“This Present Darkness”
August 26, 2012
First Christian Church
It was sometime after my first year of college, that I read a book that was truly one of those books I couldn’t put down. In fact, a lot of people couldn’t put that book down in that summer of 1988. The book is called “This Present Darkness” and it was written by Frank Peretti, who became a well-known fiction writer in Evangelical Protestant circles. The novel focuses on the pastor of a small church in the town of Ashton and the challenges he goes through. He finds out over time that several leaders in town including the pastor of the large church in town, we taking part in a dark conspiracy. As our fearless pastor is taking on the big boys, there is another battle taking place between angels and demons. Both groups were described in vivid detail and the did real battle against each other. More often than not, the two battles would intersect, with both angels and demons interacting with the human beings and effecting the outcome of the earthly battle.
One of the spiritual takeaways from the book was the importance of prayer. The pastor of the small church was someone who prayed; by himself, with his wife and with others. Prayer seemed to actually make a difference- on earth and in the heavens.
It’s been nearly 25 years since I’ve read the book. Looking back, I don’t agree with some of the theology, but on the whole I think the book was good in helping explain spiritual warfare and the power of prayer. This Present Darkness and its sequel, Piercing the Darkness remind us that there is far more going on in life than what we see and that we have the power in Christ to change what is going wrong.
Today’s passage is a letter to the church at Ephesus. This person is writing this from prison and trying to tell the church about what is really at stake in this world. The passage is a bit jarring to folks, with all the talk of putting on armor and gearing up for battle. The writer is borrowing from a passage in Isaiah 59 where God is speaking against the injustice taking place in the land of Israel. God talks about putting on a breastplate and fighting alone against the crimes taking place. In Ephesians, it is now the young church that is asked to stand against the powers that seek to rule in this world with God.
It might seem a bit silly in our day and age to talk about evil spirits. And you don’t have to believe in demons as they were portrayed in This Present Darkness. But even if you don’t believe in evil spirit, evil still has hold on people in ways that can’t easily be brushed off with will power. It’s not that surprising to learn that people in our churches, the neighbors across the street, the people we work with are facing struggles that can only be dealt with through the power of Christ. I know there are folks struggling with various addictions and mental illness, kids being bullied, women facing abuse from their loved ones and so on. We might think these are just problems that can be solved with a new law or better enforcement. I’m not denying that sometimes we need laws to stop evil. But as followers of Jesus, we are also dealing with powers that we can’t see; powers that can’t be stopped soley with legisation. And we also know, or we should know that these powers are aiming for us as well. Which is why the writer talks about working in God’s power and putting on all of this armor to protect us from the wiles of the devil. That why God tells us to be clothed with trust, protected by justice, grounded in peace, assured of our salvation and speaking in the Spirit.
As a congregation we deal with these powers daily. We worry about the economy and the budget and it’s hard to focus on working for God’s kingdom when there’s seems to be little in the bank.
But we are called to take heart, gird ourselves and then move out in faith. People deal with many struggles and wonder if they can make it. Take heart in knowing God is on your side and will help you stand against the evil one. We have this trust because we know of the God of justice who has saved us and freed us and continues to do that in our lives.
During my fourth year in college, my college fellowship spent Spring Break on the North side of Chicago. We spent time working with a Baptist congregation in town that was actively engaged in the community. During that week, I remember meeting an elderly woman who was without a home and came to the soup kitchen to grab a meal before heading out into the cold Chicago evening. I remember working with the neighborhood youth and hearing one girl casually say that her mother kicked her out of the house and she had to find another place to lay her head. We saw a lot of people dealing with poverty and homelessness. We saw the powers at work on the Northside of Chicago.
But on Sunday, the church gathered, made up of people on the street and those in homes and they came to praise God. Even though it seemed evil had the upper hand and was crushing those who lived in this neighborhood, we were reminded of the God who seeks justice and was standing against evil.
Presbyterian theologian Tom Long wrote recently in Christian Century about his dislike for the hymn “Onward Christian Soldiers.” Like many folks, he was not crazy about the militaristic themes in the song and was glad it didn’t make it into the 1990 Presbyterian Hymnal nor the current one due out next year. (It’s not in the Chalice Hymnal either, last I checked.)
But then he heard the song sung in a little Methodist church in Maryland. At first he groaned, but after a while, tears started to form as he heard the words in the context of this very small church filled with the “gray hairs” or mostly elderly people. I want to read to you his experience. He says,
When I realized that “Onward Christian Soldiers” was our opening hymn a few weeks ago, I groaned. But then we sang it, all 20 of us. The irony of the moment caught me off guard. There we were, most of us graying, some infirm, a hearing aid or two whistling in the background, singing, “Like a mighty army moves the church of God.” If it hadn’t been worship, I might have laughed out loud. Instead I teared up. There we were, a gaggle of Methodists and their two Presbyterian interlopers singing, “We are not divided, all one body we,” just after both of our communions had held rancorous, divisive denominational meetings.
There was a gospel truth here. Only in a place like this—a place where “Onward Christian Soldiers” was not a display of militarism but just patently ridiculous—could that hymn speak truth. Faithful worship is deeply ironic. Instead of the words “Enter to Worship, Depart to Serve,” perhaps our bulletins should say, “Warning: Every word of the service to follow is absurd, to be uttered only in faith.” “I believe in the holy catholic church”? Absurd. “Praise God from whom all blessings flow”? Absurd. “Like a mighty army, moves the church of God”? You must be kidding.
But when we realize that what we say in worship can be true only in the improbable reign of God, we regain our souls and sound the trumpet, this time for an army that marshals no troops but the frail saints, bears no arms but the sword of the Spirit, makes no advance except that of love and has no enemy but that which undermines God’s hope for human flourishing.
As this congregation begins a new journey with a new senior pastor, may we know that we are not alone as encounter the powers of this world. May we know that God is with us and is protecting us with truth, justice, love and peace. If God is for us, then nothing, nothing can stand against us. Thanks be to God. Amen.
“…what we say in worship can be true only in the improbable reign of God…”
Improbable but very real. Indeed, thanks be to God.
Inspiring essay, thank you!