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Concerning the Nature of our Lord’s Victory

 
 

Romans 8:37                        Romans 12                          Revelation 5:6

 

If we spent our childhood in Sunday School and church then we were raised on a hymn that is one of the “golden oldies”, Onward Christian Soldiers, Marching as to War.  Now it’s hard to find a recent hymnbook containing this hymn.  The hymn is deemed too militaristic, too violent.

In the days of empire-building and colonial expansion war and victory were celebrated.  But they aren’t now, and for good reason.  people in Latin America don’t pronounce the word “Conquistadores” with affection.  They can’t forget the depredations of the Sixteenth Century victors in the new world. The Conquistadores arrived with their brand new firearms and blew the head off anyone who so much as raised a spear.

At the height of the Cold War with the USSR , several years ago, one of the deadliest missiles in the nuclear arsenal of the USA was named Nike. Teenagers associate Nike with running shoes. But in fact Nike is the Greek word for “victor”, “conqueror.”   In view of the fact that such missiles are equipped with multiple nuclear warheads (i.e., one missile only delivers many nuclear devastations to many different targets), the name Nike seems more obscene than the more common four-letter word.  And of course everyone who has seen the movie “Apocalypse Now”, with its depiction of horribly burnt children, thanks to jellied gasoline; we shall never forget the military commander sniffing the dawn air as he declaims “I love the smell of napalm in the morning; it smells like victory.”

Nike: victor, conqueror – the word is used over and over in the New Testament. It’s used of our Lord. He, Jesus Christ, is victor. It’s also used of his followers. You and I are victors.

Early-day Christians were enormously comforted and strengthened every time they grasped afresh that Jesus Christ is victor, conqueror. They were comforted just because they knew that danger harassed them on every side. The book of Revelation speaks pictorially of these dangers in terms of the four horses and their riders. The white horse represents tyranny, like the brutal tyrannies of totalitarian regimes whether of the left or the right: China , North Korea , Islamic extremism, and several nations in Africa . The red horse, whose rider carried a sword, represents civil war.  There is nothing bloodier than civil war.  The American Civil War was the most atrocious spectacle the world had ever witnessed, as citizen slew fellow-citizen at the rate of thousands per hour. The black horse represents famine, together with everything humanly destructive that malnutrition brings with it.  The pale horse represents death; not “Now I lay me down to sleep” sort of death, but that death which is the power and purpose of tyranny and starvation and war. Yet even as the book of Revelation speaks loudly of these threats, it speaks more loudly still of Jesus Christ as the victor over them.

Nevertheless, the book of Revelation never suggests that Jesus is conqueror because he can out-tyrannize the tyrants or out-brutalize the brutes.  On the contrary, it speaks of our Lord as lamb, the lamb slain.  The power of the victor, then, is the efficacy of the freely-offered self-sacrifice. At the same time, let us make no mistake: the self-offered sacrifice isn’t useless, ineffective, feeble. The lamb slain, Revelation tells us, is the Lion of the Tribe of Judah, God’s strength.   As this lamb is raised from the dead he comforts and encourages and fortifies his people, now harassed themselves.

 

I: — The apostle Paul shares the conviction of the early-day Christians.   He reminds the believers in Rome that because they belong to Christ, they too are conquerors.   Ironfast in his conviction and confidence here, Paul tells the Roman congregations that they are more than conquerors; coining a Greek word for his own use, he tells them that they are superconquerors.

Superconquerors?   Let’s start simply with being a conqueror.   By way of preface Paul insists that dangers and diseases and difficulties and discouragements pour down relentlessly on us.  These dangers, diseases, difficulties and discouragements appear to drive a wedge between us and God’s love for us.  Appear to; want to; conspire too; but can’t, ultimately; they can’t finally separate us from God’s love.  To be bound to Jesus Christ in faith is to be included in his victory. For this reason Paul exclaims “Nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”   This is what it is to be a conqueror.

[a]         Then what is it to be more than conqueror, a superconqueror?   After all, we can’t be any more victorious than victorious.   Then what does Paul mean when he insists Christ’s people are supervictorious?

At the very least it means that our Lord’s victory does more than merely keep our heads above water; does more than get us through our dying, however miserable we might seem to be.   It means that Christ’s victory lends us resilience.   We haven’t merely survived (although survival is nothing to be made light of.) We are rendered resilient.

Following a funeral service, one never-to-be-forgotten day, I stood at a grave alongside the 65 year-old man whose 34 year-old daughter had just been commended to the care and keeping of God. His daughter, mother of two children, had committed suicide.   The man’s heartbreak was heartbreaking to see.   Family and friends consoled him briefly and moved away from the grave, leaving him and me alone. Slowly he turned to me and said, triumphantly, “Shepherd, at the funeral service today we sang the hymns in defiance of the devil.”   I could feel the resilience in the grief-stricken man who yet could thumb his nose at the cosmic powers of evil.

Speaking of defiance: have you ever noticed the defiance in the all-time favourite Psalm, Psalm 23?   “Thou preparest a table before me – where? – right in the presence of my enemies.” In the valley of the shadow of death; in the midst of harassment from all sides, the psalmist knows not only that he’s going to be sustained (the table); he’s going to be equipped to defy everything and everyone who wants to take him down. Isn’t it grand that Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd, sustains his people?   It’s wonderful. We’re conquerors. Yet he does even more: he fortifies his people so that we can defy whatever wants to take us out of the orbit of God’s love.

It is the lamb whose enemies trampled him only to find him raised from the dead in the presence of his enemies; it is this conqueror who equips us with more-than-conqueror resilience.

[b] Yet there’s more than resilience in being superconquerors; there’s also radiance. It’s possible to be victorious (we haven’t been separated from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord); it’s even possible to be victorious and resilient (we can go on defying everything that assaults us) and yet be grim, be suspicious, be sour, be as edgy as a cat in a room full of rocking chairs.

Elie Wiesel, recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize and author of Night, the 1960 book that Oprah Winfrey endorsed this year (thereby selling 500,000 copies of the new translation); Wiesel was 17 when he was liberated from Auschwitz. His mother and his sister had already been executed; his father had died in Auschwitz from slave labour and malnutrition.   Ever since the death of Martin Buber, Wiesel has been the spokesperson for worldwide Jewry. He’s a writer whose profundity and anguish and inspiration have been recognized repeatedly. Wiesel says, “Do you know why I am a Jew?   I like to sing. However bad their lot, the Jewish people can always find reason to sing.”

Speaking of singing: I had listened to African-American spirituals for years, had enjoyed them (as everyone seems to) but had never reflected on them at any depth.   Then one day a man in the small (smaller than Schomberg) rural congregation I was serving pointed out to me that that there was no trace of bitterness in the spirituals – and this fact was surely a triumph of grace and a manifestation of grace.   Think of it: slavery, with its brutality, degradation, suffering, seeming hopelessness – and yet no bitterness in its music, no incitement to revenge, no zeal for vicious vindictiveness; only a patient waiting for God’s vindication.   More than mere resilience, the music breathes radiance.

A woman with advanced neurological disease began to tell me of an incident that had recently befallen her and her husband, himself ill with the same disease.   Her story sounded grim. My face sank. She saw my face and laughed, “Oh, it’s really quite funny.”   Here’s her story.

Needing to use the toilet in the night, she transferred herself from bed to wheelchair to toilet.  In attempting to pull herself up from the toilet she lost her balance at the same as she jammed her arm between the handrail and the wall. She fell down onto the floor with her arm up, wedged between the handrail and the wall.   Her husband heard the commotion.   He transferred himself from bed to wheelchair and set off to help her. In his excitement he capsized his wheelchair. Now he was on the floor too (in a different room), couldn’t get up, and therefore couldn’t get to a phone.         “What on earth did you do?” I asked the woman weakly.   “I knew no one was going to come along until morning”, she said, “and so I recited over and over again Psalm 34: ‘I will bless the Lord at all times. His praise shall continually be in my mouth.   Look to him and be radiant.’”

Karl Barth, the best theologian of the 20th Century, was a Swiss national teaching in Germany when the Gestapo removed him from his classroom at gunpoint in 1935.  Barth points out that while the New Testament says much about the harassments and assaults and afflictions that are visited specifically upon God’s people, nowhere in the New Testament is all this spoken of in terms of protest or complaint or self-pity.   “Look to him and be radiant.”

Resilience and radiance are alike part of being more-than-a-conqueror.

 

II: — The Greek verb that corresponds to the noun Nike, “victory”, is Nikan.   In several places our English bibles have the verb “overcome”. To conquer is to overcome. Paul uses Nikan in his letter to the Christians in Rome . “Don’t be overcome with evil”, he says I Romans 12; “you be sure to overcome evil with good.” We all agree.   Still, there’s little point in being told to overcome evil with good unless we are also told how to do it. And in fact the apostle tells us several times over how we are to overcome evil with good in several different situations.

For instance, we are to rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep.   And what has this to do with overcoming evil?   If we don’t rejoice with those who rejoice then we plainly envy them. Our envy in turn sours us. Sour petulance born of envy diminishes the joy of whose who are rejoicing.   This is evil enough. Envy – our mediaeval foreparents were correct in naming it one of the “seven deadly sins” – always moves from envy to nastiness to hatred. At this point we have moved beyond resenting the joy of those who rejoice; at this point we are quietly determined to slay them.   By rejoicing with those who rejoice we don’t give this dynamic any chance to start. By rejoicing with those who rejoice we overcome evil with good.

On the other hand, if we fail to weep with those who weep, then plainly we have no sympathy for those in distress, and we have no sympathy in that our hearts have grown hard.   Our hard-heartedness is evil enough.   Worse, by failing to weep with those who weep, we isolate them.   As we isolate those who have reason to weep we magnify their distress. Once again, in weeping with those who weep we overcome evil with good.

Another clue from the Romans letter: “Associate with the lowly; never be conceited.”   If we associate with those who aren’t lowly; if we associate with the snooty and snobby and the self-important we shall have to play their game in order to remain in their company.   Soon, however, the game will cease to be a game; it will simply be who we are. The conceited are those who lack humility. Humility has everything to do with humus, the Latin word for earth. The conceited are those who have falsified themselves to the point that they are forever denying their ordinariness, their earthliness, even their earthiness. The conceited are the self-inflated whose hot air keeps floating above the earthly, earthy ordinariness of everybody else.   At least this is what the self-important, self-inflated think – in their pathetic self-delusion. Only as we associate with the lowly do we avoid all such silly self-misperception ourselves. Only as we associate with the lowly do we overcome evil with good.

The apostle’s most obvious directive in this matter (we are still probing Romans 12) we must hear and heed: “Don’t repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.” It’s easy to repay evil for evil. When we are victimized by evil our knee-jerk response is to retaliate with evil, if only to think that this is the only way we can protect ourselves.   But the Christian knows she doesn’t have to protect herself ultimately, and can’t protect herself ultimately in any case.   When our Lord was reviled, Peter tells us, he didn’t revile in return. When he was spat upon, he didn’t spit back.

Still, it’s easy to repay evil for evil.   It’s easy to do it stealthily, privately, quietly.   If we are well-practised at repaying evil for evil, we can disguise the repayment so cleverly that no one else sees it; no one else, that is, except the person whom we have paid back in the coin of evil. But in the life of Christians there are to be no devious, dark corners that cloak treachery and venom. For we are always to keep before us, always to keep hung up in our mind, what is noble in the sight of all. We are always to act in such a way that public scrutiny would find us unashamed.

Since life isn’t nearly so much a matter of occasional large items as it is the daily accumulation of smaller items, each and every day provides no end of instances where evil is to be overcome by good, resulting in what is noble in the sight of all.

 

We began today by noting that no one admires the conqueror who is cruel or coercive. We noted too that Jesus Christ isn’t this kind of conqueror.   He is first the lamb slain. He has been raised from the dead and therein vindicated as victor.   By faith we keep company with him.   As we are made the beneficiaries of his victory we are made conquerors ourselves. Therefore we can overcome evil with good. Made more than conquerors, as we overcome evil with good we shall do so resiliently, even radiantly.

 

                                                                                                 Victor Shepherd             

October 2006