January 4, 2009
Scripture: Ephesians 1:1-14
Sermon Title: "God’s Good Pleasure"
Today’s scripture is taken from the first fourteen verses of Ephesians. As one person wrote, it’s an exuberant benediction giving thanks to God for all that God has planned to do, has done and will do.
And what a collection of verses these are: there is exuberance all over; in the words blessed and grace which are used three time, the phrase "good pleasure" which is said twice, and words such as love and wisdom that are peppered throughout.
Could there be a better way to begin 2009?
Today’s sermon is designed as a combination of education and celebration, aimed to fill us with a sense of inspiration that will result in motivation.
For the educational part, lets talk about what scholars have to say about the book of Ephesians.
Most Bibles label this as a letter from Paul to a church in Ephesus. But modern scholarship has concluded that this letter most likely was not written by Paul. How could this be, we may ask, since the author claims to be Paul?
To explain, back when this was written, there was no such thing as intellectual property. Copyrights and patents did not exist. Which meant a few things happened with written work.
Some authors signed their name, other chose to leave their writings anonymous. Then there were those who were students of an author, and when he died they would write in his name. This wasn’t seen as lying, but a sign of respect and a way to continue their teacher’s traditions and wisdom.
These were acceptable practices back then, but for us, it can make Biblical scholarship a bit tricky.
In studying the use of language and historical references, scholars believe Ephesians was written by one of Paul’s students. For one thing the use of words is noticeably different from the words in Paul’s other letters.
Second, this letter assumes a large, organized church, whereas Paul was often writing to small, intimate church houses.
So, if we accept the theory that it was not Paul, but a student, writing the letter, what was going on during the time the letter was written?
Scholars say it was written after Jerusalem has fallen to the Romans. The Temple has been destroyed for a second time, and the Jews were trying to redefine what it meant to be Jewish.
Some Jews find the answer in Christ while at the same time Non-Jews are also discovering Christ, and these people from vastly different beliefs and practices are coming together as Christians.
In other words, this letter was written during a true time of chaos.
And what does this student of Paul do? Does he throw up his hands and say "This is crazy, it makes no sense"? Does he say "That’s it, the Romans have won, life as we know it is over"?
No, he writes this exuberant letter in which the first thing he says after the greeting is "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places."
Did you hear that? With the Temple in ruins, with Roman guards patrolling the streets, with worshipers of all walks of life gathering, he says "Blessed be the God."
And does he say God has blessed us in Christ with a little bit of spiritual blessing? No.
Does he say God has blessed us with some spiritual blessing? No.
He says "God has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing."
Every. Not a little. Not some. But every.
And he goes on for 10 more lines, and 5 more chapters gushing on and on about how good God is, what life in Christ has done for us, and how we should respond.
With foreign occupation, a destroyed Temple and a chaotic congregation, what blessings could God have possibly given? Paul’s student rapidly lists the reasons:
That even before the world was created God had a plan for us, with the means of redemption already in place.
That even though we already belong to God, God has reinforced his love by adopting us through Jesus Christ.
That through the blood of Christ, God has freely given us grace, lavishing us with forgiveness of our trespasses.
That with wisdom and insight, God in his mysterious ways has gathered us together.
And what does God ask us? That we might live to praise his name.
Life, as the Paulist writer states, may be chaotic right now, but as long as we know we have been adopted by God through Christ, we have grace, forgiveness and redemption.
And for that we should give thanks. Can I get an amen?
On New Year’s Eve I heard an interview with one of my heros, Maya Angelou. She was asked what was the most important life lesson she learned.
Maya responded "The most important lesson I learned, the most important lesson anyone can learn is gratitude. To say "thank you.""Thank you," she lyrically repeated. "Some people will ask for modesty. But modesty is like a magnet people wear that easily falls off. Instead, I say to pray for and to seek humility. To be thankful for your ancestors."
Then she began her own exuberant benediction: "If you are a European-American, and your ancestors were Pilgrims who fled to escape persecution say "thank you.""Thank you. For everything you gave up and everything you went through.""If you are Asian-American and your ancestors came here hundreds of years ago to help build the railroad, some of them leaving their spouses behind for decades, say "thank you.""Thank you. For working in the sweat shops and steam shops of New York.""If you are African-American and your ancestors were brought here on a slave ship laying head to foot, say "thank you."
Dr. Angelou continued, "And I, in response, realizing and knowing what all my ancestors did and went through, can’t help but to ask what I can do for the people who are to come after me."
I was so moved to tears by her lesson of thankfulness. As Dr. Maya Angelou states: gratitude is life’s most important lesson.
Paul’s student also embraces a spirit of gratitude, reminding us that we are to bless God who has blessed us in Christ, giving us grace, redemption, and forgiveness, asking that we live for the praise of his glory, treating each other and ourselves with a bit more kindness and love.
It has been God’s good pleasure the writer states, not just once, but twice. So, for a moment, let’s forget about the economy, or job market, let’s set aside health and family issues, and let me ask: what has been God’s good pleasure for you?
I was reminded of this on New Year’s Day when I came though a collection of photos from over the past four years.
From a material viewpoint, I see just how much I have been blessed. A TV given by a friend, a dining room table given by my landlord, dishes given by a classmate, a couch given to me by the Maniscalcos, a recliner given by a neighbor, a bedroom set purchased by my Mom.
I couldn’t help but to be reminded of all that God has done for me socially. My running, karaoke and linedancing friends. The friends I have living in 10 states.
My cat, who I can’t picture life without, and the cat toys and furniture people of the church have given. Thank you.
I can’t help but to be reminded of the ways God has blessed me. Relatively good health, an education, a calling.
Once upon a time I lived in a studio apartment with a shower that didn’t work and a bathtub that had to be filled with water heated on the stove. Now I can look outside my door and see a lake and trees and children playing. I have a stocked pantry and a full wardrobe.
Shoot, I am thankful that I have two feet, two eyes, two hands and a heart that still beats.
All that other stuff that I worry about, that day to day stuff that is real and can wear one down, thinking about what I don’t have? In the big scheme of life, it’s all secondary.
Because what I do have, what God has given me is by far greater, and there is still a whole future waiting out there to be revealed and to be discovered.
So, I give thanks. I give thanks to God for the gifts he has given and the gifts yet to be.
"Thank you," as Dr. Maya Angelou would say, "Thank you."
And us? What can we do? We can take a lesson from Ephesians and from Dr. Angelou and show our gratitude to God and our ancestors for the ways God has shared his good pleasure.
We can start by saying to God, who created the world with a plan set in place for all of us, thank you.
To Abraham and Sarah for accepting God’s call, leaving behind all they knew so they could be a blessing to the rest of the world, thank you.
To Moses who helped free the Israelites, who gave us the Law and Commandments, who didn’t give up on the people even when they gave up on him and God, thank you.
To Mary and Elizabeth who accepted God’s call to bear children, bringing Jesus and John into the world even though it meant great pain for them, thank you.
To Jesus, God’s living wisdom, who walked with us, shared meals, taught and touched us, who died for us so we may be free from sin and receive the gifts of grace and redemption, thank you.
To Paul and the disciples who bravely spread the Good News of Christ, even when it meant being jailed and dying for their beliefs, thank you.
To the Holy Spirit that moved over the waters of chaos and continues to move through the world today, thank you.
To the original Congregationalists who left home and moved here to worship God, thank you.
To the members of Smith Memorial and Park Church who established our church, thank you.
To the former pastors and members who kept the church open during the Great Depression even as other churches closed down, thank you.
To all adults and children who work to keep our church alive so God’s word can be done and proclaimed, thank you.
And how can we show our thanks to God?
By praising his glory, by gathering every Sunday. We show our thanks when we place our offerings on the altar, when we lift up our voices in song, when we pray together, when we study scripture.
We show our thanks when we reach out through missions, when we open our food pantry, when we assist those in need.
We show thanks when we care for and maintain the Peace Garden, church grounds and property.
We show thanks when we bring our children to church, allowing them to learn the stories and to understand, without a doubt, that God loves them and always will.
And in return, something the Paulist writer understood, something Dr. Angelou knows, something medical science is discovering, the more we find ways to say "Thank you" the more blessed we remain, the more emotional strength we find for difficult times, and the more energized we stay when we feel weak.
The more we find ways to give thanks for God’s good pleasure, the more blessed we feel, the more blessed we behave, and the happier, saner and sturdier we become.
Friends and family in Christ, blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing.
It has been according to and by God’s good pleasure. And in response, let us continue to live, praising his glory forever and ever, amen.