August 20, 2018
The Proper 16B Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for John 6:56-59 from the Lectionary Gospel; 1 Kings 8:(1-6, 10-11), 22-30, 41-43 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 84 from the Lectionary Psalms; and Ephesians 6:10-20 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Lectionary Epistle: Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 127 (Lord’s Day 52)
Author: Scott Hoezee
But how does it all end? After plunking us down in John 6 for the whole of August in Year B, the Lectionary puts on the brakes before we can get to the end of the story where the REACTION of the crowds to all of this is recorded. So I would suggest to my preaching partners that you extend the reading to verse 69 to round out this series of reflections on Jesus’ at-times strange words in this chapter.
Because there we see that the ending to this chapter and all its teachings on bread and spiritual food is not the proverbial “happy ending.” This whole chapter has been about food, both literal and metaphorical, both physical and spiritual. It began with a great feast as Jesus fed a large crowd from almost nothing. It proceeded from there to talk a lot about food and drink.
Eating is the most common of activities. To live, each of us eats every day. That was just as true 2,000 years ago when Jesus spoke to the crowds. But our familiarity with eating should cause us to have sympathy for the people who listened to Jesus that day and who were quite put off by what he said. It did, after all, sound odd. We’ve all seen those TV ads that declare, “Beef: It’s What’s For Dinner.” Well, here Jesus says, “Me: I’m What’s For Dinner.”
Well, we think, obviously he was speaking metaphorically, but even metaphors need to translate into something you can understand. If a poet writes, “My beloved is a tender flower in springtime,” we have a pretty easy time figuring out what he means. But what if a poet wrote, “My beloved is a loin of pork served with sour cherry chutney”? OK, that’s a metaphor, too, but it’s such a weird one, you’d find it simply unintelligible. (Or you would then REALLY want to know what he means by that!)
So also in John 6. Earlier in this chapter, Jesus had spoken non-metaphorically about manna–the heavenly wonder bread that had kept the Israelites alive in their forty-year wilderness wanderings. Then Jesus did a little springboard off literal manna so as to slide into the more metaphorical idea that God’s true bread from heaven is his Word. The people responded, “Sir, give us this bread,” which prompted Jesus to say, “I am the bread of life.”
So far, so good. Metaphorically speaking it was not unusual to describe teaching in food terms. Paul did that, too, calling simple gospel teachings spiritual “milk” whereas deeper ideas were the “meat” of the gospel. People still talk this way. How many times haven’t we listened to TV commentators criticize a politician’s speech by asking, “Where’s the beef?” Others might say that someone’s presentation was “thin beer” or “poor soup.”
So for Jesus to say, “I am the bread of life,” wasn’t too scandalous. Jesus was known as a great teacher and so here appears to be comparing his words to bread, to a kind of spiritual cuisine that could feed your soul. Had Jesus stopped there, things may have gone better in John 6. But next thing you know, Jesus says that the bread in question is not his teaching but his own flesh. Getting a bit more graphic yet, Jesus says that what you needed to wash down his flesh was a cup brimming with some of his blood.
This is where Jesus lost a lot of the crowd. Jesus lost them because he was making them lose their lunch. It was disgusting! In fact, as noted in the previous set of sermon starters on the Center for Excellence in Preaching website, earlier in the passage Jesus switched his verb from the typical Greek word for eating, phagein, to trogein, which means “to eat” but in the sense of the way a cow chews its cud. This could be paraphrased as “chewing with your mouth open.”
It seems Jesus is being deliberately provocative. Of course, as he makes clear after most of the crowd had fled, he really was being metaphorical. But if the metaphor was strong, it was only because the reality behind the metaphor was stronger still. But the only way you are going to accept such a startling teaching is if Jesus’ Father reveals it to you. But lots of people did not want to stick with a man who talked that way and so they left.
Then, in a touching verse, Jesus turns to his disciples with moist eyes and with a quivering chin. “Are you going to leave me, too?” he quietly asks. Peter’s answer is even more moving than the question. “Lord, to whom else would we go? You have the words of eternal life.” It’s the gift of faith that shows you that. “No one can come to me,” Jesus says, “unless the Father enables him.”
Christians regularly gather together to eat what we (too casually) call “the body and blood of our Lord.” In the earliest days of the church, it seems that this sacramental meal was often incorporated into a larger feast in a kind of potluck supper to which all contributed. The church has long intermingled regular eating with sacramental eating. But if we too quickly chalk up the sacramental eating of Jesus’ body and blood as “just” a metaphor, we may miss the power of what happens at the Lord’s Supper. The Father brings his Son to us—or in more classic Reformed theology God brings us into the presence of his Son at the right hand of the Father—so that we can commune, really and truly, with the One who gave up his flesh and blood for us. “You are what you eat,” they say, and given what we eat each time we gather at the Lord’s Table, we are clearly to be Jesus. We are Jesus to one another, we are Jesus to our community, we are Jesus to the whole world.
Today as long ago, Jesus still asks, “Are you going to leave me, too?” As preachers, we want to help make it the case that the members of our congregations will always be able to say in reply to this question, “And just where would we go, Lord? You have the words of life!”
Verse 62’s reference to Jesus’ “ascending” to where he was before seems an odd insertion into a passage that had otherwise not come anywhere near broaching such an image or idea of an ascension. Nor does Jesus do much with this himself in the subsequent verses. But as Donald Juel once pointed out, this does hang together with earlier references in John 6 of Jesus’ being the one who had “come down” from heaven. The offense people were feeling toward Jesus was all of one piece. If he really is the Son of God who came from the Father and who would return to the Father, then those who found Jesus offensive were proving themselves to be, quite simply, on the wrong side of history (salvation history in this case). But as Juel further points out, this fleeting reference to Jesus’ going away is a preview for the extensive material still to come in John 16 when Jesus talks so very much about his going away for a while but how this would prove advantageous for the disciples in that it would allow him to send them the Spirit, who would lead them into all truth.
Mark Salzman’s novel, Lying Awake, is set in a Carmelite monastery just outside of Los Angeles. The book details the lives of the nuns who live there and ponders the meaning of what constitutes a genuine religious experience of God’s presence. The nuns devote themselves to prayer and contemplation. All their thoughts are bent toward the Holy and the Divine and so they eschew anything that could distract them. One of the perceived threats to a spiritual life is food and drink. And so when the nuns gather in the monastery’s refectory for meals, they are not allowed to speak a single word.
The goal at mealtime was to do anything-but pay attention to the food. At the head table where the Mother Superior sits, there is a calvarium, a human skull, sitting in the center of the table, serving as a reminder to the nuns that everyone will die one day anyway and so food and drink were of only marginal significance. And so the nuns made as little noise as possible during the meal in the firm belief that maintaining a proper spiritual focus was never more threatened than when taking food into the body.
The nuns in Lying Awake hoped incessantly for vivid experiences of God’s real presence among them. They were so focused on this goal that they ate their food as though not really eating lest they get pulled away from God. But every time we gather at Jesus’ dinner table—and indeed, every time we gather at any dinner table—we should see in food and drink not a distraction from all things holy but a connection to the truth of God’s creation care, to the reality of our salvation through Christ, and to the final truth that one day, what will be good news for us will be good news for also the rest of creation.
1 Kings 8: (1-6, 10-11), 22-30, 41-43
Author: Stan Mast
This is one of the great pivotal chapters in the Bible. It recalls an event that was to Israel much like the Fourth of July is to Americans. It marks the end of a long struggle for freedom and security. At last Israel had complete ownership of the Promised Land and there is peace, both with pagan neighbors and with fellow Israelites. Israel is no longer a band of wandering nomads battling for a place on earth to call its own; they are an established kingdom with a firm hold on a piece of God’s good earth and a stable government headed by a beloved king.
God’s plan for Israel has come to fruition. So, it is time for God to stop living in a moveable tent and move into a permanent palace. This is a high point in the history of Israel, and in the history of redemption. As such, this chapter has great ramifications for God’s people today, because of the way it points to Jesus.
I make those points up front because they will help us avoid two very natural mistakes in preaching on this text. Many traditional preachers will be tempted to focus on the prayer of Solomon as a model prayer. That, in fact, is what it is. However, the author of I Kings did not record this prayer to teach ancient Israel or the modern church how to pray. So, in our sermons on this text, we may very well note how lovely and instructive the prayer is, but we must not lose the redemptive historical point of the text. This is about the Temple and its place in the life of God’s people, which will point us ultimately to Jesus.
Many progressive preachers will be tempted to focus on the last part of our reading for today, where Solomon prays about and for “the foreigner.” Clearly the RCL wants us to focus there, because it ignores the other 6 petitions in this long prayer. There is something as big as the world in this petition, but the culturally sensitive preacher will be tempted to focus on the concept of outsiders, of those who don’t belong to our group. That will invite application to immigrants or racial minorities or the LGBTQ community. While compassionate preachers must pay Gospel attention to such folks, this text is not first of all about today’s socially or politically marginalized groups. It is about those who have heard about the God of Israel and come to pray toward the Temple. It opens the doors of the Temple (so to speak) to anyone who comes to the One whose Name dwells in the Temple, which ultimately points us to Jesus.
In other words, as you preach on this juicy text, don’t forget the historical context. Its immediate context is the completion of the Temple. After 11 long years of exacting construction following God’s blueprint, this magnificent building stands in all its glory. But it is empty; God isn’t there yet. God’s house is unoccupied. To remedy that, Solomon has that ancient symbol of God’s presence, the ark of the covenant, carried into the Holy of Holies, whereupon the Shekinah cloud settles into that sacred space. “The Lord is in his holy Temple; let all the earth keep silence before him.”
Solomon breaks the silence with a speech about God’s covenant faithfulness to his father, David, and to all Israel. This temple, now indwelled by Yahweh himself, is the fulfillment of God’s promises. As Solomon says in verse 56, “Praise be to the Lord, who has given rest to his people Israel just as he promised. Not one word has failed of all the good promises he gave through his servant Moses.”
Thus, Solomon dedicates the Temple with this masterpiece of prayer. Solomon assumes the posture of a submissive supplicant, beginning on his feet and ending on his knees, his hands spread out toward heaven, ready to give praise and offer petitions and receive blessings. He begins, as prayer always should, with unfettered praise, not to a generic deity, but to “Yahweh, God of Israel.” He further distinguishes Yahweh from the gods of the nations with Israel’s exclusive claim; “there is no God like you in heaven above or on the earth below.” But the main focus of his praise is God’s covenant faithfulness. “You have kept your promises to your servant David my father; with your mouth you have promised and with your hand you fulfilled, as it is today.”
Then comes the first petition, a kind of preamble to the seven specific petitions that will follow. Even as he praises Yahweh for his faithfulness in the past, he now prays that God will continue to keep his promises. Israel’s future depends on having a son of David on throne, so Solomon begs God to keep that promise; “let your word… come true.” And it will, if God’s people are faithful to God.
Even in this soaring paean of praise, there is a sour note that will make all the difference in the world– “if only your sons are careful in all they do to walk before me as you [David] have done.” But they didn’t. That was the great problem for Israel; that would be their downfall; that would lead to the destruction of the very Temple being dedicated that day; and that is why Jesus is so necessary. “If only” we didn’t sin. But we do, and so we need a Savior.
Solomon is about to list the various situations in which God’s people (and even foreigners) will pray toward the Temple. He will ask God to answer those who aim their prayers in that direction, because the Temple is where God dwells on earth. But Solomon realizes the problem with that claim (verse 27). Yes, the Ark is in the Holy of Holies and the Shekinah cloud hovers there, so God is at home, so to speak. “But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heavens, cannot contain you. How much less the Temple I have built you!”
Exactly! How can an omnipresent God become localized? How can an infinite God be particularized? How can a universal God be limited to one place, or One Person? Solomon’s question has always been the objection to the particularity of the Judeo-Christian faith, especially the Christian claim that God has chosen to channel all of his covenant love and faithfulness through one Jew named Jesus. How could all the fulness of the deity dwell in him bodily (Colossians 1)? How could God narrow the history of redemption down to one human pinpoint? Solomon’s awestruck question in verse 27 anticipates those questions.
In subsequent verses Solomon answers those questions, not with reason, but with passion. In effect he brushes right past his question in order to raise his passionate pleas. “Yet give attention to your servant’s prayers and his pleas for mercy, O Yahweh, my God. Hear the cry and the prayer that your servant is praying in your presence this day.” He moves right past the theological conundrum of how God could really be present in the Temple and simply trusts that God is present in his Temple.
Perhaps the use of “toward” is his way around the theological problem. God is everywhere, but he is present in his Temple in a special way. So, whoever prays toward the Temple has a special connection with God. Or at least that is what Solomon prays. “May your eyes be open toward this temple night and day… so that you will hear the prayer your servant prays toward this place.”
As I’ve already said, Solomon goes into great detail in enumerating the various situations in which people might pray “toward this place.” Our lectionary reading for today focuses on one scenario that the typical Jew of Solomon’s day would not have anticipated. What if someone who is not Jewish, someone “who does not belong to your people Israel,” prays toward this place? What if someone from a distant land hears about Yahweh and the mighty historical acts he has done for his people? What if such a person, an outsider who believes in the Good News about a God who intervenes in history, comes and prays toward this place? Surely, he won’t be heard? On the contrary, pleads Solomon, “do whatever the foreigner asks of you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you… and know that this house I have built bears your Name.”
Here is the missionary purpose of the Temple, of God’s covenant with Israel, as promised to Abraham back in Genesis 12:3; “and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” Israel often forgot that worldwide vision of God, but God never did. He always intended to bless the world through his narrow choice of Israel, through his mysterious act of dwelling in their Temple, and, of course, through the miracle of the Incarnation in Jesus Christ. “For God so loved the world that he sent his one and only Son….” Solomon anticipates that final act of God’s faithful love. His prayer looks ahead not to any special interest group, but to the whole of humanity. Anyone who is far away but hears of this God and turns toward him and prays “toward this place” will be heard and blessed.
Except that “this place” is no more. The “if only” of Solomon’s prayer was not observed; his sons did not walk in God’s ways and neither did the people as a whole. As God had threatened again and again, Israel lost the land and the Temple was destroyed. Even when a substitute was erected by the Exiles, it wasn’t the same. And God’s people said again and again, “Where is our God?”
Then came The One who would replace that Temple, who would be God with us, who would be the focal point of the prayers of both Jew and foreigner, who would save his people from their sins. Even after God’s people failed and their Temple was reduced to rubble, God recommitted to his covenant. But he didn’t focus on a place or a people, but on one Person in whom God would be present to bless, to hear, to act, to save.
Yes, that is a hard truth for many to hear. It seems so narrow. But listen to Jesus’ disciples in the reading from the Gospels for today. Jesus has just said incredibly difficult and offensive things about his own body and blood, resulting in the defection of many followers. Jesus turned to his faithful disciples and asked, “You do not want to leave me too, do you?” To which Peter replied, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God (John 6:67-69).” In other words, Jesus is now the Holy of Holies, where anyone and everyone, Jew and foreigner, can find the presence and blessing of God.
In The New Interpreter’s Bible, C.L. Seow wrestles mightily with the mystery of God’s presence in the temple. Seow’s explanation helps us appreciate Jesus all the more. “The Temple is neither God’s residence nor the place where the petitioner personally encounters the deity. Rather it is the place at which the needs of the petitioner coincide with the willingness of the deity to respond. The Temple is not the place where the very person of God is; rather it is merely the place where God’s presence may be known, where the authority of God is proclaimed.” Everything Seow says the Temple is not is exactly what Jesus is—God’s residence on earth, the human being who is the very person of God, in whom we meet God personally, the person who makes God known and who exercises all the authority of God on earth.
In Jesus the Temple became human, as John 1 says. “the Word became flesh and made his dwelling (literally, tabernacled) among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
Have you seen those bumper stickers that have the word COEXIST written in such a way that each of the letters in that word is the symbol of one of the world’s great religions? It is a plea for tolerance, I think, a heartfelt protest against prejudice and persecution. Let’s all coexist, not try to wipe each other out. That’s a good request. But if that bumper sticker contains a covert theological statement about the equal truth of all those religions, I must demur, as would Solomon, and Jesus’ disciples, and every preacher of the Gospel. If the Temple was the dwelling place of the one true God and if Jesus is the very person of God dwelling among us for our salvation, then we have an obligation to tell the Good News to those who are far away. No, we must not disrespect or mistreat those who call for coexistence. But Jesus said, “Go into all the world and make disciples….” Obedience to him and love for “the foreigner” demands no less.
Author: Scott Hoezee
Did Joseph, Mary, and Jesus sing this psalm on their way to Jerusalem that year when Jesus turned 12? Psalm 84 is a Song of Ascent, a pilgrimage song. Like most such psalms it was meant to bolster the determination and the energy and the enthusiasm for Jerusalem-bound travelers heading to the Holy City for one of its liturgical festivals and feasts like Passover. As all travelers know even yet today—including most especially those who have young children in the car—the trip toward the destination always passes a bit more quickly than the homeward trek because a great way to pass the time is to swap hopes and dreams of what the end point of the trip will be like.
“When we get to the ocean in Maine, we will see . . . whales and seals! When we get to the Universal theme park in Florida, we will experience . . . that great Jurassic Park ride and the Harry Potter wizarding world! When we get to Colorado, we will . . . climb mountain paths and see elk and moose!”
For the Israelites, however, the much-anticipated sights and sounds were of a decidedly holy and pious nature. It was the Temple, the dwelling place of the Most High God in Zion that set their pulses to racing. Their ardent belief that the God of Israel really had established his earthly headquarters in Jerusalem made Mount Zion and its Temple the singularly most amazing destination in the world. What could compare to it? Not the vast pyramids of Egypt—those were just mausoleums, tombs to dead kings who were only wannabe gods. Not the Hanging Gardens of Babylon—what is a bunch of shrubbery compared to the home of the One who made the heavens and the earth and every kind of growing thing you could name?
Of course, scholars point out the irony that “Mount” Zion is really little more than a semi-impressive hill. There were many more outwardly impressive places in the world, even way back then. Only the eyes of faith and the heart of devotion could transform that place into the earth-shattering reality the Israelites hailed it as being.
Still, their devotion and enthusiasm could not be contained. Every step they took toward Jerusalem gave them more energy, not less, for the journey. “From strength to strength” they walked. And with every phrase they uttered to state their anticipation, the rhetoric and hyperbolic flights of imagination went up and up. “Just think of the birds who build their nests in the corners of the Temple!” they would exclaim. “Those are lucky birds! Blessed birds! Oh to be such a winged creature! They get to see God’s beauty every day from their pretty little perches!”
“I know, I know” another would chime in, “and I’ll tell you what: I would rather spend 1 hour in the outermost courtyard of the Temple than a whole week in the prettiest vacation spot you could name! No, no, wait, it’s better than that: I would rather spend 1 day in the Temple than, than, than, ONE THOUSAND days anywhere else. In fact, I would rather be the lowliest servant in the whole place than spend ten seconds living it up with wicked people! I would rather watch the paint dry on a Temple wall than join the so-called ‘fun’ parties of worldly people!” That is just how it would go en route to the sacred city.
And so I wonder if Jesus’ family recited this psalm that time when Joseph and Mary for a time actually lost sight of God’s own Son, accidentally leaving him behind in Jerusalem when they returned home (who KNOWS how these things happen!?). It is difficult to know what all the incarnate Son of God knew at any given moment during his earthly and human maturation. But before that story in Luke’s gospel is finished, we know he had a firm sense that this Temple everyone was so eager to see was his “Father’s house.” This was home for Jesus in a way he maybe could not fully identify but that went well beyond whatever “home” he had in Nazareth with Mary and Joseph. And if the pilgrims on that particular holy sojourn were quoting Psalm 84 and its enthusiastic statements about wanting to dwell in the House of the Lord forever, then young Jesus shared that sentiment and then some. Oddly enough, he had this sense that he essentially already HAD been living in that house forever until fairly recently when he undertook a different pilgrimage, a different journey in the opposite direction.
Small wonder that once Jesus got to the Temple with everyone else, he decided to linger there, talk shop with some of the Elders. Maybe young Jesus sensed that well before he launched any kind of formal ministry effort on earth, he first had a lot to learn, a lot to investigate to see where the official thoughts and teachings about the God of Israel were at just then. Before he could teach the right and true things about his Father’s business and execute the will of the One who had sent him, he had to find out what the wrong and false ideas were. And if in this case when he was 12 doing that meant spending an extra few days in that House of God that Psalm 84 had celebrated so lyrically the whole journey long, then so much the better. A real bonus!
Of course, today no one church building is exactly identical to that singular Temple in Jerusalem and what it stood for. Now that we have each become a living, breathing, walking Temple of the Holy Spirit as people of Pentecost, the unique shine of Mount Zion as the sole place of God’s dwelling has become a bit diffuse (though it ought to be no less stunning!). Today we Christians mostly don’t have a sense of pilgrimage to any given place and certainly we do not venerate one certain location as being particularly spectacular from a spiritual point of view.
Still, might we do well to recover some sense of the high and holy enthusiasm of the people of old when we consider our own living connection to this Holy God now today? Should the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit in our hearts cause also our own pulses to race now and then? Should it inspire in us the kind of awe, wonder, and gratitude that is so evident when you read Psalm 84? Probably the answers to all those questions is a resounding “Yes!”
“Happy are those . . . whose hearts are the highways to Zion” Psalm 84:5 claims. Well, the highway to salvation that our God built now runs straight into every believer’s heart. Given this blessed fact, being “happy” should be the bare minimum of what we ought to feel and celebrate every day!
A few years ago during a one-week intensive preaching course in late May, we noticed on the first day of class that a large Great-Horned Owl had made a nest in the huge window high up and behind the pulpit area in the Seminary Chapel. It was in the uppermost pane just in the upper left quadrant of the big white cross that is the center of this clear-glass window. The owl was clearly raising some chicks up there. In any event, it was not at all unusual for us when listening to a student sermon to see this owl swivel that big head and those big eyes around to peer down at the student as he or she proclaimed God’s Word.
In addition to jokes that this was like the Seminary gone to Hogwarts (given the ubiquity of owls in the Harry Potter world), not a few of us reflected on Psalm 84 and its noting all of those birds who apparently built nests in the eaves of the Temple. I don’t know that any of us envied that owl’s ability to peer into a house of the Lord all the time but it surely provided a living reminder of some of the sentiments of that particular Hebrew poem!
Author: Doug Bratt
No matter when and where you read this, you are under attack. After all, Ephesians 6:10-20 at least implies that those who read, study, consider, proclaim and hear it are under siege. So Paul summons his readers to properly arm ourselves for that battle lest we go down to at least temporary defeat in the lengthiest, bloodiest and most important war ever fought.
Of course, Ephesians 6’s military imagery makes at least some Christians nervous. We after all, continue to witness the affects of war on those who wage, lose and even win it. We’ve also witnessed the abuses of Paul’s imagery that have been misguided wars like the Crusades. What’s more, we’re committed to loving God above all and our neighbors, including our enemies, as much as we love ourselves.
On the other hand, as my colleague John Buchanan noted in a fine message on Ephesians 6 (Fourth Presbyterian Church, Chicago, August 27, 2006), some Christians embrace military imagery. We think of Christianity as a kind of warfare. So some Christians essentially declare war on other religions, and even on other Christians. On top of all that, it sometimes feels as if some Christians see spiritual warfare behind nearly every tree that’s a taken parking space, common cold or rainy day.
Both Christians’ suspicion and love of military imagery are reasons for those who proclaim Ephesians 6:10-20 to carefully identify just who has declared war on Jesus’ followers. “Take your stand,” writes Paul there, “against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realm . . . Take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one” (italics added).
In other words, while at no time in human history have God’s people been immune from attack, the apostle insists our attackers don’t look or sound like any soldiers we’ve ever seen, read or heard about. Those who have declared war on God’s adopted children aren’t, in fact, human. They’re the evil one and his allies. So while God’s peoples’ assailants may in fact look human, they at least in part attack us because Satan and his thugs motivate them.
That’s in some ways even worse news than if God’s people’s enemies were just people. People, after all, can sometimes be controlled, defeated or, if necessary, eliminated. The kind of spiritual warriors Paul describes are far more elusive and tenacious. While they’re finite, they’re virtually unbeatable. In fact, only One can defeat them. That’s the living God in Jesus Christ.
We’re sometimes tempted to think of the evil one’s army as made up of people whose political allegiances, economic theories or lifestyles that differ from our own. Paul might at least suggest that far more dangerous enemies are systems, structures and habits that are racist, misogynist, hedonist and materialist, to name just a few.
Those who proclaim Ephesians 6 need to try to be very honest about just what’s at stake in this war. Satan and his henchmen at least strongly suspect they’ve already lost the war to God in Jesus Christ. Yet they’re determined to inflict as many casualties as they can.
In that way, the spiritual warfare Paul describes in the epistle the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday is not unlike World War II’s Battle of the Bulge. Most of Adolf Hitler’s advisers, if not Hitler himself, knew the war was essentially lost. But they launched a desperate attack in the Ardennes in November, 1944 in an effort to kill enough Allied soldiers that the Allies would sue for a negotiated peace.
Quite bluntly, Satan and his thugs want nothing more than to drag those who proclaim Ephesians 6 as well as those who hear it into the eternal destruction those evil ones at least strongly suspect awaits them. While Paul elsewhere insists nothing can separate God’s chosen people from God’s love, the evil one and his thugs are doing all they can to sever that bond.
So how do God’s adopted sons and daughters “arm” ourselves for this pitched battle? By putting “on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, [we] may be able to stand [our] ground, and after [we] have done everything, to stand” (13).
While God arms God’s people, we also arm ourselves. Those who proclaim Ephesians 6:10-20 will want to carefully balance as well as invite our hearers to balance those realities. On the one hand, God both owns and provides our armor. However, the apostle also summons us to “put on the full armor of God” (13) and “take up” various pieces of it. Perhaps Paul’s point in mentioning both elements is to remind us that we arm ourselves against the devil’s attacks primarily with the things God furnishes us.
Yet Paul doesn’t call God’s people to arm ourselves so that we can defeat the principalities and powers aligned against us. He, after all, understands that we can’t defeat those forces on our own. What’s more, even more importantly, we don’t have to win the spiritual war because Christ Jesus has already defeated the evil one. God’s people just have to stand our ground in the war it wages on us.
In order to stand our ground, however, Paul calls us to “arm” ourselves with the kind of armor with which his readers were familiar that he describes in Ephesians 6. Roman soldiers wore things like helmets, breastplates, shields and swords as part of their effort to keep the Roman Empire and its citizens, including Paul and his Ephesian readers, under the Caesar’s bloody boot. Roman armaments were among the instruments of terror that the Caesar and his forces used to intimidate and suppress people.
Yet Paul doesn’t invites his readers to arm ourselves so that we can terrorize and intimidate others. We arm ourselves in order to defend ourselves. In fact, all but one of the armaments the apostle calls Christians to put on is defensive rather than offensive in nature. Even the one possible exception, the sword to which he refers in verse 17, was used to both ward off attackers and launch attacks.
After all, as Buchanan points out, “A man who put on all of that [armor] couldn’t move much . . . for jousting, for instance, an armor-clad knight had to be hoisted onto his horse. Armor had its functions, but also its limitations. It actually wasn’t much good for fighting.” Paul’s weaponry, in other words, serves defenders better than attackers.
The defensive nature of the armor with which Paul invites his readers to clad ourselves may offer opportunities for modern preachers and teachers to think about Ephesians 6’s armaments in slightly new ways. We sometimes think of the “truth” (14), for example, as something with which we can batter those we think of as our enemies. Paul seems to invite us to instead think of “truth” as that by which we defend ourselves against the devil’s attacks. The same would go for, then, the armor that is righteousness, the gospel of peace, faith, salvation, the Spirit and prayer.
Paul’s call to put on defensive armaments may also help those who proclaim Ephesians 6:10-20 better apply the passages that surround it. Chapter 6:1-9, but especially verses 5-9, are among the most difficult to understand and especially obey.
We won’t solve some of the hardest exegetical questions about Paul’s view of slave-master relationships in this piece.
Yet we might note that because the apostle’s expectations about relationships are so counter-cultural that the only way we can be so mutually submissive is with the help of the Holy Spirit who “arms” us for such service. The temptation toward various kinds of abuse of those with whom we’re in relationships is very strong. In all of our relationships, including employee-employer ones, we can serve each other wholeheartedly only in the strength “of the Lord and in his mighty power” (10).
At the end of the text the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday, Paul at least implies that he was sometimes tempted to stop sharing the gospel, especially in the face of incredible opposition. He, however, longs to “fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel … [and] declare it fearlessly” (20). Yet the apostle realizes he can’t do so unless he’s armed for defense against the evil one and his henchmen’s attacks. That armament, he insists four times in just three verses, primarily consists of prayer.
In his Screwtape Letters C.S. Lewis talked about the “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 and a magician with the same delight.
“This is certainly true about Satan. Some people totally dismiss him as an impersonal force or somebody in a red suit with a pitchfork. On the other end of the spectrum, many people attribute too much power and importance to Lucifer. They feel he is God’s equal.” Paul, comments my colleague Stan Mast, “steers the true course down the middle.”