March 05, 2018
The Lent 4B Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for John 3:14-21 from the Lectionary Gospel; Numbers 21:4-9 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22 from the Lectionary Psalms; and Ephesians 2:1-10 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Lectionary Gospel: Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 60 (Lord’s Day 23)
Author: Scott Hoezee
John 3:16 may be the most famous Bible verse in the world but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to understand. As Frederick Dale Bruner points out in his commentary on The Gospel of John, this entire chapter is fraught with mystery.
The story takes place at night, the meeting seems to be done somewhat in secret, and most of Jesus’ rhetoric to Nicodemus seems calculated to confuse and then to evoke wonder and awe once some measure of understanding begins to break through after all.
What’s more, in the midst of this conversation—Bruner calls it Jesus’ “Nicodemus Sermon”—Jesus evokes one of the oddest images from the Old Testament in bringing up that bronze serpent on a pole out in the wilderness that, weirdly enough, became an instrument of healing to the snake-bitten Israelites at that time (that story is the Old Testament lection for this Sunday in Lent in Year B as well).
When I was a child, somewhere in a children’s Bible storybook (or maybe it was on a painting my Sunday school teacher showed me), I saw an image of this story. It showed Jesus and Nicodemus seated in the dead of night on a kind of terrace. As Jesus talked, a wispy image of that bronze serpent appeared over Jesus’ head (almost like a cartoon bubble might appear over Charlie Brown’s head in a comic strip) even as Nicodemus listened to Jesus’ words with his mouth hanging partly open from the mystery of it all.
I don’t generally find great inspiration in the artwork in children’s storybook Bibles but that one actually may fit the bill here as John presents the scene. It’s a mysterious encounter. And well-known though the words of John 3:16 may now be, they are part of this mystery. Maybe we can revive for ourselves and for those to whom we preach the vividness of John 3:16 if we view it through this mystery lens.
After all, what we encounter here is confounding. In Numbers 21 God used a symbol of the very problem to be solved as the solution to the problem—snakebite victims had to stare at the image of a snake—so in the New Testament we look to the very thing that frightens us the most—death itself—and somehow find there a path to an eternal life that means death no longer has the final word for any of us.
God made the sinless one to be treated as the most sinful one ever.
God made the eternally alive Son of God die.
Now for the rest of us: Get some of that death into you and you live after all.
Strange. Striking. Unexpected.
That’s how God dealt with the scourge of sin and its grim wage of death: he inoculated us with a bit of that very thing through our baptism into Christ. We die with Christ so that death cannot do its dirty, final work in us. The Holy Spirit comes to live in us and knows just what to do when death comes knocking (as it still does for each one of us). In baptism we have all been there before when it comes to death and so the eternal life that Christ gave us knows what to do to kick death out once and for all.
That’s what Jesus came to do and maybe that is why he goes on in verse 17 to say that God did not send his Son into the world to condemn it.
There sure have been a lot of Christians across the last two millennia who seem to think that condemnation is where it’s at when it comes to preaching, teaching, and evangelizing. Not a few Christians in North America seem convinced that a major part of their vocation as believers is to wag judgmental fingers in the faces of all kinds of people. After all, what are all those placards and protest signs paraded in front of socio-political opponents on a range of “culture war” issues if not a message of condemnation?
But here in John 3 Jesus indicates that although there are plenty of condemned people in the world—it’s pretty tough to read John 3:18-20 and deny that Jesus was aware of bad and evil people who really exist in this world—pointing out to them their condemned status is not exactly job #1 for either the Son of God himself nor those who enter his marvelous Light to become saved. Yes, the condemned are out there and yes, they stand in contrast to those who live in the Light. And yes, the evil will resist the Light and they won’t willingly walk into the Light lest they be exposed.
All true. But the message that is to be both proclaimed and lived is one of Life and Light and Truth. “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world.” So why do so many of us who are baptized into that Son’s name feel that it is our job after all to condemn the world? Again, we need to be clear that plenty of people stand self-condemned. There is a difference between those who serve God in Christ and those who serve only themselves or any number of the false gods of the age.
But even in the Season of Lent when we focus on sin and on what Jesus came to do to save us from our sin, we dare not forget that above all what we have to proclaim, preach, and teach is Good News—the Good News that God’s Son was lifted up to die, making the problem somehow part of the solution and in so doing, inoculating all who believe against the scourge of death. Forever. Thanks be to God!
[Note: We have additional Lenten Resources, worship ideas, and Sample Sermons on our 2018 Lent and Easter page ]
In his commentary on John, Dale Bruner points out that he once saw John 3:16 laid out as follows as a way to highlight the amazing power in this most famous of Bible verses:
“God ……………………………………………………………The greatest subject ever
So (much)…………………………………………………….. The greatest extent ever
Loved………………………………………………………….. The greatest affection ever
The world (kosmos)…………………………………………. The greatest object ever
That He gave His One-and-Only Son,…………………….. The greatest gift ever
So that every single individual, whoever, …………………..The greatest opportunity ever
Who is [simply] entrusting oneself to him…………………. The greatest commitment ever
Would never be destroyed, ………………………………….The greatest rescue ever
“But would even now have a deep, lasting Life.” ………….The greatest promise ever
A few years ago ahead of my first ever trip to Africa, I had to visit a Health Center to receive multiple shots. To ward off things like typhoid and yellow fever, my body was injected with small or inert strains of the very diseases I would just as soon avoid. Getting a dose of the diseases in question gave my antibodies a head start, a way to develop an immunity strategy that put my body ahead of the game in case the real-deal disease ever tried to enter my body big-time. If vaccines work, it’s the body’s way of saying to an incoming disease, “We’ve got your number, pal, because we’ve seen just enough of you before to know what to do now. So adios, adieu, hit the road! We are so ready to resist you!”
Author: Doug Bratt
Snakes have had, at best, a mixed reputation throughout history. Some people have associated them with healing. A snake, after all, represented Asclepius, the Greek god of healing. The modern symbol of the medical profession is also a snake wrapped around a branch.
What’s more, in some passages in Scripture, snakes also have somewhat positive connotations. In Isaiah 6 the angels who hover over God’s throne seem to look like snakes. The Scriptures also call God’s people to be wiser than snakes.
However, snakes more generally have negative connotations both for many people and in the Bible. It’s not just that some snakes’ bites can be fatal. It’s also that it’s a snake that tempts Eve. What’s more, when John the Baptizer essentially refers to the Pharisees as a bunch of snakes, he’s scolding them.
Numbers’ readers who journey with Israel from Egypt expect her to rebel against God and disobey his commands. In chapter 21, however, things seem to begin to change. After all, it describes Israel’s first military victory over a Canaanite king, as well as her defeat of two other hostile kings, Sihon and Og.
However, like a thistle pressed between two roses, yet another story of rebellion stands between those of military victory. Taken together, then, Numbers 21 reminds God’s people of both the older Israelite generation’s faithless failure and its younger generation’s hope for the future.
While Numbers 21 is a story of revolt, it’s also a story of God’s amazing, life-giving grace. Arad’s king attacks and captures some Israelites. Israel, however, doesn’t fight back without God’s blessing, as she does in Numbers 14. Nor does she, as Moses did in Numbers 20, just beg for a Canaanite king’s mercy.
Instead besieged Israel consults with the Lord. She promises to dedicate all the towns she captures to the Lord by completely destroying them. God accepts her promise and hands the Canaanites over to Israel who completely razes all their towns.
It’s a shining, if unusual, example of Israel conforming to how God wants her to conquer Canaan. When an aggressor confronts her, God longs for her to promise to give any plunder to God. God will then accept their promise and hand their enemy over to the Israelites.
So Numbers 21’s first few verses give us hope that the older generation finally is beginning to trust God. Yet her subsequent journey through the threatening wilderness challenges and, ultimately, strips away that newfound trust.
By now, of course, Israel’s response to these challenges doesn’t surprise us. They become impatient with their trip. The Israelites complain to Moses about a lack of bread and water. They also grumble at him about what they call this “miserable” manna. This time, however, Israel, doesn’t just speak against Moses. She also ominously complains directly against and about God.
Numbers 21:4-9’s complaint story is what Dennis Olson (Numbers: John Knox Press) calls a “tired old snapshot of what Israel’s disobedience has been all along.” It shows how bellyaching Israel has again forgotten God’s gracious liberation of her from Egyptian slavery.
She has forgotten God’s call to be God’s chosen, holy nation and a kingdom of priests. The Old Testament lesson the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday also shows that Israel forgot how God persistently and graciously gave her life in the wilderness that’s so full of death.
Such amnesia, however, always has consequences. In this case God responds to the Israelites’ mutiny by sending venomous snakes to attack them. The Hebrew word for “venomous” literally means “fiery.” Yet while it probably referring to the burning sensation snakebite causes on human skin, it’s also an appropriate metaphor for God’s fiery anger over yet another instance of Israelite rebellion.
The deaths of many Israelites from their snakebites leads Israel to link those bites to their complaints against God’s great grace. So they plead with Moses to beg God to remove the venomous snakes.
However, perhaps as a result of what happened after Israel confessed her sin in Number 14’s spy story, God doesn’t just immediately get rid of the snakes. God provides a remedy for the threat instead of simply removing the threat.
When Moses prays to God on behalf of Israel, God tells him to erect an image of a snake on a pole. The Lord graciously promises that whenever stricken Israelites look at that snake, they will not die. So Moses makes a bronze, otherwise translated as “fiery,” snake and erects it on a pole. As a result, those who look at it survive the serpents’ bites.
Yet that bronze serpent doesn’t somehow represent God. God has always forbade all images and representations of God. After all, nothing in heaven or on earth or in the waters under the earth, says the second commandment, can represent God.
We see this command’s wisdom in the mysterious reappearance of the bronze serpent. In II Kings 18 Judah’s king Hezekiah is finally cleaning house in Israel after years of her spiritual rebellion. He smashes Israel’s altars to Baal and her fertility poles dedicated to Asherah. However, Hezekiah also destroys Moses’ bronze serpent because Israel had turned it into an idol to which she offered sacrifices.
Some of Israel’s contemporaries believed they could get rid of vermin by making images of them. Moses’ bronze serpent, however, has no such magical power. So the Israelites aren’t automatically healed of their snakebites just because they look at a bronze snake that Moses erected on a pole.
The bronze serpent has the power to heal only because God graciously gives it that power. The God who has severely punished Israel also graciously provides the means for healing her.
Earlier Israel’s high priest Aaron stood between the dead and the living to stop a plague with which God punished Israel. Now the bronze serpent stands between the dead who aren’t willing to look at God’s instrument of healing and the living who are healed because they are willing.
In a sense, however, as Olson also notes, this whole story stands between the living and the dead. After all, on its one side stands the old wilderness generation whose remnants will soon die out in Numbers 25. On its other side stands the beginning of a new hopeful generation whose numbers Israel will count in her second census in Numbers 26.
That bronze snake, however, has no power to grant any generation eternal life. Those whom the snakes bite but whom God heals eventually still die. So Someone Else had to dangle from another kind of pole in order for people to live forever.
When Jesus discusses his earthly mission with Nicodemus in John 3, he refers to this story of the bronze snake. “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert,” he tells the Jewish teacher in John 3:14, “so the Son of Man must be lifted up.”
Jesus follows that simile with that memorable description of God’s redeeming love. “For God so loved the world,” he tells Nicodemus in John 3:16, “that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
So the cross in John’s gospel, like Numbers’ bronze serpent on the pole, doesn’t just symbolize God’s righteous fury with God’s children’s sins. It also points to the Lord’s gracious life-giving power.
Yet there’s a difference between the life-giving bronze serpent and Jesus Christ. Numbers 21 doesn’t say that that the Israelites had to believe God would heal them when they looked at the bronze serpent. God simply tells Moses that anyone whom the snakes bite can merely look at the bronze serpent and live.
Jesus, by contrast, doesn’t claim that just looking at his cross or him will save anyone. Instead he insists that those who believe in the power of the crucified Christ to save us from our sins will be saved. Those who proclaim Numbers 21:4-9 will want to explore the content of such life-giving faith.
Of course, there were probably skeptics who doubted that God could heal those who merely looked at the bronze snake. Once, however, as my colleague Scott Hoezee notes, they were bitten, you can imagine they stared pretty hard at it.
When people lifted Jesus Christ up onto the cross, his disciples doubted it could do anything positive for them or anyone else. Blessed by the presence of the Holy Spirit, however, we can imagine that when they felt the sting of their own sin, they clung pretty tenaciously to that cross’ power.
Stung by the power of our own sin, those who proclaim and hear Numbers 21 don’t look to a bronze serpent. You and I, instead, cling to Jesus’ cross. Two thousand years ago, after all, God sent not a serpent, but his only Son, Jesus Christ. God sent not a snake made of bronze, but Jesus Christ, made of flesh and blood.
As my colleague Neal Plantinga, who also lent me some ideas for this Sermon Starter has noted, that bronze serpent felt no pain as it dangled from a pole. Jesus Christ, however, felt all the physical pain of crucifixion, as well as the agony of absorbing God’s fury with our sins.
Those whom the snakes bit simply physically died. Those who rebel deserve eternal death. Those whom God healed of their snakebites eventually died. Those whom God heals of our sins live forever, because of what Plantinga calls “Jesus Christ, the Snake,” did.
As recently as July of 2017, the Huffington Post noted that Doctors Without Borders were warning that sub-Saharan Africa was facing a critical shortage of Fav-Afrique, the most effective anti-venom for snakebites. That shortage endangered the 1.5 million people who are bitten by snakes in the area every year.
Part of the reason for the shortage of that anti-venom was its prohibitive costs. A course of treatment can be more costly (@ $500) than many residents of Sub-Saharan Africa’s make in a year.
While shortages of anti-venom medicine seems to periodically crop up, there will never be any shortage of God’s anti-venom for the toxicity of our sins. While it was unspeakably costly to God – the life of God’s only Son — God was graciously willing to pay that price. God, in fact, made enough of that “anti-venom” to inoculate the whole world God so deeply loves.
Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22
Author: Stan Mast
Psalm 107 was originally a liturgy of thanksgiving offered at one of Israel’s great festivals, as evidenced by the opening call to give thanks and the repeated refrain, “Let them give thanks to the Lord for his unfailing love and his wonderful deeds for men.” The theme of this thanksgiving is the often-repeated word, hesed, translated as “enduring or unfailing love,” demonstrated by the goodness of Yahweh in his role as Redeemer of his troubled people.
That theme alone makes Psalm 107 a fitting choice for this Fourth Sunday of Lent, as we follow our Redeemer on his journey to the cross where he performed the most “wonderful deed” for humanity. But originally this Psalm was probably a reference to Israel’s “second salvation history,” not the Exodus from Egypt, but the release of the hostages from Exile (cf. verse 3 with its reference to Israel’s being gathered from the four points of the compass).
To move God’s people to thanksgiving, the Psalm writer doesn’t put forth a series of propositions extolling the goodness of God’s love. Rather, he tells stories, stories that enable us to live into Israel’s experience of a “love that will not let us go.” Some of the stories clearly come directly from Israel’s history (being lost in the wilderness and being imprisoned in darkness), while others are more generic (getting sick to the point of death) and even unusual for the landlubbers of Israel (getting caught in a storm at sea).
As different as these stories are, the writer tells them in an almost perfectly parallel form. First, there is a basic explanation of their trouble followed by a brief elaboration of the depth of their difficulty. That is followed by the exact same response on the part of the sufferers. “Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble….” And in every story, God’s response to their cry for help is given in the same words; “and he saved them from their distress.” Then comes an explanation of exactly what Yahweh did to save them. Finally, there is a formulaic call to give thanks, repeated verbatim after each story, and a concluding line emphasizing why Israel should give thanks or how they are to do that. The only real difference in these stories lies in the details.
But, as the old saying goes, the devil is in the details. It is obviously more correct to say that the Gospel is in the details, but the details of the trouble make the Gospel shine forth more brightly. That is surely the case in our reading for this Sunday, where the trouble is sickness unto death. Here’s the devil in the details; the writer connects this terrible sickness to the sin of the sufferers. They “suffered affliction because of their iniquities.” This sounds like the kind of theology discredited by Job and by Jesus, so we’ll need to parse this story carefully.
It all starts with this fascinating and troubling statement. “Some became fools through their rebellious ways….” That’s not an unfamiliar theme in Scripture. We find it in Genesis where Adam and Eve thought they knew better than God and, seeking to become as wise God, became “damned fools.” In Romans 1 Paul echoes that with his verdict on the whole rebellious race of Adam and Eve. “Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.” As one scholar put it, thinking they were wise, sane, progressive and sophisticated, the rebellious human race became fools in their rebellion. So it always goes.
And, as Romans 1 puts it so powerfully, this rebellious folly has consequences for body and soul. Here in Psalm 107 the consequence is sickness. Does that mean we can trace every illness to some specific sin? Both the book of Job and the teaching of Jesus (cf. John 9) tell us, “No, absolutely not.” While it is true that some sin does directly cause suffering (think of how gluttony or drunkenness can lead to a whole variety of bodily ills), we are not wise enough to make that connection for any one case of illness. So, we must be careful as we preach this text.
That doesn’t mean that God never visits sickness on sinners for the purpose of punishing or chastening them. The other Old Testament reading for today, the story of the bronze serpent in Numbers 21, is a vivid example of God responding to gross sin by sending physical sickness. And that story is just a specific historical fulfillment of the covenant curses made by God in Leviticus 26:16 and 25 and Deuteronomy 25.
We do not like those kinds of texts, or the picture of God they present to us. Most of us would never preach on such an idea. But our text from Psalm 107 confronts us with the fact that sin has terrible consequences, whether directly imposed by God or simply the natural result of the sin. Sin is not a minor thing. It ruins life, makes us sick, and leads to death. That is not the message we want to preach, but it is the dark background of the Gospel. We don’t want to dwell on this part of today’s text, but in this sober season of Lent there is spiritual value in this text. Its dark teaching re-emphasizes how important it is to repent, turn from sin, and embrace our sick and suffering Savior, who heals all our diseases.
Not surprisingly, that is exactly where our text goes next. “Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he saved them from their distress.” As I said above, that is the constant refrain in these stories of trouble. No matter what the trouble, God responds to our cries for help with his grace, even when that trouble is caused by our own foolish rebellion. That is a remarkable thought; indeed, it is the heart of the Good News.
That Gospel assures us that God’s grace isn’t reserved for good people who just need a bit of assistance in otherwise spotless lives. He responds in grace to folks who have royally messed up their lives by their own folly and outright rebellion. As today’s reading from Ephesians 2 puts it, “We were dead in our sins and transgressions, but God who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, made us alive.” Here’s the benefit of dwelling for a moment in the darkness of verses 17 and 18. They make the unfailing love of God shine more brightly.
Verse 20 tells us exactly how God saved these deathly ill people; “he sent forth his word and healed them.” In the Numbers 21 story, that was a word to make a bronze serpent and to instruct the snake bitten Israelites to look to that Serpent for healing. And the Gospel reading for today (John 3) connects Jesus directly to the bronze serpent. “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” What follows that, of course, is the heart of the Gospel in John 3:16. As the first chapter of John’s Gospel says, the “Word” of Yahweh “rescued them from the grave.”
No wonder the Psalmist repeatedly calls the redeemed to give thanks. Given how quickly we forget what God has done and simply move on with our divinely redeemed lives (like 9 of the 10 lepers in the Gospel story), we need this call. It is uniquely suited to this season of Lent, when we are tempted to fixate on dust and ashes, sin and death, and the practices of penitence. That is all well and good, but let us not lose sight of the fact that the Christian life is primarily one of gratitude and joy. Else we become gloomy counter advertisements for the Good News.
Our reading for today ends with an important direction about how we are to give thanks—not just individually and privately, but corporately in church. Thank offerings were to be brought to the Temple, where they became part of a festive meal with the priests. As part of those meals, the grateful redeemed were to tell the story of God’s wonderful deeds with songs of joy.
I can only imagine how our lives would be transformed if contemporary Christians were to follow that ancient way of giving thanks. Oh, we do give thanks, but often in a formal and private way. We follow the liturgy (if there is one), but no one knows how God has answered our prayers for help. And increasingly, Christians aren’t taking their thanks to church at all. They simply stay home, because joining a congregation in worship is too, well, inconvenient (see my Illustration Idea).
You can see any number of connections to Lent in this text. But if the ones offered above haven’t persuaded to preach on Psalm 107 rather than the other meaty readings suggested for the Fourth Sunday of Lent, let me suggest three obvious Lenten lessons that will preach. First, apart from the work of Christ and his Spirit, we are all fools whose sin brings us affliction and death. Second, all of us are only one wise move from rescue. All we have to do is cry to the Lord from the bottom of our trouble and from the depths of our needy hearts.
Third, in his unfailing love, God is always ready to deliver. The wording of verse 19 is surely intentional; after all, it is repeated in exactly the same way in all four stories. “Then they cried to Yahweh… and he saved them….” There is no gap between the cry and the salvation. God is ready to save. God is eager to save. God is dying to save. No wait, he already did, “for God so loved the world….”
[Note: We have additional Lenten Resources, worship ideas, and Sample Sermons on our 2018 Lent and Easter page ]
Psalm 107 opens with a call for corporate thanksgiving: “Let the redeemed of the Lord say this….” But such group thanksgiving is becoming increasingly rare. One of the chief reasons is the sheer inconvenience of corporate worship. I was convicted by a recent piece in The Christian Century by publisher, Peter Marty. Entitled “Church is Inconvenient,” it makes the point that church is a bother in many ways. Responding to the rapidly increasing number of folks who simply stay home, Marty sarcastically says, “I have decided that making Sabbath worship an integral part of one’s life is highly inconvenient. For those who stay away from communal worship because Sunday is the day to arrange personal leisure, take special care of oneself, or get the kids off to soccer, making time for church is just plain inconvenient. For those of us who make church a priority, Sabbath worship is equally inconvenient, though in a different way. We sing songs we didn’t pick, hear scriptures we didn’t choose, commit to endeavors for which we must sacrifice, and—here’s the worst—sit next to people who aren’t even our closest friends.” So, many folks say with Emily Dickinson, “Some keep Sabbath going to church–/I keep it, staying at home.”
Convenience often feels great, says Marty, but it’s not an unalloyed good. For example, he points out that if we only exercise when it is convenient, we will not enjoy maximum health. And he concludes that the inconvenience of worshiping together is central to a healthy spiritual life. “We Christians love to talk about Jesus, and with good reason. But it’s impossible to have Jesus apart from the church. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s reading of the apostle Paul led him to say that we cannot know Christ apart from Christian community, because the church is Christ’s body.”
Author: Scott Hoezee
You were dead. That’s how the Apostle Paul opened this section of his letter to the Ephesians. You were dead. It’s a startling thing to hear, when you think about it. It also doesn’t make a whole lot of sense on the face of it. Oh, sure, now and then you may run across someone who had one of those so-called “near death experiences.” These are people whose hearts stopped on the operating room table or in the E.R. after a car accident. Some such people report that during the time when the doctors were trying to revive them it was as though they were at the top of the room looking down, able to see their own bodies lying there. But then the doctors got their hearts going again and so these folks were yanked back to life.
So if you met up with someone like this, then if you said to this person, “You were dead,” they would be able to relate to what you’re saying. Ordinarily, though, this just sounds a little nutty. If you said to your friend, “You were dead, Jill,” Jill is going to going to steer you in the direction of some professional counseling. Or just steer well clear of you altogether for a while.
Yet Paul comes to the Ephesians at the beginning of this second chapter to give them a piece of news they surely did not see coming: You were dead. Paul, of course, is referring to the pre-Christian life. But even there, what may have been striking to the Ephesians is that during the time of their lives when Paul said they had been dead, they had certainly not looked dead. They certainly had not felt dead.
As a matter of fact, Phil might be able to remember the time before he became a Christian when people used to refer to him as “the life of the party.” And Heather could maybe remember the times before she became a Christian when she and her friends would go to the beach, spread out a picnic lunch, and have a grand time. They surely didn’t feel dead then—in fact, they never felt more alive than when they were together. When the Ephesians looked back in time, they didn’t see deadness. They remembered bright lights and good times.
But Paul’s words hang in there: You were dead.
The writer Thomas Lynch is not only an award-winning author but he is also the undertaker in the town of Milford, Michigan. Mr. Lynch knows a thing or two about dead people but most of what he knows comes down to one very simple fact: the dead can’t do much for themselves. If you want a corpse to move from one room to another, you’ll have to do it yourself. Calling to the dead body is consistently ineffective. The dead, Mr. Lynch reminds us, don’t listen worth a toot. You really just have to do everything for them.
Spiritually speaking, that’s Paul’s assessment of anyone’s life outside of Christ. You were dead. And the dead can’t do anything for themselves. That’s why there is only one piece of good news the Bible has to offer. It’s the good news that sparked the entire Reformation. It’s the good news that has transformed millions of lives these last two millennia or so. And the news is this: it is by grace you were saved.
This is not your own doing, Paul says in verse 8, because you had nothing to offer. You were dead, and the dead can’t do for themselves. Only grace can raise the dead. Only grace can give us access to the work of Jesus. Jesus’ work is the only accomplishment in cosmic history that can fix what is broken between God and us. When by grace God gives you credit for that work of Jesus, you become alive again. Only grace can do that.
That’s why Paul did not say, “It is by your resume you were saved.” Paul did not say, “It is by your bank account you were saved.” Paul did not say, “It is by your being a good little moral person you were saved.” Paul did not say, “It is by your nice investment portfolio you were saved.” No, he said it is by grace you were saved, and this has nothing to do with you at all. Nothing. Nada. Nichts. You were dead. All you could do was receive what God had to give to you. It’s not about doing, but only about receiving.
And that’s all well and good but before Ephesians 2 is finished, Paul talks about good works after all. Apparently after you get up off your knees in receiving what only God in Christ can give, after grace has arrived, there is some stuff to do. But how does that fit with grace? Why is that not like hopping back onto some moral treadmill trying to please God with what we do? Because we need to distinguish between saying “Please” and saying “Thank You.” The Christian life, it turns out, is how we say “Thank You,” how we show that we understand that it’s all a gift.
The Reformed tradition has always made a big deal of the role gratitude plays in the Christian life. Gratitude is a big deal because when you realize that you were raised back to life by the grace of God in Christ, then you also realize that the entirety of your life from that point forward is one big hunk of gratitude, one big ongoing way of saying “Thank You!” to God. That’s why in many languages the word for grace is usually related to the word for gratitude.
In Greek charis is “grace” and eucharis means “thanksgiving.” In English the word “grace” is related to the word “gratis,” which means something that is free, and from that it’s a quick jump from “gratis” to “gratitude.” Our lives are one big overflow of grace-i-tude, of God’s grace spilling out over the edges and enabling us to accomplish everything we do in our studies, our work, our families, our churches, our careers. What we do, how we live, what we accomplish matter but only because they flow out of God’s grace. Take away grace, and we’re still dead no matter how busy and alive we seem to be from the outside looking in. Throw grace into the mix, however, and we are alive in a way that means we can never be dead again.
Paul saw no inconsistency whatsoever between saying in one verse “Forget about your works” and saying in the very next verse, “In Christ you have been created to do good works!” All through history a lot of people have wanted to talk back to Paul to say, “Come on, Paul, make up your mind! Which is it: do we try to lead good lives or don’t we?” Paul thought the question was a non-starter because he knew how powerful God’s grace is. When a grace powerful enough to raise the dead gets deep down inside you, it is going to bubble up in the rest of your life! You can’t hold it in. It’s like shaking up a bottle of Pepsi—once you take the cap off, it’s going to explode with energy because the fizz was already in the bottle to begin with.
You were dead. That’s a piece of bad news no matter how you slice it. But now you have been saved by grace and are alive in Christ. That’s a piece of good news so grand, it defies description. And the gospel is here to tell you that this good news is and can be your good news. Alive in Christ. Alive to the goodness of God in all of life. Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!
[Note: We have additional Lenten Resources, worship ideas, and Sample Sermons on our 2018 Lent and Easter page ]