God our strength
The Third Sunday in Lent
Deuteronomy 6:1-9, 20-25, Psalm 25, Ephesians 5:1-14, St. Luke 11:14-28
Enemies Seen and Unseen
Let me introduce you to my friend Larry.
He was a prison inmate when we met. He told me about the town In Oklahoma where he once hunkered down, a town of 200 with nine bars and 17 meth labs. It doesn’t sound so preposterous when we realize it was a town where Larry and his fellow oilfield workers went for recreation.
Larry and his pals needed strength to pull a 12-hour shift night after night after night. For them, meth was the breakfast of champions. Eventually, Larry left that job behind but he took his meth habit along. He landed in a Texas prison. Once again, he faced the question of where to turn for strength. And protection.
One day as he was standing in the commissary line, the two inmates ahead of him turned around and started talking to him. One was a scrawny white guy, pale as Larry, and the other was an imposing black guy. The big black guy did the talking.
“Who you ridin’ with?” he asked. That’s prison slang for, what gang are you in?
Larry had done time before. He figured he could go it alone.
“I rode in alone and I’m thinkin’ I’ll ride out alone,” he said.
“Well, you change your mind, think about ridin’ with us,” the other inmate said. “We AB.”
“AB” means Aryan Brotherhood, and gang-bangers use that word “Aryan” in just the sense Adolf Hitler mistakenly did, to mean “white.”
Larry was not the sort to let the obvious question go unasked: How does a black dude come to be a member of the Aryan Brotherhood? It turned out this fellow had a white ancestor a couple of generations back and, under the arcane rules of prison gang membership, he was thus qualified to ride with the AB.
Larry said he’d still ride solo; thanks, anyway. Soon after, he volunteered for the Christian pre-release program in which I taught a class. He’s been out for four years now. Sylvia, with whom he was living before his arrest, has made an honest man of him. He’s working steadily, laying off meth as the source of his strength, attending a solid, biblical church and ridin’ with the Lord.
It seems Larry figured out that hangin’ on the running board of Jesus’ jalopy beats driving his own tricked-out F-250 dualie.
The prisons bulge with people who stood stark naked in the midst of a world that terrified them and rushed to the shrine of the nearest idol: meth, coke, smack, demon rum.
“Jack Daniels, if you please, knock me to my knees.” At the shrine they do go to their knees, praying for an elixir that will sedate the demon break-dancing inside them . . . at least for a little while.
Yet we who have never walked around with a monkey on our back or done time play a gentrified version of the same game. The world is too much with us and so we put our faith in our wealth, intellect, education, connections, work ethic . . . Anything to avoid throwing ourselves on the mercy of our Lord.
We’ll find a way to save ourselves. It’s a sickness as old as the world.
Shema yisra’el adonai eloheynu adonai ehad. “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.”
Israel has mustered on the east bank of the River Jordan. She stands poised to possess, at long last, the land of promise. The nation’s great prophet Moses addresses the people, instructing them in the ways of the Lord.
That disobedient generation that fled the Egyptian captivity, only to make the golden calf and complain incessantly about God’s provision for them, only to doubt God’s ability to deliver on His promise of a homeland for His covenant people, has died away.
Moses is addressing Deuteronomy to the next generation, who will cross the river, march on Jericho and plant the flag of Yahweh in the land of Canaan. The English title for the last of Moses’ five books of Torah comes not from Hebrew but from Greek: deuteros, “second,” and nomos, “law.”
This is no new law but a second reading of those statutes the Lord delivered through Moses at Mount Sinai at the outset of the exodus. This is Leviticus redux. This next generation must listen and learn before taking possession of the land of milk and honey. Moses rumbles:
Shema yisra’el adonai eloheynu adonai ehad. “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.”
The land bristles with enemies. The Israelites must hold themselves separate from them as they rid the land of them. Their Lord, Adonai, is one. Moses is saying nothing with regard to the Trinity. Rather, he is making two assertions.
First, the people he leads, unlike the pagan polytheists who inhabit the land, are monotheists. They worship one God, and Him alone. Second, this God Yahweh is unique, unlike anyone else in heaven or on earth. As Creator of all, He is distinct from all He has made. Do not confuse Him with any created being, of either flesh or spirit. The Lord is one – unique.
Among the Jewish people 1,500 years later, this book of Deuteronomy was the best-loved and most-cited of the five Moses wrote. In His 40-day fast in the wilderness which we commemorate during Lent, Jesus quoted three passages from it as He parried the devil’s temptations.
The boy Jesus would have made this Shema the first passage from the Hebrew Scriptures He committed to memory. When, as an adult, an interrogator braced Him with the question, “What is the greatest commandment?” Jesus had 613 statutes from which to choose.
He quoted the Shema. The verse that follows “the Lord is one,” Deuteronomy 6:5, declares, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength.”
Our collect on this Third Sunday in Lent calls upon God to perform two actions. The first is to “look upon the hearty desires of thy humble servants.”
In our day, “hearty” speaks of something warming, filling and nourishing, such as soup, or enthusiastic and engaging, such as a welcome. In Dr. Cranmer’s time it wore a different hue: genuine and sincere. We pray God to note our true and worthy desires, and we ask Him to heed only those which come from humble servants. The haughty need not apply.
Each day throughout Lent we repeat the collect of Ash Wednesday as well, petitioning God to “create and make in us new and contrite hearts.” Without humble souls and contrite hearts, we have no standing to bring our requests before His throne of grace.
In our collect for today we then ask that God, having noticed our need, to “stretch forth the right hand of thy Majesty, to be our defence against all our enemies.” We have enemies, and we need His power to defend us. We confessed in our collect of last week that “we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves.”
We need the might of the one true God for our protection.
As the Israelites stared across the river and into the land of Canaan, this land their parents told them was teeming with giants, their stomachs must have done somersaults. They had enemies, and these enemies would look askance on Israel’s claim to what the Canaanites believed was their land.
These people Moses was instructing needed the protection not merely of a god but of the God, one who wielded power over everyone and everything, who was Lord of all.
As they wrote our collects, Dr. Cranmer and his associates knew something about enemies as well. In those early days of the English Reformation, monarchs were spinning through a revolving door, and woe betide those, whether Protestant or Catholic, who were on the side opposite the new king or queen.
Cranmer and two of his closest associates, Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley, died at the stake, consumed by flames.
Before they died, they gave us in the Book of Common Prayer the Bible arranged for prayer. We find them here appropriating biblical imagery – the “right hand of thy Majesty” drips power – and employing it in a plea for protection.
We, you and I, do not feel the presence of our enemies so acutely. We tend to see them as either remote or abstract. We do have geopolitical foes, as did God’s people Israel, but they are not just across the river. We feel we have security in the oceans and mountain ranges that separate us from our enemies.
Dr. Cranmer could look his enemies in the eye and call them by name – but he knew well enough that these did not comprise the entire roster. He had abstract enemies, too. God’s people need God’s strength to fend off not just the ones who show up packin’ heat but our spiritual adversaries as well.
I cannot reach out and grab an unbridled appetite, whether for chocolate cake or dirty pictures – I cannot grab it by the throat and choke it into submission. Chocolate cake and dirty pictures may not make loud, scary noises but they speak softly and eloquently to our sinful yearnings.
So it is that our psalm for today is No. 25. Here we find, for the first time in the Psalter, David numbering his sins among his enemies. Like his people Israel 500 years before him, like Dr. Cranmer 2,500 years after him, David knew the sort of flesh-and-blood enemies who pose a clear and present danger.
But, wise and godly man that he was, he knew to fear at the same time his own sins, those enemies that can kill the soul. David knew my friend Larry before I did.
Where could David turn for strength? We’ll return to Psalm 25. What about us?
We’re like the Irishman who was in a lather because he was running late for an important job interview. Paddy couldn’t find a parking place anywhere. Looking up to heaven, he said, “Lord, take pity on me. If you find me a parking place I’ll go to Mass every Sunday for the rest of me life and give up me Irish whiskey!”
Miraculously, he rolled up to a vacant parking place.
Paddy looked up again and said, “Never mind, Lord, I found one.”
Our Lord Christ entertained no doubt as to where His strength came from. In our gospel lesson, St. Luke reports on Jesus casting out a demon. He dazzled the onlookers; none could deny His mastery over demons . . . but some could challenge the source of His vast authority.
“He casts out demons by Beelzebub, the ruler of the demons,” they brayed. An unfortunate choice of allegations.
Jesus schools them on the ridiculousness of it and then says, “But if I cast out demons by the finger of God, surely the kingdom of God has come upon you.”
He is playing for them a Jewish version of “Roots.” In Exodus, Moses performs wonders that Pharaoh’s magicians cannot match, leaving them in a precarious position with the boss. They cry out in their defense, “This is the finger of God.”
And so it was. It was God who invested Moses with power and it is God who infuses Jesus with it. The kingdom of God has descended. The reckoning is at hand.
A woman believes. Transported, she declares, “Blessed is the womb that bore You, and the breasts that nursed You!”
Her Lord responds, “More than that, blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” Even the bond of His mother with the Christ pales against the intimacy between those who obey the word and Him who gave it.
We return to Psalm 25 and in it we find the profound truth of how we draw near to God that Jesus has amplified for us in his reply to the woman. David cries out for divine assistance: “O God, my trust is in You; let me not be ashamed; let not my enemies triumph over me.”
He confesses that God knows better than he the road he should travel:
“Show me Your ways, O LORD; teach me Your paths. Lead me in Your truth and teach me, for You are the God of my salvation; on You I wait all the day.”
God’s man in Jerusalem is not pleading for communication on a special wave length from the heavens that only he can tune in. He is begging for a deeper understanding of the truth God has revealed:
“All the paths of the LORD are mercy and truth, to such as keep His covenant and His testimonies.”
Years ago I met a Christian man on a mission trip. He said he believed in seeking God’s guidance but he wondered how far we should go. His daughter and son-in-law, he said, prayed over such matters as the color of the car they would buy.
I think I heard a voice thundering from heaven: “Buy a pink one, for crying out loud. Whatever blows your skirt up.”
We may, of course, ask for divine direction in matters great and small, but we locate a central truth in David’s wisdom. God does not typically unfold the details of His will to His people. He usually lets us sort out the small stuff for ourselves.
He has established a covenant relationship with us and those who “keep His covenant and His testimonies” stand an excellent chance of operating within His will. He has promised blessing upon those who keep covenant with Him.
Beloved, God is more impressed – He is far more impressed – with the simple obedience of a simple faith that accepts what He has revealed than with creaturely cleverness in ferreting out what He has not revealed.
To try to penetrate the mind of God and mine the secrets hidden therein by reading signs and omens, whether in tea leaves or our own psyches, is to flirt with paganism. David saw the idolatrous practice of the tribes that shared Canaan with God’s people and he recoiled.
He would have his people, then and now, know that when we seek direction in what God has made known in His Scriptures we lay a foundation of truth with mature, godly decisions that move us ever closer to the throne of grace.
Those steeped in His word are most likely to discern His will – without recourse to blinding flashes from the heavens to clue them in. If we will dwell within the covers of the Scriptures we will call good good and evil evil. And God will take pleasure in us.
The psalmist writes: “Do not remember the sins of my youth, nor my transgressions; according to Your mercy remember me, for Your goodness’ sake, O LORD.”
In discussing his enemies, David has named his sins. You and I need not search out adversaries beyond the oceans and over the mountains; we have more than we can wage war on right here within us.
And God has given us all the fortification we need to do combat with enemies seen and unseen. He has given us His word. When we keep it we remain under His protection. My friend Larry would tell you the same if he were here.
“More than that, blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” Amen.