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Psalm 24 (responsive)
We all face times when we are discouraged. Things don't go the way we wanted them to, or we disappoint ourselves, or events happen to us that make life difficult. Sometimes we are our own worst enemies; we are down on ourselves or we feel helpless or we struggle with guilt or shame. Sometimes we may feel useless or irrelevant. We all have discouraging times.
Last week when we were out of town we discovered a slow leak in one of Sheila's tires. A Phillips head screw was imbedded in her tire, and so periodically we had to stop to put more air in her tire. We decided to take it in to a discount store that was open on the 4th of July. I drove in my car with our daughter and her family so we could drop off Sheila's car and do something fun while it was getting fixed.
Just before we arrived at the store it became very clear that I had a flat tire! I haven't had a flat tire in ten years and here on the day we go in to fix Sheila's tire, I get a flat tire.
As it turns out neither of our tires could be repaired and the store didn't have either one of our tires in stock, to replace them. It's July 4th so no tire stores are open. Our plans for the day took a sudden downturn. Even the next day no one had my tire in stock so we got Sheila's fixed but had to delay plans to go camping for another day while we waited for a tire to arrive.
I found the whole experience discouraging. Of course it's a little thing, but a series of events like that can mess up a day pretty well.
I think of the small churches in abandoned parts of the city or in diminishing small rural towns that try to keep moving forward, but really have difficulty just staying afloat. How do they keep going? Why don't they get discouraged and just close their doors?
When you're struggling with difficult times and feeling discouraged this passage from Ephesians is a good one to read. It is exuberant in its celebration of God's grace. The language just overflows with encouragement and grace and blessings.
For those who are feeling ignored, the words of blessing flow from the page. For those who feel forgotten, the author reminds us of how we have been chosen by God. For those who feel unworthy, as if they just can't be good enough, the passage exudes God's grace. For those who feel alone or unloved, the author reminds us that we have been adopted by God through his son.
This is a passage filled with the fantastic grace of God. We can hardly read it without feeling surrounded by God's love and care. It is filled with praise and blessings. It speaks of our forgiveness, our adoption, the inheritance Christ offers to us. It overflows with "the grace that (God) lavished on us," as the author puts it.
Barbara Brown Taylor tells of her experience in feeling this kind of care and blessing when she was a young girl. The source of that caring was her grandmother Lucy. She writes:
"A local character in her hometown of College Park, GA, Grandma Lucy ran a boarding house on Main Street and threw her considerable weight around with aplomb. She was known both for her shrewd business sense and her bad temper, a combination that earned her a fair measure of respect in the community. In her later years she was an awesome presence, especially to a child. Having lost both legs to a case of diabetes that she refused to treat, she presided from a stainless steel wheelchair, her two wooden legs propped in front of her like buttresses. She wore black aviator glasses to shield her failing eyes from the light, which gave her face all the openness of a vault. In old photographs, she looks most like a handicapped bomber pilot."
"But with her three grandchildren, this woman was as gentle as a breeze. She loved us like nothing else in the world." (1)
Barbara tells of the closetful of wrapped gifts that her grandmother gave out, one per day, and special trips to buy clothes or have dessert. But she says, the best were her baths. She writes:
"When my night came she treated me like long lost royalty, filling the tub with suds and then beckoning me in, where she washed each of my limbs in turn and polished my skin with her great soft sponge. After she had dried me off...she anointed me with Jergen's Lotion, starting with my neck and finishing up with the soles of my feet. Then she reached for her dusting powder, Evening in Paris, and tickled me all over with the pale blue puff. When she was done, I knew I was precious. I was absolutely convinced I was loved, and nothing that has happened since, not even her death, has shaken that conviction." (2)
Taylor's feeling of love and acceptance in that situation speaks to us of the kind of love Ephesians tells us God has for us.
This love is the action of God, not something we have earned. The grace of God is a gift freely given to you and me. We can't do anything to earn it; we don't have to do anything to earn it. God gives it because He loves us.
I realize that this runs contrary to everything we have learned about how we develop worth. We've been taught from the beginning that we get what we deserve, we are rewarded for the good that we do and we are punished for the bad we do. We earn our way. It all depends on us: how hard we work, how well we do, how much we succeed.
Then along comes Jesus with this crazy idea that God loves you and cares for you and values you regardless of whether you are successful, likeable or good. It's God's action that counts more than anything we can do.
Did you notice that nowhere in this passage does it ask us to do anything? Just sense the grace of God in your life and celebrate how much God cares.
Of course, when we feel the love and acceptance and grace of God, then we want to do what Jesus taught us to do. We respond out of gratitude. We obey God because we are thankful for the great compassion Christ has shown us.
There is one place where we see pretty clearly this gracious love of God: in baptism. As we stand at the front of the church with that tiny baby in our arms, we realize that we haven't done anything to earn what is happening here. We are accepted as one of God's children, adopted into the family of God. Our failures are washed away, and we are cleaner than after the bath at Grandma Lucy's. We receive the seal of God's love. We are the beneficiary of the promises Christ has brought to us. None of that is because of anything we have done.
It all happens because God loves us, accepts us, values us - as weak or broken or discouraged as we may feel.
Just following the passage we read this morning there is a sentence that summarizes all of this very succinctly, Ephesians 2.8: "For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God."
It's important to see that this message is sent out not just to individuals, but to whole communities. All of the nouns are plural in this passage. He is writing not just about personal faith or individual concerns, but to entire churches, communities, even to the whole world.
We see a peculiar phrase here that may seem confusing. But it fits perfectly with the whole message. "With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will...as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth."
In the fullness of time God will gather up all things, both from heaven and earth, to himself. Imagine all people, all animals, all the beauty and mystery of our world gathered up into God the Creator. It's more than our minds can fathom.
It's about my relationship with God, but it isn't just about that. God so loves the world that God will gather it all together with him in the end. The whole world will be redeemed. I guess that's when the lion and the lamb lay down together, and the child will find it safe to play with the snake.
Those of us who are blessed can become a blessing. Because we know that we are loved by God, we are anxious to tell about the love God has to other people. Because we are thankful for God's great care for us we care for God's other children. Since God has blessed us with enough food and safe homes we are active helping others have the same.
Because God has shown us our value and worth, we treat everyone with dignity. Because we know that we have been blessed by God, we want to offer a blessing to other people. Our responses are in gratitude.
So, when we are discouraged about the things that are happening in our lives, this is a wonderful passage to read. It reminds us of how gracious God is and how much we have been blessed. These words help us put our situation in perspective.
Yes, we have set backs, and some of them are significant. We can set them among the continuum of blessings we have received.
In terms of ultimate value, God has given us the most valuable gifts: acceptance, forgiveness, compassion, care, and God's exuberant grace. That's why in even the most difficult times, we can still celebrate. What God has given can't be taken away from us. And God has given us everything!
So, I think those small churches in abandoned urban areas and tiny rural villages keep going because they have a fantastic story to tell. As much as they might struggle to just keep going, they have good news to share with whoever will listen. They know that they have been blessed and, even though they are not what the world would call "successful," they have blessings to offer people around them.
Maybe they aren't discouraged because all that they really need, God has already given to them. They pass it on in gratitude.
The best response to this word today is to celebrate. Revel in God's love. Savor the grace God has lavished on us. Shout thanks. Sing songs. Bask in the joy of living as God's children. I guess that's another way of saying worship God with joy and excitement.
What amazing care God has for us.
1. Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life (Cambridge, Mass: Cowley, 1993), 18.
2. Ibid., 19
© Richard J. Henderson 2012