December 28, 2020
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.
John 1:(1-9), 10-18
Author: Scott Hoezee
As we come to the first Sunday of 2021, most of us are only too glad to have left 2020 behind. If on New Year’s Eve a year ago we toasted the happy arrival of a new year, this past week we probably did less of a toast to welcome 2021 and offered up instead a bit of a groan as an ugly, tragic, troubling year finally ended. But when the pandemic began in earnest in February and March around the world, who would have guessed that many of us still would not be inside a church sanctuary for the first services of 2021? If any of us thought the pandemic would last only weeks or a couple months, we were sorely wrong. Lately the death toll in a place like the United States has been staggeringly enough at all time highs.
Maybe then this year the Lectionary text from John 1 that often gets assigned for the Second Sunday after Christmas is particularly apt and maybe in its own way hopeful. Because a lot of the time this past year we maybe had a hard time discerning the presence of Christ in our lives and in our world. In the midst of so much death, so much sorrow, so much anger and division, where is Jesus to be found? Why can’t we see him as large and plain and unmistakable to our eyes of faith?
But perhaps John 1 reminds us that it has always been so but Christ is present even so. After all, the first words of the Gospel text in this lection tell us that Jesus came to that which was his own, but his own did NOT receive him. The long-awaited One was there, and people just missed him.
But the text of John 1:10 confronts us, 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. Probably, though, with all the disruptions and cancellations of 2020 due to the pandemic, that is not the way we feel on this first Sunday of a new year. For now most of us share the same goal for 2021: getting back to some semblance of normal, trying to piece back together lives shattered by job losses and family losses and so much more sadness.
We looked for Jesus in 2020 and often could not see him. But he’s been here all along, hidden in our midst. And he is here to remind us that for this coming year, Grace is still the most important thing in the Gospel and our finest source, therefore, of hope.
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 Emeritus 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: Stan Mast
It takes so long for Christmas to get here. We wait and wait through the long season of Advent for the coming of the Lord. Then in one day we celebrated his coming, and we’re done. No wonder many non-liturgical Christians simply ignore Advent and spend a month celebrating Christmas. Such a miraculous event deserves more than a day of joy.
Which is precisely why so much of the Christian world celebrates the Twelve Days of Christmas, beginning on Christmas itself (though some wait until the day after) and lasting up to Epiphany when the coming of the gift laden Magi is celebrated. These Twelve Days of Christmas are known to the secular world only through the inane song, “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” in which increasingly grand gifts are given by my “true love” on successive days, culminating with twelve drummers drumming, but always returning to “a partridge in a pear tree.”
On this second Sunday after Christmas, just 2 days from the end of the Christmas season, we preachers have an opportunity to help God’s people celebrate the gift of the Christ child by enumerating the gifts we have received through his coming. In Advent, we sang,“O Come, O Come, Immanuel, and ransom captive Israel….” Our text was chosen for this Sunday because it celebrates “ransom” and “redemption.” And it reminds us of the gifts God’s people will be/have been given through that redemption.
Of course, this text was not about Christmas in its original writing. It was written/spoken to Israel in Babylon. Some of Israel had been in captivity about a hundred years when Jeremiah gave this prophecy, others not quite that long, but all of them “mourned in lonely exile there.” But here God calls them to sing God’s praise and shout for joy, even as they plead with Yahweh to “save your people, the remnant of Israel.” Those mixed emotions reflect the reality of exile through all of history. We are called to praise and prayer, to celebrate in advance because we are so sure of God’s promises.
To help us rejoice, the prophet lists the gifts, beginning with the main one: ”I will bring them from the land of the north, and gather them from the ends of the earth.” This is what every Jew and what every human wants—to be back home with the whole family. Even those least likely to make the long journey home, “the blind and the lame, expectant mothers and women in labor,” will be brought back by God—not just a few stragglers, but “a great throng will return.”
It will not an easy trek, so they “will come with weeping and they will pray….” It is not clear whether those will be tears of repentance for the sins that landed them in exile or tears joy over their return. And we are not told whether their prayers will be filled with praise or petitions. What we do know is that returning home with the whole family is always an emotional event. But God promises to get them safely there, leading them “beside streams of water on a level path.”
Those echoes of Psalm 23 introduce us to the central theme of this text, summarized in the dual identity of the God who will bring his children home. Verse 9 says that God will do this “because I am Israel’s father, and [Israel] is my firstborn son.” Verse 10 promises that the God who “scattered Israel… will watch over his flock like a shepherd.” The use of such tender names reminds God’s sinful, scattered children of the special place they still occupy in God’s heart. He may have sent them into exile, but he never stopped loving them.
And now, says verse 11, he will “ransom” and “redeem” them. The future tense of the English translation is what scholars call a “prophetic perfect” in the Hebrew. This future event is not just a possibility; it is a certainty. The word “ransom” has the sense of paying a price to secure the release of prisoners or hostages or kidnap victims. Of course, that term is used in the New Testament to describe the work of Christ (see I Tim. 2:5,6 especially).
The word “redeem” is a legal term well known from the story of Ruth, in which Boaz served as “kinsman redeemer” for Ruth and her mother-in-law. By marrying Ruth, that redeemer protected them, secured their place in society, and established a new family. The connection to Christ is too obvious to merit explanation. In sum, God promises to ransom Israel from bondage and restore its status as the covenant family of God. What a tremendous gift from a loving God!
Not only will the Father and Shepherd change the existential and legal status of his sinful and scattered children, but he will also change the conditions of their daily lives. Here a torrent of gifts comes pouring from God’s gracious hand. The words “bounty” and “abundance” sum it up. Life will be an unending banquet of blessing—“grain, new wine, oil, the young of flock and herd.” Life will be fruitful and satisfying, for “they shall be like a well-watered garden.” The disappointment and sorrow of the past will be no more.
And, as in the secular song, there will be “ladies dancing and lords a leaping.” The overwhelming tone of life will be unbounded joy. “I will turn their mourning into gladness; I will give them comfort and joy instead of sorrow.” God’s ransomed and redeemed children will experience a total reversal of fortune, as God renews his generous provision for a good life. “My people will be filled with bounty, declares the Lord.”
The Twelve Days of Christmas are circled on the liturgical calendar so that God’s children won’t rush away from Christmas, their gifts forgotten and abandoned in the closet of the past. On this Second Sunday of Christmas, let’s haul those gifts back out and remind ourselves how good God has been to us at Christmas. He set us free and brought us into his family. And he has showered us with gifts that change our daily lives.
As was the case with Exiled Israel, life is a mixture of singing God’s praise and begging for his help. His promises are sure and his redemption is an accomplished fact. But we still wait for the complete enjoyment of all his gifts. Christ has come and he is coming again. Because of that, the dominant tone of life should be one of joy, joy, joy.
A more creative person than I might be able to use the secular song to highlight the spiritual gifts of Christmas. Can you find parallels in the text to the ridiculous gifts of that song? I can think of one immediately. The recurring theme in that song is “my true love sent to me.” That’s what happened at Christmas; our “true love,” our Father and Shepherd, sent life changing gifts to us all wrapped up in The Gift.
Hearing the promise of restoration and reversal even before the disaster of the Exile enabled Israel to rejoice even in sorrow. Imagine how today’s victims of hurricanes and wildfires and pandemic would feel if they were absolutely guaranteed complete reversal of their losses even before those losses actually occurred.
Author: Scott Hoezee
Two rather striking features to this psalm leap out at you. First, there is the singularly positive, sunny statements about how God has strengthened Jerusalem, given peace within Israel’s borders, and just generally provides a warm and safe environment for God’s people. The second striking feature is the celebration at the end of Psalm 147 of the laws and ordinances of God and how lucky Israel is to know them because no other nation does. In fact, Israel’s knowing God’s Law is WHY God treats Israel so well.
Why are these two things so striking? First, because the Book of Psalms was probably compiled and edited into its more-or-less final form sometime after the exile into Babylon. In other words, after the time when Jerusalem proved to be not so well fortified after all and when there was zero peace within Israel’s borders. And then second it’s striking also because it was Israel’s singular failure to observe God’s ordinances and statutes and laws that led God to punish them in the first place.
In short, Psalm 147 is celebrating an idealized portrait of God and Israel but as it turns out, this happy picture of security and obedience never really happened. Or at best it happened in fits and starts now and again in Israel’s history but was never a sustained reality for very long. Surely a song like this must have stuck in people’s throats after 587 BC. Even those who returned to Jerusalem years later under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah never came anywhere close to seeing Jerusalem restored to its old glory. And the people of Israel would remain in an occupied state from that time all the way up to the diaspora after Jerusalem’s second destruction in 70 AD.
What do we do with a poem like this given the historical and spiritual realities we know only too well?
This Psalm seems to be a favorite for the Second Sunday after Christmas as it was assigned for the first Sunday in January in the Year A Lectionary too, which last year was January 5, 2020. A year ago, here is what I wrote in this sermon starter:
The just-finished holiday season is receding in life’s rear view mirror and we are all gearing up for a new year, replete with some of those New Year’s resolutions a few folks will have made in recent days. It’s a year in the United States that may be starting out with a political firestorm of impeachment and that—believe it or not—may actually get only worse after that as we hurtle toward what promises to be yet another highly fractious election in November. Buckle up!
Buckle up? Oh, how little we all knew as to what was really going to come our way in 2020!! Buckling up was not going to help and although my political prognostications proved true (that was easy) they did not dominate as much as so much else that ended getting politicized and thus tearing communities and families—including church communities and families—apart. As we enter 2021 hoping it will be better (but by no means assured it will be), the wreckage we see all around us may actually resemble Jerusalem after being sacked by the Babylonians. We cannot see Psalm 147’s portrait of happy serenity—spiritually or otherwise—applied to our own lives just now. Even so, is there a way to view this poem as aspirational? Or can we view it as the reality we as Christians really do now have in Christ if only we have the eyes of faith to see it?
I suspect there is something to this. “In the world you will always have trouble” Jesus said to his disciples on the most troubling night of his own life. “But take heart: I have overcome the world.” In other words, Jesus assured his disciples that no matter what was roaring all around them in society at any given moment, within the citadel of Christ’s love and Easter resurrection power, there would be a chance for spiritual calm, for hope, even for joy.
That ought to provide us with no small measure of comfort no matter what our circumstances. What’s more, Christ revealed himself to be the end of the Law—not the “end” in the sense of its coming to an end but “end” in the sense of Jesus’ being the very purpose and culmination of all that the Law of God had all along been aiming at: the flourishing of God’s people in God’s creation. The Law was the Owner’s Manual for creation and by following it, people had a chance to experience the delight in this world that God intended (even as they—as part of that delightful living—are warned off from doing things that would be spiritually and physically perilous).
It is perhaps no coincidence that throughout Psalm 147—including in the first 11 verses that are technically not part of this lection—it is God’s mighty power in creation that the psalmist points to over and over as proof of God’s love and grandeur as well as his ability to do whatever he promises. Rain, snow, hail, winds, the care of animals: it’s all testament to God’s majesty. And THIS is the God who loves us, who loved Israel enough to give them the gift of the Torah, of the Law that would keep them safe while at the same time helping them to flourish.
It’s all part of one grand package of loving revelation to God’s people. And it has all culminated in Jesus Christ now. This is the Savior, the Lord and King of Creation, in whom we now dwell through baptism. Indeed, the New Testament reveals we have been made “a new creation” already. We lean into and participate already now in all the goodness that is yet to come in God’s kingdom.
Here is something else I wrote for Sunday, January 5, 2020, and as I re-read it last week in preparing this sermon starter, I felt a bit of a chill at how sadly accurate my words would prove to be (though I of course had nary a clue what would actually play out):
Who knows what the year 2020 will hold for whole nations much less for our individual lives or for our families. A new year is always a two-edged sword: on the one hand a new slate of 12 months holds out lots of promise even as there are big events—weddings, graduations, the birth of a child—we anticipate happening sometime in 2020. On the other hand, though, there are lots of possibilities for disappointment, for the unforeseen, for exceedingly tragic events that we may or may not dimly suspect to be possible on New Year’s Day.
At the end of it all, 2020 felt less like a two-edged sword than a single-edged one focused on cancelling all those big events we looked forward to as well as so much more that we lost collectively and individually.
So what can we say as 2021 dawns? All that we can ever say with confidence as believers: In Christ we know we have been built up to be spiritually strong and already in Christ to be also victorious.
There is more than a little hope in all that. Thanks be to God! And may we see more evidence of this among God’s fractious people in 2021 than we did in 2020.
Psalm 147 is an example of many biblical psalms and other passages that celebrate how active God is within his own creation. C.S. Lewis once noted that when it comes to God and creation, we are always fighting on two different fronts to keep things in perspective. On the one hand are those who remove God fully from creation. This is the Deist view—the universe is like a giant clock that God wound up long ago but has ever since God has just let it tick down on its own with little to no divine awareness of what is happening (much less any divine activity within that creation). On the other extreme are the pantheists—and the cousin school of thought of panentheism—that identity God so closely with the creation as to make the creation itself God (or part of God). Neither extreme will do, Lewis observed.
As Psalm 147 shows, God and creation are at once distinct AND YET God is intimately involved in it, taking delight in it, directing the rain and the snow, superintending the care of animals and of all creation. It’s a balancing act. For those who exile God from his own creation, we need to show how much delight God still takes in the cosmos on a rolling basis—God delights in your vegetable garden, for instance. For those who blur the lines between God and creation, we need to put some daylight between the two while at the same time keeping God passionately involved.
Like so much else in theology, orthodoxy tends to lie in the territory of both/and rather than that of either/or!
Author: Doug Bratt
Christians know that God didn’t create us to “eat, drink and be merry because tomorrow we die.” Yet that popular philosophy raises a number of interesting questions. It makes us wonder how God’s people should evaluate the purpose of our lives.
Something in a sermon by the Rev. Fleming Rutledge stimulated my thinking about that issue. In it she said, “American Christians, for the most part, are not thinking theologically. To think theologically means to think from God’s point of view … We are thinking sociologically, politically, psychologically, experientially, nationalistically, spiritually and even religiously, but not theologically.”
Perhaps no biblical passage provides a better antidote to thinking from a human point of view than the text the RCL appoints as its Epistolary Lesson for this Sunday. On this first Sunday of the year of our Lord, 2020, Ephesians 1 helps us to think about the purpose of our lives from God’s point of view.
Ephesians 1 is one of those sweeping biblical passages whose grandeur nearly overwhelms us. But it may have also nearly overwhelmed its author. After all, as a colleague says, Ephesians 1’s words seem to almost burst out of the apostle like the air out of a popped balloon. In fact, our whole text is actually just one long sentence in its original language. So we might picture those who first read it aloud as taking a deep, deep breath and then letting loose with a stream of 13 verses of nearly unbroken glory.
One of this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s proclaimers’ greatest challenges it to help hearers at least begin to glimpse just how sweeping it really is. It, after all, covers immeasurable eons of time, beginning even before creation and ending with the return of Jesus Christ. And in between Paul insists that God planned in the fullness of time “to bring all things in heaven and on earth together” (10).
What’s more, Ephesians 1’s Paul invites a culture that looks at virtually everything from a human perspective to look at things as God looks at them. God is, in fact, the initiator throughout this whole magnificent passage. Eight times God is the subject of a sentence.
“We” or “you” is the subject of only four sentences. And in three of those sentences the people God creates in God’s image are little more than the passive recipients of God’s blessings. What’s more, in the fourth we read about the amazing results of receiving all of this grace.
Paul tells his Ephesian readers that God blessed, chose and predestined those whom God has adopted as God’s sons and daughters. However, he also insists that God has freely given grace to us, has lavished grace on us, has made known to us the mystery of the gospel and has redeemed us.
It’s hard for those who proclaim Ephesians 1 to lead our hearers on a full exploration of the depths of this biblical goldmine. Dr. Martin Lloyd-Jones, one of Britain’s great twentieth century preachers, in fact once preached on it for six months to his undoubtedly fascinated congregation.
Those who, instead, proclaim Ephesians 1 for about, say, 25-40 minutes or so, may want to highlight just a few things about it. This passage is almost all about Jesus Christ. He, after all, is our link to our heavenly Father, the Creator. Christ is both the means and the goal of our salvation. In him all things hold together. Our text reminds us that Christ is what Len Vander Zee calls “the glue that binds the universe.” So it’s no wonder that our text makes both its hearers and proclaimers look so passive.
All that Jesus’ followers need and all that we’ve now received or ever will receive took place “in Christ,” as Paul repeats eight times in this short passage. After all, God chose us “in Christ” before the creation of the world to “be holy and blameless in his sight” (4). Among other things, this means that God somehow linked Christ and us together in God’s mind.
So in the mysterious mists of eternity, God graciously chose to adopt those who didn’t even yet exist as God’s own children through the redeeming work of Jesus Christ. Though God knew that we would be unholy and blameworthy, God chose to make us holy and blameless.
That makes Ephesians 1 a song of grace for the whole world. It sends God’s people out to all spiritually darkened people who need the gospel of God’s redeeming love. Our text, after all, reminds us that God’s people don’t choose whom God saves. What’s more, while we also can’t know whom God has not chosen, we do know that the faithful reception of God’s grace is a sign of that choice.
Those whom God has chosen God also adopts as God’s forgiven sons and daughters. That means that, among other things, God graciously gives us access to God so that we know that God will hear and answer our prayers for our best.
However, because of what Jesus Christ did, God also shapes and molds God’s dearly beloved people to be more and more like our Savior. That work of transformation may be painful. The Holy Spirit, after all, takes a wire brush to scrub away the dead skin of God’s adopted sons and daughters’ sins. But just as scraping away dead skin helps restore burn victims physical health, so the Spirit’s scraping away of our sins helps us become spiritually healthy.
Paul reminds us, however, that God didn’t just choose to make us God’s children whom God transforms to be more and more like Jesus Christ. God also reveals to us some of God’s plans for the future. In sending Jesus Christ into our world, God has revealed a mystery to us.
Paul refers to that mystery as what God has revealed to us in Jesus Christ. By sending Jesus Christ, God shows us how much God loves both God’s whole world and us. Christ’s coming shows that God plans to lovingly unite all things in Jesus Christ.
As Vander Zee notes, Paul insists that because of God’s love and Christ’s victory over sin and death, history is not some path that meanders towards nothingness. People aren’t some chemical accident that wandered out of oblivion and mosey back toward annihilation. The apostle insists that we aren’t alone, unconnected and ultimately left to our own devices.
No, God’s plan is to finally bring all things under the loving rule of Jesus Christ. So our destiny is to finally experience perfect love between God and all of God’s children, as well as the rest of God’s creation. One day, Paul promises, God will unite all of God’s creation in God’s love, unity, peace and completeness so that we can worship the Lord forever in the glory of God’s new creation.
How, then, shall God’s adopted sons and daughters live? We begin by remembering that God chose us, made us God’s children and is moving us toward eternity in God’s glorious presence. In the words of our text, we are God’s “saints,” God’s “sons” (and daughters) and God’s “possession.” In the lovely words of the Heidelberg Catechism, we belong to God in life and in death, and in body and in soul.
As a result, God’s people seek to live to what verses 12 and 14 refer as “the praise of” God’s “glory,” as those whom God chose before we were even born to bring glory to God. The Westminster Catechism’s first question and answer summarizes this beautifully: “What is the chief end of man? To glorify him and enjoy him forever.”
As a colleague notes, the glory of God is the revelation of God. So to glorify God is to serve the Lord by our words and actions as the gracious God that God is. To live to the praise of God’s glory is to orient our lives in such a way that they always honor not us, but the Lord.
However, to live to the praise of God’s glory is also to do all that we can to encourage others to live for God’s glory as well. Quite simply, God’s choice of us to be God’s children propels us to encourage others to recognize that choice in their lives as well.
God has done all the heavy lifting in choosing us, making us to be more and more like Jesus Christ and eventually drawing us into God’s eternal presence. That, however, is no excuse for passivity. Instead it motivates us to bring that good news to the whole world.
A number of years ago Chicago Tribune columnist Mike Royko wrote about a man named Bill Mallory who traveled to India to discover the meaning of life. He didn’t, however, find it.
On his return to the United States a disappointed Mallory saw a sign outside a Chevron gas station that read, “As you travel, ask us.” So each time he entered a Chevron station, he would say to an attendant, “I’m a traveler, and I’d like to ask a question. What is the purpose of life?”
Sometimes Mr. Mallory received answers like, “I’m new here” or “I don’t remember reading anything in the manual about that.” Mostly, however, he just got blank stares. Yet his persistence made Mallory famous among Chevron station employees. Eventually a Chevron district manager called him to suggest he put his question on paper and mail it, with a self-addressed envelope, to corporate headquarters.
Mallory did precisely that. A few weeks later he received a letter back from Chevron’s customer service department. So what was Chevron’s corporate headquarters’ idea of “the purpose of life? Mallory simply received an application for a company credit card.
While Royko’s story may make us smile, a credit card may actually be a good metaphor for the purpose of life for many North Americans. After all, we use credit cards to buy the bigger, better, faster, more beautiful things we so deeply crave. We assume they’ll allow us to pursue the “eat, drink and be merry because tomorrow we die” purpose we naturally treasure.