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Sermon for July 23, 2006

The Secret Plan

Ephesians 2:1-22

In the 1920s, Harvey Penick bought a red spiral notebook and began jotting down observations about golf. He never showed the book to anyone until 1991, when he shared it with a local writer and asked if he thought it was worth publishing. The man read it and told him yes. The next day , Simon & Schuster agreed to an advance of $90,000. When the writer shared the news with Penick, the old man seemed troubled. With all his medical bills, he said, there was no way he could advance Simon & Schuster that much money. The writer had to explain that Penick would be the one to receive the $90,000. His first golf book, Harvey Penick’s Little Red Book, sold more than a million copies. His second book, And if You Play Golf, You’re My Friend, sold nearly three quarters of a million copies.

When people think about God’s love, they often have the same reaction as Penick did. We ask, “What must I do?” It’s a good question. What do we have to do to gain God’s special favor in our lives? What must we do to get God’s attention in times of need? What must we do to know for sure that we have eternal life with God?

The people in the Church in Ephesus must have struggled with similar questions. Let’s try to get into the culture of Paul’s audience. Ephesus was a seaport trade city with a population of about 300,000. It was a center of Greco-Roman culture. It was home to the Temple of Artemis, which was ranked as one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. The people in this city worshiped Greek gods and adhered to Greek culture. Early Christians like Paul traveled to Ephesus as missionaries and established churches. And because of their ministry, some Ephesian citizens turned from their gods put their faith in the resurrected Jesus Christ. This caused some problems. There were some Jewish Christians who demanded that these new converts must follow a certain set of rules in order to achieve favor with God. They required Gentile Christians to follow the Jewish law: Eat certain foods, wear certain clothes, be circumcised, then you will be a true Christian. There are some churches today who still act this way. They say, “Don’t swear, don’t dance, don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t lie and cheat, don’t wear immodest clothing, don’t drink coffee, don’t pierce your ears, women grow your hair long, and then you will be a real Christian.” Sounds silly, doesn’t it? Paul always had a problem with this kind of thinking. Even though he was a Jew, Paul realized that Jesus met people where they were, in the life-situations they were in. He knew that God’s love was showered upon all people through Christ, and it didn’t depend on who their parents were, what they looked like, how they dressed, what they ate, or where they were born.

I think that most of us have experienced this feeling that we must meet certain arbitrary standards to attain God’s love and feel good about ourselves. When we tell ourselves that we have to meet certain standards to please God and others, then we begin to live a rule-dominated life. Maybe you know someone like this. Perhaps you have experienced it yourself. Individuals caught in this trap continually focus their attention on their performance and their ability to follow a schedule. They become rigid perfectionists.

For example, I used to make daily lists of everything I needed to do to feel like my day was a success. I was always a little tense because I wanted to use every moment to effectively reach, my goals. When I couldn’t check off the entire list, I got angry. I struggled with wanting to do more, but sometimes my best didn’t seem like enough. My solution was to try harder, to make even better use of my time, to be even more regimented and to make more self-imposed rules. But my focus was misdirected. The focus of our life as Christians should be on Christ, not on a bunch of strict rules.

This is just my personal example of something I think many struggle with: the false belief that we must meet certain standards in order to please God and feel good about ourselves. Other people hold themselves to different ‘laws’. For example:

Some people are caught under the law of church attendance. They say to themselves, “If I attend every worship service, and work diligently in the church, then God will be pleased with me.”

Some are caught in the law of morality: “If I can just behave well enough I will be acceptable to God.”

Some people are captive to the law of perfectionism: “If only I can keep my house spotless, my family looking good, and my social life in order – if only I can keep tight charge over every area of my life, then God will smile upon me and I will be happy.”

The same theme rings true in each situation. We are trying to earn something by our own good works. We begin to think that our happiness, freedom, and salvation depend solely upon what we can do to make our lives better.

When we live our lives trying to earn God’s favor, we live with a constant fear of failure hanging over our heads. We yearn for rescue from the stifling situations of life, but never find freedom. As long as we live our lives according to our lists of self-imposed rules, we will not experience the salvation that has been offered to us in Jesus Christ. If we base our salvation on our ability to meet a set of standards, failure looms as our constant enemy.

Thankfully, God has a solution. God gives us the promise of a secure future totally apart from our ability to perform. The life death and resurrection of Christ places is in right standing before God. As Paul puts it, “God saved you by his special favor when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it”

Here’s what happened. God knows that no matter what we do, no matter how hard we try, we can’t clean ourselves up and make ourselves right before him. So God said, “If you put your faith in my Son, I will make you righteous; that is, I will put you in a right relationship with me.” It’s not because of anything you do. It’s not because you look good. It’s not because you are sorry for past mistakes. God’s love is a free gift to you. Because of what Jesus did for us, we are pleasing to God in spite of our failures. When God looks at believers, God sees Christ in us. The point of God’s grace is this: we can never achieve perfection here on earth. We can never reach God by our own striving. Even our best efforts at self-righteousness are nothing to God. But, God loves us so much that he sent the Son to wipe away our sins and give us good standing before God.

This is God’s secret plan that has been in effect since the beginning of time. We are saved by grace through faith, not by works. No more basing our worth on what we do and don’t do. No more divisions in the church based on who people are or where they come from. God has made us one by offering salvation to each and every person in the exact same way–by putting our faith in Christ, receiving God’s forgiveness, and accepting the free gift of his love.

The following essay was actually written by a student applying for admission to NYU in response to the question, “Are there any personal accomplishments or significant experiences you have had that helped define you as a person.” The author was accepted and is reportedly now attending college at NYU. The student wrote:

I am a dynamic figure, often seen scaling walls and crushing ice. I have been known to remodel train stations on my lunch breaks, making them more efficient in the area of heat retention. I translate ethnic slurs for Cuban refugees. I write award-winning operas. I manage time efficiently. Occasionally, I tread water for three days in a row. I woo women with my sensuous and godlike trombone playing. I can pilot bicycles up severe inclines with unflagging speed, and I cook 30-minute brownies in 20 minutes. I am an expert in stucco, a veteran in love, and an outlaw in Peru. Using only a hoe and a large glass of water, I once single -handedly defended a small village in the Amazon basin from a horde of ferocious army ants. I play a bluegrass cello. I was scouted by the Mets. I am the subject of numerous documentaries. When I’m bored, I build large suspension bridges in my yard. I enjoy urban hang gliding. On Wednesdays, after school, I repair electrical appliances free of charge. I am an abstract artist, a concrete analyst, and a ruthless bookie. Critics world wide swoon over my original line of corduroy evening wear. I don’t perspire. My deft floral arrangements have earned me fame in international botany circles. Children trust me. I once read Paradise Lost, Moby Dick, and David Copperfield in one day and still had time to refurbish an entire dining room that evening, I have performed several covert operations for the CIA. I sleep once a week; when I do sleep, I sleep in a chair. When on vacation in Canada, I successfully negotiated with a group of terrorists who had seized a small bakery. The laws of physics do not apply to me. I balance, I weave, I dodge, and my bills are all paid. I participate in full contact origami. Years ago I discovered the meaning of life, but forgot to write it down. I have performed open heart surgery and I have met with Elvis, But I have not yet gone to college.

This young man went to great lengths to convince the admissions department at NYU that he was good enough for their school. Are you among the many people who think you’re going to have to convince God that you’re good enough to get into heaven? Are you pushing yourself to accomplish as much as possible during your lifetime in order to prove to God that you’re worthy of eternal life?

God doesn’t pay attention to our resumes. Only one thing matters: Do you know Jesus Christ? You don’t have to worry about making yourself look good–Jesus has already done it for you. Paul says it best: we are God’s masterpiece. Do you understand that? Imagine God painting a picture. God concentrates on the canvas. Finally he steps back and gazes upon what he created. It’s a phenomenal work of art. To look at its beauty would take your breathe away. And it’s a picture of Christ living in you. You are God’s work of art. God loves you. God wants you. You are God’s masterpiece, and God won’t stop cherishing you. Have you come to a place in your walk with the Lord where you know you are deeply loved, fully pleasing, totally forgiven, accepted, and complete in Christ? If not, stop doing things to earn God’s love. You already have it. Just receive it, and live the new reality of God’s love, fully shown to us through Jesus Christ.

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