Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Signs of the Spirit: Ephesians 5:19-21

The story is told a woman who was quite upset at her children for making her go the doctor and receive a thorough examination. “My life was just fine until you made me go see the doctor for that examination,” she would exclaim. “Now I have to go and receive chemotherapy and radiation. I would rather have not known that I have cancer.”  Sometimes we are just like that when it comes to our relationship with God. We would rather not go through an examination. We would rather not know what is wrong and our need for treatment. Yet God, out of his great love for us, gives us his word, that we might examine our lives, that we might see our need for him. Today, in these verses, God, I believe gives us just such an examination. Hear now God’s word.

Speak to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord,  always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. (Ephesians 5: 19-21)

The command is clear: be filled with the Spirit. How do I know the Spirit is at work in my life? Many would answer that question by pointing to miraculous signs, slaying in the spirit, holy laughter and the like. This is a very serious error and, I believe, a tragedy in the Church of Jesus Christ, a tragedy because so many have been led astray by such teaching. People run here and there in search of such signs as proof that the Spirit is at work, but as one author wrote, “far from preparing for revival, these have rather been a distraction” a distraction from what, I believe, is the great sign of the Spirit at work—changed lives—lives that are increasingly conformed to the image of Christ, conforming to his law. How is the law summarized? We read it in our responsive reading: Love your neighbor and love God.  This is what we see in Ephesians 5:19-21. This is the examination to which God is calling us.

Do we love our neighbor? Specifically in this context, are you committed to community? Look at verse 19. Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. We need each other. God has given you the body of Christ. This is hard for us, because, as children of our culture, we can push our individualism to an unhealthy extreme. When we are together there is something special, something mysterious that can take place. In verse 19, the context is obviously worship, but this could refer to a small group study, prayer meeting, serving together and the like. Did not Jesus say where two or three are gathered in my name there I am in the midst of them? Surely Jesus, being God, is already everywhere present; it seems then that Jesus is saying that when we are together Jesus is present in a special, unique way. Thus when the Spirit is at work and you are not here, and you miss worship or Sunday school or the small group, you are missed. Sometimes when someone says, “I missed you last week” there is a tendency to become defensive and list the reasons why you couldn’t come. I know that I say “I missed you,” not to make you feel guilty, we have enough of that already, but to simply say, “I missed you.” When you are not here, you are missed. When the Spirit is at work, being together becomes increasingly important. If God the Holy Spirit is at work in your life you will be growing in your commitment to community. When you are unable to attend church or the small group, not only will you be missed, but you will miss being there. If you are not growing in your commitment to community, you can come up with all kinds of excuses I know, but if being with God’s people is not important to you, it is a sign that perhaps the Holy Spirit is not at work in you, at least not to the degree that you originally thought. Do you love your neighbor?  Are you committed to community?

Are you committed to service? Look at verse 21.  Submit yourself to one another. Voluntarily place yourself in the position of a servant. This is hard for us, as one author has observed: we are determined to assert ourselves, our independence and will, to be the center of our own lives. Remember the comic strip in which the boy scientist concluded that Galileo was wrong, “The world does not revolve around the sun,” he exclaimed, “it revolves around me!” Verse 21 calls us to something radically different: “I am going to pour my life into you.  I am going to serve you, pray for you, and be by your side.” Here is the sign of the work of the Holy Spirit at work in our lives. Sadly, we too often seek acts of service that are big; we look for our name in lights, for that 15 seconds of fame and we miss the Biblical truth that in God’s kingdom it begins with the “little” acts of service. Years ago when we met in the Junior High we would have to pick up the Bibles, the hymnals and the chairs every single week; there were always a faithful few who would stay and help clean up. These faithful few would normally be the leaders of the church. It would have been easy to think “I didn’t get involved with this brand new church to put away chairs.” Yet they expressed their leadership in submitting themselves to others as a servant. This is not limited to the church—it may include inviting people over to your house for dinner, putting away the dishes at home, raking the neighbor’s leaves, or shoveling his sidewalk. Did not Jesus, the creator and sustainer of the universe washed the disciple’s feet? Jesus did not do this because he had too; he did this because he loved his disciples, and he loves us. Our submission to one another is done out of reverence for Christ. If he my Lord and Savior served me, how can I not but serve others, especially those closest to me in the body of Christ? Do you love your neighbor in this way? Are you committed to service?  If not, the Holy Spirit it is a sign that the Holy Spirit is not as active in your life as you might think? Examine your life.

We are commanded not only to love our neighbor but to love God. This love is expressed in worship, verse 19: “Speak to one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.”  I think it is a mistake to get caught up in trying to identify what is a hymn versus a spiritual song as opposed to focusing on what is clearly the emphasis here: worshiping the Lord. I heard an elder at New City Church describe his love for worship in this way: “After dealing with all the stuff and the junk in life throughout the week, I long for, look forward to the day when I gather with God’s people and worship Him.” In this context, the element of worship focused on here is singing. There have been a few times when people have said about our church, “you sing too much.” To that I really want to say, “Thank you.” Imagine that? A Presbyterian Church being accused of singing too much? Worship is central to our lives as God’s people. This is why we were made. Remember the Catechism? What is the chief end of man? To glorify God and enjoy him forever. We glorify God when we worship. This worship is to express our love for God for it is to flow from the heart, verse 20. Such love for God expressed in worship cannot be faked or staged. I wonder just how many people in churches across America today go to church but are not really worshipping the Lord. It is easy to go through the motions, but that is not the kind of worship which God seeks. In Psalm 42, the psalmist cries, “My soul thirsts for God for the living God. When can I go and meet with God?” Does this express the desire of your heart today? Do long to worship? If not, it is yet another sign that the Spirit is not as active in your life as you might have originally thought.

Our love for God must also be expressed in an attitude of thanksgiving, verse 20. When are we to give thanks? Always. An attitude of thanksgiving is to always characterize our lives.  You cannot be thankful if you are grumbling, complaining or bitter and resentful. Nor can you give thanks when you fail to realize that anything in your life that is good has come to you directly from the hand of God. Always give thanks. What are we to give thanks for?  Always give thanks for everything, verse 20. How does that grab you? Does this mean that we are to say, “Thank God my Uncle Joe died? Thank God that I totaled my car, lost my job, that my spouse left me - wow there is just so much to be thankful for” is that what this passage is saying?  Does God expect me to ignore the harsh realities of life and pretend as if they really are not that bad? There is a critical clarifier in this verse, give thanks for everything in the name of Jesus Christ. In John 16:23, Jesus says, “I tell you the truth, and my Father will give you whatever you ask in my name.” Surely this does not mean that Jesus name is the magic formula that enables us to get what we want: “God give me a million dollars in Jesus name!” The ‘Whatever we ask” is clarified by “in the name of Jesus” that what we are asking must be done in accordance with the will of Jesus. Likewise in Colossians 3:17 we are told that whatever we do in thought word and deed do it in the name of Jesus. “True I am going out and committing adultery but I am doing in the name of Jesus.” No, the “whatever” is only properly understood within the context of “in the name of Jesus.” Likewise giving thanks for all things does not require us to ignore the bad things in life or pretend that they do not really hurt, but rather that even in the bad we can still give thanks because God is so powerful he is even able to use these things to bring about his own glory. This does not make the bad thing good, but it enables us to realize that God is still God. He is on the throne.  So that no matter what happens today I can and I must give thanks to God, my savior. As Job said, “The Lord has given, the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” Jesus, in looking to the cross prayed in John 17, “The time has come Father; glorify your Son that your Son may glorify you.” Elsewhere, God says, “I have glorified my name and I will glorify it again - this is our assurance and this is why we give thanks because we know God will bring glory to himself out of it. Yes that means in the cancer, in the accidents and tragedies of life - even then - when our heart if breaking, we give thanks to the one who used the most vilest crime in the history of the world - the crucifixion of Christ - to bring about your salvation and mine.  Thank you Father, thank you.” Is your life demonstrating this attitude of thankfulness?

Perhaps it is better, at this point, to ask how has the examination gone? Does your life reflect a love for neighbor? Are you committed to community? Are you serving, pouring out your life into others—or are you primarily concerned about your own interests? Does your life reflect a love for God? Does your heart long to worship him? Do you have an attitude of thanksgiving? Maybe you feel like the woman who said she would rather not have gone to the doctor for her examination—but like her you cannot escape the truth—the signs of the Spirit are not as evident in your life as you once thought. Do you want a greater love for God and for your neighbor? Do you want to see the Spirit at work in your life? If so, you might be tempted to try harder to worship God, to be thankful even when you’re not to serve like you have never served before. But that does not work. There is no doubt many people who serve and serve and serve—but resent every minute of it. I would suggest that we follow the scriptures. God does not give us this examination to drive us into a deep depression, or to make us work harder but rather that we realize our need for him. Be filled with the Spirit—we must go to God. Lord I want to be different—today after this examination I see that there are areas of my life that are not as they ought to be—but I know that I cannot do this on my own. Fill me, that my love for others and love for you would shine brightly in the darkness—that I would love to serve and love to worship more than ever before. Fill me Lord with your Spirit.  Let us pray.

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