Sermon for the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 17, preached on Sunday, August 30, 2009.
It might seem that we have a contradiction between the words of Paul in the Epistle lesson and the words of Jesus in the Gospel lesson. Paul writes to the Ephesians about putting on the full armor of God to stand against the rules, authorities, cosmic powers, and spiritual forces of evil that wage war against us as God’s people. It would seem then that the enemies we need to worry about are out there. But in Mark’s Gospel Jesus speaks of sin and evil proceeding from the heart and not coming from outside of us. He specifically warms us about the evil that defiles us – the evil that has its source within our own hearts – such as evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, and foolishness. These come from within to defile us, says Jesus.
No, there is no conflict here. I wish it were so. St. Paul and Jesus are giving us both sides of the struggle and marking the weakness that leaves us vulnerable to the desires of our hearts that defile us and the great temptations to evil that lure us from the devil, the world, and the flesh. It is not a matter of either/or but of both/and. For this reason St. Paul counsels us to put on the full armor of God – both as a shield against the evils outside of us and as the means to reign in the sinful desires of the heart that flow from within us.
Against both the enemies out there and the sinful desires in here, the answer is the same. If we are to stand firm, we must stand in the Lord. Apart from Him, we are weak and vulnerable to the pressures of out there to draw us away from the God and the sinful desires in here that would defile us and draw us away from God. We have strong and cunning enemies out there and inside our hearts are like a well of sinful and evil desire. Against both, the Lord has given us the full armor of His Word and Spirit so that we may not be victims but remain steadfast and immovable, with forgiveness to restore us when we do fall.
Put on, he says, the Belt of Truth. The Roman soldier wore a tunic, covered with a breastplate, secured by a heavy belt to which his knife and sword were carried. The belt of truth holds our weapons. If your belt is lies, your weapons have nothing to hold on to. Only truth can hold us up and carry the weight of our weapons. Put on the breastplate of righteousness, he says. The Roman soldier had armor plate over his heart, made of leather and bronze or solid metal. Christ’s righteousness protects the vital organs of our faith, in other words, justification. If we substitute our good works for what Christ has done on the cross, our armor is weak and our very spiritual lives are vulnerable.
Put on, he says, the shoes of the Gospel. Only the Gospel can give us traction in the fight or we will fall backwards. Put on, he says, the shield of faith. For the Roman soldier this was a laminated shield of linen and wood covered with leather or metal. It was an individual shield or when used together formed a single band of protection around a group. Jesus is our shield against the flaming arrows of the enemy; without the shield of faith we cannot deflect sorrow and struggle, tears and trials, despair and destruction.
Put on then, he says, the helmet of salvation. For the Roman soldier this was both dress uniform and battle armor. These identified the soldier as belonging to his unit as well as provided head and neck protection. Our identity as a Christ is our helmet. We wear the good news of Jesus as a proud adornment and it has the practical function of keeping our heads on straight. This is both a dress uniform and the practical protection we need for the battle.
Put on, he says, the Sword of the Spirit. This is not the large, heavy slashing sword but a lighter, pointed sword useful in close range fighting as well as on the battlefield. For us this sword is the Word of God – a two edged sword of Law and Gospel, that cuts both ways. It cuts off pride and raises us up humble and it pokes through the false truths of our enemies.
With all of this armor, comes the attitude of prayer and a heart that yearns to be the Lord’s as well as a persevering spirit that teaches the heart patience and endurance, and finally, is the cleansing of Christ who heals our battle wounds and washes off the carnage of the war so that we may always be clean and whole in Jesus Christ our Savior. This armor not only protects us on the outside, but it also directs us on the inside so that we do not fall victim to the lies and sinful desires of our fleshly hearts.
This battle armor of St. Paul confronts not only our outside enemies but confronts the desire within us to get what we want instead of what we need, what we desire instead of what is good and right and true. This armor curbs the influence of others over our hearts so that we do not follow the self-serving path that feels good for the moment but is empty inside of the power of salvation. This armor constantly reminds us that we are not of the world but in it, that our citizenship is not here but in the heavenly city, that we belong not to ourselves or to the world but to the Lord who first made us and then bought us back again.
Every now and then my computer needs to reboot to empty out the memory and re-register its files. You and I as Christians need to reboot up in the armor that God provides. Sometimes we go far astray of the Lord and His kingdom and we assume that it does not cost us anything... but it does. He constantly calls us back to Him... for He is the power to confront and overcome the enemies outside and the evil that flows up from within us. If we are to stand firm in this world of change and decay, if we are to stand up against temptation and desires, if we are to stand up righteous and cleansed, it is because we stand in the Lord, in the strength of His Word, in the weapons of the Spirit, and in the armor He provides us.
We have itching hearts that find the armor too heavy, that are tempted to believe we can stand on our own, that assume the big problems are out there and everything in here is okay. To these itching hearts, God calls us to suit up in the armor of His Word and His Spirit, that we may endure to the end and receive the salvation of our souls and crown of everlasting life. Amen.