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Imperturbable Spiritual Warfare
F. Earle Fox
St Luke's REC, Santa Ana, CA
11/11/13 2nd Sunday Before Advent
Is. 2:6-19; Ps. 75; Eph. 6:10-20; Jn. 4:46-54
We tend to think of spiritual warfare as involving ghosts, demons, and even Satan himself. But we ourselves have a fundamentally spiritual nature and we are at war. So it makes sense to recognize that there is a spiritual war going on right among ourselves, in our culture, in our families, and even within ourselves. We recognize that we have a spiritual life, so we ought also to recognize that that life can be in conflict within ourselves, and with God. That is an unavoidable consequence of being sinners. There are aspects of us which resist being submissive to God.
When that is so, we are not imperturbable, we are very vulnerable, and quick to go on the defensive or offensive, not in a Godly way but the world’s way. How do we achieve that “peace of God which passes all understanding” so that we might minister for Him in the world quietly and calmly?
Sin is always, in the end, self-destructive, but until we see the consequences of our behavior, and until that behavior becomes sufficiently painful to us, we seldom do much to repent of of it. Until “the remembrance of them is grievous unto us, and the burden of them is intolerable”, as we pray in the confession, we tend to stay with our sins where we are. So, we sometimes find ourselves on the wrong side of the spiritual war going on all the time. It may not be obvious, but we are then enemies of God, of one another, and of ourselves. We are loving neither God, neighbor, nor ourselves.
That demons might be involved adds extra complications, but the basic issues are the same.
Spiritual warfare is the subject of our Epistle this morning, but you can find that issue on almost any page of the Bible. God is constantly having to deal with our fallen nature, and our drift toward spiritual laziness and self-centeredness.
Every military conflict is a subset of the much larger spiritual war going on all the time. We tend to think that when we win a battle of one sort or another, like the first and second world wars, that we can relax. America did that after WW 2. We had beaten the bad guys, and we, the good guys, could now relax and get on with our lives. That is exactly what happened after WW 2. We had next to no sense that the spiritual war was continuing right on after the military war was won. We were oblivious to what was happening right in our midst, setting us up for the terrible fall of the 1960’s, and beyond.
America, the Church, families, and indeed, all of Western civilization was under attack, but now from within. We were caught in an attack aimed at destroying the Biblical worldview and way of doing things. We thought that we had won, but we had been put deeply to sleep by other enemies who much better recognized the nature of spiritual warfare. Western Civilization is Judeo-Christian civilization. But we had been persuaded that that was not the case, that we were secular now, and had to behave ourselves, stop talking out loud like Christians, so as not to offend anyone.
The Gospel lesson in John tells of a nobleman who lived at Capernaum whose son who was dying of an illness. When he heard that Jesus was in the neighborhood, he went to see Him, and asked Jesus to come to his home to heal his son. Jesus responds, “Except ye see signs and wonders, ye will not believe.” To which the nobleman replies,“Sir, come down ere my child die!” Perhaps it was the way the man answered that convinced Jesus of the man’s faith that Jesus could indeed heal the man’s son. He responds, “Go thy way, thy son liveth.”
The spiritual nature of the warfare may not in this case seem obvious, but any brokenness, any disease, any physical abnormality is ultimately a spiritual issue. If we were all spiritually healthy, there would be no disease, no war, no sin. It is clear from Jesus’ ministry that our lack of faith is the greatest reason for the troubles we have. And faith is primarily a spiritual issue, an openness to the presence of God – an openness to Him who Is. It is that openness which brings forth the fruit of holy, whole, and healthy communion.
So any thing which gets in the way of our open faith relationship to God is a spiritual war issue, all the more so if there is some entity, some person, some fallen angel trying to seduce us into a rejection, or at least a false notion of God.
But the nobleman proved himself to have that openness of spirit which led Jesus to say, “Go your way, your son lives.”
Spiritual warfare was not an obvious part of Old Testament religion. Holiness was thought to be achieved in the early years by proper administration of the sacrifices, a physical act. The people would be forgiven of their sins. There was truth in that, insofar as the sacrificial system is seen as a forerunner of the sacrifice by Christ of Himself. Taken by themselves, the sacrifices could be understood in very inadequate ways, as the prophets saw. The sacrifices could, and often were, offered without an inner change, without an honest intent to be at one with God.
And then later on, holiness came more fully to center on obedience to the law. There was truth in that also, because the law of God is that which points us on to union with Himself, it states the conditions of that union. If we do those things, we will be saved. But the doing of those things must be a matter of our own spirit living in relation to the Spirit of God, not of our doing an act by itself as if the bare act changed my relationship with God.
But the conflict with a satanic figure was seldom mentioned. I know of no one in the Old Testament taking on Satan directly. Apparently some were approaching that state of spiritual maturity in New Testament times because Jesus, when accused of casting out demons by Beelzebub, ask the challengers, “By whom do your sons cast them out?” Apparently some were successfully casting out demons. And we have the story of the seven sons of Sceva who were beat up by a demonic spirit because they did not have the authority of God backing them up. So others were at least trying.
Jesus takes on Satan directly in the temptations in the desert. He regularly casts out demons. And He knows that Satanic deception and manipulation is behind the evils of the Jewish hierarchy. As He challenges the core of the Jewish leadership’s rebellion against God, He undermines the kingdom of Satan on earth. Satan has to feed on the lives of his victims or he collapses. Jesus was invading and weakening the kingdom of Satan by drawing fallen souls out of Satan’s dark grasp into the Light of God.
When the disciples ministered as Jesus had taught them, He saw Satan fall like lightening from heaven. That ministry of spiritual warfare is meant to be the ministry of the Church of God plundering souls from bondage to Satan and his minions.
St. Paul in 1 Corinthians directly takes on this issue of spiritual warfare, our Epistle for this morning. “My brethren, be strong in the Lord, and in the power of His might.” What could that mean if not that God has given us the power to do good and to undo evil – of like nature to that of Jesus. The power of the Holy Spirit and of the Word of God is given into our hands to do the work which Jesus did among us.
But, as the seven sons of Sceva incident shows, you do not do that lightly. You get prepared. You do not minister against the powers of evil in your own strength. You will just get beat up, or seduced yourself into Satan’s kingdom. So, you do it in the strength which only God can supply. The disciples had been prepared by their association and discipleship with Jesus. And we can do it likewise with that same discipleship which God has given to His Church to minister. He says to the Corinthians, “My brethren, be strong in the Lord...”
We are also siblings of Paul, brothers and sisters in the Lord. He is talking to all of us. We all have the same common enemy, Satan and his demonic slaves, and our own inner weaknesses, vulnerabilities, and sins.
So Paul advises us to fortify ourselves. Most of the equipment to which he points is defensive. We will be shot at by the enemy. Every intelligent warrior knows that he must take defensive measures or he will be wounded and taken out of the battle. “Put on the whole armor of God...” This armor is not physical but spiritual, to defend against a spiritual attack.
It could be an intellectual attack. We can be persuaded by false doctrine. Today we have a refined weaponry used against us. Not only can we be assailed by false doctrine, but by the seductive notion that truth is relative, that it does not make significant difference what you believe. That appeals to our laziness because then we do not have to do the hard work of research and learning. It appeals to our pride, our fear of being wrong because we might make a mistake and look foolish in someone’s eyes. It appeals to our cowardice because someone might contradict us.
We Christians are told to be of one mind, that is, to agree on the truth about spiritual things. That is part of the unity for which Jesus prayed in John 17. There is a real truth, and we are to promote it abroad, at any cost to ourselves. Spiritual truth does not mean fuzzy truth. God is quite able to make His intentions known as specifically and precisely as the occasion requires. And we are required to learn those intentions and to tell them to others.
So Paul tells us to put on the whole armor of God that we may be able to stand..., no matter what they throw at us.
The first piece of armor is the truth, with which we gird our loins. Truth is both a defensive piece of armor and also an offensive weapon. Here it is defensive. Our own beliefs, if properly digested and integrated, are a formidable defense against confusion and chasing down rabbit trails. The better grasp we have of truth, the better prepared we are to pick our battles and to not be shunted aside by smoke screens. You learn how to answer questions gracefully and truth fully which are thrown at you, so the attack bounces off with a calm response. They throw a dart and get back a calm response – as Jesus with Satan in the desert.
We get that protection of truth only by being a truth-seeker, by being open to the truth. We gradually build up our knowledge of reality, we learn how to find our way around spiritual reality just as we learn to find our way around our neighborhood or our town, or our country.
The second piece of armor is the breastplate of righteousness. Like truth, if we have stored up a past history of righteous deeds, not based on pride, but on compassion and mercy, we will not be shaken by attacks on our righteousness. We become more and more invulnerable to guilt complexes. We will know who we are and what we are to be doing – the two great stabilities.
The third piece of armor is on our feet, the gospel of peace. “How beautiful on the mountain are the feet of him who brings tidings of peace...” To do that we must show that we are not there to attack any person, only to put ideas and policies to an open, honest test. We are not there to call anyone names because we disagree with them, only to ask them to tell us candidly what they believe, to tell them candidly and firmly what we believe, and then, like Elijah on Mount Carmel, to find some way to put the two to an honest test.
That is what God does in Isaiah 43, calling all the nations together for a debate on who was God. We looked at that passage a few weeks ago in the Sunday School.
When you show that you are not attacking any person, only false belief or practice, and that you are willing to have your beliefs and practices tested in the same way, you will almost always have at least the beginning of communication. Our war is not against the flesh, but against the principalities and power of darkness. When truth is sought and spoken, if we live in the light of Christ, the rest will take care of itself.
The fourth piece of armor is the shield of faith, which, like the girdle of truth around our loins, makes a protective wall. Truth, properly knit together with faith, fact, and logic, makes a protective wall which is very difficult to penetrate. The girdle of truth protects your bowels, and the shield of faith protects your heart and your sword hand.
The fifth piece of armor is the helmet of salvation, which, like the girdle of truth and the shield of faith, protects your head.
The sixth piece of armor is the Sword of the Spirit, the word of God, the word of truth, our only offensive weapon. The sword is described as a two-edged sword in the Book of Revelation. The two edges are not identified, but I would name them as revelation and reason welded back to back, creating an invincible weapon against darkness, lies, and deceit.
Reason and revelation make up a weapon which is larger than the sum of the two parts. Reason and revelation each require the other, neither can survive without the other. But united, they are invincible. No weapon formed against us can triumph against the defensive and offensive weapons given to us by God – if we will use them.
St. Paul identifies in Romans 1:18 what initiates the Fall. We Fall because at some point in our lives, we prefer something else over the truth. We subvert the truth in some area, which then drags down the rest of our lives as the falsehoods we now have seek to justify themselves and so continue to subvert more and more truth.
But there is always a way back from this morass of falsehood and self-deceit – the Way of the Cross. Repentance and forgiveness, and then living in the Light, refusing darkness for ourselves, actively seeking the presence and power and discipline of God as given in our Baptism and Confirmation covenants.
Isaiah this morning gives stern warning. The wicked Assyrians have been called by God to punish the disobedient Israelites. “The haughtiness of man shall be humbled, and the pride of men shall be brought low, and the Lord alone shall be exalted in that day...”
A primary purpose of spiritual warfare is to humble those who are being attacked by Satan. Satan is not in charge of this world, God is. So if we are being successfully attacked, we need first of all to get on our knees and ask the Lord to judge us, to give us a clear and detailed moral and spiritual report on our own attitudes and behavior.
“For the Lord of Hosts has a day against all that is proud and lofty...”
When attacked, we must first examine ourselves, not the supposed enemy. We may be acting as our own worst enemy. Do we really want to live in the light of day, do we really want God to expose our inner selves to ourselves? And in some cases to the whole world?
We ask in the Collect for today that God would grant to His faithful people pardon and peace. There can be no peace without that pardon. Spiritual warfare begins at home, within ourselves, and among ourselves, so that we can be adequate soldiers for Christ out in the public battlefield. We pray for that pardon and peace so that we may be cleansed from all our sins – and serve God with a quiet mind.
The battle for truth, righteousness, and love may rage without, but within our own souls we are to be peaceful and quiet.
We read in the Epistle of Jude, “But when the archangel Michael, contending with the devil, disputed about the body of Moses, he did not presume to pronounce a reviling judgment upon him, but said, "The Lord rebuke you." Spiritual warfare does not mean railing at Satan or his minions, it means calmly and deliberately telling Satan the truth. Not only Michael, the archangel, treated Satan with calmness and a certain kind of respect, but Jesus Himself did so with Satan in the desert. Jesus quietly but firmly quoted to Satan the Scriptures on the relevant subject. Our spirit, imperturbable in the grace of God, cannot be undone by the likes of Satan.
Addendum -- 4 relevant verses – Satan is the “prince of this world”:
Joh 12:31 Now is the judgment of this world: now shall the prince of this world be cast out.
Joh 14:30 Hereafter I will not talk much with you: for the prince of this world cometh, and hath nothing in me.
Joh 16:11 Of judgment, because the prince of this world is judged.
Eph 2:2 Wherein in time past ye walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience: (KJV)
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