Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 3, 2021
Ephesians 1:3-14 Commentary
Christians know that God didn’t create us to “eat, drink and be merry because tomorrow we die.” Yet that popular philosophy raises a number of interesting questions. It makes us wonder how God’s people should evaluate the purpose of our lives.
Something in a sermon by the Rev. Fleming Rutledge stimulated my thinking about that issue. In it she said, “American Christians, for the most part, are not thinking theologically. To think theologically means to think from God’s point of view … We are thinking sociologically, politically, psychologically, experientially, nationalistically, spiritually and even religiously, but not theologically.”
Perhaps no biblical passage provides a better antidote to thinking from a human point of view than the text the RCL appoints as its Epistolary Lesson for this Sunday. On this first Sunday of the year of our Lord, 2020, Ephesians 1 helps us to think about the purpose of our lives from God’s point of view.
Ephesians 1 is one of those sweeping biblical passages whose grandeur nearly overwhelms us. But it may have also nearly overwhelmed its author. After all, as a colleague says, Ephesians 1’s words seem to almost burst out of the apostle like the air out of a popped balloon. In fact, our whole text is actually just one long sentence in its original language. So we might picture those who first read it aloud as taking a deep, deep breath and then letting loose with a stream of 13 verses of nearly unbroken glory.
One of this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s proclaimers’ greatest challenges it to help hearers at least begin to glimpse just how sweeping it really is. It, after all, covers immeasurable eons of time, beginning even before creation and ending with the return of Jesus Christ. And in between Paul insists that God planned in the fullness of time “to bring all things in heaven and on earth together” (10).
What’s more, Ephesians 1’s Paul invites a culture that looks at virtually everything from a human perspective to look at things as God looks at them. God is, in fact, the initiator throughout this whole magnificent passage. Eight times God is the subject of a sentence.
“We” or “you” is the subject of only four sentences. And in three of those sentences the people God creates in God’s image are little more than the passive recipients of God’s blessings. What’s more, in the fourth we read about the amazing results of receiving all of this grace.
Paul tells his Ephesian readers that God blessed, chose and predestined those whom God has adopted as God’s sons and daughters. However, he also insists that God has freely given grace to us, has lavished grace on us, has made known to us the mystery of the gospel and has redeemed us.
It’s hard for those who proclaim Ephesians 1 to lead our hearers on a full exploration of the depths of this biblical goldmine. Dr. Martin Lloyd-Jones, one of Britain’s great twentieth century preachers, in fact once preached on it for six months to his undoubtedly fascinated congregation.
Those who, instead, proclaim Ephesians 1 for about, say, 25-40 minutes or so, may want to highlight just a few things about it. This passage is almost all about Jesus Christ. He, after all, is our link to our heavenly Father, the Creator. Christ is both the means and the goal of our salvation. In him all things hold together. Our text reminds us that Christ is what Len Vander Zee calls “the glue that binds the universe.” So it’s no wonder that our text makes both its hearers and proclaimers look so passive.
All that Jesus’ followers need and all that we’ve now received or ever will receive took place “in Christ,” as Paul repeats eight times in this short passage. After all, God chose us “in Christ” before the creation of the world to “be holy and blameless in his sight” (4). Among other things, this means that God somehow linked Christ and us together in God’s mind.
So in the mysterious mists of eternity, God graciously chose to adopt those who didn’t even yet exist as God’s own children through the redeeming work of Jesus Christ. Though God knew that we would be unholy and blameworthy, God chose to make us holy and blameless.
That makes Ephesians 1 a song of grace for the whole world. It sends God’s people out to all spiritually darkened people who need the gospel of God’s redeeming love. Our text, after all, reminds us that God’s people don’t choose whom God saves. What’s more, while we also can’t know whom God has not chosen, we do know that the faithful reception of God’s grace is a sign of that choice.
Those whom God has chosen God also adopts as God’s forgiven sons and daughters. That means that, among other things, God graciously gives us access to God so that we know that God will hear and answer our prayers for our best.
However, because of what Jesus Christ did, God also shapes and molds God’s dearly beloved people to be more and more like our Savior. That work of transformation may be painful. The Holy Spirit, after all, takes a wire brush to scrub away the dead skin of God’s adopted sons and daughters’ sins. But just as scraping away dead skin helps restore burn victims physical health, so the Spirit’s scraping away of our sins helps us become spiritually healthy.
Paul reminds us, however, that God didn’t just choose to make us God’s children whom God transforms to be more and more like Jesus Christ. God also reveals to us some of God’s plans for the future. In sending Jesus Christ into our world, God has revealed a mystery to us.
Paul refers to that mystery as what God has revealed to us in Jesus Christ. By sending Jesus Christ, God shows us how much God loves both God’s whole world and us. Christ’s coming shows that God plans to lovingly unite all things in Jesus Christ.
As Vander Zee notes, Paul insists that because of God’s love and Christ’s victory over sin and death, history is not some path that meanders towards nothingness. People aren’t some chemical accident that wandered out of oblivion and mosey back toward annihilation. The apostle insists that we aren’t alone, unconnected and ultimately left to our own devices.
No, God’s plan is to finally bring all things under the loving rule of Jesus Christ. So our destiny is to finally experience perfect love between God and all of God’s children, as well as the rest of God’s creation. One day, Paul promises, God will unite all of God’s creation in God’s love, unity, peace and completeness so that we can worship the Lord forever in the glory of God’s new creation.
How, then, shall God’s adopted sons and daughters live? We begin by remembering that God chose us, made us God’s children and is moving us toward eternity in God’s glorious presence. In the words of our text, we are God’s “saints,” God’s “sons” (and daughters) and God’s “possession.” In the lovely words of the Heidelberg Catechism, we belong to God in life and in death, and in body and in soul.
As a result, God’s people seek to live to what verses 12 and 14 refer as “the praise of” God’s “glory,” as those whom God chose before we were even born to bring glory to God. The Westminster Catechism’s first question and answer summarizes this beautifully: “What is the chief end of man? To glorify him and enjoy him forever.”
As a colleague notes, the glory of God is the revelation of God. So to glorify God is to serve the Lord by our words and actions as the gracious God that God is. To live to the praise of God’s glory is to orient our lives in such a way that they always honor not us, but the Lord.
However, to live to the praise of God’s glory is also to do all that we can to encourage others to live for God’s glory as well. Quite simply, God’s choice of us to be God’s children propels us to encourage others to recognize that choice in their lives as well.
God has done all the heavy lifting in choosing us, making us to be more and more like Jesus Christ and eventually drawing us into God’s eternal presence. That, however, is no excuse for passivity. Instead it motivates us to bring that good news to the whole world.
A number of years ago Chicago Tribune columnist Mike Royko wrote about a man named Bill Mallory who traveled to India to discover the meaning of life. He didn’t, however, find it.
On his return to the United States a disappointed Mallory saw a sign outside a Chevron gas station that read, “As you travel, ask us.” So each time he entered a Chevron station, he would say to an attendant, “I’m a traveler, and I’d like to ask a question. What is the purpose of life?”
Sometimes Mr. Mallory received answers like, “I’m new here” or “I don’t remember reading anything in the manual about that.” Mostly, however, he just got blank stares. Yet his persistence made Mallory famous among Chevron station employees. Eventually a Chevron district manager called him to suggest he put his question on paper and mail it, with a self-addressed envelope, to corporate headquarters.
Mallory did precisely that. A few weeks later he received a letter back from Chevron’s customer service department. So what was Chevron’s corporate headquarters’ idea of “the purpose of life? Mallory simply received an application for a company credit card.
While Royko’s story may make us smile, a credit card may actually be a good metaphor for the purpose of life for many North Americans. After all, we use credit cards to buy the bigger, better, faster, more beautiful things we so deeply crave. We assume they’ll allow us to pursue the “eat, drink and be merry because tomorrow we die” purpose we naturally treasure.
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