2nd Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19 Psalms 24 Ephesians 1:3-14 Mark 6:14-29 The younger sister reassured her older sister, “Those frames are so flattering.” She had just gotten new glasses after twenty years and wasn’t happy with them. She said, “They’re OK,” she said staring gloomily at herself in the mirror. “Can you see better?” “Yeah, I can see better.” “So what’s wrong?” She said, “For one thing, I thought I was still cute.” While Jesus heals many, John the Baptist is not one of them. Instead, he is beheaded as a result of a reckless promise made at a party. Power meets sin in this story. King Herod had an affair with his brother’s wife, Herodian, before divorcing his wife and marrying her. John is willing to confront power. The party is way out of control when Salome dances. Instead of half his kingdom, Salome asks for a solution to her mother’s problem – to get rid of John the Baptist, who has been a thorn in Herodian’s side. The disciples demonstrate their bravery by asking for John’s body. This was an act which could provoke the authorities. But they had learned something important from John – sometimes you just have to do the right thing. Speaking the truth to power is often the right thing to do but it can be very dangerous. Hear the Epistle reading from the Message - How blessed is God! And what a blessing he is! He’s the Father of our Master, Jesus Christ, and takes us to the high places of blessing in him. Long before he laid down earth’s foundations, he had us in mind, had settled on us as the focus of his love, to be made whole and holy by his love. Long, long ago he decided to adopt us into his family through Jesus Christ. (What pleasure he took in planning this!) He wanted us to enter into the celebration of his lavish gift-giving by the hand of his beloved Son. Because of the sacrifice of the Messiah, his blood poured out on the altar of the Cross, we’re a free people—free of penalties and punishments chalked up by all our misdeeds. And not just barely free, either. Abundantly free! He thought of everything, provided for everything we could possibly need, letting us in on the plans he took such delight in making. He set it all out before us in Christ, a long-range plan in which everything would be brought together and summed up in him, everything in deepest heaven, everything on planet earth. It’s in Christ that we find out who we are and what we are living for. Long before we first heard of Christ and got our hopes up, he had his eye on us, had designs on us for glorious living, part of the overall purpose he is working out in everything and everyone. It’s in Christ that you, once you heard the truth and believed it (this Message of your salvation), found yourselves home free—signed, sealed, and delivered by the Holy Spirit. This signet from God is the first installment on what’s coming, a reminder that we’ll get everything God has planned for us, a praising and glorious life. For churches seeking affirmation that our work is not in vain, this reading from Ephesians is a resounding song of hope. Whether written by Paul or one of his followers, whether to one church or all the “saints who are faithful to Christ Jesus,” the intent is clear: to shore up and strengthen the church of Jesus Christ to be faithful in his service. We are reminded again and again of who we are and whose we are, brought back to the sheer joy of living as God’s people. Immediately, the letter plunges us into a cascade of beauty and riches. Abundant blessings and glorious grace are lavished on us, for God’s own good pleasure. This is no capricious whim of God, but purposely planned before the foundation of the world. God has adopted us as God’s own children, made us to be God’s own people, and has given us an inheritance in Christ. God has chosen us to be holy and blameless in love, forgiven and redeemed through Christ. It has been said that this is “the excess language of worship.” The words flow in an endless stream of praise and wonder, as if it is meant to lift us to the very heights of God’s presence. The focus is on God’s actions. This is not our doing: it is all gift. These verses offer nothing for us to do but “live for the praise of his glory.” The most obvious connection is to our baptism. At baptism we rejoice that God has claimed us as God’s own. At baptism we remember how Christ has washed away our sins. In baptism we see the sign and seal of God’s promise and we pray for the Holy Spirit to come upon the water, and upon the one receiving this sacrament. We don’t have a baptism today, but we can celebrate the joy of living as children of God. We can reaffirm our baptismal vows as we worship together. We can recall the memory of our baptism and the openness of the church in celebrating with us. Ephesians reminds us of God’s love for us, and the flowing words of this passage envelop us with the kind of love God offers – excessive, tender, richly abundant. Yet the language is not individualistic or exclusive. As beloved as we are, we are lifted up into something far greater than ourselves. We are blessed in Christ, we are chosen in Christ, we are destined for adoption through Christ. In Christ we have obtained our inheritance, and our hope is set on Christ. The constant plural pronouns in the passage remind us that this gift is not an individual blessing but always for the community of Christ. These words offer a counter to the world’s understanding of “worth.” It isn’t that we are somehow special, but rather that we have been taken up into something extraordinary and offered this gift to receive as our own. We have been invited to share in the riches of God’s grace. God has accomplished all this on our behalf through Christ, so we might live as God’s own children. The grace of this passage is unmistakable. Yet the passage is not without tensions. Who is to be redeemed? Some would read this passage as a clear argument for predestination, that some persons have been chosen and some have not. While these verses say nothing about condemnation, the very use of the words “he destined to…according to…his will” implies that we are chosen and others are not. Others would suggest that the passage argues for universal salvation, that God’s plan “for the fullness of time is to gather up all things in him.” This reading presumes that “all things” include all persons, and that no one and nothing will remain outside God’s embrace. If some are aware of their identity as God’s children, it does not mean that others are not also God’s children, only that some have been made aware of “the mystery of his will.” Election or predestination is a joyous affirmation of the sovereignty of God’s grace, but it has troubled many Christians, including those in the denominations that traditionally have emphasized the doctrine. Does the election mean a divine determinism that turns God into a tyrant and human beings into robots without any freedom? Does election make faith moot and superfluous? Are some people the recipients of God’s grace and others not? Why some and not others? That would seem to suggest that God is capricious and perhaps cruel. Does election mean that the gospel is good news for some people and bad news for others? Or does election mean that all people are saved? If so, if salvation is universal, why does discipleship and mission matter? These are just a few questions that come out of this reading. What does election mean? To some, Ephesians makes clear that election is a statement about the wonder of God’s grace in Jesus Christ. Election is misunderstood if it becomes primarily a question about the scope of God’s grace (who is included and who is not, and how can one know where they belong.) It is above all else an affirmation that the God Christians know in Jesus Christ is gracious beyond anything we can imagine. Election is important because it is a part of our identity as Christians. It says something important about who God is and about who those persons are who have freely and undeservedly received God’s grace in Jesus Christ. Election is also about the sovereignty of God’s will. This reading affirms that God’s choosing is rooted in the good pleasure and mystery of God’s counsel and will. Election does not mean that God knows which people respond to God’s grace in Jesus Christ and which do not. Election is good news because it affirms that those who are in Christ belong to God, not because they are less sinful than other people or because they have done the right things, but for no other reason than God has chosen to be merciful to them. God’s grace is not a response on God’s part to what human beings have done, but that which comes before faith and is its source. God’s election is always “in Christ,” and Christ is the “looking glass” in which Christians should reflect on their faith. What Christians know in Jesus Christ is that God’s sovereign will is good. If election becomes a source of anxiety and uncertainty, then it is misunderstood. The appropriate response to God’s election is gratitude. Those who wonder if they are included in God’s election should not look within themselves. If we look at ourselves – our hearts and souls – we can’t help feeling discouraged. But, if we look at Christ and see God’s grace and mercy, then we find assurance that we are included in the promises of God’s grace and mercy. Election is the good news that God’s grace in Jesus Christ precedes us, surrounds us, and sustains us, or in the words of I John 4:19, “We love because God first loved us.” We are not to just use words to proclaim our love of God, but to let our deeds, our lives, our relationships speak also. We are to be the hands, and heart and feet of Christ to our families, friends, community, church and the world. We are to stand in the gap allowing the memory of the mission and ministry of John the Baptizer and Jesus the Christ to empower us, equip us, move us out of complacency to action – we are to love as we have been loved. Amen.
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