Strong in the Lord

Every morning you make a decision. How should you dress for the day?

Should you dress for the season? Long pants or short? White after Labor Day?

Should you dress for the weather? Raincoat or sunscreen? Street shoes or snow boots?

Or should you dress for the occasion? Work clothes or office duds? Loungewear or formalwear? Should you dress for success or go with the flow?

Whatever you decide to wear, if you’re a follower of Jesus, you also need to put on the full armor of God.

Yes, you need protection from the sun and rain, cold wind and snowy blast. You also need protection from evil spiritual forces. These are what the Apostle Paul calls the powers and principalities. They are the rulers and authorities of this world. They are the nameless and often faceless forces of institutions, culture, and society that are the overlords of our age.

Paul says these forces have been corrupted by Satan, “the ruler who dominates the very air” (Ephesians 2.2). Yes, the evil is so pervasive that it’s in the very air we breathe. In these days when we are concerned about the air we breathe because of the coronavirus, that notion should be especially powerful for us.

We can’t escape the influence of these forces. But we can stand against them. We can “out” them; we can reveal them for what they are. And we can blunt the force they have in our lives and the lives of others around us.

We begin by putting on the full armor of God – not just pieces of it, but the whole thing, the “panoply” of it, as Paul says. When we say it’s the armor “of” God, we’re saying not only that it’s the armor that God provides for us but also that it’s also the very armor that God wears.

Paul’s inspiration comes from Isaiah 59. In this passage, God is angered by the lack of justice in the world, so God decides to intervene. Isaiah says that God prepares for battle by putting on righteousness like a breastplate, salvation like a helmet, judgment like an overcoat and zeal like a mantle. (Isaiah 59.17)

It’s natural for Paul to pick up on this military image because he’s fond of vigorous athletic and military images to describe the Christian struggle. He’s in prison, so it’s possible he’s influenced by the sight of Roman soldiers guarding him.

But we need to be careful not to take the image literally. This is figurative language, picture language. Isaiah uses similes. He says God’s armor is “like” this but it’s clearly not the same. Paul uses metaphors, as when he speaks of a “belt of truth.” How does truth hold your pants up? It’s a metaphor, not a literal reality.

These concerns are why I’ve demilitarized the image of a Roman soldier. I’ve rendered him as a green plastic soldier similar to the green plastic Army men that I played with as a boy. They may be more familiar to younger people as the Green Army Men from the “Toy Story” movies.

But even if the image is playful, the reality they represent is not. God’s armor is real, because the forces it protects us from are very real. Using military images, Paul is not glorifying war or armed conflict. He’s saying, “God’s armor is like this, only better.” Wearing this armor, he says, makes us strong not in ourselves but “strong in the Lord.”

We are strong in the Lord, first, when we put on the belt of truth. Belts can be decorative, and they can help hold your pants up, but their primary job is to provide core body support. They help give you the backbone you need to stand straight. A commitment to truth holds you up. Deviate from the truth, and you’ll be soft in the belly.

We are strong in the Lord, second, when we put on the body armor of righteousness, or as it’s traditionally called, the breastplate of righteousness. This armor protects your heart and other vital organs.

What does it mean to be protected by righteousness? Some people think that righteousness is personal morality, but personal morality is highly overrated. Even murderers act from a sense of personal morality. It’s twisted, but it’s there. Biblical righteousness is more than mere morality. The only morality that counts is behavior that is anchored in a right relationship with God.

Elsewhere, Paul talks about the breastplate of faith and love (1 Thessalonians 5:8). Faith and love are linked because righteousness is all about relationship. To be righteous is to be rightly related to God and to others – as Jesus said, to love God and neighbor. Right relationship protects us especially from sins with a sharp edge.

We are strong in the Lord, third, when we walk in shoes of peace. Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers” (Matthew 5:9). Isaiah said: “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns’ ” (Isaiah 52:7). Let us walk softly with shoes of peace.

We are strong in the Lord, fourth, when we raise the shield of faith. Roman shields were rectangular so that when soldiers closed ranks, their shields would fit together to present a solid front to the enemy and deflect arrows as well as boulders thrown at them.

Our faith is like that. It protects us individually, but it is strongest when we stand in faith next to our brothers and sisters in Christ. When we are bound together in love, we have a strength that none of us could muster individually.

We are strong in the Lord, fifth, when our heads are protected by the helmet of salvation. This is the sturdy assurance that we are saved, an assurance that will help us keep our heads on straight in times of trial and cushion us against the hard blows of life.

We are strong in the Lord, sixth, when we are armed with the sword of the Spirit. This sword is the word of God, Paul says. Don’t misunderstand here. The word Paul uses is not logos, meaning Jesus, the Word of God with a capital W; or the Bible, which many consider the word of God, with a lowercase w.

The word Paul uses is rema. It means the message, the gospel. That’s our armament. That’s what we use to conquer the world. Only let’s not weaponize it. Let’s not use the gospel as something to beat up other people, but as good news to open their hearts.

In the book of Revelation, when Jesus conquers evil, he uses what’s called the “sharp two-edged sword of his mouth.” That’s his creative and powerful logos, or word. Similarly, we are empowered to create or destroy with the words we speak. With the sword of the Spirit, we try to speak the truth in love and build up one another for the work of God’s ministry.

Finally, Paul says, we are strong in the Lord when we pray in the Spirit at all times and on every occasion. Prayer isn’t part of our armor. But it’s what holds everything together seamlessly. If there are any gaps in our armor, prayer fills them in.

Thus protected, we are equipped to stand against attacks from the powers. But let’s not, please, sing another chorus of “Onward Christian Soldiers.” Despite the militaristic imagery, this is not a call to violence. It is a call to push back hard against the powers. The goal is not to defeat them – which is surely beyond our power – but rather to thwart their evil intent and turn it toward good.

The first step is to identify them. 1 John 4:1 calls this “discerning the spirits” or “testing the spirits.” In Ephesians 4:31, Paul gives us some guidelines. Do these spirits promote faith and love? Have they put away bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander and malice? Are they kind and tenderhearted and forgiving?

It’s not enough to judge their words. Look at their actions. Observe what they do. Evil often disguises itself as good. It may look good on the surface, but below the surface be rotten to the core.

Once you’ve identified the powers, the task becomes unmasking them in public. Best of luck with this part. The powers are often unmasked, but they are like magicians. They are skilled at misdirecting your attention here so you won’t see what they’re doing there. They will try to turn the unmasking to their benefit.

Finally, you have to simply call them out on it. You have to denounce the powers for what they are. This is often called “speaking truth to power.” This notion was popularized by the Quakers, especially the black Quaker human rights activist Bayard Rustin. He goes so far as to say that the primary social function of religion is to speak truth to power.

There’s even a Greek word for it in the New Testament. It’s parrēsia. It means speaking with boldness, assurance, confidence, frankness, openness. That’s how the early Christians spoke – and if you read the book of Acts, you’ll see that speaking this way got them into a lot of trouble. But it was what human rights activist John Lewis calls “good trouble.” It’s the kind of trouble you want to be involved with.

The classic biblical story of saying truth to power involves the prophet Nathan confronting King David after David’s rape of Bathsheba and murder of her husband Uriah. It’s a rare moment when a prophet can speak truth to a king and live to tell the tale. You can read about it in 2 Samuel chapter 12.

Don’t expect accolades, promotions or rewards when speaking truth to power. You’ve seen how whistleblowers have been treated in Washington over the last four years, despite the protection of laws. Many people who do it end up ruined or buried by the minions that serve the powers. But seismic changes can happen. Witness the fall of the communist bloc 30 years ago. Witness the peaceful end of apartheid in South Africa about the same time. Surely God was active in those days!

We are at one of those crucial moments right now. The viral pandemic, waves of police lawlessness, and Trump’s racism and authoritarianism have come together to create a unique opportunity for our society. A moment of racial reckoning may be at hand. Events may force America to confront its greatest sickness.

It could be a kairos moment, a God moment, the right time for divine intervention. Or maybe we will let the moment slip away. Maybe we will – as we have so often done before – blink when we should stare down the evil of racism, denounce it for the evil it is and say, “No more! Repent and trust the gospel of Jesus Christ!”

We do not wear the armor of God to protect us from trivial sins. We wear the armor of God to protect us while we confront the evil forces that create misery in our world. Tomorrow, when you’re getting dressed, consider the weather and the season and the occasion. But whatever else you put on, put on God’s armor. It’s what you really need in the battle ahead!

But remember that you never fight alone. As Charles Albert Tindley says in his hymn, “Beams of Heaven”:

Harder yet may be the fight; right may often yield to might;

wickedness awhile may reign; Satan’s cause may seem to gain.

But there’s a God who rules above with hand of power and heart of love;

and if I’m right, he’ll fight my battle, I shall have peace someday.

I shall have peace someday.

Amen.

This message was delivered October 18, 2020 at Edgerton United Methodist Church in Edgerton, Kansas, from Ephesians 6:10-18.

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