The Standard For Encouragement
THE STANDARD FOR ENCOURAGEMENT
In our passage today Moses is praying over a pitched battle. Joshua, his young lieutenant, has engaged in hand to hand combat with the King Amalek’s troops. And Moses stands on a hill and prays. He raises his hands as if in a blessing. As his hands are raised the people of Israel succeed. But when he gets tired the people of Israel are beaten back by the Amalekites. Today’s text shows us a standard for encouragement in the midst of the spiritual battles we face in this life.
This is one of the first examples of intercessory prayer, or praying for others, in the Bible. And I do not think it is a coincidence that intercessory prayer is illustrated by a battle. I have not served in the military. And I have not been in battle. But I understand from research and listening to some of you who are in the military and have been in battle that some of the closets bonds you can form are in the military and in combat.
Sebastian Junger, is an NPR combat reporter. He writes and talks about the brotherhood among soldiers so that those like me, who have not served, can understand what being a solider and being in combat is like. Junger reports the story of one soldier that I found to be particularly revealing. To quote Junger, “ I was particularly close to a guy named Brendan O’Byrne. I’m still very good friends with him. He came back to the States. He got out of the Army. I had a dinner party one night. I invited him, and he was – he started talking with a woman – one of my friends. And she knew how bad it had been out there, and she said Brendan, is there anything at all that you miss about being out in Afghanistan, about the war? And he thought about it quite a long time and finally said, ma’am, I miss almost all of it. And he’s one of the most traumatized people I’ve seen from that war. Ma’am, I miss almost all of it. What is he talking about?
So it wasn’t just Brendan. It was a really common sentiment. And I think what they’re talking about – and they’re not psychopaths. They don’t miss killing people. They don’t miss almost getting killed, getting injured themselves, losing their friends. What they miss is brotherhood. They miss being part of a very tightly bonded group where pretty much everyone in that group is willing to risk or even sacrifice their life for the safety, for the welfare of everyone else.”
We may not all have been through combat. But we are all fighting a spiritual battle. Philo of Alexandria once said, “Be Kind for everyone is fighting a great battle.” In our regular lives we are all fighting a great battle. These battles do not get as much press as actual combat but they are still serious. The Bible tells us that the weapon that we have to win this battle is kindness. Our calling in our spiritual battles is to encourage one another. How are we to do that?
Lawrence Crabb in his book Encouragement, lays down Biblical principles for encouragement. Crabb points out that in our society we place a high degree of value on being authentic. We place a lot of value on being real.
We see this expressed in my generation’s openness on social media. And sometimes being vulnerable can encourage people to be vulnerable themselves. Vulnerability is necessary for trust. We cannot trust, we cannot love if we are not vulnerable. Yet Crabb argues that Total Openness does not lead to encouragement. Truth said at the wrong time with the wrong tone can do as much damage as a lie.
Instead, Crabb recommends that trust can only develop in an atmosphere of Total Commitment. Much like brothers and sisters on the battle field we are to be brothers and sisters in our spiritual battles. Indeed, closeness in battle doesn’t necessarily come because we share our deepest darkest secrets. It comes because we know that our fellow soldiers have our back. Wars are fought by governments for a variety of reasons. But when the bullets start flying ultimately every soldier is fighting for the soldier next to them. In the book of Philippians Paul tells us that we are to do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit but in humility consider others to be better than ourselves (Philippians 2:3). Thus to encourage others we share ourselves to build others up, not to unload on them, and burden them. To quote Crabb, “ It sounds deceptively simple: Total Commitment rather than Total Openness. Instead of expressing what I feel in an effort to remove my layers, I am to be concerned with speaking words that reach beneath others’ layers and quiet others’ fears.” (Crabb, 49). Words that encourage are motivated by love and they are designed to cast out fear. For the scriptures tell us that perfect love cast out fear (1 John 4:8).
Indeed, the book of Philippians says we should do nothing out of vein ambition or conceit but in humility we are to consider others to be better than ourselves (Philippians 2:3). The word there is like a coach. Who seeks to encourage people to surpass them. Those they coach get so good at what the coach is coaching that they replace the coach. And the coach is not bitter. Because that was the goal in the first place to encourage you to step us.
Who is going to encourage us when we are constantly encouraging others? Who is going to pastor the pastor? And Paul says, “6 do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:6-7) . And I will tell you that this is not a metaphor. For there are times in my life when I have been in difficult situations and I have given the problem to the Lord and an unexplainable peace has come over me.
But how are we supposed to do this? How are we supposed to become more encouraging? Are we just supposed to try to be nicer? Well scripture does say that faith without works is dead (James 2:14-26). But we know that works done for the wrong reason are a dead end. People can tell when you are faking it. There is a difference between doing and being. Moses learned this. He learned the difference from trying to act like a leader to being a leader.
To summarize Moses’ life, Moses was raised in Pharaoh’s royal court, for he was adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter. Moses’ biological mother helped raise him so he was aware of his Hebrew heritage. He lived in two worlds. Being in Pharaoh’s court gave him wealth and status. But he cared for his people. He just didn’t want to lose his privilege, he didn’t want to lose his life. One day Moses , when he was an adult, around 40 the book of Acts tells us, he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew. He killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. Pharaoh found out and Moses had to flee to the land of Midian. There he got married, had children, and became a shepherd.
The book of Acts tells us that Moses was 80 years old when God appeared to him in the burning bush (Acts 7). Moses had settled down in the land of Midian. He had a wife and a family and seemed to be content being a shepherd .He seemed to have forgotten his former life. But then the LORD appeared to him in a bush that was set on fire yet not consumed (Exodus 3). God told Moses that He was sending Moses to deliver His people from Egypt. Moses had tried to be a hero earlier in his life. But instead of supporting Him his people had turned on him and reported to Pharaoh that he had killed an Egyptian. But this time the LORD would be with Him. Still, Moses was discouraged. Moses had tried to defend his people when he was forty and they had betrayed him. They did not believe in Him. So Moses responds to God, “ Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel up out of Egypt.” (Exodus 3:11). Considering Moses early life it is understandable that he might lack confidence. It is understandable that he would be discouraged. So he asks the God His name. And God replies,
“I AM WHO I AM”. God is saying that He is being itself. That He is the Alpha and the Omega. He need not justify Himself to others. God is secure in His existence. God is totally cool with who God is. And He would teach Moses to be secure in His calling as a leader. He would teach him not only how to lead but how to be a leader on the inside. God would move Moses from doing into being. He would move him from saying this is what I do to this is who I am.
And Moses does lead the people of Israel out of Egypt. And by Exodus 17 we do not see a man who is questioning, “Who am I?” anymore. By this time Moses is at least 80 years old and he has gained confidence in his calling. He does not say, “who am I?” to send my young lieutenant Joshua into Battle? He does not say “who am I to believe that my prayers are going to be answered?” Instead, he steps up and prays. He steps up and believes. He does not need help because he lacks confidence. He needs help because he is 80 years old and his body is not as strong as it used to be. He needs the next generation to step up into a leadership role.
Where did Moses get His strength to pray for Joshua to win this battle? At first I thought this text was about human friendship. Instead, I think it is more about our human limitations. Aaron and Hur held Moses arms up because he was a human being, he was an eighty year old man, and human beings can only hold their hands up for so long, especially if they are 80. But it was not Aaron and Hur’s friendship that blessed Moses’ hands. Instead, it was the LORD’s friendship that blessed Moses. For the scriptures tell us that God talked to Moses as he would talk to a friend (Exodus 33:11) face to face. Moses strength to win the battle did come through friendship. But it was not his friendship with Aaron and Hur it was his friendship with God that won the battle. And you may think that is really unusual but the scriptures say that Christians have a greater glory than Moses. When we look upon the face of Jesus Christ we are transformed from glory to glory. Not just to be encouraged but to become encouragers.
After the battle Moses built an Altar to honor the victory. He called the Altar, “The LORD is my banner.” Older translations would say, “The LORD is my standard.” A banner or standard was a flag that an army would carry into battle. When the chaos of combat broke out ancient armies did not have radios and satellites to organize their movements. Instead they would rally around the banner of their army. They would rally around their flag, their banner, their standard, and push forward into battle. The thought occurred to me that perhaps Moses meant this very literally. Perhaps Joshua went into battle without a standard to rally around because Moses told him to go without a banner. The blessing of the LORD through Moses’ raised hands was their standard. When he lowered his hands the Israelites began to lose because in the chaos of battle they had no flag to rally around. But when Moses raised His hands the people fought as one, without an earthly banner, which would have certainly confused and frightened the Amalekites, because they wouldn’t understand how the Israelites were able to keep organized in the midst of battle without a banner. In the chaos of battle the LORD was Moses’ standard. The LORD was His encouragement. Moses’ friends helped Moses out because He was only one man and he had to learn to accept His limits. But His hope and His power did not come from His earthly friends. It came from God who Moses trusted. And God trusted Moses.
You know about a week ago I was talking with my sister on the phone. And we were having an argument. And maybe you get into arguments with your siblings that last forever. I know I do. And I am not going to tell you what the argument was about because it wouldn’t be encouraging. But at the end of the conversation I was really frustrated. And my sister was talking about her interest in improv comedy. And I wasn’t sure this was the best use of her time. She has been married for a year, has a new job, just got done with a major housing renovation, and has chronic pain. Couldn’t there be better uses of her time I thought? But she had a show coming up this Wednesday and it was really important to her. And while I was doubtful about it, and though I was frustrated with her, I said I would come because I knew it was important to her.
That afternoon I had a meeting that ran a little long and I was able to get on the road till five. Just around the time Hampton Roads traffic hits rush hour. I thought I would miss her performance which I thought started at 7pm. But she updated the event on facebook to say that the performance started at 8pm and she would be the first one up. I looked at my GPS and I saw that I would arrive there right around 8pm. I considered texting my sister to tell her I couldn’t come. Because I was stuck in traffic and my day had been discouraging. But then I remembered that I was preaching a sermon on being encouraging to others, so I thought I should practice what I preach. So I stuck it out.
It took me three hours to get to Richmond, when it would normally take me an hour and half. And then it took me twenty minutes to find a place to park in downtown Richmond. And then they charged me five dollars at the door! And I was like, “fine! I am trying to be encouraging!” And I sat down in the seat next to her husband and he was surprised to see me. I told him I knew this was important to my sister. It turned out I got there just in time to see her perform. Afterwards Caitlin came over to where we were sitting and I told her I needed to leave. We went outside and she thanked me for coming. She said I didn’t have to come. But I told her I knew it was important to her. I drove back to Richmond. I had spent four hours driving to see my sister perform for twenty minutes.
The next night my sister texted me and thanked me for coming. It really was important to her. And then she called me. We talked about her plans to start a standup comedy routine. And for the first time in my life I took her seriously. I suggested she call the routine, “Laughing till it hurts,” because she wanted to use comedy to encourage others to use laughter to deal with their pain. She said she thought that was a great idea. I do have a few of those every once in a while. And then we got into a discussion about what we were fighting about. We didn’t totally agree. But the conversation went way better than it had ever gone in my life. I had spent four hours driving to see my sister perform for twenty minutes. And I didn’t do it because I wanted to win that argument. I did it because I wanted to encourage my sister. There was a breakthrough. A mountain had been moved. And mountains will be moved in our lives when we lift up the LORD as our banner. And we shall encourage one another.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.