Filed under: Sermons, Uncategorized | Tags: Baptism, camp, discipleship, God's will, Jesus, life, meaning, purpose
The recent beautifully warm weather brings me back to nights spent under the stars. Having spent three summers working for outdoor ministries, I’ve been lucky to have a number of them. There were Friday nights at Luther Park Bible Camp, when a group of us counselors would gather on the sitting dock, and watch the moon’s reflection dancing in the water. Sometimes we would sing. Sometimes we would chat and laugh. Sometimes we would sit in silence and think. The universe was so large, and our lives pregnant with possibilities. Dreams had the potential to ripen into lives well lived. It was a time in my life that I was blessed with a community to walk alongside as we wondered, “What is the meaning of life?”, “Why am I here” and “How will I matter?”
My answer then had likely been formed by some half-heard idea, a phrase that became stuck in my head. I thought the purpose of life was “to give God glory.” I’m not really sure that I knew exactly what that meant. What that would look like or how I would go about doing it. But it sounded like the right type of language for a Bible camp.
Our two New Testament readings this morning help to give shape to some thoughts on the purpose of our lives. One way in which these writing do this is by contrasting two different ways of life: the way of life of those without God, and the way of life of those whom God has claimed.
The letter writer speaks to the Ephesians a vision of their lives. Once they lived in a way that brought death. This is the way of the world: to live lives seeking only pleasure for the self. Formerly, they believed the purpose of life was what many might still today believe the purpose of life to be: be happy, get rich, enjoy as much as you can, and care first about # 1- yourself.
Even though this would sound like the path to a good life, the author of Ephesians calls it the path of death. This is not living life to its fullest. The path to true life comes from God. It is opened to us all through the death of Christ. In that one death, Jesus’ death, we are united to God, and in Jesus’ resurrection to life, we are raised to new life.
But don’t let the mention of being “raised up… and seated in heavenly places” make you think this is all only about the afterlife. What God has done in Jesus for you has already occurred and you are living in its effects right now. The Ephesians aren’t being told that their old way of life wasn’t good for anything only to be told that life in Christ isn’t good for anything but waiting around to die and go to heaven. In some mystical way, even while they and we are standing here on this earth, living our daily lives, God’s grace and power has already placed us with Jesus “in the heavenly places.”
The Gospel of John records Jesus speaking of those who love darkness because it hides their evil deeds, and those who love light because their deeds have been done in God, and so they have no reason to hide them. Jesus is talking here to Nicodemus, a respected Pharisee, who has come under cover of darkness to find out more about Jesus. His fear about what others will say about him, if they knew of his interest in Jesus, might be a major reason he has come when his identity might be hidden, rather than ask his questions in front of the large crowds that daily surround Jesus. So, in these words about light and darkness, Jesus may be pushing Nicodemus to discover his own rationale and the lack of trust that have led to his actions.
John lets this scene stand as a mirror for us. Are we people who love darkness, or light? Is the self we make public the same self we hold inside? Are the kind words we speak and the smiles we share radiating out from a stance of love, or are they empty gestures of obligation, things we do to appear like good people? Is the going along with the crowd of darkness, doing things our hearts that long for light warn us against, being true to who we are called to be?
Our lives can follow one of two major paths: a life lived fully, generously, and openly in the joy of God’s grace, or a life that is hidden in the selfish ways of the world.
These writings also give guidance in our discernment of how we are to live: how we might “give glory to God” as I once considered the call to live a purposeful life.
In Ephesians we hear: “For we are what (God) has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life” (2:10). God has made each of us for a purpose! Our way of life is to be rooted in Jesus, doing good works. Consider how you might reflect the work of Jesus. Jesus points the way to God. Jesus heals the sick. Jesus declares forgiveness. Jesus welcomes the outsider. Jesus gives life. Where are the opportunities for you to do this work in your own life? When were the times in this past week that you have done this work, but didn’t even notice or celebrate it?
You were living as God created you to live when you welcomed a child or a neighbor in worship; when you sent a note of comfort and support; when you gathered to sew a quilt; when you shared a smile with a stranger; when you invited the kids who’s always picked last to be the first on your team; when you gave someone a second chance, or maybe a third, or a fourth…
These are examples of the acts of a life lived in the light of the love of God. We are given the joyful responsibility to live in ways that reflect God’s love.
Finally, and most importantly, these writings claim that it is all God’s work alone, and not our own, that roots our lives in God’s great story of salvation. Our lives have meaning outside of our own personal existence because they are drawn up into the work of the Creator and Redeemer of all creation. You are connected to something bigger than yourself. You are not alone. Your existence is more than these days of life on earth. Even as these days have meaning and purpose in God, because you have been united with Jesus, you will continue to have life and joy after your death.
Ephesians reminds us, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God- not the result of works, so that no one may boast” (2:8-9). John declares, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but have eternal life” (3:16). These are two of the most beautiful verses in the Bible, declaring that God gives you healing life out of God’s love for you. As you seek to live a life of meaning, remember that it can never be a life that earns God’s love or salvation. That has already been given to you. Nothing you can do can make you worthy of this love and life, and nothing you can do will make God take it away from you: this love is freely given.
Yet there are people who struggle their whole lives, trying to work out their own salvation. Somehow they have heard that they have to do something, prove something, in some way be faithful enough to make God accept them. This is an anxiety that does not rest in God’s promises. There are also those people who do not know and do not trust in God’s promises, and so cannot see the gift of love God has given. In both cases, life is not lived in the joy that it is meant to be lived in. God desires you to live lives of joy, confident in the gift of love, forgiveness, and life that God has given each of you in Jesus.
There are two examples that help me to think about this contrast between living a life that rejoices in God’s grace and living a life that is blind to the grace that has already been given.
The first is the image of floating on water. Imagine yourself in a warm swimming pool or lake on a quiet morning. You lay back and let the tension of your body relax as you trust the power of the water to support your weight. If you trust the water to do what it has the capacity to do, you will find yourself upheld, softly and slightly rising and sinking with your breath. If you do not trust, if you do not relax into the comforting warmth, but instead try to do something to keep yourself above water, you’ll find yourself fighting against it, no longer embracing its support, but seeing it as an enemy seeking to take away your life.
The second image comes from C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. The old earth has ended and a new Creation without the pain of the old has been brought into being. The entrance to the new Creation is through a small stable. Many creatures enter through, and although they are transported to a new and glorious Creation, where all the best parts of the old World are somehow made even better, some do not see the new Creation around them. All they see is what they expect: the inside of a stinky animal stall.
God’s presence with you may not always be visible. It may be as clear as clean water. Yet God is there, with you, to give you abundant and joyful life. Open your eyes to the life God gives to you right now. God has already given you salvation, a healed, forgiven, whole life, the days past and days to come, this day, to enjoy as you rejoice in all God has created and all God has promised.
Each of us will find ourselves uniquely able to live lives of good works, united with Jesus, and reveling in the joy God’s grace makes possible. Part of the joy of life is discovering how our lives align with God’s purposes at the various chapters of our lives.
I remember one presentation during my freshman orientation week at St. Olaf. Maybe it was the dean of students who came out and spoke to us about what it meant to become Oles. We received little cards that listed the values of the college, and I know I let most of the speech wash over my head. But part of the mission statement has stuck with me. That is that we would be prepared to live “lives of worth and service.” I believe this is part of the call which extends from God to all of us. God has created you for a life that has worth because of its connection with God’s purposes for all of creation. We live out that purpose through our service, our acts that flow out of God’s love for us.
College and camp were major times of discernment in my life, when options were widened, as I sought to discover the purpose of my life. I think that we each have special times in which we are most open to a time of discernment: when the need to discover purpose comes forward most strongly. This might be brought about my an abrupt change: an illness or death, a move, a loss of a job or ability. Or it might come from a sinking realization that each day has become more and more filled, but less and less fulfilling. Rejoice in the opportunity to discover yourself in God’s vision for creation. Let this community be a place in which we encourage each other to recognize the tug from God that aligns us with opportunities to live as we have been created to live. God is with you, gifting you with grace, inviting you to join in God’s great work to love the world.
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