1 Samuel 7-8 and John 19
When I was a kid in public school back in the dark ages, we used to begin each school day by standing at our desks, placing our hand over our heart, facing the United States flag and pledging our allegiance to that flag. We did it day after day, year after year. I never thought much about it, it was just something you did. In music classes we sang “God bless America, land that I love…” Then in 6th grade we had a new kid in the class named John. I didn’t like John very much- as an early bloomer I had actually been the tallest kid in the class for the previous couple of years (with the exception of Linda, a freakishly tall girl). But among the boys I was the tallest which was a great help on the basketball court where I ruled during recess and after school. But tall, lanky John was a good 2-3 inches taller than me. Fortunately, his height did not translate into coordination and he wasn’t any good at basketball, so I still ruled supreme there, but it was still annoying that my height domination had been superceded. (Fun fact, I stopped growing after 6th grade, so while I was a massively tall presence on the basketball court at 5’10” in sixth grade, by the time I hit 9th grade, still 5’10” I was too short, not quick enough and didn’t have a good enough outside jump shot so I didn’t bother to try out for the high school team. Post-up skills don’t go very well with being NOT the tallest kid on the team).
But I digress, back to lanky, uncoordinated taller John who wore clothes that looked outdated and never seemed to comb his hair, and was just a weird kid. What really set this weird kid, John, apart was that when the rest of us stood by our desks to pledge allegiance to the flag every morning, John didn’t stand. What is with this strange outlier among us? Eventually, I discovered the reason for this. John said he didn’t stand for the pledge of allegiance because he was a Jehovah’s Witness and it was against his religion. His parent also didn’t vote, and they didn’t celebrate their birthdays or Christmas. I was quite relieved that I wasn’t a Jehovah’s Witness. I got to celebrate my birthday and Christmas, I didn’t have to be the odd-ball sitting during the pledge, and my parents got to vote for Richard Nixon as President. (that didn’t age well, now, did it?).
It was at that time that I first became aware that for some religious people there was a connection between their religious faith, how they worshipped God on Sunday, and other parts of their life like politics. It’s been nearly 50 years since I learned that Jehovah’s Witnesses like John didn’t pledge allegiance to the flag, but I still remember that day I learned it.
What do we mean by allegiance? Webster’s dictionary defines allegiance as:
“the obligation of a feudal vassal to his liege lord, the fidelity owed by a subject or citizen to a sovereign or government. Devotion or loyalty to a person, group, or cause. allegiance to a political party. Synonyms:adhesion, attachment, commitment, constancy, dedication, devotedness, devotion, faith, faithfulness, fastness, fealty, fidelity, loyalty, piety, steadfastness, troth.”
That’s a lot to unpack but for our purposes look at some of those synonyms like commitment, devotion, faith etc… those are all clearly religious words. For many people their flag represents their nation, their family, their people, their way of life, all that matters to them. Particularly those who serve in the military often have a ferocious loyalty and allegiance. The Marine Core motto is Semper Fi, Latin for Always Faithful.
What does any of this have to do with today’s readings? In his books Salvation by Allegiance Alone and Gospel Allegiance, Matthew Bates makes the case that the Greek word “pistis”, which is often translated “faith” into most English translations of the Bible should more accurately be translated “allegiance.” Salvation, then is transformed from simply faith in Jesus Christ to Allegiance to Jesus as Christ, or more precisely, Allegiance to Jesus as God’s anointed King. What does it look like to place your allegiance in Jesus as God’s anointed King over the whole earth?
In today’s readings in 1 Samuel and John’s Gospel the concept of king and allegiance come to the forefront of both narratives. During the time of Samuel Israel transitioned from being led by various judges: Gideon, Deborah, Samson and others to a place where they demanded to be led by a king. Their stated reason for wanting a king was interesting as they wanted “to be like all of the other nations.” Think of the teenager who makes a request to a parent and when rebuked comes back with “but all the other kids are doing it.” Samuel took the people’s request for a king as a personal rejection of his leadership, but God pointed out that HE had been their king since they left Egypt and that this constituted a rejection of Him, not Samuel. God told Samuel to go ahead and give the people what they wanted, a king, along with a word of warning- kings require those in their kingdom to show them a high level of Allegiance, and if you get a narcissistic, proud man as king you will regret it as he will use his power to enrich and empower himself still more. “Yeah, but we still want to be like everybody else.”
So begins the next phase of Israel’s history in the time of the kings and in coming weeks you will read about those king’s like Saul, David, Solomon and many others. You will see how even the bravest and godliest, like David and the wisest, like Solomon, misused their power and privilege and eventually the kingdom split, then was taken into captivity and constantly battled the empires and kingdoms around them. Having a sinful king was no better than a judge. How much better it would have been if they had simply given their full allegiance to God as their king.
In the Gospel of John Israel gets a do over. God has given them His own son, Jesus, the sinless human representative of God to be their king. After Jesus is arrested and brought before Pilate to be judged and sentenced Pilate looks to persuade the Jewish people to change their minds about Jesus. “Here is your king,” Pilate said to the Jews. But they shouted, “Take him away! Take him away! Crucify him!” “Shall I crucify your king?” Pilate asked. “We have no king but Caesar” the chief priests answered. Finally Pilate handed him over to them to be crucified.”
In the account in Samuel, Israel rejects God as their king so that they can be like everybody else. He gives them that choice. In the Gospel of John, a thousand years after they rejected God as king, God’s son, Jesus, is presented to them as their king, and once again they decisively reject God’s anointed King. Instead, they demanded that he be crucified. They declared their allegiance that day to Caesar, I guess because they wanted to be like everybody else. Not much changed in 1000 years in Israel.
2000 years and half a world a way we still have the same choice. To whom will we give our allegiance? Will we give our allegiance to the principalities and powers of this age. Will we give our loyalty to trying to be like everybody else, going along with the crowd, whatever direction the crowd decides we should be going? Or will we give our allegiance to God’s anointed king, Jesus?
If you are a Christian living in this world you are a resident alien living in exile. Your body may be in Ohio or Indiana or Virginia or India, but your citizenship is in Heaven because that’s where your King is currently living. One day King Jesus will return from heaven to earth and reign right here on earth during the renewal of all things (See 1 Corinthians 15:20-24). But for now, you and I are living in exile and while living in exile we should strive to be respectful and law abiding in areas that don’t conflict with our primary allegiance to King Jesus (See Romans 13). You can be a good citizen in many ways, but never forget that if you are a follower of Jesus, your allegiance is to him first and foremost, not to your country, or your family, or your friends, or your culture or fashion or whatever seeks to define you. Your allegiance must be to Jesus.
Can you be a Christian and still pledge allegiance to the US flag? My childhood classmate John thought, “No, you can’t” and Christians may not always agree on these kinds of questions, but there should be no doubt in your mind as to whom your ultimate allegiance is due, Jesus Christ the King, and God our Father.