Over the past few Sundays, we have been looking closely at Ephesians. Today, we hear how Paul sums up his letter’s message. Hear these words from Ephesians 6: 10-20:
10 Finally, let the mighty strength of the Lord make you strong. 11 Put on all the armor that God gives, so you can defend yourself against the devil’s tricks. 12 We are not fighting against humans. We are fighting against forces and authorities and against rulers of darkness and powers in the spiritual world. 13 So put on all the armor that God gives. Then when that evil day[a] comes, you will be able to defend yourself. And when the battle is over, you will still be standing firm.
14 Be ready! Let the truth be like a belt around your waist, and let God’s justice protect you like armor. 15 Your desire to tell the good news about peace should be like shoes on your feet. 16 Let your faith be like a shield, and you will be able to stop all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Let God’s saving power be like a helmet, and for a sword use God’s message that comes from the Spirit.
18 Never stop praying, especially for others. Always pray by the power of the Spirit. Stay alert and keep praying for God’s people. 19 Pray that I will be given the message to speak and that I may fearlessly explain the mystery about the good news. 20 I was sent to do this work, and that’s the reason I am in jail. So pray that I will be brave and will speak as I should.
“Finally, be strong in the Lord.” Paul begins the conclusion of his letter with a charge to be strong in the Lord. So what does strength look like? Think of someone who is physically strong. Now, when I think of people who are strong physically I tend think of athletes and I’ll proudly confess they are normally of the Pittsburgh teams- for better or for worse. But think about what does it takes to be physically strong? It may take hours of intense training to build strong muscles, a good diet, hours of practicing special skills, and getting into the mindset of I can do this through my own strength–no matter what. Some might say athletes are even trained to be unaware of their weakness. Retired pro basketball player, Michael Jordan once said, “My attitude is that if you push me towards something that you think is a weakness, then I will turn that perceived weakness into a strength.” But even athletes need protective helmets and equipment to keep them safe. We might also think of soldiers, brave men and women on dangerous front lines—people who require some type of armor or protection. The Christians in Ephesus, would be all too familiar with armor. As citizens walked through the marketplace purchasing ingredients to provide meals for their families, they would encounter soldiers dressed in uniforms designed to protect their bodies from harm. The Ephesians knew how someone looked when they were physically strong and they knew armor was designed to protect whoever wore it. Is this what strength looks like?
Friends, strength can also look a little different. Strength can be possessed by a man who only consistently weighed 143 lbs. throughout his lifetime. A man dressed in a casual sweater and comfortable sneakers, who captured the imagination and hearts of children in neighborhoods around the country. A man who for many years quietly shared the gospel of loving God and loving and welcoming neighbor with children and adults alike through the words of King Friday the 13th and of Daniel the tiger. The late and great Rev. Fred Rogers spoke of strength and where he believed strength came from with these words, “Most of us, I believe, admire strength. It’s something we tend to respect in others, desire for ourselves, and wish for our children. Sometimes, though, I wonder if we confuse strength with other words—like ‘aggression’ and even ‘violence’. Real strength is neither male nor female; but it is, quite simply, one of the finest characteristics that a human being can possess.”
So think with me for a moment—what is real strength? Earlier this week, I posed this question and took a bit of an informal Facebook poll challenging my friends to come up with a short definition of “real strength.” Here are some responses- real strength is…Contagious, kindness, patience, forgiveness, being kind to others, keeping the faith when you don’t understand the whys of life, doing what you feel is right even though it might go against popular opinion and your own best interests, the result of combining courage with action, faith in Christ, knowing and owning your weaknesses, a gift from God, knowing who you are and learning to overcome the obstacles that come your way, living day to day holding your head up in times of trouble and relying on God and not the world, knowing you are weak but choosing to overcome obstacles with whatever it takes, trusting God to help you be strong and guide you in the right direction, real strength comes from within and inner strength comes from faith.
I think a lot of my friends were right on target in their descriptions. Real strength is a single parent who works day in and day out but still has time to read a child a bedtime story at the end of a long day. Real strength is standing up to bullies. Real strength is showing up to do the right thing even when we don’t feel like doing the right thing. Real strength is helping those whose voices are not heard bubble to the surface and become heard. Real strength can be found in those who are emotionally strong, those who carry the concerns of others—nurses and caregivers, teachers, and friends. Different people possess different types of strengths.
So where then, does this strength come from? Friends, real strength only comes from God. According to the words of our scripture passage today, strength is choosing to be strong in the Lord and in the strength of God’s power. We don’t have to rely on our own power and friends that is good news! I don’t know many people who like to talk about their weaknesses, we tend to want others to think we have it all together and our culture isn’t one to allow us to show weakness. Yet, unlike athletes who try to hide their weakness from opponents, we can own our weaknesses and rest in the knowledge that God works in us despite our weaknesses, because God is strong and able. God can take what we perceive as weakness and uses that weaknesses for something amazing, something one of a kind, something extraordinary. Friends that is real strength.
God’s strength and power protects us, therefore we are challenged to put on the whole armor of God—the whole armor and not just the pieces that we like or not just the pieces which will help us gain popularity or influence-but put on the whole armor of God. Why would we protect our head without protecting our heart? Why would a football player wear a helmet and not knee pads? A solider would never consider going into a battlefield with just a shield to protect them. We need every piece of God’s armor because we live in a world where we will have to stand against many different types of evils. As followers of God, we are constantly going to be faced with struggle and we do not have to look far to find the devils of this world. We need God’s strength and armor to stand tall against all the evil of the world and to protect us.
We need to wear the belt of truth in world of lies and with God’s help speak the truth to our neighbors in love. We need the breastplate of righteousness in unjust world where evil is more and more prevalent. We need to put on peace shoes to run with urgency from place to place and proclaim God’s message of peace in a world which is anything but peaceful–but which desperately needs to hear a message of peace. We need God to protect us with the shield of faith and grant us the helmet of salvation. And we need the sword of the Spirit. The Spirit is so important because the Spirit guides us and empowers us to rest in God’s strength despite our own weakness. And we can’t neglect or forget prayer!!! With all the armor on we can’t forget that God is our true source of real strength. Therefore we need to take time in prayer to be connected to the source of our strength.
Real strength is a call to stand, to stand up, to stand against, and to stand tall. To trust God day in and day out. To put on the armor of God and to surround ourselves with God’s strength day in and day out…over and over again. Friends, relying on God’s strength every day can be a hard road to walk. It is hard to stand against evil in a world where evil is so present. But the good news is, through it all we are not alone—we follow a God who does not call us to follow without equipping us with the armor we need. We serve a God who exhibits real strength in and through the ministry and person of Jesus Christ—through being among the people, sitting with outcast, being present in people’s lives, teaching creatively, and befriending the lonely. Music has a wonderful way of teaching us more and more about our faith. I think the words of one of my favorite children’s camp songs says it the best, “My God is so BIG and so STRONG, and so MIGHTY, there’s NOTHING my God cannot do!” Let us rest in God’s real strength. Amen.