Saturday, August 25, 2018

Year B, Pentecost 14, Ephesians 6.10-20, Cosmic Powers of Darkness

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.  Amen
There is a phrase, a slogan that has gained popularity over the last century or so in our politics.
“Drain the swamp.”
I quote an author, John Kelly, writing in his blog in 2016:
“In a press release from Oct. 17, 2016, Trump pledged to “drain the swamp in Washington, D.C.”  He then tweeted:  “I will Make Our Government Honest Again – believe me.  But first, I’m going to have to Drain the Swamp.”  What is he talking about?
“Politicians have long colored calls to clean up government corruption with drain the swamp.  In 2006, newly elected Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi pledged to “drain the swamp” in Congress after 10 years of Republican control.  After 9/11, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld committed to “drain the swamp” of terrorism; the phrase was a favorite of Bush administration officials during the ensuing wars they launched in the Middle East.  Earlier, in 1983, President Reagan described his chief mission as “draining the swamp” of big government.
“At its bottom, drain the swamp is a metaphor: If you  drain the swamp, you eliminate the mosquitoes (or snakes and alligators, in other iterations) that breed disease.  But ironically, the original disease the expression referred to was the very thing Trump has built his campaign on: big business.
Drain the swamp isn’t just a vivid conceit with a revolutionary flair: It also alludes to the stubborn myth that Washington, D.C., was built on a swamp, which fatefully, had to be drained to accommodate the new seat of American democracy and power.
 Myth aside, drain the swamp has proved sticky over the course of the 20th century, used by Democrats and Republicans, socialists and capitalists, to condemn whatever particular malady they believe is plaguing our government.”
End of quote.
Why is it that a phrase such as “drain the swamp” has gotten so much traction over the years, being used by both Democrats and Republicans?
What is it that resonates about that concept?
The reason is both simple, and troubling at one and the same time.
People sense, deep within them, that we are engaged in a battle against the forces of evil.  It’s that simple.
And yet, it is troubling in that we cannot identify the true face of evil in our midst.  The “enemy” is hidden.  And there is no agreement on who the enemy is, and who it is that will lead the fight against the enemy.
In the politics of today, with all the divisiveness, some see our president as the champion of good who will overcome the evil that has plagued our government, while others see him as the very face of evil itself. 
It would be much easier if the forces of evil all were easily identifiable, if the devil was always red with a tail as pictured in folk lore.  Or if the good folks all wore white hats, and the evil ones black, like in the old western movies.
For all of the confusion, though, there is one thing that the Bible affirms as being true.
There are forces of evil at work in the world that are at battle with the forces of good.
Paul writes in Ephesians:
For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.
“The cosmic powers of this present darkness” – now there is an ominous phrase.
At the time that the Book of Revelation was written, a time when the Church was under severe persecution, it was the Roman Government that was envisioned by John as being the beast, the evil power in the world that must be opposed, and that would one day be defeated by Christ himself.
At the time of Martin Luther it was the papacy, the institution of the Church itself that was seen as the evil force that needed to be challenged and reformed.
In more recent world history, Karl Marx identified capitalism as the source of evil in the world and called for the workers to rise up against it.
Most of us grew up in an age that responded to Marx’s criticism of capitalism with our own conviction that it was communism that was the source of evil in the world and which must be opposed.  The Soviet Union was viewed as the evil empire.
Today, our most common enemy is and has been terrorism and our country has been at war since 2001, our longest continuous conflict, against those forces.
Lyndon Johnson, during his presidency called for a War on Poverty and in order to fight it, introduced massive government programs to fight poverty, creating ‘entitlements’ that subsequent politicians would identify as evil.
Ronald Reagan, in response to these programs, launched his own agenda of reform of big government, with the well worn phrase that “Government is not the solution, government is the problem.”
Richard Nixon declared that drug abuse was “public enemy number one” and initiated the War on Drugs, which today accounts for a massive prison population in our own country, and outright conflict at our southern border as we fight the illegal drug traffic.
We could go on and on.
Many of these efforts to combat evil are like swatting mosquitoes, no matter how many you swat there are more to come.
But there is an underlying reality that we are confronted with time and time again, and that is that there exists in the world a power of evil that seeks to destroy us.
The cosmic powers of this present darkness.
Paul writes:
3Therefore 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. 14Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. 15As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. 16With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. 18Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints.  .  .
Stand firm in the Lord.
This is the response that Paul offers to the conflict with evil in our world.
In Martin Luther’s hymn A Mighty Fortress we sing:
“The old Satanic foe
Has sworn to work us woe!
With craft and dreadful might
He arms himself to fight,
On earth is not his equal.
No strength of ours can match his might!
We would be lost, rejected,
But now champion comes to fight
Whom God himself elected.
You ask who this may be?
The Lord of Hosts is he!
Christ Jesus, mighty Lord.”

Another popular hymn, deemed too militaristic to be included in our hymnal is Onward Christian Soldiers:
Onward Christian soldiers!
Marching as to war,
With the cross of Jesus
Going on before.
Christ the royal Master,
Leads against the foe;
Forward into battle,
See, His banners go!

It strikes me, that as we are faced with the reality of evil in our world, many of us Christians are a bit like the hippies of the 60’s.
In response to the Vietnam War they wanted to speak about nothing but ‘love and peace’.
That’s in part, why hymns like these are looked down on today.
Too militaristic.
And yet, the Bible tells us time and time again that there is a battle raging all about us.
There are forces of evil greater than us.
But as dire as those warnings may be, the promise is even greater.
The battle against evil will be won.
It will not be won by the likes of Trump or Obama, but by Christ himself, and so people of faith are called on to stand firm and trust that God himself will thwart all the efforts of the evil one.
This is the good news.
The challenge for us is that this battle will continue to rage till the end of time.  That’s one of the messages of the Book of Revelation, that it is not until the end that all the forces of evil will finally be defeated.
I suggest to you that in the meantime, what we are called to do is celebrate small victories, even if the final battle is yet to come.
Every time love prevails over hate, there is a victory.
Every time forgiveness is offered, there is a victory.
Every time justice is done, there is a victory.
Every time we face this world of uncertainty with faith, there is a victory.
These are not the victories that we have achieved, but rather the victories of God.
And here is the ultimate measure of our faith: that we believe in the end that God wins.
That’s our hope.  That’s our faith. 
That’s God’s promise.

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