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First Presbyterian Church

Dr. Stuart R. Gordon

September 10, 2017

Wearing True Religion

Exodus 12:1-13; Ephesians 6:1-10

            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.

             Well, we may as well take this one on at the start. Before going any further, let’s acknowledge that the authors of the Bible inhabited a universe that was not flat, as ours is. They inhabited a world that was not limited to what the eye can see, whether unaided or aided by technology.  They understood the world to contain forces not only visible but invisible; not only human but spiritual; a world that was not morally inert but one that included fallen powers that actively work against God’s good purposes.

            You cannot excise this from the Bible, though some try.  I remember once, in a preaching seminar, hearing a colleague try to preach from Ephesians and the whole sermon was painfully convoluted.  The class was trying to figure it out afterward, when someone finally asked the preacher, “So, do you share the worldview that Ephesians has?”  And he was clear and blunt that he did not.  His honesty was admirable, but his rejection of the worldview made it very difficult to receive the message of Ephesians.

            So, I don’t know where you are on the reality of evil and on its personal nature; but I’ll be up front with you.  The scriptures search for language that adequately conveys this conviction: evil is real, and the people of God must live in the midst of it.  In Genesis, evil is personified in the serpent, who deceives Adam and Eve, robbing them of their unhindered fellowship with God. The serpent tricks them into exchanging right relation with God and each other for autonomy and power.  It proves to be a losing trade.

            In the Gospels, Jesus must struggle with Satan, at the beginning and end of his ministry.  Forty days in the wilderness test his willingness to trust God as faithful Father; unlike Adam and Eve, Jesus does so.  And at the end, during his crucifixion, Jesus must resist the cries of Satan’s minions to come down from the cross.  He refuses to forsake his true calling.

            You may be familiar with C.S. Lewis’ imaginative work The Screwtape Letters.  It’s an insightful reflection on the reality of testing for Christians.  The devil is a deceiver; a liar; an enslaver who draws us in with promises of freedom but leaves us with the opposite.

            This is the worldview of Scripture, and the church would reject this wisdom at its own peril.  We who have been called by God and given the name Christian know that we are called into a struggle.  Something or someone is trying to undo us.  It isn’t personal, mind you.  These cosmic powers have nothing personal against us.  They simply oppose the reign of God.  They want to rule over the earth instead, and so they seek to undermine anyone who professes allegiance to the God and Father of Jesus Christ.  And so these powers try to trick us, to undermine us, to ruin our witness, to sap our strength, to make us forget who we are and whose we are.

            A reader of the Christian Century tells the story of one incident that shaped her character.  Her mother had died when she was a child, and she was angry.  She says, “I began writing letters to my family members.  My grandmother called them poison pen letters.  Despite Gam’s accusation, I kept writing them.  I was eight years old.

            “There was no grace or mercy in the words I chiseled onto the page.  I wanted someone to blame. . .

            “Gam received many of the letters under her bedroom door that first summer after my mom died.  One day I found her standing in the kitchen with my most recent epistle clutched in her fist.  Staring out the window just over the sink, without a nod to my presence in the doorway behind her, she said through gritted teeth, ‘This hurt me.  These words you have written have hurt my feelings.’  She turned to face me.  ‘And so I want to know Elsa, is this the kind of person you want to be?  Do you want to be the kind of person who uses your words to hurt the people you love?’”

            That, friends, is the question I’ll ask you today.  What kind of person do you want to be?  What do you want people to see of God when they look on you?  What do you want people to learn of God when they hear your words?

            We go back to Egypt, on the night of the Passover, with the children of Israel given instruction to gird up their loins so that they will be ready to run at a moment’s notice.  They are slaves to Pharaoh, but they have a better place to be, a better calling to live out, a greater dignity to live into.  But first, God must liberate them from Pharaoh.  They are called to something better than slavery to an evil king.

            You know the basic outline of the story: God does deliver them; they struggle through years in the wilderness, learning how to trust God.  They must learn not to seize what is not theirs, like Adam and Eve did.  They must learn to trust that God will provide everything they need, as in the form of quails in the evening, manna in the morning, and water from a rock.  And God binds himself to them in a covenant, with a law to shape and form the kind of people they will be.

            It always has been the case that God’s people must live out this calling in a world that challenges the calling, that can distract and deceive and derail the calling.  Today is no different, and no worse.

            Today, I want to know, what do you want people to learn of God when they hear your words?  What kind of person do you want to be?

            So, our verse is Ephesians 6:14: “Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist.”  In older translations, and more literally, it’s this: “Gird your loins with the truth.”  And there, for me, is the link.  We have a better place to be.  We have a better calling to live out, a greater dignity to live into.  And we have to be ready to go.  And practically speaking – literally, practically speaking – this is a necessity.  Christians are called to gird ourselves with truth.

            Now, this sermon could get mighty dangerous mighty quickly at this point.  And to be honest, that’s what made it interesting to prepare and makes it exciting to listen to.  What is the preacher going to say now?

            I’ll start from the Book of Order, something written in 1788: “Truth is in order to goodness; and the great touchstone of truth [is] its tendency to promote holiness, according to our Savior’s rule, ‘By their fruits you will know them.’”

            So, when it comes to the church’s concern about the truth, there is no such thing as a bare fact.  And a truth that doesn’t promote holiness is no truth.  The playwright Tennessee Williams said a complementary thing: “All cruel people describe themselves as paragons of frankness.”  And many a gossip will tell you that it isn’t gossip if it’s true.  But as the church sees things, truth is in order to goodness.  The touchstone of truth is its tendency to promote holiness.  So, what kind of person do you want to be?  What do you want people to learn of God when they hear your words?

            The historian Gary Wills says, “Words are the instruments with which we build our world – our bridges to each other.  I cannot see your thoughts directly.  You must convey them to me, clumsily or well.  That is why we feel so frustrated when words fail us at important moments, when we feel we cannot reach another person despite our desire, when we say, ‘I don’t know what to say.’  Yet we have seen those who do know what to say, who animate the wavering, who comfort the bereaved, who inspire the hopeless, who convert people, make them better, teach them.  And we know to our sorrow the contrary power of words to inflame crowds or individuals, to wound people, to break off forever close relations.  [You’ve heard the saying] ‘Sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me.’  We know better than that.”

            Rabbi Jonathan Sacks does us Christians a favor in his reflections on this from a commentary on Leviticus.  He teaches us why words are treated with such seriousness in Judaism.  What made Judaism different from other ancient religions is that “it is supremely a religion of holy words.  With words God created the universe….  Through words He communicated with humankind.  In Judaism, language itself is holy (202).”  Sacks points out that it is language that enables humans to organize, to build groups and societies.  “God created the natural universe with words.  We create – and sometimes destroy – the social universe with words” (203).

            What kind of world are you in the business of creating?  Do you find yourself falling prey to the deceptions of the cosmic powers, taking part in a kind of speech that pollutes the air and desecrates the ground and leaves you feeling angry and bitter – separated from others and God?

            A.J. Jacobs is a journalist and author of books.  He says, “As a journalist – even though I spent most of my career as a frivolous entertainment journalist – I’ve been obsessed with my right to free speech.  If I was an absolutist in any sense, then it was as a zealot for the First Amendment.  Journalists should be allowed to say whatever they want.  It’s our right.  The American way.  Take no prisoners.  But now I’m trying to balance that mind-set with my responsibility not to engage in evil tongue or its written equivalent.  In my article on tuxedos, do I really need to make a cheap joke at David Arquette’s expense?  Does it make the world a better place?  As much as it pains me, I leave my article free from Arquette abuse” (The Year of Living Biblically, 251).

            I can really sympathize with Jacobs.  I love free speech.  And few things get on my nerves these days more than college students and administrators acting as if challenging opinions and competing philosophies somehow threaten their existence.  But I must confess that free speech is an American Idol.  And every right carries a responsibility.  And in Christian faith, you don’t have permission to say it just because it’s true.  And your aim in speaking is a truth that results in holiness – which doesn’t mean that you never challenge someone.  The biblical prophets spoke the truth that confronted the people with their sin; but the aim was to convict and to heal, rather than to condemn and tear down.  David Foster Wallace said, “The truth will set you free, but not until it is finished with you.”

            All of us need to hear the truth about ourselves, and it is good to remember that God speaks that word to us in the person of Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, who both convicts us of sin and assures us of mercy.  God sent his Son into the world not to condemn the world, but to save the world.  And that offers a pretty good test for you and the kind of person you want to be and the kind of world you want to create with your words.  Do you want to condemn or to heal?  Do you want to tear down or build up?  Do you want to divide or to unite?  What kind of truth are you practicing?

            I saw a study recently that “suggests that telling small, insignificant lies desensitizes the brain to dishonesty, meaning that lying gradually feels more comfortable over time.”  Apparently, in the brain it’s similar to smelling the same scent repeatedly, which then becomes less potent.  A neurologist involved in the study said, “It seems reasonable that if you develop a pattern of behavior and it’s reinforced, that you would return to that habit.”

            And so, if you develop a pattern of gossip, the aim of which isn’t to heal and reconcile, but to divide and diminish, then you will return to that habit.  And so, though the gossip may be true, it bears bad fruit.  And if you develop a habit of criticism and enmity and divisiveness, you will gradually be shaped by that habit.  And you will become that kind of person – the kind who uses your words to hurt other people.  Maybe they aren’t the people you love, but Jesus calls us to love even our enemies.

            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.

             Brothers and sisters in Christ, we ignore this wisdom at our own peril. But we have at our disposal everything we need to resist these forces.  God has provided it already.  We can gird ourselves with the truth – the truth that bears good fruit.  The truth whose goal is holiness, not victory over our foes.  The truth that sets us free, but only after it is finished with us.

            You do not have to be part of a world that desecrates language, that tears down society, that divides instead of uniting.  You belong to the people of God.  You have a better place to be, a better calling to live out, a greater dignity to live into.

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