It was October, 1973. As we walked into base operations I was handed a fresh teletype message from the Duty Officer. Operation “Nickel Grass” was in full play. It was the start of an airlift of massive proportions, the largest such endeavor since the Berlin Airlift in the late 40’s. As I looked out the massive windows from the weather shop onto the ramp I thought, “Oh my goodness. It looks like Armageddon.” Armageddon takes its name from Har Megiddo (or the “Hill of Megiddo”) where Rev. 16 describes the final battle between good and evil. Har Megiddo is crucially important because of the narrow flat plain through which military forces would have to pass to invade Israel. Even though it has been viewed as a strategically important location for thousands of years, its importance is only increased when one considers not only massive troop movements, but also tanks and armor. They cannot pass everywhere, but they could pass through the plain of Megiddo.
On this day in October, 1973, it looked like a battle of cataclysmic proportions was taking shape in Israel. In a few days, everyone would know it as the Yom Kippur War. Yom Kippur, The Day of Atonement, is the holiest day in the Hebrew calendar. In 1973, it coincided with the Muslim feast period of Ramadan.
The conflict broke the previous cease fire agreement with Egyptian forces crossing the Suez into the Sinai and Syrian allies moved on the Golan Heights. Both positions had been held by the Israeli forces since the 1967 War. The intention was not only to take the Sinai and Golan Heights, but overwhelm Israel and take back the city of Jerusalem which had been taken and united by the Jewish forces in 1967. Ultimately, the vision of many Arabs was the Muslim vision of a unified Caliphate under the Qur’an, but also the elimination of Israel. The tensions between Jews and Muslims is an ancient feud stretching back millennia to the conflict between Ishmael and Isaac.
Tiny Israel moved back against the invading Syrian and Egyptian forces and inflicted a stunning defeat to the Arab military. Reinforced with US materiel, the smaller Israeli forces not only stopped the invasion, but inflicted tremendous losses. With Arab forces humiliated, a unified Jerusalem remained intact.
Tomorrow marks the anniversary of the day that Jerusalem first came back under Jewish control in the 1967 War. In unified Jerusalem under Israeli control, there is allowance for religious practice by Christians, Muslims, and Jews. That is not like the atmosphere in Islamic states where Christians and Jews are under pressure, or even persecution.
The idea that Israel would ever surrender control of Jerusalem is a pipe dream. The tiny country lives to occupy Jerusalem. It is their passion and purpose. Surrendering it would be surrendering their very identity. It would mean giving up their relationship with God. Those who do not have a sense of history and identity do not understand. Proposals often surface for negotiated peace that surrenders part of Jerusalem, dividing it up to different spheres of control. From the Jewish perspective, it will never happen willingly. They are laser focused on the Land and on Jerusalem as the Holy City and will never give that up while they still live. It may be possible under the most amazing circumstances that they might surrender the West Bank, Gaza, or even the Golan Heights despite the tremendous tactical advantage that Golan carries, but Israel will never again willingly see a divided Jerusalem. They have unified focus and purpose. That is how they have managed to prevail over thousands of years of conflict.
In contemporary affairs, Christians in many places are coming under increasing pressure. As I wrote last week, 27 year old Meriam Yehya Ibrahim lies in prison in Sudan, sentenced to death for being a Christian. Christians in Pakistan are constantly under threat. Last week in Jos, Nigeria 118 people were killed, mostly Christians. Christian faith is under assault in many parts of the world, but it will not be overwhelmed. It is not because of military might that Christianity will persevere, however. It is because of the experience that people have of Jesus Christ.
In comfortable Western settings, it is possible to be institutionally identified as a Christian without persecution. In my opinion, this is likely to change, but, for now, many people still attend church or identify as Christians without having to pay a price for it. What makes the difference in a place where people may have to die for their faith? It is because they are already committed to live for their faith. For many Jews, their history and heritage are at the core of their identity. It is not just what they do, it is who they are. In the places where Christian faith is expanding, the emphasis is on more than a message. It is on a Person, Jesus Christ. It is not just that evangelists help people learn about Jesus, they help them to be brought into a living relationship with Him. Then, they are not just “brought to church,” they become citizens of the Kingdom of God–citizens and Ambassadors. The focus of incorporation is incorporation into the work of extending the Kingdom. It is to Kingdom work that we must be passionately committed–bringing our hearts, our lives, and our treasure.
When Jesus taught, He did not invite people to change their behavior so they could have a relationship. He invited them into a relationship so they could experience righteousness. Rather than a religious pursuit that hopes to be good enough to experience the blessings of God and the fruits of righteousness, He offers to us the opportunity to share in what He has won. He lived a perfectly obedient and righteous life, and He invites us to experience the fruit of that based on His merit rather than based on ours.
The Great Commission calls us to disciple-making. In the early 1970’s I was trained in personal evangelism, hoping to make disciples of Jesus Christ. Early in the 1980’s I wrote that we needed to be engaged not just in making new believers, but that we needed to make sure that they were adequately formed so that they caught the vision of making more disciples. The phrase I wrote was “Making disciples who make disciples.” Of course, others may have said the same thing, too, but for me, it was an original thought. The idea was that a new convert also needed to be formed as a Christian so that they could help others come to faith as well. The emphasis is not just on evangelism, but on every aspect of extending the Kingdom of God. (Insert plug here! There is a new edition of my book Here & Coming…as it is in heaven on Amazon.)
I’ve seen many international leaders who model this wonderfully. Some Anglican Archbishops have trained and ordained Anglican clergy specifically to send them out into non-Anglican environments. It is not because they are not committed to the Anglican Church, it is because they are even more committed to the Kingdom of God. They are willing to see resources invested where they will make the most impact for the Kingdom. That is different from being willing to invest in where the resources will make the most impact within the Anglican Church. As much as I love the Anglican Church, and am committed to its life, health, and growth, I am even more committed to the Kingdom of God. It is extending the Kingdom that is the call upon our lives.
The effective church and fruitful Christian must be focused on the Kingdom of God similarly to the way that Israel is focused on Jerusalem. However much we may love Jerusalem, we should love the Lord of Jerusalem more. One day, every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. Until then, we must work for the extension of the Kingdom of God and do it wholeheartedly.
With the tensions in the world today, we may not be on the brink of Armageddon, but we could be. Interestingly, forty years after my Lajes experience, much focus of attention is still largely on the Middle East. Today, perhaps the greatest threat is from the possibility of nuclear arms in Iran. No matter what the circumstances, we are not to flag in zeal in the cause of extending the Kingdom of God. Despite the obstacles, the signs of life for the Kingdom of God in our midst are very encouraging. Even in the midst of persecution, the Gospel is advancing in many places in the world. Some of them are quite surprising. Often, it is where persecution is the most severe. The question for us to consider is, which of us will be numbered in the company of those who are faithfully carrying out Jesus’ commands? Will our priorities be His priorities? When He returns, what will He find upon the earth among us?
Bishop Bill Atwood is Bishop of the Anglican Church in North Americas’ International Diocese and an American Anglican Council contributor.