Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

Readings: Amos 7:7-15 | Ephesians 1:3-14 | Mark 6:14-29

Text: Ephesians 1:3-14

What does God want to happen?  Well, get comfortable, because this is going to take a while.

 In all seriousness, God’s will is not an easy topic for us to consider because it’s so much greater than we can comprehend.  The Creator of Heaven and Earth rarely ever tells us what He’s doing in any given moment (He doesn’t post photos on Instagram).  There’s a lot that He does without involving or consulting us.  In response to that, we might say, “Well, God’s going to do what He’s going to do, so our part is just to deal with it.”  But that’s missing what God does make known about His heart and what He’s doing.

This first part of Ephesians is an ideal example of this.  Even though God is “the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God” (1 Tim. 1:17), He reveals some tremendous good news to you and me.

The Holy Spirit moved St. Paul to open this letter with this prayer, which is neatly organized around the Holy Trinity: What God the Father does, what God the Son does, and what God the Holy Spirit does (vv. 3-6, 7-12, 13-14).  Each portion concludes with a statement of praise: “To the praise of His glorious grace…to the praise of His glory…to the praise of His glory.”

And in these more manageable chunks, you and I are able to see the tremendous plan and work of God to reach His goal:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.

For us, we’re used to thinking about planning and preparation in terms of years. An Olympic gymnast has been practicing since she was 3 years old.   A successful businessman has been building his resume and reputation since his teenage years.  It depends on personal aptitude, decisions our parents made, resources we had or scholarships we received.

But how long has God been working toward achieving the goal of someone’s salvation? “He chose us in [Christ] before the foundation of the world.”  Literally from time immemorial, before God even said, “Let there be light,” (Gen. 1:3) His decision was to save you in body and soul through His Son, and that you would be counted as holy and blameless before Him.  Out of His magnificent love, He actually foreordained it all to take place—ancestry, events in world history, your place of birth, forming you in your mother’s womb, decisions of your parents, pastors and others who have shared the faith with you, experiences you’ve had including even some of your mistakes[1]—all of it, behind any scenes men are aware of, God worked it all so that you would be adopted by His grace.  Incredible to think that that and more was all orchestrated by the Almighty, for you to have the right to call Him “Father!”

This incredible accomplishment of God was achieved through the Beloved, His Son, Jesus Christ.  This is the name the Father declared at the Jordan River when all Three Persons of the Trinity announced the mighty divine work: 16 And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; 17 and behold, a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.’” (Matt. 3:16-17)

In the Father’s Beloved Son, Paul continues:

In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ 10 as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.

If the first part of the prayer about the Father’s work blew us away, the awe only intensifies here.  It would be a fine, reasonable thing if God worked to save the right kind of people.  You know, the “diamond in the rough,” those gems who people say restore their hope in humanity.  But that’s not how it really was.  “Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:6-8)  And Christ Himself said to the upstanding chief priests, “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you.” (Matt. 21:31) and after He had called a ruthless thief named Zacchaeus to salvation, He said, “The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” (Luke 19:10)

So where do you measure up?  There have been those who said that God elected people in view (technical term: intuitu fidei) of the faith they would have in the future.  The trouble with that logic is that either God saves people because of their own merit, or He could be accused of stacking the deck and rigging the whole game.  But the truth is more incredible than that: We are all natural-born slaves to sin, the Devil, and death (John 8:31-36).  None of us could work off our debt or escape from sin which ruled over us.

And this is where we need to realize that this isn’t just a measure of our morals.  Here, the sober person has no advantage over the drunk; the faithfully married over the sexual deviant; the nurse over the abortion doctor.  God’s Word makes it clear: “The Lord looks down from heaven on the children of man, to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one.” (Psalm 14:2-3)  Sin has permeated all of us from the heart outward.  It may flare up more in some than others, but it’s “out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, 22 coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. 23 All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” (Mark 7:21-22)  It doesn’t matter how right you feel, or how you compare to the next guy: You and I and every person is liable to the righteous judgment of God.

But God, seeing that, paid the price of your debt, and purchased your release: “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace.”  Completely undeserved, without even the thought of repayment, God in His love, has done this for you.  This He pours out upon you “in all wisdom and insight” because He also knows your heart and when you need to hear it, and how this good news will get through to you.  All of this together is the mystery of His will that He makes known to the Christian.  It was hinted at before, in types and shadows like the Flood, the Exodus, and the Temple, but the real deal when one knows and believes what God has done for him or her in Christ.  This is your treasure today.

But there is so much more to come!

11 In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, 12 so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory.

Zooming back out to the wide shot of God’s eternal purpose, you learn that God’s children also have an inheritance to look forward to.  It takes our mind away from the present worries and discouragement we feel, and the temptation and weakness we know all too well.  This inheritance gives us the confidence of Psalm 46:2-3: “Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling.”

But at this point, you might say, What beautiful words these are, but how can we be sure of this?  These “spiritual blessings in the heavenly places” seem far less concrete than the world in which we live, putting food on the table and meeting the needs of those around us.

13 In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, 14 who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.

When you make a big purchase, like a house or a car, you’re asked to put a significant amount of money down. It gives assurance that you will make good on paying for the rest of it.  Well, far greater than even the purchase of real estate (which can burn up) or a car (which can break) is the inheritance of eternal life which God has secured for you.  In order to give you surety about His intention to complete your redemption on the Last Day, He gave you a “guarantee” or more accurately, a “down payment.”[2]  The Holy Spirit is the down payment which a Christian has from God.  Even though the Spirit is compared to a down payment, this is far more than a business transaction.  He seals the Christian with the Holy Spirit.  Seal marks authority and ownership, as it’s described in Revelation 7:3: “Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads.”  Your salvation is far too important to God—who created, redeemed, and sanctifies you—to leave up to your own ability.  So He commands His angels concerning you; He preaches His saving Word into your ears; He hold back the Last Day Judgment until all who would believe do. 

Through His work, the Holy Spirit both assures us of the truth of all the Father has promised in Christ (John 15:26), and keeps us in that one, true faith, because “he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” (Phil. 1:8)

All that brings us back to where we started: What is God’s will?  There are many details we’re not sure of.  Yet, from this portion of His Word, He tells us that in every generation, every circumstance, for every person, it is our God’s will that every sinner heed His call to repent and believe, and that He whose eternal plans are fulfilled in your life, will also bring those to completion at last and for all eternity.  Consider this every time you ask the Lord, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” because hopefully now you can better appreciate what He does in answer to our prayer.

With all this our view, hear the benediction from St. Jude: “Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, 25 to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.” (Jude 24)

[1] Consider the genealogy of Jesus Christ in Matthew 1:1-17, including the twists and turns in the lives of those through whom God preserved and brought forth His Son according to the flesh.

[2] Also could be translated as pledge or earnest money (ἀρραβών, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon)

Seventh Sunday after Pentecost (Romans 8:18-27)

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR
Bethel Lutheran Church, Sweet Home, OR
Seventh Sunday after Pentecost + July 23, 2017
Text: Romans 8:18-27

Two people can look at exactly the same thing and come to vastly different conclusions, because of the assumptions they have.  Anybody can look at the world we live in and realize that it’s messed up.  Violence in the streets, increasing dissension and alienation, dangerous weather, etc.  One person will say, it’s all up to us to scramble to protect ourselves or strive to fix this human life, or else we will wipe out our species and cease to exist.
Another would sees the very same tumult, and acknowledges the possible dire consequences.  Yet this person isn’t afraid of all these things or the end result of them.  Why? Because their hope is in God who created heaven and earth, who redeemed humanity through His Son, and when He comes again will eternally renew creation.
It’s that second person which is pictured in this reading:
19 For the creation waits with eager longing for othe revealing of the sons of God. 20 For the creation pwas subjected to futility, not willingly, but qbecause of him who subjected it, in hope 21 that rthe creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 For we know that sthe whole creation thas been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.
It’s the sons of God who can look at the writhing pain of creation and not tremble.  That doesn’t mean they are naïve about what our world is like or how serious social, political, and health crises are.  That’s because God has called us in the midst of this longing, enslaved, groaning creation into a living hope.
23 And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have uthe firstfruits of the Spirit, vgroan inwardly as wwe wait eagerly for adoption as sons, xthe redemption of our bodies. 24 For yin this hope we were saved.
There’s where the difference lies: The Spirit, whom God pours out richly through Jesus Christ our Savior.  He has called us to this living hope—that not only do we have a clean conscience toward God, but we also look forward to the restoration of creation and the redemption of our own bodies.  Even as we groan with the rest of creation to be delivered, God has revealed His good news.  In the dying and rising of Jesus Christ, He is making all things new (Rev. 21:5)  In Christ, we have the hope that sin which came into the world will be no more, neither shall death plague us because Jesus lives.  Our hope is that God will bring about what He promised so many years ago through Isaiah:
“The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze; their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain.”[1]
But haven’t we been waiting long enough?  Isn’t creation worn out from groaning and longing?
St. Paul continues, “In this hope we were saved. Now zhope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we await for it with patience.”
First of all, it matters what you hope in.  We are wont to put our hope in certain conditions—when I get the job I want, when I can only get my strength back, if the church grows, or when I retire.  Yet this is not the hope to which the Holy Spirit has called us.  Our hope isn’t in a what, but in a Who—in the Lord our God.  “Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord his God, who made heaven and earth…who keeps faith forever.”[2]  If your hope is in the Lord, you will never be put to shame, left high and dry.
Now, it’s plain to see that God helps us on a cosmic level, uniting heaven and earth, making peace with sinners.  That same hope touches our everyday lives, too.  I read a little from Psalm 146, but let me read more: “who keeps faith forever, who executes justice for the oppressed, who gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets the prisoners free, the Lord opens the eyes of the blind. The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down; the Lord loves the righteous. The Lord watches over the sojourners; he upholds the widow and the fatherless.”
Our hope is in this God, who has compassion on His children in need.  You heard how many calamities were listed, and God has mercy on one and all.  So think of what troubles or scares you, and let your heavenly Father handle it.  What a mess we make when we take our lives in our own hands, trying to master our own circumstances and secure our own future.
That’s why so many times in Scripture, we are exhorted to hope in the Lord and wait patiently for Him—“Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.”[3]  What’s often translated as “wait” and “hope” are the same in Hebrew (יחל and קוה).  So, to hope in God is also to wait on the Lord.  That’s Paul’s point when he says, “Who hopes for what he sees? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”  It means trusting that He will lift you up out of your distress at the right time—no matter how bad it is and no matter how long its lasted.  Don’t put your trust in your own hand to deliver you.
Sometimes it’s easier said than done.  One of those Hebrew words originates from stretching something out and having it hold under tension.[4]  With hoping in the Lord there is tension, between what we now experience, and what we believe He will do in our future.  It’s not easy.  In fact, it’s humanly impossible to wait under this tension.  That’s why the Spirit is given to us.  He helps us in our weakness as we live in God’s mercy and promises, in the space in time between the Word God speaks and its fulfillment.
Nevertheless, we are filled with hope and that gives us a heavenly outlook on our whole life.  Our heavenly Father will provide for us in all our immediate and passing needs, just as surely as He has salvation and an eternal hope to the whole creation.  So we are able to say, without sugar-coating it or ignoring the struggle, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.”  In the Spirit’s strength, we press on toward this glory! Amen.
[1] Isaiah 11:6-9
[2] Psalm 146:5-9
[3] Psalm 42:5-6a
[4] קָוָה – “wait for (prob. orig. twist, stretch, then of tension of enduring, waiting)” – Brown Driver Briggs