Allegiance

Colossians 1.11-20

May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers — all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. 

Our local Wegmans can be a little overwhelming depending on what time you go to the store. For instance, if you left from worship this morning, mere days before Thanksgiving, and went to the store we might have to send a rescue team to find you. There is a better than good chance that today the store will be filled to the brim with individuals and families making sure to stock up on everything necessary for the once a year meal on Thursday.

A few weeks ago, right in the middle of a peak moment while the store was jam packed, I was pushing around my son in a cart trying desperately to get what we needed and then to get out of there. We were going up and down aisles, throwing things into the cart, and my head was constantly darting back and forth hoping to find the next item.

And the store was loud. There were other frantic parents banging into carts trying to get around a corner, on top of the PA system piping in music that should’ve stayed in 1987, and even Instacart employees who buy your groceries for you so you don’t have to.

It was in the midst of that loudness, in the midst of the frantic searching, that I noticed my son was saying something under his breath to himself.

For what its worth – this is a fairly common experience. We can be anywhere around anyone when he will spontaneously break in song, usually something like “Jesus Loves Me.” Or I’ll be sitting in the other room and I’ll hear him playing with all sorts of toys and having them engage in a conversation together.

So when he first started talking in the shopping cart I didn’t pay much attention until I heard the actual words he was saying…

“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America…”

“Where did you learn that?” I asked.

To which he replied, “Dad, I learned it at school. We say it every morning.”

My son is three years old.

I share this story not because I want to offend or ostracize any among us regarding our potential affinity for the pledge of allegiance, but I do want to call into question how the pledge has become something so determinate in our lives against, and perhaps in spite of, Jesus our Lord.

Bible-and-Flag

Today is Christ the King Sunday. It is a day when, for at least the last hundred years, churches affirm the Lordship of Christ and how our truest allegiance belongs with him over and against anything and anyone else. As a liturgical Sunday it began after the wake of the Great War during a time when Christians needed to remember what it was they really believed in the hope that we would never resort to such horrific violence toward our brothers and sister ever again.

Spoiler warning: It didn’t work.

And yet we still mark this day differently than other Sundays because the Lordship of Christ really does reorient our priorities, our proclivities, and even our politics.

It is a time for us to confront one of the most important truths of the gospel: If Jesus is Lord, then Caesar is not.

Or, to be a little more on the nose about it: If Jesus is Lord, then America is not.

Paul writes to the church in Colossae with this kind of distinction in mind. Now, what was read for us might feel lofty and gratuitous: “May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light” But Paul wrote to the early church not with hopes of academic pandering. Instead he used words and ideas to speak directly to problems in the lives of real people struggling to understand what a life of faith is all about.

Whenever we confront new ideas, new world-views, whether we lived in the first century or we live today, the temptation is to take the unfamiliar and fit it into what we already know. It’s how the church, time and time again, takes Jesus outside the content of the Good News he brought and declared through his life, and instead uses him like a bludgeon to beat back our theological or political enemies.

This is perhaps best exemplified with a bumper sticker I once saw that said, “If Jesus had a gun, he’d still be alive today.”

That bumper sticker is fundamentally unintelligible from a Christian perspective. 

For some strange reason, *cough* sin *cough*, we want Jesus to be a lot of things for us – a teacher who teaches the perspective we already have, a healer who heals those on our side while ignoring those on across the line, an ethical guide who affirms our current behavior, and even a political wedge so long as we’re right in the end and the others are wrong.

And, at times, Jesus is those things. But when he is those things it is for the Kingdom, and not for our own opinions. 

Today we declare that among the many things we want Jesus to be, that he is forever our King, and that makes all the difference.

This is why Paul is so inclined to begin and end everything with Jesus. “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers — all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” Paul will not let the world set the terms for the church because he knows and believes its actually the other way around. He writes about how we, those who follow the Lord, are transferred from one kingdom to another. In this new kingdom everything is different – the rules are different, the ruler is different, and all the assumptions about what is good and right and true are different.

Jesus, through his life, death, and resurrection, brings us into a new kingdom and yet we are forever trying to bring him over into one of our own. We cherrypick verses, or isolate moments in scripture, in order to give meaning and validity to whatever we already think is important.

But if Jesus is Lord then it means he’s the one who tells us what’s important.

jesus-christ-is-lord-by-thomas-hawk

Paul proudly and boldly proclaims that becoming a Christian is like being dropped into a foreign land. Everything we thought we knew gets thrown out the window as we learn a new language, and new customs, and even eat new food. Being a Christian is not about fitting Jesus into our present ways of thinking – Christ has kicked us out of the kingdoms of our own desires and says you’re stuck in this kingdom with me. 

And in Christ’s kingdom, the first will be last and the last will be first.

I’ve noted a few times recently that it often doesn’t help the church to just spend time addressing what’s wrong in other churches. And I want to own that – I know that. But sometimes we have to know what’s wrong in order to know what is right.

If the church tells us that we need to put America first, then it is not God’s church.

If the church tells us that some people are in and some people are out, then it is not God’s church.

If the church tells us that any politician or any leader or any celebrity is more important than the least of these, then it is not God’s church.

We can only know what is good, right, and true because we know who Jesus is. Jesus, to use Paul’s language, makes the invisible God visible. Jesus, to use Paul’s language, is before all things and all things are held together in him, by him, and for him. Jesus, to use Paul’s language, is first.

Jesus is first. 

If we believe that were true, could you imagine how differently we would live and move and breathe in this world? How many things would we toss out forever? What divisions would we destroy? 

Or, if we can’t quite wrap our heads around that thought exercise, let us just rest on this for a moment – Do we really put Jesus first in whatever we are doing and whatever we are talking about?

That kind of thinking can get us in trouble with the world. Its that kind of thinking that calls into question the practices and habits that form us. Its what made me stop when I heard my son saying the pledge of allegiance. 

It made me stop because as a Christian, my first allegiance is to God.

Grace is not about adjusting the words of Jesus to fit into the mold of the world. The grace of God is about judgment, because our King doesn’t rule from a throne or from behind a desk in an oval office. Our King rules from the cross!

The Kingdom of God is a kingdom the world doesn’t want because it makes a difference, and that difference means that we will be different because God has made us different.

The problem in the church today is that we want to seem like everybody else.

God, thankfully, won’t let us have our way.

On Christ the King Sunday, more than almost any other Sunday in the year, we confront the wonder and beauty of the new thing God has done in the world through God’s Son. In the person of Jesus Christ a new creation has taken place and a new Kingdom has been established. And in that kingdom, we are made to be gentle even in a cruel world, we are made to call out that acts of cruelty that result in even more people being little, last, least, lost, and dead. 

And calling those things into question will make the world want to kill us.

It’s why Jesus was killed.

And that’s the whole thing right there. Beyond all talk of allegiance and behavior and worship. At the end of the day we have a King who died for us, who showed us that power comes not with militaristic might, but with meekness – a King who made peace through the blood of his cross.

Advent begins next week. Most of us like to imagine that Advent is that special time set apart for us to get ready for Christmas. It’s why the stores are already decorated and the radio stations are already playing the songs. 

But Advent isn’t about getting ready for Christmas.

Advent, strangely enough, is about the end.

It is about what happens when Christ comes in final victory and we feast at his heavenly banquet. Advent shows us glimpses of a time we cannot yet imagine when the kingdoms of this world become the Kingdom of the Lord who reigns forever and ever.

Which leaves us with one final question on this Christ the King Sunday – To whom will we pledge our allegiance? Amen. 

We Don’t Belong To Babylon

Isaiah 44.6-8

Thus says the Lord, the King of Israel, and his Redeemer, the Lord of hosts: I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god. Who is like me? Let them proclaim it, let them declare and set it forth before me. Who has announced from of old the things to come? Let them tell us what is yet to be. Do not fear, or be afraid; have I not told you from of old and declared it? You are my witnesses! Is there any god besides me? There is no other rock; I know not one.

 

Years ago I spent a summer working for a Toyota Dealership up in Alexandria. I was a porter and I was responsible for parking customer’s cars, driving them into the bays, and then bringing them back out when the work was completed. Every day I hopped into more cars than I could count and drove with great care through a parking lot that had twice as many cars as it should have.

I loved working there. I loved how every day was different, I loved all the strange and bizarre things people kept in the cars, I even enjoyed the great range of music that people chose to blare through their sound systems. But the part of the job that I loved the most was the people I worked with.

All of the other porters were at least twenty years older then me, and none of them were white. We were quite the motley crew standing together waiting to park cars, and during the slow moments we regaled one another with stories. That summer I learned about Carlos’ difficult journey from Mexico to the United States, I learned about Jamal’s continued experience of racism even though we lived in a supposedly progressive place, and I learned about Michael’s love for his home country of Ghana.

Of all the other porters Michael took me under his wing and always made sure that I was always drinking enough water. He called me Mr. Taylor and would clap his hands when he saw me walking up early in the morning.

We worked side by side for an entire summer and by the end he felt more like a friend than a co-worker.

On one particularly rainy afternoon, while business was slow, I asked Michael about what it was like to live here after spending most of his life in Ghana. He told me about how for years he only dreamed of one thing; saving enough money to bring him and his family to the US. How for years they watched American movies and read American books and they knew they had to do everything they could to get here.

And when they finally saved enough, when they finally came to the US, they were disappointed.

I remember thinking: “Disappointed? How could they be disappointed with all we have to offer here?”

And then he told me that they were disappointed because it was dirty, because there were people in need, and that he and his family still felt like strangers in a strange land.

18540

Isaiah’s message from the Lord isn’t just some random call from a prophet for the people to know more about God – it comes at a particular time to a particular people in a particular place. These words were, and still are, meant for a people in captivity.

The people of God had grown distant from the Lord and after countless attempts to bring the people back into the fold; they were taken into captivity in Babylon. For two generations God’s people were in a foreign land and it was in the midst of the Babylonian captivity that Isaiah spoke these words from the Lord: I am the first and I am the last, there is no one else like me. If any are so bold as to claim to be like the Lord let them declare what is to come. Do not fear, or be afraid. Have I not told you what was to happen? You are my witnesses!

The people receiving the Word from Isaiah were a people without hope. They had lost their homes, their nation, their possessions, their faith, their traditions, their roots, their identity, and their sense of belong. The Babylonian empire was known for its power and its majesty, but it was not what they thought it would be. Like my friend Michael from Ghana arriving in a new place, the Israelites were strangers in a strange land. Babylon was a nation with its own roots and customs and gods, and Israel was a tiny nation that had been assimilated into the greater empire.

Every single day God’s people were surrounded by idols clamoring for their worship. But unlike all the idols of Babylon, unlike all of the customs and the experiences, Isaiah declared that only the Lord is first and last, only God calls the future into being.

And to be honest, it is almost impossible for us to connect with the captive situation during the time of Isaiah. We are so entrenched in the culture around us that we cannot even fathom what it would look like to be in bondage, to be chained down, to be strangers in a strange land. But we are.

We are in bondage to the next new thing; in just a few months droves of people will be lining the streets for the next iPhone, Potomac Mills will be nearly impossible to navigate through, and the promise of big deals will cause people to make irrational decisions and choices.

We are controlled by the current political structures that we think determine our lives. Just ponder about how much time we spend watching or reading the news that is now completely and totally focused on who said what, the next vote down the line, and the latest tweet from the White House.

We are chained to economic plateaus that are relatively inescapable. Here in this country we cherish the American Dream, but the truth is that the overwhelming majority of us will die in the same economic bracket we were born into.

We think that all of those things determine our lives. They have become our Babylon.

On any given day we will spend more time worrying about a new product, or politics, or our prosperity far more than anything else. Like the Israelites in Babylon, like Michael at the dealership, we Christians are strangers in a strange land. And here’s the frightening part: the longer we spend time in the strange land, the less strange it appears.

I know a man who started attending church later in life and quickly got involved. At first he volunteered as an usher, and pretty soon he was helping to lead worship as a liturgist. He loved church. He embraced the different rhythms and habits of the congregation and threw himself completely in.

And, of course, it didn’t take long for him to join one of the many committees at church. For months he attended the meetings and all of the other activities at church, but suddenly he stopped appearing around the church as frequently until he disappeared all together.

I asked to meet with him to discuss what happened and his answer was simple and hard to hear. He said, “I loved church because it was unlike anything else in my life, but at some point it started feeling the same. I experienced arguments in church meetings, apathy in the pews, and people never stopped lamenting about the past. I came to church to escape that kind of stuff from my life, only to discover that it was here as well.”

If the church is no better than the culture that surrounds it, if it doesn’t embody a different way of being, then it simply isn’t the church.

We are supposed to be strangers in a strange land. While the world around us strives to change our priorities the words of Isaiah ring even louder. While the culture tells us that we have to make it through this life on our own, Jesus tells us that we cannot do it on our own. While cultural idols strive for our allegiance, the Lord speaks loud and clear: I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no God.

We don’t belong to Babylon. We belong to God.

And, as Isaiah is bold to proclaim, our God comes to us from the future. God is concerned about where we are going, whereas we often spend far too much time stuck in the past.

0f01ca760818853c9a197c7f191b52d3--religion-quotes-tattoo-quotes

The Israelites in captivity were stuck in the past just as much as they were stuck in Babylon. Their minds were focused on the old things, the failures of a distant time, memories from days long ago. They needed to hear the good and the true Word of God: “Who else can tell you what is to come? Let them try to prophesy the future. I am coming to you from the future for I am the first and the last, the beginning and the end. Do not fear, or be afraid! You are my witnesses. Remember what I have done for you, and you will know there is no other rock.

At the time of Isaiah’s proclamation the people were in danger of forgetting who they were, and whose they were. They wallowed in their present circumstances and were giving themselves over to the idols in their midst. They needed a probing and holy Word from the Lord. They needed deliverance from their chains. They needed to hope for things not seen, they needed to believe, they needed to know that God was with them even in the midst of captivity.

But maybe all this Babylonian captivity stuff is too much for today. We haven’t been stolen from our homes and delivered into a foreign country. Perhaps the talk of idols and nationalism, the comparisons within politics, and the particles of God’s time traveling omnipotence are just too heavy. Maybe we’ve got other things to worry about: bills to pay, people to call, children to raise, a marriage to sustain, a future to figure out. Perhaps we are so deeply rooted in this strange land that we can no longer see it as strange. Maybe our captivity has become our home.

Well then let us all hear the adapted word from the prophet Isaiah:

We cannot save ourselves. We have been and will be saved by God. There is nothing on this earth, or in the entire cosmos, like the living God. No amount of materialistic accumulation, economic growth, or political power will ever bring us satisfaction. Every little thing that we want to give meaning to our lives will fall away.

God, however, is almighty, eternal, and full of mercy. God is the one reaching out to us when we no longer have the strength to reach back. God is the one who surrounds us when we feel completely alone. God is the one who delivers us from the captivity to the Babylons in our midst.

As Christians, we are strangers in a strange land. Everything surrounding us is constantly telling us what to think, how to act, and what to believe. The world tries to tell us who we are and whose we are.

But we don’t belong to Babylon. We belong to God. The world’s ways are not our ways!

We are more than the stories of the past. We are more than the failures of the present. We are more than our captivity to the idols competing for our allegiance. We are God’s children.

And our God is an awesome God! Our God is the first and the last. Our God is the beginning and the end. Our God is in control. Our God makes a way where there is no way. Our God is king of the cosmos. Our God is the solid rock upon which we stand. Our God is concerned with our future. Our God believes in our future. Our God know where we’re going.

Thanks be to God that we don’t belong to Babylon. Amen.