…But God–Manuscript

Standard

[Manuscript for sermon “…But God” posted 4/17/17 (my anniversary!)]

It was a rough week in some ways, but it was also a glorious week for me. Two of the young adults I mentor shared powerful stories of God’s intervention in their lives when they were making self-destructive choices. One of them had an argument, stormed off, was like, “I’m done with you, forget you,” and the person was making plans to just cut off that relationship, leave that one and not look back, however much hurt that inflicted. But in the midst of this anger and storm, God said, “You should go back,” and the person did. Went back, asked forgiveness, reconciled, and came out of it not only with a clear understanding that God had spoken, but also said, “I think God’s always speaking to me. I just block it out sometimes.”

The other story was even more dramatic. This is someone I probably hadn’t seen for a year and a half. We used to get together and talk about how to follow Jesus. He had really turned away from God, just decided he could do it on his own and didn’t need God. Here’s what he said: “It looked like it was going really well, I had everything I’d wanted, money, job, friends, cool motorcycle, girlfriend, and I was still empty.” Then it all fell apart, he got in an accident, ending up owing a lot of money, and he felt like he’d ruined everything. Destroyed himself. He told me, “But God taught me that I’m nothing without him. And I am praying again and I’ve gone back to church. People there are accepting me, even though I did all that and rejected him. I want to get back on the worship team again. And today, some guys at work asked me what I believe because they could see that I’ve changed. They asked me if I’m religious. I said ‘No, it’s not religion, it’s Jesus.”

As I was looking at our passage, Ephesians 2:1-10, this jumped out me:

You were dead through the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. 3 All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else.

4 But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us 5 even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— 9 not the result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

It struck me, as I was letting this passage sink in, that this is always our story. This is THE STORY. But God. I was angry and breaking the relationship, But God said to go back. I was empty and had ruined everything, But God taught me I’m nothing without him. We were dead in our sins But God made us alive together with Christ. That is always the answer. Just that. “But God.”

The beginning three verses of our passage lay out our condition. We were dead. The wages of sin are death and we were dead in our sin. Straight up.

Just to give you a frame of reference, if this passage seems pretty dense and hard to follow, this is why: “In the original Greek, verses 1-7 form a single, one hundred twenty four word sentence whose subject does not appear until verse 4 with the main verbs following in verses 5-6.” Paul is writing this from prison, and I think he’s so caught up with the description of how amazing God’s salvation is, he just keeps adding more and more.

Paul gives the Ephesians, and us, a vivid description of being dead in our sins. You were dead through the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. 3 All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else.

You once lived in the trespasses and sins—trespasses is “swerving aside and falling,” sin is literally “missing the mark,” different Greek words with similar connotations of going astray—and through these you were dead inside, even though you looked physically alive. That’s exactly what my friend described. You followed the course of this world, the values and worldview and beliefs of the world that rejects and opposes God’s Kingdom: Might makes right. Look out for number one. If it feels good, do it. Less for you means more for me. Stop crying or I’ll give you a reason to cry.

You followed the ruler of the power of the air. That’s a really interesting name for Satan. I know it’s not cool to believe in Satan, but I have concluded, after years of following Jesus, that “cool” and “truth” don’t always run the same course, and Satan would actually prefer that you not believe in him, thank you very much. The Ruler of the Power of the Air. Satan gets various descriptions throughout Scripture. In John, Jesus calls him “the Father of Lies” and says “there is no truth in him” and “he was a murderer from the beginning.” When Satan tries to tempt Jesus in the wilderness, he offers all the kingdoms of the world, and says, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority, for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please.” Well, that’s what he says, But Jesus says he’s the Father of Lies and there is no truth in him. So we can assume that anything that sounds like truth from the devil is in fact twisted so that it has partial truth that ends up in falsehood. That leads us astray. The Ruler of the Power of the Air is the Ruler of the Insubstantial, the Ruler of Appearance but not substance. He is the Ruler of Deception.

Paul describes this as “the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient.” Both of my friends would agree with that. They were letting the wrong One influence them. That’s hard news for the folks who believe that doing whatever they want is “freedom.” That doesn’t sound like freedom. That sounds like getting taken down the wrong road. That sounds like getting fooled. We describe that God is at work in us, whether we can see it or not. Paul says here Satan is at work in people who are disobeying God, and I’d have to add whether than can see it or not. Probably not. Two things I believe about sin: Sin is what damages us, and we are punished not for our sins but by our sins. There’s no “getting away with” sins, like trying to get away with cheating in sports as long as the referee doesn’t catch you, because the very act of sinning hurts us. I mean, that makes sense if the wages of sin is death. That’s what sin earns us: death. It kills us. That spirit, Satan, wants to destroy us.
Paul says All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. All of us. Like everyone else. That doesn’t leave much room for exceptions, does it? Obviously Paul includes himself here, which is fascinating. Remember, Paul was a Pharisee, he was Saul, who was hunting down Christians to have them killed, which he thought was obeying God.

Paul’s use of “flesh” in Ephesians, and in all his letters, describes the rebellious nature we have that is twisted, that can’t see the difference between good and bad, between what gives us life and what kills me. There’s something really twisted up in us that we desire what kills us. So when Paul says “the flesh,” it’s that twisted up part that we need God to transform.

That’s Paul’s description of “dead in our sins.” If you are someone who has “always been a Christian,” and you don’t relate to this description, because you don’t feel like you were ever following the course of the world or the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient, I would say two things.

First, if that is true, rejoice in God’s grace to you that you didn’t need to feel how horrible Hell is to decide you wanted no part of it. God, who is rich in mercy, spared you. Rejoice!

Second, when we study Luke 15, the parable of the Prodigal Son, by the end of the story it is the elder brother, the one who never left home, who never strayed and made obviously horrible, self-destructive decisions, who is still lost. Even though he’s been there with his father the whole time, he really doesn’t seem to know his father. He can’t see that he’s lost; he thinks the father and his returned-to-life younger brother are the bad guys. There are different ways to be follow our desires of flesh and senses. Spiritual pride can be one of the hardest to recognize.

Okay, Paul’s description: All of this was destroying us. We were children of wrath, killing ourselves with the very things we thought were giving us life, letting a spirit that is a murderer be at work in us.

But God.

But God changed all that. If I were giving a simple summary of this passage, I would say “We were destroying ourselves following the deceiver and murderer but God changed everything and made us alive with Christ.” Listen again:

4 But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us 5 even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— 9 not the result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

But God, who is rich in mercy—what an awesome description, “rich in mercy.” It’s not like he’s doling out tiny bits of mercy, like a miser who hates to part with anything, no, rich in mercy and out of the great love with which he loves us, even when we were absolutely dead by our own hands, God made us alive. God resurrected us. God made us alive together with Christ Jesus. By grace you have been saved. “Grace” means you deserve something bad but instead you are given something good. We deserve punishment but instead are given blessing. Actually, it’s kind of crazy. Or at the very least, it breaks the whole “You get what you earn, there’s no free lunch” system. You don’t get what you earn in this deal. We deserve death, but God gives us life.

By grace you have been saved. There’s no earning what God gives us. God made us alive with Christ, he raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus—that is Past Tense; Paul says God has already done this. He did this so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. I thought “rich in mercy” was awesome, but “immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.” I have a sick and twisted heart, but God made me alive with Christ. You sinned, but God shows you the immeasurable riches of his grace. And always, always in Christ Jesus.

This is a fantastic passage to read when you’re wondering how God really feels about you. If you don’t think you’re doing a good enough job of following Jesus, let this soak in. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— 9 not the result of works, so that no one may boast. God appeals to us with his love and kindness and we choose to believe that God really can love us at our very worst, that God forgives us when we ask—in other words, we respond with faith. But even having faith in God is grace. That’s amazing. God gives us the choice and the ability to respond to him—we are saved “through faith”—but that faith itself is by grace, God giving us something good when we’ve earned something bad. We aren’t saved by works, not the works of being perfect and without sin, nor the works of making up for anything bad we’ve done or fixing our mistakes. We aren’t even saved by the works of choosing to say “yes” to God’s salvation. That’s a gift, too. We are saved by grace. “So that no one may boast.” Spiritual pride is the nastiest kind of pride. Boasting of how we’ve made ourselves acceptable to God is missing the first three verses of this passage, it’s failing to grasp what our condition actually was when God saved us.

I was really messed up, but then I… I was a terrible sinner, but I..
Nope. Not “But I.” But God.

And Paul concludes with 10 For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

One of my Bible students wrote this week, ‘“While God’s love does not depend on our actions, we can’t say that we have accepted God’s love if we don’t let it change us.” I think that may be the best concise description of grace and obedience I’ve seen. God created us in Christ Jesus for good works. If sin is what damages us, then doing good works, living for God’s Kingdom, gives us life. God designed us. He knows how we work. He knows what makes us whole and what destroys us. God’s love changes us. God’s outrageous, unbelievable, inconceivable riches of grace transforms us. Obeying God, making “good works” our way of life, is living according to our design.

Okay, remember all the big picture, expansive stuff in the introduction in Chapter 1? Paul is bringing the picture in now, still pretty broad but now we have the image of how God’s grace is moving us from our former condition of death to our current condition of alive in Christ.

This is Palm Sunday. We’re one week from Easter and traditionally the church celebrates Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem, which is this odd mix off joy and grief. The people are lined up on both sides of the road, shouting and cheering for Jesus, throwing their cloaks off in front of him, praising God for this prophet or messiah or something who is entering Jerusalem in triumph.

Blessed is the king
who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven,
and glory in the highest heaven!”

But God is entering Jerusalem not on a war horse but on a donkey. But God’s Messiah is not a conquering warrior Messiah, he’s a poor, former refugee child, manual laborer who became a rabbi without formal training and he teaches about being a servant—“the son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” But God is lamenting for Jerusalem, not affirming her.

As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, 42 saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. 43 Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. 44 They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.

Jesus the Messiah comes to us, but not as conqueror, though He is conqueror. Jesus the King comes to us, but not in a royal robe with a scepter of power. Jesus who is God Almighty comes to us in weakness and vulnerability and humility, and this road leads not to a throne in a palace but to a cross on a hillside.

We were dead in our sins, but God gave his life for us.

We imagined a Messiah who conquered the enemy Romans through power, but God conquered the true Enemy, death, through self-sacrificial love and grace.

Therefore, for each and every argument that you or I might be unlovable, unacceptable, or just not good enough…

But God.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.