Sunday, November 25, 2018

A Throne to Thank: Sermon on 1 Chronicles 16

It had been almost three hours since the big Macy's parade had come to an end in streets not too many blocks away. A man pulled his coats firmer around him as he walked hurriedly down Manhattan's East Eleventh Street through the crisp air of an autumn afternoon, pitying in his heart the denizens of the Hooverville in Central Park – but that wasn't where he was headed. The man – let's call him 'George' – rushed – he didn't want to be late, of course – rushed to Webster Hall, a tall, red-brick building fully restored after the fire eighteen months earlier. A notorious event venue alternating high society and radicals, that was Webster Hall.  George ducked in and grabbed a seat just in time before the special service started. But, that famous last Thursday in November, maybe not quite the kind of service you'd imagine or expect.

At the front of the hall stood Woolsey Teller, 41 years of age, not too tall – maybe an inch taller than me – and slender of frame. His brown hair sat neatly atop his head; blue eyes peered out through his glasses at the three hundred people gathered for the service he was to lead. His skin was a bit darker than George expected – the curious case of Woolsey Teller, the white supremacist with a Nicaraguan grandmother and a Cuban wife. But there he was. As he opened the event, it wasn't long before he bade George and the rest to sing together the opening number. A “Modern Doxology,” the program for the service touted. And the lyrics began like this: “Blame God from whom all cyclones blow, / blame him when rivers overflow, / blame him who swirls down house and steeple, / who sinks the ship and drowns the people. // Blame God when fell tornadoes spread / disaster, leaving maimed and dead; / when dread volcanoes vomit death, / destroying towns with liquid breath.”

It was a start to just the kind of service George had come for, that afternoon after the Macy's Parade – a service sponsored by “the 4As,” as they were popularly called: the American Association for the Advancement of Atheism. Woolsey Teller had been one of its co-founders six years before, alongside Charles Lee Smith and Freeman Hopwood. George was an atheist. Nearly everyone there was. He looked around, a smirk on his face as they sang their 'Modern Doxology,' and felt a sense of camaraderie in a lonely world and rough city. Nearly all the faces George saw were men, mostly about his age. He thought he spotted a teenager or two – perhaps members of the 4As' affiliate, the Junior Atheist League, a nationwide atheist youth network headquartered in a small Pennsylvania town called Gap. But few Junior Atheists were in Webster Hall that day; most were grown men.

The 'Modern Doxology' droned on: “Blame God for nature's brutal plan, / for jungle law of Kill, who can; / blame him for all the grief and pain / which hellish war brings in its train.” George thought back to the Great War.  Thirteen years and fifteen days had now passed since the signing of the armistice.  Now it was November 26, 1931 – with the Great War still in living memory for everyone, that was the day George and his fellow God-deniers gathered in frustration in Webster Hall. 

The plan had all started earlier that year, when the 4As held their annual convention in February in the Pythian Temple east of Broadway. There was little thought among the 4As to wage any sort of 'war' on Christmas. That wasn't the holiday that caught their ire – it was Thanksgiving they hated. (I get it.  You can be glad all on your own, but giving thanks requires a direct object, a Someone to receive the thanks no wonder atheist activists of the era wanted to overthrow Thanksgiving.) And how dare the president issue proclamations asking American citizens to spend a day in worship? An offense against the separation of church and state! – that's how they saw it. Much worse still to give thanks when so many people were suffering in their Hoovervilles 'midst the Great Depression.

So in February 1931, like the year before, they resolved to call on the president to make a change. Later, they sent President Herbert Hoover an open letter, calling on him not to issue a Thanksgiving Proclamation. But November rolled around, and as you'd expect, he'd ignored them. President Hoover said it had “become a hallowed tradition for the Chief Magistrate to proclaim annually a national day of thanksgiving,” a day “set apart to give thanks even amid hardships to Almighty God for our temporal and spiritual blessings.” So President Hoover, listing America's blessings, singled out November 26 as the day when he'd “recommend that our people rest from their daily labors and in their homes and accustomed places of worship give devout thanks for the blessings which a merciful Father has bestowed upon us.” It was almost more than the 4As could take. But they'd had a back-up plan. If President Hoover insisted on calling to give thanks to God, they'd hold a protest holiday committed to the opposite: not a Thanksgiving Day, but a Blamegiving Day – the same day.

And that's where George found himself singing the closing verses to their 'Modern Doxology': “For clergy who with hood and bell / demand your cash or threaten hell. / Blame God for earthquake shocks; and then / let all men cry aloud, 'Amen!'” And the long-winded service proceeded from there, organized as what the 4As had called a protest against divine negligence. They aimed to put God on trial, organizing a mock debate. Woolsey Teller, the 4As' vice-president, argued the prosecution against the God he denounced as “Public Enemy No. 1” (suspending, for the day, their disbelief in God's existence, of course).

Later, Woolsey ceded the stage for a while to the 4As' president, Charles Lee Smith. George had heard him a few times before – most recently in late October at Columbus Circle, where Charles had gotten himself arrested while advertising the Blamegiving Day service. Charles was a few years older than Woolsey, and not quite an inch taller, but over twenty pounds heavier – no mean feat, after a hunger strike three years ago while in prison on blasphemy charges. Similar pale blue eyes stared out through similar glasses, but Charles substituted a thin shock of white hair for Woolsey's brown. And as Charles spoke, George could instantly hear the telltale signs of his Arkansas birth and upbringing on a farm in Oklahoma. It was from there that Charles' parents had sent him to Epworth University to study for the Methodist ministry; but he'd only finished two years of college before his lost faith – haunted by his dad's death in 1909 – led him to drop out, study law, fight in Siberia during the Great War, return as a veteran to New York City, tour the country doing debates, and occasionally harass local pastors with dirty magazines in the mail. That was the notorious Charles Smith, pugnacious celebrity atheist of his day.

The service wound down – after the free-will offering, of course – with an invitation for the people to air their grievances. George thought about going up, but never got a chance. An intruding evangelist, John L. Mathews of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, briefly sermonized the crowd – calling most of their objections mere word-plays and trifles – “They are not important. What is important, brothers, is to be born again!,” he exclaimed. George was hardly won over, but he had to at least mildly applaud, in amusement, the evangelist's courage in boldly plunging into an atheists' den. 

And Rev. Mathews was, at any rate, more friendly and cordial than the other nuisance faction: the Communists, who'd been distributing handbills outside denouncing the 4As as “a lot of bourgeois” in the pay of capitalists.  Those Communists now used the opportunity afforded by grievance time to argue that all atheists should throw their allegiances to Soviet Russia and commit to converting America to atheism by exterminating the upper classes and by force, not by persuasion. And so, though some voiced their grievances and listed the things they weren't at all thankful for, the service rather degenerated around George, Woolsey, Charles, and the rest. Not that it was a pretty sight to begin with, I reckon, this whole Blamegiving Day affair in Webster Hall.

It really happened, that Manhattan autumn day. The day those particular zealous atheists assembled to make protest against God – on behalf, they said, of the poor. The same day, of course, when churches throughout New York City were working to mercifully provide turkey dinners for the poor, and when pastors preached a special emphasis on the need to do justice to the poor. Yes, that very day was, for a few hundred atheists in the city, not for thanking but for blaming. It really happened.

But nearly three thousand years earlier, another day really happened, far away from the future site of Manhattan and its Webster Hall. And I'd bid you picture that earlier day, too. A farm in the Judean countryside is a bustle of activity in the early hours of dawn. And then they set out. Leaving behind the farm of Obed-edom, a convert to the faith of Israel and a former neighbor of Goliath of Gath, the elders and priests and Levites march in a slow but steady parade. Asaph ben Berechiah, clad in a linen robe, clangs his cymbals joyously. He's a Levite, of the Gershonite line. With him, clanging their cymbals, too, are a representative from each other main Levite division. From the descendants of Merari, there's Ethan. And from the prestigious descendants of Kohath, next to Asaph stands Heman, clanging his cymbals. Heman only wished his grandfather Samuel, the great judge and prophet, were still alive to see this day.

Around these three percussionists, a few other Levites play strings – some on the harp, some on the lyre – while a few priests blow their trumpets. This band of holy musicians is next in the parade behind a set of six elite Levites, who grasp the poles. Between them – and Asaph and Heman can hardly believe it – rests the ark of the covenant. They can't see it – it's draped with a layer of goatskin and a blue cloth over that – but ever since their childhoods, they heard the stories from Exodus about how it was built, this holy wood box where the gifts of God rest, all overlaid with gold and topped with a pure gold cover flanked by gold cherubim, and over which the presence of God the King speaks to the high priest in the tabernacle.

Near the Levites who carry the ark by its poles – they dare not touch or even look at the holy thing – march two priests, Zadok and Abiathar, who pause the parade every six steps to sacrifice an ox.  Another six steps, another ox.  Another six steps, another ox. It's slow-going, to say the least. Asaph's not in a mood to mind, though. He's shouting and banging his cymbals. Out in front, he can see the back of the king – David, in a matching linen robe and linen apron, dancing his heart out with excitement. He can't contain his joy. Neither can the Levites and elders. It's infectious, a pandemic of Israelite delight. Not all the Macy's parades from first to last can compete with this.

The day wears on, but by afternoon, the parade of king and priest, elder and Levite, serving as an honor-guard for the God of all, approaches David's little citadel, the fortified city he captured on the lower part of an eastern hill. Mount Zion, they called it – not quite as tall yet as Mount Moriah, the higher peak where their forefather Isaac saw God provide Abraham with a ram to substitute for Isaac's life. But Mount Zion's slopes held the fortified city. There, near its top, was a grand cedar building, David's new palace. And not far away was a large tent he'd pitched. That was their destination. So as David's wife stared from the palace windows in disapproval and blamegiving, the thanksgiving parade made its way with loud hurrahs and hosannahs and hallelujahs into the city, and up to Zion's crest (1 Chronicles 15:1-29).

Once the priests and Levites had installed the ark in its tent, as the people gathered 'round, the priests began yet more sacrifices – burnt ascension-offerings and peace-offerings, olah and shelamim, by the dozens, as incense perfumed the air.  If you close your eyes and focus and imagine, can you see the bright colors of the procession, the gleam of the gold poles in the Levites' hands?  Can you hear their instruments and shouts?  Can you smell the fragrances mingling in the Jerusalem breeze?

King David pronounced a blessing on the crowd, and gave an order for each man and woman there to get a round loaf of bread, a raisin-cake, and a portion of meat from all the peace-offerings (1 Chronicles 16:1-3). Ascension offerings, or burnt offerings, rose as smoke entirely to God, entering his heavenly presence on the nation's behalf. Peace offerings (or fellowship offerings), meanwhile, were shared, the classic way of showing thanks.

But David had more in mind. He'd been consulting with Gad the seer and Nathan the prophet, and saw it was time to take Israel's worship to the next level. It was time to get musical. It started with the parade, but now that the ark was on Mount Zion, it was high time for a concert. And so we read that “then David appointed some of the Levites as ministers before the ark of the LORD, to invoke, to thank, and to praise the LORD, the God of Israel. Asaph was the chief, and second to him were Zechariah, Jeiel, Shemiramoth, Jehiel, Mattithiah, Eliab, Benaiah, Obed-edom, and Jeiel, who were to play harps and lyres; Asaph was to sound the cymbals, and Benaiah and Jahaziel the priests were to blow trumpets regularly before the ark of the covenant of God. Then on that day, David first appointed that thanksgiving be sung to the LORD by Asaph and his brothers” (1 Chronicles 16:4-7). Asaph and his colleagues were to stay there at Zion with the priests Benaiah and Jahaziel, while Zadok the priest were to return to Gibeon to the tabernacle and altar for sacrificial ministry; but with them, they were to take Heman and Jeduthun to extend musical ministry there, too (1 Chronicles 16:37-42).

It was all so new! So fresh! Until this surprising day, the introducing of God to Zion, the liturgical revolution of David and his booth, music hadn't been a big part of Israel's worship. But this was new, different. Asaph was thrilled. Centuries later, people would look back on this time as “the days of David and Asaph” (Nehemiah 12:46). For his music ministry, they'd remember him as “Asaph the seer” (2 Chronicles 29:30). But for now, he was lost in the momentous moment. So was Heman. So were the rest of the Levite musical team. And at the king's direction, they'd prepared a song for their choir. So with the grandest musical accompaniment, they sang their song of thanksgiving.

They celebrated, appealed to the people: “Oh give thanks to the LORD; call upon his name; make known his deeds among the peoples!” (1 Chronicles 16:8). The choir called Israel to “remember the wondrous works that he has done, his miracles and the judgments he uttered” (1 Chronicles 16:12), and to likewise “remember his covenant forever, the word that he commanded, for a thousand generations” (1 Chronicles 16:15). They called Israel back to those days of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, the days when promises were made that they'd since seen fulfilled, the days when God made a covenant and protected the patriarchs, God's very own band of roving prophets and messiahs (1 Chronicles 16:16-22). They called on Israel to call on the rest of humanity to give up their idols and meet the LORD as their Creator, Redeemer, Master, and Friend (1 Chronicles 16:23-29), “for great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised, and he is to be feared above all gods. For all the gods of the peoples are worthless idols, but the LORD made the heavens” (1 Chronicles 16:25-26).

The song of the choir called on Israel to call on humanity to call on the whole creation to worship the LORD, the God of Israel: “Let the heavens be glad, and the earth rejoice, and let them say among the nations, 'The LORD reigns!' Let the sea roar, and all that fills it; let the field exult, and everything in it! Then shall the trees of the forest sing for joy before the LORD, for he comes to judge the earth” (1 Chronicles 16:31-33). Their song was living testimony that the LORD their God was and is on his throne, ruling and reigning over even a broken world, and would bring cosmic joy when he came down personally to set things right. “Oh give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; for his love endures forever!” (1 Chronicles 16:34).

And as they heard it, the whole city of Jerusalem, that fortified town built around the slopes of Zion where King David had built his house – this whole city, and all the people who swarmed in with the parade, they shouted and sang, “Amen!”, and they give praise and glory and honor and thanks to the LORD their God (1 Chronicles 16:36). From there, after singing and celebrating, the people took their food back to their houses, with a song in their hearts. Even the king retreated to his palace to bless his house (1 Chronicles 16:43). But Asaph stayed at the tent on Zion. Heman went back to the tabernacle at Gibeon. There to make music. There to minister.

Did you catch that job description David gave them? He appointed them, and other Levites under them, to this very kind of thing: “to bring to remembrance, to thank, and to praise the LORD (1 Chronicles 16:4). That was their job! Thanksgiving was a professional task of theirs. And let me tell you, they never ran out of things to sing about. That's not to say that everything was roses. Heman, the thank-artist of the tabernacle, wrote the very darkest psalm in the whole Bible. Some of Asaph's works remember harsh times, times Israel found itself at odds with the God they claimed to worship. Asaph rehearsed the poverty of the righteous and the prosperity of the wicked (Psalm 73:3). His songs wrestled with doubt, but then, he says, he “went into the sanctuary of God” (Psalm 73:17), and in that tent he came to realize, “For me it is good to be near God; I have made the Lord GOD my refuge, that I may tell of all your works” (Psalm 73:27-28); “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (Psalm 73:25-26). And one of Asaph's own psalms prophetically relays the voice of God saying, “The one who offers thanksgiving as his sacrifice glorifies me; to the one who orders his way rightly, I will show the salvation of God!” (Psalm 50:23).

Asaph and Heman knew well that there's a time for lament. But not for blamegiving. Even in dark days, even when crying out with lament and doubt and fear, even when heart and flesh fail and everything else on earth falls away, still God is strength, still God is a saving God, still God is a desirable refuge, still it's good to be near God, still he wants to be our portion forever. Still he's glorified by thanksgiving. Because God is on his throne. And their songs started that day with the parade – the day Asaph was appointed to give thanks on Mount Zion. And I'd bet you just about anything, it was a beautiful day that day.

Two days. Two scenes. One in November 1931 in New York City. The other in ancient Jerusalem in the days of David and Asaph. I've tried to paint you two pictures. I've spent a long time doing it. And there's a reason, a question. Where are we? Right here, right now, where are we? Which scene sets our geography? Have we moved to Manhattan? Have we entered Webster Hall? Or are we destined to be somewhere else?

The last book of the Bible paints a picturesque portrait, and I'd like to read you a couple verses from there, from the visions of John. John tells us, “Then I looked, and behold! On Mount Zion stood the Lamb, and with him 144,000 who had his name and his Father's name written on their foreheads. And I heard a voice from heaven like the roar of many waters, like the sound of loud thunder. The voice I heard was like the sound of harpists playing on their harps, and they were singing a new song before the throne...” (Revelation 14:1-3a). That's the geography of the Lamb: Mount Zion, where those sealed with his name sing as harps play.

And in a spiritual way, we're there already. Listen to the author to the Hebrews: “But you have come to Mount Zion, and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” (Hebrews 12:22-24) – and, I might add, speaks a better word than every ox offered along the parade route, a better word than every ascension-offering and peace-offering that was made that day in Jerusalem of old. In a better way than they, “you have come to Mount Zion” (Hebrews 12:22).

So we know where we are, what our geography of the soul is. It's Mount Zion. But given where we are, what are we building? Is it Webster Hall, brick on brick? Or are we pitching David's tent of praise? Which way of living is more beautiful to us, which holiday are we celebrating: Blamegiving Day, or Thanksgiving Day? The choice is ours. But only one choice fits our geography. It would be terrible to build Webster Hall atop Mount Zion, and hold a Blamegiving service there in the presence of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world. And it would go against our job. You see, the prophet Isaiah heard God promise to adopt foreigners into his service in the days of the new covenant – foreigners, God said, “I will take for priests and for Levites” (Isaiah 66:21). People adopted as new Zadoks, new Hemans, new Asaphs, enrolled in the service of great David's greater Son, Jesus Christ, in whose resurrection the tent of David is raised up again for good (cf. Acts 15:16).

And that means that, when we read the Chronicler talking about Asaph and Heman and the Levites, when their job description is given, that's for us. Thanksgiving is our job description. Because we stand where they stood, cast in their roles writ large, to call all humanity to call all creation to give thanks to God and to the Lamb, who reign from one throne. If we bear the name of Jesus in our lives, if we are the ones who've come to Mount Zion where the Lamb is, then ours is the call to sing before the throne, to give thanks and praise to the LORD. Jesus is on his throne. Tomorrow may be the eighty-seventh anniversary of the 4As' ridiculous Blamegiving Day service in Webster Hall. But today, in the bright shadow of Thanksgiving Day, is the Feast of Christ the King.

No matter what cyclones blow, no matter what rivers overflow, he is King. No matter what disaster tornadoes spread, no matter all earth's volcanoes dread, he is King. No matter the outworking of nature and its brutal plan, he is King. In days of war as in days of peace, he is King. He is not negligent. Even when heart and flesh may fail, even when gloom falls like arrows from the skies, he is King, the Good King, and all creation can and rightly should give him thanks. And leading the way is the job of us honorary Levites for the Lamb. For us it is good to be near God. And he has brought us near at his Zion. So don't live a Blamegiving life on Mount Zion. That's not who you are. We are the People of Thanksgiving, called to lead the way in remembering, thanking, and praising God from Mount Zion, where it's Thanksgiving – year-round – in Jesus' name. Amen.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

When War is Done: Sermon on Isaiah 2:1-5 for Veterans Day

As the bullet pierced through his helmet, passed through his pack, and sank into the flesh of his back, Sgt. Myers knew it was not his day. This was hardly what he'd expected just two and a half months earlier when he'd left Camp Meade and set sail on the Agamemnon from Hoboken to France. Sgt. Myers served under Capt. Loane in Company L of the 316th Infantry Regiment. And that first month had been such a happy one. Everyone felt an optimistic hope. They enjoyed adventures, suffered no hardships, thought they'd be home so soon. Even into mid-September, they felt themselves in relative comfort – for what that was worth.

But then came the first real trial by fire. The Meuse-Argonne Offensive. And Sgt. Myers had his part to play. On the second day of battle, as noon neared, another regiment in his division managed to capture Montfaucon, a French commune, from the dreaded German army. That night, Sgt. Myers slept in the mud. He'd scarcely touched his rations. They each carried a two-day supply – a pound of corned beef and three boxes of hard biscuits – but in battle, who thinks to eat? The landscape all around him was ruined by war – trees become dead logs, towns become piles of stones, holes ripped into the earth, shreds of barbed wire everywhere.

Frightfully early the next morning, the 316th Infantry Regiment received their orders: they were to relieve the 313th at Montfaucon and, at seven hundred hours, attack southeast toward the Bois de Beuges, a dense forest, to press back the German lines. The 313th needed relief, alright; they'd had a rough day and rough night. One of their captains called those days “a lifetime in hell.” And the 316th and Sgt. Myers were about to get a taste of what that was like. Mere moments after beginning their advance from Montfaucon, they fell under intense artillery fire. One captain described how “big shells arrived with monstrous roars and crashes that tore holes in the earth as big as a house.” They didn't come as a surprise. The telltale sound rumbled through the air, raising the suspense of where it would land. And they were everywhere, dropping all around, sending shrapnel hurtling every which way. Sgt. Myers, as he advanced, was lacerated by shrapnel in his shoulder and right thigh – but he kept going. He ignored, best he could, the duller explosions that released puffs of mustard gas.

Soon, though, they came within range of the German machine guns, which spewed a prolific rain of bullets at them, the metal whizzing and whistling through the air. The advance was no longer an orderly affair: they crept onward, pressing, falling back, literally crawling through the dirt at times. The devastation was immense. Capt. Loane was hurt; many officers were wounded or killed. One captain in a nearby company watched in horror as one of his soldiers crawled to him with a macabre grin on his face. The soldier said the perplexing words, “I've lost a lamp,” before opening his right hand to reveal the secret in his palm: his own right eyeball, ripped out by a bullet. But Sgt. Myers wasn't there. The companies had gotten woefully separated in the general confusion, and the best efforts of runners to re-establish contact were mostly in vain. For his part, he continued his crawl through the dirt, past his comrades' corpses and the injured moaning in agony for first aid. He kept crawling toward the Bois de Beuge, the dense underbrush where the German gunners were positioned. He was hardly defenseless – he sporadically fired his own weapon, and thought he laid a few German soldiers low – but the closer he got, the fiercer the ghastliness of battle.

And finally, a German gunner swept his way. A bullet from the machine gun pierced the back of his helmet, deflected through his pack, and hit his back; it would surely have gone deeper if the intervening supplies hadn't slowed it. That was the injury Sgt. Myers felt, though a later medical exam would show his back pockmarked with holes. But that was the wound that convinced him he was done. He beat a hasty retreat back to a dressing station, got himself bandaged, and was taken by ambulance to a field hospital. After a few days of treatment there, he was loaded onto a French train where they hung his stretcher from a framework of pipes and taken over two hundred miles of rough riding to Base Hospital 48 at Mars-sur-Allier, safely away from the front lines. He was shot September 28; it was early October when he arrived at the base hospital. From both places, he wrote letters home. In both places, he wrestled with his “fierce grudge against those Germans.” And in both places, I'd bet, he did his share of praying.

Home for Sgt. Myers, you see, wasn't so far from here. Ralph Myers, just 22 when he enlisted and 23 when the bullet hit his back, had been a high-school math teacher in York County, but a graduate of Franklin & Marshall College. More than that, Ralph grew up on Main Street in Terre Hill. His dad William made cigars while his mom Lydia held fast the home, raising Ralph and his older sisters Clara and Mamie.

All three kids were raised in church – at our EC church in Terre Hill, in fact. Of course, it wasn't called 'EC' then yet; it was 'UE,' United Evangelical, since the year before Ralph was born. William Myers and his brother-in-law John Tish, Ralph's uncle, were deeply involved there. William spent much of his son's childhood as a steward, and John was again a trustee when Ralph shipped out. Clara and Mamie had both been baptized and joined as teenagers, but Ralph held back. It wasn't until 1915, already a college student, that Ralph took the step to give his life over to Jesus. Midway between Easter and Pentecost, Pastor William Rehrer admitted him and baptized him. A year later, he finished college and got hired as a teacher, like his sisters before him; a year after that, he registered for the draft. And it didn't take him long to be called to action. Later, when Ralph was in the field hospital, he wrote home to one of his sisters, “I do not enjoy the army and would be tickled to death to get out today, but I would not have missed it for the world. I have learned a lot and seen a lot too – some things I do not care to see again.”

But the Meuse-Argonne Offensive and its horrors didn't stop when Sgt. Ralph S. Myers was shot and crawled off the battlefield. It lasted for nearly two more weeks, becoming the deadliest battle in American history, which one British major-general nicknamed 'Armageddon.' While Sgt. Myers recuperated in an army hospital in France, his friends and family and neighbors back home were nearly sequestered by the epidemic of Spanish influenza. Scarcely had it receded when they got the news that Sgt. Myers had seen coming over a month before: a ceasefire, an armistice, had gone into effect. Early in the morning on Monday, November 11 – a hundred years ago this very day – German representatives met a French marshal on a train car in the woods to sign the armistice agreement. It was a little past five AM there – here, about midnight – and would go into effect just under six hours later, to give the news time to spread to all units.

Well, spread the news did. Fighting was done. Shooting was done. Shelling was done. The war, for all intents and purposes, was done. There, in France, it was the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month when it took effect; here, it was the sixth hour. In New Holland and all the towns and countryside around, some people were already at work, and others not even up yet, when the church bells started ringing to announce the good news. Giving no thought to breakfast, people started pouring out of their homes with joy into every street, waving flags and cheering. The bells rang and clanged, whistles blew, people marched all around the town, too delighted, too relieved, to treat it as any ordinary day. It took 'til nine o'clock for people to get back to work.

That afternoon, thanks to a lot of last-minute planning by local civil leaders, chief marshal Isaac Snader led a parade around the town. The Red Cross was there, a-marchin' through the streets. Folks from New Holland Machine were there, a-marchin' through the streets. The silk mill employees, too, and the schoolkids. Nearly a hundred cars, plenty of floats, hundreds of people – there was even a contingent of Civil War vets a-marchin' through the streets, past all the houses draped in bunting with the stars and stripes waving in the November air. No quiet parade, bands played and the people sang and cheered. The joy in every human heart at peace bubbled over; it was uncontainable. The night ended with a post-supper meeting in Harner's Theatre to hear from local pastors and sing patriotic songs. The next day, many streamed to Lancaster for a parade, but up in East Earl, folks gathered a little parade of their own, as schoolchildren from Cedar Grove marched to the drumbeat, with flags from America and England and France all waving, and sang the national anthem house by house.

What a relief we remember today! Those jubilees of joy, those songs of security, those parades proclaiming peace at last! Can you imagine how they felt? For four years, the entire world, it seemed, had been embroiled in the Great War. America stood back as long as we could, until declaring war in April 1917. We mobilized over four million soldiers from every community in the country – including right around here. The economy of the whole country was redirected for the good of the cause; nearly everything was rationed; folks campaigned for the purchase of Liberty Bonds time and again to finance the fight. The Fourth Liberty Loan was issued the very same day Ralph Myers got shot. And then, to have all the ardors and fears and horrors of war – vanish! Oh, challenging news would still pour across the seas, but for families all around here to suddenly have the hope of seeing their sons again – to resume really living again.

Seven months after the armistice, the Treaty of Versailles was signed. Sixteen days later, Ralph Myers boarded the Rotterdam in Brest, France, and set sail for the good ol' USA, where after a stint at Bethlehem Steel, he later returned to teaching and became a principal in western Pennsylvania. I wonder what he felt as he thought back to his service in the Great War. As it was going on, some proclaimed it “the war to end all wars.” Even in our denomination, some voices held out that hope. And no wonder – even many of our pastors sent sons to the front to fight, some to die. But the Great War wasn't really “the war to end all wars.”

Ralph Myers lived long enough to register for the draft in World War II. He lived long enough to see young neighbors go off to fight in the Korean War. And he lived two years after the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution authorized the deployment of combat troops to Vietnam. Ralph Myers, a veteran of the Great War that was supposed to end all wars, lived nearly five decades after taking that bullet from the German machine gun – yet, when he died, his nation was again at war. When the parades marched through the streets a century ago today, it meant a war was done. But not war itself. Veterans would continue to be forged in combat. Any veterans here this morning, are veterans because World War I was not a “war to end all wars.”

Over two and a half thousand years earlier, when the ancestors of Ralph Myers and the ancestors of whatever German gunner shot him were probably both among the proto-Germanic tribes pressing southward into the northern European coast from Scandinavia, a prophet in the far-off land of Jerusalem had a vision that one day, no new veterans would be made. Isaiah saw a vision, and in that vision, he heard that the day would come when everyone would “beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore” (Isaiah 2:4).

Imagine the parade through our streets when not just one war, but all war is done! Can you imagine it? Never again a soldier sent off to fight. Never again the shells, the bullets, the gas. Never again the bombs and missiles and tanks. Never again the lists of casualties. Never again the bereavement of a war widow, a lost son, lost grandson. Never again the hardness of battle or the fraying of nerves. No Agent Orange, no sarin gas, no PTSD – none of it. No nervous home front, no battle-weary warriors. Only parading and cheering and singing, only welcoming and embracing and rejoicing. When war becomes a distant memory, when all conflict is forgotten, when peace is all and in all, when happiness breaks through in gushing torrents of relief, and every field will give back its blood, and every bullet and bomb repent, and all that's gone wrong will come undone.

Not long after the Treaty of Versailles, the League of Nations was established to secure world peace. It didn't work. After World War II, it was replaced by a new body, the United Nations. Its headquarters is in New York City. Across First Avenue from the United Nations, there's a park, dedicated in 1948 during the construction process; and if you ever visit that park, you'll see a wall. It's called the Isaiah Wall. And chiseled into the stone, do you know what you'll read? “They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” It's Isaiah 2:4. Eleven years later, the Soviet Union presented a bronze statue for the United Nations Headquarters' North Garden: it's a man beating a sword into a plowshare. In the decades since, we've seen museums dedicated to military hardware repurposed for peace; we've seen presidents like Nixon take their oath of office on Bibles open to Isaiah 2:4; we've heard presidents from Carter to Reagan and beyond appeal to the very same verse. But it still isn't here. What gives? But if you read the rest of what Isaiah says, it's clear what has to happen.

First, the world has to become centered on Jesus Christ. Isaiah starts his prophecy like this: “It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the LORD shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be lifted up above the hills” (Isaiah 2:2). In Isaiah's Jerusalem, that mountain was the temple mount, the central site of Jewish worship of the God of the Bible. Other countries had mountains where they worshipped their gods, and even in Israel there were sometimes 'high places' on various hills for people to go worship this idol or that idol. But Isaiah dares imagine a world where the real temple, the real mountain, will loom undeniably higher than every rival – a world where the worship of the true God will be elevated over all. And in the New Testament, we see Jesus presenting himself as the true mountain, the true foundation of God's new temple, which is his body, the church. When war is done, it'll be because Jesus looms higher than every thing. It'll be because Jesus is lifted up – and he was lifted up... on the cross. For “so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:15). “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself,” Jesus said (John 12:32).

And just the same, in Isaiah's vision, when “the mountain of the house of the LORD is lifted up, it will draw all nations to itself. Isaiah continues by saying that “all the nations shall flow to it, and many peoples shall come and say, 'Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob'” (Isaiah 2:2-3). To get to the whole swords-into-plowshares part, here's what needs to happen: the nations have to be drawn to the mountain, to the temple, to Jesus and his church. Jesus and his church need to be attractive. Jesus promised he would be – and he has been. In being lifted up on the cross, he's been drawing people from every nation to himself, as the nations are discipled through being baptized and taught (cf. Matthew 28:19).

Speaking of teaching, Isaiah says that's why the nations come to the mountain. They say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths” (Isaiah 2:3). The nations go, because they need to be taught. Instead of learning war, they have to learn something else. They have to learn the ways, not of the petty gods of war and blood, of race and clan, of money and leisure and lust, of technology and identity and power, but the ways of the God of peace, the God of good news. And the nations are taught so that they can walk – they learn it in order to live it, to put the good news into practice. “For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem” (Isaiah 2:3). That's where the gospel got its start, and it's been spreading into the nations since the days of the apostles, and it's still going forth now through us. Our task is to have this gospel word keep going forth, because we go into our community and carry it there. That's how the word moves: we, gathered from the nations, penetrate the nations with the good news message, and we disciple others who hear it, leading them back to the mountain who is Christ.

As that happens, as the nations are discipled, they'll learn to refer their disputes to God and accept his verdicts. That's what Isaiah pictures: “He” – meaning, the LORD“shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples” (Isaiah 2:4). That's a great fruit of discipleship: learning to let God settle arguments instead of trying to do it on our own. So often, even in the church, we fail to do that. We bicker and we feud, we fuss and we groan, we wrestle each other for power, instead of referring it to God and cultivating a heart that accepts his verdict. If Germany and Britain and France and America had all been discipled well enough to do that in the first place, would there have been a world war? If they'd been able to submit all concerns to God through his worldwide church, and accepted how God speaks to the whole church through his Holy Spirit – if that had happened, would the war have been fought? Would Sgt. Myers have been shot? Would his fellow soldiers have bled and died? Would any war since then need to have been fought?

See, in Isaiah's vision, it's only then – when God decides all these disputes, settles world wars and civil wars and culture wars – then we read that “they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks” – tools of destruction, demolition, harm, into tools of creation, cultivation, nurture. Because there won't be a need for swords or spears – no use for machine guns and artillery shells – no function for nuclear missiles or mustard gas. Global disarmament as an act of faith in a God who so visibly judges the world that all can trust him to maintain peace among all nations. And on that day, Isaiah says, “nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore” (Isaiah 2:4). No more war. No more carnage. No more loss, no more grief, no more death. No more heated anger, suspenseful nerves, fearful unease.

In a day of “wars and rumors of wars” (cf. Mark 13:7), we rightly long for another day – a day, not of war, but of peace. A day when “they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid, for the mouth of the LORD of hosts has spoken” (Micah 4:4). Today of all days, we remember the sacrifices of those who endured the hardships of war and lived to tell the tale. We remember it today because we also bring to mind, from a hundred years ago, the hour the fighting stopped, and families could breathe easy. As we remember the armistice, we long for a day when we can breathe easy for good – know that it will never start again, that the next generation will never be called to risk life and limb, terror and trauma, in combat; that the toll taken on veterans will never be repeated, that every soldier can lay down his arms, that the price paid will be refunded by a God who doeth all things well, and that parades of praise march every street, waving not the flag of a nation but the sign of the cross as the banner of the victorious love of God.

It seems like such a dream. It's easy to picture utopia. Even John Lennon could imagine his version. We know a billion utopias that really are 'no place.' Dreams are a dime a dozen. It's nice to toy with them. But can we really believe this one? Can we believe that a day will come when “nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore”? And I declare to you this day, we can! “For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom we proclaimed among you..., was not Yes and No, but in him it is always Yes, for all the promises of God find their Yes in him(2 Corinthians 1:19-20)! All the promises of God find their Yes in Jesus Christ. And that means this promise of God – the promise of no more sword, no more war – finds its Yes in the same Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom I am here to proclaim among you, and whom we are here to proclaim among the nations of the world! “That is why it is through him that we utter our Amen to God for his glory” (2 Corinthians 1:20). As surely as Jesus Christ is risen, as surely as death has no more dominion over him, just so surely will the day come when war, all war, is done. And “no one shall make [us] afraid” (Micah 4:4).

And the march toward that day starts here – starts with a people who ascend the mountain of Christ here, starts with the gospel word going forth here, starts as we come to God's teaching here, starts as we learn to walk in his ways of peace here, starts as we beat our own swords into plowshares here, starts as we disciple people of all conflicted and conflicting nations here, starts as we lift up Christ in word and deed here, starts as we go forth on gospel mission here. Right here. Right now.

This very day, this Armistice Day, this Veterans Day, we can seek that day by bringing the gospel word of peace from this place into the neighborhood around us, and bringing people back to “the mountain of the house of the LORD which is Christ. And with as beautiful as that day will be, the day that will answer the hope of every veteran's service and every family's prayers with a Yes to Peace in Christ – we have every reason to do it. So, as Isaiah would tell us: “O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD – and march forward with the gospel until all war is done, in Jesus' name. Amen.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Smashing Satan: Sermon on Romans 16:17-27

An older Jewish man stood, lost in Rome and lost in thought, at the edge of the new forum, in front of the world's first covered shopping mall, six weeks after its opening day. Seemed as good a place as any, or better, to do the grocery shopping. He reached into his pockets and pulled out a handful of shiny new coins. One denarius in his hand caught his eye. Didn't feel like they used to – the ruling emperor, Trajan, had slashed the silver purity to coin more, so it was lighter. On the front, the man saw the side of Trajan's face, grim and curly-haired and crowned with laurels. The man flipped the denarius over to look at the back. Around the rim, the usual dedication: “The Senate and the People of Rome, to the highest prince.” In the center, the goddess Pax – 'Peace' – stood, holding a horn of plenty in one hand, filled with abundant supply for all the Roman people. The man's stomach growled just seeing it stamped in silver – hard to avoid going grocery shopping on an empty stomach, back then. In the other hand, the figure of Peace held forth an olive branch, the symbol of reconciliation. All well and good. But this coin had been minted in the wake of Trajan's victories in the Dacian Wars. And so there was a familiar dark side to how the coin portrayed peace. The man rubbed his finger over the bottom of the coin. The figure of Pax, or 'Peace,' was trampling a barbarian into the dirt, crushing him under her Roman feet.

The figure reminded the man of a story he'd heard in synagogue once, a story out of the Sefer Yehoshua. Long ago, when his people first entered the promised land, a strong Hivite city called Gibeon saw the wisdom in not fighting against God's people. So the Gibeonites had dressed themselves in worn-out clothes and shoes, had made their provisions dry and crumbly, and tricked Joshua into thinking they'd come from a far-away place beyond the land of Canaan. So he made a covenant with them, and only realized too late that they were among the inhabitants they'd been meant to drive out. Still, a covenant's a covenant (Joshua 9).

But other local city-states had been quite displeased at the Gibeonites allying themselves with the Israelite invasion. So five of the Amorite chieftains conspired to attack Gibeon together. From Eglon, Lachish, Jarmuth, Hebron, and Jerusalem they came and besieged Gibeon. The Gibeonites had appealed to Joshua, as a military ally, to lead the Israelites to their defense. Joshua marched from his base at Gilgal all through the night, struck by surprise early in the morning, and sent the Amorites fleeing up and down Beth-horon, where God pelted them with hailstones. The five chieftains escaped, though, and hid in a cave. So once Joshua was ready, he came to the cave and captured them. Joshua had summoned his captains to him, all the chiefs of the men of war who had gone with him. And as a sign of their victory, he had the native chieftains pushed over into the dust, and told his captains, “Come near; put your feet on the necks of these kings.” Just like the Roman peace-goddess and the beaten barbarian, so the Israelite captains trod the Amorite chieftains underfoot (Joshua 10).

It seems harsh, perhaps, to later ears. It seems triumphalistic, imperialistic, hopelessly violent. Seems like the worst of ethnocentrism, for the Israelites to have come in and struck down city after city of the local Canaanites. But the point was to create space for God's people to enjoy peace in the land that God had given them, and on which the Canaanites were, in God's eyes, no longer welcome tenants. The promised land was meant to be a second chance at Eden – one which, one day, would be destined to be shared with redeemed nations of every stripe, once they saw the light. The hope was to someday share Eden with redeemed Gibeonites, redeemed Amorites, redeemed Dacians, even redeemed Romans.

The man reflected on his coin. A secretly Christian neighbor walked past him into the market, carrying similar coins in his own coin-purse. Fifty years before they were minted, his late parents had listened to Phoebe come into their gathering and explain an apostle's letter, all the way down to its closing personal touches from Paul as he greeted everybody he knew in the Roman churches and passed along well-wishes from his own companions. Tucked in alongside those last greetings are the two passages we read this morning, and they're all the more striking for where they are.

Those last lines cap off the whole letter with a beautiful doxology: “Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but has now been disclosed and through the prophetic writings has been made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith – to the only wise God be glory forevermore through Jesus Christ, amen!” (Romans 16:25-27).

Previous generations couldn't see what the story of Joshua was really about. They couldn't see what the rest of the scriptures were really about. Not the fuller story. Couldn't see it until a second Yehoshua came – the Greek form of the name 'Joshua' is 'Jesus.' Long before Jesus the Messiah was crucified, buried, and raised from the dead, this book, the Sefer Yehoshua, was encoding the threads of this mystery of hope for all nations. God kept his secret, woven hiddenly into the scriptures, until the time came. And then he made the sovereign decision to announce the mystery openly to all who'd hear: that the story was never just about the forced repression of the nations, but about an invitation for them to join a voluntary covenant of peace, and enter a new Eden. This deep mystery is hope for every nation, to dwell in a worldwide promised land together as a complex unity of peoples in one people. The good news is that what God is looking to grow is not just any kind of obedience, but the obedience of faith, a willing trust in Jesus, who allowed himself to be stricken and slain for us so that he could be our real peace. And, Paul said, this good news can strengthen us in any time, no matter how dark, because Jesus is for every time and every place. It's in Jesus that the beautiful secrets of God are brought into the open, and through the obedience of faith, he aims to unite all nations in an Eden that will last forever and of which his church now is a foretaste of the new creation.

But as Paul reflects on this mystery, as he passes along greetings in the garden, he has a terrible thought. See, if there's one thing Paul knows from experience, it's this: if you're strolling in Eden, watch out for serpents. Don't let serpents catch you by surprise. Don't be oblivious to who and what they are. And so he has to interrupt the greetings to let the Roman churches know that serpents will slither into their midst eventually. They may not have seen any yet – lucky them! But they're coming. They soothingly hiss crafty messages, presenting their trickery as a way of tempting us into falsehood. In Paul's words, they're those who “cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught … for such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own bellies, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive” (Romans 16:17b-18). Them's a bunch of slippery snakes, alright.

The Roman churches, for all their conflicts and misconceptions, haven't been dealing with false teachers. Not yet. But Paul knows they'll make their way there, at some point after he passes through. Even pagan Roman historians said that Rome was where every ridiculous and shameful idea from around the world would come and find an audience. These serpents will come in and tempt the churches away from the obedience of faith. They'll tempt them into mistrust. Tempt them into disobedience. Tempt them into dividing. The churches there had already had too much division, and the serpents will entice them to keep building walls from each other. The serpents will come and tempt them into rebellion, disruptive behavior. The serpents will come and tempt them with weird ideas, craftily constructed theologies that seem to make sense but veer away from the mystery of hope for all nations. The serpents will come to steal and ruin Eden. They always do.

Our neck of the woods is different from Rome. But not different enough to be empty of serpents. The Cocalico runs through our land, and we know that's the native word for “place where the snakes sleep.” Serpents may well at times wriggle into the churches and hiss soothingly. What they say may appeal to our deepest instincts. Serpents may come quoting scripture out of context. Serpents may come wrapped in the stars and stripes and hissing patriotic tunes. Serpents may come playing on our pride or our fears. They come to entice us to divide. They come to entice us to think ourselves too big and great to be accountable to each other under God. They come to entice us with bizarre theories and twisted scriptures that will have us building a god of our own vain imaginings, who will be our own puppeted mouthpiece for what we really want to hear. Serpents can slither 'round all the jargon. They can hiss in Americanese or in Christianese or in corporatese or in the dulcet tones of so-called 'common sense.' But make no mistake: their “smooth talk and flattery” can trick you into trading Eden for just another patch of wasteland.

So what did Paul want Roman believers, or us, to do? Well, the main things Adam and Eve didn't in the first Eden. They weren't paying attention and keeping watch; they weren't policing the boundaries of the garden like they were supposed to. They weren't on the lookout. So Paul says, “I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, to watch out for,” well, serpents (Romans 16:17a). Adam and Eve failed to be vigilant; Paul says, don't make that mistake – look how that turned out.

Second, Paul says, if you do uncover some serpents, if they really do slither into your midst, “avoid them” (Romans 16:17c). Adam and Eve didn't do that. They let the serpent practice its wiles on them. They heeded every hiss. They should have walked away from its tempting words. But they stuck around to hear it out, and they deferred to it, and look how that turned out. Now, make no mistake: all throughout this letter, Paul's been insistent that the churches in Rome need to be open to one another's different backgrounds, different customs, different scruples, and to welcome one another without qualms. And it's because he's encouraged such mutual love and inclusivity and tolerance that he now has to remind them that such things can be taken too far. There's a fellow believer who simply does things differently, but then there's a serpent. And the difference is, a serpent will aim to disrupt the obedience of faith. Their weird ideas won't actually mesh well with the basic gospel that Paul handed down.

And so Paul says, third, that you need to be discerning. You need to develop the skill at telling apart a brother or sister, on the one hand, and a serpent, on the other. This is a post-'tree-of-the-knowledge-of-good-and-evil' kind of world. And in that kind of world, Jesus told his disciples, people need to be “wise as serpents but innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16). Be clever and clear-thinking enough to match wits with a serpent, but let the distinction be that, in discerning good from evil, you accept the definitions God writes and keep yourself on the side of good, of innocence, like a dove. Or as Paul rephrases Jesus' words, “For your obedience is known to all, so I rejoice over you, but I want you to be wise as to what is good and innocent as to what is evil” (Romans 16:19). Don't be naive. Know the difference between a hymn and a hiss. Trust God to lead you into deeper truth and deeper moral maturity, in accordance with everything he's already said as read in context.

A growing Eden infiltrated by snakes is not the most comfortable place. And that's the condition of plenty of churches. Serpents slither in – some as human false teachers and false leaders, but sometimes as spiritual influences among authentic believers – and try to stunt the garden's growth. I've watched it at work. They hiss and they twist and, working through the noble but sin-infected motives of decent believers in disagreement, they cause divisions and create obstacles and trip up Christians and lay waste to Eden.

But God doesn't want us to think that Eden will be overrun. Long ago, God gave Israel a promise in one of the songs they sang. It was a song that Israel's army, like the army Joshua commanded, might sing or hear as they went out under God's command. The song is full of daring promises for the Israelites as they march to the beat of his drum. And one of those blessings is this one: “You will tread on the lion and the adder; the young lion and the serpent you will trample underfoot” (Psalm 91:13). The serpent doesn't get the last word. The armies of Israel stomp serpents into the dirt. And when those soldiers sang that, they were looking back to an even bigger promise God gave right outside Eden. God cursed the original Serpent and said that he'd have to tangle with a Child of Eve who was to come: “He shall strike your head, and you shall strike his heel” (Genesis 3:15). In striking at Jesus on the cross, the devilish Serpent took a blow right to the skull.

That promise from Genesis is most perfectly about Jesus. But it foreshadows countless points throughout the Old Testament where villains die of head trauma, being identified with the offspring of the Serpent. It gets applied in the hope for Israel's army to trample the serpent underfoot. And it all leads up to this amazing line from Paul to the Roman churches and to us today: “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet” (Romans 16:20). Have you ever read that verse? What a verse! “The God of peace will soon” – or 'swiftly,' in some translations – “crush Satan under your feet.” Maybe there were Christians in Rome who remembered that verse when they looked at those coins, portraying Peace crushing disruptive enemies under her feet.

A few important things here. The focus in this verse is not chiefly about human minions of the devil, the false teachers themselves, and their fate. Our hope is for even false teachers to be converted, for them to respond to the brighter light of the real good news of Jesus and be saved from their own hissing lies. That's why Paul, in another letter, insists that church leaders need to be able to “give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (Titus 1:9) – to at times “rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith” (Titus 1:13). But here, Paul takes aim, not at human minions for whom there's some hope, but at the spiritual serpent behind them – and not just any, but the headliner of the roster of evil, 'the Satan' himself.

Second, we don't overpower Satan. We don't take the initiative to hunt him down. That's not what St. Paul says here. Paul doesn't write, “You will soon crush Satan under your feet.” That task belongs to God. It has to be God who hands out victory, or there won't be any victory at all. We deceive ourselves if we think that we have enough strength, enough resources, to tackle the devil – or the evil and corruption he leaves in his wake through all the world or even in the church. It has to be God who deals with it. And not just God, Paul writes, but “the God of peace.” Just like that coin. Roman peace is a cheap counterfeit of God's peace. The God of peace must reign in his church. This is the God whom Paul preached (Romans 15:33), the “God of love and peace” who insists that we “aim for restoration, comfort one another, agree with one another, live in peace” (2 Corinthians 13:11). This is the “God of peace” who promises to be with those who put into practice the gospel Paul taught (Philippians 4:9). This is the “God of peace” who has no intention of stopping short from “sanctify[ing] you completely” (1 Thessalonians 5:23). He's none other than “the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great Shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant” (Hebrews 13:20). That is the one and only God who can crush Satan, who can “crush the heads of Leviathan” (Psalm 74:14).

But, third, God doesn't just promise to crush Satan under his feet. He doesn't just promise to crush Satan under Jesus' feet. That's what we would've expected, and fairly so. God goes on to promise something so much more personally relevant. What did Paul write? Listen again: “The God of peace will swiftly crush Satan under your feet (Romans 16:20). Yours. Remember that scene from the old Jewish book, the Sefer Yehoshua, the Book of Joshua. When Joshua had beaten the Amorite chieftains, servants of the devil, he called his captains together and said to them, “Come near; put your feet on the necks of these kings” (Joshua 10:24). And as they did so, Joshua said to them, “Don't be afraid or dismayed; be strong and courageous. For thus the LORD will do to all your enemies against whom you fight” (Joshua 10:25). And here's the mystery woven into the scriptures long in advance. What Joshua said to his captains over the defeated kings, a Greater Joshua – the one we call 'Jesus' – will say to us over the defeated devil! So don't be afraid, and don't be dismayed; be strong and courageous!

Because here's the God-honest truth, from Genesis to Joshua to Romans to Revelation: Satan is a loser. That old serpent, that raging dragon, will not come out on top. The God of peace will knock him to the floor. Evil does not take the day. And not only that, but God then calls for your personal involvement in the victory. Think about what Joshua's captains must've seen and felt as Joshua called them over to trample on the Amorite chiefs. Now think what you'll see and feel as Jesus calls you over to stomp Satan into the dust. We – me and you – will be given the victory over Satan and over every dark thing in this world he inspires. Every surge of darkness, every prevailing sin, every tragic twist – it's not forever. It's part of Satan's works that will perish with him – and he will perish, after God has crushed him under your feet. Because you are the body of Christ.

Satan's head will be crushed under our feet. The God of peace said it, we believe it, that settles it! So no matter what comes on today's or tomorrow's or Tuesday's headlines – be it car wrecks, be it storms, be it shootings, be it election returns, be it wars or rumors of wars, be it the horsemen of the apocalypse galloping across your front lawn – do not be afraid, do not be dismayed, be strong, and be courageous, for thus the Lord will do to “the spiritual forces of evil” and “the cosmic powers of this present darkness” against whom and against which we fight (cf. Joshua 10:25; Ephesians 6:12)! The God of peace will crush Satan under your feet. And with him will die sin, and with him will die war, and with him will die addiction, and with him will die carnage, and with him will die slavery, and with him will die poverty, and with him will die death!

Satan's head will be crushed under our feet, but it will never be the other way around. No matter what he does, no matter how many fiery darts he shoots, no matter what wiles he hisses to deceive the hearts of the naive, he cannot crush your head, for a believing church member's head is Christ, and “the head of Christ is God” (1 Corinthians 11:3), and “Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him” (Romans 6:9)! “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8), and neither the devil's works nor the devil himself can survive the march of Christ's feet – or, in him, ours.

So whatever this week holds for you, whatever this month holds for you, whatever this year holds for you, take heart! Don't be afraid, and don't be dismayed; instead, be strong and courageous! Satan's rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure – for “the God of peace will swiftly crush Satan under your feet” (Romans 16:20). God will give each of you a share in Jesus' victory over Satan. And on that day, the devil will regret ever having tangled with you, because you're entangled with the unconquerable life of Christ – through whom be glory to the God of peace, the only wise God, forever and ever, amen (cf. Romans 16:27)!

And what a day that will be, when the God of peace crushes Satan under our feet. But it will be a good day for us because of who God has adopted us to be, and how he's written our stories. I leave you with the words of Jesus to his first disciples: “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven” (Luke 10:18-20). Even better than Satan hitting the dirt at your feet – which is the promise of God – is that, both already now and long after Satan meets his fiery lake, your name will still recorded in heavenly triumph by the God of peace. So don't be afraid. Don't be dismayed. This week, this month, this year, this life – be strong and courageous. “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you” (Romans 16:20). Amen.