Sermon manuscript for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists
Sabbath, August 23, 2014
We've been doing a sermon series inspired my conversations with young atheists. For Americans my age, the word “atheist” is an alien word, a harsh, jagged affront to convention and conviction. But many young people nowadays happily embrace the label. Just last week, sitting on the sidewalk at my favorite table outside Teddy's Bigger Burgers on Green Lake Way, a group of teenagers walked past. One of the guys asked the girl in the group, “So, I hear you're an atheist.” Without the slightest hesitation or awkwardness she launched into an explanation which I did not hear because they had moved beyond my hearing. But I was struck with the casualness of the entire conversation. It is that kind of young, casual atheism that has been in my mind as I've worked on this sermon series.
Once upon a time, a few thousand years ago, the king of Damascus started sending raiding parties into Israel, his neighbor to the south. The story as it comes down to us, does not describe any precipitating event for these raids. The way I imagine it, there was a new king on the throne, a young man. His dad, the old king, had died. Now it was the young buck's turn. He wanted to demonstrate his leadership, so he did what red-blooded kings did in those days. He went to war. Not an all-out, win-it-or-lose- everything war. He wasn't that crazy. But still it was military action that would demonstrate his leadership—and bring in some oil revenue (oops. I should have said olive oil revenue.)
The king led his army in a series of cross-border raids. They set up carefully-planned ambushes. Maybe they were waiting for a wagon train loaded with grain or a camel caravan carrying more expensive stuff. Whatever. They would set up a perfect ambush. The secrecy would absolute. The camouflage flawless. Then nothing would happen. No traffic would come down the road. Not even any Israeli military patrol. Nothing. The raiding party would be sitting there, baking in the sun, eating their own provisions. Bored. Frustrated. And very embarrassed. Because eventually they would head home with nothing to show for their effort.
My guess is the king got mad. (You don't want the king mad!) The king tried different places, different strategies. But every ambush came up empty.
Finally, the king called in all his officers and threw a temper tantrum. “Who is the traitor?” he demanded. “Obviously, one of you is leaking our plans to the enemy. It's the only possible explanation. We have tried every possible method of ambush. Every accessible road across northern Israel. Every time we come up empty. It's crystal clear the enemy is getting inside information. So who is it?”
He stared around the circle of his commanders. It was a pretty tense moment. Each officer knew his own innocence, but still . . . What if someone else suspected him? What if someone started pointing fingers just to divert attention? Maybe some of these officers had Israeli slaves, maybe an Israeli wife or mistress—connections that could look really suspicious if anyone pointed the finger his direction.
People were sweating. The king's eyes were bugging out. “Who? Who is it? You might as well 'fess up because I'm going to find out. Someone is spilling secrets to the Israelis.”
Minutes passed. People didn't move. They scarcely breathed.
Then an old man on the king's right spoke up. He was by far the oldest in the group. Old enough to be the king's father. He had, in fact, served with the king's father for decades.
“Sir, we are your loyal servants. We are not traitors. But I can tell you who is passing secrets.”
He had the king's attention. “So? Who?”
“Sir, it's nobody in this circle. It's a prophet named Elisha. He's amazing. Years ago, before you were born, when your father was king, the commander of our army was diagnosed with leprosy. He had a Jewish servant girl who had claimed that if he went to Samaria there was a prophet there who would cure him. Naaman went down there with a load of gold and came back healed. Sir, his skin was like a baby's skin. I would not have believed it if I hadn't seen it myself. That's the kind of power this prophet has. There are even stories of him raising the dead. Elisha can tell the King of Israel what you whisper to your woman when your heads are on one pillow.
“So, be gentle with your men, Sir. They are as hungry for victory and booty as you are.”
I'm always amused by what happens next. To me it is strong evidence that the Damascus king was young and brash.
“Go find out where the prophet is and let's capture him!” The king ordered.
It was a fool's errand, but warriors do as their superiors direct. The Damascus special forces headed south to find Elisha.
They had reports of Elisha being in the town of Dothan. They marched through the night and surrounded the town. Surprisingly, Elisha was still there. God had not alerted him to leave. The soldiers were thrilled. The king was going to be really happy.
Shortly after sunrise an old man appeared on a roof top near the city wall. He looked out their direction, appeared to engage in prayer and that was the last anyone in the army saw. During the prayer, the entire army went blind. They could see nothing. The old man had amazing power.
A little later, an old man approached the army asking to speak to the commander. When the commander was located the old man asked, “What's up?”
“We are looking for the prophet, Elisha.” The commander said.
The old man began laughing. “You've got it all wrong. You're in the wrong place. You're chasing the wrong man.” That much was not all that surprising. The army commander did not really think Elisha would really be sitting in a small walled city waiting for the Damascus special forces to surround it. On the other hand, the power of the old man they had seen to blind the entire army suggested the old man must be the fabled prophet.
The old man told the commander, “Follow me. I'll take you where you need to go.”
What could the commander do? He was blind. His entire army was blind. They were in enemy territory. Following the old man sounded like walking into a trap, but the commander didn't have a lot of options. He was in the heart of enemy territory. Blind. Any moment he expected to feel the edge of a sword against his neck.
So the commander grouped his men. Then hands on shoulders, the mass of warriors shuffled down the road, scared to death, wondering when they were going to fall into a pit, or find themselves on the point of a spear.
For hours, they stumbled along. Hot, thirsty, hungry. Then they could tell they were going through something. A tunnel? A cave entrance? A gate? Maybe this was the end.
A few minutes later, they hear the old man's voice. He addressed his God. “Lord, open their eyes!”
Instantly they could see. The view was not too reassuring. They were staring at the tips of arrows notched in drawn bows, raised swords, pointed spears. This was not good. I'm guessing at this point the soldiers were not too happy with their boy king back in Damascus. What did that fool, the king, imagine he was going to accomplish by messing with the prophet?
Up to this point, this story sounds like other ancient tales of warriors and wizards and magic. But this is not a fairy tale. It is not a story of military folly or magic or romance. It's theology. The story sets up a profound moral lesson.
The King of Israel surveying the band of enemy warriors imprisoned in his town square and says to the prophet Elisha. “Shall I kill them? Shall I obliterate them?”
Imagine for a minute that Elisha was not there. Imagine the king asked you what to do. And your job is to tell the king God's will for this moment. What did God want the king to do?
Remember these Damascus soldiers were part of an army that had been practicing naked aggression. Completely without provocation, they have been crossing Israel's borders aiming to do harm and steal stuff. They came from a nation that had been warring with Israel off and on for generations.
These warriors had been captured on an evil, deadly mission. What should the king do with them? What was God's will?
Among the young people I talk to, the label atheist means a commitment to honesty, justice, and compassion. When they call themselves atheist they are announcing their refusal to agree with the institutional church when it damages people or advocates error. It is a sign that they regard human well-being as a higher value than any dogma, including religious dogma.
So I respect my young atheist friends. But sometimes, when I'm feeling a little grumpy, I challenge them. “Just what kind of atheist are you? The most famous atheists in my life time have not been very nice people.”
When they think of atheists, they think of people like Hemant Mehta who writes a blog called “The Friendly Atheist.” Mehta is generally polite. He seems like a nice guy. But I think of atheists, I think of people like Mao Tse-Tung, Stalin and Pol Pot. Mao killed fifty million Chinese in an engineered famine. Stalin killed twenty million people he didn't think were good for the Soviet Union. Pol Pot thought atheism was the best philosophy for his country and killed twenty-five percent of the population in his zeal to prove that his ideas were the very best.
My young friends get impatient at this point. They would never kill people. They would never approve of the kind of barbarity practiced by Mao, Stalin and Pol Pot.
Still my questions are not irrelevant. Historically speaking, atheism has not always been a bright, shining pursuit of truth and justice. Sometimes it is the name of a dark and evil force.
With this as background, let's go back to our story.
What was God's will for the king of Israel as he surveyed a town square full of dangerous soldiers from an enemy country? What would God do with all these bad men?
This is a tricky question. Our gut tells us that mercy is the right answer, but someone else might argue that God is a stern judge and king. And they could quote Bible verses in support of the king's idea of killing the captives.
They could quote Moses' words about Sihon, King of Hesbon:
And we took all his cities at that time, and utterly destroyed the men, and the women, and the little ones, of every city, we left none to remain. Deuteronomy 2:34
Or the report in Joshua about what God's directions regarding the people of Jericho:
And they utterly destroyed all that was in the city, both man and woman, young and old, and ox, and sheep, and ass, with the edge of the sword. Joshua 6:21 (There was an exception made for Rahab and her family, but other than that . . . )
Or the instructions of the Prophet Samuel to King Saul regarding Amalekites:
Now go and smite the Amalekites, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass. 1 Samuel 15:3
If you based your advice to the king on these Bible verses, what would you say? What would be the right answer to the question, “Shall I smite them?”
It is these verses that cause our young atheist friends to challenge us when we say we believe in God. They want to know, just what God do we believe in? The God of hell fire and capital punishment and genocide and the stoning of brides who cannot prove their virginity on the day of their marriage? Is that the God we believe in? Do we believe in the God of Westboro Baptist Church and Mark Driscoll?
It is entirely fair that our young friends ask us this question.
And what is our answer?
We believe in the God of Elisha. Elisha told the king, “If you had captured these soldiers with your own sword, you would remember the rules of war. Captives must be fed. So feed them. Give them something to drink. And send them home to their master.”
The king did what the prophet said. And the story ends—they lived happily ever after. Well, not in those words, but that's the sentiment. Syria quit raiding Israel. Peace was created.
When I tell my young atheist friends about the God I believe in, this is the God I tell them about—the God of peace. The God who forgives. The God whose grand goal is not retribution but reconciliation. The God whose supreme purpose is not appropriate punishment but glorious healing.
The genocide of the Old Testament is not God's ideal. The commandments in the Old Testament to kill people—whether in genocide, stoning for adultery, or blessing soldiers who commit atrocities—these commands do not express the character and purpose of God. Rather they reflect the brokenness of humanity. The highest virtue of religion is to heal that brokenness, to cultivate a vision that is higher and more noble than retribution, condemnation and punishment.
When we say we believe in God, we are declaring our allegiance to God's program to move people away from brokenness toward wholeness, away from anger and alienation toward reconciliation and peace, away from wickedness to goodness, away from fierceness to harmony.
My guess is when we get this right, when we as a people speak the language of justice and peace and live in harmony with the principles of righteousness, our young atheist friends will see what we are doing and will hear what we are saying, and they will say, “Yes. That's what we meant.”
This past Wednesday, I was back at my favorite table on Green Lake Way eating my vegeburger, working on my sermon when another group of teenagers came by. I could hear them coming. They were asking other diners along the sidewalk for a dollar and sixty cents. They needed that much to buy a pizza. No one was buying.
They got to where I was sitting. “Hey, any chance you could give us a dollar and sixty cents? We're that much short for a pizza.”
It was a test. I had wanted the teenagers who walked past the week before, talking about atheism to stop and let me join the conversation. I love getting all philosophical with kids. But, of course, they didn't stop.
Instead the kids who stop are people who are hungry and are looking for money not wisdom. So I walked next door with the kids, had them place their order and put their money on the counter, then I added a couple of bucks to their pile so they could get their pizza.
I didn't know their stories. I don't know how they ended up that afternoon on Green Lake Way, a dollar and sixty cents short the cost of medium pizza. But I had money in my pocket and food in my belly. And the God I believe in says when we have sufficient, we are called to share.
We believe in God, the God of Elisha. The God who helps and heals, who forgives and reconciles, the God who creates peace and harmony. The more deeply we believe in this God and the more consistently we live in harmony with God's glorious ideals, the easier it will be for our young atheist friends to join and say, “We, too, believe.”