In Part One of our “brief history,” God created us. Male and female, with certain responsibilities to carry out together. In Part Two, we responded . . . by messing up. We reviewed the fact that all human beings, from the very beginning, stray from that which God intends for us. In Part Three, God responded – by reaching out, through Jesus Christ, so that human beings might be reconciled to God in spite of their sin. This did not happen because we deserve it, or because God owes us, but because God loves us and chooses to act on our behalf. Now in Part Four of our series, it’s our turn to respond again: how shall we respond to the love God has shown to us?
This notion of “response” is central to the Protestant understanding of Christianity: We cannot earn our salvation; we cannot climb up and find God, because we always sin and sin drags us back away from God – we cannot reach God by our efforts alone. Theologian Karl Barth used the image of a great canyon separating us from God, and our arms and legs are too short for us to reach or jump across. But God is bigger – God can reach over, or jump over; God can make possible our being together – and God does.
The fact that the initiative must be with God does not mean there is no human responsibility at all in this relationship, however. After God acts, there are right ways for us to respond, and wrong ways to respond, just as there are in human relationships. If we do something nice to help out a person, we don’t expect them to turn around and hurt us in return. If somebody helps us, does us a favor, does something nice, especially at a great cost to themselves, we try to respond in kind – we try to express our gratitude, we try to help them when the opportunity arises, we try to show them the same love or kindness they have shown us. And so it is in our relationship with God.
God has shown us great love in sending Jesus to repair the wrongs we have committed, in saving us from a future without God and without eternal life, and there are appropriate ways to respond to that love, and there are inappropriate ways to respond. While we can’t earn salvation, we can at least respond in the right way to having been saved.
Our two Scripture readings today are a sample of the many in the Bible which describe for us the right way to respond and the wrong way to respond. The right way comes from the Ephesians reading, from which we can draw a list; the wrong way is demonstrated by the Pharisees in John 9, and almost exactly contradicts what we find in the list. From Ephesians 5, then, the right way to respond to God:
First: “You were darkness once, but now you are light in the Lord; behave as children of light.” Behave as children of light. In our gospel story, Jesus brought light to a man who had experienced nothing but darkness. The whole episode is an illustration of what Jesus has just said in John 8: “I am the light of the world.” If Jesus is the light, one thing this phrase “behave as children of light” means is “act in accordance with the light of the world,” with Jesus. To be children of light, do that which the light has taught us to do.
The specifics of that, of course, are something it can take a lifetime to work out – it’s one reason we study our Bibles, we pray, we come to church: to learn what it is we ought to do. There are many situations in which there’s no easy answer, many issues we’re still working on to try to figure out how Jesus would have us act. But there are other situations in which we do know right from wrong, when we have a pretty clear choice between what Jesus, the light, would have us do and what he would not. And for those cases where it is clear what’s right and what’s wrong, choose the right.
Pharisees are not always the bad guys they’re usually cracked up to be. All that “Pharisee” means is “religious official,” and there were good Pharisees and bad Pharisees, just as there are good politicians and bad politicians. Paul was a Pharisee. Nicodemus, who sincerely sought to learn who Jesus was, was a Pharisee.
Even in this story, we’re told the Pharisees were divided, some in Jesus’ favor and some against. For many of them, Jesus presented one of those difficult situations, where right and wrong are not clear. But there is one example in the story of some of the bad Pharisees choosing that which they must have known was wrong, and that is when they hurled abuse at the man who had just been healed. Regardless of what they believed about Jesus, it was wrong to be teaming up and berating this poor, formerly blind, uneducated man. Even in the midst of major uncertainties, there are little matters of clear right and wrong, and we can choose the right; we can behave as children of light.
I’m going to invite you now to take a moment and think to yourself of an example, a time when you had a clear choice between doing what was right and doing what was wrong. It doesn’t matter now which you chose. Think of a time when you had a clear choice, reflect on what you did, and how it felt. If you like, say a silent prayer thanking God for helping you to choose right or asking forgiveness for having done that which was wrong. Think of a time when you had a clear opportunity to behave as a child of light.
Second on the list: from Ephesians 5 verse 10 – “Try to discover what the Lord wants of you.” We’ve already mentioned that there are times when the choice between right and wrong is not clear. When we don’t know right off the bat which side God would have us come down on. There are many complicated issues in this world. This verse tells us that part of the correct response to God is working on those difficult issues: Try to discover what the Lord wants of you. This may be the one area where the bad Pharisees were most negligent, for it seems that when it came to Jesus of Nazareth, quite a few of them had their minds made up from the beginning and absolutely would not be open to the possibility that he really was sent by God. They claimed to already know all they needed to know. They didn’t have to listen to Jesus; they didn’t have to ask God if Jesus was really something special.
On this issue, they did not try to discover what the Lord wanted of them. They refused. That is why Jesus addresses them at the end of chapter 9: “If you were blind you would not be guilty but since you say, ‘we can see,’ your guilt remains.” By saying ‘we already know, we already see what’s right and you can’t convince us otherwise,’ they blocked any chance of coming around to see who Jesus really was. Their closed minds kept them away. On an important and complicated issue, they neglected to try to discover what God wanted of them.
For the next couple moments, think about a complicated question or issue that faces you now, one that doesn’t have an obvious right answer. It might be a personal decision you have to make, or it might be a very publicly-discussed issue, like abortion or capital punishment or immigration. Think about it a minute, and then, silently, ask God for guidance. Try to discover what the Lord wants of you.
Three: From Ephesians 5, verse 11, “take no part in the futile works of darkness but, on the contrary, show them up for what they are.” In one episode of the original “Star Trek” TV series, there are creatures who attach themselves like a parasite to human beings in order to live. Unfortunately, their presence makes the person die, so the Star Trek crew has to find a way to get rid of these creatures, who have taken over one whole planet and are about to move on to the next. The solution they finally come up with, at the last possible second of course, is light. Shining a bright light on the creatures makes them shrivel up and die – sort of like water on the Wicked Witch of the West.
And that image – somehow – came to me as I looked at Paul’s advice here on how to respond to the works of darkness, to evil acts. Turn a light on them. Reveal them. “Show them up for what they are,” he writes. And often they’ll shrivel up and die. Much of what people do wrong, they know is wrong, and they would be embarrassed if other people knew about it, and would probably stop.
Do you remember, those of you who are old enough, the days of apartheid and segregation in South Africa, and how that system was broken up? Much of it had to do with the vast amount of publicity, showing the rest of the world. What are the chances there would have been as much or as rapid progress, if the rest of the world hadn’t known about the practices? Turn a light on those acts of darkness—point them out. It’s the only weapon Amnesty International, for example, has, to try to stop human rights violations—and look at how many successes they’ve had. Call attention to those acts of darkness, and many of them will stop.
Now sometimes that takes courage. When this country was having its own civil rights struggles trying to attain equal rights for African-Americans, one famous incident, documented in a couple well-known movies, was the killing of three young men who called attention to the racist practices in Mississippi. Many of those practices are gone now, but the young men lost their lives. So it isn’t always safe or comfortable to point out works of darkness. But part 3 of an appropriate response to God’s goodness to us is just that: call attention to the wrong practices of this world, as a first step toward ending them.
Search your memory now and see if you can think of a time you knew about something wrong that was happening or going to happen. What would have happened if you had called attention to it, pointed it out to the world? If you did, what was the effect? Think a moment about what shining a light on an act of injustice, a work of darkness, might accomplish.
Part four of our response: Ephesians 5:19: “Sing psalms and hymns and inspired songs among yourselves, singing and chanting to the Lord.” What’s one thing we often do when someone does something extraordinarily nice for us? We give them credit; we praise them to other people. “Did you hear what so-and-so did for me? Isn’t that great? Can you believe how nice they are?” Well, why not do the same with God? God has done great things for us, and is willing to do them for other people too. Why keep it a secret? Why not give God the praise and credit?
The Pharisees didn’t. In John 9, our Pharisees do just the opposite; they try to shut up the man who wants to give Jesus credit for healing him. They try to prove that he wasn’t really born blind, so that they won’t have to give Jesus any credit. Hardly an appropriate response to a great act of compassion for one of their neighbors. Step four of an appropriate response is to give God credit for having done something for you. Think of a time God helped you. And then think about telling someone about it, following today’s service.
And part five of and appropriate response, from verse 20: “always and everywhere giving thanks to God.” Once again, some common sense and common courtesy – if somebody does something for us, what do we say to them? Thank you.
So why not say the same to God? God has sent Jesus to teach us, heal us, feed us, make up for our sins so that we might enjoy God’s presence once again. The Pharisees of John 9 didn’t recognize this; their bad manners would not permit them to praise God or thank God for Jesus’ presence among them. But we can thank God, as part of our response, every day, for what has been accomplished on our behalf. As the one healed leper out of ten returned to Jesus to give thanks, let us be a people of gratitude for what God has done. Let us each say a silent prayer of thanks right now.
Jesus, the light of the world, came so that the sins we do commit can be forgiven by God. The least we can do is try to respond by living as children of light:
(1) Behave as children of light, choosing right instead of wrong when the right thing is obvious.
(2) Try to discover what the Lord wants of you in those situations when the answer isn’t obvious.
(3) Take no part in the works of darkness, but show them up for what they are.
(4) Sing psalms and hymns and inspired songs of praise, giving credit to God.
(5) And always and everywhere, give thanks to God.
After what God has done and continues to do for us, can we do any less?
Let’s pray: God, we thank you again, as we did last Sunday, for your grace, through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Help us to respond well, in gratitude, living the lives you would have us live. Amen.