Monday, March 16, 2015

Sermon on Ephesians 2:1-10, for the 4th Sunday in Lent, "The Path left behind, and the Path chosen for us"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Walking isn’t normally a dangerous activity. Walking through your neighborhood or local park or along the beach is healthy exercise. Of course you can add all sorts of dangers into the mix, to make walking a more dangerous activity—walk in the dark; in a dangerous neighborhood; on a treacherous, slippery, or poorly marked trail; or having bad men lying in wait. However, even with potential dangers, many still will take such a walk, and some may even do so unharmed. So even with all dangers taken into account, walking is not normally considered a deadly activity.
However, our Bible reading from Ephesians 2 begins by talking about a walk that we’ve all been on—a walk that many people are still walking—that is not only deadly, but everyone who walks it is already dead. “You were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.” The path we all once walked on is the path that leads to death—the path of sin. And those who walk it are already the walking dead. Not a pretty picture. Not a flattering self-portrait. And it’s not selective. It’s not just some of us who once walked this path—we all did. The sons of disobedience still do. That deadly path is disobedience to God, living according to the desires and direction of our body and mind.
This unflattering picture of our sinfulness is at the same time a description of all our bad choices and wrong decisions—the things we’ve actively done wrong and the evil that we had a hand in doing—and it is also a description of what we were by nature. We were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. In other words, sin wasn’t just a bad habit or learned behavior that we picked up after some initial years of innocence—but sin was right there with us from childhood. As the Psalmist confesses in Psalm 51:5, “Surely I was sinful at birth; sinful from the time my mother conceived me.” Even before I had a say in the matter, right from my conception in my mother’s womb, I was marked with a sinful nature. Christians call this reality “original sin.” St. Paul tells us that this sin entered the world through the one man Adam. So the total picture of our sin includes both that we were by nature children of wrath—subject to God’s eternal punishment—and we were also active participants in sin—adding our own disobedience and wrongdoing into the mix.
So far our feet were traveling on the path of death. And we were “dead in our trespasses and sins.” Spiritually dead, not wounded or injured, but dead—which means we were totally helpless to remedy the situation. There were no “evasive measures” to take where we could avoid being dead. There was no “careful stepping” to keep us alive—we were already dead. “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with Him and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.”
Can you just grasp for a moment what an unexpected turn this is? God, watching those who made themselves enemies to Him by disobedience; watching us ignore all the good counsels and instructions He gave to lead us to life; watching us squander His good gifts—God, seeing this, loved us with a great love and an extravagant mercy. And He determined to make us alive again with Christ Jesus. A pure and free gift. This extravagant love is the kind of love that throws a huge banquet for the lost son returned home, celebrating the return of a runaway who “was dead and is alive again, was lost, and he is found!” It’s the kind of love that made Jesus pour out His own life in death, for those who hated, scorned, and laughed at Him. In the first 3 chapters of Ephesians, Paul uses many descriptions to tell us of this extravagant love of God for us, dead and lost sinners. God forgives our sins “according to the riches of His grace, which He lavished upon us” (1:7-8); the “riches of His glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of His power toward us who believe” (1:18-19); the “unsearchable riches of Christ” (3:8); the “love of Christ that surpasses knowledge” (3:19), and so on.
Paul uses all these superlatives in an attempt to point us to the unbelievable lengths which God went to save us. Words don’t do it justice. But it helps show the contrast from our walk in death and utter helplessness, to the new life to which God has raised us. See where Paul is going here—the walk that started in death, in verses 1 & 2, has changed, and by verse 10 it is a living walk—walking in the good works that God has prepared beforehand for us to do. But how has God raised us to this new walk? Every step has been by grace.
Grace is one of those words that is so common in the Bible that we run the risk of losing sight of its rich meaning, and it becoming commonplace. But grace is anything but that. It is the undeserved, free gift of God. Grace excludes all works, so that no one can boast. The story of grace is a long way from a self-help story about how we pulled ourselves up by our own bootstraps. It’s a long way from a story about someone who was just down on their luck, and someone happened to believe in them and inspire them to reach their full potential. Those types of stories are all familiar to us—they are the stuff of movies, biographies, and are great material for inspirational speakers. But that is not what the Gospel story of grace is. The good news of Jesus Christ is not that kind of story at all. Rather it is a story of death and resurrection, of total rescue and deliverance for those who were completely powerless and helpless. It’s a story where we don’t feature in the list of credits or acknowledgments. Rather, it’s a story where God receives all the credit, and He must be acknowledged as the real performer, the One who got the whole job done on His own back. That’s the story of grace.
And why does God take such undeserving sinners, and raise them to life, and seat them together with Christ—an honor which we could hardly deserve or expect? He does it “so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.” God wants mankind to see and learn of His immeasurable riches of grace and kindness in Christ Jesus. I’ve said it many times before—that Jesus Christ reveals to us the kind and compassionate heart of our loving God. A love and grace that goes beyond all bounds and measurement. And this incredible grace of God should stir in us a sense of profound gratitude that gives rise to praise God, who is worthy above all of our praise.
The closing verses of our reading are perhaps the most familiar—and very dear to most Lutherans: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” By grace we have been saved, through faith. One helpful analogy for faith is that it is like an antenna. It is necessary to receive a signal, and yet it doesn’t produce the signal. In the same way, our faith is necessary to receive God’s grace. We must believe in His promises to receive them in our life. But even faith is not something that we do—it is a gift of God, so that no one can boast. The “installation of the antenna” is the work of God—His Holy Spirit creates faith in us. If we believe, it is because God in His grace has made us “good receivers.” Our life comes entirely from Him, so we have no room for pride.
So notice that in verse 9, our good works are firmly removed from the score, from the credits, so that in no way can we lay claim to having deserved or earned God’s favor. But also notice that in verse 10, those good works are relocated to their proper place. “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them”. At last our walk has been transported to a safe, healthy, and living path. A path illuminated for us by God’s Word, a Lamp to our feet and a Light to our Path. Made alive in Christ Jesus, God has created us for a special purpose—and He has good works lined up for each and every one of you to do. Your walk has departed from the old paths of sin and death, of the evil works that choked your path with danger and pitfalls, and your feet have been set on the path of righteousness to travel in the way of peace. This path is lined with opportunities for love and service. It surrounds you with God’s plan. And it’s Jesus’ love working in you.
You can discover those good works that God has planned for you in all the areas of life where God has called you to live. In your daily responsibilities, in your relationships with those around you, in the opportunities to serve, to volunteer, to listen, to have compassion, to pray, and to love. The good works that God has prepared beforehand for you to do are not all going to be the same as those for another Christian. God has a unique service and plan for your life. There are many things that are in common, to be sure. There are many ways in which we work together for the greater good. But you are God’s special creation—His workmanship in Christ Jesus. You are not an accident, but the loving design of the God who saw you in your helplessness and need—who saw you circling down the paths of sin, dead in your trespasses, and with an unfathomable love Jesus raised you up, chose you as His own, gave you life and set your feet on His path. By grace you have been saved. You are alive with Christ Jesus. Give all the glory and credit to Him alone! Give thanks to our God and King, for His love endures forever! In Jesus’ Name, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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  1. “Original sin” is the term Christians frequently use to describe the reality that we were “dead in our trespasses” or “by nature children of wrath.” Where does this “original sin” come from? Romans 5:12-14. How long has it been with us? Psalm 51:5. What directed our actions while we were dead in sin? Ephesian 2:3.
  2. Who is the “prince of the power of the air” in Ephesians 2:2? John 12:31; 14:30; 2 Corinthians 4:4; Ephesians 6:11-12. How is this “ruler” or “prince” cast out? Who defeats Him? Revelation 12:10-11.
  3. If we were once dead in trespasses and sins, what were we helpless to do? Why did God rescue us? Ephesians 2:4-5. In 2:5-6 there are three actions that God does for us together “with Christ” or “with Him.” What are they?
  4. In verse 7, why does God do all this for us? What does it show or prove about who He is?
  5. “Grace” refers to something that is completely gift, or freely done to us. It’s not a word to describe something we’ve earned or are owed, but something undeserved. Because we have been saved by God’s grace, what are we not able to do? Ephesian 2:9; Romans 3:27.
  6. What then are Christians allowed to boast in? 1 Corinthians 1:31; Galatians 6:14
  7. Notice the movement from Ephesians 2:1-2 to 2:10. What kind of “walk” were we doing in verse 2? By verse 10, what kind of walk are Christians doing? What or who is responsible for that dramatic change? Who gave us this new identity and purpose?

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