Twenty First Sunday After Pentecost: The Battle Belongs To The Lord
When the children of Israel left the land of Egypt, God promised that he would give them the land of Canaan, a place of rest.
But, before they could enter Canaan, the Israelites wandered in the wilderness for 40 years. Until, finally, in the third chapter of book of Joshua, all of them crossed over the Jordan River into the land of Canaan. After 40 years of wandering, 40 years of living in tents, they finally had a place they could call home, a place of their own.
But when the Israelites entered Canaan, the land of rest, they didn’t do a lot of resting. In fact, the first thing they had to do was to gather up their army and go to war against the city of Jericho. And then they fought the city of Ai. And then, one by one, they fought all of the other cities of Canaan. Fighting battle after battle.
They had to work hard to get into Canaan, and there was a tendency for them to want to sit down and rest. But it was not yet time to rest. There was a lot of work yet to be done. They are an example to us as well.
As we as Catholics, reach out into our community. We must understand and realize that there’s a lot of fighting that needs to be done.
Not fighting with each other. Not fighting with the people of our community. But fighting against Satan and the grip he has on the people all around us, and his attempts to try to defeat us and our efforts to build up God’s kingdom. In Ephesians 6:12, Paul writes, “For our wrestling is not against flesh and blood; but against principalities and power, against the rulers of the world of this darkness, against the spirits of wickedness in the high places.”
Sooner or later, every Christian discovers that the Christian life is not a playground but a battleground.
But I think we need this constant reminder – our battle is not against flesh and blood. In other words people, human beings. As you read through scripture, you see that there is this long, ongoing war between God and the forces of light and love and life and truth and beauty; and the cosmic forces of darkness and sin and death and chaos and corruption. And the leader of those rebellious armies is Satan.
And everyone, no matter who they are, gets drawn into this turf war that’s been going on for ages.
There are some people who rebel and fight for the enemy.
There are others who get captured and taken prisoner of war. They suffer pain and anguish because of all that Satan does to try to hurt them.
And there are some of us who just get caught in the crossfire, casualties of a war we didn’t start. We get wounded and damaged by the chaos of living in a spiritual war zone.
So even though we’re all drawn into the fight somehow, ultimately, it’s not our battle. It belongs to God. Which is why over and over, scripture teaches us that our God is a warrior who fights for his people.
I want us to take a look at what Paul has to say about this spiritual battle in Ephesians chapter 6, and then I want us to take a look at a story in the Old Testament that shows us two things that we need to win this battle.
In Ephesians 6:10, Paul writes, “Finally, brethren, be strengthened in the Lord, and in the might of his power.”
I want you to notice from the very start that our strength is not found in what we do. Our strength is found “in the Lord”.
We do not depend on our own strength, but in “the strength of his might.” And the truth is, if you think you’re strong enough to win the battle against Satan, then you’ve already lost. Because the strength of the Christian life is recognizing that we don’t have enough strength and we must depend on God.
Paul said in Philippians 4:13, “I can do all these things in him who strengtheneth me. ” Or, as the Living Bible puts it, “I can do everything God asks me to with the help of Christ who gives me the strength and power.”
Now, unfortunately, I think those of us who are pastors over a parish have done a very poor job of teaching this. Because, we come to Ephesians 6 and we sometimes teach, “If you want to be strong and defeat Satan, here’s what you need to do — you need to pray hard, you need to study your Bible every day, you need to live a righteous life, and if you do all these things and if you do them well enough, then you can win the battle.”
But, right at the very start, Paul wants us to know it is not what we do, it is what God does. “be strengthened in the Lord, and in the might of his power.” In just a little bit, we’re going to take a look at that Old Testament story that will show you exactly what I mean.
But first I want to take a look at the armour that Paul says we should put on for this spiritual battle we’re engaged in. In verse 11, he says, “Put you on the armour of God, that you may be able to stand against the deceits or schemes of the devil.” (Ephesians 6:11). And then again in verse 13,“Therefore take unto you the armour of God, that you may be able to resist in the evil day, and to stand firm in all things perfect.” (Ephesians 6:13)
And then starting in verse 14, Paul starts listing the different pieces of that armor.“Stand therefore, having your loins girt about with truth, and having on the breastplate of justice, And your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace: In all things taking the shield of faith, wherewith you may be able to extinguish all the fiery darts of the most wicked one. And take unto you the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit (which is the word of God). By all prayer and supplication praying at all times in the spirit; and in the same watching with all instance and supplication for all the saints:” (Ephesians 6:14-18)
I’ve always seen this as something we need to do. We need to put on this armor piece by piece, and if we do that, then we will have the ability to stand against Satan toe to toe and come out victorious.
But I’m reminded of the story of David and Goliath, and how David took on this huge powerful warrior that all the soldiers were afraid to fight. And Goliath had on a massive set of armor – a helmet of bronze, a bronze coat of mail on his chest and bronze armor on his legs, a javelin and a shield.
And before David went into battle, King Saul wanted to give David some armor to wear. He gave him a helmet and a coat of mail and a sword. But David took it all off, and he went out to fight Goliath. He said to him, ““You come to me with a sword and with a spear and with a javelin, but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. 46 This day the Lord will deliver you into my hand ” (I Samuel 17:45-46).
You see, the only armor David needed was God. God was David’s armor. And that was all he needed, because the battle belongs to Lord.
Each of these pieces of armor we read about has a rich background in the Old Testament, where they describe God’s armor — the armor that God himself puts on to rescue his people. And I don’t think it was the Roman soldier, I think it was the Old Testament that provided Paul with his inspiration — and if we miss this background, we’re going to completely miss Paul’s point.
For example, Paul tells us to “put on the breastplate of justice” and “take the helmet of salvation”. Both of these phrases come straight out of Isaiah 59:17. In that passage, the prophet Isaiah says of God, “He put on justice as a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation upon his head ”
In the chapters before this, Isaiah described God’s promise to deal with the enemies of his people, especially Babylon. But in this chapter, Isaiah describes God as a warrior coming to deal with an even greater enemy – the enemy of sin. He says in verse 12, “Our sins are piled up before God and testify against us. Yes, we know what sinners we are. We know we have rebelled and have denied the Lord. We have turned our backs on our God.” (Isaiah 59:12-13)
And when God comes to fight the sin that is in our lives, he puts on “justice as a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation on his head.” And the reason he does that is because we don’t have any justice of our own to bring; Isaiah said in Isaiah 64:6 that our very best justice is nothing more than filthy rags of a menstruous woman. But God comes to fight for us, wearing His righteousness and His salvation.
And when Paul talks about our feet being shod with the preparation of gospel of peace, he was surely thinking about Isaiah 52:7, “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings, and that preacheth peace: of him that sheweth forth good, that preacheth salvation, that saith to Sion: Thy God shall reign! ’” Isaiah tells us just what the good news is that we are to proclaim – “Our God reigns!” God is on his throne, and he is our king.
The belt of truth also comes from Isaiah. In Isaiah 11, God promised that he would send a Messiah to deliver his people. This coming King “And justice shall be the girdle of his loins: and faith or truth the girdle of his reins. ” (Isaiah 11:5).
The image of the sword of the Spirit, the word of God, is also found in Isaiah. In Isaiah 49:2, the promised servant of the Lord says, “[The Lord] hath made my mouth like a sharp sword ” In other words, God was preparing his servant to come as a warrior with sharp words of judgment. We see this again in Revelation 19 where Jesus returns as a warrior riding out on a white horse with a sharp sword coming from his mouth with which to judge all nations.
And Paul’s image of the shield of faith also has a rich history in the Old Testament. When Paul says, “...taking the shield of faith, wherewith you may be able to extinguish all the fiery darts of the most wicked one.”, Paul is not saying that faith in itself has remarkable defensive power. Rather, faith protects us from Satan’s attacks because faith takes hold of the power and protection of God himself.
Throughout the Old Testament, it is God, not faith, that is repeatedly described as our shield. In Genesis 15:1, God tells Abraham, “I am thy shield of protection.” Proverbs 30:5 says, “[God] is a buckler to them that hope in him.” God is our buckler (a small round shield held by a handle or worn on the forearm.); He is the one who keeps us safe when we are being attacked. Faith becomes our shield because it is the means by which we flee to God for refuge.
And when you see this imagery in the Old Testament, what it says to me is that what we need to put on truly is the “armour of God”. It is the armour that God puts on when he fights for us, and in fact, I think it’s accurate to say that we put on God as our armour. We do not put on our justice. We put on God, who is our Justice. We do not put on our truth. We put on God, who is the truth.
And you might think this is just a matter of semantics, nitpicking about wording. But I think it’s more than that. Because when we put on God as our armour, God is the one going into battle for us and that makes all the difference in the world.
And so, I think it’s significant that Paul finishes out his description of this armour by saying that we should be “By all prayer and supplication praying at all times” (Ephesians 6:19). If our armour is God, then prayer is so very important because that’s what connects us with God.
Let’s turn now and take a look now at that story in the Old Testament that will show you what this looks like when it’s put into practice. We’re going to be in 2 Chronicles chapter 20. Let me give you just a little bit of background. In the days of King Jehoshaphat of Judah, God’s people came under attack from not one … not two … but three invading armies all at once!
So, King Jehoshaphat gathered all the people of Judah into the courtyard of the temple in Jerusalem. And Jehoshaphat prayed that God would protect his people, and that he would not allow these three armies to invade their land.
And God responded to his prayer by sending a prophet. And this prophet, Jahaziel, told Jehoshaphat and all the people: “Thus saith the Lord to you: Fear ye not, and be not dismayed at this multitude: for the battle is not yours, but God's.” (2 Chronicles 20:15)
I want to spend the rest of the lesson taking a look at this idea – “the battle is not yours, but God’s.”
This fight that we are engaged in, this spiritual warfare, this battle against Satan and his forces, this battle is God’s fight, not ours.
So, as this spiritual battle rages all around us, and sometimes even inside us, we need to pay attention to the words of that prophet from so long ago: “Do not be afraid! Don’t be discouraged… for the battle is not yours, but God’s.”
Let’s see how the rest of this story played out. The next morning, when they went out into battle, King Jehoshaphat sent out the temple worship choir. And he gave counsel to the people, and appointed the singing men of the Lord, to praise him by their companies, and to go before the army, and with one voice to say: 'Give glory to the Lord, for his mercy endureth for ever.' (2 Chronicles 20:21)
And that’s when something absolutely amazing happened! It says that the Lord launched a surprise attack against the enemy armies. Somehow, God made it so that the invaders attacked and destroyed each other instead of attacking the people of Judah. And, as a result, God’s people won the battle that day. Or to be more accurate, God won the battle for them. Because remember — it’s not our battle, it’s God’s battle.
That day, God and his people were victorious. And the only weapons they used against their enemies were prayer and praise. And I believe these are still the two most powerful weapons we have at our disposal – prayer and praise.
1. The weapon of prayer
This story teaches us why prayer is such an effective weapon in spiritual warfare. Sometimes I hear people say something like, “There’s power in prayer!” and I cringe just a little bit. Because the power is not really in prayer; the power is in God. And prayer is not saying some magic words that make God show up and do his thing. Some people think that praying your prayers in Latin is somehow more affective then when praying in your native tongue! Prayer isn’t about how well the words are put together or what language you pray in. Neither is it about getting what you want out of God. Prayer is ultimately about acknowledging your weakness and God’s power.
We see this in King Jehoshaphat’s prayer. Listen to how this great king ended his prayer. He said to God, “O our God, wilt thou not then judge them? as for us we have not strength enough, to be able to resist this multitude, which cometh violently upon us. But as we know not what to do, we can only turn our eyes to thee.” (2 Chronicles 20:12)
Now, here’s what’s really amazing about this prayer. When this story begins, Jehoshaphat has been king for three chapters. He was a wise and powerful king. He spent his days building up the walls and fortresses of Jerusalem. He built up an impressive army.
But despite all this preparation, King Jehoshaphat stands before God and he humbly admits: “We are powerless against this mighty army that is about to attack us. We do not know what to do, but we are looking to you for help.”
As wise and as powerful as he was, and as much work as he’d done to protect his people, when the battle comes to them, King Jehoshaphat says: “God, we’re not strong enough. We need you to fight for us.”
So, prayer is a powerful and effective weapon because it teaches us to confess our weakness, and to take refuge in God’s power, and trust his wisdom. Instead of relying on our own power and our own wisdom.
So, when the battle comes to you, your first and most powerful defensive weapon is simply to humble yourself in prayer.
2. The weapon of praise
When it comes to spiritual warfare, praise is our other most powerful weapon.
When the time came for battle, it says Jehoshaphat “appointed singers to walk ahead of the army, singing to the Lord and praising him for his holy splendor.” Jehoshaphat sent out singers in front of his army! And they were singing, “Give glory to the Lord, for his mercy endureth for ever.” (2 Chronicles 20:21). But then notice. “And when they began to sing and praise, the Lord set an ambush against the men…who had come against Judah.” (2 Chronicles 20:22). God fought for his people when they started singing praises!
In the early days of Israel, whenever the people went out to war, the priests would first carry the ark of the covenant. The reason they did this because the ark of the covenant was God’s footstool.
The idea was that God himself was going into battle in front of his people. The King of the entire universe was enthroned over his people. And they proclaimed his presence with them in battle by carrying his footstool before them. It was like they were saying, “We are so confident that God is with us at that we’re carrying his footrest right here in front of us! You may not be able to see him, but we know he’s right here on his throne, protecting us.”
So, what does that have to do with these singers going in front of Jehoshaphat’s army? The answer is found in Psalm 22:3. Here’s what David said about God in that psalm. He said:“You are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel.”
David said that God is enthroned on the praises of his people! So basically, back in the day, God’s people would carry the ark of the covenant into battle to show that God was on his throne, going before them. But in this story, they showed that they were so confident that God was with them, all they brought was their praise and worship. They totally trusted that God was enthroned on their praises, just like David said.
And that’s why praise is such a powerful weapon. Because when we joyfully go before the altar and the tabernacle, and we partake of the eucharist, the real presents of Jesus Himself, we go out into the world ready for spiritual battle, giving praise with our voices and with our lives, with Jesus before us. We are being drawn deeper into God’s saving presence, so that we can feel him with us in the midst of the battle. This is a sure way to bring God’s power into the darkness.
In the midst of whatever battle you may be facing right now, I want you to know that God gives us hope. This long war between God and the forces of spiritual darkness will not go on forever.
We know that one day Christ will return and crush all of God’s enemies under his feet. When he returns, the strife will be over. And when the smoke of that final battle clears, we will open our resurrected eyes to a renewed world. And we will dwell in peace with our God forever.
But, until then, the battle rages in our world, and sometimes even in our own hearts. Even though it’s God’s battle, not ours, we are all involved somehow. We’re all impacted by it. We’re all wounded by it.
But we also know that God is the Lord of heavenly armies, who fights for his people. He will not send us into battles alone. God is a warrior who fought for his people in the days of King Jehoshaphat. And he still fights for his people, because his faithful love and his divine mercy endures forever. He is enthroned in our hearts, He is enthroned upon our praises, and his power and his wisdom are as close as our prayers.