November 16, 2020
The Proper 29A Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for Matthew 25:31-46 from the Lectionary Gospel; Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 95:1-7a from the Lectionary Psalms; and Ephesians 1:15-23 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Lectionary Epistle: Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 50 (Lord’s Day 19)
Author: Scott Hoezee
Why don’t we pay more attention to life as we live it? Why do we miss so much? In Matthew 25 both groups, sheep and goats alike, say they didn’t realize that the poor of the world represented Jesus.
Both missed that connection.
Ever noticed that before? The righteous are not commended for spying Jesus in the poor, the hungry, the prisoners. They didn’t. They just treated all such folks with love.
But if so, then suppose that those who had failed to do ministry were to ask the King a counter-question. First they ask, “When did we brush you aside, Lord?” and the Lord replies, “You did it every time you brushed them aside.” But suppose these folks countered by asking, “Well, how were we supposed to know that? If we had known it had been you all along, Lord, why by jiggers we would’ve acted differently!”
Couldn’t the wicked say something like, “Well, dear Lord, why didn’t you tell us it was you all along? We would have done things different if we had known.” What might the Lord’s response to that be? (Sometimes you hear this from people who went to high school or college with someone who went on to become President of the United States—“If I had known that was going to happen, I would’ve been his friend!!”)
“If we had known it was you, Lord . . .” the goats want to say. “Why didn’t you just say something!? What was up with all those coy disguises??!!”
If they asked that, maybe the reply would be along the lines of this: “You didn’t have to know it was me all along–the righteous didn’t either. It should have been enough to realize no more than that this other person was a human being created in the very image of God! If you had known no more than that (and you did!), that would have been enough. You didn’t need to know it was me. Had you simply acknowledged their humanity, their God-likeness, you would have been led to do the right thing.”
Just here is perhaps as much our challenge as anyone else’s in this world. Can we see the true humanity, the image of God, in the needy people of this world? Do we take care to remind ourselves of that fundamental, basic identity of the poor and the marginalized? It seems that too often we are content to talk in generalities–in broad strokes that conveniently lets human specificity fall away.
We lump problems and people together: the homeless, the welfare class, welfare queens, the Third World, the mentally ill, the unemployed, illegal immigrants. There is scarcely a human face to be seen in any of those broad categories. (Or worse, there is at best the caricature of a face to stand in for the whole group. It’s like punching up “the poor” on Google Images—you’ll see lots of typical pictures of the category but no one whose name you’ll ever know, whose story you’ll ever hear.)
We summarily size up, categorize, characterize, and sometimes dismiss literally millions of people via a blanket label. We reduce all the homeless or all the unemployed to one basic sub-heading. We assume every person in a given category is more-or-less the same. But can we put a name or a face with anyone who actually lives in one of those segments of life? Or are we content with acknowledging no more than that this or that problem area of life exists? And if so, might it be the case for me and for many of us that we sooner or later start to forget that the people who are homeless really are people, God’s very image among us?
Someone once suggested that it would be a good spiritual discipline for all of us to go to a place like O’Hare Airport in Chicago or Hartsfield Airport in Atlanta (two of the busiest airports in the world), sit down somewhere, and just watch the people go by. You maybe know up front what you’ll see: you’ll spy the harried mom with three little kids under the age of 6. Two of the kids are hollering or begging to stop at the McDonalds even as the mom is snapping in anger and maybe even being a bit profane. You’ll spy the rather obese person who lumbers along the concourse short-of-breath. You’ll see the more well-to-do person waiting in a gate area, impeccably dressed and reading something off his iPhone X (or XI or XII or whatever the latest version is). You’ll see a little bit of everything eventually. But in your heart, it would be a good discipline to say of each person, “Jesus died for you.”
Jesus died for him, for her, for that skinny one, for that chunky one; for that stressed-out mom and for that arrogant-looking teenager because each one of them, somewhere under all that exterior stuff, is made in the likeness of Almighty God himself. We dare not reduce them to statistics alone.
The writer Jonathan Kozol, who has devoted much of his career to studying children in places like the South Bronx, says that he is now embarrassed to remember some of the ways by which he himself once talked. Kozol says that he used to march up to Capitol Hill in Washington to advocate for more money for good programs like Headstart. And when he did, he’d say things like, “Every dollar you invest in Headstart today will save the country $6 later in lower prison costs.” But now, Kozol confesses, he’s ashamed he put it that way: all dollars and cents and bottom lines. Now he says, “Why not invest in them just because they’re babies and they deserve to have some joy in life before they die!?”
We Christians can do better than that: they’re God’s kids, chips off the divine block as surely as any one of us. Kozol also notes that he has run across people on the East Coast who spend upwards of $30,000 per child each year to send the child to an upscale private school. After giving speeches in which he has advocated for our pouring more resources into poor areas of this nation, Kozol has been asked by some of these people if he really thinks spending more money will solve the education problems of the poor. His reply is, “Well, it seems to do the trick for your children, doesn’t it?”
Jesus is not suggesting that we innovate excessively creative programs, that we do the social equivalent of a circus high-wire act or that we perform miracles. He simply asks us to see God (and by extension, Jesus) in the people around us. And so perhaps it would be a useful exercise for us to try, as often as we can, to say an actual person’s name whenever we are dealing with broad categories of social problems (as inevitably we will do).
If we take Matthew 25 seriously and more-or-less at face value, then we cannot help but be reminded of the famous line from St. Francis of Assisi: “Preach the gospel at all times and, if necessary, use words.” We know that we are saved by grace, and not by what we do. The Jesus who speaks in Matthew 25 knows that, of course. It is his gospel, after all! But he seems to know also that the faith and the salvation that come from divine grace create new perspectives. Grace opens eyes to see things that we maybe would miss otherwise. Grace begins, already now, to give us a preview of the end of all things.
Grace lets us know that if one day we ask the question, “Lord, when did we see you?” Jesus’ answer will quite probably be, “When not?”
There has been some debate among scholars as to how to interpret Jesus’ reference in Matthew 25 to “the least of these brothers of mine” (vs. 40). The classic interpretation claims that “the least of these” refers to the poor and needy of the world, thus making this a good text for World Hunger Sunday or other services in which a focus on diaconal-like work is front and center.
But some scholars now wonder if the reference to “my brothers” may refer to the disciples (soon to turn into apostles) themselves. Maybe what Jesus is talking about is how the wider (Gentile) world received the disciples when they went forth to proclaim the gospel. If this is the correct reading, then it becomes clear that the ultimate fate of the wider world is determined not in terms of how they treated the generic poor and needy in their midst but more specifically how they received and treated the heralds of the gospel.
Although respected scholars hold to this viewpoint, it seems more likely that the traditional interpretation that relates “the least of these” to anyone who is needy or poor may be the better way to go with this passage (because otherwise it has very little ongoing application once the last of the apostles had died). Since the sheep are themselves praised for their kind treatment of the hungry, thirsty, naked, and imprisoned, it seems unlikely that those sheep would at the same time BE the hungry, thirsty, etc. Still, this debate is a good reminder that sometimes our approach to very familiar passages such as this one needs always to be scrutinized. Perhaps there are even ways to glean some possible implications from even the alternative viewpoint sketched above. Maybe we could by extension say that how we treat fellow Christians is also to be a hallmark of our discipleship.
Since the start of the holiday season is now just around the corner, it is likely that at least a few of us will soon watch some or all of the classic holiday movie It’s a Wonderful Life. In the story, a man named George Bailey despairs that his life is so worthless that it would have been better had he never been born at all. In order to prove him wrong, Clarence the guardian angel lets George experience what the world would have been like had the man George Bailey never existed. As most of us know, George discovers that his seemingly humdrum life affected far more people than he could have guessed. A myriad of little, and not-so-little, things that George had done over the course of his lifetime combined to make his hometown of Bedford Falls a better place. George just never realized all the good he had done, and all the bad he had prevented, simply by being alive and by being himself.
A similar point is made in Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Our Town. The play’s central character, Emily, is given a chance, following her death, to view a scene from her past. She is told that it cannot be some obviously important day but should be a fairly ordinary time from her bygone life–indeed, she is told that re-visiting even the least important day of her life would suffice to teach Emily something very important.
Emily chooses to re-visit her 12th birthday, only to discover a vast array of things about that day she had completely forgotten. More than that, however, she is stunned to see how fast life moves and how little she or anyone paid attention to what was happening when it was happening. In the end, Emily cannot bear to watch. “I can’t. I can’t go on,” she cries. “We don’t have time to look at one another. I didn’t realize. So all that was going on and we never noticed . . . Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it–every, every minute?” she asks. The answer is no. Instead, Emily is told, for the vast majority of people, what it means to be alive is “To move about in a cloud of ignorance.”
Emily didn’t realize. George Bailey didn’t realize. They simply were not aware of the larger meaning around them every, every minute of every, every day. A similar phenomenon plays a surprisingly large role in Jesus’ words about the sheep and the goats. Sometimes the most important things we do in life are things that, at the time, we see no real significance in.
Like meeting Jesus in prison, at a food bank, at a homeless shelter . . .
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
Author: Stan Mast
At last we have arrived at the end of our journey through Ordinary Time. We have walked with ancient Israel through the geography and history of the Near East—from paganism in Haran and now back to pagan Babylon, with long stays in Egypt and the Promised Land in between, a long march through a trackless wilderness and a prolonged battle to conquer Palestine and make it home. That long journey parallels the Christian life in so many ways, so we have benefitted from following Israel.
Now, before we begin the liturgical year again, it is time to celebrate the kingship of Christ, the pioneer and perfecter of the faith by which we have walked. What kind of King is the Christ? All of our readings for Christ the King Sunday point in the same direction, but Ezekiel is the clearest and most comprehensive. Christ is a Shepherd King.
That is both a surprising and a familiar metaphor. There were, of course, other models of kingship all around Israel, not least of which was the oriental potentate surrounded by luxury and feared for his absolute power. The King of Babylon was a very visible example. And there were the feckless, fumbling kings of Israel’s recent history (as described in verses 1-10 of this chapter), more interested in fleecing their flock that in taking care of them. That recent history is why God chose to reveal himself here as a Shepherd King. That image was well known in the ancient Near East, but as those recent Jewish kings had illustrated, living up to the image was a rare thing.
Israel desperately needed a Shepherd King, because they had no king, were scattered in the Babylonian Exile, and were hurting in multiple ways because of their own sin and because of the injustice under which they suffered. The prophet Ezekiel was one of those exiled sheep. God had sent him along with one part of the flock, so that the Word of the Lord would be heard even in that God-forsaken place.
Ezekiel didn’t always speak words of comfort to God’s hurting flock. Indeed, for the first 32 chapters, Ezekiel has pronounced judgement and punishment in harsh terms, until Jerusalem fell and was burned back home. Then the tone of the prophet changes and he begins to speak words of hope and comfort. Now that the worst has happened, Israel will stop hoping in Jerusalem and the Temple. They are ready to hear about their God, their King, their Shepherd.
There are three things worthy of special note in these verses: care, justice, and the Prince. Unlike those Israelite kings (and priests and prophets) who were only interested in taking care of themselves (34:2), Yahweh will take care of his flock. In view of their failure, says God, “I myself” will do the shepherding.
This care will begin with a search and rescue mission. “I will search for my sheep and look after them.” Israel has been scattered throughout the Babylonian kingdom and beyond, going back to the days of the Assyrian invasion. Heaven knew where they were, and heaven will go to them, and “look after” them. The word “look after” means to “take stock, to investigate,” to see what each one needs. And their Shepherd King will take care of each one as he/she needs.
First, I will bring them home “from all the places where they have been scattered, out of the nations, and I will bring them to their own land.” After years of wandering, they will come home again.
Second, in their own land, I will give them all the sustenance they need—pasture, rich pasture on the mountains and in the ravines and in all the settlements in the land. No longer will they scrabble for food, scrounging for a morsel of nourishment. “I myself will tend my sheep and have them lie down,” echoing the opening verses of Psalm 23.
Third, the Shepherd King will take care of the most needy. Those who are lost, I will search for. In other Scriptures, God’s people are told to seek the Lord while he may be found (Isaiah 55:6 for example). Here God promises to seek the lost who aren’t looking for him, because they are too lost.
Those who are injured, I will bind up and heal. And those who are weak, I will strengthen. The Good Shepherd will do everything necessary to get his scattered and wandering flock back home. His care will know no limits. Jesus, of course, took this care to its eternal limits, when he laid down his life for his sheep. (But I’m getting ahead of the text.)
We’ve come to verse 16b now, where the care of the Shepherd King is augmented by something else. Not only will he care for his hurting flock, but he will also bring justice against those who have hurt them. For a good shepherd, it is not enough to heal hurts; he must also ensure that the causes of that hurt are removed. So, says verse 16b, “the sleek and the strong I will destroy. I will shepherd the flock with justice.”
God is talking there not only about the external enemies of Israel (Babylon and its predecessors and successors). He is also talking about Israelites who have gotten fat off their brothers and sisters, Jews who have shoved and butted their fellow Jews away from their rightful green pastures and still waters. Verses 17-19 also speak about muddying those still waters by trampling through them in heedless living.
Clearly, God is talking about social injustice and environmental abuse. That’s not the only reason Israel was sent into Exile; idolatry played a huge role. But here God says that he cares about injustice in all its forms and he promises to bring judgment upon those who have unjustly treated their fellows. That’s part of salvation. “I will save my flock, and they will no longer be plundered. I will judge between one sheep and another.”
In the contemporary church, there is a division between those who pursue compassion ministries and those who pursue social justice ministries. Here the Shepherd King of Israel says that he cares about both. On the one hand, we must only seek the lost and bind up the wounded, but we must also bring justice to those people and systems that caused people to get lost and become wounded in the first place. On the other hand, it’s not enough to seek justice; we must also seek and save the lost. It’s not either/or. The Shepherd King says that he will do both.
That brings me to the third thing worthy of note in this text, namely, the Prince. How will the Sovereign Yahweh shepherd his people? “I will place over them one Shepherd, my servant David, and he will tend them and be their shepherd. I the Lord will be their God and my servant David will be the Prince among them.”
Obviously, the original David was long dead and gone. But God had promised that David would always have someone on his throne. God is not talking resurrecting David; he is talking about raising up that Someone to sit on that throne as the Shepherd King who would do everything God promises to do here in Ezekiel 34. I am giving this short shrift here, but in your sermon on this text, you should spend much time showing how Jesus is the Son of David promised here.
So, today we celebrate the reign of Christ the Shepherd King, who came to seek and save the lost, who binds up the wounded and carries the weak in his arms, who came to bring justice and peace to his world, not just by teaching and doing miracles, but preeminently by laying down his life for his flock. He is our hope in this hurting world.
We’ve just gone through a bruising political campaign. There were many issues, but the central one was leadership. What kind of leader do you want? A tough law and order King? Or a kinder more caring King? By now we probably know who was elected “King.” And we already know that neither human candidate can do what we need. Only King Jesus can shepherd the scattered masses of the earth, because he is the shepherd who cares deeply for the lost and wounded and who has the strength to bring justice against the sleek and strong who shove and butt their way to dominance. Christ is King. Be comforted. And beware.
Author: Scott Hoezee
It is said that those who refuse to learn from the past are condemned to repeat it. Well, in that case the Lectionary on this final Sunday in Ordinary Time—also known as Reign of Christ or Christ the King Sunday—would have us stop just short of Psalm 95’s attempt to bring us a lesson from the past. Starting in verse 7b, this otherwise very upbeat poem of thanksgiving and praise takes a dark turn. Those reading the psalm are given a solemn warning not to repeat Israel’s failures to trust God at Maribah and Massah (literally the places of “quarreling” and “testing”) because that was the kind of behavior that got a whole generation of Israelites banished from ever entering the Promised Land and its promised rest.
But we are supposed to stop short of that in this season of Thanksgiving in the U.S. and on Reign of Christ Sunday when our thoughts need to remain upbeat and grateful. Curiously, in the Year A Lectionary and in calendar 2020 this is the second time Psalm 95 has occurred. The first time was back in March during the Season of Lent and on that occasion, the whole psalm was assigned, final words of warning and judgment and all. Apparently a bit of darkness is OK for Lent but less so for the end of the church year.
Speaking of darkness, in this year of 2020, Psalm 95 in Lent was assigned for Sunday, March 15, and that was probably the last in-person gathering of most churches for a long time to come as the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown began right then. What followed was a wrenchingly tough year worldwide. Infections, deaths, fear, racial unrest in especially the U.S., a fraught presidential election that is ending in still more conflict: well, we none of us exactly saw any of this coming. At some point we all remembered welcoming 2020 with gladness on New Year’s Eve but then regretting we had ever done so. Who needs a year like this one? A few have even referred to it as “the lost year.” A year of losses—jobs, education, mental health, life itself. And a year of losses in less vital but still significant areas: loss of the chance to celebrate graduations, weddings, anniversaries or even take anything resembling a normal vacation.
Christ the King / Reign of Christ Sunday marks the end of this church year. Next week we begin Advent and about one month after that we will close the books—happily so for most of us—on the calendar year too. But because of what the end of the year feels like—the end of the church year and soon the calendar year—some of us might find celebrating the Reign of Christ a little difficult. After all, this world this year has as often as not hardly looked like it was being ruled over by a loving Christ Jesus.
We are told in Psalm 95 to extol our God because he holds the deep places of the earth and tends to all of us like a shepherd with a flock. But not a few of us have felt pretty shepherdless at times this year. Those of us who are pastors—literally the undershepherds of Jesus—have had to try to minister from a social distance that quite literally kept us from reaching out to the people who needed our ministry the most. Funerals got delayed, COVID patients died alone in hospitals, surrounded not by family or a pastor or elders from the church but by strangers in masks and amidst whirring and chirping machines.
The truth is, we don’t need the final verses of Psalm 95 to turn us to more somber or darker subjects. The months gone by have provided plenty of that as it is and it is so palpable this year that if we are to preach honestly on Psalm 95, we need to bring the celebration of God’s/Christ’s reign into conversation with all the things that at times threatened to eclipse our view of God upon the cosmic throne.
In the U.S. and in the run-up to the presidential campaign, some of us frequently saw efforts on Facebook and Twitter by Christians who wanted to turn down the political heat some by posting things like “No matter who wins the White House, Jesus is still on the throne!” But you got the sense that few took a lot of solace in that. Particularly the wide swath of Christians in America who supported Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020 seemed to believe Jesus needs our political help and the prospect of President Trump’s needing to vacate his office has left some feeling defeated not just at the ballot box but even spiritually. And no doubt on the other side many are pinning too much on Joe Biden as well. Christ is King but . . . well, we have more immediate and pressing concerns than seem to be on the agenda of King Jesus.
Perhaps this year Psalm 95 can be a call for all of us to remember who is really King and truly in charge and to let that qualify some of our other concerns along the lines that those Facebook posts about King Jesus intended to accomplish. And maybe it’s also a time to acknowledge that this cosmic kingship is very hard to see a lot of the time. Most of us have spent a fair amount of time in the modality of Lament in 2020. And most of the Lament Psalms (fully a third of the Hebrew Psalter) lament the seeming absence of God from everyday life and experience. It takes a lot of strong and robust faith to maintain the belief that God in Christ really is in charge, that the “kingdoms of this world have become the kingdom of our God and of his Christ.”
We cannot celebrate the Reign of Christ lightly this year. We don’t want to skip past the sorrows, losses, and fears that 2020 has brought crashing down around people everywhere. “For the Lord is the great God, the great King above all the gods” we are told in verse 3. Yes, by faith we believe that is so, and Christ’s victory over hell and death secure that truth for Christians even more.
But if that line has now and again stuck in our throats this past year, that’s OK. King Jesus understands. But as we end the church year and soon the calendar year, we need to grab all the comfort and strength we can from the ardent belief that at the end of the day, the bright center of the universe really is Love. Love made flesh. And speaking of that . . . next week we begin Advent anew too.
In Lent and in the month of March this year when I wrote a sermon starter on Psalm 95, I recalled a song setting of Psalm 95 that we sang pretty often in my Christian Reformed Church growing up. It was titled “Now with Joyful Exultation” and was set to a pretty jaunty tune in a major key, a tune that had what I could best describe as a fair bit of bounce and lilt.
And that fit wonderfully for most of the words since this song was based on Psalm 95. “Now with joyful exultation let us sing to God our praise . . . For how great a God and glorious is the Lord of whom we sing.” Like its psalm of origin, this song is properly upbeat.
Except on the last line of the fourth verse. . . at which point the final upward bounce of the melody (a jump of a sixth from G to Eb) suddenly seems perversely celebratory as the song concludes with the dire judgment spoken in God’s voice that some people “never in my rest shall share.” I always thought in my heart that after that final phrase we could as well utter a gleeful “Hey-Hey!” or a “Cha-Cha-Cha” as though we were smacking our lips over the prospect of God’s condemning certain people to eternal UN-rest. It always felt like singing a funeral song to the tune of “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” or something.
But of course there is nothing actually delightful or happy about the historical warning with which Psalm 95 concludes. Yes, we dare never turn our back on God or signal our distrust that he really is the Cosmic King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Because those who do so end up cutting off the branch on which they are sitting. That’s tragic, not something to sing about with a jaunty tune. And yet as we reflected on in this sermon starter, a lot of things can happen to us in life—even in the life of faithful believers—that tries to shake our trust that there is a loving and benevolent God on the throne.
Not only should we take no joy in those who “never in my rest shall share,” we should have sympathy for them in that even the most pious among us now and then feel some powerful tugs away from having confidence in our Cosmic King after all. If this difficult and oft-grim year of 2020 has taught us nothing else, it is that life is hard and belief in a faithful King can be pretty tough to maintain sometimes.
Author: Doug Bratt
I once heard my colleague Jack Roeda compare going to church to visiting an opthamologist. After all, worshipers have a very hard time seeing what’s really going on. Six days a week we see much chaos.
We see a global pandemic shadowing our lives, racial injustice rattling our world and political turmoil roiling our countries. We some of our friends aging, moving away or dying. We see our homes’ value plummeting, job security wavering and retirement nest eggs shrinking.
We see young adults shoot each other on our streets. We see conflicts in Asia and the Middle East seem to stretch out interminably. We see famines, wildfires, hurricanes, typhoons, earthquakes and other disasters wreak havoc in our world.
On top of all that, the media doesn’t just constantly call attention to that bad news. It also virtually assaults us with all sorts of dire warnings about the bad news that’s just around the corner.
What we see has consequences, because the things we see to seem to affect our behavior. So some behavioral scientists link excessive watching of, for example, televised (if simulated) sexual activity to elevated promiscuity. It’s almost as if teenagers who watch extramarital intimacy come to conclude that it’s normal and acceptable behavior.
Those who proclaim Ephesians 1 might invite our hearers to think about that in relation to all the trouble we naturally see in our world. If we assume that greed dominates our world, might we be more likely to lose hope? Might assuming that only sheer luck governs our world make us unlikely to trust that God rules over it?
Paul writes this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson to the Ephesian Christians who also see much chaos all around them. After all, they live in both the world and in God’s kingdom. What’s more, Ephesus is the capital of the pagan cult of Artemis.
Perhaps that partly explains the apostle’s gratitude that begins Ephesians 1. In it Paul gives thanks, after all, not only for the Ephesians’ faith, but also for their “love for all the saints” (15) that grows out of it. It stands in sharp contrast to the chaos that surrounds them.
Ephesians 1 serves as a good reminder, perhaps especially for Americans who are the season of Thanksgiving, that Christians’ prayers always focus on thanksgiving. While we sometimes race right to our intercessions and supplications for each other and ourselves, Reformed Christians profess that “prayer is the most important part of the thankfulness God requires of us.”
In fact, prayers asking God for things without offering thanks to God easily deteriorate into what one scholar calls “gimme prayers.” When Christians focus on what we want instead of on what God wants and gives us, we evaluate our prayers on the basis of what we get rather than on God’s goodness.
Yet though Paul is clearly thankful to God for the Ephesians, he isn’t completely satisfied with them. The apostle prays that they’ll better see the full implications of the blessings God has given them.
Clearly, however, the Ephesians can’t see those connotations without help. We might think of it this way: at least initially you don’t even know that your vision is poor until someone tells you.
For example, neither my parents nor I knew that I needed eyeglasses until they took me to a baseball game at the old Tiger Stadium in Detroit. When I couldn’t read its scoreboard, they knew something was wrong with my eyesight. Silly me! I’d always just assumed that scoreboards were supposed to be fuzzy.
In a slightly similar way, people naturally see power and luck as controlling our world. Christians can’t know that God reigns over it unless the Holy Spirit corrects our blurry vision. So Paul prays that God will open the eyes of the Ephesians’ hearts (18).
While the “eyes of our hearts” is a somewhat mysterious concept, it seems at least to refer to Christians’ minds that God needs to open for us to fully recognize God’s truth. What truth does Paul want his readers to recognize? He prays that we’ll recognize the “hope to which God has called us.” The apostle prays that we’ll see more than what we assume is going on around us.
He prays that Christians will come to recognize God’s holiness, as well as the freedom and peace for which God created us. The apostle also wants us to recognize both the suffering that may await us and the glory that surely awaits us.
So those whose heart’s eyes God has opened don’t live for the moment, ourselves or even just the people we like. God’s adopted sons and daughters also live to know, love and serve Jesus Christ and our neighbors, including even our enemies.
Paul also prays, however, that Christ’s followers will more fully see what verse 18 calls “the riches of” God’s “glorious inheritance in the saints.” God, after all, promises God’s sons and daughters an unimaginably glorious future.
So a colleague suggests that reading the gospel is in some ways like going to the reading of the will of a rich aunt who has died. The lawyer opens the will and tells you, “You’re going to inherit something so wonderful that I can hardly describe it for you.”
God, after all, promises that in the new creation, God’s dearly beloved people will see God. God also insists that when God’s adopted sons and daughters see the Lord, we’ll somehow be like the Lord. In the new heaven and earth, what’s more, God promises that we will share eternal joy with both God and each other.
Finally, Paul also prays that Jesus’ followers will learn to better see what verse 19 calls God’s “incomparably great power for us who believe.” “That power,” the apostle adds in verse 19, “is like the working of his mighty strength.”
Of course, that may seem, in some ways, a bit like Clark Kent insisting he’s the strongest man in his world. Kent, whose alter ego was, of course, Superman, after all, looked like a mild reporter most of the time. God may, in a similar way, generally seem pretty tame. Even Christians don’t always recognize God’s incomparable power because God usually chooses to refrain from using all of it.
Yet God has periodically chosen to show us that immense power. God made all things, after all, simply by speaking God’s creative word. God also both raised Christ from the dead and elevated him to reign over all things, including Christ’s church.
Yet Christians sometimes become so busy with our daily lives that we spend most of our time and energy looking at the things around us instead of at Jesus Christ. We become so busy staying safe from this pandemic, working for racial justice and arguing about politics that we scarcely have the time and the energy to consider the gospel’s implications. On top of all that, some people and things seem so powerful that we can’t imagine God being any more powerful than them. So Jesus’ followers may need to learn to live a new way by “seeing” in a new way.
Oliver Sacks wrote a fascinating book about neurological disorders entitled, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. In it he describedf Christina, a 27 year-old who’d hardly been sick a day in her life.
The day before doctors scheduled her for gallbladder surgery, however, she became very unsteady on her feet and prone to dropping things. She eventually couldn’t stand unless she looked down at her feet. Christina’s hands also wandered unless she kept a very close eye on them. When she tried to stand up, her body just “gave way” on her.
Neurologically health people, even with our eyes closed, have a sense of where our arms and legs are. Our proprioceptors help us sense that we’re moving them, even when we don’t see them. Dr. Sacks, however, determined that Christina’s proprioceptors weren’t working well. She, after all, had no idea her limbs were moving unless she literally watched them.
My friend Scott Hoezee suggests that our Epistolary Lesson’s Apostle Paul might say that our spiritual proprioceptors don’t naturally work well either. While God is powerfully at work in our world, we’re born without any sense of that. It sometimes seems to us, as a result, as if God is entirely inactive.
Christina had to learn, in a sense, to see everything differently. She had to use her eyes in every situation where she could formerly rely on her senses. She needed to learn to watch her hands and feet, for instance, to make sure they were in the right place.
God’s Spirit equips God’s adopted children to do something similar spiritually. We learn to live by watching very carefully for God’s work in our world. Christians learn to look for signs of God’s power, faithfulness and love that aren’t always obvious to the untrained eye.
Of course, that requires reorientation, hard work and close attention. It also requires most of us to somehow slow down. Yet looking for and recognizing signs of God’s work alone allows us to, in Augustine’s words, live, move and have our being.