December 29, 2014
The Christmas 2B 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 Epistle: Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 48 (Lord’s Day 18)
John 1:(1-9), 10-18
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments, Observations, and Questions
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 and really the first Sunday in the 2014-2015 holiday season after Christmas is officially finished. 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!”
The truth is, we like the Jesus in the manger because he can’t say anything yet. We can project onto him anything we want. Maybe that is why in the tradition of the church we do such a rapid fast-forward to Epiphany and soon to the baptism of Jesus and the launch of the very public ministry we will consider in the weeks between Epiphany and the start of Lent. Maybe the church has long recognized that wonderful though the incarnation is, the real truth of Jesus comes when he opens his mouth to teach and preach, when we sets himself down at the table of the tax collectors and prostitutes, when he tells us to love everyone and to forgive even our most ardent enemies.
That’s the real Jesus who comes to us. Will we receive him? Will we accept the blessing of the divine grace that allows us to see him aright? Or will we continue to find John 1:10 an indictment that makes us blush?
It is a vital point because when you move on a half-dozen verses in John 1, you discover what this Child really brings (and it turns out to be the #1 thing we all need): Grace.
He is full of Grace.
When some years ago I did a word study on grace as part of a book project I was working on, I discovered what most of us already know intuitively: the word charis or “grace” does not crop up much in the four gospels. Despite the hugeness of “salvation by grace alone” for all of us who stand in some stream or another of the Reformation river, the word “grace” is restricted in the New Testament to mostly the writings of Paul. You can read “grace” once in a blue moon in the gospels (and then in non-salvific contexts sometimes, as in Luke 2 when the young boy Jesus is described as having grown up with wisdom and grace). But mostly if it’s grace you’re looking for, in the case of the gospels you’ll have to locate it in the actions and demeanor of Jesus, not in the text on the page.
But not in John 1. Here grace is as bubbly and as effervescent as a freshly poured glass of champagne. It sparkles. It pops. It delights. Grace clings to the Word of God, to the Word made flesh. It characterizes him. It is his essence.
Along with Truth, this Grace defines Jesus’ presence on the earth: he’s the only One with the ability to know exactly what is right and what is wrong with the way life typically goes on Planet Earth and he is—blessedly enough—simultaneously the only One with the Grace sufficient to deal with all the garbage of that normal way of life (which is, in the end, anything but “normal” in God’s sight).
All of this is Good News. This is all Gospel at its purest and finest. And it reaches something of a crescendo in verse 16 when we are told that from the fullness of all the Grace this Word made flesh has, we in turn have received “grace upon grace.” We get Grace-squared, Grace-cubed, Grace raised to a power of 10. It builds up and up in our lives, and how we need that assurance. Paul will later say that God’s grace always hyper-abounds to meet the sinful challenges we encounter in our lives. God knows what we know (and what we can admit if only we’re honest with ourselves and with one another): in this life and for this time yet, we’re never finished with our need for grace.
The Good News is that neither is God in Christ ever finished with doling it out. Grace is where we live. Grace is the ocean in which we swim. Grace is the atmosphere we breathe.
Don’t let Bible translations like the NIV make you miss this with its weak rendering of our having received “one blessing after the next.” That’s not what John said! That’s not what Jesus gives! Yes, we do receive a blessing but it’s the blessing of Grace, Grace, Grace. The blessing of Grace2 of Grace10 of a blessing that won’t quit, that cannot be derailed by sin and evil, and that will most surely carry us into the kingdom of our Father at the end of the cosmic day.
The first Sunday of the New Year is often a time to feel regrets for goals not achieved in the year gone by and a time to set goals and resolutions for the year to come. That’s fine. But this passage reminds us that as we embark on the journey that will be 2011, 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.
And that, my friends, is why we must never be among those who “received him not.”
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. (Then again, would golf be any fun if it were not hard . . .?)
But not so prophets like Jeremiah. As Larry Rasmussen noted years ago, in the Old Testament it is sometimes difficult to distinguish salvation from good old fashioned highlands agriculture! And if the prophetic vision is correct that the day will come when we will beat swords into plowshares (and, in Neal Plantinga’s memorable depiction, when we will turn howitzer tanks into John Deere garden tractors), the reason will be because in God’s good salvation, we will turn from the warfare the destroys the earth and go back to our first, best vocation as imagebearers of God: earthkeeping, tilling the soil, making things grow and flourish.
God did not create robots. God did not create insensate beings made of wood or plastic. God created fleshy images of the divine self, people with taste buds, senses of smell and touch and sight, people with feet that could dance and with spirits that could soar under the influence of good food, good drink, and good company.
And so when it comes to depicting the salvation of our God, folks like Jeremiah cut loose. Their descriptions of the goodness to come sounds like a review of a Harry & David catalogue, like a tour through a Williams Sonoma store, like a down home Christmas with Martha Stewart. 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 B Old Testament text crops up. If anything, it’s a time when most of us are tightening our belts to get back to some austerity, some dieting, some propriety after a few weeks of holiday abandon and revelry and over-indulgence in sweets and treats. That’s fine. But let’s not forget that in the end, the salvation of our God will make us merry, joyous, and full of good cheer as we together enjoy the benefits of our God’s wildly fruitful creative imagination.
Near the end of his Narnia tales, C.S. Lewis comes close to approximating the vision of Jeremiah 31 when he imagines the children and animals arriving in “The New Narnia.” It looked strikingly like the old Narnia they had always known but was, somehow and in its every detail, more vivid, more real, more substantial. Every blade of grass seemed to mean more and was a deeper green than any green anyone had ever seen.
Even average pears plucked off a tree were so juicy and flavorful as to make even the best pear they had ever had in the old Narnia seem dry and woody by comparison. And as if that all were not enough, the invitation kept coming to explore this new Narnia, to go higher and deeper, to continue to plunge farther and farther into what looked to be a never-ending abundance of wonder.
Something along these lines is what prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah envisioned for not just Israel’s near-term redemption but the longer-term salvation of all things. The world of the New Creation will not be some Martian moonscape or some cloudy, wispy realm the likes of which we’ve never before known. It will be strikingly familiar but endlessly rich and fascinating in every way. We’ll never tire of exploring its wonders and we’ll never run out of wonders to explore.
Such is the vision of the New Creation that is made possible by the Word that was made flesh, the One and Only of God who came here, full of a grace and a truth that ensures we now will receive grace upon grace forever.
Author: Doug Bratt
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
James Limburg writes, “January has always seemed to be something of a letdown.” After all, even if, as T.S. Eliot writes, “April is the cruelest month,” January is 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 new calendar year are filled with calls to join heaven and nature in singing praises to God. They invite worshipers to joyfully lift up their 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 those who preach and teach this psalm to ask themselves how the Spirit can use this psalm to speak at the threshold of a new year. What might this psalm say about new beginnings?
Psalm 147 celebrates God’s loving care in history and for God’s creation. The second half of the psalm picks up and, in fact, expands on some of the themes the psalm explores earlier. As Jennifer Green notes, while the poet earlier celebrates the way God binds wounded and heals brokenhearted people, in verses 13-14 the poet goes even further. There she notes that God protects God’s people, blesses children and grants God’s shalom.
God doesn’t just feed God’s children (9). God also, according to verse 14, fills them with the best wheat. 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 17. He answers, “Neither any person nor any thing.” So, the psalmist adds, God also displays God’s tender mercy. God melts the dangerous ice into life-giving water (18). Of course in a world where temperatures are rising, melting ice may not sound like particularly good news. But those who preach and teach this psalm should see God’s melting of ice as those who try to walk down January’s sidewalks would, as a sign of God’s mercy.
Green points out the poet matches the 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 anything, it’s Jerusalem’s vulnerability to suffering and misery. 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 so 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 faithful ways with what God creates. The coming year may include signs of the kind of growing ecological chaos that the psalmist could never have imagined. Yet the poet knew about different kinds of chaos. And 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 also 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. Jefferson wanted to distinguish Jesus’ genuine teachings from what he called the “corruption of schismatizing followers.”
Jefferson was heavily influenced by the principle of deism. He imagined a divine being that created the world but is no longer interested or involved in its daily life. So he chose not to include in his “gospel” the miracles Jesus performed. He, in fact, rejected anything that he perceived as “contrary to reason.” Jefferson’s gospel ends with a description of Jesus’ burial, but omits an account of his resurrection. He kept Jesus’ own teachings that include the Beatitudes.
Psalm 147 is a good antidote to such an uninterested God who is uninvolved in what God created and still creates. Many of the verbs it uses to describe God’s activity are in the present tense. Its God is not some uninterested, uninvolved deity. It is a God always at work, creating and caring for what God makes.
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
Comments, Observations, and Questions
Almost exactly a year ago (on the first Sunday after Christmas) the lectionary reading for the epistles was this same lesson. At that time, I wrote a long piece on this Center for Excellence in Preaching website in which I focused on a couple of the “spiritual blessings” listed by Paul. Under the heading of “what did you get for Christmas,” I explored the most controversial of those blessings, election/predestination, and the most comforting of those blessings, redemption/forgiveness. So I won’t say much about those blessings today. Instead I’ll consider the other blessings—the knowledge of the mystery of God’s will, the gift of the Holy Spirit, and the inheritance of full redemption.
First, however, anyone who preaches on this rich passage must say something about the overriding theme of God’s sovereign grace in Christ. As I noted in that previous article, all of the blessings Paul lists are “in Christ,” as he says in his opening sentence. That phrase or its equivalent occurs over and over again here (I count 11, but you may find more or less). That’s why I called these “spiritual blessings in the heavenly realms” as “Christmas gifts.” I won’t spend any time explaining that enigmatic phrase here, because I did that a year ago in the above mentioned piece.
I will spend time on the sovereign grace theme. Paul says that all of the blessings we receive in Christ have their origin not in our faith, but in God’s sovereign grace. He puts that in a number of ways. In verse 5 the blessings of election and predestination come to us “in accordance with his pleasure and will (the good pleasure of his will, eudokian tou thelematos).” In verse 9 he made known to us the mystery of his will “according to his good pleasure (eudokian, again).” And in verse 11 predestination is “according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will (boulen thelematos)….”
These verses have been the subject of much fierce debate between Calvinists and Arminians, but this much should be clear to both sides. The coming of Christ was the fulfillment of a plan and a purpose that originated in God’s “good pleasure.” There was no necessity driving God’s redemptive plan. He sent Christ and he gives us all these blessings simply because it pleased him to do so. The sense of eudokian is not so much sheer determination as supreme delight. Some Christians get upset about ideas like election and predestination, or even the central Gospel idea that salvation is only in Christ, but Paul says that God acted as he did because it gave him great delight. He is in charge of salvation from beginning to end (more on the latter thought in a moment), and it pleased him to plan and act as he did.
And, before we begin to question the character of a sovereign God who would develop and execute such a plan, Paul assures us again and again that God is driven by love for sinners. The redemption which we have in Christ, say verses 7 and 8 is “in accordance with the riches of Gods’ grace that he lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding.” We may not be able to understand why God planned things the way he did, but Paul insists that God is not only supremely wise and knowledgeable, but also more gracious than we can ever understand. The God who planned our salvation and then fulfilled his plan in Christ is not mean spirited or tight fisted. His heart overflows with love for sinners and his hand is wide open in disbursing grace to those who do not deserve it. God’s good pleasure is to be lavishly gracious.
Indeed, if the grace of God is the reason God sent Christ to save sinners, then the “praise of his glorious grace” is the ultimate purpose of God’s saving plan. Paul says that three times, at the conclusion of each major thought, in verses 6, 12, and 14. Some scholars see a Trinitarian framework here. The Father elects and predestines and adopts, the Son redeems and forgives, and the Spirit seals and guarantees. That may be too rigid a structure, but the point is clear. Every aspect of our salvation will finally bring God the glory that is his due. We were created for God’s glory. Our sin has tarnished that glory. And the grace of God will completely redeem us so that in the end his glory will once again shine, as the entire universe sees his grace triumphant over sin. The history of the whole world and the story of our individual lives will finally demonstrate that the angels were singing the absolute truth at the birth of Jesus. “Glory to God in the highest!”
An enterprising preacher could fruitfully spend this second Sunday after Christmas exploring the heights and depths of God’s sovereign grace in Christ. A sermon on this aspect of our text for today would lift people’s eyes far above the world’s tawdry celebration of Christmas and the world’s dismal prospects as we enter a new year. God has a plan; it is good; it is driven by grace; and it will surely succeed in Christ. To God be the glory!
Or a preacher who wants to take an easier route could simply focus on the remaining gifts under the tree. Here’s what God has purchased for us by offering the supreme gift of his Son. “He has made known to us the mystery of his will… which he purposed in Christ….” (verse 9) Often we are so mystified by God’s plan that we wonder if there really is one. The fragmentation and frustration of our experience in this world make it seem as though everything is out of control or ruled by a madman. So it is a real gift to know what God’s plan is.
Note the phrases that introduce God’s plan. It is “according to his good pleasure.” Again, this is something God is delighted to do. It is “purposed in Christ.” Again, Christ is at the center of God’s plan. It is “to be put into effect….” The Greek word here is oikonomian, from which our word “economy” comes; the idea is that God is managing history to achieve his plan. And finally, God’s plan will be accomplished “when the times will have reached their fulfillment….” In God’s good time, the world will know what we know now, and not before.
What will God do then? He will “bring all things together in heaven and on earth under one head, even Christ.” A world fragmented by sin– humanity separated from God, humans at war with each other, the human race abusing the creation itself, individuals internally splintered into disintegration– will finally be reunited. Shalom will prevail. The NIV translation, “bring together under one head” is an attempt to capture the meaning of a very unusual Greek word, anakephaleiosesthei. At its heart, of course, is the Greek word for head, kephalos. But how are we to translate this compound word? Some scholars think it has the mathematical sense of adding things up. Today things don’t add up; they don’t make sense; they aren’t in meaningful relation to each other. God’s plan is to bring all things back into line so that everything is once again in the right place. That will happen only when Christ is the head of everything, when all creatures in heaven and on earth will bend the knee and acknowledge that “Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father (Phil. 2:11).”
Until the time we see God’s plan fulfilled, God has given us other gifts to enjoy. He has made us heirs with a glorious inheritance. In verse 11, the word “chosen” is eklerothemen, which has the sense of being made heirs. Earlier (verse 5) Paul has talked about our adoption; here he focuses on the fact that as God’s children, we are heirs to a fortune. As with our adoption, Paul emphasizes that God’s sovereign grace has accomplished it—“having been predestined according to the plan….” But now he adds that the one who sovereignly adopted us will also sovereignly assure us of our inheritance. The one who predestined us is the God “who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will….” As heirs of God’s fortune, we are absolutely secure, because of God’s past action (predestination) and his present action (providence). We may lose or break our earthly Christmas gifts, but we can’t lose or break these “spiritual blessings.”
That brings us to the final gift, the gift of the Spirit. “Having believed, you were marked in him (Christ) with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance….” We have received what Jesus promised in John 14 and 16 and Acts 1, but here Paul adds a couple of new dimensions of the Spirit’s work. We know we have the Spirit because we believe “the word of truth, the gospel of salvation.” His presence in our lives is a God given seal. The Greek is esphragisthete, which means that the seal of the Spirit guarantees that we are the genuine article, marks us as the possession of God, and protects us from tampering or harm. So the Spirit in our lives assures us of our secure place in God’s family.
Further, says Paul, the Spirit assures us of the security of our inheritance. The Spirit is the “deposit guaranteeing our inheritance….” We’ve all heard stories of heirs who lost everything in a stock market crash or a bankruptcy. There’s no way that can happen to God’s children. The God who has predestined us for adoption and sent His Son to redeem us from sin and given us his Spirit as a mark of our genuineness has also given us a down payment, a first installment of the inheritance we will one day receive. The faith, hope, and love given by the Spirit, the full fruit and the many gifts of the Spirit, are the guarantee that God will give us full redemption. The God whose sovereign grace initiated our salvation will also complete it by his sovereign grace.
We are, says Paul, “God’s possession.” From eternity to eternity, says the usually fierce 17th century confession called the Canons of Dort, we are captured by the “Golden Chain” of redemption. “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his ‘son…. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified…. [and nothing] will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:29, 30, 39) The redemption we have already experienced by faith in Christ will surely be completed in Christ. It’s a sure thing, rooted in God’s sovereign grace, accomplished by Christ’s sacrifice, and guaranteed by the Spirit.
As the glitter of Christmas goes back in the box or is thrown in the trash, this text gives us a wonderful opportunity to remind our congregation of these gifts in Christ that “can never perish, spoil or fade… (I Peter 1:4).” May the Spirit use our sermons to move our people to “the praise of his glorious grace.”
Idea 1: The vision of a united creation offered in Ephesians 1 looks mighty unrealistic in view of the mess in the Middle East. A 21st century conflict between the United States and Iraq morphs into a contemporary version of a centuries’ old struggle between Shiites and Sunnis. And then into the mix comes ISIS, which has roots in both Syria and Iraq. All of them hate Israel, which itself is divided internally, even as it does battle with Hamas in its own backyard. Back in the United States, hawks like John McCain want to send in troops to defeat ISIS, while doves say we should have nothing to do with that internal conflict. Everyone says that President Obama has mishandled the whole thing. And all that is just the Middle East. What on earth could possibly bring unity to such a divided world? Only the grace of God bringing people from every nation under one head, even Christ.
Idea 2: I’m about to purchase a new car. The dealer wants a down payment, which I will make by trading in my old car. That down payment signals my intention to complete the transaction. It is, in effect, my promise to pay in full later. But before the dealer will accept my car as trade, I must bring in my title to the car. In order to be legal, that title must have the seal of the State of Michigan on it. Without that seal, the title isn’t legal and I can’t prove that I actually own the old car. The whole deal would be in question without that seal and deposit. So it is with the Holy Spirit and the completion of our redemption. He’s the proof that we are the real deal and the guarantee that God will keep his end of the deal.