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.