Monday, March 17, 2014

Bringing All Things Together in Christ - You are Not Alone in this Battle

Don’t you just love those speeches that make you want to go out there and win the battle? Like the line from the movie Knute Rockne, All American...

“The last thing said to me, ‘Rock,’ he said, ‘sometimes when the team is up against it and the breaks are beating the boys, tell them to go out there with all they’ve got and win just one for the Gipper.”

The line was so passion-stirring, it was later used by the man who played “the Gipper,” Ronald Reagan, in his presidential campaign! You hear that line and you are ready to go into battle. Or, what about the speech given by William Wallace in the movie Braveheart? The army made up of common Scotsmen, struggling against the oppression of England, one last stand on the battlefield and their leader rides in front on his horse with these words…you know what? I can’t do it justice…watch!





Don’t you just want to go out to battle right now? You know, we even have our battle imagery in the church, in our worship. Do you remember this song?

Onward Christian Soldiers, 
Marching as to War,
With the Cross of Jesus,
Going on Before;
Christ, the Royal Master,
Leads against the Foe;
Forward into Battle,
See His Banners Go!

These words evoke images of the Christian crusaders. Marching into battle for God, swords in hand, ready to defeat the enemy. We even hear this theme at work in our children’s worship:

I May Never March in the Infantry
Or Ride in the Calvary
Or Shoot the Artillery
I May Never Fly O'er the Enemy
But I’m in the Lord’s Army…

Fighting and war and battle…these themes have certainly been employed even by Scripture. God is described as a “warrior.” The people of Israel are constantly at war in the Old Testament. When they were faithful, God led them to victory over their enemies. When they are not faithful, they almost always suffered defeat. The reason we sing about battles, the reason movies with stirring speeches about defeating our enemies are so popular, is because sometimes we need more strength than we can muster ourselves. 

Sometimes life is overwhelming. Sometimes there is too much month left at the end of our paycheck. Sometimes there are too many dreams and not enough life left. Sometimes there is too much dysfunction in your family, and sometimes you know that the dysfunction is coming from you! Sometimes you just get depressed. These songs and scriptures were written for people just like you and me.

Take this passage written by Paul, for example…

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For 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. Therefore 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. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. Pray 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. Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak. Ephesians 6:10-20 (NRSV)

I’ll be honest with you, for most of my life I completely missed the meaning of this passage. I mean completely missed it! In fact, I thought it meant exactly the opposite of what it really means. I grew up believing Paul was telling us to run into battle and fight for God! “Put on your armor and go at it!” I thought this was Paul’s Braveheart speech! Paul, riding in front of the church, “Brothers and sisters…” “Satan cannot defeat us.” “Pick up your swords and let’s go get him!”

I’ve heard sermons along those lines. I remember as a child sitting in a worship service. I was only about 8 or 9 years old and the preacher got up and read this text. Then he began to put on battle armor right in front of us. He finished by picking up this shiny Excalibur-like sword and he concluded his stirring sermon by calling us into battle. I remember, even as an 8 or 9 years old being moved. “I may only be 4 ½ feet tall, but I’m ready! No one or no thing can stand in my way!”

As I’ve reflected back on that moment I wonder what it must have been like for the woman there. I don’t know her name, but I know she was there. What was it like for the woman there who arrived alone that morning? Her husband was not a Christian. Their relationship was falling apart. They had a big fight before she left that morning. “Why do you have to me wake me up so early on a Sunday?” he shouted. There was more to their argument than a simple loss of sleep. She arrived alone again that morning wondering if she had any strength to go any further.  I’ve often wondered what she thought about that preacher standing in front of us in battle armor brandishing a sword. I think she probably thought to herself, “I don’t even have enough strength to pick that sword up off the ground.”

I think we’ve missed the point of this text, church, and there are two extremely important and overlooked parts of this text that make me think that. First, Paul makes it clear that this is not our battle, but God’s. Notice all the kind of battle armor Paul is describing; a belt, a breastplate, strong armored boots, a shield, and a helmet. These are defensive in nature. He also mentions a sword, but the word used here for “sword” is not the one we’d use for Excalibur. It is a specialized kind of Roman sword. It is a very short sword, almost a dagger, used in close-in hand-to-hand combat. Paul does not say, “Run into battle with your throwing spears…or your sling shots…or your arrows…and attack Satan!”

Notice also that the only actions Paul encourages his readers to take: Stand and Pray. Put on your armor and stand still. “Take up the whole armor of God so that you can withstand on that evil day…having done everything, stand firm. Stand, therefore, and fasten that belt around your waist.” And pray, pray, pray. Paul says pray three times in verse 18. This is all we can do, because God is the one fighting! Finally, be strong IN THE LORD and in the power of HIS strength and power. Put on the whole armor OF GOD so that you may be able to stand. Stand and pray, because prayer is the acknowledgement (the confession) that without God our weapons are useless. Stop trying to fix your life on your own. Stop trying to solve the world’s problems on your own. Stop trying to fight sin in your life on your own. Stop trying to make a difference in the world (church) on your own. Stand firm and Pray.

This is actually a pretty consistent throughout Scripture. Do you remember the story of Gideon in the Old Testament? “Gideon, I know you are outnumbered, but you still have too many soldiers. Get rid of most of them and then go into battle.” Why? Because God wanted to prove to Gideon that his victory had nothing to do with the size of his army and it had everything to do with the power of God. Do you remember the story we read a few weeks ago about Elisha? Over in 2 Kings 6, Elisha and his attendant are surrounded by the enemy. The attendant is scared out of his mind, because he thinks their only way out is to pick up swords and run into battle. Elisha prays for God to open the eyes of his servant and then he sees the armies of God all around. It wasn’t their battle; it was God’s! Or what about Jehoshaphat in 2 Chronicles 20? The Israelites were surrounded on all sides by their enemies, Ammonites, Moabites, the armies from Mount Seir, there was no way out. The Bible says, King Jehoshaphat bowed down with his face to the ground and everyone else followed, they all prayed. The text goes on…

As they began to sing and praise, the LORD set an ambush against the Ammonites, Moab and Mount Seir, who had come against Judah, so they were routed…When Judah came to the watchtower, they looked toward the multitude; they were corpses lying on the ground; 
no one had escaped. 2 Chronicles 20:22-24 NRSV

The Bible is clear on this point. The battle is not yours. You are powerless against sin. You are powerless against Satan. If you could defeat Satan with stronger armor and better weapons, then Jesus came for nothing! Stand firm and Pray!

There is something else important about this text…

God does not call you to stand alone. The battle described here in Ephesians is one in which the church fights together. I know your English translations say “you,” but that is just because Paul was not from Texas! If he had been from Texas, the text would say “y’all.” Every verb in this section is written in the 2nd person plural form.

“Be Strong (all of you)” in verse 10.
“Put on your armor (all of you)” in verse 11.
“Stand (all of you)” in verse 11.
“Our struggles are not against enemies of blood and flesh” in verse 12.
“You (all) will be able to quench all the flaming arrows…” in verse 16.

Not only will God fight this battle for you, you do not have to stand alone. That is why the rest of us are here. We will stand with you, that is what the church is for.

Where are you? Some of you are swinging your sword with all of your might, and some of you are running away from the battle. Let me tell you: both of these options will lead to your defeat. You cannot run forever. You cannot hide sin forever. You cannot ignore a strained relationship forever. You cannot refuse to engage forever, and you cannot win the battle you are fighting if you are fighting alone. You are not strong enough. You may think you are and you may think you are winning. But there is a reason God came to fight for us.

Not long after the Israelites escaped from Egypt, they found themselves in a real mess. Pharaoh changed his mind and came after them. The Red Sea stood before them, nowhere to go, but then, this happened…

As Pharaoh approached the Israelites in the wilderness, Moses said, “Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the LORD will accomplish for you today for the Egyptians whom you see today you shall never see again. The LORD will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.”
 Exodus 14:13-14

Are you ready to be still and let God fight for you? We want to stand with you. Because that is what family is for.

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