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Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with the blessed memory of his wife, in Durham, NC, and has three adult children living in three different states. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, the faculty and students of Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, and the faithful fans of Duke and Baylor Basketball in his neighborhood.

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Tuesday, January 26, 2010

God's Will . . . Set Forth in Christ

This sermon was originally delivered on January 3, 2010, at Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church.

God’s Will . . . Set Forth in Christ

Jeremiah 31:7-14

Ephesians 1:3-14


The letter to the Ephesians contains numerous passages beloved by the church. The first chapter from which we read today is one of those places where the richness of the gospel speaks with great power. It plumbs the depths of theology and presses toward the limits of our abilities to understand the mysteries of God’s goodness and love.


Some of the themes of these opening verses include the eternal existence and supreme exaltation of Christ, election and adoption of the children of God, the abundant and powerful grace of God, Jesus’ redeeming sacrifice, forgiveness, and the wisdom of God. And that is just the first eight verses. My, my! It staggers the mind to think of the immeasurable greatness of God’s grace to us. It’s glorious grace, yes glorious. The glory of God is known in the grace of God. Grace is the crowning glory of God revealed in Jesus Christ. It is glorious beyond measure. The riches of God’s grace cannot be measured. They cannot be valued. “Marvelous grace, infinite grace, grace that will pardon and cleanse . . . that is greater than all our sin.” Praise be unto the God of grace.


But I want to focus today on a few lines from Jeremiah [verses 11-14] and the second part of our passage from Ephesians [starting with the end of verse 8]. We’ll start with Ephesians, then look back to Jeremiah to see the visually rich description from Jeremiah’s day of what Ephesians has called the “mystery of God’s will . . . set forth in Christ.” Thus, we want to consider today God’s will set forth in Christ. Turn to your neighbor and say, “God’s will . . . set forth in Christ.”


When we talk about God’s will, it is good to take a moment to question what is going on in our lives and the world. There is a kind of false comfort we can get by assuming that whatever is going on around us and in our personal lives must be God’s will. This false comfort is very different from the true comfort we have in God when we seek to find what the Holy Spirit is doing and would have us do in whatever circumstance we may find ourselves. That true comfort comes in seeking God. It comes in the striving that discernment requires. It is very different from the false comfort that says whatever happened must be God’s will.


A few friends of mine, some of whom are former students of Dr. Turner, published a book a few years ago called God Is Not . . . . I use this book with my beginning theology students in order to point out that many things that are going on in the name of Christian faith are not a true understanding of the God of the Bible. They are more of an accommodation to the powers that be. My point is that everything that is happening is not the will of God.


I think I have a habit of saying this in many of my sermons, so it may sound familiar to you. But the reason I always seem to come back to this point is that in order to know the will of God we also need to be able to recognize what is not the will of God. Everything that President Bush did was not the will of God. Everything that President Obama is doing may not be the will of God. Every preacher that is on TV or the radio is not doing the will of God. Every big and booming church may not be in the will of God. Every small and struggling church may not be in the will of God. Everyone with a job is not doing the will of God. Everyone without a job may not be in the will of God.


If we are to know the will of God, we must know where to look for it. Every up and down of the economy is not the will of God. To press a specific point, I need to say that economic injustice—whatever form it takes, whatever economic system it occurs in, whatever country or government oversees it—is officially not the will of God. God does not will economic injustice.


The ways that the economic system went wrong in recent decades, the ways that the powerful and devious preyed on the weak and trusting, were not the will of God. If someone cheated you, or if you cheated someone, that was not the will of God. When a few people took all the profits, no matter whom they hurt in the process, they were going against the will of God. God is a God of justice who stands up to those who would oppress others. The prophet Isaiah spoke boldly to those who had grown wealthy at the expense of the poor in chapter 3:13-15.


The Lord rises to argue his case;

he stands to judge the peoples.

The Lord enters into judgment

with the elders and princes of his people:

“It is you who have devoured the vineyard;

the spoil of the poor is in your houses.

What do you mean by crushing my people,

by grinding the face of the poor?” says the Lord God of hosts.


I am returning again to the topic of the economy today, even though you have heard me preach on this subject recently. I return to it because we remain mired in the struggles brought on by greed, short-sightedness, possessiveness, carelessly wishful thinking, outrageous risks, disregard of the hard-working common folk, playing with other people’s money, living the high life, wasting precious resources while many remain sick and hungry, preying on the desperate, and a multitude of other sins. Many of us have had to stand before God in the past months to ask for help and forgiveness because of the ways that we have managed our economic resources. At other times, we have had to cry out to God because of the ways that other people’s actions and decisions have harmed our ability to make a living and pay our bills. People who follow Jesus and people who want nothing to do with Jesus have had to face up to the need to change their ways and do a better job managing their finances. This is real to us, and it is not going away easily.


I also return to the economy because God has placed it on our hearts here at Mt. Level. God ‘s Spirit has told you and me to dwell on this matter and speak the truth to one another and to the powerful. God’s Spirit is speaking through this people of God concerning how God would have us move forward in times like these.


Since the economic crisis continues to affect and shape us all, then it would seem that we ought to be seeking to know the will of God for this time and place. What is the mystery of God’s will set forth in Christ for our economic situations? Our first judgment from this text is that it does not give us specific information about mortgages, televisions and cable bills, phone service, food on a budget, new or used cars, credit cards, savings, overdraft fees, and such things. Those particular issues we are dealing with are not mentioned directly. But just because the letter to the Ephesians does not use the word “mortgage” or “overdraft fee,” does not mean that we should conclude that this text is irrelevant for our economic lives.


It would be a mistake to treat this text in Ephesians as if it were merely about invisible, immaterial, metaphysical matters. That would be to spiritualize Christ and ignore the incarnation of God into the everyday existence of humanity. The gospel text for today is from John 1. The Word became flesh and moved into the neighborhood.


Certainly there is a metaphysical aspect of this passage from Ephesians. It uses the word “mystery” as well. But this does not mean that the message here is only some sort of lofty abstraction, nor that it must remain unknown to us. In fact, it explicitly says that God has made known to us this mystery. God’s will which would seem to be too complicated to figure out if we had to do so in our own power has been made known in Jesus. Another way to say that is that the mystery of God’s will is made known to us as Jesus. The first meaning of the will of God is Jesus. God’s grace, goodness, love, mercy, justice, power, wisdom, faithfulness, provision, purpose, everything which God is and is doing has been revealed to us in Jesus Christ.


It is the will of God that we be joined together in Christ. On communion Sunday, we are proclaiming and practicing that act of joining together. God’s will is that we would find that our purpose and meaning is known in Christ whose sacrifice and life we remember today. His ways must become our ways. His faith must be our faith. His love must be our love for one another. This might seem to great a task for us to accomplish, and that is true if we think we are to do it in our own power. But Ephesians tells us that God has done this work, gathering up all things in Christ, all things in heaven and on earth. Jesus Christ delivers to us our true inheritance, what God has intended for our lives to be from eternity. It is our destiny to live according to God’s will and purpose, as Jesus did.


When we have put our trust in Christ, and when we have set our hope on Christ, then we are joined with him in the redemption of our lives together. The messed-up, cockamamy way of living that people tried to figure out on our own can be laid aside and a new way of living can be taken up. As Ephesians says, we are marked with the seal of the Holy Spirit.


A mark is something to be seen. We mark things so we can identify them quickly. A mark may tell us what something is, what category it belongs in, whose it is, or what it is for. The mark of the Holy Spirit shows us to belong to God, to have the purpose of living the will of God. Now we might say that a mark put on something can get covered up with other stuff. Or a mark might get smeared. I’m not trying to say that the Holy Spirit’s seal is not effective. I’m only making a kind of allegorical, or figurative comment about how well we display the glory of God. Maybe we have put on a jacket and obscured the mark the Spirit has placed on us. A mark should be seen. If it can’t be seen, how does anyone know that it is there?


Ephesians says that we have the pledge of our inheritance. We don’t have the whole thing yet, but we do already have the mark. We are on our way to getting this inheritance. So we may not always do such a good job of letting this mark show the world God’s will. God is still working on us, but we are already set apart, marked, and categorized as being God’s own people. We now await the completion of God’s redemption, already assured by the work of Jesus Christ.


Now it might be possible to read this passage and think that it has little or nothing to do with our economic lives. But as I said earlier, that would be a mistake. The Bible is full of guidance and teaching about material possessions and money. It makes clear in very specific ways how we are to share what we have because God’s blessings come to us in order that we might bless others. So anytime we are talking about the will of God, we have to realize that God is all up in our financial affairs. God’s will doesn’t bypass our pocketbooks and bank accounts. God’s will doesn’t skip over our cars and furniture and computers. God’s will does not ignore our tithes and offering and sharing with our neighbors.


Ephesians says that all things are gathered up in Christ. That means we have to look to Christ to see how to arrange our finances and organize our economic living. Our earning and spending, our work and leisure, our owning and giving, should show the mark of the Holy Spirit. People ought to be able to recognize that we are dealing with our money and possessions in the way that Jesus showed and taught us. There is a personal and churchwide responsibility here to let God be glorified and praised for the way we handle our finances. Where is our hope? Is it in a pension fund? Is it in a big house or a prestigious car? Our hope must be set on Christ. Our redemption will not come from buying low and selling high. Our redemption comes from Christ’s work to make us God’s own people. When we are in economic harmony as God’s people, we are being redeemed.


Yes, this text pushes it farther than just me getting myself right. If the institutions and structures of economic life in the United States are not conformed to the calling that all is to be gathered up in Christ, that is no excuse for churches to set aside economic justice and say it is impossible. If no one else is paying a living wage, churches ought to be paying a living wage. If people do not have access to health care, God’s people ought to be making a way for access to health care. If banks and other financial institutions are creating conditions for perpetual indebtedness or debt sharecropping, churches ought to be sponsoring credit unions and other ways of financial sharing so that no one is in need. If the economists try to convince us that that we can trust an unseen hand to take care of everyone even if the wealthy and powerful are left to look out only for themselves, church people ought to be making their open hands visible as a witness to the ways of Jesus.


Just to add a little more confirmation to this interpretation of Ephesians, we should briefly take a look at Jeremiah 31. It is a text about redemption as well. It is about God’s gracious regathering of the people to be God’s children, God’s flock, a holy nation. In verse 12 Jeremiah gets specific about the goodness of the Lord: God’s goodness and grace is about grain, wine, oil, flocks and herds. It is like a watered garden. It is about plenty to eat for the priests and the people. It is about joy together, with dancing, making merry, joy, comfort, and gladness.


Jeremiah says “my people shall be satisfied with my bounty.” God will provide for the people, and the value of the material possessions is in the value of their shared lives. Young women dancing, old and young men having a good time—this is what is possible when we do not fixate our attention on acquiring and amassing wealth, hoarding possessions, collecting toy after toy, entertaining ourselves rather than enjoying one another. God’s purpose for economic life is that we might be joyful together. This can only be true in an economic system built on justice, mercy, and humility. Economic justice means that no one oppresses others or benefits from the suffering of others. Economic mercy means that we look out for one another and recognize that we all need a hand now and then. Economic humility means that we don’t think of ourselves in terms of our wealth as better than others because we know that whatever we have is given that we might bless others.


What is the will of God for us in this economic crisis? It is that we look out for one another, make a way when the world says no way, and join the struggle for economic justice. It is to set our hope in Christ, to believe the gospel that our redemption is by God’s grace and cannot be earned or bought for ourselves. It is to be marked by the Holy Spirit to show the world that we have been united in Christ to live a new and loving way as the people of God.


Today is the day for all of us to follow the will of God. For some of you, it may be that you have never believed the gospel, set your hope in Christ, or been united to Christ. If you are ready today to take a step down the path of following Jesus, then take up your destiny. God’s will is that we all be united in Christ and that our lives will offer praise to his glory. Come today to follow Jesus.


For some of you it may be that you have been wearing a jacket or sweatshirt to cover up the mark of the Holy Spirit on your life. You have repositioned your hope in your money or possessions rather than in the shared life of joyful love and care for one another. If you have let the anxiety or seduction of finances overwhelm your walk in Christ, then today is the day to renew your commitment to the will of God.


Perhaps you are not united to a church. It is a false gospel that says you can just be a loner Christian. Jesus calls us together to be God’s people. It’s right there in Ephesians 1:14. If the Holy Spirit is urging you to unite with this congregation, come today and enter into covenant with us to do the will of God.


God’s will has been set forth in Christ. Jesus Christ is the embodied image of the will of God. May we all be one with Christ, as the Holy Trinity is one in mutual love.

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