Epiphany 3 - Spiritual warfare
As we are living at a time when almost anything you might say will offend someone; let me run that risk by asking you whether or not you are ignorant? If we can take the emotion out of the word then it is true of each of us. I am ignorant. My wife likes me to sit with her and watch University Challenge. I am usually able to answer about half a dozen questions, but only ones connected to science. As the majority of questions are about literature and arts I haven’t got a clue: I am ignorant when it comes to them.
To illustrate how ignorance can affect us, let me try you out with this story! 50 years or so ago there was a Cockney fella called Joe who was facing a dilemma. He very much liked two women and didn’t know which one to choose. Whilst churning this over in his mind he came upon a church and thought he would ask God to show him. So he went in and knelt down and prayed, “Lord, who should I marry, Maria or Sally?” As it happened he had gone into a Catholic Church. As he stood up he looked at the wall and immediately thanked God for answering him; for there on the wall was written ‘ave Maria’.
My wife found that very funny because she attended a Catholic School and she knew that what was actually written on the wall was Ave Maria, the Latin for ‘Hail Mary’. But if you are ignorant of that fact then the humour is lost. But this is a great example to show that ignorance is not always our fault; it can depend on our education and life experience. But this morning I will attempt to show that in one area of Christian life, all of us are ignorant.
Our first reading today was from the Book of Revelation. Coupled with the Gospel reading you will have noticed that the theme of each was a wedding celebration. In both the weddings people were invited to attend. However, rather than use the official reading I would have preferred Matthew’s account of a royal wedding to which many were invited. In it Jesus made this shocking point:
But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. He asked, “How did you get in here without wedding clothes, friend?” The man was speechless.
‘Then the king told the attendants, “Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” ‘For many are invited, but few are chosen.
The man was ignorant of what was required to be accepted at the wedding banquet.
The wedding supper of the Lamb in the reading from Revelation is an allegory, teaching us about God’s chosen people. They are described as the Bride of Christ. They are those who belong to Jesus and who will inhabit a new world. The allegory teaches us that these people are qualified to attend for this reason:
Fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear.’
(Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of God’s holy people.)
Many people are ignorant of exactly what this correct wedding garment is. It is a garment of faith: faith in Jesus that changes the desires of our hearts; faith that propels us to live holy lives; faith that we are pleasing God as we obey his will in our daily actions.
The message of the Book of Revelation overall is easily missed. It tells us by allegory that there is a continual cosmic spiritual warfare happening all around us. This is the way to read the Book of Revelation: it is telling us that the church of Jesus should be engaged in a life and death spiritual struggle. Those who conquer in this struggle will be correctly clothed ready for this Royal Wedding. But I contend that all of us in different degrees are ignorant of this spiritual warfare.
Spiritual warfare is a theme throughout the New Testament. For instance, Jesus engaged in spiritual warfare during his time in the wilderness which we shall soon be recalling in Lent. He also engaged in spiritual warfare with the religious leaders who attempted to neutralise his message. St Paul reminds us of this warfare in the Ephesian letter where he states:
Put on the full armour of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.
Last June at the Cathedral when Dawn was being ordained as a priest, I was intrigued by the promises they have to make, such as obeying the Bishop and studying the bible. Having worked for Canon Michael in his office for some four years, I mischievously added another. One of the non-romantic parts of a Vicar’s job nowadays involves dealing with emails; so, I thought perhaps they should add this one – ‘I promise to read and answer all emails on the same day that I receive them’. Yes, if you love emails and a full inbox then become a Vicar!
But more seriously, one promise which I doubt will ever be added to the list would be something like this: ‘I promise to engage in spiritual warfare against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms’. This would be because we are ignorant about this spiritual struggle and there are few people if any who can instruct us. Spiritual warfare is not just blatant things like the need for exorcisms in people or houses. It covers anything which hinders us from doing the will of God: there is always spiritual opposition to the Kingdom of God.
One of the main strands of this warfare is to keep people in ignorance about it. St Paul wrote about ‘the devil’s schemes’. But there are many people who don’t believe in a devil who is a being – a person. Now if someone is ignorant of his existence they will hardly be bothered about his influence on them. Another strand is to keep people in ignorance about life after death in a new world. People are fed the idea that everyone will be in heaven. This is despite Jesus teaching that ‘many are invited but few are chosen’; or that admission to the wedding supper of the Lamb requires a person to be given the correct clothing.
This idea is spawned from a wrong view of what St John wrote when he penned: ‘for God so loved the world’. It is the idea that God is so sentimental that he can never reject anyone. For a start, that famous translation about God’s love is misleading because it has retained the 17th century word ‘so’. We now use ‘so’ as a superlative – that meal was so wonderful, you look so beautiful. The real meaning of the word ‘so’ is a simple statement of fact: it means ‘in this way’. So the verse should read:
For God loved the world in this way: He gave his one and only Son
Most translators have been over-concerned about people’s sentimental objection to leaving ‘so’ out; in fact, out of 57 English translations, only 7 were brave enough to give the true meaning.
It is also suggested that when a person sees God as he really is they will be changed from being evil to being good. This idea is roundly rejected in the Book of Revelation. The book makes it clear that Satan rebelled and was thrown out of heaven to earth where he now makes war on God’s holy people. Satan saw God as he really was, but his response was to rebel and embrace evil. This is why the people invited to the wedding of the Lamb have to be selected; God will not risk his new world being polluted by evil as this present world is.
Let me describe how this selection might work by offering an unusual illustration. How would you like to spend Christmas with Donald Trump? I needed to choose a present-day character who incites a reaction. Now if some people were asked this question they might exclaim angrily, “I’d rather go to Hell!” Now again there could also be another response – a rather shrewder one. Some people might think to themselves, “Well he’s a billionaire, so if I go I might get a really expensive gift; but I would want to get away as soon as possible!”
Trump is what we would call a ‘marmite character’ – you either love him or loathe him. That’s how I believe it will be with God. Those who think God can be shrewdly manipulated because he is love will have an enormous shock. Now why can I say this; because Jesus was a divisive character too.
We have sanitised and sentimentalised Jesus; painting a picture of him as someone that you can’t help liking. But a plain reading of the bible shows that he too was someone you either loved or hated. As St John wrote in the chapter before our reading:
He was in the world — the world came to be through him — yet the world did not know him. He came to his own homeland, yet his own people did not receive him.
Jesus was rejected and crucified by his own race who of all people should have understood and accepted him. There is an inbuilt hatred of God in many which will be manifested when they see him as he is. In this way, those chosen to be in the new world are self-selecting: as the devil rejected God and didn’t want to be near him, so many will find that on seeing God they are repulsed by him. It’s good not to be ignorant about these really important matters.
I like to bring something which challenges our faith and commitment. After all, as the hymn writer Isaac Watts wrote:
‘Must I be carried to the skies on flowery beds of ease?’
Spiritual warfare affects every person in the world. It is particularly directed at the Church – the Bride of Christ. Can I encourage us all to take this on board and discover how to fight the good fight in the power of the Holy Spirit?