Posts Tagged ‘war’

Warfare

January 30, 2009

Sunday 18 January 2009  

Jeremiah 31:15-17, Psalm 124, Revelation 21:1-7, Matthew 2:13-18

 

Someone once said that we are born into a world at war, and that we must arm ourselves.  There is fierce fighting taking place at present in Gaza in the Middle East, and in many other parts of the world.  Israel and Palestine are fighting over land; there are many wars over territory, but this particular piece of land has religious significance for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike, and represents the promises of God to His people.  Some people are caught up in this war against their wishes, while others are willing to die because they are passionate about what they are fighting for.  If this is true of a war over physical territory that the Bible calls the Promised Land, then how much fiercer is the war for the true Promised Land of the New Covenant, which is the gift of abundant life in our hearts.

 

We are in the year 2009. In the natural realm we associate the number nine with birth, since there are nine months of pregnancy before a woman gives birth.  In the spiritual realm, we are in a season of radical change and new birth.  Some of the events taking place in the natural realm around us are a spiritual window into what God is doing in His church and in our hearts and lives individually.  In Isaiah 42:14 God says, “I have kept silent for a long time, I have kept still and restrained Myself.  Now like a woman in labour I will groan, I will both gasp and pant.”  He is actually speaking of Himself in the language of a pregnant woman giving birth. 

 

The results of this birthing process are dramatic: “I will lay waste the mountains and hills and wither all their vegetation; I will make the rivers into coastlands and dry up the ponds.  I will lead the blind by a way they do not know, in paths they do not know I will guide them I will make darkness into light before them and rugged places into plains these are the things I will do, and I will not leave them undone.” (Isaiah 42:15-16)  The past few days there was, unusually, an earthquake in the Shetland Islands and the north of Scotland, and there have been sudden strong winds and rain overnight here in London. Again, for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear, these natural events speak of the season we are in spiritually.  God is changing the landscape inwardly.

 

We heard in the Gospel today how King Herod felt threatened by the birth of Jesus, and how he therefore tried to destroy him.  When he was unable to discover where Jesus was, he was angry and instead ordered the murder of all the boys under the age of three in the surrounding areas.  Often when there is a war there are civilians and innocent bystanders who are caught in the crossfire and killed.  These children and their families had nothing to do with either the birth of Jesus or the war for Herod’s heart, but they were innocent victims of the warfare and of Herod’s anger.

 

However, this story does not give us the whole picture.  Revelation 12:1-4, 7-9, 13-14, 17 gives us an insight into the much greater and more intense battle behind the scenes:

A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars; and she was with child; and she cried out, being in labour and in pain to give birth. Then another sign appeared in heaven: and behold, a great red dragon having seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads were seven diadems. And his tail swept away a third of the stars of heaven and threw them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to give birth, so that when she gave birth he might devour her child…

 And there was war in heaven, Michael and his angels waging war with the dragon. The dragon and his angels waged war, and they were not strong enough, and there was no longer a place found for them in heaven.  And the great dragon was thrown down, the serpent of old who is called the devil and Satan, who deceives the whole world; he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him…

And when the dragon saw that he was thrown down to the earth, he persecuted the woman who gave birth to the male child.  But the two wings of the great eagle were given to the woman, so that she could fly into the wilderness to her place, where she was nourished for a time and times and half a time, from the presence of the serpent… So the dragon was enraged with the woman, and went off to make war with the rest of her children, who keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus.

 

This may sound like a fantasy adventure. However, the adventure is not a fantasy but it is a spiritual reality, and what we often do not realize is that what takes place in the spiritual realm is much more real and affects our lives at a much deeper level than anything you can see or hear going on in the world around you.

 

The story of the spiritual battle is told here in symbols: the woman is the Virgin Mary, the child is Jesus, and the serpent or dragon is Satan.  It was not only King Herod but Satan who tried to destroy Jesus soon after His birth, because he had heard that Jesus was the Son of God.  The woman flying into the wilderness speaks of the journey into Egypt (the eagle speaks of the wisdom and revelation that God gave to Joseph, and of the strength He gave them to take that journey).  The other children who are mentioned at the end, against whom the dragon continues to make war even today, speaks of the young children who were killed by Herod – and if we keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus, as the Scripture says, then it speaks about us.

 

In the natural realm, eagles are greater than serpents – they are able to fight against them and eat them alive.  The good news is that God is much greater than Satan.  Jesus defeated Satan two thousand years ago on the cross – He ate him alive.  But Satan will not be completely destroyed until the end, and in the meantime we must fight the battle by surrendering our wills to Jesus and making Him the Lord of our hearts.

 

What do we learn from the story?  Firstly, it tells us who the real enemy is.  Ephesians 6:12 tells us that our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.  We are not fighting against people – even though people may disappoint us, offend us or hurt us in various ways, there is more to this than meets the eye.  Nor are we fighting against the circumstances – the weather or the economic situation or even war and terrorism – because these things are in God’s hands.  Our enemy is unseen.  However, Christ has defeated him already, and the power he has is through deception and through the un-surrendered areas of our minds and hearts.  Therefore the way we fight the battle is not by fighting back when people hurt us or by trying to earn and save more money so that we can survive financially – if we do these things we have been distracted and the enemy already has us where he wants us.  The only way we can win is by allowing the truth of God’s Word to penetrate and shine its light into the dark places within our minds and hearts.  The bondages in our lives are mostly based on deception, where we have believed the lies of the enemy.  Our addictions and ungodly patterns of behaviour are ways in which we try to protect ourselves against the things we most fear – such as failure and rejection.  Yet very often our fears are based on something that is not real.  It is only when we allow the Holy Spirit to search our hearts, and when we confess our sins and surrender these areas to Him, that we will be able to overcome.

 

Secondly, when God is birthing something spiritually, there is great warfare.  Jesus spoke of wars and earthquakes and famines and persecution as the “birth-pangs” or “labour pains” of His Kingdom in our lives.  But He also encouraged us to persevere in the midst of these trials, by promising that he who endures to the end will be saved. (Matthew 24:13)  Today’s Gospel quotes from the first lesson, and tells us that the murder of the children was the fulfilment of a prophecy made hundreds of years earlier.  We are not told why this happened or what God’s purpose was in allowing it to happen, but what is very clear is that God allowed it to happen, and that He is fully in control.  This should encourage us to trust that God is in control, even in most painful trials of our lives and in the circumstances that are the most difficult for us to understand.  His plans for us are good, to give us a hope and a future.  He knows the number of hairs on our heads and will not allow one of them to perish.  However He tells us not to fear those who destroy the body, but to fear the one who is able to destroy both the body and the soul in hell.  His plan is not to give us an easy life but to ensure our eternal salvation.  The battles are for our good, in order to make us stronger – not in our own strength, but to learn to rely on God’s strength much more as we become aware of our weakness and our great need for Him – and they are a sign that He is at work in our lives and that the enemy is not happy.

 

Our Psalm today says that if God had not been on our side when the enemy rose against us, we would have been swallowed alive and our soul would have been drowned.  Sometimes the struggles in our lives seem overwhelming, and at these times our only hope is to turn to God.  The reason why He allows us to experience these trials is so that we will learn to put our hope in Him, and not in people who will eventually let us down, or in money and material riches, or in any of the pleasures and comforts that the world has to offer us.  All these things are false securities that will eventually fail us and that will not be able to satisfy our needs, whereas God in His riches will fully satisfy us.  If we trust fully in God, and build our lives on His promises and walk according to His Covenant, then His promise is that “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they will not overflow you.  When you walk through the fire, you will not be scorched, nor will the flame burn you.” (Isaiah 43:2)   Israel passed through the Red Sea, and through the River Jordan in the season when it was flooded, and they were not drowned because God cut off the waters so that they walked on dry ground.  In the book of Daniel, three young men were thrown into a furnace heated to seven times its normal strength; but because they refused to obey the demands of the king that they should worship false gods and because they refused to deny their faith but trusted in God, an angel entered the furnace with them, and they were not burned.  If you trust and obey God, then no matter how difficult the trials are, He will preserve your life.  Even if you die physically, your soul will never die.

 

Thirdly, the enemy attacks those who are the most vulnerable, and he attacks us when we are at his weakest.  This is perhaps an obvious strategy, although we are not as aware of it as we should be.  In this story Satan did not attack the wise men or Joseph – he attacked a young mother and her baby, and many more young children.  We need to guard our hearts, especially when we experience any kind of spiritual or emotional struggle, and pray for those who are weaker spiritually than we are.

 

This reminds us of our duty to protect and care for not only those who are most vulnerable spiritually in our families and in the church, but also those who are the most vulnerable in society around us.  Today the Charismatic Episcopal Church celebrates “Sanctity of Life Sunday”.  The founding fathers of our communion were deeply involved in the battle to preserve human life, especially against the evil of abortion.  This has become a high-profile political issue in the USA, and many people make this the main consideration in their presidential elections, because they understand the importance of a matter of life and death and they take it seriously.  Probably you have not heard it mentioned so much in the UK – it is more often kept a secret, but we now have almost the highest abortion rate in the world.  People who are in favour of abortion speak of the “rights” of a woman to make choices concerning her body.  However, a woman who makes this choice, whatever her reasons, is sacrificing the life of a helpless human being who is not able to make the choice for him or herself and who has no-one to protect or defend him or her.  There are many reasons why women have an abortion – fear or shame because of their families or boyfriends, emotional and spiritual struggles, health or financial reasons, or even plain selfishness.  However none of these really compare with the gravity of taking the life of someone who is weak and completely helpless.

 

The amazing thing is that God has made Himself completely helpless and vulnerable by choosing to come into the world as a baby through the womb of Mary.  Jesus was completely dependent upon His human family to protect Him – of course, with the help of God – when Herod and Satan tried to destroy Him.  He became fully one of us and shared fully in our weakness and vulnerability.  This is why we should also identify ourselves with those who are most vulnerable and by God’s grace seek to help them.

 

Scientists, philosophers and politicians have invented all kinds of clever argument to try to determine the exact point at which an embryo becomes a human being, and the debates continue as to exactly when during the pregnancy abortion should be allowed.  The issues have now become more complicated and confused as scientists experiment with genetic modification, conducting stem-cell research and even mixing human and animal tissue and attempting cloning.  Only time will reveal the full fruit of man’s wisdom.  From God’s perspective the issue is very clear and simple.  Psalm 139:13, 15-16 says You formed my inward parts; You wove me in my mother’s womb… My frame was not hidden from You, when I was made in secret, and skilfully wrought in the depths of the earth; Your eyes have seen my unformed substance; and in Your book were all written the days that were ordained for me, when as yet there was not one of them.  We are created by God from the beginning.  We do not become human beings at some stage in the process of developing from an embryo: we are human from the moment of conception, and our beginning is in the mind of God.

 

Abortion is murder, pure and simple.  In civilized societies, murder is not acceptable, but it is punished by death or by a long prison sentence.  This past week I received an email with photos from Iran where an eight-year old boy had been caught stealing a loaf of bread, and was punished by having his arm crushed underneath a car.  The subject of the email was, “Is this human?”  Most people would be shocked if we were to suggest allowing this kind of abuse to take place in our own country.  Someone could have taken the risk of trying to protect the boy, and at least the boy was not actually killed.  Yet we fail to be shocked at the legalised murder of unborn babies who have no one to protect them.

 

The deeper issue is the sanctity of human life.  Abortion is only one of the ways in which it is violated.  Another is euthanasia – the decision to end one’s own life with medical assistance.  This is now legal in some countries, and a few weeks ago someone was actually shown doing this on British television.  The name and the procedure are a deception intended to make what is evil appear respectable – the real name for euthanasia is suicide, and the real name for abortion is murder.  We live in an age where very few people can tell the difference between good and evil.

 

God destroyed the whole world in the flood, but He preserved a few of every living creature, and He preserved the life of man.  After the flood, God promised that He would never again destroy mankind, and He said to Noah, “Surely I will require your lifeblood; from every beast I will require it.  And from every man, from every man’s brother I will require the life of man.  Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed, for in the image of God He made man.” (Genesis 9:5-6) Here is the basic issue: human life is sacred because God has made us in His image.  We did not evolve from monkeys, and we are not just a collection of atoms and chemical reactions that have somehow by accident learned to breathe, think intelligently, experience emotions and walk with God, His Spirit dwelling in our spirit.  We are different from every other creature in existence because God created us in His image.  God gave us life, and only He can take it away.  Once we start making decisions about ending the life of any human being – whether someone else or ourselves – we are arrogantly setting ourselves up to be higher than God.  If we are not shocked by abortion, it is because we have not yet fully received the revelation of what it means to be created in God’s image.

 

The commandment to love our neighbour as ourselves, and all God’s laws and commandments, begin with our creation in His image.  It is because we are made in God’s image that we are called to treat one another and also ourselves with respect and care, and it is because we are made in His image that we are able in any way to know God and to walk in His love.  When we commit adultery, judge, lie, steal, dishonour, falsely accuse or in any other way hurt or abuse one another – whether in actions, words or even in our thoughts – we are violating the dignity and sacredness of human life, and we show that we have fallen short of God’s glory, and of what it means to be created in His image.

 

God created us to exercise dominion.  He said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” (Genesis 1:26)  The fact that God has made us in His image means that He has entrusted great authority to us.  If this is true of all people beginning thousands of years before the coming of Christ, how much more is it true of us who are empowered by the Holy Spirit and who are called to rule with Him as kings over the whole earth in the future age!  Although we lost our authority through sin, it has been restored to us in Christ.  Revelation 12:5 tells us that the Virgin Mary gave birth to a son, a male child, who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron.  King Herod was afraid that Jesus would take away his authority, and Satan was even more afraid that Jesus would take away the authority that he had stolen from us.  This is why all the baby boys were killed, this is the reason for abortion, and this is the reason why, ever since he tempted Adam and Eve, Satan has always tried viciously to destroy the image of God.

 

Jesus said, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10)  Satan is a thief, a liar and a murderer; we need to recognize this, and we need to recognize that whatever brings destruction comes from him.  Jesus gives us abundant life through His incarnation, death, resurrection and ascension into heaven, and through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.  He gives life not only to our physical bodies but to our hearts and souls – in our health, our wealth, our work and leisure, our relationships, and in our relationship with Him.  The work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts gradually restores us to the original glory of the image of God in which we were created.

 

“Refrain your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears; for your work shall be rewarded, says the LORD, and they shall come back from the land of the enemy.  There is hope in your future, says the LORD, that your children shall come back to their own border.” (Jeremiah 31:16-17)  These words were written for the parents of the babies murdered by Herod, that their suffering was not in vain.  We heard in the second lesson about the comfort that we will receive in the future age, where there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain.  Yet this comfort begins here and now in the midst of our trials when we receive the peace of God in our hearts by faith.  The “land of the enemy” means the land of death.  Remember that death is not just literal death, but everything that is the opposite of abundant life.  It means every kind of oppression, abuse or torment, and whatever would destroy or prevent us from receiving not only physical life in our bodies, but the abundant life of God in our hearts and the full glory and dignity of the image of God in which we were created.  God is saying, do not weep any more, but rejoice because your prayers have been answered, your hard labour will be rewarded, your suffering has not been in vain.  I am bringing you back from the land of death to have life in My presence.  

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