The message that brings life Ephesians 1:3-14
There was a Scottish painter named Paddy MacGregor who was very interested in making a penny where he could, so he often thinned down his paint to make it go a wee bit further.
As it happened, he got away with this for some time, but eventually the Lutheran’s decided to do a big restoration job on the outside of one of their biggest buildings..
Paddy put in a bid, and, because his price was so low, and Lutherans are always looking for a bargain, he got the job.
So he set about erecting the scaffolding and setting up the planks, and buying the paint and, yes, I am sorry to say, thinning it down with water.
Well, Paddy was up on the scaffolding, painting away, the job nearly completed, when suddenly there was a horrendous clap of thunder, the sky opened, and the rain poured down washing the thinned paint from all over the church and knocking Paddy clear off the scaffold to land on the lawn among the gravestones, surrounded by telltale puddles of the thinned and useless paint..
Paddy was no fool. He knew this was a judgment from the Almighty, so he got down on his knees and cried:
“Oh, God, Oh God, forgive me; what should I do?”
And from the thunder, a mighty voice spoke..
“Repaint! Repaint! And thin no more!”
As funny as this is, there is still a serious side to Paddy’s tragic tale. The punch line paraphrases the words of John the Baptist to the Pharisees prior to his beheading ‘repent, for the kingdom of God is near…produce fruit in keeping with repentance.’ We can clearly see why God thundered down wrath upon poor Paddy. But John called for the repentance of the holiest men in Israel.
You couldn’t get a more righteous, more rigorous, more devout followers of the Torah, the books of the law, than the Pharisees and the Sadducees. Even Jesus knew their devotion to God, saying ‘For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.’ Even so, he still condemned them saying ‘you white washed tombstones! On the outside you present yourself to be holy and righteous, yet on the inside you are rotten.’
What can Jesus and John see was wrong, that others couldn’t? How can God call good people to repentance? Which is closely connected with this next question ‘how can a loving God, condemn good people to hell?
In our way of thinking, we need to be acting like Paddy, actually sinning in some way, before God can call us to repentance. And only axe murderers and child killers should go to hell, good people shouldn’t. Have you thought this sort of thing yourself? But John’s call for repentance to all people, especially to the most religious and good people of all, blows away any idea that God is happy with good people!
If God is not happy with the efforts of the Pharisees, how happy is he with you and me? Is being a good, moral Christian, following the example of Jesus to the letter good enough for God? Rolly Stahl last week spoke about Christian integrity. Christian integrity is how we concern ourselves, in thought, word and deed when we are alone. Do we act and think differently when alone compared to when we are with other Christians?
Do we act differently from when we are at church? Could you or I invite God into every part of our lives? Not one of us would want to say yes, to that! And if you think you could, well you would claim to be without sin. St John says ‘If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.’ So we would have to repent anyway!
If God is not happy with the Pharisees and he is not happy with me…who is he happy with! Right after John the Baptist’s baptism of Jesus, God spoke these words “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.’ Only Jesus, God’s Son is pleasing to God. Only to Jesus can God say ‘yes, I am happy.’ And he said it again at Jesus’ transfiguration ‘This is my Son with whom I love; with him I am well pleased, listen to him.’ That has to mean something to us as followers of Jesus, that God is only happy with his Son. It must have a direct connection with John the Baptist’s call to good people ‘repent, repent and sin no more?’
John’s call to repentance, this apparent contradiction of calling what we see as ‘saints’, ‘sinners’, is to show that our goodness is not good enough for God. John clearly distinguishes our goodness from the goodness God requires, by calling good people bad and Jesus, the bad person in the sight the Jews, good, saying ‘Look, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.’ Jesus is the only one who is good enough to take our sins away; not us.
Luther put it this way ‘there are two forms of being good. One that avails only before people and is helpful and pleasing only to people; such as giving money to the poor, serving the sick, giving offerings to God and the like. Then there is the goodness that avails before God and this goodness that is pleasing in his sight takes a far higher price than what we can offer. Here we must have Christ to bless us and save us. Here we must have faith in Jesus who gives us his goodness and makes us pleasing to God’…in fact by faith, we are, together with Jesus, sons of God and thus…pleasing to him!
Paul’s gospel, his message of the cross is all about revealing God’s plan of making us good and pleasing in his sight through faith in his Son’s death on the cross. He writes ‘For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins’ God is the one who makes us good, by looking at his Son, and not us.
By faith in Jesus we die to being good ourselves and let Christ be good for us. As St Pauls says in Galatians ‘I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.’
We are pleasing to God when we believe we are not. And we are pleasing to God when we believe that Jesus is the only one who is good and we are not! Sounds crazy! I’ll say it again ‘We are pleasing to God when we believe we are not. And we are pleasing to God when we believe that Jesus is the only one who is good and we are not!’
This is the good news. We do not become good people by doing good things. It is the other way around. God makes us good for the sake of his Son’s suffering and death; ‘In him we are blameless and holy’. John the Baptist’s call for repentance of good people is very useful for us to know; for it comforts our conscience in times of doubt or when the devil says ‘you are not good enough to go to heaven.’ We learn to separate the goodness of faith in Jesus, very far from the goodness of our works.
Where do we turn in time of crisis, when we feel like a ‘sinner’ unworthy of God’s grace? The only place to find relief is in the wounds of Christ and the promise that his blood cleanses us from all sin. A story from Bo Giertz novel ‘Hammer of God’ illustrates this well. In this story, Frans, a man known for his good deeds and for being a committed Christian, lies dying.
As often happens with a person on the edge of death, Frans’ mind wonders back to the days before his conversion. Drifting in deliriousness, the dying man utters words of an oath and froths on about drinking and a fellow who had cheated him. Disturbed by the rude ramblings of her father, Lena exclaims ‘You are thinking about Jesus are you not, father?’ Frans replies ‘I am not able to Lena, I can’t think any longer. But I know that Jesus is thinking of me.’
That man died a Christian death. The gospel is not about our ability to think of Christ but about what Christ thinks of us… Christ a friend of sinners is a friend indeed and a brother worth believing in. Amen.