Most of you have probably seen the videos that have gone viral of late of people accepting “The Ice Bucket Challenge.” It’s a gimmick to raise awareness of – and funds for – the fight against Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), also known to a previous generation as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.
I accepted the challenge – dump a bucket of ice water on yourself – and I’ve set aside a contribution to the ALS Association. I challenge you to do the same (at alsa.org).
But this morning I challenge you to consider what it means to “be strong in the Lord.” For that is precisely what each of us here is called to become. “Strong in the Lord.”
Just what does that phrase say to you? What image does it conjure up in your head?
Let’s ask the person who first used it: an apostle of God. His name was Paul. And when Paul thought about “being strong in the Lord” his mind instantly went to an image of war. (Eph. 6.10 NRSV) It’s an image of a soldier fully equipped to do battle with the enemy. (Eph. 6.11 NRSV)
Being “strong in the Lord” is deadly serious business; it’s a battlefield!
In that sort of scenario, you are, if nothing else, fully-focused. There are things you just don’t do (like carry things you don’t need). And there things you do no matter what (you “behave appropriately”). cf. Rom. 13.12b-13a NRSV. For it goes without saying: it’s a matter of life and death.
Now let me ask you: how do you picture yourself when it comes to being “strong in the Lord;” when it comes to your engagement in spiritual warfare?
I can’t see your answer, but I can relate to you what I sometimes hear.
“I want to be strong in the Lord, but I’m just not feeling it. I want to be spiritual and I start out doing well, but I seem to quickly fizzle out. What am I doing wrong?”
Does that sound like you? What it looks like is hand-to-hand combat and the battlefield is your mind. God has put his Spirit in us to permeate our mind and work out his will in this world. However, our enemy, Satan, opposes God and us. His plan of attach is to reverse God’s intended nature of things by using the world and its ways to impact us sensually, taking control of our mind and dominating our spirit. The contested ground, the ground where the battle will be either won or lost, is in our mind.
Through the years I’ve had occasion to talk with combat-hardened veterans of military service. Sometimes I’ve asked them what being truly ready for battle is all about. More often than not they do something like this (“tapping their head”) and say something like “keeping your head in the game.”
One time, I had a young veteran – one of the current generation raised on video games like Call of Duty – look me right in the eye and say:
“They lied to me. There’s nothing quick, easy, or fun about killing a man.”
I’ll leave it to you to sort all of that. Including what all that young man must have wrestled with (and still does).
But I think what he said nailed it. It comes down to what we’re thinking and our expectations. Make no mistake about it: our part in the battle – the fulfillment of our duty to God – will be won or lost in our head.
“What am I doing wrong?,” you ask.
It’s likely the way you think about things. Or more precisely, the way you don’t think about your expectations.
How many of us have been duped by the Devil to think our maturity in Christ can, and will, come quickly? How many of us live under Satan’s deception that being a Christian is supposed to come relatively easily? How many of us have been deluded to believe – and diluted in our faith – to suppose that life in God must be fun?
I tell you the reality of it is more like the difference between the look in the eyes of the fresh, new recruit who has never “seen the elephant” and the eyes of the battle-hardened veteran who has seen it all … again, and again, and again.
I challenge you: name one thing that’s solid and central about Christian faith that happens “quickly.” There’s nothing there. It takes time. A lot of time. A lifetime.
Precious little – if anything – about believing, truly trusting God, is “easy.” Faith is “the proof of what we don’t see.” (cf. Heb. 11.1b CEB) What, pray tell, is easy about that?
And “fun?” While joy is certainly part of the fruit that God’s Spirit grows in/on us, that word was never intended to carry the full freight load of what it means to follow after God and his will. If so, someone forgot to tell our Lord, our mentor, our model, the Man of Sorrows. No, strong Christians make use of all the colors in the box, not just happy yellow. They can, and do, “weep with those who weep” and they can, and do, grieve over their sins.
“What are you doing wrong?” It’s likely a matter of the battle going on in your mind. You have a set of assumptions and expectations that have no place on the battlefield, and you’re in the Army now, mister; get your mind right!
Put on the full armor of God! Every day the sun comes up is a day there is an enemy at the gates and evil in the air. (Eph. 6.13 NRSV) Gear up with faith in God, hope in Christ, and love by the Spirit. (1 Thes. 5.8 NRSV) Your life – and the lives those around you – depend on it. And march into battle with the assurance that Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, will see us through to our destiny with him, in him and for him. (1 Thes. 5.9 NRSV)
Who today will take up the challenge? Who will get their mind right by turning a deaf ear to the Devil’s propaganda? Step right into the ranks of the legions who call Jesus “Lord.”