Greater Love Hath No Man…

One hundred four years ago today, on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month or 1918, the warring nations of Europe and the World fell silent as an Armistice was signed ending the “Great War” (later known as World War I). The War had been devastating in its scope and violence. Millions of people lost their lives; millions more were wounded and permanently scarred by the fighting. Entire cities had been leveled; farms and villages had been ravaged, and economies would take decades to recover.

“The War to End All Wars” did not. It was a failure in almost every regard. Bitterness built up in the decades between 1918 and 1938, spilling into another devastating war. All the noble efforts to promote peace and unity broke down. All those lives sacrificed in the hope of bringing lasting peace were lost, seemingly in vain. And for the soldier who survived, there was continued hardship, struggle, and often, life-long pain and suffering.

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Today, we honor those who have risked their lives to serve their county/countries. Soldiers, medics, chaplains, and innocent civilians who risk their lives do so for a reason. Often, we lose sight of the reasons after so many years, but the primary reason for most soldiers is the protection of loved ones back home and fellow soldiers in the fight. Many of us live lives of comfort and safety, little knowing the dangers of war, famine, and extreme hardship. But soldiers know a life of privation, courage in the face of fear, and the searing loss of violent death. And most of them know this life as a voluntary sacrifice. They willingly lay down their lives, both figuratively and sometimes literally, to save, protect, and improve the lives of others. It is fitting and right to honor such commitment and sacrifice.

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Jesus, when speaking to His disciples at the Last Supper, said,  “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.” (John 15:12-14 ESV) After all these years, many of us look at these verses as a moral principle, but not as a commandment. Jesus did not say, “I would really like it if you would love each other sacrificially,” or “I would prefer if you treated each other the way I treated you.” He gave it as a command that we love as Jesus loved.

So that begs the question, “How did Jesus love His disciples?” Ultimately, He DID lay down His life, paying for their sins (and ours) through His death on the cross. There has never been a greater sacrifice, not on the battlefield, not in public service, nowhere in Heaven or on Earth. But Jesus also gave us several examples of “sacrifice” in His life with the disciples. He served. He forgave. He loved. He nurtured and taught. He listened.

It used to be popular to compare Christians to soldiers– to promote service, sacrifice, and discipline in the Christian walk. This has largely fallen out of fashion, as society has diminished the role of the soldier, and the respect it used to give them. But the Apostle Paul used the comparison often, even listing the Christian’s “armor” in Ephesians 6:10-18. We should put on the belt of Truth, the breastplate of Righteousness, the shoes of the Gospel of Peace, the shield of Faith, the helmet of Salvation, and the Sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God. Of course, we are not commanded to kill, main, or promote warfare and destruction. But we ARE called to be prepared to die for– and LIVE for– the cause of Christ. We are to train, prepare, and stand firm in the Faith. More that that, we are commanded to serve– even sacrificially– our brothers and sisters; we are to be willing to lay down our lives for others.

Today, as we reflect on the sacrifices made in the past, let us renew our commitment to love like Jesus, to serve like soldiers, and to stand firm in our commitment to the One who paid the ultimate sacrifice for us. And, especially in a world that does not know peace, let us pray for those who are touched by war, famine, hardship, violence, and loss. Let us work to bring peace, forgiveness, and practical help to those around us who suffer.

A Bulwark Never Failing…

“A Mighty Fortress is our God; a bulwark, never failing..”
These words are known and sung (in various translations and languages) around the world. But Martin Luther wrote this song over four hundred years ago. What relevance can these words have in an age of nuclear bombs and globalized economies and climate change? What do they mean to us today?

I don’t live in a nation of many castles. There are two stone “mansions” in the small town where I live. They seem tiny compared to mansions in other parts of the U.S. and the world. And we have a small armory; home to a National Guard outpost. But a mansion (or even an armory) is not the same as a castle or a fortress. Mansions are built to be impressive; armories are built to be immediately prepared for disasters or attacks; castles are built to be impregnable and permanent. Our God is not just a fortress; one outpost among many mighty gods– He is The Mighty One–uniquely sovereign, eternally victorious, and perfectly protecting all within His power.

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And this protection doesn’t depend on my might or fighting ability, or my weapons or strategies. It depends on my being inside the fortress, safe and sound. The war rages all around, but it cannot defeat me, so long as I am in the fortress.

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There are mighty castles, forts, towers, citadels, and walls around the world– all built by people and victims of the ravages of war, time, weather, fire, bad management, etc. Over the years, types of fortresses have given way to new weapons designed to bring them down. Wooden forts are susceptible to fire; stone castles can be brought down by catapults, battering rams, and bombs. Underground bunkers can even be ruined by earthquakes or nuclear assault. And yet, we are still amazed at the power and legacy they represent. Many have stood for hundreds or even thousands of years. But God is eternal; His might and protection will never fail. No weapon forged or imagined can triumph over His power and sovereignty.

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Prayer brings us into the safe and powerful presence of God Almighty. There is nothing of our worries, our guilt, our doubts, or the accusations of the enemy that can shake the foundations of God’s fortress. And the cornerstone is none other than Jesus Christ– unshakable, victorious, and eternally one with the Father and the Spirit.

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That doesn’t mean that we won’t ever find ourselves in battle, trusting in God’s armor against the arrows of the enemy. But the war is already won– His Kingdom is forever! And ever!

Five Smooth Stones

God’s ways are not our ways. God often turns our expectations on their heads– choosing Abraham and Sarah to become parents at an advanced age; choosing Moses, reluctant, disgraced, and hot-tempered, to shepherd close to a million refugees across the wilderness; choosing David, young and poorly armed to defeat the mighty giant, Goliath; choosing to send His Messiah as an infant, the son of a teenage girl stranded miles from home in a cattle shed…

Not only that, but God chooses to include cryptic and seemingly random details in many of the stories we read in the Bible. When Abraham and Sarah received news that they would become parents, Sarah laughed. Such a small detail, but God called attention to it, even giving the name Isaac (Laughter) to this promised son. When God called Moses, He didn’t just include the details of the burning bush and the miraculous signs, He chose to include Moses’s excuses and objections, and a curious command to Moses to remove his shoes.

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Recently, I found a short discussion about the “five smooth stones” David used to defeat Goliath. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+Samuel+17%3A26-50&version=MSG Some teachers spend time talking about the number of stones– why five? Did David doubt God’s power and provision? Can we attach significance or apply principles to each stone? But someone commented (I’m sorry, I lost the reference, or I would attach a link) on the fact that the stones were smooth–I’d never really noticed that detail before. David chose five smooth stones from the brook, not five heavy rocks, not sharp-edged stones of flint, not round balls made of iron– five smooth stones. The smooth stones in the brook may seem like a strange choice to us if we are not used to using a sling, but to David, such stones meant greater accuracy and speed. Five such stones would have been about a handful– easy to carry, load, and fire in rapid succession, if necessary.

I would like to suggest that there are some principles here that apply to both prayer and Christian living, especially involving how we can pray for and interact with the “giants” and “enemies” in our lives:

  • First, understand the reality of the “Giant”—Goliath was huge; bigger than any single warrior in Israel. But he wasn’t bigger than God. Goliath was also hampered by his heavy armor, his size, and his arrogance. David was offered armor and weapons similar to Goliath’s, but David’s greatest weapon was his understanding that Goliath was no match for the God of Angel Armies! We often make the mistake of magnifying our enemies. We see their size, their shining armor, and heavy weaponry. We forget that God is the maker of smooth stones!
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  • Second, actions really do speak louder than words. Goliath inspired fear; he taunted the army of Israel. Yet he never landed a blow against David. Goliath scoffed, bullied, and talked a good game, but David paired his words with action. Goliath demanded that David (or any other warrior) “Come down to me..” He had a javelin and a spear, but he never used either one. I find it interesting that many “enemies” of the Church behave the same way. They want to challenge the followers of Christ in debates; they publish books and articles filled with arrogant words, accusations, and complex arguments. It is tempting to respond in kind– to get into a war of words; to match their arrogance with our self-righteous assertions. What if we fought their words with action, instead of spending so much of our time answering and defending ourselves against empty arguments and accusations. We will not “win” any culture wars; we will not “win” the hearts and minds of the next generation; we will not “defend” morality by using bigger, better, or more persuasive words, or by having better armor and sharper weapons than our enemies. We need smooth stones from the brook–small acts of kindness and humility and grace that defy all the logic and brute force of those who trust in their own understanding.
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  • Third, accuracy is better than power. Goliath had one spear–and it was impressive–” His spear shaft was like a weaver’s rod, and its iron point weighed six hundred shekels.” (verse 7). Still, Goliath had a javelin, a sword, and several pounds of armor. David had no armor, one shepherd’s staff, and his sling and five smooth stones. But he only used one stone! It was accurate and true; it was sufficient, and it won the battle! Sin likes to flaunt it’s power–shiny armor, impressive weapons.. But if we are “true”–if we hold fast to the truth and follow the words and example of Jesus Christ–if we are faithful in our everyday walk with Christ, it is sufficient.
    There is an amazing climax in the movie, Star Wars (episode 4, A New Hope), where the young Luke Skywalker is sent with a group of fighters on a seemingly impossible task– destroy the “indestructible” Death Star! There is only one weakness–one small target. Luke’s small fighter plane is old and outdated; he and his fellow soldiers are under attack, and the pressure is on. But Luke’s accurate shot leads to victory. It is a modern retelling of the story of David and Goliath (with several space-age gadgets and extra plot twists).
    How many of our interactions with others get “sidetracked” by anger, envy, bitterness, and pride, to the point that we no longer reflect Christ accurately? How often do we consistently pray to stay “true” to God’s word, rather than praying for more powerful opportunities or platforms?
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  • Fourth, know your strengths and weaknesses (and those of your enemy). David knew that his strength was, first and foremost, in God. And David’s passion for God’s honor gave him focus and commitment beyond all that was found among the skilled soldiers of either side. He knew that fancy weapons and armor could not improve his skill with the sling, and that his skill had been tested in battle before.
    But David also knew better than to aim the stone at Goliaths’s breastplate, shield, or greaves. Goliath’s weakness was in his head! His first weakness was in thinking that his power was enough to defy the God of Israel’s army. But he also left his head unprotected from attack. Some scholars have even suggested that Goliath may have had very poor eyesight– that he was a fierce warrior in hand-to-hand combat, but literally could not see the stone coming at his forehead. Perhaps all his blustering and taunting was, in part, to distract from his very real vulnerability.
    I am reminded that this is also true of many of the “giants” we face. Their weakness is in their head and in their vision–they trust in their own understanding and in human arguments, or in their “vision” of who God is, or “isn’t”, or “should be”. They rely on what they can comprehend and control. They wave their swords and rattle their shields; they have gleaming armor and they “talk a good game”. They have locked away their hearts and bodies, often hiding painful scars and deep hurts.
    Goliath was a giant–but he wasn’t a god. He was once a little boy (or maybe never a “little” boy, but a young boy..). David was a young man (probably in his mid-to-late teens), who was a simple shepherd.
    How do we see ourselves? How do we see others around us? Do we know our weaknesses? Do we see the vulnerability in those who would threaten us?
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  • Last, God’s “weapons” are not like those of the world. Five smooth stones do not look like weapons. In fact, five smooth stones from the brook may have looked charming and harmless and even comforting in David’s hand. Four of those stones may have gone back into the brook, to be polished some more by the current, or carried out to the sea.
    Christ’s followers have armor and weapons, but they are spiritual in nature. We are to put on the “whole armor of God” (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Ephesians+6%3A11-18&version=ESV, including the “sword of the Spirit”, which is the word of God. Truth, Righteousness, Peace, Good News, Faith, Salvation– This is how we prepare for battle! And we are to pray at all times! Imagine dropping the weapons of sarcasm and self-righteous posturing, and picking up a smooth stone of grace!
    God calls us to use unconventional “weapons”– not to kill or destroy those around us, but to demolish lies, tear down walls of hatred, and defend the helpless. Has God placed you in a situation where you need to pick up “five smooth stones” today?

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