Saturday, September 05, 2015

God's Strength

God’s Strength
Ephesians 6:10-20[1]
If you’re a devoted follower of the news, it can be easy to conclude that the world in which we live is full of evil. To some extent, this is a matter of perspective. A ‘random act of kindness’ only rates a mention at the end of the news, while the headlines tend to focus on the tragic side of life. On the other hand, I think a person has to go through life with “eyes wide shut” not to recognize that we live in a world in which evil is very real. All I have to do is simply mention Auschwitz, Hiroshima, My Lai, Tianenmen Square, Bosnia, Tibet, the Twin Towers, Sandy Hook, or Charleston. And those are just the ones we may remember.
One of the challenges we have with evil is that it can be so deceptive. Some of the most evil deeds in human history have been perpetrated by those who claimed to be serving a greater good, or even insisted they were doing God’s will.[2] That makes evil incredibly difficult for us to recognize. But one of the other challenges is that evil is so widespread. I don’t believe that our world is defined by evil, unlike some people in our day. But the influence of evil affects human life all around us every day.[3] Some of the ways evil shows itself are obvious. Others are more subtle, and harder to recognize. But it is there, nevertheless.
Our lesson from Ephesians for today reminds us that we can rely on God’s strength as we face evil in our world. One of the problems with the way the New Testament approaches evil is that the language is influenced by the worldview of the day. The general idea in that time was that the air—literally, earth’s atmosphere— was the place where evil spiritual powers lived.[4] Our text says it this way: “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” (Eph. 6:12). As you can imagine, made people feel like they were constantly vulnerable to their influence.
I’ll have to say that I don’t buy into every detail of that worldview. I don’t believe we have to live our lives in constant fear that some “evil spirit” will attack us. I don’t “believe in” Satan or demons. The way some people talk sounds like give the Devil and his minions too much credit! I “believe in” God the Father almighty, and in his only Son Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Spirit. Whether there is or is not a being named Satan is a difficult question to answer, but if there is, he is not the object of my faith! My faith is in God our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer!
Nevertheless, it seems obvious by what we can see around us that there is a power at work in the world that seems to be beyond simple human selfishness or cruelty.[5] And that evil affects us all. That’s why the Scripture lesson calls believers to be alert and to protect themselves against the “schemes” that evil throws against us to trip us up, to confuse us, and to discourage us.[6] When you look at some of the events that happen in our lives, it can be difficult to understand why something so tragic would happen to someone who is trying so hard to live for God. The effects of evil in our world can be truly disheartening.
But I think that is the reason for this passage. The Scriptures encourage us to “be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power” (Eph. 6:10). I think part of the idea behind this is that we have to realize that what we’re up against in this life as we seek to follow Christ is bigger than we can handle on our own. We’re not up to the task in our own strength. We need the strength that only God can provide in order to “stand” firm despite whatever may come our way. We are also encouraged to “take up the whole armor of God” (Eph. 6:13) in order that we might be able to withstand the onslaught. When you look at the pieces of armor mentioned here as a whole picture, what stands out to me is that every part of the body is protected.[7] And since it’s God’s armor, we can be confident that it is more than sufficient to keep us safe from whatever may come our way.[8] All we have to do is “stand firm” in it.
To some extent, however, this protection isn’t quite that automatic. We do have to make the effort to take up the protection God offers us. As we “put on” the virtues like truth, righteousness, and faith, we are “taking up the armor of God.” And yet I think it’s also important for us to remember that the Scriptures view these powers as already defeated.[9] In the beginning of this letter, we find the statement that God raised Jesus from the dead and “seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion.” (Eph. 1:20-21). His exaltation far above all powers implies that he has already won the victory over them. Since these evil powers have already been defeated by what God has done through Jesus Christ, then we have nothing to fear from them.
I don’t pretend to understand fully the existence of evil in this world. It would seem that there are forces at work in our world that are evil to a degree that surpasses our human ability to conjure. And they are almost always deceptive and manipulative. While I don’t believe we are living in a world in which evil powers have the upper hand, they still have the ability to wreak havoc in our lives. For that reason I think the Scriptures remind us that the life of faith is more than we can handle on our own. We need God’s strength to protect us as we seek to be faithful to him in our lives. And the promise is that God’s strength is ours for the asking.

[1] ©2015 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 8/23/2015 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Blaise Pascal, Pensees, no. 892: “Jamais on ne fait le mal si pleinement et si gaiement, que quand on le fait par un faux principe de conscience” (People never do evil so totally and so gladly as when they do it from false religious conviction).
[3] Compare a different approach in John Caputo, On Religion, 118, where he speaks in terms of “the tragic sense of life” that is “an anonymous and loveless force” that exerts itself in our lives even when we try to hold on to faith. He explains (p. 122) that according to this “tragic view” that some have set over against faith, “both the cruel indifference of natural disasters and the malice in the human heart are of a kind, equally innocent, equally the outcome of impersonal and unknowing forces of nature.” He adds that while he remains haunted by “this specter of a heartless world of cosmic forces,” he ultimately does not give it “the final word.”
[4] Cf. Pheme Perkins “The Letter to the Ephesians,” New Interpreters Bible XI:463: “The initial depiction of humans armed against forces that are more than human, against spiritual powers, fits an established pattern in apocalyptic texts. Ordinarily, the conflicts of the evil times at the end of the world are described as demonic in inspiration. Angelic figures like Michael do battle against the spiritual forces that the faithful righteous ones struggle against on earth. This scenario understands the sufferings of the righteous as part of the testing that belongs to the last days.”
[5] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.2:230, where he opposes both the idea that in using the language of spiritual forces of evil, Jesus either merely accommodated himself to the prevailing view or that he himself was limited by them. He says, “Like all other Jews therefore, but in a way which was incomparably more exact than all others, He saw and experienced what there was actually to be seen and experienced: an abyss of darkness which was not merely supposed or imagined or invented or projected into the sphere of being but was actual and concrete; the presence and action of nothingness, of the evil in the background and foreground of human existence.”
[6] Cf. Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.2:675, where he describes the powers that attack believers as “the power of nothingness lashing out wildly in its final death-throes in this last time which is the time of the community, the violence of chaos which knows that its hour has come and, knowing that it cannot hurt the One who has trodden it underfoot, makes its last and supreme attack on His human attestation in an attempt to suppress and falsify and destroy it
[7] Cf. Perkins “Letter to the Ephesians,” NIB XI:460: “Though the concrete details of the armor are biblical, not Roman, the audience probably envisaged the fully armed Roman soldier when they heard these words (Judith 14:3).” She refers to the description of the armor of Roman Hastati, Principes, and Triarii in Polybius, Histories, 6.23 as a comparison.
[8] Cf. Ralph P. Martin, Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon, 76, where he say that since the armor is God’s , “no provision is lacking. No part of the body is unprotected. … , the believer’s protection as he faces the enemy is complete and sure.” Cf. also Andrew T. Lincoln, Ephesians: 442: “Despite the fact that not every piece of the armor will be listed, the emphasis is on the full protection it provides.”
[9] Cf. Perkins, “Letter to the Ephesians,” NIB XI: 463; cf. also “The Confession of 1967,” in The Book of Confessions, 9.25: “our strength is in the confidence that God’s purpose rather than human schemes will prevail.” I think that confidence also applies to any other schemes as well.

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