This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 3/1/20, at Whittier First Friends Church, near Los Angeles. The scripture reading for this sermon was: Ephesians 6:10-13. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text)
The most challenging message to preach right now is hope.
Because things aren’t going well. The world around us is dark and darkening. I don’t need to tell you about it, you know. You’ve seen it.
We need hope. And that’s different from optimism. Optimism is a stubborn insistence, in spite of all evidence, that things are going to turn out well.
In times like these, optimism amounts to little more than denial. It’s a refusal to see the pain of the world. It’s willful blindness to the spread of violence, hatred, and death. In times like these, for people like us, optimism is far too often a retreat into comfort. It’s the instinct to cocoon, to bury our hearts in privilege and wealth; telling ourselves the lie that “it won’t happen to us.”
No, today we don’t have any business being optimistic.
But hope. Hope is the the heart of the gospel. It is the promise of the cross and the content of the resurrection.
And as we know from Princess Leia in Star Wars: rebellions are built on hope.
In some sense, that’s what the whole Christian religion is about. An improbable rebellion against the overwhelming forces of darkness, violence, and empire. Against a domination system that would rather destroy planets rather than surrender power and release control.
The death and resurrection of Jesus is the victory announcement of God’s revolution. The return of the true king. The restoration of the Galactic Republic. A thousand generations of order, peace, and justice.
In our scripture reading this morning, from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, we hear a dispatch from the front lines in this cosmic battle. It’s a message not of optimism, but hope. A message that calls us to courage in the midst of great challenges. A message to a people who stand in front of the machinery of war, who stand in front of the modern armor of the 21st century state and say, “you shall not pass.” Faced with the armor of violence and death, we put on the armor of Christ’s light.
Paul is exhorting us to hope this morning, not because we are strong, but because in our weakness we have access to a power that topples empires and raises up the poor. We have hope, not because we are bigger than the rulers and authorities that trample the needy and threaten to destroy us, but because we have put on the armor of God.
This is the power of love. The power of nonviolent, non-cooperation with evil. The power that says, in the words of Obi Wan Kenobi: “If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.”
This is the power that Paul speaks about, when he says we do not struggle against flesh and blood – our fight isn’t with people! We are never to hate, or hurt people! Our struggle is with the cosmic powers of this present darkness; the animating spirit behind the gulags and the jail cells; the evil genius behind the hydrogen bomb and the Trident missile.
Our struggle is not with men and women, not with Donald Trump or Vladimir Putin, or Kim Jong Un. Our struggle is with the systems of oppression that keep us all in bondage. When the kingdom is come in fullness, when every eye sees Jesus and every knee has bowed, we will all be free. That is our faith. That is our hope.
Our hope is in the liberation of all living beings, the whole cosmos. This is the content of our faith, the promise of the resurrection. Healing. Restoration. Hope.
But not optimism. Because as Paul reminds us, the struggle is real. Our fight may not be with flesh and blood, but flesh and blood is suffering. The struggle is real, and the revolution will not be spiritualized.
Something that strikes me in Paul’s words to the Ephesians is that he tells us to put on the whole armor of God, to dwell completely in God’s power, relying on God. And Paul knew that his words could be misunderstood. He knew that the folks in Ephesus might think Paul was saying that we could “spiritually” stand in God’s power, and wait on God to do everything for us. He knew that many of us would want to sidestep our responsibility.
So Paul specifically says, in verse 13, “Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm.”
…and having done everything, to stand firm.
The gospel is not that God will solve our problems for us, without any effort on our part. The gospel is that God is inviting us to partake fully in the ministry of Jesus – including both crucifixion and resurrection. The good news is that Jesus Christ will be made visible in our own bodies. If we put on the whole armor of God, his power, and stand firm. We can be transformed, and we can transform the world around us.
I want to take us back to Princess Leia for a minute. Back to hope. Because rebellions are built on hope. And as Paul reminds us, we are in a rebellion of sorts. As followers of Jesus, we are called into what the early Quakers referred to as The Lamb’s War.
We are in a spiritual warfare with the power behind the throne. We are at war – not with people, but with the demonic animating forces, the systems of injustice behind the CIA, the Pentagon, Wall Street, a global empire that claims to work for the benefit all while crushing black and brown bodies and silencing the poor and the refugee.
We’re in a spiritual warfare, and that’s why hope is so important. It’s hope that gives us courage and perspective. Hope of the resurrection. Hope of the kingdom. Hope of a community of love and justice, where even the most evil people – including us! – can be redeemed.
You’d think hope would be a pretty easy sell these days. Couldn’t we all use some hope? But I’ve found it’s actually the hardest message to accept. Because hope is challenging. Hope means being fully present with the reality of the crisis we’re facing.
We’re living in a time of despair. Despair is the weapon that the rulers, the authorities, the cosmic powers of this present darkness use to keep us in our place. Despair is that suffocating blanket held over our faces, saying “there’s nothing you can do; you’re powerless; give up.”
The powers and principalities of this age smother us with despair, and they present us with three false responses. As far as the powers are concerned, any of these three responses will do. They’re all good. They all keep us in line, disempowered, and shackled to the narrative that the rulers have created for us.
The alternatives to hope are escapism, idolatry, and hatred. And each one is appealing, because they don’t ask us to change our lives. They don’t demand that we challenge the system. They may not get us where we want to go, but at least we don’t have to pick a fight with the schoolyard bully. Escapism, idolatry, and hatred are the paths of least resistance.
But they are paths that lead to destruction. That’s why God sent Jesus to minister to us, to die for us, to rise from the dead and walk beside us forever. Because in Jesus we discover that there is a fourth option. Instead of escapism, idolatry, or despair, we can choose hope.
Hope is a hard path, but it is one that leads to authentic joy. The hope of Jesus provides us with a clear response to each of the false answers that the kingdoms of this world offer us.
Escapism offers us opiates to dull our senses and flee from reality, but the hope of Jesus gives us light to see in this darkness. We may not like what we see. It’s going to be painful to see the world as it really is. But it’s real. We don’t have to waste our lives chasing after shadows.
Idolatry offers us the consolation of false gods – consumerism, nationalism, political saviors, ideology. But the hope of Jesus reveals the one true God who created all the principalities and powers and judges them according to their deeds. In Jesus, God relativizes all the gods of this world. The truth of the gospel puts everything into perspective. This doesn’t make the struggle easy – but it does make it possible.
In the face of this world’s violence and hatred, the hope of Jesus offers us a path of unwavering love. This hope chooses to receive suffering rather than inflicting it. The way of hope works to redeem and transform our enemies.
As a droid named C-3PO once said in The Empire Strikes Back, “the odds of successfully navigating an asteroid field are approximately 3,720 to 1.” Our country, our communities, this church – we’re navigating an asteroid field the likes of which we’ve never seen. And our odds aren’t good. But Friend Han Solo speaks my mind when he says: “Never tell me the odds.”
Never tell me the odds. Because I’m not optimistic. Objectively speaking, I think the odds are terrible. But in spite of that, I believe we have reason for hope. The power and spirit of God is available to us. To guide us. Transform us. To make us like Jesus, taking part in both his cross and his resurrection.
Never tell me the odds, because we worship the God who created this asteroid field. God knows the way, even if we can’t see it quite yet.
Never tell me the odds, because hope isn’t about running the numbers, it’s about trusting our leader. Jesus knows what he is doing.
Paul writes to the Ephesians, “Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm.”
The days are feeling pretty evil lately. Will we stand firm, obeying as the Spirit leads us? Will we have the courage to engage in the struggle with the rulers and powers that seem so mighty? Will we be able to say, “we have done everything – everything you asked of us, God”?
We can. We must. The future of our planet depends on it. But if we are going to stand firm, we must put on the whole armor of God. We must embrace the hope that empowers us to love our enemies, pray for those who persecute us, and work tirelessly for justice – even when it may cost us everything.