Sermon preached at Wycliffe Hall for Joint Eucharist of Oxford Anglican Theological Colleges
9 November 2005
Readings: 2 Chronicles 20:1-30 and Matthew 26:17-56
I wonder how often you discover something in the Bible you didn't even know was there and which speaks powerfully to you! I had one of my most powerful experiences of this last summer. I was flying over to a meeting in the US about the Windsor Report and the crisis in the Anglican Communion and decided my flight reading should be the recently released new edition of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Ethics. In the Editors' Afterword to the German Edition there was reference to a letter written in 1932 where Bonhoeffer wrote, "The problem is becoming increasingly and unbearably acute. Recently I preached on 2 Chronicles 20:12. There I unloaded all that despair of mine". I have to confess I didn't know what 2 Chronicles 20:12 said but the footnote helped. It reads - "In his Luther Bible Bonhoeffer underlined 2 Chronicles 20:12b in pencil and doubly marked it on both sides; it reads 'We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you'".
It just leapt out at me as a verse that spoke into my situation. Even more amazingly, when I found its context it was even more powerful. And I want this evening to share some thoughts on what I believe it is saying to us. For me their focus is the current crisis within Anglicanism but the lessons are, I hope, as applicable to any crisis - private and personal or corporate and political - that we face.
Today, the situation in the Communion and the Church of England is if anything even more precarious than it was earlier in the summer. Here in England the recognition of civil partnerships next month presents us with a real challenge. Last week a clergyman within Southwark diocese invited in a bishop from outside the Anglican Communion to ordain irregularly two men who after selection and training in the Church of England had been refused ordination by the Bishop of Southwark. The bishop has now revoked the licence of the clergyman who organised the ordinations and he may appeal to Archbishop Rowan. At the same time Gene Robinson has visited and spoken at Changing Attitude services and in the media.
We gather here tonight at a corporate communion of Anglican colleges. We represent I suspect a much greater range of Anglicanism than any of us do when we meet for our college eucharists. I may be wrong and I'm not going to ask for a show of hands but I suspect here tonight we have supporters and sympathizers with Reform, Changing Attitude, LGCM, Anglican Mainstream and other bodies that are often at loggerheads. We have people who would align themselves with Archbishop Peter Akinola and people who would align themselves with Gene Robinson. What then are we to do? I want to focus on two verses from our readings. That one I discovered from 2 Chronicles - "We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you" - and Jesus' words after the Last Supper and before his arrest - "Not what I want but what you want".
That Old Testament verse needs to be put in context to feel its full force and to hear what God may be saying to us today. These are, we must not forget, the words of the king of Israel, the Lord's anointed, the one called to guide, to rule, to direct God's people. He exercises his leadership at a time of crisis by standing before the people and doing what? Turning to God in prayer and confessing his and the people's ignorance - "We do not know what to do". But confessing also his hope and trust - "But our eyes are on you". I suspect Archbishop Rowan has often felt like King Jehoshaphat. Perhaps daily ever since the day his appointment was announced! And, thankfully, I suspect his fundamental response has been the same as this great king of Israel. What is that response? What are we called to do when we find ourselves in such situations? The short answer is 'pray' but we need also to look at how he prays.
The prayer opens (v6) with an affirmation of the sovereignty of God - "O LORD, God of our ancestors, are you not God in heaven? Do you not rule over all the kingdoms of the nations? In your hand are power and might, so that no one is able to withstand you". That must be the bedrock for us in times of conflict and confusion. God is still God. Even when all around may seem chaos and clarity is lacking about what to do. God remains powerful and mighty.
And in v7 that is bolstered by remembering and rehearsing how that power and might have been made known in his past promises and his faithful fulfilment of those - "Did you not, O God, drive out the inhabitants of this land before your people Israel, and give it forever to the descendants of your friend Abraham?". As we face the real danger of the fragmentation and almost fratricidal hostility among us as Anglicans we need to recall God's faithfulness to us in the past and rejoice that he has called us his friends.
But we also need to show our commitment to this sovereign faithful God and to demonstrate our faith and hope in Him no matter what the future holds. Verse 9 is truly astonishing - "If disaster comes upon us, the sword, judgment, or pestilence or famine, we will stand before this house, and before you, for your name is in this house, and cry to you in our distress, and you will hear and save". Are we ready to say that whatever happens - no matter how disastrous - we will stand before God and cry to him confident that he will hear and save? Are we confident enough to confess with Paul - echoing this verse in Romans 8 - "Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?".
The danger of course is that we say all that but only when it is all distant and far from our reality. But for King Jehoshaphat there is no masking the reality before God - "See now, the people of Ammon, Moab, and Mount Seir, whom you would not let Israel invade when they came from the land of Egypt, and whom they avoided and did not destroy." Am I the only one who senses here a feeling of - it's all your fault we are in this mess God as we only did what you told us to do?! Anyway, the king continues, all these people, "reward us by coming to drive us out of your possession that you have given us to inherit". Here we have total honesty before God about the harsh reality, the mess they are in. No rose-tinted spectacles that everything is really all alright, that it is just a little local difficulty we can get over, nothing we've not faced before, no fundamental differences. There is full and frank confronting God with the situation and - to put it bluntly - his responsibility.
And then we come to the climax. Faced with such a threat we so often might be tempted simply to develop our strategies, marshal our troops, make our plans. Isn't that what kings and God's chosen leaders are there for? But instead Jehoshaphat appeals to God to act - "O our God, will you not execute judgment upon them?" Instead of entering the power play he confesses his own weakness and inability - "We are powerless against this great multitude that is coming against us". And then that final confession. A confession humiliating in the eyes of the world. Especially from a leader or an activist. "We do not know what to do".
But that is not all. In one sense we may not know what to do but in another we know what we must do - "Our eyes are on you". Our eyes are not on the present crisis. Our eyes are not on possible future plans. Our eyes are not on desired outcomes. Our eyes are on the Lord, the God of our ancestors, God in heaven.
And with their eyes turned to him the Spirit of the Lord comes upon one of God's people - Jehaziel - who brings God's word to them. A word which in one sense does not answer their ignorance. Does not give them a programme to implement. But in another tells them - tells us - all we need to know and to do. First, "Do not fear or be dismayed". That constant refrain of Scripture. One of the things I did agree with when I heard Gene Robinson speak at - or rather after! - the Changing Attitude service in London on Saturday was his reminder of the importance of this command that literally surrounds the life of Christ from the word of the angel to Mary at the annunciation to the word of the angel to the Marys at the tomb - "Do not be afraid". Not easy when we see a great multitude opposed to us. Or when we see the real danger of the Anglican Communion or Church of England falling apart. But the first word to those who do not know what to do is "Do not fear or be dismayed".
Secondly, "The battle is not yours but God's". So often our problems arise - whichever 'side' we are on - because we think the battle is ours and we must fight it. Here we have the regular Old Testament message that the battle is not ours and so we must not expend all our energies fighting it or working out how to fight it. There is a real battle - all this is not to say we can just get along and our disagreements are irrelevant - but the battle is the Lord's.
Thirdly, if we obey the Lord then we have his promise "The Lord will be with you". We shall shortly say, "The peace of the Lord be always with you...And also with you" and we will share with one another a sign of peace. In a "Church at War" to use the title of one account what exactly does that liturgical practice mean? And if we really believe we are being obedient and the Lord will be with us how does that change the way we behave towards our 'opponents', the way we combat what we believe to be sin and error in the church?
Having heard those words of the prophet, King Jehoshaphat finally offers explicit directions to God's people. Not in terms of great military or political strategy but simply a call to believe God and his Word and to praise Him. Verse 20 - 'Believe in the Lord your God…believe his prophets'. Verse 21 - 'He appointed those who were to sing to the Lord and praise him in holy splendour… "Give thanks to the Lord for his steadfast love endures forever". Trusting worship, believing praise. Declaring God's steadfast enduring love. That, when we do not know what to do, is how we demonstrate that we believe and trust in the sovereign faithfulness of God, how we overcome our fears, and how we acknowledge that the battle is His and not ours.
And the results of course are dramatic - the Lord sets an ambush (v22) so - v24 - 'When Judah came to the watchtower of the wilderness, they looked toward the multitude: they were corpses lying on the ground: no one had escaped". And if we are honest I suspect many of us have two contradictory reactions to that. On the one hand, perhaps a squeamishness and an uncertainty about God getting involved in such mass slaughter. On the other hand, a desire at times that God would indeed treat our enemies - even our Christian enemies - in a similar sort of way. Just get rid of them for us. I remember one frank discussion with someone on the other side of the gay debate who said to me at one particularly difficult point recently, "You know St Paul talks about handing people over to Satan. I wish we had a liturgy for doing that so I could do it to Reform and people like you". And, yes, to be fair, there are times in my own heart when I could happily return the compliment!
Here is where, as we close, we need to turn to our gospel reading for we must always read the Old Testament in the light of Christ. And when we do it is I fear even more challenging. Here God's word speaks to us about when we know what we want, when our will is clear and settled. And we can be like that both when we think we know what we are to do and when we really do not know. Jesus' words then are the pattern - "Not what I want but what you want".
The real danger is that in times of conflict, when we feel threatened, when we fear God's purposes are being threatened by our enemies, we will respond like Peter in the garden. We draw swords - not literally of course but still pretty brutally - and we lash out at the enemy. But our pattern has to be that of Christ - "Not what I want but what you want". And as the story unfolds of course we realise that what God wants here is not the total slaughter of the pagan enemies. It is not a great victory. Or rather it is victory but only victory through the defeat of suffering death on a cross.
As Christ had just shown them. As we will shortly remember. God's way in Christ is that of a body broken, of blood poured out. As we look around at one another today, as we look around the Church of England, as we look out to the wider Anglican Communion our gospel reading reminds us that the body of Christ has always been a mixed body, always been a broken body. Here in the garden it is made up of people who betray, who fall asleep, who deny and who flee. Even if they were confident they would not. And, in contrast to King Jehoshaphat, God does not send legions of angels. God in his inscrutable wisdom and incomprehensible power and might gives himself over in the person of his Son. Gives himself over to death on behalf of - in the place of - us betrayers, sleepers, deniers and cowards. Identifying himself totally with us in our sin and our rebellion, our conflict and violence. And in so doing he bears our sin and reconciles us to himself and to one another.
That is what it meant for Jesus at his time of crisis not to desert and flee from the painful place God put him in, but rather faithfully to pray 'Not what I want but what you want'.
We are all - wherever we stand on the great issues that divide us - called to follow Christ. That will often mean confessing with King Jehoshaphat that in times of crisis and difficulty "We do not know what to do". But it must also mean a commitment that "our eyes are on you". And 'you' is now defined for us by Jesus Christ and him crucified. Defined for us therefore by a willingness to say to God our Father with and in Christ our brother, "Not what I want but what you want".
I discovered 2 Chronicles 20 thanks to Bonhoeffer. Perhaps therefore it is right to close with some of his challenging words. Words which, as we prepare to come to the Lord's Table to be fed by Christ's broken body and shed blood, we can perhaps let God take and speak to us. Speak to us whether we know what to do or not. Speak to us whatever we want in the situations we find ourselves in. Reflecting on discipleship and the cross, Bonhoeffer wrote the words, "When Christ calls a person, he bids them come and die". Shortly after he comments on our gospel reading in these words with which I close -
"In order to overcome the suffering of the world Jesus must drink it to the dregs....Suffering must be borne in order for it to pass. Either the world must bear it and be crushed by it, or it falls on Christ and is overcome in him. That is how Christ suffers as vicarious representative for the world. Only his suffering brings salvation. But the church-community itself knows now that the world's suffering seeks a bearer. So in following Christ, this suffering falls upon it, and it bears the suffering while being borne by Christ. The community of Jesus Christ vicariously represents the world before God by following Christ under the cross. God is a God who bears. The Son of God bore our flesh. He therefore bore the cross. He bore all our sins and attained reconciliation by his bearing. That is why disciples are called to bear what is put on them" (Discipleship, 90).