Sermon for October 31st, 2021
1 After the death of Moses the servant of the Lord, the Lord spoke to Joshua son of Nun, Moses’ assistant, saying, 2 “My servant Moses is dead. Now proceed to cross the Jordan, you and all this people, into the land that I am giving to them, to the Israelites. 3 Every place that the sole of your foot will tread upon I have given to you, as I promised to Moses. 4 From the wilderness and the Lebanon as far as the great river, the river Euphrates, all the land of the Hittites, to the Great Sea in the west shall be your territory. 5 No one shall be able to stand against you all the days of your life. As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will not fail you or forsake you. 6 Be strong and courageous; for you shall put this people in possession of the land that I swore to their ancestors to give them. 7 Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to act in accordance with all the law that my servant Moses commanded you; do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, so that you may be successful wherever you go.
Theodore Beza: In Calvin's Shadow
In July of 2019, I had the pleasure of visiting the city of Geneva, Switzerland--the city where the great reformed theologian John Calvin lived and worked. Near the heart of the city, there is a famous monument, often called the "Reformation Wall." (pictures).
The tall guy with the long arms (second from the left) is John Calvin. The one on the far right is John Knox, the founder of the Reformed church in Scotland, where Presbyterians come from. The guy on the far left is William Farel (no relation to the modern comedian) and the guy just to the right of Calvin is the one we'll be talking about today. His name is Theodore Beza, and you would be forgiven if you've never heard of him before. Most people haven't, not even in Geneva, even among Presbyterian history nerds. Nine times out of ten, he's the one people are most likely forget when trying to name all four pastors on the Reformation Wall.
Who was Theodore Beza? Well, he belongs to a long and somewhat distinguished company, along with these guys: (pictures). Yes, Theodore Beza was a sidekick. Specifically, he was John Calvin's sidekick, his right hand man, his student, biographer, and eventually his successor as the leader of the church in Geneva. Beza lived most of his life in Calvin's shadow, and even today, you will rarely find Beza mentioned in any history or theology book without Calvin's name at least five words away in the same sentence.
And yet, without Beza, Calvin's immense legacy and influence, not to mention his life story and much of his correspondence, would be almost entirely lost to us. Beyond that, Beza was a gifted writer, theologian, pastor and diplomat in his own right. So today, on Reformation Sunday, I hope we can bring him out of the shadows and into the light. After all, that's the motto of the reformation and the city of Geneva--it's engraved in giant letters on the reformation wall in Latin: Post tenebras lux. After the darkness, light.
Theodore Beza was born in France in 1519. At a young age he showed an aptitude for languages, and was tutored by a German Lutheran scholar named Melchior Volmar. Beza considered Volmar a father figure, and throughout his life, he celebrated the day of their meeting as a second birthday. Volmar introduced Beza to the works of reformers like Ulrich Zwingli and Henry Bullinger, but as a young man he was more interested in poetry than in religion or his eventual profession, the law.
While practicing as a young lawyer in Paris, Beza was active in literary circles, and at the age of 29, he published a collection of his poems in Latin, called Juvenilia. It was a bestseller. But just when his literary career seemed to be taking off, Beza became very ill. With his body in poor health, he realized that his spirit was even worse off than his body, and at this point Beza committed his life to God, and to the advancement of the reformed faith. Of course, that put him at risk for persecution and arrest in a very Catholic France. Beza moved to Geneva, Switzerland with his fiancee Claudine, where he met John Calvin.
Calvin at the time just happened to be looking for a good poet. Calvin had begun to translate the psalms into verse form in order to be sung in reformed worship services, but he felt he was not very good at it. A famous French poet, Clement Marot, had taken over the project, but died before completing it, so Calvin turned to Theodore Beza for help. 40 of the psalms in the famous Geneva Psalter were his work.
Calvin turned to Beza again when he established an academy in Geneva (which would eventually become the University of Geneva). Beza was its first Rector, the chair of Greek, and eventually theology as well.
Around this time, Beza also revised the Greek translation of the New Testament, and it was his revision that would be used by the translators of the King James version of the Bible. As if all this wasn't enough, Beza was also appointed pastor of one of the Genevan congregations, where he would preach every Sunday and several times throughout the week.
As John Calvin's health failed, Beza was increasingly relied upon, both in the city of Geneva and as a diplomatic envoy for the Reformed movement throughout Europe. Beza traveled extensively to defend Calvin's ideas at public debates, to make peace between the different Protestant factions, and to plead with monarchs and magistrates in defense of religious refugees and persecuted minorities.
When Calvin died on May 27th, 1564, Theodore Beza officiated at his funeral. Not long before his death, Calvin had written in a letter to a friend that he cared “deeply for Beza, who loves me more than a brother and honors me more than a father.” Beza was elected by the city leaders as head of the Genevan church and the Academy, filling Calvin's shoes with conviction and steadfast loyalty to his friend and teacher.
He continued to fill those shoes, continued to write, to travel, to preach, to lead, to advocate, for another 40 years. He wrote Calvin's biography, compiled Calvin's letters and sermons, and taught a new generation of students what soon came to be referred to as "Calvinism," (which happens to be the theological foundation of the Presbyterian Church). Beza has sometimes been called the first and most important Calvinist. But I like to imagine that even in his twilight years (he lived and was active well into his 80s) that Theodore Beza still found time to write the occasional poem.
There are many "sidekicks" in the Bible. Jesus had Peter, Paul had Timothy, David had Jonathan, and Elijah had Elisha. But my favorite sidekick story (and the one in which I see parallels with Calvin and Beza) is the story of Moses and Joshua. Joshua was a young man who came under the protection and teaching of Moses. He fought Moses' battles, went on Moses' errands, and is described by the Bible as Moses' "assistant." That's an English translation of the Hebrew word מְשָׁרֵ֥ת (masharet) which means one who serves, or takes care of someone.
There's a great story in Exodus of how the Israelites are fighting a battle and Moses is watching up on the hill. Whenever Moses raises his staff, the Israelites start to win, and whenever he lowers it, they start to lose. After a while, Moses' arms start to get tired, and so when Joshua goes out to lead the army, he stations two other men on either side of Moses to hold up his arms for him.
Who holds your arms up when you're tired? Who goes out to fight your battles? Who takes care of you and looks out for your interests in the world? Or maybe it's the other way around: Whose arms do you hold up? Whose battles do you fight, and who do you take care of?
Like Theodore Beza does for Calvin, when Moses dies Joshua becomes the leader of Israel. Those are big shoes to fill, and in the scripture passage God has to tell Joshua over and over again, to "be strong and courageous." You had a great teacher, so don't abandon those teachings. Carry them forward into the world.
Who will carry your legacy into the world? Or (again) whose legacy are you carrying on? What teachers, mentors, long-gone leaders do you now represent in the world?
I began today talking about sidekicks and heroes, but perhaps the roles are not as fixed as we think. Sidekicks help make heroes, then they become heroes, and then they need help in turn. Jesus said something to that effect: He said that the first would be last and the last will be first. Whoever wishes to be great among you must become like a servant.
Especially on a day like today, as we celebrate the giants of the faith who shaped our church, our theology, our denomination--let us give thanks, too, for the helpers, for the arm-lifters, for the faithful מְשָׁרֵ֥ת (masharim), the sidekicks. And may we, too, carry on their legacy of service in our lives and in our communities.