Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
On this second Sunday after Christmas, I wonder how many children could answer the question, “What did you get for Christmas?” I’m guessing that some have forgotten at least a few of the many they received. Not me. When I was a kid, back when we walked three miles to school through three foot snow drifts with hot potatoes in our pockets to keep us warm (oh, wait, that was my Dad), I always got the same things: clothes (yuck!), a toy and a game and, in prosperous years, another (smaller) toy . Today, the list is endless and mostly electronic. It’s not surprising that children might lose count of their gifts.
Our text urges us keep track of the gifts we received at Christmas, through and in the Christ child. When I read it carefully, I recalled an old song from my youth. “Count your blessings, name them one by one, count your many blessings, see what God has done, count your blessings, name them one by one, and it will surprise you what the Lord has done.” Our text is an invitation to do exactly that. “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ.”
“Did you write your thank note to your grandparents yet?” My mom always insisted on my saying thanks. Paul calls for more—praise. Thanks are oriented to the gift; “thanks for the BB gun.” Praise is aimed at the giver; “you are the greatest.” As you consider all that God has given you in Christ, praise him. My perception is that we’re not very good at that, so you could profitably dedicate this entire service on the second Sunday after Christmas to praise. The gloomy days after Christmas can be a bit of a downer. But counting our blessings might lead to an outburst of praise that will rival the Hallelujah Chorus.
Notice how Paul characterizes these blessings—they are “in the heavenly realms.” That’s a peculiar phrase, isn’t it? Does it mean that these gifts originated in heaven, or that we can fully enjoy these gifts only in heaven, or that these gifts are unearthly? Could it be that this phrase is intended to contrast the gifts Christians get with the gifts promised to the Jews? For God’s Old Testament people, God’s blessings included land and family, a country and a nation, material prosperity and rest from war with their enemies. For God’s New Testament people, the blessings of God are more, well, “spiritual.” Indeed, that’s the very word Paul uses here.
Interestingly, many Christians still measure God’s blessings in that Old Testament way. I visited with an old friend the other day, and he ended up re-telling me his life story. It is a wonderful story, full of providential twists and turns that have made him a successful businessman with a large lovely family. As he recounted one business success after another and told stories of his beloved children and grandchildren, he often said, “We are so blessed.” They are. I rejoiced with him.
But Paul talks about none of that here when he calls us to praise God for our blessings. Paul focuses on spiritual blessings of the non-material, that is, heavenly variety. A sermon on this text might urge our congregants to consider how they number their blessings. It has been my pastoral experience that when people lose some of their more earthly blessings, they think they have lost everything and they sink into spiritual despair. “The world is too much with us, getting and spending….” A sermon on Paul’s definition of blessings might help us to be more balanced in the way we think about God’s bounty.
Or you might want to focus on the gracious nature of these blessings. My friend didn’t do it, but often successful people take more than a little credit for the blessings they enjoy. Their earthly blessings are viewed as the justifiable reward for hard work, the expected payoff for wise investing, and the inevitable result of their expert parenting. Paul reminds us that “every good and perfect gift comes down from above.” (No, wait, that’s Paul’s “nemesis,” James.) Paul talks endlessly here about God’s grace as the source of all our blessings. In other words, we have not earned or deserved all these gifts. They come from grace and they are designed to give praise to the glory of God’s grace. A sermon on this text could well help people realize in a fresh way that we are what we are by the grace of God alone.
Finally, a sermon on this text must focus on the recurrence of the phrase (or its equivalents) “in Christ.” God has blessed us with all these spiritual blessings “in Christ.” Christ is the source of these blessings. Christ is the one who earned these blessings. Christ is the vessel in which these blessings are contained. It is in relationship with Christ that we receive these blessings. There are many ways to think about the phrase; for a more complete treatment, see Lewis Smedes’ classic book, All Things Made New. At the very least, Paul is saying that there is no way we can have or enjoy these blessings unless we are in Christ, in a living union with him. So a sermon on this text must be thoroughly Christ centered, or you have missed Paul’s central point.
I can’t give a full treatment of all the blessings Paul lists; there are simply too many. So I’ll say a word about just two– the most controversial and the most comforting. The most controversial blessing is “election” and “predestination.” Indeed, for some Christians, these two words do not signify a blessing at all. They are called (blasphemously, I judge) a “diabolical doctrine born in hell.” Paul says they are the beginning of all the other blessings.
The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ “chose us in him before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight.” Everyone in the US knows what an election is. In an election, one person is chosen out of a group of people to occupy a position, do a job, or receive an honor. Recently, we elected a President and congresspersons, some of whom we’d now like to de-elect. That’s exactly what Ephesians 1 is saying. God elected “us,” whom Paul identifies in verse 1 as “the saints and faithful in Christ Jesus.” That’s pretty straightforward.
The word predestined in the next verse is more picturesque. It means literally to “prehorizon.” The horizon is the circle around us as far as we can see. Predestine means “to draw a circle around ahead of time.” Each year professional sports teams conduct their draft of college players. Each team will have a long list of players who might fit their roster. In some high level meeting, the owner and general manager and coach will draw a circle around the names of players they will finally select in the draft. They will predestine them to become Lions or Tigers or Pistons.
Of course, the predestination of players will be based on something in those players—their college records, their physical abilities, their mental toughness, even their character. It will be an election based on the condition of the player. But God’s election is not based on our condition. It is unconditional. Paul conveys that thought in the mysterious phrase, “before the foundation of the world.” That phrase has caused many people to stumble over the whole idea of election because it sounds as though everything is cut and dried before our lives ever happen. If it’s all predetermined, what possible difference can our choices make? If God made all the choices for us and about us long ago, then the call to repent and believe is meaningless.
But the Bible says that God’s call to repent and believe is sincere. The consequences of our decision for Christ are real and life changing. God is not playing games with us. So God’s election before the foundation of the world cannot mean that everything is predetermined. It means only that God’s choice of us is not based on anything in us. It is unconditional, as though it took place before we were born.
Election took place in eternity in which time is not measured. I was intrigued by these words from Winter’s Tale, a fantasy novel by Mark Helprin. “Nothing is predetermined; it is determined, or was determined, or will be determined. No matter, it all happened at once, in less than an instant, and time was invented because we cannot comprehend in one glance the enormous canvas that we have been given—so we track, in linear fashion, piece by piece.” Or as the Bible puts it, to God a thousand years is like a day. God chose us not a gazillion years ago, but in God’s eternal present. And in time, in our little time on earth, God calls us to choose Jesus. His choice of us is not based on anything in us; it is unconditional. Our choice of Jesus is completely conditional; it is based on God’s choice to breathe his life-giving Spirit into us, so that these dry bones can live again.
Some folks say that all this business of election and predestination has to do with service, not salvation. God chose the nation of Israel and the church of Jesus Christ to be his instrument of salvation in the world. That is very true. But Paul says more than that here. “He chose us in him to be holy and blameless before him…. He predestined us to be adopted as his children….” We were skeletons lying in the Valley of Dry Bones and God chose to bring us back to life, adopt us into the family, and make us holy and blameless like his Son, Jesus Christ.
People call this a “diabolical doctrine,” because it seems to make God sound totally arbitrary and even cruel, like a capricious tyrant lounging on heaven’s throne carelessly circling people’s names in the world’s telephone as he watches the Super Bowl on TV. That’s not how Paul pictures God. If you want to see God electing us, says Paul, see the Father sending the Son to the cross. Our election cost God dearly, because he chose us “in Christ.” God’s election was costly and sacrificial.
Why would God do such a thing? Why would God sacrifice his Son for a bunch of corpses (Eph. 2:1ff) who killed themselves (Gen. 3). Why didn’t he just whistle his way past the graveyard and leave every single one of us dead? Why would God elect anyone? Paul has a one word answer—love, agape, love for sinners, which by another name is grace. “In love God predestined us to be adopted as his children through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will….” Why did God do this? Because he is gracious and it gives him great delight to save sinners. What wondrous love is this! We could say more, trying to explain the mystery of God’s electing love. But I think it is best to leave it where Paul does—not with explanation, but with doxology. “Praise be….”
Now let‘s think a bit about the most comforting blessing—redemption. Reflecting on his long years as a POW in Vietnam and on his career as a politician, John McCain said in an interview with Time, “I haven’t always succeeded; I’ve failed many times. But because the foundation of my belief is redemption, I’ve been able to receive additional comfort, strength, and the desire to move forward.” Redemption is the foundation, the very center of all our blessings in Christ.
But what does it mean? That’s not as easy to define as we might think. Oh, the Greek word there refers to the ancient Greco-Roman practice of freeing a slave or prisoner by paying a ransom. So Paul is saying that in Christ we have been set free from some sort of bondage. But that is the question—of what sort? Not understanding this has led many a Christian to disillusionment with God.
Think back to McCain. Was redemption for him mainly about being released from the Hanoi Hilton after 7 years of captivity? Does redemption in Christ mean that our outward circumstances are changed, that we are freed from bad situations caused by sin? Ultimately, yes. We are promised Shalom, after all. But that’s not the heart of redemption, and thinking that it is has caused many people to be disappointed with God.
Think about to McCain again. He has often been criticized for having a ferocious temper. Would redemption for him mean changing that sinful tendency? Does redemption have to do with being released from the power of our sins? Does it change our internal lives, our attitude, emotions and thoughts? Ultimately, yes. We are promised holiness, someday. But that’s not the heart of redemption either.
Paul ends our questions about the meaning of redemption when he says it is all about “the forgiveness of sins.” It’s not centrally about release from the external situations of our lives, nor a release from our own inner self, but about the forgiveness of our sins. But what does that mean? Thomas Szasz made me think when he said, “The stupid neither forgive nor forget; the naïve forgive and forget; the wise forgive but never forget.” Is that true? What happens when God forgives our sins?
The answer lies in a careful look at the meaning of the Greek word for forgiveness here. It means to cancel, to remit, to pardon, as with a loan or a debt. Someone owes you money, but you decide that she doesn’t have to pay; she doesn’t have to feel guilty because she didn’t pay; and you won’t punish her for her non-payment of what she owed. You cancelled the debt in every way. That’s forgiveness. When God forgives, he cancels our obligation. We don’t have to keep his law in order to be saved. He cancels our guilt. We are guilty, but our feelings cannot jeopardize our salvation, and we ought to live with a clear conscience. He cancels our punishment. What we’ve done deserves death of the eternal variety, but we will never be punished for any sin.
That all sounds pretty free and easy, doesn’t it? Who wouldn’t want such a deal? What’s the catch? There must be something we must do to get forgiven. Well, as a matter of fact, there isn’t. That’s what Paul meant when he added that we have been forgiven “in accordance with the riches of God’s grace which he lavished on us….” That’s the heart of the Good News of Jesus Christ. We are positively awash in grace, and there’s nothing we have to do to be forgiven, only someone we have to trust. That’s why Paul repeats those two words again and again in this great text—“in him.” “In him we have redemption through his blood….”
Those last three words cause considerable revulsion in many modern Christians. They sound so dark, primitive, barbaric. But there they are. As I pondered them, I remembered a scene from the movie, “The Last Emperor.” The child anointed as the last emperor of China lives a magical life of luxury with a thousand eunuch servants at his command. “What happens when you do wrong?” his brother asks. “When I do wrong, someone else is punished,” the boy emperor replies. To demonstrate, he breaks a jar, and one of the servants is beaten.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ in our text assures us that the ancient pattern has been reversed: when the servants sinned, the King was crucified. There’s nothing we have to do to be forgiven, but there is someone you absolutely have to trust—the King whose blood was shed for the forgiveness of all our sins.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 21, 2014
Ephesians 1:3-14 Commentary