Sunday, March 20, 2022

Imitating God

 Ephesians 5:1-9

Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children; and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you, and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma.  But do not let immorality or any impurity or greed even be named among you, as is proper among saints; nor filthiness and silly talk, or coarse jesting, which are not fitting, but rather the giving of thanks.  For this you know, that no immoral or impure person or covetous man, who is an idolater, has an inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.  Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience.  Therefore do not be partakers with them; for you were formerly darkness, but now you are light in the Lord; walk as children of light (for the fruit of the Spirit of light is in all goodness and righteousness and truth).

Sermon for Oculi Sunday                                                           3/20/22

Imitating God

My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.  I suspect that it is not always so.  Sometimes people imitate others to mock them.  That is not possible, however, when the one being imitated is God.  God is holy and good - it is difficult to imagine how one could mock goodness by being good, or holiness by being holy.

I imagine that it sounds redundant to say ‘God is holy' and ‘God is good' in the same sentence, but it is not.  God's holiness is much more than His goodness - although we often lump the two together.  But when God calls on us to be holy, He is asking for more than just being good.  He is asking for us to be different than the world around us.  "Holy" means "set apart".  It means reserved for special purpose.  It means "unique" and "peculiar".  Just as God is One-of-a-kind, and we would difficulty imagining God out for a night with the boys, bowling and having a few beers, we are to be – and to consider ourselves – set aside for something different, not like everyone else, made for something special.

As we wrestle with the Epistle lesson, this morning, we are going to consider what it is that God expects of us and what it means to be an imitator of God.  Our theme sums up the exhortation of the text, where Paul exhorts us work at Imitating God.

First, this text is chiefly a law text.  It is all about what we are to do and not to do, and how we are to be.  Paul is preaching sanctification here.  That is why it is a Lenten Epistle.  We read it, and see how we are to be, and discover how far short we fall from what we are called to be by God.  That leads us to repentance.  Repentance is appropriate any time - and every day - but Lent is a penitential season, and so the particularly pointed texts tend to that lead us to feel guilty, and therefore lead us to repentance, are appropriately Lenten texts.

Paul tells us to be imitators of God.  We cannot do all that God can do, so this imitation is supposed to be in a particular sense.  Paul spells that out too.  We are to walk in love just as Christ loved you.  Now the way that Christ loved you was not just a warm feeling in His heart.  He may have had that too, the Bible never says.  What Jesus did – the way that Jesus loved you – was to give Himself up for you - an offering and a sacrifice to God.

I found it interesting that the word for "gave himself up" is also the word for "betray."  Just as Judas betrayed Christ, Jesus betrayed Himself for us.  He turned against His own self-interest on our behalf.  He surrendered Himself into the hands of those who would kill Him for you.  That is the nature of His love.  Paul describes this betrayal as "an offering and a sacrifice".  The two words are very similar in the Greek.  You could use the words interchangeably.  The distinction, I think, is that the first word points to the act of making the offering or sacrifice, and the second word points more directly to the thing sacrificed.

We sing about this wonder in the communion hymn, "Draw Near and Take the Body of the Lord", with the words, "Himself the Victim and Himself the Priest."  The love of Jesus Christ does not consist primarily in the affection that He feels toward us, although I believe He does feel genuine affection for us as well.  The love to which Paul was pointing was at work in the giving of Himself into torment and death for our salvation.  It is the cross, and the bitter passion which surrounds it, that marks the love of Christ that we are to follow as we imitate God.  His love purchased your salvation, your resurrection to eternal life, and your forgiveness.  Your sins are forgiven!

Therefore, Paul writes, be imitators of God.  The imitation may not require you to suffer as Christ did, or die a grisly death.  It might, but maybe not.  But it will require you betray yourself into holy living - which is to say, that holy living may not always be fun, or seem to be in our best interest.  Specifically Paul is intending to address your conduct.  But do not let immorality or any impurity or greed even be named among you, as is proper among saints; nor filthiness and silly talk, or coarse jesting, which are not fitting, but rather the giving of thanks.

Immorality refers to sexual immorality.  The word is also used for male prostitution, which is heterosexual men allowing homosexual men to use them for gratification.  The word translated "impurity" refers to any sort of uncleanness.  Anything not clearly above board and decent is included here.  Greed is greed, grasping and selfish.  These things are to be so far from our character and conduct that they are not even talked about among us.  When Paul says not to let them even be named, he is saying that we should not even mention such things.  This is part of walking as children of light.

I would hazard a guess that most of us have little problem with behaving in these ways - or at least we think we have these mastered.  Paul tightens the noose:  nor filthiness and silly talk, or coarse jesting, which are not fitting, but rather the giving of thanks.  Here he marks out filthiness - obscenity or indecent behavior.  He names silly talk, which we would call foolish talking, saying things that are silly or foolish, or unhelpful.  How much of our conversation is foolish - not edifying, not uplifting, not about real things, but foolish and to no point, or even about things that are detrimental?  We babble about TV shows which fill our eyes and ears and minds with obscenities and sex, and show us people doing things for our entertainment that we Christians are not even to contemplate!  So we end up talking about things that we have just heard are not even to be mentioned among us.  How foolish!

Then Paul includes coarse jesting.  The Greek word literally means "well-turned".  It refers to double entendres, to dirty jokes and vulgar wit - the stuff most of our comedians spew forth.  Humor which pries open our souls with laughter and pours into us lust, sex, cruelty, and a spirit of ridicule toward others is what Paul is referring to.  Sadly, much of our humor ridicules us – Christians, moral people.  To ridicule means to make look ridiculous.  These are the things – silly talk and coarse jesting and filthiness – which are not proper for God's people.  Absolute avoidance of them, not even allowing them into our speech is what Paul tells us is proper among saints - among holy people.   Instead, we are to be giving thanks - and not just silently, but allowing it to pepper our talk.  We should be saying, ‘thank God!' or "Thanks be to God!", or "This is God's doing!"  We should be giving thanks all of the time.  The other things, the silly talk, the filthiness, and the coarse jesting, these are the things which, according to God, are the reason that the wrath of God falls on the sons of disobedience.

Now sons of disobedience does not refer just to their behavior, but to their nature.  They disobey the Gospel that is, they do not believe it.  The condemnation of the unbeliever is due to his or her unbelief, that they do not obey the Gospel, that they do not obey Jesus Christ.  Then, in the judgment, the wrath of God is poured out on them for their conduct, since they are not willing to receive the gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation.  It is also poured out on them in this life, many times, because they stubbornly and wickedly refuse the grace of God - purchased by Christ betraying Himself into torment and death for them and on their behalf.  They do not place their trust in God nor do they hope in Jesus Christ.  But you do.  Therefore do not be partakers with them.

It is simple to comprehend.  God reminds us through Paul, this you know, that no immoral or impure person or covetous man, who is an idolater, has an inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.   That is who you once were:  You were formerly darkness but now you are light in the Lord.  Now you are holy – not in and of yourself, but through Christ, and by His grace.  Now you have been made light and holiness and blessedness in the Lord.  Just as those who are of darkness and of disobedience walk in those twisted ways, so you, who are of the light and holy are to walk as children of light.  This is who you are now.  This admonition is very much like when my mother would ask me if I was too dumb to be left alone, or too immature to be trusted, or something like that.  I would say, "No."  Then she would say, "Then act like it."  You are God's people.  These sorts of behaviors are not holy.  They are not becoming of God's holy people.  You are children of light.  Walk as children of light.  That is how you go about imitating God!

Of course, we have all failed in this.  We like our jokes.  We enjoy our TV.  We want to talk about stuff that isn't always the sort of stuff we should talk about.  That is where the imitation of God comes in - specifically the imitation of Jesus and His love.  We need to make an offering of ourselves.  We need to sacrifice our lives, our conduct, our humor, our entertainments.  We need to set aside what is natural for our flesh and deliberately cultivate the holy things of God in us, in our speech, in our conduct.  This is the same thought as Romans 12:1 and 2, I urge you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship.  And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.

Living in the light of the Gospel will be natural in heaven.  Here, on earth, among sinful men and trapped in bodies of sinful flesh, it is going to be painful at times, difficult when you least expect it, unnatural seeming, and will require constant, deliberate attention.  Our love for God will be as it was for Christ, evident in our behavior, our actions, our words.  Our love for God is revealed in our imitating God.

We are light in the Lord; walk as children of light.  Paul even tells us what that means - the fruit of the Spirit of light is in all goodness and righteousness and truth.  That means just what you think it means.  Goodness, not evil, is appropriate to us.  The Spirit of God in us will guide us into holiness and righteousness, not sin.  Above all, we will walk in truth.  That means being honest with one another - and being honest with ourselves.  And if we are honest, we will confess how far short of the goal we have come so far - and we will repent, and we will eagerly hear the word of absolution, and eagerly come to the altar to receive the gifts of forgiveness, life and salvation offered here.  Paul says that you already know all this, so the only reason for bringing it up is to remind you, and encourage you.  Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
(Let the people say Amen)

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