March 22, 2015 Passion Sunday
We Soldier On
Isaiah 1:10-20, Psalm 71, Hebrews 9:11-15, St. John 8:46-59
An unfortunate fellow named Joe found himself shipwrecked on a deserted island many miles from the nearest shipping lanes. Alone and without much hope of rescue, he set about making his new home as livable as possible.
The first thing he did was gather all the driftwood he could find and pile it in a tidy stack on the beach. If ever he sighted a vessel at sea he would be ready to torch his massive bonfire and alert the mariners to his presence.
For 19 long and lonely years Joe bided his time, gazing out to sea for any sign of a ship. Finally, on one bright morning he thought he saw puffs of smoke on the horizon and then, sure enough, a smokestack hove into view.
Joe was ready. From the small fire he kept going on the beach he lit a dry branch. He touched the flame to the wood of his bonfire in several places and in moments billows of smoke were drifting skyward, borne on the breeze in the direction of the distant ship.
And – thanks be to God! – a sailor did spy Smokey Joe’s white pillar. He alerted the captain, who maneuvered as close to the island as he could and then ordered a lifeboat be put overboard. The second mate and a crew of sailors set out for the island. At long last, Joe’s rescue had come.
He told the mate he needed just a few minutes to gather up the few possessions worth taking back to the world. And then Joe felt the strangest emotion, a tinge of regret at leaving his home of two decades.
No, he didn’t want to stay, but he asked the mate and the sailors if they would walk with him a short distance, just over that little rise, and have a look at his home. They complied.
Cresting the rise, they saw three tidy huts with thatched roofs. “That one on the left,” Joe said, “is where I live. And the one next to it is where I go to church. O.K., we can go now.”
“Wait a minute,” said the mate. “There are three huts. What’s the third one for?”
“Oh, that,” said Joe; “that’s where I used to go to church.”
It’s just downright difficult these days to find a church where you can settle in for the long haul.
Beloved, we have suffered a loss. I do not mean to make light of it or to minimize it. We have lost two of the founding members of All Saints Anglican Church and they will be missed. They are already missed. They were fixtures and from where I stand two seats look conspicuously empty.
We may pray that by God’s grace they reconsider and return. We may pray that, if not, they land in a new church home where their faith can thrive and they can serve. We may pray for their peace.
Meanwhile, we soldier on. How do we do that?
In World War I an officer was leading a company that had been on furlough back to the front. They trooped down a muddy track in the rain through a sullen, battle-scarred countryside.
They knew what lay ahead – mud and blood and death. Shoulders sagging, they neither spoke nor sang; they merely slogged onward.
Glancing through the door of a bullet-pocked church along the line of march their officer glimpsed the figure of Christ above the altar. He sang out to his men, “Eyes right, march!”
Those bedraggled troops beheld Christ, suffering yet triumphant. Suffering yet triumphant. Their heads lifted, their pace quickened. The downtrodden put on the look of conquerors.
Meanwhile, we soldier on. How do we do that? With our gaze fastened on the cross of Christ.
As we do, we ask ourselves, what is the state of our health as a church? The psalm we recited moments ago, No. 71, is especially appropriate for this Lord’s Day. For one thing, it is perhaps the only poem in the Psalter composed by someone who makes it a point to mention that he is advanced in years.
For the other, it belongs to a category of psalms called “laments.” The Israelites of old, we believe, used it at festivals in times of crisis that lasted several days and included humiliation and prayer. In some versions of the Book of Common Prayer, Psalm 71 is used in the Order for the Visitation of the Sick.
Is this our time of deep crisis? Are we as a church on life support? Certainly, our ranks, already thin, have been further depleted.
One of my favorite Bible stories comes from 2 Kings 6. It involves the prophet Elisha, referred to in this passage as “the man of God,” and his servant:
“And when the servant of the man of God arose early and went out, there was an army, surrounding the city with horses and chariots. And his servant said to him, ‘Alas, my master! What shall we do?’ 16 So he answered, ‘Do not fear, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.
“17 And Elisha prayed, and said, ‘LORD, I pray, open his eyes that he may see.’ Then the LORD opened the eyes of the young man, and he saw. And behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.
“18 So when the Syrians came down to him, Elisha prayed to the LORD, and said, ‘Strike this people, I pray, with blindness.’ And He struck them with blindness according to the word of Elisha. 19 Now Elisha said to them, ‘This is not the way, nor is this the city. Follow me, and I will bring you to the man whom you seek.’
“But he led them to Samaria. 20 So it was, when they had come to Samaria, that Elisha said, ‘LORD, open the eyes of these men, that they may see." And the LORD opened their eyes, and they saw; and there they were, inside Samaria!
“21 Now when the king of Israel saw them, he said to Elisha, ‘My father, shall I kill them? Shall I kill them?’ 22 But he answered, ‘You shall not kill them. Would you kill those whom you have taken captive with your sword and your bow?
“’Set food and water before them, that they may eat and drink and go to their master.’ 23 Then he prepared a great feast for them; and after they ate and drank, he sent them away and they went to their master. So the bands of Syrian raiders came no more into the land of Israel.”
We appear to be outnumbered and outgunned, but are we defeated? Do we walk by sight or do we walk by faith? Are there truly more who are against us than are for us, or have we not asked our Lord to sanctify our vision?
If Psalm 71 was composed during Israel’s Babylonian exile, as appears likely, the poet was cut off from his God. We are not. His enemies saw him as abandoned by his God. We are not seen in that light.
The Psalmist longed to visit the sanctuary to praise God and give Him thanks. We have no impediment to worship. The Psalmist makes no mention of family and friends; he has no one but God.
He is like our Lord Jesus. At the most devastating moments of His life on earth, he was bereft of human companionship, deserted by His friends. We have one another.
And then there’s that matter of the Psalmist’s age. The years are very much with him, but they are not entirely a burden. In fact, they are a blessing. His white-thatched roof testifies to his long history with his Lord.
It speaks of his knowledge of God’s presence and his experience of His teaching. Beloved, we would look foolish indeed if we pretended to be young, something like the guy who gives himself a convertible and a pinkie ring for his 70th birthday.
But why would we? We have the maturity and the fortitude to stay the course, to run the race so as to win.
We are not fickle. We know the sacrifice our Lord made for us. We know the demands of bearing our own crosses. We know the ache and the joy of contending for the faith when others lose heart.
I do not know God’s plan for this church. I do know God has a plan. Our work is to keep the flame burning and to trust that His will will be done.
As a girl, Amy Carmichael loathed her brown eyes. Born in Ireland in 1867, she grew up one of seven children. Her parents were deeply devoted to Christ and raised their children to love and serve the Lord. Amy learned early on the discipline of a total, unswerving commitment to Christ.
She simply thought she could serve Him just as well with pretty blue eyes. She remembered her mother’s teaching, perhaps misconstrued, that if she asked God for anything, He would surely grant her request.
This is immature faith . . . understandable in a child. God didn’t budge. Her eyes remained brown.
As a young woman, Amy felt called to mission. She answered that call with great joy and went to Japan in 1892. Fifteen months later she fell seriously ill and eventually returned to England. In 1895, the Church of England Zenana Missionary Society commissioned Amy to go to Dohnavur, India.
She remained for 56 years without a furlough as God's devoted servant. A major part of her work there was devoted to rescuing girls whose families had dedicated them to temple prostitution.
And here she realized God’s wisdom in His choice of her eye color. She used coffee to dye her fair skin and then, with those lovely, God-given brown eyes, hard-earned language skills and local dress, she could pass for Indian.
Now blending in, she set out to rescue as many girls as she could from the sordid life of temple prostitution. With a group of Indian women who had been converted to Christ, she founded a home for homeless girls that sought to help especially those rescued from prostitution.
Some pagan priests began turning over to her “temple babies,” those born to the prostitutes. Over those 56 years she saved thousands of girls and, in time, she and her group added a home for boys. Amy, we may trust, blessed the day God refused her heart-felt plea for blue eyes.
Like Amy, we do not know God’s plan . . . but we know God has a plan. What sustained our Lord Jesus in His great torment if not His belief in God’s plan?
I mentioned that Psalm 71 has been used in the prayer book’s Order for the Visitation of the Sick. But its theme is not entirely one of woe. The poet alludes to God’s righteousness five times.
One commentator called it “a kind of confident, even jubilant, psalm of lament.” Yes, it’s used for ministry to the infirm but it shows up elsewhere as well. Verse 1 – “O Lord, in thee have I trusted; let me never be confounded” – has been taken as the last stanza in that magnificent old hymn that graces the Order for Morning Prayer, Te Deum Laudumus, “We Praise Thee, O God.”
Beloved, our Lord gives us affliction to prove us by testing, to stiffen our spines and to make our hearts beat faster with love for Him. In time of trouble He remains righteous. In time of trial He remains worthy of our praise. Older and wiser, eyes fastened on the cross of Christ, we soldier on. Amen.