August 31, Eleventh Sunday After Trinity
Lean on Him!
Psalm 124, Isaiah 26:12-16, 19, Romans 8:26-39
My father went for an unplanned swim. The date was 26 October 1942. In the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands the Japanese Air Force shot the U. S. S. Hornet out from under him and into that pond called the Pacific he went, he and a host of shipmates.
I have read reports of the battle and they all relate the sinking and rescue operation with a clinical detachment. Dad’s account sounded more like a war novel – or, perhaps better, an anti-war novel.
The Hornet absorbed ordnance from both dive bombers and torpedo planes. The pilot of one dive bomber, which was severely damaged, managed to crash his plane into the ship’s tower. Adm. Halsey ordered a heavy cruiser to tow the carrier away from the battle scene and repairs to proceed.
This mission was partially accomplished when another flight of torpedo planes appeared and inflicted more damage, this time mortal damage.
Dad was a welder, what the Navy called back then a “metalsmith.” When it became evident that no amount of welding was going to save the ship, he and a pal were at loose ends. They weren’t needed to bear the wounded. All that remained was to await the order to abandon ship.
Dad and his friend found a store of medicinal brandy that had been left on deck and decided to pass the time at the bar, so to speak . . . to lubricate their thinking. When that was accomplished, they recalled that the small-arms locker had been opened. They went below and helped themselves to a couple of pistols and plenty of ammunition.
And so that’s how it came about that they were standing on the flight deck of a sinking aircraft carrier on a partly sunny day, in the fog of war, drinking brandy and firing .45-caliber pistols at approaching torpedo planes. They didn’t expect to bring down any of them but their mini anti-aircraft barrage was at worst a way to pass the time and at best a symbolic contribution to the battle.
At last they heard the command, “Abandon ship!” and they splashed into the drink and waited for rescue. It wasn’t long before a destroyer steamed into the area and began picking up survivors – but it was too long for one sailor.
This man had collected coins from each port in which that mammoth ship docked and stored them in a five-pound tobacco tin. It was full, or very near it. He took it into the drink with him and his shipmates watched this sailor, who was wearing a life jacket as they were, slip farther and farther into the water as the jacket became saturated.
They hollered at him to abandon his collection . . . but he would not. It took him under, and that was the end of him – and his precious coins. A verse about storing up treasure in heaven comes to mind.
When the destroyer hove into view, Dad and the others began making their way toward her as she circled on her rescue run. Men on deck had lowered a net over the side and the sailors in the water grabbed hold and clambered up.
Dad was only a few yards away when someone on deck shouted down that word had come that Japanese ships were bearing down. This fellow told the men still in the water to stand by, so to speak, and that after the enemy was dispatched the ship would return. The net began to go up.
Dad’s reply was something I will not inflict on the tender ears of a churchy crowd such as yourselves. He lunged for the net and caught the bottom line and, hanging on for dear life, rode it up as it was hauled aboard.
And that’s how close you came to not having me here to preach today, because the destroyer never made it back for another sweep.
Quoth the Psalmist:
"If it had not been the LORD who was on our side," Let Israel now say --
2 had not been the LORD who was on our side, when men rose up against us,
3 Then they would have swallowed us alive, when their wrath was kindled against us;
4 Then the waters would have overwhelmed us, the stream would have gone over our soul;
5 Then the swollen waters would have gone over our soul."
The Lord was on Dad’s side even when Dad knew Him not. Six decades later, I saw him come to saving faith as he lay dying of leukemia. I never went to war but I, too, can testify that the Lord saved me . . . saved me as surely as if I were about to descend into a watery grave. And until that moment, I too, knew Him not.
The vicissitudes of life nibble at us daily, like crabs, even as we wonder when they will swallow us down. In an antiwar novel, life is a Catch-22. Nothing makes sense, the author would have us know, because war is irrational. It’s a cliché . . . but a cliché is an old, tired expression of something true.
It was true in the Psalmist’s day and in World War II. We have more efficient technology for killing than King David and his minions, and it’s even much advanced today from the time of the last world war.
But strip away the glitzy weaponry and the scene doesn’t look much different. Some grow rich while some beg; some hope and some despair; some live and some die. And in the moment it’s devilishly difficult to sort it all out.
Looking back, it’s not so hard: The Lord was on our side.
Where we are flighty, He is constant. Where we are unconvinced, He is certain. Where we are weak, He is strong. Where our flesh is temporal, His Spirit is eternal. The Lord has the bird’s-eye view. He knows. Put your trust in the One who knows.
To put our faith in Him, to call upon His name to save us and help us, of course, can only imply our impotence to save and help ourselves. We are strutting creatures, and in the human species as in many others the male is the more colorful. The brilliance of our plumage can blind us to our need.
It is not by chance that women outnumber men in the churches by a rollicking factor.
Who is your Savior? If you say you have that matter well in hand, you might want to pay Joshua another visit. He was the human leader of all the Lord’s people and yet he understood that a man is no more than a ghostly imitation of the One who knows.
Only last Sunday we heard him say, “as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15).
Already this morning we have heard St. Paul testify, “the Spirit . . . helps us in our weakness.”
Our weakness? Indeed.
This is the point at which the human struggle resolves itself. Will you put your trust in yourself and never know? Or will you follow the One who knows? Will you bow before an idol – beauty or riches, wisdom or fame – or will you confess your need and serve the Lord?
Joshua supplied the answer 3,500 years ago . . . yet many are still searching for it today. For those who insist on pursuing it, it is not difficult to find. Name the thing you devote most of your time to each day, each week, each month, and you have identified your god.
Your work, you say? All right, but are you a plumber, a doctor or a ballerina for God’s glory or for your own?
In our psalm, David reprises Joshua’s thought. Whether the author is David himself while on the run from the Philistines or someone much later from the “school of David” after the return from exile in Babylon, there is no doubt that Yahweh has saved His people from some terrible outcome.
The Psalmist begins, “If it had not been the LORD who was on our side, let Israel now say . . .” He then provides the response he wants from the congregation, or perhaps from a choir representing them, the litany of terrors that would have befallen them had the Lord not been on their side.
The theme of Yahweh as Israel’s only Protector permeates the Old Testament. In Psalm 20, the poet intones, “Some trust in chariots, and some in horses; but we will remember the name of the Lord our God” (v. 7).
Big talk, but over and again Israel trembled like a newborn foal rather than turn to Yahweh when under threat. The more things change . . .
The last metaphor, which compares Israel’s plight to that of a pitiable bird trapped in a snare, speaks to the acute nature of the danger. Israel was already in the snare, awaiting the trapper’s knife at the throat, when God strode in to break the snare.
In the end, it is the “name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth,” that proves mightier than His people’s potent enemy. That name is stronger than the best weaponry of the Psalmist’s day . . . or of ours.
Just one more iteration, from Psalm 18: “The name of the Lord is a strong tower; the righteous run to it and are safe.”
Are you terrified? Invoke the name of the Lord . . . or face your peril by yourself.
Cancer has a way of inducing humility in its victim, or at least of introducing mortality to him, as in my father’s case. Many die of cancer or other dread disease, of course, without ever crying out to God. They never ascend unto brokenness.
I read an interview with our new archbishop, Foley Beach, in which he said growing up in a broken home taught him brokenness. I don’t think it’s presumptuous to suggest he would agree that brokenness, like everything else of value, is an offering of the Holy Spirit. Pride is the devil’s gift.
It never ceases to fascinate me how our God works. Brokenness is . . . a treasure? Just so. Without it we would never admit the ache inside, the yearning of our spirit to join itself to the Holy Spirit of God.
Self-sufficiency a curse? Indeed. It nourishes the delusion that we have no need for God.
I am my father’s son. I can see my pre-redeemed self on the flight deck, swigging brandy and plinking away at a faceless enemy too powerful, too foreign, too sinister for me to understand. What would make him so? My pride, which arrested me and fueled the deception that I could go it alone.
I too came late to saving faith. It took decades for the words to gurgle up through the strata of pride and anger and fear: Save me, Lord; help me, Lord; command me, Lord; send me, Lord.
At last came the epiphany: Jehovah reigns. He helps those who, by the Spirit, allocute the obvious: I don’t know.
Battles rage, bombs fall, men die . . . while others live. One catches the net of salvation by the last strand while another lunges and misses and still another never bothers . . . and perishes.
I praise God that I know not for if I knew I would have no need of God.
Dad and I . . . we wandered in the dark not even knowing where we wished to arrive. When we finally staggered onto the right path we looked around, bemused. Why us on Glory Road and not him or her or him?
We were in one snare and they were in another; the Lord rescued us . . . and not them?
Well, it bends the mind. But this much is plain: It takes a bold sinner to savor salvation, to study its perfection, like a jeweler examining a flawless diamond. The tentative sinner can coo sweet nothings to himself: You’re really a pretty decent sort.
The robust sinner can only cringe at such pretense . . . and give thanks.
Not long after Dad got his diagnosis I asked if he had ever tried to read the Bible. Once, he said; it made little sense to him. What version, I asked. The King James. If I bring you another that’s a little easier to follow, would you try again? He said he might.
The next day I returned to the hospital with an NIV New Testament. On almost every occasion that I visited after that he had a point to raise, a question to pose about something he’d read. Occasionally, he would say, with no prompting from me, “I couldn’t read today; the chemo wouldn’t let me focus.”
The dawn of salvation was beginning to glow like a thin, bright line, a glimmer of light in the eastern sky. If this was not the end, if his eternal destination hung in the balance, he could not save himself. He must put his trust in the Lord.
One day he told me, “After the life I’ve lived I’m sure I’ll have to spend some time in Purgatory.”
We talked about that. I did not say, “Purgatory is a ski resort.”
He had excavated in God’s word the promise of redemption. All that was left was to fine-tune it a bit.
When the doctor called us in, by the time I arrived Dad was still conscious but he couldn’t speak. I said, “Do you know we love you?” He nodded. I said, “Do you know God loves you?” He nodded again.
At his funeral, a demon possessed me and convinced me I could hold it together and speak. I blubbered like a drooling knave. The incredible life-affirming power of the witness of his last days overwhelmed me: He needed the Lord. Amen.