Monday, July 16, 2012

The Battle of Aphek

My better half needed a break from her duties as organist at our church, and we both wanted to take a look at how other churches “do church,” so we’ve visited five other churches in the last five weeks. Assuming they were preaching the gospel, we were looking primarily at how they did music, but we also wanted to see, in no particular order, how missions minded they were, how closely the congregation reflected the ethnic diversity of their area, and what they were doing to bring about numerical growth. We were pleased with what we saw everywhere, but our favorite was—and I would never have predicted this—inside the Beltway, just outside Washington, DC, Mordor on the Potomac: Wallace Presbyterian Church of College Park, Maryland.

The music ranged from contemporary to golden (i.e., theologically meaty) oldies, the musicians were professional grade, and all major ages, body shapes, and skin colors were represented. The good news was preached, including the bad news of our transgression of the law and our resulting helplessness and hopelessness. The Bible readings took at least five minutes and included a handful of Scripture passages. We confessed our sins both as a body and individually. The service was well over an hour in length, but the time went quickly.

Special mention: I have never, in any church I have attended, heard missionaries prayed for so thoroughly. I spoke with a member of the congregation afterwards, and he seemed to think that the emphasis on missions was connected to the ethnic makeup of the church. (OK, I’m cheating here. It seems that most of the non-honkies were foreigners who had been touched by missionaries from our denomination before immigrating.)

And, so dear to my own heart, I did not see a Yankee flag anywhere in the building. Nor was there any so-called Christian flag. What I observed there would lead me to say that Jesus reigned in that fellowship unrivaled.

So a light shines in the darkness of Mordor. May God continue to bless his sheep there.

One topic addressed during the morning was the account of the battle of Aphek in 1 Samuel 4. As you know, Israel’s rejection of God as king was almost complete by then, and their national security was being threatened by the Philistines. Knowing that they were God’s chosen people, they merrily trotted out to do battle, and four thousand soldiers died as they lost. Note that four thousand is a third more people than died on 9/11 and about the same number as that of US troops who have died in the entire War on Terror. In contrast, though, while our population of three hundred million hardly notices four thousand dead soldiers, this would have been a noticeable chunk of Israel’s population, to say nothing of its army, gone in a day.

Our preacher’s point was that Israel’s next move was a clear violation of the commandment against “taking God’s name in vain”: they brought the Ark of the Covenant out to their camp in an attempt to, as he put it, conscript God to fight for them when he had apparently withdrawn his favor and thus his protection from them because of their rebellion. And, of course, the stratagem didn’t work: the next day, Israel was routed, and this time thirty thousand soldiers, the equivalent of ten 9/11s, died.

I found myself asking, what were those thirty thousand thinking when they marched off to battle? What were their parents thinking when they put those “Proud parent of an Israeli infantryman” bumper stickers on their ox carts? Was there, as the Bible seems to indicate, no Ron Paul or Quill Pig to say, “What we need here is repentance, not patriotism”? Did no Bradley Manning say, “Heaven no, we won’t go”? Did no one understand that it was literally suicide to go out that day?

Apparently Samuel had started his ministry: “The LORD continued to appear at Shiloh, and there he revealed himself to Samuel through his word. And Samuel's word came to all Israel. Now the Israelites went out to fight against the Philistines” (1 Sam 3:21–4:1). But either he never addressed the subject of war or no one was listening. His name does not appear again in Scripture until the Ark returns twenty years later (1 Sam 7). Meantime the fall into the statism that scourges us today had become complete.

Is God really on the same side as the nation of Roe v. Wade, American Idol, the jailing of Amish raw milk sellers, “enhanced interrogation,” and “collateral damage”? Or has Uncle Sam’s inability to call the shots in Korea, Vietnam, and now Iraq and Afghanistan not provided some evidence that the problems besetting our society are deeper than we’d like to think?* And that, just as Satan used Israel’s status as God’s chosen people to fool them into thinking God would rescue them despite their rebellion, he could use the glory days of the church in the US to fool even the elect into confusing the Yankee flag with the cross of Christ?

Either Jesus is Lord of all or he is not lord at all. He will not share his glory with another, not even “the greatest nation on God’s green earth.” We are to love our neighbors and do all we can to convince them that they have violated God’s law and so deserve his eternal wrath; this message is the same for al-Qaeda as for US Special Forces as for drug dealers as for policemen as for entrepreneurs as for little old ladies in retirement homes. And, of course, the offer of the water of life is the same for all. God will call whom he will, but our job is to be winsome so that he can win some through us.

I would rather preach to al-Qaeda than US Republicans, but that’s not where God has placed me, and frankly, my failure to be winsome has been spectacular. But after yesterday’s time at Wallace, I feel less alone than I have in a long time.

*This assumes the conventional narrative, that the military could have won. If, as I maintain, prolonging wars is more profitable, and hence more important, to the politically connected than winning them, then paying for, let alone fighting in, such wars is the paragon of biblical folly.