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Sermon Text: Ephesians 2:4-10
Date: March 14 & 15, 2015
Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year B
Ephesians 2:4–10 (ESV)
But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
God Has Brought Us Life From Death
1. Through the riches of his grace
2. For a life of thanks
Alex and most of his Kindergarten class have, for a long time, really, really loved large numbers. Whenever something seems big, he usually describes it as a “googol,” an actual number from which the name of the big internet company derived its name. A googol is a 1 with 100 zeroes after it. And if something seems really big, Alex jumps to the term “googolplex,” which is a 1 with a googol number of zeroes behind it. A googolplex is so big that it exceeds the likely number of molecules in the universe. It’s a theoretical number, one that could never actually be written out.
One evening this past week, Alex and I were talking just before I tucked him in to let him get to sleep. He was wrestling with the concept of forever, something that had no end. We were talking about heaven, and he listed off a number of years that began with a googolplex, a number that goes beyond anything we could ever comprehend. And after a lengthy stating of that number we wrestled with the fact that after that many years in heaven, we still have forever left. The concept was hard for Alex to come to grips with; I think in that moment it was harder for his dad to come to grips with.
We’re hardwired to think of things beginning and ending. The day starts and the day ends; the worship service begins and, eventually, if the preacher isn’t too long-winded, the worship service ends. Even our lives have a definite start—a day that we annually celebrate—and eventually will have an end. And death is ultimately viewed as that final end, the end from which there is no coming back. That makes Paul’s statement at the very start of Ephesians 2 so startling. There he said, just prior to our lesson, “You were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked about” (Ephesians 2:1-2a). Paul is telling us that before we had even started, everything had come to an end. We were dead before we had ever gotten a chance to live. His words echo David’s sentiment in Psalm 51, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.” From the get-go, we have no shot at that mind-bending concept of eternal life because we’re already dead in sin.
That truth and that status we held is what makes Paul’s words describing what God did next so very incredible. We read, “God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.”
Paul described God as being “rich in mercy,” that is very literally wealthy with mercy and pity. Some wealthy people might have a bank account with a lot of numbers in the balance; God has a bank account overflowing with compassion for people trapped in sin. Money generally does little good if it just sits in a bank. You have to spend, either on yourself or someone else to really have any benefit. And that’s exactly what God did with this over-abundance of mercy. He spent it. He spent it on us. And what did he buy with his mercy? Our lives. The great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved. That great love brought us life from death. Our sins had meant that we were forever lost; in Christ, then we are forever-found in the arms of our loving, merciful God. And all of that is done by grace, by the undeserved love that God had for us. We hadn’t earned it; we hadn’t deserved it. We were dead! But now? God raised us up with [Jesus] and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.
For Jesus, death wasn’t the end. You know we will celebrate his victory over the grave in just a few weeks. And historically, that’s what this Sunday in Lent has been about, a brief bit of rejoicing amidst the solemn nature of this season with an eye that peeks ahead to Easter. The real confidence we have of God’s love doesn’t come exclusively at the cross; it comes from the cross married to the empty tomb.
So death, that entity in life so closely related with the end, for us was just the beginning. We had been dead, but now we are alive in Christ Jesus. By faith we cling to the promises made to us in Jesus’ payment for sin. As we heard in the First Lesson, the Israelites simply trusted that looking at the serpent on a pole would save them from the venom coursing through their veins. As Jesus said he would be lifted up just like that bronze snake, so too, looking to him grants us release from the deadly venom of sin coursing through our veins. God promises us that Jesus suffered for our sins, so there’s nothing left for us to do. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.
Sometimes we don’t give gifts as gifts. Sometimes we give gifts out of a sense of obligation. Sometimes we give someone a Christmas present because they gave us one first. Sometimes we give a gift hoping that someone else will reciprocate. Those are not gifts; they are liabilities. That’s not how God operates. We didn’t do anything to merit this forgiveness, and we can’t pay him back at all. God’s grace shown to us in Jesus is a gift in the truest sense of the term: something we didn’t earn and cannot repay.
The response to such a gift is hard to comprehend, isn’t it? Have you ever received a gift that left you speechless? A gift that you felt, perhaps, you couldn’t accept because it was just too much? How much greater is the gift of the riches of God’s mercy than any earthly gift we could ever possibly receive! Our natural instinct is to look at these gifts and start contemplating how we can pay God back. How can we make it up to him? Jesus gave up everything for me; surely I can start to give things up for him.
To that line of thinking God says, “No, absolutely not.” God has brought us from death to life. We cannot pay him back; we can’t make things even. There is no even; we depend fully and completely on him. And so we silence that part of all of us that wants to do good to make up for wrong, the part that wants to pay God back for the richness of grace that he’s poured out on us.
As Lutherans, that concept has been ingrained in us, hasn’t it? We’re always eager to distance ourselves from any concept of works righteousness, and rightly so. Any hint of our contributing even the smallest bit to our forgiveness and eternal life, from making a choice or decision to believe in Jesus to actually doing things to help pay off sin, is disastrous. In fact, such teachings completely rob the gospel of its power and completely undo the wealth we’ve been given in the riches of God’s grace. But, perhaps in our zeal to avoid works righteousness, there’s been a tendency to go too far in the other direction. As an example, we’re quick to quote vv. 8-9 of Ephesians 2 to prove that we are not saved by our own works. And there again, rightly so, because they are beautiful verses inspired by the Holy Spirit to assure us of the gift of God’s love: For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. But often the quotation stops there and we don’t allow Paul to make his complete point. He concludes his thought: For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. Good works are part of a Christian’s life. They are not the way we get forgiveness, but they are our way to show our thanks to God for his forgiveness. They are our way to show our gratitude for his love. They are our way to rejoice in the richness of his mercy and grace that he has freely given to each of us in Christ Jesus.
Paul, when he condemned us of being dead in our trespasses and sins at the start of Ephesians 2 prior to our lesson said those trespasses and sins were the things we used to walk about in, those sins used to be our life. Now, we walk about in thankful works to God because we are no longer dead but alive. The familiar translation of this passage many of us memorized in the NIV goes like this: “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” But that translation doesn’t really capture the notion of Paul’s thoughts here. We shouldn’t think of good works as a list of things that we’re trying to complete during our time here on this earth that we can check off as we go down the list and then we’re done. Good works for us, for Christians, are not simply things to do they become our very life. An apple tree produces apples because that’s what an apple tree does. A Christian produces good works because that’s just what a Christian does. They are how we as Christians live.
Our former way of life—that death in sin—is gone. Now is a new life, a life that seeks to thank God in everything we say, think, and do. Our sins are completely forgiven; we don’t fear God’s wrath or his punishment. Rather we rejoice in all that he’s done for us. We give thanks for the forgiveness he won at the cross, for the faith he’s created in us through his means of grace, the gospel in his Word and Sacraments; and for the works he’s not only prepared beforehand for us, but even creates in us “both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13). God creates in us the desire to obey him, to do those good works, so that we can thank him for what he’s done for us. He planned it all out and enables us to accomplish it. And when we fail to do them as we should, he’s there to forgive, restore, and empower us to try again in this new life he’s given to us.
In the end, our forgiveness, our faith, and even our good works are all attributed to God’s rich mercy, and all have the focus God’s bringing us from that state of death where sin left us to the state of life that we find in Jesus. God’s entire mission is to have us avoid future, eternal punishment for sin and enjoy perfect harmony with him forever.
You were dead and now you are alive with a life that will never end, no matter how many innumerable days and years pass in eternity. On this “rejoicing” Sunday in Lent, may you rejoice and give thanks to God anew for his mercy and grace, and may this new life be your life forever! Amen.