SERMON PREACHED BY THE REV’D SAMUEL LEE WOOD AT THE CHURCH OF THE ADVENT,
SUNDAY, AUGUST 30, 2015, THE FOURTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
The opening scenes of Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan stay with you a long time. It’s D-Day, Allied troops are storming the beach at Normandy and they’re met with a barrage of mortar and automatic weapons fire. The ocean runs red. Spielberg’s movie barely got an R rating because of overwhelming violence. One writer said “it knocks the wind from the viewer as a total sensory attack, something to be endured.” War is hard to watch. Especially so for modern Americans, because it’s largely outside our experience - we have no frame of reference for “warfare.”
Today, as we finish our trip through Ephesians, Paul comes around to the subject of warfare. Remember - this incredibly important letter was to Christians in the city of Ephesus, a diverse, cosmopolitan port city, with a kind of acceptable civic or public religion, but where Christians were a distinct minority in a culture hostile to their beliefs. As we come to the last little section in chapter 6 - the familiar (perhaps too familiar) part about the armor of God - Paul doesn’t pull his punches. Christians are in a war, he writes, so we must armor up if we want to survive. Each of these 11 verses deserves its own sermon, but we only have today, so I want us to see briefly (1) the reality of our war; (2) the state of our war; and (3) the weapons of our war.
First, the reality of our war - Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. (6.11-12) Some of us cringe involuntarily at this. It sounds weirdly primitive; excessively militaristic. Modern persons tend to spiritualize our war, to make it a metaphor, to dismiss it as retrograde or anachronistic, the sort of backward thinking we grew out of at the Enlightenment.
But if we aren’t in a real war, here’s our problem: What do we do with evil? It’s on the front page of every paper - in Charleston, SC, a man sits in a bible study for an hour, then he pulls out a gun. Seventy-one bodies recovered from a truck in Austria, a fraction of tens of thousands of refugees desperate to escape war in Iraq and Syria.
Is that metaphor? Or evil?
Several years ago Andrew Delbanco of Columbia University wrote a book called The Death of Satan. This is his opening line: “A gulf has opened in our culture between the visibility of evil and our intellectual resources available for coping with it.” We see evil, but we’ve jettisoned the intellectual ability to understand it. We’ve outgrown the idea of the Devil, of evil, of sin. That’s why Paul’s description of the powers and powers and “spiritual hosts of wickedness” sounds strange to our ears. In 1941, C. S. Lewis wrote:
There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors, and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.
Paul says we have to be clear: There really is a war. Evil is real, the devil is real, and pretending everything bad in the world is just the result of unjust social systems or environment or bad parenting or aberrant psychology - that doesn’t accurately describe the situation we’re in. This war is real.
Second, the state of that war - Two subpoints here: First - This war is over but ongoing. The victory is secure, but not everybody knows about it yet. In January 2014 a man named Hiroo Onada died. His obituary was in the New York Times. In 1944, Onada was a 20-year-old soldier sent to a remote island in the Philippines called Lubang to fight a guerrilla war against invading forces.
It happened with a simple command. As he related in a memoir after he [surrendered and] went home [to Japan], Lieutenant Onada’s last order in early 1945 was to stay and fight. Loyal to a military code that taught that death was preferable to surrender, he remained behind on Lubang Island, 93 miles southwest of Manila, when Japanese forces withdrew. [For 3 decades]
. . .
Caught in a time warp, Mr. Onada . . . was one of the war’s last holdouts: a soldier who believed that the emperor was a deity and the war a sacred mission; who survived on bananas and coconuts and sometimes killed villagers he assumed were enemies . . . .
Nobody told him the war was over, so he kept fighting until 1972. Scripture says evil and death and the Devil have been defeated - through the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus - but the mop-up operation continues. Our war is ongoing, and will end only when Christ comes to reign.
And second: This war is unrelenting. Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. (6.10) Our version leaves off the first word of that sentence - Other translations insert the word “Finally” - “Finally be strong . . .” - but the best Greek manuscripts actually say something like “henceforth" or “from now on.” Paul means that evil doesn’t take a break. We must armor up day after day after day, because the devil doesn’t take a holiday.
Third (and with criminal brevity), the weapons of our war - There are six pieces of armor we’re told to put on, each of which deserves a sermon all to itself. But just in bullet form:
Those are the pieces. But one last point: Paul says Be strong in the Lord and in the power of his strength, and put on the full armor of God. The weapons are God’s, we fight with his strength. But we have to put it on. That’s how the Bible always gives our marching orders - it’s both/and, how grace and works fit together, how the armor and fight are the Lord’s, but we’re called to stride into the fray ourselves, to go out and do the works God has given us to do.
Remember this: We have to fight, every day of our lives. Fight against evil in the world and in ourselves. But the battle has been won, and the victory is sure. I’ll close back on the beach at Normandy, in the words of another pastor:
On the cross was the real D-Day. On the cross is where Jesus came fully face-to-face with the enemy himself. On the cross Christ defeated death. It’s all over. He became, by dying, the one who had won.
The battle is the Lord’s; ours is to put on his armor and join the fight.
In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen.
1) Matt Barone, et al. “The 50 Most Hard-to-Watch Scenes in Movie History,” http:// www.complex.com/pop-culture/2013/05/most-hard-to-watch-scenes-in-movie-history/saving-private-ryan (last visited 28 August 2015).
2) Andrew Delbanco, The Death of Satan: How Americans Have Lost the Sense of Evil (New York: Farrar, Strauss, & Giroux, 1995).
3) C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (New York: Collins, 1982): 3.
4) Robert McFadden, “Hiroo Onada, Soldier Who Hid in Jungle for Decades, Dies at 91,” New York Times 17 January 2014 (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/18/world/asia/hiroo-onodaimperial- japanese-army-officer-dies-at-91.html?_r=0) (last visited 28 August 2015).
5) John R. W. Stott, The Message of Ephesians: God’s New Society, TBST (Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity, 1979): 279.
6) Ibid., 281.
7) “The Armor of God,” sermon preached by Andrew Field at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City on September 6, 1998.