A Loyalty Above All Other Loyalties

Disclaimer: This sermon (now an article) was really laid on my heart. So I hope that if you find it offensive, that you would consider the message deeply and not just find another church that won't challenge you on this. Looking across the church landscape in our town, I believe you are the only church in our town where this message could be preached and you won't have a meeting afterward to consider firing me and dealing with a bunch of negative criticism. Because of that, we have an extra important job of living faithfully to this message.


In history, we see the tendency of societies to demonize other societies and then to treat them like they are dogs.  “Christian” societies like Spain and England, when they discovered America, treated the Indians like they were a sub-species because they had not discovered, adopted, or were even wanting to adopt the “superior” technologies of Europe.  And this isn’t just me projecting my 21st century sensibilities onto the past.  Roger Williams was a minister in Massachusetts Bay Colony who spoke out against the treatment of Indians.  And others from the time also wrote about the Europeans abhorrent treatment of the Indians.  But the powers that be wanted them to stop because it was not in their best financial interest to treat the Indians well.  The were getting land and resources all at the expense of the Indians.  

On October 9, 1635, the Massachusetts Bay Colony by the General Court of Massachusetts banished Pastor Roger Williams because he was outspoken against the rights of the civil authorities to punish religious dissension and to confiscate the land of the Indians.
“After leaving Massachusetts, Williams…. established a settlement at the junction of two rivers … located in present-day Rhode Island. He declared the settlement open to all those seeking freedom of conscience and the removal of the church from civil matters, [meaning that you would not be punished from being on the wrong side of a religious debate,] and many dissatisfied Puritans came. Taking the success of the venture as a sign from God, Williams named the community ‘Providence.’”

“Among those who found a haven in the religious and political refuge of the Rhode Island Colony were Anne Hutchinson–…[another religious leader who]…had been exiled from Massachusetts for religious reasons–some of the first Jews to settle in North America, and the Quakers. In Providence, Roger Williams also founded the first Baptist church. (source: http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/rhode-island-founder-banished-from-massachusetts)
This happened all because Roger Williams place his loyalty to God and His ways above the state. A loyalty above all other loyalties.

And he is not alone in that. We come from a long line of dissidents. People who had one loyalty above all other loyalties.


Let’s go back a little further even, from Massachuesetts in 1635 all the way back to around 600 BC. The Jews had been conquered and the best of the Jews were taken back to Babylon to help the empire. So, as servants in the great empire of Babylon, we see the story of Jews trying to remain faithful in a pagan land. And the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar, made a giant statue and proclaimed that people must fall down and worship it or be thrown into a fiery furnace.

So the moment came. And the sound to worship was made. And three Jews refused to bow. I can imagine the thinking and arguments. You should just submit to the State. Really, you can just bow and not mean it. Instead, with all the pressure to bow and worship the state in order to avoid punishment, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to join in.

The story goes:
Therefore at that time certain Chaldeans came forward and maliciously accused the Jews.  They declared to King Nebuchadnezzar, “O king, live forever!  You, O king, have made a decree, that every man who hears the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, bagpipe, and every kind of music, shall fall down and worship the golden image.  And whoever does not fall down and worship shall be cast into a burning fiery furnace.  There are certain Jews whom you have appointed over the affairs of the province of Babylon: Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. These men, O king, pay no attention to you; they do not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.” 
Then Nebuchadnezzar in furious rage commanded that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego be brought. So they brought these men before the king.  Nebuchadnezzar answered and said to them, “Is it true, O Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, that you do not serve my gods or worship the golden image that I have set up?  Now if you are ready when you hear the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, bagpipe, and every kind of music, to fall down and worship the image that I have made, well and good. But if you do not worship, you shall immediately be cast into a burning fiery furnace. And who is the god who will deliver you out of my hands?”  
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered and said to the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter.  If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king.  But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.”  Then Nebuchadnezzar was filled with fury, and the expression of his face was changed against Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. He ordered the furnace heated seven times more than it was usually heated.  And he ordered some of the mighty men of his army to bind Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, and to cast them into the burning fiery furnace.  Then these men were bound in their cloaks, their tunics, their hats, and their other garments, and they were thrown into the burning fiery furnace. Daniel 3:8-21 (ESV)
We, those who claim to follow Jesus, come from a long line of people who have had one loyalty above all other loyalties and honored that loyalty at great cost.


Let’s look at another story.

Let me set up the context here. Jesus had just been killed by the state. Hung on the cross and humiliated. Forty days after his death and resurrection, his followers received the Holy Spirit, God’s power moved, and the church was established and flourishing. The Jewish leaders thought they had won the battle against the Jesus movement by cutting off the head, but the movement just flourished because they didn’t know that when they killed Jesus, the Holy Spirit would come. God was at work. They could kill Jesus, but death couldn’t keep him down. And when He rose again and ascended into heaven, and he imbued His followers with the Holy Spirit. God worked. But the state didn’t want to see this religion grow.

Acts tells the story:
And when they had brought them, they set them before the council. And the high priest questioned them,  saying, “We strictly charged you not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and you intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.”  But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men. Acts 5:27-29 (ESV)
One loyalty above all other loyalties.
And when they had called in the apostles, they beat them and charged them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go.  Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name.  And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching that the Christ is Jesus. Acts 5:40-42 (ESV)
They continued doing the will of God, despite being beaten, because they had one loyalty above all other loyalties. 


We share that conviction. When we became Christians, we expressed one loyalty above all other loyalties. A loyalty to God who came to earth and dwelt among us as Jesus and now lives in us through the Holy Spirit. That is where our loyalty lies. For them, that meant they would honor their loyalty to the kingdom of God when it contradicted with loyalty to Babylon or Rome. And so, when it comes to allegiance to our nation, as long as our nation isn’t going against the things of God, we can be loyal to America. But we have one loyalty above all other loyalties as people who have surrendered our lives to the will of God. And it is an easy decision for someone who has surrendered their life to the will of God and service to His kingdom to choose loyalty to God over any other earthly loyalty when they conflict.

So your workplace may tell you to do something unethical. If they do, you refuse to do it because your loyalty is to God and not to that workplace. Your spouse or family may encourage wrong actions, again the same.  If any group encourages something that goes contrary to the will of God, we choose disloyalty to that group and loyalty to God. The church is a radical group of rebels following Jesus, the ultimate revolutionary, refusing to bow down to any of the power structures of this world. When we are living His way, obediently, as God intends for us, we conform only to God.

But let’s be honest, the biggest challenge to our faith can come at times from a contrary state. Historically, this has always been the case for people who place an unyielding loyalty to God above all other loyalties.

The State, although a different state, tried to stop Roger Williams in Massachusetts and he remained loyal to God. The State, again a different one, tried to make Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego bow, yet they remained loyal to God. And the same with the early church. Loyalty to God above loyalty to the State. It’s as if the State has this evil tendency that regularly springs up throughout history to try and stop people who are loyal to God.

Maybe there is something to Paul’s teaching to the church in Ephesus where he tells us to prepare ourselves for these sort of evil days where the state is out of step with God.
Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil.  For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.  Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. Ephesians 6:11-13 (ESV)
Our nation has some policies that conflict with the teachings of Scripture; when that happens we don’t concede our ethics to the State. What is right and wrong is never decided by the majority or by who has the most earthly power. It’s always decided by sovereignty. The sovereignty of God. We have one loyalty above all other loyalties and that loyalty is reserved for God. 


The early Christians lived with an obvious rebellious idea that we now sanitize. They called Jesus “king.” King Jesus. The authorities of that day even mockingly put that label above the cross as they executed Jesus. And in labeling Jesus king, the earthly Caesar understood this to be an attack on his authority, as it rightly was. Throughout history, from the beginnings of the church, Christians have had one loyalty above all other loyalties. When they said that Jesus was their king, they really meant it. They had one loyalty above all others. King above all kings. Lord of lords. They would serve Jesus over the state if the two would ever get at odds, which they most assuredly do at times.

Jesus taught at the end of the Parable of the Dishonest Manager.
No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” Luke 16:13 (ESV)
In this specific case, he was talking about money, but that principle can apply to anything, although money will often be the idea that we cut corners on and serve rather than God. But we can’t serve God and sport. We can’t serve God and entertainment. We can’t serve God and work. We can’t serve God and family. We can’t serve God and our state. We have one loyalty above all other loyalties. We serve God. And when we have that loyalty right, the other things will fall into proper perspective. Money will be used to further God’s kingdom. Sport will be used to build discipline and responsibility. Entertainment will be used to foster community. Work will be used as a mission field and an opportunity to better things. Family will be used as a fountain for which God’s love can overflow. The state is to bring peace and prosperity. We can even be a good citizen, although, inevitably, our loyalty to God will cause us to be a bad citizen at times and live in rebellion to the ideas expressed by the state when they collide with the way of God. And let’s not deceive ourselves, the state does conflict with the way of God on certain issues right now and, most likely, always will. I’m not specifically addressing or mentioning the hot button political issues of our time, but I challenge you to filter them through the teachings here.

But we must never concede the ideas that the state is the hope of mankind, the salt of the earth, the city on a hill, the light of the world. That’s the church when it is properly reflecting God’s kingdom.

Now, if I was talking to you as a person in a position of authority in the State, my message would be different. I would be telling you to align the state as much as possible to the kingdom of God without oppressing people. Work for the poor. Work for the powerless. Bring about justice. Live in righteousness. And as much as we can do that in our lives, we must. But I’m not addressing a message here to the people who control this land. Instead, in a way, we are the poor and powerless. None of us here has the power to get any law changed. We barely have a voice despite the color of our skin supposedly giving us some privileges.


But we must recognize that we, as people who have surrendered our lives to Jesus and His will, will sometimes face a state that is opposed to the will of God. And when that happens, we still do God’s will. We see this in the life of Corrie Ten Boom. The Germans were rounding up Jews to put them in concentration camps after conquering the Netherlands. And what did she do? She and her sister rebelled against the authorities and helped the Jews. This is living out the loyalty above all other loyalties.

And resistance to the evil German state was widespread among the Christians in the Nazi Germany.  Jews weren’t the only people killed in the Holocaust despite that being what we think of when we think of the Holocaust. It is estimated that 3 million Christians were killed in the Holocaust, but it’s hard to find an accurate number, as it is also hard to tell who was executed just because of their nationality regardless of their religion. But they also spied on and targeted priests and pastors. At Dachau, the Germans held 2,720 priests and pastors in the concentration camp. One of them is one of my heroes, Pastor Martin Niemoller because of his boldness that caused him to be sent away to the concentration camp.

As Dr. Laurence White described it in a message I heard him give:
“In 1934, during his second year as chancellor of the German Reich, Adolf Hitler invited the leaders of the evangelical churches of Germany to a meeting in Berlin. His goal was to quell mounting criticism from the Christian community of the Nazi regime and its attempts to subvert the churches. Among those present at that meeting was a fiery young Lutheran pastor from the Berlin suburb of Dahlem named Martin Niemoller. Niemoller would later recall this encounter as the moment from which he knew that Germany was doomed. Hitler was amiable and deliberately reassuring as he sought the support of these prominent churchmen. He promised the pastors that the position of the church in Germany was safe and secure - that its legal protections, its tax exemptions, and state support would remain unchanged under the Nazi government. Niemoller pushed to the front of the group to confront the chancellor directly and reject his casual consignment of Christians to social irrelevance. Standing face to face with Germany's ruler, the brash young pastor asserted: "Our concern, Herr Hitler, is not for the church. Our concern is for the soul of our country." An embarrassed silence followed his remark and it was immediately evident that Niemoller spoke only for himself. [He, like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, stood alone.] His chagrined colleagues quickly shuffled him away from the front of the room. Noting their timid reaction, the dictator smiled as he replied, "The soul of Germany, you can leave that to me."”

“And so they did -- Christians looked the other way while innocent people were slaughtered and a nation was led down the path to destruction.” (source: http://downloads.frc.org/EF/EF16H41.pdf)
For many of them, their loyalty to God was not above their loyalty to the state. They just went along with Nazi Germany. They didn’t want to rock the boat. They didn’t want to cause any outrage. They didn’t want to sacrifice like Niemoller and find themselves in a concentration camp. They just conformed to the State rather than Jesus. And atrocity followed. That is the end result of the church conforming to the state. It empowers the powers and principalities of this world to unleash hell on earth unhindered. When we cave to the pressure to give blind obedience to the state, we become a tool for evil rather than a vessel for the beauty and way of God to flow through. We lose our prophetic voice as we become an example of conformity rather than the countercultural revolution of Jesus.

Martin Niemoller gave the famous quote, which I’m sure that you know even if you don’t know Niemoller:
“In Germany they came first for the Communists and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist. Then they came for the Jews and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics and I didn't speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me--and by that time no one was left to speak up.”
This wasn’t some abstract concept for Niemoller. He was then imprisoned by Hitler and served at concentration camps for eight years.  He wasn’t released until he was freed by the allies in 1945.  Unlike his famous peer, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Niemoller made it out alive and died in the 1980s.


But we can easily point the fingers at Christians who compromised the gospel in Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany, but we have to be careful to not do the same thing here in America.

The siren call of the American culture and nationalism is alluring and tough to resist.   Where have we compromised?  Do we go along with our culture of waste?  Do we go along with war drums and violence? Do we buy into the idea of keeping our faith personal and out of our public life? Do we cave and not stand up when it is difficult?

[slide – one loyalty] We can just say that battle of loyalties is a thing of the past and deceive ourselves. Beacause it is obvious when we look at the faithful in Babylon, the early church in the Roman Empire, the early days of the American frontier, Nazi Germany – All eras seem to have moments where the state strives to pull us away from our ultimate loyalty to God.

So I will give you a present example. I hope It encourages us to live more radically in Jesus’ revolution. In their words from The Simple Way’s website.
“In 1995, dozens of homeless families had moved into an abandoned Catholic church building in North Philadelphia. They were told by the Archdiocese that they had 48 hours to move out, or they could be arrested. With nowhere to go, these courageous mothers and children hung a banner on the front of the building that said, “How can we worship a homeless man on Sunday, and ignore one on Monday?” The families held their own press conference and announced that they had talked with the real “Owner” of the building (the Lord Almighty!) – and God said they could stay until they found somewhere else to go.”

“That’s was the spark that lit the fire of The Simple Way.” Their church in Philadelaphia.

“A few years after the takeover of the church ended --  in January 1998 -- some of the students who had been a part of that movement pooled their money together and bought 3234 Potter Street. They took an old shoe repair store and made it their home. Before long they grew into other abandoned houses on the block…And now – after over two decades -- an intentional community has turned into a little village.” (source: https://www.thesimpleway.org/about/)
And through their life together, standing in loyalty to the kingdom of God over any other loyalty, the community is being transformed. People’s lives are changing. God’s kingdom is being realized here on earth as it is in heaven.

Christians should be different than the world around us. We live in rebellion to the state at times. We come from a long tradition of people who have placed loyalty to God and his kingdom above the State. The State killed our Lord and Savior, but they couldn’t keep Him down. Likewise, we are called to live with this ultimate loyalty to God in our lives. This means that we won’t look just like and behave just like our nonChristian neighbors. We will invest in and create a community of encouragement and support, the church, as we go out into the world that will try to get us to compromise our faith and, yet, we will always choose to be a blessing. Loving those who oppose us. We will stop our world's downward spiral of hate. Loving our enemies. Loving strangers. We are called to be bringers of a different way of living. A different kingdom. We will place our loyalty to God above all other loyalties no matter what the cost.  You are part of the greatest revolution the world has ever known. Live it.