Our Scripture this morning is Ephesians 6:10-20. It can be found on your program. It reads:
10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. 11 Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. 12 For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. 13 Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. 14 Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, 15 and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. 16 In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; 17 and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, 18 praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end, keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints, 19 and also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, 20 for which I am an ambassador in chains, that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak.
At the risk of using a very dated image, I will share with you what comes to my mind when I read this description of rulers, authorities, Cosmic Powers of Darkness, Spiritual forces of evil above us:
Has anyone ever seen the movie The Lord of the Rings –The Fellowship of the Ring?
The Lord of the Rings is a mythology written by J.R.R. Tolkien.
The main characters is Frodo Baggins, a 33-year-old hobbit who inherits a ring of power that controls the world and corrupts all who wears it. So a fellowship is formed of hobbits, elves, dwarves, and men to venture off to destroy the ring by casting it into the volcanic fires where it was forged. Their mission has been opposed by evil creatures and in one scene, Gandalf the Gray, a wizard, leads the fellowship of the ring through the dark caves. They are fleeing for their lives, being pursued by the enemy: the Balrog, this figure. And at one point as they are booking it across this bridge, Gandalf stops on the bridge and commands the Balrog “You cannot pass”. With all its ferocity and intensity – his enemy halts, extends his vast wings, raises, and cracks its whip. Fire comes from its nostrils. But Gandalf stands firm. “You cannot pass,” he said. “Go back to the Shadow! You cannot pass.” Glimmering Gandalf seems small in the gloom, and altogether alone as his friends watch incredulously. The Balrog leaps, whipping, whirling, hissing. A blinding sheet of white flame springs up. The bridge cracks. Right at the Balrog’s feet, the bridge breaks, and the stone upon which it stood crashes into the gulf.
So that’s what images to me when I read this chapter in Ephesians about standing in the face of evil. And of course there are many different understandings of what this evil would like. And No doubt many of you could write a treatise on evil, a whole lot better than I can in 20 minutes,
But let me first describe a few thoughts about this force so we can get into the implications of standing and how we might possibly ever consider using this in the face of insurmountable fear or evil.
First of all, any threat to our peace, anything that cuts us off from giving or receiving love, any distortion of truth, is evil.
The Bible personifies evil in the form of the creature Satan, the accuser, a serpent, a murder, thief, a distortion of truth.
In our present lives we all encounter evil, whether that be in harsh accusatory thoughts of ourselves, systemic injustices, the sinfulness of others, our own sinfulness toward ourselves and others, and other spiritual forces that we can not see.
Our experience of evil varies in intensity and over time and by source. At times we underestimate its influence in our lives, and we overestimate its influence. We pay attention or we neglect.
Evil can have an effect on our mental, emotional, spiritual, physical well-being. And iturges us to hide/distance/protect ourselves from others. This evil can seem overwhelming and insurmountable — like a whole legion of darkness is waging itself against you and the strategy to stand seems like an impossible strategy to take on.
Whatever this evil is, these forces have an effect on our lives.
In my case, for a time this evil was depression and despair.
In the summer of 2010 — a very low time in this church’s life — we lost a pastor, friend, and brother to cancer. I was in grad school at the time. I remember feeling overwhelmed and joyless.
I remember the sun was shining in the sun room of our house- but I felt like the air I was breathing was the smog of depression and despair, and it felt like my heart was stifled. Entertaining thoughts about death was more desirable than thinking about anything else.
Darkness was around me and in me, and those Biblical words “pangs of death surrounding me” felt like the nearest description of this great weight.
I was alive and functioning and going about daily tasks, but I was so lost and confused and unclear.
I remember being in the hallway of my house, lost in dark thoughts, and all of a sudden Jesus out of nowhere flooded into my thoughts marvelous light, and yanked me out into reality. He rescued me.
I could still feel the darkness and the temptation to go back to my secret sadness. But for that moment Jesus gave me strength to stand.
That evening, I gave up enough information about myself to prompt my husband to ask me more direct questions about my thought life. He said I needed to see a counselor. And I found one. I did not have my private sad hideaway anymore, but I did have the attention of someone who loved me.
I don’t know why that day happened the way it did. I don’t tell my story as something that could be replicated. I don’t know what prompted my rescue from depression and despair. And I’m not blaming all mental illness on Satan or spiritual influences. Mental health can be chronic or episodic. It can be situational or biological.
But I tell this story to any of you sitting here struggling and relating to the description of darkness and hopelessness I described, to know that you are not the only one who struggles. And you are not flawed, you are not a failure. You are not a terrible person. I know that you are tired. I offer this piece of me to you, to expose the darkness and bring us into the light, to tell you: there is hope.
The word ‘stand’ also means a group of growing plants of a specified kind, especially trees. As in “a stand of poplars”.
I stumbled across a study in the Annals of Botany written the summer of 2011 that I thought was pretty cool.
It’s a study that found that plants in a crowded stand regulate their height growth so as to maintain similar heights to neighbors, even when they have potential advantages in height growth.
So what they did was to take stands of individually potted plants. Some plants they lifted over neighbor plants and some plants they lowered to be over-topped. They expected the lifted plants to keep over-topping because they would get more light. The lowered plants were expected to be suppressed due to the low light availability.
They found that lifted plants reduced their height growth in spite of the fact that they received more irradiant light than others. And the lowered plants, on the other hand, increased the rate of stem elongation despite the reduced irradiance. Consequently, lifted and lowered plants converged to the same height.
The results show that plants in crowded stands regulate their height growth to maintain similar height to neighbors even when they have potential advantages in height growth. And they thought this might contribute to avoiding stresses caused by wind blowing.
There is a network of trees, sharing resources, to help when the wind blows.
The gift of Counseling to me revealed that being together with others, like in a poplar stand, was how I could stay up (even when heavy winds blew that were bent on my destruction).
And many of the people that keep me standing are here in this congregation. As far as my eye can see, there are people here that are not bent on over-topping one another, or competing for light. They don’t want dominance or personal glory. They are not out for their own interest.
We have community group leaders, and prayer ministry members, and leaders in kids church who embody selfless humility and service. We don’t have a top down approach to following Jesus here. There is no one person that hears and discerns the voice of God truth for us all. We are are all partakers of God’s divine nature, and are listening for the voice of God — the voice of truth.
I encourage those of you, if you’re looking for life long-friendship, start being one to the people here and to whatever community you live.
And if you are someone needing rescue, seek the poplar stand of support: ask for a list of mental health clinicians from your Primary Care Physician or from a pastoral staff person here.
And in a moment, if you are a leader or consider this your home church I’m going to ask you if you’ll stand, just for one moment (sorry introverts), just find your footing, and stand, cause I want us all to see something really cool.
Alright now. If you are a Community Group Leader, participate in making Sundays happen on Welcome Teams — greeting, ushers, sound, prayer Ministry Team, Intercessors, Board, Staff — would you stand now.
Look around. This is the poplar stand. This is our version of a community that leads — a community that is strong, that shares resources, that helps one another grow and thrive in following Jesus. Thank you. You may have a seat.
This is who we lean on when we’ve lost heart, when we need God’s mercy, When our view of ourselves or of God has become distorted and we need truth.
This STAND is is how we face our personal Balrogs head on.
Let me close with one important observation which is how the passage of scripture began. It says: Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might.
It seems like before we put on armor, and before we face the schemes of evil, of darkness, we begin by being strong in the Lord.
What does it mean to be strong in the Lord? Being strong doesn’t come causally or overnight.
Being strong is having a trusted relationship with someone who is looking out for your good.
There’s a reliability and confidence and trust.
So last week when I took my kids to the museum and I was mulling over this idea of standing in the face of uncertainty, I asked one of my twins how they could so easily walk into a different room of the museum without me, without being scared, and without so much of a look back over their shoulder.
I was also asking to test them whether they were ready for kindergarten — this twin responded without much hesitation, “Well, I don’t actually like holding hands all the time.”
Fair enough. Okay, they’re ready to start school.
This relationship of trust, knows that whether in physical proximity and closeness or in spiritual awareness or a remembrance of them giving you the knowledge that, you have the gaze of one who loves you.
My children know that I am watching them. And that I will come to their aid if they need it. The same is true of God. Except that God doesn’t get distracted in conversation or get irritated when interrupted.
When the parent is absent, the child internalizes the values and words and lesson they saw from their parent, and is able to mimic what they saw and rely on those words when they feel unsure.
Jesus did the same thing. He said “the Son (referring to himself) can do nothing on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise. Because the Father loves the Son and shows him all that he himself is doing.” Jesus was able to do what he did, even though he was not in the physical presence of his father.
Even as an adult, I look up to someone that I respect when I’m faced with an experience that’s new. I’m using this relationship of trust in comparison to a child and an adult relationship.
As an adult, Jesus also relied on what his father did as an adult. So the goal is not to self-sufficiency or to be perfectly independent, or a pioneer — left to figure things out on your own — but the goal is to recognize weakness and rely on God’s strength in relationship.
Being strong in the Lord doesn’t mean you’re fearless.
Last month, a news alert popped up on my phone, inviting me to watch former President Barack Obama give a lecture speech in a tribute celebration honoring the centennial birth of former president Nelson Mandela. I was able to watch the first couple of speeches, which is quite impressive with the demands of three young children in the morning. So when the chairperson for this event began talking on the “masked armor of Madeva” — Nelson Mandela — I grabbed up my notebook because I was thinking a lot about armor, and that was a buzz word for me.
He retold a story, I only imagine he’s told countless times before, of being with Mandela in 1994, during his presidential-election campaign, on a tiny propeller plane flying down to give a speech to his Zulu supporters. When the plane was 20 minutes from landing, one of its engines failed. Mandela told him to go to the cockpit and tell the pilots that the engine was out. The pilots said they knew it and to go back and put their seat belts on. The chairperson said the only thing that calmed him was looking at Mandela, who quietly read his newspaper as if he were a commuter on his morning train to the office. The airport prepared for an emergency landing, and the pilot managed to land the plane safely. When Mandela got in the backseat of his bulletproof BMW that would take them to the rally, Mandela turned and said, “Man, I was terrified up there!”
This chairperson said of Nelson Mandela, that his ability to act and yet feel intensely was the mark of a leader — that through will, a leader must do what is required of them to be courageous. It was an ability to suppress an inner fear to wear an inner armor.
Being strong in the face of evil doesn’t mean you are not afraid. It means you are courageous.
There have been a number of people throughout the course of time that have been quoted saying “courage is not the absence of fear.” Mark Twain, Nelson Mandela, Ambrose Redman, and Thomas the Tank Engine etc., etc. My favorite ending to this quote is that “courage is not the absence of fear but rather the judgment that something else is more important than fear.”
What can be more important than fear? Your principles? Your life? Lots of things, in the moment of uncertainty. And all you can think is Run, Fight, Hide, Win.
The Bible says in the book of Hebrews that when we are afraid, we can look at Jesus — no — we can fix our eyes on Jesus, lock your gaze onto him, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.
Even Jesus was probably afraid. So we can look to Jesus when we’re afraid as an example of endurance.
Jesus faced death. He looked it squarely in the eyes. Jesus saw behind death and the fear of death on the cross. He judged that there was something more important than the fear of death. He looked beyond fear. He saw us. And we were his joy. His great delight. He stood and endured the forces of evil. He saw something worth standing for: he saw us.
And he broke death’s power, he conquered evil by his death and his resurrection. And he was able to stand because of great love. Hebrews says he owns the right, and offers to us freedom — to all of us held in the prison of fear of death.
When I’m afraid how can looking at Jesus’s be good news for me?
Because when I am afraid — whether it’s a new experience or an unknown thing (childbirth, being a parent, starting a new job, riding my bike on a new route, walking into a new store…), what’s deeply comforting is knowing that others have gone through this before, that I am not alone. I can stand. You can stand because you are not alone. You have the gaze of the one who loves you and you have this stand of planted trees.
So how are we able to look beyond fear? When you are low and without strength, say “Jesus Help.”
We are made strong in the Lord through the power of his life and death and resurrection — and through the strength of others.
Remember this is not a strategy. This is a lifestyle. We are called to ongoing relationship with God and with others.
Let me pray for us this promise from 2 Corinthians 7:
7 But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. 8 We are hard pressed on every side,but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; 9 persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. 10 We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.