Veteran’s Day 2017: America’s Golden Calf (Daniel 3)

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Colin Kaepernick. Image Credit: Time Magazine

 

Audio Message: 

 

Opening Selection: O Give Thanks  (Dr. Judith McAllister)

Everyday is a Day of Thanksgiving (Florence Gospel Choir)

Intermediate Selection: Grateful (Ted Winn & Balance, featuring Maranda)

Inspirational Selection: Thank You (Earnest Pugh)

Post-Sermon Selection: Battlefield (Norman Hutchins): To honor America’s veterans and current soldiers

Memorial Selection (in honor of the victims and the families affected by the Sutherland Springs, Texas shooting):

 

Sermon Title: “America’s Golden Calf”

Scripture: Daniel 3:8-18

“I pledge allegiance, to the flag, of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands. One nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” These are the words of what Americans proudly proclaim “The Pledge of Allegiance,” and many view the Pledge as sacred: it is a vocal sign of commitment and loyalty to one’s country. How much more politically conscious can one be than that?

I remember saying the pledge as a child, growing up in school and learning how to place my hand over my heart and practice the word “indivisible” until I got it right. But in all of my childhood, at a time when children have so many social values, expectations, and rules of etiquette drilled into them, I recited the Pledge of Allegiance in a sacred manner. It was a way of affirming that I love my country. What could be the harm in that?

And yet, those words suddenly started to take an interesting turn when NFL football star Colin Kaepernick decided to kneel at NFL games in 2016 to protest police brutality and black victimization at the hands of the law enforcement that swore to protect blacks alongside of all other Americans. His actions were a silent gesture with a loud impact, garnering all kinds of responses, from applause for remembering the injustices to disgust that a player of the NFL, one of America’s most cherished sports leagues, could act in such a manner as to disrespect one of America’s most beloved customs.

After Kaepernick bowed the knee and refused to pledge allegiance to the flag and country, the movement started taking off with everyday folks who believed in what he was doing. High school students and college students started protesting at local sports games, and the topic started to dominate school discussions. But eventually, it made its way to the office of the POTUS, the President of the United States, who said, and I quote,

“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, out, he’s fired. He’s fired,'” Trump said.

“You know, some owner is going to do that. He’s going to say, ‘That guy that disrespects our flag, he’s fired.’ And that owner, they don’t know it [but] they’ll be the most popular person in this country.” In another quote, Trump said some time after the first comment, “If a player wants the privilege of making millions of dollars in the NFL,or other leagues, he or she should not be allowed to disrespect. … our Great American Flag (or Country) and should stand for the National Anthem. If not, YOU’RE FIRED. Find something else to do!” Trump also said.

In other words, NFL players are not free to show a silent protest; they must “pledge allegiance to the flag” rather than bow if they disagree with police brutality, or racial discrimination, or the persecution of a particular subset of society because they want to make a statement.

Well, these words sound harsh (aside from the expletive, which is bad enough), but they show that in America, the pledge of allegiance has won our allegiance. It doesn’t matter what we think on political issues, as long as we show up at sports games and national events and “look happy as Americans.” As long as we don’t rock the boat at national events, televised events, massively popular events, or even at local sports events in the community, then we’re free to protest.

But, here’s the question we must ask ourselves: if we’re free to protest peacefully, then what is the harm behind Kaepernick’s bowing the knee? The answer, in a word, is that we’ve become more consumed about how we look publicly than how we feel. Good appearances are all this administration appears to care about. Remember Charlottesville, when the President said about the KKK advocates who ran over a protester that “there are good people” on the side of the KKK as well as protestors? See, Trump has become all about appearances. Despite the fact that the nation is divided over a number of issues, including political parties (half the country didn’t vote for Trump, and many who did voted for him because they didn’t want a woman in office; let’s very well be honest about the matter), Trump wants us all to look united in theory though we’re nothing of the sort in practice. It seems as though the pledge of allegiance and the US flag together have become “America’s Golden Calf.”

In today’s text, Daniel 3, we find out that there’s a statue King Nebuchadnezzar had made to testify to his kingship and his greatness. The statue, as we see in Daniel 3:1, was “sixty cubits” high and 6 cubits wide. In today’s terms, the statue would have been 90 feet tall and 9 feet wide. This “image” wasn’t the tallest that existed in those days, but there was nothing unusually great about it. It’s likely that the statue was one of himself, King Nebuchadnezzar…and the king had a statue of himself made to represent his greatness.

Whether it was a spectacular sight to behold or not, the king was proud of it – and he commanded everyone to worship it. We read of King Nebuchadnezzar’s command in Daniel 3:4-6:

“To you it is commanded, O peoples, nations, and languages, that at the time you hear the sound of the horn, flute, harp, lyre, and psaltery, in symphony with all kinds of music, you shall fall down and worship the gold image that King Nebuchadnezzar has set up; and whoever does not fall down and worship shall be cast immediately into the midst of a burning fiery furnace.”

The king wanted to celebrate himself, wanted an ego trip, and he made the command as a political one. Yet and still, the command was a political smokescreen, for the king had other ways to command respect from those in his realm. He could’ve invited everyone to a parade to celebrate his reign, or have everyone bring or pay a tribute tax, or have a day named after himself, and so on. And yet, the king was so great in his own eyes that he wanted something that went too far: he wanted to be worshipped. Yes, Nebuchadnezzar wanted worship. And yet, we know from Scripture that worship is reserved for God alone. Remember what the Lord told Israel in Exodus 34 about their covenant with Him?

“13 But you shall destroy their altars, break their sacred pillars, and cut down their wooden images 14 (for you shall worship no other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God),” (Exodus 34:13-14)

And in Exodus 20, the Law God gave to His people, the Israelites, He told them to not worship any god but He alone:

2 “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.
3 “You shall have no other gods before Me.
4 “You shall not make for yourself a carved image—any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; 5 you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, 6 but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments. (Exodus 20:2-6)

In Luke 4, when Satan shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the world in a moment and tells Him he’d give Jesus every one of them if Jesus would fall down and worship him, Jesus says to Satan in Luke 4:8, “Get behind Me, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only you shall serve.’ ”

And yet, Daniel’s three friends, who, like Daniel before them, believed in the One true, living God, wouldn’t bow down to the golden statue. Notice that Daniel’s friends are set up as a contrast to the Israelites in the wilderness: while the Israelites took the gold God gave them and had Aaron craft a golden calf to fall down and worship as the one who’d brought them out of Egypt and 430 years of slavery, while Daniel’s three friends, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego refused to bow down and worship the king’s statue of himself. Nebuchadnezzar’s request was political on the surface, but beneath the surface, it was religious; it was a matter of worship.

All other leaders in the nation outside of Daniel’s three friends (whom Daniel helped secure their places in the kingdom by putting in a good word with the king about them in Daniel 2:49) worshipped the golden image, the golden statue. Everyone worshipped it except for Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego. For these three men, this political stunt was about something greater than unifying the kingdom around Nebuchadnezzar: it was an affront against the King of Kings, and these three men decided that, as Peter said in Acts 5:29, “We ought to obey God rather than men.”

For Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego, the golden image was a “Golden Calf” that they would never worship because to befriend the world, as John says, is to be at enmity against God. They made it up in their minds that to have God was to have everything, and they wouldn’t trade their Lord for the good graces of the king. There was a King above the king – and that was the Lord God who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in it.

If you’ve been paying attention, the situation faced by these three believers seems similar to the current political scene of our day. When Colin Kaepernick bowed the knee, he was saying in silence that he didn’t agree with saluting the flag and US when this country has been responsible for police brutalities that have yet to be punished as they ought. His cause was the concern he had for his fellow racial brothers and sisters that have been shot down by police who claim to represent law enforcement but have become lawbreakers.

Some say, okay, I’m reading about these three believers who wouldn’t bow down to the king’s golden image, and I know about Colin Kaepernick, but what does Kaepernick have to do with me? I know that Daniel 3 is telling me not to put anything before God, but was Kaepernick’s stance on the field really about God and worshipping Him alone? Some may not know Kaepernick’s story, but the Lord will shine light onto Kaepernick’s life and actions this day – and turn our lives upside down in the process. So, here goes the unraveling.

Kaepernick was raised by a 19-year-old single white woman; Colin’s father abandoned she and Colin before he was born, and his mother, poor and destitute, was forced to give Colin up for adoption. He was raised by white parents, but no matter how comfortable a life he had, he, what some would call a modern-day Moses, never forgot the struggles of his people. But what many also haven’t been told about Colin Kaepernick is that he’s like you and me: he’s a Christian, a believer who loves God. The Washington Post had this to say about Colin Kaepernick:

He has said, “My faith is the basis from where my game comes from. I’ve been very blessed to have the talent to play the game that I do and be successful at it. I think God guides me through every day and helps me take the right steps and has helped me to get to where I’m at. When I step on the field, I always say a prayer, say I am thankful to be able to wake up that morning and go out there and try to glorify the Lord with what I do on the field. I think if you go out and try to do that, no matter what you do on the field, you can be happy about what you did.”

And Kaepernick’s faith isn’t just about making him feel happy. It’s turned him into an activist and philanthropist. During the offseason Kaepernick launched a GoFundMe page to fly food and water into suffering Somalia. It surpassed its $2 million goal in just four days. In March, the plane loaded with essential supplies landed in Mogadishu.

He had already pledged to donate $1 million, along with the proceeds of his jersey sales from the 2016 season, to charitable work.

This year, Meals on Wheels announced it had received $50,000 from Kaepernick.

He joined with the charitable organization 100 Suits, to pass out free suits in front of the New York State Parole office for people who have been released from prison and are looking for jobs. 

In other words, Kaepernick is a man who doesn’t just say he’s a believer and claim faith but a man who lives it out on a daily basis. His love for God and his faith drives him to make a difference in the world.

This is the man who took the knee for God and bowed before his Maker during the national anthem at NFL football games last season. He did it because he believed that allegiance to his God was greater than allegiance to the government, than allegiance to a flag and a country that didn’t live out his God-instilled sense of justice and truth. No, his God motivated him to bow to Jesus because he believed, as did Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego, that allegiance to God supercedes allegiance to a country and a flag.

Some would interject here and say, “Well, you can do both. Scripture tells us to honor those that are in government and in authority over us, and you don’t have to choose between the two.” Some would say that, “Well, to salute the flag and pledge allegiance to the flag and the Republic for which it stands is a good thing. After all, the pledge of allegiance is said as “one nation under God,” is it not? Well, I have two responses to this question.

First, the words “under God” were not an original part of the pledge of allegiance. Think on that fact for a few seconds. The original pledge of allegiance was written without the phrase “under God” in it. There was no country under God, according to the pledge as it was originally written in 1892. According to the Encyclopaedia Brittanica, the pledge of allegiance in 1892 read as follows: “I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands; one nation indivisible, with liberty and Justice for all.” The words “the flag of the United States of America” were substituted for “my Flag” in 1924, and the pledge was officially recognized by the U.S. government in 1942.”

So, the original intent of the author, Francis Bellamy, was merely political. There was no “under God” in the pledge in 1892, but the phrase was added in 1954 during the presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower. To bring it into further perspective, the phrase was added, due to the political activism of Roman Catholics, 2 years before my mother was born. That means that my grandparents, mom’s parents, said the pledge of allegiance for 12 years without the phrase “under God” in it – my grandparents, who are Christians.

Smithsonian American children saluting the flag like Hitler
Image Credit: 

To make matters worse, think also on the salute. Today, we place our hands on our hearts when we recite the pledge, but that wasn’t the case back in 1942 when the US Government officially recognized the pledge. What was the original salute, you ask? The “Heil, Hitler” salute. Yes, you heard me right: the same way Nazi German soldiers and nationalists would salute Hitler is the same way Americans once saluted the flag and said the pledge of allegiance. And yet, as Smithsonian writer Erin Blakemore says in her article title, “The Rules About How To Address the US Flag Came About Because No one Wanted To Look Like A Nazi”.

Some may say, “Well, the phrase was added before I was born and when I say the pledge of allegiance, I’m pledging loyalty to this great country we call America because I believe this country is under God and that God is watching over this country.” However, are we not the least bit upset behind the fact that the original pledge lacked “under God”? There’s a music movement in the church today that “copies and pastes” songs, rips them from their R&B and godless roots, then substitutes “baby” with “Jesus” and sells it as Christian or gospel music on a gospel or Christian album. It would be akin to reading Psalm 23 where it talks about God being our Shepherd, only to find out that the original Psalm 23 was written to the King of Israel at that time and then conveniently “swapped” for God when the canon was being put together. What makes the Bible the Word of God is that the authorial intent, the goal of the Holy Spirit, the Author of Scripture, was to praise God and point to God from beginning to end, from Genesis to Revelation.

When we read Scripture, we discover that the Psalms were written when David experienced joys and sorrows, when he was on the run from Saul and when he had sinned before God and asked God for forgiveness of his sexual sin with Bathsheba and the murder of her innocent husband, Uriah. There is no “well, this wasn’t written for God but let’s take it and make it about God” agenda underlying the chapters and books of the Bible; instead, there is only “this is for God and only for God.”

This is the authorial intent we read of when we read about David writing a song or Psalm. It says in 1 Chronicles 16 that David delivered a psalm, a song, to Asaph “to thank the Lord.” The intent of the song David delivered, what we now know as portions of Psalms 105:1-15, 96:1-13, and 106:1, 47-48, was “to thank the Lord.” It wasn’t written to thank his father Jesse or one of his concubines, then reworked with words to glorify God. When we read John 20:31, we read that John’s Gospel was written “that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name.” Again, authorial intent is to bring glory to God, not reworked to glorify God when it was originally written to glorify or emphasize something else.

The pledge of allegiance, deemed sacred, is now being seen by many for what it is: a pledge that was solely political, designed to unite the country in 1892, a divided country that had emerged from the Civil War still divided. God wasn’t mentioned in it, and all Americans were to say the pledge knowing that many Christians were saying the pledge without the mention of the name of the One true God. And, apart from the claim that to protest during the pledge is to disrespect the soldiers that have served, the pledge never even mentions the soldiers! If the pledge were designed to that effect, why is it that none of that was mentioned in the pledge? Why don’t we read one shred of a phrase that says “and to the Republic for which it stands and the soldiers past and present?”

The pledge of allegiance is only a pledge to the country and the flag, but not a pledge of allegiance to God, who has graced this country to be where it is. Republicans are all for God and country, but if they’re so “for God,” why not spend their efforts revising the pledge so that Christians can say it with pride and mean it as not only a political action but an act of praise to God when they say it? That’s what I’d love to see come out of the Trump administration: a true tribute to God so that all the nation can know that we love the Lord, we’re soldiers in the army of the Lord, and that you cannot pledge allegiance to country and flag, to country and king, without allegiance to the King of Kings!

Now, let’s go back into Daniel 3.

Some Chaldeans went to Nebuchadnezzar and told him in verse 12 that “There are certain Jews whom you have set over the affairs of the province of Babylon: Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego; these men, o king, have not paid due regard to you. They do not serve your gods or worship the gold image which you have set up.” These men paid homage to the God of Israel and worshipped Him only, and they would not serve any other god. They believed in their God, they had divine conviction, and they stood by it. And these men knew that they were godly and didn’t worship Nebuchadnezzar’s god or gods, which is why they approached the king anyway. They looked at these three believers and thought that they were trying to be “above the law” by not bowing to the golden statue.

And the Chaldean mindset still persists today. When Colin Kaepernick bowed the knee, he was labeled a traitor, a rebel, a lawbreaker, a troublemaker, an insurrectionist, etc. He’s still being labeled as such because, as some have said, “it is because of him that the country is divided.” And yet, Kaepernick didn’t divide the country; the country has always been divided. The difference between 1892 and today, 2017, is that today, we live in a diverse country where some worship God and some do not worship God, and the political climate is becoming less tolerant of Christians than it once was. Atheists are becoming less tolerant of Christians, and Christians are becoming less tolerant of atheists. The country is divided, and, as was the case in 1892, the pledge of allegiance is becoming that “thing,” that “x factor” that can unite us.

The problem with the mindset now, which matches the same problem it had in 1892, is that, as long as you put God in the background of the pledge instead of the foreground, you will NEVER unite this country. In the life of the believer, politics must always take a backseat to faith. Always. Our faith worships our God; politics worships the human powers that be, and whether or not it is to our financial and societal interest to be devoted. And yet, believers are to always remain loyal to God, even as the political climate shifts in the coming years and decades. Pledges of allegiance will come and go, but our God lives forever.

I don’t have time to tell of the rest of the story in the way that I want to. What I can tell you is that Nebuchadnezzar approaches Daniel’s three friends and inquires about their failure to worship the golden image. They tell the king in Daniel 3:16-18 that they would not bow to his image, that if they died, they’d die; but regardless of whether they lived or died, they wouldn’t bow down to the statue. “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If that is the case, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and He will deliver us from your hand, O king. But if not, let it be known to you, O king, that we do not serve your gods, nor will we worship the gold image which you have set up.”

In other words, whether we’re rescued or not, whether it turns out favorable to us or not, whether we get what we want or not, whether the state got the upper hand or these three believers did, they wouldn’t bow down because they were men of conviction. That’s the same conviction Colin Kaepernick had when he refused to put his hand over his heart and pledge allegiance to a country and a flag that claims to be “a nation under God” but allows the powers that be to get away with saying anything, doing anything, killing anyone, and tweeting any thought that surfaces.

The goal of this sermon was not to tell you to go with Kaepernick. I believe in the freedom of conscience, and the right of the individual to decide before his or her country and God what decision to take and action to make. But what I’m saying here is that, if you remove all the pomp and circumstance, all the national anthem, all the crowds that show up to NFL games, all the tweeting and harsh words of POTUS, we’re left with a pledge that is terribly flawed, atheistic, and needs to be scrapped in favor of a new pledge of allegiance. And in the new pledge, I suggest we write it to the tune of the following: “I pledge allegiance to God, to this nation under God, and to the flag for which the Republic stands. One people, indivisible, living out Holy Scripture’s command to seek liberty and justice for all.”

It’s that “justice for all” that convinced Kaepernick, a modern-day Moses, to bow the knee to God instead of metaphorically “bowing the knee” to the country and administration for the sake of appearances and politics. He, like Moses, is a man of justice who wants to see justice lived out, to see justice incarnate, in our everyday reality, before he can rest easy trusting in his government.

Kaepernick has stood his ground, even though he’s unemployed and hasn’t been given a future spot on any NFL team. Perhaps he’s too tainted for some teams, and too public for others. But at the end of the day, when Kaepernick lays down to sleep and rises up, he can do so because he’s a man of principle, conviction, a sense of justice, a man of deep faith in his God whom he credits with all his success. He has decided not to pledge allegiance to America’s Golden Calf because there’s only room for one to pledge allegiance to in his heart: that is, Christ. And when you first pledge allegiance to God, you can properly pledge allegiance to country. After all, it is love for God that instills a love for country, and a love of truth that instills a love to right injustice and wrong. If Kaepernick as well as Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego don’t embody true Christian principles and the best political activism, I dare you to find someone who does.