I’ve noted before that I’m not a big fan of holiday sermons. Perhaps it’s the rebellious part of my nature that takes umbrage at the command implicit in expectations for an appropriately-themed talk.
Or maybe it’s because it’s because attending those services is often like watching the same TV episode too close to the first time I saw it—often great portions of the sermons are what we hear every year when that given holiday comes around. For example, I’ve noted before how I find it interesting how Mother’s Day sermons always talk about how great moms are and…and Father’s Day sermons are always about how dads should be more responsible. 🙂
However, as I was thinking about what to speak about this week, I didn’t experience my normal aversion to the idea of a holiday-themed talk when the notion of doing a Memorial Day sermon popped into my mind. Additionally, I immediately knew which Scripture I wanted to use as a jumping-off point…
[ These are quick sermon notes…not cleaned-up…and missing the “extras” that come out in the audio (which is available here). All quotes are from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted. ]
“Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what shall we do?'”
So, let’s jump to that jumping-off point…
John the Baptist is in the middle of a fire-and-brimstone pronouncement…and the listeners are naturally concerned. We join him and them in Luke 3:10-14:
10 And the crowds asked him, “What then shall we do?” 11 And he answered them, “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.” 12 Tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” 13 And he said to them, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do.” 14 Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.”
Within John’s words are three pieces of advice:
- To everyone: Share your abundance with those who are lacking.
- To the IRS: Don’t take more than you are supposed to.
- To soldiers: Don’t user your power to steal and be satisfied with what you have.
That’s unquestionably great advice, but some might think that John’s guidance was incomplete. For instance, his words did not incorporate Jesus’ apparent call to non-violence that can be seen in a couple examples…
For instance, during the Sermon on the Mount our Lord gave some instruction which would seem to conflict, say, with hunting down Osama bin Laden and then celebrating his demise:
38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40 And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41 And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42 Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5:38-48).
Based on those words, it would appear John the Baptist’s answer to those servicemen should have instead been, “Do not fight your enemy, put down your arms and love them.”
And that’s not the only place that Jesus’ words could be used as an argument for national pacifism. At the time Jesus could most use “military action”…when He was being arrested in Gethsemane Peter decided to be a bodyguard…
And behold, one of those who were with Jesus stretched out his hand and drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his ear. 52 Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword. 53 Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? (Matthew 26:51-53)
Although Jesus’ main point was likely that since it was His time it made no sense to try to defend Him, it is impossible to not consider the implications of “for all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (more famously known by the saying, “Those who live by the sword will die by the sword”).
Based on that, John the Baptist would have told the GIs, “If you continue to live by the sword, you will die by the sword…give up the sword if you want to live.”
Individual Versus Corporate
It would be very easy at this point to join the Jehovah Witnesses and refuse military service. It is hard to see how giving Osoma bin Laden a “double tap” would fit turning the other cheek or loving our enemies.
But biblical interpretation we need to make sure we keep a couple of things in mind:
- What is the context?
- What is God trying to communicate here?
First…with context…in none of the scriptures I’ve shared so far was inspiration giving corporate advice (that is, He wasn’t giving guidance for nations)…it’s all individual to individual (not nation to nation or individual to enemy nation). Additionally, none of it was specific to a military context other than possibly what John the Baptist said…and that is notable for it’s lack of anything to encourage pacifism.
Which leads us to interpretation point #2…in each set of verses God had a different point than the question of military service. Now, that doesn’t mean the quotes couldn’t have applications when it comes the question of whether Christians should serve in the military, but it would be theological malpractice to pretend God was trying to lay out a United Nations charter. Individual people were being given individual advise about behavior with other individuals.
A God of War
Now…even though we know that war is a result of sin…and that after Jesus’ Second Coming war will be done away with…
The reality is that you’d have to ignore a great portion of the Old Testament to think that God never considers picking up the sword appropriate. Additionally, a nations divine calling to bear the sword didn’t go away after we entered the “church age.” For instance, let’s consider Paul’s words in Romans 13:1-3:
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval…
In this case the Holy Spirit is definitely speaking corporately when it talks of “governing authorities”…
And although the context isn’t nation battling nation…it would be impossible “governing authorities” to be a terror if they were going to turn the other cheek to those who resist them.
It would seem, then, that short of the Bible telling Christian not to become a soldier or a policeman, that it would be okay for a Christian to serve “governing authorities” in carrying out what “God has appointed” even when it is carrying out judgment for bad behavior.
For instance, a SEAL team double-tapping a man responsible for, on 9/11 alone, about 3,000 deaths.
When I thought of the military and the Bible…first to mind came John response to the soldiers…then came this…
It’s not the only case where we can learn about faith from a soldier (for instance, I often think of Joshua…early Israel’s greatest military leader…and his “But as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD” faith in Joshua 24:15). However, this is my favorite story involving a soldier in the Bible:
5 When he entered Capernaum, a centurion came forward to him, appealing to him, 6 “Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, suffering terribly.” 7 And he said to him, “I will come and heal him.” 8 But the centurion replied, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word, and my servant will be healed. 9 For I too am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. And I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” 10 When Jesus heard this, he marveled and said to those who followed him, “Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith. (Matthew 8:5-10).
And, of course, the Centurion’s faith in Jesus was well warranted…(and rewarded…with the healing of his servant.)
Truly this was the Son of God
Although I suspect he didn’t have faith as mature as the Centurion with the paralyzed servant, the exclamation of another one leads me to my final, and most important, point. Let’s turn to Matthew 27:51-54:
51 And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And the earth shook, and the rocks were split. 52 The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, 53 and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many. 54 When the centurion and those who were with him, keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were filled with awe and said, “Truly this was the Son of God!”
Mark 15:39 makes it clear who made that final statement:
And when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was the Son of God!”
Truly Jesus this man was the Son of God! (With and exclamation point!) Perhaps those were just the words of someone astounded by “the earthquake and what took place”…but regardless he exclaimed something that wasn’t in John’s advice to his fellow soldiers…or was it?
But really, what shall we do?
If we had continue to read in Luke, we would have seen some more advice for the soldiers (and everyone else). Let’s head back to that section…where we stopped on verse 14…and continue with verse 15:
As the people were in expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ, 16 John answered them all, saying, “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Luke 3:15-17).
So…after telling soldiers not to use their power to take advantage of anyone else and to be satisfied with their pay, our first-century Elijah pointed everyone to “he who is mightier than” John was and “the strap of whose sandals [John was] not worthy to untie.”
The same Person who the first Centurion whose trust was so great Jesus said, “Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith”…and the same person who the second Centurion rightly acknowledged as the Son of God…
Was the one that John the Baptist pointed everyone…including soldiers…to.
(As an aside, I found it interesting that both the first centurion and John felt unworthy around the Lord they had faith in…the former feeling he didn’t deserve to have Jesus come under his roof and the latter, as previously mentioned, saying he wasn’t worthy of even untying Jesus’ sandals.)
If a soldier could ask John the question today…
John answered the soldiers’ question just as Jesus was starting His ministry. I can almost assure you that if God was kind enough to send John here to our sanctuary today, and a visiting group of soldiers on leave from Iraq were to ask him, “And we, what shall we do?”…
That after our Lord’s death, burial, and resurrection, John would respond as Paul and Silas did when asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”
That while wearing camel’s hair and a leather belt…and after a scrumptious meal of locusts and wild honey…John the Baptist would tell our military’s finest, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household” (Acts 16:30).
John the Baptist pointed to Him when He first was here.
The first centurion had faith in His power.
The second centurion exclaimed exactly who He was.
So, this Memorial Day Weekend as we rightly remember those who have given their lives to protect our freedom…
As we thank our God for their sacrifice…
Let us all exclaim…and more importantly believe…
Jesus, truly you are the Son of God!