Sunday 13 May 2012

Wake up and smell the Jesus (Ephesians 5:3-20)

Back in college, I used to bunk in a room with three other guys. We’d go to lectures together, eat our meals together, revise for our exams together, and then stay up late chatting over cups of Milo together. This meant, though, that we always had problems waking up in the morning. None of us could get up on time, even though we all had alarm clocks. We would set them, our alarm clocks would start ringing, but then we would immediately turn it off and go back to bed, thinking that the other guy’s alarm would still wake us up. As a result, we were often late. Together.

In today’s passage, the bible is telling us that we need to wake up. It is saying that some of us go through life like sleepyheads. We make unwise decisions and choose foolish paths simply because we are unconscious. Meaning, we coast through life. We don’t take advantage of the opportunities given to us. We waste our time, not realising that we are wasting our lives. As Chinese philosopher and thinker, Bruce Lee, once said, “If you love life, don’t waste time, for time is what life is made up of.” (Whhooaaaaaah!!) The bible says the same thing:

Be careful then, how you live - not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity because the days are evil.
Ephesians 5:15-16

In particular, the bible says we need to be wise about three things: sin, secretiveness and the Spirit. Those are the three points from our passage today. We need to be aware of sin - how destructive it is but also, how deceptive sin is. We need to be wise about secretiveness - about hiding our sin, putting on an act and covering our sin instead of confessing our sin. Finally, we need to be filled with the Spirit - a way of saying, that we need to actively seek out God’s will for our lives and encourage others to do the same.

Sex, drugs and rock n’ roll

But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving.
Ephesians 5:3-4

The first thing the apostle Paul deals with is sin. He warns Christians about sinful actions - sexual immorality, impurity, greed. he also singles out sinful speech - obscenity, foolish talk, coarse joking. Yet the word he uses to describe these sinful actions isn’t “sin”. They are bad, yes; they are destructive, definitely. Instead, the person who does all these things isn’t just the bad guy; the sinful man. Paul says such a man is an idolater.

For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person - such a man is an idolater - has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.
Ephesians 5:5

Meaning, Paul is calling the sinful man an idol worshipper. He is saying that when you sin - whether with your body, mind or speech - you are no different from the guy bowing down at the temple with joss-sticks before idols. That’s surprising for many of us to hear. We expect the bible to condemn the sinner by saying that he has broken the rules; he has offended God. And indeed, one aspect of sin is all about turning against God in defiance and rebellion, and saying to him, “Get lost!” But another important way the bible pictures sin is the replacement of God, is the setting up of a counterfeit God. We look for our identity, fulfilment and satisfaction in something else other than God. That happens in temples, before statues of Kuan Yin - idols of deities, to whom we might offer incense, money or devotion. But that also happens in the Grand Arcade, before the gods of All Saints, Three Mobile and the Apple Store, in which we exchange our money and our time for a new look or a better phone plan. Both are essentially the same thing - the worship of idols. We turn away from God to look elsewhere for our fulfilment and meaning in life.

So, when you go back and read how Paul says these things are “improper” for God’s holy people (verse 3), he doesn’t mean “goody-two shoes”. To be holy means to be different. To be distinctive. To be exclusive to God and God alone. One important mark of this difference is therefore, thanksgiving. Verse 4: “Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse-joking, but rather, thanksgiving.” We are acknowledging God in his goodness and his blessing to us, not because we are deserving but because he is a merciful and generous God. That is distinctive worship. That’s what Christians do when they gather as God’s people on Sundays and in small groups. They recognise God for who he is what he has done for us in Jesus Christ. And that’s what Christians do when they do get that iPhone or those new pair of jeans from All Saints - sorry, to imply that you can’t ever shop in the Grand Arcade - but your distinctiveness is seen not in where you shop but how you shop. You are conscious of God’s grace. You are thankful for God’s goodness. You are giving glory to God when you receive his good gifts.

Here as Paul addresses the serious issue of sin, we need to hear his note of concern. This isn’t an angry schoolteacher telling off some students for goofing off at the back of the class. This is a concerned parent. This is a loving pastor saying to a group of Christians, “You guys don’t know what serious harm you’re doing when you sin. You don’t get it - the more you sin, the more you are fooled into thinking that it doesn’t matter that you sin.”

Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient.
Ephesians 5:6

“It is no big deal!” That’s the excuse we give whenever we’re confronted with a sinful action or behaviour. Such words are empty words, and yet we are tempted to believe them. They convince us that God doesn’t care how we live; that we can go on living any way we like, and it is nobody’s business but our own. Paul warns us, “because of such things” God’s anger is going be poured out directly on the disobedient. These “sons of disobedience” (as the English Standard Version has it) describe those who know God and yet choose to ignore him as God; who choose to ignore his word for their lives. Words like wrath, anger, hell, judgement. They say these are just words designed to scare us into being good, things parents say to get their kids to behave. Paul says judgement is very real. In fact, notice that Paul says that judgement is very near - God’s wrath “comes” - not that it “will be coming”, but that it is here: judgement is described in the present tense. There comes a point in our act of sin when we are so wilful and determined to carry out that sin, that all God needs to do is to step back and give us over to our sinfulness. To that person may seem like, “Hey! Look at me, I’m doing this with no consequences whatsoever.” To God, that person has been written off. That’s scary. Paul is describing a real, present judgement that can be seen even today, and he says to us, “Let no one deceive you.” Wake up!

But also, Paul says, “Don’t join them.”

Therefore do not be partners with them.
Ephesians 5:7

He’s not saying here to Christians that we need to avoid them. Don’t be partners with them, meaning, don’t join them in their actions; in abusing your freedom, don’t join them in sinning with your body and mind, don’t join them in carelessly speaking hurtful words to one another. Being holy means displaying God’s holiness in a world that isn’t holy. It doesn’t mean pulling away from the world, but displaying God’s distinctiveness in this world. Paul clarifies in 1 Corinthians Chapter 5:

I have written you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people - not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave the world. But now I am writing you that you must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral or greedy, or an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler. With such a man do not even eat.
1 Corinthians 5:9-11

Here in 1 Corinthians, we find the same categories of sin we saw in Ephesians - sexual immorality, greed, idolatry - but Paul says you can’t hide away from people who do these things. You are not supposed to. Otherwise, “you would have to leave the world”. Sometimes, that’s what we try to do. In a sincere effort to be God’s people, to live in a way that is pleasing to God, we pull away from anyone who doesn’t meet God’s standards. Paul is saying, “That’s just silly!” What he does warn us to do is to stay away from the Christian brother who does do these things. “With such a man do not even eat.” Again this is a wake-up call. We get the order mixed-up: we condemn the people who sin outside the church, and we ignore the sin that goes on and on inside the church. Paul says we live holy lives in the midst of a world that isn’t holy, and we are more conscious of it within the church which should be holy - not more oblivious to it, or dismissive of it here in the church - but more serious about it.

So, the first thing we need to be aware of is sin: the destructiveness of sin but also, the deceptiveness of sin - the kind of “empty” talk that says that there are no consequences to sin. Paul uses worship language to open our eyes to what really happens when we sin - we a giving ourselves to idolatry and we are facing the reality of God’s wrath. Instead, as Christians, we characterise our lives with holiness and we characterise our words with thanksgiving. Or, as Paul says next, we are to be “light in the Lord”.

Living as children of light

For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of the light (for the fruit of the light consists of all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord.
Ephesians 5:9

Elsewhere in the bible, Christians are described as those who have been called out of darkness into God’s wonderful light (1 Peter 2:9). It’s like you’ve moved house. You pack up all your things, you move out of darkness and you now live at a new address - Light. Things should look different in your life. Darkness is where you used to come from but not any more. You now live in the light.

However, Ephesians puts this rather different. Paul says, you were darkness, now you are light. Not that you’ve moved into light but that you’ve become light. Let me tell you why this is important - to see that we are not simply moving into a domain of light, but that we ourselves, have become a source of that light. We’ve just been talking about sin - sexual sins, greed sins, idolatrous sins - and we just heard that these sinful actions have no place among God’s people. The temptation is to deal with sin by avoiding it, maybe even, by denying it. So, we stay away from sinful people. We tell our kids to stay away from the bad kids who always get into trouble. We move out of bad neighbourhoods, away from crime, away from violence. These are not necessarily bad things to do. It is wise to stay away from temptation, especially when you know that you are susceptible to particular sins. And yet, the problem is, we might think that the solution to sin is simply to change our address. To put on a show. To try to look respectable. To avoid the bad hats and hang out with the good guys. Thinking this is what it means to be in the light.

Paul says, “You are light,” and that means two things. Firstly, you need to change. You were once darkness - you used to do these things; not any more. You need to change - your behaviour, your attitude, your life - and live for Jesus. This change is inside-out. It begins with a heart that says I’m no longer living for myself, I am going to do what God wants me to do (which is why Paul writes in verse 10: “Find out what pleases the Lord”). So, the first thing it means is radical change beginning with your life - from darkness to light. From living for ourselves to living for Jesus Christ.

But secondly, it means you become the agent of change in the lives of others. Your job isn’t simply to avoid sin, to avoid darkness. Being light means your job is to shine into the darkness. To speak lovingly and truthfully into situations where you do encounter sin. Or as Paul says next, you are called to expose the darkness.

Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. For it is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret. But everything exposed by the light becomes visible.
Ephesians 5:11-13

Now I know that this is a risky thing to say because it sounds like an excuse for being judgemental. It sounds like the busy-body who goes around pointing out problems in other people’s lives. No one likes that guy and no one ever listens to that guy. No, the way we are called to “expose” darkness is by being light in the darkness. It is talking about a contrast; a radical difference. We don’t go around saying, “That’s wrong, that’s wrong, that’s oh so wrong,” but rather we humbly live lives that say, “This is what it means to do right, to act justly, to love God.” It’s a contrast. Paul says, “The fruit of light is goodness, righteousness and truth” and he contrasts that against the “fruitless deeds of darkness.” Meaning, on one hand, you can’t help but expose sin simply by living holy lives. People will be more aware of their sin, they might even be more ashamed by their sin if they see you not caught up in those same sins. But on the other hand, you aren’t leaving people stuck in the dark either. You are speaking light into darkness. You pointing them to Jesus who died for our sins and frees us from our sin.

For it is light that makes everything visible. This is why it is said:
“Wake up, O sleeper,
rise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.”
Ephesians 5:14

It’s never pleasant dealing with sin, whether it’s in ourselves or in those we love. But the reason why we don’t avoid it, or sweep it under the carpet - the reason why it is actually loving to wake people up to the reality of their sin - is because it means we are waking them up to the reality of who Jesus is. We are not telling them that they are bad people who need to be good. We are not telling them they are lazy people who need to work harder. We are waking them up to see that they can’t help themselves, they are caught up in their sin, they are in danger of God’s wrath, but that they need Jesus who died on the cross to change them from darkness to light. Wake up, rise from the dead and Christ will shine on you!

Which brings me to my point of secretiveness. Paul says we need to expose darkness. We need to wake up and let Christ shine into our darkness. Again and again, the bible is saying to us how pointless it is to put on an act to cover up our sin. I know it is a shameful thing to admit that we are sinful. I know it is a painful thing to have those around us know that we have been sinful. But trying to hide it is foolish and it doesn’t work. I am not saying that you then need to confess your sins to me or to everyone in front of the church, that’s not what I’m getting at. What I am saying is this: Are you even aware of your sin? Do you need a wake-up call about a particular sin your life, which maybe no one sees because you have hidden it so well, in the dark, for so long? Why not try this: say to God, show me my sin. Say to Jesus: Shine your light on my life - every bit of it - show me who I really am. You know, Jesus says one of the signs of a genuine believer is that he isn’t afraid to do this.

Everyone who does evil hates the light and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God.
John 3:20-21

To recap, Paul says the second thing we need to be aware of is secretiveness - our propensity to hide our sin, the temptation to cover up our sin. And he says to us, You were once darkness, now you are light. In Jesus, he enables you to confront the darkness inside of you. He even uses you as an agent to confront the darkness in the lives of others, such that you are not simply calling them to turn away from their sin; you are giving them the opportunity to respond to Christ as their Lord and Saviour.

He is saying to us, this is what it means to live wisely - it is making the most of every opportunity in living for Jesus and speaking to others about Jesus.

Be filled with the Spirit

Be very careful, then, how you live - not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is.
Ephesians 5:15-17

In the movie Dead Poets Society, Robin Williams plays John Keating, an English teacher in a prep school. On the first day of school, he brings all his students to the trophy room. He makes them all stand in front of a large display case, drawing their attention to black and white photographs of old students who used to be just like them, who studied in the same school, who shared their hopes and dreams, some of whom went on to do great things. John says to his students, “Go on. Lean in and look at them. Can you hear their voices speaking to you?” Then, whispering in the background, Mr Keating goes, “Car-pe.... Carpe.... Diem. Carpe Diem. Seize the day!”

You have one life. Make it count. Seize the day. Don’t just coast through life, be deliberate. Or to use Paul’s words, “make the most of every opportunity because the days are evil.” Literally, the phrase means “buying time”. It’s a business term, meaning, your assets, your commodities are in a currency called time. Like a good businessman, you are always thinking, “How can I invest my time?” “How can I make the most return for my time.” It is saying that if you are smart and wise, you will realise that the important things in life cost you time. It means you have limited time - you can do one thing, you can’t do everything. And the worst thing you could do with your valuable time is nothing. The worst thing you could do is to waste your life.

That is what we do, if we are not wise. If we do not wake up. We let time pass us by, and in doing so, we let our lives pass us by. In the same movie, Robin William’s character quotes these words from American poet, Henry Thoreau:

‎"I went to the woods
because I wanted to live deliberately,
I wanted to live deep
and suck out all the marrow of life,
To put to rout all that was not life
and not when I had come to die
Discover that I had not lived."

You have one life. Wouldn’t it be a tragedy to say at the end of your life, “When I had come to die, (I discovered) that I had not lived”? But what’s the alternative? What does it means to “suck out the marrow of life”? I think it means this: To live passionately for Jesus. Or as Paul calls it, to be filled with the Spirit.

Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit. Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Ephesians 5:18-20

Some have used this phrase, “Be filled with the Spirit” as a way of saying that we need to have more of the Spirit, implying that some of us have less, others have more. You have 20% for coming on Sunday, but if you lead worship, you have 40%, and if you can lead worship and play guitar, you have 60%. That’s not what it’s saying. It’s not about having more of the Spirit, but about the Spirit of God having more of us, again linking back to the concept of redeeming and buying our time. It is making God more and more central in every aspect of our daily lives and saying to God, “Please fill me, all of me - my studies, my work, the way I use my money, the way I relate to my brothers and sisters in church - please use more of me for your glory.”

But why, then, does Paul compare the Spirit to wine? “Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery (which means recklessness; a destructive behaviour which doesn’t care about consequences) - instead, be filled with the Spirit, he says in verse 18. The problem is with drunkenness and not with the wine. It is taking something which is good and turning to it in excess for fulfilment and for pleasure, instead of turning to God. It’s no different from the idea of idolatry we saw earlier. It only results in disappointment and destruction. You could replace wine, with food: too much results in gluttony. You could replace it with money: too much results in greed.

On the other hand, we have the Spirit. And Paul is saying, being filled with God’s spirit is a tremendously good thing and when it overflows it results in blessing. In other words, you can’t have too much of God. “Speak to one another in psalms, hymns and spiritual songs (or songs inspired by the Spirit).” It is talking about joy and encouragement. Some songs you can listen to again and again. You’re not trying to memorise verses for an exam. You’re not being forced to sing it. You listen and you sing it because it’s fulfilling in and of itself - it’s an overflow. Often you call these “worship” songs, that is we are singing them to God, expressing thanks in Jesus. But notice that these songs are sung to “one another”. It says the same thing in Colossians 3:16, by the way. We sing to one another as a form of encouragement, that’s why it’s not just about those one or two people who are the best singers standing up front, doing a performance in front of the church. It is all of us, singing together, praising together, even singing to one another, as an overflow of being filled with the Spirit.

But also, we sing to our hearts. “Sing and make music in your hearts to the Lord.” Jesus Loves me this I know.... Yes, Jesus loves me, the bible tells me so. Knowing you, Jesus, there is no greater thing. You are ministering to your heart when you do that.

And Paul’s point is, You can’t do this enough. Anything else, you kinda need to watch yourselves that it doesn’t come back and bite you in the backside. Wine, movies, Facebook, TV, holidays, gardening, Tripos - all these are good, helpful, godly things given us for our enjoyment and God’s glory. But we can make idols out of them. Too much and we lose ourselves in them. Not the Spirit. Not Jesus. If you had to choose one thing to invest your time in that you know will give you a 100% return on investment, it’s knowing God’s will. He actually says it three times in our passage.

For of this you can be sure... (or know with certainty, and then he goes on to talk about the kingdom of Christ and of God)
Ephesians 5:5

And find out (discern, figure out) what pleases the Lord.
Ephesians 5:10

Do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is.
Ephesians 5:17

Three times, Paul comes back to knowing Jesus, figuring out what pleases him, and understanding his will. With regard to sin, the bible says, Don’t be swayed by empty words but be anchored on God’s word about his judgement and salvation. With regard to salvation, the bible says, goodness, righteousness, truth aren’t just perks that come with trusting Jesus, they flow from a heart that wants to please Jesus. And will regards to wisdom about the Spirit, about not wasting your life, Paul says, Don’t be foolish. Find out what Jesus wants you to do. That’s pretty amazing. Actually, I think it makes things very simple. The best way to guard your hearts, to spend life, to find true satisfaction is keep coming back to Jesus.

And amazingly, as he ends, he says even when we turn to God, when we give thanks to God, the best way of doing so, is always through Jesus Christ.

Wake up and smell the Jesus

Always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Ephesians 5:20

In a way, today’s passage speaks to three kinds people, and to all three, the bible says, you need to wake up and smell the Jesus. To the one caught in idolatry and sin, the bible says, give your worship to Jesus, who died for your sin and freed you from your sin. To the one trying to help his friend in sin, the bible says, point them to Jesus who is the one who can change them and whose love transforms them from darkness to light. Finally, to the one looking to spend his life wisely, who wants to live the extraordinary life, the bible says, look to Jesus and live for him. Everything we receive, we receive by grace from God, and it comes to us through one person and by one name, Jesus, our Lord and Saviour.

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