A sermon by Margaret Hall
Gear that offers some sort of protection has become a familiar sight – from the helmets on cyclists and skate-boarders, to the fluorescent jackets that alert us to the presence of people delivering our mail or repairing our roads – right through to the impermeable full-body cover on people treating victims of the Ebola virus. Sadly with Ebola, it seems the full-body cover can’t always be guaranteed to work, since some people wearing it have been infected. But although one hundred percent protection from any gear would be difficult to guarantee, sometimes our bodies need protection.
And so do our inner lives – our thoughts and feelings. They’re under constant bombardment.
Is there any protection that works against soul-destroying fears and anxieties – and against the impact on us of what Hamlet called ‘the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’ – the nasty, unexpected twists life can take? If there is any protection to be had, how can we be sure we have it?
The three main items of body protection used in Bible times were the helmet, the breastplate and the shield. The larger type of shield could cover most of the body, and it was the shield that became an image of God’s protection of the person who trusts in him.
We first find that image in God’s word to Abraham, after he’d gone across to Egypt, and unwisely got himself into difficulties with the Pharaoh. Abraham’s wife Sarah was a very beautiful woman, and Abraham feared his life would be in danger if some man wanted to take her. We have to suspect Abraham of thinking more of his safety than of hers, because the idea he came up with pretty well ensured she’d be taken. He told her to say she was his sister.
She was taken from him – by the Pharaoh himself, when he got to hear of her beauty. In fact, he paid Abraham very generously for her. But then he discovered she was actually Abraham’s wife. Quite reasonably, he said to Abraham,
“Why did you say, ‘She is my sister, so that I took her for my wife?
Now then, here’s your wife. Take her, and be gone.”
You can’t help thinking Abraham got off lightly – and that tells us more about God’s ability to protect him, than it tells of Abraham’s ability to protect himself. But it seems Abraham was a slow learner in that regard. A similar thing happened years later, when King Abimelech took Sarah, having been led to believe she was Abraham’s sister. Before that, Abraham had joined Sarah in her half-baked scheme to provide him with the son God had promised him, but not at that point come up with.
Yet who of us is in a position to criticize Abraham? Have we never tried to take matters into our own hands, rather than depend on God? – thinking perhaps he may need some help if our prayers are to be answered, since he seems to be taking a while to get round to it.
The image of God as Abraham’s protector comes when God says to him, “I am your shield.”
In a country like ours where law and order generally prevail, we learn to depend on that law and order. But in a way, I’m rather thankful that we brought up our children in a place where, for perfectly understandable reasons, we couldn’t always depend on things to run in an orderly way. Not surprisingly we learned to seek God’s help and protection – to seek it urgently – praying heart-felt prayers – in times of sickness and spiritual warfare, before we set out on a journey, before we went to bed at night – in a way we don’t now. But the truth is that our lives here are also first and foremost in God’s hands, as much as they ever were there. He alone is the shield that can be guaranteed to protect from ultimate harm those who trust him.
At a very difficult time in King David’s life, he sought God’s protection from harm. Several of his psalms reflect what he was thinking as he fled from Jerusalem – driven out by his own son, Absalom, whom he loved very much. But Absalom had been waging a campaign against David, and when he believed he had the numbers, he made his move to oust his father from the throne. David justifiably feared for his life. He was also overcome with grief – over the loss of his God-given position of power and glory, and no doubt even more over his son’s treachery and the disloyalty of so many of his people.
This is how his exit from his capital city is described:
David continued up the Mount of Olives, weeping as he went; his head was covered and he was barefoot.
Psalm 3 is one of the psalms that express what he was feeling:
O Lord, how many are my foes! How many rise up against me! Many are saying of me, “God won’t deliver him.”
Then David went on:
But you are a shield around me, O Lord; you bestow glory on me and lift up my head. To the Lord I cry aloud, and he answers me from his holy hill.
No matter what was happening to David, God had not been ousted from his position of ultimate power over evil. So David continued:
I lie down and sleep; I wake again, because the Lord sustains me.
The writer of Psalm 119 picks up the same picture of God’s protection, when he says to God:
You are my hiding-place and my shield. I hope in your word.
We read in the Book of Proverbs:
Every word of God proves true. He is a shield to those who take refuge in him.
Since it’s God’s word that guarantees our protection, we’re on very sure ground – given what God the Son said about his word being eternal:
Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.
We can know what David knew, that when our world is falling apart, and the evil one’s arrows are coming thick and fast, God himself is with us, to shield us. We can echo David’s words in Psalm 18:
The Lord is my strength and my shield. In him my heart trusts.
To the Christians in Ephesus who were trusting in Jesus, Paul wrote this:
Take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one.
The tar-tipped flaming point of an arrow was extinguished, if it fell against a leather shield that had been soaked in water. The evil one hurls his flaming arrows of doubt and guilt and regret – to destroy the peace of mind that helps us act wisely. But against the shield of Jesus’ death on our behalf, the evil one hurls his flaming arrows in vain.
The story’s told of a missionary called Frederick Nolan, fleeing during a time of persecution. Exhausted, he took refuge in a cave, fully expecting his pursuers to find him there. As he waited, he watched a spider weaving its web across the mouth of the cave. Within what seemed a surprisingly short time it was done. His pursuers reached the cave, but kept on going – presumably taking the unbroken web as a sign the cave hadn’t been entered for a while. Recounting his experience, Nolan wrote, “Where God is, a spider’s web is like a wall. Where God is not, a wall is like a spider’s web.”
Such trust in the God who’s shown himself to be worth trusting is like a wall to us – or to use the Biblical image, a shield.
But how, exactly, has God shown himself to be worth trusting? Undoubtedly, through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. We have the beautifully-preserved accounts that tell us about him. Those four Gospels meet the criteria of what constitutes good history, far more than any other documents we have from that period. Two of them, Matthew and John, were written by eye-witnesses, one by Mark who worked with another eye-witness, Peter, and one by Luke, who wrote this at the beginning of his account:
Many people have tried to tell the story of what God has done among us. They wrote what we’d been told by the ones who were there in the beginning and saw what happened. So I made a careful study of everything, and then decided to write down exactly what happened.
The rest of the New Testament spells out what it all means for us – that God has provided the ultimate shield against evil’s power to destroy us, by procuring our forgiveness – our reinstatement before him – paying for it himself, so we can be sure of it.
“Forgiveness for what?” we may ask. The apostle Paul knew very well for what. He’d always been a fiercely religious man – who outwardly at least, kept all the rules of his religion. But underneath he was a seething mass of needs that led him into angry, hateful behaviour. As he wrote to his friend Titus:
We were deceived, unbelieving, enslaved to various kinds of passions and pleasures. We spent our time in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another.
Paul then went on: But when the kindness and love of God appeared, he saved us.
That is, God himself has rescued us from the state we’re naturally in, by appearing – in the person of Jesus – so that he himself could pay what our forgiveness costs. He saved us, said Paul, ‘not because of any good thing we’d done, but because of his mercy, through the washing of new birth and the renewal of the Holy Spirit, which was poured out richly upon us, through Jesus, our King and Saviour.’
A new spiritual birth that washes away our sin – the renewing of our inner lives by God’s Holy Spirit – are exactly what Jesus described to the Pharisee Nicodemus, when he wanted to know where Jesus fitted in, in God’s revelation of himself. By faith in Jesus we’re reborn spiritually, and have God’s Spirit working with us to change us, and keep us stable in times of trouble. We are equipped to face whatever life hurls at us, protected by the love we’ve found in Jesus.
Here’s a verse from a hymn that’s encouraged beleaguered Christians for almost five hundred years – A mighty fortress is our God:
Did we in our own strength confide,
Our striving would be losing,
Were not the right man on our side,
The man of God’s own choosing.
Dost ask who that may be?
Christ Jesus, it is he;
The Lord of hosts, his name,
From age to age the same,
And he must win the battle.