I’ll just go ahead and admit up front to you that this passage of Scripture has always made me a little nervous. War imagery bothers me. I don’t like fighting. I don’t like the thought of humans being engaged in fatal battle with other humans. The gospel is a gospel of peace, and that’s something I value very much. So when I come across a passage of Scripture where the underlying theme is related to fighting and war, it always makes me squirm in my seat. This is no less true here in the closing verses of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. But Paul is referring here to a battle of a different nature. As he says early on, “Our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh…but against darkness [and] the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” There’s a song by Christian artist Steven Curtis Chapman that I think captures this idea well. It’s called “Bring it On,” and here’s part of the song:
I didn’t come lookin’ for trouble
And I don’t want to fight needlessly
But I’m not gonna hide in a bubble
If trouble comes for me
I can feel my heart beating faster
I can tell something’s coming down
But if it’s gonna make me grow stronger then…Bring it on
Now, I don’t want to sound like some hero
‘Cause it’s God alone that my hope is in
But I’m not gonna run from the very things
That would drive me closer to Him
So bring it on
I suppose I could preach a sermon today about the need for us to engage in spiritual warfare; to don God’s armor and strike out against the wickedness of this world. Certainly, that is the primary message of this passage. But I think there is a subtler message to this passage, one that spoke to me very deeply on several occasions throughout this week. The message is this: when things get tough, we have to stand firm. And armored by God, we can stand firm with confidence.
How many of you have had an encounter with a bully at some point in your life? In my observation, bullies work in much the same way as terrorists. They’ll do just enough to get you scared, and a lot of times that is what’s most satisfying to them. Most of the time it seems, bullies get their kicks out of making a threat and then laughing as you run away. So do you remember the instructions our parents gave us as kids about dealing with bullies? The instructions I always heard were something along the lines of, “Stand up to him!” or “Don’t let him get to you!” Of course, it’s never easy to keep someone from “getting your goat” or even to put up the appearance of apathy in the face of hurtful threats; but I believe that we all know that this really is the best defense against a bully.
You all have heard a bit about my basketball career now, but I’m sure it was just enough to whet your appetite for more! So here’s another story for you. I was playing basketball in gym class one day; it was the activity of the day and we were divided up into teams with about four halfcourt games going on in the gym. As we were playing, I pointed out what appeared to me to be a foul by a girl on the opposing team. She disagreed with me, and when I insisted that it was a foul, she “got up in my grill” so to speak and started pushing me around, trying to start a fight with me. I knew that if I responded, I would get kicked off the basketball team and I would be in a lot of trouble at home too. So I just stood there. I stayed facing the girl and I let her push me. I let her hurl insults at me and call me horrible names, but I did not open my mouth and I did not push back. I was very angry and very hurt, but I did not respond, and within a minute, she had stopped and walked away.
The bullies we face in our lives are much more difficult than any schoolyard bully we dealt with as kids, but we must be prepared to stand firm in the face of whatever life throws at us. We cannot turn tail and run. God has armed us, and in God we must remain strong. We can win battles simply by refusing to give in, or to admit defeat in the face of overwhelming circumstances. Paul’s description of the “armor of God,” is not a description of weapons used by warriors on the front lines, but rather weapons for those who were in a defensive battle, or maybe serving as “police” on security duty. These weapons may have been used to break up a fight on the streets; intended for keeping the peace rather than for waging war. This armor described by Paul would have been familiar to his readers, who encountered Roman soldiers daily. Certainly, such armor would have been associated with aggressive fighting, but Paul has taken the most common elements of the armor – belt, breastplate, shield, and helmet – and has reassigned them uncommon values: truth, righteousness, faith, and salvation. Armor, typically a symbol of strong aggression and self-reliance, has been transformed into the symbol of total reliance on the God of peace.
By donning the “armor of God,” we admit our total dependence on God in the face of the hardships of this world. And that is nothing to be ashamed of. In the belt of truth, we have freedom in the word of God. When we put on the breastplate of righteousness and allow our whole lives to be clothed in righteousness, we are invincible; nothing can weaken us when our lives are in God. With our sandals strapped to our feet, we are prepared to walk to the ends of the earth spreading the gospel message of love, hope, and peace in the face of hatred, depression, and oppression. Holding in our arms the shield of faith, our complete trust is in Christ Jesus, and we can thwart the arrows of temptation. With the helmet of salvation, we are forgiven of sins past and strengthened to conquer sin in the days to come. And swinging the sword that is the word of God, we can defend against the sins of the world. But above all is prayer. Paul tells us to keep praying in the face of every crisis, without ceasing, with every supplication. God is faithful. When we enter God’s presence in prayer, and when we stand firm in our salvation with truth, righteousness, faith, and peace, God will stand with us and nothing can bring us down. If we neglect any of these things, if we fail to put on any piece of the armor, we are vulnerable; we may as well turn tail and run. Yet, when we run away from the evils and hardships that are before us, we are also running away from God’s call in our lives.
Indeed, God has asked much of us. In Jesus Christ, God inaugurated with his people a new covenant. The promise of that new covenant was not that our lives would be easy, but that we would have life abundantly, life eternal. And I think we all know that life is not easy! Each of us faces many hardships in the course of our lives. Today we face the bully of a recession that just seems to keep throwing punches at us. The financial situation that is before us is dire at best. Or in deep sadness, we are hit with the stresses of watching loved family members or friends struggle in the face of chronic or even fatal illnesses. But we are armed with the belt of truth, the word of the Lord which speaks hope into the most hopeless situations. The addictions that compete for our attention not only distract our minds, but also often destroy our lives and the lives of those around us. Yet we wear the helmet of salvation, through which comes forgiveness of sins and the possibility of reconciliation in our lives; and we carry the shield of faith, which protects us from future temptations. All around us in this world, there is hatred and fighting, attacks and wars. Just this week in Afghanistan, the Taliban bullied a nation trying to have a fair democratic election. Yet in the midst of all this, God has equipped us to be in the world sharing the gospel of peace. It does not matter what life throws at us, God has armed us and prepared us to stand firm, and when we stand firm, God stands with us.
Through it all there is prayer, by which we enter the very presence of God. The moment we turn tail and run in the face of difficulties, we run away not only from what troubles us, but also from the protection God has offered us. When we don the breastplate of righteousness and cling to God, God will keep us strong. God is faithful. God does not abandon God’s people: never has and never will. But if we are to know the security and assurance of God’s presence in our lives, we must hold fast the promises of God; clothing ourselves in the armor that will allow us to stand firm no matter what life may send our way.
Sometimes life gets quite difficult. I have seen and heard the difficulties that many sitting here in this room are facing during this time. I know that there are many of us who have faced very tough situations in recent weeks or months; perhaps even over the period of a few years. There are times, it seems, when it just feels as if nothing is going our way. For my sake, when things get overwhelming, my temptation is to react, to start reasoning, to try and cope with the problem on my own and devise a solution by myself. I get so busy trying to solve the problem myself that I forget to pray, and I forget to stay anchored in God. But in doing this, I may as well turn and run the other way because it means I am not holding fast to faith in God. If I put my faith only in myself, I will get nowhere; I will just find myself completely overwhelmed. But God is bigger than any rough circumstance that life can throw our way. We are, after all, talking about the God who ordered the chaos of creation and his Son who calmed the stormy seas. And, as I was reminded again and again this week, God is faithful. God has prepared us for life on this earth, and when we clothe ourselves in the armor that is before us, God’s protection will surround us and God will stand with us. There is no reason to turn tail and run.