Tuesday, February 28, 2017

WHOSE SIDE IS GOD ON?

The “Holy War” had been proclaimed.

The religious extremist shouted, “We must take up arms to drive out the infidels from the land! They are the enemies of our faith!  To die in the holy war is to be rewarded in heaven and your assurance of salvation!  Your highest calling is to go to war and to kill the enemies of God!  God has willed it!”

Reading these words in light of current events, we might assume they were spoken by Mullah Omar, Osama Bin Laden, or perhaps some leader from ISIS.  But in this particular case to which I am referring, they were not.  These words were not spoken by any Islamic leader against the west or against Christians.

They instead were spoken by the leader of the Christian church in order to raise up a great crusade to drive the Muslims out of the Holy Land.  His call came at the end of the eleventh century. 

Nine Hundred Years

Today we stand at the beginning of the twenty-first century.  It is almost incredulous how the rhetoric has been reversed.  Nine hundred years ago, it was the Christians who waged a holy war against Islam.  Today, not only in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also in Palestine and in increasingly more places in the Middle East and even in the west, the Jihad has been raised against all that the Islamists see as the enemies of Islam.

The intervening years may have brought about many changes, but there is one thing that has remained constant.  In all times, and on all sides of a conflict, in what are described as “holy wars,” everyone claims to be fighting in the Name of God. Combatants are quick to proclaim that God is on their side.

I watched the image of a twelve year old Afghani boy on the television news a couple of years ago.  His young mind had been solidly indoctrinated to believe that the Taliban, despite the fact that they had so brutally ruled his country, were building a government in Afghanistan as Allah would have it done.

“The Taliban will never fall,” the young boy said, “because God is on our side!” 

“You will succeed,” the Pope told the crusaders of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, “because God is on your side!”

Today in the West, we do not agree with the twelve year old Afghani boy.  We look on Al Qaeda, the Taliban and also as the ISIS movement as being regimes of extreme evil. Each one in succession seems to only have increased in their cruelty.  The brutality of their actions against all who do not agree with them, and the violence that they have wrought in their own countries and around the world have demonstrated clearly their wickedness.  We believe that in fighting them we are fighting evil.

But nine hundred years ago the same might have been said of the crusaders who marched under the Christian banner to combat what they saw as the infidels of that day. The massacre that took place by the crusaders after the taking of Jerusalem was almost beyond belief.

Whose side is God on?



An Earlier Holy War

Let us go back even further in history.  More than a thousand years before Christ, the nation of Israel was returning to the land of their promise after an absence of over four hundred years.  Indeed, they were hardly a nation at all when they left Palestine, which was then called Canaan.  When the Israelites made the journey to live in Egypt, they were little more than a tribe of people consisting only of several families. They would more appropriately be called a clan.

In their absence from Canaan, the land had not remained uninhabited all of those four hundred years, simply waiting for the Israelites to return.  The countryside had become occupied by many peoples and nations who came in and built towns and cities – even great cities.  Among those living in Canaan were the Amalekites and the Amorites.  God had granted these people occupancy and had not allowed the Israelites to return to the land.

God had, in fact, spoke of this to Abraham many years before the Israelites had even left to live in Egypt.  The Lord told Abraham that Abraham’s descendants would be strangers “in a land that was not theirs,” by which he meant Egypt.  Then, after four generations of people had lived and died in Egypt, the Israelites would be allowed to return to the Promised Land.  At that time, God said, “the iniquity of the Amorite” would be complete (Genesis 15:16).

This may seem like a strange thing to say, but it actually demonstrates that the actions of God in waiting so many years to let the Israelites to return was not only for the benefit of the Israelite people, to give them time to learn who they were as a people, but it was also for the benefit of the Amorites.

God, in His grace, gave these inhabitants of the land of Palestine ample time to consider their ways and turn to God.  They did not do this however, and by the time the Israelites returned, the Amorites had become so deeply entrenched in their pagan worship and were living lifestyles that demonstrated that they had long lived apart from obedience to God.

A Question of Taking Sides

And now, after four hundred years of slavery in Egypt, the Israelites were returning to the land that was the object of their promise.  As the leader and captain of Israel’s nation and army, Joshua stood near to where what was to be the first battle of this particular holy war would soon take place, outside the city of Jericho.  The city was strongly defended with a great high wall to protect it against attack.  Joshua wondered how he was to lead this campaign and how he would strategize his attack.  As he contemplated his plans, he suddenly became aware of a man standing in front of him with his sword drawn.  This unidentified man was clearly a warrior.

Joshua approached him, ready, if need be, for a duel.  “Are you for us or for our adversaries?” Joshua challenged the man.

“Nay, but as captain of the host of the Lord, I have now come,” was the answer.

When Joshua recognized who the warrior was, he understood the significance of this meeting.  He was standing in the presence of the very captain of God’s angelic forces.  Before such a one, the earthly captain Joshua could not continue to stand.  Joshua fell on his face to the earth and bowed down to the man.  He dared no longer to ask about the allegiance of the warrior, but his question was changed.  It was now no longer, “Whose side are you on?”

Instead of this, Joshua’s words ceased their combative tone.  Where there was once confrontation, Joshua now almost timidly asked, “What has my Lord to say to his servant?”

That, I think, was a very good question on the part of Joshua.  He did not again ask if the man was on the side of the Israelites. Joshua did not even ask if the Israelite army were doing the will of God by waging this holy war.  Joshua assumed nothing.  Who is man to presume anything upon God?

Ask the Right Question

We can take a lesson from the warrior Joshua in this regard. Probably everyone who reads this post would agree that the Taliban and ISIS movements are evil regimes – evil to an extent of which the world has not seen for decades. It seems clear at least to me that we must be decisive in our actions in combating this evil.

But just because we believe we are fighting evil, we must be careful to not assume that in everything we are doing to combat these regimes, we are doing the will of God. We cannot know that unless we are listening to the voice of God. This ability to listen to God has largely been lost in this country. It has been drowned out by the competing voices of politics. It has instead become a question which political voice shouts the loudest – liberal or conservative; the left or the right.

Like Joshua, we must relearn this willingness to listen. Our first question should not be, “Whose side are you on?” I believe our question should not be even to ask ourselves if we are doing the will of God, as important as that is.

Like Joshua, we must instead learn that before any of this, the most important question to God is, “What has my Lord to say to his servant?”

An Earlier Experience of Knowing Whose Side God was On

Perhaps Joshua’s mind went back to an incident forty years earlier.  This incident had happened not long after the Israelites had been rescued from their years of oppression in Egypt by the mighty hand of God.

Quite soon after their escape from Egypt and their journey toward their homeland, the nation of Israel stood on the edge of this Promised Land.  Before they were to enter, Moses sent in twelve spies to see what the land and the inhabitants were like. Moses and the people waited for the return of these spies and to hear their report.  Joshua was one of these twelve spies.

The twelve men stayed forty days in the land.  They saw the fruitfulness and beauty of the place that God told them that He was giving to them.  As a sample of the richness of the land, they cut a single cluster of grapes that was so large that they had to suspend it from a pole so that two men could carry it between them.

However, the spies also saw the Amalekites and the sons of Anak, men of great size.  “We became like grasshoppers in our own sight,” most of the twelve said.  “We are not able to go against these people, for they are too strong for us.”

This report brought great discouragement to the people of Israel.  They became frustrated with the situation and were ready to appoint a leader to bring them back to Egypt.

Nevertheless, two of the spies had a different opinion.  Joshua and his friend Caleb did not deny the size and strength of the inhabitants of the land. They would indeed be formidable foes. However, rather than give a pessimistic report, the report of Joshua and Caleb was one of encouragement.

“Do not fear them,” they said.  “Their protection has been removed and the Lord is with us.  Please let us not rebel against the Lord.”

But the people of Israel did not want to hear it.  Instead, they actually wanted to stone these two radicals who spoke from the perspective of God. They probably would have done so if God had not intervened to stop them.

God was heartbroken.  How could these people, who had so recently seen how the mighty hand of God acted in bringing them out of Egypt, now test his patience by not only by doubting his ability to bring them into the land, but even by going so far as to speak of instead returning to Egypt?

God spoke to Moses.  “How long will this people reject me and how long will they refuse to believe Me, despite all of the signs that I have performed in their presence?  I will smite them with disease and disinherit them, and I will make you [Moses] into a nation that is greater and mightier than they.”

But Moses responded to the Lord, “If You do this, the word will reach the Egyptians of Your actions.  The Egyptians themselves know how You brought them out of their land, and when they hear that the people have been slain in the wilderness, they will spread the word that You could not bring them into the land that You had promised to them by oath.”

Moses continued, “Pardon, I pray, the iniquity of this people according to the greatness of Your lovingkindness.

God did pardon the people, but he would not allow any who had refused to believe his word to enter the Promised Land. Indeed, they had refused to believe even after numerous signs that demonstrated the power of God.

Instead, the Lord said that because of their unbelief, the people would wander for forty years with no home – one year for every day that the spies had spied out the land.  Of the adults at the time, only Joshua and Caleb, the two spies with the positive report, would at last enter the Promised Land.

An Attempt Apart From the Blessing of God

When the people heard these words about being destined to wander for forty years, they “mourned greatly.”  They knew that God was right.  They had seen how he was able to bring them out of Egypt and they knew that he indeed could bring them into the Promised Land.  They later decided that perhaps they should go and attempt to take the land, as Joshua and Caleb had at first advised.

But Moses told them that, after all that had occurred, they were now wrong in doing this.  “Do not go now,” he said, “because now the Lord is not with you, and you will be defeated.  You will be struck down by your enemy.  Because you have turned your back from following the Lord, the Lord will no longer help you in this endeavor.”

Regardless of the words of Moses, many did foolishly go.  When the Israelites appeared on the top of a ridge, “the Amalekites and Canaanites who lived in that hill country came down and attacked them and beat them down all the way to Hormah.”

They had attempted this without the blessing of God.

A Better Question

Now it was forty years later.  Joshua bowed with his face to the ground before the captain of the host of the Lord who stood with his sword unsheathed.  On the day that was forty years earlier, Joshua and Caleb were convinced that had the Israelites entered the land at the first opportunity, the Lord would have been with them.

Joshua also saw that later, in an effort that was apart from the blessing of the Lord, the people had attempted to enter the land and had failed.  Apart from the blessing of God, there could be no victory.  Forty years ago, the Israelites had failed because they did not listen to the voice of the Lord.

Now, as the captain of the hosts of the Lord appeared before Joshua, Joshua fell on his face.  He did not ask whose side the Lord was on.  He did not even ask for confirmation that he was on the Lord’s side.  Joshua’s question was more unassuming: “What has my Lord to say to his servant?”  Joshua would presume nothing. He instead would only listen. 

Not So Holy Wars

Since that time, there have been many wars in the world that one side or the other have called “holy wars.”  Indeed, all who willingly fight in such wars believe that they are fighting for a just cause.  By saying this, I do not mean to imply that there is not evil in the world which must be opposed.  Certainly, there are evil men and these men must be stopped.  There are circumstances that happen today and that have happened throughout history which demonstrate these facts clearly.  Unquestionably, we should seek to fight for the righteous cause.

But it is not enough to simply presume that God is on our side.

At the end of all considerations, the matter is not so much whose side God is on.  The more appropriate question instead is the question of Joshua. It is one that we would do well in asking:  “What has my Lord to say to his servant?”

Instead of being so determined to defend our own perspective, we might do better to ask the same question as did Joshua. “What has my Lord to say to his servant?”

To presume more than this is to presume too much

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