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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

2009-08-16 Ep 06 10-20 Onward Christian Soldiers

“Onward Christian Soldiers”


November 2, 1997

August 16, 2009


“Onward, Christian soldiers,

marching as to war

with the cross of Jesus

going on before...”


Up until the Presbyterian Church, like so many others, started arguing about whether homosexuals should be ordained, the biggest battles we had were about the hymnbooks.

I miss those days.

One of the biggest battles was over “Onward, Christian Soldiers” and the secret conspiracy to keep it out of the new hymnal.

You would have thought some congregations sang it three times every Sunday.

With 20 years' hindsight we can look back and see the battles weren't really over “Onward Christian Soldiers.”

The fights were about change.

It was about a flavor of Christianity that was driven by evangelistic zeal, to go out and “Conquer the world for Jesus,” versus a flavor of Christianity that was driven by a zeal for peacemaking, to go out and “Be nice to the world for Jesus.”

It was a debate about power.

And power is complicated.

Depending on which verses of the Bible you read, Jesus showed power through acts of strength, like when he drove the moneychangers out of the temple, and Jesus showed power through perfect weakness, on his way to the cross.

Power is complicated.

Even the power of Jesus is complicated.

The scripture that's the basis of “Onward, Christian Soldiers,” is complicated, too.

“Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”

It IS militant imagery. It isn’t “nice” or “happy” or G-rated.

This scripture says that we all are saints, fighting tooth and nail against powers we can’t even see.

Ephesians is a call to become Christian soldiers, battling not against flesh and blood for victory, but battling for power against spiritual demons.

And these aren't the demons of the movie Twilight, or Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

This scripture's calling for battle against the demons that already live inside us.

The real demons are already inside, in here (in the heart, in the soul).

They’re more powerful than anything in a Harry Potter movie.

And if we don’t guard against them, if we don’t have the strength to fight them, the demons inside us will make us their victims.

Times change.

The color of the hymnal may change.

The language and metaphor of faith may change.

Some of our hymns may change.

But the battle of the Christian soldier remains the same.

Even though Christ has already defeated darkness, we each remain to fight the ongoing battle for power.

We fight for strength so no matter what demons we face, we can see Christ through the darkness.


“...with the cross of Jesus going on before...” goes the song.

Too often we fight, or think we have to fight, against flesh and blood.

Too often we fight against the “heathen” and we yank the cross out of the ground and turn it into various weapons to suit our purposes.

Over the course of history, Christian soldiers have done some horrific things with the cross.

We take it down and sharpen one end of it, and use it to skewer the infidels.

We hold the long end of it and use it like a big stick to clear native peoples off their land.

Hitler turned broke the ends of the cross and turned it into a swastika, a tool to smash the Jewish people and anyone else who wasn’t the picture of Aryan perfection.

But most of the time, when we use the cross as a weapon, we use it in subtler ways.

We use it in the church against each other.

And we sound like children with a dangerous toy.

“My church is bigger than your church.”

“My brand of Christianity is better than yours.”

“My hymnbook is better than your hymnbook.”

We turn the cross into a tool to defend our power and our righteousness, as if God is our end zone and we’re a goal-line defense, trying to “push ‘em back, shove ‘em back, way back.”

Thinking and acting like this abuses the cross.

It’s violence against the privilege of being a Christian soldier.

Acting like this turns us into willing prey for the spiritual forces that threaten to undo us.

Think about the cross of Jesus Christ, the one on the hill where he was crucified.

That cross is not a weapon.

It’s certainly not a weapon of Christ.

Instead of being a weapon, the cross of Jesus is a place.

It’s a place of unity.

It’s a place of sacrifice.

It’s a place of prayer and honesty about who we really are.

The cross of Jesus is a place where saints find strength.

Christ has won the victory.

But we’re still fighting the battles.

We fight for strength to see the victory in our hearts, every single day.

You know the battles you need strength for.

99.9999% of the time, we're not defending our faith against people who want to take our faith away.

We're fighting against the demons in our heart, that want to twist our personal faith into something that sounds like Jesus but isn't, something that sounds like Christianity, but's really Us-iantity.

We need the greatest strength to fight away the demons and the temptations, the unseen but unmistakable powers of darkness that every day try to steal our souls away from what’s good & true & peaceful — away from what is Christ.

It’s not the big wars that get us; they’re not ours to fight, anyway.

The big wars belong to God and God through Christ has already declared victory on those battlegrounds.

It’s the daily battles that test our sainthood.

It’s the ordinary skirmishes where we need strength.


At another church, I was asked to perform the funeral of a sweet, sweet elderly lady.

Physically, she was tiny, but not frail; a grandmother, but young in her mind.

Spiritually, she was a truly gentle soul.

She was a peaceful person who enjoyed watching the birds in her backyard and talking to neighbors.

Her only request for her funeral had been that as her casket was being wheeled out, that the organist play, “Onward, Christian Soldiers.”

Her daughter thought this was so ironic, that such a gentle soul would want to be remembered by such a militant hymn.

But as the service ended, and the organist touched the keys, everyone who knew this lady understood that this hymn was the story of her last years.

Through the last years of her life she had been in a battle against cancer and all the things that come with it.

She had a personal understanding of the powers of darkness.

She understood pain, and doubt, and anger.

On that day, we all came to a greater understanding of what resurrection means.

We came to understand the subtler meaning of being a “Christian soldier” going “onward.”


What powers are you in battle against?

How about the power to convince you to do something because everyone else is doing it?

How about the the drive for status?

How about an obsession to perfectionism?

How about the power of the sticky residue of anger? Grudges we can't shake?

How about the power of temptation not to take care of ourselves, or not to spend time with our families?

Or the power of self-doubt, and fear?

These demons don't steal our souls outright.

No, they're more persistent than that.

They just chip away at us, little by little, in ways so perniciously subtle that we barely even know they’re around.

To which we, who would be saints, must say, “Onward...”

“Therefore, take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on THIS evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm.

“Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness.

“As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.

“With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one (whoever he or she or it may be).

“Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”

Go onward... rather than backward.

Go onward... rather than nowhere at all.

Go onward... instead of to the conservative right, or to the liberal left just because that's where your friends go.

Go onward.



Where's onward?

Onward to what?

Where’s the fight? And who are we supposed to fight against?

The easy answer is, “Those folks who aren't like us.”

You know. Them. Those liberals. Those conservatives. Those Muslims.

The Bible suits us up for battle and we think, “It's be a shame to let all this nice armor go to waste.”

“Let's go find us an enemy.”

Usually, the last place we look for enemies is in our own souls.

Walt Kelly put it well when he said, “We have met the enemy, and they is us.”

The writer of Ephesians, Paul, does a truly remarkable thing that goes against all human tendencies and demonic urges.

In the next line, verse 18, he writes,

“Pray in the Spirit at all times.”

“Pray for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel.”

Paul admits he doesn’t have his message.

He doesn’t know what he’s supposed to say.

He doesn’t know what he’s supposed to do.

The gospel is a mystery to him that he barely even has words to articulate.

“Pray also, so that when I speak...” he writes.

When the day comes along. When the time is right. When the demons rush in and the power of darkness is all around me.

Then let me speak with boldness the mystery of God’s good news.

The amazing thing Paul does is that he stops short of declaring who the enemy is and when and where the battle for which he is so well-equipped will take place.

Instead of saying, “Rush out with a battle cry!” he says, “Pray.”


Get so quiet that you can hear the beating of your own heart.

Listen close for the enemy.

Get so quiet you can hear the breath of your soul.

Then you’ll know where the demons are.


Instead of yanking the cross out of the ground and carrying it on before, let it lead you on before to the place where it already is.

Draw near to the power it already has.

Be a Christian soldier by staying alert enough to believe that God has already defeated evil for eternity; all we have to do is withstand it for a little while.


Whether your favorite hymn is “Onward, Christian Soldiers,” or “Kum By Yah,”

Whatever color your hymnbook may be, sing.

Sing for strength.

Pray for courage.

Stand firm against the enemies of your spirit, for they will find you.

Instead of crushing your foes into unholy submission, lead them to the power of the cross, where God’s eternal victory will conquer all.