Sermon, June 17, 2016
College Baptist Church
Rev. Don Westblade
God’s Garden of Life
Meditation/Preparation – Hymn to God the Father – John Donne
Thou forgive that sin where I begun,
forgive that sin which I have won
I have a sin
of fear, that when I’ve spun
I can’t tell you how tempted I was after Leonard’s sermon a couple of weeks ago to put a title on this week’s sermon like, “A stake in life” or “I scream for life” so I could start off this week’s message with a little snack of some favorite food of mine. But our focus isn’t on steaks and ice cream this week. This week we are following up on last week’s report from the team that went to Tecate Mexico to work with Growing Gardens for Life. Our focus is on gardens and on the life that God alone gives. So if I were to “carrot” all, I would have made “peas” with that “root” theme and said, “lettuce” put a vegetable in the title (sorry!). But the real focus of the text we have before us from Ephesians 2 isn’t the garden or the sprout that comes to life out of its mire and mud and decayed compost. It is the God who makes the seed and sends his sun and pours his rain and gives the miraculous growth. So God and the life he alone can give get the top billing in the title of this message.
It’s good also for us to recall that the reason why Leonard and I have chosen to lead us all through the book of Ephesians this summer is that it is the ideal book for reminding us that God is not just the focus of a particular sermon. God is the focus of the mission of the church! Our stated mission at College Baptist Church is “to live for the praise of the glory of God.”You’ll recall from the first message on Ephesians that verses 3-14 were all one sentence and that all of its parts unite in doing one single thing: they set the role of Jesus Christ at the heart of God’s mission for the church. And then they tell us (three times!) that we’re here to live for the praise of the glory that each of these roles of Christ displays in the church.
And we want to keep in mind, all the way through this series on Ephesians, that the practical means to accomplishing our mission as a church– the work that we are called to do – is summarized by Paul in Eph 4:12 – “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” That is the focus we have in growing a new building for life in the plans that are underway for an addition to the church. * We’re calling it, for now, the “4:12 Center”: a building “to equip and to serve, to build up the body of Christ.”
So as we think about this building that God is prompting us to believe he wants to grow on our property, and about the lives of faith that God wants to use the building to equip and to grow up into the body of Christ, Ephesians 2 is going to help us to think about this growth like the work of life that he does in our gardens.
Jon Stevens and our Mexico team and anyone else who works in a garden can’t help but recognize at first hand the great truth that Paul is celebrating in this passage in ch. 2. Gardens not only give life to the people who learn to grow them to provide food. Even more importantly, gardens have to be given life. Paul made this very point to the Corinthians in 1 Cor 3:6f – “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.”
If you want to grow some produce in your garden, you can’t start by going to the workshop in the basement and constructing some seeds. You can’t go to the kitchen and mix some ingredients together to make them either. You have to go to the plants to which God has already given growth and maturity. They have the seeds. And when you do, and you put those seeds in the ground, you’re utterly at the mercy of the sun and the rain and the soil conditions if those seeds are going to spring up into healthy, nourishing plants. We can water, and we can prune the shade trees, and we can add nutrients to the soil. But where will that water come from if God has willed a drought? And where would that sunlight come from if God hadn’t first made the sun on that fourth day of creation? And from where do the nutrients we add derive but from the decay of earlier organic life?
Without God, our gardens would be dead. At their worst, their soil would be lifeless and sterile without God: like sand, unable to give life to anything. Even at its fertile best, garden soil is still a heap of decayed organic material, the products of the complete corruption of life.
Without God, the ugly little seeds that we are would never spring up as the beautiful flowers and mighty oak trees that are sown in darkness but raised in light, “sown in weakness” but, the word of God promises, “raised in power!” (1 Cor 15:43)
This is what Paul wants to emphasize by his repetition in v.5 and v.8 that it is by grace alone that we are saved. It is a gift of God, not of our own works, not of our own efforts, not even of our own will, that we are given the life of God’s kingdom.
Yes, it is by faith. Yes, our good works matter. Yes, we are responsible creatures. But we do not become the new creatures who have the faith that transforms our works from empty actions into deeds that are pleasing to God until God renews us in Christ.
2 Cor 5:17 – “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”
(vv. 4f) – “God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ.”
1 Cor 1:28-30 – “God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.
And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption.”
The garden is God’s. The nutrients in its soil are from God. The sun and the water that the seed needs to grow are gifts of God. The growth is all and at every moment from God. That is why all the honor and glory will be due to God forever and ever. Ezek 36 [7/10] says – When the “land that was desolate has become like the garden of Eden, and the waste and desolate and ruined cities are now fortified and inhabited, then, says God, the nations that are left all around you shall know that I am the LORD.” Gardens live for the praise of the glory of God!
Look for just a moment at the way that Paul has built this text in Eph 2. Back in ch. 1, I mentioned the good news and bad news that we’d only be looking at Paul’s first sentence in that introductory sermon – but the first sentence ran from v.3 to v.14! This week I’ve only singled out half a sentence at the beginning of ch.2 – but that half sentence runs from v.1 to v.7! It doesn’t really finish until the end of v.10. Modern translations try to make it more digestible by making a participle into a main verb … and starting a new sentence at v.4, but Paul wrote it all in one long thought.
It’s a long and complicated sentence. Nevertheless it says a very simple thing. If you were an English major and tried to diagram it, you’d need a big piece of paper with lots of subordinate clauses hanging off the main clause. But that main clause would only have three words in it. The subject is in v.4. “God” is the subject. The verb is in v.5: “made alive together” is one verb in Greek. And the object is in v.1: “you.” God made you alive. Paul repeated the object again in v.5, but makes it more inclusive: “us.” God made you, the Ephesians, and you, the Hillsdalians, and you, all the saints that read this letter, plus Paul who is writing this letter – all of us – alive together.) Life is the work of God. In our gardens, in our souls, life is the work of God.
Then the sentence becomes a compound sentence because God does two more things for “you” and for “us” (including Paul, the writer) – that’s where v.6 comes in – “and God raised us up together and God seated us together in the heavenly places.” We are given life. We are raised up out of the dead ground of our decaying and corrupt condition as sinners, and we are seated in heavenly places as the beautiful flowers and the strong trees that we little seeds are destined to be. All that is God’s work, not our work. By grace are you saved. It is a gift of God, not of works. So all our boasting will be in God and not in ourselves.
If that’s the simple point Paul wants to make, why does he fill up his sentence with so much more then? The answer to that (as Leonard might say) is in the filling. Paul is impassioned by all of the transformations that God’s grace accomplishes in bringing our dead seeds out of the ground so gloriously. You can see the contrast he wants to emphasize. Once we were dead. Now we are alive! Once we were blind. Now we see!
There was a past course of this world we followed. (The ESV translates that word “course”, but it’s the same word Paul is going to pick up again in v.7 to oppose the past age of the world to the coming age of God’s reign. So we’ll see the contrast Paul is making more clearly if we translate it that way.) And then we can follow the other contrasts Paul is piling up in this half-a-sentence:
You were dead
You walked in sin
You lived in the passions of the flesh
You carried out desires of the body
You followed the age of this world
= the ruler of the power of the air
= the spirit at work in disobedience
You were children of wrath
You were like all humanity
God made us alive
God raised us up
God seated us in heavenly places
We anticipate riches of grace in
the coming age
( = God, the ruler of the universe)
( = the Holy Spirit)
God plans to show us the riches of his kindness
You are alive!
Now notice two curious and crucial things about the verbs in this compound sentence.
The first curious thing, if your experience is like mine, is that these verbs are all in the past tense. God has already done these things. His saints on earth in Ephesus and Hillsdale have already been made alive and raised us up and seated us in the heavenly places – even while, v.5 says, we were still dead in our sin. This is the same thing he had told the Corinthians (5:17) – “The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” But what’s curious is, if you’re like me, you’re thinking: there is a shameful lot of the old that hasn’t passed away at all. I still feel like I walk in sin and live in the passions of the flesh and the desires of the body. Is Paul just being unrealistic here? Why isn’t he saying, more realistically, God will make us alive and he will raise us up? I still feel like an ugly seed in the decaying dirt!
That’s where the second curious thing comes in to play its crucial role. Paul doesn’t exactly say God made us alive and raised us up and seated us in heavenly places. These are past tense all right. But the verbs aren’t so simple as I’ve written them. They all come with a prefix attached that means “with” or “together” like our English prefix, “con”: congress = to come together; congregation = gather as a flock together; conjoin = join together. So if you read the verbs of our text woodenly, in Paul’s Greek, you’d hear him say, God “together alive made” us; God “together raised” us; and God “together seated us.” Or, more smoothly for our English ears, God made us alive together, he raised us together, he seated us together.
Together with whom, then? With each other? That’s not wrong. God does do this for all the saints together. But that’s not the point that matters to Paul. The crucial factor for Paul is that we are made alive and raised and seated with Christ!
So back to our contrasts, it is crucial to understanding the truths that we are already made alive and raised up and seated in heavenly places that those assurances are only true with and in Christ!
Growing gardens can help us understand this important point Paul is wanting to make here in ch.2 and why it’s possible for Paul to say we are already alive and raised when we seem to ourselves so often to feel dead in the dirt. A small, ugly seed by itself remains a small, ugly seed forever. And a small, ugly seed, even together with a lot of other seeds, still remains a small, ugly seed forever.
But an experienced gardener knows that seeds before these have been raised into plants. So he has the confidence that if his ugly little seeds are planted together (in the same way) with that seed that was raised before them, these seeds will be raised up too! Rom 8:11 – “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.” 1 Cor 15:17 – “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.”
Gardeners have confidence that the seeds they plant will bear fruit because they’ve seen the firstfruits of their earlier seed and know that this will bear fruit together with the seed that went before it. God is not led by our despised and ugly appearance to think that he cannot raise us up to beauty and strength and eternal life. Together with Christ who was despised and rejected and full of trials and suffering, we too can be raised and made alive and seated in heavenly places.
But there’s still one last important step in Paul’s argument in this sentence that we need before we can resolve our question how Paul can truly say God has made us alive when we find ourselves still so prone to fall back into the deadness of our sins. It’s one thing to know that God can raise us with Christ in the human weakness and suffering we share. But we surely can’t say we are “with him” when we are still falling into sin. Out goes the gardener’s confidence that he’ll ever get any yield from our seed just because he puts it with the sinless seed of Christ that does bear fruit.
So Paul needs to add one more vital piece. We are given life and raised and seated in the heavenly places not just with Christ but also in Christ Jesus. There’s not just a promise that we’ll one day be like him. There’s a new location for us that makes it possible for God to give us this gift of life and beauty in spite of his wrath against our defiance of him. And that new location is in Christ, who bore the price of that wrath against us by dying the death that it requires.
Our old location was in our sins and in the passions and desires of our flesh. And that is a place of death. The ESV gives a potentially confusing translation of a word in v.3 when it reads “we once lived” in the passions of our flesh. “Live” in this case translates a word that means to “conduct ourselves” or to “behave,” not to “be alive.” Because we were not. We were dead. We could do as little to make ourselves alive as a corpse can do.
Out in my shed is half a bag of grass seed. It has been sitting on the shelf for about two months, and it’s still a half a bag of seed. A year from now if I leave it alone I expect it will still be half a bag of seed. The other half of the bag of seed I scattered around a bare area on the hill next to the house. That seed isn’t seed any more. It’s a fairly large patch of green grass. What’s the difference? The seed that is now grass got put in a new location. It went in the ground, and got raised up. The rest is still dead in its old half-opened bag.
You see how the garden is helping us here. Once we were like that seed in the shed: dead, with no hope of growing so long as we stayed in the old plastic bag. But then God made us alive, just like he made Christ alive. And raised us together with him. How did he do that? He put us in a new location. He planted us in a garden. And Christ is that garden. We are made alive in Christ. We are raised in Christ. We are seated in the heavenly places in Christ. We had to go into that garden to die. But that was God’s means of raising us up to beautiful life. In Christ alone, our hope is found!
And here’s the answer we were looking for: No sooner did we get into that moist and fertile garden than the gardener could say, that seed has been made alive! That seed is as good as raised up. It may still look like a seed. Sometimes it may act like an old seed in the bag. But this seed is in the garden. The old has passed away. Behold the new has come.
The gardener who puts his seed in the garden, already considers that seed a beautiful plant! Being in the garden means having such a sure promise of one day being the beautiful flower by the grace of God that one can count that seed as a plant today. The saints who are in Christ have such a sure promise of one day being raised up as righteous plants in the heavenly places by the grace of God that God can count us righteous today. That’s the act we call justification: being counted righteous from the very first movement of trust in our souls, and having that assurance of our salvation, even today. Does that mean we are righteous? No. We still look like dead seeds and often behave like dead seeds in the corrupt earth where God has planted us. In fact, seeds go into the ground to die. But so sure is God the Gardener that he will give the growth to those seeds that are in Christ, that he looks at us even today as the beautiful, righteous, and eternally mighty plants he has destined us to be.
If we are anxious, as we are tempted to be – as John Donne was tempted to be – that God is unwilling to forgive “that sin where I begun, Which was my sin, though it were done before?” my ownership of the sinful condition I inherited from Adam…
If we are anxious that God is unwilling to forgive “that sin through which I run, And do run still, though still I do deplore?”...
If we are anxious that God is unwilling to forgive “that sin which I have won Others to sin, and made my sins their door?”…
If we are anxious that God is unwilling to forgive “that sin which I did shun A year or two, but wallow’d in a score?” …
… our hope is found in Christ alone, in being planted in the life-giving garden of God, where His Son shines life upon our lifeless and ugly seeds. If even at the hands of our greatest enemy, death, “God’s Son Shall shine as He shines now and heretofore” we may be confident in God’s promise of life and beauty and strength in the heavenly places for an eternity in the glorious presence of God.
This is why we have hope to carry out our mission as a church. This is why we live for the praise of the glory of God. This is why we move forward with eagerness in the work of the church to equip the saints for the work of ministry and to build up the body of Christ. This is why we press on in hope with a building program centered on Ephesians 4:12.
The good news Paul proclaims to the Ephesians in this first half of this opening sentence of ch.2 is that God has raised us dead seeds up together with Christ! … and in Christ! Like this tree that was planted in Jason’s memory that is already an orange tree, even before you see oranges on it – like Jason himself who is raised up together with Christ – you are alive in Christ! We are alive in Christ!
Living for the praise of a God who loves to empower this glorious truth for us in Christ is a mission truly worth living for!