A sermon on Ephesians 1:3-14; 2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12-19 & Mark 6:14-29 by Nathan Nettleton, 12 July 2009
Perhaps a little mischievously tonight, I want to suggest that gospel is not about getting God into your life. I know it is often presented that way. I know most of us have, at some point, responded to the idea that our lives would be incomplete until we allowed God in, and that Jesus had come to enable us to let God in. Many of us can tell the story of how our lives changed. Our story was going nowhere, or going somewhere we didn’t want it to go — down the plug hole, in fact — but then we responded to the gospel of Jesus and God became part of our story and things got back on track. I don’t want to poo-poo any of your stories, but I do want to suggest that there might be some misreading of the stories going on there. God does not want to become part of your story or part of your life. What God wants is rather bigger than that.
The reading we heard tonight from the letter to the Ephesians gives a glorious vision of God’s plans and purpose for the world. I preached on this passage a few years ago and simply titled the sermon “Wow!”, because the vision and the way it is told is so full of breathless excitement that the whole passage is like one big “Wow!” And it is a wow over the gospel as a whole; over the story of what God has done, is doing, and is going to do.
The vision spans the whole of time and the whole of God’s mission. It begins “before the foundation of the world”, saying that “God chose us, in Christ, before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love.” And it spans all the way to the fulfilment of time, saying, that “God has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” Our origins and our destiny are all there, in Christ before the foundation of the world, and gathered up into Christ, along with everyone and everything, at the fulness of time.
And in between our origin and our destiny is now, and what God is doing in the world and in us now. Becoming human with us. Redeeming us and all things through the suffering of Jesus. Forgiving our sins and setting us free from corrupt powers. Marking us with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit as the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people in the fulness of time.
All of God’s story is there, from the beauty and promise of the newly created earth, through the astonishing move of God stepping into creation in the person of Jesus the Messiah and suffering at the hands of his own creatures in order to graciously free them from their enslavement to the powers of death, all the way to the hope of creation renewed, of a world of justice and righteousness and love and mercy where all will be at one and all will find their glorious destiny fulfilled in Jesus through the power of his Holy Spirit. The whole story is there, and told with such a burst of praise that it may well be echoing a hymn of praise sung in the early churches. And that burst of praise is telling us something important about the story of our worship too. When we gather to worship, this is the story we are telling, the story we are celebrating, the story we are entering into and offering ourselves to. We gather to hear the story, to offer ourselves to be written into the story, and to enact the story, writing it into the very fibre of our being.
Just as this story is present, in miniature, in this short passage from Ephesians, so too it is found emerging again and again in the stories we hear read in our worship. Sometimes one aspect of it, sometimes another, sometimes another miniature summary; but always it is there, and that’s why we gather around the book and hear the ancient stories read week by week, day by day.
The story was there in the first story we heard tonight, the story of David bringing the ancient ark of the covenant up to Jerusalem. Just as we see later in Jesus, so in the ark of the covenant, God’s presence is made known among us, incarnate in physical bodily things. In the ark of the covenant, God assured the people that the story was not over, that even in the wilderness and now in the new land, God was with them and God’s love and mercy and justice were surrounding them, setting them free, and offering them the promise of their destiny fulfilled through the power of the Spirit to the glory of God. No wonder David dances with such uninhibited joy as the ark is processed through the gates of the city. God has not abandoned us. We are not alone. And death will have no dominion over us. God meets us in the things of earth. God’s tent has been pitched in our midst, and God’s Spirit has been poured out upon us. Rejoice! Eat, drink and celebrate! Taste the first fruits of the coming joy for God’s plans for the fulness of time are being made known to us. And so David presents offerings to the Lord on behalf of all the people, and distributes meat and cake to all the people that they might taste what God is doing and be immersed in God’s story with rejoicing.
Another side of the story, a darker and more foreboding side, was there in the reading we heard from the gospel according to Mark. The gruesome account of the death of John the Baptiser is prefaced with the warning phrase, “for Jesus’ name had become known.” In between the foundation of the world and the final fulness of time, our story has gone awry and dark powers have corrupted the earth. Such a culture of death has taken hold that a mob can glory in the beheading of a man as a reward for a dancing girl. We hide such grim realities a little better now, but they are every bit as prevalent. The most powerful nations on earth rationalise torture and mass destruction when it is deemed to benefit the “national interest”. And so it is in such a dark and dangerous world that “Jesus’ name becomes known” as God becomes one of us and walks boldly into the face of the demonic bitterness and hostility of the powers that be, speaking only words of mercy, grace and hope.
There is nothing easy or casual about the incarnation of God in Jesus the messiah. To become one with us, God must become exposed and vulnerable to all the brutality and suffering of a world that will imprison its prophets to silence them and execute them on a whim for sport. But there is no other way to reopen the story, to reveal and recover our ancient destiny. Only among us as one of us can Jesus show us the way to confront the deadly powers and rise above them, so that life can rise victorious over even death and we and they might be redeemed and gathered back into God’s story where our destiny is fulfilled and the promises are realised in the fulness of time.
Why then do I suggest that this story has got little or nothing to do with getting God into your life? Isn’t it precisely inviting Jesus into your life that opens this up? How can I say that God does not want to become part of your story or part of your life? Perhaps you’ve already cottoned on to what I am trying to suggest here. As I said at the beginning, God’s concerns are much bigger than that. I don’t mean that God is too big to be interested in you, though. On the contrary, it is because God is so interested in you and loves you so deeply that God is not interested in merely becoming the missing piece of your life or an addendum to your story. The gospel is not about your life, or your story. It is about God’s life and God’s story. God does not want to come into your life; God wants to draw you into the life of God, into the burning communion of love that is the life of the Trinity. God does not want to become a part of your story; God wants you to become a part of God’s story, this powerful all-encompassing story of creation, incarnation and then gathering all things together in justice and love in Christ in the fullness of time.
Here around these stories and around this table, we gather to celebrate Gods’ story and to be drawn into God’s story. It is not about getting Jesus into our stories, but about offering ourselves to God the Father, through Jesus and in the power of the Holy Spirit to be written into or gathered into THE story; the great and glorious story of God’s all-consuming love. This table is the altar on which we offer ourselves, where we meet Jesus as he goes on offering himself for the life of the world and where our offering thus becomes a part of his offering, and we become a part of his story. This is the wow! of the gospel. This is the story we celebrate in worship, prayer and song. Amen!