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The Rev. Johann Vanderbijl: “Are we soldiers?” (Isaiah 59:15b-21)

October 28, 2010

Here is a new sermon, titled “Are we soldiers?” by the Rev. Johann Vanderbijl of the Anglican Church of St. George the Martyr in South Carolina; it is based primarily on Isaiah 59.  He asks some pointed questions, to say the least: are we doing great works to redeem the lost?  Are we defeating sin?  Where is the victory in our lives?  But you can read this and see what you think:

The 21st Sunday After Trinity

Psalm 76    Isaiah 59:15b-21    Ephesians 6:10-20    St. John 4:46-54

Are we soldiers?

In the service of Holy Baptism which we all took part in today, the minister makes the following statement after having baptized the individual, whether child or adult.  (BCP 280)

“We receive this Child (Person) into the congregation of Christ’s flock; and do sign him or her (in this case, her) with the sign of the Cross, in token ( in other words, Baptism is an outward and visible sign of some inward and spiritual grace made visible by a certain lifestyle) that hereafter he or she shall not be ashamed to confess the faith of Christ crucified, and manfully (or courageously) to fight under His banner, against sin, the world, and the devil; and to continue Christ’s faithful soldier and servant unto his or her life’s end.” To which the congregation responds with a hearty, “Amen!”

Now I say this and you say Amen to it because it is in our Prayer Book, but do we really mean it when we say it?  And if we do, what does it all mean and how does it impact the way we live our lives?  Are we all really not ashamed to confess the faith of Christ crucified?  If so, how often do you speak to others about Jesus?  Do we courageously fight under His banner against sin, the world, and the devil?  In other words, do we personally practice self-discipline when it comes to those so-called “little sins” like unkind words or thoughts, gossip, over indulgence, little “white lies”, a refusal to forgive, and the like?  Or those “hidden” sins like internet pornography, wicked thoughts and whatever else we do when we think no one else can see us.  Do we resist the infiltration of worldliness in our own personal lives or are we just like the unbelievers when it comes to things like covetousness, materialism, personal vanity and so on?  Do we even know what it means to fight against the devil?  Jesus waged war against him in the wilderness, doing nothing more than simply quoting from Scripture, but do you even know the Scriptures well enough to use them as a weapon again satan?  According to St. Paul’s list of spiritual weaponry in Ephesians 6, the Sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God, the Bible, is our only offensive weapon!  But do we know it well enough to wield it?  Is it a trusty and tried weapon in our spiritual arsenal?  And what about continuing as Christ’s faithful soldier and servant unto our life’s end?  Are we soldiers?  To what end?  Why are we fighting and who are we fighting against?  For what reason?  Do y’all know?  Why do we say these words then if none of us have any idea why we are saying them or agreeing with them in the Amen or if none of us have any intention of fulfilling them once we are made part of Christ’s Body?  In other words, why bother to call ourselves the Church of Jesus Christ if we are not following our Commander in Chief?  Why call ourselves Christians if we are not following Christ?  Are we not then of all men the worst hypocrites…saying one thing, but doing another…?

This seems to have been the problem the prophet Isaiah faced with regard to the people of Israel.  At the time of the writing of the passage we read from this morning, Isaiah 59, Israel was facing some form of national distress (perhaps something like our own present national distress) and they had been crying out to their God for deliverance.  From the opening line it seems as if they had got to a point where they had begun to wonder whether God was, in fact, able to help them.  Now, listen to God’s response.  This is verse 1 of chapter 59.  “Behold, the Lord’s hand is not shortened that it cannot save; nor His ear heavy that it cannot hear.  But (and here it comes) your iniquities have separated you from your God; and your sins have hidden His face from you, so that He will not hear. For your hands are defiled with blood, and your fingers with iniquity; your lips have spoken lies, and your tongue has muttered perversity.”  In other words, there would be no Divine deliverance without real human repentance – without true confession and a determination to abandon their old worldly ways for God’s righteous ways.  The two go hand in hand.  Deliverance and repentance.

But obviously this was not happening.  By the time we get to the third section of this particular passage we read that even though God looked for someone to stand in the breach, so to speak, He couldn’t find anyone.  No one was willing to take up the challenge to fight manfully under His banner.  Everyone seemed to be ashamed (perhaps hiding behind some excuse like “I’m too busy” or “I’m too shy”) to confess their faith in God.  No one seemed willing to give up their worldly way of life…their own comfort for the sake of the kingdom.

But all was not lost….and here we witness the great graciousness of our God.  In verses 16 and following we see God Himself doing what no one in Israel was willing to do…He put on the weaponry of God (see verse 17) to fight against His enemies on behalf of all those who would, indeed, turn from their transgressions to Him.  The object, of course, was that all the nations who were considered enemies would come to fear the name of the Lord from the West and His glory from the rising of the sun (the East).  This Divine intervention would be evident once God Himself showed up in Zion as their Redeemer.  But there is more to this promise than just deliverance.  Look at the last part of verse 21.  God says here that the New Covenant set up with His coming to Israel as their Redeemer would be characterized by the mutual possession of His Own Holy Spirit.  Do you see that?  Read verses 20-21.

Now, it is interesting to see that St. Paul borrowed heavily from this passage in the final chapter of his Epistle to the Ephesians, but note that the weaponry used by the Redeemer in Isaiah is now to be used by all those who follow the Redeemer in Ephesians.  So, what has happened here?  Well, the answer to that question can be found in the Gospels, where Jesus, God incarnated to be our Redeemer, spoke about the fulfillment of His promise to give to those who follow Him, the exact same Holy Spirit, Who revealed Him as Redeemer at His Baptism.

What we need to bear in mind here is the reason why Jesus came to earth.  He came as our Redeemer to defeat satan, sin and death.  That is what He came to do…to save sinners.  He clothed Himself with the armor of God and in the power of the Holy Spirit, Who raised Him from the grave, He accomplished the victory on our behalf.  But as He spoke about the accomplishment of this redemption He repeatedly stated that those who believed in Him would continue to do the works He came to do.  For instance, in the Gospel according to St. John 14:12 Jesus said that we who believe in Him will do the same works He did and even greater.  Greater?  How on earth can we mere mortals do greater works than the Divine Son of God Himself?  Well, He explained that after His ascension to the right hand of God the Father, They would send to His followers the promised Holy Spirit – just as Isaiah prophesied.  And in the power of this Holy Spirit, those who believed then as well as now would be enabled to be power-filled witnesses to Him even to the ends of the world.

It is as we read in the Baptismal service that as Jesus has been given all authority in both heaven and earth, so those of us who are in Him, ought to go into all the world making disciples of all nations.  In doing so, we are continuing the work He began with His first coming.  And we are doing greater works than He did because there are many more of us, all filled with the same Spirit!

In other words, just as Jesus came as a soldier or a warrior to redeem us, so we too are to be soldiers or warriors, using the same armor of God to continue with the mop up operation following His victory over satan, sin and death.

But here’s the million dollar question.  Do we see the Church (at least the global North-Western part of the Church) doing greater works than Jesus in His task to redeem the lost?  Or more pointedly, do we see these greater works being done here at St. George’s?  Are we the soldiers of Christ we are meant to be?  Are we defeating satan, not only in our own personal lives, but also in the lives of those who are in bondage to him?  Are we defeating sin?  Are we still laboring under the fear of death?  Where is the victory in our lives, dearest brethren?  If the same Spirit that was the Agent of creation and the One Who raised our Lord Jesus from the dead…if He lives in us, as we just confessed that He does, then why are we not doing greater works than Jesus?  Something is rotten in the state of the Church, don’t you think?

Today’s Baptism forces us to examine our lives…to see whether or not we have lived up to the vows taken by our parents or by ourselves at our own Baptisms.  If we are not, don’t you think we ought to do something about that?  Indeed as Bishop Ryle once said:

Let us search and try our hearts with honest self-examination, and seek to find out whether there is any real work of the Holy Spirit in our inward man. Far be it from me to encourage the slightest approach to hypocrisy, self-conceit, and fanaticism. Nor do I want any one to look for that angelic perfection in himself on earth, which will only be found in heaven. All I say is, let us never be content with the “outward and visible signs” of Christianity, unless we also know something of “inward and spiritual grace.” All I ask, and I think I have a right to ask, is that we should often take the (Scriptures – the Word of God – the Sword of the Spirit – the Bible) in our hands, and try to find out by its light whether we are (in fact) “born of God.” (J.C. Ryle, the Upper Room, “Victory”, Banner of Truth, Carlisle, PA, 1970, 139-140.

Dearest beloved brethren, Jesus said that it was to our advantage that He ascend to the Father so that They might send to us the Holy Spirit.  He said that this same Spirit would give us the power to be witnesses to Him so that we might continue to fulfill the task He came to begin, namely the reconciliation of the world to Himself.  He promised that if we…we who know how to give good gifts to our children even though we are evil..if we simply ask the Father, He will give us the Holy Spirit.  And even though we believe we have all received the Holy Spirit in Baptism and in periodic refillings as we seek to do His will, where is the evidence of His Presence in our lives?  Where?  Are we perhaps guilty of resisting Him or quenching Him as the Bible warns us not to do?  We know that His hand is not too short that it cannot save…we know that His ear if not deaf so that He cannot hear…we know that the problem does not lie with Him.

So, as you prepare to come to partake of the symbols of Jesus’ victorious self-sacrifice, ask Him to help you examine your hearts to see if perhaps your own iniquities have not separated you from your God and if your own sins have not hidden His face from you so that He will not hear your prayers.  Ask Him to help you be honest as you look at the vows taken at your own Baptism.  Are you a soldier for Christ?  Do you confess Him before your neighbors?  Do you seek to make disciples of all nations?  Do you fight again sin, the world and the devil?  Is your life a witness to Him?  If not, dearest beloved brethren, pray the Father to send to you a fresh inflowing of His Holy Spirit, even today as you kneel before Him, so that He might empower you to be His soldier and His servant to your life’s end.

I would like to conclude this sermon with a prayer found at the end of the Rev. Francis Chan’s book on the Holy Spirit, entitled, Forgotten God: Reversing our tragic neglect of the Holy Spirit.  I have changed a few words here and there so that it would be more suitable for our use here at St. George’s.  Would you join me in prayer.

The Lord with you.  (And with Thy spirit.) Let us pray.

Father, we know that we have done wrong with regard to the Third Person of the Trinity, Your Holy Spirit.  Please forgive us for grieving, resisting, and quenching Him.  We have resisted Him through sin, through our rebellion, and through our own hardness of heart.  At times, we have been spiritually blind.  At other times, in our heart of hearts, we knew what you wanted us to do, but we chose to ignore His promptings.  But this is not how we would like to live from now on.

So, we ask for You to do what we cannot do.  We need You to change us.  Spirit of the Living God, we ask that You would fall afresh on us this morning.  You are the Spirit of truth, of holiness, of life.  We need Your wisdom and understanding as we seek to live the life You want for us to live.  We need You to help us to seek God’s Kingdom first and His righteousness above all else.  So, to this end, keep us from disbelief and from fear.  Protect us from the evil one and from the many voices threatening to drown out Your voice and from all that seeks to conform us to the patterns of this world.

Give to us, Holy Father, through the power of Your Holy Spirit, the self-control we need to deny our flesh and to follow You.  Give us a love strong enough to motivate courageous action in Your Name.  Manifest Yourself through us so that we might serve our fellow brethren in Your love.

So, come Holy Spirit…even though we do not fully know what that means and what Your coming would look like for each one of us…but nevertheless, whatever it means, and whatever You need to do, we ask for You to visit us anew this day and to set us ablaze with a renewed zeal for God’s Kingdom and for His will to be done in and through us.

And this we ask in the mighty and glorious and precious and victorious name of our Lord and our Redeemer, Jesus Christ.

Amen.

©  Johann W. Vanderbijl III    2010

As the old hymn goes, “Am I a soldier of the Cross, a follower of the Lamb…?”

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