Sunday, March 06, 2005

Darkness Meets Light

Ephesians 5:8-14
[This message was shared with the people of Friendship Church on March 6, 2005]

When I was growing up, one of the favorite games for we neighborhood kids to play in the later hours of the night, just before our parents called us in to take our baths and go to sleep, was ‘Flashlight Tag.’

It was a low-tech combination of ‘Lazer Tag’ and ‘Hide and Seek.’ In Flashlight Tag, we didn’t have teams. One person was “it” and tried to expose those who hid under cover of darkness. I remember that it always brought a sinking feeling when the person with the flashlight found me. I didn’t like it at all.

The Bible, you know, describes Jesus as “the Light of the world.” We like that when it means that Jesus lights our ways through life and shows us that He is the way to heaven. But sometimes, when His light is cast on us, we see the darkness that resides within our souls--the sin, the selfishness. Truth is, we don’t like that any more than I liked being found in a game of Flashlight Tag. Today's Bible lesson deals with what happens when sins are exposed in this way.

The book of Ephesians, from which the lesson comes, is divided by scholars into two main sections.

The first three chapters deal with the issue of exactly what Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection mean for the relationship of Jewish believers in Jesus and non-Jewish (what the Bible calls Gentile) believers in Jesus. You see, the early Christian Church was a multicultural community, composed of Jews and Gentiles, and they all needed to figure out how to live and worship and work together.

Many of the Jewish Christians looked at the Gentile believers as "johnny-come-latelies" to faith and wondered whether these believers in Jesus really were part of God’s kingdom. It may have been to them that Ephesians’ most famous passage was directed:
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what He has made us to be, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand.
Did you catch that?

Whether you’re a Jew or a Gentile, you aren’t saved from sin and death and futility by the good works you do. You’re saved as an act of God’s charity toward those who believe in Jesus Christ.

Your mission from that point forward, because you’re thankful that God has loved you in spite of your sin, is to do the good works God made for you to do centuries before you were even born.

Every believer in Jesus--Jew or Gentile, young or old, Lutheran or Baptist, Catholic or Presbyterian, black or yellow, brown or red, green, white, or purple polka-dotted--has been saved by God’s grace and everyone who turns from sin and believes in Jesus Christ has the same mission to do God’s will.

That leads, naturally enough, to the theme of the final three chapters, the second great division, of Ephesians.

It answers the question, Now that we’ve been saved by God’s act of charity, His grace, how do we go about living our lives? Our Bible lesson for today begins by giving part of the answer to that question. Listen:
For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of the light—for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true. [Then it says that we should spend a good deal of time in our lives on a particular mission:] Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord. [And then it says:] Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.
To tell you the truth, whenever I read that last verse, telling us to expose darkness, I get uncomfortable. Is Ephesians saying that we Christians are to be vigilantes pointing out the moral deficiencies of others?

I hope not because when Christians act this way, they can be awfully ugly! A classic fictional account of that ugliness is The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne. It tells the story of Hester Prynne, an unmarried woman in colonial Boston, Massachusetts, who becomes pregnant. The town is scandalized and forces her to wear a scarlet A, standing for adultery, on her clothing.

The father of her child, the local pastor, gets off scott-free for years. While Hester owned her sin and became a wonderful person and a wonderful mother, the pastor became more and more miserable, something of which the solemn believers in Salem, their moral rectitude intact in spite of the truth of the situation, never were aware.

We followers of Jesus owe some accountability to each other, of course. Sometimes we may be called to cast a flashlight onto someone we love who’s hiding unrepented or destructive sin even from themselves. But we need to be very careful about that.

We need to be especially careful to avoid playing moral vigilantes with those who have no connection with Christ or the Church. I agree with Pastor Gerald Mann, a Baptist pastor in Austin, Texas, who observes that sometimes the main mission of the Church is to clean up the rotten reputation given to God by Christians!

When I think of how deeply God has to dive into the slime of my sin and selfishness in order to reach me with the forgiveness and hope He offers through Jesus Christ, I conclude that as Christian, I'm called not to harshly judge my non-Christian neighbor but, like Jesus, try to meet them wherever they are. It's interesting for we Christians to remember that Jesus never lashed out at unbelieving people for their sins. The only people Jesus ever lashed out against were often self-righteous believers in God who, quite simply, should have known better.

One of my favorite stories about a follower in Jesus meeting a spiritually-disconnected person involves Bill Hybels, the senior pastor of a large congregation near Chicago. Hybels had a neighbor. A hard-living, cigar-chomping business person who had done very well financially, but didn't have God in his life. The guy was gruff and Hybels liked him a lot. After developing a friendship with the guy, Hybels finally invited him to attend worship at his church some weekend.

The guy did show up for one of the church's services and later, Hybels thanked him for coming and asked him what he'd thought. The neighbor told Hybels he'd enjoyed it a lot. "And," he told Hybels, "that was a helluva sermon."

That compliment, of course, wasn't couched in the usual dainty church language. A moral vigilante probably would have blasted the guy. But Hybels simply thanked him. He met the guy where he was in order to show him the love and goodness of the God we know in Jesus.

I think that our lesson from Ephesians isn’t, for the most part, talking about us exposing the sins of others. It’s telling us something else, I think.

This past week, I underwent my annual physical exam at my doctor’s office. I do that so that I can discern any problems that need addressing and avoid future difficulties. As “children of” God’s “light,” you and I are to volunteer each day to let God give us a thorough spiritual examination.

When that happens, we can seek God's power to correct sins that might be blocking God’s power from our lives and so, be prepared for doing the great assignments God has in mind for each of us.

When I was a boy, my throat sometimes became sore. I’d try to conceal this from my parents because I knew that they could make me see our doctor. That didn’t appeal to me: I didn’t want the doc shining a flashlight down my throat, poking around, looking for problems. If he did find a problem, I knew, he’d likely prescribe medicine for me. And I hated that! When I was sick during the second grade, I wrote a poem for a homework assignment. My literary masterpiece? “Oh, how I hate to be ill; for then I have to take a pill.”

It’s painful when we let God point out our sins to us.

The prescription may be difficult for us to swallow.

God will want us to get rid of our sins. Because we tend to fall in love with our sins, parting with them can be very difficult.

The sins we love can be many different things—taking too many deductions off of our income tax, sexual intimacy outside of marriage, acting holier-than-thou with coworkers or family members, giving money first-place in our lives, wanting to keep up with the Joneses, boozing it up, or a thousand other ways sin can grab hold of our souls.

But whatever sin we specialize in, when God points them out, we have two choices and two choices only: (1) Keep on sinning and walk away from God; (2) Turn from the sin and ask God to help us live life God’s way.

When we make this second choice, we’re really living the words of an ancient church song that comes at the end of our Bible lesson for today: “Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead and Christ will shine on you!” We choose to let God wake us up.

And it’s this choice—the choice of turning from sin and asking God to help us to live life His way—that allows the bright light of Christ to shine on us and helps us to wake up to all the positive possibilities in our lives on earth and all the great things heaven holds in store for followers of Jesus.

Our congregation’s Forty Days of Purpose spiritual renewal campaign begins in about five weeks. It can be a time when we not only learn to let God’s light enter our lives, but as people transformed by God, become God’s light in the world!

Once more this morning, I’m asking you to make the following commitments:

Commit to read one chapter of The Purpose Driven Life throughout each day of our campaign for spiritual renewal.

Participate each week of the campaign in a small group.

Host a small group to which members of Friendship and our non-churchgoing neighbors will be invited during the campaign. (I’m asking God to help us establish 35 groups for the campaign. I’ve already had three people from outside of Friendship express an interest in participating.)

Prayerfully ask God how you can live out His five major purposes for your life which will be our focus during this forty-day campaign for spiritual renewal.

Next week, we’re actually going to have cards on which we’ll urge you to sign off on these and other commitments for the Forty Days of Purpose.

Some of you have heard me tell before about the remembrance of one of my seminary professors, Trygve Skarsten. He was on a ship sailing into a harbor once. For miles out to sea, there were two rows of lights that led ships to docks on the shore. Tryg later learned that each of those small lights was connected to and got their power from a huge light standing on the shore.

Our Bible lesson says that we believers in Jesus are lights that reflect and are connected to Jesus, Who is the Light of the world. And if you and I will commit ourselves to following Jesus and to, as our Bible lesson for this morning tells us, trying to find out and live out what is pleasing to God, God will use us to bring hundreds and thousands of people safely into the heavenly harbor where our God of love awaits all who follow Jesus! I can’t imagine anything being as exciting or rewarding as that!

So, as Forty Days of Purpose nears, make sure that you are a part of it. You won’t regret the time and energy you spend on it; I make that guarantee!

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