“Between Two Worlds”
March 22, 2009 - Fourth Sunday of Lent
They were taken from a lean-to made out of tarps and blankets and from a pink shack that sits right next to a sewer. They were put on a plane and flown to the most glittering city on earth. The world last month watched as the child actors from “Slum Dog Millionaire” walked arm-in-arm down the red carpet of the Academy Awards and then as they climbed onto the stage when their film received the best picture Oscar.
For 9-year-old Rubina and 10-year-old Azharuddin, especially, it was an incredible journey from the slums of Mumbai to the lights of Hollywood and the rides of Disneyland. As their celebrated performances catapulted them into global fame, their lives were changed forever.
The change described in our text for believers in Christ is a bit like those slum kids’ journey to California. Verse 1 says, “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live…” Then in verse 4, Paul writes “But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ…” and goes on in verse 6 to say, “And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus.” Paul is painting a picture of a transition from death to life as fantastic as the plane ride from Mumbai to Los Angeles. In Jesus, we were raised out of a hopeless situation of sin and into a heavenly situation of glory, like poor children raised out of the darkness of India’s slums into a few moments of glory in the spotlights.
However, there are differences between our spiritual hopelessness and the physical poverty of the Mumbai slums and of slums anywhere. The main difference is that our spiritual condition is mostly our own fault. Paul says at the end of verse 3 that we were “by nature deserving of wrath.” That’s because we were “gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts.” In sin we are doing what we want. We are choosing the course that leads us into hopelessness and despair. Rubina and Azharuddin made no such choice. They were born into their destitution. You and I slowly and steadily sinned our way into it.
We are not so much like children growing up in squalor as we are like gamblers or drinkers or careless financial executives, deliberately, foolishly, inexorably digging ourselves into a spiritual pit, out of which we find ourselves unable to climb. By following our own desires and making our own disobedient choices, we arrived in this condition of being dead in transgressions and sins.
We may, perhaps, be even more like the children and young people who still today find themselves caught in a kind of slavery. Paul in verse 2 says we “followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air.” Like a young girl climbing into a car with a man who promises her money and clothes, we have believed and gone after the deceptive lures of the one Paul calls “the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient.” We climbed into Satan’s big, black limousine and have been taken for a ride that can only end in hell. Utilizing our own sinful desires, the devil has become our pimp and we can find no way on our own to escape him.
You can see our slavery in sin beginning with a naïve boy accepting a first cigarette or a first drink or first look at a pornographic web site. It’s there in a young girl giving into sex so that someone will like her, or engaging in mean gossip in order to feel better about herself, or copying a friend’s homework so she can spend time texting. We give into our own desires and soon begin to find that those desires now control us.
Like the children of Israel who brought the poisonous snakes on themselves by their rebellion against God and Moses, we bring a huge amount of our own pain and troubles on ourselves by simply choosing to do what we want rather than what God wants. As we read in John 3:19, we “loved darkness rather than light.”
It’s easy to be outraged over the greed of those AIG executives who took taxpayer money in the form of huge bonuses for their own incompetence. But just a little self-reflection reveals that each of us, in our own way, has been just as guilty of acts of greed, or of selfishness, or of hatred, or of deception. The absolutely awesome message of the rest of our text today is that God knows all that, knows about our slavery to sin and Satan, knows about our evil desires and selfishness, knows about our total incompetence to manage our own lives. He knows all that, and God still offers us the biggest bailout the world has ever seen.
We heard the beloved text from John 3:16 that tells of God’s bailout, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son…” Here in our text, verses 4 and 5, we read, “But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions…” God’s economy causes Him to bail us out of our sin and death, because God deals in an economy of love. And in His economic framework, God is rich enough to make us all rich.
So at the end of verse 5, we get the first statement of a truth Paul is going to repeat, “it is by grace you have been saved.” God has not bailed us out because we deserve it. The bonus of salvation has not been paid on the basis of competence. As the apostle will go on to say, it’s “not by works” that we have received anything from God. It’s all grace, grace as pure and magical and undeserved as a journey from filthy streets to a luxurious red carpet.
Verse 6 tells us how God bailed us out, how God brought us on our own incredible journey to salvation. “And God raised us up with Christ…” That’s almost enough to get the whole story of the Gospel. Christ died and rose from the dead, and when He rose, we rose with Him. Like Danny Boyle bringing those Indian children with him to the Oscars, Jesus brings us along with Him on His ride to glory.
We normally think in terms that Jesus was raised from the dead, but that you and I are still waiting for our own resurrection. But here Paul tells us that in some mysterious way, it’s already happened. We are already raised “with Christ and seated with him in the heavenly realms…” We’re there, already lifted out of the miserable poverty of sin and death into what verse 7 calls, “the incomparable riches of his grace.” We’re already there. But we’re not, are we?
You and I have been saved and raised and lifted into glory with Jesus, yet we are a whole lot like that little boy and girl who stood before the cameras for a little while. We’ve arrived, but not quite. From all the wonder and comfort and excitement of Hollywood, Azharuddin and Rubina have now gone back to live in the slums again. And we who have received the grace of Christ still live in a world of sin and death. Like those kids, we are between two worlds, saved by Christ into God’s kingdom, yet still in and wanting to be free of Satan’s kingdom.
Danny Boyle and the makers of “Slum Dog Millionaire” have promised these children a better future, improved education and housing. But they haven’t seen much of it yet. To this point they haven’t received much more than ordinary slum wages for their thirty days of work on the film. One of the children’s father says the money is already gone. Trust funds await them after they complete grade school at age 16, but it’s several years away. A rickshaw has supposedly been hired to take them to school every day and the Indian government is supposed to be providing better housing, but it’s not clear if any of it has actually happened yet. It’s reported that Azharuddin suffered a beating from his father just a week after arriving home because he did not want to talk to the media anymore.
Our experience of salvation and God’s kingdom is both now and not yet. Just as those poor kids experienced a moment of glory that was now and then a promise of benefits yet to come, you and I live between two worlds in a now but not yet experience of new life in Jesus Christ.
Still, as we live between these two worlds—God’s new world of life in Christ and the old world of sin and death—Paul wants us to be absolutely clear and sure about our status. That’s why he repeats in verse 8, “For it is by grace you have been saved.” We are not relying on ourselves. We are not being left to our own efforts and devices. Our salvation in Christ is pure gift, pure grace. We can count on it completely.
Rubina and Azharuddin may not have much confidence in their material future. It’s already unclear if the promises made to them will be made good. Even if they do receive better housing and rides to school, they will need to make the most of those opportunities—keep their homes clean, study hard. Between now and when their trust funds mature, they could go wrong in many ways. And when they do receive more money, they could easily waste it. Their future depends very much on their own efforts over the next few years,
The awesome blessing we enjoy as Christians is that ultimately our hope for a place in God’s kingdom does not rely only on ourselves. “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.” Not from ourselves. Not by works. It is the gift of God.
Our English sentence structure and grammar is a bit misleading here. It’s easy to read this as if Paul is saying that we are saved by grace, through faith, and that even faith itself is a gift from God. That may be true, but the Greek grammar shows that it’s not faith about which Paul says, “and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.” It’s the whole deal, the complete fact of our salvation, our total journey from death to life, from Satan’s kingdom to God’s kingdom. It totally doesn’t come from us. It’s all God’s gift.
You and I are waiting for God to fulfill His promises, and that is a hope upon which we may count. His kindness came to us in Jesus Christ and not by our own performance. Whether we handle it well or not, the grace of Jesus will save us. We are secure. Yet we still have a responsibility.
Our security in grace does not mean our work does not matter. Those children from the slums may get new opportunities to act, to work in films. Despite what they are assured for the future, their present situation will only be that much brighter and happier if they accept those opportunities and perform well.
Happiness and joy in our time between two worlds depends very much on realizing what Paul concludes in verse 10, “For we are God’s handiwork created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” Like the opportunities that lucky little girl and boy from India may receive, we are given opportunities to live out the blessing of grace we have received. It’s in good works, it’s in performing like God meant us to, that we make the most of grace. As Paul makes so clear here, God gave us grace for the very purpose that we would do His good works.
One way to begin putting the grace we enjoy to good work is by not letting our attention to a couple children from Mumbai simply be a spiritual metaphor for us. I’m painfully aware that as I talk about their story, I may be as guilty as any movie producer of simply exploiting those kids for my own purposes, even if that purpose is preaching the Gospel. But I know that part of the Gospel is that Jesus died and rose in order to offer grace to every boy and girl on earth. And you and I have been given the grace of an opportunity to share the love of God in Jesus Christ with such children.
We’re sharing God’s love this coming week with the children who will have a place to stay as the Family Shelter utilizes our building. Your offerings are providing space and heat and light for those kids. Next month those same gifts will mean sharing a classroom and our presently unused nursery with a group of Hispanic young mothers receiving parenting classes offered by Birth to 3. Today you might make a donation to the Gideons so that children might be handed a copy of the Scriptures after school and read about the grace of Jesus for themselves.
Yet I would ask us to be even more thoughtful today as we remember and thank our God for the matchless grace of Jesus. There are millions of children like Rubina and Azharuddin. We can reach some of them through Covenant World Relief, some through the clothes closet run by Don and Gail, some through our own individual gifts to various charities. Yet I believe God has planned even more for us. I believe there are still good works we haven’t thought of that God has prepared in advance for us to do.
So I would ask us to go away thinking about how you and I might share the grace of God with others, especially with children. Right now we don’t have very many children here in our midst as a church family. What good work might we do to change that? How could we reach out to the little ones who are waiting for a part in the story Jesus is filming? How can you and I offer the children God loves a ticket into His kingdom? Is it a Vacation Bible School? An after-school program? A mission to someplace like India or Russia or Alaska, where children are poor and hungry? I honestly don’t know. I’m just tossing out ideas, hopes, dreams, because I believe in the matchless grace of Jesus.
I believe the grace of Jesus is amazingly powerful. I believe it because it saved the wretched little boy I once was. And that makes me believe God’s grace can do more than I will ever hope or dream. I’d just like to be a part of the good work His grace is doing, saving you and me, saving men and women everywhere, saving children. Would you please join me in our Lord’s work of grace?
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2009 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj