In the Fullness of Time, Part I: The Best-Laid Plans are not Ours

Ephesians 1:1-14

1Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, To the saints who are in Ephesus and are faithful in Christ Jesus: 2Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

3Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, 4just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. 5He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, 6to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. 7In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace 8that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight 9he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, 10as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. 11In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, 12so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. 13In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; 14this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.

In the Fullness of Time, Part I: The Best-Laid Plans are not Ours, Preached by Rev. Sandi Anthony, 10/27/19.

Today we kick off a five-week sermon series from the book of Ephesians.  Pastor Dick and I will be alternating as we preach through this powerful epistle that “celebrates the life of the church, a unique community established by God through the work of Jesus Christ, who is the church’s head and also the head of the whole creation” (from preface to Ephesians in The Oxford Annotated Bible, p. 272NT). 

Today I will spend most of our time time giving you some background on Ephesians.  Here are some things to know: The epistle is traditionally ascribed to Paul writing from prison, late in his career, probably in Rome, but scholars cannot be absolutely sure of Paul’s authorship because of some stylistic differences compared to letters confidently ascribed to Paul.  Some scholars say Paul wrote Ephesians, and the stylistic differences simply “express changes in Paul’s thought and style.”  Others say that Ephesians was “written by a follower of Paul who had at hand a collection of Paul’s letters, and who interpreted the mind of Paul to the church of a slightly later day” (from preface to Ephesians in The Oxford Annotated Bible, p. 272NT).  This was not an unusual practice back then; a few weeks ago, we talked about how a loyal disciple of Paul likely wrote 1 & 2 Timothy.  Now Ephesians is widely regarded as a circular letter that was not written specifically for the church in Ephesus, a place I recently visited for the second time.  This letter was distributed, circulated to several churches in Asia Minor.  Thus, the letter does not deal with problems in a certain congregation as many of the other epistles do. It circulated to communicate some very important theological themes—biblical themes neatly encapsulated here.

In a nutshell the epistle communicates that God will bring all things together finally in perfect harmony; meanwhile God uses us, members of the church, to make real what God will accomplish finally for all time.  In this letter we learn that “the church was established by God’s eternal purpose and in it believers already live in a union with God through Christ and the Holy Spirit that anticipates the full union in the life to come” (Annotated, p. 272 NT).  Ephesians contains a profound summary of the entire scope of Biblical theology, and we can understand Biblical theology as a drama in 5 acts.  Let me talk about them:

Act 1 is Creation.  God created all things and all persons.  No matter how you understand this scientifically, God is the creator.  There is nothing or no one who is not a beloved creature of God.  Did you know that Darwin’s dad was a preacher?  Darwin didn’t use or teach evolution; the taught “natural selection” which means that over a long period of time, living things adapt to their environment.  That ape chart does not exist with Darwin nor was that his point.  Furthermore, Darwin never thought that his writings were in conflict with the biblical God, but descriptive of how God might have gone about creating.  I firmly believe that God creates through processes, processes of God’s own design: processes that are designed and inhabited by God.  How and why God creates and in what length of time are irrelevant and frankly none of our business.  The point is, God created all things and all persons.  Then, for some unknown reason, the human family becomes aware of itself and rebels against the Creator.  God’s creative act and the human rebellion toward God exists to the present time; thus, the eternal relevancy of this theme in Ephesians.

On to Act 2, which is about covenant.  God makes a covenant with one people for the sake of all people.  We talked about covenant at length during worship in Hayden Hall over the summer.  Human beings are incapable of restoring the intimate relationship with God, so God acts to get that relationship restored.  Here’s an illustration: Any of you ever see that movie Little Miss Sunshine?   Remember the scene where the boy rebels against Family; walks down hill and sits by himself; his younger sister simply comes and sits with him; finally, without one word from either, he stands up; walks up the hill; get back with the family again.  That’s how God does it with us: God’s heart breaks through it all until we come to our senses.  Over the summer as we examined the OT prophets, we talked about how God’s covenant with Israel has its ups and downs.  God was always faithful; humans were always so iffy.

Act 3, which is about Christ: Remember how I told you that all of salvation history hinges on Jeremiah 31:31-34?  This is the prophecy of the New Covenant that Christians see fulfilled in the person of Jesus, our revealer and redeemer.  God sends the person Jesus, and we learn through his life and teaching that Jesus lives out the love of God.  God is fully revealed in the person of Jesus, who both leads us to God and embodies God for us.  Jesus shows us the way.

Act. 4, which is about the Church:  Jesus sent his Spirit to the church at Pentecost, and this is the way that God continues to act in the world—through us, the church.  Jesus was to bring a new order of justice and the Kingdom of God.  Instead of destroying injustice, Jesus was the victim of injustice.  Christians affirm that Jesus is God’s Messiah even though he did not fit Israel’s traditional expectations.  Israel, more or less, was looking for a military hero, one who would throw off the Roman rule.  But that’s not what it was.  God reversed all expectations of a Messiah by raising Jesus from the dead, which causes a whole new way of looking at things.  That means that the religious authorities and the Romans did not take Jesus’ life; rather, Jesus gave his life.  So, we learn in Ephesians about the mission and purpose of the church, which continues Jesus’ mission of witness, mercy and justice in the world.  I think of what Mother Theresa said here, “If you judge people, you have no time to love them. What can you do to promote world peace? Go home and love your family. I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.”  All of us can create ripples as members of God’s holy church.  Our work is to make the human family new not with judgment by love that never gives up.

Act 4 is really about us today, so I want to add a few more things.  Ephesians addresses that big question: Who are we?  What are we here for?  Ephesians 2:10 tells us!  We are created to do God’s good works.  Not because we must, but because we may.  We find our meaning in life by doing so—by serving.  Service, you know, solves many an existential crisis.  Our love, our repudiation of judgement, sends powerful ripples into the world.  We can change lives.  Consider this story told by Fred Craddock, a renowned professor of preaching—the one who wrote the seminal books on preaching nearly all seminary students read.  

“Fred Craddock and his wife were vacationing in Gatlinburg, TN.  One morning they were eating breakfast at a little restaurant, hoping to enjoy a quiet, family meal.  While they were waiting for their food, they noticed a distinguished looking, white-haired man moving from table to table, visiting with the guests.  The professor leaned over and whispered to his wife, ‘I hope he doesn’t come over here.’  But sure enough, the man did come over to their table.  ‘Where are you folks from?’ he asked in a friendly voice.  ‘Oklahoma,’ they answered.  ‘Great to have you here in TN,’ The stranger said.  ‘What do you do for a living?’  ‘I teach at a seminary,’ he replied.  ‘Oh, so you teach preachers how to preach, do you?  Well, I’ve got a really great story for you.’  And with that, the gentleman pulled up a chair and sat down at the table with the couple.  The professor groaned and thought to himself, ‘Great…Just what I need, another preacher story!’  The man started, ‘See that mountain over there, pointing out the restaurant window.  Not far from the base of that mountain, there was a boy born to an unwed mother.  He had a hard time growing up, because every place he went, he was always asked the same question: Hey boy, Who’s your daddy?  Whether he was at school, in the grocery store or drug store, people would ask the same question, Who’s your daddy?  He would hide at recess and lunch time from the other students.  He would avoid going in to stores because that question hurt him so bad.  When he was about 12 years old, a new preacher came to his church.  The boy would always go in late and slip out early to avoid hearing the question Who’s your daddy?  But one day, the new preacher said the benediction so fast the boy got caught and had to walk out with the crowd.  Just about the time he got to the back door, the new preacher, not knowing anything about him, put his hand on his shoulder and asked him, ‘Son, who’s your daddy?’  The church got deathly quiet.  The boy could feel every eye in the church looking at him.  Now everyone would finally know the answer to the question Who’s your daddy.  This new preacher, though, sensed the situation around him and said the following to that scared little boy: ‘Wait a minute!  I know who you are.  I see the family resemblance now.  You are a child of God.’  With that, he patted the boy on his shoulder and said ‘Boy, you’ve got a great inheritance.  Go and claim it!’  With that, the boy smiled for the first time in a long time and walked out the door a changed person.  He was never the same again.  Whenever anyone asked him ‘Who’s your daddy,’ he’d just tell them, ‘I’m a child of God.’  The distinguished gentleman got up from the table and said, ‘Isn’t that a great story?’  The professor responded that it really was a great story!  As the man turned to leave, he said, ‘You know, if that new preacher hadn’t told me that I was one of God’s children, I probably never would have amounted to anything!’ and he walked away. The seminary professor and his wife were stunned.  He called the waitress over and asked her, ‘Do you know who that man was who just left that was sitting at our table?’  The waitress grinned and said, ‘Of course.  Everyone here knows him.  That’s Ben Hooper.  He’s the former governor of Tennessee!’”  Talk about ripples and their great effect, which leads me to Act 5.

Act 5 in the Bible, also neatly encapsulated in Ephesians, is called consummation.  This means that God will bring history to a worthy conclusion; this is what the book of Revelation is all about.  Today Christians live right in the middle of Act 5.  We look back to God’s decisive action in the world and at the same time look forward to God’s actions being fulfilled completely, ultimately—this is what we long for after every shooting, after ever act of terrorism, after the death of our loved ones.  This is the already-not yet theology I often talk about here.  We already have a foretaste of God’s ultimate fulfillment when we do things God’s way and people like Ben Hooper experience redemption and hope in this world.  We look forward to the day when God will indeed make all things new—including us—and final fulfillment comes.  It’s like pregnancy.  There’s a baby in womb who is not yet born.  But yes, there is a baby.  And the best news is that God’s plan cannot be ultimately destroyed or frustrated.  One day we will get what we pray for when we say, “Thy kingdom come.”  The kingdom then will be fully born.

Ok, that’s the background on the whole epistle that sets up this preaching series on the book of Ephesians.  Let’s look briefly at the first fourteen verses of the book that _____ read to you today.  The theme here is adoption: God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. God destined us for adoption as his as sons (though to make it gender inclusive the NSRV says children)—through Jesus Christ.  Sons, though, is even more highly nuanced in terms of the culture and privilege, which I will illustrate in a moment.  Now I’ve preached on this passage before, but I’ll end with a story that will remind you of how beautiful this news for us, because it communicates our complete forgiveness of sins as adoptees into God’s family.  This illuminating story about cultural context comes from Pastor Dick’s friend, Bill NcNabb.

“I read about a woman who was studying this passage and she was a woman who had been raised in an old school traditional Chinese family and there was one son in the family and a couple of daughters, and it was very evident in that family growing up that it was all about the son.  The son is favored and girls were second-class citizens.  The attention, the resources mostly went to the son.  She said that when she read this passage about being adopted as a son, written by one who also lived in a paternalistic culture, when she read about being adopted as a son, God’s son, she realized that her day as a second-class citizen is now over.  Because of this, she will receive all the benefits that a son enjoys in a traditional culture and it was the highest honor God could bestow on us.  It is the greatest piece of good news: In him we have redemption, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us.  Our adoption means that we are loved like Christ is love by God.  We are honored, we matter greatly to God. Your circumstances cannot hinder or threaten that promise.  The author of Ephesians is not promising you better life circumstances; he is promising you a far better life.  He is promising you a life of greatness and joy because you have been adopted into the royal family, where you have a life of nobility and one that has no end.”

You have to understand the backdrop of the first-century culture of this passage to really appreciate what incredible news this is for us.  In the ancient world adoption was practiced by it wasn’t just for children.  People often adopted adults.  For example, if a couple had no children and there was no heir to pass on their estate to, they would often choose one of their slaves—maybe their smartest or hardest working one, and they would call in the local magistrate and a ceremony would be performed and that slave would be adopted into the family.  That person was then no longer a slave—but a son.  In that moment, the entire world changed for that slave.  Everything changed in the moment of adoption.  The author of Ephesians says that’s what God has done for us.  We have all been adopted as sons with all the rights and responsibilities that go along with that.  Everything that Jesus has we now have.

And what do we do with that?  Take heart!  Have hope!  Do good works because you want to, create world-changing, life-changing ripples; be the answer to someone’s need, the change to someone’s life.  Claim your inheritance and in turn, leave your legacy.  God has planned for this all along, from the beginning of time.  In fact, all of history is planned and will be gathered up and brought to its rightful conclusion.  God chose us.  We are, as God’s children, participants and heirs in the Kingdom Come.  These are indeed the best-laid plans. Amen.