The Fifth Sunday in Lent April 6, 2014
141, 142(1-4), 142(5-6), 49
May God the Father not only fill you with all good things in Jesus Christ, but may you also be given the grace and wisdom to recognize and appreciate not only what your God gives you, but also all that your God continues to do for you, day-in and day-out, moment-by-moment, and on into eternity. Amen.
Dear fellow Christians:
Maybe it was my own surgery that put me in mind of it again, or maybe it is just a sight one is not likely to forget. Quite a few years ago, the hospital called and said that one of our members was in a serious car accident and had suffered severe head trauma. As it turned out, the woman wasn’t a member, but her son had visited our church for a time and didn’t know who else to call. Because of head trauma from the accident, the woman was about to undergo a radical surgery that she would likely not survive. The alternative was life in a persistent vegetative state. Under the circumstances, I agreed to try to bring her the message of sin and grace.
The woman was conscious and very agitated—so much so that she had to be restrained. What I will never forget is looking into her eyes and seeing nothing at all. It is next to impossible to define what something like that is like. It is something you have to see for yourself. There is no “person” there, no human life or human emotion. There was only a blank stare and an absolutely expressionless face. Though she thrashed about and fought her restraints like a trapped animal, the eyes and face remained utterly lifeless. It was the stuff of horror movies. The poor woman did not survive the surgery. I am hopeful she died in the faith, although I am fairly certain that she was not able to hear the Gospel from me.
I have always assumed, rightly or wrongly, that those who write horror novels or screen plays must have been frightened fairly often as children. So often, it seems, that they take a fairly normal childhood fear, carry it to an impossible extreme, and then bring that scenario to life in a book or movie. If this is true even part of the time, then it isn’t really all that difficult to figure out why one of the more common, recurring themes in that type of fiction often revolves around the “living dead.” When you stop to think about it, what could be more frightening than evil or suffering that cannot be destroyed by death? Or how terrible it would be to be one of those trapped in such a “living death.”
Truth, as the saying goes, is stranger than fiction. Or, more accurately here, truth is more horrible than fiction. The specter of fictitious zombies wandering about in mournful trances holds little terror for those who live and move in the real world. The same cannot be said about the spiritual dead that you and I encounter every day. Such lifeless souls are not only very real, they are all around us, and their condition is truly the stuff of nightmares. We ought to know. We used to be one of them.
With this rather somber introduction, we turn to the magnificent words of Holy Scripture that serve as our text today, and what a contrast we will find there! While all Scripture qualifies as magnificent, these words hold a special place in the hearts of many Christians for their clear and simple proclamation of the Gospel. Our text is found in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, the second chapter:
But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, that in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. And we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.
These are the verbally inspired words gifted by God to all of mankind. We hold these words in such high regard both for the life that they create and sustain, and for the untold sorrow and misery that they prevent. That God would so bless each of us through these sacred words, we pray: “Sanctify us by your truth, O Lord. Your word is truth.” Amen.
Though it might just identify me as a bit odd, I can recall wondering if the walking dead in those old zombie movies realized that they were dead.
Although such things are silly and pointless, not so with the true “walking dead” we encounter today. They have no idea they are dead. Oh, they can certainly be aware that we regard them as spiritually dead apart from Jesus Christ, but they undoubtedly write us off as religious nuts and fanatics. They don’t feel dead, so we must be the ones with the problem. We all have experience in this area, it’s just that some of us were too young to remember. Our text makes it clear that you and I were rescued—in the true sense of the word—because we were saved at a time when we were powerless to help ourselves. We were saved at a time when we were spiritually dead, but we neither knew nor cared.
We hear this fact rather often, but it is really in learning to appreciate this reality that the Gospel truly fills us with the sense of relief that it should. Part of the challenge is that all Christians now view the world through much different eyes compared to how we once viewed the world through our dead eyes of unbelief. We now see and understand things that were hidden from us before. Our whole comprehension of reality and the way we think and feel has been altered to the point that it is difficult, if not impossible, for us to appreciate our helplessness apart from Jesus.
Our text says simply, “Even when we were dead in trespasses, (God) made us alive together with Christ…” [v.5] Our problem was immeasurably compounded by the fact that we neither knew nor cared that, spiritually speaking, we were dead men walking. We were so captivated by sin and Satan that we neither knew nor cared about the fate that awaited us. The godless might well hear the warnings of Christians from time to time, to be sure, but in the eyes of the living dead, every Christian is regarded as a spiritual Chicken Little and every warning as a silly prediction that the sky is falling.
Knowing the way things used to be gives us a greater appreciation and better understanding of the conversion that has been worked in our hearts by the Holy Spirit. It also helps us to appreciate just how foolish it is to imagine that at our conversion we were anything other than unworthy recipients of an absolutely priceless gift. How silly—how insulting to Jesus—to imagine that we could have “decided for Christ” while we were in such a state of spiritual death. Our text rules out any such possibility with words that rank among the clearest of all Gospel presentations: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” [vv.8-9 ESV]
Why did God do such a thing? Why, when we rightly acknowledge that there was nothing good or worthy in any human being, did God send His Son, Jesus, to secure our rescue? Our text does not leave us with any doubt: “But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us…made us alive together with Christ.” [vv.4f] Our rescue stands as an unalterable testimony to the love and mercy of our God.
Do not fail to apply this simple truth to yourself. Take it personally, for this reveals the love your God has for you, personally. God the Father sent His Son and then called you to saving faith in that Son as your Savior, because He loved you and because He determined from all eternity to have mercy on you.
Our text, therefore, teaches us that God’s grace not only quickens the dead, it also demonstrates His mercy toward those who in no way have earned such mercy.
And yet there is more in this treasured text. In fact with a bit more exploration we find treasures here that are often overshadowed and thus forgotten.
The Apostle Paul also teaches us that God’s grace enables our participation with Christ. “God…raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, that in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us in Christ Jesus…And we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.” [vv.6ff]
Far from being the “walking dead,” we are now alive and seated with Christ “in the heavenly places.” [v.6] Paul emphasizes this truth five different times in this letter to the Ephesians. His point is that Christians are joined to Christ their Lord in all ways. That means that not only are we joined to Him in His death, we are also joined to Him in His resurrection and in His subsequent glory in Heaven. How can we simple, sinful human beings comprehend such things? Why would God desire to give such gifts to the likes of us? A story from ancient Rome might help to explain:
In a day and age when one’s standing in society was gauged primarily by outward trappings, which is not unlike today, the story is told of a matron of high standing in the ancient city of Rome. This woman of high standing attended an important social event in plain dress and without adornment. When asked by another guest, “Where are your jewels?” the woman reportedly pointed to her two sons and replied simply, “Those are my jewels.”
Our text teaches us something remarkable in this regard. Don’t miss this! We learn that if God were to be asked such a question in Heaven, He would point to you and me and to the rest of the rescued sinners in Heaven and proclaim, “There are My jewels. There is the evidence of the wealth of My grace.” Our text affirms this great truth. Our God saved us “so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.” [v.7 ESV] In other words, God can and will use us in Heaven as the bright, shining examples of His grace, His undeserved love and mercy toward those who were in no way deserving or worthy. He freely gave that which could never be earned.
Does this suddenly give you pause? It does me. Do you think of yourself as the kind of Christian who could be used by God as an example? What would your qualifications have to include to hold such a position? The world imagines that you would have to prove yourself worthy. Nothing could be further from the truth. Your qualification is that once you were a clueless, walking dead sinner who was bent on destruction and headed for Hell.
Given those requirements, are you then qualified for such a position? So am I, and that is exactly the point. God would not point to those who needed no Savior as examples of His kindness and mercy. He would not point to those who needed no rescue as shining evidence of His underserved love. He points out wretched sinners who were nonetheless washed clean by the blood of the Lamb for therein is God’s greatness, generosity, and benevolence revealed.
How, though, does all of this affect our individual lives going forward? To find an answer, return for just a moment to that Roman woman and her sons. Suppose you were one of those sons. How would you regard your own actions going forward, knowing that your mother was holding you up as an example of her greatest earthly wealth and adornment? Obviously, any person of character would take such a role very seriously and attempt to walk worthy of such trust.
But that’s not exactly how it is with Christians. It isn’t that you and I now feel this tremendous pressure not to let God down. God didn’t create unwilling slaves who have to whipped or shamed into compliance. That new man in you takes great delight in fulfilling such a role. This is not true of your sinful flesh which wants anything but such loving obedience. The problem is we frequently lose sight of who and what we are. We need to be reminded of the high calling that is ours, together with the role that goes hand in hand with such a calling. Our text reminds us of this with these words: “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.” [v.10] Your heavenly Father takes great delight in your acts of obedience and love. This is not unlike human parents when they witness the fruits of faith in their own children. Do such actions earn the love of God? Obviously, not. Our text makes clear that we possess God’s love as a gift given to us through faith in Jesus Christ, His Son.
In much the same way we also love our own children unconditionally, and yet how our joy in them is compounded by their fruits of faith. So, likewise, now our great joy is to live according to the desires of that new man in us—wholeheartedly embracing our roles as God’s children. This is good and right in the eyes of God the Father and in this we rejoice day-by-day. Later in this same chapter Paul writes: “Now, therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.” (Ephesians 2:19)
Thanks be to God for the life that He creates and sustains in us and for the work He has given us to do as His beloved children and heirs.
Pray daily that that same God who rescued us would also now grant us the grace to walk worthy of our calling and position. Amen.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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