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Waving the Flag and Preaching the Gospel

Over the centuries, the church has readily baptized a number of sentimental and civic holidays. Some have actually complemented the purposes of the church quite well.
For example, the “Hallmark holidays,” such as Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, provide us with ready-made opportunities to order our worship around and to preach about issues related to family life.

As well, many schools no longer host baccalaureate services for high school graduates. Churches routinely fill this gap by honoring their seniors and using the opportunity of Sunday worship to bless them as they launch themselves into the next phase of life. On such occasions, it’s easy to jettison the larger church’s observance of the Christian year.

We find it more difficult, however, to immerse other holidays; and the Fourth of July is probably the one that provokes the most tension within ministers and also within congregations.

To ignore the holiday altogether is likely not an option for many churches. After all, who among us is not grateful to be American?

Yet, to go overboard celebrating our country during worship puts us at risk of equating the gospel with our citizenship and diluting its power.

Draping the cross with an American flag does not honor the One who bore that instrument of death for the sake, not of one nation, but for the whole world.

Consequently, preaching during the Fourth of July holiday offers a unique set of challenges and is likely the one Sunday most of us would like to take off!

In that light, I’d like to offer some preaching possibilities. Here are a few texts and themes I hope will help you lend a distinctively Christian voice to the celebration of our nation’s independence.

John 19:12-16 provides a clear example of the temptation to surrender the vitality of one’s faith on the altar of political expedience.

In this vignette from Jesus’ trial before Pilate, Pilate emerges as a skillful politician who lures the religious leaders to forsake the single most important article of their faith – the affirmation that “God is One” – in order to ensure Jesus’ crucifixion. Pilate maneuvered the religious leaders into declaring that they had “no king but Caesar.”

This exchange highlights the fact that the church winds up the loser when it plays the power game and seeks an alliance with the state. In so doing, we lose the distinctiveness of our faith by opting for political coercion rather than spiritual persuasion.

In truth, the only way the church remains faithful is by proclaiming Jesus, not Caesar, Lord of all.

No survey of potential texts for the Fourth of July would be complete without reference to Jesus’ conversation with his adversaries about the lawfulness of paying taxes to Caesar (see Matthew 22:15-22; Mark 12:13-17 and Luke 20:20-26).

Jesus’ adversaries sought to force him to render a “yes” or “no” answer, either of which would have put him in a tough spot. Jesus slipped out of this trap indirectly by holding up a common coin and asking whose image was imprinted upon it.

When his adversaries responded that it bore Caesar’s likeness, Jesus then offered the enigmatic reply: “Then give Caesar what’s his, and give to God whatever is God’s.” Jesus’ answer left things open-ended and, essentially, left things up to us.

The balancing act between God and Caesar is just like all the other balancing acts we routinely take on, such as those between God and work or God and family. We have to “do” our faith amid all kinds of competing obligations, and the tension never lets up.

As long as we live in this world, we’re always trying to figure out what belongs to God and what belongs to Caesar or whatever other “coin of the realm” we trade in.

Finding the dividing line between God and Caesar is as hard today as it was in Jesus’ time, further complicating our efforts to honor God’s image in all things.

Here’s a final suggestion. In 1 Timothy 2:1-7, Paul enjoins young Timothy to make prayers for rulers and those in authority the centerpiece of worship.

This is surprising! After all, wouldn’t we expect Paul to pray for opportunities to preach or for people to come to Christ? Wouldn’t we expect something like that to head the list?

Not here! Paul, instead, urged Timothy and his church to make prayer for the welfare of the Roman Empire a first priority!

The Fourth of July affords us an unparalleled opportunity to remind our churches of the importance of praying for our leaders and for our country.

This imperative has become increasingly important given the severe partisan divide that affects so much of our public debate and the resulting reluctance of leaders to work for the common good.

Such prayers may, indeed, be God’s instrument to remind our leaders of the importance of working for the common good.

Such prayers may be God’s instrument in helping us improve the quality and content of our civil discourse.

Such prayers may help us guard against the seductive power of false patriotism and serve as the catalyst for the renewal of our national character.

Beyond our cookouts, flag-waving and fireworks, the best way we can celebrate the holiday is by praying for our nation and our leaders at every level.

The “glorious Fourth” will soon be upon us. By all means, wave the flag! But don’t forget to preach the gospel!

Bill Ireland is the senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Dalton, Ga.