wars--from which the nation emerged wealthier and militarily more powerful than other nations, many people began to think that America must be the recipient of God's favor in a unique way, and the notion of American exceptionalism was born. Failure in Vietnam, successively deeper economic recessions, plummeting achievement in education, and rising infant mortality rates notwithstanding, many still hold fast to the idea that America is God's special nation, the lone superpower, the world's indispensable nation.
Hogwash! America is certainly rich and powerful, and it has the potential to be a force for tremendous good in the world, but it does not always make good on its potential. It continues to be the destiny of choice for many immigrants, but it has also borne the brunt of much criticism over its imperialist policies worldwide and its failure to care for its own citizens at home. No nation is perfect, but nations that want to see themselves as great must do a better job than the U.S. is currently doing in many areas: health care for all citizens (including mental health care), alleviation of poverty, elimination of discrimination of any sort, free or low cost education from pre-K through grad school, reduction of violence, substantially full employment, increased collaboration and decreased bellicosity in foreign policy, redirection of funding away from military programs and toward social programs, serious attention to environmental and climate issues, increased engagement in empowering ways with poor nations, and increased spending on science, technology, health, and the arts, just to name a few things.
If we truly care about being a nation that others praise as a light to the world, a focus on peace, justice, compassion, and innovation will be far more effective than our current emphasis on militarism, political control, and economic hegemony. Then we will truly be able to say that the glory of the Lord has risen upon us.