Sunday, January 3, 2010

Pulling It All Together

Pulling It All Together

Copyright © 2010 Robert J. Elder, Pastor

Second Sunday of Christmas: January 3, 2010

Ephesians 1:3-14

It was on the day before Christmas day this year that I first spotted an announcement in the newspaper about places to deposit those freshly undesirable Christmas trees, trees which almost everyone felt an absolute necessity to acquire just three weeks before. On December 26th. That holiday toward which we look from the end of October through December 24th seems to evaporate almost in an instant from our cultural radar. A year or so ago between Christmas and New Years, I recall seeing Valentines displays going up in one store where all the Christmas merchandise had been only hours before. It is a source of continuing amazement to me that we can treat the symbols of such a special day almost with revulsion the day after. We may take up the same haste in breaking off the Christmas moment and message from the rest of the course of our lives as we did to prepare for it.

Yet while the rest of world already may have put away the ornaments and the Christmas music, the church continues its celebration of Christmas until January 6, Epiphany. That day is, in effect, a final acknowledgment of Christmas. If you like the song and are keeping track, today, January 3rd, is the tenth day of Christmas; true loves should be giving or receiving the requisite ten lords a-leaping today.

I think that funny old song – and the centuries-long Christmas traditions of the church – recognize that the human heart needs more than a single brief day of exhausted observance to begin to comprehend the miracle of the incarnation, the birth of God’s Messiah among us in human flesh. Our scripture passage for this, the Second Sunday after Christmas, overflows with praise as we begin to recognize the place of the incarnation in the sweep of salvation history. Ephesians gives us a glimpse of our own place in God’s plan of salvation. From the time Israel was freed from its slavery in Egypt, to the return of the exiles from Babylon, to the faith of the believers in Ephesus, clear up to our day, Ephesians declares broadly and clearly that

“With all wisdom and insight [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.” (vss. 8-10)

The baby born in Bethlehem, it turns out, is the one in whom the whole world will hold together. The mystery is God’s plan “to gather up all things” in Christ. The Greek word that Paul used for “gather up” means to “sum up,” and is used for adding a column of figures. In the ancient world, the sum was written at the top of the column rather than at the bottom; the term usually means literally to “bring to a head.” Buried in this very long verb (νακεφαλαιώσασθαι) is the Greek word head, which in Ephesians is applied to Christ. He is “the head” in whom all things are “brought to a head.” And that unity is cosmic, including “things in heaven and things on earth.”

Our common experience presents a different picture, of a fractured world, a world in which all loose ends seldom seem to get tied together in any meaningful way. And when we do get a few loose ends connected, they can unravel again in no time. What does violence in far away lands mean to us? Hundreds are blown to pieces by random suicide bombers in far-off lands, and for what? How about violence a bit nearer to home? A few years ago some boys beat a man nearly to death on his own Christmas tree lot before Christmas because he had scolded them the day before. And it isn’t only violence that unravels our world. Promises easily made are all too easily broken by employers, merchants, and in relationships. Churches of all denominations have seemingly endless discussions over who may and who may not be ordained to church offices, focusing arguments especially on sexual behavior, and it seems we will never come to an agreement that is satisfactory to all. Words leading toward splitting up denominations are sometimes whispered, sometimes shouted around. Splitting up, fracturing apart, estrangement from each other even in our churches – the body of Christ, if this is not a world in need of a savior “to gather up all things in him,” then I don’t know what more it would take. Nothing seems to want to hold together. And yet, we have this promise from Ephesians, God has a plan, his plan may still be a mystery to us, but that God had a plan is not in doubt as far as Paul is concerned.

“[God] has made known to us the mystery of his will...that he set forth in Christ...a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him...” Paul goes on, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing.”

These verses run counter to at least two common and strongly held values in our culture:[1]

[1] They insist over and over that humanity is utterly dependent on God. God creates, God destines, God wills, God reveals, God accomplishes – all taken together means that humanity, on our own, accomplishes nothing of any real or lasting significance. This assault on our cherished ideals of effectiveness, independence and autonomy poses a challenge to the way we are accustomed to viewing ourselves and our place in the world. But it means that our sinful fracturing, splintering, and separating also will ultimately lead to naught. There is a backward sort of good news in that.

[2] There is also an insistence on the obligation to praise God. If God has done all this for us, our pragmatic nature responds, “What are we to do?” Standing in God’s debt, we feel obliged to do something to pay back. But our passage stipulates no repayment, the debt can never be repaid. Instead, we are encouraged only to give God thanks and praise. The words of the passage should move us to recall the words of the Westminster Larger Catechism, that the chief end of human life is to “glorify God and enjoy him forever.”

When the world seems to be on the verge of splitting apart, what better response to the unifying, “gathering up” work of Christ than unbridled praise? When we read the first words from our passage in Ephesians, we can almost hear the words of the doxology to the tune of the “Old Hundredth” ringing in our ears:

Praise God from whom all blessings flow

Praise him all creatures here below

Praise him above, ye heavenly host

Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

Each line, line after line, rings with praise. We all thrive on praise. When we want to encourage someone, what is the best method? Praise! “You are doing so well! Keep up the good work! Thank you for all you do for us!” You know the kind of thing. Why, then, would it be difficult to imagine the appropriateness of such words for God? Why praise God?

In an old story, a young student once asked an aging pastor for advice on how to live a pure and holy life. The pastor told him that each day he must ride his bicycle 25 miles, fast every Saturday, abstain from any enjoyments every Sunday, bathe himself entirely in olive oil once each month, and read the Bible through at least once each year.

After following this routine for two years, the student happened to meet the pastor again. Perturbed, he began to accuse the pastor of having misled him. “I have a bone to pick with you. I have done what you said: ridden my bike, fasted, abstained from enjoyments, bathed, and read the Bible through twice. In reading the Bible, however, I discovered all the other stuff wasn’t necessary. It is God’s grace that makes me holy, not all my efforts to lead a pure life.”

“I know,” said the pastor, “but if I had told you it was that easy, would you have believed me?”

The same may be true for us. We know our world is broken, splintered, and we ask the same questions generation after generation. How can our world survive? What will become of us? Yet the answers to our dilemma are disarmingly simple. They are part of God’s plan and purpose which, while it may remain something of a mystery to us, is wrapped up in the word made flesh, in the Christ who comes to us to pull it all together. While we turn away from our faith, the answers to our difficulties elude us. But Ephesians recognizes that in turning to Christ, we turn to the One in whom all things hold together.

No wonder Paul can barely contain his urge to break forth into praise for the love of God who so cares for creation and his beloved people.

Think through the words of the Old Hundredth again.

Praise God from whom all blessings flow: If it is a blessing, it has its source in God, the one from whom all blessings flow, including the blessing of a Savior.

Praise him all creatures here below: Everyone. Every created thing is called upon to render praise to the one who gather up all things in heaven and on earth.

Praise him above, ye heavenly host: As I said, in heaven and earth. The compulsion to praise is not limited to the creation, but extends to the entire universe. There is no Hubble telescope, no Lunar lander, no Mars mission that will discover a realm beyond the cosmos that bursts forth in praise to the God who holds things together.

Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost: The very unity of the Trinity serves as the model for the gathering together work of God in Christ. Unity is the way we come to know him.

There are worse things to remember as the essence of Christmas than that it was the time when God made known his plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in Christ.

[1] Thanks for this insight to Texts for Preaching: Year C, Walter Brueggemann et. al., Westminster Press, pp. 80-81.