A sermon based on Jeremiah 7:1-11 and Ephesians 5:3-20 preached on August 6th, 2017
I’ve owned several cars in my life, but none will be as memorable as the second one—the one I drove around town when I first got my driver license: a 1986 Ford Mustang LX.
My first car was a 1980 Mazda RX-7 in black. The one with the headlights that flipped up out of the hood. It was a 2-seater. I owned it for a few months, but I only drove it on the road once. It looked terrible. The rear quarter panels on both sides had rust holes in them big enough to stick your fists into. The black paint job was worn down to the metal all over that car. But as old as it was, it ran like like a dream. The engine was as solid as the body was rusty.
Looking back now, I wish my father and I had stuck with the RX-7, but when my 16-year-old eyes met that ’86 Mustang. It was love at first sight! It was bright cherry red. It gleamed in the sunlight. The stereo in the dash was missing, but that was okay because I had plans to upgrade whatever was in there anyway.
I drove that Mustang around for a little over two years. By then, my Dad and I had well figured out that we had overpaid for it. We had been taken in, fooled, by its brand new paint job. That stunning red paint covered a multitude of problems. In the ensuing months and years, I had to put that car in Park or Neutral every time I came to a stop, or the thing would stall out. I carried a 5-quart container of motor oil in my back seat, because sometimes I had to jump out while waiting at a red light to refill the oil that constantly leaked out. It turns out that you can polish junk and pass it off as something it isn’t. Window dress the insubstantial and make it look meaningful and purposeful.
At the beginning, I couldn’t wait to make that Mustang my own; at the end, I couldn’t wait to get rid of it.
In the life of faith, paint jobs don’t matter. God knows how we run underneath. All the window dressing in the world can’t hide, and will not cover up, the problems inside. And we don’t get by well—or for long—on how impressive things look on the outside, on the surface of things. In the end, we only get by—find our energy and vitality, our worth and worthiness—because of the quality of what’s hiding underneath our gleaming paint jobs. What matters most is what’s in our guts, our hearts, our minds. And it doesn’t take long for others to see past whatever shiny coat of paint we put on our exterior. We are only as healthy as what’s going on in the parts of us that are hidden away—much deeper.
We carry on in the back half of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians in pursuit of some vision of what the spiritually mature Christian life is like. Paul continues with the down to earth examples of how to go on living in right relationship
Paul continues with the down to earth examples of how to go on living in right relationship to God’s love and grace and majesty. Our right response is to live well, to pursue those things that only God can give us, to live in search of peace and wholeness and love so that we might better reflect who Jesus is to all those around us.
There are people all around us who know how to look past our nice looking exteriors and see what’s really going on. Who can see past the fleeting light of our smiles and peer into our very character. Just as Paul says, sometimes what we keep hidden away in the dark gets exposed to the light. Here, we are invited to live in such a way that our insides match our outsides. And we do that by continuously making choices that are consistent with our faith. Our faith, Paul writes, is not window dressing. Our faith is never only lived on the outside.
Sometimes we try to get away with throwing on a shiny coat of faith on the outside in an attempt to hide something from God and others. We throw something like glimmering red paint on some shame-filled part of ourselves that we want at all cost to keep under wraps—in the dark. But we are called by Christ to be Children of Light, and our lives will be barren pursuits if we’re unwilling to let God inside and examine us. Sometimes we don’t let God in because we presume that God will judge us harshly. If God sees how shameful or dark it really is inside, He’ll get angry and there won’t be any relationship left at all.
But there’s something wrong with that: scripture, over and over again, tells the story of a good and gentle God whose love for us is infinitely wider and deeper and higher than any love we could ever ask for or imagine. It’s a love that heals and repairs every part of ourselves that’s dark and broken. The invitation here is to trust this. To trust that if we hand over every bit of who we are to God, bring it out into the light, God will get to work in us, through us, for us. And through His grace, God will carefully and lovingly piece us together into the whole beings that He wants to make of us.
Why do we resist this? Why is it such a daunting thought to open ourselves up this way? Perhaps one reason is that we often fear that if we look too closely at our lives, we’ll see too much that has to be fixed. We might say to ourselves that we’re getting down the road okay just as we are, so why bother opening up the hood—peering deeper into what’s going on beneath the surface of things. Wouldn’t that work be too hard, too much to confront or pay attention to? Too painful to visit or sort through? Some cars aren’t worth repairing, but there’s not one life that isn’t worth redeeming—bringing back to life, getting elbow deep into repairing, making whole, complete.
Paul tells us to steer clear of a few things: religious smooth talk, useless work, the barren pursuits of darkness—sexual promiscuity, filthy practices, bullying greed, drunkenness. He warns us of the many useless ways we can speak—our mouths filling the air with empty words, gossip.
On the surface of things, this appears to be a list of requirements, things we have to either accomplish or effortfully avoid in order to make ourselves shiny and good-looking to God. We can see this entire passage as a word of admonition, a bunch of must-do’s—moral obligations we must fulfill—in order to prove our goodness to God, to live up to His love for us.
There’s nothing wrong with living a moral life, in fact, I encourage it, but ignoring any of these instructions described here doesn’t only result in bad or immoral behavior, it also cheapens us. If we live our lives in any of these ways—sexual promiscuity, filthy practices, bullying greed, get taken in by religious smooth talk, live carelessly, unthinkingly—we ignore our value as people made in the image of a loving God. We cheapen ourselves. We live beneath our worth. The image of God that lives deep inside of us must be nurtured to the surface through the right use of our bodies, our words, and our lives. Living our lives away from these dark actions and in the light of God’s love and life is the way we become full and whole human beings. They are the way in which God makes more of us.
These aren’t a bunch of soulless rules. Together they paint a picture of what living in right relationship with God, ourselves, and others looks like—the great value we have because each and every one of us has been bought at a price and rescued in a priceless way: through the cross of Christ. And living our lives in the way of the Cross means in part steering clear of any action or behavior that makes less of you and I and others, that minimizes who you and I and others are in the loving sight of God. We are worth more than we know.
It’s easy to live in cheap ways, to make choices that end up dehumanizing us. We give ourselves away to lesser things all the time. We chase after shadows and things that glitter, and we lose ourselves in these things. We think they matter, but all they do is distract us, pull us away from true life. When we do this, we suffocate the breath of God’s Holy Spirit inside of us. These things and these ways, they cheapen our worth as the expensive and invaluable Children of God, and that is exactly what we are.
Sleepers awake! Climb out of these coffins, these too-tiny ways of bestowing upon ourselves empty forms of meaning, purpose, self-worth! Christ is the Light who will show you the light! Now that’s a Call to Worship! A wake-up call to worship!! A call to enter into the deep life of God, to get out of ourselves and into God—to walk away from the superficial life, get taken in by shiny paint jobs, those life pursuits that do nothing to give real value or purpose to who we are, that do nothing to draw us closer into the meaningful and purposeful holy life that God invites us to live in Jesus Christ. The Jesus life is a life that calls us to more life. One that both on the surface and from deep inside will grow us into people who reflect the glorious and holy image of God, so that others may see.
All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!