Vince Lombardi was a household name in North America in the 1960’s as a top football coach who was open about his Christian faith and God’s empowering him to be successful. Lombardi wrote a book called ‘What it takes to be Number 1’ and was twice named ‘National football League Coach of the Year’.
His understanding of human nature which led him to train players to be disciplined in every area of their lives resulted in his much quoted insight that “It is essential to understand that battles are primarily won in the hearts of men.”
Surely that’s the fighting attitude that Steve Hansen instilled in ‘our boys’ throughout the lengthy build-up to the Rugby World Cup, and throughout the hard fought tournament resulting in our historic second win in a row at the beginning of this month.
Vince Lombardi is also often remembered for saying, “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing!” No pressure, of course, but that’s what 4 million Kiwis wanted the ABs to remember!
Let’s pray (in the words of the apostle Paul, from our reading today)
Lord of all,
I pray for myself, and for us all, that whenever we open our mouths, words may be given to us so that we will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel.
Guide our listening, hearing and responding now so that together we may glorify your name in all the earth.
In Jesus’ Name,
I like to think of myself as a pacifist.
I’m horrified by the number of wars raging now throughout the world – so many in fact that we run the risk of becoming desensitised as we watch the TV news while we digest our meals. As we do so we invariably fail to picture the horrid reality and fear for the people on our screens, who could so easily have been us if we had been born in another time or place.
After all, we, or someone we love, could have been a victim of the horrific attacks in Paris over this weekend.
In 2005 Alan and I had an opportunity to attend a lunchtime meeting hosted by World Vision in which a younger and perhaps softer Paul Henry, with his daughter Lucy, reported on their recent trip to Pakistan. A statistic that shocked me then that Paul Henry gave us was that at that time 46 conflicts were taking place around the world.
Now, ten years later, I suspect that figure would be even higher.
In fact, according to figures from a conflict tracking website, just in the first 23 days of October, conflicts have broken out, or continued in Afghanistan, South Sudan, Somalia, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Turkey, Myanmar, Nigeria, Yemen, Syria, and the Ukraine – in twelve countries in just over three weeks.
But sadly…. Wait…. There’s more…
I know also that wars raging in the spiritual realm are urgent, life-defining, and ultimately spiritually definitive.
We are kidding ourselves if we pretend that war hasn’t broken out in the heavenly realm. This is also reality.
It does help to understand the context of this part of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. He is writing to a minority group in the Roman Empire. He is reminding the young Christians that the whole universe is a battle ground. And we know that ourselves as we battle against desires, temptations and threats that we know are certainly not from God but they assail us powerfully, often in fact, as we come closer to God, leading lives of devotion and obedience to our Lord.
The first point that Paul makes very directly is that the events of life in this world, especially the conflicts, are truly indicative of warfare in the “heavenly places.” The battle is not with flesh and blood (Ephesians 6:12), but with other dark and dangerous powers who do rule the world at any given time. For the Ephesians, no matter what hostility is displayed by their fellow citizens, they have to realise that hostility comes from larger, darker, spiritual forces.
They must resist these forces, and stand up to them in God’s power. Faithfulness to God means that you’re part of a battle you cannot fight on earth, but in the heavenly places.
What good news this would be for those who won’t and can’t participate in worship centred on the emperor or any of the myriad gods honoured in the city. The wonderful news is that Christians don’t stand alone and forgotten in the difficult places created by faithfulness to God. They know that they are enrolled with the Lord and the hosts of heaven and protected ultimately by God’s strength and might (Ephesians 6:10). Spiritual hosts of wickedness guide and manipulate world rulers of our time, but the battle isn’t with other people. It’s s with the powers of wickedness. To quote Martin Luther, the devil’s “doom is sure.” Indeed, the apostle Paul is confident that Christ already rules in the heavenly places. He says “I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is like the working of his mighty strength, which He exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms.”(Ephesians 1: 18 -20).
Now we need to remember that Paul at this time, as he wrote, was chained by the wrist to a Roman soldier, so that he could never escape from prison. As he writes to his brothers and sisters in Christ in Ephesus a picture of the Christian life comes to him – the soldier’s armour. The Christian too wears armour, and now Paul takes the armour of the Roman soldier and translates it into Christian terms.
Firstly there is the belt of truth buckled around your waist. It was where his sword swung from, meaning he could move freely. A Christian is free and quick to respond because he or she is full of the truth.
Then the breastplate of righteousness which justifies and sets apart a Christian from the darkness of the world. Christianity doesn’t need to be proved – but rather lived to the full with authenticity.
The sandals on the soldier’s feet mean he is equipped and ready for action, A Christian is always ready to share the good news of Jesus with those who don’t already know it.
The word that Paul uses for the shield is not the one describing the small, round shield, but for the big oblong shield which a heavily armed warrior would wear. One of the most dangerous weapons in ancient warfare was the fiery dart, dipped in pitch. The great oblong shield was made of two sections of wood glued together. When the dart reached the shield the dart sank into the wood and the flame was put out. The good news is that faith can deal with the darts of temptation. For Paul, faith means complete trust in Christ. Walking closely with Jesus means we are safe from temptation.
Salvation is the soldier’s helmet – not a faith which looks only back with gratitude with sins from the past forgiven, nut salvation in Christ means that have the strength to triumph over sin in the days ahead as well.
The sword of course is the Word of God – our weapon of defence against our sin and our attack on the sins of the world. We win battles for God with God’s Word. You have no doubt heard of Oliver Cromwell’s troops who fought with a sword in one hand and a Bible in the other.
Paul concludes this inspiring description with the greatest weapon of all – prayer. Paul goes further to describe exactly what type of praying he is talking about
- prayer which is constant, not just when we feel like it
- Intense prayer which doesn’t give up easily
- Prayer that is unselfish, asking as much for others as we do for ourselves, and also praying with others.
Paul then concludes by asking for prayer for himself, not that he may be well or happy, or prosperous, but that he will be bold in sharing the good news about Jesus’ power.
Prayer, deep, intense spiritual warfare, or everyday conversations with the Creator of the Universe (which reminds me of the wonderful contemporary worship song ‘My Best Friend’s the Creator of the Universe’) is the lifeblood of a Christian. Prayer is the working result of the harmony with God which Christ won for us on the cross.
You may have heard the story Footprints: One night a man had a dream. He dreamed he was walking along the beach with the Lord. Across the sky flashed scenes from his life. For each scene, he noticed two sets of footprints in the sand, one belonging to him, and the other belonging to the Lord. When the last scene of his life flashed before him, he looked back at the footprints in the sand. He noticed that many times along the path of his life there was only one set of footprints. He also noticed that it happened at the very lowest and saddest times in his life. This really bothered him and he questioned the Lord about it. “Lord, You said that once I decided to follow You, You’d walk with me all the way. But I have noticed that during the most troublesome times in my life, there is only one set of footprints. I don’t understand why when I needed you most you would leave me.” The Lord replied, “My precious, precious child, I love you and I would never leave you. During your times of trial and suffering, when you saw only one set of footprints, it was then that I carried you.”
It’s refreshing to be reminded God is with us at all times. I ran across an update which is called “A Variation on Footprints”:
Now imagine you and the Lord Jesus walking down the road together. For much of the way, the Lord’s footprints go along steadily and consistently, rarely varying the pace. But your prints are disorganized, a stream of zigzags, starts, stops, turnarounds, circles, departures and returns. For much of the way, it seems to go like this.
But gradually, your footprints come more in line with the Lord’s soon paralleling His consistently. You and Jesus are walking as true friends. This seems perfect, but then an interesting thing happens. Your footprints that were etched in the sand next to the Master’s are now walking precisely in His steps. Inside His larger footprints is the small “sand-print,” safely enclosed. You and Jesus are becoming one. This goes on for many miles.
But you notice another change. The footprint inside the larger footprint seems to grow larger. Eventually, it disappears altogether. There is only one set of footprints. They have become one. Again, this goes on for a long time. But then something awful happens. The second set of footprints is back. And this time, it seems even worse. Zigzags all over the place. They stop. They start. Deep gashes in the sand. A veritable mess of prints. You’re amazed and shocked. But this is the end of your dream. Now you speak: “Lord, I understand the first scene with the zigzags and fits and starts and so on. I was a new Christian, just learning. But you walked on through the storm and helped me learn to walk with you.”
“That is correct.”
“Yes, and when the smaller footprints were inside of Yours, I was actually learning to walk in Your steps. I followed You very closely.”
“Very good. You understand everything so far.” “Then the smaller footprints grew and eventually filled in with Yours. I suppose that I was actually growing so much that I was becoming like You in every way.”
“But this is my question. Lord, was there a regression or something? The footprints went back to two, and this time it was worse than the first.” The Lord smiles, then laughs. He says, “You didn’t know? That was when we danced!”
This may be mixing metaphors terribly, but that’s what happens when you’re equipped and ready for battle. May each of us be surrendered and ready for the fray this week, all prepared for the spiritual battle we’re engaged in, but also to relax when God calls us into His arms to dance, and enjoy intimacy with our Maker and Saviour.
To him be all the glory – now and always.