Sunday, September 23, 2001

"In Search of ... Protection"
Sermon Preached by
The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, September 23, 2001
Text: Jude 17-25


Whenever I hold a child in my arms at baptism, I think of the future. When I see a young child, I wonder: "What kind of future will this child have? What kind of life will this child lead?" and "What kind of world will this child grow up in?"

Particularly, I think, over the last few days when we have thought of the dangers and the vulnerability in the world, when you hear people talking about things such as anthrax, when you hear of limited nuclear strikes by certain rogue countries, when you hear of outbreaks of smallpox, I think of the children who are huddled by their mothers in poverty in Khartoum. I think of the mothers who are looking for their lost children in Bogota, in Colombia. I think of the mothers whose sons are used as weapons of war in Sierra Leone. I think of Christian children who suffer at the hands of a government in the Sudan. I think of the children in Afghanistan and the children of people who died in New York City and I realize this is a vulnerable world in which we live.

But in this world, with all its vulnerabilities and all its challenges, still it seems to me that as human beings we need to make choices. We need to make choices about the kind of world in which our children are going to grow and what the world is going to look like.

On Thursday night I attended a very moving service at Holy Rosary Church, down the road from Eaton Memorial. It was an interfaith service, with rabbis and priests and imams and ministers. In one poignant moment, Imam Shabir Alli stood up and gave a presentation. He started to quote from the Book of Genesis, a book that three great religions share, and the story of Adam and Eve in the garden.

He said: "You know, human beings in this day and age have to make some choices, just like we had to make them in the Garden of Eden. For in the Garden of Eden, we were faced with two great challenges: On the one hand, we were given freedom. God said to Adam and Eve: 'You can eat from any tree that is in the garden of Eden.' In other words, we were given freedom to make choices, freedom to make decisions, freedom to decide what kind of world we were going to live in. And God said that it was good, that it was, in Hebrew, tov.

"But God also set some constraints on Adam and Eve. He said: 'But there is one tree that I don't want you eating from and that is the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. That is my tree. I alone determine good and evil. It is not for you to decide what is good and evil, it is for you to live in freedom under the constraints that I your God have given.'"

And the Imam said that therefore one of the things that we have to do as a world is learn to live within the constraints of what God said, but in freedom to make the right choices. The problem is that many people in the world in which we have been living recently have been making the wrong choices and, because they have been making the wrong choices as sinful human beings like Adam and Eve who grabbed the apple from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, they have caused the devastation and ferment and vulnerability and fear that are permeating almost every part of the world.

So great is the fear that seems to grasp the world on this day that, as I often do, and as you will gather on Wednesday at my talk, I turn to poetry. I think of the words of Shelley in his "Lament." Does this not sum up how many people feel today?

O World! O Life! O Time!
On whose last steps I climb,
Trembling at that where I had stood before;
When will return the glory of your prime?
No more - oh, never more!
Out of the day and night
A joy has taken flight.
Fresh spring, and summer, and winter hoar
Move my faint heart with grief, but with delight
No more - Oh, never more!

You see, my friends, the choices that some people have made in this world over the last few days and weeks have not only obliterated human lives in New York City and Washington, they have also cast a pall over the whole of humanity, and we live under that cloud of fear. The choices of others have made our world much more dangerous and insecure.

And so I ask the question that most people are asking right now: "In the world in which we are living, what is secure? Where is our protection? Where is our security? And where is our hope?"

In many ways, the answer to this lies in a simple affirmation, but also in a simple choice, in fact, I would suggest, the greatest choice that we must ever make. The choice that Adam and Eve had to make in the garden: Are they going to choose to be faithful to God first and, under His choices, live their lives?

I take as my first text a passage from the book of Joshua, one of the great benedictions that I repeat on the steps of this church many Sundays. These are the words of God to Joshua: "I want you to be strong and of a good courage. Be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed, for the Lord thy God is with thee whithersoever thou goest."

Now, Joshua, as in the world we live in today, was facing great insecurity and did not know the future that was ahead of him. The great Moses had just died and now Moses' minister, Moses' lieutenant, Joshua, has to carry on the battle and to carry on the struggle that Moses had begun.

God makes a promise to Moses and he makes a promise to Joshua as well. That is, that if they will be obedient he will lead them into the promised land. He will lead them to a land above the desert. He will lead them to a land that is beyond the great sea, the Mediterranean. He will lead them beside the great River Euphrates. He will lead them beyond the land of the Hittites, the land we know today as Syria. He will take them beyond Lebanon and its cedar trees near Mount Hermon.

In other words, he promises Joshua that if Joshua will be faithful, there will be a great land; there will be a place of peace and prosperity; where the people of God will be able to live in righteousness and comfort and protection all the days of their lives.

But there are two conditions that God lays down. He says the first thing you've got to be is courageous. You've got to be courageous. He says to Joshua: "Be strong and of a good courage." And it seems to me, my friends, that many of the choices that are being made by the perpetrators of evil over the last few weeks have caused many to lose their courage.

A magazine article that I was reading just recently said one out of three people in North America is not sleeping normally because of fear. People are not investing in the markets because of fear. People are not travelling because of fear. I think that there is a clarion call that if we are to get out of the morass of the terrible decisions that people have made, we must have a courage and a resolve. But we must not only have a courage and a resolve, we must also be obedient to our God.

There is a wonderful moment when God speaks to Joshua. He says: "When you go into this promised land, you must take the law with you, the Torah. You must not depart from it, neither to the right nor to the left. You must maintain your obedience to me and the choices that you and Israel must make are choices that are based on My standards, not on the standards of this world." And, my friends, here now is the message for all of us.

Over the past week, I commented to my wife that there have never been more clergy on television in the history of humanity than during this past week. My goodness, all these people that I read day in and day out, I now find on Larry King Live.

I thought: "Oh, everyone wants to talk about God now. Everyone wants to hear what other ministers have to say now. They don't want to hear what we had to say a year ago, but oh, they want to hear what we have to say now."
Robert Schuller came on Larry King Live. He said: "You know, I think the world needs to realize that if we are going to sing God Bless America, if we are going to want God's protection and guidance, we had better first of all renew our faith in God."

I mean, God is not just an insurance policy that guarantees everything from this moment on is going to work out well. God requires that God's people make a commitment, that they make a choice, that they decide as Joshua had to decide when Israel went into the Promised Land: Are they going to go with God? Are they going to make choices on His basis, or are they going to go on their own whim and song and tune?

I was thinking back to a number of years ago when I was at Mount Allison University and received a phone call from my parents. It was 1977, the last week of my first year there. My father called to inform me that he had accepted a call to a church in Cape Town, South Africa. My father gave me a challenge. He said: "Andrew, do you want to come with us? Now, I understand if you want to stay at Mount A and enjoy your friends and your university. That's fine with us, but we want you to know that we would like you to come with us. But the choice is yours."

Well, you can imagine how terrified I was, as someone who was brought up in Bermuda, going to a country like South Africa in 1977. So a number of my friends got together in the chapel and one of them, a wise man, now a Presbyterian minister in Nova Scotia, a man who had just received a call into the ministry, a man who ministered to people most effectively during the mine disaster in Pictou County, stood up and read the Bible. He read Joshua 1:9: Be strong and of a good courage! Be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed, for the Lord thy God is with thee wherever you go. Wherever you go.

And he said: "But Andrew, if you are going to go to South Africa, you can't just go on a whim or a fancy, you must go as a matter of faith. You must go because you believe and if you go, you must go in obedience. Humble yourself before God just as Joshua did with the people of Israel."

I have never forgotten his words. This Thursday night, they came home to me even more clearly, when the Rabbi Roy Tannenbaum of Beth Tzedek got up. Lo and behold! He read Joshua 1:1-9. He said: Whenever God's people, whenever the world, is challenged with danger or with fear, whenever there is a chance of conflict or dismay, we need to hear the words Be strong and courageous because God is with us wherever we may go. But if God goes with us, we must go with God.

There is a second benediction, a passage that Jane read for us so beautifully a few moments ago and this speaks about God's eternal protection. Jude wrote these words: Now to Him who is able to keep you from stumbling, to make you stand in the presence of His glory blameless and with great joy, to the only God our Saviour, through Jesus Christ our Lord be glory, majesty, dominion and authority before all time, now and forever.

You see, my friends, one of the dangers that we have as human beings is when we are cornered, we have a tendency to turn on two people.

The first we turn on is God. We say things I addressed last Sunday, like "Why did God do this?" when in fact God didn't do it at all. It was the choice of people to kill others.

But there are also times when we turn on one another, when we decide that vengeance is much more pleasing than obedience. And vengeance sometimes feels good, doesn't it? It does, let's be honest.

It's like a story I read not long ago about three bikers who pull into a greasy spoon by the side of the road. They get off their bikes and go in and they see a little truck driver at a table with his sandwich and coffee. They realize he's a little guy so they grab the sandwich and they grab the coffee and they push him away from the table.

Well, the truck driver gets up. He goes to the counter, even though he hasn't eaten his food, and he pays his bill and he walks outside. One of the bikers says to the waitress: "He's not much of a man, is he?"

She looked out of the window and said: "No. He's not much of a truck driver either. He's just driven over three motorcycles."

Now, don't you just feel like standing with that truck driver? Aren't all the good, feel-good, go-get- 'em movies based on that sentiment - that when you're faced by something evil you want to challenge it and have vengeance and get it back, no matter the cost? It feels good.

Throughout the history of Israel, they were tempted at times to lash out and to feel good and to make their own choices, but they weren't God's choices. At Sinai, when Moses delivered the law, they wanted to set up an idol. When they had the great prophet Elijah, they wanted to follow the prophet Baal. When they set up their monarchy, they wanted their kings to be more important than God. The early Christians had a challenge. They wanted to replace Jesus Christ with all kinds of minute laws and they were split and divided amongst themselves. The people of God, so often when they are cornered, either turn to vengeance or fall into false teaching, or turn on God. It is something that human beings do.
In talking to some of my Muslim friends this last week, I realized that that very same conflict is going on in the heart of Islam. For this is a religion that has right now very much a divided core and there is a struggle right now for its soul.

Just as we Christians had a struggle with our soul during the Reformation and we went to war with one another (alas, they still do in Northern Ireland over the same issues), just as Israel divided between the northern and the southern kingdoms, between Judah and Israel, the people of all religions have had their divisions, and these divisions have usually come down to a matter of choice, a matter of whether or not we are going to eat from the knowledge of the tree of good and evil and determine what we think is right, or we are going to abide by the law and the covenant of God and place our faith and our hope and our courage and our commitment into God's holy and righteous name.

In writing to this, Jude warns the early Christians. He says: "You know, it's so easy for you to fall right now" as it's easy for us to fall. He says: "If you are going to be faced by that you must strengthen yourself in the Holy Spirit. You must teach one another on a solid foundation. You must pluck out those who have been lost and rescue them and you must at all times uphold God's justice and God's righteousness who is with us forevermore."

Last night, in preparation for this sermon, I tossed and I turned and I thought of those six babies that we baptized today. I thought of the children that were here at the 9:30 am service. I thought of the children of the world. What do you, as adults, what do you say? What do you offer them? What hope do you give them? What message do you deliver?

The word of the great prophet Isaiah came to my mind and I got up in the middle of the night and I read it, and I want you to send this message to the world. It is as follows:

Get yourself on a high mountain, Oh Zion, bearer of good news. Lift up your voice mightily, Oh Jerusalem, bearer of good news. Lift it up. Do not fear. Say to the cities of Judah: 'Here is your God. Behold the Lord God will come with might, with His arm ruling for Him. Behold his reward is with Him and his recompense before him.'

Then the key words:
Like a shepherd He will tend His flock. In His arms He will gather the lambs and carry them in his bosom. He will gently lead the nursing ewes.

Here is your God. Are you prepared to commit yourself to him? Amen.