“Is Our Defense Sure?”
a message by Dr. Bruce Havens
based on the theme: “Questions We Must Ask”
Arlington Congregational Church, U.C.C.
August 26, 2018
10Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power.
11Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.
12For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.
13Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm.
14Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness.
15As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.
16With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one.
17Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
18Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints.
Patriots want to be sure their national defense spending is enough to protect the nation. Clients charged with a crime want to be sure that their lawyers have prepared a good defense for their case. Jaguar fans, the season is about to begin and we know our defense is one of the best in the league, but fans worry and wonder if the loss of a middle linebacker or a nickel cornerback will allow other teams to score dozens of touchdowns on us. I have to admit if that corner back were all that important wouldn’t they call it something more valuable than “nickel?” At least maybe what he makes per game – like probably $100,000?
Anyway, I digress. In our hymn this morning we Christians sang:
Under the shadow of your throne your saints have dwelt secure;
Sufficient is your arm alone, and our defense is sure
as we professed in praise song that our God was our help from ages past, and our hope for years to come. So the question of defense is one that is important to nations, to defendants, to football fans, and evidently to Christians.
The Christians that Paul was writing to 2000 years ago were living in a world where they were in need of defense. They were subjects of a violent and oppressive superpower. Unless they were citizens they had almost no rights under the laws. The man they revered as Lord and Savior had been executed as a dangerous criminal by the regime and as followers of that man the practice of their religion was illegal and actively persecuted in some regions of the Empire.
So Paul writes to a group of them in Ephesus. Ephesus was a Greek city famous for a Temple so fabulous it was considered one of the Seven Wonders of the World. It was dedicated to the goddess Artemis. There was also a fabulous stadium there that could hold 25,000 people – one of the largest in the ancient world. It also had a library that was world famous. In short Ephesus was a “happening” place. Paul had gone there to share the good news of Jesus the Messiah. Initially he preached in the synagogue there among the Jews, of course because Paul was originally a Jew, as was Jesus. Many believed what he was saying and became followers but at some point Paul became frustrated with those who would not believe and moved his base of preaching out of the synagogue. He wrote this letter to the Ephesians about ten years after that time, when he was in prison in Rome.
As he is ending his letter he encourages them with a powerful metaphor for faith. He urges them to “put on the whole armor of God.” Armor was primarily a defensive part of a Roman soldiers’ equipment. The various pieces were intended to protect the wearer from the “sling and arrows” and other weaponry of an attacker. But Paul makes clear he isn’t really talking about Roman soldiers or other human kinds of threats to their lives. He says:
our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil
So one of the questions we must ask is who is it that Paul means we must struggle against? One preacher [ Rev. Edward Markquart, sermonsfromSeattle.com ] put it this way:
“First, we are living in a battlefield. We are engaged in a vicious warfare, but a lot of us don’t realize it. Let me explain…. We are not fighting simply with our own egos, or selfishness. We are not fighting simply with our own flesh, with our own little addictions and passions, … not merely fighting petty battles with booze or drugs or sex and material pleasures, important as these are. No, the Bible says that we are fighting with an evil force greater than ourselves, the very powers of darkness. Who causes all the wars in all of human history? Who causes starvation in the world, where a vast majority do not have sufficient food and water, even though there is plenty of food and water available? Who slaughtered children and parents in death camps in Germany and Cambodia and Argentina? It is the power of Evil. It certainly isn’t God who has caused all these enormous devastations around the globe. The power of evil is insidious, global, and there is no place to escape it.
“So what do we do in the face of such monstrous evil around us and in all our past history? We try to create islands of pleasure and sanctuaries of sugar. We create illusions that all is well with me and us as long as we can keep the blood bathes at a distance. We create sanctuaries of suburbia, and we try to live in the safety until it becomes too dangerous or poor here, we will move, to a safer church, a safer suburb, a safer island in the sun. We build our sanctuaries of safety and try to keep the real violence on TV, away from us. And then gradually, we find the Snake lives here in our suburbia…. The same [symbolic] Snake from the Garden of Eden, …is working invisibly in our little gardens, in our spiritual suburbs. And for some strange reason, we become apathetic. Yes, we become apathetic to the world around us where actual human beings are refugees, with little water and little food and little security. [We become] apathetic to the homeless in the streets of [Jacksonville]. Apathetic to the lonely old folks at the [care centers]. Apathetic to all in need who require our time and generosity and love, [but] we put our blinders on so that we don’t see them or see them only on television, safely away from us and the real world. That’s what we do: create spiritual suburbs and islands of illusions.”
Instead of becoming apathetic or ignoring the problems in the world our faith has always urged us to be in the world, to seek to change the world, to transform it by the love of God. To do that requires we go out in the world rather than cower in fear in our living rooms with our air conditioning, our satellite 99 inch televisions and our remote controls. We are called to go out there into the world. But we don’t go to conquer. We don’t go as attackers – our faith is not intended to be “offensive.” But we go with a sure and certain defense. Paul describes it using the metaphor of seven pieces of armor. Let give you a word or two to think about in relationship to each one of these pieces of our defense for our faith.
First, put on the belt of truth. Let us tell the truth about God’s love – it is for everyone not just those like us. Let us tell the truth to one another in our relationships with others. Let us tell the truth to ourselves. Where do we need to change before we try to change others? God’s truth is that God’s love is our real defense in every situation. That is the belt that holds our armor in place.
The breastplate of righteousness isn’t about judging others and the way they live. It is about making sure we live in right relationships with others, in healthy relationships. The problem of abusive relationships is getting a lot of attention right now and it should. But this isn’t just a problem between men and women, or between priests and their parishioners. It is a problem every one of us must confront in ourselves – not to defend ourselves from accurate assessments that show we must change, but defending ourselves from abusing others – in our homes, at work, worship, and in our community, our city, and our world. That is called justice and if you are not sure what that word means to God – this is the simple definition – it is treating everyone right. Jesus put it this way: love others as yourself.
Then Paul says “put on foot protectors of peace.” This means we work at preventing conflicts and work through those conflicts we cannot prevent with each other: our family member, our co-worker, neighbor, the person who just cut you off in traffic. It extends to those of other races, nationalities, religions. Our goal should be to seek peace with all people, not assume that if we annihilate them we will find peace. “Oh, let’s go kill all the Arabs and then we won’t have terrorism.” No. Wrong. Not the way to peace, or the way of Christ.
Paul urges us to put on the shield of faith. To me that means we need to trust God in all things. That’s hard to do, I admit. “To trust that God is with you, to trust that God is in you, to trust that God will strengthen you for every situation that you are facing. Faith is “Trusting your inner spiritual self; trusting God’s slow plan to health and wholeness. You can’t see [the end or fulfillment of it maybe], but you trust God’s future plan for your life on both sides of the grave.” That’s how one preacher describes it. [ ibid. ]
Then, put on the helmet of salvation. Our defense is that we are saved, that there is nothing we can do to earn or merit our own salvation, but that salvation and eternal life are a gift from God. Let that wrap around your mind. You don’t have to worry about being saved, or question whether or not you deserve eternal life. Eternal life is a given. Put that helmet on.
The sword of the Spirit that is the Word of God is the only “offensive” weapon Paul lists and he makes clear it is not intended to be used to punish or attach others. It is for OUR defense. Study it, learn its truth, use its power for your own defense from doing evil, from causing suffering, and to learn new ways to do what is good and just and loving so you can show your gratitude to God for your salvation. That is why we do good. Not to earn God’s love or salvation.
Paul’s final item is to pray in the Spirit, not as a piece of armor but to know that the strength of all those pieces of spiritual defense come from God, who we know as love. Because ultimately love is our defense. Love is what God gives us to live with instead of hatred, or fear, or greed, or apathy. The love of God never leads to these qualities or allows us to use these as either a defense or an offense to others.
The NFL season is coming. The Jaguars defense is sure. More importantly life is coming. We have a strong defense. It is the love of God. Better than armor. If you can’t remember anything else about this armor of God, remember that all of those pieces add up to the love of God and it is the love of God that is ultimately our true defense. Put on your armor. Go with God. AMEN.