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September 10, 2015
A sermon preached on August 31, 2015 by Mark M. Clinger, senior pastor of The First Baptist Church of Madison, WI.
“I have killed one thousand men.” -Judges 8:1-15
Ours is certainly an inspiring story this morning. It has a charm all its own. Take a look at our bulletin cover. There it is - Samson slaying one of the thousands of Philistines. The cover picture was not hard to find. There was quite an array to choose from. Apparently, the moment is considered by many as worthy of art—a thing of beauty, Samson swinging that lethal jawbone of an ass.
Look again at the picture. There’s something familiar and even contemporary about it. The picture reminds me of the news footage I’ve seen of Isis beheading westerners. Do you see it? Which brings me to what I want to reflect upon today - Isis and religiously inspired slaughter.
It’s been quite a week for Isis. The attempted train massacre in France; the youngest US teen yet convicted and sentenced to prison for recruiting terrorists; the mass human migration of people running for their lives; the destruction of the ancient temple in Palmyra - considered by UNESCO as a war crime. Now the news outlets quickly slap the label of “terrorism” across these events, yet we do so at our peril for such rapid labelling excuses us from any deeper understanding. And understanding Isis we can and must. As the inspiration of Samson slaughtering Philistines by the thousands shows us, religiously inspired violence is not unique or rare or surprising in any new way.
Let’s look first at the destruction of that archaeological masterpiece in Palmyra. It was called the temple of Baal Shamin. And there is is - Baal or Ba’al as it’s called in our Old Testament. The worship of the gods of Ba’al was one of the key idolatries around which we found so much opposition as we settled into the Promised Land. The reason or the religious destruction of the temple and its idols is given to Moses by God on the mountain top. Commandment one and two. You shall have no other gods before me and no graven images.
Was not Baal Shamim a temple to another God? Were there not graven images? The commands and values of every faith are always subject to the interpretation of the faithful and to faithful zeal. What happened at Baal Shamim is called iconoclasm—the destruction of religious images.
Iconoclasm is a deep part of our protestant heritage. Why are protestant sanctuaries so devoid of art and statuary? Why so simple and plain? We forget the word “protest” is part of “protestant. Leaders of the reformation such as Karlsadt, Zwingli and Calvin attacked, defaced, and removed idols and art from sanctuaries in their effort to reclaim and purify the faith. They would not smile on our use of banners or our marvelous stained glass windows. They would tell us their presence can pose a deep risk which we no longer consider. Yet our Muslim brothers and sisters still see a peril which we do not. Their mosques, although filled with magnificent art, have no depictions of any figure - human, animal or plant. It would be considered idolatry. In their faithful zeal, Isis destroyed the Palmyra temple of paganism with its graven images. Was this an action based upon the first and second commandment? An act in defense of that monotheism we share in common - Jew, Muslim and Christian?
But let’s return to Samson’s killing thousands of Philistines. Isis’ slaughter is nothing new. People acting with deep faith and in the name of God have caused immense bloodshed across the ages. Once again a quick label of “terrorism” glosses over a deeper understanding. So much of the Promised Land is still marked by the ruins of castles and walls built by Christians to keep “them” out our built by “them” to keep us out.
We are aghast at the slaughter Isis brings - their use of children and the recruitment of teens to join the forces. Yet have we forgotten our crusades to free the Holy Land from Islam and Judaism? Time and again our armies marched under the banner of the cross. We even recruited children for the infamous children’s crusade. And when we got there what did we do? Well, there were things like that time we rounded up all the Jews and Muslims living in a village (interesting how they could live side by side). Having rounded them up, we forced them, men, women and children alike, into a synagogue and burned it down while they were locked inside. Before we leave the subject, let us not forget the pogroms against the Jews which laid the foundation for Hitler. Swinging the jawbone of an ass thousands died while Samson is revered. Shall we pause to sing a hymn:
“Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war,
With the cross of Jesus, going on before!
Christ the royal Master, leads against the foe,
Forward into battle, see his banner go!
Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war,
` With the cross of Jesus going on before!"
No, we cannot naively paper over what Isis is doing. Religion is a powerful dynamo in human life. Faith and faithful zeal unleash vast powers into the human heart and will. The path of righteousness can take us to the greatest heights of living . . . or the path of righteousness can lead us to the lowest valleys of low. This lowest righteousness can look to us, for all the world, like the heights of faith.
The peril of faith is never with God. The peril of faith rests in those who believe. While Jesus said, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”, Samson turns this on its head saying “I will do to them as they did to me.” Sadly, Samson’s adage is more popular than Jesus’. And easier.
No matter the religion, the peril is the same: the human heart. While the heart aspires to be God-like, the gravity of sin constantly pulls us downward. It is for this reason we must intentionally form our lives. As with every faith in every age, we must look to those practices, tried and true, which focus on the soul’s transformation. Purgation of every downward pull. Illumination of life’s heights. Union with the loving God uniting us all. “Lord I want to be more loving in my heart”. What practices make those words a reality in your life?
For some reason which I can never understand, gaining the heights takes more time than sinking to the lows. The heights are forever harder, the lows easier. So what do you personally do, with intent and discipline, to keep your soul on the rise? Without an answer to this question your heart is, without a doubt, sinking.
Amidst all its zeal, Isis’ heart has forgotten, neglected, or overlooked one of Islam’s key tenets - that a Muslim, every Muslim, has an obligation to take care of and see to the well- being of their neighbor - Muslim, Jew, or Christian makes no difference.
The atrocities of Isis arise from the same human heart we share in common with them and our hearts have spawned their own atrocities. As I listen to the saber rattling responses to Isis by so many of our nation’s leaders and candidates, I fear our heart will spawn some more.
While we must condemn, in no uncertain terms, the deplorable evils we see unfolding, we must do so with an understanding which is far short of sympathy or affirmation. We glibly label it “terrorism” and reaching for Samson’s jawbone we raise it above the Philistines, ready to do to them what they did to us, just as Samson said. Our hearts fill with a rage bent on revenge. One thousand dead Philistines or one thousand members of Isis - what’s the difference?! All the while, Jesus calls those same hearts to love our enemies, praying for those who persecute us, and doing good to those who hate. What’s a soul to do?