Against the Odds: The Sword Of The Spirit
One of the most popular movies, a year ago, was an entertaining film based on the female professional baseball teams which existed back in the 1940’s. The movie was called “A League of Their Own.” Perhaps the most powerful scene in that movie came when the star catcher of the Rockford Peaches threatens to quit—she’s tired, she’s worn out, she’s worried about her husband who has gone off to the war, she’s ready to “throw in the towel.” Played by Geena Davis, this star catcher, who is far and away the best player in the league, cannot overcome her feelings of despair. The manager of the Rockford Peaches, played by Tom Hanks, tries to talk her out of quitting. She replies: “It’s just too hard.” “Well, baseball’s supposed to be hard,” he says to her. “If it weren’t hard, everybody would do it.” Then he added this very powerful line: “Hard is what makes it great!”
Punch that into the keyboard of your heart. “Hard is what makes it great.” The same thing could be said about living the Christian life in our time: Hard is what makes it great. And it is hard. Once upon a time in this country being a Christian was easy. It was the accepted thing to do—and everything in our society worked in support of a decent, moral lifestyle. No longer is that the case. Now we are surrounded with a kind of moral ambiguity and an ethical “squishiness”, which subverts Christian values and practices. We are living in a society with a distorted perspective, and we find ourselves being sucked into it, so that our faith and our beliefs are somehow anesthetized. There are always three lanes leading to what is wrong and only one lane leading to what is right. These are tough times for people who are serious about their discipleship. The odds are stacked against us. It’s hard to be a Christian these days, and it’s going to get harder in the days that are ahead. But that’s alright, because hard is what makes it great!
That’s why Paul’s word to us in Ephesians 6 carries such power. He lists for us there the various pieces of spiritual armor we as Christians are to wear in fighting the battles of faith in a hostile world. The last thing Paul says is: “Take up the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” Notice please, that this is the only article which has both a defensive and an offensive use. Every other piece of armor he identifies has only a defensive use, a protective function. But when it comes to the sword of the Spirit, he is speaking about that which can be used to ward off attack, yes, but it can also be used in hand-to-hand combat, aggressively, offensively, against the powers and the forces of evil. So Paul writes, “Take up the sword of the Spirit which is the word of God.” It’s important for us to understand what Paul means when he writes the phrase “the word of God.”
First and foremost, of course, that phrase refers to the word of God which comes to us through the Bible.
The scriptures are the most recognizable “Word of God” — and we are to learn to use them. Jesus is our best example. You remember how when He was tempted in the wilderness, evil came to Him and said, “If you are the Son of God, turn these stones into bread.” Jesus immediately drew the blade of the Word of God and quoting scripture He said, “It is written that man shall not live by bread alone.” Satan then counterattacks and says, “Worship me and I will give you all things.” Once again Jesus flashes the sword of the Spirit and says, “It is written that you shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only shall you serve.” There’s the principle at work. When evil attacked Jesus, He struck back with the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God! But His is an example we are not following.
It’s funny, but it’s also sad. The teacher at the high school in Newton, Massachusetts, one of the best high schools in this country, quizzed a group of college-bound seniors before a “Bible as Literature” course that she was planning to teach. According to the students’ answers to that quiz, she learned some astounding things about the Bible: Sodom and Gomorrah were lovers; Jezebel was Ahab’s donkey; the New Testament Gospels were written by Matthew, Mark, Luther and John; Eve was created from an apple; Jesus was baptized by Moses in the Red Sea; and Golgotha was the name of the giant who slew the apostle, David! It’s funny, but it’s also sad. Today, our nation is almost totally ignorant of the Bible.
At the same time, our nation is being ravaged by broken homes, drug and alcohol abuse, physical and sexual abuse, runaway children and teenage pregnancies, venereal disease and AIDS in epidemic proportions, crime and graft in business and government, and illiteracy in a nation where education is compulsory. We are a nation in crisis. Why? The answer is simple: We do not know the Bible. Sadly, many Christians are almost totally ignorant of the Bible. Sadder still, some Christians who know the Bible, refuse to yield to its power.
Did you see the wonderful article in Time magazine about Billy Graham? The article quoted one of Dr. Graham’s critics, the liberal, Episcopal Bishop John Spong of New Jersey. He said, “I would never seek to solve the ethical problems of the 20th Century by quoting a passage of Holy Scripture, and I read the Bible every day. I wouldn’t invest in a book that was written between 1000 BC and AD 150 with that kind of moral authority.” My beloved, that’s a brain with dry rot! In my humble opinion, the Bishop, by his words and actions, desecrates the noble title he carries.
In startling contrast to that, I have been reading, this week, a wonderful new book by Maya Angelou. It is entitled, Wouldn’t Take Nothing For My Journey Now. In one of her chapters, she writes these words:
“One of my earliest memories of Momma, of my grandmother, is a glimpse of a tall cinnamon-colored woman with a deep soft voice standing thousands of feet up in the air on nothing visible. That incredible vision was the results of what my imagination would do each time Momma drew herself up to her full six feet, clasped her hands behind her back, looked up into a distant sky, and said, ’I will step out on the word of God! ’ The depression which was difficult for everyone, especially so for a single black woman in the South tending her crippled son and two grandchildren, caused her to make that statement of faith often: ’I will step out on the word of God!’ So I grew up knowing that the word of God had power.”
“In my twenties in San Francisco, I became a sophisticated and an acting agnostic. It wasn’t that I had stopped believing in God, it was just that God didn’t seem to be around the neighborhoods I frequented. Then one day my professor, Frederick Wilkerson, asked me to read to him. I was twenty-four, very erudite, very worldly. He asked me to read a section which ended with these words: ’God loves me!’ I read the piece, and closed the book, and the teacher said: ’Read it again!’ I pointedly opened the book, and I sarcastically read,’God loves me!’ He said, ’Again! ’ After about the seventh repetition, I began to sense that there might be truth in the statement—that there was a possibility that God really did love me. Me, Maya Angelou. I suddenly began to cry at the grandness of it all. I knew that if God loved me, then I could do wonderful things, I could try great things, learn anything, achieve anything. For what could stand against me with God, since one person, any person with God, constitutes the majority?”
My beloved, take a lesson from Maya Angelou. She knows that the word of God has power. We would do well to emulate the faith of Maya Angelou’s Momma who always said, “I will step out on the word of God.” For what it’s worth, let me tell you how I do that in my own life. I begin each day by rehearsing in my mind six verses of scripture. I selected them a long time ago, made them my own and never begin a day without them. One, I glorify God’s name ~ Psalm 103: “Bless the Lord, 0 my soul; and all that is within me bless his holy name! Bless the Lord, 0 my soul, and forget not all his benefits.” Two, I yield to God’s word—2 Timothy 3′ “All scripture is inspired by God, and is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” Three, I surrender to God’s grace—Romans 12: “Therefore, I appeal to you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.” Four, I embrace God’s ideal—Philippians 4: “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious—if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise—think about these things.” Five, I claim God’s courage—again Philippians 4: “I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me.” Six, I receive God’s command—Matthew 28: “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And lo, I am with you always, even to the end of time.” I cannot tell you what a difference it makes in my life to begin each day by stepping out on the word of God.
My friends, hear me, please. You and God together make the majority! You and God together can triumph over anything in life. But before that can happen, you have to commit yourself to the utilization of God’s power in your life through His word—the Bible. That’s what Paul means when he says: “Take up the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”
There is something else here. Paul is also referring to the Word of God which comes to us through other people and circumstances.
When Paul writes the words, “The word of God” in Ephesians, the original Greek makes it plain that he is not speaking only of the scriptures. The verse is more accurately translated, “The sword of the Spirit which are the sayings of God.” In other words, God speaks to us primarily through the Bible, but He also speaks to us in other ways as well. God did not stop saying things the day His book went to print. In my own life, I can tell you of individuals or circumstances used by the Spirit of God to speak to my heart-of-hearts a word from Him. That’s included when Paul says that when you engage in hand-to-hand combat with evil, rely on the sayings of God.
To make the point, let me tell you what happened a few years ago when a young Korean exchange student at the University of Pennsylvania was attacked by a street gang. The young Korean was the leader of a Christian group on campus. He left his dorm room one evening to mail a letter to his parents in Korea. As he turned from the mailbox, he was confronted by this gang of eleven young hoodlums. Without any provocation, they attacked him and beat him with a blackjack and a lead pipe. Later the police found him in the gutter, dead. All Philadelphia cried out for vengeance. The gang members were arrested and put on trial. The prosecution went for the death penalty. Then a letter arrived from Korea. It was signed by the parents of the slain student and by twenty other relatives. This is what the letter said: “Our family members have met together and we are asking for the most generous treatment possible, within the laws of your government, be extended to those who committed this crime. In order to give evidence of our sincerity, we have decided to save money, to start a fund to be used for the religious, educational, vocational, and social guidance of these young men when they are released. We have dared to express our hope with the spirit received from the gospel of our Savior, Jesus Christ, who died for our sins and who taught us to love unconditionally.” That letter, my friends, was a saying of God, to the people of Philadelphia and to us today .
Or, let me tell you about Kathryn Waller in Charlotte, North Carolina. She felt called by God to help the poor feed themselves. She believed God was saying to her, “Find a way to make a permanent difference in the lives of My children. No more band-aid approaches. Use the mind and body I gave you to set my people, in Charlotte, free from hunger.” She did. For the next year, she worked tirelessly to develop a program that began to break the cycle of hunger and poverty in many lives. When she felt that she had fulfilled what God asked her to do, she decided to step back and let someone else take over. God said to her: “I want you to go to Chapel Hill and do the same thing.” She protested: “Lord, haven’t I earned the right to some rest? After all, twenty thousand previously hungry people are now receiving food, regularly.” And God said: “You are to stop when I say ’Stop’ and you are to go when I say ’Go.’ The cries of the poor are loud in My ears and My heart is deeply moved.” So Kathryn Waller went to Chapel Hill. Ultimately she learned that 600,000 people in her state went to bed at night hungry. With that impetus, Kathryn Waller and her friends are now tackling the demons of apathy and prejudice to be sure that the hungry children of God in North Carolina are fed. All because Kathryn Waller heard the sayings of God in her life.
My friends, read God’s word in the Bible, yes, but also listen for God’s word to you as He speaks through the people and the circumstances around you. When we do that—when we take up the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God—then we shall gain victory in the spiritual battles we face.
Well . . .
Make no mistake about it…it’s hard to be a Christian these days, and it’s going to be even harder in the days that are ahead. But always remember:
Hard is what makes it great!