Jesus Posts

When does patriotism become idolatry?

The Church in America is at a crossroads. In this cultural moment of instability and polarization, many have turned to a new kind of Christian Nationalism as the answer. I’ve seen a shift among some, from a grateful and healthy patriotism, to a nationalistic idolatry. Christian Nationalism threatens the Church, the witness of believers, and the advancement of the Gospel. It is important to recognize that many politicians have taken on the name of Christ and co-opted the Church for political purposes. Non-Christians attach the beliefs and actions of these leaders to the broader Christian witness. This, of course, is not new, but it has revealed an underlying syncretism of faith and politics that threatens the clarity of the Gospel. This syncretism is the result of a fear-based response to a growing sense that the Church is losing ground in the culture wars. Lacking faith that Christ and His Church can stand alone, many have Christian leaders have co-opted government to accomplish a “kingdom” agenda. The dearth of moral leadership in the public sphere and a polarizing president have magnified the tension and division among Americans. Regardless of what side you fall on- and most tend to fall heavily on one side or the other- we all know these are challenging days in America. We are as divided as I’ve seen in my lifetime. So, as we celebrate the 4th of July (more explicitly, our freedom and those who have made it possible), it is important that we do so thoughtfully, intentionally, and from a biblical perspective.

Once upon a time, “Jesus is Lord”, was a political statement. So political, in fact, and such an affront to the Empire and the Emperor who sat on the throne, it led to capital punishment. The Roman government had declared you could not worship two masters; it was Caesar and no one else. As a result, early believers (our ancient brothers and sisters) were martyred for their faith in Christ. It was not the declaration that, “Jesus is Savior” that shook the Empire but that, “Jesus is LORD”. This confession of faith flew in the face of the State because it meant that Christ alone is the King, the Ruler, the One with all power and dominion, and that there is no other. Allegiance is to Him alone.

If Christ is Lord of our lives, we are devoted to Him above all else – above our nationality, race, ideology, ethnicity, political leader, or party. Most Christians know the difference and seek Christ above all else, but we all wrestle with idolatry, more than we know. Calvin noted that, “The human heart is an idol factory”. Idolatry is most often making good things God things – even God-given things – and trusting in these things more than God. Idolatry can include comfort, security, wealth, success, power, and approval. It can include our spouses, families, jobs; even religion or doctrine can become an idol. Most Christians commit idolatry without knowing it. I’ve learned that idolatry is so insidious and subtle in my life, that it requires a humble and thoughtful scrutiny. It’s been helpful for me to understand that my deepest emotions point me to my idols. What makes me anxious? What makes me angry, nervous, extremely happy or sad? Something has become an idol if the thought of losing it would make me question if life is worth living. Something has become an idol when I think that in it or through it I find meaning, happiness, and worth.

Let me be clear that patriotism is not idolatry. A grateful and passionate patriotism is a proper response to the blessings that come from living in our country. Not everyone can celebrate their country, their founding fathers, and those who have given their lives for the freedoms we enjoy in America and often take for granted. But patriotism can become idolatry.

When does patriotism become idolatry?

  1. Christians practice idolatry when they believe that a political leader will bring the social change necessary, more than Christ.

At first glance, this seems absurd, but for many, their functional savior is a political leader or party, and not the Lord Jesus Christ. I know this because some are more passionate about politics than they are about Jesus. They read more, think more deeply about, and study politics far more than they study their Bible or pursue theology. I know this because many watch political news more than they read their Bible and they engage in political conversations (most often with others who agree with their disparagement of certain opposing political positions) than they engage in spiritual conversations with others about Jesus. I know this because of the fear, anxiety, and anger I see on social media platforms. I see Christians who are more passionate about defending a political view or partisan position than they are about defending the Gospel and the truth of Christ. I know this because I see Christians who support and defend a candidate or leader carte blanche, even when it is clear that he/she is speaking or acting in ways that are clearly not the Way of Jesus. All leaders are flawed and surely no one person or party is right on every political matter.

I can’t imagine Paul wringing his hands, anxiously praying for the Father to place a certain Emperor on the throne in Rome so that the Gospel could finally advance in the Empire. Paul and the early followers of Jesus did not rely on a political leader or the State for any power or authority to advance the Gospel. They knew who their Leader was and they were operating out of all the power and authority they needed, given to them by Christ, through the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit. Can you imagine Jesus endorsing a certain candidate in our day, with the expressed position that through him/her the kingdom agenda would finally become a reality? Praise God we live in a free democracy and that our leader is not a totalitarian dictator (as in Paul’s day). We need to remember that our national leader is just a president who has 1/10th of the power of any totalitarian dictator. Regardless of your political persuasion we can all praise God for the genius of the “American Experiment”, with our Constitution and our three branches of government with its checks and balances. Let us be thankful for our democracy.

  1. Christians become idolatrous when they believe in the ability of the State to affect change, more than the Church.

Christians practice idolatry when their focus for change is on what the State can do more than on what can be accomplished in and through the local church. Many believe the State will bring necessary change, instead of embodying that change and living out the Gospel in every domain of culture. When one’s energies are spent electing one candidate up against another more than on the ministries at his/her church, which can bring about effective and lasting change locally, it has become idolatrous. Patriotism can be idolatrous when our hope is in the State and when our “agent” of change is the government, or an election or specific candidate or party.

I know that some trust in the State more than Christ because I see those who claim to have been transformed by His love, but do not love others as He has loved us. These days we are quick to label, categorize, and demonize people (and those who agree with them), so that thoughtful dialogue and civil discourse becomes impossible. If you categorize and tag people, calling them names or placing labels on them, it dismisses them from having a thoughtful perspective. And it dismisses you from thoughtfully and respectfully listening to them. This lack of engagement will never lead toward empathy and understanding. This is the lost art of American politics. For the Christian, the hope of the world is Jesus Christ and His Spirit alive and active, embodied in the Church, as the People of Jesus live out their faith.

  1. Christians become idolatrous when they spend more time and energy on political matters than on a pursuit of Christ and the making of disciples.

An obsession with politics may reveal a misguided focus for the believer. This is not to say that we do not need Christ-centered politicians and Spirit-led leaders in government. Surely we do, as in every cultural domain. But when we find that our time spent serving in and through our local church, is less than the time spent reading about, and watching news about the State, elections, parties, or working for political change, we’re out of balance.

But can’t we be both patriotic and politically informed and involved? Certainly we can, and that is not my concern here. My concern is that too many Christians spend too much of their God-ordained time and precious energy supporting partisan politics, believing that they are furthering justice and advancing the Gospel – thus revealing a syncretism at best and idolatry at worst. We advance the Gospel by advancing the Gospel. It is Good News that needs to be shared. In the end, people don’t care about our opinions. They care about our love. What they need is Christ-like love, empowered by His Spirit within us. Our opinions don’t change lives but our love does. His love does. No one is argued into the kingdom.

When it comes to seeing real change in our culture, where do I focus my energies? Is it engaging my neighbor or ranting on social media? Who or what do I think is the real agent of change? What do my anxious thoughts and actions reveal about where my allegiance lies? Jesus said that whatever we value most is where our thoughts and actions will run. So, I urge us all to take a hard look our lives and where our minds and hearts are going. And then celebrate with unbridled joy the God-given privilege of living in America, where we are free to worship Christ above all else and share His Gospel unhindered.

A Holy Separation Anxiety

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  Matthew 27:46

We call it “Good Friday”. But like everything else on the day of His death, it was good for us, but terrible for our Lord Jesus. As you go about your day today, consider these facts: Early on that Friday morning, after no sleep the night before, Jesus was taken to Pilate’s prison. He was beaten by professional torturers who knew their craft all too well. He was then presented to the crowd who chose a notorious prisoner over the very Son of God. Throughout the night Jesus was silent, ironically, directing the entire process that led to His death. He was taken into the courtyard (called the Praetorium) and the entire company of soldiers surrounded Him. They stripped Him, put a crown of thorns on His head, a staff in His hand, and knelt down before Him in mockery. They spat on Him and blind-folded Him, punching Him many times, as hard as they could. Later that morning, exhausted and famished, He carried His own cross, most of the way to Golgotha. At 9:00 am, the executioners impaled Him through His wrists and His feet, with long spikes, and fastened Him to the cross. Darkness came over the earth from noon until 3:00 pm.

At 3:00 pm, in anguish, Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” In that moment, Jesus was experiencing the wrath of the Father (His holy reaction to sin), as He “became sin for us” (2 Corinthians 5:21). He was abandoned by the Father, so that you and I would never be. Then Jesus cried out, “It is finished!”, and He died. At this final cry of victory, God’s inflexible holiness and His unconditional love collided as our redemption was made possible. Around 5:00 pm the women came to prepare His body for burial and at 6:00 pm they placed Him in the tomb. A massive stone was rolled into place as the sun set on the saddest day in history. And the angels were silent as all creation watched to see what would happen next.

As you go throughout this day, be in a constant state of remembrance, meditating on what happened to our Lord Jesus. Think about each event as if it was happening today. Consider the horrific emotional strain Jesus faced, knowing He was about to endure a slow, painful death, and greater still, the anticipation of the very wrath of God upon sin that would come upon Him. And remember, He did all of this for you and me. Remember also that it’s Friday, the saddest day in history, but Sunday’s coming. Praise Him.

Pray:  Lord, today I will walk with You through Your sufferings. I will meditate on every phase of Your sacrifice for me and give thanks to You/ My heart breaks over my sin that put You on the cross. May I always remember what You have accomplished for me. And may Your love for me lead me to love You, to obey You, and bring glory to You Name.

The Life of a Servant

Thursday night before His death

“After that, He poured water into a basin and began to wash His disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around Him.”  John 13:5

On the night before His death, Jesus would teach one of the greatest lessons of His ministry to His disciples. The Master-Teacher would use object lessons, symbols, and hands-on teaching to make His point. The first lesson was on servanthood; the second was on sacrifice. The first involved the washing of His disciples’ dirty feet – an act performed only by a servant, not a master. When He finished, He didn’t say, “Now that I’ve washed your feet, you wash mine”, (as we would have done). Instead He said, “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you wash one another’s feet” (John 13:14). You see, the way we express love to Jesus is by expressing love to one another. The way we serve Him is by serving others.

The second lesson was around the table as He took the well-known elements of the Passover Meal and re-interpreted them as fulfilled by Him. The matzo bread – the “bread of affliction” – (which was always pierced and always striped), represented His body. The cup of redemption represented His blood shed for them. How unusual it must have been as Jesus brought new meaning to these ancient symbols; how amazing it must have been after His death and resurrection to understand with crystal clarity what He meant. And now we know as well.

“The Master will dress himself to serve and tell the servants to sit at the table, and He will serve them.”  Luke 12:37

Pray:  Lord, thank You for Your amazing act of servanthood and Your example of sacrifice for me. I want to live the life of a servant. I will love someone for free today and, in so doing, I will be expressing my love to You. Tonight, as I lay down my head for a night of peaceful sleep, I will remember the sleepless night You had as You were arrested, tried, and beaten on my behalf. Thank you, for the soulful rest you bring because of the peace you have brought to those who trust in You.

Jesus, the Incomparable Substitute

As Gautama Buddha, the founder of Buddhism was dying, his devoted followers asked how they should keep his memory alive, propagate his greatness. He said, “Don’t bother. Tell them not to remember me, but adhere to my teachings. They can forget me, but let my teachings be propagated around the world.” This sounds like a very self-less, humble response. But Jesus would have never said anything like this. If He had it would validate what many people think: that Jesus was yet another religious leader whose primary message was, “work harder, get better”. It would confirm what a lot of Christians seem to believe today – that Jesus came to initiate a new and improved behavior modification project. As if Jesus came to help us get better. Clearly Jesus taught us much, but think about it, what was at the heart of His teaching?

The central focus of Jesus’ teaching was His identity, who He was and is. He would have never said, “Forget me, just follow my teachings.” He said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” It may sound self-evident but at the heart of the Christian faith is Christ Himself, Who He is and what He has done. So, it’s paramount that we get our Christology right (who He is) above all else and then put everything else at it’s service. Here’s why:  Your view of Christ determines your response to Him. The Person of Jesus – His character, His identity, and the essence of His nature is clearly revealed in the Gospel accounts and is brought into undeniable focus and clarity the final week of His life.

Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem begins with a counter-procession, presenting a contrary way, a rival king, a contrasting social order, and an opposing theology, ushering in an alternative kingdom – the kingdom of God.

Jesus said His kingdom is “not of this world,” and it contrasts the kingdom of the world in every possible way. This is not a simple contrast between good and evil, but rather two fundamentally different ways of doing life, two fundamentally different belief systems- two fundamentally different loyalties. This King is ushering in a different kind of kingdom and it’s embodied in the King Himself.

This is why the angry pursuit of the religious leaders ramped up the final week of His life. In the end, He was not crucified because He talked about loving others or caring for the poor. He was crucified because of who He claimed to be. In the end, He lived the perfect life for us, suffered and died, taking on our shame and punishment, and He rose again, conquering death and hell- this is the Gospel, the Good News that has rescued us from death and hell. He is the King we worship, the One we proclaim, and the One we follow every day.

This Holy Week, let’s tell others who Jesus really is. Tell them He is not another good example, but our incomparable Substitute.

 

“Who is the LORD that I should obey Him?”

The question Pharaoh asked Moses is the modern question of our day. As we read the Old Testament, we often think that these people are primitive, uneducated, even barbaric. We have a general idea that we are progressively getting smarter and better. We have better medicine, technology, faster transportation; we’re enlightened, educated, modern. But at the heart of the human problem is the problem of the human heart.

The Pharaoh was a highly educated, affluent man. He is the modern man and his question is the question of our day. The entire story of the plagues, and the Exodus, hinges on his question: “Who is the LORD and why should I obey Him?” Exodus 5:2 Our entire story hinges on this question as well. The Pharaoh was not an atheist, but a polytheist. He had no trouble believing in gods, as long as they served him. But to believe in a god that would actually tell him what to do was preposterous. Not unlike most of us today.

Some struggle with God, thinking He is too harsh, judgmental and wrathful. Instead, we fail to see that in His mercy He rescues you from our gods, that will otherwise crush us. It is His mercy, not His wrath that saves us. In His wrath is His mercy. His judgement is mercy. “O LORD, I have heard the report of you, and your work, O LORD, do I fear. In the midst of the years revive it; in the midst of the years make it known; in wrath remember mercy.” Habakkuk 3:2

God’s judgment comes upon those who disregard Him. But even in His warnings of judgment there is mercy. Like the Pharaoh, we need a renewed vision of who God is.

By His grace, through warnings and judgment, God lovingly draws us to Himself. Every plague has a corresponding Egyptian god and what the LORD (Yahweh) is doing is answering Pharaoh’s question with each subsequent plague: “Who is LORD? I am the one, true God and I am greater than your false gods. I will crush them for your good and for my glory.”

Consider: what are the gods we serve in our day? And what corresponding plagues might God bring into our lives so that we would turn to Him and worship Him alone? What plagues might God unleash on us in order to show His supremacy, His place as the LORD, so that He might satisfy our soul’s desire? Just a few examples:

Our gods and the plagues that confront us

Comfort – the plague of inconvenience God will bring discomfort, perhaps Illness, relational struggles that confront us. Like gnats or flies, they may seem small at first, but they destroy our peace and comfort. All of this, so we will turn to Him and find that He alone is our Comfort and Peace.

Control – the plague of chaos The god of control says, “I will control how I live, how I look, how my life goes. I will cover every possible contingency, I will prepare, build an impenetrable wall around me. I will build an emotional wall around me. I will not let anyone in. I will control my environment.” In his famous poem, Invictus, William Henley (an atheist), writes (from a hospital bed), these last two stanzas: “Beyond this place of wrath and tears. Looms but the Horror of the shade, and yet the menace of the years finds, and shall find me, unafraid. It matters not how strait the gate, how charged with punishments the scroll, I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.” Henley echoes the Pharaoh’s question: “Who is the LORD, that I should obey Him?” Instead, our desire to control our lives results in impotence, disorganization, mismanagement, addictions. It’s why all alcoholics know that the first of the 12 steps to recovery is, “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.” We must admit that you are NOT in control.

Success – the plague of dissatisfaction Success is never up and to the right always. And even if it is, we are left empty if success has become our functional god. This week, Tom Brady will start in his eighth Super Bowl. He’s won five. Surely, he is the GOAT, the greatest of all time. Brady is handsome, married to a model wife, and worth millions (billions?) of dollars. In a moment of rare vulnerability, on 60 Minutes, in an interview with Steve Kroft, Brady said, “This is what it is- this guy (himself) has it all. But I think, “there has to be more than this.” Kroft asked, “What’s the answer?” Brady responded, “I wish I knew, I wish I knew.” At the pinnacle of success he is plagued with dissatisfaction.

Approval – the plague of rejection Our desire for approval is met with the plague of disapproval, even self-condemnation. For the person who worships the god of approval, rejection is devastating. In a world of social media, the need for approval escalates to devastating results.

How can we discern our idols? Your deepest emotions will point you to your idols, to the gods you worship. Look at your anger, anxiety; what do you think about that makes you worry? What makes you really sad? Most often our anxiety is caused by the thought of losing something we love, something we worship- a god.

But what if God, by His mercy, is drawing us to Him? Paul asks: What if God, although choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath- prepared for destruction? What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory.” Romans 9:22-23

At the cross, God’s unending grace and His inflexible holiness collided and our salvation was made possible. On the Cross He brought mercy for sinners and judgment on sin that came upon Jesus. You and I were spared the ultimate plague of sin’s shame and death.

We find purpose and ultimate satisfaction in GOD alone, through Christ alone. The process that comes as God strips us of our idols is painful. But He does this so that you will turn to Him and rejoice in His presence and praise Him as you discover that He is enough.

 “For our sake He made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.” 2 Corinthians 5:21

In His wrath, He has remembered mercy.