Children of Light

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[Manuscript of Sermon I preached on Ephesians 5:1-20 on 6-4-17]

1 Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, 2 and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. 3 But fornication and impurity of any kind, or greed, must not even be mentioned among you, as is proper among saints. 4 Entirely out of place is obscene, silly, and vulgar talk; but instead, let there be thanksgiving. 5 Be sure of this, that no fornicator or impure person, or one who is greedy (that is, an idolater), has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. 6 Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes on those who are disobedient.7 Therefore do not be associated with them. 8 For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light— 9 for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true. 10 Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord. 11 Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. 12 For it is shameful even to mention what such people do secretly; 13 but everything exposed by the light becomes visible, 14 for everything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says,

Sleeper, awake!
Rise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.”

 15 Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise,16 making the most of the time, because the days are evil. 17 So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. 18 Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, 19 as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts,20 giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.


How many of you here have had the experience of being without electricity, having the power go off? What is that like? What about when that happens in the evening, after 6pm? Okay, so picture you’re now sitting there, but you also have to get something done. Now you’ve got no internet. Maybe you have an assignment that’s due that night, or a crucial email you have to send for your ministry, or something for work that will not wait until morning, and the lights are out, the connection is dead. You feeling that?

And now the lights come back on. How do you feel?

When I became a Christian, it was that feeling but to infinity. I was in the darkness all the time, nothing I did helped, the harder I tried the worse I made it, and then God turned the lights on and it was like, “Oh. Now I can see!”

There are different ways you can read this passage. One is to read it as a list of warnings: These things are bad and you must avoid them. Another way to read it is as a means of identifying who is going to hell. “No fornicator or impure person, or one who is greedy (that is, an idolater), has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.” So fornicators, impure people, and greedy people—who are idolaters. If you can read that and sit there confidently thinking, “Yep, them. Those people have no part in God’s Kingdom,” then it’s possible you and I have a different understanding of grace and of impurity.

I’ve heard this passage used for each of these two purposes. It’s not a bad thing to warn people against various sins. If sin is what damages and kills us, then we should know what we need to avoid. The problem is, we move quickly from, “these are the things I need to avoid” to “following Jesus is only about avoiding these things.”

But when you read through this passage, when you read through Ephesians, you see Paul has in mind something much bigger than lists of warnings and “do’s and don’t’s.” Paul addresses a question that only gets more important as our lives go on: Who are we?

I’ve had some wonderful mentors in my life. Several of them have emphasized a lesson that shapes how I read Scripture and how I understand following God: Doing flows from Being.

The things we do come from who we are, from how we understand our identity. How many of you have ever told a child or teenager to do something and gotten the answer, in one form or another, “Why should I?” Which probably means, “That doesn’t matter to me and I don’t want to.” Often the answer to “why should I” is because I have some power over you that I will exert if you don’t. But last night, when I looked at the sink full of dirty dishes and though, “Why should I?” the real answer was, “Well, who am I?” I’m a Jesus follower. Jesus leads us by serving us and teaches us to serve. And honestly, late last night, that’s why I did the dishes, because I want to be like Jesus, and that means I want to be a servant like Jesus.

Don’t get me wrong. These are important warnings in Ephesians 5, and we should pay attention: “Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes on those who are disobedient.” Listen—if you have people telling you that bad things are really good, don’t be deceived. Or if anyone is trying to convince you that you can be good on your own and don’t need God’s help, or the opposite, that God is never pleased with you, that you are never good enough and God saves you out of obligation but does not delight in you, those are empty words, empty without the depth or substance of Scripture, empty of truth and empty of life. Do not listen to them or to anyone teaching them.

But Paul didn’t write this passage in his prison cell merely as a warning. We always try to get the full context of Scripture because context makes all the difference. The first 6 verses serve as a warning and verse 7 instructs sternly, “Therefore do not be associated with them.” But the center of the passage comes in verse 8.

 For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light— 9 for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true. 10 Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord. 11 Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. 12 For it is shameful even to mention what such people do secretly; 13 but everything exposed by the light becomes visible, 14 for everything that becomes visible is light. Following Jesus means more than trying to stay clean from sin, or even than trying to obey Jesus to stay clean.

Paul echoes Jesus here. IN the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5, Jesus says: “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid.15 No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

Okay, track with me for a second. I believe this is the center of the passage: Once you were darkness but now in the Lord you are light. The center is who we are, our identity, and what we do comes from who we are. Doing flows from being. What does it mean that we’re light? How did we get to be light?

Passages like these sound bad to people who do not follow Jesus because it sounds like we’re saying something extremely egotistical and superior. Yes, that does matter, because 1)that’s a complete misunderstanding of our relationship with God, and 2)it can push people away from the Gospel. So let’s be really clear:

Paul suggests not only are people who reject God doing bad stuff, but they are darkness. Once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are Light. In the Lord. None of us fixed ourselves. We didn’t become the higher class of spirituality, pull ourselves up by the bootstraps of our souls and achieve the Christian-American dream of becoming better than everyone else. That is NOT what happened.

The change happens not because we fix things in ourselves or we find “The Secret” or figure out how to self-actualize or make ourselves holy. We certainly do not change from darkness to light because we were told the rules and learned to follow them better.

God rescued us. God threw himself in our path while we were charging toward hell, he threw his body in our way. He knocked us out of the way of the oncoming Prado and in Jesus Christ got run over and crushed in our place. That analogy isn’t bad, except that we weren’t innocent pedestrians who just happened to make a foolish choice to get in the road.

We had committed to poisoning ourselves and the people around us. Not satisfied with our own death, we were also pouring poison into the glasses of those within our reach. The Gospel’s not easy to take, when we let ourselves get what it really says. We were God’s enemies. We were heading to hell and inviting others to join us for the trip. Jesus took the poison from our hands, but we’d already drunk it, so Jesus took the poison from our bodies, too. He took the death we’d ingested and let it kill him instead of us. He took our death in him and gave us his life, instead. That’s grace—when you deserve something bad and instead are given something good. We deserved the worst and got the best.

 In the Lord, you are light. Now that we’ve been extremely clear on how that happened, the center of Paul’s argument is this: God has transformed us. In God, In Jesus Christ, we are light. Live as children of light— 9 for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true. God is light and in him there is no darkness. We are God’s children; in God, we become children of light.

Here’s the thing about light and darkness: it’s not an even match. Darkness can never, ever win when light is present. Never. Did I say that enough times? Never. If light is present, at all, then darkness is vanquished. You might’ve seen horror movies where the last match is burning out and the darkness and the bogeyman are about to take over. But that’s not darkness triumphing over light, that’s running out of matches. You are light in Jesus. You don’t worry about running out of matches because In Jesus, God has made you light.

I said that reading this as a passage of warning or even instruction is too limited because it is a passage of identity. We will never succeed at stopping ourselves from doing bad things by just being warned. Please get the difference between: stop, don’t be greedy or impure or sexually immoral or say nasty, vulgar things

and In Jesus Christ God has made you light, and God is transforming you. God’s Spirit dwells in us. Our hearts are filled with God, and God is not letting us go. Doing flows from being.

Paul knows that the battle within our hearts continues. He instructs the Ephesians Live as children of light— 9 for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true. 10 Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord. Paul doesn’t assume that the Ephesians are automatically doing all the right things, but he is reminding them of their identity—who they were, who they are now. The fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true. Darkness cannot exist in the presence of light. So in God as we begin to walk with Jesus, as we begin to extend grace to ourselves and others, as we start to love our neighbor as ourselves, we see the fruit of the light—all that is good and right and true, all that is of God, shines and makes more visible.

I think Paul’s next line is really interesting: try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord. Try to find out. Of course, we could make a list right now, all together, of things we believe are pleasing to God. But when Paul phrases it this way, I think it means in your individual life, try to find that out. Try to find out how your life can be pleasing to God. Remember, this is attached to “live as children of light.” What does God have for you to do that brings light into darkness?

Then, continuing his metaphor, Paul considers how to oppose the darkness.

Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. 12 For it is shameful even to mention what such people do secretly; 13 but everything exposed by the light becomes visible, 14 for everything that becomes visible is light.

This all requires wisdom. We must recognize the difference between darkness and light in order to avoid taking part in “unfruitful works of darkness.” The fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true, and the fruitfulness of light is that it spreads, bringing light, bringing God’s Presence, into more places–in our hearts, into the world around us. Then it follows that works of darkness are unfruitful because they don’t spread any light, they don’t bring God’s Presence; they may pretend to bring light, but you can see from their results: if they have not brought any light forth, if they have made big promises for the light they would spread but when you look, you can’t see anything of God being revealed or brought to life, then these works are unfruitful. These are works of darkness.

Okay, I love weaving in metaphors, and I could play with this all day—heck, I might even write a book. “All that is good and right and true” is wonderfully broad and I don’t want to give any limits that narrow God’s infinite creativity. Just because you’re not doing good in the same way I am does not mean you’re doing it wrong. But it’s also helpful to be concrete with these things: The works of light are when people are experiencing Shalom, true reconciliation with God and one another, when we know God’s love more deeply, when we are reconciled to God and forgive and ask forgiveness, when we are healed from our shame and self-hatred and repent of our pride and violence and racism and arrogance. When people become Jesus followers. When we feed hungry people and and give thirsty people drink, when we visit prisoners and care for sick people and welcome strangers and refugees and orphans and embraced them, those are the signs of God’s Kingdom, those are the works of the light. There are more, of course. But they have to be these, as well. If you’re told these are not works of light, you are hearing empty words; don’t be deceived.

 

So as children of light, we’re exposing works of darkness. That can be scary. Darkness often does not like to have light shined on it. I’m sure we can all verify this in our own lives. Even though we know that light brings life and darkness brings death, even so, it’s tempting to remain in the darkness because we think having darkness revealed is shameful. That’s just a trick to keep us in the dark. Staying in darkness is deadly; having darkness revealed brings life. If we say we are without sin, we make God a liar and the truth is not in us; if we confess our sin, he is faithful and just to forgive all our sins.” We are light, in Jesus. Therefore, we don’t participate in the works of darkness, we don’t keep their secrets (as the quote goes “you’re as sick as your secrets”). Instead, we bring bad things into God’s light, knowing that this is the only way to life.

but everything exposed by the light becomes visible, 14 for everything that becomes visible is light.”

I don’t know if I could make an argument for this according to the properties of physics, but then we’re already in metaphysics when we agreed that we are light. God redeems. When things are exposed by the light, they become visible and now have the possibility of redemption. Evil, which grows in dark and hidden places, is called out for what it is. Everything that becomes visible is light. Again, I take this to mean the absence of light is the only place darkness can thrive, and everything, including us, once brought into the light can itself become light.

 

Continuing in verse 14: Therefore–because this is true–it says,

Sleeper, awake!
Rise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.”

(Is. 60:1-2)

This is resurrection. The “sleeper” isn’t having a nice snooze, but is dead, as when Jesus told his disciples that Lazarus had “fallen asleep.” He died. But the light God brings resurrects dead spirits, it brings dead souls back to life. Rise from the dead and Christ will shine on you. You will become a daughter or son of the light.

The last 5 verses are instructions again. You can see now the structure of Paul’s message here. Last week’s passage that Matt House preached ended, “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, 2 and live in love…” Identity and instructions for that identity, right? Be this and then you will do this. You are beloved children, so be imitators of God and live in love as Jesus loved us.

Our passage today reveals our identity as children of light and gives ideas of how to live as who we are. Now we end with some specific exhortations.
15 Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise,16 making the most of the time, because the days are evil. 17 So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. 18 Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, 19 as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts,20 giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

How we live as people of light becomes very important. Paul wrote this mid-way through the first century to people living under the Roman empire and in a city that worshiped the “Goddess” Artemis, and followers of Jesus suffered much persecution. The days were evil. It’s not difficult to argue that our days are evil, too, so much so that I’m not going to bother to prove that to you. We all know the evil and darkness around us. So I want to focus on the exhortation for a moment: live not as unwise people bus as wise, making the most of the time. To our ears, that might sound like, “Oh, Man, work hard, get the job done!” But listen to what follows: 1)don’t be foolish, but understand the will of the Lord, 2)Don’t get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery—you’re not going to be wise or making the most of the time if you’re going around drunk, right 3)but be filled with the Spirit as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Remember, Paul’s in a prison, and probably not a nice one, not clean and safe and 3 meals a day. He’s in this place and he insists that his disciples in Ephesus spend their time as wisely as possible, they make the best use of their time–by singing praises to God! Come on, that’s cool. Glorify god. Let God’s spirit fill you and, in the way that you connect with God, worship him. Now I would say Paul is saying “don’t waste your time and get sidetracked on things that have nothing to do with the Kingdom.” You are children of light; live as children of light. God’s will for each of us is the same, yet individual. And we’re going to be at the heart of that by making melody to the Lord in our hearts. That’s how we are light in the world.

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