Top of Page ILLUMINATING AND THINKING ABOUT THE SERMON
If you are planning a visit to Colorado, be sure not to wear aluminum underwear. The state government there passed a law a few years ago making it a crime to have on underpants made out of that metal. The reason for that piece of legislation, government officials said, was to enable stores to crack down on shoplifters.
In case you don’t readily make the connection between merchandise theft and the kind of underwear a person has on, here is the problem those lawmakers were trying to address: Many stores over the years have installed sensors at their exits that are able to detect if you are taking something home that you have not paid for. Shoplifters, however, have discovered that if something is wrapped in aluminum, the sensors aren’t able to pick it up. Therefore, some shoplifters have begun wearing aluminum underwear and hiding their stolen goods in their pants to get the items out of the store.
Aluminum underwear, I believe, really symbolizes the problem we face in our world. In this case, we know that theft is a problem. So, stores installed those detectors at their doorways to solve that problem. But in response, thieves came up with aluminum underwear so that they could go right on stealing. The bottom line is that when people are determined to do something evil, nothing we come up with is ultimately and permanently going to stop them. Our attempts to stem the tide of evil might slow them down. It might make things more difficult for them. But one way or another, if someone is determined to do evil, they’re going to find a way to carry it out.
That unfortunately is the situation in our world today. Although we might not want to admit it, there is nothing in our power that we can do to ensure that the kind of evil that the United States experienced on September 11, 2001—or the kind of evil that has been perpetrated in numerous other devastating ways across the years—can be completely prevented and eliminated as a threat.
The customary American response when evil manifests itself in some way is to yell, “Send in the troops!” But where exactly do you send the troops to combat evil? Sure, it’s possible to round up some dictators and terrorist ring leaders. The United States military accomplished that by capturing Saddam Hussein in Iraq and some Al Qaida officials in Afghanistan. And as of the writing of this essay, American troops in fact Seal Team Six found Osama bin Laden and killed him. He was later buried at sea. But when that happened did evil suddenly stop?
On a gut level, I believe that is what many people hopee. Yet in holding to that hope, we fail to recognize who our true enemy is. Our ultimate enemy is not Saddam Hussein, Al Qaida, or even Osama bin Laden. Our true archenemy is evil. After all, we need to remember that Osama bin Laden is not the first evil person to have ever walked the face of the earth. In the past century alone, we’ve come to associate evil with such names as Adolf Hitler, Charles Manson, Theodore Kaczynski (the Unabomber), and Timothy McVeigh. And over the decades, we have eliminated all of those people from society. Has their elimination stopped evil in the world?
For a long time, many psychiatrists attempted to explain evil behavior by pointing to the fact that people had bad childhoods or that they were exposed to too much violence when they grew up. The basic thinking has been that if those people had received counseling and therapy early on, it would have been in our power to have done something to change them. But now some psychiatrists are coming to admit that there are cases where the problem is not a bad childhood or overexposure to violence. Rather some psychiatrists are coming to realize that some cases can only be explained by the presence of evil. And evil is not something that we can make go away. By ourselves we do not have the power to get rid of evil.
Well, if we don’t have the ability to vanquish evil, what are we supposed to do? If capturing and executing evil people doesn’t solve the problem, what will? The answer, I believe, is found here in this passage from 1 Timothy. We might not want to hear what Paul is saying to Timothy, but he’s saying that as Christians, we need to pray for everyone. Not just for our friends, not just for our neighbors, not just for our family members, but for everyone. And the goal of those prayers, the lectionary passage says, is so that all people may be saved. Are you prepared to pray for Osama bin Laden? Are you ready to pray that God might change him in such a way that even they might some day be saved? What it says in 1 Timothy is essentially no different from what Jesus says elsewhere in the Gospels. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus declares, “Do not return evil with evil, but overcome evil with good. Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” It’s like a woman who went up to Karl Barth one day and asked him, “Will we see our loved ones in heaven?” The theologian turned to her and replied, “Not only our loved ones.” He was trying to convey the point that heaven is not just for the people that we love—our friends, our families, people who have been nice to us. No, God’s concern, God’s mercy, is much bigger than that.
Are you ready to expand the circle of people that you’re willing to pray for? Sure, you can keep right on praying for your friends and your family. But remember also to pray for our leaders. Pray for them whether you voted for them or not. Pray for them whether you like them or not. And remember to pray for the whole world. Pray not just for our allies but pray also for our enemies. Pray even for enemies like Osama bin Laden, that he and others like him might be changed, that they might even be saved. Pray, because in the battle against evil, prayer is the only weapon that will enable us to prevent evil.
8:4–6. The central chapters of the book speak for the most part of justice in the gate, abuses taking place within the court system; but this passage returns to the world of commerce, of which Amos also spoke in 2:6–8. He uses the same terms for people who are oppressed, “poor” (ענוים ʿănāwîm; דלים dallîm) and “needy” (אביון ʾebyôn), and he begins the accusation with the same verb, “trample” (שׁאף šāʾap). The focus is very explicit in this passage: on cheating in the sale of grain, by measuring it out in containers smaller than they were supposed to be, using heavier weights to calculate the payment due, tampering with the balances used for weighing, and mixing chaff with the product sold. The theme of holy days, said to be of no use to those who pervert justice in 5:21, is taken up in a new way in the saying Amos attributes to these sellers (v. 5a). They hypocritically observe the rest days, new moon and sabbath, restive all the while because those days put limits on their greed. Little is known about the observance of the new moon day (cf. Num 10:10; 28:11–15; Isa 1:13–14; Ezek 46:3; Hos 2:11). It marked the beginning of the month and evidently was a rest day, but the OT says little about it. This passage is one of the earliest references to the observance of the sabbath as a day of rest.
Amos’s emphasis on the grain trade seems to be interrupted by v. 6a, which speaks of buying the poor, in terms comparable to the reference to selling the poor in 2:6b. The passage has frequently been considered a later addition for that reason, but Kessler has suggested that the people being accused here were neither grain merchants as such nor slave traders, but were the wealthy who made loans of grain to the poor, cheating as they did so in order to make it all the more certain that the poor would be unable to repay the loans and would have to become debt-slaves (cf. Exod 21:2; 22:24; Lev 25:39–42). He suggests that their sandals may have been taken as pledges for the debt. It is unclear how the poor could have been expected to repay a loan of grain with silver—ordinarily repayment must have been in kind—but the proposal is worth considering. (Gowan, D. E. The Book of Amos. In L. E. Keck (Ed.), New Interpreter’s Bible [1994–2004, Nashville] V7, p 416-7)
In between 4–6 the scene is followed by a recital (v.4) of the crimes of those whose disobedience to the Lord was responsible for the carnage. The words of v.4 are reminiscent of 5:11. The merchants could not wait for the end of the holy days so that they could increase their wealth by giving short measure and raising prices (v.5). They even sold the sweepings to increase the weight (v.6)! Yet these exploiters were careful to observe the Sabbath. Though the marketplace was deserted on the holy days, in the bustle of commerce their god was quite in evidence. Their god was Mammon; their true religious credo; gain at any cost. (McComiskey, T. E. Amos. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Daniel and the Minor Prophets [1986, Grand Rapids, MI] V 7, p 325)
The opening “hear” of verse 4 recalls the material in Amos that precedes the vision reports and that also documents the people’s injustice. Furthermore, the content of verse 4 recalls the very first indictment of Israel in 2:6–7, the culmination of a series of oracles against the nations. Just as other nations have set themselves over against God and will experience the results of their own injustice, so will Israel. God shows no partiality, except to “the needy” and “the poor”.
It was the special responsibility of the king to protect and deliver the poor and needy from oppression, but the third vision report and its expansion have already indicted King Jeroboam. Kings were also supposed to be models of obedience to God, including refraining from excessive wealth; however, while King Jeroboam may have been leading the way, he was apparently leading people in the wrong direction. Instead of being protected and delivered, the poor and needy are being trampled and exterminated, which is the sense of the Hebrew word the NRSV translates “bring to ruin” (v. 4).
Verses 5–6 suggest that King Jeroboam and Israel’s domestic policy consists not of justice and righteousness but rather of greed and deceit. Merchants cannot wait until religious observances are over so they can go back to making more money. And apparently it was “good business” then, just as it is now, to get away with as much as possible. Then and now, the bottom line is making money, not caring for people. The God of the prophets has been replaced by the god of profit.
In her incisive assessment of contemporary North American culture, Mary Pipher concludes: “Our most organized religion is capitalism.… capitalism favors what’s called the survival of the fittest, but really, it’s survival of the greediest, most driven and most ruthless. We have cared more about selling things to our neighbors than we’ve cared for our neighbors. The deck is stacked all wrong and ultimately we will all lose” (The Shelter of Each Other: Rebuilding Our Families [New York: Putnam, 1996], p. 94). Much the same could be said of the Israelite society that Amos addressed. King Jeroboam and the privileged cared more about selling things to people than about people. When this happens, everyone stands to lose.
How Israel will lose is portrayed in 8:7–10. The seriousness of Israel’s sin of idolatry and injustice is indicated by the divine oath that begins verse 7. Ordinarily God swears by God’s own self or name, as in 6:8, which also mentions “the pride of Jacob.” But their God “abhor[s] the pride of Jacob,” so it is unusual in 8:7 that God swears “by the pride of Jacob.” Perhaps the phrase is used to name God, but if so it does so rather obliquely. Elsewhere “the pride of Jacob” describes Israel’s land, which is a gift that results from God’s sovereignty over all peoples and nations (see Ps. 47:4; Nah. 2:2). So, God may be swearing by God’s own sovereignty (see Jorg Jeremias, The Book of Amos [Atlanta: Westminster/John Knox, 1998], pp. 148–49). The divine oath would have an ironic ring in view of Amos 6:8. God’s gift of the land, bespeaking God’s sovereign claim, is being abused by a self-centered, greedy people. A legitimate “pride” has become deadly arrogance, and the people can only stand to lose. (McCann, J. C. The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis For Sunday’s Texts [2001, Grand Rapids, MI] V1,p481–3)
How do you deal with evil? In fiction you kill off the bad guy. Even in television the same solution applies. But how about in real life? How do we get rid of evil? The answer for Christians is just as clear cut but does not have the drama demanded for in movies and books. The only way to conquer evil is not with evil but with good. The only way to conquer evil is with prayer. The only way to remove evil is to ask God. Prayer is the ultimate weapon against evil. A quiet weapon on bended knee.
Top of Page ILLUSTRATING THE SERMON
On May 2, 2011, U.S. Special Forces raided an al-Qaeda compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, and killed the world’s most wanted terrorist: Osama bin Laden. The entire operation, which lasted only 40 minutes from start to finish, was the culmination of years of calculated planning and training.
Ultimately, bin Laden was found and killed within nine minutes, and SEAL Team Six was credited with carrying out a nearly flawless mission.
Almost 10 years after 9/11, here's what led to the death of Osama bin Laden.
Intelligence linked a courier to a large compound in Pakistan.
Around 2007, U.S. intelligence officials discovered the name of one of bin Laden’s closest couriers, whom they speculated may have been involved in supporting or harboring the terrorist.
By late 2010, analysts were able to link the courier to a large, highly-secured compound in Abbottabad, a town about 35 miles north of Islamabad.
The compound’s unusual and extensive security features, along with further intelligence information, prompted suspicion that the residence was Osama bin Laden’s hideout.
On April 29, 2011, President Barack Obama authorized a small special operations team, known as SEAL Team Six, to carry out a raid on the compound. The team began intense training for the operation, which included practicing in a life-sized replica of the compound.
The actual mission, dubbed Operation Neptune Spear, officially started in the early-morning hours of May 2, Pakistan time (afternoon of May 1, Eastern Daylight Time).
May 1 (EDT)
1:25 p.m. – President Obama, along with other top officials, formally approve the execution of Operation Neptune Spear.
1:51 p.m. – Stealth Black Hawk helicopters take off from Afghanistan, carrying a group of 25 Navy SEALs.
3:30 p.m. – The choppers land on the compound in Abbottabad. One helicopter crashes, but there are no injuries. The mission continues, uninterrupted.
3:39 p.m. – Osama bin Laden is located on the third floor of the compound and is shot in the head, above the left eye.
Sometime during the operation, three other men (including one of bin Laden’s sons) and a woman in the compound are also killed.
3:53 p.m. – President Obama receives preliminary word that bin Laden is identified and dead.
3:55 p.m. – SEAL team members move bin Laden’s body to the first floor of the compound and place it in a body bag.
3:39 p.m.-4:10 p.m. – The team locates and retrieves multiple items from the compound for intelligence investigation.
4:05 p.m. – The first helicopter exits the compound.
4:08 p.m. – The team destroys the chopper that crashed.
4:10 p.m. – A backup helicopter scoops up remaining team members and leaves the area.
5:53 p.m. – The choppers with SEAL team members return to Afghanistan.
7:01 p.m. – President Obama receives further intelligence information that the body killed in the raid is likely that of bin Laden.
11:35 p.m. – President Obama addresses the nation about the raid.
12:59 a.m. – Osama bin Laden’s body is buried at sea within 24 hours to comply with Islamic law.
In addition to killing the man who was considered the mastermind behind the 9/11 terrorist attacks, U.S. forces snagged valuable items from the compound during the raid.
Ten computer hard drives, five computers and more than 100 storage devices were retrieved. Osama bin Laden’s personal journal was also recovered.
These materials provided much-needed intelligence about bin Laden’s role within al-Qaeda and the organization’s inner-workings.
The death of bin Laden had global implications.
The assassination of Osama bin Laden was a significant victory for the U.S. government and the American people at large. For many families of 9/11 victims, bin Laden’s death symbolized justice and retribution.
The terrorist leader was not only a major player within al-Qaeda but also a figurehead that attracted supporters and recruits from around the world.
International reactions to bin Laden’s death ranged from favorable to mixed. Some Arab countries and leaders condemned the actions of the United States.
Still, SEAL Team Six’s bold raid to take down bin Laden was an extraordinary operation that most experts regard as a resounding success. (https://www.history.com/news/osama-bin-laden-death-seal-team-six)
Has anyone ever hurt your feelings? Maybe you found out somebody lied to you or you didn’t get the raise at work that you deserved, or maybe you were rejected or physically abused. Well, one of the most important things we need to learn is how to trust God and walk by faith when people don’t treat us the way they should. Our natural response is to get angry when we’re mistreated and feeling angry is not wrong. But God’s Word reminds us that we shouldn’t return evil for evil or anger for anger.
What Good Does Anger Do?
Have you ever noticed that being angry never makes anything better? I know because I used to have a quick temper. In fact, I was angry more than I wasn’t. Sometimes, I voiced my aggression, and sometimes it was just seething on the inside of me. The problem is, if we have unresolved anger, we either explode or we implode; we either blow up at somebody, or we fall apart on the inside. And a lot of times we take it out on a person who has nothing to do with what we’re angry about. It’s just a miserable way to live.
But getting upset is not the way God wants us to fight our battles. Instead, when somebody hurts us, we can choose to trust God with our pain or injustice and overcome anger with good. Romans 12:17-21 says, Repay no one evil for evil, but take thought for what is honest and proper and noble [aiming to be above reproach] in the sight of everyone. If possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave the way open for [God’s] wrath; for it is written, Vengeance is Mine, I will repay (requite), says the Lord. But if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head. Do not let yourself be overcome by evil, but overcome (master) evil with good.
What God is saying in those verses is there’s a right and wrong way to respond to injustice. We can get angry and get back at the person who hurt us, or we can fight the way God fights, trusting Him to be our Vindicator while we bless our enemies and do good (Psalm 37:1-3). It’s certainly not easy to love our enemies and bless the people who have hurt us (Luke 6:27). In fact, this is probably one of the most difficult scriptures in the Word of God to follow.
I was sexually abused by my father for close to 15 years so I understand how painful and impossible it might seem to believe you could actually love your enemies. I’m not trying to make light of that. But there is true freedom in doing the right thing. And we can choose to do what’s right no matter how we feel. We have to stop being afraid of hard things and press in and trust God, because the truth is He will give us the strength and grace to do anything we need to do.
Prayer Brings Peace
It’s so much harder to live with anger than it is to live with God’s peace, love and joy. And we have to take responsibility for our behavior. One of the best things we can do is learn how to pray for the people we’re mad at. The first thing to do when somebody mistreats you is praying, "God, this hurts and I’m angry about it, but I know my anger won’t solve the problem or change the person. So I trust You. I’m going to stay sweet and keep being nice. I’m going to keep doing good because that’s what You put me here for. And as I trust You and go about blessing others, I’m going to watch You vindicate me and do what needs to be done in this situation." That is the way to fight and win your battles!
Make a decision today that you’re going to refuse to live angry. Ask God to help you take control of your feelings. And if you do act out in anger, confess it, and God will forgive you. There will be a lot of battles in life, but God has an amazing plan for you! As you put your focus on Him as your Vindicator, it becomes easier and easier to conquer angry feelings and walk in peace. And you will be a blessing as you overcome evil with good! (https://joycemeyer.org/everydayanswers/ea-teachings/overcoming-evil-with-good)
In Victor Hugo’s classic masterpiece, Les Misérables, he tells the story of a man named Jean Valjean, who was imprisoned for 19 years because he stole a loaf of bread. Once he is released, it is only an illusory freedom. He cannot find anywhere to work or stay because he is an ex-convict. He finally finds a compassionate bishop who takes him in, but he repays the man’s kindness by stealing his silverware and slipping away in the night.
The police arrest Valjean and bring him back to the bishop to be charged, but in a stunning display of mercy, the bishop tells the guards that the silverware was a gift and demands that they release him. He challenges Valjean to take the silver and use it to become an honest man—a moment that powerfully transforms his life. I encourage you to watch the clip below.
It is easy for us to forget just how redemptive mercy can be. It is also easy for us to forget that none of us were actually worthy of mercy. The bishop had no way of knowing that Valjean would actually keep his promise and become a better man. In the same way, Jesus had no guarantee that we would all receive His sacrifice on the cross, but He did it anyway, making our redemption possible.
Sometimes, I believe that is all God asks of us—to clear a path to make redemption a possibility for someone else. Whether they are actually changed or not is between them and God; our part is to never stop offering His goodness to our broken world.
So how do we begin overcoming evil with good? It is not as complicated as we might think. I encourage you to start in simple ways, with things you are hopefully already doing, but begin seeing them in a new light. Things become routine to us, and we lose sight of everything God can actually do through our steady faithfulness. We want to ask Him to enlarge our perspective and give us new strategies for being more effective right where He has placed us.
“For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does.” - 2 Corinthians 10:4
This morning, I sat down to check emails and caught sight of a news alert about young girls being horribly mistreated by ISIS as they continue their violent quest across Iraq. This is an evil I cannot even fully wrap my mind around, and I wonder how long it will run rampant. I felt powerless to do anything beyond whisper a prayer for those girls, which is actually the most powerful thing I can do on their behalf right now, even as others are called to the front lines to actively engage the fight for their freedom.
Of course, you might expect an article from Generals International to mention prayer, but this is not because it is our trite, easy response. Instead, it’s our legacy—story after story, miracle after miracle, breakthrough after breakthrough achieved because of the power of prayer. God acts when His people pray.
Prayer helps us align our hearts with His. It enables us to move from a position of fear or discouragement to a position of eternal perspective. It is in the conversations we have with God that we come to understand what He wants us to do and how He wants us to engage. Not every battle will be yours to personally take on, but through prayer, the Holy Spirit will show you what goodness He wants to release through you.
“Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people.” - Ephesians 6:7
In a world where people are driven to seek their own position and power, serving others is a radical demonstration of good. Jesus set this example, coming to serve, rather than be served (see Matt. 20:28).
Many years ago, I had a boss who was very difficult to work for; more than one employee was driven to tears at different times. I’ve always been someone who strives to work with excellence no matter what, but I’ll admit, I was struggling to give my best to my work because the environment was so unpleasant. The Lord reminded me to serve this boss as if I was serving Him.
I would like to tell you a miracle happened, that my boss noticed my efforts and had a heart change, but that didn’t happen. The job was miserable to the very last day. But others noticed—fellow employees and customers—and more than once, I had the opportunity to share my faith and my values. Eventually, there were people who would come to me for prayer or advice when they were struggling.
Is there a difficult person in your life? Ask the Lord how you can serve them. I can’t promise the situation will change, but your heart will. And there will be someone who needs to see the demonstration of grace and humility you offer.
On a bigger scale, there are many justice issues in our world, like education inequality and poverty, that could go a long way to being solved by people willing to serve others. Perhaps there is a need in your community that you could meet. Perhaps there is someone you could serve, and it would open the path to redemption for them.
“Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers a multitude of sins.” - 1 Peter 4:8
Love is not a feeling; it is an action. If you say you love someone, but do not practically demonstrate that love, it is shallow. If we want to overcome evil in our communities, cities, and nation, our best approach is to find ways to tangibly express the love of Jesus with action. I believe we often find a culture resistant to spiritual truth because they have heard us ranting at them, but they have not experienced us loving them.
Over and over again throughout the gospels, we are told that Jesus saw people and was moved with compassion. I find myself very challenged by this. When I see people, what am I moved by? Cynicism? Stereotypes? Judgement? If I want my heart to be like God’s, then I need to invite His definition and idea of love to transform me.
Jesus knew we were going to feel overwhelmed by the brokenness around us, which is why He reminded us that He has already overcome the world (see John 16:33). But until He returns, we get to represent His kingdom and His ways here on earth. Every time you confront evil with good, you extend the substance of everything God is into the world around you. I would encourage you to ask the Holy Spirit for His perspective and His strategy. He’ll show you the unique abilities for good that He’s given you, and you will partner with Him in new ways to overcome the enemy. (https://www.generals.org/articles/single/overcoming-evil-with-good/)
Instead of unleashing our anger against those who have wronged us, prayer is a more fruitful outlet for our frustrations. The BBC (3/24/04) reported that a 37-year-old man became enraged when a passing car splashed mud on him. Since that car quickly disappeared and he wasn’t able to vent his anger against that motorist, the mud-splattered man proceeded to slash the tires on 548 other cars before finally being arrested.
Prayer is our opportunity to help move the cause of God’s peace forward. The BBC (2/19/04) told about a man in India who has been driving backwards for the last two years in order to bring about world peace. A couple of years ago he drove some school students home in his cab. After he let them out, though, he discovered that his gears had become frozen, and he was only able to drive his vehicle in reverse. That gave him the idea of promoting a “reverse philosophy,” which is the idea that things would be so much better if only they would go back to the way they used to be. In particular, the cab driver, Harpreet Devi, wishes that relations between India and Pakistan could revert to the way they formerly were. Originally the two nations were peaceful neighbors. But in more recent times they have become enemies, pointing nuclear warheads at each other. The taxi driver says that he has successfully avoided being in any major accidents while driving backwards, but he admits that his neck is often sore from looking out the cab’s back window all the time.
Much of the time we tend to pray for ourselves and for those whom we consider to be on “our side.” But we need to realize that our “enemies” are just as much children of God as we are. In The Powers That Be: Theology For A New Millennium, Walter Wink observes that theologian Michael Novak, during an interview on National Public Radio, had said that we should thank God that so few had died during the fighting in the Persian Gulf War. Apparently, Wink concludes, Novak must have been referring to the approximately 150 Americans who were killed during the military operation. That statement, though, obviously ignores the fact that during that war somewhere around 100,000 Iraqis were killed.
We live in a world where prayer is desperately needed to combat evil—not only abroad but here at home as well. Reuters (4/19/04) reported that a Florida teenager was charged with hiring an undercover police officer to shoot and kill his mother. But the teen had specifically instructed the hitman to not damage the family’s television set during the attack. The 17-year-old boy had offered the undercover officer $2,000 to commit the murder.
Praying for peace can certainly bring about some startling results. Following the Korean War, a demilitarized zone
was established between North and South Korea. According to the Los Angeles Times (3/9/04), that 150-mile-long, 2 ½-mile wide strip of land, once the scene of bloody conflict, has now become a virtual paradise. In particular, rare species of animals have started to flourish in that zone. Naturalists have spotted red-crown and white-naped cranes, along with kestrels, geese, and black vultures. Mammals in the DMZ include Chinese roe deer, wild pigs, and black bears. Some observers even claim that endangered Siberian tigers have been spotted there. There are now plans in South Korea to begin offering eco-tourism trips to give people the opportunity to witness the marvels that have taken place in that land of peace.
In The Jesus I Never Knew, Philip Yancey notes that when he was leading a class for a church group in Chicago, as they read the Gospels and as they watched movies about Jesus’ life, they noticed a pattern they had not been conscious of before: the more unsavory the characters, the more at ease they seemed to be around Jesus. For instance, Jesus appeared to instantly strike up relationships with Samaritans, tax collectors, prostitutes, and demon-possessed people. At the same time, however, Jesus often had stormy relationships with the more respectable people. Pious Pharisees and rich young rulers walked away from Jesus shaking their heads. Those stories encourage us to hope and pray that even the most vile evildoers in our world today might eventually come to a point of repentance and renewal.
All people are worthy of our prayers and our respect. In Credo, William Sloane Coffin says that one of his favorite stories is about a beggar in sixteenth-century Paris who, when critically ill, was taken to the operating table of a group of doctors. When the doctors saw that he was a pauper, they spoke to one another in Latin, assuming that he would not be able to understand them. The doctors said, “Faciamus experimentum in anima vile” (Let us experiment on this vile fellow). The beggar was actually an impoverished student, who would later become the noted poet, Marc Antoine Muret. When he heard the doctors words he replied in Latin, “Animam vilem appellas pro qua Christus non dedignatus mori est?” (Will you call vile one for whom Christ did not disdain to die?)
A recent study of women cancer survivors’ documents how building inner strength may help aging women with cancer improve their quality of life and the outcomes of their health. As more than one survivor of cancer notes, “My faith in God helps me hold life together. I would feel lost, afraid, and wandering about without it. I know that I am in God’s hands, and that helps me feel secure. He gives me strength.” Prayer, regular participation in a religious community and active devotional reading improve the quality of life and aid in strengthening the immune system as it battles whatever disease seeks to return. Indeed, as much as we might have trouble admitting it, Bin Laden’s survival may indeed be, at least in part, one of the by-products of his intense spiritual disciplines. (Journal of Cultural Diversity, April, 2004)
When we pray, we often want to see results to our petitions right away. According to Tampa Bay’s Channel 9 News (4/17/04), a patient at the Helen Ellis Hospital in Tarpon Springs didn’t feel that he was receiving quick enough attention to his requests. A few days into the man’s stay at the medical facility, his IV malfunctioned, causing his right arm to swell. Several times he rang for a nurse to come, but no one appeared. Eventually, when his arm had developed a swelling the size of two golf balls and had begun to bleed, he took his bedpan and threw it into the hallway. Even that did not draw any reaction from the staff. Finally he picked up the phone next to his bed and dialed 911. The emergency dispatcher proceeded to call the hospital to inform them about the problem, and a few minutes later a nurse appeared in the man’s room to attend to him.
One of our frustrations with people who do evil things is that sometimes they don’t seem to face any consequences for their actions. For instance, one of the most notorious “bad girls” from the world of sports is Tonya Harding, who was implicated in an attack upon rival skater Nancy Kerrigan. In The Cheating Culture: Why More Americans Are Doing Wrong to Get Ahead, David Callahan reports that as punishment for her role in the crime, Harding was ordered to pay $160,000 in fines and perform 500 hours of community service. While the amount might sound substantial at first, it was a relative pittance when you consider the fact that she was paid $600,000 to tell her story on Inside Edition. In addition to making all that money, Harding even found that she was admired for her misdeeds. Both People and Esquire placed her on their list of favorite celebrities for 1995, and one survey reported that she was ranked among the 20 most admired athletes. More recently Tonya Harding has continued to enjoy notoriety, being paid $50,000 by Fox Television to box Paula Jones, being featured on Entertainment Tonight, getting an acting role on an HBO show, appearing on the TV game show The Weakest Link, being interviewed twice by Larry King on CNN, and even signing to write her autobiography. It makes you wonder: if taking part in evil can lead to all that, does it pay to do good?
A reading such as the one in 1 Timothy, where we are invited to pray for those in positions of authority, is an opportunity to explore the connection between spiritual and temporal power. For centuries in England, there has been no distinction between those two realms. According to British law, the monarch is both the head of state and the head of the Church of England. But according to a report on Ananova.com (4/25/04), many Members of Parliament are in favor of ending that link. A recent survey found that 57% of the MPs support disestablishment. Although the queen’s position as head of the Church of England is largely ceremonial, she retains the power, exercised through the Prime Minister, to appoint bishops. Although the majority of MPs think disestablishment is a good idea, only 37% think it will happen in the next ten years.
We are invited to pray for those in positions of authority, trusting that even if certain rulers won’t listen to the voice of the people, perhaps they will listen to the voice of God. In order to cut off any public discussion about his divorce from Catherine of Aragon, King Henry VIII issued the Act of Treason, which made it a capital offense to speak or write any words that were harmful to the king or his family. Furthermore, subjects were prohibited from calling the king a heretic, tyrant, or usurper. According to David Starkey in Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII, the king did not hesitate to use his newly declared power. His first victims included some of his most outspoken critics: monks of the Carthusian Order, Bishop Fisher of Rochester, and Sir Thomas More. In May of 1535, four Carthusian monks were dragged from the Tower of London through the streets of the city to the place of execution. One at a time, as the others were forced to watch, each one was hanged, but cut down while still alive and conscious. They were then castrated, disemboweled, and then, after their entrails were burned in front of them, they were quartered and beheaded. Henry VIII used that strategy to silence any opposition to the pathway that he wanted to pursue.
Governments throughout our world need our prayers. While many Latin American countries have replaced military dictatorships with democracy, many citizens doubt that democracy can bring an end to the persistent poverty and inequality that plague that region. The Orlando Sentinel (4/22/04) cited a recent United Nations report that revealed that more than 54% of Latin Americans say they would support an authoritarian regime over a democratic government if the authoritarianism could solve their economic problems. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan responded to the news by commenting, “That is very sad. More important, it is wrong.” Since 2000, presidents elected in Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru have been forced to leave office before their terms expired because of loss of popular support, primarily due to economic issues.
The call to pray for our leaders provides an opportunity to reflect on the relationship between God and country. Earlier this year the United States Supreme Court heard a request to rule that “one nation under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance is unconstitutional. Listening to the arguments that both sides in the case offered is rather revealing. The New York Times (3/27/04) observed that critics of the phrase contend that it is a deeply religious statement that suggests that God is the Lord who rules over the nation and to whom the nation is ultimately accountable. Therefore, the critics say, the phrase must be removed from the Pledge because it amounts to government establishment of religion, a violation of the First Amendment. In contrast, supporters of the phrase base their argument on the contention that the phrase “one nation under God” is an innocuous, pious platitude. Essentially, they say, all the phrase means is that long ago, when the nation was first being founded, there were people back then who believed in God, and those beliefs influenced the way they shaped the new country. The government’s Solicitor General, Theodore B. Olson, made that exact point in the brief that he filed with the Supreme Court: “What it really means is, I pledge allegiance to one nation, founded by individuals whose belief in God gave rise to the governmental institutions and political order they adopted, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” The entire debate forces people to consider whether invoking God’s name has deep religious significance or whether it has simply become a kind of harmless “window dressing” that we add to our political institutions.
There are times when we hesitate to pray, as we wonder if our voice will have any real impact. An 11-year-old in Seattle discovered that one small voice that is lifted up can make a difference. According to the Associated Press (5/24/04), Ella Gunderson of Redmond, Washington, wrote a letter to the Nordstrom’s department store complaining that all of the clothes that were available for girls her age were low-riding jeans that expose your belly button and underwear. The child said that she wanted to be able to buy some clothes that didn’t make her feel half-naked. The store manager responded to her letter and agreed that they should offer a better variety of styles, including clothes that are more modest. As a result of that girl’s speaking up, the Seattle clothing store chain is altering the way it goes about deciding what kinds of clothes they stock.
We need to pray for our leaders so that they can be mindful of the ways that God wants them to go. Absent our prayers, many are tempted to reject God’s will. For instance, that happened in Nazi Germany. In a speech he made in 1938, Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels outright rejected Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 25. Goebbels declared, “We do not subscribe to the view that one should feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, or clothe the naked....Our objectives are entirely different: we must have a healthy people in order to prevail in the world.”
In the charming Israeli film James’ Journey to Jerusalem James, a naïve young South African man, learns the danger of trying to serve God and Mammon, and even at one point bears a slight resemblance to the dishonest steward in the parable. James, the son of a Christian pastor in a small village is sent by his congregation on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. However, as soon as he steps off the plane in Tel Aviv a rude Israeli immigration officer arrests the visitor on the suspicion that his real purpose in coming to Israel is to join the lucrative but illegal immigrant labor force that is replacing the Palestinians. He is released in the custody of an Israeli named Shimi and forced by the latter to serve as a domestic worker or else be shipped home right away—after working off what he owes the man for his release. The illegal labor contractor does pay James for his work, although his commission is more than the laborer’s salary. James soon has made friends among the others working for Shimi, and also among the housewives whose homes he cleans and gardens he tends. Shimi’s lonely father Salah takes a liking to the young man, telling him not to be a “frayer,” slang for a victim or pushover, that his son is making more from James’ labors than he is. Soon James is taking on independent jobs and hiring his fellow laborers to do the actual work. He becomes so caught up in making money that he forgets the original purpose of his voyage—to visit the holy places of Jerusalem. His trips to the mall with a friend reveal a vast world of clothes and electronic gadgets that money opens up to him. European style clothes soon replace his dashki. Fortunately, to make a long story short, something happens that brings James to his senses, a la Luke 15:17, helping him to reclaim the soul almost lost, and to fulfill at last his purpose, though not at all in the way that he had expected.
“You never so touch the ocean of God’s love as when you forgive and love your enemies.” (Corrie ten Boom)
“We should conduct ourselves toward our enemy as if he were one day to be our friend.” (John Henry Newman)
“Do not pray for easy lives. Pray to be stronger men. Do not pray for tasks equal to your powers. Pray for powers equal to your tasks. Then the doing of your work shall be no miracle, but you shall be the miracle.” (Phillips Brooks)
“God judged it better to bring good out of evil than to suffer no evil to exist.” (Augustine)
“It is tempting to deny the existence of evil since denying it obviates the need to fight it.” (Alexis Carrel)
“Prayer is that mightiest of all weapons that created natures can wield.” (Martin Luther)
“Pray as if everything depended upon God and work as if everything depended upon man.” (Francis Cardinal Spellman)
“One single grateful thought raised to heaven is the most perfect prayer.” (G. E. Lessing)
“Prayer indeed is good, but while calling on the gods a man should himself lend a hand.” (Hippocrates)
Top of Page prayers (WorshipAid)
O God, you alone are our Lord and Master, and to you alone we pledge our hearts, minds and souls. Accept today our words and acts of praise, that we might be renewed and equipped to serve you whole-heartedly in this place and wherever we go throughout this week. Amen
Sovereign God, despite your Son’s warning about serving two masters, we confess that often we have tried to do so. We do want to serve you, when it is convenient and not too difficult, but our hearts often long for the gods of material wealth and comfort, popularity and power and security. We know deep down that only in serving you will we find true security and satisfaction, that there is a hole in our lives that nothing other than your Son can fill. Save us from ourselves, for we are too weak and distracted to withstand temptation. Renew us by your Spirit, for we ask this in Christ’s name. Amen.
May these gifts, O Lord, be a symbol of our dedication to you, and to you alone. We ask this in the name of our one Master, even the Lord Jesus, who gave his life for us. Amen.
Loving God, how many times must we be called back from our own desires? We thank you for your seemingly endless patience with us and for the continual example of your Son whom, though he was tempted, did not fall, but ever clung to you and your way of the cross. We thank you also that we have a spiritual family, the church, filled with companions who can help us, if we but put aside our smiling masks of self-containment and admit that we need each other. By your Spirit shape us and our values, that we might be worthy companions, able and willing to reach out to others in their need, even as during dark times they take our hands and reassure us that you are close at hand to strengthen us. Do not let us despair of the crimes we see and hear about on our daily newscasts, or of the millions who are hungry, threatened by AIDS, or made homeless by war and natural disasters. May such reports continue to disturb us so that we will do something about the victims, rather than change the channel and sink back into lives of comfort and ease. May our faith both disturb and comfort us, that we might become more fruitful disciples. Be with those who are in need—the poor and despairing; the lonely and the ill; the hated and those who hate; the rich and contented. May you continue to work for justice, peace and relief through doctors and diplomats, aid workers and missionaries—and through ourselves wherever you would send us this week. All this, and more, we ask in the name of your compassionate Son. Amen.