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Life 101


Life 101

Ephesians 5:15-21


In October 1871, the Great Chicago Fire destroyed much of the bustling city of Chicago. But, surprisingly, the flames actually started on the other side of the Chicago River. So how did the fire cross over the river and reach Chicago? The river-jumping fire is partially explained by the high winds that spread the fire to wooden ships moored in the river. But there was also another even more important factor in the spread of the fire. In those days, the Chicago River was a shallow, sluggish sewer for the entire city. The Union Stock Yards in Chicago dumped all their animal waste into the river. People called it “The Stinking River” or “Bubbly Creek.” It was so bad that the waste was actually combustible, and the fire burned its way right across the river.


All of this nasty flowed into Lake Michigan, where there were drinking-water intakes for the city. Waterborne diseases broke out. Every year through the 1880s and 1890s, at least 10,000 people died from cholera and typhoid fever. In 1885, fourteen years after the Great Chicago Fire, nearly 100,000 people died from illnesses carried by the river’s putrid waters. Three decades later city engineers took action. First, they started digging 28 miles of canal. They moved more earth and rocks than were moved building the Panama Canal. They set in locks and gates. Then, on January 2, 1900, a worker opened a sluice gate at Lake Michigan, and the entire Great Lakes flowed into the Chicago River, pushing it a direction it had never flowed. They reversed the flow of the Chicago River. It now flowed the opposite way—into the canal, into the Des Plaines River, into the Illinois River, and into the Mississippi. This brought a huge flow of fresh water. Instead of shallow, sluggish, diseased water, making the community sick, the river now brought the city life. Some writers argue that Chicago would not even be around today, had the flow of the Chicago River not been reversed. The American Society of Civil Engineers named it one of the engineering projects of the millennium.


The same thing happens in our relationship with Christ, but what Jesus does is even more astounding: he reverses the flow of the human soul. Instead of the shallow, sluggish, diseased waters of human sinfulness, Jesus has opened the gates of new and living water into our lives.[i] Turn in your Bibles to Ephesians 5:15-21.


A person has to be filled with something. The question is, what is filling you? “Do not get drunk with wine … but be filled with the Spirit.” These verses have often been used to teach that it is a sin to ever consume alcohol. But that isn’t Paul’s point here. The phrase “do not get drunk” is in the present, imperative, passive tense. Now, I know. You, like me, probably slept through quite a few of your grammar classes. Imperative means it is a command. In this case, something that we are supposed to not do. But passive indicates that the action is being done by something or someone else. Paul is talking about what has control over you in a given moment – is it the Holy Spirit, or something else.


Typically, when we talk about something having control over me, we talk about addiction – something that I struggle to stop doing; something that has control over me. Paul is commanding us to allow nothing to have control over us except for the Holy Spirit. And drugs alcohol is one of those things that human beings in all times and in all places have struggled with having control over. It isn’t the only thing. The DSM-5, the diagnostic manual used by mental health professionals, has distinct categories for addiction and overuse of alcohol, caffeine, cannabis, hallucinogens, inhalants, opioids, sedatives, stimulants (cocaine), tobacco, gambling, plus a catch-anything-else “other” category for anything else that a person might struggle to control. They’re currently thinking about adding specific categories for  caffeine use and internet gaming. We as human beings struggle with self-control, don’t we? And self-control is supposed to be one of the fruits of the spirit, isn’t it? So Paul asks, what is filling you? What has control in your life? Is it the Holy Spirit – which should be true of a follower of Christ – or is it something else?

For me, for years, it was caffeine and sugar. I used to drink the equivalent of 5-7 cans of pop a day. And I finally got to the point where I wondered, “Is this controlling me?” I mean, I’d come up with an excuse to run an errand so I could grab a bottle of Coke in the checkout lane every day. And no one batted an eye, because it’s socially acceptable. So several years ago as Lent approached, I wondered, “I wonder if I can go the 40 days of Lent without drinking a pop at all?” That’s why we fast as a spiritual discipline, and why Lent is often set aside as a time of fasting. When we think of fasting, we usually think of going without food. But it doesn’t have to be that. It can be anything that you suspect might be controlling you. So that year I went through Lent without having a single sip of pop. I stopped to get one on my way to church that Easter morning, but that’s another story. But then, a couple of years later, I decided that I’d give up pop for good. And I haven’t had a sip in a little over four years now. “But pastor, we’ve seen you sipping something from a Jimmy Johns cup.” Yep. Iced tea. The stuff I make at home is caffeine free too, but you can’t get caffeine free tea when you’re out and about. And I only drink decaf coffee.


Alcohol is often singled out because it has such a huge effect on the brain, and thus on your thinking and behavior. There are many, many people who can enjoy a drink and be just fine, But there are also many who can’t. There are some who struggle with the disease of alcoholism, and that is a chronic disease. There are some who just can’t. Most of us know someone who has struggled with addiction. Some have seen, maybe experienced first hand the unspeakable abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, that can come with it. The danger posed to the self and to others. Destroyed families, destroyed friendships, destroyed lives. Making a fool of yourself. Paul calls it debauchery. The picture is of someone who is out of control. What is filling you? What is in control?


Instead, be filled with the Spirit. The verb tense here indicates that this being filled with the Spirit is supposed to be an ongoing action. We are told literally, to “go on being filled with the Spirit.” But the verb tense is also passive. I cannot fill myself with the Holy Spirit any more than my cup can fill itself with decaffeinated, unsweetened iced tea at the soda counter. Only God can fill me with the Holy Spirit. But he promises to fill every follower of Christ with the Holy Spirit. So why are so many Christians full of something else? Because we have to make room. A cup that’s already full of something can’t be filled with anything else. It has to be dumped first.


So what does a Spirit-filled person look like. Paul lists three traits. They aren’t the only three traits. But they’re the two he lists here. The first is making the most of the time that you have. Look at V. 16. There are two Greek words for “time” Paul had to choose from. One is “chronos,” indicating the sequence of time. One second, one minute, one hour, one day after another in sequence. We get or word “chronological” from “chronos.” The other word is “kairos” and it’s the word Paul chose here. It indicates significant times. The best translation of this word might be opportunity. “Making the most of every opportunity that presents itself to you.” Make the most of those significant moments.


Gregory Spencer wrote a book called “Awakening the Quieter Virtues,” and in that book, he said this: “One of the louder virtues in American culture is efficiency. It’s what makes the clock of capitalism tick. We are remarkably skilled at getting things done, at thinking “yes, we can,” and then putting forth our best effort to accomplish many tasks in a short time. Often efficiency serves us well. But this way of valuing time can tick-tock into our worldview, leading us to measure everything by the stopwatch. Time: we march against it, beat it, save it, manage it, spend it, and try not to kill it or waste it. If efficiency becomes a dictator instead of a servant, generosity is usually oppressed. We feel we must fill days with industrious busyness. When my daughters were young, I too frequently bemoaned how little time I could give to writing. One friend said, “Your girls will only be toddlers once. Don’t worry so much about being productive.” Another friend gestured to my daughters and said, “Spence, here are your publications!” These friends encouraged me to view time…by the opportunity presented, time according to what the season calls for. Time well used…is time that appropriately meets the needs of the moment, not…time measured by the demands of the clock.”[ii]


Sometimes using time well, making the most of every opportunity we have, means rest, relaxation, and recreation. Using time well means we recognize that our lives need to flow between alert productivity and awareness on the one hand and slower times of rest and recreation on the other. God wrote the concept of “sabbath” into the fabric of our lives, and also reminds us, in the words of Jesus, that “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). In other words, “You don’t exist to serve the Sabbath, Sabbath is there for you, it is my gift to you. And it is such a good gift that I have commanded you to observe it.” But to turn sabbath rest into a long list of things you can and cannot do during your sabbath time flies in the very face of what sabbath is intended to do – to set us free and give us rest. The person who makes the most of their time, of every opportunity, isn’t a workaholic, and they aren’t a procrastinator either. How many of you would say you tend to be more of a workaholic? How many of you are more of a procrastinator? We tend to fall on one side of that continuum or the other. But if we’re workaholics who always keep our nose to the grindstone and never look up, we might actually miss the significant opportunities that God brings into our lives every day. On the other hand, if we’re ALWAYS at play or rest, then we probably aren’t accomplishing much day to day either. The key is to make the most of our time by learning to flow back and forth between the two well. And that’s important, because the second mark of someone who is full of the Spirit is the ability to discern the will of God, and that takes time. Look at V. 17.


Now, Paul isn’t talking about some kind of magical hokey-pokey here by which suddenly we are able to tap mysteriously into the mind of God and gain secret knowledge that other people don’t have. It means that we’ll grow in our knowledge of our heavenly Father and in our ability to hear his voice above the clamor of voices shouting something else in our culture today. Even though our family is pretty introverted, there are times when our house can get pretty noisy, especially late afternoon, when everyone gets home. If the TV is on, and Eli and Sterling are playing video games, and Aubrey and I are talking, it can get pretty loud. It’s often very overwhelming to poor Becky at times like that. But we have a dog named Merle. And Merle has decided that although he loves all of us, he is really Becky’s dog. As she moves around the house, he moves with her and settles wherever she goes. The other day, we were all in the living room and it was fairly loud in there, and Merle was with me because I was really petting him good. And then quietly, beneath all of the noise, Becky just gently said, “Merle” and he went immediately to her side. He knew her voice.


Now, we have to understand what we mean when we say “the will of God.” There are two aspects to the will of God – God’s general will and God’s specific will. God’s general will is true for all people everywhere and is revealed in Scripture. Ultimately, it can be summed up in the Holy Spirit’s work of making us like Christ. Romans 8:29 says it clearly, “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.” That’s God’s general will, and it’s the part of God’s will that most of us never think about, because most of us are obsessed with God’s specific will for me. What I should do with my life, whether and whom I should marry, things like that. The problem is that America is full of Christians who worry constantly about whether they are marrying the right person, whether they studied the right thing in college and are on the right career path, and yet they don’t reflect the life and love of Christ at all. I know some Christians who spend more time praying about which car they should buy than what they should do about their problem with anger or greed or jealousy. We’ve become superstitious Christians. I’ve sometimes been asked to offer a prayer for an athletic team before a game or for participants before some kind of competition. Do you know that I’ve never prayed for victory of one team over the other? I’ve prayed for safety for all and that the competitors will perform to the best of their given ability and the amount of time and effort they’ve put into practice and preparation. God doesn’t care who wins the Super Bowl or the World Series. Winning a game isn’t a sign of God’s blessing. Have you ever seen the prayer meeting that happens in an end zone after most NFL football games? It always includes players from both teams. Do you really think God dislikes the followers of Christ who play for the Lions more than the ones who play for the Patriots? Of course not! So why do the Patriots win more, no matter who gets hurt? Because they have a really smart football coach and executive team and a great culture around their team. It’s got nothing to do with the blessing of God any more than the Lions woes reflect some curse from God.


Being filled with the Holy Spirit transforms not only our use of time and our ability to discern the will of God, but also our relationships with others. As we have walked through Ephesians together, are you beginning to realize how often God brings us back to this? A.W. Tozer said “To many Christians, Christ is little more than an idea, or at best an ideal–He is not a fact. Millions of professed believers talk as if He were real and act as if He were not. Our actual position is always to be discovered by the way we act, not by the way we talk.”[iii] We are always “acting” in relation to other people. Look at V. 19. Addressing, or speaking to, one another – that’s fellowship. Singing – that’s worship. And then there’s thanksgiving – being thankful rather than complaining. And then submitting to one another. Listening to one another. Encouraging one another. Worshipping with one another. Being grateful for one another.


What is filling you? Is it the Holy Spirit, or something else? Those who are full of the Holy Spirit actively say, “Lord, there is no part of my life I am not willing to turn over to you. No addiction. No relationship. No tendency. No part of my personality. No part of my body, my mind, or my emotion. I might flinch. I might tremble with fear. I might cry out in anger and pain. I might fear that I cannot give it up. But leaning on you and on your love for me I will allow you to lead me into, and out of, the mess.” Those who are full of the Holy Spirit are even willing to say, “Even my time is yours to do with as I will. I may or may not accomplish everything on my list today. But may I, leaning on you and your love for me, accomplish everything on YOUR list for me today. May I hear your voice clearly, transforming me and guiding me. And may your life and love be prevalent in my relationships with others.” And that, says God through St. Paul, is wise living. Let us pray.

[i] Kevin Miller, Wheaton, Illinois; sources: “The Reversal of the Chicago River in 1900”; “January 2, 1900: Reversing the Chicago River” by John R. Schmidt; “The Reversal of the Chicago River,” American Public Works Association

[ii] Gregory Spencer, Awakening the Quieter Virtues (IVP, 2010), pp. 170-171

[iii] A.W. Tozer in This World: Playground or Battleground? Christianity Today, Vol. 35, no. 2.