July 12, 2020

Sermon: Epiphany VI — Standing Firm in Christ

Guerinca, Picasso

Sermon: Epiphany VI — Standing Firm in Christ

The Lord be with you

Bob Dylan once wrote: “Democracy don’t rule the world, you better get that in your head. This world is ruled by violence but I guess that’s better left unsaid…”

One of the metaphors that the Bible uses about life in this age is that it is a battle. Conflict and violence have always been a part of life, sad as that may be. Many of us have led relatively peaceful lives, thanks be to God, but I would wager that most of us here know someone, whether in our families or among our friends and acquaintances, that has been a victim of violence. We know people who died or were wounded serving their country in the military. We know people who have been scarred by domestic violence. Criminal violence or sexual violence touch our communities almost daily. People of all ages and all backgrounds find themselves victimized. If we stop and think about it, life can be pretty scary sometimes. There are battles going on all around us.

God’s plan for creation did not include this kind of violence, pain, and death. God made this world to enjoy shalom — peace, wholeness, a life that is allowed to flourish and thrive without fear. In the biblical story it wasn’t long, though, after Adam and Eve were expelled from the garden that violence took root. Cain murdered Abel, followed by a whole line of people exercising violent control over others. We are only six chapters deep into the story when we read, “Now the earth was filled with violence.”

From then on, we read violent story after violent story, culminating in the Son of God himself being killed violently by crucifixion. In many ways, if we read it thoughtfully, the Bible is a dark and brutal book, an ongoing tale of human inhumanity to other humans, to the earth’s creatures, and to the earth itself.

In today’s scripture, Paul pulls back the curtain on all that conflict, cruelty, and destructiveness. He shows us that behind the scenes there are forces at work, cosmic powers of chaos that are actively fighting against the shalom that God intends for our lives and for this world. Our struggle in this life is not, in the final analysis, Paul says, against other people with whom we may fight. It is agains “the rulers, the authorities, the cosmic powers of darkness, and the spiritual forces of evil in heavenly places.”

It is against these forces that Paul says we must stand. So far in Ephesians we have talked about sitting in Christ in the heavenly places, walking in Christ in our daily lives, and now we are going to talk about standing strong in Christ in the midst of the spiritual battle of life.

This battle with the powers of darkness was a chief characteristic of Martin Luther’s life. My favorite biography of Luther is called, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil. Its author describes the reformer in these words:

Christ and the Devil were equally real to him: one was the perpetual intercessor for Christianity, the other a menace to mankind until the end. …Christ and Satan wage a cosmic war for mastery over Church and World. No one can evade involvement in this struggle. …The Devil is the omnipresent threat, and exactly for this reason the faithful need the proper weapons for survival.

You can’t sing “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” and miss the fact that Luther saw all Christians engaged in a battle with the Evil One and the spiritual forces of darkness.

In our own day, Dr. Richard Beck from Abilene Christian University has written a book called, Reviving Old Scratch. Beck, who has been sympathetic with progressive Christians who seek social justice, came to see that there is something missing in their approach. They miss the fundamental reality that there are evil forces in the spiritual realm that oppose justice and inclusion. These forces go deeper than people, deeper than the systems and structures people set up. There is a satanic force at work in the world.

The word “satan” means the one who opposes. And so, Richard Beck says,

  • Hate is the satan of love.
  • Exclusion is the satan of inclusion.
  • War is the satan of peace.
  • Oppression is the satan of justice.
  • Tearing down is the satan of building up.
  • Competition is the satan of cooperation.
  • Revenge is the satan of mercy. Harm is the satan of care.
  • Hostility is the satan of reconciliation.
  • There is a satan to the kingdom of God.
  • If you follow Jesus, you know there is anti-Jesus.

Simply put, there are forces working against the kingdom of God in this world. They are working against shalom. Whereas God’s plan in Christ is to bring life from death, to renew all creation and make us whole, allowing us to flourish as the creatures God made us to be, the satanic forces work to bring chaos, disintegration, destruction, and death.

And so, Paul tells us here in Ephesians, we must put on the armor of the gospel each day as we go about our lives. The gospel of truth. The gospel of right living. The gospel of peace and reconciliation. The gospel of faith, not trusting our own strength but the power of God. The gospel of salvation. The gospel of the Spirit and God’s word.

The harder the fight becomes, Paul is telling us, the deeper we must go into the gospel. The more we find ourselves under enemy attack, the closer we must get to Christ. The more the world in us and around us threatens to spin off into chaos, the more we must cling to shalom that God gives us through the Holy Spirit.

Now this all sounds so grand, so noble, so lofty — all this talk of great battles and cosmic powers. But you and I both know that the battle is fought in the trenches. It starts in our own hearts, with the battles we face within ourselves: Will I be a person of faith or self-reliance? Will I be a person of hope or despair? Will I be a person of love or selfishness?

It works itself out in our closest relationships and encounters: Will I think kindly of others or will I look down on them? Will I listen to others or will I despise their contribution? Will I speak honestly and kindly, or will my words be deceptive, cutting, and hurtful? Will I be helpful and available to others, or will I close myself off and think that they owe me something instead?

Unfortunately, none of us will get through this conflict unscathed. We will be wounded and we will wound others. But once again, that brings us back to the gospel, the gospel of forgiveness and cleansing, the gospel of dying to sin daily and rising again to walk in newness of life. The gospel of Christ, seated at the Father’s right hand, ruling over all the powers that threaten God’s shalom.

Did we in our own strength confide,
our striving would be losing,
were not the right Man on our side,
the Man of God’s own choosing.
You ask who that may be?
Christ Jesus, it is he;
Lord Sabaoth his name,
from age to age the same;
and he must win the battle.

May the Word of Christ dwell in us richly in all wisdom.

Comments

  1. I agree that there are intelligent non-human spiritual realities, I would even say spiritual beings, at odds with God and God’s will for humanity, that is, opposed to Jesus Christ. But anyone who holds this view has to be careful not to take the extra step and start identifying their human adversaries with that evil, the way Martin Luther identified the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church with it. It is all too easy for those of us holding such a view to demonize other human beings who don’t see eye to eye with us, or who oppose us, and it has happened often and disastrously in the history of Christianity. Then we are made blind to the evil in our own camp, and in ourselves, only projecting it onto those outside.

    • A great danger, agreed.

    • came across this from Yad Vashem, which I think helps to support your insight, Robert F.
      https://youtu.be/G2yiT8Nr0Pk

      • I’ve struggled with this lately, Robert F.
        I’ve called you-know-who a ‘monster’ more than once because of the horror of separating asylum babies from their mothers, and putting the littles into sub-standard care with no adequate soap, or diapers, or tooth paste. I needed your reminder as well as the video from Yad Vashem to re-think my own behavior,

        These days Bernie’s group is getting accused of targeting anti-Sanders people with abuse, and we can and will sort this out by examining who’s doing what to whom, but if it IS true, then Bernie is running a ‘cult’ thing too, although I don’t think he is the sort to do this himself, no way . . . . .

        and I realized that we are always being made fun of when we compare the historical evil to the present evil, but I do admit when I saw the following video, it recalled to me the historic scenes of courts where people who testified seemed to objectify suffering and to excuse themselves from responsibility for the suffering of others:
        https://youtu.be/tRjUyr_36MY

  2. I’d say that I’m 100% convinced that demonic forces are real, but whether they’re literal intelligent beings or just an emergent property of human minds and human social systems is an open question.

    Different subcultures and different parts of the world each have certain ways that they break God’s shalom. For example, as a kid from New England I remember being shocked every time we visited relatives in Georgia, just driving down the highway seeing all the billboards for strip clubs and adult video stores. It always made me feel like Georgia was a spiritually dark and corrupted place. But really what I was experiencing was just the shock of entering a part of the country where *different* “powers and principalities” ruled. New England probably would have felt equally dark to someone from Georgia. It’s just harder to recognize the demonic forces at work in your own culture because it’s the water you swim in.

    Now, is Georgia that way because some demon who specializes in exploitation of women decided to set up camp there and corrupt the people? Or because there’s some emergent feedback cycle in the culture that amplifies and reinforces certain attitudes toward women? Or is it some mix of the two – some chink in the spiritual armor that made the culture fertile ground for those particular demonic forces to invade and establish a beachhead there? I’m not sure if there’s any way for us to know that.

    • I *always* get nervous when we attribute specific categories/regional types of sin with specific demonic activity. That way lies too much charismatic madness. The powers exist, Christ conquered them on the Cross, and we have more than enough work on our hands just loving our neighbors to spare too much attention to the other fronts of the Long War.

      • I think your take is right. Love our neighbors, do good to our enemies, and let Christ deal with the demonic powers. That’s more than enough for our plate.

    • Michael Z. Regarding your post, what time frame are you referring to? Georgia was until recently one of the most conservative , both religious and politically of the USA. Blue laws, dry counties and social stigmas that went back to reconstruction. That your impression that Ga. is a bastion of immoral behavior or condoning the debasement of women I find hard to understand. Perhaps the billboards on the interstate are to lure the Puritans from up North into dens of inequity before they hit Disneyland. I have traveled to all 50 USA and the idea that Ga. is corruptive influence does give me the vapors. I guess a lot of Ga. natives go to morally straight NV., Ca . or NYC to get married in the right cultural setting. Lester Maddox is spinning in his grave for many reasons and this would be another. Georgia? Hotbed of hedonism, wow? Of course it is turning blue.

      • Dan, I’m talking about the 1980s, but it’s still true today. Atlanta is, among other things, the child sex trafficking capital of the US – and every day about 3,600 children in Georgia as a whole are trafficked for sex.

        When it comes to sexual morality, there are many ways that conservatives are more permissive than liberals. Sexual exploitation of women happens to be one of them – there’s a reason that many Republicans oppose the #MeToo movement and are okay with voting for sex predators and rapists. And sociologically speaking, people who are culturally conservative also tend to have more permissive attitudes toward men who commit adultery and domestic violence.

        This, I think, is actually part of why conservative men feel so threatened in our modern society – they are behaving toward women the same way they always have, and the way they were socialized too, but the society as a whole has shifted underneath them and many behaviors that were once viewed as normal “boys being boys” are no longer culturally acceptable.

      • Sorry, slight correction – that’s 3,600 children per year, not per day. Still, 10 per day is an outrageous number.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      For example, as a kid from New England I remember being shocked every time we visited relatives in Georgia, just driving down the highway seeing all the billboards for strip clubs and adult video stores. It always made me feel like Georgia was a spiritually dark and corrupted place.

      I notice all your examples of Georgia’s “spiritual darkness and corruption” have to do with Pelvic Issues.

  3. I also believe that non-human spiritual entities exist. But I also believe that if they did NOT exist, that human history would not be all that different, as we are quite capable of raising massive amounts of hell on our own initiative.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      All too easy to point at DEMONS instead of taking responsibility for your own actions, whether individual or group.

      Humans have shown themselves capable of heavy-duty abuse and atrocities all on their lonesomes.

  4. God/Jesus never threatens , the devil never warns. As it is said , the devils first job is to convince us there is no devil. Jesus took all the demons, the devils upon himself on the cross for us. As the song says, no power on earth , no work of man can ever pluck me from his hand. Darkness is the absence of light , evil is the absence of God. I am writing this as I live near Sodom and Atlanta., near where the great accuser lives.

  5. ” there are forces working against the kingdom of God in this world ”

    “And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”
    (1 Samuel 8:18)

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Christiane, I’m not sure of your linkage between those two statements. Is the first some quote from upthread or posting or news item and the second your/Samuel’s commentary on the the first?

      As for “forces working against the kingdom of God in this world”, isn’t that all too often the justification for Inquisitions and Witch-hunting? To do it to them before they can do it to us? (Isn’t God soooo lucky to have such Great Spiritual Warriors on His side?)