HEBREW BIBLE LESSON: Isaiah 43:1-7
GOSPEL LESSON Mark 1:4-11
SERMON: “In the Line of Fire”
I saw the movie Lincoln yesterday. I can see why it got some 12 Oscar nominations. Most of us grow up learning that George Washington and Abraham Lincoln were the two best presidents this country ever had. It’s a pretty high standard for anyone to try to match. But I gained new respect for our 16th president as the film showed the challenges he faced to end the American Civil War, preserve the Union and end the institution of slavery. Of course the movie ending is no surprise to anyone who has studied the smallest amount of U.S. history. Although he was beloved by many, Lincoln also had his enemies and was assassinated just a few months into his second term. If you haven’t seen it yet – hurry! It’s worth seeing on the big screen.
There are preachers who will tell you that if you will just turn your life over to God, all will be well, your problems will be solved and some will even tell you that you’ll become more prosperous than you ever imagined. It would be nice if that were true. It would be so much easier to get people to follow the Lord if we could promise that all their problems would disappear. The trouble with what is called “prosperity preaching” is that it just isn’t true. Good people and bad people face challenges in life, sometimes challenges that seem overwhelming.
But this is what the Lord says— . . .“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine. 2 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you
Clint Eastwood has always been one of my favorite actors, and “In the Line of Fire” is possibly the best movie he made in the 90’s. I chose that movie title for my message today, because we all feel from time to time that we are in the line of fire. In the movie Eastwood plays an aging Secret Service agent who is haunted by his failure to protect President Kennedy from being assassinated, and who is now serving on the team protecting the current president. A clever psychopath taunts him with messages and clues, and we’re off on a thriller, anxious to see if Eastwood’s character will be able to redeem himself.
Secret Service Agents certainly are “in the line of fire,” charged with serving as bodyguards for high government officials. Lots of other careers and vocations also place a person at risk. Last year the Labor Department reported that more than 4,600 people lost their lives on the job. Most dangerous jobs include (descending order, rated by % of workers with fatal work injuries):
taxi drivers and chauffeurs
Electric power line installers and repairers
Drivers/sales workers and truck drivers
Farmers, ranchers and other agricultural workers
Structural iron and steelworkers
Trash and recyclable collectors
Aircraft pilots and flight engineers
Logging workers –
#1 Commercial fishers and fishing related workers
Lots of people put their lives on the line every day in their jobs. I was surprised that police and firefighters didn’t make the list. If you’re curious about injury rates just google ‘most dangerous jobs.’
Bob Kaylor, Senior writer for Homiletics writes about another dangerous job, but fortunately one not too many people are engaged in: tightrope walkers. I am so glad I wasn’t born into the
Wallenda family! Three steps up a ladder is plenty for me.
To travel from the United States to Canada, most people take a road. Some cross a bridge. Nik Wallenda walked a tightrope. Over Niagara Falls.
Last June, the 33-year-old daredevil walked a cable dripping with spray from the falls as 100,000 people watched his stunt from the ground. The crossing was broadcast by ABC on live television, so millions more were able to listen to the prayers he said into a microphone as he made his way across. I wouldn’t even want to watch that -- I cannot fathom what it would be like to walk on a tightrope stretched over Niagara Falls. And yet I chuckle each time I am reminded that the number one phobia isn’t heights – it’s public speaking.
“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you,” says God through the prophet Isaiah, “and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you.” (Isaiah 43:2) Wallenda didn’t exactly pass through the Falls; he walked above them, praying constantly. Obviously if he had gone through the waters the force of the Falls would have knocked him off the tightrope. Still, even above the Falls -- a very scary feat.
I’m pretty sure none of us here are tightrope walkers. If any of you are Secret Service agents, that remains a secret – at least from me. I don’t see any former presidents here today. Not too many of you are engaged in any of those top ten hazardous jobs, but we all have our scary moments, times when life requires us to go through “dangerous waters.”
All of us face times when obstacles seem insurmountable. Passing physics class; getting dumped by the person with whom you anticipated spending the rest of your life; surviving cancer or some other life-threatening illness; raising teenagers; being fired, changing careers; experiencing the death of a spouse – or a child. The list goes on. When these things happen we wonder how we are ever going to get through it.
Some people don’t; they turn and walk, if not run away. Drop the class; avoid getting emotionally involved in a relationship; ignore the warning signs of illness and stay away from the doctor; or just settle down into denial.
But now, this is what the Lord says— he who created you, Jacob, he who formed you, Israel:
“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine.
2 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire,( you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze.
You don’t have to be a Secret Service agent, a wartime president or a tightrope walker to face really scary stuff in life. Everyone does. Sometimes we bring those scary times upon ourselves through unwise choices we make. Sometimes seemingly overwhelming troubles come our way because of the choices of others. And sometimes frightening stuff just happens. Even the Lord Jesus Christ, after his baptism by John in the Jordan faced trials and
temptations in the wilderness.
"Does God protect us?" is the question Scott Bader-Saye asked in a Christian Century article (July 10, 2007). Bader-Saye tells the story of a friend named Steve, who was dying of cancer. Steve received a well-intentioned but hurtful letter from a woman who suggested that, if he just had more faith, God might yet heal him. "Far from providing comfort," Bader-Saye writes, "the letter struck Steve like a hot iron of judgment." With the help of his twin brother -- for he was by then too weak to take pen in hand himself -- Steve drafted a reply that read, in part:
I share your faith in the almighty power of God to heal and sustain us. There may be times, though, when God's greatest miracle is not the miracle of physical healing, but the miracle of giving us strength in the face of suffering ....
As I read the Bible, God's promise is to remove all our suffering in the next life, though not necessarily in this one. In this world, we will sometimes weep, suffer and die. But in the New Jerusalem, "God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain, for the former things are passed away" Revelation 2:14).
I sincerely hope that if my cancer continues to grow, no one will see it as a failure of my faith in God, but that perhaps people can see me as faithful even if I die while I am still young. I do not claim to understand God's will, but I do know that I am in God's hands, whether in life or in death.
This message through the prophet Isaiah to the Hebrews in exile
suggests a proclamation of the gospel to us in exile today.
Although our exile is not geographical or, generally, physical, for many it is spiritual and it is relational. Sometimes we feel very alone in our life journey, especially when trouble strikes.
The Table spread before us, as we recall and re-tell what God did on the cross, reminds us that we are not alone.
A short story illustrates why God chose to come to us in Jesus of Nazareth:
A man was taking a walk through a pasture. He came upon an anthill and amused himself by watching the ants as they busily scurried in and out. Then he happened to move into a position which cast his shadow over the anthill. Immediately all activity ceased. The ants disappeared into their home. When he stepped back so that his shadow was not over the anthill, the ants resumed their activities.
Intrigued by the ants' reaction to shadow and light, he proceeded to conduct a little experiment. He repeated his movements and noticed that each time his shadow crossed the anthill, all activity stopped. Evidently they were afraid of the sudden darkness. He wondered how he could prove to the ants that he meant them no harm. He decided finally that the only way he could do this successfully would be to become an ant himself. Then he could communicate with the ants; he could convince them that he wanted to be their friend.
The spiritual and relational exile that we find around and within us so much today could be compared to a darkness - in which we fear harm or, worse, meaninglessness. God cut through that darkness in his Son - by becoming human and communicating with us. He went further than the man in the story, though; He died to give us a relationship which would be meaningful and which would eradicate our alienation and loneliness.
As, in a few moments, we come to the Table, let us be reminded today that Christ is alive! God's promise not to abandon those whom he chooses, suggests that in the night of our own exile, when we are in the line of fire, we can be confident that God will bring daylight again!
After Jesus’ 40 days with the wild animals in the wilderness, being tempted by Satan, the angels came and attended to him.
If you are in the shadows today, know that God will bring the light again. Whenever challenges seem overwhelming, hear the Lord’s words:
“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine. 2 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned;
Thanks be to God, and let all God’s people say: Amen