They Cannot Win

They cannot win.

Once upon a time, the descendants of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob—the Israelites—lived in a single kingdom. Saul was their king. And then David was their king. And then Solomon was their king. And then it all fell apart.

The kingdom became two kingdoms: the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah. And things went on like that for a while: there were births and there were deaths, there was planting and there was plucking, there was mourning and there was dancing, there was war and there was peace.

And then the Assyrians came.

The northern kingdom of Israel fell, and Assyria took its people into exile, and they disappeared, more or less, from history.

And then cities in the southern kingdom of Judah began to fall. And now…

The Assyrian army is at Jerusalem’s gates, and the people are distressed, and the king of Judah is tearing his clothes, and the Assyrian emissary is right there, telling them that they cannot win.

Do not listen to Hezekiah your king. No one has won. No king of any nation has resisted our army. No god of any nation has protected their people. Every nation has fallen before our empire. The northern kingdom of Israel fell before our empire. And you will fall before our empire.

So do the smart thing… and lay down your arms… and surrender. And then you can sit under your own vine and fig tree, until we take you away, to a perfectly fine land, somewhere else. Until we destroy you.

They cannot win.

The Assyrian army is not at our gates. But some hard realities are. And I am trying to be as honest as I can. So…

It is a fact that there are fewer people here on any given Sunday morning than there used to be. Ten years ago, our average worship service had about one hundred and twenty people in it. Five years ago, when you called me as your pastor, that number was about eighty. This year, it will probably be about forty.

And worship attendance is not the only way to measure the vitality of a congregation, but it is a fact that there are fewer people at any given thing than there used to be. A few people carry the weight of Sunday School… and soup deliveries… and book group… and Bible study… and everything else.

And it is a fact that we are planning to end the year with a fifteen-thousand dollar budget deficit, and we are planning to start next year with a thirty-thousand dollar budget deficit on the horizon.

And there are reasons for all of that. There are long-term social trends. There is not-really-post-pandemic fatigue. There is the simple fact that we all have too much to do, and we have to prioritize things, and this little consulate of the kingdom of God cannot always be in first place… or second place… or fifth place… or any place.

The Assyrian army is not at our gates. But busy-ness and anxiety and exhaustion and apathy are. And believe me when I tell you that your pastor—who is absolutely not your king—is tearing his clothes and hearing the voice that is right there, that says that we cannot win.

No one has won. No congregation, anywhere, has resisted our army. No god, anywhere, has protected their people. Every community of faith has fallen before our empire of idols: to prosperity gospel preaching, or white Christian nationalism, or just turning inward until they cannot see the world around them. And you will fall before our empire.

So do the smart thing… and lay down your arms… and surrender. And then you can sit under your own vine and fig tree, until we take you away, to a perfectly fine land, somewhere else. Until we destroy you.

Our reading today does this weird thing. It gives us these little snippets of the emissary from Assyria and the king of Judah: the one who says, “You cannot win,” and the one who worries that they cannot win. And it goes right up to the point when the prophet Isaiah tells the servants of the king, and therefore the king, and therefore the whole people, “Thus says the Lord: Do. Not. Be. Afraid.”

And then it skips back. It goes back to almost the beginning of the book, where Isaiah says,

In the days to come, the mountain of the Lord’s house will be established as the highest of the mountains, and the nations will stream to it. And people will say, “Let’s go to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob, that we might learn their ways and walk in their paths.”

And the word of the Lord will go out into the world. And God will judge between the nations and arbitrate between the peoples. And they will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not lift sword up against nation; neither will they study war any more.

It gives us the worst moment—when the Assyrian army is at the gate and the Assyrian emissary is right there, telling them that they cannot win—and then it skips back and reminds us of the truth: that the worst moment will not last forever, that we do not have to win, that God is working everything toward peace.

I know that I’m being hard. I know that this is not the sermon that anyone wants to hear. I know that we do not want to have another conversation about how there aren’t enough people and how there isn’t enough money and how I am worried—how I am anxious—about whether this congregation will be here in five years or ten years or fifteen years.

But the truth is that we are facing some of our worst moments. And the truth is that isn’t the first time. And the truth is that it is not our job to win; it is simply our job to live into the promise: that the word of the Lord will go out into the world, and the people will follow it, and peace will spread across the earth.

And even more than that:

That on that mountain, the Lord will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. That on that mountain, the Lord will destroy the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the covering that is spread over all nations, and swallow up death forever. That on that mountain, the Lord will wipe away every tear and take disgrace away from the earth; and we will rejoice in our salvation.

Because the truth is that we do not have to be afraid. And we do not need to win. Because no matter what happens to us, God will win… and even when we have trouble seeing it, God’s reign of love is blossoming around us.

Oh… sorry… … …they win.

Hezekiah prays…

Lord, the kings of Assyria have laid nations and their lands to waste. And they’ve taken their gods—and I know that they’re not really gods, but just wood and stone, but still—they’ve taken their gods and tossed them into the fire to burn. And I am worried. I am anxious. I do not see how we can win. So I am asking you, O Lord, to protect us. I am asking you, O Lord, to deliver us from Assyria’s hand, that all the earth might know that you alone are God.

And Isaiah delivers a message, “Thus says the Lord: The Assyrians are not going to take this city. I am going to defend it. ‘Cause this is my house.”

And when the moment comes, an angel appears and strikes down one hundred and eighty-five thousand Assyrian troops. It is an epic scene and the special effects are awesome. And the rest of the Assyrian army goes home.

And this is the thing:

The Assyrian army is not at our gates. But some hard realities are.

And I think that part of the reason that there aren’t enough people and there isn’t enough money is because a lot of us are worried and anxious and hedging our bets. We are wondering if this congregation will be here in five or ten or fifteen years, and we all have too much to do, so we’re prioritizing things… and we’re moving this little consulate of the kingdom of God down on the list, in accordance with our anxiety.

And some of us are doing that a lot. And some of us are doing that a little. And some of us are only doing that in the backs of our minds, far below the surface, where we don’t even have to admit it to ourselves.

But I am here to tell you: Do. Not. Be. Afraid.

Do not shrink back in fear. Do not busy yourselves with worry. Do not curl up in anxiety.

Because we are a little consulate of the kingdom of God. We are a church that defies expectations. We are a community that does new things. We are a place where everyone has something to give, and everyone has something to receive, and everyone… everyone… every. single. one…. matters

And we are a people who rest on the promise that no matter who you are, and no matter where you are on life’s journey, you are loved and worthy of love and welcomed in not only by us, but by the God. Who. Is. Love.

And I believe that as long as this church holds onto that… and long as we preach that gospel… as long as we shout that from the rooftops…

…then no matter how many people are here, whether it’s not-quite-forty or more than two hundred…

…and no matter how much money is in the bank, whether it’s not enough to pay the bills or more than enough to change the world…

…and no matter who is at the gates… and no matter how things around us might change… and no matter how we might change…

…God will… … …

Look, I want to say that God will defend us and protect us, because we will be living in the house of the living God. But that’s not quite right.

When the Assyrian emissary speaks to the people, he asks them to accept peace through surrender: lay down your arms, and sit under your own vine and fig tree, until we destroy you.

And that is not peace. That is not peace in any way, shape, or form. That is not peace at all.

But when God speaks to the people—when God speaks to us—God asks us to accept peace through abundance: turn swords into plowshares, turn spears into pruning hooks, and grow a new world, until you are transformed.

I believe that God will defend us and protect us. And I believe that God will change us. And I believe that, one day, we will not be in the house of the living God, but in the world of the living God, enjoying a feast beyond compare—of rich food and well-aged wines—rejoicing in our salvation.

And everyone will win.

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