Do you remember those Magic Eye pictures that were really popular in the late 80’s and early 90’s? Like the one up on the screen? You were supposed to somehow relax your eyes and you would see a sailboat or (I think), in this case, an eye(?). I took a huge leap of faith including this today because I can’t see them at all. It could be anything, good or bad, because I have never once been able to see these pictures. In fact, I have thought that this is a worldwide, or at least, a society-wide hoax that I somehow missed out on. Like, 100 million people got together and said, “Pretend to see this for ten years and we will drive the other 7 billion people on earth crazy.”
There is something in me that makes it impossible to see a picture that is obvious to other people. For a long time, I really did think it was a hoax, but, then, I had a friend who was like me and couldn’t see these at all. We would joke about these things constantly, assuming that everyone was lying. Then one day we were at the mall, walking past one of the kiosks that used to sell these. He had a cold or something, and he was a little bit tired, and, all of a sudden, he could see it. Out of nowhere, he could The wavy lines became a lighthouse and he was a believer. He was lost and now he was found. He was blind but now he could see. But, as always, I was still the odd-man out. I just couldn’t see what others saw.
It reminds me of C.S. Lewis and his journey to faith. He was a man surrounded by religion. He grew up in Northern Ireland and was there when he lost his faith in God. His family was Protestant, as was most of Northern Ireland, in stark contrast with the rest of an Ireland that was overwhelmingly Roman Catholic. He was surrounded by people whose religion defined them.
His atheism would not have been well received. This was a country where, just a few decades later, there would be intense fighting and anarchy caused by political problems in which the dividing lines were drawn by religion – which religion these were a part of? Are you a Catholic or a Protestant? Many of us remember watching the news and seeing bus bombings and Molotov cocktails thrown. Though that conflict had not yet begun in Lewis’ early life, it was boiling under the surface as the religious and political landscape of Ireland was changing. He was a man surrounded by religion, who, because of what he saw, thought it better to be a man without a religion.
I grew up reading his books, The Narnia Series specifically, with my parents telling me that he was an atheist. They were partly right, although, they never got the memo that he had become a Christian… in 1931. They were just fifty years late with the news.
But he had been an atheist for some pretty compelling reasons. At the age of fifteen, he found himself angry with God for not existing. Angry with God for not existing. Which I find to be a hilarious picture of prayer in a peculiar direction. “God, I’m so mad at you for not existing!” It’s a prayer that only a teenager could pray. It’s like the opposite of Manny and Valerie’s granddaughter, Josie’s, prayer from this week. They told me that they had her say grace before dinner and she finished her prayer with a “Good job, God!” and a big thumbs up. [Pause]
As C.S. Lewis grew up, he continued that trajectory, and his arguments became a bit more sophisticated, often quoting Lucretius, saying, “Had God designed the world, it would not be a world so frail and faulty as we see.” It may a bit more sophisticated, but it’s still that prayer: “I’m so mad at you, God, for not existing.”
C.S. Lewis couldn’t understand a God that didn’t solve our problems for us. “Had God designed the world, it would not be a world so frail and faulty as we see.”
Growing up in place so shaped by religion, he would have been very much alone with his thoughts on atheism. And, later, when he returned to faith, as a result of a significant change of heart that was influenced in no small part by conversations with J.R.R. Tolkien, his colleague, and friend, ardent Roman Catholic Christian, and author of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. His conversion also came after reading science fiction books by George MacDonald.
He was alone as an atheist and was nearly as alone in faith when he was teaching at Oxford. But his loneliness led to his imagination running wild and may have led to his beginning a literary career in which he talked about the Christian life in a myriad of ways, both overt and covert. Like, in the Screwtape Letters, he pretended to be a demon naming all of the ways that he tricked up humans into sin. Or in The Great Divorce, a book that I picked up as a teenager from my church’s library (and never gave it back!) In The Great Divorce, he showed his vision for the afterlife. But in his most famous books, The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe and the rest of the Chronicles of Narnia, he used parable and myth to teach children about God in a way that they would understand, with a story that could live in their hearts. He used a false story, a myth, to teach a true story, faith.
Isaiah and the Israelites (this would make a great band name for Jewish covers band)… had been taught a true story that said that God will take care of them and peace will come, but they lived in a world full of violence. It wouldn’t have made any sense. Their lives must have been like staring at that magic eye picture and just not seeing the hidden image… it had to feel like a hoax. How could a God who loved them and had made promises to them, leave them in danger of being defeated?
They look up and a stranger has entered town. The servant of the king of Assyria stood before them and told them that their end had come. He told them surrender was their only option. If not, they would all be dead.
It must have been like the movie 300 from a few years back, where the messenger of Xerxes goes to King Leonidas, and his men, and says, “The king is so strong that the march of his armies is like an earthquake. His men drink rivers dry. Surrender and we will spare you. Fight and we will burn Sparta to the ground.” The expectation is that Leonidas will give up something really small as a token of his surrender – a jar of soil and a glass of water, both from Sparta as a sign that Xerxes now owns Sparta. Leonidas refuses to surrender and thus begins an epic battle for the ages where 300 men fight off 300,000 Persian soldiers long enough to save Greece, but Sparta all give their lives because of their refusal to surrender.
These Israelites look up and see a similar scene, but their story happened seven hundred years before Sparta met the Persians.
The Assyrian messenger comes and begins shouting outside of the city to the people inside: “Don’t let your king tell you otherwise. Fighting is not an option. You will all die and we will burn your city to the ground. You have already lost. Don’t let your king fool you. You don’t know it yet, but you are already our slaves. Give up now.”
It must have been so scary. The temptation must have been to give up and to lay down and accept their fate. Or, the other temptation, maybe just as strong as the first for some, was to go out and die in glory like the Spartans. They looked at the problem and saw only two options: surrender and be a slave or fight and die. That was the messenger’s plan: make them think that there are only two available options when, with their God, there was at least one more option.
When we think that there are only two options, it’s considered a logical fallacy called Either/Or. In this congregation, I always have to bring up Kierkegaard who wrote a book with that same title, Either/Or, in which he outlines two accepted ways of living: the aesthetic or the ethical. There is the life of beauty and pleasure or the moral life. He says that it feels like you can be a monk or a hedonist, artist or philosopher, sinner or a saint. But then he gives the truth: We are all a bit of both. There are more options. There is no either/or.
Like C.S. Lewis praying his anger that God doesn’t exist. Our lives are a paradox and our solutions are more complicated than we can recognize.
In the same way, God had a solution for the Israelites that would have been hard to accept. God had a solution for them that was neither surrender nor death. Fight or flight. Both of these options would lead to horrible consequences, death or slavery. God’s plan for them was God saying to them, “Let me take care of it. Let me help you because all you see limits when I see possibilities.”
In their prayers, and in order to find strength, we have to imagine that the Israelites recalled God’s promises from Isaiah 2: “He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.”
“If you let me handle it, I will settle this dispute.” If only every nation, every people, would let God take care of it, then we would see swords beaten into plowshares – that is, the instruments of war, made into instruments to create food. For the Israelites, they trusted, they let God handle it, and God did settle this dispute and the Israelites did not have to die in war or become a defeated people. They trusted God and, in the night, God defeated the Assyrians and they went home, leaving the Israelites in peace.
C.S. Lewis was called the greatest Christian Apologist of the 20th Century. An apologist is someone who defends the faith. He wrote book after book defending God. It was the opposite of his ill-informed adolescent prayer, more Josie’s prayer of, “Good job, God!” He looked at the world and those who would attack faith and, over and over, he defended God.
But if we read Isaiah well, I’m going to invite us to reconsider whether God needs defending. When we begin to defend God, we’re really defending ourselves. And didn’t we just learn that God will do that too?
Spiritually, the way we beat our swords into plowshares is to stop trying to convince people that the gospel is true, because it’s like the people who would try to convince me that the Magic Eye pictures are real; it just doesn’t work. We have to stop defending God, stop trying to convince people and start telling them our story.
It’s what happened what happened for C.S. Lewis, eventually. He wrote dozens of books defending God and then he wrote a series of children’s books that captured the imagination of generations of kids who now see God as an untamable lion. Kids weren’t going to ever read The Personal Heresy or The Case for Christianity, but kids who are transported through a wardrobe to another world where God still rules supreme and protects them has changed life after life.
When we stop trying to defend God and start telling people about the ways that Christ has saved us, everything begins to be different. It is how we show that we have faith in God and have released everything to him.
God doesn’t need defending. God wants us to witness, to the story. So may we go out shouting the good news that God has saved us from certain doom, even if what we say is a simple prayer of “Good job, God!” Amen.