June 6, 2010

True Grit

Think for a minute about the most courageous person you know. Who are some of these folks? What is it about them that makes them so courageous in your mind? What is it about anyone that makes them courageous? I suspect that most of us would say something along the lines of courage being the determination to pursue some course of action regardless of the dangers and difficulties before us. But as I was thinking and praying and preparing for this week’s sermon I spent some time mulling over exactly what it means to be courageous. Is courage as simple as doing something regardless of the opposition before us? I submit to you this morning that courage is not in fact that simple. To make this point and to call you to real courage, I want to talk through a series of illustrations of situations in which courage is demonstrated and in which courage is not demonstrated. Once we come to an understanding of what exactly courage is, I want to tell you the story of one of the most courageous men in the Bible.

As I was thinking about courage, my mind naturally went to the context of war. As you know, this past weekend was Memorial Day. I’m sorry that we were not here to celebrate with you, but for those of you who have served, you have our heartfelt thanks. On Sunday (but only because the traffic in the cemetery is terrible on Monday), we went by to see the graves of my grandparents who have passed away. My dad’s dad served during WWII as an instructor for the ball turret gun on the underside of B-17s. My mom’s dad did not serve, but out in front of his grave there is a little memorial garden with the stones of three Congressional Medal of Honor recipients. When we got home from the cemetery that afternoon my dad looked up their stories (which you can also do at the website www.cmohs.org). These guys were courageous. Listen to the commendation of Staff Sergeant Herbert Burr: “He displayed conspicuous gallantry during action when the tank in which he was bow gunner was hit by an enemy rocket, which severely wounded the platoon sergeant and forced the remainder of the crew to abandon the vehicle. Deafened, but otherwise unhurt, S/Sgt. Burr immediately climbed into the driver’s seat and continued on the mission of entering the town to reconnoiter road conditions. As he rounded a turn he encountered an 88-mm. antitank gun at pointblank range. Realizing that he had no crew, no one to man the tank’s guns, he heroically chose to disregard his personal safety in a direct charge on the German weapon. At considerable speed he headed straight for the loaded gun, which was fully manned by enemy troops who had only to pull the lanyard to send a shell into his vehicle. So unexpected and daring was his assault that he was able to drive his tank completely over the gun, demolishing it and causing its crew to flee in confusion. He then skillfully sideswiped a large truck, overturned it, and wheeling his lumbering vehicle, returned to his company. When medical personnel who had been summoned to treat the wounded sergeant could not locate him, the valiant soldier ran through a hail of sniper fire to direct them to his stricken comrade. The bold, fearless determination of S/Sgt. Burr, his skill and courageous devotion to duty, resulted in the completion of his mission in the face of seemingly impossible odds.”

Wow. I think we can safely say that S/Sgt. Burr was a courageous man. He pursued a bold course of action without thought of the dangers and difficulties in front of him. But think about this for a minute. Who was he fighting during this time? He was fighting the Nazis. The world is pretty much unanimous on the point that the Nazi regime was an evil one. Yet the ends they pursued were not necessarily easy. Their plan to exterminate all the Jews of the world was without a doubt fraught with dangers and difficulties and yet we can hardly call this action courageous. In the same vein, the extremist Muslim suicide bombers have a host of difficulties and dangers to face in order to carry out their murderous missions (and such missions are murderous regardless of their being propelled by an ideology that views their victims as legitimate enemy combatants), yet again, there is no courage here. But now allow me to challenge you just a bit. What about the Nazi soldier who fought hard to save the life of a wounded comrade? What if he had to kill a number of American soldiers in the process? Would such actions not be comparable to S/Sgt. Burr? Regardless of our loathing of the Nazi ideology, the actions of a single soldier in this case would have to be labeled as courageous in my view. In the same sense, what about a Palestinian soldier, or even a Hamas militant, genuinely trying to protect his friends and family from a group of Israeli soldiers who are mistreating them? Certainly there are a host of difficulties and dangers here. But unlike the case of the suicide bomber, I would settle on pronouncing this act courageous.

Let’s get out of the realm of the military, though, lest I leave you thinking courage is not found anywhere else. Consider the young, single mother who gets up extra early Sunday mornings in order to get her kids ready to go to church. I suspect that most of the parents in this room can get pretty close to imagining the difficulties involved in this task. And indeed, in her pursuit to try and help her children develop a healthy Christian worldview that will give them a leg up on dealing with the realities of the world is an act of great courage. Likewise, the father whose family has been devastated by the down economy applying for a job cleaning toilets and cutting his family back to the bare minimum, even seeking some help from local ministries, yet still setting an example of faith for his children by being as generous as he can with what little he does have, so that he can get his family back to financial security is a courageous man.

Let me give you three more illustrations from the Word itself. Second Kings 5 tells the story of Naaman, a high ranking Syrian (that’s Israel’s enemy) military commander. Naaman would have had everything going for him except for the fact that he had a skin disease. It might have been leprosy, the Hebrew isn’t clear, but we can be sure that his credentials as a leader were severely damaged by this condition that would have been viewed by most folks of his day as a curse from the gods—for who would follow someone so cursed into battle? Fortunately for him, his wife had a little slave girl from Israel who suggested he go see the prophet Elisha. Realizing he had nothing to lose, Naaman went and was met by the prophet’s servant who told him to go wash seven times in the muddy Jordan River. The nature of both the command and its method of delivery were a huge shock to Naaman’s ego, but he courageously humbled himself, washed, and came up clean. Daniel 3 tells the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego standing up to the king of Babylon to the point of being tossed in a fiery furnace rather than bow down to an idol. If you’ll remember, their reasoning was that whether or not God saved them, bowing down to an idol was a morally wrong thing to do. These men were courageous. Finally, Mark 2 tells the story of four friends who dig a hole in the roof of the building in which Jesus was healing people in order to lower a fifth friend down to be healed since the crowd outside the house was too thick to get through with the man on his stretcher. These men were praised by Jesus for their faith and rightly so, but this was an act of incredible courage on their part. They were set on doing he right thing regardless of the consequences they faced for doing it.

So after all these illustrations, what can we say about courage? Earlier we said that courage is often defined as pursuing some course of action without thought of the difficulties or dangers involved therein. But given some of the examples we’ve seen, I don’t think that’s an adequate definition. Courage is not simply doing something regardless of the difficulties we’re facing. Courage is doing the morally right thing regardless of the difficulties we’re facing. Well, a couple of weeks ago we defined integrity as being consistent with God’s character and in the process identified God’s character with the morally right path through this life. In this light, courage is doing the things Jesus would do regardless of the consequences facing us. Pushing this further, the things Jesus would do are summed up by the phrase obedience to God. Well, this life of obedience is in fact the life God calls us to live. Are you following my logic here? What we are left with after all these ruminations is a succinct definition of courage: Courage is living God’s way no matter what.

Now that we have a concise definition of courage that coheres nicely with reality, let me tell you another story that will make this abstract discussion of courage real for you. Actually, I want to tell you three stories from the life of arguably the most courageous man in the Old Testament. Without the things God accomplished through this man, there would be no land of Israel. This is the man who finished what Moses started and brought fulfillment to God’s promise to Abraham to bring his descendants back to the land of Canaan. This man tends to be one of the lesser known major characters in the Old Testament in spite of having a book the bears his name. This man’s name is Joshua—an ancient Hebrew form of the name Jesus—and his story contains one demonstration of incredible courage after the next. All this came because of his dedication to live his life according to a correct understanding of who God is. In three snapshots from his life—scouting out the Promised Land, taking Jericho and Ai while dealing with a disobedient family, and God’s commissioning of his leadership—we will see that without question courage is living God’s way no matter.

When telling the story of the Exodus, most folks call to mind the forty years in the wilderness as punishment for doubting God. But what some of you might not realize is that the original journey from Egypt to the Promised Land took all of two years. After two years of traveling the entire people of Israel were on the cusp of the Promised Land, ready to enter and take possession of the land God had sworn to give to their ancestors. Just before they were to cross into the land God commanded Moses in Numbers 13 to send twelve scouts into the land (one for each tribe). Now, there is no reason given for this, but I suspect that it was to encourage the people. There was no question as to whether or not the people were going to be able to take the land. In Numbers 13:2 God said to Moses: “Send men to scout out the land of Canaan I am giving to the Israelites.” These men were to go in and bring back stories of how rich and beautiful and plentiful the land was that God was giving them. Yes, there were large and powerful tribes currently living there, but they were nothing compared with the Egyptians and Israel’s God had dispatched the Egyptians with but a word. Regardless of this, when the scouts came back to give a report to the people they affirmed the richness and beauty and plenty of the land, but focused on the might and power of the people currently living there. There were only two dissenters to this report of the twelve: Caleb from the tribe of Judah and Hoshea from the tribe of Ephraim who was later renamed Joshua by Moses. When the gathered people heard the cowardly report of the ten spies they cried out in faithless fear and frustration that Moses and Aaron should be immediately replaced with leaders who would take them back to Egypt. Upon hearing this Caleb and Joshua tore their clothes, jumped up before the people, and cried: “The land we passed through and explored is an extremely good land. If the LORD is pleased with us, He will bring us into this land, a land flowing with milk and honey, and give it to us. Only don’t rebel against the LORD, and don’t be afraid of the people of the land, for we will devour them. Their protection has been removed from them, and the LORD is with us. Don’t be afraid of them!” After hearing this, the people were ready to stone the pair along with Moses and Aaron when God powerfully intervened.

Now, we know the broader context here and because of that we know that we’re supposed to judge the body of Israel along with the ten faithless scouts to be cowardly. But stop and think for just a minute. The course of action they were proposing was fraught with difficulties and dangers. Traveling another 1,000 miles through the wilderness back to Egypt was no walk in the park (it was a walk in the wilderness) and being slaves again in Egypt wasn’t exactly the high life. And yet they were ready to pursue this course of action without thought of the consequences. If we accepted the simple definition of courage we mentioned a few minutes ago we would have to conclude they were acting courageously. In fact, modern critics might cite the people as courageous in resisting God’s “evil” command to wipe out the current inhabitants of Canaan. Yet we know that Caleb and Joshua were the courageous ones here. Why? Because they were striving to live God’s way and bring the people along with them. Indeed, courage is living God’s way no matter what. They were dedicated to this course of action regardless of the so-called “realities” of the world. Obedience to God is always preferable to the feeble and unreasonable limits of what sometimes passes as reason among humans. This, by the way, does not mean that God is unreasonable. It simply means that our short-sighted reason doesn’t always take everything into account it needs to in order to render decisions that best cohere with reality. The dangers and difficulties of trying to permanently occupy this fertile land filled with powerful tribes were obvious. But God was in this and so to do otherwise was faithless disobedience. In standing up to the entire people of Israel even in the face of death by stoning Joshua clearly demonstrated great courage. Courage is living God’s way no matter what.

The next episode from Joshua’s life took place some four decades later when Joshua and Caleb were the only two remaining from that faithless day on the edge of the Promised Land. The people of Israel had crossed over the Jordan River (an event that took a lot of courage in itself) and were preparing to attack their first city: Jericho. Now, in the military strategies of the day there were without a doubt a block of approaches to taking a fortified city. I confess that I’ve not read any of them. But in spite of that I will still say with great certainty that none of them involved silently marching around the city in question seven times a day for seven days with trumpet accompaniment and then shouting loudly after the forty-ninth trip. Yet living God’s way doesn’t always mean doing things that make a lot of sense in the moment, it means obeying His commands. Such a life is the very definition of courage for His commands will always be morally right. Courage, after all, is living God’s way no matter what. Joshua led the people to follow God’s instructions regarding the conquest of Jericho nearly to a T. After conquering Jericho the people geared up to take the city of Ai. After listening to the over-confident word of the scouts and not consulting the Lord, Joshua sent a small contingent of troops to Ai which was promptly routed. You see, the other part of God’s instructions regarding Jericho was to leave all the plunder to be dedicated to Him as a sacrifice. But there was one man, Achan, who coveted some of the things he saw in the fallen city and took them for himself. From a leadership perspective, Joshua had to deal with this insubordination swiftly and strongly not only because it had caused God to remove His support from the people, but also because it carried with it the potential to tempt other members of the community to the same behavior. This involved leading God’s way. As anyone who has ever been in a position in which they had to see consequences for bad behavior carried out, it takes a lot of courage to do this. It takes a willingness to live God’s way regardless of the personal, professional, or social challenges standing in the way. Leaving aside for this morning our feelings concerning the nature of the punishment carried out on Achan and his family, this was surely a difficult decision for Joshua to make. It took his dedication to live up to God’s standards in order that his life might be a proper reflection of God’s way of life as outlined in the law given to Moses. Courage is living God’s way no matter what. And indeed, once the people had cleansed themselves from the sin of Achan and his family, God sent them back to Ai and they routed the city just as they had Jericho.

Well, the final snapshot from Joshua’s life actually comes a few years before Jericho and Ai. As Moses was coming near to his death he appointed Joshua to be his successor as leader of the people of Israel. Moses had been the charismatic, spiritual leader and prophet the people needed to get them from Egypt, through the wilderness, to the Promised Land. Now they needed a strong military leader for there was much war ahead of them as they drove the current inhabitants of the land out of it. Put yourself in Joshua’s shoes for just a moment if you can. This would have been an enormous task. The dangers and difficulties involved in leading an entire nation in an extended military campaign against nations which were militarily stronger cannot possibly be enumerated in the time we have remaining this morning. He needed some serious encouragement in order to have all that was necessary for this incredible charge. This was one of those places where the courage of people fails. We stand on the precipice of a call from God far mightier than anything we have ever imagined—even if we knew it was coming—and our knees quiver. Our heart beats faster. We start to sweat. And every cell in our churning minds screams for us to turn around and run in the other direction. Joshua was standing in this place. God’s way of life stretched out before him as a long, arduous, and bloody path. Surrounding this path were a host of other options. Yet courage is living God’s way no matter what. In this light, hear God’s words of encouragement to Joshua in Joshua 1:6-9: “Be strong and courageous, for you will distribute the land I swore to their fathers to give them as an inheritance. Above all, be strong and very courageous to carefully observe the whole instruction My servant Moses commanded you. Do not turn from it to the right or the left, so that you will have success wherever you go. This book of instruction must not depart from your mouth; you are to recite it day and night, so that you may carefully observe everything written in it. For then you will prosper and succeed in whatever you do. Haven’t I commanded you: be strong and courageous? Do not be afraid or discouraged, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.”

Do you see the basis of courage here? Hear the words from v. 7 again: “Above all, be strong and very courageous to carefully observe the whole instruction My servant Moses commanded you. Do not turn from it to the right or the left, so that you will have success wherever you go.” If you take nothing else away from the sermon this morning I hope it is this definition of courage I’m commending to you: courage is living God’s way no matter what. But hear clearly where the well of this courage is located. If indeed courage is living God’s way no matter what, then where are we going to learn about God’s way in order to live it? From the word. If Joshua was going to live out this courage God was commending to him, then he was going to have to be deeply rooted in the word given to Moses in order to understand the kind of life that reflected real courage. If we are going to consistently live lives of courage, then we need to have an understanding of the Word that enables us to grasp the different ways such a lifestyle can play itself out in our daily experiences. Now, does this mean that folks who don’t know the Bible can’t be courageous? Of course not. Paul speaks clearly in Romans 1 of the general revelation of God wherein He writes His basic moral laws on the heart of every person. But such attempts, though guided by the image of God residing in each one of us, are more akin to blind stabs in the dark than the precise strokes of a master artist. People who are not at all familiar with the Bible are clearly able to muster up great courage when the circumstances are right, but absent the solid foundation of the Word, such impressive feats will be little more than isolated events. In spite of their obviously courageous actions rightly earning them the Congressional Medal of Honor, without the firm footing of the Scriptures, men like S/Sgt. Burr could have easily gone on to live a cowardly life. Courage in one moment is no guarantee of courage in the next for we are naturally a cowardly people. Our sinful natures make us so. The first thing Adam can and Eve did after eating the forbidden fruit was to hide. We don’t want an isolated, capricious courage that only surprise us. As followers of Christ we want to make courage—living God’s way no matter what—a lifestyle that honors God and completes our joy.

Does this mean that if we memorize the Word we will be courageous? Absolutely not. Joshua’s story from the taking of Jericho and Ai to the end of his life is not a perfect one. He made some bad decisions as a result of forgetting God’s exhortation and disregarding God’s ever-present help. But when he left the path, he courageously owned up to his mistakes and got back on the path. He made the word of God his passion and his guide. As a result, he left a legacy of courage that at the end of his life he could (and did) call the rest of the people to follow. When he called them to choose for themselves which god they would serve as a people, he had left for them a clear legacy of the righteous courage of one who chose to serve Yahweh. He was also able to clearly spell out the benefits of such a lifestyle. This is quite simply because courage is living God’s way no matter what. And God’s word clearly promises a host of blessings to the one who lives His way. Indeed, in the battle between the coward and the courageous person, the courageous person always wins. Even if the coward has more power and can severely persecute the courageous person, in the end, victory will undoubtedly come down on the side of courage. The reason for this is clear. God made it plain to Joshua. For those who are with Him, He is with them. We can be strong and courageous because He is with us wherever we go. So my challenge this morning to you is to follow Joshua’s example and pursue a lifestyle of courage. Learn the Word. Draw from the deep well of confidence of the love and power of Christ available to you. Take the risk and love those around you as Christ does. Venture into the dangerous territory of obeying God and advancing the borders of the kingdom. Bravely step out and become fully the man or woman God created you to be. Commit yourselves to living God’s way no matter what.

This morning, to close our service, I want to take a few moments and celebrate with you an example of courage that far surpasses even Joshua. Simply because courage will always overcome cowardice doesn’t mean courage is comfortable. I suspect S/Sgt. Burr wasn’t terribly cozy when he was dazed and deaf and driving his tank at full speed towards a gun crew that could have turned him into a human Cole slaw with a flick of the wrist. The greatest example of this dedication to God’s way of life without regard to the earthly consequences is, of course, Jesus Himself. The courage it took for Christ to walk to the path to the cross with full knowledge of what awaited Him there and clearly not jumping for glee at the chance to walk that path goes beyond what I could fully describe to you. His example of courageous sacrifice on our behalf is worth celebrating and so celebrate it we do. With the bread and the juice that you see set before you on the table this morning we celebrate the one who was courageous enough to endure a broken body and spilled blood so that not only His friends might have the opportunity at life, but also for those who were His enemies—the very ones in fact who broke His body and spilled His blood. This sacrifice and the life it won for us we celebrate this morning, rejoicing in the one who won it. As you prepare to partake of this small taste of the banquet waiting for us at the Lord’s Table for all those who courageously overcome a cowardly world, commit yourselves fresh to a life of courage. Commit to living God’s way no matter what. Confess of the times this past week…even this very morning…in which you have cowardly ran from the call of the kingdom in favor of the truly false security of this world. Commit to following the example of the One who endured the cross, scorning its shame, and is now seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Commit and then rejoice in the help you have waiting for you. Deacons, come on forward to serve as I pray.