December 30, 2013
John 1:(1-9), 10-18
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments and ObservationsThe Lectionary may get the last laugh here, and savvy preachers can curl up the corners of their mouths to join the mirth. Because here it is the first Sunday of a new year. For weeks now, starting well before American Thanksgiving even, it’s been all Jesus, all the time. The Muzak pumped into the shopping malls and heard in city centers, the Christmas specials, the long series of special worship services and Lessons & Carols and Messiah sing-a-longs and what all not: it’s all been about Jesus, the Child of Bethlehem, the Babe laid in the manger. It’s been one giant Christmaspalooza. And now . . . on the first Sunday when people re-gather in sanctuaries for this one last Sunday when the sanctuary may still decked out in some kind or another of Christmas finery, the first words of the Gospel text tell us that Jesus came to that which was his own, but his own did NOT receive him. In other words, Jesus has come, and you missed him! “Missed him!?” not a few would want to exclaim in reply. “Missed him? No, no, no: in recent weeks there was NO missing him. Everyone saw Jesus in recent days, even those not looking for him.” But the text of John 1:10 confronts us nonetheless, forcing us to ask ourselves, “Yes, perhaps we saw Jesus but did we recognize him? Did we receive him? Did we take his incarnation into our time and space seriously enough to realize that this changes everything? Everything!” Probably not. I suppose one should not look to comedic (and fake) news pundits for wisdom. But a few years ago comedian news commentator Stephen Colbert showed a series of video clips of various senators and congressional representatives invoking Jesus and Christmas to advance their agendas. Some claimed that those Democrats who intended to keep Congress in session longer in order to get certain votes in were disrespecting Christmas, forcing the lowly members of Congress to work right up to the holiday instead of being home with family. Others invoked the Jesus of Christmas as a way to claim the Savior’s imprimatur of approval on whatever their own point of view happened to be (even if that point of view included endorsing a bill that disadvantaged the poor and helped the rich or that kept children of immigrants from finding an easier path to realize the American dream). This prompted Colbert to say that maybe it really was time to get the Christ out of Christmas because if the real Jesus told us to love and serve the poor above all—but if we just don’t want to do that—then it’s time to stop invoking his name and admitting that when it comes to Jesus, we just don’t want to follow him. Not really. So-called “biting” satire seldom had it so good. But Colbert’s point was simple: Jesus has come and continues to come to that which is his own, to people who have a decent chance at recognizing him for who he is, and they simply “receive him not.” We don’t let him shake up our lives. We don’t let him re-arrange our priorities, our work habits, our interactions with our spouses or our children or our colleagues. The truth is, we like the Jesus in the manger because he can’t say anything yet. We can project onto him anything we want. Maybe that is why in the tradition of the church we do such a rapid fast-forward to Epiphany and soon to the baptism of Jesus and the launch of the very public ministry we will consider in the weeks between Epiphany and the start of Lent. Maybe the church has long recognized that wonderful though the incarnation is, the real truth of Jesus comes when he opens his mouth to teach and preach, when we sets himself down at the table of the tax collectors and prostitutes, when he tells us to love everyone and to forgive even our most ardent enemies. That’s the real Jesus who comes to us. Will we receive him? Will we accept the blessing of the divine grace that allows us to see him aright? Or will we continue to find John 1:10 an indictment that makes us blush?
Questions to Ponder/Issues to Address
Call it “good momentum.” Call it the best momentum ever. Call it mind-blowing and glorious. Call it whatever you will but for goodness sake, do not miss seeing the wonder tucked into John 1:16. Just generally these opening verses in John’s Gospel exude grace. When some years ago I did a word study on grace as part of a book project I was working on, I discovered what most of us already know intuitively: the word charis or “grace” does not crop up much in the four gospels. Despite the hugeness of “salvation by grace alone” for all of us who stand in some stream or another of the Reformation river, the word “grace” is restricted in the New Testament to mostly the writings of Paul. You can read “grace” once in a blue moon in the gospels (and then in non-salvific contexts sometimes, as in Luke 2 when the young boy Jesus is described as having grown up with wisdom and grace). But mostly if it’s grace you’re looking for, in the case of the gospels you’ll have to locate it in the actions and demeanor of Jesus, not in the text on the page.
But not in John 1. Here grace is as bubbly and as effervescent as a freshly poured glass of champagne. It sparkles. It pops. It delights. Grace clings to the Word of God, to the Word made flesh. It characterizes him. It is his essence. Along with Truth, this Grace defines Jesus’ presence on the earth: he’s the only One with the ability to know exactly what is right and what is wrong with the way life typically goes on Planet Earth and he is—blessedly enough—simultaneously the only One with the Grace sufficient to deal with all the garbage of that normal way of life (which is, in the end, anything but “normal” in God’s sight).
All of this is Good News. This is all Gospel at its purest and finest. And it reaches something of a crescendo in verse 16 when we are told that from the fullness of all the Grace this Word made flesh has, we in turn have received “grace upon grace.” We get Grace-squared, Grace-cubed, Grace raised to a power of 10. It builds up and up in our lives, and how we need that assurance. Paul will later say that God’s grace always hyper-abounds to meet the sinful challenges we encounter in our lives. God knows what we know (and what we can admit if only we’re honest with ourselves and with one another): in this life and for this time yet, we’re never finished with our need for grace.
The Good News is that neither is God in Christ ever finished with doling it out. Grace is where we live. Grace is the ocean in which we swim. Grace is the atmosphere we breathe.
Don’t let Bible translations like the NIV make you miss this with its weak rendering of our having received “one blessing after the next.” That’s not what John said! That’s not what Jesus gives! Yes, we do receive a blessing but it’s the blessing of Grace, Grace, Grace. The blessing of Grace2 of Grace10 of a blessing that won’t quit, that cannot be derailed by sin and evil, and that will most surely carry us into the kingdom of our Father at the end of the cosmic day.
The first Sunday of the New Year is often a time to feel regrets for goals not achieved in the year gone by and a time to set goals and resolutions for the year to come. That’s fine. But this passage reminds us that as we embark on the journey that will be 2014, it’s not finally about us or our goals or our abilities to make things better or right. It’s about Grace.
It’s always been about Grace. And it always will be.
Thanks be to God!
In John 1:5 we are told the light shines in the darkness but that the darkness has not . . . and here the translations diverge. The Greek verb is katalambano which mostly means “to seize” or to nab, capture, overtake (often with hostile intentions according to the Greek dictionary. Some translations in the past, and more recently also the NRSV, have opted for “but the darkness has not overcome it” but the NIV has opted for “has not understood it.” Calvin Theological Seminary Professor of New Testament Dean Deppe provides the following information: There are five possibilities:
1) to grasp or comprehend intellectually: KJV, NKJV, NASB, NIV a) Cyril Alex; Latin tradition b) 3:19 not perceive the light brought by Jesus c) parallel to v. 10,11 -but if “understand” you’d probably expect the present tense and in John 1:5 it is aorist.
2) to welcome, receive, accept a) match paralambano in v. 11 b) Aramaic: qablâ (darkness) and qabble|h (receive it) so word play
3) to overtake, overcome (grasp in a hostile sense) RSV, NRSV, NJB a) Origin, majority of Greek fathers, Schlatter, Westcott, Brown b) in the only other use in Jn. 12:35 c) dualistic opposition between light and darkness demands this verb d) Wis. 7:29-30 compares wisdom to light that the darkness cannot supplant e) fits with Gnosticism and sectarian Judaism that the darkness is trying to completely extinguish the light (Acts Thomas 130) against: destroys parallelism with 10c and 11b (but different stanza)
4) to master, absorb: BAGD: Moffatt -try to capture both understand and overcome -playing with both meanings (Barrett, Carson)
5) Deliberate ambiguity (Silva, Biblical Words, 149-150)
I think we must first examine how an author employs the term in other passages. Because the other use in Jn. 12:35 demands overcome ("before darkness overtakes you"), I believe that must be the meaning here as well.
However one translates this, the “darkness” itself is not spelled out by John. What darkness? Whose darkness? It’s curious that John does not spell it out, but perhaps this reflects no more than the fact that John didn’t feel the need to articulate more fully what darkness he meant—there is so much darkness and fallenness and hurt in this broken world that it is too obvious to get very specific. We know what the darkness is. We’ve all felt it, lived in it, passed through particularly dark valleys. “The light shines in the darkness.” That’s good news in John 1:5 because it’s in the dark that we yearn for that light most of all.
Marilynne Robinson loves lawn sprinklers. If you read her Pulitzer-prize winning novel, Gilead, then you know that she is always on the lookout for the glory that lurks in the everyday. Along those lines, she thinks that the person who invented the garden sprinkler did something far lovelier than just provide a handy way to water grass. Because, you see, sprinklers expose water droplets to sunlight, and in that shimmering moment, you see each drop not as the stuff you use to do the dishes or mop the kitchen floor. No, you see that each drop is really a jewel, a mini-cathedral, as the light refracts to expose the dazzling rainbow that surrounds us always. The essence of light and water is revealed in the selfsame moment, and it reminds us of the glory that engulfs us daily, though we mostly miss it. “We have seen his glory,” the evangelist John wrote. But he also wrote that the glory of that One and Only sent from the Father often is missed. “He came to that which was his own and his own received him not.” Glory surrounds us, John believed and Marilynne Robinson claims. But we miss it. We miss it again and again.
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments, Observations, and Questions to ConsiderYou can’t accuse the Old Testament prophets of not being specific enough when it came to describing the blessings of God’s salvation! Sometimes believers today content themselves with generic or generalized descriptions of felicity in “heaven,” sometimes not advancing in their views of the New Creation much beyond the wispy, cloudy, ethereal realm that New Yorker cartoons evoke each time they want to depict someone’s standing at the pearly gates or otherwise having an afterlife conversation while perched on a cumulus cloud somewhere. The only exceptions to this come in over-sentimentalized funeral eulogies (and sometimes over-sentimentalized funeral sermons!) when the dearly departed is depicted as enjoying a wonderful, never-ending golf game on fairways free of sand traps and water hazards. But not so prophets like Jeremiah. As Larry Rasmussen noted years ago, in the Old Testament it is sometimes difficult to distinguish salvation from good old fashioned highlands agriculture! And if the prophetic vision is correct that the day will come when we will beat swords into plowshares (and, in Neal Plantinga’s memorable depiction, when we will turn howitzer tanks into John Deere garden tractors), the reason will be because in God’s good salvation, we will turn from the warfare the destroys the earth and go back to our first, best vocation as imagebearers of God: earthkeeping, tilling the soil, making things grow and flourish. God did not create robots. God did not create insensate beings made of wood or plastic. God created fleshy images of the divine self, people with taste buds, senses of smell and touch and sight, people with feet that could dance and with spirits that could soar under the influence of good food, good drink, and good company. And so when it comes to depicting the salvation of our God, folks like Jeremiah cut loose. Their descriptions of the goodness to come sounds like a review of a Harry & David catalogue, like a tour through a Williams Sonoma store, like a down home Christmas with Mario Batali. And let’s not tell our doctors or cardiologists, but the priests of the ensemble get promised the fattiest portions of the beef roast, too—the stuff literally dripping with flavor and good marbling. Why does Jeremiah frame it up this way? Was it because he made the mistake we sometimes make of equating salvation with just the life we already know but made larger? A colleague of mine says we do sometimes make that mistake: we assume that God’s love is just like our love only bigger. But what if we take the Bible seriously and realize that most of the time, God’s love is actually of a different quality altogether and that what we need to aspire to is that kind of love, not just our garden variety love made larger. Good point. But is that what Jeremiah is doing here? No, I think not. Yes, when it comes to imagining the blessings of God, we all reach for what we already know. But in this case the things we already know are themselves also already the blessings of God in creation. The salvation God offers us in the Christ who was born at Christmas does not take us out of this world but immerses us more deeply into it. Indeed, isn’t that why the Son of God came down here as opposed to transporting us out of this world and into a realm completely unlike anything we’ve ever known? Isn’t this the vision we get even at the end of John’s apocalyptic Book of Revelation when the dwelling of God is said to come down, to descend, to this world? We can go too far in all this, of course. These visions of dancing, of drinking, of eating do not give us a license for now to engage in gluttony or over-drinking or other over-indulgences of the flesh. It’s fair to assume that when God makes all things new through Christ Jesus the Lord, although our abilities to enjoy this creation may not be less, they will be properly constrained. But the point for now is that God is, as God has always been, deeply invested in our flourishing, in our joy, in our dwelling delightfully in the cosmos he crafted. Christmas is over and the New Year has begun by the time this Year A Old Testament text crops up. If anything, it’s a time when most of us are tightening our belts to get back to some austerity, some dieting, some propriety after a few weeks of holiday abandon and revelry and over-indulgence in sweets and treats. That’s fine. But let’s not forget that in the end, the salvation of our God will make us merry, joyous, and full of good cheer as we together enjoy the benefits of our God’s wildly fruitful creative imagination.
Near the end of his Narnia tales, C.S. Lewis comes close to approximating the vision of Jeremiah 31 when he imagines the children and animals arriving in “The New Narnia.” It looked strikingly like the old Narnia they had always known but was, somehow and in its every detail, more vivid, more real, more substantial. Every blade of grass seemed to mean more and was a deeper green than any green anyone had ever seen.
Even average pears plucked off a tree were so juicy and flavorful as to make even the best pear they had ever had in the old Narnia seem dry and woody by comparison. And as if that all were not enough, the invitation kept coming to explore this new Narnia, to go higher and deeper, to continue to plunge farther and farther into what looked to be a never-ending abundance of wonder.
Something along these lines is what prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah envisioned for not just Israel’s near-term redemption but the longer-term salvation of all things. The world of the New Creation will not be some Martian moonscape or some cloudy, wispy realm the likes of which we’ve never before known. It will be strikingly familiar but endlessly rich and fascinating in every way. We’ll never tire of exploring its wonders and we’ll never run out of wonders to explore.
Such is the vision of the New Creation that is made possible by the Word that was made flesh, the One and Only of God who came here, full of a grace and a truth that ensures we now will receive grace upon grace forever.
Author: Doug Bratt
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
Psalm 147 is one of the psalter’s five last psalms, each of which begins and ends with a “Hallelu Yah!” It’s hard to imagine a more appropriate way to close God’s people’s hymnbook. In fact, this psalm even basically begins by asserting the fittingness of praise to God. It is, insists the psalmist, “good,” “pleasant” and “fitting” to praise the Lord. In a culture that always seems to ask, “What will this do for me?” the psalmist claims that praise to God is appropriate all by itself.
Of course, while Psalm 147 is part of the end of the church’s songbook, the Lectionary appoints its second half for a beginning, for the first Sunday of the new year. So it might be helpful for those who preach and teach this psalm to ask themselves how the Spirit can use this psalm to speak at the threshold of a new year. What might this psalm say about new beginnings?
Psalm 147 celebrates God’s loving care in history and for God’s creation. The part of the psalm appointed for this Sunday that is its second half picks up and, in fact, expands on some of the themes the psalm explores earlier. As Jennifer Green notes, while the poet earlier celebrates the way God binds wounded and heals brokenhearted people in the first half of the psalm, in verses 13-14 the poet goes even further. There she notes that God protects God’s people, blesses children and grants God’s shalom.
God doesn’t just feed God’s children (9). God also, according to verse 14, fills them with the best wheat. In God’s creation God doesn’t just send relatively “pedestrian” rain (8). In verses 16-17 the psalmist notes that God also sends dramatic snow, frost and hail.
Who can withstand these dramatic displays of God’s power, the poet asks in verse 17? Well, of course, neither any person nor any thing. So, the psalmist adds, God also displays God’s tender mercy. God melts the dangerous ice into life-giving water (18). Of course in a world where temperatures are rising, melting ice may not sound like particularly good news. But those who preach and teach this psalm should see God’s melting of ice as those who try to walk down January’s sidewalks would, as a sign of God’s mercy.
Green points out that God matches the psalm’s growing intensity of God’s power with growing provision for God’s whole creation. God doesn’t just recognize the needs of God’s whole creation. God also provides what God’s creation needs, even in the face of great suffering such as that which Israel experienced in exile.
How might this psalm “preach” or “teach” on the first Sunday of the new year? Among other things, it assures worshipers of God’s ongoing faithful ways with what God creates. The coming year will probably include signs of the kind of growing ecological chaos that the psalmist could never have imagined. Yet the poet knew about different kinds of chaos. Even in the face of that, she could still insist that God remains utterly faithful to what God creates. It’s a profession that worshipers can share: if the Lord tarries, God will remain faithful to what God creates throughout the coming year.
The National Museum of American History owns the second of the two “Bibles” that Thomas Jefferson created by “editing” the gospels to reflect his understanding of Jesus’ true philosophy. Jefferson wanted to distinguish Jesus’ genuine teachings from what he called the “corruption of schismatizing followers.”
Jefferson was heavily influenced by the principle of deism. He imagined a divine being that created the world but is no longer interested or involved in its daily life. So he chose not to include in his “gospel” the miracles Jesus performed. He, in fact, rejected anything that he perceived as “contrary to reason.” Jefferson’s gospel ends with a description of Jesus’ burial, but omits an account of his resurrection. He kept Jesus’ own teachings that include the Beatitudes.
Psalm 147 is a good antidote to such an uninterested God who is uninvolved in what God created and still creates. Many of the verbs it uses to describe God’s activity are in the present tense. Its God is not some uninterested, uninvolved deity. It is a God always at work, creating and caring for what God makes.
Author: Stan Mast
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
On this second Sunday after Christmas, I wonder how many children could answer the question, “What did you get for Christmas?” I’m guessing that some have forgotten at least a few of the many they received. Not me. When I was a kid, back when we walked three miles to school through three foot snow drifts with hot potatoes in our pockets to keep us warm (oh, wait, that was my Dad), I always got the same things: clothes (yuck!), a toy and a game and, in prosperous years, another (smaller) toy . Today, the list is endless and mostly electronic. It’s not surprising that children might lose count of their gifts.
Our text urges us keep track of the gifts we received at Christmas, through and in the Christ child. When I read it carefully, I recalled an old song from my youth. “Count your blessings, name them one by one, count your many blessings, see what God has done, count your blessings, name them one by one, and it will surprise you what the Lord has done.” Our text is an invitation to do exactly that. “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ.”
“Did you write your thank note to your grandparents yet?” My mom always insisted on my saying thanks. Paul calls for more—praise. Thanks are oriented to the gift; “thanks for the BB gun.” Praise is aimed at the giver; “you are the greatest.” As you consider all that God has given you in Christ, praise him. My perception is that we’re not very good at that, so you could profitably dedicate this entire service on the second Sunday after Christmas to praise. The gloomy days after Christmas can be a bit of a downer. But counting our blessings might lead to an outburst of praise that will rival the Hallelujah Chorus.
Notice how Paul characterizes these blessings—they are “in the heavenly realms.” That’s a peculiar phrase, isn’t it? Does it mean that these gifts originated in heaven, or that we can fully enjoy these gifts only in heaven, or that these gifts are unearthly? Could it be that this phrase is intended to contrast the gifts Christians get with the gifts promised to the Jews? For God’s Old Testament people, God’s blessings included land and family, a country and a nation, material prosperity and rest from war with their enemies. For God’s New Testament people, the blessings of God are more, well, “spiritual.” Indeed, that’s the very word Paul uses here.
Interestingly, many Christians still measure God’s blessings in that Old Testament way. I visited with an old friend the other day, and he ended up re-telling me his life story. It is a wonderful story, full of providential twists and turns that have made him a successful businessman with a large lovely family. As he recounted one business success after another and told stories of his beloved children and grandchildren, he often said, “We are so blessed.” They are. I rejoiced with him.
But Paul talks about none of that here when he calls us to praise God for our blessings. Paul focuses on spiritual blessings of the non-material, that is, heavenly variety. A sermon on this text might urge our congregants to consider how they number their blessings. It has been my pastoral experience that when people lose some of their more earthly blessings, they think they have lost everything and they sink into spiritual despair. “The world is too much with us, getting and spending….” A sermon on Paul’s definition of blessings might help us to be more balanced in the way we think about God’s bounty.
Or you might want to focus on the gracious nature of these blessings. My friend didn’t do it, but often successful people take more than a little credit for the blessings they enjoy. Their earthly blessings are viewed as the justifiable reward for hard work, the expected payoff for wise investing, and the inevitable result of their expert parenting. Paul reminds us that “every good and perfect gift comes down from above.” (No, wait, that’s Paul’s “nemesis,” James.) Paul talks endlessly here about God’s grace as the source of all our blessings. In other words, we have not earned or deserved all these gifts. They come from grace and they are designed to give praise to the glory of God’s grace. A sermon on this text could well help people realize in a fresh way that we are what we are by the grace of God alone.
Finally, a sermon on this text must focus on the recurrence of the phrase (or its equivalents) “in Christ.” God has blessed us with all these spiritual blessings “in Christ.” Christ is the source of these blessings. Christ is the one who earned these blessings. Christ is the vessel in which these blessings are contained. It is in relationship with Christ that we receive these blessings. There are many ways to think about the phrase; for a more complete treatment, see Lewis Smedes’ classic book, All Things Made New. At the very least, Paul is saying that there is no way we can have or enjoy these blessings unless we are in Christ, in a living union with him. So a sermon on this text must be thoroughly Christ centered, or you have missed Paul’s central point.
I can’t give a full treatment of all the blessings Paul lists; there are simply too many. So I’ll say a word about just two-- the most controversial and the most comforting. The most controversial blessing is “election” and “predestination.” Indeed, for some Christians, these two words do not signify a blessing at all. They are called (blasphemously, I judge) a “diabolical doctrine born in hell.” Paul says they are the beginning of all the other blessings.
The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ “chose us in him before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight.” Everyone in the US knows what an election is. In an election, one person is chosen out of a group of people to occupy a position, do a job, or receive an honor. Recently, we elected a President and congresspersons, some of whom we’d now like to de-elect. That’s exactly what Ephesians 1 is saying. God elected “us,” whom Paul identifies in verse 1 as “the saints and faithful in Christ Jesus.” That’s pretty straightforward.
The word predestined in the next verse is more picturesque. It means literally to “prehorizon.” The horizon is the circle around us as far as we can see. Predestine means “to draw a circle around ahead of time.” Each year professional sports teams conduct their draft of college players. Each team will have a long list of players who might fit their roster. In some high level meeting, the owner and general manager and coach will draw a circle around the names of players they will finally select in the draft. They will predestine them to become Lions or Tigers or Pistons.
Of course, the predestination of players will be based on something in those players—their college records, their physical abilities, their mental toughness, even their character. It will be an election based on the condition of the player. But God’s election is not based on our condition. It is unconditional. Paul conveys that thought in the mysterious phrase, “before the foundation of the world.” That phrase has caused many people to stumble over the whole idea of election because it sounds as though everything is cut and dried before our lives ever happen. If it’s all predetermined, what possible difference can our choices make? If God made all the choices for us and about us long ago, then the call to repent and believe is meaningless.
But the Bible says that God’s call to repent and believe is sincere. The consequences of our decision for Christ are real and life changing. God is not playing games with us. So God’s election before the foundation of the world cannot mean that everything is predetermined. It means only that God’s choice of us is not based on anything in us. It is unconditional, as though it took place before we were born.
Election took place in eternity in which time is not measured. I was intrigued by these words from Winter’s Tale, a fantasy novel by Mark Helprin. “Nothing is predetermined; it is determined, or was determined, or will be determined. No matter, it all happened at once, in less than an instant, and time was invented because we cannot comprehend in one glance the enormous canvas that we have been given—so we track, in linear fashion, piece by piece.” Or as the Bible puts it, to God a thousand years is like a day. God chose us not a gazillion years ago, but in God’s eternal present. And in time, in our little time on earth, God calls us to choose Jesus. His choice of us is not based on anything in us; it is unconditional. Our choice of Jesus is completely conditional; it is based on God’s choice to breathe his life-giving Spirit into us, so that these dry bones can live again.
Some folks say that all this business of election and predestination has to do with service, not salvation. God chose the nation of Israel and the church of Jesus Christ to be his instrument of salvation in the world. That is very true. But Paul says more than that here. “He chose us in him to be holy and blameless before him…. He predestined us to be adopted as his children….” We were skeletons lying in the Valley of Dry Bones and God chose to bring us back to life, adopt us into the family, and make us holy and blameless like his Son, Jesus Christ.
People call this a “diabolical doctrine,” because it seems to make God sound totally arbitrary and even cruel, like a capricious tyrant lounging on heaven’s throne carelessly circling people’s names in the world’s telephone as he watches the Super Bowl on TV. That’s not how Paul pictures God. If you want to see God electing us, says Paul, see the Father sending the Son to the cross. Our election cost God dearly, because he chose us “in Christ.” God’s election was costly and sacrificial.
Why would God do such a thing? Why would God sacrifice his Son for a bunch of corpses (Eph. 2:1ff) who killed themselves (Gen. 3). Why didn’t he just whistle his way past the graveyard and leave every single one of us dead? Why would God elect anyone? Paul has a one word answer—love, agape, love for sinners, which by another name is grace. “In love God predestined us to be adopted as his children through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will….” Why did God do this? Because he is gracious and it gives him great delight to save sinners. What wondrous love is this! We could say more, trying to explain the mystery of God’s electing love. But I think it is best to leave it where Paul does—not with explanation, but with doxology. “Praise be….”
Now let‘s think a bit about the most comforting blessing—redemption. Reflecting on his long years as a POW in Vietnam and on his career as a politician, John McCain said in an interview with Time, “I haven’t always succeeded; I’ve failed many times. But because the foundation of my belief is redemption, I’ve been able to receive additional comfort, strength, and the desire to move forward.” Redemption is the foundation, the very center of all our blessings in Christ.
But what does it mean? That’s not as easy to define as we might think. Oh, the Greek word there refers to the ancient Greco-Roman practice of freeing a slave or prisoner by paying a ransom. So Paul is saying that in Christ we have been set free from some sort of bondage. But that is the question—of what sort? Not understanding this has led many a Christian to disillusionment with God.
Think back to McCain. Was redemption for him mainly about being released from the Hanoi Hilton after 7 years of captivity? Does redemption in Christ mean that our outward circumstances are changed, that we are freed from bad situations caused by sin? Ultimately, yes. We are promised Shalom, after all. But that’s not the heart of redemption, and thinking that it is has caused many people to be disappointed with God.
Think about to McCain again. He has often been criticized for having a ferocious temper. Would redemption for him mean changing that sinful tendency? Does redemption have to do with being released from the power of our sins? Does it change our internal lives, our attitude, emotions and thoughts? Ultimately, yes. We are promised holiness, someday. But that’s not the heart of redemption either.
Paul ends our questions about the meaning of redemption when he says it is all about “the forgiveness of sins.” It’s not centrally about release from the external situations of our lives, nor a release from our own inner self, but about the forgiveness of our sins. But what does that mean? Thomas Szasz made me think when he said, “The stupid neither forgive nor forget; the naïve forgive and forget; the wise forgive but never forget.” Is that true? What happens when God forgives our sins?
The answer lies in a careful look at the meaning of the Greek word for forgiveness here. It means to cancel, to remit, to pardon, as with a loan or a debt. Someone owes you money, but you decide that she doesn’t have to pay; she doesn’t have to feel guilty because she didn’t pay; and you won’t punish her for her non-payment of what she owed. You cancelled the debt in every way. That’s forgiveness. When God forgives, he cancels our obligation. We don’t have to keep his law in order to be saved. He cancels our guilt. We are guilty, but our feelings cannot jeopardize our salvation, and we ought to live with a clear conscience. He cancels our punishment. What we’ve done deserves death of the eternal variety, but we will never be punished for any sin.
That all sounds pretty free and easy, doesn’t it? Who wouldn’t want such a deal? What’s the catch? There must be something we must do to get forgiven. Well, as a matter of fact, there isn’t. That’s what Paul meant when he added that we have been forgiven “in accordance with the riches of God’s grace which he lavished on us….” That’s the heart of the Good News of Jesus Christ. We are positively awash in grace, and there’s nothing we have to do to be forgiven, only someone we have to trust. That’s why Paul repeats those two words again and again in this great text—“in him.” “In him we have redemption through his blood….”
Those last three words cause considerable revulsion in many modern Christians. They sound so dark, primitive, barbaric. But there they are. As I pondered them, I remembered a scene from the movie, “The Last Emperor.” The child anointed as the last emperor of China lives a magical life of luxury with a thousand eunuch servants at his command. “What happens when you do wrong?” his brother asks. “When I do wrong, someone else is punished,” the boy emperor replies. To demonstrate, he breaks a jar, and one of the servants is beaten.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ in our text assures us that the ancient pattern has been reversed: when the servants sinned, the King was crucified. There’s nothing we have to do to be forgiven, but there is someone you absolutely have to trust—the King whose blood was shed for the forgiveness of all our sins.