The Second Sunday after Epiphany January 17, 2016
1 Corinthians 12:1-11
32, 374, 373(1-4, 7), 52
Grace, mercy, and peace be multiplied to you in the revelation that Jesus Christ is not just the Savior of the world, He is your personal Savior from sin, death, and eternal torment. Amen.
Dear fellow servants of the one true God:
In January of 2008, a Spanish businessman drove over a boy riding his bike at night and killed him. Since the boy was riding without a light or reflectors, the man was not charged with a crime. A short time later, however, he sued the boy’s family for damages to the underside of his Audi. An enraged public outcry forced him to withdraw the suit.
In 1995, a Chesapeake, VA inmate filed suit against himself seeking $5 million in damages. Since he had committed grand larceny in violation of his own conscience, he concluded that he had violated his own civil rights and that he should be forced to pay. However, since he was incarcerated and could not himself pay the fine, he also sued to have the state pay the damages. Thankfully, he lost. Well, part of him lost —the part doing the suing. I guess it could be argued that the part of him that was being sued actually won.
The list of disturbingly ridiculous lawsuits is long and growing. Many of them actually succeed in court. It is a rather obvious symptom of a growing “something for nothing” problem in our society.
Has this disease crept into your own life and your own worldview? Ask yourself a few questions to determine if you too have been adversely affected by our growing national tragedy.
Do you feel that you should get more money from your employer just because your boss’s salary is greater than your own, or because your company is presently making more money than they did last year? On the other hand, do you feel that your salary should be cut dramatically if your company loses money in any given quarter?
Do you believe that you are automatically entitled to a raise at work just because another year has passed, even though your workload has not increased and the cost of living has not gone up?
Do you believe that working roughly one third of your life should entitle you to a life of ease for the last third of your life? Do you think that it is fair and just to give your accumulated wealth to your children so that others, namely, taxpayers, have to pay for your nursing home costs and medical expenses at the end of your life?
Do you think you ought to be able to watch television shows for free and that they ought to be commercial free? Do you think it is acceptable to download pirated software or music from the internet at least in part because the companies and artists who produce such things already make plenty of money?
Interesting questions. Often disturbing answers. Go a bit deeper. We expect our religion to provide us with answers to such critical, pivotal questions as the meaning of life, death, Heaven, Hell, disease, and even God Himself. How hard are you willing to work to achieve or gain such insights, or do you essentially expect someone else to figure it out and just provide you with an executive summary once each week?
How much time and effort are you willing to expend or invest to safeguard the spiritual gifts you have been given? Do you expect others to pay the bills so that your church doors can stay open and that you should be able to gain all of these benefits without cost or effort?
To a certain extent, every single one of us has been infected with a “something for nothing” mentality. We leave our parent’s house with the expectation that our standard of living should start where theirs left off —even though they have worked for decades to get where they are, and we have done essentially nothing but live off of others.
While this sort of mentality is crippling our society, social problems actually pale in comparison to the spiritual havoc it is creating in the Church. That is the subject—the problem—we examine today. The text that will form the basis of our study is found in the third chapter of Paul’s letter to the Church in Ephesus:
I, Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus for you Gentiles—if indeed you have heard of the dispensation of the grace of God which was given to me for you, how that by revelation He made known to me the mystery (as I have briefly written already, by which, when you read, you may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ), which in other ages was not made known to the sons of men, as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to His holy apostles and prophets: that the Gentiles should be fellow heirs, of the same body, and partakers of His promise in Christ through the gospel, of which I became a minister according to the gift of the grace of God given to me by the effective working of His power. To me, who am less than the least of all the saints, this grace was given, that I should preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to make all see what is the fellowshipof the mystery, which from the beginning of the ages has been hidden in God who created all things through Jesus Christ; to the intent that now the manifold wisdom of God might be made known by the church to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places,according to the eternal purpose which He accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord.
So far the very words of our God. Confident that God will keep His promise to visit us with power and great blessing whenever we study His Word, so we pray, “Sanctify us by Your truth, O Lord. Your word is truth.” Amen.
Thomas Jefferson once wrote, “The worst day in a man’s life is when he sits down and begins thinking about how he can get something for nothing.” Pride and greed are obviously at work here. It is pride that tells me that I am worth more than I am being paid and greed that refuses to be satisfied with receiving only what I have actually earned by the labor of my own hands.
Again, while all of this absolutely destroys lives economically and socially, the spiritual implications are truly terrifying. The consequences there are truly eternal.
We are indeed in strange territory here, for we have come to a strange place where our sense of entitlement meets our desire for something for nothing. The result is that the Gospel itself is in peril as are such key Christian doctrines as grace and justification. In fact, if we really are deserving of all that we imagine, then grace really is dead.
We define grace as “God’s undeserved love for sinners.” He demonstrated that love nowhere more obviously and dramatically than when He sacrificed His Son Jesus to pay for our sins. Yet, this sacrifice of the Lamb of God is robbed of its beauty and meaning whenever and wherever mankind imagines that God was in any way obligated to do anything at all to secure our rescue; or that we were worthy or deserving in any way. In fact, the key word in our definition of grace is that word “undeserved”—God’s undeserved love for sinners.
You were probably as indignant as I when you first learned that union contracts force many companies to continue paying workers for not working when automation or improvements in efficiency made their jobs obsolete. Even though their companies no longer needed their services, the incredibly twisted thought was that these unnecessary workers somehow were still entitled, not to a job, but to the pay for that job—Jefferson would turn over in his grave.
Yet, when we shift the conversation from the physical to the spiritual, consider that you and I are ongoing beneficiaries of a much sweeter deal. The Law commanded every human being to carry out the tireless work of keeping God’s will perfectly. We opted not to do so. God’s rescue plan was to have His Son carry out that work in our place and to have you and I reap the benefit of forgiveness and eternal life. We didn’t do even one thing to earn such benefits. Jesus did it all. Far from deserving, we were the ultimate in undeserving and lazy spiritual slobs; and yet, God the Father, in light of what Jesus has done, has declared each of us to be sinless in His sight.
Were any of us deserving of such a gift? Obviously not, which is why grace and the Gospel itself are such a remarkable example of an undeserved gift. Yet understand that just as someone has to earn the money that pays for all the “free stuff” being given away in our society, so also the payment for our sins was not “something for nothing.” It was and is a gift as far as you and I are concerned, but that gift was earned at great cost by another, in our place.
We recently celebrated two events that also provide insight into God’s love and our own undeserving nature: the Baptism of Jesus and the beginning of the season of Epiphany. Both lose nearly all meaning and significance in the heart that is steeped in the “something for nothing” myth.
God knew that even with the birth, life, and death of His Son, human beings could not even bring themselves to believe in that Savior on their own. So He gave us the gift of Baptism. With the Word of God applied to simple water, God the Holy Spirit promised to work saving faith in human beings young and old. The part that man carries out could not be more simple: God’s Word plus water applied to a human being. The part that God the Holy Spirit carries out could not be more amazing: a dead soul is brought to spiritual life—simply amazing, and never earned. It is a pure and holy gift from a merciful, loving God.
Jesus, of course, had no sins to wash away. His baptism was, first of all, an anointing by the Holy Spirit for the work that lay ahead of Him. It marked the beginning of His public ministry at age 30. Secondly, by His participation in Baptism, Jesus gave us an example that we certainly should be eager to follow. Note well: Baptism was not a Law that had to be obeyed out of fear, but a loving invitation to participate in the Means of Grace—an offer of spiritual life from our merciful God.
We have also now entered the season of Epiphany. Our typical reaction is a yawn. In other words, while the paraments’ color on our altars and pulpits change, we notice and appreciate little else. It’s not that big of a deal to us. Why? Mostly because we take the good things of God for granted, and consider ourselves worthy.
Epiphany is when we celebrate the fact that God not only sent His Son to be our Savior, He also revealed that Son to the world as the Savior of all mankind. Our sense of entitlement works against us here in two different ways. First, because we imagine that of course God will reveal His Son to us as our Savior. Why else would He send Him? Yet, it is prideful and arrogant for us to take anything at all for granted from our God. God owes mankind nothing, and yet He has given us everything.
Secondly, Epiphany generally flies under our appreciation radar because it is about God revealing His Son as the Savior of all mankind—not just the Jews. “Well, of course, God sent His Son to save more than just those troublesome Jews. In fact, isn’t it true that Americans are actually much more deserving of such generosity than the Jews?” God preserve us from such nonsense, such arrogance. Every bit of this sense of privilege and deservedness is sin that irreparably damages the Gospel and God’s grace.
It is, on the other hand, the very essence of humility to affirm that God owed me nothing. Nothing at all. What I deserved was a life of misery and an eternity of torment. Paul understood this full well. He gives evidence in our text when he says, “of [this Gospel] I became a minister according to the gift of the grace of God given to me by the effective working of His power.To me, who am less than the least of all the saints, this grace was given, that I should preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ” (vv.7-8).
Paul was arguably the greatest Christian missionary. Through his mission efforts untold millions came to hear the Gospel and be saved. Yet, Paul still referred to himself as unworthy—as “less than the least of all the saints.” Perhaps this is part of the reason why Paul thrilled and rejoiced so much at the good news of sins forgiven through faith in Jesus Christ—because he had no sense of entitlement, privilege, or deservedness. Paul recognized his own personal forgiveness as a pure, undeserved gift from his God—the undeserved part brought into sharp, clear focus in his heart by the fact that Paul had once persecuted his Lord and his Lord’s Church. Paul’s confidence and boldness came not from himself and his own accomplishments or worth, but from the underserved love and promises of his Savior.
This is the very spirit that you and I want for our own—a sense of continual awe and thanksgiving at the great things that our God has done for us for which we were and are utterly unworthy. To this end we pray that our God would purge from our hearts every last shred of entitlement and deservedness, even while we stand in awe at the gift that we in no way earned. We also pray that instead He would fill us with humble gratitude for every one of His countless blessings. Only then can God’s grace be to us the amazing gift it truly is. 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.