Ride Out With Me

Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4 and 2 Thessalonians 1:1-12
© Stacey Steck

There is a moment in the film, “The Two Towers,” the second in the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, which kept coming back to me all week. It is the moment just before dawn when King Théoden of Rohan realizes that his invincible stronghold is about to fall to the savage forces of the wizard Saruman, to the thousands of orcs, goblins, and other creatures of the night besieging them, and that not only will all his warriors fall, but also the women, children, and infirm who have taken refuge in the depths of the fortress. With a glazed look on a paralyzed face, he simply says, “So much death. What can men do against such reckless hate?” And this week, in our own community, we might add to Théoden’s lament, and say, “What can men do against such feckless fate?” the fate that awaits each one of us, the fate of our mortal bodies, and the fate to remain behind and grieve for those who have died.

2018 has been a tough year already and we’re only four months in. We’ve suffered through a stubborn flu season, through tempestuous weather, through the deaths of five members of this community of faith. Around the world, we’ve heard the reports of Syrian civilians gassed by their government, continued chaos in Iraq and Afghanistan, drivers plowing vans into innocent people on German and Canadian city streets, a troubled teen shooting his teachers and classmates in Florida, and more than one murder here in Salisbury. What can men and women do against such reckless hate and such feckless fate?

Alas, the horror, unease, and grief our community has experienced this year is neither new, nor merely in the imagination of Hollywood blockbusters. The prophet Habakkuk seems to offer his prophecy with the same fatalistic resignation: “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you, ‘Violence!’ and you will not save? Why do you make me see wrongdoing, and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails. The wicked surround the righteous—therefore justice comes forth perverted.” Give us a break, O Lord, give us a break! In Habakkuk’s time, like our own, violence begat violence; the eagerness of Israel and Judah’s kings to disregard the ways God had given to protect the beloved community, their wholesale participation in perpetrating the violence of poverty among their own people made it certain that Habakkuk would witness violence twice, first at the hand of his own people, and then at the hands of the Babylonians whose violence God used to punish the violence about which God’s people were duly warned. A witness from his watchtower, Habakkuk basically asks the same question, “What can men do against such reckless hate?” And through it all, he witnesses the grief and loss of saying goodbye to loved ones and to the promised homeland. Such feckless fate.

Several hundred years later, another group of God’s people was also feeling surrounded by violence and loss beyond their means to control or understand, a church in Thessalonica to which Paul writes, “we boast of you among the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith during all your persecutions and the afflictions you are enduring.” The specific violence and loss to which that church was witness goes unnamed in this letter, but it must have been severe enough to provoke prophecy of the righteous vengeance of God. We may be uncomfortable with this Old Testament sounding language about God repaying “with affliction those who afflict you…when the Lord Jesus is revealed in heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the Gospel of our Lord Jesus,” the orcs and goblins of his day, but there is also something comforting about hearing pretty straightforwardly that those creatures of the night persecuting the church “will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, separated from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.” According to Paul, not only are the bad guys not going to win in the end, but boy will they suffer too. “Vengeance is mine, says the Lord” and better at God’s hands than our own, is all I can say, for in our clumsy hands, violence begets only violence. The waiting will be the hardest part and the test of our faith, to neither give up nor strike back in vengeance, but to endure and resist, even at the cost of our own lives, so that the violence we experience directly and indirectly might end with our own generation. God’s reply to Habakkuk is a challenging one: “For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely not delay.” That’s a hard kind of waiting to do, isn’t it? And it’s all well and good for God to say, “Just wait,” but Lord, it is easier said than done. We believe you, Lord; help our unbelief and help us in our grief.

At the risk of sounding like I am following the Gospel according to J.R.R. Tolkein rather than that of Luke or John, let me return us to Middle Earth and the response the dazed King of Rohan receives from another character in the story, the yet-to-be-crowned-king Aragorn. Sensing the King’s despair, Aragorn responds, “Ride out with me. Ride out and meet them,” meaning to ride out of the fortress and through the enemy lines and to go on the offensive, rather than remain inside on the defensive. Théoden’s face brightens, and he replies lustily, “For death and glory,” to which Aragorn replies, and here’s the Gospel: “For Rohan. For your people.” Aragorn’s reply is Gospel because it serves as the correction to Théoden’s shell-shocked reasoning, a correction to his sense of personal failure at having let down his subjects. But Aragorn reminds him of the true purpose of a true king, not to be remembered as a glorious figure that died a valiant death, but to lead one’s people bravely and faithfully even if the result was an untimely death. You see, there are a number of responses one can make to the threats to one’s life and one’s psyche, and some are better than others, but the best responses are those that issue forth from a reason worth dying for, and in King Théoden’s case, that reason was to live into his role as the King, and ride out for his people, rather than simply to his death. And since Théoden and Aragorn are the good guys in the movie, you have probably already figured out that they rode out and were victorious in the end.

If the best responses to the threats in our lives are those that come from that place in our souls which recognizes a reason, or a person, worth dying for, it behooves us to check out that place in our souls and see what and who resides there. The Apostle Paul reminds the Thessalonians just what is in their souls as they endure their persecution and affliction: “…we always pray for you,” he says, “asking that our God will make you worthy of his call and will fulfill by his power every good resolve and work of faith, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Deep down, Paul knows, and they know, that it will only be through their faith in Christ that they will endure and find the strength to continue in their faithfulness no matter their circumstances.

We do have some options as we face the horrifying hate and fate that seem to be surrounding us daily. Some people choose a form of vengeance or vigilantism, returning evil for evil, seeking an eye for an eye. Others choose despair and paralysis, turning inward because it’s just too hard to look elsewhere, retreating in compassion fatigue, taking comfort wherever it can be found. But I have a hunch that Paul would agree that neither of these, nor any ultimately human strategy, is the best option for glorifying the name of our Lord Jesus, or being glorified in him. We can ride out with our own guns blazing and extract the justice which seems perverted, or hole up in our homes with our own guns trained on the front door by day and tucked under our pillows by night, but neither taking matters into our own hands nor retreating from them seem like the works of faith to which we are called as the people of God. I think we will find that the best option is to ride out armed with Habakkuk’s wisdom that “the righteous shall live by their faith,” a faith which sends us forth according to God’s purposes and using God’s methods. It may well be that we die confronting the reckless hate of the world, as many faithful persons have done, but if we are slain, they had better find us lying on the battlefield or the street with plowshares in our hands rather than swords or guns, and pruning hooks rather than spears or missiles, for only with those weapons can our “good resolve and work of faith” be empowered by God. We are indeed called to ride out, but Christ will not be glorified, and we will not find ourselves glorified in Christ Jesus, unless we are riding out for God’s people, rather than to satisfy our own fatalistic sense of despair or our own mistaken notions of glory.

I have seen your faces these last four months, dazed and paralyzed at the suffering and loss which has touched our community, and on the news I see the dazed faces of first responders and emergency personnel descending on the scene of the crime, international aid workers digging through rubble, parents grieving children, nurses tending the sick, hospice workers comforting the dying. So much death. What can men do against such reckless hate and such feckless fate?

Ride out with me, Thyatira, Christ answers. Put on your armor of love, faith, service, and patient endurance and ride out with me to bring Good News to Mill Bridge, and to Salisbury, and to Rowan County, and to North Carolina. Ride out with me with your weapons of compassion, and generosity, and grace, those Christian virtues you share with the Church at Thessalonica that also shares your beleaguered hearts. Ride out with me, Church of Christ, Jesus is saying, and let my power affirm your call as my people and fulfill every good resolve and work of faith that you do in my name. Live by faith, my righteous ones, and I will prepare you to experience the dawn, a vision of Good News which will make you forget forever the horrors you have seen and the sorrow which weighs down your hearts. Ride out with me, not for death and glory, but for Mill Bridge and your people. Amen.