Just four days before Christmas, 1943, a 21 year old West Virginia farm boy named Charles Brown was piloting a badly damaged B-17 over the skies of Germany, desperately trying to get the plane back to England. It was his first combat mission, and his plane had been shot to pieces by enemy fighters. Half of his crew was injured. His tail gunner was dead. His plane had fallen out of formation and was easy pickings for ground fire as well as any enemy plane. The men prayed for their lives. And that’s when they saw him.
Charles glanced outside his cockpit and froze. He blinked hard and looked again, hoping it was just a mirage. But his co-pilot stared at the same horrible vision.
“My God, this is a nightmare,” the co-pilot said.
“He’s going to destroy us,” the pilot agreed.
The men were looking at a gray German Messerschmitt fighter hovering just three feet off their wingtip. It was five days before Christmas 1943, and the fighter had closed in on their crippled American B-17 bomber for the kill.
Good morning and Happy Father’s day. My name is Phil Human and I promise to finish that story before we’re done. Because it’s a good one and illustrates the topic for the day today. Today we finish up our series on two prophets from the Old Testament, Elijah and Elisha, by reading a 3000 year old war story – that – like this true story from WW2 – . That highlights three of the most important bible words you will find in the Bible. Those three words are mercy, grace and peace.
Sometimes people will pick up a bible and decide to try to read through the entire bible. And by the time they are done with the OT they are worn out and very often they say something like – man – the OT seems like it’s all about judgment – and the NT seems like it’s all about love and grace.
Well it would be a mistake to think that – because there is both judgment and love in both the OT and the New. In other words – you will find Jesus teaching about judgment and the NT does teach about judgment – although it doesn’t stand out as much because of it’s emphasis on love and grace.
Well here is an OT story that illustrates love and grace – even though we’d have to admit that life 3000 years ago was often brutal – at least as brutal as it is in many places in the world today.
So let’s jump into events that occurred 3000 years ago in Israel to see an example of three great NT themes – mercy, Grace and Peace.
It’s a bit of a longer story so let me jump in – it’s in 2 Kings 6
8 When the king of Aram was at war with Israel, he would confer with his officers and say, “We will mobilize our forces at such and such a place.”
Aram was a bordering country with Israel – in the area we now call Syria. And we’ve heard about these guys – lots of skirmishes and troubles and fighting. And that’s where we are today. Except the Israelites had a secret weapon. The prophet Elisha!
9 But immediately Elisha, the man of God, would warn the king of Israel, “Do not go near that place, for the Arameans are planning to mobilize their troops there.” 10 So the king of Israel would send word to the place indicated by the man of God. Time and again Elisha warned the king, so that he would be on the alert there.
11 The king of Aram became very upset over this. He called his officers together and demanded, “Which of you is the traitor? Who has been informing the king of Israel of my plans?”
Quick question: What do you think the penalty would have been had one of his people been convicted of being a traitor? Hold that thought and we will come back to it.
12 “It’s not us, my lord the king,” one of the officers replied. “Elisha, the prophet in Israel, tells the king of Israel even the words you speak in the privacy of your bedroom!”
13 “Go and find out where he is,” the king commanded, “so I can send troops to seize him.”
And the report came back: “Elisha is at Dothan.” 14 So one night the king of Aram sent a great army with many chariots and horses to surround the city.
15 When the servant of the man of God got up early the next morning and went outside, there were troops, horses, and chariots everywhere. “Oh, sir, what will we do now?” the young man cried to Elisha.
16 “Don’t be afraid!” Elisha told him. “For there are more on our side than on theirs!” 17 Then Elisha prayed, “O Lord, open his eyes and let him see!” The Lord opened the young man’s eyes, and when he looked up, he saw that the hillside around Elisha was filled with horses and chariots of fire.
18 As the Aramean army advanced toward him, Elisha prayed, “O Lord, please make them blind.” So the Lord struck them with blindness as Elisha had asked.
19 Then Elisha went out and told them, “You have come the wrong way! This isn’t the right city! Follow me, and I will take you to the man you are looking for.” And he led them to the city of Samaria.
20 As soon as they had entered Samaria, Elisha prayed, “O Lord, now open their eyes and let them see.” So the Lord opened their eyes, and they discovered that they were in the middle of Samaria.
Samaria was the capital city. It would have been like an invading army opening their eyes in Washington DC surrounded.
21 When the king of Israel saw them, he shouted to Elisha, “My father, should I kill them? Should I kill them?”
22 “Of course not!” Elisha replied. “Do we kill prisoners of war? Give them food and drink and send them home again to their master.”
23 So the king made a great feast for them and then sent them home to their master. After that, the Aramean raiders stayed away from the land of Israel.
Splashed into a book filled with war and brutality, is a story that displays grace and mercy and peace. The Arameans have sent an army specifically to assassinate him! How does he respond? First – by displaying mercy.
What is mercy? Not getting the punishment you deserve. It is rendering aid to someone who has no claim for favorable treatment.
And we see Elisha showing mercy two different times to the Aramean Army. The most obvious time is when the Arameans’ sight is returned to them and they see themselves surrounded by the Israelite army. And the King is asking for Elisha’s advice. Should we kill them all? And Elisha spares them.
But don’t forget – he could have wiped them out much earlier – he could have called on the Lord’s army of angels to completely destroy them. Elisha prays that the young assistant’s eyes might be opened to see the army of the Lord – what a sight that must have been. An army of chariots of fire surrounding the hillside.
In Matthew chapter 26 we read about Jesus being arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane and Peter grabs a sword and intends to fight the Romans on behalf of Jesus. And Jesus says – Peter – don’t you know that if I wanted I could call 12 legion of angels?
I looked it up this week and a Roman Legion had about 5000 warriors during this time, so Jesus is talking about 60,000 angels to come and defend him – if he desired. And you know, in this book of 2 Kings there’s a story that comes later of one angel going John Wick on Sennacharib’s Egyptian armies. He completely decimates an army of professional soldiers.
60,000 angels probably would have done the trick, but Jesus says – he didn’t come to bring the sword of judgment. But rather, to bring God’s mercy.
The Bible is very clear about this. Splashed into our lives – is God’s mercy. You and I deserve nothing but judgment for our sins. Our rebellion against God deserves the judgment of God. And what is the penalty for treason?
Remember when I asked you what the penalty would have been had the King found a traitor in his court? Death, right? Did you know that treason is the only crime defined in the U.S. Constitution and if convicted included the penalty of the death sentence.
And here’s the deal. What is sin? Treason against God. Our sin is a treason against the reign of God. It’s our effort to overthrow his rightful governance and create our own independent nation. We – every last one of us – were at one time warring against God – it’s a bad fight that we cannot win and will place us squarely before the judge – guilty of treason against God.
And the penalty of our sin is death. It is very important, biblically, to understand that without the work of Jesus on the cross – we all stand condemned – with a death penalty hanging over our heads.
We will go no where in our journey with Jesus until we see the reality that our sin is treason against God. And that we rightfully deserve nothing but judgment from God for it.
But – the story of the NT – is that because God is every bit as loving as he is just – Jesus has come in order to be able to justly display mercy to us. He did so by taking the punishment we deserve.
That’s the answer Jesus gives in the Garden, by the way. He says I could call upon 12 legion of angels, but that’s not why I’ve come. It would keep me from accomplishing my mission. It would keep me from the cross.
God is merciful. And just as Elisha shows mercy to the Arameans – Jesus shows us the same mercy. We should rightfully reap the whirlwind of 12 legion of angels – and yet Jesus stands as our Merciful intercessor.
Secondly – this story is a display of Grace.
What is Grace? Unearned kindness – undeserved benevolence.
When Jesus teaches us about how to treat our enemy – he doesn’t just say – Don’t hate your enemy. Or don’t make your enemy pay. That would be mercy. He says, love your enemy. That’s grace.
Grace is going to the butcher and asking for a pound of ground beef – and the butcher says, It’s my birthday and I’m celebrating and I wonder if instead you would accept this Ribeye as a gift from me to you. This $13 a pound bone-in ribeye. My gift to you. That’s grace. Undeserved kindness.
When you don’t get punishment you deserve? That’s mercy.
When you receive favor you don’t deserve? Like a party? That’s grace.
And if there is one word to describe Jesus – it’s the word gracious. The words Gracious and Grace appear more than 140 times in the NT. And in the OT? God’s favorite way of describing himself? The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in love.
So why are we studying this story? Because it’s a snapshot of what was to come for Elisha and what has come to you and me. As Elisha brought peace between Israel and Aram by displaying Mercy and Grace – Jesus brings us peace with God by displaying mercy and Grace to us.
Through faith in Jesus we receive mercy – and live thankful humble lives.
Through faith in Jesus we receive the grace of God and live abundant lives able to love others – yes, even those who oppose us.
Through faith in Jesus we receive peace with God and find the power to be able to be transformed into the kind of people we’d always hope we’d become.
Trusting Jesus and His work on the cross brings us eternal peace with God. It fundamentally changes the relationship we have with God himself. Not only are we spared – we are embraced. We are folded into the family. We cross over from enemies of God – into his Kingdom where we are adopted by God our Father, and we become his cherished daughters – his beloved sons.
And someday we will sit down with God and enjoy a feast. According to Revelation -the last book of the bible – a feast – a meal. A party.
Now let’s return to our story…
Franz Stigler wasn’t just any German fighter pilot. He was an ace. One more kill and he would win The Knight’s Cross, German’s highest award for valor.
Stigler was standing near his fighter on a German airbase when he heard a bomber’s engine. Looking up, he saw a B-17 flying so low it looked like it was going to land. As the bomber disappeared behind some trees, Stigler tossed his cigarette aside, saluted a ground crewman and took off in pursuit.
As Stigler’s fighter rose to meet the bomber, he decided to attack it from behind. He climbed behind the sputtering bomber, squinted into his gun sight and placed his hand on the trigger. He was about to fire when he hesitated. Stigler was baffled. No one in the bomber fired at him.
He looked closer at the tail gunner. He was still, his white fleece collar soaked with blood. Stigler craned his neck to examine the rest of the bomber. Its skin had been peeled away by shells, its guns knocked out. He could see men huddled inside the plane tending the wounds of other crewmen.
Then he nudged his plane alongside the bomber’s wings and locked eyes with the pilot whose eyes were wide with shock and horror.
Stigler pressed his hand over the rosary he kept in his flight jacket. He eased his index finger off the trigger. He couldn’t shoot. It would be murder.
But Stigler decided to go beyond Mercy. Not only would he not shoot the bomber down, he decided to show him grace.
Alone with the crippled bomber, Stigler changed his mission. He nodded at the American pilot and began flying in formation so German anti-aircraft gunners on the ground wouldn’t shoot down the slow-moving bomber. Stigler escorted the bomber over the North Sea and took one last look at the American pilot. Then he saluted him, peeled his fighter away and returned to Germany.
“Good luck,” Stigler said to himself. “You’re in God’s hands.
Brown flew back to his base in England and landed with barely any fuel left. After his bomber came to a stop, he leaned back in his chair and put a hand over a pocket Bible he kept in his flight jacket. Then he sat in silence.
Brown flew more missions before the war ended. Life moved on. He got married, had two daughters, and eventually retired to Florida.
Late in life, though, Brown took on a new mission. He had to find that German pilot. Who was he? Why did he save my life?
He scoured military archives in the U.S. and England. He attended a pilots’ reunion and shared his story. He finally placed an ad in a German newsletter for former Luftwaffe pilots, retelling the story and asking if anyone knew the pilot.
On January 18, 1990, Brown received a letter. He opened it and read:
“Dear Charles, All these years I wondered what happened to the B-17, did she make it or not?”
It was Stigler. He had had left Germany after the war and moved to Vancouver, British Columbia, in 1953. Now retired, Stigler told Brown that he would be in Florida come summer and “it sure would be nice to talk about our encounter.”
Brown was so excited, though, that he couldn’t wait to see Stigler. He called directory assistance for Vancouver and asked whether there was a number for a Franz Stigler. He dialed the number, and Stigler picked up.
“My God, it’s you!” Brown shouted as tears ran down his cheeks.
The two pilots arranged to meet in Florida, and quickly, Brown and Stigler became pals.
They were once enemies. Now they are best friends. They would take fishing trips together. They would fly cross-country to each other homes and take road trips together to share their story at schools and veterans’ reunions. Their wives became friends.
Once enemies – now friends.
This story is a remarkable story of Mercy and Grace and finally peace. But it’s no more remarkable than what has been offered to us through faith in Jesus. This fathers day, let’s remember our Heavenly Father, who out of love for us brings us peace – through faith in the merciful and gracious work of Jesus on the cross.