The Worst Sermon I've Ever Preached
Series: Special Occasions
January 10, 2021
I don’t think I have ever struggled about what to preach on a Sunday like I have leading up to this morning. I had intended to carry on with our Acts study, but the events of this past week have weighed heavily on me. I felt led to address the elephant I knew would be in the room today, or in this case the sanctuary, but I just didn’t know how.
Like me, you probably sat in front of the TV on Wednesday, horrified as you saw what looked like an episode from the Twilight Zone unfold. That is what all this has come to. God help us all. And the worst part is the whole past year was filled with almost if not equally terrible things. And those things brought division and unrest within the church, division and unrest among God’s people unlike anything I’ve ever seen.
These terrible events and issues of 2020 found their way into many pulpits but not mine. You probably noticed that. At best I alluded to them, but I don’t think I ever addressed them directly.
You might say, “That’s your job pastor!” But you would only want me to speak to these things if what I say lined up with where you fall on these divisive issues. I am determined not to add to that divisiveness. I’ve been criticized for that. That criticism may be just.
On it’s own, the storming of the capital probably wouldn’t have led me to say anything from the pulpit (that’s not how I roll), but tragically — and I’m not judging anyone or implying anything when I say this — it was unmistakably and painfully obvious the church got dragged into that mess. And what led to it wasn’t something accidental or impulsive, it was something that’s been brewing for quite some time now. Unfortunately, we Christians for the most part are responsible for that.
That may be an unfair and completely inaccurate observation. And if that adds to the division I’m breaking my own rule, aren’t I? See how hard this is?
How do I speak to this without adding to the problem? What do I look to for truth that transcends political candidates and conspiracy theories, personalities and pundits, hype and hyperbole?
It’s a no-brainer for the Christian, isn’t it. The Bible.
But I have to go to the Bible with the attitude of an empty cup and not a full one. I have to go to it with the intent of letting it speak to me on the issues, letting it fill me, influencing how I think and act, rather than going to it full of what I already believe I know, looking for justification. The devil tried twisting God’s Word to fit his agenda at Jesus’ temptation, proving you can make it say pretty much whatever you want if you aren’t careful.
One text in God’s Word came to mind as I wrestled with what to preach today. It’s found in the letter Paul wrote to the Ephesians. It’s one I bet you’re familiar with.
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. Ephesians 6:10–12 (ESV)
Paul prepared them and us for what the Christian life is really like. Contrary to some of those TV and internet preachers, it’s not a bed of roses. It’s the opposite really. We’ve got to rely on God’s strength and provision because we are in the middle of a war, and we are fighting against the schemes of an enemy.
There you go, pastor. I’m liking what I’m hearing right now.
I read these verses for years thinking I knew exactly what they meant until I came across a book many of us are familiar with, The Unseen Realm. I’m teaching it on Wednesday nights right now. In that book, the author, Dr. Michael Heiser, reveals that the rulers, the authorities, the cosmic powers, the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realm are not people but a pantheon of divine beings — in addition to the devil — who rebelled against God. Their mission is to thwart his plans for a kingdom where heaven and earth come together, where justice and peace reign. They have been working behind the scenes ever since the Fall sowing division among God’s people, leading the world astray, influencing world leaders and events so as to create a counterfeit kingdom of their own in opposition to their maker.
This unseen warfare is so much more nuanced and sophisticated than a devil with horns and a tail, than demons who hide in the shadows looking for folks to possess. That stuff makes for good TV and movies, but the reality is much darker and more sinister.
Yes, pastor. I’m tracking with you. Those dark forces were behind the results of this election. That makes perfect sense.They are the reason God’s man didn’t win. And that’s why all this bad stuff happened Wednesday.
Let’s be careful, we’re being a full cup when we talk like that. The Ephesians text doesn’t say anything that allows us to assume that in this situation. BTW, we all should be cautious about thinking we know what side God is on in earthly matters like elections and such.
I had read through the book of Joshua many times, but one day this account really reached out and grabbed me by the throat. It humbled me and helped me see something about God I’d never realized. In the book of Joshua you have God’s chosen people — the Israelites — camped out near Jericho, a city they had to conquer in order to enter the promised land. The commander of the Lord’s army shows up, with his sword drawn as if ready for battle. Everyone knows this figure is divine, at the very least an angel, but many scholars believe it’s the pre-incarnate Christ.
In this story the battle sides seem clear. The commander of God’s armies was on the Israelites’ side. Right?
13 When Joshua was by Jericho, he lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, a man was standing before him with his drawn sword in his hand. And Joshua went to him and said to him, “Are you for us, or for our adversaries?” 14 And he said, “No; but I am the commander of the army of the Lord. Now I have come.”
Joshua asks, “Whose side are you on?” A more literal rendering in the Hebrew would be “are you ours or our enemies?” Jesus’ answer tells Joshua he asked the wrong question. It’s not “Whose side are you on?” It’s who are you? That’s more important right now.
And Joshua fell on his face to the earth and worshiped and said to him, “What does my lord say to his servant?” 15 And the commander of the Lord’s army said to Joshua, “Take off your sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy.” And Joshua did so. Joshua 5:13–15 (ESV)
Joshua came to Jesus as a full cup. That’s not how it works. Jesus as the captain of God’s armies made sure Joshua emptied himself so he could have the proper perspective and they would go from there. We don’t approach God assuming we know his mind on something. We acknowledge who he is first and then submit ourselves to him and let him fill us with who he is and all else falls into place.
Going back to our Ephesians text, Paul’s audience was believers living in a culture set in opposition to them. Family members, neighbors, government and religious leaders —people — were making their lives really hard just because they followed Jesus. It’s natural to want to blame those people for your situation and hold ill will towards them. But Paul says even though you are in a battle, it’s not really the people around you you’re fighting with, it’s the dark forces behind them.
That gave them perspective. It allowed them to live out what Jesus said about loving their enemies. This same perspective allowed Jesus to say on the cross, “Forgive them, Father, they don’t really know what they’re doing.”
When we understand that it’s not human beings we’re ultimately fighting against, we’re able to rise above this mess and love and connect with someone on the opposite side of things. We don’t see a Democrat or Republican, a liberal or conservative, we see a person made to be God’s imager. Someone God wants to be part of his new, coming kingdom. Someone we don’t want to treat so badly and demonize so terribly that if we ever had a chance to win them to Christ, they’d turn us down.
When we understand that it’s not human beings we’re ultimately fighting, we’re able to be peacemakers instead of dividers. We're able to show love, not hate. We're able to prevent ourselves from getting caught up in this mess as much as we possibly can.
You’ve probably heard me quote from a fellow named N.T. Wright. I refer to him often. He is an amazing NT scholar. His insights have really helped me. Listen to what he says about Paul’s words to the Ephesians…
What, then, is the battle? Who is fighting against us? And what are we to do about it?
Paul clearly supposes that the forces of evil that put Jesus on the cross have been seriously upset by the victory of the resurrection. They are now positively panic-stricken at the thought that the message of this Jesus is everywhere challenging their power and authority, and that communities loyal to Jesus as Lord and king are springing up, bringing together peoples and communities in a new unity, a new humanity, that shows evidence of the creator’s sovereign power and hence of their own imminent destruction. They are therefore doing their best to oppose this gospel, to distract or depress the young Christians, to blow them off course by false teaching or temptations to anger or immorality (see 4:17–5:20, where these are the main themes).
Sometimes this attack will take the frontal form of actual authorities in towns and cities who try to prevent Christians from spreading the message. Sometimes it will take the more oblique form of persuading Christians to invest time and energy in irrelevant side-issues, or to become fascinated by distorted teaching. Sometimes it will be simply the age-old temptations of money, sex and power. But in each case what individuals and the whole church must do is, first, to recognize that attacks are coming; second, to learn how to put on the complete armour which God offers; and, third, to stand firm and undismayed.
The armor of God we need to fight back with is found in the following verses…
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,
Paul clarifies what our weapons are. The defensive weapons are truth, righteousness, peace, faith, and salvation. We make much about how he describes them, but very simply they are all symbols and benefits of the gospel. Keller says…
To put [on the armor of God] means to take the privileges of the gospel and the benefits of the gospel and begin to use them in your life so as to create a new disposition, a new habitual way of thinking about yourself and all of the people around you. You’re not accustomed to thinking about the world in that way. You’re not accustomed to looking at the entire world through that, but that is what it means to put on the full armor of God.
The only offensive weapon we have is the sword, which is God’s Word. And if you want to see what using God’s Word like a sword is like, just go to…
1 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. 3 And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4 But he answered, “It is written, “ ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ ” 5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple 6 and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, “ ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and “ ‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’ ” 7 Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’ ” 8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. 9 And he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10 Then Jesus said to him, “Be gone, Satan! For it is written, “ ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’ ” 11 Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and were ministering to him. Matthew 4:1–11 (ESV)
The sword Jesus had was one sided (OT) which is enough to handle the devil, but we have the benefit this side of the cross of possessing a double edged sword which includes the NT. From it we learn we are the only army ever heard of where it’s best soldiers have these qualities…
2 And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying: 3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. 5 “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. 6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. 7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. 8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. 9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. 10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11 “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. Matthew 5:2–12 (ESV)
And where it’s soldiers fight like this…
38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40 And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41 And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42 Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you. 43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. Matthew 5:38–45 (ESV)
Some believe Paul mentions one more weapon, and it’s found in verse 18…
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. Ephesians 6:13–20 (ESV)
Folks, we are a soldiers for Christ and he is our captain. Keller says…
Nobody has ever had a captain like him. They say that Trajan, the great Roman captain, when he was on the field of battle, would take his own armor off and put it on his wounded men. He’d tear his own garments up and use them as bandages. But that’s nothing compared to Jesus, because Jesus Christ tore himself to deal with your wounds. He took the spear that was meant for us into his own heart so all of our debts could be paid. Put on the full armor of God. Because Jesus Christ made himself vulnerable for you, you can become protected in him.
Conclusion: I’m going to close now, but before I do let me challenge you — by you I mean me too — let me challenge you to pray this way.1. A PRAYER FOR FAITHFUL GOSPEL WITNESSES IN THE WORLD
2. A PRAYER FOR UNITY IN THE CHURCH
3. A PRAYER FOR PURE HEARTS IN GOD’S PEOPLE
4. A PRAYER FOR THE CHURCH TO BE PEACEMAKERS
I’m also going to challenge you to use use your sword this way. I am going to challenge you to post Scripture everyday through the end of this month. And post that Scripture with a goal of brining unity and peace. And I’m going to challenge you not to post articles, or memes, or pictures about anything divisive. Simply speak to all this using your sword.
Dark forces dragged the church into this mess. Together let’s drag it out and keep it out.
These dark forces think they’ve bested God. That’s what they thought at the cross. God’s going to use this, I know. Let’s be a part of that happening.
That’s the best I’ve got. Next week we’ll get back to Acts. Probably should have done that anyway.
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