There’s a story in the gospels about a young man who came up to Jesus and asked the question most of us want to know at some point: “What must I do to be saved?” I don’t want to get into the different things we could mean by “saved,” but most of us want to know the answer. Jesus tells him, basically, keep the commandments – specifically the all too familiar 10 Commandments. The man’s response? “All these I have kept since my youth.”
Jesus goes on to challenge this self-righteous notion of perfect adherence to the Law by telling him to sell everything he has and give it to the poor. He can’t do it because he was very wealthy. In that one response, Jesus exposes our misunderstanding of what the 10 Commandments are really there for.
Several years ago you may remember that there was a big fight between Christian groups and Atheists about whether or not the 10 Commandments could be displayed in public courthouses or on government-owned property. Whichever side of that debate you fall on, I can say this: I doubt that the majority of Christians in the pews on Sunday could actually recite the 10 Commandments, especially not in order. It’s obvious to me that this is more symbolic of having a place of authority and power in the public sphere rather than proclaiming an ethical lifestyle.
Which brings me to the events of the past couple of weeks (or really the last five years or more). As a minister in the American church I have noticed a shift in culture from the time I was younger. The things that mattered SO MUCH during the Clinton years – honesty, integrity, sexual morality, character – suddenly went out the window in 2015 when a certain candidate began winning over the hearts and souls of American Christians. I hope that the events of January 6, 2021, were a wakeup call for many of my brothers and sisters in Christ. I hope that we can begin to put all this behind us and truly seek unity and peace. But as it has been noted by many people smarter than me – there cannot be reconciliation without first experiencing repentance.
The church in America – myself included – has much to repent of. Christians should be the first to confess our sins so that we can be healed. So what are the things we need to repent of? Let’s take a look.
1. I am the LORD Your God. You shall have no other gods before me.
Jesus made it quite clear that we cannot serve both God and ___________. In the context, Jesus said we can’t serve God and wealth (or mammon). But I think the same holds true for anything we put in that blank. We cannot serve God and capitalism or nationalism or political power or fame or the American Dream or sports or academics or… You get the point. Yet how many of those things become our gods?
I’ve seen many authors and scholars over the years, like N.T. Wright and Brian Zhand, articulate that America’s gods are Mars (war/power), Aphrodite (sex/beauty), and Mammon (wealth/materialism). Too many Christians get caught up in the lies of syncretism, believing that they can somehow serve both God and… So we begin to equate the American Dream with the Gospel. We hold the Constitution on the same level or higher than the Sermon on the Mount. We believe that the USA is somehow God’s special possession, blessed and commissioned by God to bring democracy and capitalism to the rest of the world.
It all seems harmless until you see “Jesus Saves” flags flying alongside “TRUMP 2020” flags as rioters storm the Capitol Building. It seems innocent enough until you see the mobs erect crosses and a gallows.
God, forgive us, for we know not what we do. We have placed so many things before you. We have broken the first command. We have not loved you with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength. So often we give those things to other ideals and endeavors and just save you the leftovers. We repent of following other gods, namely Mammon, Mars, and Aphrodite. May we truly be a people who put you first, who submit to your rule and authority over our lives.
2. You shall not make for yourself an image to bow down to or worship.
Everyone worships something. Even if someone isn’t “religious,” they still have something or someone in their life that they venerate above all else. I would argue that a football game, a rock concert, or a political rally is every bit as worshipful as a Sunday morning church service – if not more so. Not only do we create other gods that we serve and follow, we create idols and images representing those gods and then worship them. From billionaires to athletes to celebrities, stock markets and political parties, ball teams and tech companies – we put these things and people on pedestals, enthroning them with our praise and worship.
It’s been this way for thousands of years. There are coins from the time of Jesus with the image of Caesar on them and the inscription “Son of the Gods.” One of the biggest challenges facing the earliest Christians was the cult of emperor worship. Rome didn’t really care what other gods you worshiped, as long as you revered and worshiped Caesar as Lord, a son of the gods. There were shrines and altars and temples created in his honor. For the earliest Christians to proclaim, “Jesus is Lord,” was both a religious and political statement. It implies that Caesar is not.
Nothing and no one on earth deserves to be honored and worshiped to the same level as that of Christ Jesus. No country, no president, no athlete, no CEO, no celebrity, no sports team – nothing.
God, we are sorry for lifting other people and things to a place of worship. We repent of our idolatry. We have idolized the flag, our country, and our president. We have idolized celebrities and sports teams. We have been more devoted to politics than we have been to you and your church. Help us to cast down our idols. May we be a people who worship you and you alone.
3. You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God.
When I was growing up I was always taught that this meant not to say, “Oh my God!” And while that’s true, it’s not the whole idea behind this command. We shouldn’t use the name of God in a flippant or derogatory way. But more than that, we should just slap a “Jesus” label on something and call it “Christian.” We can’t just add the name of God to our own agenda and expect it to be blessed. Think of all the atrocities that have been committed in the name of God or under the banner of Christ. It really started all the way back with Constantine when he painted the Chi-Rho symbol on Roman shields as he began leading his army under the name of Christ.
Imperial conquest, the inquisition, the crusades, slavery, colonialism, Native American genocide, Jim Crow laws, conspiracy theories, hate crimes, attempted violent insurrection to overturn an election, and innumerable cases of untold abuse and trauma – all carried out under the banner of Christ. And then there are the “lesser” offenses of exploiting the name of Christ for economic gain, social influence, or political power.
Father, our hearts break at the amount of harm that has been done in your name. We have been terrible to our fellow human beings thinking that, like Saul of Tarsus, we were doing the right thing. Open our eyes to see when we or anyone else is simply using your name to push through their own agenda, regardless of the harm is does to our neighbor. We don’t want to just be like those who Jesus warned about, those who do great things in your name but are unknown to you. We repent of the times we have done that. We want to seek to do your will, not just our own agenda.
4. Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.
When was the last time any of us took a Sabbath? Now, obviously I don’t think all Christians should keep a weekly Sabbath ritualistically like the Jews. That debate was pretty much settled in Scripture. However, we have taken it to the other extreme. We don’t take time to rest anymore at all. Granted, this past year may be the exception for many of us, but in normal circumstances we run ourselves ragged. It’s no wonder that cases of depression and anxiety are on the rise. We don’t ever give ourselves a break.
It’s not just a busy schedule. We don’t know how to be bored anymore. Any moment of spare time I have, I find myself reaching for my phone or my iPad or the Switch. “Here we are now. Entertain us,” and all that. What’s more, we have a tendency to take those special days and times that we are supposed to set aside as restful and rejuvenating – like Sundays for worship, or holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas – and we completely miss the point. We commercialize them or strip them of all intrinsic meaning. Sundays aren’t special anymore. Holidays are more work than they’re worth. Weekends (again, on a normal year) are packed full of sporting events and shopping trips and home improvement projects. We are more stressed out than ever while also (empirically) enjoying more luxury time than ever. We don’t have any holy-days anymore, it seems. No time is kept sacred. And it’s killing us – physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
God, help us to slow down. Help us to take time to be with you, to set aside certain days or times as holy moments to rest in your presence and rely on you. We repent of the delusion that we have to stay busy in order to be successful or live a fulfilling life. May we honor you with our time. May you take priority in our calendar and day planner. May we keep Sunday as a holy day to honor and worship you.
Love the LORD you God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all of your strength.
Jesus said this was the first and greatest commandment (Matthew 22:37-38, quoting Deuteronomy 6:4-5). The first four of the Ten Commandments apply to our relationship with God. It’s obvious that he is not just another one of the gods to be picked up, worshiped, appeased, and used. God wants a special relationship with his people, and really with all mankind. God is love. We love God because he first loved us. But I’m afraid that many Christians in America have, like those in Ephesus, forgotten our first love. We think that just because God loves us we can then do what we want. As long as we say we’re Christians and go to church occasionally, then we’re good.
I believe that God’s grace is sufficient to cover even those types of attitudes. But assuming that God owes you something just because you’ve said the right words and gone through the right rituals is what Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” When we assume that God can and should give us political power and wealth just because we wear the name Christian, we make a mockery of the gospel of Christ. It’s essentially like praying, “Father, not your will but mine be done.”
God loved us first, before we could even think about loving him. While we were still sinners, enemies of God, Christ died for us. God loved the world, the broken, sinful world full of people like you and me, so much that he gave us Christ Jesus his son. God doesn’t want us to march on Washington. God doesn’t need us to defend Christianity. God doesn’t even need the United States of America. God wants you – every bit of you. God has already given us all things, every spiritual blessing in the heavenly realms. It only makes sense for us to give him everything in return.
May we repent of the times we have held back from him. May we repent from giving him less than our everything.