Munch, The Scream
Sermon originally delivered at Calvary Community Church, New Berlin, WI. Text: Isaiah 36:1-37:7
The Kingdom of Israel has fallen to the Assyrian war machine. The focus now turns more singularly to the kingdom of Judah. Now this is not a match of equals, Assyria is the superpower in the region and Israel and Judah are quite small. Both sides knew that the war’s days were numbered, and both sides knew, in their heart of hearts, that chances were good that Assyria would win.
So Sennacherib, the king of Assyria, sent the Rabshakeh, a high ranking official in the empire, to bring a message to the king of Judah, Hezekiah. As he came, Eliakim, the head of the palace; Shebna, the secretary; and Joah, the recorder. Hezekiah was still a king, and kings don’t go out to receive messages, they have people to do that for them. So, the Rabshakeh gives them a message for Hezekiah, telling him that he cannot win.
Now, the three who were sent to receive the message asked the Rabshakeh to speak in Aramaic, a language that they, being educated, knew but that the soldiers of Judah wouldn’t understand. They were, after all, trying to help keep them from becoming demoralized in an already difficult situation. But the Rabshakeh instead called out loudly in Hebrew, so that everyone would understand, “Hear the words of the great king, the king of Assyria…” He proclaims that Hezekiah cannot help them, that God will not be able to help them. “For thus says the king of Assyria” — make peace with me and you will have peace and prosperity. The Rabshakeh then goes through the list of nations who trusted in their gods, and were defeated by Assyria. None of these gods were able to save their nations — so why should yours?
Holding their tongues, the three men went back into the safety of the walls, they tore their clothes, which was the cultural sign of grief. So they go in to see Hezekiah, and already he knows that it is not good news. Hezekiah tears his clothes, as a sign of grief and put on sackcloth as a sign of mourning, and as does the king, so does the kingdom. The servants of Hezekiah come to Isaiah, the prophet, and Isaiah says to them, “Thus says the LORD: Do not be afraid.”
The Rabshakeh tells them, “Thus says the king of Assyria, be afraid.” Isaiah tells them, “Thus says the LORD” Do not be afraid.”
This whole part of the story hinges on fear, and what we do in response to fear.
Few things are more powerful than fear. The great philosopher and Jedi master, Yoda, communicated this: “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.” But even more significant than Yoda, scripture addresses fear over and over again, primarily with the words, “Do not be afraid.”
God comes to Abram, “Do not be afraid.”
God speaks to Hagar, “Do not be afraid.”
God shows up to Isaac, “Do not be afraid.”
God speaks to Jacob, Moses, and Joshua with the words, “Do not be afraid.”
An angel appears to Elijah with the words, “Do not be afraid.”
Gabriel shows up at the foot of Mary’s bed, and begins with “Do not be afraid.”
God speaks to Joseph and says, “Do not be afraid.”
Jesus was walking on the water and tells the disciples, “Do not be afraid.”
When Jesus was raised, and the women come to the tomb, they find an angel who greets them with the words, “Do not be afraid.”
From the beginning of scripture all the way through the end of the written word, we are consistently told not to fear.
So here the people of Judah stand, nearly encircled by the political and military superpower and they are told to fear Yet Isaiah reminds them that although they have steamrolled other nations, God is indeed greater than Sennacherib.
While we are not in the same situation as Judah with an empire attacking from without, fear still plays an important role for us today.
We, too, regularly and frequently, are visited by the Rabshakeh, only the Rabshakeh takes different forms We have many voices speaking fear into our lives — sometimes the Rabshakeh comes in the form of Fox News or MSNBC. Recently we were visited by the Rabshakeh who came in the form of politicians and television and radio ads and mailings and canvassers. Sometimes the Rabshakeh speaks from within and speaks fear directly into our hearts. Regardless of the form, the Rabshakeh always has a task — to instill fear within us.
So the Rabshakeh calls to us to fear many things — immigrants, Muslims, cities, Ebola, people who look differently, think differently, believe differently. The Rabshakeh calls us to fear other cultures or languages or different economic system.s But fear is only the first step in the Rabshakeh’s plan, the next is to convince us to capitulate to the powers.
In our story the Rabshakeh was instilling fear in the people of Judah so that they would capitulate to the Assyrian empire, so that they would abandon their trust in God, and trust in Sennacherib. He offers them hope if they will do this, but only a dystopic future if they do not capitulate to power.
So in our world, the threat is just as real, but in many ways it is more insidious. The Rabshakeh is not the captain of a foreign empire seeking to destroy our home, but the Rabshakeh that we encounter looks like us and talks like us and comes from within our borders. They are more familiar, but the function is the same: to fan the flames of fear so that we, too, will capitulate to the powers.
Notice here that Isaiah did not promise that nothing bad would ever happen, he old them not to fear, not to abandon trust in God and bow to Sennacherib.
So we are here, thousands of years later and on the other side of the world, and the problems that we face are quite the same. Will we give into fear, or will we trust in the promise of God?
You see, earlier in the Book of Isaiah, we read this:
In days to come
the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.
Many peoples shall come and say,
‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.’
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.
O house of Jacob,
come, let us walk
in the light of the Lord! (Is 2:2-5)
The Christian faith is an irrationally hopeful faith. But our faith is not hopeful in the abilities of humans or politicians or armies. Our hope doesn’t come from fear, our hope comes from the promises of God through Christ. Our faith is founded on the fact that God continues to sustain, uphold, and provide for creation, God is not a clock-maker that winds a clock and leaves it alone.
This is why are are told not to fear. Because, as VeggieTales has taught us, “God is bigger than the bogeyman.”
The phrase of going to hell in a handbasket is ever-present in our culture, but it is not, in the slightest, a Christian idea. Christianity is an irrationally hopeful religion, not because we believe that nothing bad will happen or that things will always turn out perfectly, or even well, for us, but our hope is that ultimately, God’s purposes will be accomplished and the fullness of the kingdom of God will unfold.
Now, I am realistic enough to know that Isaiah’s words in chapter two will likely not come to fruition in my lifetime, but we must remember that they are true, and we must orient our lives to that truth.
When we live out of fear it is fear of something or someone that drives our lives. We are guided only by a negative. But this is not how we are to live. We are to be guided by the calling and promises of God.
After all, “there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear…” (1 John 4:18a).
The world has enough fear and it is the calling of the church to point to Christ which means turning away from fear and toward the hope established, founded, and centered in Christ. In fact, if the church cannot herald this irrational hope, we may as well pack it in and go home, because we don’t have anything to offer the world any longer.
Eventually, Judah would fall, and Isaiah knew this. His point was not that nothing bad would ever happen. Isaiah told them that they did not have to fear because God is greater than Assyria.
Eventually both kingdoms fell and many are taken off into exile. This should have destroyed a people and relegated them and their religion to the annals of history. But instead, the exile spread the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob around the world. Now, no longer is the people of God restricted to a nation in the Levant. Instead, the people of God are spread throughout the world. What would have happened if the people of Judah capitulated to the might of Assyria? Chances are good that we would not be sitting here reading this story and following the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
The Rabshakeh may tell them to fear, but God tells them to not fear.
This fear-mongering continues today, and to this fear-mongering Isaiah also brings us the word of God with a resounding, “no” “do not fear.”
So, sisters and brothers, let us not capitulate to the modern-day Rabshakeh. Let us not give in to fear. Let us remember that we are not given a spirit of fear. As individuals and as a church, we must proclaim hope, not fear. We must live out of a spirit of hope, not fear. We ought not increase fear but to cast it out. The Rabshakeh comes knocking with convincing arguments, that is sure. But we follow Christ, and Christ brings hope for the world.
“Thus says the LORD: Do not be afraid because of the words that you have heard.”