December 6, 2015, We Have Met the Enemy – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell

To listen to this sermon, click here:   120414_001
In the days and weeks and months since we last observed a holy Advent season the world has been an increasingly violent and scary place. There are wars and floods and earthquakes abroad and there are shootings and unrest close to home. And in all this scary stuff, people want to know who to blame. They want to know “who is the enemy?”
When John the Baptist was born, his father, Zechariah, was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied, saying,
Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel; *
he has come to his people and set them free.
He has raised up for us a mighty savior, *
born of the house of his servant David.
Through his holy prophets he promised of old,
that he would save us from our enemies, *
from the hands of all who hate us.
John was born to be the one who would announce that God himself was coming to live among his people. John was appointed to be the one who would prepare people’s hearts to receive him. And so at the moment of his birth Zechariah, proclaimed that Jesus was coming to rescue his people, to set us free from the hands of our enemies. And that is the very best of news, because you can’t live a single day in this world without realizing that we are up against some hostile forces. Things are not as they should be. And everyone wants to know: who’s to blame? Where can we point the finger? Where’s the enemy? Who is the enemy?
When John began to preach in the wilderness to prepare the way for the coming of Jesus, and thousands of people came from Jerusalem, and from all Judea and from all the region around the Jordan River, he was pretty plain-spoken. Sometimes he called out, “Repent! For the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” But other times he was more direct. “You brood of vipers!” he cried out to the crowds, “who warned you to run away from the judgment that is coming? Go ahead and repent from your sins, but then you’d better start living like you really mean it. Share what you have with the poor. And you tax collectors, stop charging people more taxes than they really owe. And you, soldiers, stop bullying people into giving you money and be content with your paycheck.”
People came to John by the thousands and they repented – they turned their backs on the enemy that corrupts and misleads us from within, and they turned to their God for help. And John baptized them as a sign that they were forgiven, washed clean from their sin. Forgiveness was the first mark of victory against the enemy. There’s no rescue from the enemy without forgiveness. The prayer that Jesus taught his disciples, when they asked him to teach them how to pray, has forgiveness right at its heart: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” And when Jesus taught them this prayer he pounded that home. “If you don’t forgive your brother when he sins against you,” he told them, “you won’t be forgiven by my Father.” It’s something we have to take very seriously. The weapon of forgiveness is the first line of defense against the enemy.
When we’re dealing with the enemy inside us – our feelings of hatred or bitterness or resentment or jealousy, or our thoughts of revenge or meanness or selfishness – we can generally recognize the difference between us and the enemy. Yes, we feel jealous or angry, We might even act upon it – we might gossip or do some hurtful thing. But that feeling is not us. Even that action is not us. We know that we are not the enemy. It’s like Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans: “I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out…Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.” We repent and turn away from the action or the feeling or the thought that was harmful, and we ourselves are forgiven and washed clean, and so we are rescued from our enemy.
But it is a much trickier thing to recognize the enemy when we are faced with our fellow human beings. When Muslim extremists do horrible things, are Muslims the enemy? When Christian extremists do horrible things, are Christians the enemy? When a policeman shoots an unarmed black man, are policemen the enemy? When a black man shoots a policeman, are black people the enemy? When liberals promote gun control, are liberals the enemy? When conservatives invoke the Second Amendment, are Conservatives the enemy? Are gay people the enemy, threatening the sanctity of our marriages? Are rich people the enemy, consuming way more than their share of the world’s resources? Are non-Christians the enemy, living their lives in ways that offend our sense of morals and decency? Who can we blame for the scariness of our world – because we want to blame someone. Who should we be afraid of? Who is the enemy?
You could see this playing out this week at SUNY Potsdam. Someone, someone unknown, sent a letter to the college that said hateful things about one of the professors, and more generally about students of color, and about gay students. The letter not only said hateful things, but it also threatened the lives of those people. It was scary. And in all the scariness, everyone scrambled to figure out who the enemy was. No one knows who sent the letter, so the blame fell on other places. Some people blamed the University Police because they have not been able to catch the one who sent the letter. Some blamed the administration for its failures to recognize the needs of minority students. The students who felt threatened very reasonably organized marches to express their fear and outrage at the threats. But then other students were uncomfortable with these demonstrations and felt threatened by the anger of their fellow students. The air has been pretty thick with accusations.
The enemy likes nothing better than to divide us by making us fear and mistrust one another. But Paul wrote this to the church in Ephesus: “Our battle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”
In the situation at SUNY Potsdam there are enemies at work. There is the enemy of hatred and bigotry that caused someone to write a threatening letter. There is the enemy of fear that is robbing some students of the ability to concentrate and pursue their studies as long as the shadow of this threat is hanging over them. There is the enemy of mistrust that prevents other students from being able to see their brothers and sisters of color with compassion. There are the enemies of apathy and racism and homophobia and bitterness and even hatred, at the college and in the wider community. Those are the enemies we need to be rescued from. And that is exactly why Jesus came: to save us from those enemies.
People have always needed reminding about who the enemy really is. In the time of Jesus, God’s people were sure that the enemy was Caesar, and his legions of soldiers that had taken over the land that God had given to be their inheritance. When they heard that the Messiah was coming to rescue them from the hands of their enemies, they were sure that Jesus was going to raise up an army and clobber the Romans. And we do the same thing in our own way and time. When we have problems in our marriage or our friendship we point the finger of blame at our husband or our wife or our friend; we make them the enemy rather than admit our fault. When we encounter someone who thinks differently from us we can’t admit that they might be right because that would be admitting that we might be wrong. So instead of listening to other people we place ourselves in opposing camps, us against them, Christians against non-Christians, Democrats against Republicans, Liberals against Conservatives, men against women. We put up walls instead of sending invitations.
The voice of John the Baptist calls us to recognize the enemy first within ourselves. It’s a little bit like the old Pogo cartoon from 1970 – “We have met the enemy and he is us.” Repent! John cries. For the kingdom of heaven is at hand. Jesus came into the world to save us from our true enemy, the one who sows the seeds of enmity in the hearts of all people, enmity with ourselves, enmity from one another, and enmity from God. He has snatched us out of the hands of our enemy, reconciling us to God and making us his ambassadors of reconciliation, a people who live in love and not fear, who listen instead of criticizing, who offer forgiveness instead of condemnation. That is how the seeds of the kingdom of heaven are sown.
Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel; *
he has come to his people and set them free.
He has raised up for us a mighty savior, *
born of the house of his servant David.
Through his holy prophets he promised of old,
that he would save us from our enemies, *
from the hands of all who hate us.
He promised to show mercy to our fathers *
and to remember his holy covenant.
This was the oath he swore to our father Abraham, *
to set us free from the hands of our enemies,
Free to worship him without fear, *
holy and righteous in his sight
all the days of our life.
You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High, *
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way,
To give his people knowledge of salvation *
by the forgiveness of their sins.
In the tender compassion of our God *
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, *
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

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