My four year old grandson, William, and I were at a yard sale recently. I told him to pick out a toy. He dashed off to check out the possibilities. He was back in a flash. Meema, he said, look! There he was a miniature replica of a Roman soldier. He had a plastic Roman helmet on his head, a breastplate on his chest, a sword in one hand and shield in the other. The brown leather sandals on his feet were his own but were just right for the total look. And the price was right: $1.
A couple of days earlier I had looked ahead to my preaching assignment for today. I took William the midget Roman soldier as a sign. The sermon needed to be on the Ephesians passage about the armor of God.
Ephesians confronts us with an image of the Roman soldier prepared for battle. Forget William in his plastic gear and think of the movie, The Gladiator. Russell Crowe, the general in an early scene surrounded by his soldiers, the Roman army on the eve of battle. The general s word to his troops as they prepare to move forward: At my signal, unleash hell!
The first century Roman soldier in all his armor was a formidable sight. Metal helmet. A shock of plumes, often blood red, spiking out of the top. Heavy breastplate overlapping metal plates, hinged together. Belt in place, signaling readiness for battle. A wide short sword made for hand to hand combat for when the soldier could feel the breath of his enemy. A curved shield almost four feet long made of wood covered with rawhide. Large enough to shield the soldier s whole body. Sturdy enough to withstand the flame-tipped arrows of the enemy. Shields that could be linked together to form a massive wall. Leather sandals tightly strapped to the soldier s feet and ankles, studded on the bottom with large nail heads, rugged enough to last on long marches and through many battles, rough enough to dig into the earth so the soldier could stand his ground.
Paul s audience knew what Roman soldiers looked like. Roman soldiers were their conquerors. Roman soldiers strode among them as peace-keepers sent by Rome to be at-the-ready to quell any disturbance, put down any rebellion. Paul used an image very familiar to his first century audiences.
If we update the image and look at the modern day soldier, armed and ready for battle, we can see that modern day armor aims to do the same thing that first century armor did. To protect the soldier from harm. To slay the enemy. Helmets are made of Kevlar now. Soldiers have special face masks to protect them in the event of biological, chemical or nuclear threat. And night goggles to see the enemy in the dark. The newest body armor, designed to protect the torso from shrapnel and bullets, as one article highlights stops, shatters and catches any fragments up to a 7.62 millimeter round with a muzzle velocity of 2,750 feet per second. The solder carries a rifle, pistol, grenades and a bayonet knife. Maybe a machine gun with a capacity of 200 to 600 rounds per minute. I wonder if this means that, theoretically at least, one soldier could kill 100 or more of the enemy per minute?
In each century, Paul s and ours, the soldiers we re picturing are in state-of-the-art equipment, outfitted in the newest technology. But then as now soldiers are still vulnerable. Roman soldiers died on their battlefields. Modern soldiers are being killed today. Nothing like an explosive device to do this in the hands of someone who attacks wearing no armor but using an invisible weapon an attitude of hate, an attitude of total indifference to life, his own and that of his enemy.
Paul draws a picture of the well-outfitted Roman soldier. I can draw you one of a modern soldier. But the real point Paul wants to make is in the metaphor. Paul wants us to put on not the armor of his Roman soldier, but spiritual armor. Paul is not concerned about flesh and blood enemies, he s concerned about spiritual enemies.
The real enemy is not flesh and blood. The real battlefield Paul worries about is not one of earth and rock it s a moral one. The ultimate destruction is not death of the body, but death of the soul. No human armor, as Paul indicates, can protect us from this enemy or destroy it. This enemy is super human and it wants to take us captive, to enslave and even destroy us. The real enemy is unseen. It doesn t have a face. It is cosmic, dark and evil. Human armor, then and now, no matter how sophisticated, is irrelevant to such an enemy. Our human armor has chinks in it. The enemy knows where the chinks are. The chinks are not physical, they are moral and spiritual.
Look at our passage from Ephesians today. Paul names the enemy the devil, the evil one.
You re probably thinking, Forget it, preacher, don t go there! Those are old-fashioned, out-of-date images that have no power for us.
Well, Jesus thought they did. Jesus thought they had power not just for us, but potentially over us. He used up a lot of Gospel time taking on the cosmic, super human powers of evil. He called the evil one Satan. He battled him in the wilderness. Jesus called the powers of the evil one demons. He saw the devastation evil caused when it took over and possessed a person. Jesus prevailed over these demons and he called them Legion . Those empowered by Jesus could do the same. Jesus named the demons and cast them out freeing the one whom the demons possessed. The person wasn t the enemy as Jesus knew. The real enemy was the dark force that was influencing the person and driving the person s behavior. Jesus didn t destroy the person to get rid of the demon. He saw the evil as separate from the person, then he called it and cast it out. In Johannine terms he located the darkness inside. He shone light on it, like a laser. And the light prevailed, shattering the darkness.
Who is the real enemy who is bent on our destruction? It is a negative force that can take many forms demons (to use Jesus word), some seen, some unseen.
Let s name some of our demons. Mark names some of them in our Gospel reading today. Often they can be simply a nuisance, but when they gain power over us they can be destructive forces in our lives and in the lives of those around us. Pride, arrogance, despair, indifference, power, deceit, envy, rage, possessiveness, fear, jealousy, greed lust, revenge, hate to name a few. They lurk in dark corners within all of us, but as they become powerful they can drive our behavior in destructive ways.
There are also other things that may be inherently good but which, when abused, can change form and become destructive in our life like food, drugs, alcohol, sex, work. We can become addicted to any of these and give them the keys to our soul.
Is there any armor that can withstand the evil one, the wiles of the devil, the dark forces at work within us? Paul says, Yes! The armor of God. Paul makes the metaphorical leap from human armor to Divine armor. He talks about arming ourselves: with truth; with readiness to proclaim a gospel of peace; with faith; with the sword of the Spirit, the powerful piercing word of God that can slay any enemy; with salvation, the conviction that God so loves you that Christ died for you that you would be saved from even the ultimate enemy, death.
These are profound, heavy words. Sometimes Paul can be overwhelming in his rhetorical zeal when he advises us how to live life. He s got us on a moral battlefield before an unseen and powerful enemy. We re on it 24/7. We re surrounded always by negative forces waiting for an opportune time to attack and draw us away from God. We need simple direct commands at such times. So, here they are in the first twelve words of the passage from Ephesians: Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power, Inscribe these words on your hearts. Teach them to your children and to your children s children.
The darkness waits. We must be ready. We must be prepared. We must be equipped and we must equip our children and our children s children being armed in the knowledge and love of God, armed with the word of God, armed with faith and trust in God s power to dispel the darkness.
Be strong in the Lord. Put God first in your life. Inspire your children to do likewise, and your children s children. The enemy can t prevail in the fact of such power the power of God strengthening you and working through you towards victory. God wants this victory light over darkness, good over evil so that you, your children and your children s children may have life, forever.