August 16, 2009 - Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
“When you get in trouble and don’t know right from wrong, give a little whistle!” That’s what Jiminy Cricket sang to Pinocchio, giving the wooden puppet who wanted to be a real boy advice on how to live and get in touch with his conscience. I know this because it appeared in an ethics paper my wife was grading. Beth showed it to me, absolutely flabbergasted that anyone would quote a Jiminy Cricket song in a serious essay for her philosophy class. What a bunch of fluff!
Here in our text, as Paul is delivering the ethical, practical part of his essay to the Christians in Ephesus, advising them to live wisely and in God’s will, he suddenly tells them in verse 19 to sing a few little songs. It might sound all right to those of you who have melody in your souls and rhythm in your bones. But to those of us who are less than musically inclined it feels a little superficial. O.K., sure, hymns and praise songs are nice, but what’s singing got to do with practical Christian life? Jiminy Cricket is not going to show up to help me resist temptation, and just humming a little spiritual tune will probably not make me a better husband, father, pastor and friend. Isn’t this just fluff?
Yet, for Paul, spiritual song is a key part of careful living, of living well and wisely in the service of God. It’s connected with the great wisdom tradition of the Bible, which we heard expressed this morning in a song from Proverbs 9. There Wisdom herself, personified, is singing an invitation to come and dine with her on good food and healthy drink, learning to walk in the world with understanding and insight. In the first verse of our text, Paul picks up on that great biblical theme as he warns us to, “Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise.”
Being careful for us today mostly means staying safe. As we resume her driving lessons, we repeatedly tell our daughter Joanna that we want her to be a careful driver. Buckle the seat belt, check the mirrors, watch the road, look ahead, drive the speed limit, and on and on and on. Be careful.
Paul asked us to be careful about how we live, yet he wasn’t all that concerned about our physical safety. Verse 16 calls for “making the most of the time, because the days are evil.” But Paul was not worried about the evil of car crashes or home burglaries or kidnappings that threaten property and persons. The ancient world was even more dangerous than ours and most people had less resources to take precautions. That’s not the concern here. Paul wants us to be careful about the danger of losing our souls to a world that does not have time for God.
Making the most of the time is not about safety measures, nor is it about a kind of Protestant work ethic which says that we are to be diligent to make good use of every minute to be productive members of society. The words here literally mean “redeem the time,” “buy it back,” from the evil uses to which it’s been put. And that doesn’t mean working every possible minute. As I’ve already said, it could mean singing.
The point here is carried forward in verse 17, “So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.” We’re not to waste time in foolishness, but we also need to understand what God really wants from us, what His will is. Work is only part of His will for us, maybe a small part. What our Lord wants even more than our effort and sweat is that we praise and enjoy Him. One thing the Westminster Catechism gets absolutely right is its opening declaration that the chief purpose of human beings is “to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.”
It’s in that spirit, of not wasting any time we might have for glorifying and enjoying God, that Paul gives us the admonition of verse 18, “Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit.”
There are all sorts of good, practical reasons not to get drunk. You know how dangerous it is for driving. It can affect your ability to be on-time and efficient in your work. The psychological changes of drunkenness strain and destroy relationships between family members and friends. And it’s bad for your physical health, damaging your liver and your body in all sorts of ways. Yet none of that is Paul’s concern.
Lots of Bible commentators have tried to figure out if there was a specific contemporary situation behind Paul’s reference to drunkenness. Was it a particular problem in Ephesus? Was it that Christians were getting drunk at Communion as in I Corinthians 11? Was it that he wanted Christian gatherings to be different from the pagan symposia or bacchanalia where non-Christians drank and partied heavily. But the best answer seems to be that, for Paul, drunkenness was simply an example of how a person can be careless and wasteful with time that would be better-spent honoring and appreciating God.
Paul is worried that we will foolishly waste our time on pursuits, like drinking, that will not at all fulfill the desires of our hearts. He wants us to be filled up completely, with a satisfaction that reaches to the depths of who God created us to be. As C. S. Lewis wrote, “We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
Being filled with the Spirit is not like some charismatic Christians think, a sort of alternative “drunkenness” where you lose control and get crazy under the influence of the Lord instead of alcohol. No, it’s a careful, wise way of living that means to enjoy that which really satisfies, that which truly makes you happy, that which actually can fill up your heart and soul to overflowing.
Paul wants us to avoid being distracted from the really satisfying joy that can be found in God by activities and pleasures which are so much less. You may have heard that India’s health minister seriously proposed that they deal with overpopulation by making sure electricity is available in every village in the country. That way people will watch television until late at night instead of making babies. It sounds ridiculous, but that’s exactly how our evil world tempts us, by distracting us from greater joy by giving us lesser pleasures, false intimacies, foolish entertainments.
Careful living is not so much being constantly on guard for the dangers which threaten us spiritually. It’s living in a way that focuses our energy and passion and time on the things which make for true life. That’s why you and I spend the time to be here in worship on Sundays and in prayer and Bible study and devotion throughout the week. It’s why we come together to sing, pray, listen to the Word and share in the Lord’s Table.
Wisdom invites us to her bountiful table and good wine in Proverbs 9. If you read on in that chapter you find her warning against eating at Folly’s house, the table of foolishness, the table of stolen drink and delicacies consumed in secret. Then in John 6 we hear Jesus telling us to eat His body and drink His blood. “My flesh,” He says, “is real food and my blood is real drink.” His meal is true wisdom.
Living wisely in our times has largely devolved to taking care of your health. You are wise if you avoid red meat, eat lots of whole grains and vegetables, drink alcohol only in moderation, and exercise for twenty minutes three times a week. There is a connection between wisdom and what and how you eat and drink, but our texts are telling us that real food, real drink is to be found in the worship and enjoyment of God. Anything else is phony joy, artificial food. Real sustenance is being filled with the Spirit.
So you are not wasting your time by being in worship this morning. What we do here, what you do when you pause in the day to speak to God or remember a verse from Scripture, is not a break from real life. It is real life. It’s what we were made for, to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. The real food is at the Lord’s Table. Careful living is to eat often and fully of the meal that He provides in Himself.
That’s why singing to God is not fluff and not superficial. Singing when we worship together, or whenever you sing to the Lord, is not just entertainment to warm you up for the real business of the service, whether that’s the sermon or Holy Communion. No, the songs we sing together are an essential part of being nourished in Christ. They are true life. They are careful living.
Verse 19 invites us to “sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts.” In verse 14, just before our text, Paul quoted an early Christian praise song as he talked about not living in darkness but in the light of Christ:
Rise from the dead,
And Christ will shine on you.
Our songs don’t just make us feel good. They teach us. They help us redeem the time by doing something beautiful and worthy with those minutes. They nourish us. It’s wise to sing together. It’s real living.
There is no way to know exactly what Paul meant by the three different words translated here, “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.” He may have had in mind Old Testament psalms, then newer Christian hymns like the one we just quoted, and then spontaneous singing in the Spirit. But we can’t be sure. What we can see is that there was a variety in church music from the very beginning. The very first Christians sang different kinds of songs. So it’s good that we do too. Hymns and praise songs. Words from Scripture, great poetry and simple one-line repetitions. Classical music and contemporary choruses and modern rhythms. It’s all good. It’s all a way to redeem the time and make it holy by offering it up in praise to God.
Ultimately, what worship and singing together and in our own hearts teaches us is that wise, careful living comes down to where our text ends in verse 20, “giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” One of the things I’m trying to learn as I get older is that you can’t be too thankful. The wise way to live is to give thanks often and well.
Yes it’s difficult to do what Paul calls for here and give thanks “at all times and for everything.” But that’s what our faith ultimately means. We are created by God. We are saved by His Son Jesus Christ. We are sustained by His Holy Spirit. Everything about us, from beginning to end, is His gift, His grace. If our lives have any meaning it all, it’s to be thankful, to glorify and enjoy God by thanking Him for His goodness in all that comes our way.
Give thanks, we’re told, “in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” It’s in and through Jesus that we are fed the real food. It’s in and through Jesus that our foolish living is forgiven and we are set on the path of wisdom. It’s in and through Jesus that our time is redeemed and made worthwhile instead of a waste. It’s in and through Jesus that we receive real joy rather than all the world’s fake and temporary pleasures. So to be a Christian is all about learning to give thanks.
After the service our daughter Joanna will show you pictures of some of the expressions of thanks written by the children she taught last month. Part of leading them a little closer to faith in Christ was giving them an opportunity to be thankful. Thankfulness leads us all closer to Jesus. We’re going to spend some time now singing thankfully. It’s careful. It’s wise. It’s real life. Come and redeem the time with me.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2009 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj