Total Pageviews

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Sermon, Ephesians 4:6-10

This is not my usual kind of post. It is a reworking of a sermon I prepared for services at Redeemer ICC, Busan, on June 25th, 2017. I had six weeks to prepare, and I used them well. I consulted a lot with my friend Rick VanManen, prayed lots, studied lots, and thought lots. It was the most thoroughly prepared sermon I have ever delivered. In an attempt to make up for the nuances and gestures that come with a sermon delivered to a congregation. I am using one trick that I would not normally use in writing: during the sermon I used three different accents to portray different roles. I have represented those accents here by using different fonts. In addition, I have used bold-faced type whenever I am quoting scripture, and italics when I am using words in Hebrew.

I feel the need to emphasize that this is not my usual writing style, because it was not written to be read, but heard. I have tried to figure out how to make it work on the page/screen, but I'm still not really satisfied with it.  So here is a link to the video of me giving the sermon. It opens in a separate window, in case you want to listen as you read. The sound quality is good, and I managed to stay within the visual field the whole time, for your viewing pleasure.

Gifts Throughout All Generations
June 25th, 2017

Hi! My name is Rob Sack. I come from Kansas, in the United States. as in "Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas any more." I've lived in Busan for about 15 of the last 20 years. Whoever is reading this, I pray that God's Word would shine out through this message as you read, and that the Word would move with power, changing changing you, drawing you closer to Jesus. Even my atheist friends out there. I know you all don't mind.

7 But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. 8 Therefore it says, “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.” 9 (in saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth? 10 He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.) Ephesians 4:7-10

A few weeks ago I had a bicycle accident. It was not very serious, a few scrapes that have for the most part healed. Then just over a week ago, Maxine fell down while running around outside at school. Twice, I believe. She got a little scraping of her own, and I had the opportunity to return the favor of applying iodine to her injury. If you have not had iodine solution applied to a scrape, you are missing out on a uniquely painful experience. I suggest that you try to avoid it. At bedtime that night, Maxine asked me if I had cried after my accident. I replied honestly that I had not, as the pain was not very intense, but that I had indeed cried four or five times during the past month. She asked me when, and I told her that one was after I said goodbye to my friend Rick. One time was while we were singing "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" at church. And one time that I cried might have been watching Wonder Woman. I mean, finally DC manages to produce a good superhero movie! With a female lead! Who wouldn’t be moved to tears? 

Two times were with two different friends. They were in very different situations, but both had felt a combination of betrayal, loss, and being let down by people they had trusted. I felt their pain, and wept with them. Since my conversation with Maxine, we have had American Father’s Day. There were many joyful posts on Facebook, but also many friends who mourn a father-shaped hole in their hearts on this day.

Sometimes life just seems to pile on us, burying us so that we can’t breathe or see the light. All we can smell is the smoke of a fire that has destroyed the homes of friends and family. All we can see are chalk outlines on the ground. All we can feel is the emptiness left when a loved one has died. We can so easily think that everything is being taken away. When we are suffering it can be hard to even look at scripture like the one in front of us today. So we come together, and together we call on God, and together we read God’s Word. And together we try to understand.

The first thing I noticed was that verse seven starts with the word “but.” Why the “but?” What’s so different between the previous verses and this one? Let’s take a look at verses 4 through 6:

There is one body and one Spirit-just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call-one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:4-6)

These verses focus on grace given to the one body, the Church. The collective us. The next set of verses get into the nature of those individual gifts, with the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers. Now we are making a minor transition back to us as individuals, as in the first three verses of Ephesians 4. Now verse 7 tells us this:

But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. (v7)

In other words, we each, as individuals, receive the full measure of God’s grace. Not just as a group. Christ’s gift in verse 7 is the gift of His own life to save us. Grace comes to us because of that gift, and to each of us, regardless of how low we have been, the grace we receive is measured by that sacrifice. And that is amazing. That God’s full measure of forgiveness is given to me! That’s God’s full measure of grace is given to you! 

A couple of weeks ago Matthew told us that physics doesn’t work so well on faith and God, and this is an example of how math doesn’t work: the grace that I have received from God is not the answer to “God’s total grace divided by the number of people to whom it has been given.” It’s not a division problem. The answer is, God gives me all of it! And God gives YOU all of it! And God gives the full measure of peace to YOU! And God gives the full measure of Joy in all things to YOU! All of God’s love is poured into EACH. ONE. OF. YOU.

Of course, this also means that you have no excuses. If you think that you can just BE in church, as a spectator, watching from the sidelines, Paul is delivering you a kick in the pants. You have received an amazing gift. Use it. Moving on to verse 8:

Verse 8: Therefore it says, “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.”

What does “he ascended” mean? It is pretty clearly The Ascension. After the resurrection, Jesus spent 40 days on Earth before being “taken up into heaven.” (Luke 24:51) We’ll talk more about this in relation to verse 10. Let’s move on to “A host of captives?” Who are these captives? The bad guys? Herod? Pilate? No, of course not. This is no superhero movie. The captives are sin and death. The gifts that God gave to men will be covered in next week’s sermon, but if you don’t mind spoilers, you can just read on through verse 16. I am sure that if you do so, you will still be able to enjoy next week’s sermon.

But the key word in verse 8 is “it”, as in “Therefore it says.” Paul is clearly quoting something. He’s stepping outside of himself, calling on a higher authority. He’s doing something he hasn’t done yet in Ephesians, though he will do it again one more time. 

Once again let me say, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore. Of course, this is a quote from a movie called “The Wizard of Oz.” Dorothy has just arrived in a magical land. She walks out of her home, which is in black and white, and into a world of color. You should keep in mind that many people watching this in movie theaters back in 1939 were seeing color on the screen for the very first time! Before this, movies were all in black and white!

Why am I bringing this up? Because I am doing something similar to what Paul did in verse 8. It is similar in four ways I can see:
  1. Paul I are quoting something familiar to some, if not most of our audience.
  2. You can look it up easily, and become more familiar with if you wish to.
  3. The quote we are using is not exactly right.
  4. We are both doing it to help you understand a deeper point, as well as to shake you up a bit.
We will discover Paul’s deeper point as we work through the passage. But my deeper point is one which I often refer to in my preaching: casting ourselves into the Bible, not just looking into the Bible, but looking out at the world through the Bible. And so today I intend to help you hear these words as Paul’s original congregation at Ephesus may have heard them. In other words, we’re not in Kansas anymore. Or even Korea. We’re in Ephesus.

It has been a generation since Jesus rose from the dead and went to Heaven. There are still people alive who met him, but none in this congregation. Paul came and started this church not too many years ago. Now we continue to meet. We pray. We read the scriptures aloud and discuss them. We break bread together in remembrance of Jesus’ last night with His disciples.

And when we receive a letter from Paul, one of us reads it out loud to the whole group. Maybe straight through without stopping the first time, because it’s so exciting to hear from him. And those of you who met him can testify, reading his words is like hearing his voice, am I right? But later, we stop and talk as we read, maybe taking a few meetings to get all the way through it. This time we stop when the reader says: Therefore it says, “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.” (Ephesians 4:8) And someone asks, “Where do I know that from? Paul is definitely quoting something. It’s so familiar!”

Now I need to drag you back to the real world, here in Busan. In 2017. What is the “it” that Paul is quoting here? It is, in fact, Psalm 68. Before we go on, this could get very confusing as we jump back and forth between now and back then, so I am going to refer to the separate times as "layers." Here and now is Layer 1, reality. The church in Ephesus, around A.D. 62, is Layer 2. So now back into Layer 2:

Someone says, “It’s from the Jewish Bible, right?” And someone else chimes in “You know, I think it’s a verse from Psalm 68.” Right! Psalm 68 is song called “God Shall Scatter His Enemies,” one of David’s rousing, foot pounding numbers. Like a first century version of “Onward Christian Soldiers”. Here’s a sampling:

God shall arise, his enemies be scattered;
Those who hate him shall flee!
But the righteous shall be glad;
And jubilant before God!
(Psalm 68:1,3 modified)
God shall arise, his enemies shall be scattered;
And those who hate him shall flee before him
But the righteous shall be glad;
They shall exult before God;
They shall be jubilant with joy!
(original Psalm 68:1,3)

The entire song is about God’s power, and how the enemies of God will submit or meet a gruesome end. It’s a lot more intense than the kind of praise song you hear back in Layer 1. Take time to read it this week, let me know what you think on the Face-to-Face-Conversation (because here in Layer 2 the Internet hasn’t been invented yet, much less Facebook).

You’ve been studying us Ephesians for a while now. What do you know about us, based on Paul’s letter so far? Of course! Most of us are Gentiles! So how would a bunch of first century Gentiles be familiar with the Jewish Bible? We learned it from the earliest Christians, who were all originally Jewish of course! Think of what Paul wrote to Timothy:

16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. 2 Timothy 3:16-17 (ESV)

What does he mean by scripture? We in Layer 2 are reading this before the New Testament will be compiled in the form you know in Layer 1. Paul is referring to the Jewish Bible, what you call the Old Testament. And at our church in Ephesus would are somewhat familiar with the Jewish Bible, so we noticed the connection. We do not have individual Bibles as you do in Layer 1, much less electronic, cross-referenced, pocket-sized versions. For that matter, none of us have a single book called a “Bible” at all. Collectively we have copies of the gospels (including Acts), and some of the early letters, of Paul and John, maybe James. We have copies of some of the Old Testament books, but almost certainly not all of them. Paper is expensive, as is the expertise to copy a scroll with no errors. I believe that compared to you, in Layer 1, we are much more likely to have large portions of scripture memorized, as books are so expensive here. So we depend on each other to make, and share, connections between what was written in the letters and gospels to the Hebrew Bible. Much like what you do in your Life Groups, I’m sure. We notice this connection, but no one in our congregation is really an expert on Psalm 68. We kick it around for a while, try to remember all the words, and do some research, but Wikipedia is taking an extremely long time to load. So we go to the local synagogue and ask the Rabbi to help us understand Psalm 68.

Welcome!” says the Rabbi. “So you don’t know from Psalm 68? I think that I can help you. Let’s take a look.” He finds the right scroll and reads from it:

You ascended on high, leading a host of captives in your train and receiving gifts among men, even among the rebellious, that the LORD God may dwell there. Psalm 68:18

Wait a minute! Paul got something wrong! His letter says:

Therefore it says, “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.” Ephesians 10:8

We ask the Rabbi a key question: who is the he in this verse?

King David, of course!” says the Rabbi. “He was a conquering hero! Of course his people gave him the best of the spoils of the battle!”

We are all struck by the differences: the earthly king David taking tribute, the heavenly king Jesus giving gifts. The earthly king David taking human captives, the heavenly king Jesus making captives of sin and death! Yet both are God’s emissaries. What else can we learn from this tradition? We ask the priest, what spoils? What battle?

The priest sets aside the Psalm and says, “The answer is here in The Chronicles of Israel, though you can also find the same story in the Book of the Kings of Israel.” He opens the scroll of 1 Chronicles and reads:

So David and the elders of Israel and the commanders of thousands went to bring up the ark of the covenant of the LORD from the house of Obed-edom with rejoicing. And because God helped the Levites who were carrying the ark of the covenant of the LORD, they sacrificed seven bulls and seven rams. David was clothed with a robe of fine linen, as also were all the Levites who were carrying the ark, and the singers and Chenaniah the leader of the music of the singers. And David wore a linen ephod. So all Israel brought up the ark of the covenant of the LORD with shouting, to the sound of the horn, trumpets, and cymbals, and made loud music on harps and lyres. 1 Chronicles 15:25-28

The Rabbi tells us to imagine Jerusalem, the City of David, almost a thousand years ago. And with that, he takes us into Layer 3, almost 3,000 years before your Layer 1.

We are standing on top of the gate to the city that we instantly recognize as Jerusalem. Though it is only half the size it will be in Layer two, it seems to have twice as many people! They line the road leading into town, and fill the streets inside the walls. We are standing with an old man wearing the robes of a priest. You picked the best possible day to be here,” he says. 

We see a procession coming down the road. Men carrying a large box that brilliantly reflects the golden rays of the sun as they slowly make their way to the city. It is a parade like no other.

The old priest continues: “The men carrying the Ark are Levites who have been consecrated, ceremonially purified, so that they may approach the seat of Adonai, and touch it without dying. Adonai is the giver of gifts, but He demands respect. Israel will surely be blessed by the return of the Most High. Baruch Hashem.” (Blessed be God)

The procession draws closer. We see people dancing, playing instruments and singing. Leading the procession is a dancer who seems to be challenging all of the others to keep up with his energy and feeling. He is breathing heavily, and the sweat pours off of him, but he continues, his every move sending a message of joy that we clearly receive, even from up on the wall. His clothes are disheveled, and he appears half mad with adoration. We ask the old priest, “Who is that dancer in front of the others?”

That is his royal majesty, King David, appointed by the prophet Sh’mu’el (Samuel), slayer of tens of thousands, ruler of all Israel in the name of Adonai.

When we express our surprise, he laughs. “I know. One expects dignity from a King, but David has always been willing to humble himself before The Lord. And the return of the Ark of the Covenant is a gift like none other. Not since we were delivered from Egypt …”

The old priest attempts to take us down into Layer 4, to show us the Exodus. God rescuing, redeeming his people Israel from Egypt, when they had done nothing to deserve such a gift. From there we could easily slip into Layer 5, to witness God granting to Jacob the gift of sons who would found the 12 tribes of Israel, including his son Joseph who would save them all from starvation in Canaan. From Layer 5 to Layer 6, where God gives Abram and Sarai new names, and children that outnumber the stars. To Layer 7, in which God gives Noah and his family the gift of life when the world deserves nothing but death. Until we finally reach the lowest Layer, the Foundation in which God gives The Word.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. John 1:1

Then God said, “Let there be light”’ and there was light. Genesis 1:3

We have returned to Ephesus, recovering in awe from the journey we’ve been on. It all comes back to Jesus. All the gifts of God throughout the ages, the greatest gift being Jesus himself. Suddenly we understand why Paul has used this line from Psalm 68. We remember the words of Luke, the healer, in his book about the life and death of Jesus. In it, Jesus said to them,

These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” (Luke 24:44)

Paul is helping us to see that all of history has led inevitably to this ultimate gift. He has gotten his deeper point across.

And we, back here in Layer 1, the 21st century, realize that we are not really so far removed from the church at Ephesus in the first century. So that was verse 8. Let’s move on to verse 9.

Verse 9: (in saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth?

Well, what does it mean that Jesus descended to Earth? It means the incarnation of God. God taking human form, walking with us physically. Feeling what we feel. Making friends. Being hungry. Laughing. Being tempted. God giving God’s self to us. The gift that literally never stops giving.

Verse 10: He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.)

Jesus was incarnated, died, was resurrected, then returned to Heaven: The Ascension. Some people brush past the Ascension, which is an understandable mistake: the Gospels of Matthew and John don’t mention it directly at all. But the Ascension of Jesus is very important. Jesus says so himself in the gospel of John:

Let not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. And you know the way to where I am going.” John 14:1-4

So Jesus ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things. To clarify this one, all we need to do is back up to Ephesians chapter 3 verse 19:

and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. (Eph 3:19)

We are being filled with the fullness of God: God’s love, God’s mercy, God’s wisdom, God’s gifts. Jesus is filling all things because He returned to God. As beautiful as it must have been to be with Jesus on Earth, as much good as he did, and could have continued to do, Jesus could only complete His work after His return to heaven: As our scripture today reads, he ascended so that he would be able to fill each of us with the fullness of God.

I have two applications for you in this coming week. One is a daily, and the other is a one shot. I don’t want you to be distracted by having too many things to do. The one time application is to read Psalm 68 all the way through. Try to imagine how it reads from Layers 2 and 3 rather than just how we see it from here in Layer 1. It's a big one, and it might take you awhile to get through it, but don't give up!

The other application is a daily one: I want you to search for the gifts of God in every situation that you find yourself in. Write down what you see, or tell someone about them. Or both. The Church at Ephesus no doubt came to better recognize the gift of Jesus through Paul’s letter.

When Dorothy returns to Kansas at the end of The Wizard of Oz, she finds that the dear friends she made in the magical land are her friends from the farm where she lived all along. Though she does end up back in Kansas, Oz is still with her. Though she no longer has the Ruby Slippers, she still has the gift of the friendships she built. She found the gift.

In the past month I received a rare gift: the return of a friend from far away. Many of you met Rick, and saw the two of us laughing at each other’s dumb jokes, watching superhero movies together, and eating way more than we should have. When he emailed me to say that he was visiting Korea earlier this year,, I was like a kid waiting for Christmas morning. As a grown up, I rarely get excited over receiving things, and when I do that excitement does not last. But I recognized that this would be a gift to remember, a true blessing from God. Goodbyes have been a part of my life for so very long, but they only become easy when I don’t let people into my heart. It’s not worth avoiding the heartbreak, so I still let people in, though I know there are always more goodbyes coming.

God’s gifts are not just coming at some future time. They have been arriving throughout all generations, and will continue, forever and ever. Look for the joy hidden in your heartache. Remember that heartache comes from trust, and trust comes through love, and all love comes from God. When you feel betrayed remember that Jesus faced betrayal on his path to the cross, but that path led to the heavens. If you’ve lost something, remember that you can’t grab something new while holding on to something old. Remember that when you bought a ticket for Suicide Squad you were actually paying for Wonder Woman.

I challenge you to notice and give thanks for one gift every day. Just sit down at the end of the day and remember, pray, read your Bible, and give thanks for that gift. It doesn’t have to be a genuine, certified miracle. It can be something small. Being thankful is a good habit.

And if all the gifts you can think of have turned out to be empty boxes, amusing for a short time then thrown out with the trash, maybe it’s time to accept the one gift that is forever: the gift of God’s grace. Pray about it. Send me a message on Facebook (or the old school Face to Face conversation), or drop in on my Life Group. Or talk to someone here that you feel comfortable with. Whatever you do, don’t let one more day go by without opening yourself up to God’s amazing gifts, prepared for you from the beginning of time! Today I’ve tried to give you a glimpse through Paul’s words of how God has given so much to his people throughout history. And like any gift, it can be refused. But why would you refuse it? Why not accept life?

Let us pray.

Dear Jesus, thank you for the gifts that you continue to give to us. Thank you for your grace that sets us free from sin and death. Thank you for your rich and beautiful Word, the Bible, that helps us to better understand you and your will for our lives. Awaken in each of us a hunger to have more of it. Help us all to get into our Bibles so that we can look out at the world more like you do. We pray in your name, the one who fills us with the fullness of God, Amen.

No comments:

A Brief Introduction

Roblog is my writing lab. It is my goal to not let seven days pass without a new post. I welcome your criticism, as I cannot improve on my own.

Here is a link to my cung post, which remains the only word which I have ever invented, and which has not, as far as I know, caught on. Yet.