God’s First Move

A sermon based on Psalm 85:8-13 and Ephesians 1:3-14 preached May 14th, 2017

The world is so much bigger than we think.

There’s a book by Emma Donoghue, and the tie-in movie—both entitled Room—about a young mother named Joy and her 5-year old son named Jack. Jack’s mother has been held captive inside a 12 by 12-foot garden shed for 7 years, for all of Jack’s life plus another 2 before he came along. This 12-foot square room is all that Jack has ever known. He calls it “Room.” It’s his whole world.

When young Jack began asking questions and remembering their answers, his mother Joy decided it was best to tell him there was nothing more than these four walls that surrounded them—the ceiling a few feet above their heads. There were no windows in Room. Just a skylight above that gave them nothing to look at but blue sky and white clouds. The light of the sun and the dark of night was nothing more to Jack than a one-dimensional covering that he must have imagined existed just a few feet above Room’s ceiling. Jack’s world was tiny and simple.

When Jack turned 5, his mother decided he was old enough to comprehend the bigger picture. The black and white TV in Room, she told him, projected images of real human beings—other people who existed in the world and lived hundreds, maybe even thousands of miles away. We can hear Jack asking,

What’s a mile?

Joy tried her best to tell Jack that the world is filled with billions of people who were just like them. That people had to drive cars to get from one place to another because the places they needed to go were so far away. All this was lost on Jack. He didn’t believe her. How could he? He’d never known anything bigger than the cramped and dark 144 square feet of a garden shed.

At one point in the movie, Jack refuses his mother’s big words about this immense world she is talking about. He shouts,

I want a different story!

His mother quickly replies:

No! This is the story you get!!

Jack’s mind is no bigger than what his eyes can see, his ears can hear, and all they know are the tin walls of a ramshackle shed, the static-y murmur of a black and white TV.

I won’t give away the ending. It’s a profound story you must see for yourself. But, this I will say: Room is a story that should make us wonder about the vast entirety of the world—maybe even the cosmos—and our place in it.

Throughout, questions should bubble up in our minds: This world and this life we live in it, do we believe it’s only as big as what we’ve seen and been told by others, or do we know more? Could it be that we move about this vast planet of ours in our tiny little circles so repetitively that we lose perspective? In an effort to be comfortable with our own small version and vision of things, maybe we have taken the vast dimensions of God’s immense creation and shrunk it down into our own versions of a 12 by 12-foot room.

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Just like 5-year-old Jack, in order to grow to maturity, to know the truth about creation, the God who made it, and our place in it, we must first be made aware of how large the gap is between our tiny vision of things and God’s immeasurable power and grace. What else is there but what we can see through our own skylights?

No matter what we’ve been told, no matter how far we’ve traveled or how wide our eyes are as we go along our way, what Paul wants us to know, right off the bat is that everything about God, the grace He gives, the love He has for us, the plans He’s made for us—they’re all much bigger and louder, more wondrous and glorious than we could ever know. This is Paul’s message to those first Christians in Ephesus. And it’s still an important message for us. First, we must be told that, in the grand scheme of things, the only reason why we’re significant is because God has adopted us as his family through Jesus Christ, and because of this, we do not, cannot, live in our own world. This is God’s world, and in order to know our place in it, we must hand ourselves over to God—to persistently and intentionally give ourselves over to ways of Christ Jesus.

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In the original language this whole passage, verses 3 through 14, is one huge, marvelous, run-on sentence. At 201 words, it’s the longest sentence in all of scripture.

Paul must have thought that the urgency of these words was great enough to warrant the abandonment of proper punctuation and syntax. This news is so good that even a comma would disturb the power inside of this sentence! It’s enough to give any English teacher a coronary.

But the largeness, the grammatical abandonment, of this colossal, run-on sentence should be excused, even by the most strident of grammar Nazis, because its lack of punctuation and its sheer size echoes the gracious abundance of its subject: God.

This one-sentence passage is a torrent of God-activity that refuses to pause or come up for air. It’s an avalanche of blessing that gathers size and strength with every tumbling word, all of it mirroring God’s lavish generosity. How can we keep from singing? How can we stop talking about how amazing God is?! This is the Gospel. This is Good News that will not wait!

Right away, through this torrent of nouns, verbs, and adjectives, the message is clear: in order to grow into the life that God has for us, in order to grow into spiritual maturity, what last week we identified as the goal of the Christian life, we must abandon all our shallow notions of who God is, all of our tiny twelve-by-twelve, Room-sized views of things, all of our too-small perceptions of how the world works and how God works in the world, and give ourselves over to the magnificence of what God is doing through Christ Jesus—the salvation He is working within us and among us, as well as far beyond us. God is not merely a part of our lives. That’s way too small and backwards, Paul says here at the outset of Ephesians. We are a part of God’s life.

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In order to open our eyes and then our lives to all this magnificence, Paul fills his run-on sentence with seven action verbs: blessed, chose, destined, bestowed, lavished, made known, and gather up.

None of these verbs have us as their subject. God’s the One doing all the action here. We are the objects of all of these verbs. We do not bless, choose, destine, bestow, lavish, make known, or gather up ourselves. God’s the One who blesses, chooses, destines, bestows, lavishes us. God is the One who makes known to us who we are, and gathers us up.

God’s the first Mover. In this salvation life, we do not begin on our own. These verbs, they’re God’s ways of jump-starting the work of salvation inside of us and among us. God has the first move. All of our action is merely a reaction to all that God has done and is doing for us in Christ Jesus, His Son and our Lord.

These words are in chapter 1 of this letter for a reason. Paul wants us to know this from the start or else all of our starts will be false ones. Let us not waste any more of our time thinking that we are the ones who make any of this happen. Let’s not live one more second of our lives—including our life together as Church—under the delusion that we’re the ones who make something of ourselves. Notions like that are just as tiny as 5-year-old Jack looking up at a tiny patch of blue through a sky light thinking he’s seen the whole world. God has made room for us to stretch our vision. To see things we have never and will never be able to see on our own.

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The older we get, the less we know. You’ve heard that before. In our younger years, we think we know it all. But as we growth into maturity, as we step out into the world, we slowly begin to realize how small we are inside of it.

It’s those moments when we stand beside the ocean, as the song goes, and find ourselves small and insignificant in the vast array of God’s creation, that we begin to realize how tiny we are and how little we know. The moment we realize this is a moment of amazing grace. It’s the instance when we abandon all those overinflated thoughts we have about ourselves, when we slowly let go of our own significance and begin to find ourselves all over again in the vast and Divine family of things. This is the first step into spiritual maturity. When in one way or another, we say,

God, this is all you and none of me

As Paul writes,

It is in Christ that we find out who we are and what we are living for.

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I hope I don’t give away the ending of Room if I tell you that 5-year old Jack and his mother, Joy, are finally freed from the confines of their 12 by 12-foot world.

Once outside of Room, Jack sees the immense glory of creation—what was once a mere rumor that he refused to believe. At the end of the film, we hear Jack say:

I’ve been in the world 37 hours. I’ve seen pancakes, and stairs, and birds, and windows, and hundreds of cars. And clouds, and police, and doctors, and grandma and grandpa. But Mommy says grandma and grandpa don’t live together in the hammock house anymore. Grandma lives there with her friend Leo now. And Grandpa lives far away.

I’ve seen persons with different faces, and bigness, and smells, talking all together. The world’s like the black and white TV in Room, but it’s on, all at the same time, so I don’t know which way to look and listen.

There’s doors and… more doors. And behind all the doors, there’s another inside, and another outside. And things happen, happen, HAPPENING. It never stops. Plus, the world’s always changing brightness, and hotness. And there’s invisible germs floating everywhere. When I was small, I only knew small things. But now I’m five, I know EVERYTHING!

And the book-readers and the movie-goers and God himself laughs, and we all say:

Jack, You haven’t seen anything yet!

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.

A Purpose Not Our Own

A sermon based on Isaiah 49:1-7 preached on January 19, 2014.

Sermon audio

You did not chose me, but I chose you…

Jesus’s words from John’s gospel were fresh on Kathleen’s mind as she made her way to church that special Sunday morning in January. Since October, she had been studying the Presbyterian Book of Confession—all those very confusing ways of saying that we believe in God. She had dove head first into the Presbyterian Book of Order, and heart-first into the words of the Bible. All to be prepared for this moment to join Olivet Presbyterian Church.

Kathleen was trying hard not to see today as her graduation day. Pastor Chad, who had been teaching the New Members class, said that joining the church was just the very beginning of a new and exciting journey along the way to becoming a disciple of Jesus.

Kathleen was proud of the 4 months of exploring her faith with others. She hadn’t gone through the new members class alone.

There would be 3 of them who would be invited up to join Pastor Chad who was going to ask them what they believed. After 4 months of weekly New Member’s Classes, all of them had plenty of time to study what Pastor Chad would ask them this morning.

Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Lord and Savior…?

Do you accept the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be…what’s the wording…something about being unique and authoritative. So, okay, Kathleen didn’t know the questions that well, but the point wasn’t to memorize them or to memorize anything at all for that matter, the point was to make a space for these new ideas in her heart. Seeds planted and space made for them to grow inside of her. That was the important part.

Kathleen’s favorite question that the New Member’s Group had studied was:

Will you be Christ’s faithful disciple, obeying his Word and showing his love to your life’s end?

In one of their classes, Krista, the youngest one in the group, the quietest of them all, spoke up and said that was her favorite question too. Sam, the third member of the group, said that question seemed bigger than all the rest. That it made him think about how important a commitment it was to follow and serve God, that it’s a life-long vocation. That it never ends.

Kathleen had learned that discipleship is a long walk with many twists and turns. Being a follower of Christ isn’t something that happens one day, it’s something that happens every day as we take our next step and tumble our way through this world trying to share a little of God’s love with others.

Being a disciple of Jesus has been called “a long obedience in the same direction”. Certainly the end of New Member’s Class was just the beginning of a huge journey that will be filled with moments of discovery, obedience, and wonder.

Will you be Christ’s faithful disciple, obeying his Word and showing his love to your life’s end?

That’s the kind of question that makes you ask 1,000 more questions.

The group did ask a lot of question in their time together. Big questions, the kind without answers. Or with answers too big for us to know about. Kathleen swam in the depths of all of those questions as she made her way through learning what it is to be a follower of Jesus Christ and what it means to become a member of Olivet Presbyterian Church. After 4 months of classes, she knew that her choice to join was not a small one. Pastor Chad took becoming a part of this faith community pretty seriously. Kathleen knew the importance of the profession of faith she would make this morning in front of the whole congregation.

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Kathleen had visited many churches before. But through all of these years, going to church never stuck. Olivet Pres would be the first church she ever joined. Too many times, Kathleen had walked into a church and felt instantly judged—for something that she was or for something that she wasn’t, she never knew why really—but that feeling of being judged is as heavy and as jarring and as graceful as an anvil falling from the sky, a piano falling out of the window of a high-rise apartment.

Being judged can instantly shatter you into a thousand tiny pieces. 

She never understood a church like that when, from what she knew, Jesus was kind and open and inviting. She wondered how some churches got so far from acting like Jesus did.

Olivet Presbyterian seemed different. A breath of fresh air even.

Pastor Chad encouraged Kathleen to keep asking questions. To carry those questions around like they were mints in her purse. Pastor Chad said that questions refresh our minds and keep our faith awake. Questions perk us up and keep our journey alive and exciting. If we don’t wonder about our faith then what we have isn’t faith at all. Faith is a relationship with God and others that needs to move forward, and the only way it moves forward is if we keep asking questions.

Kathleen was reminded of a scene in one of her favorite old movies, Annie Hall. They’re in an airplane, and Woody Allen and Diane Keaton realize that their relationship is over.

 Let’s face it, Diane Keaton says, I don’t think our relationship is working.

Woody Allen agrees with her, A relationship, I think, is like a shark, it constantly needs to move forward or else it dies. And, I think what we got on our hands is a dead shark.

Kathleen had come to know this church well, over the last 6 months, and she had seen zero dead sharks. Folks here saw faith as a relationship—something that was very much alive. Faith, they taught her, was a relationship with both God and others, and this church wrestled things out as they learned together in Sunday school classes, as they led one another in discipleship, and as they gathered to worship God. The people at Olivet were paying attention to ways that God was calling them to serve, and Kathleen was excited about what was ahead.
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Kathleen spent time in these classes at church wondering about the long and winding road she took that got her here.

Pastor Chad said that church isn’t for perfect people. This was good, because Kathleen had found out that she was far from it. Pastor Chad said that church was for the broken and confused. We come to church, he said, not in spite of our brokenness and confusion but because of them. We bring our entire selves to church, every bit of our brokenness and we call out to God together—as a community—to be fixed and made whole.

Kathleen new as much about the people in the bible—that they were people who failed and fell, got lost and walked in circles even when God was pointing them in straight lines.

The history of God’s people read like a Wyle E. Coyote and Roadrunner cartoon. People chasing God through their own deserts—literal or figurative. Only to fall short of catching up to God. Like the Coyote, we’re good at convincing ourselves of our own conniving ways—we trap ourselves with our own devices. Our plans blow up in our own faces. We think we’re headed the right way only to realize that we’ve just run off the side of a cliff. Our mistakes get us into trouble, and instead of following in the ways God is leading us, we convince ourselves that we know a better way. And our ways, just like Wyle E. Coyote, often lead to ruin.

What Kathleen wanted to find was a community of people who discerned their way together. Who asked God with one voice for directions as they moved forward. A community who kept each other from falling of cliffs.

No, church wasn’t for the perfect among us. We gather together to worship God because we know we need help to find our way.

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Kathleen thought that God is a like a parent who teaches us to walk. God stands behind us and takes our hands and urges us to take another step. God upholds us and walks with us wherever we wander. And when we fall, God is there to pick us up, brush us off, and help us find our footing again.

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The questions Kathleen will answer today to become a member of Olivet Presbyterian are big ones. She will say Yes to each of them. Kathleen will say Yes to a new life of service to God and to others. She will say Yes to obeying God’s Word. She will say Yes to putting all of her trust in the mercy of God.

These questions Pastor Chad will ask give us a purpose that is not our own. From now on, Kathleen will promise to live for God’s purposes. And with her Yes answers, she knew she was stepping out towards a brand new commitment to serve the world in Christ’s name.

If it was all up to her, Kathleen would be unsure of whether or not she really could say Yes to all of those questions. But the good news is that it wasn’t all up to her. Kathleen’s would not just answer with a simple “Yes”. Her answer would be, “Yes, with God’s help.”

We do nothing on our own. God is our help. And so is the community of faith who walks with us. We stand with the strength that others give us, and we walk on the top of God’s feet, taking our shaky steps with wobbly knees.

It is not by our effort but by God’s grace that we live and serve and believe. It is with God’s strength that we say Yes.

May God forever be our strength and our salvation.

Alleluia! Amen!