Ephesians 6:10-20 – Spiritual Combat

A final word: Be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on all of God’s armor so that you will be able to stand firm against all strategies of the devil. For we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places.

Therefore, put on every piece of God’s armor so you will be able to resist the enemy in the time of evil. Then after the battle you will still be standing firm. Stand your ground, putting on the belt of truth and the body armor of God’s righteousness. For shoes, put on the peace that comes from the Good News so that you will be fully prepared. In addition to all of these, hold up the shield of faith to stop the fiery arrows of the devil. Put on salvation as your helmet, and take the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

Pray in the Spirit at all times and on every occasion. Stay alert and be persistent in your prayers for all believers everywhere.

And pray for me, too. Ask God to give me the right words so I can boldly explain God’s mysterious plan that the Good News is for Jews and Gentiles alike. I am in chains now, still preaching this message as God’s ambassador. So, pray that I will keep on speaking boldly for him, as I should. (New Living Translation)

When I think of the Apostle Paul, I think of a guy who had a bucket load of boldness, who did not sidestep tough situations, but who fearlessly stepped into the world with the good news of God’s grace in Christ. 

Maybe Paul was that way because of prayer and the prayers of God’s people. Maybe what stands in the way of people knowing Jesus and believers maturing in faith is a profound lack of intense, consistent, and sustained prayer. Maybe too many of God’s people have been duped by the enemy of our souls to retreat in a bubble of fear, unable to effectively engage God’s big world with confidence.

Paul told the Ephesian Church what kind of practical and vital obligations were needed to put aside fear and flourish as Christians….

Be strong in the Lord because we are in an invisible war.

There is an unseen world all around us. We serve an invisible God, and we have an invisible enemy. Satan and all his wicked spirits exist. They are organized for war with methodical schemes and strategies designed to blunt our spiritual development and the expansion of God’s benevolent kingdom. The enemy seeks to render us ineffective in our walk with Christ, unproductive for God, and all knotted up inside in a broken mess so that we are weak, not strong.

The names of our invisible enemy in Scripture tells us the kind of diabolical and methodical work he is doing to snare us: 

  • Satan (the adversary who opposes us)
  • Lucifer (the shining one who comes looking like the light but only delivers darkness)
  • Beelzebub (lord of the flies, who is a false god promising protection and help apart from God)
  • Belial (the evil one, who seeks to have us engage in sin instead of righteousness)
  • Tempter (offering alternative plans to the will of God)
  • Accuser (the false judge, using criticism to bully people into shameful submission)
  • Prince of this world (the architect behind all systemic evil)
  • Devil (the diabolical one who engages in spiritual guerilla warfare against God’s people)

The unseen wicked spirits of this dark world pull out whatever technique they can to turn us from knowing who we are in Christ and how we are to really live. They seek to distract us from our mission, to keep us busy fighting among ourselves, so that we will put our ultimate confidence in anything or anyone but Christ.

Put on the armor of God and prepare for spiritual battle.

Satan is a defeated foe. The nails that crucified the Lord Jesus, and the power of God that raised him from the dead, ensured Satan’s doom.

Although we stand in the victory of the Lord Jesus, the world, the flesh, and the devil still dog us at every turn. So, we must discover and dislodge every threat to our spiritual growth and the mission of the church to step into the world with the gospel of grace. 

Jesus said he will build his church and the gates of hell will not prevail against us. The picture is not one of the church being defensive and only responding to threats, but of a church pushing forward and storming the gates. 

The promise we have is that we can engage the enemy to the point of hell itself – and will not be burned by demonic enemy fire. Therefore, we are not to hunker down in self-protective foxholes; we are to engage the enemy with our spiritual armor on.

  • Put on the belt of truth. We need to combat the demonic lies. The truth will set us free. Lies will place us in bondage. Shame will keep us in the dark shadows. We are to embrace Jesus who is the way, the truth, and the life. The truth is that we belong to God. We are not to fight demonic fire with fire. Instead, we fight Satan with the waters of baptism, remembering who we are in Christ. Just as the wicked witch of the west was killed with water, so we are to fling our baptismal water in the face of the enemy and watch him melt away.
  • Put on the breastplate of righteousness. It protects our heart as we push forward and engage the enemy. Satan is aiming for our hearts, so it is vital that they are well-guarded. Our hearts belong to God. Before we chose God, God chose us before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless (Ephesians 1:4).         
  • Put on the gospel shoes of peace. Satan and his minions are trying to cause chaos, unrest, and division.  We are to be ready for his methods through embracing God’s peace and harmony with others. We are to use our shoes, both for digging in and standing firm, and stepping forward into situations as peace-makers. Those who ready themselves with the gospel of peace live differently, openly, with grace and integrity.

Take up your spiritual weapons and do battle.

Whereas the spiritual armor is protective, giving us a solid defensive posture, our spiritual weapons help us to go on the offense and walk into the struggle.

  • Take up the shield of faith. Extinguish all the nasty flaming arrows of the evil one. The Roman phalanx was a rectangular military formation where the army took their shields and connected them together for protection and the ability to push forward, engaging the enemy. This tactic helped the Romans to conquer most of the known world of the time. It was based not on individual ability but on the strength of the entire army working together. The devil seeks to divide and conquer. Yet, there is strength in numbers, that is, as long as we work together!  Linking our shields together through unity, fellowship, and encouragement is absolutely necessary if we are going to win the battle.
  • Take up the helmet of salvation. Active transformation through the renewing of our minds enables us to avoid retreating and going back to old sinful patterns of thinking. We need mindfulness, not mindlessness, aware of who we are in Christ and actively occupying our thoughts with God’s Word.
  • Take up sword of the Spirit. This is the word of God. The written word is to be the spoken word. Our primary offensive weapon in the battle against the evil one is God’s Word. It needs to be read, memorized, meditated upon, learned, talked about, and, used by speaking it aloud.

Be alert and pray.

Prayer is to undergird everything we do. The early church was effective and successful through prayer. They all joined together constantly in prayer (Acts 1:14). They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer (Acts 2:42). After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly (Acts 4:31).  The early apostles re-arranged their busy schedules so that they could give their attention to prayer and the ministry of the word (Acts 6:4). Believers in Jesus pray.

Whenever prayer takes a back seat to everything else, believers end up fighting the wrong battles with the result of a lot of friendly fire where people get spiritually and emotionally hurt. Our battle is not with flesh and blood human beings; it is with Satan and his wicked spirits. Fight them, not each other!

Conclusion

The spiritual forces we are up against are wicked, evil, cunning and do not observe any kind of Geneva Convention rules when it comes to war. They are out for blood. Therefore, we must be ready and put on our spiritual armor, take up our spiritual weapons, and move forward with the word of God and prayer. This present darkness requires that we be at our best. Our very lives depend on it.

Luke 11:5-13 – Pray

Then Jesus said to them, “Suppose you have a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; a friend of mine on a journey has come to me, and I have no food to offer him.’ And suppose the one inside answers, ‘Don’t bother me. The door is already locked, and my children and I are in bed. I can’t get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give you the bread because of friendship, yet because of your shameless audacity he will surely get up and give you as much as you need.

“So, I say to you: 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 fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? 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 the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (New International Version)

Jesus, in his teaching ministry on earth, often used the lesser-to-greater argument in getting his point across. And that is precisely what he was doing with his disciples in today’s Gospel lesson, instructing them about the nature and motivation of prayer.

The lesser-to-greater argument implies a comparison of values. It’s grounded on a common sense and logical convention that if this lesser thing is true, then, of course, how much more is this greater thing! If something less likely to happen is true, then something more likely to happen will probably be true as well. The technical phrase for this is the a fortiori argument. It is a Latin term meaning, “for a still stronger reason.”

So, then, Jesus wanted his followers to understand that prayer has value because God is a loving Father, not a begrudging friend. Whereas the friend in the story was badgered just so the person could get some real necessities, God needs no badgering to generously give good gifts that may or may not be considered as necessities by us.

Jesus desired to highlight that prayer has veracity because of whom those prayers are directed.

”Our prayers may be awkward. Our attempts may be feeble. But since the power of prayer is in the one who hears it and not in the one who says it, our prayers do make a difference.” 

Max Lucado

In the ancient world, it was common understanding you needed to get the local gods attention if you wanted something. Which is why, for example, in the prophet Elijah’s showdown with the prophets of Baal, that Baal’s worshipers were yelling, gesticulating, and even cutting themselves for hours. They fully expected to put a lot of work into getting Baal’s attention, maybe even needing to convince him of intervening in their ancient version of a wild West shootout.

In contrast to four-hundred prophets of Baal, a single prophet of the Lord utters one simple prayer, then fire comes rushing down from heaven. Much like the person who badgered the friend for bread, the prophets pestered Baal for hours.

It all comes down to who really cares. The friend? Not enough to jump out of bed right away and meet a need. Baal? Not so much. God? Now we’re talking.

We typically don’t ask, seek, or knock, if we believe we will not get a response – or if it will take a lot of energy, time, and effort we don’t have. Yet, if we are confident of being heard and our requests taken seriously with care, then we are likely to have a habit of asking, seeking, and knocking.

If a friend begrudgingly gives to you because of persistent knocking, how much more will God graciously, generously, and with gaiety give you goodness when you ask? Because God is good, God gives. The largess of the Lord is willing and ready to dispense grace from an infinite storehouse of mercy.

This is why Jesus encouraged people to not pray like those who don’t know God, babbling on because they think they’ll be heard because of the sheer volume of words. (Matthew 6:7-8)

Two misconceptions of prayer which existed in Christ’s day, and even today, come from non-Christian sources:

  1. There must be a lot of prayer before prayer “works.” Although I believe repetition is important for forming good habits, praying the same prayers over and over again so as to be heard betrays an ignorance of God, not to mention an actual lack of faith. Many ancient religions were based in learning how to manipulate the spiritual forces out there to get what we need. It’s kind of like a divine version of hustling for love in all the wrong places. Christians need to know they don’t need to have thousands of people praying in order to get God’s attention to answer prayer.
  2. I must convince God of the need to answer my prayer. God is not a reluctant listener. The reason the Lord already knows what we need before we ask is because God has been paying close attention to us well before we got around to asking, seeking, and knocking on the divine door. God’s ear is already inclined to hear us – expectantly and anxiously awaiting our petitions. This is a tremendously freeing idea, that I can come to God openly and honestly, without drudgery, and without wondering if I am heard, or not.

May we be encouraged to pray, to truly connect with God, because the Lord is available without appointment, and is waiting for us to ask with bended ear.

Eternal God, by whose power we are created and by whose love we are redeemed: Guide and strengthen us by your Spirit so that we may give ourselves to your service and live today and every day in love to one another and to you, through Jesus Christ our Lord, in the strength of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Matthew 7:7-11 – Ask. Seek. Knock.

“Keep on asking, and you will receive what you ask for. Keep on seeking, and you will find. Keep on knocking, and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives. Everyone who seeks, finds. And to everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.

“You parents—if your children ask for a loaf of bread, do you give them a stone instead? Or if they ask for a fish, do you give them a snake? Of course not! So, if you sinful people know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good gifts to those who ask him. (New Living Translation)

In the dog days of summer, and the long season of Ordinary Time in the Church Calendar, it is good to be reminded of what it is we need to keep doing without giving up.

At the conclusion of his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus issued a warning about the pitfall of failing to persist in a trusting relationship with God. We are to have an ongoing dynamic of asking, seeking, and knocking.

We might too often neglect to ask, seek, and knock because we rely on our own determination, abilities, education, or observations. The action of the three action words is a reference to prayer. The idea is that it is difficult to live a virtuous life, so we must continually ask, seek, and knock to receive an answer.

The demands of Christian discipleship are significant. Throughout Christ’s Sermon, he not only dealt with the outward actions of a follower but also the inward state of the heart.

Humility, meekness, mercy, purity, and peace characterize the inner person who walks in the way of Christ. Not only is murder wrong, but the bitter anger which it produces is to be dealt with. Adultery is also a violation of God’s law, along with the impure thoughts and intents of the heart which bring it about. Love for enemies, giving from the heart, praying with appropriate motives, fasting in secret, and building treasure in heaven are all expectations of the devout Christian believer.

These are inner attitudes and outward behaviors which require a constant stream of asking, seeking, and knocking on the door of heaven. They are more than natural abilities; what Jesus is looking for is to live a supernatural life. This, then, requires supernatural resources.

“I am the door, and the person who enters through me will be saved and will be able to come in and go out and find pasture.”

Jesus (John 10:9, NCV)

No one enters God’s realm because of sheer determination. God’s kingdom is only accessed through humble prayer. God is the One with the supernatural resources to help us live the Christian life.

And God is pleased to provide what we need to live that life. The Lord answers in love and not begrudgingly. Out of the infinite storehouse of grace, God delights in hearing our asking’s, responding to our seeking’s, and answering our knocking’s. With God, there is no daydreaming while we ask, no avoiding us when we seek, and no pulling the shades as the door is being knocked.

In love, God looks forward to our asking, seeking, and knocking.

The key takeaway from today’s Gospel lesson is repetition – not vain repetition which believes that the more prayer is repeated, the greater possibility of the answer we want – but a routine lifestyle of persistently and consistently praying.

Ask

You want things, but you don’t get them. So, you kill and are jealous of others. But you still cannot get what you want. So, you argue and fight. You don’t get what you want because you don’t ask God. Or when you ask, you don’t receive anything, because the reason you ask is wrong. You only want to use it for your own pleasure. (James 4:2-3, ERV)

James, learning from his brother, Jesus, gets behind the asking to the heart of why we ask and why we do not ask. This, in no way, is to discourage us from asking or to be doubtful whether God cares about our asking, or not. James also said:

But anyone who needs wisdom should ask God, whose very nature is to give to everyone without a second thought, without keeping score. Wisdom will certainly be given to those who ask. Whoever asks shouldn’t hesitate. They should ask in faith, without doubting. Whoever doubts is like the surf of the sea, tossed and turned by the wind. People like that should never imagine that they will receive anything from the Lord. They are double-minded, unstable in all their ways. (James 1:5-8, CEB)

Seek

If you seek the Lord your God, you will find him if you seek him with all your heart and with all your soul. (Deuteronomy 4:29, NIV)

Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near. (Isaiah 55:6, NRSV)

Prayer is much like a wrestling match. It requires a great deal of effort. In fact, every good thing in life demands blood, sweat, and tears. We are to keep on seeking, to continue searching and looking for God amid our life circumstances. The Lord will be found.

Knock

God has said, “When you pray, I will answer you. When you call to me, I will respond.” (Isaiah 58:9, GNT)

The balance to the continual searching and diligently seeking is the immediate answer to our knocking on heaven’s door.

And God has also said, “I will answer their prayers before they finish praying.” (Isaiah 65:24, CEV)

It is to God’s glory whether our prayers are answered quickly, or not. It is to our glory that we exercise our own ability to enter God’s throne room and ask, seek, and knock. We have the assurance that whatever the answer is from God, it will always be a merciful response.

For God mercifully gives us what we ask for, and also mercifully does not give us what we ask for.

We do not know what tomorrow may hold for us. All we know for certain is that we are known by a God who hears when we ask, is worth seeking, and answers when we knock.

O God, you are my God, early and often I will seek you. New are your mercies every morning, O Lord; and great is your faithfulness. Pour out on all who desire it the spirit of grace. Deliver us, when we draw near to you, from coldness of heart and wanderings of mind, that with steadfast thoughts and affections we may worship you in spirit and in truth, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Colossians 4:2-18 – The Christian Life as Its Meant To Be Lived

Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful. And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains. Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should. Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.

Tychicus will tell you all the news about me. He is a dear brother, a faithful minister and fellow servant in the Lord. I am sending him to you for the express purpose that you may know about our circumstances and that he may encourage your hearts. He is coming with Onesimus, our faithful and dear brother, who is one of you. They will tell you everything that is happening here.

My fellow prisoner Aristarchus sends you his greetings, as does Mark, the cousin of Barnabas. (You have received instructions about him; if he comes to you, welcome him.) Jesus, who is called Justus, also sends greetings. These are the only Jews among my co-workers for the kingdom of God, and they have proved a comfort to me. Epaphras, who is one of you and a servant of Christ Jesus, sends greetings. He is always wrestling in prayer for you, that you may stand firm in all the will of God, mature and fully assured. I vouch for him that he is working hard for you and for those at Laodicea and Hierapolis. Our dear friend Luke, the doctor, and Demas send greetings. Give my greetings to the brothers and sisters at Laodicea, and to Nympha and the church in her house.

After this letter has been read to you, see that it is also read in the church of the Laodiceans and that you in turn read the letter from Laodicea.

Tell Archippus: “See to it that you complete the ministry you have received in the Lord.”

I, Paul, write this greeting in my own hand. Remember my chains. Grace be with you. (New International Version)

Every church has its problems. Much like individual believers, each faith community has its own character and personality – which makes their particular issues unique to them.

The Apostle Paul wrote his letter to the church in the ancient city of Colossae to address an issue which was weighing on his heart.

Broadly speaking, the problem of the church was legalism. That is, boiling down and condensing the Christian life into spiritual rules to live by. Although, on the surface, that may not sound so terrible, for Paul it was damaging to Christianity.

Whenever anyone or any group of people systematize Christianity into a list, it is a fool’s errand. Let’s face it: the worship of God, and thus the Christian life, is, for the most part, ethereal and mysterious. Throughout church history there have been legions of folks who have attempted to nail down Christianity into laws we can clearly see and hold people accountable to.

Whether it is making human contrived lists of sins to avoid and codifying them as something like the Terrible Ten or the Nasty Nine; or whether it is trying to humanly comprehend salvation in a tidy Five Spiritual Laws or Basic Principles for Life – all this predilection for list-making does nothing but discourage the Christian heart and divide one another about things that just don’t matter.

Paul wanted all his churches to be encouraged and united in the love of God in Christ through the enablement of the Holy Spirit. This requires prayer – lots of it! Because we must live by faith, trusting God for each step to take in the Christian life, rather than relying on the list to tell me what to do.

So, that’s why Paul ended his letter to the church on a note exhorting the people to never give up praying.

“Prayer enlarges the heart until it is capable of Containing God’s gift of himself.”

Mother Teresa (1910-1997)

Devoting ourselves to prayer means that we will need to quit devoting ourselves to something else – namely, the nice, neat, packaged formula of do’s and don’ts on the list. Paul didn’t just want the people to adopt a different list; he wanted all the lists tossed into hell!

Instead of always trying to control outcomes, Paul wanted perseverance in prayer without knowing what the result and outcome would be. His deep desire was that believers would rely on God and the mystery of Christ. He longed for the church to pray with all their doubts and uncertainties – not believing they always needed sure answers for everything.

The Christian life cannot be made into some geeky algorithm so that we can avoid suffering, know all the right things to say in a conversation, and always keep God happy. God is not some algebra equation to figure out. He is not a gumball machine to put a quarter in and get what you want. He is not Santa God. 

Christianity requires living in the tension of not knowing everything and yet having cogent answers for others who inquire about our faith.  It is a dynamic relationship in which we must continually interact in prayer to God as we largely improvise our lives, spontaneously applying what understanding we have for each situation we face.

“The whole reason why we pray is to be united into the vision and contemplation of God to whom we pray.”

Julian of Norwich (1342-c.1416)

Christians need an ongoing dialogue with the God who answers in his own good time, according to his own good will. We are to make good use of the time God has given through choosing our words with others wisely as we simultaneously carry on a silent prayer conversation with God. This is a Christianity that’s far above rules and laws and checklists. It is Christianity as it’s meant to be lived, depending on Jesus, and relaxed in the Spirit.

This takes practice, practice, practice. Failure is both inevitable and expected. And that’s okay. We’re not living by lists and human contrived rules. We’re living a new life in the power of Christ’s resurrection.

God of Mystery, the One who conceals and reveals, forgive me for my attempts at reducing faith to a few spiritual rules to keep. Help me to speak in ways which are gracious, loving, and redemptive. May the person and work of Jesus come tumbling out of my mouth while I inhale the breath of your Holy Spirit. Amen.

*Above paintings of prayer by African artist Angu Walters