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In the 14th chapter of his gospel, St. Luke tell us that Jesus turned to the crowds following Him and said, What king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace.” (Luke 14:31-32).
We may not expect to hear advice on military strategy from the lips of Jesus. This is the sort of instruction you go to West Point for – not the scriptures. Yet, here it is. Jesus, sounding more like commander-in-chief than good shepherd.
Which of us who has read the bible – especially the Old Testament – has not been a bit shocked if not a bit turned off by the amount of warfare that contains? And even more shocked to find that most of the time, it is God Himself who is leading the charge?
It may surprise you to learn that every Sunday in the liturgy, this Sunday included, we sing with the angels and archangels and all the company of heaven to the “Lord God of power and might.” In the older liturgy we sing, “Lord God of Sabaoth.” “Sabaoth” literally means “warfare.” We sing to the ‘war Lord.’
So, maybe it shouldn’t surprise us to hear that Jesus talks to us in terms of military strategy. Only a fool goes against an enemy without a plan. And Jesus is no fool.
I’m certainly no military tactician, but I happen to know that there are several different strategies that may be used in a confrontation with an enemy. There is the frontal attack, the surprise attack, the barricade strategy and the divide and conquer strategy. And you can find all of these being employed in the Scriptures. But there is one military strategy that God uses against the enemy of His people that is the most spectacular and memorable of all of them. And it is the strategy that is called the ‘feint retreat.’
A ‘feint retreat’ is when you retreat from the battle and give your enemy the appearance of being trapped or wounded or weak – only to lure him into an ambush.
I. The Red Sea Victory
The most spectacular and memorable military battle in the whole Old Testament is the one between Israel and Egypt. It is the battle that Israel remembers and celebrates every year to this day. From a military strategy point view – it was the classic ‘feint retreat.’ Recall the course of events.
The people of God were being held captive in Egypt under Pharaoh who would not let them go. There had been Pharaohs in the past that had been benevolent towards Israel, but there arose in Egypt a Pharaoh who knew not Joseph and who turned Egypt into a work camp and a death camp for Israel.
God called a man named Moses to be His general to ‘deliver my people from the hand of Pharaoh.’ Moses was a humble man. He was a shepherd by training, not an army officer. And so when this lowly servant of the Lord laid down his demands to the powerful potentate of Egypt saying, “Let my people go,” Pharaoh just laughed and made life for Israel even harder.
A series a plagues, which Pharaoh chalks up to natural coincidence and finally, Pharaoh tells Israel to pack their bags and get out. In their Exit, called the Exodus, they follow Moses who follows God who leads His people in a pillar of cloud by day and pillar of fire by night.
Strangely, rather than leading Israel into open country, God leads them to a place where they are “hemmed in.” They are hemmed in by the Red Sea. It’s not good military strategy to let yourself get hemmed in – unless – you’re conducting a ‘feint retreat.’
You know how the action goes from here. Pharaoh reconsiders the wisdom in letting Israel go. “What will we do without this immigrant labor?” He sees that Israel has foolishly allowed themselves to be hemmed in, they’re trapped. Pharaoh pursues with all of His chariots and horsemen. Israel is totally outnumbered and out manned. And when they see Pharaoh and the Egyptian army bearing down on them, they are filled with fear.
And their general Moses issues the strange and unnatural command – “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the salvation of the Lord which He will give you today. The Lord will fight for you. You have only to be silent.” (Ex.14:13-14).
A successful feint retreat depends on knowing a way of escape that your enemy doesn’t know of, and then ambushing him in that escape when he pursues you. Like a secret passageway that He had known was there all along, God reveals shows His people a path that runs right through the middle of the Red Sea. He opens the Sea with a strong wind, Moses says, “move out,” and Israel passed through the Sea on dry ground – with a wall of water on their right and a wall of water on their left.
And Pharaoh, seeing his prey slip away, gives the command – “Charge!” And into the Sea after God’s people they march – right into the ambush – with a wall of water on their right and a wall of water on their left. And when they get about half way across the sea, suddenly the wind stops blowing. And they realize that they are standing on the bottom of the Sea, and as the walls come crashing down, they are all drowned – not one survives.
And Israel, standing safely on the other side, rejoices with a “song of victory to our God.” “I will sing to the Lord, for he is highly exalted. The horse and its rider he has hurled into the sea.” (Exodus 15:1).
What a victory it was. They had been filled with such fear and doubt and despair because they couldn’t see what God had in mind, what He was up to. But now they saw the plan of God open up before their eyes, and it was marvelous to behold.
Never has there been a ‘feint retreat’ carried out so effectively as this. Never, that is, until the one that we celebrate today. The victory over Pharaoh was just a preview of coming attractions. This was just a battle won – the war would go on.
II. The Death Victory
God’s people would continue to be oppressed and held captive by Pharaoh’s Pharaoh, the devil himself. The Devil holds us in captivity to our own sin. Constantly telling us that we have not done enough, not worked hard enough, not produced enough. God cannot love someone like you. But if you just try a little harder and do a little more and improve on your sincerity, then God will love you.
But no matter how hard we try to meet the demands of the law, the devil accuses our conscience and reminds us that we could have done more and better. We could have given more. The harder we work to meet the quota the higher the bar is lifted. And then one day we decide we’ve had enough, we can’t take it, and we renounce the love of God and cut all ties to Him and go our merry way all alone. And the devil rejoices in acquiring another captive for his kingdom, one more deserter crossed over to the dark side.
But when the time had fully come, the time set before God created time, He sent a Savior. There was nothing in His appearance that would suggest that He was a military man. He called Himself a Shepherd. He had no army, no military weapons, not even a place to lay his head.
But the Devil knew who this One was. And He knew that He had entered onto this battle field to reclaim the captives and convert the deserters and to set His people free. The devil knows that this is the One Whom God had promised long ago, in a garden called Eden, would crush the his head.
These two first meet in a desert. How easily Jesus could have called down a legion of angels from heaven to fight for Him. Later, He would command the demons to flee and they would obey and jump into pigs and drown themselves in the sea just as Egypt had been drown long ago. He could have broken the Devil’s neck with His baby finger right here.
But no. “He made Himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man He humbled himself…” (Phil.2:8). How weak and defenseless and vulnerable He is. Now just watch now how He executes the ‘feint retreat,’ and lures His enemy into the ambush.
He is betrayed by one of His own men, apprehended, bound with ropes, taken captive, severely beaten, unmercifully flogged, bleeding from a hundred wounds. Look at this wounded and weak Israel. See how helpless He is. He is hemmed in. Hemmed in by the rough wood of the cross on one side and the nails of steal on the other.
And the disciples of Jesus are terrified. They are sure they too will be swept up in His defeat and that they will all likewise perish.
How many times had He told them His little secret? “And on the third day He will be raised from the dead.” But they did not listen.
“Aha!” cries Satan, with delight. “Now I’ve got you. Now I will finish you once and for all and your people will be my people and I will be their god.” He hears Jesus cry from the cross, “It is finished.” And Satan thinks that this is a cry of defeat and surrender.
But strangely at that moment, Satan feels a splitting headache coming on. He gives the command. “Hem Him in. Seal that stone over the entrance of the tomb!”
But it’s too late. Jesus has lured Satan into death by entering into death Himself. It was a perfectly executed ‘feint retreat.’ A prepared ambush, prepared before the creation of the world. God had known this way of escape all along. God raised Jesus from the dead. Christ is risen! He is risen indeed, Alleluia!
Do not ever fall for that ridiculous idea that God and Satan are equally matched forces that go at each other like a ying and yang that is never settled. Do not be fooled by appearances, such as the “weakness of a crucified Christ” or “the foolishness of the gospel.” “The foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is strong than men.” (1 Cor. 1:25).
Within three days, the living Lord Jesus, descended into hell and announced His victory over Satan, who is now the one in captivity. “O death where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?”
The disciples look into the empty tomb with the same incomprehensible joy that Israel looked at the Red Sea. They sing the victory song! “Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord, Jesus Christ.”
That’s right; the victory has been given to us. We did nothing. At best, we “stood firm and were silent.” At worse, we whined and complained and deserted the love of the one true God for false gods which are all the masks of Satan.
But God gives us the victory. While we were captives, He liberated us and set us free. The power of the Law *that threatens your conscience is now silenced by His more mighty word of forgiveness. The sting of death that strikes fear in your heart has been relieved by the soothing balm of His resurrection from the dead.
No matter how hemmed you may feel you are, fear not! “The Lord God of power and might” has opened the way for your deliverance. It is a way that runs right through His body and blood, hemmed in by this bread and wine on the altar.
Even if you may not be able to see or understand where the Lord God of Sabaoth is leading your life right now, fear not. “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” Knowing how the journey ends makes all the difference in how you travel.
“Therefore my beloved brothers and sisters, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord, your labor is not in vain.”