July 09, 2018
Author: Scott Hoezee
How sordid. How tawdry. How stupid. How tragic. It’s all here in Mark 6 where we learn to our shock and sadness that the last great Old Testament prophet and the first great New Testament gospel herald, John the Baptist himself, was done in because of a boozy promise made by an oversexed older man who had been turned on by a scantily clad teenager who did a dance for him and his equally besotted party companions.
Having kept his hands off of John the Baptist out of fears of a Jewish reprisal in case some harm came to John—and anyway Herod also found himself oddly drawn to John’s words—Herod even so now seals John’s fate after all because of a moment of weakness in which he promises to give a pretty young girl just about anything she wants. (“What’ll it be, you hot little thing? You want the moon? I’ll give ya the moon . . .”)
How can it be that so vital a figure in salvation history gets murdered on account of so tawdry an event? This is no glorious martyrdom. This is not Stephen testifying to God’s grace and seeing Jesus just before the fatal stone strikes him in the head. This is a silent beheading in a prison cell, as swiftly enacted as it was stupidly arranged.
Only the back-story here provides a glimmer of something positive to say about how it all came about. According to a very helpful article by Craig Keener in The Lectionary Commentary (Eerdmans, 2001), John the Baptist was probably the only figure who had the courage (and the holy pluck) to stand up to Herod Antipas. This is not the Herod who was around when Jesus was born nor is this the Book of Acts Herod who later persecuted the church and killed, among others, James. But what this middle Herod shared in common with those other two was a real nasty streak of immorality, self-aggrandizement, and corruption.
He had been married originally to a Nabataean princess whom he later dumped in favor of marrying his brother’s wife, Herodias. As Woody Allen might say, the heart wants what it wants, and Herod’s heart wanted Herodias. So even though it made him guilty of multiple sins (adultery and incest among them) and even though it angered the king of the Nabataeans (to whom Herod’s first wife fled in humiliation after Herod took up with his sister-in-law Herodias)—and even though this later led to a military conflict with the Nabataeans in which Herod was roundly defeated and embarrassed—nevertheless Herod married Herodias, and no one save John the Baptist had the moral fortitude to point out how wrong it was.
Had John just stuck to baptisms and some harsh pronouncements about the Pharisees and such, he would have been OK. But John landed in prison because he had the temerity to question the morality of Herod the Tetrarch (he never was actually designated a king and when he petitioned Rome for the title, Caesar Gaius Caligula banished Herod and Herodias to Gaul for the rest of their lives). As has too often been the case in history, the powers that be are content to regard religion as a kind of hobby that seems to satisfy certain needs people have. And so long as it stays in the realm of “hobby,” religion and the people who practice it are left alone. But when the religious start to stray out of that designated realm, that’s when things get ugly fast.
So John questioned the king’s morality, even rebuking him for his deeds. This landed him in prison. But then, as though to prove John right that it’s both wrong and foolish to cross certain moral boundary lines, the tangled web Herod wove ensnared both him and John the Baptist on the occasion of that fateful party when Herod’s lust for his niece (turned stepdaughter) and the evil machinations of Herodias behind the scenes all caught up with Herod, leading to John’s summary and ignominious demise.
Well, that’s the story and if it’s a vignette of evil and tawdriness you’re looking for, you could hardly do better than Mark 6:14-29. But to return to the earlier point, what if it’s the case that what you’re looking for is a Gospel text to preach to God’s people? What if you’re aiming for an instructive passage on gospel hope and grace? This passage doesn’t fit the bill!
Maybe as good a way as any to approach this homiletically is to use this as an example of why the world needs the gospel to begin with. Yes, you could make the bottom line of this sermon something along the lines of, “And so we, too, need to be morally courageous in denouncing the evil we see around us also today.” You could use this as a bolster to the conducting of the various “culture wars” in which many today participate with holy relish and verve.
But suppose you prefer not to end your sermons with a moral “To Do” list in which people feel that the main facet of the Christian life is how well we behave and so earn our place in God’s good graces. Maybe one way to avoid preaching a finger-waving “Go and do likewise” message is to let the tawdriness of the story remind us that if ever we needed a reminder of why only the death of God’s Son can save this sorry old world, this story provides that reminder. The world is locked in endless cycles of death and destruction. We are quite literally hell-bent on messing up, on following the desires of our hearts into all kinds of dead-end alleys that lead only to suffering.
Something has to break through to this world of ours. Something has to snap these destructive cycles. Something has to narrate a different story and point in a different direction. Thanks be to God that we know what that “Something” is: it is the gospel of Jesus Christ our Lord, the Son of God who became the servant of all. Because of Jesus, the bottom line of our lives does not need to be something like the sad spectacle with which this story ends as John’s devastated disciples sadly bury his headless corpse. Because of the gospel, the end of the story is finally resurrection, restoration, and the clarion cry, “Behold, I make all things new!”
As this sordid story makes clear, only the gospel has the power to let us hope for such a vision of restored humanity.
And it’s no accident that the very next story—and the next lection in Year B—is the story of Jesus’ being revealed as the Great Shepherd of his sheep who feeds his people with life abundant even in a desert waste of a place. That’s the hope that bookends this sad, sad story in the middle of Mark 6.
Why does Mark seem to back into this story about John the Baptist’s death? It’s an odd way to tell the tale. He does not tell this story at this juncture in his gospel because it fits chronologically. Indeed, it’s pretty obvious that John’s death had happened some while back, well before Jesus sent out the twelve disciples for their first-ever solo ministry experiences.
It creates a bit of a jolt for the reader. Suddenly we hear that some people, Herod Antipas included, were concluding that John the Baptist was back from the dead. But when you hear that, you’re shocked.
“Dead!!?? John is dead? I didn’t even know he was sick! What in the world happened!?” And then it’s as though Mark says, “Oh, that’s right—I haven’t told you that part of the story, have I? Well, it went down this way . . .” and then Mark launches into this grim narrative.
Why does Mark tell it this way? Why did he plunk this grim narrative right in the middle of the otherwise highly encouraging story of the disciples’ success in ministry and the miraculous (and much-loved) story about Jesus’ Feeding of the 5,000? Those other stories are so positive, so full of light and hope. So why does Mark darken the narrative horizon here with a story that, all things being equal, really does not need to be relayed at this particular moment?
It seems as though Mark is not only darkening the atmosphere here but that he is quite probably intentionally darkening it. Maybe part of the reason is that Mark knows that the cross is the key to the gospel. That’s why in Mark Jesus’ true identity is perpetually hushed up until the moment Jesus is dead on the cross and the soldier nearby declares Jesus to be the Son of God. The so-called “Messianic Secret” pervades Mark until Jesus may safely be identified only after he is dead. Until then, Mark never wants people to run ahead or assume anything resembling a triumphalist air. We have to follow Jesus all the way to Golgotha if we are really going to understand who he is and what the gospel brings.
So maybe Mark is tempering things a bit by inserting this sad reminder of sin, evil, and death. Lest we readers conclude that ministry is only about the kinds of success and excitement the disciples encountered—and lest we think that it’s only all about getting our needs met (as in Jesus’ feeding of the 5,000 that follows)—we are reminded that faithfulness can bring suffering and even death. We are reminded that what will finally cure what ails this sin-sick world will be something far more startling than healings, exorcisms, and miracles of feeding. What a world as sordid as this one needs will be, finally, the death of God’s beloved Son. Things are that bad in this world, as the story of John’s beheading may remind us.
One wonders at times how many bad things have happened in history because certain leaders dared not appear to be weak. In his most recent volume on “The Years of Lyndon Johnson,” premiere biographer Robert Caro makes it clear that much of what drove and animated Lyndon B. Johnson was a deep-seated fear of never looking like a failure, of never being seen as a failure the way his own father had been.
So even though he was determined to become President of the United States one day, in 1959 and early 1960 LBJ doggedly did not put himself forward as a candidate for the 1960 Democrat nomination. He wanted it desperately but dared not say it out loud for fear that then if he did not get the nomination, people would look down on him. That was bad enough but Caro tells us that when his fifth and final volume on Johnson comes out, it will become clear that this fear of failure—the fear of becoming his father all over again—is also why so many tens of thousands of young men would lose their lives in Vietnam. Johnson could not back down—not even when backing down was the most eminently sensible thing to do as most people could see clearly.
In Mark 6, Herod has some of this going on, too. He can’t be seen as a failure. He can’t let go of power, even when that power overtakes his better judgment and results in an innocent man’s beheading. Ah, the tangled webs we weave . . .
Text: 2 Samuel 6:1-5; 12b-19
Author: Doug Bratt
2 Samuel 6 contains enough action and vivid images to fill a whole Netflix series. It, after all, features a mysterious box, stumbling oxen and impetuous priest. Our text also gives us a dancing king, livid queen and one great big party.
David has spent many years running from Saul. However, as 2 Samuel 6 unfolds, his predecessor is finally dead. So now that Jesse’s son is, at least temporarily, Israel’s undisputed king, he remembers “the ark of God” (2). It was a fancy, rectangular wooden box, about four feet by two feet, and covered in gold. Over this golden slab stood two cherubim that symbolized God’s living presence and majestic holiness.
God first gave the Israelites this ark as they traveled from Egypt toward the land of promise. They normally kept it in the Holy of Holies’ center of the tabernacle. There it played an immensely important role in Israel’s religious life.
This ark didn’t, after all, just symbolize God’s holy presence among God’s people as they traveled. It also contained three things that spoke “volumes” about what God had graciously done for Israel. After all, inside the ark were some manna, Aaron’s rod and the stone tablets of Moses’ law.
Thirty years earlier, however, the Israelites had hauled the ark out of the tabernacle where it belonged and onto the battlefield (where it didn’t belong!). They’d hoped that it would prove to be a kind of “good luck charm.” The embattled Philistines, however, captured the ark. Yet once they installed that ark in one of their temples, it wreaked such havoc that they hustled it back to Israel, leaving it with a priest named Abinadab.
There, however, Israel seems to have forgotten all about the ark of God. Maybe it even gathered dust in Abinadab’s basement or attic. Who, after all, wanted to keep such a potent religious object around?
2 Samuel 6’s David, however, organizes a huge parade to haul the lost ark out of storage and to Jerusalem. Scholars suggest that he hopes that it will unite the whole country under his still relatively new leadership. By bringing the ark there, David seems to be trying to make Jerusalem not just Israel’s political center, but also its religious center. The ark’s presence in Jerusalem would, then, unite Israel by serving as the place for all Israelites to come and worship.
Initially the procession goes just smoothly. David leads a huge, extravagant and noisy parade. He genuinely seems to be worshipping the Lord by dancing with all his might and singing at the top of his lungs. It suggests that David really wants to bring the God of Abraham and Moses back into the center of Israel’s national life.
All of this commotion, as one scholar notes, also captures peoples’ imaginations. The Israelites, after all, join David in celebrating, playing virtually every instrument in their band room. One pastor says they use everything but a portable organ to celebrate the ark’s return.
When God originally gave the Israelites the ark, God insisted that their priests always carry it. Even they, however, weren’t supposed to actually touch this sacred box. God told the priests to carry the ark by holding onto poles that ran through its golden rings.
Perhaps, however, David is too busy dancing to follow those rules. He lets Uzzah and Ahio, sons of Abinidab, imitate the Philistines by simply loading the sacred ark onto an ox cart and leading it toward Jerusalem. Since they’ve grown up in the home where Israel had stored the ark, they are, perhaps, too familiar with it.
Though we’d never know it from the limits the Lectionary imposes on 2 Samuel 6, when the oxen stumble, perhaps in a pothole, Uzzah, who probably accompanied the ark precisely in case something like this happened, instinctively reaches out to steady it. And, of course, God strikes him dead on the spot. So an angry David puts the ark back into mothballs.
When, however, it becomes clear that God showers blessings on the ark’s new holders, David decides to resume the parade to Jerusalem. Israel’s king, however, has apparently learned a hard lesson. Verse 13 implies that priests, not an ox cart, now carry God’s ark. What’s more, every time they carry the ark just a few feet, David sacrifices to the Lord. Clearly he has a renewed sense of God’s holiness as symbolized in this box.
Yet though he’s perhaps newly aware of God’s holiness and the need for reverence, David is still no uptight worshiper of the Lord. After all, Israel’s king doesn’t just shuffle toward Jerusalem with his hands in his pockets. We sense that, instead, David leads the renewed parade. Dressed probably fairly scantily in priestly clothing, David shouts and dances with “abandon,” according to one paraphrase.
David, however, doesn’t just keep this joy to himself. The warrior becomes a bread-giver. David shares with his fellow Israelites a luscious meal of bread, meat and raisins that’s fit for a divine king’s arrival in Jerusalem.
Yet though we’d (again!) never know it from the limits the Lectionary again imposes on this Sunday’s reading, not everyone, appreciates David’s generous enthusiasm. In fact, David’s exuberance offends his perhaps edgy wife. Michal, whom our text keeps reminding us is Saul’s daughter, stubbornly refuses to participate in the celebration.
Michal expresses her ridicule, however, when David returns to their home. Her words to David ooze both sarcasm and anger. Saul’s daughter accuses him of barnyard behavior, of shamelessly exposing himself in front of lowly peasant women.
Interestingly, David’s doesn’t deny that his actions were undignified and even humiliating. He doesn’t even try to defend himself. Israel’s king, however, does insist he has danced for the Lord who made him king, not for anyone else, including his wife.
The end of 2 Samuel 6 effectively signals the end of Saul’s family and its hopes. While Michal thinks she’s a strong person, she turns out to be, in her historical context, a largely hopeless one. Michal, after all, remains childless until she dies.
However, from this point forward things also go downhill for David. In 2 Samuel 7, after all, God declines his offer to make a home for the ark of the Lord in a temple. Later, of course, David will conquer many enemies. When, however, he “conquers” Uriah’s wife Bathsheba, he plants the seeds of his family, and, as a result, Israel’s destruction.
So isn’t it ironic that one of the highpoints of David’s life is 2 Samuel 6’s act of jubilant worship? Though our text never uses the word “worship,” that’s certainly seems to be what David offers to God in it. After all, worship always has two elements: the word of God, and people’s response.
And as one biblical scholar notes, the ark is a kind of sermon, a type of word of God in our text. It, after all, vividly reminds Israel of what God graciously did during her flight from Egypt. The ark reminds her that God gave her food, the law and human leaders. 2 Samuel 6’s David responds to this “word” by leading the Israelites in both dancing before and singing at the tops of their lungs to the Lord. He also feeds the Israelites a royal banquet of celebration.
Some Christian worship orders follow a similar pattern of revelation and response. We sometimes call it the dialogue of worship. God speaks. God’s people respond. For example, in some worship orders God calls God’s adopted sons and daughters to worship who then respond with a hymn. God may call us to confess our sins and we confess them. God speaks God’s word and we bring our offerings.
But what if, as Jack Roeda asks in a message on this passage, you don’t feel like responding to God’s word by singing and dancing the way David did? What if God speaks to us and we only feel heaviness in our souls? How can we make our leaden hearts sing and dance?
You and I can’t, as Roeda insists, muster David’s joy on our own. We need the Holy Spirit, whose presence Jesus promises to any group of people who gather in his name. God’s adopted sons and daughters need that Spirit to lift our heavy hearts and sagging hands. Those, then, who would dance before the Lord open ourselves to the Spirit’s work and leading.
However, those who want to appropriately respond to God’s word also deliberately and repeatedly consider what God has done. We reflect on the grandeur of what God has made. You and I let the Spirit melt our hearts as we remember what God has done and is doing.
Then, as Roeda continues, we may not be quite ready to dance like David did. Some of us, after all, would upset more than just our spouses if we did. We might just, however, be ready to do something like sing at the top of our lungs our praises to God in our showers.
Some Christian worship services include what we’ve come to call “liturgical dance.” They are at least in part responses to the psalms’ invitations to “praise [God’s] name with dancing” (Psalm 149:3) and “praise [the Lord] with tambourine and dance” (Psalm 150:4).
Yet responses to such dancing before the Lord are no more united now than they were in David’s day. As Todd Farley notes in March, 2005 Reformed Worship’s article, “Praise Him with Dance,” “God’s people throughout history – not just today … have found themselves between the proverbial rock and hard place on this issue. The Israelites danced and struggled with controversy regarding this issue. Likewise, the early church wrestled with dance. The church fathers came out both for and against dance. Church councils and synods have issued statements condemning or praising the use of movement arts such as dance and mime.”
Not so unlike the way dance divided David and Michal’s own house.
Author: Stan Mast
Psalm 24 is as familiar to church goers as it is offensive to non-church goers. Christians know it from our annual celebration of Christ’s Ascension, where it is nearly always read. It is also part of some classic readings that attend Holy Communion. But many non-Christians will be offended by verses 3-6, which certainly seem to say that there are some very definite moral and spiritual qualifications that seekers must have in order to approach God. In a day where many think they can approach God with a “Hey Dude, what’s up?” attitude and others assume that God is pleased to meet with anyone who is simply sincere, verses 3-6 are off putting. So how can we make this familiar Psalm fresh for believers and inviting for non-believers?
We could begin by trying to reconstruct the occasion envisioned in the Psalm, but that is notoriously difficult to do. Some think that Psalm 24 has II Samuel 6 in mind. That’s the story of David bringing the ark back up to Jerusalem after its Philistine captivity. Others envision an annual celebration of that Davidic event, a kind of perpetual re-enthronement ceremony. Still others see a deeper connection to redemptive history in that annual liturgical reconstruction of an historic event. That is, the bringing of the ark into Jerusalem marked the end of Yahweh’s long march from Egypt into his house in Jerusalem. After defeating all his enemies along the way, “the Lord Almighty (Hebrew, the Lord of Hosts)” takes his place above the Mercy Seat. The King of Glory has entered in. Finally, Christian scholars see the last verses of the Psalm as a prophetic anticipation of Jesus’ entrance into the Holy of Holies above, where he sat down as “Christus Victor,” far above all rule and authority for the church (Eph. 1:20-23).
Given the disagreement about its historical provenance, I’m not sure it’s valuable to spend much time on that. Rather, I would opt for a direct application of Psalm 24 to our day, focusing on the uncomfortable, even offensive question in verse 3. “Who may ascend the hill of Lord? Who may stand in his holy place?”
The Psalm opens and closes with a description of God that sets the stage for those questions. In verses 1-2, Yahweh is the Creator, Sustainer, and Possessor of the whole earth and everyone in it. In his power he overcame the forces of chaos, depicted here (as so often in the Bible) as the surging, swirling waters of sea and river. Upon a chaotic lifeless world, “formless and empty (Gen.1:2),” Yahweh imposed order and gave light and life. Every single thing that exists owes its life and its allegiance to Yahweh.
Verses 7-10 give a name, a number of names to the Creator, Sustainer, and Possessor. Obviously, given all that, he is the King of Glory. But what is the King’s name? Who is the King of Glory? And what is this king like? The King is Yahweh Almighty. To the ubiquitous covenant name of God, the Psalmist adds a Hebrew word that evokes images of armies and battle. The God who has taken Israel by the hand and led them to the Promised Land is strong and mighty, leading his armies to victory over all the forces of evil that would try to stop the progress of God’s kingdom. Israel’s tender covenant-keeping God is a mighty warrior who will protect them against all foes.
Against the backdrop of that overwhelming picture of God, the Psalmist asks what now seems like a perfectly appropriate question. Given who God is, who on earth may ascend into God’s presence? Who would dare to stand in his holy place? Yes, this is a God who wants to be approached and embraced and loved and trusted (Yahweh), but he is not a God to be trifled with (the Lord of Hosts).
The Psalmist answers his question with words that have puzzled and dismayed generations of readers. What exactly do they mean and who, realistically, can live up to them? The simplest explanation is that the Psalmist is referring to both actions and attitudes. But exactly what actions and attitudes? Is “clean hands” a reference to ritual hand washing, or to being innocent of shedding blood? Is a “pure heart” related to speaking truth, not swearing falsely? Or is it connected to not “lifting up [one’s] soul to an idol?” One scholar says that all of this is simply shorthand for ethics and piety, or what Brueggemann calls “Torah obedience.” The message of Psalm 24, he adds, is that “only obedient persons may enter into God’s presence.” Which, he admits, is totally offensive to the modern mind.
Indeed, many sincere seekers will be dismayed by the demands of these verses. Verse 6, looking back on the conditions and blessings of verses 3-5, says, “Such is the generation of those who seek him, who seek your face, O God of Jacob.” We live in a world that glorifies “the journey,” the process of seeking God, whoever God may be. The only thing necessary for seekers is the sincerity of their search. Any sincere seeker will be welcomed into God’s presence. There are, of course, biblical passages that seem to agree with that modern emphasis. Hebrews 11:6c says, “he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” But the early part of that verse is crucial. “And without faith it is impossible to please God….”
That is exactly the message of Psalm 24. We must seek God in the right way. And we must seek the right God. There are, after all, “idols,” “false gods.” One could argue from Psalm 24 that the contemporary, casual, coffee-cup-in-hand approach to God is a far cry from God honoring worship. But I think that would be a misapplication of Psalm 24. It is not talking about appearances or style, but about what Jesus called “seeking God in spirit and in truth (John 4:24).”
Psalm 24 gives some substance to those lovely but vague words of our Lord. Moral cleanness and spiritual purity are required if we would enjoy the presence of God. And we must approach God as God is, the King of Glory. Yahweh Almighty. We must not, in our search for God, “lift up our souls to an idol.” The Ten Commandments are still in effect.
Which leads us to Christ. If it is true that “only obedient persons may enter into God’s presence,” how can any of us get close to God? The Gospel answer is that Jesus has kept the demands of the Law and thereby ushers us into the presence of the One True God. “No one comes to the Father except through me (John 14:6).” According to Father Patrick Henry Reardon, the ancient church always read verses 3 and 4 as a description of Christ’s ministry for us and verses 7-10 as a celebration of Christ’s victorious ascension into heaven, by which he completed our redemption. Psalm 24, then, points us to Christ’s atonement by means of which we “receive blessings from the Lord and vindication from God our Savior.” And it points us to Christ’s victory over the forces of evil, after which he was received back to his heavenly throne as “the King of Glory, Yahweh Almighty.” In Christ, we are both obedient and victorious. In Christ alone, we can ascend into God’s presence and stand guiltless and free.
In other words, Psalm 24 can be the basis for an evangelistic sermon that lifts up the God of glory, humbles seekers of every variety, and invites all to come to Christ and find the awesome God who created us all and who wants us to enjoy his presence.
In a recent issue, The Christian Century had a fascinating article about churches opening up their sacred spaces to non-traditional uses. As congregations decline in numbers, many churches are under-used. So as an exercise in the stewardship of their resources and as a way of connecting with the larger community, the author of the article urged churches to make their spaces available to, say, dance studios, theater groups, yoga classes, and even other religious groups. Her church is used not only by young hipsters and two immigrant churches, but also by Muslims. Anticipating a few raised eyebrows at the latter group, she says, “Why not be more inclusive? God won’t be hurt.” Presumably she feels that way because Muslims share Abrahamic roots with Christians. While we should applaud increasing connections with our community, we might wonder how the radical openness of many modern Christians fits into the restrictions of Psalm 24 on “lifting up one’s soul to an idol.”
I didn’t expand on that word “vindication” in verse 5, but it is a key part of the Gospel. Think about the Innocence Project, a group of activists whose mission is to revisit the cases of prisoners who have been unjustly convicted. These good folks work tirelessly to secure the pardon and release of men and women who have been imprisoned for years, even though there is evidence that they did not commit the crime. All along, these convicts have maintained their own innocence. What a happy day it is when they are finally vindicated and set free. We, on the other hand, are rightly convicted of having broken God’s laws. But in Jesus Christ, we are vindicated, pardoned, set free, and received into the Presence of the King of Glory.
Author: Scott Hoezee
Years ago when I was a pastor, I once asked my congregation what they would think if I announced one week that from then on, every single one of my sermons would be based on Ephesians 1. Most would chalk that up to a huge mistake! Yet if you look closely at Ephesians 1:1-14, you will see why that would not be, theologically speaking, a bad choice. Because as commentators point out, in a mere fourteen verses Paul manages to include every significant topic of Christian theology.
Let me cobble together for you the list. The Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Divine election. Redemption through Jesus’ blood. The baptismal seal of the Holy Spirit. Salvation by grace alone. The doctrines of creation and providence. Eschatology. Faith. Sanctification. The proclamation of the gospel. It’s all here. Of course, each topic could be fleshed out, but by the time you finished fleshing them out, what you would have would be close to a complete seminary curriculum.
But let me point out something even more remarkable. Throughout these verses–words that range over the height and breadth of all theology–we human beings are all-but completely passive. God is the chief actor and is the subject of every active verb. What’s more, those verbs are, in the original Greek, all in the past perfect tense, letting you know that these things are settled, done, accomplished once and for all.
And so we read that God blessed us, chose us, predestined us, has freely given grace to us, has lavished grace upon us, has made known the mystery of the gospel to us, has redeemed us. All those active verbs stand in contrast to the passive ones that involve us. We have received the blessings, we have been chosen and have been predestined; we have received the adoption and the grace. We were chosen, were included, were marked with a seal. The only active thing Paul attributes to us comes in verse 13 when Paul says we believed the gospel. We believed what we heard, and the rest then follows. But even that is not a terribly active thing, is it? In order to believe something, it has to be presented to you from the outside. So even at our most active level in Ephesians 1, we are still on the receiving-end of all that God alone is providing and presenting.
Clearly, when it comes to the love and the care and the salvation of our heavenly Father, we are getting caught up in something far larger than ourselves to which we contribute nothing! But there is a reason for that. From verse 3 to verse 14 a certain phrase crops up no less than nine times. Over and again Paul says that all this divine activity of choosing, predestining, lavishing, blessing, giving, and revealing happens in Christ. Repeatedly in verses 3, 4, 6, 7, 9, 11, 12, and twice in verse 13 Paul throws in the prepositional phrase “in Christ, in him, in the One, in whom.” Why is it that we human beings look so passive here, apparently pitching in nothing? Because all that we need and all that we have now received or will ever receive took place in Christ.
But what does that mean? It means that everything that was ever wrong with this world somehow got corrected in Jesus. It means that everything that was broken in life somehow got fixed in Jesus. It means that everything that ever ailed us somehow got healed in Jesus. In ways difficult to fathom, Christ Jesus now has within himself all the power, energy, and desire necessary to forgive sins, to defeat evil, and so make available the grace we need to have a loving relationship with our Creator God. Because he is the Son of the Father, Jesus can now deliver to us what we need to become children of that same Father.
It seems that in the theology of Paul, Christ Jesus has become more than just a person–he has almost become a kind of cosmic place, a spiritual location such that if you are “in Christ,” if you exist within the sphere of his influence, then you are all set. Christ has become a type of cosmic safe house in which your sins are put away and you yourself have been lavished with a redemption no one can steal.
This Savior is far more than the personalized Jesus who sometimes gets conveyed in contemporary music–the Jesus who walks and talks privately with you in the quiet of some garden where dew is still on the roses and such. This is not to deny that Jesus is our Friend and that he has a relationship with each one of us. But the Christ Jesus we get from Paul is so much grander. Christ is a sphere of influence, a cosmic situation and place where, if you are on the inside, you are immersed in all that is good.
So to sum up, the God who is the maker and sustainer of a creation beyond our ability to understand is your Father and my Father and our Father. But the awful nature of this God, and the vast universe he has made, doesn’t put me off, it draws me in. Because I know what my Father will do with all that power: he will care for his children. But this is so only because we all have an elder Brother named Jesus in whom we exist now. He took care of everything for us and he now exists as the source and resource of lavish blessings.
How different this is from the dog-eat-dog ethos of so much of life in this fallen world. Again and again we are told that to succeed, you have to work very hard, be a bit cut-throat, and demonstrate a willingness to put yourself forward come what may. You need to step on others, defeat them, and so prove your worth. So be ruthless in getting what you want and then be equally vigilant and ruthless to keep it. The people who already have what you want are not that eager to give it away. So to get it, you will have to be very clever indeed.
The gospel tells us that this very ethos, this way of looking at life, is a symptom of everything that is wrong with us. That way of going at life is not only not the solution, it is the problem! It may succeed in gaining the whole world but, as someone once said, what good is it if you gain the whole world but forfeit your soul?
As Christians we are supposed to learn not simply that we get saved by grace alone but also that as a result, that same grace sets the tone for the rest of life. All of our interactions with one another, all of the ways by which we view other people, the very shape of our existence is informed by not just the fact that we have a God who is our Father but also by how it came to be that we have the precious privilege of calling God Father. If we exist now in Christ, if we are dwelling inside Jesus, then our life is based on the precise opposite of anyone who claims that the base of life should be a ruthless pitting of people against each other.
The secret to the universe is that God’s fierce and fathomless power is exceeded only by his zestful enthusiasm for our lives. God poured into his Son the full wealth and strength that funds and supports the known universe and beyond. But the real secret to life is revealed in the fact of our completely passive posture in Ephesians 1. All you need to tap into God’s love, grace, and strength is a willingness to believe that what he says is true. And with no more than that child-like ability to trust your Father’s Word, the floodgates open as you are transported to live, both now and even forever more, in Christ.
William Sloane Coffin once noted that when we think about Jesus’ call to receive the kingdom like children, we often think only about the natural humility of kids. But, Coffin said, we should not underestimate the 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 then turn their nickels and dimes over to this or that relief agency. It’s children who take home the little church-shaped piggy banks, fill them with copper coins, and then bring them back to the minister, really believing that those pennies will help make a new addition to the church a reality. 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 that way. And, of course, we encourage this in children. We buy the lemonade, compliment the delicious cookies, and stick our loose change into empty coffee cans. But then the day comes when we start to discourage in older children the very idealism we encourage in children below a certain age. Why do we do that? Would Jesus think that’s a good way to make a Christian child grow up?
Christian people who live in Christ know that everything we ever needed has been lavished on 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, it already has