MISSION IMPOSSIBLE – AUGUST 12, 2018

MISSION IMPOSSIBLE

A sermon on Ephesians 4:25-5:2

First Baptist Church of Lynchburg

August 12, 2018

By Paul Dakin

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.

 

The sermon text this morning is from the book of Ephesians. Scholars tell us that this letter from Paul was most likely written while he was prison, possibly while he was awaiting trial in Rome. Throughout the book, he celebrates the life of the church as a unique community established by God through his Son Jesus. It is a very straightforward book. In it, he emphasizes the need for the church to live together in the unity that Christ offers them. Paul calls upon the church to live as “children of light” and he speaks of the spiritual benefits that being a part of this community offers them. As he begins to wind down the book in chapter 4, he offers practical advice as to what life in the Spirit lived in this new community should look like.

 

And so, because of what the church is really supposed to be, he gives instructions for personal conduct in today’s text. The first thing is says is that members of the church should stop lying. Okay. That seems kind of obvious to me. Doesn’t it to you as well? And yet, you do not have to be in church very long before you realize that some people will play fast and loose with the truth if it suits their own purposes. It is sad and it is a reproach on the name of our Savior—but it is true. Folks will lie even in church.

 

On top of that, Paul says that the folks in the Ephesian church are not to let any evil come out of their mouths. Instead, they are to only speak those words that are helpful and uplifting to the community. He takes special care to warn them about the dangers of anger. I do not have to tell you that how we respond to our feelings of anger can negatively impact the way that we speak to one another. We all have stories about how anger has affected us.

 

Note that Paul does not equate anger with sin. He writes in verse 26, “Be angry but do not sin…” However, Paul is well aware of our tendency to sometimes let anger is something that can quickly and easily get out of control—in friendships, in families and even in church. And sadly, the damage that it causes is often not easily repaired. So Paul says to be extra careful and to not let their anger get the best of them. The Apostle James also warns us about the dangers of anger—and how we express it—by counseling that everyone should be “quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness…” (James 1:19-20)

 

In verse 28, Paul says that thieves should stop stealing. Honestly, wouldn’t you have thought that not stealing from others would have been a given too?  Why would anyone think that stealing was okay when following Jesus?…I don’t know, but I guess that it must have been a problem in the Ephesian church, or else Paul would not have brought it up. Perhaps a lesson to be learned here from Paul’s counsel on our speech and about stealing is that some things that are obvious to us may not always be obvious to others. It is just as true in the realm of the Spirit as it is anywhere else…

 

Verses 31 and 32 seem to me to be a kind of summary statement to what Paul is trying to say in this chapter. He writes, “Put away all bitterness and wrath and anger”—there it is, that word “anger” again—“and wrangling and slander, together with all malice and be kind to one another.”

 

There is a lot of great stuff here that could provide the basis of a number of good and timely sermons about what life inside the church is supposed to look like. But what caught my attention in this passage is the opening phrase of chapter five. It reads, “Therefore, be imitators of God, as beloved children.” Did you catch that? Paul writes that we are to imitate God

 

On the surface, I think that this is one of the most outrageous statements to be found anywhere in the Bible. Who can imitate God? Who can do what God can do? Who among us has that kind of power? How is it that finite creatures like us are supposed to imitate the God who created everything out of nothing? God controls the destinies of thousands of galaxies throughout the infinite expanse of space. Almighty God, the Ancient of Days, the One who was, and is, and is to come? And yet Paul writes that we are to imitate God. At first glance, the statement seems utterly absurd…

 

But there is no denying that is what Paul is saying. The word translated as “imitators” in this verse is the Greek word mimētēs. It is the origin for our English word “mimic.” So Paul is telling us in this passage that we are to “mimic” God. Wow…talk about “Mission Impossible”…

 

You all have heard the cliché that “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” That concept has been in circulation for at least the last two centuries. And like all wise sayings, there is more than a grain of truth in it. In our society, when something is really good, you can bet that there will soon be a host of imitators trying to cash in. That is just the way that things are.

 

The great 20th Century Nobel Prize winning writer George Bernard Shaw took that idea and amended it. He gave us an important lesson in the process. Shaw wrote that, “Imitation is not just the sincerest form of flattery; it is the sincerest form of learning.”

 

If I were to mention to you the name of the painter “Holman Hunt,” my guess is that many of you might not recognize it immediately. But I promise that you know at least one of his most famous paintings pretty well.

 

Holman Hunt was one of the most celebrated British painters of his generation. His bold sense of color, his intricate use of detail and his elaborate use of symbolism made him famous worldwide during the latter half of the 19th Century. His best known work is one that you see every Sunday when you enter the sanctuary here at First Baptist. It is the picture of Jesus knocking at the door and is titled “The Light of the World.” The original is an oil painting by Hunt that is faithfully replicated in the large stained glass window in the front of our church.

 

The story is told that a lady who was watching Holman Hunt draw perfect free-hand circles once asked him how she could learn to do it. He replied, “You must practice eight hours a day. Do it every day for forty years and then it is just as easy as this.” And with that, he proceeded to draw for her a circle as perfect as though it had been made with a compass. [1]

 

The lesson to be learned from Hunt’s words is that you cannot drift into any great or perfect accomplishment by accident. It has to be intentionally learned. For example, the only way that one can hope to become proficient at drawing perfect circles is to practice drawing perfect circles over and over and over again. This constant repetition must be done until it becomes second nature. Then drawing perfect circles can be done automatically without even stopping to think about it. In the same way, we ought to expect that this highest experience that life knows anything about—becoming more like God through our relationship to Christ—would call for our best powers and our keenest efforts. You have to practice—it does not come naturally. It is only by imitation that we can learn to become more like that people that God intends for us to be…

 

So how can we truly be imitators of God? Let us just be honest: in some ways, we cannot imitate God. We simply can’t. We do not have God’s power. We do not have God’s wisdom. We do not have God’s perspective of space and eternity, of righteousness and justice. We are finite, mortal people with all the limitations that our physical being imposes upon us.  God has no such limits. God is not bound by the same things that bind us.

 

In Job 38, God asks Job a series of questions. Among the questions that God asks is, “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?…Have you ever given orders to the morning, or shown the dawn its place, that it might take the earth by the edges and shake the wicked out of it?…What is the way to the abode of light? And where does darkness reside? Can you take them to their places? Do you know the paths to their dwellings?” Job had no answers for any of God’s questions. And neither do we. We cannot imitate God by doing the same great deeds of power and creation that God does…

 

However, there are ways in which we can imitate who God is and how God acts in this world. And for this, we turn now to a psalm described as “one of the finest blossoms on the tree of biblical faith.”[2] We look to Psalm 103 for guidance because it describes for us some of the characteristics of who God is that we can imitate…

 

Psalm 103: 6 tells us that “The Lord works for vindication and justice for all who are oppressed.” When we work for justice for all people, then we are being imitators of God.

 

God has a long history of being on the side of the underdog. The dominant story that undergirds the Old Testament is the story of the Exodus. The Hebrew people cried out to God from their slavery and oppression by their Egyptian taskmasters. You all know the story. God heard the voices of the children of Israel, raised up a man named Moses, and then led them out of their slavery into the land of promise. God led the Hebrews from oppression to freedom.

 

God is still in the business of working to free people from the chains of poverty, the shackles of addiction, and the bonds of discrimination in whatever form that takes shape. God wants to bring people into the new life that he promises through the Spirit. God is interested in everyone having the opportunity to become all that their God-given abilities can allow them to become. And to do that, they need to be set free from the things that hold them back. When we work to help liberate others, then we become imitators of God…

 

God also wants to set free those who are trapped in the dungeons of their own sins, the prisons of their own despair. The way to spiritual freedom is through the good news of the Kingdom of God—the way of reconciliation that God has provided through his son, our Lord Jesus Christ. Romans 6:17-18 tells us, “Thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you wholeheartedly obeyed the form of teaching to which you were entrusted. You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.” God wants to break the hold that sin has on our lives in order to bring us into the glorious freedom of his Spirit. When we share with others the liberating good news of Jesus, then we are being imitators of God…

 

Psalm 103:8 reads, “The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger” (hmmmmmm—look at that—there’s that word “anger” again) “and abounding in steadfast love.” Four things in this verse that describe how God is…

 

Psalm 103 says that God is merciful. In his play The Merchant of Venice, William Shakespeare wrote these lines:

The quality of mercy is not strained.

It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven

Upon the place beneath…

It is an attribute to God himself,

And earthly power doth then show likest God’s

When mercy seasons justice…[3]

 

“Strained” is an archaic form of the word “constrained” meaning “forced.” Therefore, mercy is not a quality that can be forced or coerced. It is something that is to be easily and freely given. The gospel hymn writer had it right when he declared, “Mercy there was great and grace was free,/

Pardon there was multiplied to me,/ There my  burdened soul found liberty/ At Calvary.”[4]

Psalm 103 describes God as “gracious.” Exodus 34:6 is almost quoted exactly in this verse from Psalm 103. You remember how the people of Israel in the wilderness had disobeyed God by creating and worshiping the golden calf. They claimed that this represented the god that had rescued them from Egypt. That disobedience greatly kindled God’s anger against the Israelites…and yet he showed them grace by not destroying them. Instead God reaffirmed the covenant that he had made with them earlier, being gracious when they did not deserve it, when they should have received the just punishment for their sin. When we show grace and forgiveness to others when they have wronged us, then we are being imitators of God…

 

The next characteristic of God mentioned in Psalm 103 is that God is “slow to anger.” God is patient with us even when we go astray, gently bringing us back into relationship with him when we are less than what we would like to be. Later on in Psalm 103, we read, “As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him. For he knows how we are made; he remembers that we are dust.”

 

Patience is a quality that every good parent needs to have in abundance when dealing with their children. (Can I get a witness?) And God’s patience with us knows no end. He knows that we are weak, that we are frail, that even the best of us are susceptible to sin, that we will sometimes fail to live up to what we say we believe. And yet, God does not cast us aside. Instead, he has patience with us and helps us to come back into the way of Jesus. and hopefully we have become a bit wiser than when we got off track, so that we do not make the same mistake again. When our lives are characterized by patience, with others and with ourselves, then we are being imitators of God…

 

Next up is that God is “abounding in steadfast love.” 1 John 4 gives us perhaps the best description of God’s love to be found anywhere in the Bible. In that chapter, John writes, “Love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God…This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him….Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another…God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him.” There is really nothing more that I—or anyone else—can add to that. When our lives are characterized by love, then we are being imitators of God…

 

The last characteristic of God from Psalm 103 that I want to mention is found in verse 10. There the psalmist writes, “[God] does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities.”

 

Martin Niemoeller was a Lutheran pastor and theologian who ministered in Nazi Germany in the years leading up to World War 2. He was one of the founders of what became known as “The Confessing Church,” a group of churches in Germany in the 1930’s that steadfastly refused to cooperate when the Nazi regime insisted on taking control of them. He was particularly vocal in his opposition to the anti-Jewish measures that Hitler and the other Nazi leaders implemented. In fact, Niemoeller was bold enough to protest the Jewish persecution in person right to Hitler’s face. For his opposition to the state control of the churches and persecution of the Jews, Niemoeller was arrested by the Gestapo. He spent eight years in various German concentration camps, including the infamous death camp at Dachau. He narrowly escaped being executed while imprisoned there.

 

After the war, he confessed something that is both striking in its simplicity…and profound in its truth. He remarked, “It took me a long time to learn that God is not the enemy of my enemies. In fact, He is not even the enemy of his enemies.”[5] When we can extend forgiveness to those who oppose us—to those who intend to do us harm—then we are being imitators of God…because that is what God does…

 

Hear again the words of Ephesians 5:1 which is the focus of this message—“Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children.” It sounds like a tough assignment, doesn’t it? Well, let us not kid ourselves. In some ways it is. Being an imitator of God cuts across much of what we might call our own natural desires and human instincts. No question about it. And yet, we are called to be imitators of God because we are followers of Jesus. And while the task may seem to be daunting or even impossible, we have the indwelling Holy Spirit to help us, to teach us, and to strengthen us along the way. May God grant us the wisdom…and the desire…and the power to more fully imitate him—in the same way that a child can imitate his or her kindly parents and receive their approval and encouragement.

 

To God alone be the glory! Amen.

 

 

 

               

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] This story about Holman Hunt is taken from Rufus M. Jones, The Radiant Life (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1944), 32-33.

[2] Bernhard W. Anderson, Out of the Depths—The Psalms Speak for Us Today (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1983), 128.

[3] Act 4, Sc. 1.

[4] Refrain of “At Calvary” by William R. Newell (1895).

[5] www.rmarsh.com/2005/08/29/the-enemy-of-my-enemies/ (Accessed August 8, 2018)