March 3, 2002
PALACES OR SHACKS? FROM FALSE SECURITY TO PEACE
Terry L. Brensinger, Ph.D., Pastor
The Grantham Church
The recent tragedy in San Diego involving 7-year-old Danielle van Dam focused our attention, once again, on a basic human longingto live in security. On the night of February 1, Danielles father gently tucked her into bed in her second-floor bedroom, as many of us have our own children. The next morning, Danielle was nowhere to be found. Days went by, and many people searched everywhere to find her. This past Thursday, they discovered the worst. Danielles body was found beside a roadside several miles east of San Diego. From all indications, she had been abducted, right from her own bedroom, and killed by her next-door neighbor.
Security. We all desire it. We all think about it, in one form or another. We often lock our doors, even here in Grantham and Mechanicsburg. We check the bottom lines of our investment reports. And surely one of the lingering effects of the events of September 11 is the sense that our national security has been violated. We have established a new governmental agency in response, and appointed former governor Tom Ridge to serve as the director of the Homeland Security Office. Security is important to us. I dare say that we consider it a basic human right. It is a right, however, that many people around the world dont have the opportunity to enjoy.
Security is the crucial issue in Isaiah 32:9-20. In fact, security is the pervading theme running throughout the entire section of Isaiah in which our text appears. In chapters 28-31, the people of Judah find themselves in a boiling pot, and they are frantically searching for a sense of security. The fear-inducing Assyrian army poses an ever-present threat, and internal corruption yields an increasing sense of desperation. As a result, the prophet presents here a virtual catalog of things that the people are clinging tenaciously to in order to feel safe and secure. They are trusting in religious rituals, believing that their practices alone guarantee their welfare (29:13). They depend on horses and international alliances, assuming that military might insures their ongoing safety and stability (30:1-5, 16; 31:1). They build their lives on riches_at least those who have the means_convinced that wealth will see them through whatever stands in their way (28:1, 4, 7). Indeed, the people are so desperate for a sense of security that they lie, practice deceit, and oppress the weak among them in order to safeguard their own welfare (28:15, 17; 30:12). You people have gone so far as to try to make a covenant with death itself, Isaiah announces, as though they could some how negotiate their long-term security beyond the grave (28:15, 18). You can feel a sense of urgency in these chapters. The people of Judah are in a frenzy, grasping for anything that might offer a sense of security.
And apparently, they finally find it here in 32:9-14. Isaiah seemingly has a harvest festival in mind, and everyone is dancing in delight. They have collected a vintage crop to go along with their lies and riches and horses and alliances, and they are now living at ease. Yet alarmingly, after all of this frantic searching, the word that Isaiah brings is, Your new found security will not last. Within a years time, your palace will be forsaken and your city deserted. Why? you can easily imagine them ask with a trace of dismay and even sarcasm. Because true security cannot be found in lies, oppressing the weak, wealth, religious rituals, or military might.
I have thought over recent days about just how similar the current situation in Israel and Palestine is to the one depicted for us here in Isaiah. People there find themselves in a boiling pot, tooa cauldron!and the quest for security seems ever-present but frighteningly evasive. The Israelisthe Jewsare still living under the shadow of both centuries of persecution as well as the Holocaust in which six million of their family members and friends were systematically exterminated in death camps by the Nazis. This event, so incomprehensible by any human standard, has been etched in their minds as though chiseled in stone, and their collective resolve is to make sure that nothing like the Holocaust ever happens again. No one is going to sneak into our second-floor bedrooms and abduct our children, they seem so forcefully but nervously to say. We finally have our own homeland, and no one will take it away.
And in their attempts to guarantee their own security, the Israelis continue to trust, like the people of Judah in the 8th century B.C. and like many others nations around the world, in a wide range of false hopes. They trust, for example, in strength and international alliances. Israel has, at this point in time, at least the 4th strongest military in the world, even though its entire population numbers less than half the population of the state of Pennsylvania. These wonderful Jewish people, for so long living under the military machines of other often hostile governments, now have the power themselves. They also have the unwavering and typically unquestioning support of the United States, which annually provides Israel with billions of dollars and endless military hardware. Israel, regardless of its sizeits but a gnat on the world globeis a military giant, and all of its citizens know it. I recall walking into Steimatzkys bookstore on Jaffa Road in downtown Jerusalem a few years ago, and a certain postcard immediately caught my attention. There was a picture of two Israeli soldiers positioned in a bunker on a hillside, each equipped with the latest and most sophisticated machine guns. Printed on the bottom of the card was a paraphrase of Psalm 91:11: And He will guard you in all your ways.
Israel, like Judah centuries before, seems also to trust in its ability to oppress the weaker among them. By implementing even a small portion of their military might, the Israelis have over the last few decades systematically regulated virtually every aspect of the lives of the Palestinian people who live under their control. Some four million Palestinians are living today as refugees, having lost their homes when the Israelis took over their land. For many of them and the other Palestinians who reside in the territories controlled by Israel, but not included within Israel proper, life has often been little more than a constant battle against Israeli policies and red tape. Their land is often confiscated if the Israelis want it to build new settlements or roads. Their towns are placed under curfew as a form of collective punishment for even minor infractionsno one is allowed to leave their homes for days at a time. Their entire houses are sometimes demolishedbulldozed to the groundif a member of the family was suspected of foul play. Their teenage sons are at times taken for interrogation and even to prison, often as a preventative measure so that they wont cause trouble in the future. Their travel is constantly restricted, and permits to go from one area to another are nearly impossible to attain. A Palestinian living in Bethlehem, for example, might very well not be permitted to travel through Jerusalem to visit the nearby village of Abud. I know of a particular woman who rarely saw her aging parents, even though they lived just 12-15 miles away from her.
A few years ago, I went to the airport in Philadelphia to pick up a Palestinian teenager who had come to the states to attend a Mennonite College in Ohio. As we drove from Philadelphia to Grantham along the PA turnpike, this young man slouched down in the seat every time he noticed a police car. He actually slouched down when he saw a lot of other cars, too, simply because he was not sure whether they were police cars or not! Soon after arriving at my house here in Grantham, I asked him if he would like to walk with me and see the college. It was immediately obvious that he did want to do that, but he was nervous. Do I need to take my passport? he asked, and will I need special papers giving me permission? It soon dawned on me that this young man had known nothing but foreign military occupation all of his life. Imagine living your life under those conditions.
And finally, Israel, like Judah before her, tends at times to trust in religious rituals and traditions. So much of the struggle in Israel and Palestine centers on geographical borders and the reading of ancient texts. This is the land promised to us by God, some people argue, and it is therefore our right to occupy every last inch of it. Unfortunately, in defending this supposed biblical right to occupy the land, people often forget the moral responsibilities that go along with living in the land. Israel in the Bible is repeatedly instructed to care for the weak, assist the widows, and tend to the needs of the foreigners who live among them. When God gives gifts, he asks that those gifts be used fairly and responsibly.
On one occasion when I was in Jerusalem with a group of students, a Jewish man by the name of Yehezkel Landau came to speak to our group. Yehezkel forcefully defended Israels biblical right to occupy the entire land of PalestineGod gave all of it to us, he said. Then he paused for just a moment, and continued. To be Gods people, he reflected, often requires that we give up our rights for the sake of others. My people in the Bible were forced to leave this land, largely because they oppressed the weak who resided among them. If God forced them out of the land for such a thing, he might do it again to us today.
Modern Israel, like Judah long ago and many others since, seems to be grasping for security in so many placesmilitary might, alliances, wealth and traditions. Unfortunately, they are the wrong places. And, as Isaiah said so many years ago, any security that results from such measures will be short-lived at best. What is needed to bring lasting security, according to Isaiah 32:15-20, is not more power, wealth, lies, oppressive behaviors, or confidence in religious rituals, but a movement of God that softens peoples hearts and pushes them to seek justice and righteousness. As the prophet ponders Judahs ongoing struggle and her incessant thirst for security, a powerful and potentially transforming process crosses his mind. We need Gods spirit to come upon us, he concludes. Nothing else will do. What Isaiah envisions, however, is not simply some mystical experience alone, nor does he describe a naive and presumptuous dependence upon God in which the people themselves bear no responsibility. On the contrary, Isaiah describes a process that involves both God and humanity.
First, Gods Spirit comes upon people (v. 15). God is ultimately the one who enables men and women, boys and girls, to see the folly of this incessant drive to find security in the wrong places, and to refocus instead on God himself.
Then, those upon whom Gods Spirit falls seek passionately to live justly and to promote righteousness (v. 16). People empowered by Gods Spirit do not disengage. They do not stand idly by and watch the world go by. An important transformation, however, takes place. Rather than trusting in lies and oppression and wealth and power, these people now trust in God and set their sights on caring for the needs of the world.
Next, as Gods Spirit enables formerly hard-hearted people increasingly to replace the evils around the world with justice and righteousness, peace begins to emerge (v. 17). Perhaps one by one, people grow quiet, abandon their defenses, and start to trust each other.
And finally, when people begin to experience such peace, they find what they have been searching for all along: security (v.18). Genuine and lasting security, Isaiah announces, comes about as Gods Spirit moves upon people, changes their orientation toward things of the world, and drives them to be instruments of his peace wherever they find themselves.
So where does this leave all of us here today? Most of us care deeply about the needs of others, and we are moved when we hear painful stories describing the lives of those around us. We grieve the loss of Danielle van Dam, and we sense the anguish that her parents and friends must be experiencing. We hurt for the Israelis, knowing that they who have experienced considerable pain themselves for many years are now in the middle of a struggle in which they are causing similar pain for others. And we mourn for the Palestinians, who live under desperate conditions and are now venting their anger and frustration in increasingly violent ways. What a mess. What are we to do?
To begin with, we need to recognize the deep-rooted tendency within our own hearts to seek for security in the wrong places. Like Judah centuries ago and like modern Israel today, we too often run around searching for a sense of security. We are so insecure some times, so fragile, and we look for security in any number of placesour jobs, relationships, bank accounts, accomplishments, reputations. We need to face this tendency to put excessive confidence in the wrong things.
Next, we need to ask Gods Spirit to come upon us again and to help us find our ultimate security in God alone. For all of us fragile and insecure people, Scripture assures us this morning that God loves every last one of us with an everlasting love. In him our security rests.
Then, secure in God and enabled by his Spirit, we can become channels through which his justice and righteousness flow. We can denounce the evil and violence in the world and beginone by one, family by family, small group by small group, and church by churchpointing the way to peace and genuine security.
Here are a few simple suggestions of how we might proceed in this case to respond to the ongoing struggle in Israel and Palestine. First, pray intensely, as Psalm 122:6 invites us to do, for the peace of Jerusalem. Pray that God would break down barriers and soften hearts and pull all of these hurting and struggling people closer to himself. Pray for the Israelisthey are wounded and frightened. Most of them no longer make any genuine profession of faith, and God is little more than a distant memory. Pray for the most militant Israelis on the right who do not want to make concessions of any kind and show little concern for the plight of the Palestinians. Pray also for the increasing number of Israelis who are in fact coming to recognize the futility of their ways and are now beginning to seek for justice and righteousness. Within the last two weeks, for example, news became public that 1,200 former military officers urged Prime Minister Sharon to immediately pull back from the Palestinian territories that Israel has been controlling. We dont feel we have the moral right to remain in the territories, said Shlomo Lahat, a former army general. Other Israeli soldiers are now refusing to serve in Palestinian territory.
While you are on your knees, pray for the Palestinians, who feel victimized by the Israelis and often think that they are left to pay for the hurt that centuries of persecution handed out to the Jews. Pray that these Palestinians, in spite of their conditions, might exercise creative restraint rather than resorting to ever-escalating violence. And please pray for our Christian brothers and sisters in the landthe few that remainthat God would give them a special outpouring of his grace and mercy.
Pray for the leaders of the surrounding nations and of our own country, that God would grant them wisdom to recognize the many ways that our policies affect and often worsen this crisis. Pray also that these same leaders might have both the compassion and the courage to change their approach to the conflict and its participants when needed.
In addition to praying, strive actively to promote justice and righteousness yourself. Support ministries like Christian Peacemaker Teams, who place themselves right in the middle of the conflict and seek through non-violent means to bring oppression out into the open. Go as a volunteer yourself and serve for even a short time among both the oppressors and the oppressed. There are any number of places where you can give of your time and your skills. Write letters to officials, letting them know of your concerns and asking them to be mindful of the needy when they determine policy. In these and other ways, you in whom the Spirit of God dwells can be instrumentsprofound instrumentsof his peace.
Deb and I have shared stories with you before about Father Elias Chacour, a Palestinian Christian living in northern Israel. He served as a priest in the village of Ibillin, and he started a school that has since grown into a university. In this university, both Arabs and Israelis; Jews, Muslims and Christians; teach and study side by side. An encounter that I had with Father Chacour a few years ago, however, bears repeating this morning. I was in his officethis man who in Christs name has sought peace and justice at great cost to himself_when he showed me a letter that obviously had deeply moved him. The letter ended with these words: People like you, Father Chacour, are the hope of Israel. Strangely, the letter was written, not in Arabic, but in perfect modern Hebrew. And the signature at the bottom? Shimon Peres, then the Prime Minister of Israel. Dont underestimate the power of God. Dont underestimate the power of peacemaking. Dont allow even the atrocities in the Middle East just this past week to crush your ability to imagine better days. People like youpeople empowered by Gods Spirit, people who renounce false security and trust instead in God, people who seek justice and promote peacepeople like you can offer hope to the world.