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Sermon – “Stand Fast” – February 24, 2013

Sermon for February 24, 2013

The First Baptist Church of Lewisburg

Stand Fast Psalm 27; Philippians 3: 7 – 4: 3; Luke 13: 31-35

In the spring of 1979 the First Baptist Church of New Haven, Connecticut, gave its youth the chance to lead its worship service. One thing they did was choose the hymns, including “Onward, Christian Soldiers.”

You know the hymn. “Onward, Christian Soldiers, marching as to war, with the cross of Jesus going on before. Christ, the royal master, leads against the foe, forward into battle see his banners go.”

The choice of hymn disturbed some in the congregation, who disliked its warlike imagery. It was just over a decade since the Tet Offensive had accelerated public criticism of the country’s war in Vietnam. Television broadcast the violence, pain, and destruction, increasing a deep suspicion of anything which seemed to put soldiering in a good light, and a hymn like “Onward, Christian Soldiers” became unpopular with many. They thought its martial imagery a poor fit for worship of the Prince of Peace.

The kids who chose it weren’t thinking about it in those terms. They liked it because it had a good, propulsive beat, for one thing. A world grown up to the beat of a drum, like youth culture for decades now, finds something convivial about music with a pronounced rhythm. It was stirring– stirring as marching music always is, and it had a stirring message. Were the kids pro-war? No. They did, however, like the call to action the song made, and they liked the mood of heroic self-sacrifice.

Cynics will say that the rank-and-file of soldiers are made out of the young because the young are vulnerable, and gullible. Part of what makes them look that way is that a certain stage of youth is highly idealistic, and has the capacity to be wholehearted. They are as likely to fall profoundly in love as they are to devote themselves completely to a cause. Romance offers a type of self-forgetfulness, and so does sacrificing oneself to a greater good, which is one way war can present itself.

My hunch is that the youth of that church had sung “Onward Christian Soldiers” just often enough to know it as a peppy tune and meaningful challenge, but didn’t get to sing it as much as they liked because whoever was picking the hymns had qualms. Being in charge of church gave them a chance to sing it again.

Some of us may not know the hymn. Most of us do. I would guess that there are some of us in the camp of the hymn’s admirers, and some among the detractors. I get what people regret about the hymn, but I like it. I like the march part of it, and I like the imagery in terms of the call to be heroic, to be self-forgetting, to embrace a possibly annihilating challenge on behalf of something worthy.

Pacifism doesn’t change the evils of violence and destruction, as though one¬†person’s innocence could infect his opponent. People speak as if Gandhi’s strategy only worked against the British because the British were so civilized, but they weren’t that civilized. There were broken heads in India, just as there were broken heads here when King used the same approach to challenging the status quo. Pacifism doesn’t work by taming the opposition, or even by shaming the opposition. I can’t think of a better explanation for its success than that God is behind it.

That success, however, comes at a huge price. People who meet the harsh realities of the world by engaging in kill-or-be-killed die. People who refuse to kill but engage evil anyway, also die. Pacifists don’t have to believe in the essential goodness of human beings. They have to believe in the essential evil of violence, and accept the idea that the way to do away with it is to try to overcome evil with good.

Jesus believes in that, and Jesus knows what the result will be. Jesus doesn’t say to himself, “I’m going to achieve something for God if it kills me.” Jesus’ position is that he is going to achieve something for God and it will kill him.

He sets off to do it anyway. It’s like he’s heeding that “Onward Christian Soldiers” song and he’s marching as to war in every aspect except he’s not taking along the means to do harm. He’s heading to violent, unscrupulous enemies who expect to defeat him by killing him. The way he understands what God asks of him and what God can do for him, he expects that his enemies will kill him but they won’t defeat him.

That’s the context of this incident in Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, in which some Pharisees come to him to warn him to get away from there. They tell him that Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, is seeking to kill him.

The Pharisees so often are opponents of Jesus, and criticized by Jesus for their attitudes and reactions to him, that to us this may seem like a friendly gesture from his fellow rabbis. Jesus, however, doesn’t behave as though it is. He gives them a message to take to Pontius Pilate, which implies that he regards them as messengers from Pilate, and not as sympathetic informers. The reason for this is, I believe, the same reason that he is hard on his disciple Peter when Peter argues that Jesus shouldn’t go and get himself killed. It is difficult enough to do something self-sacrificial, something requiring nerve and stamina and throwing oneself entirely into the care of God, without having human beings reminding you that you might have other options. Jesus’ mind is made up. He has resolved to follow the advice offered in the psalm, to stand in the Lord, to wait on the Lord, to approach the crisis of his encounter with Jerusalem in that spirit, and he is impatient with second-guessing.

It’s as if Jesus has reached a point of no return. Let’s stop and think about the whole notion of “point of no return.” Of course there is such a thing–there’s things you have to go through with. If you get going the wrong way on a one-way street and there’s no opportunity to turn around, you’re pretty committed to making it to the next intersection and hoping for the best. If you are presented with a couple of medical choices in a medical crisis you may have to opt for one whether you like it or not. Deadlines arrive, and there you are.

On the other hand, sometimes a “point of no return” comes despite the fact that an outsider can see the freedom still being there to choose differently. It may be lack of imagination on the part of the person whose momentum has carried him so far that it never enters his mind that it might be possible to change course. It may be stubbornness on the part of the person, for whom some kind of pride is involved in sticking to whatever is on its way. It may be, as it is in Jesus’ case, a compelling sense of there being a right thing at the end of the quest which will justify all the pains involved in getting there.

Jesus’ right thing sounds discouraging. He is going as a prophet to a place which kills its prophets. What he has to say about what people should hope, and what people should fear, is so unwelcome that already he is being regarded as a troublemaker who should be eradicated.

The inevitable quality of all of it is something we almost don’t notice, despite Jesus’ predictions and pronouncements, and despite the gospel writer’s telling us from Jesus’ early healing ministry in Galilee that he was provoking opponents and making enemies and getting people to begin to think about killing him. Eventually he’ll be arrested and given a trial of sorts, but it’s a foregone conclusion. It’s not like an arrest and trial in our experience, in which the defendant is presumed innocent and even what we call a technicality can invalidate a convincing conviction. There’s no drama once Jesus’ enemies figure out a way to seize him out of the limelight, away from the crowds, and make his helplessness a done deal before anyone thinks to intervene. It’s a world in which rivals are poisoned or stabbed, despite the well-organized character of Roman government and the emphasis on law in the Roman state.

Jesus, as it happens, will be convicted of presenting himself as a pretender to the throne, which is treachery from the perspective of the empire which has assumed control. It also will insult the Jewish establishment which has profited by its collaboration with Roman rule.

One way to regard Lent is as a damping-down of the pleasures of life, the greater appetite to create for the happiness and feasting of Easter. It also might be experienced as an apprenticeship to the progress of Jesus, a deliberate consciousness of choosing fewer delights, and, if only for a season, a more rigorous path. Lent can be an exercise in reminding ourselves that standing in the Lord and waiting on the Lord require determination, and that forgoing self-indulgence is a small anticipation of trusting God with ourselves when our life itself, some day, will be asked of us. Then Easter will arrive for us in earnest.

For now, however, those who choose to discipline themselves for Lent recover the connection between discipline and discipleship. We can learn, while it is only a season in the midst of our living, to live differently because we hope to honor God. This small, willing acceptance of a period of self-denial tempers our spirits, and preserves in lives which sometimes are crowded with diversions and dainties, the experience of what it means to achieve something a little difficult, and to stand fast.

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