“And He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth…” Acts 17:26 NKJV
College football started this Labor Day weekend, and I watched the Arkansas Razorbacks battle the Rice Owls. Sometime during the third quarter, while the athletes were milling around between plays, I thought about the young men underneath the white on navy Rice uniforms. Then I thought about the young men underneath the red on white Arkansas uniforms. The players were all the same. There were differences between them, of course. Differences in appearance, differences in demeaner, differences in strength and ability. But they were the same sorts of differences, regardless of which uniform they wore. It was their uniforms that let the spectators know who they were for and who they were against, and it was each player’s uniform that informed his behavior on the field.
I don’t play sports, but I do wear a uniform. My uniform isn’t made of fabric, and it wasn’t ginned up during a few hours at a sewing machine. It’s a complex fusion of my gender, my ethnicity, my birthplace, and my family. On a micro level, my uniform reflects the DNA passed to me from my antecedents, DNA that dictates characteristics such as my hair color, my eye color, my bone structure, my emotional and physical health, and my inclination toward certain behaviors. I had no say in the design of any of these characteristics.
My uniform has other features too, features that reflect my opinions, values, and priorities. My interests and the things I like to think about and talk about. Even my sense of humor. Attributes that speak about how I’ve elected to spend my time, and with whom. Everything about me—how I look, what I say, what I do—is like a garment that I wear every day of my life. “This is me,” it says.
My uniform signals other people. To some, it says, “Come over here. Maybe we’re likeminded enough to form an alliance.” To others, it says, “Steer clear! We are not on the same team.” It’s in us to look for alliances, and it’s in us to take sides.
In the Bible, there’s a brief account of Joshua meeting a man prior to Israel’s famous conquest of Jericho. Joshua looked up and saw the man standing across from him, drawn sword in hand. Joshua called out to him, “Are you for us or our adversaries?” It was the wrong question.
The man with the sword said no. In other words, neither side. He said he’d come as the commander of the army of the LORD. Jehovah. “I am.” As I write the phrase “army of the LORD,” my first thought and maybe yours too, is that an army fights someone. Who was this man sent to fight? Extending the thought, if we’re on the Lord’s team, who are we to fight? That’s pretty much the question Joshua asked next when he said, “What do you want me to do?”
The man’s response might seem surprising. At the very least, it doesn’t seem to answer Joshua’s question. “Take off your shoes,” he said. “You’re on holy ground.” The last man who had been told to take off his shoes because he was on holy ground was Moses, when God appeared to him in a burning bush and revealed himself as “I am.”
Our image of God, the LORD, Jehovah, “I am,” from the Old Testament can get muddled in a hurry. People often bring up the battles described in the Old Testament as evidence against God’s goodness. “If God is good,” they say, “why did he command the deaths of all those people—all those people who were on the other team?”
I can’t explain why God did what he did thousands of years ago in a world I have no frame of reference for. I have my own thoughts on the matter, but they’re just that—my thoughts. Maybe it’s the wrong question anyway, at least for Christians and for people who wonder about Christianity. Christianity is all about Jesus and his teachings, and Jesus was very plainspoken about how to treat the people on the other team: Be kind to them. Do nice things for them. Love them, even.
That great Christian teacher Paul said we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places. For what it’s worth, I think that commander of God’s army—the one Joshua encountered—was sent to fight the same bunch Paul spoke of, wicked beings who run things from behind the curtain. For what it’s worth, I think that commander was Jesus himself.
I can’t take off my uniform—it’s on me to stay. For now, at least. But I can recognize it for what it is: A cloak. Flesh. Earthly. It isn’t me. More than that, I have the ability to recognize that your uniform isn’t you either, even if you believe it is. The frame of mind in which I look past our different, opposing uniforms feels like holy ground.
It feels like worship.