This year, we are following the liturgical resources made available by The Holy Women Icons Project (see here for more info). The theme is “Bearing the Light.”
Scripture: Ephesians 5:1-2, 8-11, 13-14
In what ways do you need to wake up?
Where do you need light in your life?
In what ways do you need to wake up?
I won’t presume to know how you answer that question. I trust that the Spirit of God will show you what you need to see—that God will convict you, as we often speak of it.
Instead, here are some things I hear:
I need to wake up to the fact that other people have very different experiences of life than I do.
I need to wake up to how my choices hurt others.
I need to wake up to how I am the only real obstacle to achieving some things I want to achieve.
I need to wake up to how there is more violence and pain in this world—and in the lives of those immediately around me—than I am aware of.
I need to wake up to how my silence on some things is often misconstrued as taking a side.
The more I prayerfully reflect—the more I meditate on these things—the more aware I am of how much I slumber through this life and how desperately I need the resurrection power of God that calls me to “rise from the dead.”
Wake Up to Our Identity: Beloved Children of God
The apostle Paul suggests some answers for us too—answers that are just as relevant now as they were nearly 2000 years ago.
It just shows you that people are people, and the Spirit continues to speak and work in our midst.
In our scripture reading, Paul challenges the Ephesians to wake up to the reality that they “are children that God dearly loves” (v.1).
The times I have been more deeply “woke” to the fact that “God dearly loves” me have been among the most humbling and overwhelming experiences of my life. They are the memories I return to again and again—especially when passing through a dark night of the soul, as St. John of the Cross describes those shadow experiences of faith.
As Christians, the awareness that God dearly loves us is a deep well of peace within us that we can return to again and again—no matter where we are or what the circumstances. As a pastor who listens to a lot of stories of “coming to faith” or “accepting Jesus into my life,” I’ve observed quite a few consistent pieces. More than anything else, it seems the greatest single factor that drives the strongest lives of faith is the experience of a intense awareness of God’s deep love.
Not a road-to-Damascus type of conversion at youth camp.
Not a coming down the aisle on the 25th verse of “I Surrender All” at a revival.
But a genuine an undeniable experience of knowing “Jesus loves me.”
Of course, I don’t belittle these other experiences. But it seems that unless they are coupled with the deep impression in your being that comes with truly experiencing God’s love, they are wells that eventually dry up.
Now coupled with this challenge of Paul to wake up to the reality that we deeply loved by God is that we are in fact God’s “children” (v.1).
There are a lot of images in the NT for the work that Jesus does for us—in the incarnation, in the life he leads, in his suffering and death, and in his being raised to new life again. But one of them—to oversimplify it and use language from my childhood—is that Jesus pulls a switcheroo with us. He takes our place and we take his. Now, when we’re talking about this, we usually focus on how Jesus—in taking our place—takes on the punishment that is due to us for our sins. But as the NT tells it in Romans 8 and other places, when Jesus steps into our place we are able to step into Jesus‘ place. Whereas previously, the sin in our lives separated us from God, and Jesus’ “son-ship” united him with God; in the Cross Jesus steps into our place of separation (“Why have you forsaken me?” in Mark 15:34) and we step into a place of “son-ship” or “daughter-ship” in union with God. We are “adopted as children” who can now call God “Abba”-daddy (Rom 8:15). We are “children of God” and “heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ” (Rom 8:17 ESV).
Or as 2Corinthians 5:21 puts it: “For our sake he made him [that is, Jesus] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (ESV).
Imagine what the world would look like if every professing Christian was willing to claim their heritage as children of God who are dearly loved……
Of course, as the NT makes clear, this is no name-it-and-claim-it path of self-empowerment. Nor does it suggest a Joe Cocker-esque path of self-fulfillment where God’s “love
lift[s] us up where we belong
Where the eagles cry
On a mountain high…
Far from the world below
Up where the clear winds blow
No, we are saved for God’s purposes. We are given life to advance God’s Kingdom. Everything in our power and under our influence is a temporary gift entrusted to us to be used to advance God’s cause of love and justice in the world. As the book of 1John reminds us:
“By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother” (1John 3:10 ESV).
In other words, we must wake up to the reality that we individually are not the only people God cares about. In 2Peter 3:9, we are reminded that the apparent “slowness” of Jesus’ return is rooted in God’s mercy and love; Peter tells us that the Lord is “not wanting anyone to be destroyed, but wanting everyone to turn away from following his own path and to turn toward God’s” (VOICE). God’s desire is that all who are created in God’s own image come to accept the way that God sees us: as children whom God deeply loves.
Wake up, sisters and brothers.
Wake Up to Our Past Darkness and Our Present Embodiment of Christ’s Light
There’s a second reality Paul challenges us to wake up to. In v.8, Paul invites us to wake up to our past darkness and our present embodiment of Christ’s light. He says:
“At one time you were in the dark, but now you are in the light because of what the Lord has done” (NIrV).
Just as before, there are two dimensions. The first is to wake up to our past darkness.
It amazes me how many people who profess Christ are so reluctant to call themselves sinners. Foundational to the Way of Christ is the recognition that we cannot save ourselves—that it is only by grace that we are saved and become better. That means: If Christ is who we profess, then our sin is what we will confess.
But we don’t want to.
We don’t want to acknowledge the brokenness in ourselves.
We don’t want to admit we struggle and fail with temptation each and every day.
We mistakenly believe that the only way we can be witnesses to Christ is if we present ourselves to others without fault.
We must wake up to the reality that we were once in the dark, and that the dark still has its shadowy fingers in our lives. We must acknowledge our sin—past and present—if anyone will ever see the light of Christ through our lives.
But this is the other dimension: Paul invites us to wake up to the fact that because of what Christ Jesus has done, it is possible for us to “be in the light,” as he says here.
That means that we don’t have to hide our darkness—we can expose it.
It means we don’t have to be slaves to our secret sins—they lose their power over us when laid bare.
It means that it is genuinely possible for the parts of us we fear to be chased away forever, like shadows fleeing as a room is illuminated.
But sadly, this is one of those times where what is meant as a promise is perceived as a threat. Paul promises that “everything the light shines on can be seen” (v.13); he promises this as a means of encouraging us and giving us hope. But we don’t want everything seen. We don’t want anyone to know our weaknesses. We don’t want anyone to know our darkest parts.
And the reason—if we’re going to be honest about it—is because we care more what others think about us than what God thinks about us.
And if that is the case, we will never find peace.
Where do you need light in your life?
This leads us to that second reflection question Sam offered to us this morning: Where do you need light in your life?
If “everything that the light shines on becomes a light” (v.13) then the way to experience more light in your life is to allow the light of Christ to shine more fully and deeply within and through you.
All that darkness spoken of in v.8 and in some of the verses we skipped over this morning—I am not so naive to believe that it is all gone. God is not so naive as to believe that it is all gone. But that’s why Paul is writing here: to remind the Ephesians of what should be but is not yet.
That’s Advent in a nutshell: a reminder of what should be but is not yet.
The world should proclaim God’s love to us, yet our whole notion of love is perverted by sexual objectification and abuses of power.
The world should support lives of joy, but untold numbers are drained of life by its systems.
The world should be a realm of infinite possibility, but many have their hopes crushed and die.
The world should be filled with peace but we still lack peace even within ourselves.
Advent is our time of remembering what should be—what will be—but what is not yet. Advent reminds us that there is work to be done within us and within our world if we are truly people following in the Way of Jesus.
Advent reminds us:
All our efforts at sharing the Good News are meaningless if what we share does not instill a sense of hope and life—if it is not, in fact, “good news.”
All our efforts at “growing as a Christian” are pointless if they are all self-centered expressions of personal piety instead of participation in God’s mission to lift up the downtrodden.
All our efforts at being a church are futile unless we truly embody Jesus in the world, living and loving and sharing and caring in the exact, selfless, servant-way that he demonstrated.
The only way to peace within us and within our world is to wake up, to face the “Son” of God, and to allow the light of the Dayspring of Immortal Gladness to permeate every part of our being.