Sermon: Proper 16 / Pentecost 13 RCL B – “Armor of God”

Two hunting stories. Both of them true. Both of them involve your’s truly.

When I was growing up in Louisiana, I would always look forward to going squirrel hunting. I was a bit like Dug the Dog in the movie Up! – “Squirrel!” I remember when the season began my grandaddy would come wake us up well before light, load us up in the truck, and have us in the woods as the sun was rising.

The late part of squirrel season would overlap with the early weeks of deer season, and I’m not sure why, but it seems we would always continue with squirrel hunting with one addition to the morning preparation: putting on the orange hunting vest.

I hated that vest because I was convinced that it was bright enough to scare the squirrels off, but my grandfather insisted and so I wore it, with the exception of one day.

I had been hunting for an hour and had not seen a single squirrel. Convinced that it was the vest, I took it off and stuck it in my back pocket. I walked along peacefully for another half hour, when suddenly a war zone of rifle fire broke out around me. A couple of fellas started hollering at each other and then there were more shots. Deer hunters. There was another bit of silence and then another shot. That last bullet hit a tree about a foot away from me. It was then that I realized I was the “deer” they were shooting at. Fortunately for me, they were miserable shots or were just shooting in my general direction because they had seen movement.

At some point, they realized I wasn’t a deer. There was a bit more shouting and then they slinked off without showing themselves.

I was still frozen to the spot when, a short time later, my grandaddy showed up. He had my orange hunting vest in his hand. It must have fallen out of my pocket somewhere along the way. He knew exactly what had happened. He walked up to me and handed me that vest. His only comment, “You dropped this.” The subject of me not liking the orange vest during deer season was never brought up again.

Years later, when I was living in Montana, I had some friends that had a ranch up in the mountains.  It was a wonderful place to visit and go elk hunting.  Now I’ve never shot an elk, but on one particular afternoon during elk season, in another fruitless attempt, I headed out and decided to follow a fence line for a while.  It was on a slight incline up the side of the mountain, and there was only about six inches of snow on the ground, so it wasn’t a difficult walk.  It was in the late afternoon, so after about a mile or so it was time to turn back.

On the way up I had been looking around attempting to spot that elusive elk, but on the way back down it was getting dark, so I was more aware of my footing, even though I was following my same path back down.  I hadn’t gone but about twenty-five yards when I noticed another set of footprints placed perfectly inside mine.  No, they were not human tracks but were instead the tracks of a rather large mountain lion.

I immediately looked up to see if I could spot him, because he would have been very close, but he was no where in site.  For a good while I didn’t move, just kept looking, but after feeling a little more comfortable that this bold predator wasn’t going to attack, I continued down the mountain.  I thought maybe he had recently come across me, but all the way back down the mountain there were my tracks and there were the mountain lion’s.

He had started following me about the time I had entered the tree line, which was most of the trip.  In my mind, I was convinced that the entire time I was looking for an elk, the mountain lion had been trying to decide whether or not he could have me for supper.

Do you ever reflect back on your life in amazement that you are actually still alive? Anyhow…

In our Gospel reading today, Jesus is concluding the Bread of Life discourse, but in doing so, he angers many who were following him by telling them that he is this bread of life. They may have misunderstood and thought he was suggesting some form of cannibalism when he said, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” Whatever their reasoning, they chose to leave at which point Jesus turned to the twelve, his closest followers, and asked, ”Do you also wish to go away?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”

Those twelve and many others knew that Jesus was the Messiah, difficult teachings and all, and remained with Him. However, following his death, resurrection, and ascension it was left to these followers, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to discover how to go about following Jesus in their day-to-day lives. Getting shot at because of my stupidity and being tracked by a mountain lion illustrated to me in a very real setting what these followers learned.

When I consider the circumstances of that first event, squirrel hunting, I always think of the verse that we read today from Ephesians, “Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.” Every time I think about that mountain lion in Montana, I am reminded of a particular passage from Peter’s first epistle, “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.” Now, I’m not one who sees the devil around every corner or behind every bush, but I also know, to quote 20th century Hollywood wisdom, “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he doesn’t exist.” So when I think on those two events from my life and those two verses that they remind me of, then I weave them together in my head, which gives me a very practical stratagem and reason for learning how to follow Jesus: Put on the armor of God, because the devil is looking for opportunities to attack you.

By telling us to “Put on the whole armor of God,” Paul is wanting us to understand that there is a battle taking place around us and the victor’s prize is our soul. He uses these images of a warrior preparing for battle so that we will see and understand how serious this fight truly is. However, to put it on, we must understand each piece.

The first piece of Paul’s armor is the belt of truth. At the trial Pilate asked Jesus, “What is truth?” We know Jesus as the ultimate Truth, but we also know that we must seek to know the truth of God, not through some casual acquaintance with Him, but instead through a deep longing to understand his will.

The breastplate of righteousness is the righteousness we have through Jesus and not anything of our own making; and putting on the boots of the Gospel of peace is Paul’s way of telling us to fulfill the Great Commission, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.”

The shield of faith protects us against the temptations of sin that would drag us down; and the helmet of salvation gives knowledge of forgiveness and redemption.

Finally, Paul instructs us to take up the sword of the spirit, which is the word of God. Not only the “Instruction Manual,” but the words that God gives us to defend ourselves. Think of Jesus’ temptation in the desert. Three times the devil tempted him, three times Jesus responded. What were Jesus’ responses? Deuteronomy 8:3, 6:16, and 6:13.

Many have pointed out that there appears to be no armor for the back, which points to the necessity for Christian community. The 13th Warrior. Great film. The enemy is about to attack and Ibn is inexperienced in battle. Turning to one of the Norsemen on how they would defend their position, Herger the Joyous responds, “When they come, we form a circle in the center of the room, backs to one another.” We need one another for support, accountability, and fellowship. Our very lives provide armor to those around us.

I believe you know and understand these things, so I will tell you what I believe is the biggest mistake Christians make when it comes to the Armor of God: they wait until it’s too late, until they’re in the heat of battle to put it on, just like it was too late for me to put on my orange vest when those idiots started shooting at me. The battle for our souls is not an “if,” but a “when,” so be prepared by daily putting on the armor of God, because the devil is looking for opportunities to attack you.

Let us pray: Father in heaven, you have made us for yourself; our hearts are restless until they rest in you. Fulfill this longing through Jesus, the bread of life, so that we may witness to him who alone satisfies the hungers of the human family. By the power of your Spirit lead us to the heavenly table where we may feast on the vision of your glory for ever and ever. Amen.

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