“Great Things are Achieved by Embracing Great Danger” – Xerxes
I’d like to pretend that I was sitting around and reading Herodotus when I came across the above quote which, in the extended version, is attributed to King Xerxes. But, alas, I was watching one of my new favorite shows, The Expanse. On the show a great Martian Admiral is giving a lecture at the Martian War College. (For those who do not watch the show and may be confused, in the show, Mars is an Earth colony which has at some time in the distant past become independent from Earth.) Yet, whether I was reading Herodotus and came across the quote, or watching a show when this happened, it strikes me that the sentiment is appropriate for our time.
I have now done some looking into why Xerxes said this, if in fact he did. Many believe that Herodotus made up the conversation that led to this very inspirational speech. But this is how Herodotus reports it, made up or not. Xerxes was about to invade Greece and was having a conversation with one of his chief advisors named Artabanus. Apparently, Artabanus was a more cautious man than was Xerxes. Thus, Artabanus was trying to warn Xerxes that the odds were stacked against them. Now, the problem for Xerxes is that Artabanus was correct. Artabanus warns of logistical issues with the invasion, that indeed did come to fruition. He warns that the naval fleet & ground forces might be separated, which in turn would cut the army off from their logistical support. You see, an army is never just the fighting men. This indeed does happen after some storms pop up and after the Battle of Salamis. In the end, the Persians are defeated, twice, and end up losing control of the Greek cities of Ionia for the next 50 years. Maybe Xerxes ought to have listened.
But here is the important part. Xerxes makes an argument for the need for courage when the chips are down. Whereto, Xerxes answered Artabanus – “There is reason, O Artabanus! in everything which thou hast said; but I pray thee, fear not all things alike, nor count up every risk. For if in each matter that comes before us, thou wilt look to all possible chances, never wilt thou achieve anything. Far better is it to have a stout heart always, and suffer one’s share of evils, than to be ever fearing what may happen, and never incur a mischance.” You see the translation and interpretation that appeared in The Expanse is true, great things are truly achieved when we embrace great danger.
And here is my fear, and it is a fear I’ve been expressing on the Jagged Word off and on for many years. I fear that our society has lost sight of the need to take risk in order to live a life of meaning. We are all so scared. We greatly fear sickness and injury, but we most of all we fear death. Though a universal experience of the fallen human creature, to us, death always seems unexpected and unanticipated. Here is the truth: everyone born of Adam into this world will, unless they live to see the Lord come again in all His glory, die. Some will die sooner others later; some young and some old. But, nonetheless, death is in our future.
Death is that thing that has been stalking us since the day we were born. No human power will shake death. Masks will not stop our death. Shutdowns will not stop our eventual demise. And though when you die certainly carries weight and meaning, (I would like to live to see my daughter get married and maybe have a few more grandchildren), refusing to see our families, those whom God has called into our lives to serve and be served by, is a vanity project. What is the point of living to see my grandchildren if I am not going to actually see and hold them? The value of life is not vitality itself.
Our lives have made a great shift as has our entire society, one blessed with prosperity and a short memory for suffering believes once more that the world and the people who inhabit it are dangerous. Augmented with great technological advantage, we have been given tools to avoid every danger deemed “non-essential.” Which is why this speech hit me so hard. Forgive my nostalgia, but I remember a time when we were brave. At least braver than we are now. Yet now bravery, of any sort, seems to be regarded as carelessness and disregard for the wellbeing of self and others. And so, I ask, what have we lost through all of our fear? We lost, I think, the drive to achieve great things.
And like good works, the bar for great things is actually very ordinary. As I define greatness, it might be as simple embracing our vocations even in the face of possible illness or injury. We are all called to something, in fact, many things. We are workers, co-workers, students, husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, children, citizens, and friends. When fear stops us from living our lives fully in these vocations, we have lost more than I think many of us are considering. We have lost the only greatness many of us will ever achieve, that is, being to others what God in Christ has called us to be.
Finally, I wonder why we Christians are afraid. Canceling church services will not prevent our death, though the Word of Life received therein may bring us to or sustain us in the life wrought by Christ in his death and resurrection. That is, for fear of death we have abandoned gathering around the only things which promise life. If, in fact, we also live in fear and allow the communion of the saints to slip into non-necessity, it seems we will have forgotten that though this life is a cherished gift from God, it is not the only life He has promised us.
For the sake of Christ, God has told us that we will rise again and that in the new heaven and new earth, and in our flesh, we will see God. With that promise in mind, how can we, especially we chosen of God in Christ, live in fear? So, let us embrace the danger that is inherent in this present life, knowing that God has great things in store for us, both here and in the world to come. Christians having been freed from the grip of death are turned back to creation to occupy and inhabit it, worldly dangers and all. There is no hiding from the deadly world we have been called into, and in fact, it is here in this creation with physical means that God delivers his promises. There is no spiritual domicile for us to hide in or retreat, but physical ones found deep behind enemy lines. Come, all on account of Christ Jesus our Lord and Savior to those people and places where he calls and gathers us. So, as we move into 2021, I pray we regard highly the Word of the Lord through the mouth of the great prophet Isaiah, “Fear not!”
“Fear not, for I am with you;
Be not dismayed, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you,
Yes, I will help you,
I will uphold you with My righteous right hand.”