The general or the prophet
On Friday morning Maisy awoke to discover that her water bottle from her bedside table had tipped and spilled all over a school library book, soaking the cover and causing the pages to ripple. In terror, she realized she would have to confess this to Ms. Storms, the dreaded school librarian. All morning long she anguished, tried to find ways out of it, tried to reason her way past the fear, but it clung fiercely.
Just before it was time to leave for school, when she was still very upset, I went to the basement to retrieve my snow pants, because, naturally, I would need them walking to school on November 13 when the windchill hit -3 degrees. I noticed, while I was there, an extra pair of snowpants that Owen had outgrown the year before.
When I reached the top of the stairs Maisy mentioned, out of the blue, that her friend Wyatt had been missing recess because he didn’t have any snowpants.
“Maisy!” I said “I just saw that we have an extra pair that is probably just his size!”
Her face lit up and she said, “Oh Mom! Let’s bring them!”
So I went back and grabbled the snowpants, and she found a bag to put them in and mused over how excited Wyatt would be to get them.
After a minute or two, she looked at me, a bit shocked, and said, “Mom! I don’t feel scared right now!” And we marveled at how, when she moved momentarily from worry to generosity, from fretting to sharing, her fear lifted and she felt alive.
It didn’t take all the fear away, but I watched her walk to school, her eyes alight, as she deliberately chose to focus on Wyatt and the snowpants instead of Ms. Storms and the library book. They were both waiting for her when she arrived at school. She was going to have to face both of them.
But somehow, when the moment came to speak to Ms. Storms, instead of the tentative, terrified and teary girl she had thought she would be, she was calm, and nervous but clear-voiced, as she took my hand and walked steadily to the librarian’s desk, and faced down her fear, knowing that she was more than a book-wrecker; she was a snowpants sharer too.
Last week we talked about living between two different scripts. That these two scripts are all around us, and are certainly all throughout the whole biblical narrative.
In the Dominant Script, we said,
The powerful matter, the weak do not. Having more makes you better, your worth is earned, others are nothing more than a competition for resources or an obstacle in your way, they should be used to further yourself, or eliminated.
Life begins in self-sufficiency, and you’d better not screw up. You will be judged, ranked and dismissed if you make mistakes or are no longer productive. There is not enough to go around so take what you can get before someone else does. God is keeping score, we should be too. That’s the first script.
The other one, the Kingdom of God Script, we said, says that it all begins in gift, and abundance. You are made by God for connection and communion. You are loved just as you are. You are not meant to be perfect, (there’s no such thing); you are meant to be you. On this journey of life that begins in gift and ends in connection and communion, the people journeying alongside you are neighbor, friend, brother and sister, not threats, rivals or competitors. You need each other to be whole, and what we have is for sharing. Life doesn’t make sense alone and isolated and against; you are created for relationship with God and with each other, and there is no such thing as one without the other.
One is the script of fear. Today we'll call that the voice of the general.
The other is the script of hope. That one is the voice of the prophet.
One shapes life around the avoidance of pain and the pursuit of personal gain. The other shapes life around “everyone having what they need” justice, “standing with you” kindness, and “attentive and open” walking humbly with God. (Micah 6:8)
And daily, we are given many, many chances to choose which way we will live, and which message we will believe. On Friday, my daughter faced that choice head on.
Today we come to a story in our journey with the people of God where things are looking pretty grim. They are faced with another chance to pick a script, to choose which way they will live and which message they will believe. Will they listen to the voice of the general of the voice of the prophet?
Great Big terrifying army is right at the doorstep, and it has wiped out everything in its path- literally decimating cities and killing every inhabitant. Assyria is a force to be reckoned with. And little Jerusalem seems not to be able to stand a chance. And now Great Big is taunting, loudly and publicly, the general is roaring, logically and convincingly, inviting all who hear to shift allegiance to the powerful side, because we all know how this is going to go down. And the idea that somehow “god” will save them is ludicrous! No other “gods” have done any saving of any other people is army has wiped out on their way here. Call it what you will, Great Big blusters, but when it comes down to it the power is ours, and we will destroy you either way.
But then little tiny is reminded that there is a different narrative. And it’s not just that they will be somehow, miraculously saved from obliteration. It’s that, even more than simply avoiding destruction, God has a purpose for them. A really lovely, hopeful purpose, beyond what either side can see in the moment. The voice of the prophet says God wants little tiny to bless the whole world. To take the very weapons of violence and make them into tools of life-giving community and sustenance for all.
And even though logic and might is on the side of great big, and even though it looks like little tiny will certainly be crushed, still, little tiny is invited to live defiantly into a different view of the future. They are invited to move from worry to generosity, from fretting to sharing. They are called to trust that God will sustain them, and even more, that God will use them to bring life and hope to the world.
This is a strange text, perhaps, for stewardship Sunday, but I love that it has fallen in our laps today. Because, perhaps it’s actually perfect for stewardship Sunday, when it asks us, Which voice will you listen to? Which script will you live in?
You get this one life. How will you live it?
We get this shot at being this community of followers of Jesus Christ together.
How will we live it?
If it’s all gift, given by the generosity and grace of God, inviting us to join Jesus in sharing life with each other in love and hope – how will we play the hand we’ve been dealt?
How will we spend the years, the days and hours, the resources and relationships that we have?
What will they be for?
For many months, your ruling elders have been committed to sitting in the questions of discernment, to seeking and listening and not rushing and not being driven by anxiety or pressure or worry or fear. And this month Session made a very deliberate choice yet again, to live in trust instead of fear. To be guided by purpose instead of worry. To recognize that the ministry of this community is God’s and not ours.
But, this only works if God is real and is leading us; it doesn’t work if “God” is just a belief or an idea made of platitudes and doctrine. Because if God isn’t real, if we say that God is real, but in our hearts God is just an idea, and the Christian life is just about trying to do good things or be good people, then we should probably listen to the voice of the general, that says, You’re tiny, Can you even afford a pastor? You’ve been spending down your endowment forever – at the rate you’ve gone you only have a couple of years left! The fact that you’re still here is just luck. There is no future for you. Why don’t you just give up? You’re going down eventually anyway. The Church (capital C) is going down; just look at all the evidence of your irrelevance! You’ve been beaten, little tiny, it’s time to face the facts!
But the voice of the prophet, gently asserts that God says to us:
You are mine. I have a purpose for you. You are not just to exist or survive; you are a beacon of hope and a place of sanctuary! You are given to each other and those around you to share each other’s burdens and joys, and to seek God together. I will provide for you, I always have and I always will.
I am the God of Abraham – remember him? And Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Rebekah, Joseph, and murdering, stuttering Moses. Remember the Egyptian army and the red sea and ‘Be still and God will fight for you’? Remember David? And Solomon? Remember how I’ve said again and again that I don’t want great sacrifice and perfect purity and impressive tributes of glory, but simple justice and loving kindness and attentive humility that seeks me?
Which voice will we trust?
The general? The powerful voice of might and logic?
Or the prophet - who says God uses the weak and the broken, calls the unexpected and the unimpressive, works through the less-than-perfect instead of the have it all togethers – (whoever they may be)?
Friends, we have not got it all together.
We are sometimes a little disorderly, and often noisy, and from time to time we drop the ball. And we are small, with a lot of old people and a lot of kids, and the people in between are stretched thin, so we don’t look like a convincing, get-it-done kind of crew. Let’s just say a gambling person may not bet on us. The general certainly wouldn’t advise it, anyway.
But we are faithful and loyal and attentive, and hopeful, and we have got decades of standing-with-you-ness under our belts—we know how to share each other’s suffering like nobody’s business. And we aren’t afraid of doubt or differences, and we are joyful, and creative and full of life, and we long for life and joy in the communities and people around us. We are seeking and we are hungry and we are broken and blessed. And when we trust God we keep on finding ourselves blessing others and receiving blessing unforeseen.
If this life is about competition and power, and it requires self-sufficiency and the pursuit of perfection, then what we do here is more than irrelevant; it’s ridiculous. It’s absurd to invest any time or money or belief or hope into such vulnerable people and such a homemade little operation; there are far stronger more impressive things you could be involved in. You should listen to the general.
But if this life is about relationship with God and each other, and it requires trust and dependence on God and a little bit of honesty and bravery, then perhaps the very worst position to be in is strong and self-sufficient. Maybe very farthest we can get from grace is when we believe we have got it all together, or when we’re obsessed with the awareness that we haven’t.
Fear is so powerful. It will define life as a battle and make you want to hoard and hide and hunker.
But love is more powerful. And when reality breaks in, when the Kingdom of God punctures through our layers of fear and self-protection, we see each other and ourselves as we are: beloved children of God. Not just book-wreckers but snowpants-sharers too. Those called to live in defiant resistance to the message of fear, in the joyful generosity and extravagant hope of our calling. Those not too proud to be something God can work with.
So the story goes, King Hezekiah, on getting another taunting threat letter from King Sennacherib, now calmed by the voice of the prophet, is able to go into the sanctuary himself and approach God, and he prays,
God, you alone are God, you made all things. See what this King of Assyria is saying about you and is threatening to do to us? He’s right, he did destroy all the gods of the other people they’ve conquered, but those “gods” were just made of wood and stone, and were not real. You are real. And you are God. And we are your people. Please save us.
And God does. The scripture reads that the entire Assyrian army is “struck down in their sleep by an angel of God”, and King Sennacherib, who headed home after receiving a message, is killed in his own town, worshiping in the house of his god, by his own sons.
And archeologists and historians can’t explain why Jerusalem was not destroyed in the Assyrian rampage that swept through the land, but for some reason Jerusalem survived. And the people chose to live by the voice of the prophet instead of the general, they were guided by hope instead of fear, and they remembered that they belonged to God, and God had called them to a join in a world-healing purpose beyond themselves and their own survival.
And in the end, it turned out that Wyatt’s snowpants had come in the mail the day before, so Maisy donated the extra ones to the classroom for the next time someone needed them.
And along with a lecture about mold’s alarming capacity to destroy libraries and the proper care of books, Ms. Storms showed Maisy great empathy. “I bet you felt really bad, didn’t you?” she asked her. Maisy nodded, her eyes brimming up. “Well,” said Ms. Storms, “I know that you are a conscientious girl, and that you love books too. Thank you for telling me what happened. Now I can take care of this book and maybe even save it.”
And Maisy walked away whispering to me, “Mommy, that went way different than I thought it would!” And she hugged me and bounced off to class.
And I stood there in the elementary school library flooded with gratitude to God for meeting us in these tiny, ordinary encounters that show us what is really real – in the moment that generosity reminded my girl that we are all connected, pulling her from the isolation of fear into the possibility of blessing, in the moment Ms. Storms became a fellow human beings alongside her in this problem instead of a symbol of judgment and condemnation, in the chance to hold my daughter’s hand through something hard and watch her be honest and brave, and in the gentle and exquisite reminder that indeed, God is with us in all of life, and it is all gift.
I know which voice I want to listen to.