Jonathan Edwards, a revivalist preacher in the 1700s, is known for his sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” I even remember reading it in my Junior Year English class as an example of imagery. It’s intense imagery, too. You really get a sense of an angry deity holding humans in its divine hands over a fire pit just waiting for an excuse to drop them. It is fear-inducing imagery.
I do not agree with the purpose of Edwards’ imagery, but it is a wonderful example of the power of imagery, and how words create a story in our minds.
I debated a bit on the Scriptures for today because of the armor imagery used. The description of a helmet, breastplate, shield, and sword can produce a slew of images in our minds.
From Precious Moments-type cartoons, thinking of kids playing superheroes (niece is obsessed with Wonder Woman right now - with her lasso of truth (not quite the same but still)…
To a simple outfitted soldier…
To an image straight out of Lord of the Rings…
It is all about the context and nuance placed in the story.
These verses in Ephesians, over the centuries, have created imagery of being a “soldier for Christ.”
For some of us here it is very comfortable imagery - feeling that as Christ-followers on this earth we are constantly doing spiritual battle between good and evil/selflessness and greed/love and hate.
For others of us the imagery makes us uneasy - feeling that there is a slippery slope from being protected with Christ’s teachings (as in wearing armor) to using these verses to support violence on behalf of the Christian faith.
What’s important to remember here in reading these verses is that the author of Ephesians was using imagery - a literary strategy - so that the people would understand the message. Instead of writing to the church at Ephesus, “you need to prepare for life on this earth, because you will face struggles and conflicts and you’ll need Christ’s teachings to determine what is right,” the author wrote “hey, you know how a soldier is protected from an arrow with his shield, having faith in God can help protect you from making unwise decisions.”
At the root of these Ephesians verses is a message of preparedness. And it is important for us to remember that the imagery used was imagery that the people of that time would understand. Imagery that we understand, too. Though I believe all of us here would prefer a world where we didn’t need to think of protecting ourselves from other other humans, we do. The people of Ephesus did, as well, and so they could relate to this imagery.
What I take from these verses is a message of preparedness for living a Christ-like life, not a message for physical battle.
Coupled with Psalm 84, we hear a message of peaceful and secure living through God’s presence (or courts) and Christ’s example of living (in truth, righteousness, peace, faith, and prayer).
Psalm 84 is a song of praise - praise of being within God’s courts - praise of being within God’s presence.
[It] is one of the "Songs of Zion" which, Walter Brueggemann explains, "serve to celebrate, legitimate, and enhance Zion-Jerusalem as the epicenter of reality wherein YHWH dwells permanently in a way that guarantees the city," thereby making the people feel safe--after all, God is in their city. Could there be a better source of security? (KM, ucc.org)
Back then, the city-state and religious practices were closely tied together. So, psalms such as these were a way for psalmists to tie God’s presence to the city, which would directly connect with the imagery of a physical court and doorkeeper.
We can also gather from these verses that it isn’t only a physical court the author is speaking about, because I don’t foresee birds making nests on the altar something that would be encouraged. (I know we have our facility issues here, which are constantly being worked on! However, I’m pretty sure if birds were building a nest in the sanctuary, we would find a way to safely relocate their nest outside.)
And so, how else would birds find peace in God’s presence if God’s presence were not all around us in Creation? Truly, we are always in God’s presence - but the praise comes when we acknowledge it.
So, this Psalm speaks to the peace and security found in acknowledging that we are within God’s presence.
And how can we recognize God’s presence? In so many ways, but I believe one way is in seeing truth, righteousness, peace, faith, and prayer being intentionally practiced. We experience God’s presence when we prepare ourselves with these things.
A few weeks back, the sermon message was on anger. I used road rage as an example of poor use of anger. Sure enough, after lunch that day, I sat in a 30 min standstill on the interstate. And I laughed at the irony. But, I was prepared - prepared in my mind with wisdom on not letting it enrage me.
(Not to say that I make every decision in a wise and prepared way....but it was one victory on the road in life.)
This business of “doing church” is a way that we prepare ourselves for life in this world. The author points out that our biggest enemy/opposition in this world isn’t other humans - it is those spiritual forces that bring us down - the more secure we feel within ourselves and knowing we are in the presence of God, the less we are driven to anger, to fear, to loneliness, and so on.
Practicing contemplative prayer, attending nightly discussion groups, listening to one another’s life experiences, reading what Christians thought centuries (or years) ago, fellowshipping with people who are like us and people who are not...all these things help to build our preparedness...so that we speak in truth, so that we live morally just lives as best we can, so that we strive for peace, so that we strengthen our faith, so that we find salvation in acknowledging God’s Spirit all around us.
That is where we find salvation from the evils of this world: through living within God’s beautiful sanctuary. Better is a thousand days in the presence of truth and peace than anywhere else. We find salvation in God’s love.
Kathryn Matthews says it well: “If God is love, and we know that's the truth, then that "source of life" is also our best home, our best refuge (our best "defense"), our best security and shelter. Love is our best defense, indeed.” (ucc.org, Sermon Seeds)
Scripture: Psalm 84; Ephesians 6:10-20