(a sermon for February 26, 2017, the Last Sunday after Epiphany, based on Joshua 1:6-9 and Philippians 1:27-30)
Of the many words I could use to describe the Christian life, that is, what it means for you and me to live as followers of Jesus Christ, I am becoming more and more convinced that one of the most wholly accurate descriptions comes in the word courage.
Now I know that for most of us, this is likely not the first word that comes to mind; I’m guessing it’s probably faith, or maybe hope, joy, grace, peace, and then, of course, there’s love! And these are all good words, very apt descriptions of our life in Christ; but lately I’ve been thinking that so many of these virtues we espouse as being part and parcel of our faith are made apparent and real to us first because of the courage it takes to walk in faith.
In other words, so often things like hope, joy and love are revealed in and through some expression of courage! C.S. Lewis wrote about this; he said, “Courage is not simply one of the virtues but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means at the point of highest reality.” Without courage, you see, people tend to approach a given situation with fear rather than embracing it with love and joy. Without courage, people are reluctant to make sacrifices or accept challenges; truly, sometimes the most courageous thing any of us ever do in life is to simply “go on faith,” accepting God’s presence and power for the journey ahead rather than our own. So while courage is not technically or biblically described as a spiritual gift or even a fruit of the spirit, it nonetheless takes real courage to live as a believer!
Now the dictionary defines courage as “mental or moral strength. To venture, persevere, withstand, [to] confront danger or difficulty.” Interestingly enough, if you look up the word “dare,” you’ll find that defined as “to be bold enough to challenge, to confront boldly, to have sufficient courage.” So it follows that having courage goes hand in hand with being bold and daring and strong come what may; to accept challenges, to persevere amidst struggle; and to stand up against that which is difficult or wrong, and likewise, to stand for what it is that we believe.
And if that’s all true, then it also follows that courage is pretty much the starting place for true Christian discipleship!
This actually points to one of the most common misconceptions regarding Christians and Christianity: it’s the assumption that we church people are all merely a bunch of smiley, happy, sickeningly nice people going about daily life pious to the max while blithely ignorant of the harsh realities of the world we live in! Folks, that’s wrong on about a hundred different levels: to begin with, there’s not one of us who can claim the mantle of smiley, happy and nice all the time (let’s be honest, some of us struggle about being that way at all!). Furthermore, it suggests that this fantasy of unending happiness somehow exists as a reality in this world! Now don’t get me wrong; I do believe, as the song goes, it’s a wonderful world, full to overflowing with joy and awesome wonder (and our faith in God in Jesus Christ brings that to full fruition in our lives!). But to deny that there is also darkness and evil in the world – and that sin does exist in the human heart – is, I believe, to miss the whole point of Jesus’ coming, which was to seek and save the lost, and to bring all of humanity into reconciliation with God.
To be a Christian is to understand that darkness and fear is a very real part of life; but it’s also to know beyond any doubt that we are named and claimed by this infinitely loving God whose greatest desire is that we should never have to dwell in darkness, or to live our lives of that fear. It is no accident that some 365 verses of the Bible include the words “do not fear,” and that throughout scripture, as in our reading this morning, God’s people are exhorted to “be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened or dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.”
The Lord spoke these words to Joshua as he was commissioned to become the leader of Israel after the death of Moses; a daunting task at best. After all, having spent all those years in the wilderness God’s people had become restless, rebellious and more than a little difficult; to say nothing of fearful of the dangers and still unknown struggles that awaited them on the journey ahead. Joshua was going to need strength and courage in large measure if he ever hoped to lead them into the Promised Land. And the good news here is that God promises to provide both, assuring Joshua that “no one shall be able to stand up against you all the days of your life. As I was with Moses,” says the Lord, “so I will be with you; I will not fail you or forsake you.”
It’s a powerful promise, indeed; but you’ll notice that God does not simply leave it at that. This assurance is very quickly followed by both a caveat and word of instruction: “Be strong,” says the Lord, “and very courageous. Be careful to obey all the law my servant Moses gave you; do not turn from it to the right or to the left, that you may be successful wherever you go.” One thing God makes clear here to Joshua: the hardship and difficulty of their life’s journey wasn’t going to end anytime soon… and sadly, neither will ours.
The fact is, in this life fear is always going to be somewhere near at hand, ever and always presenting reasons and temptations for holding back on the journey before us. Not every pathway is clear and well-lit, and we might as well know that moving forward. But – and this is key, friends – what we do have for the way ahead, what we always have for the way ahead, is that which gives us courage to keep going: God’s presence, God’s power and strength, and God’s word! Truly, to keep what God has to give us firmly at the forefront of our lives is to “be strong and courageous.”
Actually, it seems to me that God actually offers us two kinds of courage: the courage to be, and the courage to do. Now the courage to be is the courage to stand when all else around us seems to be flying in all directions. The Psalms are filled with evocations of this kind of courage; for instance, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea.” (46:1-2) This isn’t a denial of the existence of struggle and hardship; on the contrary, it acknowledges that life is filled with measures of both joy and pain, but it also proclaims that in faith, you and I are given the courage to stand and to endure amidst times of horrific loss and grief, and the grace of God’s strength and his comfort as we move forward.
But then there’s the courage to do (or, not to do, for that matter!); this is the stuff it takes to live out our faith despite the storms that rage around us, and to do so even when there’s risk involved. It’s to act faithfully even when we know that it’s going to place us in the minority, or when it might even cost us friendship, social status, career, or in some extreme cases, even our lives. It’s knowing the right thing to do, and then doing it; all for the sake of what it is we believe, in the process heeding the very precepts of our God and seeking, as his disciples, “to follow Christ’s way” of courageous, self-sacrificial love.
History is rife with examples of that kind “faith-filled” courage. In her book Conscience and Courage – Rescuers of Jews During the Holocaust, Eva Fogelman writes about acts of courage that not only saved the lives of Jews during the 2nd World War, but also forever transformed the lives of those doing the saving: for instance, she tells the story of a seventeen year-old Polish girl who hid thirteen Jews in a small apartment with her seven year-old sister; another story of young boy who took only half his medicine at the hospital so that his Jewish “brother” could have the other half as he lay sick in hiding; or consider the case of an entire village in France who hid and saved hundreds of Jewish children throughout the duration of the war. These were ordinary people who displayed extraordinary moral and physical courage even at the threat of their own imprisonment and death. And at time when so many had sunk to utter depths of cruelty and inhumanity, that kind of faith in the face of fear literally “saved” the world.
Amazing stories; but I would suggest to you that to see such a contrast between courage and fear, we don’t really have to look much farther than our own daily lives. It strikes me that each and every day you and I are given choices whether to speak or act out of our fear, or else to act with God-inspired courage for the sake of our faith. One choice inevitably leads to division, anger and hatred; the other creates life, peace, love and joy.
As an illustration for this today, there’s a very special song I want to share with you. This is a piece of music written by the late Bob Blue, who was a schoolteacher and a wonderful songwriter from Massachusetts; and it is a story song that is appropriately entitled, “Courage.”
A small thing once happened at school
That brought up a question for me,
And somehow it brought me to see
The price that I pay to be cool.
Diane is a girl that I know.
She’s strange, like she doesn’t belong.
I don’t mean to say that that’s wrong.
We don’t like to be with her, though.
And so, when we all made a plan
To have this big party at Sue’s,
Most kids in the school got the news,
But no one invited Diane.
The thing about Taft Junior High
Is, secrets don’t last very long.
I acted like nothing was wrong
When I saw Diane start to cry.
I know you may think that I’m cruel.
It doesn’t make me very proud.
I just went along with the crowd.
It’s sad, but you have to in school.
You can’t pick the friends you prefer.
You fit in as well as you can.
I couldn’t be friends with Diane,
‘Cause then they would treat me like her.
In one class at Taft Junior High,
We study what people have done
With gas chamber, bomber, and gun
In Auschwitz, Japan, and My Lai.
I don’t understand all I learn.
Sometimes I just sit there and cry.
The whole world stood idly by
To watch as the innocent burn.
Like robots obeying some rule.
Atrocities done by the mob.
All innocent, doing their job.
And what was it for? Was it cool?
The world was aware of this Hell,
But how many cried out in shame?
What heroes, and who was to blame?
A story that no one dared tell.
I promise to do what I can
To not let it happen again.
To care for all women and men.
I’ll start by inviting Diane.
– “Courage,” written by Bob Blue
It’s true, you know; so many of the biggest choices you and I make are wrapped up in the smallest moments and the most unexpected circumstances of our lives. How we respond to the struggles we face; how we answer to the challenges that confront us speaks volumes to those around us about who and whose we are, and about the real place that faith in God holds in our lives. Each one of us needs to have the courage to be, and to have the courage to do, friends; and this courage comes to us from God, manifest in the person of Jesus Christ.
In our reading from Philippians, we are urged be “standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel, and are in no way intimidated by [our] opponents.” To move from being intimidated to having the courage to stand firm in one spirit requires an awareness of God’s presence with us and an attentiveness to God’s Word as it applies to our own lives. So may we never let this or any day pass without letting God speak to us and have his Spirit move us; so that we might indeed be strong and courageous in all things, knowing that the LORD our God will be with us wherever we go.
Thanks be to God!
AMEN and AMEN!
c. 2017 Rev. Michael W. Lowry