Dressed for the Battle

Preached at Holy Trinity, Huddersfield
31st July 2016 (10.45am): Trinity 10
Ephesians 6:10-24

“Pray for me,” Paul says, “so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak.” (vv.19-20)

Saints, would you pray this for me this morning? Let us pray:
Gracious and loving God, we thank you for the mystery of the gospel, the mystery of the Good News that you have reconciled and united all people and all things in your Son Jesus Christ. Give me power through your Holy Spirit to proclaim this gospel as boldly as I ought, not because I have confidence in my own words, but because I have confidence in Him whom I proclaim, your living Word, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Good. Now if it’s a bad sermon, it’s your fault for not praying!

We come, today, to the end of our current series of sermons working through Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. Paul has explained the greatness of God’s purpose from eternity to unite all things in Christ and to create a new, united community in Him (the Church). He has underlined what a high calling it is to be part of this new community and the importance of living a life “worthy” of it—the whole of their lives and every single relationship, from the home to the workplace, are to be influenced and shaped by their new identity in Christ.

Now, at the end of this great letter, Paul warns the Ephesians that if they are truly going to be a new community in Christ, it won’t be easy. In fact, it will bring them into a spiritual battle of cosmic proportions. It will require them to stand up and fight against foes of unimaginable strength and unspeakable evil. If you thought being a Christian was about going to church, keeping your head down and generally trying to be ‘nice’ to people, think again. Being a Christian is something that requires us to “put on the whole armour of God.”

“Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power.” (v.10)

Why would Paul say this unless the Christian life was something for which we needed strength? It may come as a surprise to some, but the overriding message that God wants to impress on us here is that there is a war going on and that by virtue of being Christians, by virtue of our baptism and incorporation into Christ, we are part of it. Indeed, we acknowledge this every time somebody is baptised. After the decision for Christ is made and the person is marked with the sign of the cross, the person leading the service addresses them and says: “Do not be ashamed to confess the faith of Christ crucified.”  At which the whole congregation joins together, saying: “Fight valiantly as a disciple of Christ, against sin, the world and the devil, and remain faithful to Christ to the end of your life.”

To be a Christian, to be a disciple of Christ, enjoins upon us the need to fight. The Good News, the Gospel, the εὐαγγελίον, is the announcement of victory in battle. It is the announcement of Christ’s victory over the powers of sin and death, the victory of God’s kingdom with judgment for God’s enemies and salvation for God’s people. To be baptised is to be made a member of God’s people by being brought into the company of the crucified Christ. And because it is to be brought into the company of the crucified Christ, it is to be brought into Christ’s conflict with the powers that crucified Him.

A new community in Christ that owes its sole allegiance to God is a threat to the Devil’s dark dominion. He will do everything he can to stop it. He will sow seeds of sin and sedition that sprout and spread until they destroy the new society God has made. And the Devil is wily. It starts subtly—with a bit of grumbling here, or with a bit of coarse joking there, or with the odd power play rearing its head in our relationships. Satan knows how to divide people. He’s been doing it since he turned Adam and Eve on God and on each other. If God is creating a new community in Christ, don’t expect the Devil to take it lying down.

Living a life worthy of God’s high calling upon us is no mean feat. We are in a battle. But it isn’t for us to defeat sin, the world and the devil; that’s what God does in Christ. Our job is to join with Christ in His resurrection-rage against their death-dealing dominion. Therefore, Paul says: “Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armour of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.” (vv. 10-11) There is a battle. We are part of it. But the strength we need comes from God, and not ourselves.

And it’s just as well because our enemies aren’t blood and flesh. Our battle isn’t against other human beings. No. Our battle is bigger than that. Our Enemy is more powerful than any human enemy. The enemies we see are real enough, but spiritual forces of darkness that we can’t see animate them. We are involved in a cosmic conflict. Evil is organised, it’s strategic, and it’s deeply embedded in every structure, every system and every institution. Therefore, to combat such a powerful, cunning and unscrupulous Enemy, we need all the strength that God, and God alone, can supply.

“Our struggle,” Paul says, “is against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (v.12). The word he uses for ‘struggle’ describes a wrestling match, hand-to-hand combat, a soldier’s close-quarter grappling. Our Enemy might be in the heavenly places, but the war waged against us is very close to home, it’s right here on our doorstep. Hiding in the trenches is not an option. There are no neutral parties in this war. Instead, there are only two options: to stand and fight with Christ, or to collude with the Enemy either actively joining his ranks, or passively let him get about his business.

The Enemy wants us to break ranks and run, preferably without even fronting up. God encourages us to take up His whole armour so that we might stand our ground, remain in the battle and fight (v. 13). We are to go out like heavily armed soldiers, like people who know that their Enemy is going to throw the kitchen sink at them. One preacher told his congregation that he didn’t want any Christian streakers running around his church. It wasn’t enough to wear “the helmet of salvation,” they must wear the whole armour of God. I’m sure I speak for Mike in saying that neither of us want to see any kind of streakers in this church.

Put on. Take up. These imperatives dominate vv. 13-17. Each is plural and each implies that activity is required on our part. The struggle is not an individualistic one. The struggle belongs to all the baptised. We are in it together. God supplies the strength. God supplies the armour. But it’s up to us to stand in His strength. It’s up to us to put on and take up His armour. The armour of God doesn’t just fall on us like rain. It has to be claimed. We have to make it our own. Sometimes I wonder if we don’t spend so much time polishing our armour that we never actually make it to the front line.

“The apparel oft proclaims the man,” says Polonius in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In other words, the way we dress says something about who we are. The call to “put on” and “take up the whole armour of God” is the military version of clothing ourselves with the new self that Paul talks about back in Ephesians 4:24. As there, so here Paul says that baptism confers on us a new status, which is marked by the wearing of a new set of clothes—the whole armour of God. To be dressed like a Christian, then, is not to wear a dog collar, or a cross around our neck, or even a t-shirt that says, “I love Jesus.” No. To be dressed like a Christian is to be dressed for the battle.

“Fasten the belt of truth around your waist”—any lack of integrity between your faith and your action will hinder your movement. “Put on the breastplate of righteousness”—let Christ’s righteousness protect your innermost parts until it becomes your very own. “As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace”—God’s kingdom advances as the Good News is spread and new converts are won. “Take the shield of faith”—let your unwavering trust in God extinguish all the Devil’s fiery arrows. “Take the helmet of salvation”—hold up your head with confidence, knowing that God’s final victory is assured. “Take the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God”—yield God’s word, the word that speaks of Jesus, as your only weapon, and remember that it’s only as the Spirit points people to Jesus that it’s effective.

We must be dressed for the battle. And therefore, we must pray: “Pray in the Spirit at all times, in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints” (v. 18). Prayer is an expression of our dependence on God. And because we are completely dependent on God, our prayer must be comprehensive, which Paul indicates by the use of four uses of the word ‘all’: we are to pray at all times, in all ways, with all perseverance, for all the saints. It’s not enough to pray at some times, in some ways, with some perseverance, for some of the saints. Prayer must be all encompassing if God’s armour is to fully encompass us.

We are in a battle. We must be dressed for the battle. And the means by which we (the Church) take hold of God’s armour is prayer. When we enter the new community of Christ through baptism, we come as those who have been conquered, enslaved and trodden down by sin, the world and the devil. Sunday by Sunday, however, we’re sent out as pardoned, liberated and fully-armed soldiers of God, whose vocation it is to fight valiantly against sin, the world and the devil through an indomitable, unrelenting and indefatigable campaign of love at Christ’s command.

The words, “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord,” are not just nice words intended to send us out with a warm fuzzy feeling as we leave the church building. No. These words are our battle cry! These words remind us who we are, and what we’re here for. The Church’s task, strange as it may sound, is not to change the world. The Church’s task is to be the Church—to be that new community in Christ who, having been released from slavery to sin, have peace with God and are free to do what they were truly created to do: to love and serve the Lord. By doing that, God will show the world what the world is meant to be.

Peace, not violence; love, not hate; service, not power—these are the strategies of God’s holy war. Therefore we fight the spiritual forces of evil every time we forgive someone who’s hurt us, every time we pray for our enemies, every time we open our hands and give to the poor. When we walk out of church, we are to go in God’s strength, as God’s people, free to live in God’s world in God’s way. This is our battle. The question is: are we dressed for it? Let us pray that we might be, and then let us stand and fight like the soldiers of God we are. Amen.

 

A Hymn for Ascension Day

Christ is now gone up above, Alleluia!
Our victorious Lord of love, Alleluia!
Human flesh brought into God, Alleluia!
Pleading for the earth He trod, Alleluia!

Christ’s redeeming work complete, Alleluia!
God and Man in Him now meet, Alleluia!
See His hands, His feet, His side, Alleluia!
Wounded Man now glorified, Alleluia!

See Him at His Father’s side, Alleluia!
He whom we had crucified, Alleluia!
He whom we condemned to die, Alleluia!
Prays for us our cause on high, Alleluia!

Hail Him there, our Great High Priest, Alleluia!
Sacrifice, who makes the feast, Alleluia!
Enter we within the veil, Alleluia!
Where His prayer forev’r prevails, Alleluia!

Set we, then, our hearts above, Alleluia!
Where Christ is: our Life, our Love, Alleluia!
For in Christ our Head we know, Alleluia!
Where He led we too shall go, Alleluia!

Christ has left us not alone, Alleluia!
Pours He blessing from His throne, Alleluia!
Promise of the Father giv’n, Alleluia!
Frees for us the Pow’r of heav’n, Alleluia!

In the Spirit, may we rise, Alleluia!
Dwell with Christ beyond the skies, Alleluia!
Bond of sacred unity, Alleluia!
Show us Him we long to see, Alleluia!

Come, Creator Spirit, come, Alleluia!
Come, Lord Jesus, quickly come, Alleluia!
Christ has died, and Christ is ris’n, Alleluia!
Christ will come again from heav’n, Alleluia!

Tune: Easter Hymn

The Glory of God

Preached at Wycliffe Hall Chapel
20th April 2016: Morning Prayer
Psalm 135; Exodus 33; Luke 3:15-22

Gracious God, pour out your Holy Spirit upon us that in our poor speaking and weak hearing we may discern your voice and see your glory in the face of Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray. Amen.

“Show me your glory,” Moses asks the Almighty. He’s got some chutzpah, hasn’t he? Surely he was already pushing his luck pleading with God not to destroy the Israelites for their peccadillo with the golden calf. Their action, after all, was tantamount to committing adultery on the wedding night. And to make matters worse, we’re told they pawned their engagement ring to pay for their night with a prostitute—the jewellery they plundered from the Egyptians, the riches that were a down payment on richer blessings still to come.

God had paid for Israel. He had bought her freedom from slavery. And it was for that very reason that the first of God’s Ten Commandments was that he didn’t want them fooling around with other gods. Surely God was well within His rights to end it, to end them, right there in the wilderness. But Moses not only pleads for this ragtag band of sorry losers, he pleads for them by insinuating that dumping Israel in the desert would make God look bad, that it would play poorly in the Egyptian newspapers the next morning.

That Moses’ intercession should see the Lord relent of His white-hot rage was surely victory enough. But alas, it appears not. God tells the people to leave Horeb, to take possession of the land He had promised to their ancestors and to enjoy its milk and its honey. To push the matrimonial metaphor a little further, God tells the Israelites to take the wedding presents, go on the honeymoon and live in the marital home He’d prepared for them. Now to me, that sounds like grace. It is far more than this wretched people deserves. But the catch is: God Himself will not be going up among them.

Moses hears this for the disastrous word it is. Canaan may have been the land God promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but he knew there was no promise to be found in the land without the presence of God. And so, Moses does the unthinkable. He does something that most of us probably would hesitate to do in our pastoral counselling. He pleads the victim of adultery to come back and live with the partner who had defiled their marriage bed with a prostitute on their first night together. It’s not enough for God to send His angel ahead of them. Unless the very presence of God Himself goes with them, all is lost.

I wonder whether we hear God’s word for the devastating word that it is, or whether we are really more interested in God’s blessings than God Himself. Do we hear God’s words, “Take the house, take the car, take the money,” and mourn because God also says, “I will not go up among you”? The Israelites were at least able to recognise what a hole they were in unless God went with them. And so, they stripped themselves of their ornaments, the ornaments they used to fuel their sin, and dressed themselves before God as the poor beggars they now knew they were.

The camp now polluted, Moses goes and pitches the tent of meeting “outside the camp, far off from the camp.” The Israelites’ sin had thrust a wedge between them and God. And yet, grace upon grace, God continued to meet to with Moses there. The people would stand at the entrance of their tents, see the pillar of cloud indicating that God had not completely withdrawn His presence from them, and they worshipped. Here in this tent we meet a God who, though ineffably, unspeakably holy, simply will not be deterred from approaching us. Still God comes to His messed-up, good-for-nothing, deadbeat people. He will not be stopped.

Moses would not even contemplate going forward without God and he begs God to extend the favour he personally enjoys towards the people as a whole. Eventually, God relents. After all, this is a God whose desire is, and always has been, to be God-With-Us. It is as a pledge of the favour he has with God and that God truly will dwell among the people without destroying them that Moses makes his bold request, “Show me your glory.” In Hebrew, the verb is in the causative form, the hiphil: “Make me to see your glory.” Moses knows well enough that we don’t see God through any resources of our own. God is the Subject as well as the Object of revelation. All knowledge of God comes from the side of God.

“Show me your glory,” says Moses. And God says, “I will show you my goodness.” God’s goodness is His glory, a glory known more in mercy than in majesty. God’s goodness is God’s willingness to maintain His presence among a people who have so successfully demonstrated their skill at betraying Him. The goodness God shows to Moses is that He should deign to come so close as to brush past him as he hides in the rock. God’s glory is God’s presence. More precisely, God’s glory is God’s presence with us. That the Creator God should dwell among finite human beings is remarkable enough; that He should choose to be in relationship with those who have a track record of infidelity and betrayal is frankly astounding.

God’s glory is to be seen in His self-deprecating willingness to be God-With-Us; to be born in poverty, to grow up in obscurity, to live the life of a restless peripatetic, to be mocked, betrayed, denied and abandoned, and finally to die on a cross beside two criminals. The cross is the inevitable consequence of God’s decision to be God-With-Us. For this is our response to love. For God to be God-With-Us is for God to be vulnerable with people He knows full well are going to hurt Him. But God’s goodness is His refusal to be safe. If a holy God was going to dwell with wretched sinners like us, it was clear that one of us was going to die. We just didn’t expect it to be Him.

In Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension, we see a better Moses pleading the case for God’s presence among sinful humanity, and His intercession being heard. Moses could only see God’s back, the “afterglow of the effulgence of His presence,” as Robert Alter puts it. Anybody who has looked into the face of Jesus Christ on the cross has seen God’s glory head-on. Is it any wonder, then, that so many should turn away in horror from the sight of a God whose glory is a cross? It is a truly terrible sight, and one that only God can make us to see the glory of.

We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you, because by your holy cross, you have redeemed the world. Amen.

A Hymn for Easter Day

Let us with gladness enter
The joy of Christ our Lord;
Let first and last together,
Receive His love’s reward;
If any now are weary,
Let them in Him find rest;
If any now are strangers,
Let them be Jesu’s guest.

Come now, the feast is ready,
The Table is prepared;
For Christ has made the banquet
And no expense is spared;
Come one, come all, together,
Alike, come rich and poor;
Let no one go home hungry,
But eat, all, and adore.

Grieve no more your poverty,
The kingdom is for you;
Mourn no more your frequent falls,
Forgiveness has won through;
Hollow is Death’s boasting now,
For on that hallowed tree,
Death and Hell discovered God
And He has set us free.

All hail the mighty Conqueror,
O’er sin and death and hell;
For tasting our Redeemer’s flesh,
Death’s strong dominion fell;
And now is hell in uproar
For Christ has now it mocked;
And captive now to Jesu’s love,
Its gates have been unlocked.

Sing now, for Christ is risen,
The pow’r of Death is done;
Celebrate the victory,
That Christ our Lord has won;
Christ is risen and the tomb
Is emptied of its dead;
Christ is risen, life shines forth
In Christ our risen Head!

Tune: Ellacombe

Inspired by the Easter Homily of St. John Chrysostom

A Hymn for Palm Sunday

Blessed is He who comes to us
In the name of the Lord;
Who, with the angel throng above,
By children is adored.
Who, with the angel throng above,
By children is adored.

Hosanna in the highest heights
From deepest depths resound;
This is our God, who comes to save,
To seek us ‘til we’re found.
This is our God, who comes to save,
To seek us ‘til we’re found.

City of God, receive your King
And welcome God’s own Son;
See in the faces of His crowd
The fruits of battle won.
See in the faces of His crowd
The fruits of battle won.

Embarrassment to those who seek
A King in Caesar’s ways;
Behold His legions armed with love,
With worship and with praise.
Behold His legions armed with love,
With worship and with praise.

Witness the playful parody
Of all we know as might;
For seated on that lowly stead
Is this dark world’s true Light.
For seated on that lowly stead
Is this dark world’s true Light.

He mocks the greatest pow’r on earth
With his display of peace;
This is the King who rules the world,
Whose reign shall never cease.
This is the King who rules the world,
Whose reign shall never cease.

There are no captives in His train,
For all in Him are free;
The only pris’ner of His fight
With sin and death is He.
The only pris’ner of His fight
With sin and death is He.

His triumph ends with sacrifice
And death upon a tree;
We see Him as the Victim now,
But Victor He shall be!
We see Him as the Victim now,
But Victor He shall be!

Hail Him as King whose crown is thorn,
Whose purple robe is blood;
And as He takes His crossly throne,
Remember He is God!
And as He takes His crossly throne,
Remember He is God!

Tune: Coronation

Cling To The Water

Preached at St. Mary Magdalen, Oxford
14th February 2016: First Sunday of Lent
Deuteronomy 26:4-10; Romans 10:8-13; Luke 4:1-13

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The rather jarring convergence of Valentine’s Day and the First Sunday of Lent reminds us just how peculiar we Christians are. Lent offers a markedly different picture of love than that given us by Lindt the master chocolatier, whose indulgent treats will today be widely enjoyed. Lent is a radically counter-cultural season, and has been from its origins as a time of preparation for baptismal candidates. Indeed, it only really makes sense to the baptised. Prayer, fasting, abstinence, self-examination, penance, and almsgiving—these are not the typical expressions of love our culture prizes. Lent proclaims, quite unapologetically, our continual need for conversion. It reminds us of our mortality and confronts us with the reality of our sin. These are the things we usually spend our life running away from, but here in Lent they are brought right up into our face.

Baptism is at the heart of what these forty days are about. In our Gospel reading, we are told that Jesus enters the wilderness with His hair still dripping wet from the waters of the Jordan. No sooner does the Spirit descend upon Jesus than that same Spirit leads Him in the wilderness. No sooner does the voice of the Father name Jesus His Son, the Beloved, than the devil seeks to find out what that title means to Him.  The fact that Luke prefaces the story of Jesus’ temptation by telling us that He was “full of the Spirit” and “led by the Spirit,” makes clear that His time in the wilderness was no accident. This explicit mention of the Spirit’s activity demonstrates that it was a necessary precursor to Jesus’ ministry.

This is made all the more apparent by the fact that Luke interrupts the stories of Jesus’ baptism and temptation with a frankly rather tedious account of Jesus’ supposed ancestry through Joseph. It seems odd, strangely out of place. That is, until it names Jesus, “son of Adam, son of God.” In Jesus’ baptism and purported lineage we see two competing narratives of what it means for Jesus to be God’s Son. The question is: from which will He live? Will He live from the narrative of His baptism, a narrative of obedience and submission to God? Or, will He live from the narrative of Adam, a narrative of disobedience and mistrust of God?

As we will see, the primary purpose of the temptation story is as a foil, showing us what Jesus’ ministry will not look like, in preparation for the positive message He will preach in Nazareth (immediately afterwards) of what it will look like: “good news to the poor… release to the captives… recovery of sight to the blind… the oppressed go[ing] free… the year of the Lord’s favour” (4:18-19). It is in this context that we must hear the devil’s opening and closing gambits, “If you are the Son of God…” or perhaps better, “Since you are the Son of God…” The issue is not whether Jesus is Son of God, but what being Son of God means.

“If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus has not eaten for forty days. He’s hungry. In effect, the devil is saying, “If you are really God’s Son, prepare a table for yourself right here in the wilderness.” Like most of Satan’s devices, it sounds harmless enough. But the temptation is for Jesus to use His authority to serve Himself. Instead of manifesting unwavering trust in God for His needs, the devil proposes Jesus take matters into His own hands. Jesus refuses. He shows us that to be the Son of God means living with God’s self-revealing Word as our centrum, the one fixed point on which we are focussed, on which we stand and on which we depend.

So the devil changes track, showing Jesus all the kingdoms of the earth in their power and glory. “You’re the Messiah, aren’t you Jesus?” he says. “Isn’t might and dominion what you’re all about?” That was what most expected of the Messiah—a political and military hero. Jesus came to claim a kingdom for God, it’s true, but He will not bow the knee to anyone other than God to do it. The end does not justify the means. “My kingdom is not from here,” Jesus will go on to say (John 18:36). What Jesus is not doing is making a division between the ‘spiritual’ and the ‘political.’ Rather, He is saying that His kingdom is not like Caesar’s, created and sustained by fear and violence. Power and glory in His kingdom means serving rather than being served; it means stripping off, bending down and washing dirty feet.

The third test Jesus faces is a symbolic anticipation of the ultimate test. “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here.” Perhaps we can hear the subtle echo of Eden, “You will not die” (Genesis 3:4). The devil seems to insinuate that being the Son of God means protection from harm. And thus, this third temptation bears an uncanny resemblance to the words Jesus will face on the cross, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” (Luke 23:37; cf. 23:35, 39) The crucifixion embodies Jesus’ response. He will not test God. If being the Son of God means dying, then Jesus will be obedient to it because He trusts that divine rescue may come not only from suffering and death, but even through suffering and death.

If Lent is all about learning to live as the baptised, then Jesus demonstrates what it means for us to live as those made members of His Body through baptism. Our baptism tells us who we are. It speaks to us God’s word of love, forgiveness and adoption. It says that God has chosen us before the foundation of the world, claimed us for His own people, washed us in the blood of the Lamb, gifted us with His Spirit, and commissioned us to become co-workers with Him in taking back the world. In Lent we are reminded that to be baptised is to be continually dying to our identity in Adam and continually led by the Spirit to embrace our identity as God’s beloved sons and daughters in Christ.

No wonder Martin Luther encouraged people to “cling to the water” when the devil was tempting them to despair. God would have us do the same. When we’re tempted to make our life about serving our own needs and wants, we must cling to the water. When we’re tempted to seek a kingdom whose power and glory looks suspiciously like that of Rome rather than a Roman cross, we must cling to the water. When we’re tempted to seek a less costly form of obedience than daily taking up our cross and following Jesus, we must cling to the water. During Lent, we are invited into the wilderness with Christ to (re)discover who we are and what it means to be ourselves, and for that we must (help me, people), cling to the water.

“[Lent] can be a pretty depressing business all in all,” warns Frederick Buechner, “but if sackcloth and ashes are at the start of it, something like Easter may be at the end.”

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.