The scripture referred to is Ephesians 1:3-19.
I saw a one-panel cartoon that featured 2 dogs. One dog asks, “What are New Year's resolutions?” The other dog replies, “A 'To Do' list for the first week in January.”
At the end of a year we tend to look back at what happened to us and what we accomplished. At the beginning of a year, we usually look ahead at what we hope to do. But today's reading from Ephesians reminds us of something else we can do: count our blessings. In the first chapter of this letter, we are reminded of the blessings that we have in Christ.
In my Greek exegesis class at Wheaton College we were very familiar with this passage. In the original Greek, verses 3 through 14 are one long sentence. So one memorable assignment was to diagram that sentence--in Greek! Most translations divide it up into many shorter sentences to make it understandable. Apparently, Paul was so caught up in this peon of praise that it took awhile before he stopped to breathe. Or maybe this is how he always spoke and his other secretaries did what the translators do: broke his stuff down into more manageable sentences.
He uses 3 forms of the word “blessing” in the 1st verse of our reading alone. Which is interesting because Paul enumerates 3 main blessings in this enormous sentence. The first he mentions is our adoption; the second is our redemption and the third is our sealing by the Holy Spirit. Let's look at each.
In verse 4 he says that God chose us in Christ before the world was created. We are not mere accidents or side-effects of the universe. Out of all the possibilities he had, God chose us. That is amazing. You are his by design.
And he chose us with a particular end in sight: “to be holy and blameless before him in love.” “Holy,” as we've pointed out before, simply means “set apart for God's purposes.” “Blameless” needs no explanation. God wanted nothing to come between us and his love. Why? Because “He destined us for adoption as his children in Jesus Christ...” People are not automatically children of God. We are his creatures, just like the animals and plants. But we were created in God's image and he always intended to raise us to the status of his children, to graciously include us into the eternal love relationship he shares with his Son in the unity of his Holy Spirit.
Of course, something came up that presents an obstacle to our having a loving relationship with God: our sin. Our rebellion against God, our saying “Not your will but my will be done,” makes our union with him impossible, the way a person refusing to cooperate and give up drugs or alcohol makes a normal healthy relationship with them impossible.
Which brings us to the second blessing enumerated: redemption. “Redemption” means to buy back something or someone. The price of our redemption is the blood of Christ, God's son. That made possible the forgiveness of our sins. The Greek word used for forgiveness here is interesting. It literally means “freedom,” though in this context it is properly translated “pardon.” So our redemption means freedom from the consequences of our sins when it comes to our relationship with God. Rather than having our guilt and the just punishment for our sins hanging over our heads, God has liberated us from that. He has done it “according to the riches of his grace, that he lavished on us.” We don't deserve it. God has done this out of his goodness.
And he is not merely redeeming us, the human beings who are part of his creation, but the whole creation. Paul calls this the “mystery of his will.” The Greek word is actually the one from which we get the English word “mystery.” Paul may here be stealing the thunder of the many mystery cults that abounded throughout the Roman Empire. Their secrets, however, were closely guarded and only disclosed to their initiates. But the mystery Paul is talking about is an “open secret,” if you will. God has revealed his plans for the world and not hidden them from all but a spiritual elite. And his plan is to, in “the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” The 'him” is obviously his Son. As it says in John 1, “all things came into being through him,” and God plans to accomplish the new creation through Christ as well.
That is big news! And it has implications. If God's plan of redemption is not just for us but for the whole of creation, that means just as we cannot neglect any human being but must see each as a brother or sister in Christ or a potential brother or sister in Christ, we cannot abandon any part of this creation as mere fuel for the end of the world but see it as something God created and once pronounced “good” and which is destined to be redeemed in Christ. Remember that John 3:16 says that “God so loved the world...” The Greek word used, “cosmos,” is not restricted to people. God created everything through Christ and will recreate everything through him in the end. We have to take that into account when dealing with matters of environment, pollution, resource scarcity, endangered animals and other aspects of our stewardship of the gifts with which God has showered us.
Because of our redemption, which makes us children of God, we have an inheritance. In various places we are told that those who trust God inherit the Kingdom of God, We are also told we inherit the earth, our salvation, eternal life, a blessing and glory.
The third spiritual blessing that God has given us is that “when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, [you] were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit...” When we put our trust in God, he sends us his Holy Spirit. The Spirit is the pledge, the down payment, or first installment of our spiritual inheritance. He is God within us; renewing and transforming us, pouring out God's love into our hearts, giving us gifts and equipping us to use them, helping us pray and expressing our deepest needs which are beyond words, reminding us what Jesus taught us and leading us into all truth, giving us the words we need to proclaim our faith.
Now all of this comes to us not on the New Year but upon receiving our new life in Christ. We get, as we said, the first installment; the remainder of our inheritance is to be received when Jesus returns. But in the meantime, we still get a lot. And we do periodically need to be reminded about it, lest our view of what Jesus has done for us narrows.
Mainstream churches rarely make a big deal of us being God's children except to say that we should therefore all love each other and treat each other well. The “prosperity gospel” churches, on the other hand, make much of our being “the King's kids” but instead on emphasizing spiritual blessings, focus on material blessings that, frankly, God does not promise us in this life. And in fact, the Great Recession has hurt a lot of the prosperity gospel churches and preachers. If you think trusting God should translate into material wealth, how do you explain losing your money/job/house? Not enough faith? Or just bad theology? The blessings we get are primarily spiritual and long-term. The gospel is not a “get rich quick” scheme.
But the spiritual blessings are real. And they are substantial. This is all God's doing and we should be grateful and give him glory. That bothers a lot of people. Why should we give God glory? Well, why do you praise anyone? Because they have done something worthy of praise. And what God has done for us is certainly praiseworthy. Because of Jesus Christ, we know we have been chosen by God before the foundation of the world. We know that our salvation depends on God's gracious will and not our ability to earn his favor. We know that we are redeemed by Jesus' blood, that he paid a very precious price to free us from our slavery to sin and our own way of doing things. Because of him, we can become children of God and heirs of God's kingdom. We know that we were sealed by God's Spirit and given his presence and power as a first installment of our inheritance.
Before you go on a journey it's wise to take an inventory of all of your equipment and assets. Before you go much farther in this new year, it is wise to count all of your blessings, bestowed upon you by a loving God, that “you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe.”