As far as Father Alexander Borisov knew, he would never come back alive. The black Russian night held no assurance of safety. He hoped the police would be intimidated by his flowing black and gold vestments, but there was no guarantee.
Moscow was under siege. The hibernating bear had awakened from her winter sleep and was hungry. Precedent promised to oppress the people once more.
But Borisov dared to defy precedence. On August 20, 1991, he and a few members of the one-year-old Bible Society of the Soviet Union stalked tanks while carrying bundles of New Testaments. If crews declined face-to-face talks, the priest climbed on board the tanks and pitched the Bibles through the hatches.
“In my heart, I believed that soldiers with New Testaments in their pockets would not shoot their brothers and sisters,” he later said.
Insightful. Better to go to battle with God’s Word in your heart than mighty weapons in your hand.
But Moscow is far from the first demonstration of that. For the most poignant portrayal of someone marching to battle with God’s truth, don’t go to Russia. Don’t read the Associated Press. Don’t watch the six o’clock news. Go instead to Scripture and highlight a paragraph you never may have noticed.
It’s easy to miss. Only three verses. Only 85 words. There is nothing to set them apart as unique. No dramatic lead. No bold letters. No arresting titles. So matter-of-fact is the statement that the casual reader might dismiss it as a transition. But to do so is to leave the quarry without seeing the jewel.
Only one event. It hasn’t the flair of a resurrection of Lazarus. Certainly not the scale of the five thousand fed. Gone is the magic of the manger. Missing is the drama of the stilled storm. It’s a quiet moment in Scripture. But don’t be fooled. For at this moment no angel dared sing.
Only one road. Just fourteen miles. A half-day’s journey through a treacherous canyon. But it’s not the road that should capture our attention. Dusty roads were common back then. No, it’s not the road, it’s where it goes — and it’s the Man who walks it.
He is at the front of His band. Nowhere else do we find Jesus at the head. Not when He descended the mountain after the Sermon on the Mount. Not after He left Capernaum. Not as He entered the village of Nain. He usually chose to be surrounded by people rather than out in front of them.
Not this time. Mark tells us that Jesus was out in front. Only one man. A young soldier marching into battle.
If you want to know someone’s heart, observe that person’s final journey.
The story of young Matthew Huffman came across my desk the week I was writing this message. He was the six-year-old son of missionaries in Salvador, Brazil. One morning he began to complain of fever. As his temperature went up, he began losing his eyesight. His mother and father put him in the car and raced him to the hospital.
As they were driving and he was lying on his mother’s lap, he did something his parents will never forget. He extended his hand in the air. His mother took it and he pulled it away. He extended it again. She again took it and he, again, pulled it back and reached into the air. Confused, the mother asked her son, “What are you reaching for, Matthew?”
“I’m reaching for Jesus’ hand,” he answered. And with those words he closed his eyes and slid into a coma from which he never would awaken. He died two days later, a victim of bacterial meningitis.
Despite the things he didn’t learn in his short life, he learned the most important: who to reach for in the hour of death.
You can tell a lot about a person by the way he dies. Consider the example of Jim Bonham.
Of all the heroes of the Alamo, none is better known than James Bonham, the fiery young lawyer from South Carolina. He had been in Texas for only three months, but his yearning for freedom left him no choice but to march alongside these Texans in their battle for liberty. He volunteered for service at the Alamo, a small mission near the Guadalupe River. As the Mexican army filled the horizon and the tiny bastion poised for battle, Bonham broke through the enemy cordon and galloped eastward to Goliad for help.
In his book Texas, James Michener imagines what the soldier’s appeal must have been: “Outside were a hundred and 50 men. Santa Anna has nearly two thousand already, with more on the way…. What we need is for every fighting man in Texas to rush to the Alamo. Strengthen our perimeters! Give us help! Start to march now!”
No commitment was given. The only assurance Colonel Fannin gave Bonham was that he would think it over. The young Carolinian knew what that meant and he masked his anger and spurred his horse on to Victoria.
Michener imagines a conversation between Bonham and a young boy.
“Where are you going next?” the boy asks.
“To the Alamo,” Bonham responds without hesitation.
“Will you go back alone?”
“I came alone.”
As Bonham disappears, the boy asks his father, “If things are so bad, why does he go back in?”
To which the father responds, “I doubt if he considered any other possibility.”
We don’t know if those words were said, but we know the trip was made. Bonham rode to battle certain it would be his last.
So did Jesus. With the final mission before Him, he stopped His disciples and told them for the third time of His conclusive encounter with the enemy. “We are going to Jerusalem. The Son of Man will be turned over to the leading priests and the teachers of the law, and they will say that He must die. They will give the Son of Man to the non-Jewish people to laugh at Him and beat Him with whips and crucify Him. But on the third day He will be raised to life again.”
Note His detailed knowledge of the event. He tells who — “the leading priests and teachers of the law.” He tells what — “they will give the Son of Man to the non-Jewish people to laugh at Him and beat Him with whips and crucify Him.” He tells when — “but on the third day He will be raised to life again.”
Forget any suggestion that Jesus was trapped. Erase any theory that Jesus made a miscalculation. Ignore any speculation that the cross was a last-ditch attempt to salvage a dying mission.
For if these words tell us anything, they tell us that Jesus died — on purpose. No surprise. No hesitation. No faltering.
You can tell a lot about a person by the way he dies. And the way Jesus marched to His death leaves no doubt: He had come to earth for this moment. Read the words of Peter. “Jesus was given to you, and with the help of those who don’t know the law, you put Him to death by nailing Him to a cross. But this was God’s plan which He had made long ago; He knew all this would happen.”
No, the journey to Jerusalem didn’t begin in Jericho. It didn’t begin in Galilee. It didn’t begin in Nazareth. It didn’t even begin in Bethlehem.
The journey to the cross began long before. As the echo of the crunching of the fruit was still sounding in the garden, Jesus was leaving for Calvary.
And just as Father Alexander Borisov walked into battle with the Word of God in his hand, Jesus stepped toward Jerusalem with the promise of God in His heart. The divinity of Christ assured the humanity of Christ, and Jesus spoke loud enough for the pits of hell to vibrate: “But on the third day He will be raised to life again.”
Is there a Jerusalem on your horizon? Are you a brief journey away from painful encounters? Are you only steps away from the walls of your own heartache?
Learn a lesson from your Master. Don’t march into battle with the enemy without first claiming the courage from God’s promises. May I give you a few examples?
When you are confused: “‘I know what I am planning for you,’ says the Lord. ‘I have good plans for you, not plans to hurt you’.”
If you feel weighted by yesterday’s failures: “So now, those who are in Christ Jesus are not judged guilty.”
On those nights when you wonder where God is: “I am the Holy One, and I am among you.”
If you think you can fall beyond God’s love: “Understand the greatness of Christ’s love — how wide and how long and how high and how deep that love is. Christ’s love is greater than anyone can ever know.”
Next time you find yourself on a Jericho road marching toward Jerusalem, put the promises of God on your lips. When the blackness of oppression settles on your city, remember the convictions of Father Borisov.
By the way, Bible Society workers in Moscow will long remember the story of one soldier who did just that. In the early hours of August 21 they offered him a colorful children’s Bible since they were out of smaller New Testaments. The soldier realized he would need to hide it from his superiors if he were to take it home. But his uniform had only one pocket large enough.
The soldier hesitated, then emptied his ammunition pocket. He went on to the barricade with a Bible instead of bullets.
‘Tis wise to march into Jerusalem with the promise of God in your heart. It was for Alexander Borisov. It was for Matthew Huffman. And it is for you.
From the Book And the Angels Were Silent by Max Lucado, copyright 1992 by Max Lucado, published by Multnomah Press, Portland, Oregon 97266. Used by permission.