We are called to “put on the armor of God” and engage the evil in the world in order to defend the value and dignity of each person as created in God’s image. We are called to stand firm and be compassionate and courageous, having “soft hearts and hard feet”, rejecting the use of violence and instead using the “weapons” of mercy, love and prayer, even toward those we are standing against.
Speaker: Pastor Stephen “Tig” Intagliata
Main Bible Passage: Ephesians 6:10-20, Isaiah 59:14-17, 20
I don’t think that I’ve ever preached on this passage from Ephesians before that talks about putting on the armor of God and preparing ourselves for battle.
Probably because I have embraced the Anabaptist/Mennonite way of life and its focus on pacifism and peacemaking, I tend to shy away from Bible passages that use military terminology and metaphors to talk about God and the Christian life.
They sound too violent and therefore too at odds with my understanding of Jesus and how he taught and modeled the way of peace.
So my tendency is to gloss over passages like this one in Ephesians where the apostle Paul likens the Christian life to being in a battle against the evil in the world, an evil that Paul says is instigated by Satan, the devil himself.
And that’s another thing—I have a lot questions about this being known as Satan, or the devil.
I mean I know that this character plays a major role throughout the Bible, from the story of where he tempts Adam and Eve in Genesis, all the way through the coming of the new heavens and new earth in the book of Revelation where he is defeated once and for all.
But it’s hard for me to wrap my head around this idea of a devil, often personified in red with horns and a pitchfork. Satan is kind of a mystery to me, I guess in a similar way that God is a mystery who we as humans cannot fully comprehend.
But even with these mysteries, these uncertainties, some things seem clear to me. I believe that there are forces of evil at work in the world that cause a lot of human suffering, forces that diminish and devalue people who are created in the image of God, and I believe that there’s a God who is at work in the world who battles against these forces to make sure that every person can be treated with respect and experience God’s love as lived out in human relationships.
We get a glimpse of this battle in the call to worship from Psalm 34 that we read.
“The face of the Lord is against those who do evil, to cut off the memory of them from the face of the earth”.
And Psalm 34 gives us a good idea of the nature of God’s work—God is a God who hears the cry of those who are distress, and is ready to defend them and deliver them.
God is a defender who rescues those who don’t have the means to defend themselves; the humble, the poor, the righteous—maybe we could substitute innocent or faithful here–
those whose suffering is often the result of being taken advantage of by those who have more power than they do and who seek to use that power for their own selfish gain.
God draws near to and seeks to bring healing and hope to those whose spirits have been crushed, those who have become brokenhearted.
This past week we have heard stories and seen images of people whose spirits have been crushed and whose hearts have been broken.
We’ve heard and seen of the devastation of the earthquake in Haiti that has killed more than 1,400 people, injured thousands and destroyed over 37,000 homes.
And on the other side of the world, we’ve seen and heard of the chaos happening in Afghanistan as the United States is trying to exit a 20 yr. old war, working to evacuate the remaining troops, US citizens, and also Afghan citizens who served as interpreters and other supportive roles to our military.
It’s a big mess with untold suffering, which is to be expected with any war.
Much of the suffering and hopelessness in Afghanistan is due to the takeover of the country by the Taliban, who have a track record of oppressing women and not allowing girls to be educated, among other things.
There was a heartbreaking story on the news on Friday of a middle-aged woman who was from Afghanistan but had moved to the United States and become an American citizen.
But about 8 years ago, she felt led to move back to Afghanistan to teach in a school that had a lot of girls. But now she is leaving Afghanistan with tears in her eyes, figuring that the future of her school is in jeopardy as the Taliban may prohibit girls from being able to go to school.
Both in Haiti and Afghanistan, along with the military, there are people and groups who are responding to the cries of the people who are the casualties of these disasters,
People with courage and compassion who are being used by God to rescue and bring deliverance and healing and meet the needs of people who are hurting, displaced, and in danger.
They are being the hands and feet of God, willing to enter into the pain and suffering of others and lend them a helping hand and give them hope.
We are having a special offering today to support their efforts, and we will be exploring some opportunities to have some hands-on involvement in helping with the resettlement of Afghan refugees who will be coming to our area soon.
Today’s scripture passage is a reminder to we who call ourselves Christians to be ready, to prepare ourselves to face the evil in the world and the pain and suffering it causes by doing what Paul calls ‘putting on the armor of God’.
It’s interesting because some of the same imagery is used by the prophet Isaiah in the other passage that we heard. In that scenario, justice and truth had all but disappeared and people were living in ways that dishonored God,
And it says that God looked around and couldn’t find anyone who would intercede, as one contemporary version says, “God was disgusted that no one would do a thing about it”.
So as the prophets often did, they were God’s mouthpieces to say what God was going to do, and Isaiah proclaims that God promises to send a Redeemer to be that person who saves, who rescues, who delivers people from the evil, the sin, that others inflict upon them, as well as the evil and the sin that people battle with inside themselves.
Jesus is that Redeemer, that Savior, who through his own life teachings fleshed out the redeeming and reconciling love of God to those around him. In carrying out his mission, Jesus wasn’t afraid to confront the evil that he saw around him,
And through the power of God’s Spirit inside him, he set people free from the things that crushed them, oppressed them, and from the demons that tormented them.
Jesus’ resurrection is a sign of the power that God has over the evil in the world, the power that love has over hatred, the power that truth has over lies and deception.
And when Jesus breathed the Spirit of God on his disciples before he left this earth, he was giving them that same power, that same authority, that same mission to carry on the work of God in the world.
This is what the apostle Paul had in mind when he encouraged the church in Ephesus to put on the armor of God in order to face the evil around them, the hatred and the hostilities of the world in which they lived.
And this call to be prepared to live in the world is meant for all of us, for you and me, as well, in whatever context that we live in.
So let’s look a little more closely at what it means to prepare ourselves and what this armor consists of that we are called to put on.
First, Paul encourages us to be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. This reminds me that it is God’s power at work in us which gives us the strength to withstand and stand against what he calls “the schemes of the devil”, the evil around us, and I would also add, the evil that gets inside of us.
There’s this quote that I love by Jackie Pullinger, a long-time British mission worker in Hong Kong who has ministered among the most destitute and broken-hearted people in that part of the world.
Pullinger said, “God wants us to have soft hearts and hard feet. The trouble with so many of us is that we have hard hearts and soft feet.”
I think there’s so much truth to that statement. I know that for me, sometimes when I have been in situations where there’s a lot of poverty or prejudice or injustices, I can get soft feet,
Like my knees get wobbly and my feet start shaking and I want to high tail it out of a situation because I get scared and don’t want to have anything to do with it.
Or even sometimes when I’m just sitting in my house watching the news, and seeing all the bad news, which is 90% of what the news seems to focus on. I see all this suffering and conflict in so many parts of our country and our world,
that I can feel overwhelmed to the point where I can’t take anymore, and I just want to turn it off and turn my back on it and not care anymore. My heart gets hardened, calloused, and I want to just retreat into my own little safe and secure bubble. Now I do think it can be a good thing to limit how much news we consume, but not just put on heads in the sand and pretend it doesn’t exist.
So I often need the reminder from Pullinger’s quote, to keep a soft heart, a compassionate heart, and also muster up the courage to keep my feet firmly planted in places and situations where I might be tempted to run from.
Sometimes that even applies personally to me, when I’m battling things inside of me, to make sure I show compassion to myself, and also have the courage to face something that I really need to deal with in my life and in my relationships.
So we’re called to stand firm against and stand up to the evil that we see around us and inside us.
Paul then goes on to describe a little more how this evil, how the devil’s schemes are manifested in the world. He says in verse 12 that we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.
He’s talking about a spiritual battle a cosmic struggle against the principalities and powers, something that’s deeper than what we see on the outside. I’m not an expert on this, but one thing I think it’s talking about is how evil can be manifested not only in individuals but also through institutions and structures in society.
There’s been this whole debate about racism and how it’s not only in individual but systemic, that racism can become embedded in institutions, and it needs to be identified and dealt with in order for an institution to root out its racism.
I was able to participate in an anti-racism training when I was at Bluffton University along with a group of staff and students, so we could work at addressing the racism that existed in our institution. It’s hard work, but important work as well.
Another manifestation of evil that I see particularly in our country is this thing called xenophobia, the fear of foreigners or people who are different from us.
One way we see this is in the opposition that a lot of people have to allowing immigrants into our country, whether they be from south of the border or across the world in countries where there is a large Muslim population. There are even some loud voices speaking now saying that we shouldn’t be bringing Afghan refugees into the United States and only evacuate our troops and US citizens.
As I’ve reflected on how racism and other evils manifest themselves in the world, one way that would describe it is that it is those forces that seek to disrespect and dehumanize and diminish and demonize other people.
And these “d” words can manifest themselves between groups of people or between individuals as well. They all seek to undermine God’s vision of shalom for the world, where all people can live with dignity and respect, having their basic needs met, living at peace with one another and realizing their full God-given potential.
Preserving the dignity and the value of each person is a sacred task, and it is a challenge, a battle in our world that is so divided and so full of hatred and prejudice, and abuse of power.
The apostle Paul reminds us that one of the tools we have at our disposal is prayer. He mentions this several times in the last part of our passage today, calling us to pray at all times in the Spirit, bathing all that we do in prayer.
I am still learning more about prayer, but I can say from experience that prayer has the power to change us and also the power to change others as well.
Before I close, I want to make a couple of comments about the components of the armor of God that we are called to put on.
There’s the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shoes to carry out the gospel of peace, the shield of faith and the helmet of salvation.
It seems to me that all of the things that these different pieces of armor are embodied in the person of Jesus—
Jesus is the truth, Jesus lived a life of righteousness, Jesus is the Prince of peace, Jesus is the object of our faith, and Jesus is the author of salvation, the Savior.
So really we could say that putting on the armor of God is like becoming like Jesus, or as the letter to the Colossians describes it, clothing ourselves in Christ.
And that helps us remember that the way of Jesus is the way of peace, but not peace in a passive sense but one where we participate with God in Jesus’ redeeming work in the world.
One of Eugene Peterson’s last books is called Practice Resurrection: a conversation on growing in Christ.
It’s actually a commentary on Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. And in the last chapter on putting on the armor of God he says,
Like Jesus who is the Lamb of God and we are the “sheep of his pasture”, we are non-domineering, non-combative. In the practice of resurrection the military metaphors are totally de-materialized. The practice of resurrection is a thoroughly pacifist, but never passive, way of life. Violence, whether verbal or physical, is inadmissible. (p. 263)
Peterson sounds like he could have been a closet Mennonite!
So we face the evil in the world with feet firmly planted, we speak truth to power clearly, we confront injustice and prejudices with courage, but the weapons or tools that we use are prayer, grace, mercy and love toward those that we are up against.
That is the way of Jesus, that was captured so well by the Apostle Paul both here in Ephesians and also in the 12th chapter of his letter to the Romans. So I want to close with one of my favorite passages of scripture from that chapter.
17 Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. 18 If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it[a] to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:17-21)
May we find strength and inspiration in these words as we prepare ourselves to put on the armor of God and engage with that which is evil in the world.