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Sermon - God's Strength

Christmas Play

We are used to living like people who have nothing to hide. Drive by a typical American house, look across the open lawn and you see our possessions - our cars parked in the yard, the size and condition of our house; you can tell at a glance if we own a pool or a boat. It doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to tell how we live: one home has toys scattered through the yard; another has a handicap ramp added to the porch; another has a garden; another has a large woodpile prepared for winter. We’re pretty unselfconscious about who we are.


It’s not like that everywhere. In some places homes are like fortresses, surrounded by walls. This either keeps the tax-collector guessing about what the owners possess, or discourages thieves. When I stayed in the Philippines, kidnapping for ransom was a common problem. My brother-in-law’s house had a high wall with broken glass imbedded on the top; German shepherds prowled the yard at night. My father-in-law carried a pistol, and this was not unusual: restaurants there often had a sign asking patrons to check their guns in the lobby; I imagine otherwise the cook might feel a little nervous.


It’s usually not like that here. Of course there are bad neighborhoods where the residents feel threatened and form block watches, or buy firearms, or install burglar alarms, but most of us don’t go very far down that road. I don’t know what the statistics are on this, but I would guess that a majority don’t do anything besides locking our doors. Some can remember a time when we didn’t even do that.


One of the bad things about living in America is that we often don’t know our neighbors, but this is also a sign of is how secure we feel. Frightened people of course will band together and keep an eye on each other. One reason we don’t know our neighbors is that we don’t need to. You notice in senior communities, where people feel less secure because of their frailty, neighbors do tend to know each other.


In today’s Call to Worship, Micah the prophet says the day would come when each “will sit under his vine and under his fig tree, with no one to make them afraid, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” Biblical Israel never achieved that, but here in America we do dwell secure. We’re large and strong, and compared to most nations we are at peace with ourselves. Some nations live in fear either of civil war or invasion, but we don’t. It’s possible to imagine either a nuclear or an environmental disaster, but the idea of foreign armies conquering us is pretty far-fetched. Growing up as I did during the Cold War I saw a couple of movies about the Russians invading this country and taking it over, but to be honest this seemed less real and scary to me than movies like “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” or “The Creature from the Black Lagoon”. 


It was different in ancient Israel, which always lived under the threat of imminent attack. Jerusalem was a citadel, built on high ground and heavily fortified. When Ezra moved the Chosen People back to Jerusalem after the Babylonian captivity, the first thing he built was a wall. The Temple was rebuilt later; walls came first: a city couldn’t be inhabited until it could be defended.


The only way to capture Jerusalem, or to capture any one of the other great cities of that time, was by siege. An army would either surround a city and simply starve it out, or you could try a number of other tricks: you could dig under the walls and undermine them so they collapsed; you could try to poison the city’s water; you could bribe someone on the inside to open a gate at a certain time; you could try to knock the gate down with a battering ram. In today’s lesson, Jerusalem is besieged by the Arameans, who take the simple approach of camping all around the city and waiting to starve it into submission. Soon Jerusalem is hungry; the price of food inside is skyrocketing; it looks like the city will fall.


When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans just short of nine years ago, one reason it was such a disaster was that it hit an area which was already very poor. Middle class residents who owned their own cars had enough warning to get to higher ground. The destitute did not have a lot of options: the shelter at the Louisiana Superdome was designed to handle 800 storm refugees and 30,000 turned up; conditions there were soon terrible. Natural disasters, like economic downturns, affect the lowly first.


And the poorest people in Jerusalem were the four lepers in today’s lesson. They were already desperate long before the Arameans invaded; they lived by pan-handling. But in a city where people are literally starving to death, nothing is given to beggars. Death was staring them in the face.


What could they do? They decided to try begging from the Arameans. It was a tactic of desperation: chances were that the Arameans would simply kill them as they approached their positions. It wasn’t much of an idea, but it was the only chance they had, so off they went: four men, wobbly with hunger, set off for the Aramean lines.


But what had happened is that in the night the LORD had caused the Arameans to hear a great sound, as if an enemy army were approaching. The Arameans panicked, figuring the Israelites were being rescued by either the Hittites or the Egyptians, and they ran away. The four beggars came to their works, and instead of being instantly shot or speared, they found a deserted camp. Their tents were full of provisions, and there were coins and armor lying around which the lepers could steal. They went from being miserably poor and expecting a horrible end, to being rich beyond their imagination.


The first few moments of this are predictable; they’re stuffing their faces and stuffing their pockets. Sometimes desperate people somehow find themselves in the right place at the right time. The way the Polynesian islands in the South Pacific got settled is that when an island got overcrowded and was torn by war and famine, a few individuals would simply set out in a boat on the open sea and try to find a new home. The chances of dying at sea were high. A group like this with nothing to lose once upon a time set off, and after what must have been a very long and dangerous voyage, discovered Hawaii, which was lush, full of food and water, uninhabited and so remote that it was safe from outsiders for many centuries. The lepers in today’s lesson must have felt about the same: to look death in the face and instead discover paradise.


The lepers were not heroes, but neither were they bad people. After enjoying themselves for a few moments, they say to each other, “We are not doing right. This day is a day of good news, but we are keeping silent.” They go back and tell the rest of the city what they have discovered.


We had a Sunday School meeting here last Monday, and one of the topics that came up was: what should we be teaching to our young people? We want our kids to know how to use a Bible; they learn the Lord’s Prayer, the 10 Commandments; the 23rd Psalm and other such lessons. All that is fine, but none of that is what makes the Gospel “Good News”. How do we teach, and how do we feel and realize ourselves, a sense of salvation, of God’s grace?


Joe Rosenthal took the famous picture of five men raising the flag on Mt. Suribachi on Iwo Jima. This is one of the most famous photographs in history; I would bet that most of you not only can picture it in your mind, you know a little of the story behind it: how the battle for the island was still ongoing, and how soldiers fighting for their lives let out a cheer when they saw on the mountaintop the Stars and Stripes; how several of those who are seen erecting the flag were killed before the battle was over. It’s a picture which sums up patriotism, courage, sacrifice, teamwork. Rosenthal later was asked how he figured out this work of art. He said it just happened: that if he had consciously tried to model it he would have had the men face the camera. His best and most famous work was not something he posed; it was a gift.


Art is often like that. Ian Fleming, like most Scotsmen, was most at home when he was abroad, and he was living in Jamaica. He was casting about in his mind for a story about an action hero. He plucked off his shelf “Birds of the West Indies” by someone named James Bond, and of course a star was born. Life is not always, or even often, about what we deserve. Sometimes it’s manna from heaven.


In today’s Responsive Reading we read the Beatitudes; Jesus says “blessed are the poor; blessed are those who mourn; blessed are the meek; blessed are you when men revile and persecute you.” Anyone hearing at the time of course would have said, what’s he talking about? No one wants to be poor! No one wants to be persecuted! We don’t want to be meek, we want to be mighty! But Jesus’ point is that sometimes we have to stop relying on our own strength and ability, and put ourselves entirely in God’s care. “Nothing in my hands I bring/ simply to thy cross I cling.” In a world which will always be too proud and sophisticated to throw itself at Jesus’ feet, this is not an option that the fortunate will often take. Jesus said, “ask and it will be given you; seek and you will find”, and as it turns out, not many will go to the bother of asking and seeking. Sometimes we have to lose everything before we put ourselves in God’s hands.


When that happens, if we ask for God’s mercy, he will give it to us. The nature of my job is that I often see people when their life is not going so well, but I’m in the unusual position of being able to have something good to say even in circumstances where everything has gone wrong, as it sometimes does in life. In scripture, Peter says (5:7), “cast your anxiety on him for he cares for you.” When we put ourselves in God’s hands, he is the friend who truly stands by us.


Naturally it’s good to be polite and to thank people for anything they do, but all-in-all we expect people to do their job. If I make an appointment with a doctor or dentist or mechanic, I do expect them for their part to show up, sober and ready to work. If they hang out a shingle which says they have a certain skill, I expect that they in fact do. God feels the same way, and when we go before the throne of God, we can’t boast of our accomplishments; God has high standards and expects us to live up to them.


Salvation does not come from what we do, but from what we stop trying to do. Instead of relying on ourselves or on other people, there are times when we realize how helpless we are, and how there’s not much anyone can do for us. At that point, we are like today’s lepers; four beggars who go to their fate, not deserving or expecting much. Any life looked at honestly from the inside is aware of its own shortcomings. But if in our weakness we throw ourselves on God’s strength, we’ll be surprised at the riches he offers to those who seek him out.


And when we do that, let’s be like those lepers, and go and tell the others what we’ve found. If a millionaire has riches and lives next door to squalor and poverty and does nothing about it, we think that’s not right. Well, whether we have a penny to our name or not, we have the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and that is the greatest wealth anyone could have. Let’s not keep it all to ourselves, because that’s not right. Let’s share it.


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