Preached at Living Savior Lutheran Church in Fairfax Station, Virginia.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
When I was an eighth grader, I took part in the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Student Shakespeare Festival. Our little acting troupe from Langston Hughes Middle School went downtown to spend a whole school day performing scenes from plays and learning from actors affiliated with the Folger Theatre and Library. It was a lot of fun, and for a young literature, language, and history nerd like me, it was one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences that you always remember. After all, it’s not often that a 13-year-old gets to tread the boards in a reproduction Elizabethan theater.
One of the things I remember very vividly was the afternoon lecture cum demonstration given for us in historical stage combat. Two burly swordsmen demonstrated rapier and dagger fighting, longsword fencing, rapier and cloak (where you would have used your cloak as a makeshift shield or as something to distract your opponent), axes, and other techniques. 13-year-old me thought that this was really cool. Who wouldn’t? And then they got to discussing the 1415 Battle of Agincourt, where King Henry V of England with a relatively small force beat the French under Constable Charles d’Albret in one of Western history’s great military underdog stories, immortalized by the Bard in Henry V.
The reason why their discussion sticks out to me in my mind is due to one illustration. At Agincourt, as those of you who are history buffs know, the English made deadly use of their longbows to stop the charge of the French knights, loosing arrow upon arrow into a their cavalry and dropping them in Agincourt’s muddy field where many of them, unable to get up in their heavy armor, drowned in the mud. But instead of focusing on the archers, our instructors talked about what the French would have experienced. Having a charging horse shot out from under you while wearing 40 pounds of plate armor would have been roughly equivalent, one of our instructors said (and this is what has stuck with me) to jumping out of a moving van on I-495 while wearing a galvanized steel trash can. It would have hurt—a lot! But on the softer ground of Agincourt, had it not been so muddy, that armor could have saved the lives of many of those French knights. They could have survived to fight another day.
And as we know, armor is designed to protect a person against physical injury in a fight. It always has, whether it’s the banded iron and steel or chainmail cuirasses worn by Roman legionaries, or modern plate carriers used by our troops in the Army and Marine Corps. Armor prevents its wearer from being cut, having bones smashed, organs pierced, limbs severed. It absorbs the shock of blows and the impact of missiles. It saves a life that could otherwise come to a violent, grisly end.
Without armor, a person is vulnerable to attack. Going into battle without armor is like going out in a rainstorm without an umbrella. It’s highly likely that you’re going to get wet, or in the case of battle, bloodied, and it will probably be your own blood, too. It means that when your horse gets shot out from under you at 40 miles an hour, you are going to feel the full impact of the ground in a very personal way when you fall, and the result is not going to be pretty.
But this kind of armor only protects people from physical harm. What about the assaults of the devil, the assaults of the cosmic forces of darkness and wicked spirits? This is what concerns Paul’s letter to the Ephesians that we heard this morning, and it’s important. Paul’s hearers were living in the world post-resurrection, and though living in the knowledge that Christ had won the war with Satan, there were still battles to be fought. The devil was going down, and he wanted to take the young church down with him. Perhaps Paul, writing in the year 60, could see the way the winds were blowing in the Empire. Nero was the emperor, and though he had not yet begun his persecution of the Christians, Paul could surely see that the whole world was against Christ’s church and the Gospel it preached. Persecutions would come. Paul had already been imprisoned for his faith, and was under house-arrest in Rome as he wrote his letter to the Ephesians.
Add to the threat of persecution the fact that rival religions were about that could draw away Christians—Gnostic sects were already beginning to pop up in Ephesus that taught that Jesus only seemed to be human, and that his body was an illusion. This is called Docetism. These sects questioned the reality of the resurrection, that Christ had indeed died on the cross for the sins of the world and rose, bodily, on the third day. And what’s more, you had various philosophers who spoke of other deities or “divine forces” (as Socrates called them), alternative and nameless “one gods” who existed behind the names of other more popular deities like Apollo and Jupiter, and some who rejected the idea of the divine altogether. Magicians and devotees of strange Eastern religions also vied for the souls of Christians. And if rival ideologies and theologies didn’t present enough of a threat to Paul’s missionary flock, the enticements of the flesh and temptations to sin hunted them, too. Debauchery, sexual immorality, filthiness, covetousness, avarice, bitterness, and wrath all threatened to steer this young congregation away from Christ, especially in a large city like Ephesus.
And faced by these enticements to sin and these threats from rulers and alternative gods, the congregation at Ephesus could do nothing on its own to protect itself. The Ephesians could not defend themselves against the attacks of the devil and the world using their own resources. Such forces could overpower them easily; their sinful flesh weak against the onslaught of sin. Paul knew that they could not hold out against “the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” Fleshly people cannot defend themselves against assaults on the spirit. Armor made of steel and leather cannot stop Satan’s darts, which pierce and slay the soul.
And the same remains true for us. You and I are powerless on our own to withstand such assaults of the devil and the world. We might be able to hold out for a little while against this or that temptation, but our flanks are still exposed and eventually another sin breaks through our defenses and dooms us. You can perhaps keep yourself from taking the Lord’s name in vain, but you might say something cruel to your neighbor. You might be able to keep your speech clean, but might look upon another person in lust and thereby defile yourself (think of what we heard Jesus say in Mark 7 this morning). The enemies Paul told the Ephesians to watch out for still plague us, too. False gods are still out there—they may not be in the guise of Ba’al and Serapis and Jupiter anymore, but other religions vie for our adherence. The Gnostics are still portraying Jesus as a mere man worth listening to or as some kind of guru awakening us to understand our “spiritual selves,” but not as the God of Israel incarnate who died for the sins of the world.
Politics, too, becomes a rival god. A recent article in the Washington Post Magazine noted that in the DC area, asking someone about their politics is seen as the quickest way to know everything about them (even though assumptions yield little truth). Politics is the new religion, and rather than building up, it tears down, and tempts us to sin against our neighbors. How many times have we heard people say that members of the opposing party are evil? That people who have different ideas should be marginalized, that they should be killed? (Just go into any internet comment section, you’ll see what I mean.) But I digress. “The old satanic foe / Has come to work us woe. / With craft and dreadful might / He arms himself to fight” says Luther. He knows that, on our own, we cannot fight him—on earth is not his equal—and so he seeks to destroy us knowing that we have no armor with which to defend ourselves. We can’t make that armor, either, for the sinner within us, the Old Adam lurking in our marrow, will sabotage our efforts at every turn. The Old Adam wants us to fail. He wants us to be devoured by the “hordes of devils” that plague us in these final, evil days because he likes it. Like Saul’s armor which David received before his battle with Goliath, the armor we try to make for ourselves is imperfect and it does not fit us or protect us very well, nor do we really know how to use it. It cannot protect us.
But there is something that can protect us—there is armor against the devil’s onslaughts. God himself provides it. When Paul speaks of putting on the whole armor of God, he is speaking to Christians who know that Christ has fought the final battle against sin, death, and the devil, and he has won, handily. The congregation at Ephesus had received the full benefit of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross in faith, and now, made righteous before God in this— justified before him—they are able to put on the armor of God. Or more precisely, we should say the arms and armor of God, because this is what the word panoplia, which Paul uses here, means. It’s an old military term, probably going all the way back to Homer, referring to all the parts of a soldier’s kit, from his breastplate and sandals to his sword and his spear. And what is this armor, this “panoply,” as it is rendered in English, of God? It is his very own set! His personal armaments. Hear what the prophet Isaiah says about the Lord’s armor in Isaiah 59:
The Lord saw it, and it displeased him
that there was no justice.
16 He saw that there was no man,
and wondered that there was no one to intercede;
then his own arm brought him salvation,
and his righteousness upheld him.
17 rHe put on righteousness as a breastplate,
and a helmet of salvation on his head;
he put on garments of vengeance for clothing,
and wrapped himself in zeal as a cloak.
18 According to their deeds, so will he repay,
wrath to his adversaries, repayment to his enemies;
to the coastlands he will render repayment.
19 So they shall fear the name of the Lord from the west,
and his glory from the rising of the sun;
for he will come like a rushing stream,
which the wind of the Lord drives.
20 “And a Redeemer will come to Zion,
to those in Jacob who turn from transgression,” declares the Lord.
(Isaiah 59:15b-20, ESV)
God himself bears such arms and armor, and he gives them to those who trust in him! With the battle Isaiah foresaw completed, Christ, who bore the panoply to do battle with and defeat Satan, now gives it to those who have faith in him through the Holy Spirit. Trust in the Lord’s work—trust in his defeating sin, death, and the devil on the cross—makes a person worthy and able to wear the armor of God. One cannot gird his loins with truth or wear the breastplate of righteousness or shoe his feet with the Gospel of peace or bear the shield of faith, wear the helmet of salvation, or wield the sword of the Spirit or pray without ceasing if he does not first have faith in the One who gives such tools against the cosmic rulers of this darkness and the spiritual forces of wickedness that stalk us in this age. Paul’s call to take up these arms is only possible if the Holy Spirit has not already made them available to those who have put their hope in Christ. And so they have, and he has put it on them.
Something I learned many years ago when I had to wear a set of Roman armor for a play is that armor is heavy and hard to move in. All the weight sits right on your shoulders, and it cannot easily be put on if you are by yourself—you need someone to buckle it on you and help you to arm yourself. So it is with the Holy Spirit. He makes bearing God’s arms and armor possible; it is he who buckles on the breastplate and shoes the feet. Brothers and sisters in Christ, through the work of the Holy Spirit, you have access to God’s whole panoply in this latter age. Redeemed and brought to faith in the waters of baptism and strengthened by God’s holy food of his body and blood in the Lord’s supper, you are made righteous to wear his armor and bear the sword of his Word to beat back the devils and demons that would cause you to despair, and to fight the sins that tempt you. Take heart! The strife is over and the battle is done. Christ has defeated the evils of this world, and he protects you with his panoply. But though the war is over, the enemy still wants to destroy us while Christ mops up the field. The devil still goes about, roaring like a lion, seeking someone to devour. Have faith in Christ, and stand strong together as his army, for he gives the whole church his arms and armor to stave off the devil in his death throes. The devil cannot harm you so long as you have faith in the One who defeated him. His claws and weapons cannot scratch or dent the armor the Lord gives those who trust in him. Unlike Saul’s armor, which did not fit David, the armor that God gives you fits you perfectly—he has tailored it for you—and the evil forces of this world cannot pierce it.
And if you struggle in your faith, if you wrestle with specific sins that seek to defeat you, remember this: Though Satan, like one of those English archers at Agincourt, might shoot your horse out from under you, causing you to stumble and fall to earth with a mighty thud, do not despair! Christ, your victorious captain, will lift you up again in his forgiveness and set you back on your feet. He will not abandon you in the fray. God himself fights by your side with weapons of the Spirit, and he has given them to you, too. With him, you can withstand the evil day, and having done all stand firm! Amen.
And now may the peace which surpasses all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.