Armed and Ready
Pentecost IX (O. T. 18): August 6, 2017
Our brother Pastor Lazarus - member of this congregation and leader of our Sudanese community - has been in the hospital recovering from something he contracted when he was in Africa. In the hospital in Khartoum the treatment was ineffective and has left him with additional disabilities; his heroic wife Veronica went to Khartoum and brought him home; our Methodist Hospital has helped him tremendously.
On a recent visit I asked him about this passage from Ephesians. I asked, "With all you've been through, and with all you know about us Americans, what do you observe?" You know he needs to use a wheelchair, because his legs do not function. Now this new experience has reduced the use of his hands. He has survived the civil war in Sudan that led to the creation of South Sudan, fled into exile in Ethiopia because of government persecution, and has struggled to build a faith community here in the United States. He has been through a lot, so I asked him what he thought about the whole armor of God, especially what to say to you and me.
He said that he thought most people - not just white North Americans, but Sudanese and other folks too - tend to ignore their relationship with God except when they need something. The Apostle here calls us to prepare ourselves for the time of battle, but you don't prepare for battle while the enemy is rushing down on you. You do it in peacetime, you do it behind the lines, you do it daily. Our military trains regularly, they work on physical and mental fitness, emotional well-being, unit cohesiveness, weapons training, and so forth constantly, and not just when they're in the process of being attacked.
But Lazarus said that he believes most Christians don't work on preparing themselves every day, but when the Enemy attacks them, they call out to God for help, without ever having done what was necessary to be ready. The most important thing to be ready, my brother in Christ told me, is to nurture your relationship with God. He gave an illustration. If I need something from you, how easy is it for me to ask you when I've never talked with you, never spent any time with you, never put any energy into getting to know you? Do I know your family, your favorite movie, what toppings you like on your pizza? Have I ever hung out with you, just spent time in your company, perhaps going to a movie together or hiking in Plattsmouth State Park? If I don't know you, how easy is it for me to ask you for help?
Yet when we're in trouble, Lazarus said, we quickly cry to God for help, even though we've put very little time and energy into developing a relationship with God, getting to know God, to understand the sorts of things God likes and just hanging out with God. It is obvious to me that Pastor Lazarus has a strong and close relationship with God: he has been through more than anyone else I know, yet he does not complain, but has confidence in the loving will of God.
Well, all this is probably the most important thing to say to you today: simply to repeat what Pastor Lazarus said to me. You and I need to devote ourselves to readiness during all the ordinary times if we hope to be ready for battle when it comes upon us. Or, to follow Lazarus' train of thought, we need to know the heart of God as a friend if we want to ask for help when we need it.
But I will add two thoughts. The first: that list of items in the Scripture passage - the Whole Armor of God - clues us in on what to do to be ready. That is, these are the elements for nurturing a relationship with God. They are:
- the belt of truth
- the breastplate of righteousness
- the shoes of readiness to proclaim the Gospel of peace
- the shield of faith
- the helmet of salvation
- the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God
That looks like a six-week series. I told you in a recent sermon that I think part of my calling as your Pastor after the building is finished is to help you in your spiritual lives, to help you deepen your relationship with God. Perhaps we can start by working through that list next winter or spring, not only in sermons but in classes and workshops. A sermon alone isn't enough; it does no good to hear someone talk about "the helmet of salvation" if you don't go in for a fitting. And if you want to start now pursuing that readiness, you can start with the Whole Armor of God.
My second thought is that what we Christians are doing in these acts of readiness is to defend ourselves agains the attacks of the Enemy. First century thought portrays that enemy as "the Evil One" and "the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places." That still makes sense to me, but perhaps not to you. No matter. It's not important to take this sort of image literally so much as it is important to take it seriously. There really are "flaming arrows" that attack us and they really do come from forces of darkness. The other day I jotted a list of those flaming arrows that occurred to me at the time; with some thought I could add to it and I'm sure you could, too.
"You are the center of the universe." This is reinforced by the forces of advertising, who want you to think that you should always get what you want and when you want it. They have used lines such as "We do it all for you" and "Have it your way" to reinforce this notion. If you believe it, you are guaranteed to be miserable the rest of your life.
"Your worth as a person is measured by your productivity." This received reinforcement recently in the latest proposal to reform legal immigration, by measuring people according to what they will contribute to our country's economy, quite contrary to the words engraved on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty.
You thought I was going to talk about sex, drugs, and rock & roll, didn't you? Well, there are all sorts of temptations in the world, and those things that truly tempt us most are things that are generally good but can be misused.
Another arrow is our society's dominant religion, according to research, and it is called Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. It has been described in several ways, but I summarize it in these four affirmations of faith:
- There is a God who made everything.
- God wants me to be happy.
- God wants me to be nice.
- If I am nice to other people, then when I die I will spend eternity with God.
Notice: no Cross, no sin, no repentance, no forgiveness, no joy, no justice, no glory.
I do not expect you to get all this, either the list of elements in the Whole Armor of God nor my short list of flaming arrows. And that list of flaming arrows was just what I jotted down the other day; if I stopped thinking about getting the north rest rooms functional and how to manage office space during the renovation and instead thought more about the work of the powers of darkness, I could add considerably to that list.
But my purpose in giving you these two lists is not to teach you anything in particular. It is to let you know that Pastor Lazarus is right: we have a problem, and there is something that we can do about it. The flaming arrows come at us all the time: from family members and peers, from social media, from television and movies… one fifteen or twenty minute sermon a week (or, to be more realistic, two a month) cannot compete with the amount of input we get from the time we spend with those other voices. We need the Whole Armor of God.
The forces of darkness, however you conceive of them, are at us all the time. In the Whole Armor of God, we see that God has provided everything we need to deal with them.
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master