Sermon for the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
(Proper 16)

Text: Ephesians 6:13-18
Put on God's armour now! Then when the evil day comes, you will be able to resist the enemy's attacks; and after fighting to the end, you will still hold your ground. So stand ready, with truth as a belt tight around your waist, with righteousness as your breastplate, and as your shoes the readiness to announce the Good News of peace.  At all times carry faith as a shield; for with it you will be able to put out all the burning arrows shot by the Evil One. And accept salvation as a helmet, and the word of God as the sword which the Spirit gives you.  Do all this in prayer, asking for God's help.

Get ready for a fight

As we see on our TV screen the destruction, the devastation and the loss of life that war brings (especially the graphic pictures of war in the Middle East) we realise that no war is a pleasant thing. You may have seen the interview with 2 soldiers who survived the August 1966 Battle of Long Tan during the war in Vietnam. They were part of a small group of Australian soldiers who were attacked by a much larger force of Viet Cong. As the interview progressed we watched these men relive the battle and grieve for those mates who lost their lives. Yes, they had held off the enemy but the sacrifice of human life on both sides was a price that was far too high. War is ugly, brutal, bloody, destroying property and lives, changing people to the extent that they will never return to be the people they were before it all began. War is so horrible that few returned soldiers ever want to talk about what happened on the battle field.

And yet todayís second reading talks about battles and war. Paul gives us a military picture and talks about taking up weapons, fighting battles, resisting the enemy and holding out against the continuous onslaught of the enemy as they come at us wave after wave. What do Paulís images of battle have to do with the religion of the Prince of Peace? We live in a society that is addicted to violence. Is it necessary for the church to talk about weapons, battles, and being strong in the Lord?

Before we tackle these questions itís worth noting that the armour described by Paul is for defensive purposes. The "soldiers" are supplied with appropriate armour that will enable them to hold their ground. The armour is to protect these "soldiers" from the lunging and attacking blows of their enemy. Letís get this into perspective and take an example.

There you are. Sunday morning and you drag out of bed. The kids are told to get up, get breakfast and then dressed Ė not once but twice maybe more times. You finally get everyone in the car and head to church. On your way you see the neighbours still in their pyjamas scurrying out from their Sunday cocoons to retrieve the newspaper, then return to their beds. Other more adventurous neighbours are hitching up their boats and trailers, loading eskies and picnic gear, or putting their golf gear into the boot of their cars. Others are sitting out on the patio drinking coffee and enjoying a leisurely breakfast, or out in the garden enjoying the time to just potter around. As you observe all of this you ponder the question, "Why am I going to church? Why arenít I spending time relaxing and doing the things everyone is doing on a beautiful day?"

As you drive to church you are beginning to feel the odd one out. You begin to feel out of step with what the rest of the people in your neighbourhood. When you tell your friends that you go to church, you canít notice the raising of the eyebrows, the look that says, "Really. Youíre the first person I know who actually goes to church on Sundays" or "I would never have taken you to be the religious kind". Or the faint smile that silently says, "You poor thing. I wouldnít have believed that you would fall for that religious stuff".

You get the distinct impression that the world is marching to the beat of a different drummer than you are. As you meet and talk with people you realise that your values are based on something different to everyone else.
You struggle with the whole idea that because of your Christian faith there are some things you simply cannot agree with even though everyone else says that itís all right.
You find yourself wondering how people with no faith are able to face things like permanent disability, hard times and even death. You trust in God's love and goodness; your faith has been an important factor in your life, so how do people who donít have this faith cope?
You find yourself disagreeing with people who run others down, gossip, take a position that is so opposed to what you believe, or criticise those who are trying to do good. It may happen that there is so much that you disagree with in a person attitude that you end up saying nothing because you are so overwhelmed and donít know where to start.

Many of us here find this situation to be so different to our experiences of the past. I was born into a world where Christians seemed secure and were a powerful influence in the communities of the 1950s. First and foremost Sunday was for church. The kids in my Sunday School class were the kids I went to school with and back then there were 2 or 3 groups in each year level.

My parents worried little if their children would grow up to be Christian. There was no New Age Movement, no multi-culturalism, no eastern religions, and the only people who bothered us were those who hawked religion like a door to door salesman but everyone knew how way out they were. Everyone went to Religious Instruction classes at school and if anyone dared to play up they would soon find themselves at the headmasterís door.

The Salvos would brighten our neighbourhood on Sundays by playing and singing hymns on our street corner. All the shops were shut on Sundays. There was no thought of doing on Sunday what could have been on Saturday. What could have been more ideal?

In that world the church didnít have to bother itself too much about defensive manoeuvres. Why should it, everything was at peace? But how things have changed! Back then one wouldnít have had the faintest idea that being a member of the church was going to be as difficult as it is today. And thatís where the problem began. The church and its members put down their armour and became vulnerable to attacks from the outside.

We arenít facing persecution in the way Christians are suffering elsewhere. No one is shedding blood for their faith here. The priority given to material things, to pleasure seeking, to gratifying your own needs and wants, the complacency toward Christ, the mocking of Christian values, the power that our worldly peers and friends have over on us, the power of the media and commercialism Ė these are the principalities and powers of our world that tempt us, mock us, sometimes subdue us. Weíre not fighting the same battle as the Ephesians - no totalitarian Caesar is on our backs, no bloody persecutions for us. And yet, we are locked in a struggle.

Today Christians are ignored, ridiculed, dismissed by our culture, a culture which is not, on the whole, wilfully unbelieving. For a large part people simply donít know what the church is and what it does, they donít have a clue about Jesus and the Christian faith and are too self-consumed in the unimportant things to make the effort to believe or disbelieve.

The writer of Ephesians did not have to be convinced that the world was a hostile, inhospitable place for discipleship. These words were written by Paul when he was in chains because of his faith. In Paulís time the world recognised the subversive nature of the Christian faith and actively tried to silence the Christians. Today we have a different picture.

Our world recognises how different and strange the Christian faith is and undermines it by simply ignoring it. The world has declared war upon the gospel in the most subtle of ways, so subtle that sometimes we don't know we're losing the battle until it's too late.

In the oddest of ways, the gospel brings about a head-on collision with many of our culture's most widely and deeply held beliefs and values. Being a Christian today is neither natural nor easy. What Paul is saying to us is this, "If you plan to follow Jesus, get ready for a fight".

The people who are the most vulnerable in any war are the young. It is no different in the battle Paul is talking about. We need to pray for and encourage the young who donít have the spiritual maturity to realise they need help in this spiritual battle and help them take up the armour that God offers. They are the most defenceless in the battle. They are the ones being targeted by the enemy. Satan gets at them from every angle - their peers, the media, the latest trends, their over confidence in the face of the enemy that leads them to believe that they donít need help. Being a dedicated and committed Christian today is no pushover.

Paul makes no mistake. He is fully aware of the forces that are hostile to the Christian. He says, "We are not fighting against humans. We are fighting against forces and authorities and against rulers of darkness of darkness and powers in the spiritual world". This is a battle for our souls. If we were fighting against humans only, then we would have a fair chance, but when the enemy is Satan, then we donít have a chance at all to stand our ground by ourselves. Satan is determined to win the day and win our souls for eternal damnation. Paul tells the Ephesians and us that God gives us the weapons and the armour we need in this battle.

In such a world, what we do here on Sunday morning becomes a matter of life and death. Now that might sound a bit dramatic and somewhat overstated but it is a fact. Sunday at worship is the one time in the week when we get together

Sunday is the one time of the week when we are all together to renew our strength in the Lord and be told again that we are not alone in our Christian "battles". We are revived and made ready for a week out in the world where we face the heat of the battle. One soldier on the battlefront is defenceless, weak and sure to be defeated. But when an army of soldiers stand together then they can encourage and support one another as the battle rages.

We readily admit that every day we lose the battle as we fall victim to Satan and his attempts to defeat us. It might that we lose a battle every so often, but in Christ we have won the war. He died on a cross to win the day for us. He defeated Satan by graciously giving us forgiveness for our defeats and declares us the victors. He has defeated the last enemy Ė death. When we let God down and fall victim to the temptations of Satan and sinful natures, Paul triumphantly says, "We have complete victory through him who loved us!" (Rom 8:37).

Even though we have Christís victory there is no room for complacency. The devil is still roaming around seeking to draw us away from Christ. God has given us the armour we need to defend ourselves from Satanís attacks Ė truth, righteousness, the gospel of peace, faith, salvation, the Word of God and the Holy Spirit. He has also given us the victory through Christ.

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
27th August, 2006

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