2nd Sunday after Christmas C
December 28, 2015
The Christmas 2C Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for John 1(1-9), 10-18 from the Lectionary Gospel; Jeremiah 31:7-14 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 147:12-20 from the Lectionary Psalms; and Ephesians 1:3-14 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Lectionary Gospel: Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 33 (Lord’s Day 13)
John 1:(1-9), 10-18
Author: Scott Hoezee
The 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 with Christmas now officially past us by about a week-and-a-half. 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 is no doubt 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!”
Stephen Colbert is now the host of the Late Show but some years back when he was still the host of The Colbert Report, he said something that has been widely replayed on YouTube and that has been turned into any number of memes that I have seen a lot of people post to Facebook whenever something in the news prompts it. In the face of politicians invoking Christ and the Christian faith to prop up their positions as well as in the face of those who claim there is a “war on Christmas,” Colbert suggested once that maybe it really is time to take 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 he sits 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 Ask / 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 Grace³ 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 2016, 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
You 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 sometimes 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 that 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 C 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
“January has always seemed to be something of a letdown,” writes James Limburg. After all, even if, as T.S. Eliot writes, “April is the cruelest month,” January is perhaps the coldest month, at least in many parts of North America. Christmas’ excitement generally allows North Americans to look past December’s sometimes-wintry weather. But now the holidays are over, leaving many of us with just the dark, cold and snow.
Yet, as Limburg points out, the church year’s mood is quite different. The psalms the Lectionary appoints for the beginning of the new calendar year are filled with calls to join heaven and the cosmos in singing praises to God. They invite worshipers to joyfully lift up our hearts and sing to the God of the new year, as well as all the years God graciously gives us.
This Sunday’s appointed psalm is one of the psalter’s five last psalms, each of which begins and ends with a “Hallelu Yah!” (literally, “Praise God!”). It’s hard to imagine a more appropriate way to close God’s people’s hymnbook. It is from start to finish, after all, as the psalmist insists, “good,” “pleasant” and “fitting” to praise the Lord. In a culture that always seems to ask, “What will this do for me?” the psalmist insists praise to God is appropriate all by itself.
Of course, while Psalm 147 is part of the ending 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 this psalm’s preachers and teachers 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 second half of it 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 up wounded and heals brokenhearted people, in verses 13-14 the poet goes even farther. There she notes that God protects God’s people, blesses children and grants God’s shalom.
God doesn’t just feed God’s children. God also, according to verse 14, fills them with the best wheat. 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 rhetorically asks in verse 17b. He answers, “Neither any person nor any thing.” Yet, as 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, the melting of 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 the poet matches 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.
Yet there is, as Hans Wiersma notes, irony inherent in elements of this psalm. After all, in verse 12 the poet calls Jerusalem and Zion to praise her God. In verse 13 she notes how God “strengthens the bars of” Jerusalem’s gates and “blesses” her “people within” her. God, the poet adds in verse 14, “grants peace to” Jerusalem’s borders.
Yet if history has shown us anything, it’s Jerusalem’s vulnerability. Her “gates” have repeatedly fallen. Jerusalem’s people have suffered endless waves of suffering and death. Peace has been, at best, fleeting. In that way Jerusalem might serve as a kind of metaphor for a world that knows much misery. So Psalm 147 stands not so much as a description of Jerusalem and the world, whether ancient or modern, but as a hope and prayer. It’s a profession that the God whose peace the angels promised at Jesus’ birth will ultimately usher in that peace across the whole world.
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 faithfulness to what God creates. The coming year may include signs of the kind of growing ecological chaos that the psalmist could never have imagined. It will, unless the Lord returns, almost certainly contain wars and rumors of war. Yet the poet knew about different kinds of chaos. Even in the face of it, 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 Lectionary appoints this psalm for the second Sunday after Christmas. So if preachers and teachers can pull worshipers back to the event about which they may already be sick of hearing, it may be fruitful to explore how Psalm 147 informs our understanding of the reason for Christ’s coming into our world.
Jesus Christ is the incarnation of God’s blessing on God’s people (13) as well as the peace God grants us (14). He is the Bread of Life, “the finest of wheat” (14). So Jesus’ birth worshipers so recently celebrated is perhaps the greatest reason to gladly and obediently respond to the poet’s call to “Praise the Lord.”
The National Museum of American History owns the second of the two “bibles” Thomas Jefferson created by “editing” the gospels to reflect his understanding of Jesus’ true philosophy. America’s third president wanted to distinguish Jesus’ genuine teachings from what he called the “corruption of schismatizing followers.”
Jefferson was heavily influenced by the philosophy 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 the myth of 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.
Of course, it’s sometimes hard for 21st century Christians to identify just how God cares for what God makes. God’s revelation of himself in creation seems to suggest things like snow, frost, hail and wind are the products of “natural forces” rather than God’s “hand.” Yet Christians profess God remains active in lovingly caring for what God makes.
Author: Stan Mast
On this first Sunday of the New Year, it can feel like we are entering “the bleak mid-winter.” All the holiday celebrations are over, so now it’s just one cold, grey, snowy day after another, at least here in West Michigan. But that’s not where our lectionary lesson from the Epistles takes us today. This is the second Sunday after Christmas, and our reading from Ephesians 1 gives us one more opportunity to celebrate that great event by reminding us of the wonderful gifts we have received from God in and through Christ.
In past comments on this passage for the CEP website, I have tried to emphasize those gifts, taking my cue from the old hymn, “Count Your Blessings.” I have named them one by one in an effort to help folks actually celebrate on this day. But it can be difficult to simply celebrate, because this text is as theologically thick as any in Scripture. Indeed, it has been the center of much theological controversy.
Much of that controversy has revolved around the ideas of election and predestination which feature so prominently here. What can it mean that “he chose us in him before the creation of the world?” How do we make sense of predestination in the light of the Gospel’s consistent invitation to make our own choice for Christ by repenting and believing? If we have “been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will,” does that mean all things are predetermined and the decisions of our lives are basically meaningless? For centuries the battle has raged between Calvinist and Arminian interpretations of this text. It is hard to celebrate when the air is thick with controversy.
Many post-modern Christians have stopped caring about that old controversy, but this text is still the center of debate on other matters. In a church that trumpets Kingdom living, transforming the world for Christ, Paul’s focus on “spiritual blessings in the heavenly realms” sounds like old fashioned spiritual escapism. In a world convulsed by violence, whether domestic abuse or mass murders or international terrorism, Paul’s insistence that redemption was accomplished “through his blood” causes some sensitive stomachs to turn. How can we celebrate such a gospel in a blood soaked world?
I want to suggest that we can celebrate on this second Sunday after Christmas by focusing on verse 3. All Greek reading preachers know that this passage is one long sentence in the Greek; it’s like one thought extended and expanded. And verse 3 is the introductory summary of that long thought. Think of this as a symphony, like Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, in which the theme is introduced in the first few notes and then elaborated on through a number of different movements. (My grandson’s first grade joke was, “What was Beethoven’s favorite fruit? Bananana!”) We can celebrate today if we focus on the four notes introduced in verse 3. It emphasizes the priority of praise, the priority of God, the priority of spiritual blessings in the heavenly realms, and the priority of Christ.
Paul puts the emphasis on praise with his opening word, eulogetos, translated “praise be” in most versions of the Bible. Don’t argue about what follows; adore God. Paul prefers doxology to debate. Don’t use this text to score theological points. Rather use it to stimulate your praise. Yes, truth matters. Sometimes it is important to debate. But Paul’s priority here is praise, and that should be the priority in our lives. Three times, at the end of the three major divisions of this long sentence, Paul reminds us that the Triune God has given us these blessings “for the praise of his glory (verses 12 and 14)” or more specifically “for the praise of his glorious grace (verse 6).” So our first response to the work of the Triune God that we’ve just celebrated at Christmas should be praise.
Actually, Paul does not so much call us to praise as he announces that God is praised. That Greek word eulogetos is not an imperative verb; it is a verbal adjective. It tells us what God is already, quite apart from any activity on our part. That Greek word is obviously the source of our word eulogy. At funerals, we give a eulogy; we speak well of the dead. Here Paul alludes to the fact that entire universe, animate and inanimate, already speaks well of the living God. “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge.” (Psalm 19:1,2) “All the angels… and the elders and the four living creatures… worshiped God, saying, ‘Amen! Praise and glory and wisdom and thanks and honor and power and strength be to our God forever and ever. Amen!’” (Revelation 7:11, 12) Only a rebellious humanity, spurred on by the arch Rebel, does not speak well of God. Here Paul reminds those of us who have received “spiritual blessings” that God deserves our appreciation, applause, honor, and praise. In a world that speaks ill of God, let us speak well.
Paul helps us to do that by reminding us of who God is—not God in general or the hands-off God of the Deists, not God as the Great Unknown or God as the Eternal Enigma whose ways and will are a mystery to us, but “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” This is a God we can praise, because of what he has done in Christ. We should praise God because God did get involved, did make himself known, did show us his ways and declare his will by becoming a particular human being. God took the initiative in blessing us.
Paul takes us behind or before the cradle and the cross here, when he declares that God choose us “before the creation of the world.” He even gives us a peak into what theologians have called the eternal counsel of God, when he says that we have been “predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose (boule) of his will (thelema)….” Long before the world began, long before humanity was created, long before any of us made a move toward God, God made his move toward us. With all this mysterious language Paul insists on the priority of God in every aspect of our salvation—not only in the sending of his Son, but also in choosing and predestining us.
Here we could easily get sidetracked by controversy. One famous preacher said that predestination is a doctrine born in hell, because it makes God a cruel tyrant. But that’s not how Paul describes God. Not only is this “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,” but he also made these decisions “in love.” In verses 5 and 9 Paul uses a Greek word, eudokia, to tell us why God chose and predestined. The NIV translates it as “good pleasure.” It’s a warm and kind word. As Karl Barth said, “Not a grim Lord watching over the execution of his predetermined plan, but a smiling Father is praised. He enjoys imparting gifts to his children.”
That brings us to the next note in the introduction to Paul’s symphony. He stresses not only the priority of praise and the priority of God, but also the priority of spiritual gifts in the heavenly realms. In the Old Testament, God blessed his people primarily, though not exclusively, with material blessings on earth—possessions, prosperity, protection, progeny, and power. (Cf. Deut. 27 and 28.) Though God may still bless us in such ways that is not the focus of the New Testament Gospel. Indeed, the main error of the health and wealth gospel is a simple transference of Old Testament blessing into the New Testament without taking account of Paul’s words here. Here the blessings are election to holiness, predestination to adoption, redemption as forgiveness of sins, revelation of the mystery of God’s will, the privilege of being God’s heritage/inheritance, and the possession of the Spirit as a seal and guarantee of our final redemption.
This emphasis can be controversial; indeed, I have introduced controversy above by mentioning the health and wealth gospel in an unfavorable way. But Paul’s emphasis on spiritual blessings, as opposed to physical blessings, is designed preserve and promote our praise. And that’s his point in this whole text. “Praise be to God….” If we count our blessings in physical terms, our praise will be in constant jeopardy. When “I am so blessed” means that I have a wonderful family, and I’ve made a lot of money, and I have good health, what will happen to my praise when my marriage falls apart, when I go bankrupt, or when my child gets cancer? Paul does not say that such things don’t matter. He is simply calling us to remember that there are higher blessings that cannot fade, spoil, or perish (as I Peter 1 puts it). After receiving so many physical gifts at Christmas and depleting our finances in the process, Paul’s symphony reminds us that spiritual blessings are a priority in God’s economy.
Finally, Paul forcefully emphasizes the priority of Christ. We are to praise “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ.” Those last two word are not an incidental Christianizing of our blessings. Paul is passionate about Christ. The expression “in Christ” and its parallels occur 13 times in this long sentence and 36 times in Ephesians. All of our blessings come to us “in Christ.” Apart from him we cannot receive or enjoy these blessings.
There is much controversy about the exact meaning of “in Christ.” Does it refer to simple faith in Christ or to a mystical union with Christ? Is Paul referring to being part of a sphere in which Christ is Lord or a new situation inaugurated by Christ’s birth, death, and resurrection? Or is he speaking of Christ as the instrument by which or through which I am blessed? Theologians use a variety of phrases to capture this mystery, but we don’t have to be sure about what it means before we can praise God in Christ. Paul wants to impress upon us that Christ is the key to receiving and enjoying all the spiritual blessings God has given us. This second Sunday after Christmas can be a day of celebration if we focus on Christ from first to last.
The wife of one of my colleagues is a travel agent. She has helped me with multiple vacation plans over the years. As an expert in vacations, she has always claimed that an all-inclusive vacation is the best buy in vacations. For one price, you get top notch accommodations, all the activities and side trips you could every want, all you can eat and drink (including alcoholic beverages), nightly entertainment, no tipping, and sometimes even airfare. All of your needs and wants are satisfied in an all inclusive vacation for one (not so low, but relatively reasonable) price. In our text, Paul calls on us to praise the Triune God for an all-inclusive salvation. All our needs are met for one very high price.
Most people have a hard time praising God. For some reason we can’t “get into it” in the same way we do when we praise our favorite sports star or entertainment figure. To see a great example of over-the-top praise, tune in to the Late Show with Steven Colbert. For what seems an eternity, Colbert’s fans applaud, and scream, and chant his name in a frenzy of adulation. It’s like God is hosting the show. It’s ridiculous. And it’s tragic that we can’t muster that kind of praise for God.
In his magisterial commentary of Ephesians, Harold Hoehner points out that Paul says God has already blessed us with every spiritual blessing in Christ. We don’t have to ask God for those blessings. They are already ours, but we do have to take possession of what God has given. It might be helpful to use Hoehner’s explanation of this. “An analogy of this is God’s promise to Joshua (1:3) that every place in the Promised Land on which he places his foot has already been given to him in accordance with God’s promise to Moses. Although it had been given, it was not a reality until Joshua placed his foot on it. As it would have been presumptuous for Joshua to pray for the land that had been given him, so it is likewise presumptuous for believers to ask for the spiritual benefits already given to them. The only reason Israel did not obtain the land in Ai (Joshua 7) was because there was sin in the camp, not because they did not pray. In fact, the first time Joshua prayed was after the defeat in Ai and God told him to stop praying and deal with the sin that caused the defeat. The reason the believer does not receive spiritual benefits is not because God is in some way stingy and we must plead for them, but because believers are not appropriating by faith what God has already bestowed in their behalf. The problem is not with God, but with the believer.”