15 November 2020, 12:37
© Stacey Steck
If all you knew about war was what you see in the movies, you might be forgiven for thinking that there is glory in war, or more specifically, that there is glory to be gained in war. Perhaps you’ve seen it measured by how many orcs an elf can kill in the Lord of the Rings, or by how many Romulans a Klingon can slice and dice with a Bat’leth in Star Trek, or by a showdown with the enemy’s best swordsman in a samurai movie, or by the courageous assault on an enemy position in any number of John Wayne World War II movies. In these tall tales, the warrior generally goes into battle with the notion that even if he or she does not come out alive, there will be some glory conferred upon them for at least their noble attempt, if not their victory. Their names will be remembered, their exploits retold. By their participation in the fight, they will earn their fame, and a valuable measure of glory.
Perhaps that is what the Israelite commander Barak had in mind when he learned that he would be leading the troops into battle against the hated and oppressive Canaanites. As we heard, his people had been oppressed cruelly for twenty years, due mainly to their own faithlessness, but oppression is oppression and twenty years is a long time. The cries for help of his people go up to God, and God, with that wonderful sense of divine mercy, once again relents and gives them another chance, and touches Barak on the shoulder with the call to battle. Now, Barak most likely knew the stories of his own people who did valiant deeds and who were remembered, people like Ehud, the left-handed assassin who delivered Israel by deceiving and murdering the evil King Eglon of Moab, just eighty years earlier, the last time they asked God to bail them out. His were a people who remembered the exploits of their heroes, whether they were Jacob or Joseph or Moses or Miriam or Joshua. We might reasonably imagine Barak getting somewhat excited about following in their footsteps and getting the call to be remembered as a great deliverer, perhaps even in a song, as Moses and Miriam were remembered in song, as Deborah of our story this morning would be remembered in song in the following chapter of the book of Judges. His fame was there for the taking. No doubt he thought he was a capable military leader, and no doubt he believed God was on their side, but just for good measure, perhaps to hedge his bets, perhaps to share the blame should something happen to go wrong, Barak asks the prophetess Deborah to accompany him on the battlefield as they confront and chase down the General Sisera and his 900 hundred strong contingent of chariots of iron. With the Lord’s chosen on his side, his fame would be secure. And then he gets those sobering words, “I will surely go with you;” she says, “nevertheless, the road on which you are going will not lead to your glory, for the Lord will see Sisera into the hand of a woman,” and as sure as he was one moment of his impending glory, in the next it is taken away. “The road on which you are going will not lead to your glory.”
It is to Barak’s credit that he went ahead and did it, although if there is something more compelling than the prospect of glory, it is the fear of infamy. To back out then would have landed him in the company of that class of persons whom history forgets or disparages, and so he soldiers on with his ten thousand men, where they do indeed prevail, albeit with God’s help. We are told that as the battle was joined, “the Lord threw Sisera and all his chariots and all his army into a panic before Barak,” and the enemy is easily defeated. You may remember the rest of the story, in which General Sisera escapes the battlefield only to take refuge in what he believes is the house of a friend, only the friend decides Sisera deserves a tent peg through the side of the head while he sleeps, and so she gives it to him, and the fame is hers, as Deborah predicted. If there is any consolation for Barak it is that we are still talking about him several thousand years later, and perhaps that would not have happened had he decided that in the absence of glory, the battle was not worth the fight.
I do not think it is too great a stretch to suggest the world would be a very different place had our nation’s veterans not decided in the same way as Barak, that even without the promise, or even possibility, of glory, they would commit themselves to the fight. These are men and women who know that the Hollywood image of war is far from its reality, that there is more gore than glory on the battlefield, and that if there is any glory to be won, it will likely be claimed by those higher up the chain of command – the generals, the politicians, and the commanders-in-chief – while they are forgotten in their trenches and their foxholes. They are the PFCs and the grunts and the squawks and the bin rats and the boomers and the deck-apes and the pingers, and all the other names for the people who deserve the glory if there is any to be had, but who fight and die even in its absence. They may have enlisted with some national pride in their hearts, or yearning for some adventure or seeking some GI Bill money for their education, but if any of them signed up for glory, they learned pretty quickly that it’s in short supply, and probably destined for those least deserving of it. And then they went ahead and served anyway.
If we casually read the story of Barak and Deborah we might think that Deborah’s reminder to Barak that “the road on which you are going will not lead to glory, for the Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman,” indicates that the glory of this battle will accrue instead to Jael, the woman who in the end kills the general Sisera. Taking nothing away from the heroic women in the story, however, that casual reading will overlook the fact that from Deborah’s perspective, and that of the Bible, the glory here belongs to none other than God. For indeed, it is God who answers the Israelites’ call for help. It is God who proclaims victory even before the battle begins. It is God who throws the army of Sisera into a panic. It is God who once again delivers a stubborn people who probably don’t deserve it. There is a role in the story for Barak and Deborah and Jael, but in the end, we are meant to remember that without God, their deeds are meaningless, and probably futile. “The road on which you are going will not lead to your glory.”
There is never a bad time for a message about humility, and perhaps the commemoration of Veterans Day is one of the best times to remember that we are not God, and that the reason there are veterans to remember at all is because as human beings we have abjectly failed to overcome our inclinations to violence, and to seeking glory, and to forgetting God. How does our story begin this morning? “The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord.” They forgot their Creator. They forgot their Redeemer. They forgot their Sustainer. They fell into the age-old habits that plague us still today, and they found themselves in an awful mess. For all of our glorious achievements as the human race, our buildings, our music, our art and literature, our compassion and wisdom, there is always that infamous part of the story that clings to us like our shadows on sunny day. And if we could lick it, we’d have no need of God, and I think God would be OK with that. But you know that we can’t, and God knows that we can’t, and if we can remember that unpleasant fact just a little more often, we just might have a chance of living a little more peacefully, and having fewer and fewer wars that call for more and more of our sons and daughters to serve without glory, and suffer without reason.
Each Veterans Day, our nation, and many other nations, honors the service of the veterans of the our wars. They may have served many years ago or they may just be starting boot camp. It doesn’t matter. They are still veterans. But the truth is that no matter where they are, or what they are doing with regard to their military service, they are serving us again this morning by being a reminder that in nothing we do, should we do it for our own glory. Perhaps there is glory somewhere to be had, but someone else must confer it. Perhaps we will have our fifteen minutes of fame, but they will be fleeting. Perhaps our names will be remembered four thousand years from now, but probably not. But if we do what we do for the glory of God, we can be assured that nothing we do will be in vain, but rather be a testimony to the words that opened our worship this morning, “Our God our help in ages past, our help for years to come, Our shelter from the stormy blast, and our eternal home.” And with that assurance, we can do mighty things in the name of the one who truly is worthy of the glory. As we remember today those who fought without the expectation of glory, may it be as a reminder to all of us who serve to do it for the right reason, that God might be glorified. Amen.
08 November 2020, 12:35
Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25
© Stacey Steck
And so the pendulum swings. From Democrat to Republican and back again. And remarkably, the world goes on. Just like every generation believes that the one coming after it is going to hell because their music is so scandalous, every political shift is met with cries that it is the end of civilization as we know it. It doesn’t matter which party. Each is sure that the other has it all wrong. And remarkably, the world goes on.
It doesn’t take too careful a reading of the Bible, especially the Old Testament, to note that the same pendulum swings through its pages, but that the world goes on. Times are good. Times are bad. Times are good again. People are faithful. Then they are not so faithful. Then they exhibit their faith again. A good leader comes along. A bad one follows. A good one comes to save the day. God seems present. God seems absent. God steps back in. Over and over again. It may just be that the human condition is inherently unstable, that we just cannot find that happy medium that lets us hum along without wildly swinging from one extreme to the other.
And Moses’ successor, Joshua, seems to sense that the pendulum might just be about to swing in the other direction, or at least that it could. We’ve been reading through Exodus the last few months, and that story turns a page with Moses’ death. The new leader, Joshua, guides the people into the promised land, helps them to overcome their enemies, and allots the twelve tribes their long anticipated lands. Times are good. God seems to be on their side. Enemies are defeated. What can go wrong? How about everything Moses warned them about throughout the whole book of Deuteronomy? In that part of the story, Moses proclaims again and again what God has done for the people and warns them again and again that they must obey the commandments and respect the covenant. Deuteronomy 12:28 sums it all up: “Be careful to obey all these words that I command you today, so that it may go well with you and with your children after you forever, because you will be doing what is good and right in the sight of the Lord your God.” So that it may go well with you.
And they were doing pretty well as Joshua nears the end of his life. They even had a major disagreement amongst themselves they settled without a fight, using negotiation and conversation instead of weapons. Imagine that! But Joshua knows how delicate these moments are and so he issues his altar call in hopes of keeping the ship sailing in the right direction for as long as he can. Yes, what we read today is an ancient near eastern altar call, that time honored tradition of seeking a commitment from the faithful. You didn’t know Joshua was the first Baptist did you? Yes, Baptists are well-known for their altar calls. They are a decision-based faith. Virtually every worship service MUST end with an altar call, or a chance for people to profess their faith in Christ. This is even true at funerals. In case you’ve never seen one in action, the set-up is usually a long discourse on how thoroughly rotten and sinful we are, followed by how we are destined to eternal damnation, or worse, if we continue in our evil ways. And then, of course, is the presentation of the merciful antidote and salvation that is Jesus Christ. And then people are invited to publicly come forward, down to the altar, and make their decision for Christ. It usually doesn’t matter that everyone in church is already saved. They’ll still do an altar call every Sunday. That moment of decision is crucial for Baptists. And it was for Joshua that day.
Are you going to follow the gods of the peoples we just conquered? Or are you going to follow the God who brought you out of slavery? Are you going to follow the gods who Abraham’s ancestors followed? Or are you going to follow the God who led Abraham here? That’s the stark choice he lays out before them. You can go with the God with whom it is one hundred percent certain that “it will go well with you and your children.” Or you can take your chances with the gods of the past, the gods of the defeated, the gods of a long way away, over the river. The invitation is clear: “Now therefore revere the Lord, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord.” C’mon down to the altar, and make your choice.
What is curious about this altar call, is that there is a distinct absence of an altar, unlike in other covenant or sacrificial ceremonies that are recorded from the period. Back in the eighth chapter of Joshua is the story of Joshua renewing the covenant between God and the people, an event for which he erects “an altar of unhewn stones, on which no iron tool has been used,” just like the one Moses used to seal the covenant in blood in the twenty-fourth chapter of Exodus, at which time all the people said, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.” At these significant events, they would pile up stones and make them a focal point, a visual reminder and a physical marker of what the Lord had done, a place they could refer back to whenever they needed a refresher on their commitments. There’s no altar in today’s story, maybe because Joshua wants to emphasize that now that they’ve claimed this land, but he is doing what he had learned from Moses, to gather up the people and put them on the spot, and make them decide whom they would follow, and lay out the consequences for if they didn’t.
So Joshua is a Baptist, and maybe he’s a fisherman too. You see, he’s pretty smart about getting them on the hook. He’s got the bait on the hook and he casts it in there. And then he waits. There’s no obligation to follow God. He doesn’t force them at gunpoint or threaten them with expulsion. They actually get the choice. They can follow or not. And of course, they nibble, don’t they? “Yes! Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods; we will serve the Lord, for he is our God.” The bait is in their mouth, but Joshua is not done yet. He wants to make sure they are sincere. And so he questions their capacity. He’s anticipating the pendulum. And so Joshua says to the people, “You cannot serve the Lord, for he is a holy God. He is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions or your sins. If you forsake the Lord and serve foreign gods, then he will turn and do you harm, and consume you, after having done you good.” Can you really do it, he is asking, because it’s a tall order. Do you know what you’re getting into? And the people said to Joshua, “No, we will serve the Lord!” Then Joshua said to the people, “You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen the Lord, to serve him.” And they said, “We are witnesses.” He sets the hook and reels them in. There’s no going back now.
Presbyterians don’t have altars. We have communion tables. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t a decision-based faith too. We just think about decisions a little differently than Baptists and other traditions, or at least emphasize different elements even if we are more alike than we imagine. We don’t do altar calls at funerals, for one thing, thanks be to God. But we do call upon people regularly to make decisions about following Christ. It’s just that we don’t think about it in terms of one big, momentous, public decision in response to a preacher’s invitation, but a series of small, daily decisions that call for a constant examination of what’s right and what’s wrong that come in response to the Holy Spirit’s constant whispering in our ears and in our hearts. The decisions we tend to emphasize are the ethical decisions that confront us in our lives as parents, workers, and citizens. Can I put that other person first, as Jesus tells me I must? Can I offer myself in service despite the consequences, as the Apostles did? Can I drink the cup of bitterness and sorrow, as Jesus did? Can I be just a little more generous in response to God’s generosity toward me? Can I take the log out of my own eye before trying to remove the speck in someone else’s? Can I forgive 70 times seven times? These are the kinds of daily decisions that really, really matter, the ones that need to be made not when we are comfortably sitting in a pew, but in the heat of the moment, when circumstances require us to make a decision even when we don’t feel prepared to make it.
The other way we Presbyterians tend to think about faithful decisions is by focusing more on Christ’s decision for us, than on our decision for Christ. In some ways, that’s precisely why we don’t have an altar, but rather a table at which we celebrate Christ’s decision to give his body and his blood for us, or his decision to invite us to the table, or his decision to let Judas betray him, or his decision to come and pitch his tent with us and even to sit at table with us in the first place. You see, it was God’s choice for us, and Christ’s choice for us, that makes our choices for God possible. Perhaps our decisions to follow Christ are made out of fear of what might happen if we don’t choose to follow him. But I hope they are made more out of gratitude for being chosen by him in the first place, and because we can recognize that choosing him is a way to honor his choice for us, and to make the world the place he wants it to be. It was not enough for the Israelites to simply say that they would follow the God who led them out of Egypt. Saying yes is pretty easy, isn’t it? But then you have to follow it up. Then you have to obey the 613 commandments and you have to follow Jesus’ distillation of them to the twin commandments to love God and love neighbor. And loving that way isn’t something you can do by just saying it once. That’s not the way Christ did it.
The decision we are called to make every day is not only whether we will love, but also how we will love. Those are two sides of the same coin. We must choose whom we will serve, and how we will serve the one whom we choose. And though our faith, and our decision making, may at times feel like a swinging pendulum, though the world around us seems like it is swaying back and forth too rapidly for us to even keep our eye on, though the choices that confront us aren’t ever as clear as we wish they would be, we are invited to embrace the choice that Joshua made, and called his people to make, when he said, “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” May God bless each one of us, our families, our nations, and our world, as we make those decisions daily in the faith we have been given by the God who chose us. Amen.