accept the reality we’re in: Christian spiritual warfare

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand 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 realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish 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.

And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people. Pray also for me, that whenever I speak, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should.

Ephesians 6:10-20

And that about wraps it up. God is strong, and he wants you strong. So take everything the Master has set out for you, well-made weapons of the best materials. And put them to use so you will be able to stand up to everything the Devil throws your way. This is no weekend war that we’ll walk away from and forget about in a couple of hours. This is for keeps, a life-or-death fight to the finish against the Devil and all his angels.

Be prepared. You’re up against far more than you can handle on your own. Take all the help you can get, every weapon God has issued, so that when it’s all over but the shouting you’ll still be on your feet. Truth, righteousness, peace, faith, and salvation are more than words. Learn how to apply them. You’ll need them throughout your life. God’s Word is an indispensable weapon. In the same way, prayer is essential in this ongoing warfare. Pray hard and long. Pray for your brothers and sisters. Keep your eyes open. Keep each other’s spirits up so that no one falls behind or drops out.

And don’t forget to pray for me. Pray that I’ll know what to say and have the courage to say it at the right time, telling the mystery to one and all, the Message that I, jailbird preacher that I am, am responsible for getting out.

Ephesians 6:10-20; MSG

I think there’s truth and wisdom in what I heard years and years ago from a servant of the Lord. We as followers of Christ are children, servants and soldiers. He then likened that I think to the old stools people used to sit on to milk their cows. Three legs, so that if one of them is gone, the stool is gone we could say, as well. For different reasons I think we either want to avoid the soldier analogy, or we misapply it, pushing it into “the culture war,” or even into what is some ways is worse, actual military or paramilitary activity. Not what Christ taught, nor what Paul is teaching here.

We are not in a physical battle, but spiritual, and we’d better face that and get used to it, and act accordingly. It’s not just something we do and get it over with. We have to be ready and engaged day after day. It’s a kind of mentality, but also something beyond that. It is we can say spiritual in the sense that we are looking to God for God’s strength and help, no less, in all that God has provided for us in Christ. As The Message puts it: “Truth, righteousness, peace, faith, and salvation” along with “God’s Word” and “prayer.”

All who are in Christ will sooner or later realize that they are in a spiritual battle. I remember a successful and loving pastor who seemed to suggest that we should ignore Satan. I may have well misunderstood him. Perhaps he was making the point that our focus shouldn’t be on Satan or spiritual warfare, the spiritual battle we’re in, but on Christ. And that is a good and important point. We succeed in resisting the onslaught of the enemy by getting our strength from God, and applying what God has given us in Scripture, in Christ.

There’s nothing fancy here. All we’re supposed to do is stand firm, holding our ground. It may not look pretty, and may not get us any style points. It’s not about us. We accept this difficult, heavy reality, after all, there’s really no escape from it. And we want to take it head on, not at all in our own strength, but only in the Lord’s mighty strength, the strength of his might. Again, living out all Christ has given us, all we are. Holding on. Not trying to overcome ourselves, but knowing we will overcome by standing firm through Christ. Along with others. In and through Jesus.

in these times and any time just pray

Jesus told them a story showing that it was necessary for them to pray consistently and never quit. He said, “There was once a judge in some city who never gave God a thought and cared nothing for people. A widow in that city kept after him: ‘My rights are being violated. Protect me!’

“He never gave her the time of day. But after this went on and on he said to himself, ‘I care nothing what God thinks, even less what people think. But because this widow won’t quit badgering me, I’d better do something and see that she gets justice—otherwise I’m going to end up beaten black-and-blue by her pounding.’”

Then the Master said, “Do you hear what that judge, corrupt as he is, is saying? So what makes you think God won’t step in and work justice for his chosen people, who continue to cry out for help? Won’t he stick up for them? I assure you, he will. He will not drag his feet. But how much of that kind of persistent faith will the Son of Man find on the earth when he returns?”

Luke 18:1-8; MSG

We have “Christian” militants today, some who stormed the US Capitol, and some of them seemingly bent on more violence to come. Then we have people like me who decry and reject all of that as being not of the Spirit of Christ. We both act and react. What if we all took the words of Jesus here seriously, and simply prayed? Instead we either think we have to take matters in our own hands to win a “culture war.” Or we shake our heads. What if we as God’s people, whatever our political persuasion or thoughts about democracy and what is now happening in the United States would just pray and love and be known for our good deeds and keep praying?

For me, aside from the mess in the world, it’s much more personal and close to home. I can fritter away too much time on good things which are important in their place, but miss what is better, what is best, what is most important. If we’re not spending time in prayer and making it the ongoing priority of our lives, then we’re missing out on what God is doing and wants to do, and us being a part of that. And perhaps the most important part of prayer is listening. We bring our requests, our cries for justice to God, and we listen and keep on listening. I believe listening is a part of true prayer. We keep listening. As we do, God will give us what we need.

Jesus ties the need to always pray with faith and his return. Some Christians are making much of Jesus coming back, and that is indeed an important part of our faith. But is prayer the priority as we anticipate that? While I don’t at all share their view of the Second Coming, at the same time I want to be in prayer, with heart awake, ears listening, eyes open. But much of the time we’ll find this all a struggle, that we have the sense of failing, that indeed it’s an uphill battle. And we must not forget the spiritual warfare side of this (Ephesians 6:10-20). God’s grace is always present for us in Christ. We need not despair, and we must not give up. Let’s all learn to pray, pray, and keep on praying. Remembering that listening is a major part of that. In and through Jesus.

for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day: the politics of the good news

When Jesus heard that John had been put in prison, he withdrew to Galilee. Leaving Nazareth, he went and lived in Capernaum, which was by the lake in the area of Zebulun and Naphtali— to fulfill what was said through the prophet Isaiah:

“Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali,
the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan,
Galilee of the Gentiles—
the people living in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of the shadow of death
a light has dawned.”

From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

Mark 4:12-17

This Isaiah-prophesied revelation came to life in Galilee the moment Jesus started preaching. He picked up where John left off: “Change your life. God’s kingdom is here.”

Mark 4:17; MSG

Jesus’s message and proclamation was “the good news of the kingdom” (Matthew 4:23). The gospel is actually political through and through. Of course it’s about our individual salvation as well, but it includes so much more, really everything within God’s creation and human culture. God’s kingdom in King Jesus was coming in, but not in the way that people would naturally anticipate. They wanted in one way or another for God to end Rome’s rule over them. But God saw a much bigger picture, and really an altogether different one. Yes, it was about fulfilling God’s prior promises to them, but in the ways of a costly love which would break down all barriers, creating one new humanity, a beautifully woven mosaic of people groups together (Ephesians 2:11-22).

During this Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, let’s take time to pray and ask God to show us where we are blind and resistant to what God has done, is doing, and will complete in and through King Jesus. And what works God has for us in what God is doing now in this regard (Ephesians 2:10; MSG). In and through Jesus.

Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount: Matthew 7:7-12

Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.

Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.

Matthew 7:7-12

to follow Jesus, we must leave all else behind

As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” At once they left their nets and followed him.

Going on from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John. They were in a boat with their father Zebedee, preparing their nets. Jesus called them, and immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.

Matthew 4:18-22

It is striking here, how the first disciples Jesus called left everything to follow him. Notably that included James and John leaving their father in the boat by himself, to follow Jesus. They left everything, period. I’m not sure that means they could never fish again. It’s just that this would no longer be their occupation and preoccupation. They would now be following Jesus.

I found these words from James as rendered in The Message interesting in relationship to this:

If you don’t know what you’re doing, pray to the Father. He loves to help. You’ll get his help, and won’t be condescended to when you ask for it. Ask boldly, believingly, without a second thought. People who “worry their prayers” are like wind-whipped waves. Don’t think you’re going to get anything from the Master that way, adrift at sea, keeping all your options open.

James 1:5-8; MSG

The idea of “keeping all your options open” doesn’t work when one would follow Christ. You must leave all else behind if you’re really to follow the Lord. Or else at best, you won’t be a good follower.

This is much easier said than done. The disciples got it right, at the beginning. They answered Jesus’s call immediately. But that doesn’t mean it was easy for them to stay on track. In a sense, once they started on this journey, there was a commitment and confirmation which went along with it. So it’s not like it was a snap of the fingers to get off that road, either.

Much later, when Peter was the established leader of the early church, we remember that he wasn’t true to the gospel, so was confronted by Paul. In that sense, he meandered from his following of Jesus. No one is immune to this.

I find this helpful in this for me:

Trust in the Lord with all your heart
and lean not on your own understanding;
in all your ways submit to him,
and he will make your paths straight.

Proverbs 3:5-6

Trust God from the bottom of your heart;
don’t try to figure out everything on your own.
Listen for God’s voice in everything you do, everywhere you go;
he’s the one who will keep you on track.

Proverbs 3:5-6; MSG

For me to follow Christ I have to turn my back on what comes oh so natural to me: not “letting go, and letting God.” Somehow thinking whatever depends on me. I want to simply follow on, following Jesus with others. In and through Jesus.

don’t overreact to a bad day

So we’re not giving up. How could we! Even though on the outside it often looks like things are falling apart on us, on the inside, where God is making new life, not a day goes by without his unfolding grace. These hard times are small potatoes compared to the coming good times, the lavish celebration prepared for us. There’s far more here than meets the eye. The things we see now are here today, gone tomorrow. But the things we can’t see now will last forever.

2 Corinthians 4:16-18; MSG

Paul had many many difficult days. He lived for long periods of time in difficulty, for that matter. We must remember exactly what Paul is telling us here. Day after day, God is doing his renewing work in us. And we proceed knowing that the outcome is indeed good.

It’s easy to have a good day, get up the next morning “on the wrong side of the bed” (or not want to get up at all) and just be down dingers. We can prayerfully ask ourselves how we ended the day before we went to bed which might have contributed to that. But we have to pick up and go on. Believing that God is at work. And that in the difficulty, as Paul points out again and again in the above letter, God is making himself known, yes even through our lives. In and through Jesus.

when beaten up, bloodied, and bruised

Please, God, no more yelling,
no more trips to the woodshed.
Treat me nice for a change;
I’m so starved for affection.

Can’t you see I’m black-and-blue,
beaten up badly in bones and soul?
God, how long will it take
for you to let up?

Break in, God, and break up this fight;
if you love me at all, get me out of here.
I’m no good to you dead, am I?
I can’t sing in your choir if I’m buried in some tomb!

I’m tired of all this—so tired. My bed
has been floating forty days and nights
On the flood of my tears.
My mattress is soaked, soggy with tears.
The sockets of my eyes are black holes;
nearly blind, I squint and grope.

Get out of here, you Devil’s crew:
at last God has heard my sobs.
My requests have all been granted,
my prayers are answered.

Cowards, my enemies disappear.
Disgraced, they turn tail and run.

Psalm 6; MSG

There are times when it’s all one can do to keep going. Just putting one foot in front of the next. Actual physical opposition is still experienced by many Christ-followers in the world. Where we live we face the same in subtle ways through spiritual opposition, and sometimes it’s just the latter. But just the wear and tear of actual life, and all the troubles and problems it brings is enough to weigh us down.

And then what do we do? What the psalmist did. We simply pour out our honest thoughts, fears, and groans to God. And we keep doing that. The answer will come. Sometimes it’s just best for us to bide our time, knowing good will come, because God is good and does good. So we wait in prayer on God. And when the answer comes, we go on, praising and thanking God. As we see evil recede and good happening. In and through Jesus.

questioning our identity, or acting foolishly on it

As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”

Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

Matthew 3:16-4:4

The moment Jesus came up out of the baptismal waters, the skies opened up and he saw God’s Spirit—it looked like a dove—descending and landing on him. And along with the Spirit, a voice: “This is my Son, chosen and marked by my love, delight of my life.”

Next Jesus was taken into the wild by the Spirit for the Test. The Devil was ready to give it. Jesus prepared for the Test by fasting forty days and forty nights. That left him, of course, in a state of extreme hunger, which the Devil took advantage of in the first test: “Since you are God’s Son, speak the word that will turn these stones into loaves of bread.”

Jesus answered by quoting Deuteronomy: “It takes more than bread to stay alive. It takes a steady stream of words from God’s mouth.”

Matthew 3:16-4:4; MSG

Jesus’s baptism and temptation amount to him fulfilling what Israel failed to do, and more than that, we might say confirming his calling to be the Savior of the world. This was done for us, and in a certain sense none of it can be repeated. Just the same, we can learn important aspects of it for our lives, not the least of which is the importance of standing on Scripture when we’re actually tempted in some way to deviate from God’s will and grace to us in Jesus.

It’s interesting, the difference in the NIV and in most other English translations (not all) from Eugene Peterson’s rendering in The Message. Usually it is written and read as if the devil is tempting Jesus to question his Sonship, and hence him being the Messiah. But from Peterson and a few other English translations we might gather that what the tempter was trying to do was have Jesus act presumptively upon that Sonship. Either way, if the devil can get Jesus to depart from trust/faith and obedience, the devil wins. Jesus would have been sidetracked and diverted from his Sonship, his Messiahship.

Of course we know what Jesus does: He refutes the devil each time by quoting Scripture. Jesus stands firm on and in his Father’s will.

We can take for ourselves a couple of subcategory thoughts. We will be challenged about our identity, so that we might question it. Are we really God’s children by faith in Christ? Am I really loved by God in Jesus? Is God really my Father? When we question our identity in Christ, we’re in danger of acting as if that’s not so, even when it is. And we can either miss out on more than a lot, or we can cave in to that which a child of God should not be victim to.

The entire human race are created children of God. God has made the way for each person in and through Christ, by his life in his incarnation, his teachings and life lived, his death for our sins and resurrection for new life, new creation, and his ascension with the outpouring of the Spirit with the promise of his return when salvation will finally be made complete. But each of us has to put our faith in God through Christ. Trusting in God, that God can and will carry us through in Jesus. That God includes us in his special family in Jesus.

The other temptation is to act presumptively on our identity in Christ. We are God’s children, therefore we can throw caution to the wind. What can be lacking here is the proper reverential awe for God and realization that who we are is meant to be a representation of God to the world, of course that revealed in Jesus and given to us by the Spirit. As far as I can tell, this is less of a temptation for me, so that it’s hard for me to wrap my head around. It may be akin to some things we see going on in the world in the name of Christ which don’t have the scent of Christ on them at all, but instead, the stench of the anti-Christ. We have to be careful lest in our pride and arrogance, we act in ways that are evil in God’s eyes.

We are God’s dearly loved children in Christ. I want to remember that, and keep reminding myself of that again and again, so that I continue to cry out to God for all the help I need. And never to act pridefully on that help, as if somehow I’m something special apart from God. All is a gift, the greatest gift of all being Christ and what he did for us so that we might be included in God’s forever completely loved family. In and through Jesus.

keep on praying

Are you hurting? Pray.

James 5:13a; MSG

Prayer, simply praying to God is underrated. Or at least it seems that way to me. Though the further you grow in maturity in Christ, the more likely you’ll agree with that thought. But it’s another thing to do what we know we should. It’s something we have to deliberately practice.

James’s directive here when we’re “in trouble” (NIV) or hurting is to pray. When we have God’s peace and joy, it’s just natural for us to praise and thank God. But when our hearts are heavy, or we’re carrying a heavy burden, sometimes seemingly unbearable, or we’re concerned about this or that, we’re to pray, pray, and keep on praying.

By and by we’ll find that in a way prayer itself is the point. And in the parched, dry places where our soul is deeply hurting, that’s where our prayers might ascend and hit pay dirt more than we imagine. We know that when we have the sense of God’s Presence and peace, we also have the sense that our prayers are effective. But when we can feel nothing but heaviness, then we won’t have that sense, and may not pray at all. Instead we should pray all the more.

Such experience humbles us, and hopefully our roots grow deeper into God, into our dependence on God, and commitment to him. And that can help our prayers all the more, even if we think they’re not making a difference at all. Gradually we’ll begin to sense and see in small ways that our prayer is being heard, being answered.

So trouble and hurt while in themselves not something we want, can actually be a help so that we pray all the more, as well as deepen us in our relationship with God. In and through Jesus.

the only way to fulfill God’s law

But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.

Galatians 5:18

At this odd date in history, the thought could easily be mistranslated into if you are led by the same spirit that animates others in a common cause, then you can flout the law. Of course that is not even remotely related to what Paul is saying here. In Christ the law is fulfilled. It was never fulfilled by human understanding and effort, anyhow. There was a large prescribed way that became cumbersome because of all the add-ons by the religious leaders. But still, God intended the Law to be an important backdrop both for the life of Israel, and most importantly as a preparation for the fulfillment to come in Jesus. Of course the way that took place, Jesus’s actual fulfillment of the law and the prophets was unexpected, counterintuitive and contrary to those expectations. They began to see how this idea of embracing the cross, even dying on it was actually a fulfillment of the law. That is rather hidden in the First/Old Testament narrative, but you can see it after the fulfillment.

Being led by the Spirit as itself a fulfillment of the law (Romans 8:4 and context) is another way of saying that one is not under or subject to (NRSV) the law.  This is really about the law of Moses as it’s called, what was given by God through Moses at Mount Sinai. It was directives, really orders for their lives individually and as community. But it ended up being an important means of showing them their sin, and need for a Savior, indeed for the shedding of the blood of animals for forgiveness to be later fulfilled in Christ’s death on the cross.

Paul’s emphasis on being led by the Spirit, walking in the Spirit is contrary to our normal impulses. We want to do it ourselves, and in so doing, we automatically think of our efforts as fulfilling God’s law, what we understand God to be telling us as to what’s right and wrong. When we do that, we’re not living in the new life and the new freedom that new life brings us in Christ. We are either led by the Spirit, or we fall back into a practice that contradicts who we are as children of God. We are no longer in the flesh, according to Romans 8, so we need to live accordingly. Our desire and effort should be to walk in the Spirit, to be led by the Spirit. Out of that, the Spirit will bear the Spirit’s fruit in our lives:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.

Galatians 5:22-23

To be led by the Spirit doesn’t mean we’re above the law so that we can flout it. It is more related to Augustine’s words: “Love and do what you please.” What he meant is the love that comes from the Spirit through Christ.

But back to the main point: Being led by God’s Spirit means, as a friend said this morning to “have the grace of God allow us to walk in the Spirit’s guidance.” Paul’s letter to the Galatians here is all about living in God’s grace rather than under God’s law. And that’s done by the Holy Spirit. May God help us, help me to more fully enter into this reality and experience in and through Jesus.