Sunday, March 30, 2014

Fourth Sunday of Lent

Central—30 March 2014—Michael Kooiman

Ephesians 5
8 For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light 9 (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) 10 and find out what pleases the Lord. 11 Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. 12 It is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret. 13 But everything exposed by the light becomes visible—and everything that is illuminated becomes a light. 14 This is why it is said:
“Wake up, sleeper,
rise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.”

Single God seeking love and adoration. Likes both dogs and cats. Enjoys long walks discussing goodness, righteousness and truth. Dislikes fruitless deeds of darkness, prefers the light. Former smoter, only interested in ex-smoters. Replies to Box 316.

And there, hiding in plain sight, is one of the most vexing questions found in the Bible: “Find out what pleases the Lord.” To find out, we turn to scripture, and we quickly discover that the answer is not as simple as it would seem.

It seems fitting, on the weekend that Noah gets the star treatment once again, to begin with Genesis 8:

Then Noah built an altar to the LORD, and took of every clean animal and of every clean bird and offered burnt offerings on the altar. The LORD smelled the pleasing aroma; and the LORD said to Himself, “I will never again destroy every living thing, as I have done.”

In the beginning, it would seem, the pleasing aroma of the sacrifice was enough to convince God to never again destroy the earth. So far so good, then. But just when we think we’ve figured out the pleasing thing, we get a counter-point:

Hosea 6: “For I desire mercy and not sacrifice, and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.” Jesus himself makes the same point in Matthew 9: "But go and learn what this means: 'I desire mercy and not sacrifice.' For I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance."

So sacrifices are pleasing until they are no longer pleasing. God wants mercy instead of sacrifice. And that would seem to be the last word on the matter, until the author of Hebrews weighs in, and in effect, puts it all together: “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.”

So sacrifices are pleasing after all: the sacrifice that pleases God is sharing with others and doing good, which are really the same thing. So we will do good.

But it has to be more complex than simply sharing and doing good. After all, anyone can share stuff and do good without a thought to God, or a relationship with God. And this is where Paul comes in, and in particular the letter to the Ephesians.

The theme of the letter, as with many of the others, is the well-being of the church. Paul is concerned about the unity of believers, and the extent to which the church can truly be the body of Christ. He wants them to do good for a purpose:

“I urge you,” he says, “to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.”

In other words, sharing what you have and doing good is not just an approach to God, a means to get God on side, but rather part of a calling. And a calling is a relationship with purpose, a way of life rather than a set of behaviors. “Live as children of light,” Paul says, a unique identity that must be adopted—as part of this call.

Before we look further at this calling we share, Paul gives us a quote from what seems to be an ancient hymn, something that he seems to think we will know. He introduces it as something familiar, and it may well have been to the readers in Ephesus. Perhaps it was something they taught Paul, or maybe it was a popular hymn throughout the early church—we don’t know.

“Wake up, sleeper,
rise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.”

Scholars, of course, spend countless hours trying to figure out where these things come from. Is it a quote from the Bible? It doesn’t seem to be, although there are echoes of Isaiah and others. If it is an original composition there may be little to be learned, since we can’t find the original context.

And what about the purpose of these words? Wake from death and then find the light of Christ? Some have suggested that these must be baptismal words, the very thing you might say when a new believer emerges from the waters of baptism for the first time. Others disagree, saying that nothing in the surrounding passage suggests baptism.

At the very least, we know that it must have something to do with new life in Christ. “For you were once darkness,” Paul says, “but now you are light in the Lord.” The passage is about the movement from a former life to a new life in Christ, and the new believer is encouraged to ‘wake from sleep,’ an activity of darkness, and enter the light, literally allowing the light of Christ to shine on you.

And this would fit with the sense that we are describing a calling, a new life in the light, and a way of life will allow the church to move forward in unity and hope. Believers unified in a common sense of purpose, rejecting ‘fruitless deeds of darkness’ as Paul says, will live as children of the light.

So is this enough to please God? Sharing, doing good, living a life worthy of our calling?

There might be one more dimension, and this one Paul revealed in 1 Thessalonians 2: “But just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not to please people, but to please God who tests our hearts.”

Everything to this point has been cast in the positive: sharing what we have, doing good, living in the light. But what about saying the things the world may not want to hear? We speak, Paul says, not to please people, but to please God. If our words are designed to please people, to make them comfortable, or self-satisfied, then they will not be pleasing to God, just the opposite.

So we have license, it would seem, to say things that may confront rather than comfort, disturb rather set people at ease. More than license, it would seem that an excess of people-pleasing words is a form of idolatry, since pleasing people is replacing the desire to please God, which pretty much fits the dictionary definition of idolatry.

This fits with thinkers such as Marva Dawn and others who argue that whenever we begin to tailor our message to some hypothetical group we are trying to reach we are distorting the Gospel and (using her words) committing a form of idolatry. And plenty of churches have fallen into this trap, from seeker-sensitive worship to banning or embracing certain instruments to plugging some new theology as the only way forward.

But with license comes risk. How will we know that our confronting words are God-pleasing and not simply some hobby-horse we want to ride? The church has a comprehensive history of determining what God wants or God seek or God enjoys and being flat-out wrong. The other weekend event we can point to is a meeting of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, an example of the church saying and doing things in the name of the Gospel and getting it tragically wrong. We need some caution with our candor, and a constant look to our own history, to save us from repeating the worst kinds of mistakes.

So we live with caring and mercy, we share what we have and we try to do our best, as a form of sacrifice: everything to live the high calling of friend of God. Seeking to please God, we leave our former selves behind and embrace the light of Christ. May we live in that light, now and always, amen.


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