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January 19, 2003
by Tony Grant
I now invite you to turn in your Bibles to the Letter to the Ephesians, chapter 1, and follow along as I read verses 3-14. Hear what the Spirit says to us.
3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places,
4 just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love.
5 He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will,
6 to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.
7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace
8 that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight
9 he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ,
10 as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.
11 In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will,
12 so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory.
13 In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit;
14 this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God's own people, to the praise of his glory.
Amen. The word of God. Thanks be to God.
Shortly after the Enron story broke last year, Jay Leno quipped, "Enron is now officially out of the energy business. They are now in a new business: confetti." However, the paper shredders at Enron were not the only ones cranking out confetti in 2002. The Arthur Andersen accounting firm as well as WorldCom were at it 24/7 until the courts made them stop.
To get a job like this done, to shred paper records big time, you need something like the Taskmaster TM1620DS. This turbo-charged baby can destroy massive quantities of sensitive documents in minutes. Feed a two-inch thick ream of documents, spiral notebooks, cards, checks, computer printouts or document boxes into the Taskmaster and the unit will shred the stuff and discharge it as tiny chips.
There is no denying that human beings have laid waste to a great many things in the course of time. Much has been lost through wanton and intentional eradication. What seems more remarkable, though, writes Cullen Murphy in The Atlantic Monthly, is how often our attempts at destruction go awry. [Murphy, Cullen. "Delete, baby, delete." The Atlantic Monthly, May 2002, 16.]
For example, on the eve of the takeover of the U.S. embassy in Iran, in 1979, American officials desperately fed secret documents into the embassy's paper shredders, then departed. Over the next several years, the Iranians apparently did not have much to do. They no longer had American TV or American magazines, so they painstakingly stitched the documents back together. They ultimately published the reconstituted intelligence files in some sixty volumes, under the title: Documents From the U.S. Espionage Den. So though our foreign service officials tried to destroy files, their efforts at deletion failed.
There are times in our personal lives when what we want most is to destroy or delete or shred something we did or said or wrote--which is not easily done. The Bible tells us: Nothing remains hidden or in darkness, all is revealed (Mark 4:22).
Cullen Murphy cites another case in point: During the controversy over the Iran-contra affair, in 1986, Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North attempted to erase all the relevant e-mail messages on his computer; he repeatedly pressed the DELETE button, thinking that he was thereby expunging the messages. "Wow, were we wrong!" he later observed. North did not know that pressing DELETE does not result in complete deletion. He also did not know about the existence of a backup data-storage system. Oops. Try as he did to hide what happened, much, if not all, was eventually revealed at congressional hearings.
Now we learn that some of the shredded documents from Enron may also be recovered - a task made easier by the fact that pages were sometimes put through the shredding machines sideways, leaving individual lines of type intact. It seems that Enron employees did not know much about doing away with incriminating records. If only they had burned the files after shredding, then they may have succeeded.
Historically, fire has sometimes been an effective and successful means of destruction. When that sinful or sensitive information in your hard drive or in your file cabinet needs complete deletion, try the old-fashioned method. Acquire a local burning permit. Build a big hardwood bonfire in your backyard, toss on your paper files, then top it off with your PC hard drive. That ought to do it. Maybe. Or maybe not.
History shows a hot fire does not always work for data demolition. The Assyrian empire was brought down in the seventh century B.C. by an invading force of Babylonians, Scythians, and Medes. The conquerors put the great library of Ashurbanipal to the torch--which had the opposite effect that they intended. The library's contents were written on clay tablets. The fire served as a kiln and made the tablets into flat pottery. Some 20,000 cuneiform tablets survived in the form of accidental ceramic records, much to the delight of modern archaeologists.
To completely, absolutely and finality delete, destroy, and demolish is difficult. It does not matter if we are talking crime scene evidence, files, records, books, art, cities, cultures, or sins. It does not matter if it is hard data or digitalized information or personal folly. It remains dauntingly difficult to erase mistakes, or crimes, or sins, leaving behind no trace.
One way to avoid the problems of our peccadilloes is to live perfectly pure and peaceful lives in the first place. Do no wrong. Always and in every way behave flawlessly. Say nothing wrong. Never lie. Never hurt with words the ones we love. Never speak before thinking. Perhaps never speak at all. Think nothing wrong. Keep our thoughts wholesome, our minds upright, and our imaginations unused. Perhaps not thinking at all is best. Commit no offense or transgression. Be perfect like your Father in heaven is perfect (Matthew 5:48).
But neither you nor I think that is going to happen. Perhaps we have not lied about the existence of billions of dollars or tried to cover up details of decades of espionage, but we all sin. They may be big sins, they may be little sins, but we sin every day. It is a fact of life; It is the way it is; it is the way we are.
And that is a frightening thing. A six-year-old was overheard reciting the Lord's Prayer at a church service: "And forgive us our trash passes, as we forgive those who passed trash against us." Unfortunately, we have all passed around a lot of trash.
All of us have things in our hearts that can leave us convinced that we are somehow cut off from the full measure of inheritance that God has for us. Maybe it is something like an abortion that happened a long time ago that we would rather leave buried. Maybe it is a long-term struggle with a particular sin. Maybe it is just that we feel that that we are somehow the only creature in God's whole creation who cannot be forgiven. We might call this a sense of "terminal uniqueness." We think that we are so uniquely bad that God cannot save us. Whatever the reason, as long as we are convinced we cannot be forgiven, we cut ourselves off from God.
But how can we expect any forgiveness when we know that the records of our sins are still there, forever there. It is as if our souls themselves come equipped with a divinely digitized storage device that records all of our thoughts and all of our actions over a lifetime, for permanent playback to God. And we have no place to hide, nor can we hide anything about ourselves.
Human beings are born with an advanced and natural capacity to mess up, to hurt each other and to fall victim to our own desires. We tend to buy into whatever supports our false self-image. We adore our desires, addictions and jealousies. In short, we readily and easily fall into temptations and love those seven deadly sins in all their glorious forms: gluttony, lust, envy, pride, wrath, greed and sloth. On our own we cannot undo the sinful events of our lives. Alone we cannot format our souls, reinitialize our minds, and start our lives over. We cannot erase, delete or destroy our life's record. The data is never lost. The facts are never destroyed. The statistics of our lives are embedded in the essence of our souls. We cannot plead the fifth Amendment. God sees all hears all and knows all. No sin, public or private, is missed. Nothing - the good, the bad, the ugly or the beautiful - is ever hidden from God. What is done is done. The record is made. The information is in there. Sin and its consequences cannot be covered up.
Get Out of Jail Free
Even Paul, the best of the brightest of his time, had his own struggles. In his letters he tells us that his spirit is willing but his flesh, like ours, is weak. He had his troubles. He had that thorn in his side. Paul knew how he should behave, and Paul knew how to live the good and holy life, but he found himself doing the opposite. Just like us. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak (Matthew 26:41).
So what can we do if we cannot delete or destroy the records of ours sins? It sounds bad, but it is not really. God gives us each a get-out-of-jail-free card--which is called grace through Christ. Here's the good news as found in Ephesians 1:7: "In [Christ] we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace" What we cannot do alone, Christ can do for us. Christ will delete and destroy all evidence of every sin, if only we ask. Christ is the sin-shredder. Christ is our hope and our freedom.
As we look at our scripture today, we note Paul's emphasis on election or predestination. In the Westminster Shorter Catechism, this is expressed by the phrase "Effectual Calling." The catechism says, "Effectual calling is the work of God's Spirit, whereby convincing us of our sin and misery, enlightening our minds in the knowledge of Christ, and renewing our wills, he doth persuade and enable us to embrace Jesus Christ, freely offered to us in the gospel" [q31]. That agrees with what Paul says in these verses. Paul speaks confidently of how God "chose us in Christ" (v. 4) and "destined us for adoption ... according to ... his will" (v. 5), as the gift of grace is "freely bestowed on us" (v. 6). For Paul, God's action causes us to respond in praise and wonderment. For Paul, the idea of a God who is intimately involved in all aspects of life is a comforting, not chilling, thought. This does not mean, however, that our "elected" or "chosen" status allows us to live our lives without moral or spiritual boundaries. Verse 4 clearly states that while we are chosen in love, we are also chosen to be "holy and blameless." The apostle means that our moral status should reflect our family tree, for we are "his children," and this grace comes to us through "the Beloved."
Verse 7 reminds listeners that this new status and salvation cost the giver plenty, for our "redemption" comes through "his blood," our trespasses forgiven through the lavishness of his grace. The term "redemption" can be used for freeing a slave, and it evokes memories of how God obtained Israel as his people by liberating them from slavery in Egypt (Exodus 15:16) and from captivity in Babylon (Isaiah 51:11). This Christ-based redemption comes through "his blood," because Christ's death is understood as the penalty paid for human sin - the "sacrifice of atonement" (Romans 3:25) that makes redemption a reality. All this giving and graciousness, all this love and acceptance, are revealed now to be part of God's eternal plan of redemption. Although it becomes known only now, through Christ's saving work, this is a "mystery of his will" that is no longer a secret.
In the first century, "mystery religions" were extremely popular. Each sect claimed they possessed some secret knowledge--gnosis--that would open the door to eternal life for a chosen few. Our text from Ephesians plays on this popular language by calling God's revealed plan for our salvation a "mystery." But it is a "mystery" that believers must shout from the housetops. It is gnosis or knowledge that can become common knowledge through Christ.
In verse 10, Paul says that God will "gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth." No thing and no one lie outside this new form of divine "election" so long as they are "in Christ."
Verses 13-14 declares that participation in Christ occurs through a series of steps.
First, the individual must hear "the word of truth," that is, the "gospel of your salvation."
Second, after hearing, each person must respond by believing in this message.
Third, the believer must be "marked with the seal" of the Holy Spirit. In the first century, a letter was sealed by dripping some wax on the scroll. Wealthy folks had a signet ring that they would press into the wax. The mark of the signet showed that they were the one who wrote and signed the letter. When we say that Christians are "marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit" (Ephesians 1:13), it means that Christ has marked us with his Holy Spirit signet. It means that we belong to Christ. Above all, it means that Christ has taken care of our sins.
Christ came to make God user-friendly by granting holy forgiveness to those who choose to believe. And it is a choice. Accept in your heart this offering of God's forgiveness in Christ, and Christ can take care of every sin you have. Christ can take care of your damaged relationships. Christ can take care of those wounds you have given to yourself and to others. Christ is the hope for the hopeless. No one is beyond Christ's power to save.
Russell Ford has watched many of his friends die. It is part of his ministry. Ford is a chaplain for Death Row inmates in Boydton, Virginia. He knows he cannot save men's lives. But he can lead them to the One who saves souls. Ford works with men who have committed gruesome murders. Some of them refuse to accept Christ's forgiveness. But thankfully, some do. He has helped several brutal murderers become repentant pilgrims.
He helped Alton Waye. Waye was convicted for killing a 61-year-old woman. Even other Death Row inmates found Waye to be particularly mean and vile. No one like him, but as with others, Russell Ford taught this man the gospel. Months passed yet Waye did not seem to change. Then days before his 1989 execution, this murderer's demeanor suddenly reversed. Ford walked into Waye's cell and found him singing spirituals. He had decided to accept the pardon from Jesus. The night before he was executed, Alton Waye, the murderer, confessed his faith in Jesus and was baptized. Twelve members of the death squad witnessed God's miracle of redemption. After the baptism, they all joined hands, singing "Amazing Grace" and reciting the Lord's Prayer. [See Jim Clark, "Am I beyond God's forgiveness?" Heartlight, July 11, 2000, heartlight.org.]
Alton Waye accepted the promise of the scriptures. Our sins will be forgiven by God, by love of our Creator through Christ (Ephesians 1:7). God through Christ has this power to completely, absolutely and forever forgive us our trespasses. We cannot do it ourselves. We cannot do it alone. But we do not have to do it alone. People of God have hope in your hearts. No matter what you have done. No matter what you have said, or thought, or written. Have hope in Christ. Christ is our sin-shredder.
In the hit movie, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Everett, Pete and Delmar are hiding out in the woods, running from the law, when they encounter a church congregation going down to the lake to be baptized. Delmar, overwhelmed at the sight, runs into the water and is baptized by the preacher. As he returns to his companions, he declares that he is now saved and "neither God nor man's got nothing on me now." And then he says, "Come on in, boys, the water's fine!" I do not know how effective Delmar's baptism was, but he certainly has the right idea. In baptism Christ shreds our sins so that "neither God nor man's got nothing on me now." And that water of baptism is indeed fine. Amen.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
Copyright 2003 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified 3/17/03