Read text. Well, as many of you know, over the course of this past year, our oldest child, Aubrey, finished up high school and has gone off to college. She’s now a freshman at Ohio State and doing quite well. What this means is that Becky and I spent the past year going through the college application process with Aubrey … supporting her and offering guidance as she took college entrance exams, sorted through the barrage of mail from colleges inviting her to apply, filled out on-line applications.
Eventually, she narrowed her focus to three universities: Xavier (in Cincinnati), Grand Valley State, and Ohio State. We had known for months that she had been accepted into Grand Valley and Xavier. Xavier even offered to buy and order all of her textbooks for the duration of her studies there, and I proceeded to mention to her often just how expensive college textbooks are. But it quickly became obvious that her top three had really been pared down to a top two: Ohio State and Grand Valley State. Both really good schools with top notch programs in the area she wants to study … nursing. Both have very competitive nursing programs. Ohio State is farther away, much more expensive, and maybe a little bit more elite. Grand Valley would have cost much less and is quite a bit closer to home.
Unfortunately, we had to wait and wait and wait to hear whether she’d been accepted at Ohio State. Finally the acceptance packet came in the mail and she had a choice to make. Of course, when the packet came she told us she already knew because she’d received an e-mail acceptance a while ago. She just hadn’t told us. But the reality is that before she chose the college she would attend, she had been chosen by that school. She simply had to accept their offer.
Statistically though, Stanford University ranks as one of the toughest schools to give an acceptance letter. They recently updated their admission standards and stated that only five percent of applying students are accepted. In 2017, 42,497 students applied, and 2,140 were accepted. On their website, they give students realistic answers for the question “What is the academic standard to be accepted?” An ACT score of 33 or higher will put you into the top 50 percent of applicants, however the average score for accepted students is 35. The perfect score is 36. Accepted students will also need an average SAT score of 1520 (out of 1600), an average GPA of 4.18 (out of 4.0), plus a robust “resume” of extracurricular activities, leadership qualities, references, and recommendations. Of course new students also have to pay for Stanford at $60,000 per year. If you want to get into Stanford you better be close to perfect or just absolutely amazing![i] The schools she chose to apply to aren’t quite that elite, but they’re really good schools, and it was fun to watch her reaction as schools accepted her application and admitted her. They actually WANT me to come there to study. They have chosen me.
To be chosen, wanted, desired, loved, is a core desire, a longing, of the human heart. That’s why one of the highest moments of many people’s lives is that moment when their significant other either finally proposed or said yes to a marriage proposal. That’s also why relational betrayals: affairs, abandonment by parents, betrayal by ones we thought were friends do so much damage. It’s why they hurt so much. Without healing, those kinds of wounds stick with us for the rest of our lives.
In the original Greek language this letter was written in, Vv. 3-14 are one very long run on sentence. The punctuation has been added by the translators to help us read it because most people don’t have that much breath. But for Paul, it was all one long sentence as his heart overflowed with praise for the God who chose him, and who has chosen you. And the word Paul uses for blessing is a word we often translate as eulogy. We think of a eulogy as something spoken about the deceased, but in reality, eulogy means praise, fine speaking, good words, or a blessing. It is someone speaking good words about another.
In V. 4, his heart filled with praise, good words, Paul says that not only he but we were chosen by God before the foundation of the world was laid. What is Paul saying here? That before he brought the universe into existence, God knew that he would be redeeming his creation, including us, and that he was going to be doing that through Jesus, the Christ, the second person of the Trinity and the only begotten Son of God. That before the he brought the universe into existence, there was a betrayal, and a cross, in the heart and mind of God. He knew what he would need to do, and he was going to do it, and he was going to do it through Jesus Christ.
So why did God create a world in which sin was a possibility? Because love is at the heart of God. In fact St. John describes God as pure, unadulterated, unending love when he says simply that “God is love.” (1 Jn. 4:8). God is at God’s core pure love. And love requires choice. If God created us without the possibility of choosing against him, we would not be capable of loving him, for love is a choice, a decision freely made. And our love is the only gift that we can offer to God.
Love requires a choice, and just a we may choose to love or to not love God, so God chose, before he ever created this world, to go ahead and make you, knowing that he would have to redeem you at great cost to himself. God has chosen you. You are chosen. That means you are wanted. You are worthy of being loved. Right now. Just as you are. In your brokenness. In your sin. With all of your flaws. In spite of the mistakes you make. You are loved. And because God loves you, God has chosen to step into human history to redeem you.
God could have said, “You know what? Humanity is fallen and sinful. They refused, and refuse, to listen to me, to heed my word, to welcome my presence. I’ve had enough. I’m done. They can all go to hell.” But it isn’t in God’s nature to do that. It is in God’s nature to love us, not because of our merit, but because it is in God’s nature to love. The glory of the gospel is this: you are chosen. You’ve been accepted. You’ve made the team.
So great. We’ve been chosen. For what? Look back up at V. 1: “To the saints who are in Ephesus, and are faithful in Christ Jesus …” Who are these saints Paul is talking about. Sometimes we’ll refer to St. Paul or St. John or St. Peter; we’ll call the first apostles “saints;” and maybe some people today, people like Mother Teresa. Or when someone does something over the top nice for us, we’ll say “you’re a saint!” But we usually only mean it for that moment. Tomorrow we might call them a jerk. Who are these saints Paul is writing to? Anyone here married to a saint? I certainly am. Sometimes I think other people look at Becky and I and think “What was she thinking?”
Here, believe it or not, he was calling the normal, average Joe, everyday Gentile Christian in Ephesus a “saint.” In fact, whenever Paul describes Christ’s followers, he calls them saints. Regardless of who they are. And believe me, they weren’t all Mother Teresa’s. They got caught up in petty disputes and power plays, they got caught up doing things and even believing things that followers of Christ should be doing and believing. For the most part, just like us, they seemed pretty un-saint-like. In Corinthians, you kind of get the feeling that Paul was pretty upset with some people. But Paul always refers to imperfect but genuine followers of Christ as saints. It has to do with what God has chosen us for. And in V. 4, Paul says that God has chosen us to “be holy and blameless before him.” Okay. Great. God has chosen me to be something that I can never be. Pastor, I thought you said that God has chosen me, and loves me, right now, in my brokenness, with all of my flaws. He does. And because he loves you, he does something about the mess. Love isn’t an emotion. Love is a verb. Love is action, and God acts.
Look down at V. 5. Before the world began, God had chosen, elected, predestined us for adoption as his children. Now, predestination and election are words that we really don’t use or understand much today. They’re also words whose meanings have been argued about by the best minds in Christianity for centuries, and I won’t pretend to be able to solve, or even add substantially, to the debate. But I do know that Paul’s main objective here wasn’t to say that God predestines only some for salvation, as the Calvinists believe (that would be most Baptists, Presbyterians, anyone with Reformed in their church name, and about half of the non-denominational churches), or that God predestined, predecided, to save all who would freely accept his offer of grace as the Wesleyan-Arminians believe (that would be the Methodists and Wesleyans, most Charismatic churches, and the other half of non-denominational churches). Paul’s point wasn’t to have that argument.
His point was that God is the one who chooses to take action to save us. We cannot save ourselves. We cannot earn God’s approval, and we cannot earn God’s salvation. Doesn’t mean we don’t or can’t put any effort into our life in Christ. We can, should, and do. Life as a disciple of Jesus requires us to put effort into our life in Christ. Grace means that we cannot EARN salvation. Grace is opposed to earning, but not effort.
Many families have adopted children, some adopt children from other countries. One family who adopted an older child from an unspeakably horrific orphanage in another country. When they brought her home one of the things they told her was that she was expected to clean her room every day. When she heard about that responsibility, she fixated on it and saw it as a way she would earn her family’s love. In other words, she isolated the responsibility and applied it to her existing frame of thinking that was shaped by life in the orphanage. Thus, every morning when her parents came in her room, it was immaculate and she would sit on the bed and would say, “My room is clean. Can I stay? Do you still love me?” Her words broke her new parents’ hearts.
Eventually, the girl learned to hear her parents’ words as their unconditionally beloved child who would never be forsaken, not as a visitor trying to earn her place in the family. After she knew that she was an inseparable part of the family story, even correction and discipline did not cause her to question her family’s love for her; she understood correction and discipline to be part of what it meant to be in the family.[ii]
Adoption carries with it great privilege. Paul identifies the privilege as “adoption AS SONS.” The word there includes both men and women. The most accurate reading would be “sons and daughters” or “children.” In Romans Paul says that as children of God, chosen and adopted by God, we are heirs of God. “… if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Rom. 8:17).
God has chosen you to live blamelessly before him. Not only has God chosen you. God believes in you. But to be holy and blameless before him isn’t as much about living a perfect life, because even a Holy Spirit filled follower of Jesus still sins, although we do grow in our ability to fight against and resist sin in our lives. To be holy is to be set apart for God’s use. In Deuteronomy 7:6 God says to the people of Israel “For you are a people holy to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth.” Unfortunately, the people of God saw this as a reason to look down upon all of the other peoples of the world. But that wasn’t God’s point at all. In terms of world power, Israel was never much to shake a stick at. God had chosen them because he wanted them to be a people through whom he would reveal himself as a good, and loving, and holy, and powerful God to the rest of the peoples of the world. Israel never understood that. So in the New Testament, in 1 Peter 2:9, Peter writes to the church of Jesus Christ, made up of both Jews and Gentiles alike, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” When we place our faith in Christ and begin to follow him, we become a part of a people set apart for God’s use, a people through whom God is revealing himself to the rest of the world as good, and loving, and holy, and just, and powerful.
But even then, it is not just up to us. God doesn’t say, “Ok, I’ve forgiven and adopted you, now go and be good people.” He fills us with his Holy Spirit. Through the Holy Spirit, Christ lives his life in us, Christ shines his light through us. God empowers us to live as his people. Look at all of the active verbs in this passage. They all have God as the subject. God has blessed us in Christ, chose us in Christ, predestined us for adoption, blessed us in the Beloved, redeemed us, lavished the riches of his grace upon us, forgiven us in Christ, made known to us the mystery of his will, is uniting all things in Christ, has given us an inheritance, and has placed his seal, his brand, on us through the Holy Spirit. And what are we doing? Making ourselves holy? No. Being all loveable and cute? No. We are receiving all that God is doing. God is the actor here. And we simply receive.
God acts in love. We receive and respond in gratitude. That’s grace. God offers forgiveness. We can receive forgiveness. We are adopted into his family, his people. We receive the Holy Spirit, who empowers us to live as his people. And we respond in the only way we can, in the way Paul responds as he stands in awe at the beauty of the grace of God. We worship. You see, that’s what this passage really is. It is the worship of God pouring out of Paul’s heart like a geyser. This is a doxology, a spontaneous act of praise as the words gush from Paul’s heart and mind to the page. So what I’d like you to do in a moment is pray with me. If you’ve never responded to God’s offer of forgiveness and adoption into his family, I’d like to give you the opportunity to do that. And if you’ve been taking grace for granted, no longer sitting in awe at the beauty of all that God has done, I’ll invite you to join me in a moment of worship.
I’ve often been somewhat critical of a lot of contemporary Christian music. To me it all just sounds the same, and I think the Sloppy Wet Kiss/Unforseen Kiss song pushed me over the edge. I’ve actually done youth group lessons on music and paying attention to what the artists are actually saying. There’s some really good secular music and some really bad Christian music out there. So when I was bringing Aubrey home a week and a half ago for her fall break, I was pleasantly surprised when Aubrey turned on Lauren Daigle after making me listen to Disney movie soundtracks for five hours. Not the animated movies either. The teen drama movies that show on the Disney Channel. Wow. That was a painful five hours. So Lauren Daigle is a contemporary Christian artist whose music is making waves around the world and across the full landscape of music in America. She released her first full-length album in 2015 and it went platinum, and she’s already received numerous Billboard Music, American Music, and Dove awards and has been twice nominated for a Grammy.
She released her second album, Look Up Child, in July, was the hottest selling Christian album in almost a decade, and according to Rolling Stone magazine spent time as the #3 selling album, across all genres, in America; well above the music of Drake, Ariana Grande, Mac Miller, Post Malone, Travis Scott, and Nicki Minaj. The only two albums above hers were new albums by Paul McCartney and Eminem. As I listened to her music, I realized that in most of her songs, she writes and sings about grace. America is hungry for grace. This world is hungry for grace. We’re dying for it. And when someone sings powerfully about grace, we notice. We respond. It was the title track of her first album that really jumped out at me, and I’d like to share it with you now. It’s called “How Can It Be.” Let’s pray.
[i] College Simply, “Stanford Admission Requirements”
[ii] David E. Prince, “How Biblical Application Really Works,” PreachingToday Skills Article (January 2018)