Almost Too Good To Be True

Download (right click and choose save as)

July 15, 2018. The Apostle Paul’s letter to the Ephesians sounds almost too good to be true, perhaps a bit too gushy for some of our sensibilities. Pastor Stephanie preaches on this passage, and on the plan that God has for us all.


*** Transcript ***


Sometimes when I confront a Biblical passage, it seems too big, too wonderful, too exalted to dare preach about it. Many of the passages, as you know, are so sublime and glorious that it’s downright intimidating to think that any one of us could do it justice. I feel that way this morning about the words of a letter to the Ephesians that was read for us earlier, and yet it kept calling to me to work with it this Sunday.


Realize, dear congregation, that the intro to this letter is something really special. I’m sure you caught the wide sweeping language the Apostle Paul employs to capture our imaginations, of a powerful vision for us regarding our relationship with a grand and loving God. So, how is the Apostle Paul handling this here? Mostly he is not giving a doctrinal lesson, as he sometimes does in Romans, although there is some of that here, nor is he giving an ethical lecture like he does to the church in Corinth. This passage is more like an overture to a vast musical composition in which all the great themes of a symphony are introduced. Paul seems to hurl himself here into a great burst of praise to God. In the Greek text, the passage that Pastor Jim read is one sentence, one sentence of long celebration that goes on and on for 12 verses. It’s been broken down into a few sentences for us in English, thankfully for our reading, but it is still a mouthful for a lector to read, and a whole lot of soaring rhetoric for our minds to comprehend.


So, how can and should this be preached? Even at this moment I’m not entirely sure, but I don’t think it’s to dissect it and analyze every piece of it. That’s for an in-depth biblical study to do that. But focusing so narrowly on it would be to miss its wonder and depth. So somehow together I hope we can gain a glimpse of the vision expressed here and enter into its power.


If this happens throughout our time here today, then we will have received what this text wants to give us: mental, emotional, and spiritual engagement that becomes a symphony of praise offered to our God. You do know that I run the risk here of sounding like a salesperson with an offer that is too good to be true, don’t you? You heard the language employed here. It’s one thing for the Apostle Paul to use this language, but for ordinary people like me, to go on and on about how you and I are chosen, how we are accepted, how we are adopted by God, how we are graced beyond our imaginations, how we are forgiven of everything we have ever done, how we are lavished with the riches of God’s grace, how we are destined according to God’s promises, and heirs of the almighty God… All of that could breed some distrust and suspicion, as I would imagine. That sounds almost too good to be true.


The superlatives here border on the “bit too gushy” for some of our sensibilities. After all, over time we’ve had to become realists, and some of this sounds a bit too lofty to comprehend and to be completely true, through and through. Haven’t we all listened to enough commercials and promotions to wonder if this language isn’t just a bit over the top?


We’ll see as we move forward, but maybe, just maybe we need to examine what might be at play for us, even if it does sound too good to be true. First of all, one of the major concepts here is that we are beloved by God. That’s well established throughout Scripture. God says in many places and times, “I have called you by name and you are mine.” Another psalm says our names are written in the palm of God’s hands. We have the whole narrative and theology of the fact that Christ died for us, even in our sin while we were yet sinners, loved us enough to die for us, and Jesus himself calls us his friends.


And further, beyond that, it says that God has plans for us. That is abundantly clear in Ephesians. When I was growing up I knew that my mother had plans for me. She had health issues, and found the physicians who cared for her to be compassionate and admirable. Therefore, she developed this goal or purpose for me since I love studying the natural sciences. Anyway, she made it clear that she thought I should go into medicine. Well, my dad worked in a bank and he thought I could be a warm and friendly hometown loan officer, in the bank in the little community like he was. Since I liked math as well, that was enough for him.


I’m sure you can see where this is going. I never did go into either field that fit my parents’ plans for me. I think they got over it, eventually. I did not even go into a field that fit my own earlier plans for myself. I loved, loved, loved my second grade teacher, so much that I thought I was going to be an elementary school teacher. Eventually, of course, a different career path became obvious to me. But what my career became was only a piece, a small piece of the growing recognition of where God was moving in my life. More than what I did as a career, was the awareness that God had a wider, bigger picture for me as a person, as a child of God, a disciple, one baptized and called into the plans of God, just as God does for each and every person, here and beyond.


These plans have existed since before time was created, and they are big and grand and very important. These plans and purposes that God has for us are amazing. What we do relates to this. But even more, who we are and how we operate seem to be in God’s scheme of things. Paul tells us in Ephesians that God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world, to be holy and blameless before him in love. He goes on to say that God destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the beloved.


The most obvious connection for this passage is our baptism. Where we rejoice that God has chosen us. God claims us as his own. When we remember how Christ washed away our sins and made us new creations in Christ. In baptism, we experience the sign and seal of God’s promises. We recognize that this is a gift, because there’s nothing that we could ever do to deserve the life we receive in Christ. Through remembering our baptism, we acknowledge that God chose us to be beloved sons and daughters, and God commissions us to be bearers of the promises of God throughout our lives. That is our true vocation and calling. To live as children of God who see our adoption into God’s family as a grace gift, welcoming others to receive that same gift is part of the purpose and plan for our lives that God has always had for us.


One of my favorite seminary professors endlessly found ways to weave a phrase that is prominent in this passage into most of the lectures I remember him giving. He taught homiletics and an elective class on prayer. If William Brownson has a theme to his teaching and his life, and he still does at age 90 I might add, it is that we are called to live for the praise of God’s glory, whether we are preaching, teaching, performing surgery, caring for children or the elderly, preparing accounting reports, practicing for a piano recital, playing soccer, or sitting in a wheelchair and wondering what’s next, our purposes are to be the same. However our lives evolve, God has destined us to live for the praise of God’s glory.


That isn’t always easy to figure out, especially when times get tough. I’ll give you a clue though in what makes this easier. It’s something that most of us profess to know and believe, but in our day-to-day life it can be a little hard to hang on to. Spoiler alert, it’s all going to turn out well in the end.


The novel that God is writing has a very, very happy ending. Paul reminds us of this too in this passage. He says according to God’s good pleasure that he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, God will gather up all things in him, things in Heaven and things on Earth. All of history is moving steadily toward the time when people of all tribes, of every language, will gather around the throne of God, singing to the praise of God’s glory and every wrong will be righted, every tear wiped away. The dead will be raised in Christ, and all that has become corrupt and destructive will be made brand new and beautiful. Breathtakingly beautiful, isn’t it?


But what about now? We’re not there yet. Now all around us people believe the world is going to hell in a hand basket. Sometimes that even includes us. Taking this Ephesians passage to heart, however, means we cannot give up hope. I’m sure we could all name a few situations that do seem hopeless to us. Most of the time we have good reason to think that, at least in the short term but certainly not in the long term. Paul is showing us this expansive vision for the plan of God as revealed in Christ, which claims that all things eventually work out for the glory of God. That, if nothing else, reminds us of the power of the gospel. God’s grace prevails. It’s over all and in all and cannot be conquered by evil. It’s even given where not deserved. We cannot begin to comprehend how things we find so reprehensible can ever be redeemed, but God can imagine that and is making it so.


How then do we fit into this as the adopted children of God, into this plan? As we reflect on the grace of God toward us, chosen, adopted, given a purpose, richly blessed with a massive inheritance of love, destined to live for the praise of God’s glory, we are repositories of hope and grace to be shown to others.


We can, ironically, be somewhat light-hearted, since the heavy lifting for all of this has already been done by God in and through us. And yet there’s something weighty about this role as well. This playing the glory of God is no small thing. The Hebrew word for it is Chabad and it contains a gravitas, a significant awareness of the unique difference the presence of God makes. It’s nothing to be taken flippantly. Paul would say that to live for the praise of God’s glory means to live daringly, to live conscientiously in the presence of God, that in every situation God wills to bring hope and redemption.


That very thing was what gave the disciples courage, even at the beheading of John the Baptist, something so horrible and vulgar that one could never get over it were it not for the awareness of the goodness of God being able to ultimately triumph over evil. It’s also what gave the prophet Amos the chutzpa to speak truth to power about the state of Israel’s life. Knowing God’s truth and goodness are so much bigger than self-centered leaders gives a person that ability.


It’s what gives us the courage and fortitude to look suffering in the face with the eyes of love and the confidence that God is indeed making all things new. William Sloane Coffin, author and longtime pastor of Riverside Church in New York City, once noted that when we think about living as God’s beloved children, we are often rather short-sighted in understanding what that really means. We sentimentally describe the sweet, simple trust of children. But Coffin wrote that we should not underestimate this sweet idealism of children. It’s children, after all, who want to save the seals, save the whales, and save everybody else while they’re at it. It’s kids who set up lemonade stands and sell cookies so they can turn their nickels and dimes over to this or that relief effort. It’s children who take home those little church-shaped banks and fill them with copper coins and then bring them back to the church, really believing that those pennies will make a new addition to the church or buy enough mosquito nets to really save lives. It’s children who have a neighborhood walk around a school, holding up homemade signs calling for racial reconciliation and really believing that they are making a difference by taking to the sidewalk in that way. Of course, we encourage this in children. We buy the lemonade, we compliment their delicious cookies, and we stick our loose change into empty coffee cans.


I think this Ephesians passage is encouraging us all to take up our own hopeful campaigns and causes with the end in mind. If God has plans for our lives to contribute to the restoration of the cosmos that is eventually coming, let’s not lose heart at the things that look dismal today. But rather joyfully, enthusiastically join with children of all ages, beloved children of God, in doing the hopeful things that point to a God whose purposes are bigger than we ever dared to ask or imagine.


We are chosen. We are destined. We are the baptized. We are set free and set loose to live for the praise of God’s glory. People who live in Christ know that everything we have ever needed has been lavished upon us freely and completely. We know and believe that since we live in that sphere of influence that is Christ Jesus, it is precisely simple acts of trust, quiet acts of kindness, a gentleness of spirit, and a willingness to witness to the gospel, that can make all the difference in the world. One day that grace will change the world.


Actually, by God’s grace, it’s already happening. Thanks be to God.


*** Keywords ***


2018, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, Pastor Stephanie Doeschot