Get It Out of His Face

Thursday, June 28, 2018

The Sunday before the Fourth of July is my least favorite Sunday of the entire year.

Every time I start attending a new church, I dread it. I wonder what to expect: Will we worship God, or will we worship America?

On this weekend in July, many churches, several of which I have attended, hold a "patriotic worship service." They place the American flag on the stage, sing "God Bless America," and preach about how the United States is God's chosen nation, tasked with the responsibility to be the "city on the hill." They uphold America's messianic identity to spread freedom and Western-style democracy, claiming this is part of America's "Manifest Destiny" (which is in turn part of God's redemptive plan for the world). Military personnel are usually publicly recognized in some way, because killing and/or dying for our country is viewed as a sacred duty. And because the U.S. has been "chosen" and "blessed by God," devotion to our country is one of the highest religious practices. After all, she is "one nation under God."

Sometimes these themes accost me at the door. Other times, they're deeply embedded within the service: subtle, but still very much present, in a prayer or sermon illustration.

All of this is American civil religion; it's nothing short of idolatry.

Worship is a political act. Through worship, we acknowledge that God alone deserves our allegiance, our devotion, and our loyalty. Public worship is a declaration that the Church will bow to no other gods.

This becomes extremely problematic when we include something else in our worship. Suddenly, God alone does not have all of our attention or allegiance. Giving worth to something else while giving worth to God ultimately diminishes God's worth. We cannot serve two masters (Matt. 6:24).

In Exodus 20, Yahweh begins the Ten Commandments with the most important command of all: "You shall have no other gods before me." This translation from Hebrew is misleading. It seems to imply that I can still recognize America in worship and honor her, just as long as I keep God in the first place spot.

Here's what the first commandment really says in Hebrew: "You shall have no other gods before my face."

God wants other contenders vying for our worship out of his presence. He doesn't even want to see them. They should be so far away from his spot in first place that they aren't even visible. Period.

When we erect an American flag in front of his altar, we are putting another god clearly in his line of sight. When we honor our nation alongside God, we are rubbing an idol in his face.

We can't put politics aside in worship, because worship is by nature political. But we must decide to whom we will pledge our allegiance. Will we as the Church remain faithful to the Lamb or yield to the Empire?

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