10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. 11 Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. 12 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. 13 Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.
Growing up, and even still to this day, I have always been drawn to Super Heroes. There is something about these men and women in tights and capes that draws me in. Some of them possess super-human strength, many can fly. Some can climb walls like a spider, and some can leap tall buildings in a single bound. There is even a guy called Wolverine that has claws that come out of his hands and his skeleton is made of an indestructible metal. Sure it is a little farfetched, maybe a little sci-fi, but that is why I like it.
I grew up in rural Ohio and being in the country meant that we did not have much light coming into the house from outside once the sun went down. This was great for seeing the stars but terrible for a young boy trying to read comic books when he was supposed to be sleeping. We had one pole light out by the barn. So if I wanted to read a little bit longer after I was supposed to be in bed, I couldn’t just turn on the lights and inform my parents that I was still up after my bedtime. So I would sneak in my little pen-sized Maglite. It was small and undetectable by the human eye in most situations. And that little Maglite allowed me to finish my reading for the night and fall asleep after assuring myself that the evil mutants weren’t going to come after me.
Of course every Super Hero has an arch nemesis. If it weren’t for Lex Luthor, why would we even need Superman? Batman needs the Joker, Spiderman needs the Green Goblin and Wolverine needs Sabertooth. There are always those that oppose our heroes, those who stand for something different, seek something different, and are willing to stop at nothing to achieve their goals. Thankfully, the good guy always wins.
My friends, we can call it whatever we want, but we cannot deny that evil exists. Every Super Hero has his or her arch nemesis, and God is not an exception. There is a force opposite of God seeking to accomplish the opposite of what God is seeking to accomplish. And I don’t care if you want to call this force Satan, the Devil, or just evil, but there is something or someone out there that pulls us away from what God has called us to. I don’t fully understand it, but I know that it is there. And we are all tempted by this force each and every day.
Today is a day to reflect and remember. I remember where I was when I first heard the news that the World Trade Center had been hit. I didn’t know anyone that died in the attacks and I don’t think that I know anyone who has died in the ongoing struggles that have followed. But I was affected by the events that took place on September 11, 2001, and probably even more affected by the events that took place in the weeks, months, and years to follow.
I was 21-years-old on September 11, 2001 and much of my worldview was still being shaped. Everything that I knew up to that point revolved around rural Ohio life. The only time I had ever been out of the country was on a trip to Niagara Falls. And Canada really didn’t rock my worldview all that much. I didn’t have an existential breakdown muttering “They say ‘about’ funny.” No, pretty much everything that I knew as a 21-year-old I had learned growing up on the farm.
Sure I had heard about things like the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Oklahoma City attack, and even Columbine High School massacre. These were all terrible acts of terrorism that took place right here on US soil. But none of them seemed real to me. Perhaps I had been desensitized by television and movies where things blow up and people die all of the time. So these previous attacks in our history books really didn’t seem all that out of the ordinary for me.
When the planes crashed on 9/11 I really never feared for my life. Perhaps I didn’t realize how big of an event it was. But what I noticed that I had never noticed before was something that came about in the days following 9/11: the hate. I hadn’t seen hate like this before. Mosques were burned, people of different ethnicities were being persecuted, and defamatory language was being used like I had never heard before. The thing that I noticed the most about the events of September 11th was that fear could drive people to do things that they never would have otherwise even considered. I figured out that fear is one of the most powerful forces known to mankind. Fear can make a person do a lot of things that they normally wouldn’t do.
The passage of scripture that I am drawing from this morning is the preamble to a larger body of text that we often refer to as “The Armor of God.” As the apostle Paul goes on in this chapter he names a number of pieces of armor that a soldier might use and Paul uses that piece of armor as a metaphor for something that will help to protect us from temptations. The belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, shoes to bear the good news of peace, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. That is five pieces of armor to protect us against the temptations before us and one weapon against such temptations: the word of God. When Jesus was tempted in the desert after fasting for forty days, he used this one weapon against his tempter. He used the word of God, scripture, to help defeat the tempter, the evil one.
Following the events of September 11th, we heard the word “evil” thrown around quite frequently. Often times scripture was even paraphrased in such a way that made some of us cringe. We heard people talk about how “good” was going to overcome “evil.” We heard about how “evil ones” had roused a mighty nation. We even heard claims that some would “rid the world of evil-doers.”
It sounds like the classic good-versus-evil battles found in the comic books of my youth. But the problem is that good and evil aren’t always as clear as they seem to be. And the way that we as human beings attempt to remove evil from the world can be in and of itself evil. And I begin to wonder if we are missing something important in our efforts to rid the world of evil-doers by “putting a boot in your a**” as Toby Keith puts it.
Verse 12 of our scripture seems so clear to me. “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.”
I do not hesitate to say that an evil thing happened on September 11, 2001. And I do not hesitate to say that those men were influenced by the evil one. They surely would have benefited by putting on the full Armor of God before they were tempted to perform these acts of terrorism. But I will not say that they are evil. They are people created in the image of God; they are people for whom Jesus died. They are people; people with flesh and blood. And the Apostle Paul tells us that our struggle is not against flesh and blood. It is against evil.
I believe that the way that America went about trying to rid the world of evil was an attempt to treat the symptoms of a larger problem. Tragedies such as the attacks on 9/11 are the result of something much deeper, much more problematic. The problem is that so much of the world, myself included, fail on a daily bases to put on the full armor of God and we are susceptible to the temptations of the evil one. We are tempted and we fail to love others. It is so much easier to hate someone who is different than you are. And I believe that if we as Christians would have had a better track record of loving God and loving our neighbor as ourselves that 9/11 would just be another random day on the calendar.
I want to emphasize the fact that we do all have a choice in our actions to either love or hate and the terrorists that attacked the World Trade Center, Pentagon, and crashed a plane in Pennsylvania made the decision to do so out of hate. Perhaps there was a lot of peer pressure; perhaps there was a large amount of misguided religious beliefs; and perhaps there was a bit of anger and fear at play. Surely it was a combination of a lot of factors that played into the decision that these terrorists made and I don’t want to ignore the fact that they were all men with the free will to do what they wanted to do. But I also don’t think we can ignore the fact that evil had a large part in this and continues to have a large part in the ongoing issues surrounding the 9/11 attacks.
Anytime a life is taken before their time is up we should mourn. On September 11, 2001 and in the days immediately following, approximately 3,000 people lost their lives. These were business men and women, maintenance workers, firefighters, airplane passengers, fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, daughters and sons. They were White, Black, Hispanic, and Native American. Young and old; rich and poor. They were Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Hindus. When a plane hits a building, it does not discriminate. And for the loss of all of these lives, I mourn.
Following these attacks our country entered into two different wars: one in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. Both wars were justified by our government because of the 9/11 attacks. I have seen numbers that have said that about 30,000 innocent people have died in Afghanistan and about 100,000 in Iraq along with about 7,000 US soldiers. My intention this morning is not to try to convince you one way or another about whether or not we should have ever entered into these wars. Regardless of how you feel about these wars, I hope you will agree with me that each of these lives was precious to God, and for the loss of these lives, I mourn.
Over 1 trillion dollars has gone into funding these military operations and I have heard estimates that say we will have spent a total of 4 trillion dollars by the time it is all over. The current national debt is over 14 trillion dollars. I grieve over the money spent or to be spent when people in our own back yards are going hungry, looking for work, or not able to make ends meet.
The evil that we see in the world today is costly. It is costly from the perspective of dollars and cents and it is costly in the form of human lives lost on both sides. But probably even worse, it is costly in our relationships with people of different religions, different world-views, and even just different countries of origin. The fear that came about from the evil actions on 9/11 has cost us relationships with people, people with whom we should be building relationships with, people created in the image of God.
We cannot group people together and assume all are the same. You know this, I know this, but we still do it. On July 22nd, 2011 a man named Anders Breivik allowed himself to be overtaken with idealism and hatred. On this date Anders blew up a government building in Oslo, Norway, and then went on a mass killing spree where he attack a youth camp, ultimately killing 77 people, mostly teenagers. His reason for attacking the students at the camp: They were part of a different political party than he was. They were the enemy. They were evil in the sight of Anders Breivik. Anders Breivik is a Christian.
Now I hope that you would say that Anders Breivik does not represent your kind of Christianity; that you would never kill people because of their political positions, even if you thought they were damaging the culture around you. I sure wouldn’t want to be associated with him because we share a common faith. My beliefs look nothing like those of Anders Breivik even though we would both call ourselves Christians.
It isn’t hard to look through the history of Christianity to find people within our own faith that we would strongly disagree with and could even oppose their actions. Things like the Crusades come to mind. The Spanish Inquisition, which was a tribunal that questioned converts to Christianity to make sure that they were truly Christians, and executed an estimated 5,000 people who failed the test, also comes to mind. There were those who persecuted and killed our Anabaptist forbearers, those who performed the Salem Witch trials and executions. These were all people who claim to be Christians and these are all people that I don’t wish to be associated with. If someone were to hear that I am a Christian and they can to me and said, “Oh, you’re a Christian, like the guy that killed all of those teenagers in Norway?” I would be very adamant in saying that I am not that kind of Christian. We can’t all be lumped together, and neither should other religious groups.
Groups like the Taliban and Al-Qaida do not represent all of Islam, just like the Anders Breivik does not represent all of Christianity. Breivik was an extremist and most Christians don’t live out their faith as he does. I think we as a nation and we as Christians need to repent to the millions of Muslims living among us and around the world. And we need to repent to God for allowing ourselves to fall victim to the evil one who calls us to hate our neighbor when God calls us to love our neighbor, even when that neighbor is of a different religion. It isn’t an affirmation of their faith, it is an affirmation of their humanity.
I began this morning by talking about Super Heroes and their arch nemeses. In a comic book there is always the “good guy” and the “bad guy”. As we walk through this world, we may be tempted to put the label “bad guy” on another individual, religion, or ethnic group. But I come back to Ephesians 6:12, “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.” Our enemy is not another human being. Our enemy is evil, Satan, the Devil. We are tempted to make other people into our enemy, but if someone has flesh and blood they are not to be our enemy. A good way to check yourself is to simply ask yourself the question “Does it have flesh and blood?” If something has flesh and blood it is not your enemy and you are not to hate it. If something has flesh and blood you are called to love it, to love him or her as your neighbor. When we become afraid, it is only natural to allow that fear to become hatred. But hatred is not from God; hatred is from the evil one.
I come back to that little boy reading X-Men comic books under the bed sheets late at night. At that young age I understood something that is going to seem pretty obvious to everyone here today. If you want to overcome darkness you confront it with light. You cannot overcome the darkness by throwing more darkness at it. You can’t say, “Take that, nighttime!” and open a dark shoe box, expecting the darkness inside to drive out the darkness under my bed sheets. No, to defeat darkness, you need its opposite. You need light.
The Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. once said something like this, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” There is evil in our world, but the antidote to evil is not more evil. We cannot overcome hatred with hatred. Only its opposite can do that. To drive out hatred we need love.
I encourage you all today to put on the full armor of God to resist the temptations of the evil one which attack us each and every day. We are called to love our God and our neighbor, even when our neighbor has been deemed our enemy. Today, on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, I mourn the loss of life, but I also mourn the hatred and the fear. And today I want to stand before you and say that I will not be a victim any longer. I will not be a victim of fear and I will not be a victim of hatred because darkness cannot overcome darkness. My enemy is not made of flesh and blood and I will not be a victim of my enemy any longer. For today I have made the decision to love.