August 13, 2018
The Proper 15B Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for John 6:51-58 from the Lectionary Gospel; 1 Kings 2:10-12, 3:3-14 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 111 from the Lectionary Psalms; and Ephesians 5:15-20 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Lectionary Gospel: Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 79 (Lord’s Day 29)
Author: Scott Hoezee
In her short story “The River,” Flannery O’Connor depicts a child who actually drowns when trying to baptize himself in a river. After this startling story was published, someone asked O’Connor about this grotesque depiction of baptism. O’Connor’s critics thought this story was too extreme. But her goal was to remind her readers of how vividly powerful baptism is, that the Bible really does tell us it involves the death of the old self and the resurrection of a new self in Christ. So when people criticized her for such a startling depiction, O’Connor replied, “In the land of the nearly blind, you need to draw really big caricatures.”
In John 6, and particularly in this snippet of verses from the Year B John 6 marathon, Jesus is also drawing a really big caricature to make his point. As I mentioned in the Sample Sermon on John 6 that I posted on this website a couple of weeks ago, Jesus seems quite determined to magnify the shock value of his words here via the specific vocabulary he used. Up until verse 54 he had used the more ordinary Greek word for “to eat” (phagein) but in verse 54—seemingly in reaction to the questions being raised by the crowd—he toggles over to the lesser used verb of trogein, which appears to have carried with it the connotation of “chewing with your mouth open.” Picture a cow chewing his cud. Picture an elementary school child smacking up a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, her mouth yawning open widely between each smacking chew.
Commentator Raymond Brown says that across the centuries, a few commentators have disputed the idea that there was anything particularly distinctive about trogein over against the more common phagein. But Brown and others are convinced that this is very intentional on John’s part, magnifying the vividness of the real “feeding” that takes place in the Eucharistic meal (and that Jesus/John so clearly intends here). If you chew with your mouth open, there is no doubting the food that is in your mouth. You cannot pretend to be chewing something if people can see into your mouth. That kind of eating shows you the real deal, the actual substance of what’s in a person’s mouth.
So in one sense Jesus may have been purposely exaggerating the “Yuck!” factor here. He has already knocked people off kilter by suggesting something that sounds vaguely cannibalistic and now seems intent on making that already gross-sounding scenario more intensely repugnant. Jesus is not bandying around empty words or rhetoric.
No, what Jesus is talking about really is a matter of life or death. To have any Life worth talking about, you really do need to enter into the Life of the Father through the Son. What Jesus is offering here is nothing short of an access to the Life of the Triune God. Think of that! Jesus is saying that union with him (signified by Eucharistic participation in Christ) allows us to enter into the rhythms of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, into the Life that existed before anything like the Creation existed and that even now is the bright center to everything in the universe.
Most weeks when we come to church and when we take to ourselves the bread and the wine of the Holy Supper, our thoughts are far too small. We cannot exaggerate what we’re getting through that meal. Mostly our imaginations are simply not big enough, our expectations are pedestrian and trivial. What Jesus is offering us is a slice of Life Eternal, of the very Life force that pulses as the heartbeat to everything that exists, that ever existed, or that ever will exist.
In his commentary on John, Frederick Dale Bruner points out that Jesus does not want to entertain us with interesting ideas or thoughts. He wants to touch us, to become part of the whole human person because making us into whole new human beings is precisely what Jesus is all about. This in turn led Bruner to remember the John Denver love song in which Denver croons about having his senses filled up, giving his life to his lover, drowning in laughter and being consumed with love (this is “Annie’s Song” and you can view it here: Annie’s Song ). Something of that total filling-up and getting engulfed by something (or Someone in this case) is just what Jesus means.
That’s why he didn’t cash out his own rhetoric here by smirking a bit before finally saying, “OK, OK, folks, I know you are scandalized by what I seem to be saying here. I know you’re thinking I am talking about a big backyard barbeque at which people will be gnawing not on chicken wings and pork ribs but my own arms and these here ribs under my tunic. But listen here: I am talking SYMBOLICALLY! Haven’t y’all ever heard of a metaphor? What I want you to envision here are little wafers of bread and little cups of wine that will stand for my flesh and blood. So calm down. I’m not talking about anything REAL here!”
No, that wouldn’t have helped. Not really. In truth, the last thing we’d want Jesus to do is scale all this back so as to make it neat and tidy and acceptable. We do a pretty good job of that on our own as it is (as mentioned above, just witness the average communion service today, which has about all the wonder of making out a grocery list some weeks). What we need is to be stretched, to be pushed out of our comfort zone, to be shaken out of our complacency so as to see again the radical nature of faith and of the union with Christ it makes possible by the grace of God.
I wonder if there is a lesson here for us preachers. It seems that we are forever doing exactly what we should be glad Jesus did not do here; namely, we domesticate the gospel, we make what is hard apparently simple, we reduce the grace of God to a little helper added to our own efforts. In the legal realm, a cardinal rule for lawyers in a courtroom is “Never ask a question to which you don’t already know the answer.” I myself do not think that is a very good idea for preachers. In the mysteries of faith, I believe we do now and then need to ask questions to which we don’t know the answer because there are some things we need to leave in the hands of our sovereign God.
Or as Fred Craddock noted in one of his last sermons some years ago before becoming ill with Parkinson’s Disease, too many sermons give the distinct impression that the preacher had walked all the way around God and had taken pictures. Too many sermons are neatly folded, all the ends tucked in, no mystery, no grandeur. And hence such sermons leave no one scratching their head or with mouth agape over the awesome nature of God’s glory.
Those of us who preach maybe need to pay more attention to the Savior whom we proclaim and take a cue—at least now and then—from his own willingness to radicalize the gospel in words chockfull of the mind-boggling things of God.
When John reports that Jesus’ offer of his flesh to eat provokes the Jews to “argue sharply among themselves,” Raymond Brown suggests that the Greek “suggests a violent dispute.” This, then, is no gentle disagreement. We almost get the sense that the Jews are ready to physically attack Jesus for making this shocking claim. Might this be another hint of Jesus’ coming passion?
I believe it’s the most amazing piece of cinema I’ve ever seen, and my friend, Roy Anker, who is an expert on cinema, agrees. It is the final scene of Robert Benton’s lyric film Places in the Heart.
Set in the 1930s, the movie portrays Edna Spalding, who is suddenly widowed in the film’s opening scene when a drunk young black boy named Wylie accidentally shoots Edna’s husband (the town sheriff) to death. Wylie is quickly lynched by the white townsfolk even as Edna is left with a load of debt thick enough to choke a horse and two very young children to raise. Eventually Edna meets Moze, a black migrant farmer who knows how to raise cotton and is hired by Edna to make enough money to save herself from foreclosure at the hands of the local (but very heartless) bank. And it works. Edna does make enough money to save her farm. But the white townsfolk are not happy that Moze is around and so, dressed up in their Ku Klux Klan outfits, they come to the farm one night, beat Moze up, and force him to flee.
As Edna watches Moze leave—and as the question of whether she could be successful again next year without Moze’s help hovers in the air—it looks like the movie is over. But then there is one last scene, in church. It’s Sunday morning. The pastor delivers a sermon on I Corinthians 13 and then they serve communion.
And that’s where the film becomes surreal and deeply, deeply theological. First you notice that the church—that had been at best half full in earlier shots of the congregation—is now quite full. But then, to the startlement of us viewers, suddenly we see the bread and wine being taken by a woman who had died in a tornado earlier in the film. The town prostitute is there, too, sitting next to the banker who had been so unfeeling in the face of Edna’s fear of foreclosure. Then we see members of the KKK taking the Lord’s Supper and, what’s more, they pass the trays of bread and wine to no less than the black man, Moze, who is suddenly sitting there in church with Edna and her family. Finally, Edna takes the bread and wine and passes it to . . . her husband who is suddenly sitting next to her again and, next to him, Wylie, the young black boy who had killed him and been killed himself as a result. As the sheriff and Wylie eat the bread and drink the wine, they look at each other and say, “The peace of God.”
It’s a mystical and mysterious but moving glimpse of the “eternal life” of which Jesus speaks in our text. When these people share in the Lord’s Supper, they begin to experience something of the eternal life Jesus promises to those who somehow eat his flesh and drink his blood. And yes, the film seems to be saying, this sacrament really just IS this amazing, every time, if only we have the spiritual eyes to see it.
Watch this arresting scene here: Places in the Heart clip
1 Kings 2:10-12, 3:3-14
Author: Stan Mast
In preaching on this story or any part of the narrative literature of the Old Testament, it is absolutely crucial to remember what we are dealing with here. This is not modern historiography, in which economic, political, or military factors play the major role in explaining the course of human events, although, of course, plenty of attention is paid to those factors. This is not classic biography, in which the focus is on the character and achievements of the major players, although, of course, the Bible gives us some rich characters in its stories. These stories are not Aesop’s fables, fairy tales designed to teach us some helpful morals about how to act, although there are plenty of moral lessons that can be drawn from these stories.
Rather, this is theological history, a form of preaching, in which the ways of God with his people are the main focus. In I Kings, as with the rest of this genre of biblical literature, it is the covenant that determines a king’s success, whether he and his people loved the Lord their God, kept his commandments, and trusted his promises, that is, whether they were faithful covenant partners.
I and II Kings, in particular, were written to the Exiles in Babylon to explain to them how they ended up in their sorry state. How could this happen to God’s chosen people? Well, it’s a long and complicated story, but it is primarily the story of covenant breakers who experienced the very chastening God had promised from the beginning of their covenant relationship.
To put this in modern terms, the biblical story is the counter story to the narrative that dominates the media of our day. Perhaps it is better to say that the stories we read in I Kings and elsewhere in the narrative of the OT are “the rest of the story” (as Paul Harvey used to say), or the deeper story. That is not to say that what we see and hear on TV or the Internet is fake news, though some of it undoubtedly is. It is to say that the news that determines so much of our belief and our behavior simply isn’t the Good News that the Bible aims tell, the story of God’s loving intervention in the human tragedy by sending his own Son to save the world. Now, that Good News may seem a long way from our reading in I Kings today, but it really isn’t. Let me encourage you to find that Good News and preach it.
Our lesson for today begins with I Kings 2:10-12, but there is much more to the story than that little vignette. After reigning for 40 years, David dies and his son Solomon takes the throne which is allegedly secure. However, in the verses before this succession story, we have David giving his son a strong charge in verses 1-9. As a faithful covenant-keeping king, David summarizes the theme of the story of Israel in a few verses: obey God, walk in his ways, and God will keep his promises to you and you will prosper. But then like a typical Middle Eastern sovereign, David charges Solomon with settling accounts with Joab and Shimei, scoundrels in the story, and with Barzillai, a supporter of David.
In the verses following the succession account (2:10-12), and just before the rest of our reading, Solomon does what his father has asked. He clears the field of all potential rivals (most notably his half-brother, Adonijah) and anyone who had been a thorn in David’s side (Joab and Shimei). At last, says the story, “The Kingdom was now firmly established in Solomon’s hand (I Kings 2:46).” But Solomon wasn’t quite done with taking care of business. To further consolidate his Kingdom, he contracted a political marriage with the daughter of the Pharaoh of Egypt and he worshiped God profusely on the high places of Gibeon (3:1,2).
Now it is time for our lovely prayer story (3:3-14). But before we go there, note what kind of man Solomon was– a man standing in the need of prayer. While he was an obedient son and a lover of God who already had shown some wisdom (his father called him “wise” in 2:6 and 9), he was more shrewd than wise and he was as ruthless and hard as his father. Even worse, he blatantly and frequently married foreign women, even though his covenant Lord had strictly forbidden such marriages as his people entered the Land. And worst of all, he worshipped on the high places of Gibeon. Yes, the tabernacle was there, but these high places where formerly places of pagan worship. God had explicitly forbidden worship on those places, because such worship opened his people to the temptation of syncretism. Those marriages and that worship would prove to be the undoing of Solomon’s secure Kingdom.
Thus, he was, indeed, a man standing in the need of prayer. And what a pray-er he was. His prayer in verses 6-9 is such a perfect prayer that many preachers have treated this story as “a classic lesson in prayer.” Even though God invites him to pray a simple prayer of petition (“ask),” Solomon begins his prayer with praise and thanksgiving for the kindness (covenant love) God has shown (verse 6). Then, he shows great humility by correctly assessing his own disabilities (verse 7 and 8). Finally, he demonstrates that he knows the difference between selfish wants and God honoring needs (verse 9). Instead of asking for things that would make his own life more comfortable and glorious, he asks for the one thing that will bless the people and honor God. What a prayer! You could preach a whole sermon on the shape of that prayer.
And you could spend fruitful homiletical time on the subject of wisdom. It is, indeed, what we need to navigate the complexities of life. It is more than intelligence, more than an encyclopedic grasp of multiple facts, more, even, than a practical understanding of how life should be lived. Wisdom has a relational component; the heart of it is the fear of the Lord (Proverbs 1:7, et al). It has an ethical component; Solomon prays for the ability to discern between right and wrong. And it has an emotional component, the ability to govern one’s emotions and desires. With wisdom, we might live in relational harmony, ethical correctness, and emotional control. What a gift that would be! Who shouldn’t pray for that?
No wonder God was pleased with Solomon. He gave him his heart’s desire and much more—a wisdom so deep that Solomon would become famous for it, and (surprise!) the riches and honor that Solomon hadn’t asked for. Scholars point out that the wisdom from God was precisely what gained that wealth and honor for Solomon. Then God added one more blessing in response to Solomon’s wise prayer for wisdom—long life. Except that God added one condition to that blessing. In that condition, we hear that theme of covenant faithfulness again. And we hear rumblings of a coming trouble. “If you walk in my ways and obey my statutes and commands as your father David did, I will give you a long life.” Well, Solomon only lived about 60 years, precisely because he didn’t walk in God ways and obey his commands. Think of those foreign wives and the syncretistic religions they introduced into Solomon’s life.
Again, it was the keeping or breaking of the covenant that determined Solomon’s success or failure. So, your sermon on this text should not be first of all on the perfection of Solomon’s prayer or the necessity of wisdom, though a thorough exposition of the text cannot ignore those things. Rather, your sermon should be about the grace of God to his covenant partners. In the same way that God had chosen and elevated David, God elevated and equipped Solomon. Note how God is the initiator in this story. Even though Solomon came to God as a sinner (the marriage and the worship are both well -intentioned but wrong), God in his grace overlooked that sin and came to Solomon with both a gracious offer and an even more gracious blessing. “Ask for whatever you want from me.” “I will do what you have asked” and more. And that more includes long life, if….
In other words, living as a faithful covenant partner, as a fully devoted follower of Jesus Christ, demands more than wisdom, because we are all deeply flawed people. The New Testament commands us to ask for wisdom and promises that we’ll get it (James 1:5). But even the wisdom of Solomon, though vast, was limited in its ability to save him from his sins. Only Jesus can do that. In Jesus “are hidden all the treasures of wisdom” (Colossians 2:3). It takes more than wisdom to live a life pleasing to God; it takes Jesus. Here’s the Gospel response to this Old Testament story. “It is because of him (God in his electing love) that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption (I Corinthians 1:30).”
Yes, we need wisdom. Our leaders need wisdom. So, we should pray for wisdom for ourselves and for them. But God has a greater gift than wisdom for a fallen race. He gives Jesus and invites us to ask that he will be our Savior and Lord. With him, we get wisdom and honor and wealth of a spiritual kind and long life that never ends.
Most children will have seen Disney’s version of “Aladdin and His Magic Lamp,” so retelling that fictional tale might be a way to capture their attention as you preach on this historical story in I Kings. The differences will be instructive. The Aladdin story was part of the Arabian Nights anthology, the Solomon story is part of sacred Scripture. The Aladdin character gets three wishes, while Solomon is invited to pray for one thing. Aladdin asks for things that will benefit him alone, while Solomon asks for the one thing that will benefit the Kingdom of God. Most importantly, the powerful figure in the Aladdin story is a genie, a sort of spirit/demon/angel figure, while the central power in Solomon’s story is Yahweh, the creator of heaven and earth and the redeemer of fallen humanity.
Author: Scott Hoezee
We almost certainly do not study the works of the Lord enough. Psalm 111 is not one of the better known poems in the Hebrew Psalter but it packs a powerful punch of praise and adoration. Just generally it is a meditation on God’s works in both creation and redemption. It celebrates the mighty things God has done, including for his covenant people of Israel. The psalm begins with a vow to praise and then in verse 2 immediately goes on to celebrate the works of God, works that in the parallel line are said to be a source of great delight to those who “study” those works. Then the psalm ends with a line we read in also several other places in the Bible: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”
In my mind that makes Psalm 111 at least in part something of a wisdom psalm as well as a psalm of praise and adoration. Wisdom is, after all, a knack for studying God’s world closely to observe what does and does not work and then the wise person—having observed such things—fits him- or herself into that world accordingly. The wise one sees what happens when you spit into the wind or saw off the branch you are sitting on and then modifies his behavior accordingly to avoid engaging in those foolish activities. The wise observe that sometimes when encountering a foolish person it is a good idea to rebuke that person whereas at other times it is best to walk away quietly. It takes close observation and keen discernment to know which situation is which but the wise are always on the lookout for such things and then behave accordingly. (This is why in the Book of Proverbs it is pretty easy to collect contradictory verses. Of course, they are not really contradictory but the fact is that it takes wisdom to apply wisdom and so you need a lot of different proverbs to cover a whole panoply of differing scenarios that we all encounter in life. Ask Proverbs if you should rebuke a fool or leave him be and the answer comes back “Depends.”)
I once heard the German theologian Juergen Moltmann say that in a sense wisdom is the art of what he called “Geistesgegenwart,” which is one of those really long German words that has no single English translation. But Geistesgegenwart basically means having your spirit present in the moment. It is what Sallie McFague has called “attention epistemology” or the knowledge you can gain about God’s world just by studying it carefully, paying attention, seeing what is going on around you.
In that sense Psalm 111:2 about how God’s works delight those who study them ties in with the last verse about wisdom: our delight increases when we pay attention, take a look, delve deeper into the created wonders that surround us every day. And it is just here in the modern world where probably a lot of us fall short. We are too busy to pay attention to bees and anthills and swaying willow trees or fluttering butterflies. We rush about from place to place and in the last quarter century or so increasingly have our eyes fixated not on the works of the Lord but on screens and other human-made distractions.
But Psalm 111 indicates that maybe our praise of God would increase—and our sense for delight would expand—if we took the time to study the works of the Lord as that is part of the fear of the Lord that leads to wisdom. Paying attention, studying what God has done very simply expands your list of reasons to sing God’s praises along with the psalmist. If we get to church on any given Sunday and discover we are having a hard time finding specific things for which to give God the praise, it may be because we did not take the time to study the works of the Lord in the days gone by.
Small wonder that I recently heard someone observe that if it is a sense of wonder, awe, and delight you are looking for, don’t go to a church. Go to a scientific lab or conference. If you want to find people fairly gob smacked by what they are encountering and studying in the natural world—which we Christians would call God’s Creation—then listen to biologists and geologists and astronomers who very often cannot believe what incredible things they get to look at and uncover. Many of those people are not even Christians and yet they often do a better job at studying what we Christians regard as the works of the Lord than those who believe in and want to praise that God regularly.
Of course, in a sense Psalm 111 is not really a call to pay better attention to God’s works so much as it is a reflection of those who do such things naturally. The psalmist seems to assume some cozy, natural connection between following the God of Israel and having intense interest in studying his works and pursuing the wisdom that comes from paying attention to life in God’s good world. But that, too, may stand in uncomfortable contradiction from how too many of us who have faith actually behave.
A lot of the psalms are recitals of the works of God. Many of these poems are like primers to remind us of the history of salvation, the works of creation, God’s many acts of covenant faithfulness. The psalms rehearse all these things again and again as a reminder that all of us believers are supposed to do the same thing on a regular basis. Worship itself is supposed to be on one level a recapitulation of God’s grand works of creation and redemption, a litany designed to jog our memories as to why we have come together in the assembly of God’s people to praise God in the first place.
We need more often to be reminded than instructed, Samuel Johnson is said to have observed. If so, then Psalm 111 is a grand reminder to get busy studying the works of the Lord and in this way discovering true wisdom and also increased motivation to sing to God with our whole hearts for all that he has done!
Full-time scientists may have the luxury of having a vocation that actually gets devoted to studying the natural world. Most of us do not have that opportunity so readily. But there are times and seasons when we can soak up ocean vistas, mountains, meadows, streams, and other wonders. And when we do—perhaps on vacation or on weekends—we can do our best to study the works of the Lord. Oh, we may not be professional scientists or anything—we may feel like we are at best amateurs. But as Tom Long once pointed out, that’s OK because “amateur” really means in one sense being a lover of something.
The first and great commandment tells us to love the Lord our God with everything we’ve got. We are called to be lovers of God. But when you love someone, you love what that person loves, you are invested in what brings your lover joy. If your spouse is an artist, then you as a lover take a keen interest in your spouse’s artwork, gladly go with that person to art museums and then listen carefully to how your spouse describes the works of art you encounter there. Good lovers take an interest in each other’s work and so listen attentively at the end of any given workday when the events of that day at the office or wherever are described.
We are all called to be amateur students of God’s creation, studying the works of the Lord because the Bible tells us that God himself takes delight in those things. Why would any of us who claim to love the Lord above all take anything other than also a keen delight in all the works of the Lord? And when we do, as Psalm 111 reminds us, we find an ever-expanding list of reasons to praise the Lord our God!
Author: Doug Bratt
Intelligence doesn’t necessarily equal wisdom. In fact, some of us can identify people who rank among the highest on the intelligence quotient (IQ) scale but rank among the lowest on the “wisdom quotient” scale. Perhaps that’s why our text’s Paul feels the need not to tell his readers to be “intelligent” or “smart,” but to be “wise” (15).
Ephesians 5:15-20 is part of Paul’s teachings about the cross-shaped life. While those instructions begin in Ephesians 4:1, the apostle introduces them with 3:20-21’s doxology: “To him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work in us, to him be the glory in the church and in Jesus Christ throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.” This suggests that to live “a life worthy of the calling” (4:1) and “wisely” (5:15) is part of what brings God the glory that God deserves for God’s redeeming work in Jesus Christ (Ephesians 1-3).
New Testament scholar Susan Hylen (Working Preacher, August 16, 2009) notes that a review of Ephesians’ use of the word “live” (or literally “walk”), paripateo, unveils some of its central themes. In Ephesians 5:15-20 Paul invites his readers to live wisely. In doing so, he links it to the wisdom literature of the Old Testament, especially to the books of Psalms, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. In doing so, the apostle links our text to biblical instruction concerning life that’s consistent with our identity as those whom God creates in God’s image.
So we might compare Ephesians 5:15-20 to an owner’s manual. I might choose to run my car, for example, as I choose rather than in ways that are consistent with what its owners manual dictates. I might, for example, choose to exercise my freedom by refusing to put gasoline in my car’s tank or regularly slamming on its brakes.
I might, after all, think I know what’s best for my car. But, of course, I don’t naturally know what’s best for it. Its manufacturer does. She knows that if I don’t put in enough gasoline, the car will stop running, perhaps permanently. My manufacturer knows that if I don’t take good care of my breaks, they’ll wear out if not catastrophically fail.
In a similar way, I might assume that I know what’s best for me and so choose to exercise my freedom by frittering away the opportunities I have (15). I might choose to be foolish (17). I might choose to get drunk on wine (18). I might choose to stay silent when I should be speaking the Scriptures and making music to God (19). I might even choose to only sporadically give thanks to God (20).
But then, suggests Paul, I’d be acting unwisely. I’d be acting in ways that contradict what my Creator made me for. I don’t, after all, naturally know what’s best for me. Only God knows how I can live in ways that are consistent with both the way God created me and the purposes for which God created me.
Those who preach and teach Ephesians 5:15-20 might choose to deal with all three of the contrasting ways of living Paul offers in it. If so, they should also address the life to which Paul calls us for which he offers no contrast (speaking to each other biblically, making music to God and always giving thanks to the Lord). The theme of wise living would make a good organizing heading for it.
Those who preach and teach the text the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday might also choose to focus on just one of its verses. If so, wise teachers and preachers will want to deliberately anchor their teachings in the theme of wise living that’s grounded in the redeeming work of God in Jesus Christ. Otherwise our presentation will easily devolve into little more than yet another moral lesson that’s little different than that which any number of self-help gurus offer hearers.
Among the verses that especially intrigue me (as well as those to whom I preach each Sunday) is verse 20-21’s call to “Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus.”
Since this is part of what Paul calls “wise” living, it suggests that thanksgiving for everything is part of both what brings glory to God and of that for which God created us. God’s image-bearers reflect God when we give thanks for everything. The apostle at least seems to be suggesting that to refuse to give thanks for everything is to do not what’s best for us. That makes verse 20 potentially fertile soil for Ephesians 5:15-20’s preachers and teachers to “till.”
Yet since it doesn’t follow verses 15-18’s “not this … but …” pattern, wise preachers and teachers may want to set up their own contrast. They may want to note that Paul at least implies that his readers should not to be unthankful or take God’s good gifts for granted. Those who proclaim Ephesians 5:15-20 will want to come up with examples of what’s opposite of always giving thanks to God for everything. Preachers and teachers may also want to spend time exploring what saps our thanksgiving to God.
We also want to note how, as my colleague Stan Mast notes, it’s not surprising to hear the apostle tell us that a Spirit-filled life overflows with gratitude. What is surprising, as Mast goes on to write, is the level and extent of the gratitude to which Paul summons those whom the Spirit has filled.
We could, after all, easily understand why the apostle would invite us to thank God for good things. Even if we don’t always practice it, God’s adopted sons and daughters at least know that we should thank God for every good gift. We know we ought to thank God for God’s blessings that range in size from God’s redemption of the whole world to the breakfasts those who hear us enjoyed. Ephesians 5:15-20’s preachers and teachers will want to spend the right amount of time talking about those good gifts.
Yet Paul doesn’t just summon Jesus’ followers to always thank God for every “good gift.” No, he invites us to “always give thanks to God the Father for everything.” It won’t take preachers and teachers long to come up with a list of things for which it seems downright unchristian to give thanks to God.
In his July 1, 1997 article in the Christian Century Ronald Goetz wrote, “There are many specific things in life for which we simply cannot give thanks, concrete events before which all of the humanity within us recoils and for which we could never forgive ourselves if we did give thanks.” These are big and bold words that seem to defy Paul’s admonition to always give thanks to God for everything. Yet those who preach and teach Ephesians 5:15-20 will recognize that its sentiments lie deep in the hearts of not just those who hear us, but also in our own hearts whom the Spirit has graciously softened to the misery around and sometimes in us.
Those who are looking for a neat way to package and tie a bow around their lesson and message may want to tiptoe past verse 20. On the other hand, those who are willing to both wrestle with the Scriptures and help our hearers wrestle with them will be willing to walk carefully in and through verse 20.
Mast writes, “We can only [always give thanks to God for everything] when we are wise enough to understand what the Lord’s will is (verse 17), when we believe that the Lord is our Father and intends good, even in the bad, when we believe all that because of ‘our Lord Jesus Christ’.”
Even the wisest and godliest preachers and teachers struggle to give thanks to God for horrors like the abuse of a child, plight of refugees, dementia and climate change. Yet we can only even just begin to do so as we let the Spirit not only fill us, but also help us to honestly and compassionately wrestle with how to do that. We’ll also only be able to at least begin to give thanks to God for everything, even if just in fits and starts, when we remember that our Savior Jesus is also the world’s Christ and its Lord.
In her June 13, 2017 Greater Good Magazine article entitled, “Can Gratitude Make Our Society More Trusting,” Elizabeth Hopper writes, ‘Research suggests that Americans have become less trusting over the past few decades. That’s a problem . . . So how can we reverse this trend?
‘A new study suggests one potential way: by increasing feelings of gratitude. In the study, published recently in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, researchers found that people who had consciously counted their blessings for just a week were more likely to trust others.
‘The researchers asked half of the participants to complete a gratitude journal: Every three days, they listed up to five things for which they felt grateful; the other half of the participants simply wrote about what they had done over the past several days . . .
‘Several days after completing their journals, the study participants played a short online “trust game” in the research lab. They were told that they would be exchanging money with another participant (although, in actuality, the game was played with a computer and there was no other participant). Participants were given a small amount of money and could choose to give some of this money to that other (fictional) participant. They were told that any money they gave away would be tripled (e.g., if a participant gave away $1, the other participant would receive $3), and the second player could choose whether to send any of this windfall back.
‘Participants who were more trusting of others would presumably give more money to the second person: They would expect that they would get their money back and that both participants would profit. However, less trusting participants would presumably avoid any risk by keeping the original money for themselves.
‘The researchers found that, compared with the participants who had simply written about their days, participants who had completed the gratitude journaling were more trusting. The former group sent about half of their money (on average) to their partner in the game, while the gratitude group sent almost 70 percent of their money. Participants in the gratitude group also reported feeling more grateful to their partner for sending money back to them.’