As the horror of Friday night unfolded in Paris, I felt a profound sorrow, a quiver under my feet as the earth shook once again under such heinous violence. I had flashbacks to 9/11 and to the terrifying moments of uncertainty that followed, moments filled with fear and vulnerability as well as defiance and resolve.
I’ve learned in moments like these that the best place I can turn is not to the TV or internet, to let the images and commentary mark my soul, but to the scriptures, to speak my fear to God and to allow God to speak both comfort and strength to me.
Because we were giving out Bibles this week in church, I have been going through children’s Bibles all week, marking some of my go-to passages to give them courage and strength in the midst of life, and a pathway forward when they don’t know where to turn. I simply want to share some of those scriptures with you this morning because they are words of comfort and strength not only for children, but for us all.
One of the places I marked is Isaiah 43. “But now, says the Lord—the one who created you, Jacob, the one who formed you, Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are mine. When you pass through the waters, Iw ill be with you; when through the rivers, they won’t sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you won’t be scorched and flam won’t burn you. I am the Lord your God, the whole one of Israel, your savior” (Isa. 43:1-3a). Written to the people of Israel held captive in Babylon, Isaiah speaks a word of promise to a people who may have felt forgotten, abandoned, vulnerable. “Thus says the Lord, the one who created you, who formed you: Do not be afraid. I have redeemed you. You are mine.” God speaks the central truth of identity that gives me courage. I belong to God. And because I belong to God, I do not need to be afraid.
Last week I spent time emphasizing the first part of the blessing I speak over you week after week: “you are a blessed, beloved, beautiful child of God in whom Christ dwells and delights.” This week, I really need to hear the second part of that blessing, that “by the power of the Holy Spirit, we live safely and securely in a kingdom that has no end.”
God never promises that we will not face trials and tribulations, floods and fires that threaten to overwhelm us, but he does promise firmly, clearly, unswervingly to go through the floods and fires with us. He did this most personally through his own beloved son Jesus, who endured the pain of a violent death intended to invoke terror so that we would learn by the power of resurrection that there is nothing in this world, no force of violence or hate that can consume us when we trust our lives to Jesus and to his way. I need this good news today.
Another scripture I marked is one of my favorite psalms, 46.
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; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult.
There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved; God will help it when the morning dawns.
The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts. The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.
Come, behold the works of the Lord; see what desolations he has brought on the earth. He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear; he burns the shields with fire.
“Be still, and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth.” The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.
Today I need to hear verse 1: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble, therefore we will not fear.” And I need to hear in vv. 4-5 that “There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God…God is in the midst of the city which shall not be moved, God will help it at the dawn of the day.” In the waters of the Seine that surround the cathedral of Notre Dame, God’s love flows. God’s love flowed in the streets through the first responders, those who disrupted further violence, and through countless acts of hospitality and care for both victims of the violence and those who were fleeing it.
I have spent a lot of time in this psalm. So much so that God has helped shape it into a prayer that I speak out of my heart. Here is the way that prayer gets reflected back in vv. 8-9:
In the wake of such odious acts as we saw in Paris my instinct is to join the fray, to pulverize someone, to seek seven-fold vengeance. But it doesn’t take long looking at the trajectory of history to see how violence begets violence in a never-ending cycle. ISIS is a manifestation of evil that foments hatred to incite violence that evokes terror. They must be resisted; they must be disarmed. But ISIS is only the latest face of the enemy. The real enemy is hate. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “darkness cannot throw out darkness, only light can do that; hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” Meanwhile President Hollande, in retaliation, has pledged to be merciless and unforgiving (his words). I know where he is coming from and the need for defiance in the face of great evil, but as I hear the words “merciless” and “unforgiving,” my heart grows cold. When will it end?
God would you speak again? Speak your word of peace that melts hard hearts. Speak your word of shalom that teaches us to trust in you, not in ourselves or in our own power. Lord, will you teach us how to resist evil without becoming what we abhor?
I wonder to myself how to do this and the Holy Spirit leads me to another of the passages I highlighted in the kids’ Bibles. Romans 12:9-13 says: “Let love be real. Resist what is evil, hold fast to what is good… Rejoice in hope, stand your ground when you’re in trouble, and devote yourselves to prayer…Contribute to the needs of the saints and welcome strangers into your home.”
One of the signs of extraordinary grace and love extended Friday night in Paris was the Open Door movement that sprang up instantly on Twitter. People would post their own home address with the hashtag “Porte Ouverte,” to signal anyone fleeing the violence that there was an open door, a safe haven, a place to find help. Was it a risk? Yes. My instinct would be to lock my doors and hide, but that is not what the Parisians did. They opened their doors in the face of violence to create places of refuge in the storm. That is love made real, love made manifest, a physical, embodied resistance to evil that gave over neither to fear nor to hate.
But then the next verse in Romans (12:14-15) reads, “Bless people who seek to harm you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep.” I can rejoice and I can weep, but blessing those who seek to harm and not cursing them, that is hard! I don’t know how to do it. And Paul concludes this chapter with: “Don’t be defeated by evil, but defeat evil with good” (Rom 12:21). In saying this he is echoing Jesus’ own words from the Sermon on the Mount, “You have heard it said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy, but I say to you love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:43-45a)
There are days with certain passages that I wish Jesus would just keep his trap shut. This is one of them. I’d like to dismiss what Jesus said because he never met an enemy like ISIS or Al-Qaeda. But then I remember he had his share of enemies like Caiaphas and Pilate, and even his own follower, Judas. He knew what he was talking about. He knew it personally. And then I see him hanging from the cross praying for his enemies and even forgiving them. It is all too much. It is not the way the world works, I think cynically to myself. Then Jesus whispers in my ear, “no, it’s not how the world works, but it is how it changes,” and I am driven to my knees.
I was supposed to talk with you about how much the church needs your money, but that message seems too small. Jesus doesn’t need your money, he needs your life, redeemed from the cynicism of the world around us, saved from the violence that ever threatens us, released from the fear, the anger, and the hate that keeps us from the fullness of life only he can give.
So I want to invite you simply to pray. Light a candle and pray for the people of Paris and Beirut, the families of those on the Russian airliner, the people of Iraq and Syria, and if you can muster it, pray for our enemies. If you cannot, would you ask Jesus to help you?
As you watch the flame flicker to life, will you consider how God may be calling you to be a light in the midst of this sin-darkened world? Will you consider how the church can be an incubator for the life that Jesus most desires for you? Will you ask the Spirit to help you become more like Christ, to live more like him, to pattern your life after his, to love more like him, to forgive like him? Will you join me in asking God to take my fear, my anger, and my hate and turn them into a love that is beyond my ability to bear? Will you pray with me for the grace to become the kind of church that illumines the darkness with the light of Christ’s love? This is not how the world works, but it is how it changes.