Who’s in Command?
Based on Deut 34:1-12, Psalm 90:1-12, Mt 22:34-46
Difficulties in defining a chain of command, or a vacuum in leadership are well known plots in books and movies. Often, the protagonist(s) have to overcome some dysfunction at the top in order to resolve the crisis that has been created. I remember a movie from about 20 years ago with Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman as Executive Officer and Skipper of a nuclear submarine. In this movie (Crimson Tide), the XO and the Captain get cross-wise over a broken message about whether to launch nuclear missles at a band of renegades with their own nuclear arsenal. To do so in error would potentially start World War III, to not launch would be to allow the U.S. mainland to be obliterated without retaliation. The Captain wants to launch, but the XO rallies crew loyal to him and to protocol – the boat comes within an eyelash of mutiny. The average sailor is caught in the middle, wondering who is really in command; it is chaos inside that small, submerged metal tube.
While I have never been in such a situation in my life, there have been times when two or more factions have been trying to gain power – both lobbying for their side of the issue. Truth be told, this has more often played out in church than it did in my professional life. It begs the question, who really is in command of our church and our lives? As we ponder that question…let’s ask for God’s guidance through prayer…
Moses has come to his 120th year, and by biblical accounts, he’s still going strong. God leads him up to a high point on Mount Pisgah and shows him all of the land that the Israelites will soon conquer – the “Promised Land”. Yet, God does not let Moses cross over into that land because he didn’t follow God’s instructions about getting water from a rock. After all the years that Moses spent in service to God, dealing directly with God and with a recalcitrant group of people, God is denying Moses access to the place where the wandering will (at least for a time) end. The people will be in good hands, however, Joshua will be taking over and will lead the people forward. It is clear who is in command.
Jesus is once again being tested by the Pharisees – this time a group of them. One of them, a lawyer, asks Jesus, “…which commandment in the law is the greatest?…” (verse 36, NRSV) Jesus answers rightly and then goes on in verses 41 through 46 to elucidate not only which commandment is greatest, but who is giving the commands in the first place. Jesus stymies them with his question about whose son the Messiah is…they have set their hearts in the wrong place and their minds have lost their focus on the true source of command and control.
Psalm 90 is a song about our human mortality and the immortality of God – also of the relative power differential between the two. It puts humans in their place and firmly establishes who is in command of our lives. It also reminds us of how we are to live our lives. Note verse 12, “…So teach us to count (number) our days that we may gain a wise heart….” (NRSV) The Psalmist has presented prior to this how short are our days on earth. (see verse 10) It is good that we keep in mind that we have much to do and not much time to accomplish our God-given tasks. We must pray to God for direction and focus our minds on the things of God – in this way our hearts and minds will gain wisdom.
Three different biblical scriptures from across a fairly broad sweep of time, all lead us to the very same answer to the question, “Who’s in Command?” It is God who is in command. In the first case we see how though Moses has done pretty well in following all of God’s commands over the years, he failed to honor one direction from God at Meribath-kadesh, and thus both he and his brother Aaron were not allowed to go into the Promised Land. They forgot that it is God who has created everything, who continues to seek us out for relationship, who covenants with us so that we have the guidance we need to succeed in God’s great plan for us.
The Psalmist and Jesus remind us that God controls everything and thus is due worship and praise from us. It is clear that both know who is in command. Jesus reminds the Pharisees that it is not King David who is the begetter of the Messiah, it is God. Only God could create the Messiah, though the writer of Matthew goes to great lengths in the first chapter to name all 42 generations from Abram to Jesus – through Jesse and David. Thus, the prophecy of old that the Messiah shall come from the Davidic line is true – it just happened to occur due to God’s incarnation rather than an everyday human interaction. The Pharisees themselves had forgotten who it was that is in charge of everything, including the Temple at Jerusalem.
On this Reformation Sunday, on the cusp of the 500th Anniversary of the presentation of Luther’s 95 Theses (October 31st), it is good to consider what it was that Luther and the other Reformers did for God and the Church. You see, up until Luther’s time, there had been only one church (two really if you count the schism of 1054 east from west). It had grown into a huge endeavor by the time the 1500’s rolled around. It ruled a vast “empire” of lands and peoples. In Europe, everyone who wasn’t Jewish or Muslim was a Catholic – it was the only game in town. Yet, the Pope and his associates in Rome had gotten a bit too big for their britches. They were interpreting the Bible and its mandates in ways that were just like the Temple leadership in Jesus’ time. They had created a concept of purgatory and then a way to bring more money into the churches (and to Vatican City) by selling indulgences and “get out of purgatory” cards. Thus, if someone in your family was in purgatory for their sins, you could pay the church to get them out. A neat deal – with the noted exception that almost everyone in the 1500’s was poor – they were serfs. Church got richer, poor got poorer, because of the Church – just like in Jesus’ time.
Along comes Luther, a bright and dedicated priest. He is consumed by a desire to become more perfect, to pray more fervently, to be a better disciple of Jesus. He undertakes the translation of the Bible into German so that his kinfolk could have access to the same teachings that were so important to him. He gets fed up with the structure and hierarchy of the Church and with some of the things it was doing. So he lists 95 things that the Church was doing that was not in the Bible or that directly contradicted its teachings. Well, you know the rest of the story. From 1517 on, the Church of Jesus splintered into many subgroups. Last count there were 38,000 groups who stated publicly that they followed Jesus. Yet, even with billions of people supposedly following the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, things haven’t changed – primarily because it is often unclear who is leading…God or humans.
Human history shows us just how frequently we get caught up in ourselves and our own cleverness. With our God-given gifts of inquisitiveness and determination (and some level of intuition and insight) we continue to beat back the unknown. We believe ourselves to be quite intelligent and self-directed – and we are, to a degree. There is an old saw that states that those who fail to learn history are destined to repeat it. Same is true of those who fail to learn the lessons that the Bible teaches. Over and over again we see the kings and leaders of the world who in their hubris forget to give God what God is due. What we owe God is for us to humbly acknowledge that only God is God and that we are not. God is seeking a relationship with us based on our humble acquiescence to God’s commands – to God’s sovereignty. God wants us to get off the acquisition mode of living and to understand that God has created a world which has enough and some leftover for every person…all 7+ billion of them. We have the capability to end world hunger, to eliminate poverty, wars and associated suffering, to live in harmony with each other and with all of creation. In order to do that, however, we have to answer just one simple question…the question that has bedeviled humans since Adam and Eve. Who is in Command of your life and our lives? Amen and amen!