Well I hope you've all had a great Christmas. I enjoyed my first Christmas as a Dad! But let me start off by telling you about back when I was young and free and at university. In the holidays, my friend and I went on a climbing trip in the Andes in Bolivia in South America. The best peak we climbed was one called Cabeza del Condor. It was very remote, about 4 hours off-road driving from a road. We had to make a high camp. And the day after we made it to the summit – which was a spectacular (but very narrow!) ridge. My friend Tom actually managed to drop his camera and we watched it bounce about 1000 metres down to the glacier below. And so obviously, we had to walk extremely carefully. There's no room for messing around, racing one another to the top or thinking about what you might do when you get home. Every step needs your full attention, you need to be focused, alert, fully aware of the danger and intent on reaching the top.
Well in our passage today, Paul uses 'walking' as an analogy for living as Christians. And the question this passage poses us is this – are we going to walk carefully through 2018? It's so easy as Christians to neglect our Christian walk – or to just walk aimlessly or thoughtlessly. But like on that ridge in Bolivia, we need to recognise that the stakes are high. What we do in 2018 matters. And so we need to walk very carefully and wisely. Well I hope today's passage is a great help in thinking through how we can do that this coming year. It would be great if you could have it open in front of you – it's Ephesians 5.1-21. Paul gives us three commands and they're my three points:
- Walk in Love
- Walk as Children of Light
- Walk Wisely
Let's pray before we get stuck in.
Father, please show us from your word what it means to walk wisely this coming year. And help us to carefully put it into practice. In Jesus name, Amen.
Well we've dived into Ephesians as a one-off today before we start our next sermon series. It's a letter that was written by the apostle Paul and it seems likely that it was circulated around all the churches in the region around Ephesus - so its message is broad and it's aimed at all Christians. It's a letter of two halves – in the first half Paul gives us some real treasure on the great truths of the gospel. And then in second half, Paul encourages us to live in the light of those great truths. That's what we're looking at in today's passage. And the first thing Paul says is that we're to:
1. Walk in Love
Take a look at verses 1-2:
"Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God."
The first thing we learn about how we're to live as a church family this year, is that we're to walk in love. Not just mushy love, but genuine sacrificial love. You see, just like children often reflect their parents' characteristics (for example, my wife Sophie loves cooking just like her mum, which is something I'm very happy about…), just like children often reflect their parents' characteristics, we are to reflect God's love – which we see in Jesus. You see, here in verse 2, Paul reminds us that Jesus' love wasn't just making the effort to hand-make a really nice Christmas present, or go for a pint with that friend who needs a bit of encouragement – no, Jesus gave himself up for us. He sacrificed himself for us. And that's the love we're to imitate.
Imagine if you were at a New Year's Eve party tonight, and after eating a huge dinner you wander into the kitchen, and to your surprise, and slight horror, you find the Queen slaving away over the huge mounds of washing up! Maybe with a few corgis at her feet. It would be unbelievable wouldn't it – and yet the Bible tells us something way more incredible. It tells us that the God of whole universe, who flung the stars into space, came down to be a servant. He gave himself up for us. Jesus was equal with God and yet he didn't grasp onto it. He lowered himself in order to repair our broken relationship with our creator, at the cost of his own life, at the cross.
That is sacrificial love. And Paul says that we are to walk in love, as Christ loved us. And so our fundamental characteristic as Christians in 2018 should be sacrificial love. As a church family, we need to be so secure in Jesus' love that we can keep loving others even when we don't get anything in return. Walking in love.
And the only way we'll manage that in 2018 is by keeping our eyes fixed on what Jesus did for us. We need to keep continuously refilling our soul's tank with the love and glory of Jesus - reminding ourselves of what he did for us.
For some of us, that might mean that we keep on showing hospitality and love to someone in the church family, even when we feel we don't get anything in return. It might mean that we keep making the effort as a CAP befriender even when it is hard work and we feel we're unable to make much difference in someone's chaotic life. It might mean discipline in regularly attending our midweek group, even when, at times, we're primarily supporting others rather than being supported ourselves. Or it might mean showing love to that person no one talks to at work.
So we're to walk in love, imitating Jesus' sacrificial love for us. And the next thing we see in this passage is that the reason we do that, is so that we are light in the darkness of this world. We're to:
2. Walk as Children of Light
Take a look at verse 8:
"for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light."
When the sun goes down at night, and the moon rises, the reason we see the moon is because it is reflecting the sun's light. And that's a bit of a picture of Jesus and the church. You see, Jesus is the light of the world. And when Jesus was on earth he was like the shining sun. And then he went back to heaven and he left us, the church, God's family. And we are like the moon, we reflect the light of Jesus to the world now that he's gone. And so verse 8 says:
"…one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light."
You see, because we are light we have a huge responsibility to the world. We've been brought from darkness into light, and we are to live as light to the world. We're to be distinctive as we point people to Jesus – the true light. How do we do that? Well Paul gives us both positive instructions and negative instructions. Starting with the positive, look with me at verses 8-10:
"… Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord."
Jesus' light in our lives will produce all that is good and right and true. 'Good' here means something like generous. 'Right' means having integrity, and 'true' means being honest with no deception or falsehood. In short, it means having good character. And good character is beautiful isn't it?! When you're watching the first episode of a TV series, and you're just getting to know the characters, and it only takes one scene for you to recognise their character doesn't it? Maybe a scene where someone shows generosity and patience when they had every right to hold a grudge against someone for making a mistake. And instantly you know they are of good character.
And walking as children of light in 2018 will mean being people of good character. In fact, people of Jesus' character. That's why Paul says "try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord". You see, the better we get to know Jesus' character, the more we will reflect his light to the world. So we need to open our Bibles in 2018 and let God's light shine into our lives and show us what is good and right and true.
Paul then moves from the positive to the negative in showing us what it means to walk as children of light. Look at verse 11:
"Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them."
Paul's already given us some examples of these works of darkness in verses 3 and 4 - he talks about sexual immorality, impurity, wanting what others have and filthy talk. And we're to expose these things for what they are. This is often where things get tough. Because as children of light, we're not to just go along with the culture in saying that anything goes. And that doesn't always go down well. Our modern culture wants us to accept anything and be open minded. But here Paul tells us that we're to show sin for what it is. It's darkness and it's evil.
So we're to be good and right and true in the office, in the classroom, on the sports pitch, in the hospital – wherever we are. Even when it means exposing unethical practices, or being branded judgemental or narrow-minded, or losing popularity. But if we're honest, it's so easy to get sucked into what everyone else is doing and thinking isn't it? And so Paul gives us a stark warning in verse 6 - take a look. He says:
"Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience."
Paul says, the stakes are high! Just like walking along that ridge in Bolivia, where the stakes were high and you had to walk with great care. Paul says, we need to walk carefully as a church. God's judgement is coming because sin matters. And the only hope people have is to see the light of Jesus. So don't be deceived into thinking sin doesn't matter, don't listen to the empty words of the world, don't get sucked in, take no part in the darkness. Instead, expose the darkness by walking as children of light.
What Paul's saying is – we need to wake up as a church as we go into 2018. I don't know if you saw the article on the BBC website over Christmas about the woman who managed to sleep-walk to her motorbike and ride her motorbike in her sleep. Can you imagine?! It's dangerous enough riding motorbikes when you're awake – I would know as I've fallen off one! But anyway, she was asleep riding her motorbike, just going through the motions, not thinking about what she was doing and not aware of the dangers. And in a similar way, it's so easy to be sleep-walking along as Christians. We might look awake but we're just mouthing the words of prayers or hymns, we're not actively living as light. We're not producing everything that is good and right and true, and actively exposing darkness. And Paul says wake up! Take a look at how he finishes this section in verses 14-15, he says:
"Awake, O sleeper,
and arise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you."
Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise"
As we go into 2018, we need to wake up and walk wisely. And that's my final point:
3. Walk Wisely
You might be wondering how walking wisely fits in with walking in love and walking as children of light. Well walking wisely is how we can practically make those things happen this year. It's how we wake up, press the reset button and reboot our walking in love and walking as children of light! Paul gives us four practical ways to help us do those things – and they're just as relevant for us in 2018 as they were back then. Firstly, Paul says, verse 16:
- Make the best use of time
Our modern lives are often so busy aren't they? And in our busy lives, things tend to deteriorate if we don't put time into them. Whether that's our garden, or our body, or our relationships. Things naturally deteriorate. And so making the best use of time here doesn't mean just getting lots done. It means invest in what matters. Paul reminds us that the days are evil - they're full of darkness – judgement is coming – the stakes are high - so we need to invest in what matters.
That will mean making the most of every opportunity to serve Jesus and be light to those around us. It might be taking the time to speak about Jesus to a colleague or sports team member, it might be taking the time to serve in the kids' ministry here at St Joseph's, it might mean taking the time to grow as Christians ourselves through prioritising time for reading our Bible or reading a good Christian book.
As we look back at 2017, we need to ask the question – how did we use our time? Was it invested in what really matters? And how do we need to use our time differently in 2018? If we're really going to invest in what matters, that might mean making small changes, like watching less TV, or it might mean radical changes, like a change in job or location because we're struggling to meet regularly with other believers and so we're sleep-walking as Christians. So that's Paul's first practical tip on walking wisely. His second one is:
- Seek to understand the will of the Lord
Look at verse 17:
"…do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is."
Wise people know that wisdom is found in God's will and nowhere else. Just earlier in the service we prayed, as Jesus prayed, "May your will be done on earth as in heaven." If we're going to walk wisely in 2018 then we need to seek to discover, and then do, the will of God. And that means getting to know our Bibles – both on our own and together with other believers. One author puts it like this: The will of God for the people of God, is revealed in the word of God.
Now it's worth quickly saying that we don't find out God's particular will for our lives when we read the Bible, such as what career we should do, or exactly who we should marry. What we find out is God's general will for all Christians – for example, to make us like Jesus. But we do find general principles that guide us as we make those detailed decisions.
But the point is, as we look at 2018, how are we going to keep growing in our understanding of God's will? Maybe we need to get into a more regular pattern of reading our Bibles. If you're not in a midweek group, why not think about joining one so you can read the Bible regularly with others? Or maybe there's something you've struggled with in God's will this year. And you need to make this the year that you wrestle with it and get to grips with God's will in a certain area. Speak to someone wise about it. Get hold of a good Christian book on that area and work your way through the Bible passages on that topic. So "seek to understand the will of the Lord". And the third point Paul says is:
- Be filled with the Spirit
Take a look at verses 18-19:
"And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart,"
God never wants us to be drunk. Not because he's a killjoy but because drunkenness degrades and it means we're not walking carefully. And the contrast here is being filled with the Spirit. When drunk we are 'under the influence of drink', but instead we should be 'under the influence' of the Spirit. That doesn't mean we're out of control – because one of the fruits of the Spirit is self-control. But, the key thing it means is that we're full of joy and delight in God. We see here that spirit-filled people love to sing to God and to one another! That's what we're doing here in church today – but Paul tells us here that we're not to do it just going through the motions, instead we're to make melody to the Lord with our heart. It's to be authentic and joyful and sincere.
So what does it look like to pursue Spirit-filled living in 2018? Well you'll pleased to know that you don't need to sing to the person sitting next to you at the end of the service – although feel free. What it will mean is seeking to find our satisfaction and joy in God, not just individually but as a church family. That means not just pitching up on a Sunday and leaving, but actively engaging with other believers and seeking to encourage one another. It means singing joyfully to one another to remind one another that we have so much to be thankful for. And it might mean not just coming on a Sunday but joining a midweek group or coming to the prayer meeting.
We also see that Spirit-filled people overflow in song. Some people find it helpful to start their day by listening to some good Christian music to lift their eyes to the joy they have in Jesus – maybe this year you need to just praise God in song more often. That leads us to the final point. Walking wisely in 2018 will mean, verse 20:
- Giving thanks to God always
If we're walking wisely, then we'll remember our sinfulness, we'll remember Jesus' amazing sacrifice on the cross, and we'll fix our eyes on the great hope we have as Christians. And we'll be thankful. We'll recognise that, even in the midst of difficulties, we are blessed in so many ways. So for 2018, that rules out grumbling, complaining, and being negative. Instead we're to be thankful in a world that so often forgets to be thankful. It's something we can work on, it's a habit we can get into, so let's aim to work on our thankfulness in 2018. It's contagious so let's model it to one another in 2018.
So to finish, let's go back to that ridge in Bolivia. This passage tells us that we need to walk carefully. We need to be fully alert like on that ridge. And the question for us today is – are we going to walk wisely in 2018? We can either sleep-walk into next year, oblivious to the dangers, or we can wake-up, walk wisely as God's children, and be a light in the darkness. Let's pray.
Father, thank you that because of Jesus, we have so much to be thankful for as we go into 2018. As we look to the coming year, we pray that we would walk wisely. Make us a church family who are full of joy and delight in you. Make us a people who walk in love. And help us to stand out from the darkness and to be a shining light for you. In Jesus name, Amen.