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Living by the Sword

August 15, 2010
Sermon:  Living by the Sword
Text:  Matthew 26:47-5

 The staff makes a pretty serious attempt to coordinate the elements in a worship service.  I usually announce a sermon title.  Carrie tries to fit her children’s sermon to the topic, and Holly tries to tie in the hymns and the anthem.  I wish you could have seen their expressions when I announced the topic for today, “Living by the Sword.”  They asked, “Where in the world are you going with that?”  The look in their eyes told me that these two militant pacifists did not want to hear talk about swords.  They were ready to fight if that was necessary.

I explained to them that I am throwing a curve ball today.  I am coming out of left field.  My professor of preaching used to call this a trip check sermon.  He said, “Tell your listeners they are going on a trip.  Start some place that seems strange, but get them to the right destination.”  Here we go.

What do you know about swords?  Maybe you have heard of the sword of Damacles.  According to Greek legend, to Greek myth, a man named Damacles was envious of his king, Dionysius, who seemed to have great power and wealth.  When Dionysius learned that Damacles wanted to take his place, he suggested, “Why don’t you just try it for a day?  Take my place and see how you like it.” 

The appointed day came, and Damacles was dressed in the king’s royal robes and seated on the throne.  A banquet was prepared.  As Damacles lifted his cup to drink from the royal challis, he saw, suspended above his head, a sword that was held by a single stand of horse hair.  He was so distracted by the sword and the fragile way in which it hung over him, that he could not enjoy the meal.  In fact, he was so worried that he could not enjoy anything about the day.  He did not enjoy anything about the role he had so envied. 

When Dionysius questioned him about his day, Damacles confessed, “A sword hung above my head all day long.  Did you see it?”

The king answered, “Yes, I saw the sword.  It is the same one that hangs over my head every day.  It is the price of having power.  You never know who might slash that single strand of horse hair and send you to your doom.” 

The sword of Damacles made life miserable for the two men in this story.

Maybe you have heard of Excalibur, the sword of King Arthur.  The legends are varied, but a composite of the story is that the only person who had the power to pull the sword from the stone was the person who would inherit the throne.  When Arthur gripped the hilt of the sword and pulled it from the stone, he was named the king of all of Camelot.  Arthur’s sword gave him great power.  Even the scabbard in which the sword was placed was said to keep the person who wore it from bleeding to death if wounded in battle.

The time came when the sword broke.  Arthur instructed one of his knights to hurl it into the lake.  The Lady of the Lake mended the weapon and returned it to Arthur.  He, in turn, had victory.

Maybe through the years you have heard other stories of swords.  The Scottish warrior William Wallace, known as Braveheart, carried a claymore Gaelic sword, which has been preserved in a museum in Scotland.  Perhaps you know of the sword Blade of Mars, said to have been the sword of both Julius Caesar and later Attila the Hun.  If you gaze at the night sky, as I often do, you have seen the sword of Orion.  J.R.R. Tolkien’s trilogy The Lord of the Rings tells of the tiny sword called the Sting.  Made by elves, according to the legend, it glowed blue when the enemy, the Orcs, were in the area.  The character named Frodo used the sword to fight his way to Mount Doom.

There is an old saying about those who write mysteries.  If in the first chapter of a mystery the author places a revolver on the mantelpiece, he or she had better use it before the tale ends.  Likewise, if you position a sword on the mantle, you had better use it before the story ends.

A sword has been placed on the mantelpiece in the Bible.  As you might expect, swords appear throughout the Old Testament.    Flaming swords guard Eden after God casts out Adam and Eve.  Angels carry swords, as for example, in the account of Balaam.  We see a great rattling of swords especially during the time of the Exodus, the conquest of the land of Canaan, and the Exile in Babylon. 

Consider the story of Saul and David, which comes at the juncture between the Iron Age and the Stone Age.  The Philistine soldiers are all equipped with swords, but Saul is the only person in Israel having one.  Saul tries to put all of his armor on David, a young volunteer, before sending him into battle.  This armor, however, is too heavy for the boy.  He returns to the Stone Age, picking up five smooth stones to face the Philistine Goliath.  Some have said that David was the first rock and roll artist.  He slung the rock, and Goliath’s head rolled.  You have to go a long way to get that. 

The most pertinent passage regarding swords in the Old Testament comes from two of the prophets, Isaiah and Micah.  They prophesy a time of peace and say that people “will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.  Nations will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore” (Isaiah 2:4).  It is a fond hope of many people who long for peace. 

What would you think of the expression “the sword of Jesus”?  Does that sound like an incongruity to you?  It seems so to me, yet a sword is on the mantelpiece when we come to the Gospel accounts.  Jesus himself said, “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth.  I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34). 

That Scripture has been used in so many wrong ways.  It has become a justification to do violence against others.  The people of Islam, the nation of Islam, the religion of Islam is said to have spread so rapidly during its first 100 years because followers practiced what is called “evangelism by the sword.”  A number of periods in Christian history included essentially the same practice.  I think of the Crusades, for example, or the Spanish Inquisition.  Christians, too, have taken up the sword.  They have beaten plowshares back into swords and used them and other kinds of armament for the purpose of war. 

The passage for today, taken from the New Testament, contains more talk of swords.  The Gospels of Matthew and Luke both include the account of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane at the time of his betrayal and arrest.  The accounts differ somewhat, but swords are clearly present in the Garden.  The temple soldiers are all equipped with swords, and the disciples apparently had at least two.  When Judas betrays Jesus, we see an impulsive reaction on the part of one of the followers.  Wanting to defend his master, the disciple picks up a sword and cuts off the ear of the guard named Malcheus, according to tradition. 

We read in Matthew 26:52 that Jesus told this impetuous disciple, “Put your sword back into its place.  For all who take the sword will perish by the sword.”  Luke’s account includes the fact that the disciples were carrying two.  Here, however, Jesus replied, “Enough!”  Does that mean that Jesus thought two swords were enough to protect them from danger, or was he saying, “Enough of this talk about swords”?  When reviewing Jesus’ reaction to his disciple’s act of violence, you can imagine that our Lord did not want his disciples to take up swords against the enemy.  His response of “Enough!” undoubtedly meant, “No more of this violence.”  In either case, Jesus’ response to this bloodshed is to touch the guard’s ear and heal him. 

What are we to do with this sword on the mantelpiece?  How are we to understand it?  Consider the response of the early church as we read through the New Testament.  We can look at John’s on the island of Patmos where he has a remarkable vision of the risen Lord.  Revelation 1:12-15:

I turned around to see the voice that was speaking to me.  And when I turned I saw seven golden lampstands, and among the lampstands was someone “like a son of man,” dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest.  His head and his hair were white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire…out of his mouth came a sharp double-edged sword. 

Paul gives us a great view of the way the early church understood the sword of the Lord.  In Ephesians 6:11-18, he describes the whole armor of God, the armor of a Christian, after the model of a Roman soldier.  As Paul details this, he says that we are to take up “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Verse 17).  The only offensive weapon Paul mentions in that great passage is the sword.  Jesus’ word is regarded as his sword.  The sword of the Spirit is the Bible.

When I was a boy, I participated in sword drills at my church.  The Bibles we used during practice were all alike.  They were hardbacks having an inscription on the front cover, which identified the Bible as the “sword of the Lord.”  We would line up in a straight line and stand at attention.  When our leader said, “Draw swords” we would pull the Bible up in front of us with one hand on top of the Bible and the other hand underneath.  Then the leader would give a command required us to find a particular passage of Scripture in the Bible, John 3:16, for example.  When the command “Charge!” was given, we all scrambled to find the passage.  The person who found it the quickest would step forward and read the passage, as well as the one that preceded and followed it.  Leaders always chose passages from books like Haggai and Habakkuk and all those prophets at the end of the Old Testament.  Those were the hardest to find.  Sometimes we had book drills, just finding books of the Bible.  We had to name the book that came before and after the passage. 

Every year, the Spartanburg County Association held association-wide competitions, consisting of the two best representatives from each church.  My good friend, whose mother was our sword drill leader, was the all-time champion in the church I attended.  His sword drill Bible was so well used that the edges looked like one of those Bibles with the index on the outside of the pages.  He had crammed his thumb in his Bible so many times that you could see where the books of the Bible were.  He was best; I was second best. 

The contest that year was held at First Baptist Church, in the Barraca classroom.  I was nervous before the competition, so I went by the restroom where I accidentally dropped my well worn, well used sword drill Bible in the toilet.  What do you do in a situation like that?  I fished it out and threw it in the trash can.  I certainly was not going to use it.  It was unusable. 

When I walked into the competition empty-handed, my leader asked, “Where is your Bible?” 

I lied.  I am sorry, and I repent.  I said, “I left it at home.” 

She said, “You’ll have to use mine.”  She gave me her Bible, one having a thick leather cover with a zipper all the way around.  It was like a brand new Bible with pages made of onion skin.  I finished dead last in the association sword drill competition.

Let me tell you what I learned though.  I learned the importance of this Book.  This is the Word of God.  This is the sword of the Lord.  When you see a sword on the mantelpiece the end of the story leads you to the Word of God.  Why is that important? 

Turn with me to the book of Hebrews, Chapter 4, Verses 12-13: 

For the word of God is living and active.  Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.  Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight.  Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.

Is the Word of God a two-edged sword?  The passage says it is “sharper than a two-edged sword.”  What is sharper than a two-edged sword?  How about a scalpel?  Look at the context.  Replace the word “scalpel” with the word “sword.” 

The word of God is living and active.  Sharp as a scalpel, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow.  It judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.  Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight.  Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must have account.

The Bible is so important because it touches us where nothing else can touch us.  It opens us up and goes deep into our lives.  The book of James says it is like a mirror.  When you look into it, you see a reflection revealing who you really are, what you are really like.  One choice is to ignore the reflection and walk away, forgetting what is seen.  The other choice is to pay close attention and remember.  The person choosing to learn from the experience will be blessed (James 1:22-25).

Now that the new school year is beginning, I want to encourage you to make Bible reading a daily part of your life.  I want to encourage you to find a way to study God’s Word every single day.  Jack Dodds can give you a plan for doing that.  Sunday School literature and daily devotion books also provide plans.  You can simply open the Bible and read.  I know many of you already read the Bible daily, but I want to encourage every member of this congregation.  This is the “light unto our feet and a lamp unto our path” (Psalm 119:105).  Occasionally, I need to call us back to the Bible.  That is what I am doing this morning.  I am calling you back to the Word of God.  I am asking you to please be conscientious in making it a daily part of your life.

If you are not a Christian, settle that.  Accept Christ Jesus as your Savior.  Acknowledge Jesus as the Lord of your life.  We invite your response to this invitation. 

Kirk H. Neely
© August 2010
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