Saturday, February 07, 2004

The Line in the Sand

They were living as people do, whenever there is an oppressive and corrupt government—resigned to their misery, believing that there is no way out. They busied themselves in the little daily things—eking out an existence, keeping their heads low, trying never to draw attention to themselves. Young Gideon, hiding in a cave, is pressing out the harvest of grapes. The Midianites will never find him here, and his precious wine will fetch a handsome price on the black market, if only he can protect it long enough to sell. He’s the youngest in his family, probably little more than a boy, with an adolescent mixture of self-doubt and cockiness. The last thing he expects to see as he slips outside the cave is a man sitting under an oak tree. But the man is not a Midianite spy. He is the Angel of Yahweh, a mysterious being who pops into sight at the end of the rope to bring hope to people who have forgotten hope. The Angel ignores his feet, stained with the purple grape juice. “The Lord is with you, mighty warrior.” He says it like it’s Gideon’s surname, like you would say “Hi, there, Mr. Smith.”

Mighty Warrior? Gideon likes the sound of it, but there have been no might warriors in the land since Barak and Deborah in his grandfather’s time.

“Look Mister, if the Lord is with us, why then has all this happened to us? And where’s all the stuff my father told me about? Like when we came up out of Egypt and crossed the Jordan and the Caananites fled before our armies? Yahweh has abandoned us and all we have now is a ruined land, and these Midianites who steal our sisters, burn our crops and set up their stupid Ba’al poles everywhere. Even my parents bow down to the things and make us do it, ‘to avoid trouble’ they say. I don’t think there even is a Yahweh, or if there is, He doesn’t care much about what happens to us.”

The Angel looks him right in the eyes and says, "Go in this might of yours and deliver Israel from the hand of Midian; I hereby commission you."

Gideon snorts. "Mister, how am I supposed to deliver Israel? My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the youngest in my family. We’re winemakers, not warriors."
The Angel’s voice takes on a great seriousness. "But I will be with you, and you shall strike down the Midianites, every one of them."

“Look, I don’t know who you are, but if you are from Yahweh, then you can prove it. Stay here and I’ll be right back.” The Angel smiles patiently, “I’ll be right waiting.”

So Gideon slips down the hillside, and gathers a meal for the stranger. His mind races, What should I ask him for? What if he really is the Angel? What does he mean when he says I’m a warrior? Dad’s going to kill me if this is some kind of a prank. We can’t afford to lose this meal. He packs his backpack firmly and slips back through the brush, one eye out for Midianite terrorists, one eye out for his father.

The Angel is still waiting under the tree when he returns. Gideon still has no idea what to ask for, but the Angel speaks first. "Take the meat and the unleavened cakes, and put them on this rock, and pour out the broth." And when he does, the Angel touches the food with the end of his staff and the entire feast is consumed in fire.

Suddenly, Gideon knows who the visitor is. By the next day, he is leading an underground insurrection that turns into a full-fledged rebellion. Soon the Midianites have learned that a people who regain hope are a powerful force.

That’s how God works. Just when you’ve given up hope God sends somebody along to tell you that there is always hope, that you can resist oppression, that you can find within you the strength to regain freedom and to live under justice and peace. And God chooses the least likely people to be bearers of message of hope. The true prophets never seek the calling, the calling seeks them.

You might have spent your entire life fishing off the wrong side of the boat, but your net will burst with hope if you can but heed the call. And you are especially likely called to be a warrior of hope when you fall down before Jesus and say, “I’m sinful, I’m not worthy, I’m just a winemaker or a fisherman.”

In February and March 1943 in Germany a group of women heard God calling them to be warriors, though without the usual weapons. Reacting to the internment of their Jewish husbands, hundreds of these non-Jewish wives and other civilians who supported them started daily sit-ins in front of the building at Rosenstrasse 2-4 where their husbands had been taken before they were shipped to concentration camps. SS soldiers shot into the air over their heads, shut down the nearest streetcar station, and tried to frighten them off, but they kept coming, their ranks swelling to a thousand. The Nazis were faced with a dilemma: To stop the protest, they could drag these women away and arrest them, or brutalize them in the streets—but the regime was concerned that that would inflame other Berliners, who would surely hear about what had happened. In a week the government decided it was easier just to give them their husbands back, and did so, transporting many back from the camps; 1,700 were set free. Their nets burst with hope.

The call comes always to the least likely, but when they hear it, the world is never the same. It came once, to a young lawyer, at the opposite end of the social scale from Gideon or the Rosenstrasse wives. He was wealthy, well-connected, educated at the best schools. He believed himself on a mission to destroy a dangerous heresy plaguing the purity of truth. He would stop at nothing to see that the enemies of God were uprooted, and if it meant killing them, well, that was the price that had to be paid. But on the road to Damascus, he heard the call and the world changed forever. Saul became Paul and Christianity became the movement that turned the world upside down. Paul was the least likely candidate for apostleship, but God’s grace made him into a castnet of hope for those who never knew what hope was.

Years after his conversion, he received a visit from some old friends. They brought him the disturbing news that one of the congregations he had founded in Corinth was being ripped apart over doctrinal divisions. People had drawn lines in the sand over who was really a Christian and who was a heretic. Paul had been down that road, a long time before, and knew that it ended in death. Could women preach in church? Did you have to speak in tongues to be a Christian? What happened if someone got divorced? Must Christians be vegetarians? Was Jesus resurrected in a fleshly body?

These were pressing questions and because feelings ran high around the answers, they were threatening to tear the Corinthian church asunder. So Paul drew a line in the sand, and we would do well to note its boundaries.

“I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you—unless you have come to believe in vain.
For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.”

That was it, he said, the sum total of the faith of the people of hope: Christ’s death, burial and resurrection. That’s the Gospel. The line in the sand, drawn by the least likely of the apostles for us, the least likely of disciples.

In a time when the entire Church—and not just the Anglican branch—is rent by divisions over human sexuality, people are drawing lines in the sand. Women may be deacons, but not presbyters or bishops. Gay and lesbian people may be baptized, but may not be ordained. Statements of faith are being formulized and those who sign them are the true Christians. Everywhere, in every debate, scripture is wielded like a weapon. These divisions are rooted in our sinfulness, our separation from God. They lead to struggles for political power pretending to be piety, and end in death. Death of faith, death of hope, death of the Church.

To draw those lines, says Paul, the great warrior of Christ, is to deny the thing of most importance: the Gospel. The Gospel is very simple: Jesus died, was buried and rose again so that whoever you are you can be saved. And whoever you are there is nothing—absolutely nothing—that you have to do or agree to before coming to the foot of the cross of Jesus. The only thing any of us has to say as we come to Calvary is this: “Just as I am without one plea, but that thy blood was shed for me, and that thou bidst me come to thee, O Lamb of God, I come, I come.”

If someone comes, baptized in the blood of Jesus, kneeling at this altar, we are to welcome her to feast with us. If someone prays, kneeling in the pew next to us, we are to grab his hand and wish him the peace of the Lord. All we need to know is that this is a fellow sinner, saved by grace, as unlikely a recipient of salvation as you or me. There is no one who is worthy, no one who knows which side of the boat the fish are on, no one who can go from winemaker to warrior apart from the gospel of grace. That’s why we call it the gospel—because it’s good news for us lost sinners.

The Angel of the Lord sits under our oak tree and tells us, “The Lord is with you, mighty warriors. Go and free my people, I hereby commission you.” What are you waiting for?

1 comment:

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