This is post 1 of 7 in the series “AGAINST THE ODDS”
Against the Odds: The Belt Of Truth
They called her “B. W.”.
They called her that because she was, in fact, a Beluga whale—a young one, a female, about ten feet long weighing 900 pounds. If you will pardon the pun, she ran away from her school, played hooky, if you will, and took up residence in the harbor at New Haven, Connecticut. She seemed quite happy there. She would nuzzle swimmers and frolic with small boats. She learned a whole series of tricks—so many tricks, in fact, that because of her, specialists in Marine biology came to have a new appreciation of what cetacean intelligence really is. Again, if.you will pardon the pun, she was a good scout of a whale—always brave, always true, always loyal. Then one night, someone fired four .22 caliber rifle bullets into her and she died. Now why would anyone do something like that? Was B. W.’s problem the fact that she was too innocent, too good, too trusting? Did she learn a lot of tricks, but miss the most important trick of all—how not to be a target? You see, her very goodness made her vulnerable to attack.
Good people are often hit at too, you know. As Christians, we are becoming aware of the fact that we are under special attack in the world. Wherever you run up the banner of goodness and try to serve the world in the name of Jesus Christ, there is a sense in which you put a bull’s-eye on your chest. If you are serious about the faith, you are open to attack. Jesus warned us about this. He said, “As the world hates me, so it is going to hate you” . We need to take His warning to heart.
It is my growing conviction that it will be tougher and tougher in the years ahead for Christians and the Church to thrive in this country. Very subtly, the odds are being stacked against us. More and more we shall experience persecution. Oh, not overt persecution, like being thrown to the lions, but veiled persecution, like being ridiculed, being relegated to the sidelines of society’s priorities, and being restricted by our legal and political systems. It’s already happening.
Stephen Carter, in a significant new book entitled The Culture of Disbelief puts it this way: “We have created a political and legal culture that presses the religiously faithful to act publicly, and sometimes, privately as well, as though their faith does not matter to them…Those who believe in God are encouraged to keep it a secret and often a shameful one at that…more and more, our culture seems to take the position that believing deeply in the tenets of one’s faith represents a kind of mystical irrationality, something that thoughtful public-spirited American citizens would do better to avoid.”
Loren Mead, in a book entitled The Once and Future Church, pleads the same case. No longer can we assume that everyone is a Christian; no longer does the community, through schools, festivals, associations, and standards reinforce Christians values and beliefs. No longer are we living in a society which encourages the growth and development and spread of the church. Mead believes that in the years ahead, people won’t be Christian because they were born in Christian homes or because their parents are Christian or because being a Christian is a socially acceptable thing to do. Instead, to be a Christian is going to require a conscious and costly choice, a deliberate and difficult decision.
I think that is true. In the years ahead, if we take up the Gospel and make it our own, we are not only going to be hit and hurt by the normal vicissitudes of life, but we are also going to be hit and hurt by the evil that strikes out against us. We are going to experience what the early Christians experienced. Think, for example, of the Christians who lived in Ephesus a long time ago. They suffered because of their faith and the great Apostle Paul, who was in prison at the time, wrote them a letter. In that letter, he acknowledged the fact that the whole culture in which they found themselves was aimed away from the things of God. There was an organized institutional evil at work in the world in that time. Paul wrote, “Our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil”. In a world like that, if you take a stand for good and for Christ, you become a very attractive target.
That’s the reason Paul wrote to the Ephesians, and I think he would say to us today, “If you are going to be a Christian in a hostile world, then you need to put on the whole armor of God”. Remember, please, that when Paul wrote those words, he was in prison, handcuffed to a Roman soldier every day. He had plenty of opportunity to observe the equipment worn by that soldier. He then used that military gear as a kind of metaphor for the resources God makes available to us if we are going to stand strong in a world that targets us as Christians. Over these next weeks, we are going to look at the various pieces of Christian armor in order to develop a faith for tough times. We are going to begin precisely where Paul began. He wrote, “Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist”.
And what is “the belt of truth”?
For the Roman soldier, the belt is a very wide leather band positioned about the soldier’s midsection. It had three functions. It helped protect the vital organs overwhich it was situated. It also had hooks on it from which the soldier could hang weapons like the sword and the spear . Then it had the function of holding the soldier together . Clothing in those days was large and loose fitting. In combat, that loose fitting clothing was a hindrance to movement and so the belt was used to pull the clothing together and hold it in place. That is what the soldier’s belt did—it held him together.
And what is “the truth”? The truth according to Paul is God’s Word given to us. Jesus said, “If you continue in My Word you will know the truth”. His Word, you see, equals truth. So the belt of truth, on which we are to rely, is this book, the Bible. The scriptures give firmness and protection. They are the place where other weapons are made available. They also keep things together. They keep us in “fighting trim” ready for any conflict we may have to face.
My beloved, this Book, which is actually sixty-six different pamphlets written across many years in at least three different languages by more than thirty different people, is inspired by the Holy Spirit of God in such a way that God is revealed to us on it’s pages. In a sense, this Book is like a drama in three acts in which God progressively reveals Himself. In the first act, He speaks in rather primitive terms because He was speaking to primitive times and primitive people. Then in the second act, He begins to expand His revelation explaining how He is the source of all righteousness and truth and how everything in the world is to be measured by His standards. Finally, in the third and climatic act of this Book, God reveals Himself completely in the person of His own Son. All those lamps that had been lining the road to Bethlehem are replaced by a single bright shining star and we have in Jesus Christ what our Christian faith is and how we are to practice it.
Therefore, what Paul is saying to Christians trying to survive in a hostile world is this, “Stand, having fastened the belt of truth around your waist. Know the truth, rely on the truth, trust the truth, stand on the truth, as it is revealed in this Book, the Bible.” That is why, in this church, we are now developing new strategies and programs designed to make every person in this great congregation biblically literate. In the years ahead, it’s going to be increasingly important for us to know the Bible in our heads and to have it’s truth carved upon our hearts. Through challenging classes, small group studies, individually guided instruction and even home correspondence courses and interactive computers, our people, from our youngest children to our oldest adults, are going to know the Bible. Put on “the belt of truth.”
Consider the example of people who have done that.
Paul, himself, bore on his body the marks of his faith. He was the last of those called into the company of the Apostles, but in the short discipleship which was his, he was shipwrecked, he was beaten, he was stoned, he was publicly humiliated. And yet, through it all, he managed to stand firm for Jesus Christ. How? By remembering the word of truth from scripture, “God loves me and gave Himself for me.” Or look at Martin Luther, who on May 26, 1521, wrote a letter to his young son-in-the-faith, Philip Melanchthon and in that letter he said, “Do not be troubled in spirit by the opposition we face. Sing the Lord’s song. Sing it in the night. And I shall join you. Let us only be concerned about the Word of God.” There it is—that note of strength—that note of firmness based upon the truth of the Word.
Or come into our own time. Just a few years ago—many of you will remember it—Benjamin Weir stood up in this pulpit to preach. He had been held hostage in Lebanon for sixteen months, fourteen of them in solitary confinement. He had been the focus of this nation’s attention and prayers—then at last, he was released. He stepped into this pulpit—the place was jammed with people, TV cameras and klieg lights. And very softly he said what had sustained him through all the terror and horror of those days was the Word of God in Scripture. In the early days of captivity, he kept reciting the passages of scripture which he had memorized. And then—it was the only thing he had ever asked his captors for—he asked for a Bible. By God’s grace, one of them gave him an Arabic New Testament. He said, “When I received that little book, my spirit soared.”
Or take the example of John Testrake. He was the pilot of TWA Flight 847. You remember how that plane, it’s crew, and the 145 passengers were held hostage at the Beirut airport, for seventeen days. John Testrake emerged from that experience a hero because of the way he conducted himself. Even when the hijackers became almost hysterical, John Testrake managed to keep control of hiimself. He wrote about that later and he said, “My faith has developed across the course of many years. I have had some hard battles to fight. I lost my wife and two of my four children to death. I have gone through all kinds of heartbreaking, mind boggling circumstances, but I have learned to trust the God I met on the pages of the Bible.” Now the navigator, on board that plane, was a man named Christian Zimmerman, who incidentally was an ordained Lutheran minister. Testrake and Zimmerman studied the scriptures together every day that they were held captive, and they conducted worship services for the passengers. Testrake would lead the singing and Zimmerman would do the preaching. Testrake said afterwards, “I was sustained by the presence of Jesus Christ”. And how did he experience that presence? Through his reliance upon the Word of God. It kept things together for him so that he could remain calm when everything was in disarray. The belt of truth always helps us stand strong in life.
Consider then the necessity of putting on the belt of truth in your life.
I know there may be some listening to me who find it hard to identify with what I am saying. Maybe you never encountered opposition because of your faith; maybe you never experienced the kind of hardships and difficulties and attacks to which I refer. If that’s so, then I am glad for you. But I want to give you a word of caution; your time of attack, your time of hurt, your time of anxiety is coming. Don’t be like Harry Truman. I don’t mean the Harry Truman who was President of the United States. I mean the Harry Truman who lived out on the slopes of Mount St. Helens. He lived there with sixteen cats. Do you remember him? They went to him and they said, “Look, this mountain is going to blow. You need to get out of here.” And Harry Truman, crusty with his own wisdom and his own strength, said, “Well, I’ve seen it smoke but I’ve never seen it blow.” So he didn’t leave. And the mountain blew with an explosion five hundred times greater than the Hiroshima bomb. No one has ever seen or heard from Harry Truman since.
Whenever a time of hardship or difficulty comes, there is usually some kind of warning, some suggestion that it’s on it’s way. That’s the reason it is so important for us to study and devote ourselves to the learning of the scriptures, to the hiding of the truth of God’s Word in our hearts. That’s the reason it’s important to fasten on the belt of truth in advance, so that when the times of difficulty explode in our experience, we are ready. That’s what happened to the Ephesians and that’s what Luther experienced, and that’s what Ben Weir knew, and that’s what John Testrake discovered, and that’s what’s there for each of us to discover also—that in the midst of tough times like these, the Word of God will be to us a firm belt—holding us together for the battle. “Stand,” Paul says, “stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth about your waist!” That’s Step One for the Christian’s survival in a hostile world.
It was just a little thing, but I’ve never forgotten it. Come to think of it, maybe it wasn’t such a little thing after all. It happened back when rny son was playing Little League baseball down here at Delaney Park and I was coaching his team. One day, just before the teams took the field, I sat down on the first row of the bleachers to write out the batting order. Suddenly, one of the boys on the team walked up to a lady who was sitting just down the row from me. The little boy said, “Would you hold onto my watch and my money while I’m playing? My Mom is not here today. I know you don’t know me but I can trust you.” The woman smiled and said she would be glad to hold the watch and the money. Then, rather playfully, I suppose, the woman said to the little boy, “How do you know you can trust me?” The little boy said, “Because of that”—and he pointed to the cross the woman was wearing on her necklace—”I know you are a Christian and I can trust you,” the little boy said.
Yes, maybe it wasn’t such a little thing after all. Let me ask you. Can people see the sign of the cross in your life? Can people see the truth of Jesus Christ in the way you live? I hope so. In a world like this . I hope so…