It has been a rough decade. I am sure most of us remember September 11th of a decade ago with absolutely no effort required. Whether you were watching events as they unfolded on a news channel or you learned about it from a family member, co-worker, or stranger, that day has defined all of us. You, like me, may have no connection to anyone in the Twin Towers or the Pentagon, or even in the surrounding areas, or even to anyone who responded to DC, Pennsylvania, or New York. But even without personal connections of any kind, life as it has been since will never be like it was on September 10, 2001.
Wire tapping, waterboarding, Guantanamo, weapons of mass destruction, Abu Ghraib, Lehman Brothers, the Great Recession, Katrina, Rita, and Ike, pink slips, drought, and tsunami. All of these dark words or phrases have an intimate connection with the decade that has transpired between the fall the Twin Towers and where we sit together this morning. It has indeed been a rough decade.
An article in Friday’s edition of the News and Advance spoke of a resident of Smith Mountain Lake whose first wife was a flight attendant on United 125, which went into the Towers in New York. He has chosen to spend this weekend camping at a retreat he has started, away from the new cycles and repeat images that trigger his Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. As the debt crisis worsens, the dollar sinks, oil and gas prices establish new records, troops are exhausted, and China rises, it has become fashionable among the international media to speak of a tired and exhausted America that no longer has the will to accomplish anything. We are beaten down, challenged, and weary in ways we did not know we could be.
It is easy amidst such an onslaught to sit down, cover ourselves in dust and ashes, and bemoan our fate. It is easy to lapse into just how bad and difficult things are, how hard life is, and linger in the rose-colored images of yesteryear when things were better, easier, happier, free-er. It is easy to define ourselves by all of the bad things that have happened. Whether in the terms of our national catastrophes or in personal mayhem like death, divorce, job loss, and home foreclosure, the unending news cycles have trained us well to focus only on the bad and evil things in life rather than any of the good that might transpire.
Last week we finished a series of messages on worship. For the next 15 or so weeks, I want us to focus on who we are. We will be considering who we are as individuals, who we are as Christians, and who we are as a body of believers in the particular church faith community called Monte Vista. To do so, we will be walking through Paul’s letter to the church at Ephesus. Ephesians is a masterful work that celebrates all that we are. So as we consider this “we are” series, we see that Paul begins at a point that we desperately need to hear at the end of this long, rough decade.
This is what Paul tells the Ephesians, and this is what God, through Paul’s words, tells us who, like those Ephesians to whom Paul wrote, are faithful saints and faithful believers in Christ Jesus. Paul tells them and all of us: we are blessed.
Today, as the tenth anniversary of the September 11th attacks, might seem like an awkward time to talk about being blessed. Our minds are elsewhere. We do not have cable and rarely turn on the TV, but I did sit at our computer and watch a replay of CNN’s coverage from that fateful day last night. Media makes it hard to escape recollection of those terrifying days and hours. We are wont to linger there. To once again mourn those who were lost. To mourn our own innocence as a people and nation, also lost to the billows of smoke and flame that rose from three different parts of our country. To say we are blessed in the middle of this seems anachronistic – untimely, out of place. How could we dare remember those events and call ourselves blessed at the same time?
But it is precisely this moment when I think we most need to remember that we are, in fact, blessed. Paul wrote to the Ephesians while under house arrest in Rome. He would not leave that city alive. He was to never again be a free man. As far as we know, he never made it, as was his desire, to Spain, where he aimed to head. In 2 Corinthians 11, Paul recounts many of the trials and tribulations that he faced over the course of his ministry for the sake of Christ. Listen to his recount, starting in verse 24:
24 Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; 26 on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; 27 in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. 28 And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches.
We have September 11, which has not physically scratched one of us. Paul had all of these things that had happened to him as he faced the Roman Emperor who would determine whether he lived or died. It was from these experiences that Paul wrote Ephesians 1 while sitting under arrest. And it was with these things in mind that Paul could write, “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.” Yes, even on the very tenth anniversary of those terrorist attacks, it is vital that we, like Paul, remind ourselves that we are a blessed people.
In the first fourteen verses of his letter, Paul mentions five different ways in which we are a blessed people. Let’s look at each of these in succession.
I just read verse 3 in the context of Paul’s expression of being blessed. He goes on in verse 4 to say, “even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him.” We are blessed, first of all, because we are chosen. There are endless debates in Christian circles about what it means to have been chosen by God before the foundation of the world. Without getting into the confusing debate of election or free will, or in theological terms, Calvinism versus Arminianism, I want to simply say this. We are blessed because we are chosen.
Before he spoke the words, “Let there be light,” to begin the six days of creation, God had already decided – he had already chosen – to love his people. He created because he had already chosen to love what he was going to create. We are blessed because God loves us. Because God chose to love us. He was already perfect in and of himself. He has no need of us. But he has chosen to love us. We are loved. Someone chose us.
That is a blessing indeed. But far and above that, it is not that we are loved by just anybody. We are loved by God. We are loved by the Lord of all lords and the King over all kings. We are loved by the creator, sustainer, and redeemer of all things. We have been chosen as imminently and completely lovable. God has chosen to love us to a degree worthy of death. To a degree worthy of the death of His only begotten Son. To a degree worthy of the death of his only begotten Son by the worst form of death possible. God has chosen to love us this much. God loved us this much before we were around to love in return. He loves us this much even if we never reciprocate that love to him in any way. We are blessed because God has chosen to love us. We are blessed because we have been chosen from before the foundation of the world.
Paul goes on. Verse 5, “In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will.” Not only did God choose to love us before he even started creation, God also planned to adopt us as his children. Now, not all of us are going to be adopted. There is a Hell, it is very real, and it is very permanent. A lot of people are going to wind up there and miss out all all of the wonderful glory of being in the presence of God in heaven for all of eternity.
In verse 5’s “predestined,” we are not required to automatically read, “In love he double predestined – some for adoption and some for hell.” Rather, those whom God had already chosen to love, and who also chose to love God in return, these he determined to make his children, sons and daughters. And this determination to make them children came, once again, before the foundation of the world. God created in order to have a people he loved and to have those people love him back. And those who loved him back, he predetermined to make his children.
This does not mean that he decided which ones would love him back. That would not be love. But it means that we who do love God as he loves us were already declared to be his sons and daughters – we were predestined for that privilege. We who believe are God’s adopted children! We are not just loved; we have been made part of the family. We have been welcomed into the inner sanctum. We are children of God! We who believe in Christ, we who are sanctified by His blood, we who are faithful to follow and obey, we are adopted! That, too, is a blessing indeed.
We are blessed because we have been chosen to be loved. We are blessed because we have been adopted as children by God. Paul is not even halfway done. Hear again verses 6-10:
6 to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed 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 which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight 9 making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ 10 as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.
There are many things here with which we are blessed: redemption, the blood of Christ, forgiveness of sins, wisdom, revelation of mystery, a plan of which we are a part. All of these are blessings, but I also think they can all be summed up by the phrase at the end of verse 7: “the riches of his grace.” We are blessed because we are recipients of God’s grace.
“Amazing Grace,” John Newton wrote. “How sweet the sound! That saved a wretch like me! I once was lost, but now I’m found. Was blind, but now I see. Twas grace that taught my heart to fear and grace my fears relieve. How precious did that grace appear the hour I first believed.” It is grace, grace, all grace. For we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. We have all sinned and owe the wages of death. But God’s rich grace overshadows those things. God’s grace pours over us and lifts us from our despair. We are blessed because God is a gracious God. We are blessed because God is gracious to us. To you. To me. Whatever horrors we see or face, whatever joys we exult in, nothing compares with the grace of God with which we are richly blessed.
And Paul is still not done. Verse 11: “11 In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, 12 so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory.” Remember, Paul already mentioned how we are blessed because we are adopted. Adoption has its benefits. Under Roman law, an adopted child had the same rights and privileges as a natural born child. This is the context in which Paul spoke. What do all children have? An inheritance. We are adopted, and because we are now children of God, we have an inheritance.
Just what kind of inheritance does God have to give to us? His very kingdom. Christ is the King, but we all who are in Christ inherit it together with him. What is more, in verse 14, Paul speaks of what God has done in order to guarantee this inheritance for those of us who are found to be faithful in Christ, who love God back in the same way that he loves us. We are blessed because, even those of us who have nothing to our names in this life, we all have an inheritance that is guaranteed for us. And that inheritance is no less than the very kingdom of God.
Paul has yet one more thing before he is finished. Verses 13 and 14, “13 In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, 14 who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.” We are blessed because we have been sealed by the Holy Spirit. We are redeemed, cleansed, protected, and secured. We have been forever claimed and marked as belonging fully and completely to God. We possess God’s royal seal in the person of the Holy Spirit, poured out on us upon our salvation in Christ.
We are blessed indeed. We are indeed blessed. Paul reminded the Ephesians of this truth – this fact. And it is something that we need to be reminded of today, especially this particular day when so much of it will be caught up in remembering, reminding, and reliving. Do not be caught up in fear. You are blessed! Do not pity yourself. You are blessed! Beyond measure or compare, God has claimed you, redeemed you, and blessed you, if indeed you have believed and trusted him.
For these blessings are available to everyone, but they are not given to everyone. Not everyone is chosen. Not everyone is adopted. Not everyone experiences God’s grace. Not everyone has a heavenly inheritance. Not everyone has been sealed by the Holy Spirit. What about you? Have you surrendered to God’s greatest desires for you yet, or are you still waiting to see what the world has to offer? All that the world offers is more 9/11s, and worse than that. God offers blessings, abundant and free.
Believe in the name of the Lord, Jesus Christ, and you will be saved. You will be blessed.