God Works Everything Out?
Our reading from Ephesians this morning jumps right into the middle of this letter’s opening paragraph, a hymn of praise to God. In this praise we find an important truth about God. “He works everything out in conformity with the purpose of his will.” I find this to be quite a difficult thing to understand. How can God work everything out so that it lines up with God’s intentions? What about the five year olds sitting on the streets of Kampala, begging, that I saw a few weeks ago? What about the illnesses and struggles of life that we experience, that those around us experience? What about our families, friends, and neighbours losing their jobs and their homes? There is such a lot going on around us that, to be honest, doesn’t look much like it is being worked out in line with God’s will.
But, life was no easier in Paul’s day. He himself had suffered all kinds of things in the course of ministry. This very letter was probably written at a time when Paul was in prison. He had seen Christians killed for their faith. He was a Jew, someone whose country had been invaded and was ruled by foreigners. He also lived in a world where it didn’t look much like things were being worked out in line with God’s will. Yet still he could write that he was certain that they are.
How is this possible? Where does this depth of faith come from? Well, I think that we get the answer in the next verses. Paul talks about the Holy Spirit as the deposit that guarantees an inheritance.
When I was a lad, we didn’t always have a dessert with our evening meal. If we wanted something to finish off our meals there was fruit or yoghurt. But sometimes Mum would make a pudding, crumble or something like that. I always knew when this had happened because as well as knives and forks, the table would be set with dessert spoons. The fact that I was sat down with a dessert spoon in front of me promised that there would be dessert.
In some ways, the Holy Spirit is a bit like that dessert spoon. The promise of something sweet to come. And that sweetness is what Paul describes as our inheritance.
Elsewhere that inheritance is described as the Kingdom of God. In some Christian traditions it has been thought that this inheritance is in heaven. That when we die, we shall be raised to life in heaven and that will be our inheritance. But actually, it seems that Paul means more than this. In Revelation we read of the “new heaven and new earth” that will be renewed and recreated in perfection when Jesus returns to fulfil all things. It seems that the Kingdom of God will not only be heavenly but will also be earthly, but earth made perfect once more.
Those terrible things that I spoke of a few moments ago will have no place in God’s Kingdom. That is not because earth will have been done away with, but because earth, and the people of earth, us, will live in a way in which those things will not happen. A new heaven and a new earth is the purpose of God, the purpose towards which God works together all things.
Paul continues his letter by describing his prayer for the believers he is writing to. He prays that they will be able to see what God is doing. That they will understand this inheritance that they have in store for them, and that they will live their lives now in the light of it.
Why is it that when you are baking a cake, everybody wants to lick the bowl? As soon as you get the ingredients out of the cupboard and start weighing things out, the first question from the children is always “can we lick the bowl”. They might not even know what kind of cake it is, but they do know that they will want to lick the bowl. As you’re pouring the mixture into the cake tin, they are watching carefully to make sure that you don’t scrape out the bowl too thoroughly, that you leave enough mixture for them to taste.
The problem with the dessert spoon idea is that although it tells you that pudding is coming, it doesn’t tell you what it’ll be like. Having a good finger full of cake mixture does tell you, it gives you an idea, a foretaste. And in some ways the Holy Spirit is like this for us, with our inheritance. The Holy Spirit’s presence in our lives gives us a foretaste of our inheritance, of the Kingdom of God, here and now.
Paul prays for these Christians that they would be able to taste three of the key ingredients of this. Hope, riches and power. That is, the hope of our calling, the riches of our inheritance, and the power of God for those who believe.
The hope of our calling is the antidote to the despair that we may be tempted to feel when we look around the world and see a whole load of pain and difficulty. Before we came to Jesus, we had no future, we were dying. But we are not dying any more, we are living. When we turned from our sin and selfishness and decided that we would give our lives over to God, then we were freed. We were in darkness, now we are in light. We have been given hope, because we know what God has already done for us so we have hope that the same can and will be done for others. We cannot see it all yet, and that can be discouraging, but we do have strong grounds for expecting that we will see it. Our hope has strong foundations, the reality of what God has already done and of who God is.
The riches of our inheritance are the splendours of God’s kingdom in the future but also breaking through into lives now. We have already been freed from sin and death. All the other things that threaten to get in the way of our lives are like gossamer threads, compared to the massive chains that used to bind us. We have already received the riches of our inheritance of salvation. We have been released from those chains, and so we live in freedom.
The power of God for those who believe. Christians tend to be unsure about power. We know that we are meant to be humble and that Jesus seemed to be pretty unimpressed with powerful people in his teaching. But, we also have to recognise that Jesus wielded power. He healed people, he taught with authority, he freed people from the oppression of evil. God is so powerful that death could not hold Jesus, and he was raised to life again. That is the power that we are recognise and to expect to work in our lives and in our communities. We are to be weak so that God’s power can work. We should not be ashamed of wanting to see God’s power work in our lives and in the lives of those whom we serve. This is not power that dominates or pushes down, but it is power that frees and lifts up.
So, the Holy Spirit, as well as being the promise of the Kingdom yet to come (like the dessert spoon) also gives us a foretaste of what that inheritance will be (like tasting the cake mixture). But, actually, the Holy Spirit does even more than that. You see, one of the delights of licking the cake mix bowl is sharing it. Calling the whole family to come and try, to look forward to what’s cooking, together. The same is true of the taste that the Holy Spirit gives us of the inheritance of the Kingdom. The hope, riches, and power are not just for us to taste and to enjoy. They are for us to share. They are for us to share with each other and with those outside. And as we share them we will be part of God working together all things for God’s purposes.
As we reach out to those in despair. Those who feel lonely, isolated, guilty, hurt, lost. As we reach out to them with the hope of love, forgiveness, healing and a home. As we bring the hope of the inheritance of the Kingdom of God into their lives, then we will see it even more clearly ourselves.
As we reach out to those who are poor. Those who feel that they are worth nothing, who have lost everything, who have a big hole in the centre of their lives that refuses to be filled with all the things that they shovel into it. As we tell them of the riches of the inheritance of the Kingdom of God, so we will appreciate their worth even more deeply.
As we reach out to those who are weak. Who cannot lift their heads, who have been trodden down and beaten up, who have no voice and no influence. As we invite the power of God to work in their lives, to free them and to straighten their backs, then we will be amazed at the things that can happen.
Let me give you an example. I mentioned that when I was in Uganda I saw children sitting on the streets begging, and that was heartbreaking. But I saw something else as well. I was in Christ Church Cathedral in Kampala last Sunday and it was a baptism service. It was the baptism of fifteen children who had been abandoned by their parents. Some of them in dustbins and on river banks. They had been rescued by passers by and bought to Queen Esther’s palace, the children’s sanctuary run by the church. Now they had been adopted by members of the church and were being baptised into their new family.
That is the hope, and the riches, and the power of God working to bring about God’s purposes. That is a sign of the Kingdom breaking through in that city.
On a slightly different scale we have the Light Party this afternoon, giving families a place to celebrate light together this weekend, rather than darkness. Next week we have baptisms and we will also welcome some of our children to share our family meal at Communion. People who do not come here often will be here, and we will have the opportunity to welcome them and to invite them to experience the hope, riches and power of God. Will we agree together to be here and to take that opportunity?