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Does it really feel to you like there is a war going on though? Not to me. I know there is, but it does not feel like it.
There is another war going on as well...at least according to our lesson. And it is another war that does not FEEL like a war. But the Apostle Paul says we are in mortal combat "against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms..." CNN has no reports of bombings or battles in this war; the Times-Observer has no human interest stories of families separated by the conflict. But Paul says the church is at war.
Now, I realize that it is not fashionable these days to think of Christianity like that. We would much rather focus on Jesus' words of promise, "I come that you might have life and have it more abundantly," or "I come that your joy may be full," or "Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you....let not your heart be troubled." Joy, life, peace - those are what we prefer when we think of our religion. But scripture makes clear that those are only part of the story - it says there is a war going on out there and it is not just against the Saddam Husseins or the Hitlers or the Genghis Khans; the war is against evil that goes beyond human comprehension - systemic evil that pervades our lives.
If you wonder about that, think of those who had to sleep in doorways or in alleys or in dumpsters last night. Is that evil? Of course it is! Whose fault is it? Some miserable, hard-hearted building owner who refuses people a decent room? Or is it the fault of the system that even in peacetime sees its priorities as bombs before beds? Do you think it is evil to have teenagers make a better living selling drugs in the school yard than selling hamburgers at McDonalds? I do. Whose fault is it? Abominable drug dealers who pay too much, or upstanding employers who pay too little? There is a system here. Do you think it is evil to allow sick people to go without available medical treatment or nursing home care when it is needed? Certainly it is. But treatment and care cost money. Is it the meanness and greed of the medical establishment that keep people from treatment? Or is it the system that is not willing to pay to have this care provided? My point is that there is evil out there which is beyond the capacity of you or me to correct. Paul understood that...probably better than we do. He saw that there is a war going on.
How do we fight this battle? Paul gives us some help in his description of the equipment that you and I have available as Christians. He calls it "the armor of God" - equipment God provides to withstand the assaults of the enemy.
First he talks about the belt, that which holds things together. The belt of truth. As has been said, the first casualty in war is truth. We hear reports coming out of the Middle East about casualty figures and civilian deaths - particularly during the bombing we heard one story from Al Jazeera, another from our own military. Which numbers were true? Probably neither. The truth would be somewhere in between. Each side gave figures to support their own position. The truth will come out some day, I am sure, but probably not until it will no longer make much difference.
Jesus once said, "You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free." The truth is that life is a battleground, not a playground, and until we recognize that, we are in danger of being overrun. The belt of truth - GOD'S truth - is our first piece of equipment.
Next Paul talks about the breastplate of righteousness. Please do not misunderstand him. Biblical righteousness does not mean blamelessness; it refers to the character of a relationship. Paul wants us to know that we will never be able to withstand the evil in this world without the protection of a right relationship with the Lord.
Abraham is one of the rare characters in scripture called righteous. Why? Because he did everything right? Of course not. Abraham was just as much a sinner as any of us. The Bible says Abraham was considered righteous because of his faith. His relationship with God was right. He had enough faith to pull up stakes and move to a foreign land because God told him to. He had enough faith to trust God to give him a son and heir even though he was an old man. He even had enough faith to be willing to sacrifice that heir simply because God asked him to do it. The relationship between Abraham and his God was one of master and servant and Abraham kept it in that order. He did not try to usurp God's place. Abraham was called righteous because his relationship with God was right. If we wear the breastplate of righteousness, it means our relationship is solid - it will be trusting, it will be dependent, it will recognize that God is God, and we are not. The relationship will be right.
Then we find "your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace." Or as the NRSV has it, "As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace." There is something paradoxical in presenting the warrior in the midst of battle equipped with peace. Paul knows that to establish the peace of God in the universe (which is our ultimate aim), we must do battle against the spiritual evil which disturbs that peace. Perhaps the reason Paul uses the metaphor of shoes is that peace is something that we cannot hope to convey by sitting on our rusty-dusty. We will have to be prepared to march - peace will not magically break out.
Then there is the shield of faith (or to properly translate here we should read "faithfulness" - the Greek word is the same - and remember that we are talking about GOD's armor, so to speak of God's faith would not make sense). The Bible is full of stories of God's faithfulness. There is that wonderful parable in the Old Testament in the Book of Hosea. The prophet was instructed to take himself a wife - not some sweet young thing, but a prostitute named Gomer. She ran off after the wedding. He went after her. He gave her presents. She ran off again. He went after her again. She bore three children (presumably not Hosea's), but none of that mattered. Hosea never gave up on Gomer. The message of the book that bears that prophet's name is that God never gives up on his people, no matter how low they go. No matter how unfaithful we are, God will always be faithful. For soldiers in the midst of battle, it is comforting to know that our commander will never desert us, will always stand by us and will never let us down.
Next he talks about the helmet of salvation. Salvation does not mean pie in the sky by and by. Salvation means health, wholeness, something similar to the wonderful old Hebrew word shalom. Salvation is a description of life the way God meant life to be lived.
The way the Bible is arranged helps us understand. As you read the opening chapters of Genesis and hear the story of creation - life in its simplest and best form - and then see how that good life was ruined by sin and evil, we know why this world is not the blissful place God originally intended. But at the very end of the Bible, the final chapters of the book of Revelation, we read in a beautifully poetic way an affirmation that God will one day restore creation and make it good again. No more hunger, no more thirst, no more tears, no more war, no more death. Salvation.
The reason Paul called salvation a helmet is because a helmet offers protection for the head. Too often Christian people either act or fail to act because they THINK they know what God wants . Sometimes we even misidentify the enemy, and that ALWAYS results in disaster. Someone has said that the church is the only army in history that shoots its own wounded. Friendly fire? Ha! We need God's protection for our heads if we are properly to fight the battle that rages all around us.
The final piece of equipment is the sword of the Spirit - the word of God. It has been noted that, of all the equipment for Christian soldiers, this is the only source of OFFENSE. And, no question, some faithful folks have been most offensive in their use of God's word - they have used it as a club to bludgeon people into one narrow, little theological mold. I do not think that is the appropriate use for the sword.
Perhaps the phrase might be better understood by looking at another passage where God's word is compared to a sword. Hebrews 4:12 - "For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart." This is hardly an offensive attack. It is exploratory surgery. If Paul had written in 2003, he might have called God's word, not the sword, but the scalpel of the Spirit.
A couple was entertaining a visiting minister in their home. Near the end of the evening, the wife asked the guest if he would care to read the Bible and offer prayer before they all retired. Being assured that he would enjoy the opportunity, the hostess said to her young son, "Bobby, go into the other room and bring that big book Mommy and Daddy read so much." In a moment the lad came back...with the Sears Catalog.(1)
If we are to have any hope of successfully waging the war that is going on, we will open our marching orders...and follow them. We will make use of the sword.
Paul gives one final instruction for fighting the good fight. He says pray....pray at all times and pray for one another. There is a wonderful reminder here that we are not Lone Rangers in this war. We are members of an army. The soldier in line of battle would faint were it not for the knowledge that comrades are fighting at his side. And do not forget to pray for your squad leader, the preacher. Listen to what Paul says: "Pray also for me, that whenever I open my mouth, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel."
Some years ago I read a book called Military Misfortunes: The Anatomy of Failure in War.(2) It looks at some of the disasters in the history of international conflict with an eye to avoiding repetitions of the same tragic mistakes. It made several points that I recall. 1) Do not underrate your enemy. Our military has not done that in Iraq - the exit strategy leaves a lot to be desired, but the enemy was not underrated; Christian soldiers cannot underestimate the power of evil in the world. If we do, we will lose our battle even though we serve a commander who has already won the war. 2) Be alert - Pearl Harbor was not destroyed because no defense was possible but because the warning of impending attack was never sounded. Christian soldiers must be alert to avoid the attacks of evil that often come as unexpectedly as kamikazes. And 3) Use your equipment - the book says, "The disaster of Pearl Harbor lies in the failure of the Army and Navy in Hawaii to make their fight with the equipment at hand - it was not that they had no equipment, for they did, but they did not utilize what they had."(3) Christians have equipment for the battle - the armor of God. We need to use it.
There IS a war going on, not just against Rocket-propelled grenades and battle-hardened troops, but against everything that would make life less than the Lord intended for all creation, even you and me. We can experience spiritually the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat - it is up to us.
1. Clyde Murdock, Ed., A Treasury of Humor, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing, 1967), Page 14.
2. Eliot Cohen and John Gooch, (New York: Free Press, 1990)
3. P. 49
4. Frances Ridley Havergal, "Who Is on the Lord's Side?" 1877