“Nowhere to Run”
August 23, 2015
By John Partridge
Scripture: 1 Kings 8:1, 6, 10-11, 22-30 Ephesians 6:10-20 John 6:56-69
Have you been reading about all that has been happening in the Middle East since the Arab Spring? There has been a rise in radicalism throughout the region that is not limited to ISIS. There are dozens of radical groups fighting against the government, and against one another, in Syria, Iran is becoming even more anti-western and anti-Christian than ever before, and although many good people are trying to help, radical groups in Egypt have dramatically escalated their attacks on Christians (who are known as Copts, or Coptic Christians in Egypt) and on Coptic Churches. Throughout the Middle East, and in many parts of North Africa, Christians are being persecuted and killed far more than they have been in generations. Ships full of refugees are arriving daily in Europe seeking asylum.
And yet, interesting stories are emerging from that part of the world that tell us that God is alive and well and still involved in the world in which we live.
Before I elaborate, I want to remember the story of Jonah. We aren’t going to read it today, but remember that God called Jonah and sent him on a mission. But Jonah didn’t want to go and, for whatever reason, Jonah thought that if he could just get far enough away, God wouldn’t be able to find him. And so, Jonah looked at the map, picked the port that was farthest away on the map. Jonah bought a ticket to Tarshish, a city in North Africa on the Atlantic coast that appeared to be at the end of the world, and ran away.
But you cannot run from God.
Although many of the gods of other nations were known to be regional gods who cared only for a certain, limited, part of the world, the God of Israel is the god who created the heavens and the earth and all that is.
There is nowhere to run.
You cannot run from a God who is everywhere.
And so, in the Middle East where many violent people are doing their best to say that the God of Israel isn’t real, that the Jesus of the Christians was nothing more than a prophet, and are trying to destroy, by any means possible, the witness of the church, people are discovering the same thing that Jonah found something like four thousand years ago.
You cannot run from God.
Despite the violence, Christians are taking a stand. The witness of persecuted Christians is being noticed. And I have heard several stories of Muslims who have encountered the risen Christ in their dreams or who have heard a voice who told them to learn more about Issa (the Muslim name for Jesus). With and without the efforts of missionaries and other believers, the name of Jesus is being made known. In fact, according to a witness quoted in a recent issue of Charisma magazine, in some churches as many as 80 percent of those in attendance will say that they came to Christ because of a dream. Veteran missionaries say that more people are converting from Islam to Christianity than in any other time in history.
You cannot run from God.
And so, with that in mind we begin our scripture reading from the book of First Kings chapter 8 as Solomon dedicates the Temple of God in Jerusalem (1 Kings 8:1, 6, 10-11, 22-30)…
1 Then King Solomon summoned into his presence at Jerusalem the elders of Israel, all the heads of the tribes and the chiefs of the Israelite families, to bring up the ark of the Lord’s covenant from Zion, the City of David.
6 The priests then brought the ark of the Lord’s covenant to its place in the inner sanctuary of the temple, the Most Holy Place, and put it beneath the wings of the cherubim.
10 When the priests withdrew from the Holy Place, the cloud filled the temple of the Lord. 11 And the priests could not perform their service because of the cloud, for the glory of the Lord filled his temple.
22 Then Solomon stood before the altar of the Lord in front of the whole assembly of Israel, spread out his hands toward heaven 23 and said:
“Lord, the God of Israel, there is no God like you in heaven above or on earth below—you who keep your covenant of love with your servants who continue wholeheartedly in your way. 24 You have kept your promise to your servant David my father; with your mouth you have promised and with your hand you have fulfilled it—as it is today.
25 “Now Lord, the God of Israel, keep for your servant David my father the promises you made to him when you said, ‘You shall never fail to have a successor to sit before me on the throne of Israel, if only your descendants are careful in all they do to walk before me faithfully as you have done.’ 26 And now, God of Israel, let your word that you promised your servant David my father come true.
27 “But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built! 28 Yet give attention to your servant’s prayer and his plea for mercy, Lord my God. Hear the cry and the prayer that your servant is praying in your presence this day. 29 May your eyes be open toward this temple night and day, this place of which you said, ‘My Name shall be there,’ so that you will hear the prayer your servant prays toward this place. 30 Hear the supplication of your servant and of your people Israel when they pray toward this place. Hear from heaven, your dwelling place, and when you hear, forgive.
When the Ark of the Covenant is placed in the temple, the presence of God follows. Just as it was in the days of Moses when God went before the people and appeared as a pillar of fire by night and a pillar of cloud by day, God’s presence appears as a cloud, fills the entire Temple, and the priests are forced to leave the building because they cannot see. Solomon understands the nature of God and declares that the heavens cannot contain God. He goes on to say that the people of God, and even those who are foreigners, do not necessarily have to pray in the temple to be heard by God but only to pray toward the temple. Solomon understands that God hears the prayers of all people no matter where they are.
Often, however, this message is difficult to accept. Sometimes we don’t want to do what God asks us to do. In John 6:56-69, we discover that even Jesus’ own disciples had difficulty accepting his message.
56 Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them. 57 Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your ancestors ate manna and died, but whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” 59 He said this while teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum.
60 On hearing it, many of his disciples said, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?”
61 Aware that his disciples were grumbling about this, Jesus said to them, “Does this offend you? 62 Then what if you see the Son of Man ascend to where he was before! 63 The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you—they are full of the Spirit and life. 64 Yet there are some of you who do not believe.” For Jesus had known from the beginning which of them did not believe and who would betray him. 65 He went on to say, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled them.”
66 From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.
67 “You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve.
68 Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. 69 We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.”
Even the disciples of Jesus, many of those beyond the twelve who were closest to him, had trouble accepting that Jesus was the only path to God. They couldn’t accept that what they had been taught for years might not be complete, that the message of Moses and the prophets and the system of sacrifice in the Temple might not be pointing to something better. But Peter, the twelve, and a few others knew that Jesus spoke the words of God. They knew that if Jesus was truth then there was nowhere else that they could go, even if his words were difficult to hear.
They knew that we cannot hide from God just because he says things that make us uncomfortable.
And, in the end, regardless of how difficult the teachings of God might be, and how we are occasionally convicted by them because of the things we like to do (all of us seem to have a favorite sin do we not?), there is only one place where we can find truth. And with that in mind, we must prepare ourselves to go out into the world. To do so, to prepare our hearts and minds so that we can we a witness to the world without becoming corrupted by it, Paul says this (Ephesians 6:10-20):
10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. 11 Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. 12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. 13 Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. 14 Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, 15 and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. 16 In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
18 And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people. 19 Pray also for me, that whenever I speak, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, 20 for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should.
We have often heard this passage about putting on the armor of God read and explained in such a way as to understand that we are preparing ourselves for battle as the knights of old prepared, by buckling on armor and sharpening our swords, but while there is, obviously, an element of that, I also think that Paul is pointing to something quite different. I think that Paul is using military imagery to point to something that is quite the opposite. Paul emphasizes that our fight is not with a flesh and blood enemy. There will be no clash of swords, no throwing of spears, or the twang of a bow. What we prepare for is not a fight that any of us would ever recognize as a fight at all and our preparations would be utterly strange to soldiers and knights in battle. Our preparations are not directed toward the defeat of an enemy outside of ourselves at all, except for the enemy of our souls because every preparation that Paul describes is not aimed at others, but only within ourselves. The way that we are called to fight is to draw close to God, to open our hearts to truth, to struggle toward righteousness, to stand at the ready in the cause of peace. We are to be armed, not with weapons of destruction but to defend ourselves with peace. Instead of retaliating and returning blow for blow and wound for wound, we are called to defend with the words and the truth of God.
I think that Paul deliberately uses the imagery of conflict to highlight a message of peace.
Instead of raising an army to go out to fight those who attack the cause of Christ, our call is, instead, to lift up our voices in prayer and to proclaim the mysterious and miraculous story of the gospel. Our call is not to prepare for battle, but to prepare our hearts, to prepare ourselves, so that we can become the tools that God needs. Because, in the end, the fight against evil is not ours, the fight belongs to God.
We are thousands of miles from the Middle East. We cannot, nor should we, raise an army to fight against ISIS and others who are persecuting the church, but what can do, what we have been called to do, is to draw closer to God, to purify our hearts, and to pray. God is already at work changing hearts and calling disciples even in places where his people are driven out, silenced, and murdered. We are called to testify, to teach the gospel message, and to pray.
Because no matter where you are and no matter how much evil tries to hide it…
…there is nowhere to hide.
You cannot run from God.