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Sermon – February 28, 2010: Enemies

Sermon for Sunday, February 28, 2010 The First Baptist Church of Lewisburg

Enemies

Psalm 27; Philippians 3: 17-4: 1; Luke 13: 31-35

How many enemies do you have? I don’t mean people you don’t care for, or even

someone against whom you have a grudge, unless the grudge works both ways and that

person is as interested in doing you harm as you are in doing that person harm. How many

people that you know are enemies of yours?

We are a nation engaged in a couple of wars, so by definition some regard us as

enemies, and we may regard some others as enemies simply because of our citizenship.

Depending upon how strong your party spirit is, you may feel you have enemies in the

political arena. It’s possible to have definite political preferences and not regard opponents

as “enemies”, but certainly some people end up with enemies over political matters.

You may have enemies through no fault of your own. I say that because my hunch

is that many people, asked if they had enemies, wouldn’t respond “yes” right away. There

may be ruptured relationships which result in regret more than enmity. There may be

people whose hostility is puzzling and leads to sadness or frustration. Lots of time, too,

people seem to go through life without becoming the target of malice. Many people

manage, by combinations of character, temperament, and circumstances, not to get very

much on the bad side of others, and though perhaps few would echo Will Rogers’ famous

line by saying “I never met a man I didn’t like,” there’s plenty of room between enjoyment

and affirmation of other people and seeing those persons as enemies.

There are people who believe in having enemies– people who think that an

absence of committed opponents is an indication that a person isn’t taking enough of a

stand on important controversies. There are also people who believe in not having

enemies, people who want to love everyone else, and try to overcome what they

perceive as the evil of ill-will with the good of benevolence.

Well, I begin with all this thinking about how many enemies we have because if you

open the book of Psalms, you notice that the writers of psalms have enemies. The word

“enemy” or “enemies” occurs in fifty-seven of the one-hundred-and-fifty psalms–just more

than a third. If you add a few psalms that stick to the word “foes” or something like “those

who hate me” you get to sixty-one psalms concerned with people who have it in for the

psalmist. If you have time to read through the psalms which don’t use the words “enemy”

or “foe” or talk about people who hate one, you still find psalms like Psalm 12, which talks

about ungodly, faithless, lying persons who despoil the poor, or Psalm 14, which begins

complaining about fools who deny the existence of God and do abominable deeds. I

didn’t have the patience to read through all the psalms to catalogue all the references to bad

people that God ought either punish or protect one from, or both, but it has to be at least

half of the psalms. Even most people’s favorite psalm, the Twenty-Third, mentions

enemies once and hints at mortal danger from which one is spared by God’s rod and staff.

Couldn’t these Hebrews get along with anyone? Sometimes the enemies are

foreign enemies, but much more often they are unnamed rivals and plotters of ruin from

one’s own society. Despite the possession of the law and the influence of a common

religion, it sounds like a world much more dangerous and without conscience than the place

where most of us live. If reading the psalms were supposed to give insight into how

Jesus’ forbears lived, it makes Israelite society sound like one of the desperate strata of our

own society instead of small-town America.

All of today’s scriptures have to do with having enemies, and they all therefore

present the possibility of a person’s having a “fight or flight” response to their circumstance,

either being backed into necessary violence or finding a way to abandon the field. The

Bible’s preferred response is neither of these instinctive choices, but relying on faith in God

for deliverance. We’ll talk about that a bit more in a minute but first I want to address how

often enemies show up in the book of Psalms.

I expect it’s because of how many psalms are pleas for help, or meditations on the

source of help. Even in a society in which only a tenth of the public had enemies, that ten

per cent might be driven by their need for help or gratitude for rescue into creating a

proportionately large amount of prayers.

That’s just human nature. Some people are good prayers under all circumstances,

but if I were to go back and categorize just the prayers I’ve prayed for myself over my

lifetime, I suspect an outsider would see them as predominantly concerned with health

matters and interpersonal conflicts, even though I’ve been in good health almost all the time

and gotten along pretty well with most everyone always. It’s just that, like lots of people, I

am likelier to pray when I am in a bind, or when I’ve been wonderfully delivered from

trouble, than I am to pray when things seem to be going okay.

That may explain why there’s so many references in the book of Psalms to

enemies, but it doesn’t eliminate the reality of enemies. Even persons who on principle

would declare that they don’t have an enemy in the world might be chosen by someone

else to be an enemy despite themselves. There’s a scene in the movie “The Sand

Pebbles” in which the missionary steps out in front of unseen attackers to renounce his

connection with the Western governments against which there is an uprising, and to declare

himself a citizen of the world, and one of the attackers shoots him. His having no wish to be

an enemy doesn’t spare him being regarded as an enemy. His ethic of love doesn’t win

over the better nature of his adversary. That’s how it can be.

So what do we do with the enemies that we get, however we get them? How do

we deal with those who do mean our harm, whether it’s a coworker who has decided that

making us look bad is the best course to advancing his or her own interests, or the

anonymous extremist who plants the bomb in the museum we visit because murdering

anyone who happens to be there will put pressure on a government?

The first obvious religious answer is prayer. The Lord’s Prayer, which contains

various kinds of prayers–prayers of praise and acknowledgment, prayers for forgiveness,

prayers for sustenance–also includes a prayer for deliverance from evil. The psalms, as we

have noted, frequently pray that God help one against one’s enemies, that God foil their

evildoing or somehow preserve the intended victim.

The point of at least most of the psalms which deal with people opposed to one is

that one is taking refuge in God. You may not be able to escape the reality of having an

enemy or the situation which is dangerous, but God has the power to do something about

it. God may rescue you.

The alternative is that God may vindicate you and somehow do you good despite

your enemies’ getting at you. Either way the person who commits to counting on God is

renouncing fighting or running away. It is like the story of the three Israelites who are

condemned to be thrown into a fiery furnace for refusing to worship a foreign god. They tell

the king who sentences them that they have a God able to save them from the furnace, but

if it turns out that God won’t save them, all the same they’re going to be faithful to their own

God and not change course.

The possibility of being rescued in this world is important to note. Biblical faith isn’t

only a hardy acceptance of destruction in order to be true to one’s religion. The wonderful

line in this psalm is this: “I believe that I shall see the goodness of God in the land of the

living.” It’s not only some other realm in which God triumphs.

Jesus is warned about an enemy in the gospel. His response is that he’s going to

keep right on doing what he’s doing, on his way to Jerusalem. He isn’t shirking death. His

work may require his sacrificing himself, but seeing himself as a prophet, he regards

Jerusalem and not the countryside as the appropriate place for him to confront being killed.

He isn’t afraid of Herod, not because he can harm Herod, but because he thinks that by a

combination of God’s usual way of doing things and his own elusiveness that Herod won’t

have a chance to harm him.

By the time the letter to the Philippians is written, Jesus’ example of accepting death

in order to count on God, and Easter’s vindication of that trust, has set the pattern for Jesus’

disciples. The believers in Philippi have enemies– the whole church of Christ has enemies,

but they are not to seek to be saved through violence, or by giving up. They must do

what Paul and others like Paul believe in doing, and that is following Christ by counting on

God to bring them through. That may happen in this world and that may happen in the

next, and whichever way God cares for them, God will take care of them.

To count this much on God is hard, but it is the hope offered by the witness of the

Bible and the heritage of the faith. Lent is Christ’s season of accepting the necessity of

relying only and finally on God, and by prayerfully entering the spirit of Lent we ourselves

may be seasoned to be true followers of our Lord.

 

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