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July 27, 2008

Spiritual Warfare

Ephesians 6:10-18

            Today’s sermon focuses on spiritual warfare, not an easy topic to cover.  If we are going to take seriously the writings of the Apostle Paul, we must address this topic.  He writes about spiritual warfare in several of his letters, with the passage before us today, Ephesians 6, being the principle one.

            Last weekend, one movie did better in the box office than any other movie.  I understand that it is leading again this weekend.  The movie is The Dark Night, the newest in the Batman episodes.  Reviewers are completely divided about whether this movie is suitable for young children.  Some believe it should be rated so that only those seventeen years old and older could view it.  The Dark Night is, by all accounts, quite violent.  I have not seen the movie, but I am familiar with its theme, the conflict between good and evil.  We see this struggle in so much of our literature, in much of our cinema.  I immediately think of the Star War movies, where a division between what is good and what is evil clearly exists.

            Why are we so enamored with films that depict this conflict?  The basic reason might possibly be that life is an ongoing conflict between the forces of good and evil.  People we feel should be on the side of good disappoint us.  They come out on the side of evil.  We learn that they have been underhanded and deceptive.  Those we might have assumed would be the men in the black hats turn out to be the good Samaritans.  The problem, of course, is that so often the lines are blurred.  The lines between good and evil are not always clear. 

            To be sure, a part of this conflict lies within us.  I went to seminary with a man who became a very good friend.  A captain in the United States Marine Corps, he served as a reconnaissance officer in the war in Vietnam.  A reconnaissance officer in that war had a life expectancy of about two days.  This friend survived his term of service.  Though he had no physical injuries, he was a wounded man. 

On several occasions, he took his patrol on a maneuver and returned as the only survivor.  This raised a cloud of suspicion.  Was he doing something to endanger the lives of his men?  He was investigated and exonerated. 

He told me about one particular night when he and his men were separated in the jungles of Vietnam.  He listened all night to his men screaming as they were being tortured by the Vietcong. 

This man was a good pastor, but his life was pockmarked by the conflict between good and evil.  At night, he would often wake up in a cold sweat, giving battle orders.  His wife would be terrified, his children frightened.  He said to me one time, “I guess I am going to have to live with these demons.” 

His comment may make you uncomfortable; but just this week, a man told me that he, too, was living with his own demons. 

            When the Apostle Paul wrote the letter to the Ephesians, he was in chains, probably in Rome.  He was coming to a time when he would be put to death.  Paul was very well aware of the conflict between good and evil.  He certainly was aware of the tension Christians felt as they lived in that world, in that day, in that time.  I would submit to you that the world is very little different now than it was then.  We live with the same struggle the Apostle Paul confronted.  As Paul ends his letter to the Ephesians, he gives a strong admonition, one we come back to repeatedly.  I memorized his warning when I was in R.A.’s.  It deserves being memorized. 

Ephesians 6, beginning at Verse 10:


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, against the spiritual forces of evil and the heavenly realms.


            Paul names the enemy in his letter to the people of Ephesus.  They certainly knew the hierarchy of evil there.  A meteor, a rock pockmarked with all kinds of holes, had landed in Ephesus.   They built a temple and set this rock up as an idol for the goddess Artemis.  People who went to the temple had a fertility cult.  One of the ways they worshipped Artemis was through cultic prostitution.  Forgive me if that is offensive.  All kinds of astrologers were located in Ephesus.  The book of Acts tells us that sorcerers were also located there.  Paul is writing against the backdrop of a city that had more than its share of these wayward cults, religions.  Paul seems to be talking about astrology when he refers to cosmic powers. 

Some want to disregard this notion and prefer not to think of evil as personified.  They do not want to talk about the devil, Satan.  C.S. Lewis says that in respect to the devil, we make one of two mistakes.  First, we tend to give the devil too much attention, too much credit, as in the old Flip Wilson character who said, “The devil made me do it.”  We cannot give the devil credit for behavior that is our responsibility.  Blaming Satan is not a way to avoid personal responsibility for our own lives.  Second, C.S. Lewis says that we tend to ignore Satan, to treat him as if he really does not matter.  He asserts that when we do that, we reveal ourselves to be spiritually naïve.  We make ourselves extremely vulnerable.  Some prefer to think of evil only as something internal, an internal battle.  In Romans 7, beginning at Verse 19, you see that Paul understood and struggled with evil:  “I don’t understand my own actions.  I don’t understand why I do the evil that I don’t want to do.  I am unable to do the good that I desire to do.” 

            Scott Peck, a psychiatrist, wrote a book entitled People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil.  He says that we dare not disregard the presence of evil in our lives.  Peck tells the story of a father who gave his son a rifle as a Christmas present.  The son, already despondent, used the rifle to commit suicide.  As if that were not enough, one year later on the following Christmas, the father gave that same rifle to his second son.  That son began having many kinds of psychological problems.  Finally, the family brought the son in to see Peck.  This young man had sores all over his body, sores that were self-inflicted, sometimes through cigarette burns or by simply picking at his skin.  Peck said it was impossible for him to treat this young man without taking seriously the presence of evil in that family. 

            America has long had a fascination with the presence of evil.  I remember back in the 1970’s with the appearance of movies like The Exorcist, The Omen, and Rosemary’s Baby.  We still have a tendency to be fascinated, but we actually ignore the battle. 

I want to suggest three key battlegrounds in our conflict with evil.  One is money.  Paul writes in I Timothy 6 that the love of money, avarice, greed, is the root of all evil.  How many times have we seen that in corporate America?  You do not have to look very far to see that a second battleground is human sexuality.  If you have internet capability or if you watch movies or television, you readily see that the battleground of human sexuality disregards the sacredness of our lives and the lives of others.  It makes us sexual cannibals that consume other people in sexual lust.  The third battleground is power, the battleground of the ego.  People who lust for power want to control, dominate, and occupy others.  No matter how you regard this, whether you are comfortable in thinking of evil personified or not, we must recognize this clear and present danger. 

            When I was at Harvard Divinity School as a Merrill Fellow, one of my responsibilities was to be available to professors who were teaching in the divinity school.  A professor named Art McGill, who was teaching a systematic theology course, asked me to come to his class.  McGill presented a lecture on the great Swiss theologian Karl Barth and his concept of cosmic evil.  Students in the class had that deer-in-the-headlights look.  It was as if Professor McGill was not connecting with them. 

Finally, he turned to me and said, “We have Pastor Neely with us.  Pastor Neely, can you help us understand Karl Barth’s concept of cosmic evil?” 

Of course, I did what I often do.  I told a lumberyard story, one that is true.

            When I was a high school junior, the lumberyard was building a new showroom.  My dad and my granddad employed an old carpenter who needed work to put up the ceiling tile.  They probably gave the man work just out of the goodness of their hearts.  Realizing immediately that he was going to need some help, they assigned me the job.  In order to staple blocks to strips nailed across the rafters, we built scaffolding to the ceiling.  We had to lie on our backs in order to staple these tiles in place.  My primary job, of course, was to tote tiles up the scaffolding.  This old man’s job was to staple them in place. 

            Every hour on the hour, the old carpenter climbed down from the scaffolding and went out to his truck.  Behind the front seat, he had a bottle.  I was not quite sure what was in the bottle then, but I think now it was probably bourbon.  It was very sweet-smelling.  He would take a drink, come back in, climb up the scaffolding, and work for another hour.  An hour later when his hand started shaking, and he became unable to control the staple gun, he would climb back down and get another drink from his truck.  Day after day this occurred.  Of course by the end of every day in that hot summertime, he would be reeking with the smell of alcohol.

            Finally, toward the end of our time working together, he climbed up on the scaffolding and lay back down for the last hour of the day.  I looked over at him and commented, “That stuff really has you, doesn’t it?” 

He turned and looked at me with watery, bloodshot eyes.  The smell of alcohol was quite strong.  With his face not far from mine, he confided, “Kirk, I tell you what.  If there ain’t no devil, there is somebody doing his work.”

            That is what Karl Barth meant by cosmic evil.  You may personify it or not.  You may take it as evil, or you may add the “d” and call it the devil.  However you want to approach this, it is real.  It is a clear, present danger. 

The Apostle Paul addresses that danger by describing the armament a Roman soldier would wear for battle.  He says that just as a soldier prepares for battle, so, too, must a Christian stand firm, prepared to face the enemy. Verse 13: 


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 your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace.  In addition to all of 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.


Just as an aside, I have come to believe that the Apostle Paul had a copy of the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Old Testament, close at hand when he wrote his letters.  Maybe he just knew it so well.  Regardless, much of what he says here is not all original. Paul is pulling from one of the prophets of the Old Testament.  This notion appears in the translation of Isaiah in that Greek manuscript. 

            I was talking one time with a Christian man who worked undercover in drug enforcement.  His job was very hard, very dangerous.  He said that every morning he had his Bible opened to this passage on the top of his dresser.  As he put on each piece of his clothing, he read this Scripture and thought about how he was putting on the whole armor of God.  This undercover drug agent said that he memorized that passage, knowing it would take him through the day.  He realized that everything he was putting on was a defense, a way to be protected, except for the sword, which Paul calls the “sword of the Spirit.”  The Greek word used, machaira, (also spelled makhaira and machaera) refers to a Roman sword that is sharp on both sides.  It is a two-edged sword.  We find a reference to it in Hebrews.  Sometimes enemies would ridicule Roman soldiers because they came into battle with those swords, but the Roman army knew something the enemy did not know.  In close hand-to-hand combat, a soldier could maneuver that smaller sword much more efficiently than a large, heavy sword.  The soldier could also inflict a lot more damage because the sword was two-edged.  The Apostle Paul uses the word machaira to describe the “sword of the Spirit,” which he says, is the word of God.  Our offensive weapon is Scripture. 

            We must confront the darkness often.  Just think about your daily life, the times when you know you are in the presence of evil.  Your best weapon is Scripture you have memorized, Scripture you have committed to memory by heart.  “Thy word have I hidden in my heart that I may not sin against thee,” says the psalmist in Psalms 119:11.  Jesus met every temptation in the wilderness with Scripture, Scripture he had memorized, Scripture he could quote.  He used Scripture as his defense against the temptations of Satan in the wilderness.

            Calvin Miller’s excellent book entitled Disarming the Darkness: A Guide to Spiritual Warfare was my primary source for preparing this sermon.  Miller asserts that in our spiritual warfare, there is absolutely no substitute for knowing the Scripture.  We have no better way to be prepared for battle against the forces of evil than through the use of Scripture. It is the reason we offer Sunday School and Discipleship Training.  It is the reason we encourage you to read your Bible. 

            Martin Luther was so convinced of the reality of evil, that at one point he picked up an inkwell and threw it across the room, thinking he saw the devil.  I think of his great hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”  Luther wrote, “And tho’ this world, with devils filled, Should threaten to undo us, We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph thro’ us:  The Prince of Darkness grim, We tremble not for him;  His rage we can endure, For lo, his doom is sure, One little word shall fell him.”  That “one little word” Luther speaks of is the Word of God made flesh in Jesus Christ.  That is our primary weapon of defense, our primary weapon of attack.

            Verse 18:  “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 saints.” 

I have learned two characteristics about Satan.  First, Satan is homeless.  He does not have a home.  He will finally be in the great abyss, but he has lost his place.  He himself said in the opening chapter of the book of Job that he had been “roaming through the earth” (Job 1:7).  Peter calls him a “prowling lion, seeking whom he may devour” (I Peter 5:8).  Satan is a homeless vagabond, wandering to and fro across the earth. 

            I have also learned that Satan breeds or thrives on anger, bitterness, and rage.  If you harbor those three emotions in your heart, you carry exactly the kind of nourishment Satan desires.  He thrives on the antagonism, hostility, and opposition in this world.  He detests love.  He lives by hate, but that hate is expressed in enraged posture.  We are most vulnerable when we are away from home and when we are angry.  You are wrong to think you can go somewhere beyond being discovered, someplace that nobody will know what you do.  The motto, “If it happens in Vegas, it stays in Vegas,” is not true.  You are unable to be completely anonymous.  Satan will be there, prowling, roaming, looking for people who feel like they have no home.  Remember Jesus’ words in Luke 12:2-3:  “There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known.  What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs.”  An ancient prayer of the church says that God is a God before whom “all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hidden.”  There is no place far enough away so that you will be out of sight and out of mind.  God will always be with you.  Call on Him for strength.

            Where do we find our home?  Prayer is the heart’s true home.  Prayer is always the way to have a safe mooring.  Paul says here in Verse 18 that we are to pray on every occasion with all kinds of prayers.  Through the life of prayer, we find a place of rest, a place of security, a haven.  “There is a place of quiet rest, Near to the heart of God, A place where sin cannot molest, Near to the heart of God.”  Prayer is that safe mooring. 

            Years ago when I was in Louisville, Kentucky, a young man told me an absolutely horrifying story.  He had met another student at college who had invited him to accompany him to a beautiful campground.  This person had assured this man he would enjoy the trip.  After the two reached the area and parked the automobile, they saw a fire burning in the distance.  They walked toward the glow and reached a large circle that included a number of people.  The man said he immediately started feeling cold chills.  It did not take long before he realized that he was in a circle of Satan-worshippers. 

I do not know what the group intended to do with him, but he was the prime target that night.  The leader of this group, who wore a headdress with goat horns, seized him.  The young man did not know much Scripture, but he did know the Lord’s Prayer.  Not knowing what else to do, he started repeating, “Lead me not into the temptation but deliver me from evil.  Lead me not into temptation but deliver me from evil.  Lead me not into temptation but deliver me from evil…” 

This leader slapped him and shouted, “Shut up!” 

He continued to cry out words from the prayer, “Lead me not into the temptation but deliver me from evil.” 

Finally, the man pushed him and ordered, “Get out of my presence!” 

The boy picked up his backpack and left the woods by himself, leaving behind this college companion who was a part of this group.  He hitchhiked back to school, absolutely terrified by the experience.  He prayed the right prayer, the prayer Jesus taught us to pray, the prayer of release:  “Lead me not into temptation but deliver me from evil.” 

            Evil is a real enemy, and we are in real warfare.  I know this is an unsettling message, but the Scripture resounds with this truth:  This enemy has been defeated.  This evil was defeated at a place called Golgotha.  It looked as if the forces of good had absolutely suffered a miserable defeat, but the tables were turned.  We see now in the world the death throes, the twitching, the torturing, the attempt to make one last stand.  The Lord Jesus Christ has defeated this enemy.  He was victorious.  Therefore, Paul can say, “God did not give us a spirit of fear, but he gave to us a spirit of power, a spirit of love, and a spirit of a sound mind” (2 Timothy 1:7).

            If you will put on the whole armor of God, take seriously this battle, prepare yourself with Scripture, and bathe your life in prayer, you will have the victory.  The victory has already been secured through Jesus Christ.


Kirk H. Neely

© July 27, 2008


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