Help! Stress seems to find its way into our dreams and daily lives at an alarming rate. Even during church, our phones can bring bad news. The Apostle Paul knew a thing or two about stress, and provided words of wisdom about the antidote.
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. 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. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that 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. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints.
Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak.
Sometimes stress brings out our ugly side.
One day a mild mannered woman was driving through the city minding her own business. She grew increasingly nervous as she glanced in her rear view mirror to see a man driving a minivan dangerously close behind. He was honking and raising his hands in frustration. As the woman approached an intersection, the traffic light turned yellow and she wisely stopped to avoid an accident and a ticket. Angry Mini Van Man was furious. He was in a hurry, and continued to honk and yell and flip off the woman. Now parked at the red light, Angry Man heard a tap on his window. A police officer had witnessed the whole thing. As it turned out, Angry Man had forgotten his wallet and didn’t have any identification. The officer arrested the man and took him into the station, holding him in a cell for a couple of hours. Finally, the officer came to release Angry Man.
“I’m very sorry for the misunderstanding,” said the officer. “I witnessed you screaming and tailgating and flipping off the driver in front of you. When I looked at your van and saw the Jesus fish and “Follow Me to Sunday School” and “What Would Jesus Do?” bumper stickers, I assumed you had stolen the car.
Stress can get the best of all of us.
Chances are, that irate driver or neighbor or rude colleague at work isn’t primarily upset about traffic or the quarterly report. There is something deeper prompting their behavior that probably has little to do with you. That doesn’t make it acceptable, but can explain why they are so easily triggered.
God knows there is certainly plenty to be stressed about.
Some students just started school again and are already overloaded with homework. Others haven’t even started school, and have assignments due on the first day.
Even if you don’t follow the stock market, this has been an ugly month. The market had its worst week since 2011, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average down 10 percent since the all-time high in May. Speculation about the Chinese economy, potential interest rate hikes from the Fed, and many other factors make financial uncertainty a major concern.
And if that isn’t enough, did you hear the NASA report that excessive ground water pumping is causing California land to sink? It has dropped more than a foot in a single year in some places.
Add infestations of bugs in the Sierra Nevada Mountains and on the site of the Burning Man festival, and we could find ourselves paying extra attention to the people holding “The End is Near” signs.
Our ancestors in faith sometimes felt like the world was ending.
Today’s passage from Ephesians is intended to be a word of encouragement in what sometimes feels like a spiritual battlefield.
Biblical scholar Ralph Martin explained that, “Ephesians is unique in that it considerably extends the picture of the conflict to embrace supra-terrestrial opponents of the church.” As people looked at all of the awful things happening around them, it seemed reasonable to feel as though forces beyond the human realm were at work.
Early Christ followers including the author of Ephesians used military imagery linked to earlier Scripture now found in our Old Testament. According to Martin, the “whole armor of God” includes the breastplate of righteousness and helmet of salvation (see Isaiah 59:17) and the “sword of the Spirit,” the word of God (Isaiah 11:4). These were calls to fight for justice and stay strong in a society in which following Jesus meant one would be marginalized.
If we could wear the armor of God at all times, the stresses of the world wouldn’t get to us. We would look at the big picture and be less likely to panic when facing adversity. Even if we’re doing everything we can to care for others and ourselves, most of us have an Achilles heel in our armor.
What tends to stress you out? What is your Achilles heel?
Does it feel like things are happening to you and obstacles are constantly appearing?
There was once a king who was frustrated that his people had grown complacent. He decided to test the people, placing a large boulder to block the main road leading to the city. The king watched with disappointment as person after person approached the boulder. Some made feeble attempts to move it and gave up. Others whined and blamed the king for not taking care of the problem for them.
Finally a peasant came along, needing to get his cart full of vegetables into the city. He tried to push the boulder, but it didn’t budge. The man wouldn’t give up, running to the forest to retrieve a large branch he could use as a lever to pry the rock and remove it from the road.
And he found a surprise—the king had left a sack of gold coins and note reading:
“The obstacle in the path becomes the path.”
This old parable and many others appear in a book a friend gave me called The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday. Inspired by Stoicism, Holiday uses numerous examples of historic and contemporary figures who managed to perceive obstacles or even tragedies as opportunities. Teddy Roosevelt had to work to overcome daily asthma attacks. Abraham Lincoln battled depression, or what was known as his “melancholy.”
At age 67, Thomas Edison received an urgent message that his massive research and production campus was burning down. Upon arriving at the scene and finding that his son was safe, his response caught everyone off guard: “Go get your mother and all of her friends,” Edison said. “They’ll never see another fire like this again.”
With his son astonished at his father’s reaction, Edison reassured him: “It’s all right. We’re just got rid of a lot of rubbish.”
From the most difficult of situations, hope and new life emerges.
Our faith centers on that principle.
Jesus the Christ, who was written off by detractors for not even being able to save himself from a humiliating death on a cross, reminds us that darkness does not prevail.
We join together to remember that nothing, neither death nor life, neither financial crisis nor drought, nor anything else in all of creation, can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Amen.
 Ralph P. Martin, Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon: Interpretation: a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Atlanta: Westminster John Knox Press, 1992), 75-76.