For us, Sunday marks 1 year of being shut down for Covid. We'll mark this in various liturgical ways, offering thanks and celebrations, but also tendering to God and one another our grief - and, of course, hope, not "going back to church," but asking what new thing God is inviting us toward.
Great texts! How to choose? Or do you dare touch on two or more of them? That never goes well for me. I’ll start this blog with Ephesians (having completed a churchwide series on Ephesians back in the Fall), then turn to Numbers and John.
Ephesians 2:1-10. Check out my sermon on this back in September (when we broke from the lectionary for a series on Ephesians). The preacher would be wise to re-read and re-ponder chapter 1, which elevates chapter 2 beyond mere individualism. Paul rambles eloquently through a 202 word sentence, then another lasting 99 words – clearly getting carried away talking about the unfathomable yet precious and knowable mystery of the lavish grandeur that is the mind and heart of God. Paul wants our minds to be blown, for us to be “lost in wonder, love and praise” before turning to his thoughts in death and being saved by grace.
Walker Percy wrote often in his novels of “living death." His parents died when he was very young, and he barely survived tuberculosis. In The Moviegoer, the unforgettable character Dr Tom More lives in “Paradise Estates,” but it’s a living Hell. People “have it all” but they are hollow. Even the meek priest confesses “I am surrounded by the corpses of souls. We live in a city of the dead.” In The Second Coming: “It astonished him that as farcical as people’s lives were, they generally gave no sign of it. How did they manage to work as usual, play golf, tell jokes? Was he crazy? Or was it rather that other people went to any length to disguise from themselves the fact that their lives were farcical?” – pulse, but no meaningful life.
Paul speaks of radical transformation: “You he made alive, when you were dead.” The preacher’s challenge is to portray how startling and transformative grace really is. We don’t get how lost we are, and so we miss the transformation, thinking grace is God letting bygones be bygones, or making me feel 23% better. It’s “immeasurable.” The Greek is literally “hyperbolic.” A hyperbola (google it if you don’t recall from high school!) is a curve on a cone that gradually grows larger, encircling the fixed center.
Walker Percy-style death, and sin (which Paul only refers to in the singular, so not discrete booboos but a nettling condition!) are the fix we’re in. Mid-stream describing it, Paul blurts out verse 5 (and should have prefaced it with “Spoiler Alert!”): “By grace you have been saved through faith.” Returning to this in verse 8, he adds “this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God.” What though is the antecedent of “this” and “it”? In the Greek it’s clearly not just “grace” but also “faith,” and “saved.” The whole process is God’s gift. Faith isn’t my clever choice of God! Charles Wesley taught us to sing “End of faith as its beginning.” God’s love and grace create faith itself.
Most Protestants stop reading at verse 8, but then we live as if we read on and ignore verse 8! As soon as Paul has said “not by works” he continues: “created for good works.” The works don’t save us. It’s not a meritocracy. But once you’re saved you don’t go do as you wish. You were made to work zealously for God – and notice Paul’s mystical wisdom that God thought up our works before even Creation itself! Holy smoke. I’d urge you to check out this video of a conversation I had with Billy Graham’s daughter, and then a layman I know talking about grace and how it issues in works. A fabulous testimony – from lay people!
I love the way N.T. Wright puts it: “What you do in the present – painting, singing, sewing, praying, building hospitals, digging wells, campaigning for justice, writing poems, caring for the needy, loving your neighbor – will last into God’s future. These activities are not simply ways of making present life a little less beastly. They are part of building for God’s kingdom. Every act of love, gratitude and kindness; every work of art or music; every minute spent teaching a child; every act of care and nurture, for one’s fellow human beings or for that matter one’s fellow nonhuman creatures; every prayer, every deed that builds up the church, or embraces holiness – all of this will find its way, through the resurrecting power of God, into the new creation that God will one day make.” Wow. Grace is better than we’d imagined.
For Numbers 21:4-9 and John 3:14-22, I’d refer you to my blog from last time around, which I can’t really improve upon today, except to add this from N.T. Wright’s astonishingly good book, The Day the Revolution Began, including this (where we see him capturing God “sending” his Son for more than just getting you into heaven): “When Jesus of Nazareth died on the cross, something happened as a result of which the world is a different place. The death of Jesus was the moment when the great gate of human history, bolted with iron bars and overgrown with toxic weeds, burst open so that the Creator’s project of reconciliation between heaven and earth could at last be set in powerful motion… Christian mission means implementing the victory that Jesus won on the cross.”
Check out my book on preaching - not a how-to preach book, but how we continue preaching. The Beauty of the Word: The Challenge and Wonder of Preaching.