Sermon from February 2: Requiem for Amalek

Requiem for Amalek
Epiphany IV (O. T. 4); February 2, 2020
Exodus 17:8-16

Do you have a bogeyman, an enemy that you love to hate? I hope not, but it is not uncommon to identify some group of people as a perpetual enemy, as inherently wicked, and therefore to be feared, hated, and – if possible – exterminated. A few weeks ago I spoke of the impeachment of the Governor of Arizona when I was living there. I recall that any time Governor Mecham would get in any sort of trouble he would blame it on “homosexuals and dissident Democrats.” You got to believe there were homosexuals and dissident Democrats hiding behind every saguaro cactus, waiting to pounce.

How many perpetual enemies have we had over the centuries, and how hard has it been to overcome deep-seated hostility to people simply because of who they were or where they came from? Frequently our own government over the years has tried to identify someone as the enemy, as the people who are to be hated and feared. Whoever they happen to be at any given time, I hear an echo of Moses’ declaration at the end of today’s Scripture.

That is the sad side of the story I just read you. I remember this story from my childhood, and how inspired I was by the image of Moses holding his staff high. And even more inspiring was the image of Aaron and Hur standing to either side of him, holding up his arms. What a great sermon that would make: you may be the person standing to someone’s side, holding up their arms, inspiring others to victory. Indeed, that was the sermon I originally intended to preach.

But another line has stuck in my consciousness and I must address it: “The Lord will have war with Amalek from generation to generation” (Exodus 17:16). Moses said that in response to the Lord’s having indicated the intention of blotting out Amalek and the memory of Amalek. No one really knows why the Lord took such a dislike to Amalek, although some ideas have been ventured. What is the case is that Amalek, the Amalekites, became the bogeyman, the perpetual enemy, the foe lurking behind every bush. The only good Amalekite is a dead Amalekite.

Israel has other, hostile encounters with Amalek in the Exodus and during the settlement and conquest of Canaan. King Saul loses his right to dynasty because of problems with Amalek; the wicked Haman who plots to destroy all the Jews of the Persian Empire is said to be of the remnant of the Amalekites. And after generations of hostility, there is this line in the First Book of Chronicles: “[The Simeonites] destroyed the remnant of the Amalekites that had escaped” (I Chronicles 4:43). Israel found its final solution and, in the reign of King Hezekiah of Judah, the last known Amalekites were wiped out.

Most of us in this room will wonder why a people will carry deep-seated hostility toward a particular group through multitudes of generations, while knowing that our own ancestors have done so. Sometimes we look at the hostilities of other groups and alternate between appalled and amused; we think of ourselves as more enlightened, above such hostilities. We would never give in to the idea that the Lord has perpetual war on any group from generation to generation. Or would we?

Whom does God love to hate? Now before you reflexively say, “No one,” please look deep in your heart and examine yourself. Is there anyone whom you assume to be the enemy of God? Homosexuals and dissident Democrats? Muslims? The One Percent? I’m not going any further. Because rather than focus on our own enlightened attitude, we need to focus on Jesus.

By Jesus’ day the Amalekites were long gone, but for his people the Samaritans were the group everyone loved to hate. When Jesus’ family would travel from Nazareth to Jerusalem for Passover, they didn’t go the shortest route, because that would take them through Samaritan territory. Instead, they would detour, in order not to come into contact with Samaritans. It makes me think of white folks refusing to go into certain neighborhoods, or the way African American folks are subject to suspicion or even assault if they do go into certain neighborhoods. Anyway, Jesus gently dealt with the hostility of his people to the Samaritans by making a Samaritan the hero of one of his most famous stories. He could have made the hero an Amalekite, but there were none anymore.

In July 1620, a group of Puritans who were living in the Netherlands left for England, there to board a ship for the New World, the Mayflower. Before they left the Netherlands, their pastor, John Robinson, sent them on their way with a sermon in which he said that people of the Reformation were always in danger of getting stuck where they were. Lutherans would not go beyond the teachings of Luther and embrace the insights of John Calvin, he said. And he added that Puritans and others who learned from John Calvin must not suppose that the understanding of the Christian Faith should stop there. He said, “For I am very confident the Lord hath more truth and light yet to break forth out of His holy Word.”[1] The image of more light breaking forth from the Word of God has stuck with the heirs of the Mayflower Pilgrims.

Our challenge, as disciples of Jesus, is not to get stuck in a way of thinking that supposes that the Lord has perpetual war against anyone, even Amalekites; instead, we look for more light to break forth from the Word of God as we study the Bible, live the Bible, and seek to follow Jesus. Jesus made a Samaritan the hero of a story; he welcomed great crowds from all over (Matthew 4:25, from the day’s Gospel reading), including people he was not supposed to associate with. We look to the words and way of Jesus for the more light that breaks forth from the Word of God.

We limit not the truth of God to our poor reach of mind,
to notions of our day and sect, crude, partial and confined:
no, let a new and better hope within our hearts be stirred:
the Lord has yet more light and truth to break forth from his word.[2]

Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
Omaha, Nebraska

[1] Encyclopedia Britannica:

[2] George Rawson, “We Limit Not the Truth of God” (1853) (in the public domain)


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