Lent 4B

March 08, 2021

The Lent 4B Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for John 3:14-21 from the Lectionary Gospel; Numbers 21:4-9 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22 from the Lectionary Psalms; and Ephesians 2:1-10 from the Lectionary Epistle.

Related Reformed confession: Lectionary Gospel: Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 60 (Lord’s Day 23)

  • The Lectionary Gospel +

    John 3:14-21

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • Old Testament Lectionary +

    Numbers 21:4-9

    Author: Stan Mast

  • The Lectionary Psalms +

    Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • Lectionary Epistle

    Ephesians 2:1-10

    Author: Doug Bratt

    Grace is what my colleague Scott Hoezee calls “the dearest piece of good news the church has for the world.” It’s also, however, what he calls, “fiercely difficult to grasp.” After all, grace has always been a source of both deep comfort and frustration, of both joy and even controversy for Christians.

    Jonah, for instance, mourns God’s great grace that rescues wretched but repentant Nineveh. “I knew that if I preached to those awful pagans you’d end up forgiving them!” he bitterly complains to God. “I wanted you to keep your grace at home in Israel where it belongs.”

    Jesus Christ was, of course, the incarnation of God’s grace. That, however, also made him very unpopular among his contemporaries. When good religious Israelites complained that Jesus ate with “sinners,” that left him outside of the click of religious people who know that we climb the sand dune to heaven by our good works.

    The apostle Paul had to fight battles over grace on two fronts. In one theater people tenaciously clung to the idea that actions like being circumcised and keeping kosher were the only ways to reserve a spot in heaven. They essentially saw no place for grace at the table that is the Christian life. Such people couldn’t accept the fact that when it comes to our salvation, we can’t do anything to somehow earn or deserve it.

    In the other theater, however, some people turned grace into a ticket to any kind of lifestyle they chose. They took to heart Heinrich Heine’s sarcastic saying: “I like to sin, God likes to forgive.  Really, the world is admirably arranged.”

    Paul, the former Christian baiter and Jesus-hater understood that being saved has nothing to do with deserving. God saves only by God’s grace. God has done absolutely everything for God’s adopted children’s salvation, from sending Jesus Christ to live and die for us to giving us the gift of faith that receives God’s grace.

    However, the apostle also insisted that those whom God saves, God also expects to then imitate Jesus Christ. Christians aren’t saved by what we do or believe. God expects us, however, to thankfully respond to God’s grace by what we do and believe. So while God doesn’t save us by our good works, God certainly saves us for good works.

    Paul understood this kind of paradox with which we sometimes wrestle. God’s grace doesn’t depend on how moral God’s dearly beloved people are. Yet God’s grace is deeply interested in making us moral, in producing a life of thankful obedience.

    Paul may display this paradox nowhere more vividly than in this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson. He hammers home his insistence that our sin makes people spiritually dead. Dead people are, of course, by definition, unable to do anything for ourselves. In sin, Paul insists throughout this text, Jesus’ friends are spiritually helpless to save ourselves. By nature Ephesians 2’s proclaimers are no more able to save ourselves than our pulpits or laptops can save themselves.

    (While most Sermon Starters include an illustration, this one’s weaves the illustration into the Starter.)

    Such helplessness resonates throughout one of Katherine Paterson’s prize-winning books, The Great Gilly Hopkins. Its main protagonist is an eleven-year old whom countless foster parents have thrown out of their homes.

    Readers increasingly sense, however, that Gilly has engineered most of those evictions. She has done nothing and, in fact, seems to be unable to do anything to earn her caretakers’ acceptance. Gilly has, in fact, basically done everything she can to earn their rejection. To most of the world, especially her beleaguered social worker, Miss Ellis, Gilly is basically a worthless nuisance who is helpless to earn love.

    Gilly’s condition is much like our spiritual condition before God. God’s dearly beloved children are naturally persistent rebels who do little with what God has graced us. In fact, it sometimes seems as though we do everything we can to earn God’s rejection.

    Yet God has graciously scooped up dead rebels like us, lovingly saved us and raised us from spiritual death to life. In other words, as the apostle writes in the seminal verse 8, God has saved God’s adopted sons and daughters “by grace.”

    That’s why Miz Trotter, the loving Christian foster parent who graciously scoops up Gilly Hopkins, reminds me of God. She, after all, takes Gilly in and unconditionally loves her. Of course, as soon as she moves in with Miz Trotter, Gilly quickly begins her try to make her too reject her.

    Yet even then Miz Trotter unabashedly and persistently professes her love for and loyalty to the troubled girl. “Don’t worry, Miz Ellis,” she tells Gilly’s frazzled social worker. “Gilly and William Earnest and me is nearly friends already . . . I never met a kid I couldn’t be friends with.”

    It’s a glorious picture of God’s grace that Paul, in fact, mentions three times in our text, in verses 5, 7 and 8. Ephesians 2’s proclaimers can’t read those verses too often in our presentations: “it is by grace you have been saved.  And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace… For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith.”

    Paul then brings his lyrical language about this grace to what a friend calls “a landing” in verse 9. After all, there it’s almost as if he wags a finger in our face to say, “It’s not about works. You don’t have a leg to stand or a thing to be proud of in terms of your salvation.”

    That’s the heart of the Christian gospel, what John Calvin called the very “hinge of the Reformation.” God has done absolutely everything necessary for our salvation. We can only faithfully receive that greatest of all gifts. Period.

    And yet as Hoezee also notes, perhaps we would be better in saying “semicolon” rather than “period.”  After all, Paul demolishes any notion that we somehow contribute something to our salvation. Yet he’s also equally quick to point out that Christians can contribute to Gods’ glory afterwards. After all, God, the apostle insists, has graciously saved Christians so that we’ll do the good works God long ago prepared for us to do.

    Miz Trotter doesn’t take in Gilly because of the girl’s good works. Once she’s graciously embraced her, however, she won’t let Gilly just do whatever she pleases. Miz Trotter especially refuses to let Gilly launch lethal assaults on her fellow foster child, the vulnerable William Earnest.

    William is a timid little boy who has a learning disability. Almost as soon as her keenly sensitive radar alerts her to his vulnerability, Gilly begins to shoot verbal arrows at him. Miz Trotter, however, reacts very firmly to this abuse. “One thing we better get straight right now tonight,” she tells a defiant Gilly. “I won’t have you making fun of that boy.” Miz Trotter has graciously accepted Gilly so that the girl will do good, not harm.

    Here’s a picture of the classic gospel paradox: God doesn’t save Jesus’ friends by our good works. Yet, in one sense, we’re not saved without them either. After all, while the gracious Jesus could hardly care less about what shape we were in or what we did before he saved us, he does passionately care about the shape of our lives after he saves us. For Christ insists that those who faithfully receive his grace also respond by thankfully doing his Father’s will.

    We see the apostles’ frustration with those who try to barter grace for disobedience especially in his letter to the Galatians. Paul skips his typical nice greeting and immediately sharply criticizes Galatia’s Christians for their sinful behavior. Yet before he finishes his letter, he also pens a whole chapter about the fruit of the Spirit’s work. In other words, the apostle ends his scolding by talking about what it means to obediently respond to God’s grace.

    Paul knew much about the grace that’s so powerful that it can transform Christian-baiters and Christ-haters like him into history’s greatest missionary. Grace is also so powerful that it can, and does, forgive all sin. However, Paul also notes that even then, grace isn’t quite finished. Mighty grace, after all, doesn’t just erase our past; it also opens up a new future for God’s dearly beloved people.

    Grace creates, as Paul writes in verse 10, nothing short of something brand new. The apostle seems to be saying that once grace moves into our hearts, it changes what was something sinful into something holy. So grace doesn’t just wipe away our past’s sinful sliminess. It also begins to produce godly patterns of love, graciousness, kindness and joy. God’s grace gradually makes Jesus’ adopted brothers and sisters, in other words, more and more like Jesus Christ.

    In a similar way, Miz Trotter’s grace slowly transforms Gilly into the “Tolkienesque” queen that her full name, Galadriel, suggests. It gradually brings out self-sacrifice and empathy in Gilly.

    At the end of the book Gilly reluctantly moves in with her biological grandmother. Yet Miz Trotter’s grace has warmed and softened her heart. So like Christians whom God has graciously transformed, Gilly is doing many good works by the end of the book.

    Yet while grace means new creation, tendencies and patterns, it does not mean perfection. So each Christian, with varying degrees of struggle and success, as well as failure and temptation continues to sin. The abiding presence of God’s grace, however, means that God continues to completely and freely forgive us as in the instant when faith first moved into our hearts.

    Does it really matter, then, how Ephesians 2’s proclaimers and hearers live? Well, it doesn’t matter how we lived before we faithfully received God’s grace. Jesus’ followers’ good works had nothing to do with God loving Jesus’ friends in the first place. It does, however, matter to God how we live after we faithfully receive God’s grace.

    That’s why the cross is so important in so many different ways. It reminds Christians that whether we’re contemplating the sins God forgave years ago or the ones God forgave this morning, God’s gracious gift of salvation inspires both humility and gratitude.

    God’s adopted sons and daughters are deeply humbled to remember that we desperately needed someone to pay the ultimate price for our sins.  However, we’re also immensely thankful that Jesus Christ was willing to graciously pay that price on the cross to save us from our sins.