Sunday, July 5, 2020

Our Banner: Sermon on Exodus 17 for Fourth-of-July Weekend

It was daybreak on a September Wednesday, and Frank was feeling anxious. He paced on the deck of the boat, wondering if the war had just been decided, but unable to see through the fog. Three weeks ago that day, the British army had set fire to Washington City, burning down the Capitol building and Presidential Mansion alike. And now they threatened to do the same to Baltimore. Frank, age 35, and John, age 26, had last week boarded the HMS Tonnant, an 80-gun ship-of-the-line for the British Royal Navy, to negotiate a prisoner release; but as they'd overheard the British officers discussing attack plans, they were being held on their own boat, tethered to a bigger British ship, until the close of the siege. It started Tuesday morning, around 6:30, the launch of twenty-three hours of bombardment with mortar guns, all aimed toward Fort McHenry. Throughout the day, as Frank and John paced the deck of their boat sequestered across the mouth of the Patapsco River, they watched. Tuesday's daylight dimmed as shrapnel tattered the fort's flag in the twilight. A thunderstorm soaked harbor, fort, and city. Past nightfall, fiery cascade and thunderbolt alike lit up the beleaguered stars and stripes. Then followed a sleepless night – too loud, too anxious. What sign would morning bring?

Then, the first signs of daybreak, shortly after mortar fire and cannon gave way to silence. Cloud and mist obscured the horizon, but Frank strained anxiously through his spyglass, looking toward the fort. Just past six that Wednesday morning in September 1814, he saw the outline of a flag over the fort. But which flag? Was it the Union Jack or the Stars and Stripes? The answer meant all. And a morning breeze stirred the flag, exposing... broad stripes, bright stars, glory to God! Looking around, Frank saw the Royal Navy start to pull back. His ship was cut loose, finally free to move toward shore. In awe, he felt as if his heart were speaking from inside his chest. He stared at the flag again. And in silent joy, he reached for pen and paper and started jotting down a poem: “Oh say, can you see through...” – no – “ the dawn's early light...”

We know that poem by Frank – Francis Scott Key – as our national anthem, hailing “the star-spangled banner.” The years went by. And the time came that our nation was troubled. In late March 1861, one of our county's newspapers published a poem calling for our ancestors here to “stand firm by our banner – the stars and the stripes! … / Rank and file we will march with our banner unfurled / o'er the Union unbroken – the pride of the world.” Two weeks later, a Civil War had begun. Within two weeks of the declaration of war between the states, houses all over this county were flying the flag they called “the beautiful emblem of the Union for which our fathers fought and died.” The county papers reported on “children carry[ing] the American flag to and from school.” By April 29, reflecting on the Battle of Fort Sumter that started it all, our county papers declared that rebels firing on “that glorious flag” was the one great insult no “loyal American” could “endure.” The day after that, our newspaper reprinted Francis Scott Key's famed anthem in full. Two years and two months went by, and at the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863, a young Union colonel saw a rebel soldier try to steal his regiment's flag. He shot the rebel to save that flag. Grabbing it, he held it up in the air, yelling for his troops to “rally 'round the flag, boys!” Col. Jeffords was promptly stabbed, fatally, by a Confederate bayonet – but the flag was saved. The next year, in April 1864, our county paper printed Caroline Mason's poem National Jubilee, calling on our people to:

...fling out the bright banner, the Red, White, and Blue!
The glad day is dawning for me and for you;
For Freedom her pinion at length has unfurled,
And Peace stands a-tiptoe to gladden the world!...
Oh, red are the fields where the foemen have trod,
And white are the faces laid under the sod;
But blue are the skies from whose portals of light
Is dawning the day-star that gladdens our night.
Then down with Rebellion and Tyranny too,
And up with the banner to Liberty true:
The triple-hued banner, the time-honored banner,
The glory-hung banner, the Red, White, and Blue.

It's safe to say that, among our people here, the American flag – our nation's banner – was invested with great significance and emotional power. But they knew that there were other banners one could fight and die for. And they knew one couldn't ultimately honor two rival banners. These days, around town, I occasionally see a pick-up truck flying two opposing flags, American and Confederate. I wouldn't recommend doing that in the 1860s around here! Our local papers, celebrating the capture of a fort, rejoiced when “the rebel banner” was taken down and “displaced by the Stars and Stripes.” They denounced people who fought under what we called “the unholy banner of treason.” In 1864, our papers printed a letter from a local army captain, William Spencer McCaskey (the school is named for his brother), where he says that “the Stars and Stripes have steadily advanced while the emblem of treason has as steadily receded.” Two banners could not mark the same ground.

In the middle of the war, at Thanksgiving 1863, a Philadelphia pastor, Rev. Edwin Wilson Hutter, who used to edit one of Lancaster's newspapers, celebrated what he viewed as “our beautiful flag with its gorgeous heraldry of Stars and Stripes,” and hoped it would “stand secure, challenging the wonder and admiration of the world, the centre of attraction to all the downtrodden and oppressed of the earth.” But he pointed beyond this national banner to another banner. Rev. Hutter pointed back thousands of years, to the desert sands. “With Moses,” he said, “we may erect an altar and inscribe upon it Jehovah-Nissi – 'the Lord my Banner.'” In that, Rev. Hutter was speaking the same as Rev. Samuel Cooke, who in 1777 stood up at the second anniversary of the Battle of Lexington and, on that battlefield, preached that “we may gratefully on this day of remembrance, with Moses of old, bow before the altar of our God and offer the sacrifice of praise to Jehovah-Nissi, 'the Lord our Banner,' who was a present help in that day of trouble.”

With Cooke and Hutter, let's venture back to the sands of the Sinai Peninsula, and camp our tents among God's people at Rephidim. Rephidim was a valley in southwestern Sinai, maybe eight miles from the holy mountain they hadn't yet reached. It was a warm desert day in May when the people, camping there, discovered no water to drink (Exodus 17:1). So they argued with Moses, grumbling that he was a bad leader, even a murderous leader, for rescuing them from slavery only to kill them with thirst (Exodus 17:2-3). Moses cried out to God, who told him to go to a certain rock and hit it with “the staff with which you struck the Nile” (Exodus 17:4-5) – and so water seeped out of the rock, quenching Israel's thirst (Exodus 17:6).

But Israel wasn't really all that far from an oasis. And, this being the start of summer when the southern parts of Sinai were more pleasant than the north, a band of desert nomads called the Amalekites had wandered south for the summer. They were plenty territorial, jealous to keep all water supplies to themselves. And they attacked Israel, going after the rear and flank to prey on Israel's sick and elderly (Exodus 17:8; Deuteronomy 25:17-18). Amalek had no respect for the God Israel represented. They only saw weak people they could oppress. That was their way: the Amalekites had managed to domesticate camels, and could ride them swiftly to rush in, kill, and withdraw (cf. Judges 7:12). Israel didn't start this fight. But it was under attack, in danger, and needed to stand up for the most vulnerable members of its society.

So Moses undoubtedly spoke with God again. And then he told Joshua to figure out which Israelites actually had weapons – really, only what had washed up when the Egyptians drowned in the sea – and organize them. They'd never been an army before – all these men, born into slavery and only lately set free. And Moses would climb a nearby hill or mountain, overlooking the battle, and lift up the “staff of God” like a flagpole (Exodus 17:9-10). In calling it “the staff of God,” Moses pointed back to his encounter at the burning bush, when God had proven his presence by making the staff miraculous (Exodus 4:20). Through that staff, plagues had been unleashed, the sea had parted, water came from rock – God's presence and power worked through it.

The battle began, and “whenever Moses held up his hand, Israel prevailed; and whenever he lowered his hand, Amalek prevailed” (Exodus 17:11). The Amalekites were stronger, faster, maybe had more soldiers – they had every military advantage. So without God's help flowing through the raised-up staff, the Amalekites were clear winners. But when that staff was held up, the army Joshua led overcame all odds – for they had God. Moses just needed to keep that staff held high, high as he could, and let the glory shine down on the battlefield.

At first, Moses could hold it up with a single hand (Exodus 17:9,11). Later, he needed both hands. But then, even that wasn't enough. Moses was strong for his age, but to keep that position all day, he can't do it alone. So his helpers Aaron and Hur found a solution. They sat Moses on a low stone, and they each cupped their hands under one of Moses' elbows. They would share the weight of Moses' hands, so that the prophet could keep the staff of God like a proud flagpole flying high. And it worked! Moses' “hands were steady until the going down of the sun, and Joshua overwhelmed Amalek and his people with the sword” (Exodus 17:12-13). The victory went to Israel, because God stepped in to fight the holy war, not in their place, but with them.

What the Amalekites hadn't perhaps seen clearly was that, by attacking even the most vulnerable Israelite, the most seemingly expendable Israelite, they were raising a hand and shaking a fist at the throne of the God of the Universe, who had chosen the Israelite nation as his people. Amalek's hand was against the Lord's throne, and so Moses declared that “the LORD will have war with Amalek from generation to generation” (Exodus 17:16) – down through centuries to come, God would keep working out the consequences of that encounter until he would “utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven” (Exodus 17:14), an effort in which Israel was ordered to cooperate (Deuteronomy 25:19). That war was waged through Gideon (Judges 6-7), through Saul (1 Samuel 15:7), through Samuel (1 Samuel 15:32-33), through David (1 Samuel 30:17-18; 2 Samuel 8:11-12), through Simeonite settlers (1 Chronicles 4:42-43), and finally through Mordecai and Esther (Esther 9:24-25). Can't say I've ever met an Amalekite that I know of. Blotted out.

But in the middle of that promised curse against Amalek, Moses does something interesting – and this is what Revs. Cooke and Hutter were looking back to and trying to apply to their own times. “Moses built an altar and called the name of it, 'Jehovah-Nissi': the LORD is My Banner” (Exodus 17:15). Just like armies in the War of 1812 and the Civil War and today would bring banners – flags – to the battlefield, armies back then would often fight under some sign lifted up on a pole, some standard or banner with an insignia, a symbol that represented who and what they fought for. And that uplifted banner was their rallying point, the thing that let them know where they were, where to turn, where to defend. Whether the Amalekites held up a pole, a banner, the Bible doesn't tell us. But Moses lifted up his staff. And the LORD God, working through it, acted as their banner, their flag, their standard. Not content with a symbol, they had the Presence and Power of the Almighty. And he – 'twas he – won the battle. That's what the commemorative altar meant. Rally 'round the Lord, soldiers!

What other nations said of their flags, their banners, Moses redirected to God. You and I have lived our lives seeing the American flag in many places. Maybe you've got one flying in front of your house. Maybe you saw one lifted high yesterday. Moses invites us to take everything that banner has taught us, and bring it to God. And we do that by bringing it to Jesus. For where Moses named an altar, Isaiah made a prophecy. And in his prophecy, Isaiah looked forward to a day when the Messiah, the Christ, would “stand as a banner to the people, for the nations shall seek him” (Isaiah 11:10), as his Father would “set up a banner for the nations and will assemble the outcasts of Israel” to the same banner (Isaiah 11:12) – Jesus Christ, our God-given Banner, sent to draw and save “all the downtrodden and oppressed of the earth.”

See, a banner picks out the army you're fighting for or against. The appearance of a banner on the field forces a choice. When you see the banner raised, you either are part of that army or you aren't. You cannot be loyal to two rival banners. In the Civil War, when one advanced, the other receded – Capt. McCaskey taught us that. And so it is here. Jesus reminds us that we can't “serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other” (Matthew 6:24 = Luke 16:13). You can't fight for two rival banners, can't fly both flags. A choice has to be made. Jesus declared, “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters” (Matthew 12:30 = Luke 11:23). If we spend our time rallying around his rivals for our time, effort, and devotion, then we aren't rallying around Jesus. And if we don't rally around our LORD Jesus, we scatter, we fracture – and we stand against him. A choice must be made.

Jesus Christ is the banner we ought to rally around, no matter what nation we're from. That means not flocking to the banner of Mammon or the banner of any other force in our lives that sets itself up as a god to be valued as central and defining. But it also means rallying around Jesus, actively rallying around Jesus. At Rephidim, only when the staff was lifted high could the battle be successful, because power flowed to Joshua's soldiers. And in the Rephidim of our lives, only when Jesus is lifted high can our day-to-day battles be successful, because the power of the Holy Spirit flows to us, to Jesus' soldiers.

In the Civil War, our local newspapers recorded, American flags flew from house after house, store after store. The national banner had a place in the home and in the workplace. If the Lord Jesus is our banner, may the same be true of him! May the Lord Jesus be the banner flying over your home! May the Lord Jesus be the banner flying over your work! And in the Civil War, our local newspapers recorded, children even carried their own American flags to and from the schools. If the Lord Jesus is our banner, may we likewise carry him where we go in life – to the school, to the restaurant, to the park, to the cabin.

For a banner is raised over territory taken. Francis Scott Key dreaded the prospect of seeing the Union Jack fly over Fort McHenry. Union soldiers gloried in seeing the Confederate banner come down and the Stars and Stripes go up over forts they retook. The war began when Major Anderson was forced to take down the Union flag from Fort Sumter, and in the hours before the Lincoln assassination, the same man was privileged to raise the exact same flag over Fort Sumter – a fort securely reclaimed. The banner is raised over territory taken – or, in that case, re-taken, reclaimed.

And just so, wherever the church goes as the church, wherever we march in Jesus' name, wherever we go to “vanquish all the hosts of night / in Jesus' conquering name,” there Jesus Christ, our LORD and God, is manifested as the Rightful Owner of all. And surely there are “hosts of night” to vanquish in the land today! But “we wrestle not against flesh and blood” – the news may make that hard to remember, but we really don't – “but,” for the sake of the downtrodden and oppressed, we fight “against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places” (Ephesians 6:12).

Where the banners of division now fly, let us march and raise our banner, the Prince of Peace! Where the flags of hatred now fly, let us march and raise our banner, the Lord of Love! Where the banners of death hold sway, let us march and raise our banner, the Resurrection and the Life! Wherever we go, let us raise Jesus Christ our Banner over territory reclaimed, not in a fight against flesh and blood, but against darkness and death, against Satan and sin. If we must lay down our lives for this Banner as Col. Harrison Jeffords did at Gettysburg for his, so be it – after all, “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).

But the battle raises questions,” perhaps you say. “Is there hope? What if we live and die for a losing cause? What if the darkness gets a foothold? What if the Amalekites advance?” Francis Scott Key knew your worry. He listened to the attack, saw the sparks, paced in anxiety, stared longingly into the mists for a sign of the outcome. But the star-spangled banner was still there. And just the same, our Banner – Jesus Christ – still waves over his Church! The night of this world may be long and dark indeed. The Church is undoubtedly under attack. But fear no Amalekite speed. All the red glares of the rockets, those “fiery darts of the wicked” (Ephesians 6:16), and all the bombs bursting in air, only give proof through the night. Proof of what? What do they prove, though the long night of this age? You know the song! That our Banner is still there!

Everything devil, flesh, and world can muster only highlights the enduring presence of our Banner. And though the night is long, “a glad day is dawning for me and for you” – “the night is far gone; the day is at hand – so then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light” (Romans 13:12). “Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together (as is the habit of some) but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:24-25). “Declare among the nations and proclaim, set up a banner and proclaim, conceal it not” (Jeremiah 50:2) that Jesus Christ – crucified, risen, ascended, enthroned, coming again with glory – he is victory eternal! Already by faith we know what sign morning will bring! Rally 'round this Banner with sacrifices of praise to Jesus our 'Jehovah-Nissi,' now and forever! Amen.

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