Monday, November 24, 2014

The Higest Calling - A Strong Fight

Preached on Sunday, November 23, 2014

Scripture readings: Isaiah 59:12-21; Ephesians 6:10-20

Paul says, “Be strong,” but I don’t know how well I understand those words. They are a lot like the words, “Be brave.”
Vinyard at Desert Aire, WA: November 2014
I think John Wayne said, “A man’s got to do what a man’s got to do.” Being strong means doing what you have got to do. But a lot of people don’t.
There are a lot of times I certainly don’t feel like doing it. It seems like “be strong” and “be brave” are for those very times you want to cut and run; or go with the flow, instead of against it.
Every fall, Dubuque Seminary had an annual football game between the married and the unmarried students. Fred Halde was my team captain. He was my friend, but he kept lining me up me opposite Dave Ulum, who had actually played college football (in one of those tiny colleges in the Midwest).
Fred was my friend, but we all knew I was our weakest player. I was expendable. Fred needed to save the good players for the better positions. It was touch football, but there was blocking and hitting on the line of scrimmage.
So we kept lining up, and Dave Ulum kept hitting me, and I kept flying backward through the air. I never seemed to land where I had been standing, but somewhere else, flat on my back. I was getting really mad at Fred.
I remember standing on the line facing Dave Ulum for the tenth time or so. Dave was my friend too. He hated what he was doing. He was begging me, “Dennis, please go somewhere else!” And I said, “I can’t. I’ve gotta be here.”  I think I must have played the whole game facing Dave.
All the while, we all knew that the unmarried students always lost. That is one thing I think of when I hear the words, “Be strong.”
One thing I know, I am encouraged and inspired when someone else is strong, when someone else lives with courage. When others are counting on you, when others are rooting for you, you have got to think of that. But, not everyone does.
When I was serving my first church after I was ordained, the Presbyterian churches on the south coast of Oregon would put on their own church camp, every summer. We rented a little camp up in the hills, and we would have twenty, or thirty, or forty kids, for a week of junior camp, and for a week of junior high camp.
Here and Below:
Nishinomiya Garden, Spokane WA: November 2011
I would be on the staff, but I would also double as a cabin counselor for kids from Lakeside, where I served. One summer, I had the perfect Junior High cabin. Our camp gave awards at the end of the week to the cabin with the most points, and you earned points by competitions in three areas, how you cleaned and decorated your cabin, how you competed in the games, how you did in the Bible quizzes.
I had a cabin full of kids who were good Boy scouts, good athletes, and good Bible students. We stampeded all the other cabins, and left them groveling in the dust.
The staff kept changing the point system to make the scores more even, but nothing availed, because we were great. We were strong. It was something to celebrate. We celebrated constantly. We celebrated in everyone’s faces.
That last part wasn’t too Christian. But joy is Christian. Thankful-hearted, generous-hearted celebration is Christian. We’re not strong, but God is. We celebrate his strength, and this is a part of the joy of the Lord himself: to be celebrated by his children. I think that “be strong” means something like that.
Paul doesn’t say, “Be strong.” He says, “Be strong in the Lord.” Through much of his letter, Paul has been applying our faith to every part of our life. In every part of life, we have a high calling. Our calling is about living out our real connection with the Lord, in every part of life, nothing excluded.
If only we could see, every day, how everything is connected to Jesus. Everything is connected to the Lord. Every place we stand is “holy ground.” Our moral, ethical life is holy ground. Our life together, as brothers and sisters of faith, as members together of a spiritual family, in the church, is holy ground.
How you live as a husband, or a wife, is holy ground. How you live as a parent, or as a son or daughter, is holy ground. How you work with others is holy ground. How you live alone is holy ground. The example of Jesus (showing, in his life, how to live when strength is needed) is there making it holy ground.
The love of Jesus is there, making it holy ground. The change of heart, the new spirit, the new attitude that comes from being a new creation through the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross is there, making life holy ground.
The power of the Holy Spirit is there. Everything that matters is there.
There is something to celebrate, even when you want to cut and run. You have something to celebrate, even when the future is hidden. “Be strong in the Lord.”
When Paul says, “Be strong in the Lord,” the Greek for “be strong” actually means, “be empowered. When I was a kid, there was an amusement park we went to, once or twice a year. They had an old-fashioned penny arcade, with cool nickelodeons and mechanical games. There was a machine I always loved. When I put a nickel in the slot, and stood on a brass plate, and held a brass knob with each hand, an electric charge would go through my body, and  a meter on the game would tell me how tough I was, until I screamed and jumped off.
I would try that game every time every time I could. I imagined myself being empowered! “Be empowered in the Lord.” You are in Christ, and Christ is in you. “Be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power.”
You must never imagine that you are alone. You are living your life with God. That is your highest calling.
Maybe we are afraid to go to the place where the Lord’s empowerment would take us. What might God be calling you to do? What kind of person is God calling you to become? How might God want to change your life?
I am afraid to think what would happen if I refused to be what God wanted me to be. What’s the alternative to what God wants?
And wouldn’t that be taking sides? And, then, whose side would I be taking?
There are sides. Sooner or later, there are only two sides left in the whole universe.
It really boils down to a matter of life and death. There is the side of life, if only you choose life. And there is another side. And what shall we call the side that turns against life?
Paul says that there is a struggle going on between two sides. There is God, the captain of the team of life. And there is the other side set against us, and against God, and against life. Paul writes: “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 realms.” (Ephesians 6:12) We are not struggling only with the world as it appears to our eyes and to our other senses.
There is an invisible reality that is more important than what we see and sense. In that unseen world, we are in Christ. We are seated in safety, in Christ. That is the highest and most invincible region of the spiritual realms. And yet that best and highest realm is as near to us as our minds, our hearts, our loves, our choices, and our prayers.
The spiritual realms have their bottom land, though, where the dregs of the invisible realms still make war on God and his kingdom. That bottom land is also very near: just as close as our minds, and hearts, and loves, our choices, and our prayers.
Even when we don’t know Christ, we are still part of the kingdom of his creation, and we still represent the life that God wants to bless. The forces of evil hate us for this and they make war against us.
When the lower portions of that unseen world are at work close to us, then we are in a spiritual warfare with the devil, whether we know it or not. Whether we realize it or not we meet the organized forces of the spiritual darkness and the armies of the evil one. He is the one whom the Bible calls Satan and the Devil.
In Ephesians, Paul calls the commander of those forces “the prince of the power of the air” or “the ruler of the kingdom of the air”. (Ephesians 2:2)
These powers are against us because the God of life made us. They attack us within our familiar world, and we find the struggle to be real and terrible. Sometimes that struggle seems much more real than the place where God has seated us in his presence.
The word “satan” means “enemy”. The word “devil” means “accuser”. In the Garden of Eden, the devil, in the form of a serpent, accused God of not wanting the best for Adam and Eve. His advice was for them to eat the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, and gain the knowledge and power that God had denied them.
The accusations of the Devil are all lies, or the twisting of the truth. In the Gospel of John Jesus says this about the Devil: “There is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” (John 8:44)
Paul has told us this: “you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts.” (Ephesians 4:17-18)
Futile thinking, darkened understanding, ignorance, and the hardening of hearts is the result of the accuser’s lies. Even when we love Jesus, the accuser gets us twisted and mixed up in our priorities. He darkens our ability to understand when people collide with us. He makes us accusers of others and accusers of the unfairness of life. He hardens our hearts toward others, toward ourselves; toward hope and love and caring. He makes us suspicious, and sneaky, and angry, and despairing, and bitter, and unwholesome.
When God came into our world, in Christ, it was to reveal the truth and to give us a new life that we could live within the power of his truth. In Jesus, we see our sinfulness and our need of a savior. In Jesus we see the extreme faithfulness of a God who will go through torture on the cross and death for a world of people whom he loves, including us. In Jesus we see that his faithfulness reaches out to those who seem the most outcast, downcast, and hopeless. In Jesus we see the truth about ourselves, and the truth about God, and the truth a new life held save in his hands.
The kingdom of God is the opposite of the kingdom of the liar. Paul prays this for us: “I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and his incomparably great power for us who believe.” (Ephesians 1:17-19) Later on, Paul remembers to add this to his prayer for us, so that, “you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.” (Ephesians 3:19)
This is strong. This is what we need to “be strong in the Lord and in the power of his might.” But Paul gives us another picture of what God does for us, in Christ, to make us strong. Think of it as the armor of God himself.
Paul is thinking about the armor that God put on to work out our salvation. God looked at us, and at our world, and his plan was to fight for us. Isaiah speaks of the armor that God put on to fight for us. “He saw that there was no one, he was appalled that there was no one to intervene; so his own arm worked salvation for him, and his own righteousness sustained him.” God put on the breastplate of righteousness and the helmet of salvation. (Isaiah 59:16-20)
When we put on the whole armor of God, it is a strange case of human beings wearing God’s clothes. Imagine children dressing up in their parent’s clothing, thinking, “How can I pretend to be my Dad? How can I pretend to be my Mom?”
God really doesn’t wear clothes. He wears himself. Righteousness and salvation are living parts of God: characteristics of God. When we put on his armor, we put him on. God comes between us and all harm. Because of the cross, if harm touches us, it touches God first and foremost, and we will live because Christ lives.
In Jesus we see that God’s breastplate of righteous is formed by the scars of the whip with which he was beaten. His helmet of salvation is the crown of thorns. His sword of the Spirit is formed by the nails. His vengeance is overwhelming, overcoming love with which he carried our sins for us.
One thing seems clear to me; that all the armor and weaponry God are the work that the Lord has done for us, or given to us as a gift. In Isaiah, God put his armor on to do what no one else could do, dealing with evil and injustice in the world, and dealing with sin, and carelessness, and hardness in our hearts.
He has done the work in Christ, and now, by faith, he wraps us in his work and tells us to live with the confidence that he has taken care of us: with the confidence that all that we struggle to do is somehow finished in him. He puts it in our heart. But he tells us to take it out so we can see it. He tells us to put it on, and to surround ourselves with what he has done.
There is the belt of truth. In Christ we see the truth about ourselves and about God. We see that there is good news for us, in the truth. The truth holds us together, and keeps us honest and sane.
The breastplate of righteousness is the goodness of Jesus. Because we are lacking in goodness, he covers us with his own.
Having “your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace,” refers to the half-boots of a Roman soldier. They had good support for the ankles, and protection for the shins, and tough metal-studded soles.
Even when the fight is hardest there is peace that steadies you. You remember Jesus, and what he has given you; what he has done for you. You know that now you are doing something for him.
This makes you good company for those around you. It makes you steady to share with others what Christ can give to them.
“The sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” is the power of the Bible. But the sword is not just words on a page or even words in your mouth. The real sword comes out when the words become the voice of God by the Holy Spirit. Then they come to life for you, and they come to life through you.
Sunset at Desert Aire: November 2014
The Spirit of God becomes the breath of the voice of God speaking of its own will and power to cut through your temptations, and your fears, and to do field surgery on yourself and on others to mend what’s broken or infected.
It cuts mercifully and cleanly through the heart and soul. “It judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” (Hebrews 4:12) The sword of the Spirit enables you to speak for God with confidence and love.
Paul tells us to “put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.” (Ephesians 4:24) In all his humility and extreme devotion, God showed his true armor in Jesus.

We are called to put on Jesus, to be crucified with him, and to rise with him. That is what gives us a new self to put on every day. That is how to be strong for the fight.

No comments:

Post a Comment