Last Man Standing
outcome of a conflict is decided by the actions of a single individual, an
election decided by a single vote, a family saved by the bravery of one,
disaster averted by the skill of a single pilot, a nation saved or lost by the decision of one man, or the entire human race saved by the righteousness of but one lone man.
Individuals matter in the course of human events. Individuals matter with God—you and your actions impact your world and make a difference within God’s plan.
By Ken Westby
For want of a nail the shoe was lost
For want of a shoe the horse was lost
And for want of a horse the man was lost
(15th century French proverb)
“The power of one” has many witnesses. Often they are hailed as heroes for rallying an army to victory, for standing up to tyranny when all others sat down, for doggedly pursuing an idea, an invention, or a medicine that changed the world.
Some of these individuals had statues raised to their honor, reaped the praise of their contemporaries and took their place among history’s greats. However, most who have proven the power of one to make an important difference remain unknown, unacknowledged, yet their contributions are no less important as those of history’s heroes. Can you not stand up for God, family, country and conscience to become a power of one? A need may be waiting for you to take a stand for God and against evil. Perhaps God is also waiting.
Not content to be a pew-sitter, William Wilberforce was propelled forwarded by an on-fire conscience that told him slavery was a corrupting evil, a despicable injustice against human dignity and freedom, and a stench in God’s nostrils. His fiery zeal ignited the consciences of the entire British Empire against the age-old institution of slavery. His tireless campaigning led other nations to follow Britain in outlawing the slave trade. History is full of examples of a single person sparking big changes in the world. In the case of slavery, a long overdue righteous and Godly change.
There have been moments in history and in the history of Israel when no one could be found to stand up. Let me add to the French proverb above.
For want of a righteous man the nation was lost.
It happened to the Kingdom of Judah in the 6th century B.C. The story is told by Ezekiel who quotes God saying:
“The people of the land [Judah] practice extortion and commit robbery; they oppress the poor and needy and mistreat the alien, denying them justice.
“I looked for a man among them who would build up the wall and stand before me in the gap on behalf of the land so I would not have to destroy it, but I found none!
“So I will pour out my wrath on them and consume them with my fiery anger, bringing down on their own heads all they have done, declares the Sovereign LORD.” (Ezekiel 22:29-31, NIV, emphasis mine)
God was looking for one man in the entire nation who had the guts and conviction to stand up against the corruption in the royal house of Judah, against the leaders and chiefs of the people, and the timid priests who whitewashed their crimes.
Surely, in that entire nation there would be one person of moral fortitude who would try to interpose himself –build a restraining wall to “stand in the gap”—to stop the national ruin. Sadly, there was none—no one with the moral courage to stem the tide (Jeremiah excepted as he had no official standing and no one listened to him).
Judah’s leaders had compromised their position to enrich themselves at the expense of the common people. The ungodly were setting the national tone. The priests and prophets supported the corrupt leadership by acting as religious tranquillizers and by whitewashing their crimes with politically correct but empty formulae (vs 25-27). The armies of Babylon were ready to march on Judah and Jerusalem. They came, they destroyed. For want of a righteous leader a nation was lost.
The overall picture of the Kingdom of Judah at its nadir was one of extortion, bloodshed, immorality, incest and irreligion. This is a terrifying description of any nation whose appointed time is drawing near. Political commentators in the West—especially America—take note.
Is the killing of fifty million! harmless, helpless little innocent unborn American boys and girls bloodshed? Can it be called “bloodshed” when our leaders and courts and millions of citizens have approved of such massive killing? We need not look all the way back to the Kingdom of Judah for examples of a nation waiting for judgment, a nation waiting for brave individuals to stand up with God against the tide of sin.
Contrast this sorry situation in ancient Judah to what Noah faced centuries earlier. His world was corrupt almost beyond measure, yet he stood alone for 120 years against the tide of universal rebellion against God. He was the last man standing and because of him and his family, Yahweh decided to save them and in so doing save the human race from extinction. God, in his longsuffering patience would give mankind another opportunity. I guess we owe Noah some thanks for his part in God’s decision.
The Roman Soldier
This soldier by the name of Cornelius played a major role in changing the world by being the “door” God opened to the Gentiles. Over the centuries how many tens of millions of Gentile Christians have walked through that open door? God used Cornelius to bring a major turning point in His early Church. Did he just pop on the scene or is there a story to be told?
Cornelius was a Roman centurion charged with leading the Italian Cohort pulling duty in the modern port city of Caesarea. He was a Gentile, but a devout believer in the God of Israel. He was an exceptionally good and pious gentile who had led his entire household (and some of his soldiers) to also become “God-fearers” (i.e., Gentiles who worshipped the God of the Jews but did not become proselytes).
He and all his family were devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly. One day at about three in the afternoon he had a vision. He distinctly saw an angel of God who came to him and said, “Cornelius!”
Cornelius stared at him in fear. “What is it, lord?” he asked. The angel answered, “Your prayers and gifts to the poor have come up as a memorial offering before God.” (Acts 10:2-4).
Cornelius was shocked, fearful and confused. Why would God send a heavenly messenger to him? The angel explained that God had taken note of his activities humbly and faithfully offered to God and man. He “generously” gave to “the people” (Gk. laos) which is a term Luke, the author of the book of Acts, often uses for the people of Israel, many of whom were indeed poor.
Following the angel’s announcement and instructions to Cornelius, Peter receives a vision, and while pondering its meaning Cornelius’ messengers show up at the door and invite him to meet the centurion face to face. The various encounters are choreographed by God, perfectly timed, and the importance of the event highlighted by heavenly signs.
Peter took the news to Jerusalem that God had launched a mission to the Gentiles. God alone had determined the boundaries of the Church and he had directly intervened by this Cornelius episode to include all mankind in his call to repentance and entrance into the Kingdom of God. This was a major theological expansion of Christ’s commission to the apostles and it paved the way for the Jerusalem Conference (Acts 15) where Peter once again told the Cornelius story and where Paul officially received the blessing to continue his mission to the Gentiles.
But let’s put our focus back to this one man, Cornelius. Had not God sent his angel we wouldn’t have known he existed. He was quietly living his life and doing good where he could, discharging his duties righteously, and faithfully praying without ceasing. It couldn’t have been easy for a Roman officer to worship Yahweh, God of Israel, instead one of the many Roman gods commonly worshipped by his pagan countrymen. Did he take grief from his superiors? Put up with dismissive looks and comments? Disrespected for worshipping the God of these, weak, conquered, poor, foreigners? Probably.
Generously giving his money away to help poor Israelites was voluntary on his part. It was money he and his family could have used for themselves. Why did he do it? In what ways were those poor folks helped? Food, clothing, lodging? How were their lives improved and how much better did their children fare from the financial help? Did these poor souls praise God for answering their cries? Was it unusual for a Gentile to be helping Jews?
What was Cornelius praying for in his continuous prayers? His family? Well, God apparently answered those prayers for they too became God-fearers. Praying for his soldiers and servants under his command? Well, some of them had also become God-fearers. Praying for his Gentile, pagan countrymen that they could come to know the One True God of Israel? Well, that was the prayer the angel of God came to answer.
Did Cornelius have a critical role in opening the door to ninety percent of the world’s population? For sure. One man’s actions, done faithfully, often anonymously, with selfless resolve and devotion, can have profound impact and be richly blessed by God.
We happen to know about Cornelius because the story was written by Luke and passed down in the New Testament. But there have been countless men and women like Cornelius that God has admired and used in their own circle of influence. He would like you and me to be among them.
There is an unknown “back story” to the Cornelius episode. It exists, but we don’t know it. It involves perhaps many a “one man” or “one woman” that had a role in the life of Cornelius. Was it his mother that passed her faith on to her son as was the case with Timothy whose Christian mother taught him the Scriptures from his youth. Was it a grandmother or sister, or a traveling teacher? Maybe it was a fellow soldier that shared his faith with Cornelius. Maybe it was a faithful servant, a maid, or a devout Jewish neighbor whose worship of Yahweh caught the attention of Cornelius. Who brought to his attention the needs of the local impoverished Jewish families and inspired him to be a regular donor—possibly via the local synagogue for distribution to the poor?
Somehow, somewhere, someone was key to introducing Cornelius to Israel’s God. Did that woman or man know that their actions might change the world? Probably not, but does it matter? We do good because it is good and because we love to please God who is good. Whoever that key person was, they too are a hero of the faith. He or she is unsung and unknown to us, but known to God and used by God. What else really matters?
You, a Power of One?
The Bible is likewise loaded with the stories of how one man or woman made a dramatic difference in moving forward God’s plan. It is easy to read such stories—people like Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Joseph, Rahab, Sampson, Deborah, Mary, John the Baptizer, and Jesus—and admire them but not make the connection to yourself personally. With the exception of Jesus, now exalted to God’s heavenly throne, all these heroic characters are dead. They await the resurrection. But you and I are alive and available to be used of God.
Used by God? How? Where? God expects us to do good as we are able, and do it right where we live. Jesus said that serving the true physical and spiritual needs of others was doing God’s will and counts the same as serving the needs of Jesus himself. Our eternal reward will be measured by our righteous, selfless works of duty, love and service.
This call to good works is universal to all God’s children. One doesn’t need an ordination or special commission to care for the genuine needs of family, brethren, or even strangers that come into one’s life. Do we need someone to tell us to share our faith with people we are close to? Are not good works evidence of God’s Spirit working in us? And the lack of good works is evidence of what? Jesus said, “A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart…” (Lk 6:45). God accomplishes much on this earth by using righteous, good people to bring forth their stored goodness to the physical and spiritual benefit of others.
God’s book of heroes will not read like those of the popular culture. His heroes are largely unnoticed by the world for they seek not their own fame, but simply and quietly do good—often at personal sacrifice. Consider that such selfless heroism is part of your family history. Perhaps the greatest heroes are the unsung ones, the anonymous mothers and fathers who daily carry out God’s decree to have families, protect and support them, and teach them right from wrong. Their stories will not make the history books, but they are noble nevertheless.
I think of my mother Margit, God bless her memory, who determined she was going to keep her family together following the sudden death of my father in 1943. Here she was, a Norwegian immigrant like my father Clarence, with four young children to protect and care for and a heart full of grief.
She and my dad had survived the Great Depression and they were coping with the rationing and shortages in wartime America. They had dreams of moving from Chicago to the Pacific Northwest after the war ended. They had heard that it looked much like their native Norway. Sadly, my father died before those dreams could be enjoyed. It was a surgical error during a routine goiter operation. Apologies to my mother were offered.
We were now poor but as kids didn’t know it. My mother went to work doing heavy war work in a munitions factory. She hired an old lady to watch us after school until she came home from work. Her life was devoted to saving our family and keeping us all together, and that she did. After the war she followed her dream and moved us all to Seattle, bought a cheap house, worked hard, put herself through nursing school so she could earn a better wage and somehow provided for us. I don’t know how she did it.
The last ten years of her life she lived with JoAn and me in a nice apartment we had made for her in our daylight basement. She said they were the happiest years of her life. She alone saved our family and kept us all together. She will always be an example of a true hero. She expressed her love by her selfless actions, she accepted her responsibility and did her duty with unwavering determination. And she managed to keep a cheerful, upbeat spirit that included her humming a happy tune in the kitchen every morning.
It couldn’t have been easy for her and I know she struggled during times of financial crisis and when faced with health problems. But soldier on she did. I must reveal that she was a woman of prayer. She told me how hard and long she prayed following my dad’s death; Praying for guidance, for protection and blessings upon each of us kids, for the essentials to survive, and for God’s strength. God heard and answered.
I believe that God heard the widow’s prayers, saw her tears, and in his mercy called me and my siblings to know Him, the one true God. For that my mother is my hero.
All four of her children became Christians and have remained so through life. The four children she devoted so much of her life to “saving” have become a family of almost 60 (grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great, great-grandchildren) and increasing every year—the majority becoming Christians along the way. Can the actions of one person have profound life-changing effects upon many?
A New Crop of Heroes
Here is where you and I enter God’s story line—his plan for us and our current world. You have the “power of one” to stand up for righteousness, actively do good works, and share the good news of the Kingdom of God.
You and I have the same hours in our day as have heroes of old. We can have a positive, life-changing impact upon our mates, children, neighbors, church, fellow workers, and our greater community. We are not little nobodies in a crowd, powerless Christians in a little church fellowship. We count and we count with God. Our conduct and example affect those we encounter in daily life—potentially for great good if we choose to be a vessel of God.
Like a rock thrown into a pond, the wave rings move out in all directions. So our actions and example reach out touching people often unknown to us. Another metaphor is the scientific phenomena of the “butterfly effect” (a butterfly in Japan moves air that triggers other movement and ultimately a storm in the Pacific) where small acts can combine with the small acts of other righteous men and women to produce a mighty storm of righteousness.
To use yet another metaphor, that of sewing seeds. Our good works are like scattered seeds that take root in unpredictable places. Usually, we have long passed the scene when the seeds actually sprout and begin producing fruit.
Jesus recommended we do our good works privately and not with an eye for honor or payback. Jesus said “your Father who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” (cf. Mt 6:1-4). Like the “back story” of the Cornelius event, you may never know in this life the total effect of your good works done in God’s name. In fact, they will continue beyond our lives. Consider that we today are reaping the benefits of the good works of Abraham and the apostles of Jesus.
God empowers the powerless, if the powerless ask to be of service. Isaiah was afraid that he was too “unclean” for God to employ in His righteous work. God forgave his sins and then asked Isaiah if he was now ready to go to work. Isaiah said, “Send me.” We can respond the same way.
You have power to stand for God. You are a human made in God’s image. God didn’t make you an inferior person. You have a hundred billion neurons (brains cells) linked by a hundred trillion connections woven into a convoluted three-dimensional brain architecture that supports the mind that is you—just like that in every other human. You are able if you are willing.
“And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work. As it is written:
‘He has scattered abroad his gifts to the poor; his righteousness endures forever.’” (2 Cor 9:8-9, emphasis mine)
God is presently working with a new “crop” of potential heroes in the faith. God has made you in his image and gifted you with the power and ability to bring his gifts to those in need of physical and spiritual help. Be a messenger of God. Be a power of one. Be one who will always be standing for God and his goodness.
William Shakespeare expressed the ideal of what God created in man.
What a piece of work is a man!
How noble in reason!
How infinite in faculty!
In form, in moving, how express and admirable!
In action, how like an angel!
In apprehension, how like a god!
We do well to be such a man or woman in the service of God.