Pentecost 18 A
Don’t Shrink Back
Professor William Muehl once visited a fine ancestral home in Virginia. He followed the aged owner, the last of a distinguished colonial family, as she proudly showed him through her home. An ancient rifle above the fireplace intrigued him, so he asked if he might take it down and examine it. She replied, “Oh, I’m very sorry. I just can’t allow it. You see, it just wouldn’t be safe. The rifle is loaded and primed, ready to fire. My great-grandfather kept it there in constant readiness against the moment he might strike a blow for the freedom of the colonies.” Professor Muehle said: “Oh, then he died before the American Revolution came?” “No,” came the reply. “Actually he did not. He lived to a ripe old age and died in 1802; but he never had any confidence in George Washington as a general or as a Commander in Chief. You see, he knew him as a boy and didn’t believe he could ever lead an army to victory.” The old man never believed, even though he had experienced the opposite throughout his life; even when evidence to the contrary was staring him in the face.
It’s a problem that plagues the people of God as well. Exiled in a foreign country, Israel forgot how God had acted for them in the past. Though he had proven again and again that His word was good, they were having trouble believing God now when He was promising to deliver and restore them once again. They were suffering a crisis of faith not unlike what we suffer today.
There’s no question that God has placed some huge hurdles before us. As a church we’re coming to grips with the expanding need for more workers in God’s kingdom as the Gospel is taken into parts of the world where it’s never been before. As a congregation we’re facing the growing cost of taking the Gospel of Jesus Christ into our community and our world. We see parents, some of them not even members of our church, bringing their children to our Sunday Schools and our Lutheran Day School for spiritual care and training in God’s Word. The needs are great and ever growing.
On a personal basis we face challenges too. They come in all varieties. A problem child in our home or classroom, an illness or physical challenge, an unreasonable parent or an uncompromising teacher, an unexpected outcome or sudden setback – all of these are examples of some of the challenges God might be placing before us right now as we strive to live out our God-given callings and vocations in God-pleasing ways.
Such is life in this sin-broken world. Such is our life as children of God who are called to be the preserving agent of salt on this sinful earth, agents who work for positive change within a corrupt world. Such is our life as lights of the world, missionaries who travel into the valley of the darkness of sin and death with the light of God’s word of love and peace. The need is great. The tasks are still greater.
And yes, they are beyond our human ability to accomplish and complete. Which means we might well respond as we often do, with a spirit of defeat and retreat. We’ve heard that spirit. It goes something like this. “Close the school. Reduce our mission budget. Sell the farm. Cut our staff. Eliminate that service. Drop our commitment. Stop our participation in that event.”
Defeat and retreat -- that’s the way one of the servants in Jesus’ Parable of the Talents responded. Rather than counting on the benevolence of the giver and the value of the gift like the other two servants had, the third servant buried his. He cowered away in fear, lacking confidence in both the gift and giver. And so have we, even when we have more cause to trust; for our gifts, our talents, all of our resources and opportunities come from the bountiful hand of the almighty God. They don’t come from some limited earthly king or dignitary. They come from no one less than our Savior and Lord who has proven over and over again to be faithful in all He does; faithful to take all we have to offer in time and talents and use it and bless it to his glory.
That’s how Paul could write as He does in the epistle lesson today. Though in chains, Paul talks confidently about his own efforts and those of the church in getting the good news of Jesus Christ out to the world. Even though he is possibly facing death, he talks confidently about how that would turn out for gain. Even though he’s confined, he remains certain that it will all turn out for his deliverance, perhaps for more work in God’s kingdom on earth, perhaps for eternity with His Lord and Savior. He stands firm in the unconditional love and goodness of Christ; goodness seen foremost in His gracious patience and persistent calling after His people despite their sinful past.
He’s at it again today. Don’t be filled with thoughts of defeat and retreat. “Seek the Lord while he may be found; call on him while he is near.” Don’t pull back. Don’t give up the fight or shrink away in the face of challenging circumstances. “Forsake such ways and thoughts… ‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are you ways my ways,’ declares the Lord. ‘As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.’” His ways are not our ways.
They weren’t for Israel. Bound in exile they could think of only a few ways they might escape, perhaps by flight, more likely by fight; and that not too promising considering the odds against them. But the Lord pledged that despite what they imagined, they would “go out in joy and be led forth in peace;” (Isaiah 55:12).
Our hope is exactly the same. The mission God has given us to share the Word of Christ, the call to maintain an outpost of Christian education in the farmlands of Northwest Iowa, the responsibility to live as His people in an often immoral, hell-bent nation can be seen as a hardship; a burden to great to bear. It can be seen as a sure recipe for our ruin. Yet the Lord has assured us otherwise. From the 20th chapter of Deuteronomy: “…today you are going into battle… Do not be fainthearted or afraid; do not be terrified or give way to panic… 4 For the LORD your God is the one who goes with you to… give you victory." From the 40th chapter of Isaiah: “youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; 31 but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.” To many this sounds like foolishness, but we are reminded through God’s servant Paul in 1 Corinthians 1 and 2 that, “The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him,” nevertheless, “the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.”
You see, this is not just foolish, wishful thinking. It’s good news; good news grounded in God’s word that was made sure and certain when Jesus kept his and rose from the dead. It’s good news today that would hold out the comfort of God’s pardon in the face of our doubt-filled past. It’s the good news of God’s mercy which is more than just pity. It’s the power of His Spirit which He would pour out on us. It’s the working of that Spirit in the word, not just to accomplish His will in the world; but also to accomplish His will in us. It’s God, active within, to change us from faithless to faithful disciples, from those who shrink back to those who actively take on the awesome responsibilities God gives us with confidence and faith in Him to bless.
If it were all up to us, we’d have every reason to be skeptical, every cause to grow disheartened and numerous grounds for defeat and retreat. But the last time I checked we were still the people of God, members of His body with Christ Jesus as our head; and this is still His church, grounded in and upheld by His Word. Amen!