Sunday, August 26, 2012

Fully Armed; Be Strong In the Lord

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power.  Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.  For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.
Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm.  Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness.  As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.  With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one.  Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.  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.  Pray also for me, 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.   Ephesians 6:10 - 20 (NRSV)
Paul is like the Old Testament prophets, Moses and Joshua.  He tells us to stand strong, and in the Lord’s power and might.  What kind of advice is that – and why do we need it?  It is good advice.  We need it because the kinds of enemies we face are not the ones we can see, or engage in physical battle.  
Consider how difficult it is to fight the unseen even in nature:
Here’s to the chigger, the bug that’s no bigger
Than the end of a very small pin;
But the itch that he raises simply amazes,
And that’s where the rub comes in.
It’s important to learn to stand against both big and little things the devil throws in our pathway; God's people have always had to do so.  There are enough false things out there to trip up anyone who is not strong in the Lord; everything from cults to Satanists and other assorted lunatics. 
While there are all those spiritual traps Satan provides, there is also the reality that we are beings of the flesh as well.  Sometimes we are like Pogo -- We have met the enemy, and he is us!  God knows us; He knows our frame, that we are dust.  And so, God provides protection, effective armor.  If we will take it, and put it to the intended use, we will be successful in waging spiritual warfare.
Joe Lewis was the heavyweight boxing champion of the world.  He fought, 71 times; he lost only once.  During the fifteen years he held his title, he defended it 25 times.  Bill Stern, the voice of American sports on radio, decided toward the end of the Brown Bomber's career that he would interview him and find out the technique or the secret that Lewis used in fighting his opponents and how he could win over people who were at times much larger than he.  His answer was very simple, I study my opponent, I plan my fight very carefully.  The results are always the same -- I’m never surprised and I stay on the offensive.  That's pretty good counsel for dealing with the devil. 
Satan wins many of his attacks and victories because he surprises us.  We continually live shocked.  The believer has no reason to be shocked, intimidated or surprised by the attack of the enemy -- none whatsoever. God has given us the armor and the battle plan to overcome his attacks.
Paul was chained 24 hrs, 7 days a week to a Roman guard.  It is no wonder God used the imagery of armor and weapons to impress the apostle to warn us how to be strong in the Lord.  We should never underestimate the enemy!  This morning let’s put on the whole armor of God, beginning with:

the BELT OF TRUTH  14a

Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist
Truth is the one thing that is the defining mark of the Christian in our society.  Whatever else we do or don’t do – whether you do visiting to care for folks, teach a class, give a tithe or more, truth is never optional for the believer.  We must always speak the truth in love.  And we must speak it clearly and openly. 
Martin Luther said,
If I profess with the loudest voice and the clearest exposition every portion of the truth of God, except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at the moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Christ. Where the battle rages, there the loyalty of the soldier is proved, and to be steady on all the battlefield besides is mere flight and disgrace if he flinches at that point.[1]
When we name the name of Christ, we must conduct every moment of our lives in truth.  This means:
·        truth in speech
·        truth in finances (including the IRS stuff)
·        truth in relationships with others (in and out of the church)
·        truth in business. 
If we will not conduct our lives with truth in these material and earthly things, how can we claim to have the greater truth within, which is the One who called Himself THE Truth?   It is either all truth or all lie – this belt is not divided!  The truth can only exist when you accept Him as your Savior and Lord


and put on the breastplate of righteousness.  
In His sermon on the Mount of Olives Jesus said we would be blessed, or happy to hunger and thirst after righteousness.  He said we should seek the righteousness of the Kingdom of God first, and worry about material things later.  What is this righteous condition? 
The word itself comes from a basic verb which means to show.  In a religious sense or application it means to stand before God with your heart open and on display.  There is nothing hidden.  God can inspect you.  Is that a comfortable idea?  David prayed,
Search me O God, and know my heart; try me, and know my thoughts
And see if there be any wicked way in me,
Psalms 139.23-24a
Every one of us here today has at least a few things in our life that if it were known by the rest of the group in this building, we would die of shame.  How do I know that?  I don’t have a crystal ball, but I do have a human heart.  God knows that the flesh lives inside us all.  Most of us know from experience – and the rest of us could guess from sheer human intuition – that it is not a wonderful prospect to stand before a righteous and holy God without some super-asbestos holy shield to protect us from judgment. 
The breastplate covers the vitals, the heart.  Having a breastplate of righteousness can only happen when your heart has been cleansed, when you’ve been forgiven of sin and made to stand righteous, openly on show for God.  When it's like that, beloved, Satan’s darts are way out of range. 
A fellow Christian once accused me of being uncaring and cold towards him and his family.  He then widened it to include the whole church (and probably the whole of Western civilization!).  I told him that I believed he was misunderstanding me, but that I would pray for God to help me understand.  I did go to prayer, and while God affirmed to my heart that I really did care for and love this brother and his family -- there were some other things in that area that needed my attention.  When I shared this with the brother, I could stand with the breastplate of righteousness.  I had stood honestly before God, and Satan could not use this rift of understanding to break that church apart.  He tries to do that, you know.  Put on the breastplate; have a clean heart before God.


As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.  
Correct footwear is one of the most important items of equipment to a soldier.  A Roman soldier caught with ragged foot gear was liable to severe punishment.  It wasn’t just a fickle, arbitrary military game.  If a soldier couldn’t march, he couldn’t fight. 
Basic training at Fort Gordon in August of 1966 was such a joy.  We went on marches in the woods.  It was like a rain forest, hot and steamy.  It rained for two centuries during those 8 weeks of basic.  There were two things our Drill Sergeant’s voice bored into our brains on those long wonderful campouts – salt and socks.  Gentlemen, and also you lowlife privates, (he was so loving), that salt tablet will keep yo’ insides wet.  An’ whut-evah y’all do, y’ud bett-ah keep them socks dry!  Yes, Drill Sergeant!
Paul points to the Gospel footgear -- the preparation of peace.  The gospel conquers the inner world.  Every victory in the Christian’s life depends on that peace.  The Psalmist said, O taste and see that the Lord is good.  Friend, just like the ancient soldier was going nowhere without his proper footwear -- no one comes to God without good news -- the Gospel.  If you lack peace today, give up whatever religious activity in which you’ve been dabbling.  And let God give you real peace.  Good news -- Good shoes!


With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one.  
There is a lot of teaching around about what constitutes genuine faith.  And, if Paul’s analogy of a shield holds up, that’s the way it should be.  We all have faith.  You and I are exercising a form of faith right now.  You are sitting in pews; I am standing on a platform.  We believe they will support us. 
The point is not whether we will use faith – it is generally to what or who we will direct that faith.  A man bought a new hunting dog.  Eager to see how he would perform, he took him out to track a bear.  No sooner had they gotten into the woods than the dog picked up the trail.  Suddenly he stopped, sniffed the ground, and headed in a new direction.  He had caught the scent of a deer that had crossed the bear's path.  A few moments later he halted again, this time smelling a rabbit that had crossed the path of the deer.  And so, on and on it went until finally the breathless hunter caught up with his dog, only to find him barking triumphantly down the hole of a field mouse.[2]
Sometimes we as Christians are like that.  We start out with high resolve, keeping Christ first in our lives.  But soon our attention is diverted to things of lesser importance.  One pursuit leads to another until we've strayed far from our original purpose. 
At times it is a lack of faith in God’s Word.  Gordon MacDonald shared an event from his life:
A few years ago -- a friend asked a strange question. If Satan were to blow you out of the water, how do you think he would do it?  I'm not sure I know, I answered, but I know there's one way he wouldn't get me -- He'd never get me in the area of my personal relationships.  That's one place where I have no doubt that I'm as strong as you can get. 
A few years after that conversation -- a chain of seemingly innocent choices became destructive, and it was my fault.  Choice by choice by choice, each easier to make, each becoming gradually darker. And then my world broke -- in the very area I had predicted I was safe.  Oswald Chambers comments on the tendency of men and women to lose major personal battles not at the points of their weaknesses but, strangely enough, at the points of their perceived strengths.  He wrote, The Bible characters never fell on their weak points but on their strong ones; unguarded strength is double weakness. 
Funny!  During my earlier years I'd thought we were most vulnerable at our weakest points -- until I realized from personal experience that where we perceive ourselves to be the strongest is where we're least likely to be prepared for a battle that isn't psychological or emotional.  It's spiritual![3]
How do you appropriate the shield of faith?  Ask God -- and then act as if you believe He is listening.  When Alexander the great sailed to conquer Persia, his ships landed at night.  As the troops gathered on the cliffs overlooking the harbor they were amazed to look back and see the torrid blaze of the entire fleet.  They learned that Alexander himself had ordered the ships burned.  He wanted his men to know that the only direction was ahead.  Retreat was out of the question.  Satan will tell you there’s a way out -- a more conservative approach.  But not if you want a shield of faith that works!


Take the helmet of salvation,
In his book, A Thinking Man's Guide to Pro Football, Paul Zimmerman quotes a physicist who made a rather startling discovery.  When a 240- pound football lineman (capable of running 100 yards in 11 seconds) collides with a 240-pound running back (capable of covering the same distance in 10 seconds), the resultant kinetic energy is enough to move 66,000 pounds (33 tons) one inch.  The scientist says further that in all likelihood, the collision would deliver to the player's helmet a blow nearly 1,000 times the force of gravity. Obviously, modern football helmets have to withstand tremendous blows, or no player would survive long.
The same is true for those of us engaged in spiritual warfare. Paul knew what he was doing when he commanded us to take the helmet of salvation.  The word take actually means to accept, and speaks of our receiving from God's hand something which He has prepared for us.  What a great picture, for all we can do in salvation is accept what God has given us.


and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. 
In December 1986 three masked burglars broke into the Louvre Museum in Paris and stole the 152-year-old diamond-encrusted dress sword of the French king, Charles X.  A museum spokesman said that the sword, made in 1824 by French artist Frederic Bapst for Charles' coronation, has such historical value that one cannot set any value on it.   If there was ever a truly priceless Sword, it is the Word of God. 
For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any twoedged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit,
and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.   
Hebrews 4:12
Study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.   
2 Timothy 2:15
As a Pastor, I rely on the Word of God more than anything else I’ve learned.  That is especially true in counseling.  When rightly handled, the Word will reveal things to people about themselves and their problems, about which I could only wonder.  There are some counseling techniques that seem to work very well – but upon closer inspection you will find these so called techniques are really Biblical principles hidden in Counselese psycho-babble. 
How vital is God’s Word?  It is the only offensive part of the soldier’s outfit.  In Christian living, it is vital for conducting spiritual warfare.  Pick up your sword every day.  Remember, a soldier outfitted in every perfect way, but without his sword, is only prepared to stand there and take a beating!


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.  Pray also for me, 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.                              
Prayer is a matter of unending communion with our Lord.  In his book, Purpose in Prayer, E. M. Bounds quotes these words from former college professor and Confederate soldier, General Thomas Stonewall Jackson: 
I have so fixed the habit of prayer in my mind that I never raise a glass of water to my lips without asking God's blessing, never seal a letter without putting a word of prayer under the seal, never take a letter from the post without a brief sending of my thoughts heavenward, never change my classes in the lecture-room without a minute's petition for the cadets who go out and for those who come in.
Early African converts to Christianity were earnest and regular in private devotions.  Each one reportedly had a separate spot in the thicket where he would pour out his heart to God.  Over time the paths to these places became well worn.  As a result, if one of these believers began to neglect prayer, it was soon apparent to the others. They would kindly remind the negligent one, Brother, the grass grows on your path.[4]
If you are like me, the one thing that troubles you every time the subject of prayer arises is: 
How in the world can I develop a prayer-life?
I’ve got a zillion things to do -- The kids won’t be quiet
The dog barks, the pot boils over, my boss hates me
My business and finances are in shambles
And April 15th is almost here
Preacher -- it’s not that the wolf is at the door!
That wolf has moved in and had pups under my kitchen table.
And YOU want me to pray?
My experience has been that we do not pray because we have not grasped the importance of prayer.  Chuck Swindoll tells in one of his books about a group of amateur climbers were scaling part of the Matterhorn mountain near Zermatt, Switzerland. As they came to a narrow, hazardous passage, about to make a turn, a gust of wind swept down on them. The experienced guide, knowing the danger this posed for the group, quickly shouted, Get down on your knees! You are safe only on your knees![5] My dear Christian brother -- you will never have enough time to do all you have to do, until you take the time with Jesus in prayer.

what’s left?

When a soldier has been properly outfitted, trained and pointed in the right direction, there is only one sensible thing left to do – Join the fight   I don’t know what that means for you tomorrow, or even this afternoon; God is the one who defines and directs the strategy.  I suggest you keep an attitude of prayer, and an open heart.  He will bring you into the battle where you’re needed, and at the right time.  Good commanders know their troops.
In the days of the Roman Emperor Nero, there lived and served him a band of soldiers known as the "Emperor's Wrestlers."  Fine, stalwart men they were, picked from the best and the bravest of the land, recruited from the great athletes of the Roman amphitheater.
In the great amphitheater they upheld the arms of the emperor against all challengers.  Before each contest they stood before the emperor's throne.  Then through the courts of Rome rang the cry: We, the wrestlers, wrestling for thee, O Emperor, to win for thee the victory and from thee, the victor's crown.
When the great Roman army was sent to fight in Gaul, no soldiers were braver or more loyal than this band of wrestlers led by their centurion Vespasian.  But news reached Nero that many Roman soldiers had accepted the Christian faith.  Therefore, this decree was dispatched to the centurion Vespasian; If there be any among your soldiers who cling to the faith of the Christian, they must die!
The decree was received in the dead of winter.  The soldiers were camped on the shore of a frozen inland lake.  It was with sinking heart that Vespasian, the centurion, read the emperor's message. Vespasian called the soldiers together and asked: Are there any among you who cling to the faith of the Christian?  If so, let him step forward!  Forty wrestlers instantly stepped forward two paces, respectfully saluted, and stood at attention.  Vespasian paused.  He had not expected so many, nor such select ones.  Until sundown I shall await your answer, said Vespasian.  Sundown came.  Again the question was asked.  Again the forty wrestlers stepped forward.
Vespasian pleaded with them long and earnestly without prevailing upon a single man to deny his Lord.  Finally he said, The decree of the emperor must be obeyed, but I am not willing that your comrades should shed your blood.  I order you to march out upon the lake of ice, and I shall leave you there to the mercy of the elements.
The forty wrestlers were stripped and then, falling into columns of four, marched toward the center of the lake of ice.  As they marched they broke into the chant of the arena: Forty wrestlers, wrestling for Thee, O Christ, to win for Thee the victory and from Thee, the victor's crown!  Through the night Vespasian stood by his campfire and watched.  As he waited through the long night, there came to him fainter and fainter the wrestlers' song. As morning drew near one figure, overcome by exposure, crept quietly toward the fire; in the extremity of his suffering he had renounced his Lord.  Faintly but clearly from the darkness came the song: Thirty-nine wrestlers, wrestling for Thee, O Christ, to win for Thee the victory and from Thee, the victor's crown!
Vespasian looked at the figure drawing close to the fire.  Perhaps he saw eternal light shining there toward the center of the lake. Who can say?  But off came his helmet and clothing, and he sprang upon the ice, crying, Forty wrestlers, wrestling for Thee, O Christ, to win for Thee the victory and from Thee, the victor's crown! 
My friend, it makes little difference where you live, or what epoch in history; the battle is the Lord’s.  Someday the battle will be in front of you.   The question to settle right now, right here, so that you will be ready on that day --
Will there be 39 or 40 when Christ calls?
That is the decision Christ invites you to make for Him.
An invitation -- Come and die, Christian -- Come and die!

[1]Martin Luther, as quoted in John Whitehead, Religious Apartheid, Moody Press, Chicago, 1994, p. 161.
[2]The Bible Illustrator, (Hiawatha Ia, Parson’s Technology) Idx 3763-3765
[3]Rebuilding Your Broken World, by Gordon MacDonald
[4]Today in the Word, Moody Bible Institute, 6-29-92
[5]Charles R. Swindoll, The Christian Life, (Vision House, 1994), p. 223.

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