Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Memory Eternal

My family was saddened last evening to hear of the sudden death of my wife’s niece. She lived locally, as does most of her extended family, so we were able to spend time with her parents and siblings. I was able to offer for her the prayers of the church, commending her spirit into the hands of our gracious Lord. I can say little of this – for words fail – only that as I stood in the presence of death I knew I stood in the presence of a defeated foe, for the Lord, the Giver of Life, was also present in grace and power.

Of your great mercy, please pray for all the faithful departed, especially this dear one, and for all those who mourn.

Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death,
And upon those in the tombs bestowing life.

Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Reflection: PowerPoint and Proclamation

…the college is hoping that its new, $2 million, state-of-the-art preaching center will not only highlight its mission but give preaching majors the technical skills they need to more effectively present their message.
The 12,000-square-foot facility, located in the heart of the campus, features a 90-seat lecture hall, two multimedia classrooms, four practice labs, a conference room, a commons area and a computer lab.
Last week, 24-year old [name], who is majoring in preaching and church leadership, used the new technology while giving a sermon to his preaching class. As he walked across the stage in the lecture hall, two cameras wired to mats on the stage followed his movements, recording his 15-minute sermon for his review after class.
With the click of a button, two large screens displayed a Powerpoint presentation to accompany his sermon, and when he wanted to emphasize words or pictures on the screens, he circled them on the touchscreen computer in front of him.

I know this college; the church of my youth seemed to me then an extension of it. Its professors and graduates served as our ministers and elders. One of its professors (of blessed memory) taught me the faith and baptized me into Christ. Another, I count still as dear friend and mentor in the faith. It is a venerable institution, one of the oldest American Bible Colleges, a place rich in Christian faith and practice. So, this recent newspaper article captured my attention; it is always news when preaching makes the news with any positive spin at all. And, the article has prompted some reflection on the nature of preaching, reflection that is for me a constant companion as I write and preach weekly.

What makes for good preaching: modern, multi-million dollar facilities? state-of-the-art technology – cameras, PowerPoint, LCD projectors, and touchscreens? I wonder. I have preached poor, ineffective sermons – more than I care to remember – and not one of them would have been improved by multi-media technology. Their defects ran much deeper.

There are no mysteries to poor sermons, though the Mysteries of grace abound in good ones. A poor sermon results from ignorance – ignorance of mind and heart (nous): the preacher knows too little the subject and Object about which and of Whom he speaks. And neither of these problems can be remedied by PowerPoint, but only by a cure that is well known but too little practiced.

Good sermons – not entertaining ones, but sermons which proclaim truth, transform lives, and produce saints and martyrs – are crafted on the knees; we preach as we pray. The choice between more PowerPoint and more prayer is no choice at all. The choice between computer lab and chapel is no choice at all. Only after lying prostrate before the Lord, only after soul-rending confession, only after prayer of depth and honesty that humbles me to the core, does David dare say, “Open my lips, O Lord, and my mouth shall proclaim your praise” (Ps 51). Dare any preacher do otherwise? It is from “the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person brings good things out of a good treasure,” (Mt 12:34b-35a, NRSV). And the heart is filled not primarily with rhetoric and technology, but with prayer and fasting, with the written word and living witness of the saints, with the bread heaven and the cup of salvation – the true Body and true Blood of our Lord – with the orthodoxy and orthopraxy of the Church.

Good sermons – not ones which tickle the ears, but sermons which proclaim good news to the poor and liberty to the captives – are crafted in the word: in the word written and in the Word made flesh. And here I must be clear: the first priority of the preacher is not to understand the word but to stand under the word. Academic preparation – necessary as it is – is no substitute for simple obedience. God grant us a place at the feet of simple saints rather than in the marbled halls of the philosophers. Faith and obedience are the precursors of understanding and the prerequisites for proclamation.

Good sermons – as good lives – are the result of askesis, Christian discipline. When asked why he could cast out a demon that had resisted every attempt of his disciples, Jesus replied, “This kind comes out only by prayer and fasting,” (cf Mt 17:8). So, too, with sermons: good ones “come out” only by prayer and fasting, only through obedience to the word and the Word, only through fellowship with the saints on earth below and the saints in heaven above, only through taking up the cross of Christ and bearing it daily. There are no technological shortcuts. The emphasis on technique and technology seems to me a modern form of simony – the attempt to purchase with technological currency a gift of grace that comes only through a life in the Spirit, a life of purification and illumination.

I once heard a bishop of an Oriental Orthodox church – whose name is withheld respecting his humility – preach a powerful sermon on the dangers of simony and heresy. Afterwards, I complimented his words and commented on the effort of preparing such a sermon. His response convicted me: “I do not prepare sermons,” he said. “I prepare myself for the sermon.” No PowerPoint – just power. No computer – just conviction. No touchscreen – just the touch of the Holy Spirit.

Would St. Paul use modern technology to proclaim the Gospel? Perhaps. He did, after all, by his own admission become all things to all people that by all means he might save some. But, then again, he also wrote,

And I, brethren, when I came to you, did not come with excellence of speech or of wisdom declaring to you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. I was with you in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling. And my speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith should not be in the wisdom of men but in the power of God (1 Cor 2:1-5, NKJV).

It need not be either-or, I suppose, but both-and: not PowerPoint or prayer, but PowerPoint and prayer. Mainly, it is the balance that worries me. I know from too frequent personal experience how easy it is to mistake style for substance. And so I pray. Lord, have mercy on me, your weak and sinful servant. May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, my Lord and my Redeemer.

[1] Knoxville News Sentinel, 9/14/09.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Sermon: Holy Cross Sunday (13 September 2009)

Sermon: Holy Cross Sunday (13 September 2009)
(Isaiah 45:21-25/Psalm 98/Galatians 6:14-18/John 12:31-36)
Strange Stories

Both here and in all your churches throughout the whole world,
we adore you, O Christ, and we bless you,
because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world. Amen.

There is a strange story in the Old Testament; well, there are many strange stories in the Old Testament, but this one seems stranger than most. It is a tale of sin and serpents, of death and life.

4 Then they journeyed from Mount Hor by the Way of the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; and the soul of the people became very discouraged on the way. 5 And the people spoke against God and against Moses: “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and our soul loathes this worthless bread.” 6 So the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and many of the people of Israel died. 7 Therefore the people came to Moses, and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD and against you; pray to the LORD that He take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. 8 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and it shall be that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, shall live.” 9 So Moses made a bronze serpent, and put it on a pole; and so it was, if a serpent had bitten anyone, when he looked at the bronze serpent, he lived (Num 21:4-9, NKJV).

Israel is tired of trekking the wilderness going God-knows-where, tired of dry water skins, tired of unsatisfied bellies, and tired even of manna – the bread of angels. If this is the best the LORD, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of Moses and Aaron – Aaron the High Priest of Israel who now lies dead on Mount Hor having never even seen the Promised Land – if this is the best this God has to offer, well the gods of Egypt don’t look so bad by comparison. So Israel grumbles. So God sends fiery serpents among them to strike and to kill, to drive Israel to its knees in pain and in repentance.

This part of the story is not so strange. Israel grumbling against Moses and against God? Every day stuff. God punishing Israel to bring the nation to its knees and thereby to its senses? Common enough. But the bronze serpent on the pole? Now that’s different. That’s puzzling given the very law God established for his people.

1 And God spoke all these words, saying: 2 “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. 3 “You shall have no other gods before Me. 4 You shall not make for yourself a carved image—any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; 5 you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, 6 but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments (Ex 20:1-6, NKJV).

If we were to read the story of the fiery serpents in any other context about any other people we would see it as a case of idol worship, clearly banned by God for Israel. The people – not Israel now, but some hypothetical, pagan, polytheist tribe – the people have somehow offended their snake god who then sends his earthly minions to punish the tribe’s infidelity or slight or whatever fault is theirs. To appease their god the people fashion a bronze image of the god, erect it on a pole and bow down in worship. About any other ancient people, this is the way we likely would read the story.

I can even imagine the idol: giant, menacing, coiled serpent in striking position; head erect, mouth open, forked tongue flicking, fangs bared, still glowing red from the heat of the forge, and lifted high on a royal banner pole – all-in-all an idol to strike fear and kindle worship in the hearts of pagan people. For some reason I cannot now explain, this is the image I have always brought to the biblical account – the image of an angry, powerful, serpent god. And that is what has made this story strange and disturbing: not the story itself, but the image I have brought to it. That’s what makes the story seem like idol worship. So, let me work for a time with a different image – one that you may have held all along, one reminiscent of the church fathers. What if the pole were not a banner pole at all, but a spear? What if the serpent were not in striking position, but limp and dead, run through with the spear upon which it was lifted high? What if the entire image portrayed not the power of the serpent – symbol of the sin of the people – but instead the power of God to destroy the serpent, to deal with the sin-infested heart of his people? Whether I have the image right now, I cannot tell; but, I am certain of the message: in the heart of every man lies a venomous serpent which must be destroyed and only God can destroy it. The serpent within must be speared and lifted high by God or man cannot live.

There is a strange story in the New Testament; well, there are many strange stories in the New Testament, but this one seems stranger than most. It is a tale of water and Spirit, of death and new birth.

1 There was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. 2 This man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, “Rabbi, we know that You are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.”3 Jesus answered and said to him, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” 4 Nicodemus said to Him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:1-8, NKJV).

Who knows why Nicodemus came to Jesus. Who knows what questions drove him to seek out the controversial rabbi under cover of darkness. Jesus never gave Nicodemus the opportunity to pose his questions, to contol the discussion. “You must be born again,” usurped the conversation and propelled it in a strange direction. Nicodemus lost his bearings early and never regained them: “How can this be?” is about all he could manage from then on. If we have lost the sense of the strangeness of this encounter, it’s likely the fault of overexposure and under-comprehension. Strange.

But the story gets stranger still as Jesus continues.

14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. 16 For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. 17 For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved (John 3:14-17, NKJV).

Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, because the fiery serpents of Mount Hor live in the hearts of all men and must be destroyed if man is to be reconciled to God. So, Jesus united his divine nature with our human nature, took upon himself all the sins of the world – drew to himself all the fiery serpents of all men for all time – and carried them to the cross. There he was pierced through the heart with a spear and set on a pole – suspended on the cross – so that all who look to him in faith may live. When we see Jesus on the cross we must see the serpent – the sin of man: my sin, your sin – limp and dead, run through and hoisted high, a symbol not of the power of sin, but of the power of God to destroy sin, a symbol of the love of God who seeks our salvation and not our condemnation. When, on the third day, the power of God shatters the power of death and Jesus rises victorious, the serpent, our ancient foe, does not. It remains in the tomb, limp and dead.

What, however, is the dead serpent? The serpent fixed upon the top of the pole healed those that were stung. The dead serpent overcame the live ones. Thus it is a figure of the body of the Lord. The body which He took of the ever Virgin Mary, He offered it up upon the cross, and hung it there, and fastened it upon the tree; and the dead body overcame and slew the live serpent creeping in the heart. Here was a great mystery…[1]

Strange stories – a serpent on a pole, a man on a cross; yet, both testify to the love and power of God to destroy sin and death. And so the cross has become the sign under which the people of God live; not an empty symbol, but a sign with power to accomplish what it signifies: the destruction of sin, the reconciliation of man and God, the gift of eternal life, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. At a recent baptism at St. Demetrios’ Antiochian Catholic Church I watched the bishop, Mar Michael, anoint a sleeping child with the oil of gladness, tracing the sign of the cross repeatedly on this new servant of God. I could not hear the prayers the bishop offered as he sealed this child as Christ’s own, but I imagine they were similar to those in our own baptismal service.

The Celebrant then takes some of the oil and makes the sign of the cross with it on the forehead, breast, ears, shoulders, hands and feet of the candidate, saying:

Forehead: The servant of God is anointed with the oil of gladness in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. That his mind may be opened to the understanding and acceptance of the mysteries of the faith of Christ, and to the knowledge of His truth, now and ever, and forever. Amen.

Breast: For the healing of soul and body, and that he may love the Lord God with all his heart, with all his soul, and with all his mind, and that he may love his neighbor as himself.

Ears: That his ears may be ready to listen to the teaching of faith, and accept the words of the divine gospel.

Shoulders: That he may willingly take upon himself the easy yoke of Christ and gladly carry His light burden and that he may shun all craving of sensuality.

Hands: That he may innocently raise his hands to heaven and do the right thing at all times and bless the Lord.

Feet: That he may walk in the path of the commandments of Christ.

Such is the power of the cross of Christ.

Saint Macarius knew the geography of the human heart; he had thoroughly explored its wilderness. And so he writes – linking together the two strange stories of serpent and cross:

The heart itself is but a small vessel, yet dragons are there, and there are also lions; there are poisonous beasts and all the treasures of evil. But there too is God, the angels, the life and the kingdom, the light and the apostles, the heavenly cities and the treasuries of grace—all things are there. [2]

And what separates the dragons and lions and poisonous beasts and the treasures of evil in the human heart from God and the angels and the life and the kingdom and the light and the apostles and the heavenly cities and the treasuries of grace? Only the life-giving cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory now and for ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.
Note: The image above is of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem erected on the site of Golgotha and the Garden Tomb.

[1] Saint Macarius, Fifty Spiritual Homilies of Saint Macarius the Egyptian. http://www.archive.org/stream/fiftyspiritualho00pseuuoft/fiftyspiritualho00pseuuoft_djvu.txt, accessed 9/6/09.
[2] Saint Macarius

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Reflection: God Is Not Helpless

A reader of the blog Glory To God for All Things recently commented: ”God is not helpless before his creatures.”[1] Indeed, and thanks be to God! When this unworthy servant of God opens his mouth to speak – with the prayer, “Lord, open my lips and my mouth shall proclaim your praise.” – not even his stubborn heart and unclean lips can hinder the Holy Spirit from speaking a word of grace to those with ears to hear, for God is not helpless before his creatures. When this weak and sinful servant of God breaks the bread and lifts the cup not even his defiled hands and impure heart can hinder the Holy Spirit from blessing the gifts of bread and wine and from making them holy gifts for holy people, the bread of life and the cup of salvation, for God is not helpless before his creatures. When this chief of sinners hears the confession of those nearer God than himself and with fear and trembling pronounces words of absolution, not even the burden of sin which weighs him down can overcome the power of the Church to absolve all sinners who truly repent and the power of God to forgive all offenses, for God is not helpless before his creatures.

Praise be to our God who is not helpless before his creatures.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Doctrines and Opinion

I frequently find the writing of Fr. Stephen Freeman, author of Glory To God for All Things blog site and pastor of St. Anne's Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge Tennessee, to be though-provoking and helpful. Such is the case with a recent posting whose link is provided below.

Doctrines and Opinion from Fr. Stephen

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Reflection: The Problem of Evil

I must start and continue with honesty: I have little, if any, right to express my thoughts on the topic of evil and suffering, for truly the words of the Psalmist describe me well.

LORD, you have assigned me my portion and my cup;
you have made my lot secure.
The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
surely I have a delightful inheritance (Ps 16:5-6, NIV).

No great evil has ever befallen me and I have suffered only such losses as are the common, human lot. My family is whole and well. My employment is satisfying and as secure as is humanly possible. I am blessed beyond all reasonable expectations.

And yet the problem of evil and suffering will not go away and periodically demands our attention. My hometown is currently in the grips of great evil and suffering. In January 2007 a young couple was car-jacked, tortured, and brutally murdered here; the details of the savagery are almost beyond my comprehension. For two years community angst and anger have quietly smoldered. Now, the trials have begun and the rage – especially of the couple’s parents – is writ large in the newspapers and graphically portrayed in television news coverage. The first defendant recently was convicted of almost every felony on the law books in our state and was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. This was not enough to satisfy the parents, however, who want the perpetrators not only executed but tortured as they tortured: eye for eye, tooth for tooth. I cannot understand the depth of these parents’ loss, the full measure of their hatred. I pray God I never will. What I can do to help them, I will do. I will pray for them: O God, make speed to save them; O Lord, make haste to help them.

So evil has come unbidden to our community – and to world and to our lives – and must be addressed. For this reason only – and not because I have particular wisdom on this or any topic– I will offer some reflections, praying that I reflect the faith of the Church.

Theodicy is the name of the dilemma evil poses the Christian: If God is both all-powerful and all-good/all-loving, then why does he allow evil and suffering to continue in the world? To this question I have no answer. Scripture, at most, only offers hints of possible answers, but offers us nothing concrete. Perhaps that is just as well, for Why? is not really the question we wish to ask at all. If the parents of the murder victims could in one instant perceive God’s grand design in which the question of evil is finally resolved, if they could understand the redemptive plan in which the persistence of evil plays its part, even then in their pain they would still cry out, Why? This is not a cry for explanation, but a cry of human anguish. If the parents of the murder victims could in one instant perceive that in some now unfathomable way ripples of grace would flow outward from that horrendous event and work for cosmic good, the price of their sorrow would still be too high. No explanation of evil and suffering is given – at least in part – because no explanation is sufficient. We do not want to understand the pain; we simply want it to stop. But stop, it doesn’t.

This, then, is the way our human dilemma is usually portrayed. We have been told in our faith that God is all powerful which means he could, I suppose, spare his creature from great suffering and we have been told that God is all-good/all-loving which means he should, most certainly, spare his creatures from great suffering. And yet this is clearly not the way God acts toward us.

Perhaps our confusion lies not so much in God’s behavior as in our statement of the problem. Perhaps we are asking the wrong question. Instead of asking why God allows evil to persist – which I think is without human answer – perhaps we should ask what God is doing to resolve the problem of evil, both within the human heart and in the world. That question has a clear answer and the answer is Jesus.

However you choose to understand the biblical stories of creation and fall, they tell of a world made good and very good and then ruined by sin, by the thoughts and actions of human beings. And this means, quite simply, that evil is not simply outside us and exerted on us, but also inside us and exerted by us. Why is there evil in the world? we ask. Because we are in the world, the stories answer. It is not possible to resolve the problem of evil without resolving the problem of man – which is precisely what God has done and is doing in and through Jesus.

The process of resolving the problem of evil in man is long and complicated. Why would we expect it to be otherwise? The process runs through a people, the descendants of Abraham, and through a nation, Israel. It runs through slavery and freedom, through Law and Prophets, through exile and deliverance. Through it all, God uses a people – who are themselves part of the problem – to resolve the problem, until ultimately God uses a Person, Jesus, who is not part of the problem, but is himself the solution. All the long process of millennia culminates in Jesus: God incarnate, fully God and fully man. Jesus resolves the problem of evil in the world by resolving the problem of sin in man, by uniting his divinity with our humanity, by accepting our sin, and by suffering the evil of the world to destroy sin and to defeat evil and the power of the evil one. However you choose to understand the cross – and Scripture uses many metaphors – it is God’s answer to sin in man and to evil in the world. In his death, Jesus put to death sin. In his acceptance of the evil done to him – rejection and crucifixion – Jesus destroyed the power of evil.

Of course, when confronted with the evil still among and within us, it is difficult sometimes to see exactly what the cross accomplished. God is the Alpha and the Omega – the A and the Z, the beginning and the end – but we live somewhere around L or M, somewhere in the middle. And while sin and evil have been defeated by Jesus, they have not yet been abolished. How then do we live in this middle time? There is but one path forward, through, and out of our problem: to walk the path of salvation blazed by Jesus and offered by the church – a path which confronts evil within and without, accepts suffering, commits one’s spirit to God, dies to sin, and is born again through water and word and Spirit, in newness and holiness of life. In the midst of evil and sin – and the very real pain and suffering they cause – we hold fast to the faith which proclaims that God is even now putting the world to rights through our Lord Jesus Christ and we look forward in faith to that day when all will be fully restored, when no evil will persist, when no sin will defile, when no tears will fall, when we will live forever with our God. In the midst of evil and sin – and the very real pain and suffering they cause – we strive to put on the whole armor of God that we “may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Eph 6:11-12, NKJV). In the midst of evil and sin – and the very real pain and suffering they cause – we hold fast to the promise that Christ has overcome the world and that greater is he within us than he that is in the world.

And we pray. Pray for one another – as God’s beloved – that we may not fall into sin nor be overcome by adversity. Pray for those who suffer as the victims of evil and – with great difficulty – pray for those who suffer as the perpetrators of evil, for these, too, are God’s beloved. And pray for me, chief among sinners, as I pray for you.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Sermon: 14 Pentecost (6 September 2009)

Sermon: 14 Pentecost (6 September 2009)
(Isaiah 35/Psalm 125/Ephesians 6:10-16/Mark 7:24-37)
And having done all, to stand…

Blessed be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
And blessed be his kingdom, now and for ever. Amen.

Do you think the Christian life is easy? Some think it is, or think it should be: just health, wealth, and prosperity all along the way – one victory after another. Some get famous and rich peddling this notion. But, that is just not my experience. I find the Christian life hard, hard as hell – literally – because all the powers of hell are arrayed against the soul set on salvation. In fact, I suspect the easy Christian life is not the Christian life at all. G. K. Chesterton likely got it right when he said, “The Christian life has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.” [1] That is the experience of the saints of blessed memory and of the saints among us still.

Do you think the Christian life is reasonable? Some think it is, or think it should be: logical, orderly, all just cause and effect – amenable to human reason. Some write books and teach courses and grow careers espousing this notion. But, that is just not my experience. Penicillin is reasonable; healing prayer with anointing is not. Psychological disorders are reasonable; demonic possession is not. Death is reasonable; resurrection is not. Science is reasonable; faith is not: unless of course the world is radically different from our natural perceptions and thoughts, unless there is a spiritual reality even more fundamental and foundational than our physical experience. And that is the experience of the saints of blessed memory and of the saints among us still – a living experience of angels and archangels, of the church militant and the church triumphant, of God himself.

The Christian life is neither easy nor reasonable. It is a struggle in the realm of the spirit. So writes St. Paul to the Christians in Asia Minor.

Finally, my brethren, be strong in the Lord and in the power of His might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places (Eph 6:10-12, NKJV).[2]

The Christian worldview is unavoidably and unapologetically primitive, filled with angels and demons, saints and sinners, God and the devil. Spiritual forces of wickedness – principalities, powers, and rulers in the spiritual realm – war against God and against the people of God, intent on their everlasting destruction.

Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour. Resist him, steadfast in the faith, knowing that the same sufferings are experienced by your brotherhood in the world (1 Pe 5:8-9).

I have read the consistent witness of the saints in their lives and in their writings and I have known enough evil myself – both within and without – to believe this, to know this is true. The Christian life is struggle against spiritual forces and against institutions and individuals under their influence. Evil walks our streets; we’ve seen much of that in the news lately, individuals used by the evil one to inflict almost unimaginable harm upon the innocent. Evil infests our social and political institutions; a culture of death supports abortion, terrorism, state-sanctioned torture, war – all tools of destruction used by the evil one. Evil possesses our culture; you’ve seen and heard the level of human degradation in our music and film, in our art and literature – sexuality and violence and perversion used by the evil one to inflame the passions and separate man from God. Evil infiltrates our thinking and distorts our worldview; we’ve removed God from public discourse in our schools and in our courts and we’ve accepted the premises of relativism and tolerance – an implicit denial of God orchestrated by the evil one.

There is a war raging about us and there is no neutral territory. And while the foot soldiers may be men and women and human institutions, the true enemies are spiritual powers: For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Eph 6:12).

So it comes to this. We have powerful spiritual forces arrayed against us and against those we love – forces set upon our eternal destruction, forces both crafty and strong, forces who know our weaknesses and how best to exploit them. How then should we live? If it is a battle we face, then we must live as soldiers: vigilant, disciplined, equipped, and obedient to our Leader’s commands. We must not live carelessly – heads in the sand, ignoring the battle that rages about us.

Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand (Eph 6:13).

God, himself, has equipped us for the battle that we may be able to withstand the enemy; he has equipped us to overcome the weapons of our ancient foe – the weapons of deception, temptation, discord, and illusion.

Jesus once offered a group of Jewish would-be followers truth and the freedom which comes from that truth. He has equipped us with truth, righteousness, peace, and faith.

“If you abide in My word, your are My disciples. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”

They answered Him, “We are Abraham’s descendants, and have never been in bondage to anyone. how can You say, ‘You will be made free’(John 8:31b-33)?”

When this group later claimed not only to be descendants of Abraham but also, through that lineage, to have God as their father, Jesus responded,

“You are of your father the devil, and the desires of your father you want to do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own resources, for he is a liar and the father of it” (John 8:44).

The devil is a liar and is the father of deception; lies and deception are and always have been his weapons of choice in the war against God’s people. From the dawn of creation in the Garden to the culmination of the ages at the Great Judgment, the devil is the great deceiver of the nations. I do not know what lies he whispers into your ears, though I suspect you do. But I do know where truth is to be found and in whom truth is to be found. For, truth is no abstract notion, but a person: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me,” Jesus said to Thomas and Jesus says to all (John 14:6.) If the word whispered in your ear is not a word proclaimed from the rooftops by Jesus and his disciples, then it is a lie – a weapon of the evil one for your destruction. If the word whispered in your ear is not the word of the church proclaimed in Scripture and Creed, in bread and wine, in liturgy and prayer, then it is a lie – a weapon of the evil one for your destruction. If the word whispered in your ear and in your heart is not Jesus, then it is a lie. The only weapon we have against the deception of the evil one is the word and person of Truth: “Stand therefore, having girded your waist with truth” (Eph 6:14a).

Through his lies the devil leads us into temptation; so, rightly we pray to our Father in heaven to deliver us from the evil one. For the tempter comes to us all as he came to Jesus in the wilderness, preying on our weaknesses, twisting even scripture itself to suit his ends. It was through his discipline of prayer and fasting, through his devotion to the word, through his commitment to a life of righteousness – to the glory of his righteous God and Father – that Jesus conquered temptation. So it must be for us. I do not know what the tempter offers you when he meets you in the wilderness, though I suspect you know only too well. Does he appeal to your pride or inflame your passions? Does he promise you security or power? Does he entice you to judgment or hypocrisy? Such are the common temptations of us all.

No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it (1 Cor 10:13).

The way of escape is the way of righteousness: the way of prayer and fasting, the way of confession and repentance, the way of subduing the passions and purifying the heart, the way of life in the church and in dependence on the Spirit. Our weapon against the temptations of the evil one is righteousness: God’s absolute commitment to putting creation and man to rights again and our own Spirit-empowered commitment to righteousness of life. Stand therefore, “having put on the breastplate of righteousness” (Eph 6:14b).

From the beginning the evil one has sown discord in God’s good creation and among God’s image bearers; it is another powerful weapon he wields against us. Eve entices Adam to sin and Adam accuses her before God: all at the instigation of the evil one. Cain rises up against Abel and spills his blood and his life: all at the instigation of the evil one. From individuals the discord spread to nations; there have been wars and rumors of war ever since: all at the instigation of the evil one. The powerful subjugate the weak; the rich oppress the poor; tribe murders tribe: all at the instigation of the evil one. From individuals to nations and back around again as families and homes are devastated by anger and bitterness and individuals are alienated from one another, from themselves, and from God: all at the instigation of the evil one. I do not know what bitterness and discord the evil one sows in your heart: what grudges your nurse, what forgiveness you withhold, what anger in you simmers – all at the instigation of the evil one. But you know only too well. Yet, into this cosmic and personal discord our God speaks a word – a good word, a gospel word, the Word who was in the beginning with God and who was himself God – a word of peace and reconciliation.

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God (2 Cor 5:17-20, NIV).

The evil one wars against the world and against God’s people in the world with the power of hatred and discord. We counter with a stronger power – the power of reconciliation and peace. We counter whenever we proclaim the gospel of Christ with our lips and with our lives. We counter whenever we turn the other cheek, whenever we go the extra mile, whenever we forgive from the heart seventy times seven. We counter whenever we reject the bad news of anger and hatred and embrace the good news, the gospel, of peace and concord. Stand therefore, “having shod your feet with the preparation of the gospel of peace” (Eph 6:15).

The enemy also wages a fierce war with the weapons of illusion, blinding the world to the devil’s own existence and activity, and obscuring the reality of our God who is everywhere present and who fills all things. Every step away from the reality of revelation – revelation in Jesus, in the church and its sacraments, in the lives of the saints – is a step into the illusion of the evil one. It is a step away from life and toward death. Every forgetfulness of God or false notion of God is illusion. Every reliance solely on self is illusion. Every security founded on things of the world is illusion. Power is illusion. Pride is illusion. Sin is illusion. Everything not of faith is illusion. Faith is the reality.

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. For by it the elders obtained a good testimony. By faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that the things which are seen were not made of things which are visible.

Without faith it is impossible to please [God], for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him (Heb 11:1-3, 6).

I do not know what illusions shimmer before your eyes cast there by the evil one. But I know that faith – the true faith and true practice of the church – can reveal them as the dust and ashes they are and can point the way to the reality that is our Lord Jesus Christ. “Above all, [take] the shield of faith with which you will be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked one.”

The world is a dangerous place, a battleground for the fate of the cosmos and the souls of men. Either we are engaged in the battle or we are casualties of it. And it is not a fair fight. Against us are all the forces of hell: For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. Our weapons are Truth, righteousness, peace, and faith. And our Champion Leader is the Victorious Christ. It is not a fair fight. The enemy has already been defeated by the Lamb of God slain from the foundations of the world, the Lamb of God who rose and who now lives forever. So, “my brethren, be strong in the Lord and in the power of His might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil…and having done all, to stand” (cf Eph 6:10-13). Amen.
[1] http://thinkexist.com/quotation/christianity_has_not_been_tried_and_found_wanting/206595.html , accessed 9/1/09.
[2] Unless otherwise noted, all scripture references are taken from the New King James Version ®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.