First Lesson: Numbers 21: 4-9
Responsive Reading: Psalm 107: 1-3, 17-22
Second Lesson: Ephesians 2: 1-10
Gospel Lesson: John 3: 14-21
Grace and peace from Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,
“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”- Ephesians 2:8-9
We live in a world that loves competition. I’m guilty of this. I’ve been running five or six days a week throughout the winter. I ran ten miles last week when it was fifteen below zero. My eyebrows were totally frosted upon getting back home. What motivates me is not a love of running. What motivates me instead is a love of competition. I don’t want to say I finished in the top 10% of a race; I would rather finish in the top 2%. I realize that perhaps what I lack in talent, I can make up in effort. I figure my competitors would never want to push themselves on a sub-zero morning as I do.
My mindset though is not unique.
When a guy meets a pretty new girl, he is quick to show off her picture to all of his friends. The image serves as evidence of him being “the man”.
High school kids will compare their grades to the grades of their friends. These children see their grades as their only means of advancing in the world.
I know a guy named Adam. Adam’s doing quite well working for UPS. Adam came to the realization that he would be able to afford any car that he wanted. Adam decided upon a decked out, new BWM. Adam then decides to start calling up everyone he could think of to tell them the details of his new car.
When I was down in Cancun, I was visiting with a group of people around my age that went to Augsburg where the groom attended college. The thing about hanging around the beach is it leads to some pretty honest reflection of body image. Men bulk up and not in a good way once they’re no longer 21, you can’t keep drinking beer forever without any effects, women no longer look the same after childbirth. Everything people began to put in their body becomes either an obsession or an admission of defeat. Comparisons can often be cruel.
Competition is the way of the world. The most popular TV shows from The Bachelor to American Idol to live sports center on competition.
Many Christians think of their life in similar ways. We often think of God demanding the same type of perfection within us that is required to win a TV singing competition.
Today’s lesson comes to us from the Book of Ephesians the 2nd Chapter. Ephesians is a book that the Apostle Paul wrote pastorally to people with whom; he had some very close relationships. Paul writes Ephesians as a story of salvation.
The Church in Ephesus like most of the earliest Christian churches lives with competition. A competition between rigid, disciplined former Jews would have been around religious settings their whole life and knew all God’s rules versus the happy-go-lucky new Gentile converts.
I knew a guy at Concordia named Robert. Robert stood out at Concordia because every single day, he always wore a buttoned up shirt while always buttoning the top button, there were no exceptions to Robert not buttoning the top button. Robert would never even leave his room without a buttoned up shirt.
Robert had a roommate named Jason. Picture the type of big, fat, happy go lucky guy who would always wear Hawaiian shirts. Jason one day hatched a plan to cut off the top buttons all of Robert’s shirts. Robert was horrified at the idea, because it was so different because of how he lived his life every day to that point in time. Robert like all people liked to maintain a certain amount of control of his habits when interacting with others. The dispute button Robert and Jason over the top button was similar to what was the taking place within the Ephesian church.
There were going to be Christians that didn’t want “Grace” to be too easy, cheap, or even “free”. People within the Ephesian church believed if there weren’t restriction on grace that the whole world would fall apart. Dealing with the meaning of “Grace” in the wake of Christ’s resurrection was always going to be an issue for the believers in Ephesus for this reason. Paul wrote his letter to the Ephesians to help define “Grace” as a gift.
The meaning of “Grace” was one of the main ideas discussed during the life of Martin Luther. Let me give an example that I’ve probably have used before. Imagine a man setting out to try to swim across the Atlantic Ocean.
The first definition of grace would have this man swim across the Atlantic Ocean both day and night. The first definition of grace provides this man with a lifeboat to rest on during the middle of the night. The first definition of grace has this man given a little extra push or motivation whenever his arms or legs get tired. Plenty of people and churches think about grace this way.
The second way to think about “Grace” is how Luther thought about it. Luther would have stared out at the Atlantic Ocean seen swimming across it to be a hopeless venture in his mortal body. Sure Luther could run into the Atlantic Ocean with enthusiasm and begin to kick for a little while, yet this wouldn’t do much good. Grace for Luther is God’s ability to carry us from one side of the ocean to the other, apart from any efforts that we make.
Let me propose an interesting question for this morning “What if seeking to grow spiritually can often be the Christian enemy?” “What if pursuits of spiritual growth set up a false view of life and human relationships? What if the ways of Grace we should contrast with the ways of the world?
Let me tell a story this morning. The tale comes from a sermon given by a guy named John Zahl. Zahl is a pastor at Grace Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina.
Zahl recalls a few years prior, having a member of the congregation who owned a high-end department store like Macy’s. The member decided as an act of grace decided to give Zahl a gift certificate for Christmas. Zahl goes to use the certificate at The Owner’s store. Zahl picks out a new sports coat, dress shirt, and a pair of loafers. Zahl was pretty happy with the generosity. Zahl had a plan though; he would carefully study and add together each price when choosing these items. Zahl had one goal with the gift certificate though; he wanted to spend more money within the department store than the gift certificate was worth. Zahl believes that if he puts a little money back in The Owner’s pocket, then The Owner would understand Zahl’s gratitude. Zahl walks up to the cash register, placed down his selections, and The Owner begins to ring up the purchases. Zahl begins to get nervous when The Owner says that he had only managed to use up half of his gift certificate. Zahl quickly realizes that The Owner was only charging him half of the purchase price. Zahl wanted nothing more to make amends with the generous owner on his terms. Zahl once again sets out to rectify the situation.
Zahl goes home to talk to his wife. Zahl and his wife hatch a phase two to the plan. They were going to return to the store in a couple weeks, and buy so many clothes that it would go way over the value of the gift certificate. They were determined to make The Owner desperate to accept their money in return. So Zahl and his wife go to the store. They pick out as many clothes as they can carry to the counter. The Owner takes the gift certificate and begins to stuff two huge bags full of clothes. Zahl and his wife are feeling pretty confident that The Owner will finally demand they get out their credit cards. The Owner had to make some money from them! The Owner as he finishes ringing up their purchases looks at the Zahls then says something that shocks them, “You’re not going to believe this, but I’ve rung everything up, and the total comes to exactly zero”. The Zahls began to protest “That can’t be right. The total should be well above what was left of our store credit, etc…”
Finally, the owner turns deadly serious as he says “I don’t think you understand how this gift certificate works. No matter what you throw at it, the total will always continue to come up reading zero.”
The Zahls jaws seemed to drop to the floor at this very moment. The Owner was giving the Preacher a sermon about grace. We cannot buy our way out of grace. We cannot say the right words of gratitude or appreciation for grace. Grace has no limits! The Zahls then get the same gift certificate for Christmas the very next year.
Our gift certificate is the cross. Our gift certificate is receiving the promise that God seeks to make peace with an unbelieving world.
How do we grow as Christian people? How do we become the Christian idol, the Christian LeBron James? Quite simply, we don’t because we can’t.
What the story of the Gift Certificate illustrates is the nature of the Christian Life. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,”-Romans 3:23. It’s not a matter of whether you need to be a better person. It’s not a matter of playing the odds or even giving back your fair share. The Bible is clear, all people fail, yet all people can be saved through God’s grace and mercy.
Ed Markquart and John Zahl describe the Christian Life beautifully “God gives gifts, God doesn’t pay your wages.” Gifts, not wages is not just the point of one sermon; this should be the point of every sermon.
I remember one time in seminary a girl asking “Whether Grace or Faith save us?” Are we saved by God’s generosity or our belief? The way to answer this question is that this isn’t an either-or proposition.
Faith is beyond what we can even confess. Faith is more than being confirmed or being able to explain the Apostles Creed. Faith is instead an assurance deep in your soul that God shall one day make the world right, even if you can’t explain how. How do you explain how parents loved you from the time that you were a young child? Your parents were just always around you; you were able to grasp that your parents were watching over you and wanted what was best for you. You can’t explain this, nor did you come to this place after years of considering the options. The definition of faith is that which you can’t prove, yet still exists. We possess no ability to boast about our faith because it does not belong to us. As we look out into our lives, we remember that God is the painter, and we are the picture, God is the creator, and we are the creation.
The thing about grace is we don’t earn it, we don’t deserve it. Our God is a gracious God, who keeps giving to us without limits.
“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.”- John 14:27
Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me....
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now, I see. Amen
 Fever, Kyle. “Commentary on Ephesians 2:1-10”. Working Preacher. Luther Seminary. Saint Paul, Minnesota. 15. March.2015. Web. Mar.12.2015. Working Preacher dates articles to the Sunday of the upcoming (RCL) Revised Common Lectionary.
 The backstory for the Church in Epeshus would be similar to the back story to previous sermons on 1st Corinthians.
 McDavid, Will. “The Gift (Certificate) Which Never Expires: A Sermon by John Zahl”. MBird (Mockingbird). 23. Feb.2015. Web. Mar.12.2015
 The website for Grace Church is gracechurchcharleston.org.
 This comes from a selection of sermons written by Zahl called Sermons of Grace. The book can be purchased on Amazon.
 Ed Markquart’s commentary is found at Sermons From Seattle.com. Markquart’s commentary is found under Books of the Bible-Ephesians for Ephesians 2:8-10.
 I give both Markquart and Zahl credit. Markquart gets credit for the line, whereas Zahl gets credit for explaining the idea.
 Markquart makes this analogy in his Reformation day sermon from Romans 3:19-28. This is one of my favorite Markquart sermons.
 Markquart, Ed. “Mother Theresa, Saved by Grace”. Sermons from Seattle. Web. Mar.12.2015. Sermons from Seattle doesn’t’ list dates for delivery.
 Opening verse from John Newton “Amazing Grace” published in 1779. Newton’s life story is as strong testimony of Grace.