Resisting Evil | Sermon from July 21, 2019

“On behalf of the whole church I ask you: Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sins?”

“Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?”

Nahum would have no trouble saying yes to both of these questions.

You may recognize them from our baptismal liturgy. Those who come to be baptized, or their parents, or those who have never joined a church before but have been baptized, answer these questions at the very beginning of the liturgy. And Nahum would answer not only yes, but answer yes with glee and exuberance.

Such is the nature of this tough book buried in the midst of the Twelve, the name for the minor prophets, at the end of the Old Testament. Nahum is angry poetry, full of vivid imagery. In his prophecy, Nahum, and all the people of Judah, rejoice in the defeat of their hated enemy: the Assyrians.

Nineveh, the glorious capital city of Assyria, was captured and destroyed by the Babylonians. For years, the Assyrians had threatened the people of Judah. Just a few years prior to this moment, those in Judah had watched in horror as the Assyrians destroyed their relatives; the northern kingdom of Israel. And destroying it is language that’s really too soft. The Assyrians laid waste to their towns, sowed salt into their fields, raped their women, and killed their children. They were cruel, abusive, and thus greatly feared.

It seemed, to Judah, that it was only a matter of time before King Ashurbanipal, the mighty king of Assyria, came down to Judah and did the same to them. They prayed relentlessly, offering their sacrifices to God, and to other gods to cover their bases, hoping to be spared.

Then, in 627, Ashurbanipal died suddenly. Then, the Babylonians and Medes rose and destroyed Nineveh and, with it, the Assyrian empire. Suddenly, Judah was released from their fear. Suddenly, they were safe. Suddenly, they were free.

And so they exclaim, “Look! On the mountains the feet of one who brings good tidings, who proclaims peace!” (1:15a)

The messenger who comes to bring the news of comfort that “never again shall the wicked invade [us].” (1:15b)

In fact, the word Nahum is closely related to the hebrew word for comfort. This is a book of comfort; comfort born because the hated enemy has been defeated.

But in the reading of it, the language doesn’t sound particularly comforting. In fact, it’s downright disconcerting and even highly graphic. In their rejoicing, they heap coals on the head of their enemy with their language. So much so, that in the reading of it, I am going to skip two verses that I believe to be too graphic for young ears. I encourage you to check them out at home.

Let’s hear together the scripture for this morning, the book of Nahum.

Scripture

We might attribute this poetry to what Abraham Lincoln called a “hot letter.” He had a habit of writing an angry letter, venting whatever he was feeling, to someone who had upset him, and then filing it in a cubby in his desk. After a day or two had passed, he’d read it again and, most of the time, never send it. This was his habit to both relieve his frustration and to make sure that whatever he said wasn’t said in anger.

At first, I wanted to attribute Nahum that way. Except that it cannot be because, unlike Lincoln’s letters, this one was published. This is an unrestrained expression of jubilee at the abject suffering of a people.

The language is clear, and I won’t bear to repeat it. The people rejoice in the overwhelming number of deaths, in the utter destruction of the city, in the embarrassment to the empire and in the shame their enemy has realized in their defeat. They write it down in poetry, through a prophet about whom absolutely nothing is known except that his name means comfort, because the suffering of their enemy is comforting to the people.

And such offends our sensibilities. Jesus says we’re to love our enemies. This is the opposite of that. We believe that everyone can be forgiven by God. This is an example of God smiting the wicked, rather than forgiving.

It might be tempting, then, to write this off as an example of that angry, smiting, “Old Testament God.” But we can’t do that. We believe that God is the same, “yesterday, today, and forever.” That means the God we worship as forgiving, the God who told us to love our enemies, is the same God whom Nahum says smote the Assyrians and utterly destroyed Nineveh.

And, to further complicate matters, let’s remember that we believe the words of 2 Timothy 3:16: “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” When Paul wrote those words, he was referring only to the Old Testament because the New Testament did not yet exist. So when Paul says all, he meals all, including Nahum.

So Nahum the angry, a hater of a prophet, is just as useful and inspired as “love your enemies as yourself,” or “even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil” or “what does the Lord ask of you but to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” In the eyes of Paul, Nahum is equal as scripture to all these other words of comfort from scripture.

So what are we to do with this kind of scripture? It’s not analogous to an angry, unset, Abraham Lincoln letter. It’s not analogous to simply giving vent to our anger and frustrations in a healthy way. In fact, we’d say that this is unhealthy. We would say that never should we rejoice in the suffering of our enemies. Never should we give thanks to God for their shame and destruction. Never should we write something like the graphic, disturbing, book of Nahum.

Never.

My German teacher in high school fled his home in 1944 ahead of the advancing Soviet army. His hometown, now a part of Poland, was then a part of Germany. His father, drafted into the Wehrmacht, the German army, had died on D-Day. As the Soviets approached, my German teacher, his mother, and his brother, fled trying to get ahead of the Soviets.

But they failed. My teacher recalled waking up one morning, walking down a street in the town where they’d spent the night, seeing German officers hanging from telephone polls by piano wire, strung up by a Soviet army eager for revenge. A graphic scene his mind refused to erase. They saw more graphic scenes until they finally reached the American sector just as the war was ending.

He knew first hand the evils of war. And when they made it to the American sector, he rejoiced that they had escaped the clutches of the evils done by both the Soviets and his fellow-countrymen, the Nazis.

At the end of World War II, pulpits around the country exclaimed with gratitude to God the utter defeat of the Nazis. May 8, 1945, brought about glee, exuberance, deep joy across this country and across all the Allied powers. Not only was Germany defeated, but they were utterly destroyed. There was no way a Nazi state could rise again. This was what Franklin Roosevelt had pledged: total surrender by the Axis powers. That was a controversial decision at the time, but Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin knew there could be no surrender with conditions with the Nazis. They would only break those conditions when they were stronger. They were a threat to the world. Indeed, the Axis powers were evil.

And when the world was freed from their wonton aggression, from their war-making ways, from their holocaust and murder, the world erupted in rejoicing. Even rejoicing over their totally destroyed cities, their bodies that lined the streets, their humiliation and shame, just like Nahum.

Indeed, some news stories, sermons, and literature written at that time sound much like Nahum.

For those who have experienced abject evil, when release from its clutches arrives, there’s nothing except exuberance, joy, and glee at its destruction and shame. In short, there’s Nahum.

For those who have experienced abuse, for those who have known oppression, for those who have seen the worst of humanity, for those who have watched loved ones succumb to addiction, for those who have experienced the horrors of war, when release comes from these various evils, when there’s freedom from its clutches, there’s exuberance, there’s comfort, there’s Nahum.

All around us are people who are experiencing abject evil. In Brunswick, I saw many billboards advertising help for battered women; a reminder of the evils of spousal abuse. This community knows too well the abuse of children. There are people, even people we know, battling addiction. This county has a hunger problem among its children. We know evil, we are aware of evil, and if we saw it defeated, we would rightly rejoice, even rejoicing like Nahum.

But we have to be willing to be mindful that this evil exists. It’s easy to forget, living in blissful ignorance of the evils around us.

We live and move and have our being in relative safety. Rarely do we experience abject evil. Certainly, for most of us, not on an ongoing basis. One of the joys of being an American is not having to fear an invading army destroying our cities, pillaging our valuables, taking advantage of our people and killing our children; the fear Judah knew all too well from Assyria. We don’t have to live in that kind of fear.

But we’ve all certainly experienced fear of the kind the people knew under the threat of the Assyrians. Maybe you’ve had physical harm threatened against you. Maybe you’ve known abuse. Maybe you’ve known addiction or had loved ones who have faced addiction. However you have experienced evil, when release comes, there’s exuberance and rejoicing in the defeat of that evil. That’s Nahum.

So, today, in the midst of our safety and security, Nahum reminds us that all is not safe and secure around the world nor here at home. Evil still exists. Evil still wins battles. Evil still has its way. Sometimes, it’s surreptitious, surprising us in subtle ways. Sometimes, it’s easy to recognize. But regardless, let us not allow our safety and security to keep us from being unaware that evil is present in this world.

And let us be mindful of what evil is. That word gets thrown around quite a bit, especially in relation to politicians and policies. Rarely is that the case. Evil is a dark spiritual force at work in the world. It’s much more than corrupt public figures or self-serving public policy. It’s much more than nations whose policies are aligned against those of other nations. It’s a powerful force in its own right that seeks nothing less than the destruction of God himself and all who claim the name of Jesus.

Which means that evil isn’t ours to defeat. Nahum demonstrates that. God defeated the Assyrians, not the Babylonians and Medes and certainly not Judah. God defeats evil. We pray against it, pray for those captive to it, and respond to the call of God to do what we can to aid in God’s efforts.

In other words, as Christians, we have a role to play in the fight against evil.

At the start of this sermon, I opened with the words of the vows all of us who are members of this church have taken at some point. “On behalf of the whole church I ask you: Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sins?” “Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?”

All of us answered yes to both questions. To fulfill those vows, to live into them, requires that we remain aware, and vigilant, against the evil in the world. It requires that we not allow our lives to be lulled into complacency.

It means that when we see evil in the world, we pray about it. Often times, there’s nothing we can do besides pray, but prayer is powerful and let us be mindful of that. We pray not only for release for those captive to evil but for the defeat of the evil itself. And when we see evil defeated, we pray and rejoice in that defeat, similar to Nahum.

So this morning, if you’re living in relative safety and security, if your life is comfortable, that’s great. Rejoice in that. Give God thanks for that. But allow yourself to be aware. Karl Barth, a twentieth century theologian, famously said we are to read the newspaper in one hand and the Bible in the other. Let that be the case for you. Stay informed, pray against evils you see in the world and for those captive to evil in the world. Then, you will fulfill your membership vows to “resist evil, injustice, and oppression, in whatever forms they present themselves.”

But if you are experiencing evil this morning, if you know all too well the kind of fear it creates, know this: God wins. Good wins. Evil will be defeated. It will not have the last say. Nahum proves that. Revelation proves that. Our God will not long abide “evil, injustice, and oppression, in whatever forms they present themselves.” Pray for that day to come.

If you have loved ones who are experiencing evil this morning, don’t avoid them; come alongside of them. Love on them, be present with them, pray together and pray for them. There’s nothing more powerful that we can do in the midst of evil than come alongside our brothers and sisters. That presence reinforces the presence of Christ in the midst of whatever “evil, injustice, or oppression” your loved one is experiencing.

And finally, our little efforts for good make a literal world of difference. God takes our efforts and multiplies them. I think of a famous Robert F. Kennedy quote when he said that we are to be daring ripples of hope, for all those daring ripples come together in a wave to sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression [paraphrase]. That’s how God works.

So keep delivering meals on wheels.

Keep reading through the reading buddies program.

Keep giving to the backpack ministry.

Keep volunteering at The Club.

Keep leaving your offering at the altar rail during communion.

Keep volunteering at the food bank.

Keep donating when there’s a family in need.

Keep giving of your time to the animal shelter.

Keep volunteering here at the church.

Keep, or start, supporting this church financially.

Serve in church leadership.

If none of these apply, pick something and give of your time and money to this church and our community.

These are small efforts compared to the needs of the world, but have faith that God magnifies these daring ripples into a wave that can sweep down the mightiest walls of “evil, injustice, and oppression, in whatever forms they present themselves.”

Evil exists in the world. Language like we find in Nahum is tough. But evil is tough. Let us be mindful of that as we live out the lives to which Christ has called us.

Let us be mindful, but not afraid. God wins. No matter the evil experienced, whether in your past, present, or future, the day is surely coming when you will say, “Look! On the mountains the feet of one who brings good tidings, who proclaims peace!” Amen and Amen.

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