Sunday, 22 November 2015

Choose your weapon carefully

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
22/11/2015 11.00am 

Listen to this sermon here

Ephesians 6.10-20
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power.  11 Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.  12 For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.  13 Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm.  14 Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness.  15 As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.  16 With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one.  17 Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.  18 Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints.  19 Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel,  20 for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak.

1 Samuel 17.33-40  Saul said to David, "You are not able to go against this Philistine to fight with him; for you are just a boy, and he has been a warrior from his youth."  34 But David said to Saul, "Your servant used to keep sheep for his father; and whenever a lion or a bear came, and took a lamb from the flock,  35 I went after it and struck it down, rescuing the lamb from its mouth; and if it turned against me, I would catch it by the jaw, strike it down, and kill it.  36 Your servant has killed both lions and bears; and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be like one of them, since he has defied the armies of the living God."  37 David said, "The LORD, who saved me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear, will save me from the hand of this Philistine." So Saul said to David, "Go, and may the LORD be with you!"  38 Saul clothed David with his armor; he put a bronze helmet on his head and clothed him with a coat of mail.  39 David strapped Saul's sword over the armor, and he tried in vain to walk, for he was not used to them. Then David said to Saul, "I cannot walk with these; for I am not used to them." So David removed them.  40 Then he took his staff in his hand, and chose five smooth stones from the wadi, and put them in his shepherd's bag, in the pouch; his sling was in his hand, and he drew near to the Philistine.

Choose your weapon carefully, they say,
            because if you get it wrong, the consequences will be disastrous.

We live in a time of intense debate
            about what the appropriate arsenal of weapons should be
                        for combatting the various perceived threats we face
                        at both national and international levels.

From the renewal of Trident, and investment in large scale traditional weaponry;
            to armed unmanned aerial devices, or ‘drones’ as they are more often known;
            to increased surveillance and monitoring of the population’s online communications.

The Cold War may have ended,
            and we may no longer have boots on the ground in Iraq or Afghanistan,
            but war itself remains steadfastly on our national agenda,
                        even if often euphemized as ‘national security’,
            and the arms industry remains one of the great economic drivers
                        of our national wealth and international standing.

To which I would say: let us choose our weapons carefully,
            because if we get it wrong, the consequences will be disastrous.

And it’s not as if we in the Western world
            have never made any mistakes before on this one…
There is a very clear line of argument that traces the rise of Islamic State
            to the instability that followed the second Gulf War,
                        which was triggered in turn by the rise of Al Qaida,
                        which in turn was triggered by Western interventionism,
            and so on all the way back to the early 20th Century land divisions in the Middle East,
                        as the failing Ottoman Empire gave way
                        to the imperial aspirations of Britain and France…

We have chosen many weapons in the past,
            from political power to military might to economic endeavor,
            and they have not always served us well.
They may have seemed very attractive at the time,
            offering quick wins and ready returns,
            but the long term cost has been catastrophic.

As the young David discovered in our Old Testament reading,
            sometimes even armour fit for a king
            is not the right tool to use when fighting giants.
Goliath knew very well how to defend himself against a show of strength.
            He had been a warrior from his youth (17.33)
                        and could put up a convincing fight against anyone
                        who took him on on his terms.

David’s fabled success against the powerful giant
            was due to his willingness to change the rules of the game,
            his refusal to play by Goliath’s rules.

Instead of tooling up with weapons and armour
            in an ancient version of the arms race,
            David changed the game, changed his weapon, and fought a different battle.

As I have said; choose your weapon carefully,
            because if you get it wrong, the consequences will be disastrous.

And in choosing your weapon, it also helps to know your enemy.

It’s all too easy to pick the wrong target, to fixate on the wrong adversary,
            and to simply and mistakenly perpetuate cycles of violence
                        rather than acting to end them.

Did you see the article published last month by Lydia Wilson
            detailing her interviewing of an imprisoned ISIS fighter in Iraq?[1]
The young man was facing the death penalty
            for planting four car bombs in Kirkuk, killing scores of people.
By one reading of the situation, he is the enemy.
            Certainly he has committed terrible atrocities and will be punished for them.

But what Lydia Wilson discovered
            was that he was also a 26 year old from a large family,
                        reasonably well educated,
            and committed to working hard to support his family
                        in the difficult economic conditions of post-Allied-invasion Iraq.
He was woefully ignorant about the details of Islam,
            and was fighting what he perceived to be the enemy
            because he wanted a better future for his family.

Is he the enemy?
            Or is he just another victim,
                        perpetuating in his life the cycles of violence
                        to which he has become enslaved?
Wilson concludes:

            ‘This is not radicalization to the ISIS way of life,
                        but the promise of a way out of their insecure and undignified lives;
                        the promise of living in pride as Iraqi Sunni Arabs,
            which is not just a religious identity but cultural, tribal and land based too.”

While he will certainly pay for his crimes,
            his execution will not stop the violence,
            because ultimately he is not the enemy.
He is not the right target.

As the writer of Ephesians puts it:
our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh,
            but against the rulers, against the authorities,
                        against the cosmic powers of this present darkness,
            against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. (6.12)

Executing a misguided, deceived, and angry young man will not stop ISIS.
            Russian and French led air strikes in Syria
                        will not stop another terrorist attack
                        against a Western capital city or a Russian airliner.
Because every ISIS militant killed in northern Syria
            will have a brother or a cousin ready to step into his place.

our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh,
            but against the rulers, against the authorities,
                        against the cosmic powers of this present darkness,
            against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. (6.12)

The theologian Walter Wink,
            who I’ve quoted before and will, I’m sure, quote again,
wrote a book that was published in, rather fittingly, 1984,
            called ‘Naming the Powers’,
and in this book he offered a way of reading this key verse from Ephesians 6
            which I’ve found very helpful over the years,
                        as I’ve sought to puzzle out what a Christian response
                        to issues of war and violence might be.

He starts by inviting us to consider the various powers
            that exist both in our world, and in the world of the first century,
                        at the time Ephesians was written.

The idea here is that there are powers at work in the world
            which are beyond any specific manifestation of them.
So, when we look at a particular expression of power,
            we are actually only seeing the physical form that that power has taken
                        in our time and place,
            and we are not seeing the power itself as it truly is.

An analogy here would be for us to look at the soldiers on the ground
                        fighting a particular battle,
            and to not realise that what lies behind the foot-soldier
                        is a whole chain of command,
                        going right up to the General issuing the orders to fight
                        from the security of his tactical command station.

However, Ephesians says that it doesn’t stop at the General,
            and that there are other less tangible, but no less real,
            systems of control and domination that lie beyond the General,
                        to which he (and it usually is a he) is answerable,
                        whether he knows it or not.

And just as killing one soldier doesn’t stop the army,
            neither does executing the general stop the war.

The killing of Osama Bin Laden
            did not remove the threat of terrorism from our streets.
The killing of Mohammed Emwazi
            will not stop radicalized militants executing hostages.
Because we struggle “not against enemies of blood and flesh,
            but against the rulers, against the authorities,
                        against the cosmic powers of this present darkness,
            against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”

So what do these cosmic powers, these spiritual forces of evil, look like?
            And what are we to do in the face of them?

To put it another way;
            how can we know our enemy
            so that we can choose the right weapons for the fight?

Well, the first thing I think we need to recognize
            is that these forces can be terribly prosaic,
                        they are awfully normal, they are dreadfully banal,
            they are appallingly commonplace, they are horrifically routine,
                        and they are shockingly mundane.

What I mean by this is that they are terrible, awful,
            dreadful, appalling, horrific, and shocking;
but they are also prosaic, normal,
            banal, commonplace, routine, and mundane.

And it is in their seeming inoffensiveness
            that that their great offence lies.

If the dark powers stalked our streets clothed in blood and gore,
            we would know them as our enemy.
But they come to us as wolves in sheep’s clothing (Matt 7.15),
            and all too often we greet them as a friend,
            ignoring their presence in our midst until they turn on us and devour us.

I have in my study a first edition of C.S. Lewis’s 1942 classic ‘The Screwtape Letters’,
            and in the preface he suggests
                        that there are two equal and opposite errors
                        we can make about these forces of evil.
            One is to disbelieve in their existence,
                        whilst the other is believe,
                        and to feel and excessive and unhealthy interest in them.
            The powers, he says, are equally pleased by both errors.

So what do these cosmic powers, these spiritual forces of evil, look like?

In a sense, the answer is very straightforward:
            they look like anything which takes our focus away
            from the God of love revealed in Jesus and made known to us by his Spirit.
Anything which lures humans into the root sin of idolatry
            is a power taking shape in our midst.

Walter Wink suggests that we need to look
            not for corrupted individuals or personified demons,
            but at structural power “invested in institutions, laws, traditions and rituals”.[2]

He says that “it is the cumulative totalizing effect
            of all these taken together
            that creates the sense of bondage to a ‘dominion of darkness’
                        presided over by higher powers.”[3]

When these powerful institutions, laws, traditions and rituals pull together,
            they collude to create the spirit of empire,
                        which seeks to take for itself
                        the allegiance and worship of the people of the earth,
            seducing them into idolatry
                        and opening the gates to hell on earth.

At the time Ephesians was written,
            the cosmic powers of darkness
                        had clothed themselves in the Roman Empire,
            with its divine emperors and institutionalized idolatry,
                        with its military might and economic excesses.

But in different times, and in different places,
            the spirit of empire keeps recurring in human history,
            like a mighty beast who, when it loses its head,
                        simply grows another in its place,
                        as the writer of the book of Revelation so vividly imagined it (Rev 13.13).

And where is this spirit of empire in our time?
            Where are the current expressions of organized idolatrous power?
            Where do institutions, laws, traditions and rituals
                        collude to create hell on earth?

Well, the desire to create an Islamic caliphate
            based on an extreme, violent, and totalizing reading of the Koran is certainly one.
But just as Christianity doesn’t inevitably lead to the crusades or the inquisition,
            so it is important for us to remember
            that Islam doesn’t inevitably lead to the Islamic State.

And when we encounter a crusade, an inquisition, or a caliphate,
            we need to recognise that these are recurring expressions
                        of the cosmic powers of this present darkness,
            deceiving people and nations
                        into committing horrendous acts of violence in the name of God;
            and we need to recognize that in them,
                        evil stalks our world and the path to hell opens before us.

But it’s not just them over there, or even us in days long past.

There are expressions of power in our own culture
            which lure us into atrocity,
            even as we believe ourselves to be standing on the side of right.
Our society has many “legitimations, seats of authority,
            hierarchical systems, ideological justifications, and punitive sanctions”,[4]
                        which deceive us into evil
                        every bit as readily as the young man in Iraq was deceived into his atrocities.

I’m afraid there is no moral high ground here.
            All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Rom 3.23).
                        All of us need salvation.
                        All of us need rescuing.

The enemy is not just over there, or out there.
            The enemy lies in the heart of each fallen human soul.

We may not be able to solve the world’s problems by lunchtime,
            but if we do not address our own innate tendency to idolatry,
                        our own capacity for retributive action,
                        our own desire to privilege ‘me and mine’ ahead of the other,
            we will never be in a position
                        to stand firm in the wider battles that lie before us,
            because we will be fighting the wrong enemy.

It is no coincidence that when Jesus was asked
            to summarise the law and the prophets
                        he started with the command to love God, and God alone,
                        and then followed this with the injunction to love our neighbour
                                    as we love ourselves (Mk 12.31).

Have no other gods, and love the other.

This is the real battle, and it begins in each of us, and among us.
            Because who we are in the battle ground of our souls
                        will affect the way we engage the battle on our streets and beyond our shores.

So, let us choose our weapons carefully,
            because if we get it wrong, the consequences will be disastrous.

And here Ephesians offers us a radical re-visioning
            of what it means to be a soldier for Christ.
The famous ‘armour of God’ passage
            takes each part of the traditional Roman legionnaires’ dress in turn,
                        re-imagining them as weapons fit for fighting
                        the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.

There is no place in Ephesians’ understanding of the battle before us
            for weapons of human destruction,
            whether they be offensive or defensive.

Each part of the armour is transformed,
            much as the guns from Mozambique have been transformed
                        into the our beautiful violinist.

We cannot sidestep the challenge Ephesians presents
            to our addiction to weapons of violence
            by claiming that the list of elements of armour are primarily defensive;
any more than we can sidestep the lethally offensive capability of Trident
            by claiming it is a defensive necessity.

The point from Ephesians is clear:
            the only armour we need,
            the only effective weapons we have at our disposal,
                        are truth, righteousness, peace,
                                    faith, salvation, the world of God, and prayer.

The only way in which we can win the battle
            against the Goliaths that dominate our world
                        is if we strip off the armour of Saul,
                        discarding the weapons of might and power.

We will not win this fight with guns and bombs.
            We will not win this fight with drones and aerial bombardment.
            We will not win this fight with a renewed nuclear arsenal.
These are the wrong weapons,
            and they take us to engage the wrong enemy.

The only battle that matters
            is the one that rages in each human soul: in me, in you,
                        in the young man on the streets of Iraq, or Paris, or London.

It is the battle for what it means to be human.
            It is the battle to love our enemies;
            It is the battle to learn how to both love God and the other
                        without having to choose between them.
            It is the battle against idolatry,
                        when idolatry is understood to be anything
                        that displaces the God of love from the centre of the cosmos.

For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh,
            but against the rulers, against the authorities,
            against the cosmic powers of this present darkness,
against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.

It is only when we clothe ourselves in the armour of God,
            that we are able to stand firm against the wiles of the devil.
And the only weapons worth carrying are truth, righteousness,
            peace, faith, salvation, the word of God, and prayer.

[2] Naming the Powers, p.85.
[3] p.85.
[4] p.85.

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