A sermon delivered Randy Hyde, at Racial Unity Service, St. Mark Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ark., March 7, 2010.
2 Kings 6:8-23
Read the newspaper and watch the news. Keep a wary eye on what is going on in the world, and you can’t help but come up with a conclusion. It appears the “other side” is winning. When the issues of the world are divided between the “we’s” and the “they’s,” it looks like the “they’s” have it.
Many of you remember when the “we’s” and the “they’s” were the whites and the blacks, or the blacks and the whites. You remember all too painfully the days when segregation seemed to be winning and we all thought that 2010 would look like 1960. That was brought home starkly to my wife Janet and me just a few days ago when we visited the Civil Rights Museum and the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham.
Well, we came to our senses… at least for the most part, and while things aren’t as they ought to be, they’re sure better than they once were.
I’m reminded of a prayer that goes something like this:
Lord, I ain’t what I want to be,
Lord, I ain’t what I need to be.
But thank you, Lord, I ain’t what I used to be.
I thank God the world in which you and I live today isn’t how it used to be, with segregation and dogs and water hoses, with marches and angry taunts and folks being denied access to places where anybody oughta be able to go. We have indeed come a long way. But, friends, we still have a long way to go… to see others, especially different others, with the ancient, redeeming, patient eyes of God. We still have some adjustments to make in the lenses through which we view one another, and the best way – actually, the only way – to do that is to face our enemy with the faith and courage that comes only from God’s Spirit.
Who is this enemy? Well, I’ll tell you who it isn’t. Our enemy doesn’t wear pants, speak English, and have different color skin from us, regardless of what color we are. But then again, our enemy doesn’t wear a turban and speak Arabic either. No, our real enemy is unseen and is far craftier than we often realize. The enemy, the other side, comes dressed in the garb of distrust and violence, suspicion and anger, profiling, fear and despair. Sometimes the other side comes clothed in what we think at the time is common sense and a simple desire to protect who we are and what we have worked so hard to accumulate. But deeper reflection makes us realize that is not so. Our enemy, the other side, is powerful because it has the ability to overcome the best in us and cause us to settle for less. It hardens our hearts to such an extent that we cannot see the truth of God when it stands before us.
In the movie Ragtime, based on the E. L. Doctorow novel set in the early part of the 20th century, Coalhouse Walker is a criminal who has taken over the Whitney Museum in New York City. In an effort to get him to give himself up, the police ask Booker T. Washington to go inside the museum and plead for Walker to give himself over to them. The famous orator makes an eloquent plea to the criminal, but Walker finally responds by saying, “You speak with the voice of an angel, Mr. Washington. It’s too bad we live on earth.”
Because we do live on earth we need to dispel any notion that the solutions to that which ails us are easy or simplistic. Our journey together is at best not an easy one. But I do believe, as I think you do, that God is on our side, for our God is a God of unity and not division. Our God is One who loves and does not hate. Our God is one who created us and had reason to make us different from one another… different, that is, on the outside. But our blood, yours and mine, runs red just like everybody else’s, and the last time I looked, I stood in need of repentance and forgiveness just like you do. Down deep, our souls are just the same. We have far, far more in common than that which divides us.
And that is why we are here tonight… because we cannot let the other side win, even though at times it does appear that this is the case. But appearances can be deceiving, especially when God is involved. Just ask Elisha’s servant.
Here’s the story…
The king of Aram, for one reason or another, had it in for the nation of Israel. But every time he tried a raid on his enemy, it seemed that the Israelites knew his every move, in advance. He was stymied from all attempts to “annex” Israel as a part of his kingdom.
So he called in his advisors. There is one person, they tell the king, who is responsible for his lack of military success. No, it isn’t the king of Israel. No, it isn’t one of his generals, nor does it have anything to do with military intelligence, as might be expected. Believe it or not, the person who is keeping the Aramean king from success is a man named Elisha, the prophet of Israel’s God. You want to know how good Elisha is at this sort of thing? I’ll tell you how good he is. He is so good he is able to tell the king of Israel what is going on in the enemy king’s bedchamber!
Whoa! That’s good, that’s really, really, good!
There’s only one thing the Aramean king can do in response, and that is to take care of Elisha, take care of Elisha as soon as possible and take care of him good. Shouldn’t be too hard. After all, what can one man do against the military forces of Aram? Get rid of the pesky prophet and the king’s troubles would be over. So, he immediately dispatches his army to Dothan where Elisha is staying.
The next morning, Elisha’s servant goes outside in his bathrobe and slippers to fetch the morning newspaper. As he bends over to pick it up, he takes a peek at his surroundings. It is then that he freezes… not because it’s cold but because he is scared out of his mind. The mountains of Dothan are filled with – absolutely covered by – the Aramean army! As far as his eye could see there was the glint of the morning sun’s reflection off the enemy’s sword. He rushes back in to his master to tell him the terrible news. “Alas, my master!” he cries. “What shall we do? What shall we do?”
Elisha, revealing his great and calm faith and trust in God, replies by saying, “Fear not, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” Please, please remember those words. Hang your hat on them (if you’ve got a hat), underline them, mark them in red, make them a central part of your walk with God. “Fear not, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.”
And then the prophet does a remarkable thing. Instead of asking God to bring down fire and destruction on the enemy (Isn’t that what you and I would have done?), he gets down on his knees and prays… prays for what, prays for whom? He prays for… get this now… he prays for his servant! “Oh Lord, please open his eyes that he may see.”
“See?! What do you mean ‘see’?! Look for yourself, Elisha. Go ahead, go outside and look. From the east to the west, there they are, lined up and ready to do battle! Against us! What do you mean that the Lord needs to open my eyes so I can ‘see’?!”
And no sooner had these words – or something like them, I suppose, come out of the servants’ mouth– than Elisha pushes his servant back out the door. “Look again,” the prophet says to his frightened attendant, “look again.” And what does the servant see? Behind the Aramean army, encamped in the mountains surrounding Dothan, he sees the fiery chariots and the thundering horses of the army of God!
“Fear not,” Elisha then tells his servant, “for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.”
Do you believe that? Do you really? When you go about your day and every evidence you see would lead you to believe that the other side is winning, do you believe as Elisha said that “those who are with us are more than those who are with them”? Do you really? I think you do. I believe you do. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be here tonight.
The times have changed, oh yes. When you look around you, you don’t have to look far to see the enemy. The bad news is often more prevalent than the good. There appears to be more unfaith than there is faith, more distrust than trust, more violence than peace, more despair than hope. It seems that every morning, when we go out to get the newspaper and we look to the hills, the other side has us surrounded.
But look again. Look again, and see the army of God. “Fear not, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.”
Do you believe that? Do you believe there are unseen spiritual powers at our disposal if we would only have the eyes of faith with which to see?
That’s what Jesus spent the better part of three years trying to get through the thick skulls of his disciples. Come to think of it, he’s spent the last two thousand trying to do the same with people like you and me who have chosen to identify with him. The kingdom of God, an unseen kingdom of power and grace, surrounds us like the armies of God. And too often, with the whole hosts of heaven at our disposal, we give in to the forces of the world that can be so easily seen because it is human nature – it is easier, is it not? – to bow down and worship the obvious.
My friend, the late John Claypool, tells of his involvement in the civil rights campaign in Louisville, Kentucky. Or, as he put it, the campaign against “our cultural sickness.” It was 1960 and he was in despair. Nothing he and his colleagues were doing seemed to do any good. The only thing they were reaping was anger and suspicion. He shared his frustration with his friend, the local Jewish rabbi whose family had been through the Holocaust in Eastern Europe.
“I think it is hopeless,” John said to him. “This problem is so old, so deep… there is simply no way out of it.”
The rabbi took John into his office. This is how John recalls it… “I still remember how unhurriedly he lit his pipe and disappeared for a moment in a cloud of smoke. As the smoke began to dissipate, he said, ‘I need to tell you something, young man. To the Jew, there is only one unforgivable sin, and that is the sin of despair. Humanly speaking, despair is presumptuous. It is saying something about the future that we have no right to say because we have not been there yet and do not know enough… If God can create the things that are from the things that are not, and even make dead things come back to life, who are we to set limits on what that kind of potency (God) may yet do?’”1
The community in which you and I live, the stores where we shop, the streets we drive, the churches to which we give our lives, reveal to us the obvious. But they don’t tell the real story, the final, eternal story. Too often they only reveal to us the enemy, the other side. If we are going to change our community – the stores and streets and churches – we have to give ourselves fully to what cannot be seen. What cannot be seen is that other community that Jesus called “the kingdom,” a place that dwells in our hearts. Until we give ourselves first to this kingdom, our community won’t change.
Elisha has a message for us, and it is still as relevant today as when he whispered it forcefully in the ear of his servant in Dothan. “Fear not, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.”
The Bible reveals that death, darkness, and despair are not the last reality. Instead, as John Claypool used to say, “they are only the next to last.” Some people look to the mountains and what do they see? They see the enemy, encamped and ready to do battle with the forces of good. God has called you and me, not just to this service tonight but to this community and to this time in history to see that we have at our disposal the armies of God.
“Fear not, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.”
One of my all-time favorite stories is that of the cynical English army colonel who was billeted in a French village during World War I. Nothing delighted the agnostic army officer more than provoking the old village priest. Every time he had the opportunity, the colonel would let the priest know that he did not believe, that the only true reality was what he could see, and that the priest was wasting his time when it came to dealing with spiritual things.
One Sunday morning, the colonel was passing the church just as the congregation was leaving worship. Only a handful of people had been present.
“Not very many at Mass this morning, Father,” said the colonel with a wry smile on his face. “Not very many!”
“Oh no, my son, you are wrong,” replied the priest, “quite wrong. Why, there were thousands and thousands and tens of thousands!”
My friends, it appears the other side is winning. I will grant you that. But please understand, if you will, that things are not what they appear to be. Why? Because God never has catered much to appearances, that’s why.
“Fear not, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.”
Do you believe that? Do you really? If you do, then let’s do something about it. Shall we?
Lord, we feel like we’re outnumbered. The more faithful we try to be, the more we attempt to step out in faith, the more bad news there is to engulf us. Help us to see, Father, that you are in control even when the obvious evidence is to the contrary. As Elisha prayed for his servant, open our eyes so we might see your mighty army in our midst. In the powerful name of Jesus our Lord we offer this prayer, Amen.