St. Augustine of Canterbury Anglican Church
Bishop Peter F. Hansen
Sermon for Advent Sunday, November 29, 2020
“The night is far spent, the day is at hand: let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light… put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh.”
THE DOVE descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre—
To be redeemed from fire by fire.
Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire.
TS Eliot wrote these verses about the Holy Spirit whose coming lights the world afire. The cloak of Christ’s righteousness, a robe promised to us, washed clean white in His blood, makes us holy before God, and is itself a shirt of flame. Since the Day of the Spirit, we are destined to be consumed by fire, or else to be consumed by fire.
Where in these verses is the mere superficial costume of Christianity? Is there a disguise for would-be saints? Halloween is over forever, and now we will not only wear our body armor, shin guards, iron-clad shoes, helmet, shield and sword into battle—the full armor of God—but now the armor wears us. For the Christian, unarmed is undressed.
When I was about six, I got medieval armor as a Christmas present. Somewhere I have a photo of myself with breastplate, helmet, shield and sword. They were made of grey plastic. I thought it was very cool. Ancient armor was made from steel or iron plate, pounded into the rough shape of a man. Today’s armor for police or soldiers is made of Kevlar plus metal or ceramic plates that deflect or catch bullets. It’s all very heavy and hot to wear, and to some degree limits movement. My own ballistic vest I wear over my police chaplain shirt is a sweatbox.
But what happens if your armor is made of light? We might suspect it of being insubstantial, inadequate to ward off an enemy thrust. Afraid of fiery darts, we could try the use of conventional armor—but we don’t face a conventional foe. David tried on Saul’s armor to go fight a giant. But he took it off, choosing to fight instead by the power of the Spirit and a good, practiced sling arm. Do you think Goliath had a chance to pierce young David with his heavy spear? Not when facing the armor of light.
Light was the first thing God created. Light is a description of the life that’s in God’s Son. If we are afraid that mere light isn’t enough, consider that “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness could not comprehend it… That was the true Light which gives light to every man coming into the world.” John 1:5-9
A contrast between light and dark can be seen in the first planet from the Sun: Mercury. One side always facing the Sun climbs over 800 degrees, while the dark side chills to 280 below zero. Same planet, same distance from the light. Light is far more powerful than dark. Dark is nothing.
Dark is the absence of light. It has no existence in itself except by comparison with the positive, the creation. All of mankind’s sins and even the devil’s sins come to this: God created a powerful positive good. We used it wrong, perverted its purpose, broke it, and soiled the thing God made so beautifully. But which is more powerful: the Creator or the spoiler of creation? Light defeats darkness because light is something, not nothing. Light one candle, and darkness flees from its light.
But isn’t this talk of armor just warlike? Who is being shot at in our post-modern America? Ok, in Iraq you need armor, but in Chico too? Part of the armor of light is spiritual intelligence, special sight, enhanced hearing, an awareness of the means and methods of your enemy’s tactics and objectives. We hardly mention these, but let’s not kid ourselves. We are warm, moving targets and our foe wears infrared goggles. He can’t miss where we are. If we don’t know where he is, or what he’s up to, we may become his casualties.
In our Baptismal vows we renounced “the devil and all his works, the vain pomp and glory of the world, with all covetous desires of the same, and the sinful desires of the flesh,” so we would not follow or be led by them. These are the enemy. Though it seems arcane to credit the existence of demons, I have both encountered them and been stalked by them. I have removed them from people, in the power of Christ’s Name. The tempter is also our accuser: a rotten trick. He goads you to slip out of self-discipline, cut corners, wander into shadows and taste the old liquor of sin, and when you do, he stands accusing you before God. “Look what he just did!”
The world with its vain pomp and glory is everything you’re told to believe in, to buy, to accept as being the way things are. Mankind is the source of this evil, and while people are not our enemies, their social contracts, structures, institutions and pronouncements are powerful forces for us to conform to and to go along to get along. Madison Avenue, Hollywood, Washington D.C., TV, the Internet and Babylon rolled into one, big debauchery can make fools of us, if we let it into our worldview.
And finally, our human frailty, what St. Paul calls our flesh, a broken bone born within us and not completely healed in this life, with the purpose that we humbly know our need for Christ’s redemption and God’s power. That’s the fight inside us, the potential traitor within.
The enemy is just about everywhere. Monks turn their backs to the world and spend 24 hours a day in prayer, fasting, worship and self-denial. They meet the enemy in full battle gear and are ever engaged in deadly combat. It’s not just midnight at Fifth and Ivy. It’s in the church. It’s in your family, at home, school, work, play and particularly on the road. Don’t kid yourself. War is everywhere, but this war isn’t like the video games. Not much blood. No sneaking and shooting from cover.
No, you stand in the center of the field, the field which is your life, not hidden at all, but covered from head to toe in brilliant light. The surprise is, for us, that this outfit protects us infinitely better than foxholes or tanks or bunkers. You stand blazing like the sun and say, “Come on, if you dare, you coward. I would have done with you, right here and now.” One thing you’ll learn right away is that the enemy is chicken. Why darkness? Why stealth? He can only win by deceit, by lies, by shooting us in the back. Face him in Christ’s suit of lightning, in the intolerable shirt of flame, and the foe is powerless. You’re really going to like this suit of armor, when you get used to it.
What is the armor, and how do you put it on? Many passages in the New and Old Testaments speak of such spiritual armor. Ephesians 5 gives its inventory, quoting earlier scriptures that translate its pieces as righteousness, salvation, faith, truth, the proclamation of God’s redemption. Where do I get such armor? It’s made of light, so how do I wear that? Jesus in many places called Himself, “The light of this world.” Simply put, St. Paul enjoins us to put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no room for your flesh. Romans 13:14 How do I do that? You’ve done the first part, to believe Him as Lord and Savior by your baptismal vows. That’s a covenant you’ve entered into, so you have access to Him, day and night.
Did I mention taking off the armor? You don’t, not ever. It’s on you, asleep and awake, unless you decide to shed one or another piece of it, making yourself a target. A victim. Don’t do that.
You intentionally take Jesus up on His promises. Lo, I am with you always, to the end of the world. Matt 28:20 My Father and I will come make our home in you. John 14:23 He is very interested in you, to be with you and cover you in His divine power and nature. He established a solemn, holy meal of His Body and Blood so that we might be in Him, and He in us.
It’s one thing to be unconscious of God’s protection, not fully aware of the weapons that we bear into battle. Babies, young children, holy innocents aren’t always so aware of the evil surrounding them as are grownups. That’s as well. But some time or other you are going to find out someone’s shooting live ammunition at you, and you’re wounded. Time to call battle stations. Time to get serious about armor.
Jesus, by Himself, one man alone, strode into the Temple of God with hundreds of hawkers, merchants and customers working the lucrative trade of sacrificial coins and animals. In His armor of light, He defeated the entire marketplace, turned over the tables, whipped them with a length of cord until He stood alone in His Temple and declared, “My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves.” No one laid a hand on Him. The power of light.
It’s the outset of the Christian Kalendar year, Advent Sunday, looking forward to Messiah, as they were 2,000 years ago, looking for His Return soon or late, and looking toward Christmas and the birth of the Savior. We prepare for Him. In the growing darkness of late autumn, a new light is to be born in us, in you and me, and the light is both our awareness and protection. Paul encourages us to wake up, for what we hope for is close to us. It’s almost morning, and the darkness we’ve necessarily been part of can no longer be our nature. Paul was first acquainted with Christ’s light on the road to Damascus when confronted about his mission against the Church. Instead of being defeated by Jesus’ light, even though blinded by it, Paul took Him on and was filled with the light of faith. He bore it as his armor for many years, until he was executed at Rome. The armor requires holiness. The armor requires self-discipline. The armor requires faith and hope, and most of all love. Love is the greatest weapon against all that opposes us.
“For it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” 2 Cor 4:6 “Proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.” 1 Peter 2:9 “You were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light.”Eph 5:8
Put on the armor of light and shine on the battlefield, Christian soldiers. The enemy is shaking in his boots.