This is Memorial Day weekend. With that in mind, there are four Bible passages that will make up today’s sermon, two from the Old Testament and two from the New Testament.
The first passage is from the Old Testament. It is the first part of chapter 3 of the Book of Ecclesiastes, which helps me understand why there are wars.
It is easy for me to ask why can’t we all just get along, but it seems we cannot . For instance, just in my lifetime we have had the Korean War, the Vietnam War, two wars in Iraq, and one in Afghanistan. Those are the major conflicts I can easily recall. There have been many, many more less-major examples of fighting.
Now it seems we are drawing closer to armed conflict with Iran. A build up of forces is happening even as we speak. And of course there is the threat from North Korea, which continues to test missiles, some short range and some long range.
Why can’t we all just get along? Actually, Ecclesiastes 3 does not give the answer to that question, but part of this first passage reminds us wars do happen. They have happened since the beginning of civilizations. They will continue until the Lord returns. That is stated in parts of Ecclesiastes 3. Listen to all of verses 1 through 8. I will emphasize the parts about war.
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under Heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; a time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.
The author of Ecclesiastes is Solomon, considered the wisest man, not only of his time, but of all time. He had the gift of wisdom from God because that is what he asked God to give him.
Solomon was wise enough to know that life features many good times. Times of being born and planting and healing and building and laughing and dancing and embracing and sewing and peace. However, life also brings difficult times, including times of dieing and killing, mourning, casting stones, rending, and war.
I might add that sometimes wars are very necessary to defend personal or national rights and freedoms or to help others who are suffering. I think the wars in which we have been involved as a nation have been necessary to defend ourselves and/or our friends and/or treaty partners.
Some of our wars have been necessary to show our strength and thereby thwart further attacks against our people or our land.
Why can’t we all just get along? It seems that is a worthy goal, but even the wise Solomon knew that does not happen - this side of Heaven, it does not, did not, never will happen. Which means we as a nation, for all our history, have had and still do have people who have served in the armed forces of the United States. Some of those soldiers have given their lives in service to their country. It is those soldiers who were the original honorees of Memorial Day
Thinking of those who have given their lives in service to this country, and therefore for us, their fellow citizens, here is a New Testament verse, which is the second passage for today. John 15:13. A verse quoting Jesus saying, “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”
Let us not take those words out of context. They have an overwhelmingly spiritual connotation. In fact, Jesus said the verse shortly before He Himself was to die. He wanted to remind His disciples - and us - how much love that act would display.
But if that was true for Jesus, it is also true for us. Those who have given their lives, even in military service, to protect us and others, have sacrificed greatly, often because of their love for their friends - their fellow citizens or those who need help elsewhere. Of course, some have served over the years because of the military draft, but they served, sometimes to the point of death. Many others, including now, volunteer to serve. Again, to defend and protect others.
On this Memorial Day weekend, let’s be thankful that over the years we have had men and women willing to lay down their lives for us. That has kept us a free and thriving nation. Let’s be thankful.
But of course, others have served and survived. They, too, need to be honored because they also risked their lives for us. And of course, having people willing to serve is not just a past thing. It continues even today.
For them, there is another Old Testament verse that comes to mind. It is actually the same thought expressed in many verses in chapter 1 of the Book of Joshua.
We will remember that after a very long time of slavery in Egypt, the people of God were finally allowed to escape. Their leader was Moses, who took the people of God toward what was known as the Promised Land - a land promised to them by God.
Unfortunately for him, Moses was not allowed to enter the Promised Land. After his death, the leadership went to Joshua. It was Joshua who was responsible for getting the people of God into the land promised to them.
To prepare Joshua for that task, the same thing was said to him three times. This was God speaking to him. Verse 6. “Be strong and of good courage.” Verse 7. “Be strong and very courageous.” Verse 9. “Be strong and of good courage.” In verse 18, Joshua said the same thing to the people. “Be strong and of good courage.”
Interestingly, there might have been one reason Joshua would have been afraid. In verse 17 the people told him, “Just as we obeyed Moses, so we will obey you.” The issue was that the people had not regularly obeyed Moses. They had often criticized him and murmured against him and rebelled against him and threatened to remove him from power so they could return to slavery.
Joshua must have hoped the people would obey him more than they had obeyed Moses. The wording of the people had to have been troubling for Joshua. However, what was about to happen - the crossing over into the Promised Land - was God’s idea. God’s mission. God’s plan. A plan God guaranteed would work. So yes, Joshua,”Be strong and of good courage.”
Again let us not take those words out of context. They have an overwhelmingly spiritual connotation that was specific to the situation Joshua was facing. However, as soldiers even now serve, not only this nation, but the name of God - as soldiers even now fight for freedom, including religious freedom - the call for them is to also be strong and courageous, knowing God is pleased when those in danger and the poor and downtrodden are served and protected. Yes, even in times of war, and between times of war.
On this Memorial Day weekend, we know wars have, do, and will happen. We honor those in our U.S. military who have given their lives and we encourage those who currently serve.
However, the wars we face are not only international or physical in nature. We who are Christians also face spiritual warfare. As we know that Jesus laid down His life for our spiritual freedom, let’s think about what we can do to carry on the spiritual fight, thereby each of us being spiritual soldiers.
For that, the fourth Bible passage for today. Ephesians 6:13-17. It describes the various pieces of spiritual armor we are to put on.
The armor - the armor of God - is very important for Christians to wear. It is how we can be able to withstand whatever evil comes our way.
The description refers to what Roman soldiers wore at the time. It begins with the girdle.
The girdle - we would call it the belt - is the part of the armor that goes around the waist. A part that has a number of uses. A soldier’s uniform at the time of Paul often included a tunic that was long enough that it could wrap around his legs or feet, which could of course cause him to trip as he moved. Except for the girdle or the belt, which, when tightened, kept the tunic in place. The girdle was also often used to hold the sword, which we will get to later.
Spiritually, the belt represents truth. Truth is what is supposed to hold everything we wear - everything we are - in place.
What is truth? It is sincerity and being moral. It is being both those things based on the word of God.
If we do not have truth, we will be in danger of being tripped up when faced with spiritual enemies. I do not want to be tripped up. You do not want to be tripped up. So we need to have the girdle - the belt - of truth.
Verse14 begins with the word “stand.” That is Paul’s challenge for us to be strong, which we can be when we put on the belt of truth, and follow that by putting on the next piece of the armor, which is the breastplate. Having a breastplate is important because it protects the chest, which holds the heart.
Of course, the heart keeps the blood flowing. Of course, if the heart is damaged, there is no way the rest of the body can keep going. That is what is meant physically.
But spiritually, the heart represents our courage. We know the phrase, “Ya gotta have heart.” Oe negatively, if someone loses his or her courage, it can be said he or she has “lost heart.”
The heart is very important, physically and spiritually. We need to have healthy hearts if we are to have the will to obey God and the strength to serve Him. That is why God has the breastplate as part of the armor He makes available for us.
What does His breastplate represent? Righteousness, which is defined as treating God, others, and ourselves rightly - the way they and we are supposed to be treated. As in worshiping and obeying God, being fair, kind, and encouraging to others, and being peaceful and patient with ourselves.
Concerning that last part, we know it can be easy to get down on ourselves when we make mistakes or do not grow as quickly as we would like or when we feel not as popular or successful as we would like to be. But we are to be patient and peaceful with ourselves.
We are also to treat others well. We are to treat God properly. All that is righteousness, which, if we have it, will protect our hearts.
Put on the girdle of truth. Put on the breastplate of righteousness. Then, put on your feet the proper equipment.
Equipment refers to shoes, which were and are very important for soldiers. Rocks, stones, pebbles could and can hurt the bottoms of feet. Plus, back in Paul’s day, enemies of Roman soldiers often buried sticks in the ground, with sharp points sticking up. Not far enough up to be easily seen, but far enough up to cut a soldier’s feet, which would happen except when the soldier was wearing shoes.
Shoes are a critical part of spiritual armor, designed to keep us moving as quickly as we can for, says the passage, the purpose of telling the gospel of peace. Peace with ourselves, peace with others, peace with God.
Put on truth. Put on righteousness. Put on peace. Then take the shield, with which you can quench flaming darts.
This piece of the armor has an interesting history. A common weapon of war at the time of Paul were flaming darts. The tips of darts would be covered with pitch. The pitch would be set on fire. The darts would then be thrown.
If a soldier was hit with such a dart, it would cause injury at the point of impact. That would be bad enough because darts were usually very heavy. But it would also cause burns, at least around the point of impact. If it happened to catch the uniform on fire, much more injury would be inflicted.
A dart was a very dangerous weapon. A weapon that resulted in a special kind of shield being developed, which consisted of two layers of wood glued together. The goal was to catch the darts, thereby stopping them before they hit any part of a body. The burning tips would get imbedded in the first layer of wood. The glue would snuff out the fires.
And the shields were large enough to protect much of a body. They had to be large because the paths of darts were difficult to discern as they were headed in. Held high, the shield would protect the head and neck. Held a bit lower, it would add to the protection of the chest given by the breastplate. Held even lower, it would protect the legs and feet.
Physically, the shield was an important part of the armor of a soldier. Spiritually, it is an important part of our protection because for us, flaming darts come from Satan, including persuasions to delve into the bad parts of human nature, such as impurity, selfishness, doubt, fear, disappointment, anxiety, depression.
The flaming darts thrown by Satan are a formidable weapon, which is why the shield offered by God is important. A shield made, not of wood and glue, but, according to the passage, faith, which refers to our trust in God and His promises. The shield God offers - the shield we are to take - is complete trust in Christ. Taking it means holding it close, which is the call that we are to keep Christ close to us. That is how we can be protected against whatever the evil one sends our way.
Then take the helmet, which I think is one of the neatest pieces of the armor.
With Roman helmets, the back of the head was covered, which means the soldier was protected from what was behind him. The sides of his head were covered, which means he could not be distracted by the things going on beside him. He did have a bit of peripheral vision to guard against being attacked from either side, but he could not be distracted by other things going on beside him. The only opening was to the front, so his focus was always ahead.
We who are Christians are to take the spiritual helmet offered by God. The helmet of salvation.
Do we realize what that means?
It means we are not to worry about what has happened in the past. Salvation has wiped past sins off our records. We do not have to be burdened by them ever again.
It means we do not have to be distracted by things going on around us. Things that threaten to take our attention off the spiritual goals we have. We do not have to lose our spiritual focus.
It means our attention can stay on what is ahead. Such as God’s continued blessings now and the hope of Heaven later.
A girdle, a breastplate, and shoes, a shield and a helmet. Those are five parts of the armor of God. As we take each part and put it on, we will have the truth, the righteousness, the peace, the faith, and the salvation needed to defend ourselves against any attack directed our way by the evil one. By Satan.
Each of those parts has a defensive purpose. There is one more piece of the armor that has an offensive purpose. We are to take the the sword of the Spirit.
Of course, a sword is also a defensive weapon. It can be used to protect. But it is an attack weapon as well. Spiritually it can be used to attack Satan and any of his minions or feelings or problems he sends our way to hurt us.
Spiritually, our sword is the word of God. Our sword is the Bible. Both the Old Testament, which gives us things like the Ten Commandments and many, many predictions of a Savior, and the New Testament, which tells us how Jesus is the Savior. Both the descriptions of who God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit are, and what they teach us about how we are to live now as we look forward to the beauty of Heaven. And how to make sure we reach Heaven, rather than being condemned to Hell. That to reach Heaven, we must accept Jesus as the Savior He is.
Back to a sword used defensively, the word of God reminds us of how to stay strong against the lies of Satan.
The armor of God will help us defend ourselves against any attack directed our way by Satan. Let’s all remember to put on that armor as we honor Christ on this Memorial Day weekend.
And yes, let’s encourage those currently serving in our nation’s armed forces as they work to keep our religious freedom alive. Let’s be thankful for those who have died in service, fighting for our freedoms. Let’s be thankful, even during times of war, which have, do, and will happen.
Happy Memorial Day.
Today’s closing song is a hymn that reminds us of the foundation the Lord offers us. A foundation of strength for those in the military fighting for freedoms. A foundation for all of us as we engage in spiritual warfare. How Firm a Foundation, verses 1, 2, and 4.
How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord,
Is laid for your faith in His excellent Word!
What more can He say than to you He hath said,
To you who for refuge to Jesus have fled?
Fear not, I am with thee; O be not dismayed,
For I am thy God, and will still give thee aid;
I’ll strengthen thee, help thee, and cause thee to stand,
Upheld by My righteous, omnipotent hand.
“The soul that on Jesus hath leaned for repose
I will not, I will not desert to its foes;
That soul, though all Hell should endeavor to shake,
I’ll never, no never, no never forsake!”
Lord, thank You for the national freedoms You have given us. Thank You that there have been and are men and women willing to fight to preserve our freedoms - willing even to the point of death. Thank You for the spiritual freedom You have given us, and thank You for giving us spiritual armor to take and put on so we can engage in the spiritual fights we face. With You we can be victorious, now and always. Keep us in the fight, for ourselves and for Your glory. Amen.