Sermon: “God’s Never-ending Resolution” January 3, 2016)

Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“God’s Never-ending Resolution” (Ephesians 1:5-8)
January 3, 2016
Dave Johnson

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

As you know the beginning of a new year is often accompanied by New Year’s resolutions—perhaps the most common being to lose weight. Last year one of my favorite comedians, Brian Regan, did a televised stand-up comedy special at Radio City Music Hall in which he commented on overeating:

I heard a nutritionist on the radio say something like you should eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper—but I think I wrote it down wrong, because I eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a hippopotamus, dinner like an 800-pound gorilla, and a midnight snack like a twenty-five ton humpback whale (Live from Radio City Music Hall 2015).

Other common New Year’s resolutions often include efforts to quit smoking, eliminate credit card debt, learn a new skill, spend more time with family and friends, or exercise more. All you have to do is resolve to do it—as Shia Lebeouf shouts in the beginning of his brief viral motivational video:

Do it! Just do it! Don’t let your dreams be dreams. Yesterday, you said tomorrow, so just do it! Make your dreams come true! Just do it! Some people dream of success…you’re gonna wake up and work hard at it. Nothing is impossible. You should get to the point where anyone else would quit, and you’re not gonna stop there. No. What are you waiting for? Do it! Just do it!

Some people can indeed “just do it” and succeed in their New Year’s resolutions. But by mid to late February many others have given up on their New Year’s resolutions or perhaps begun trading them in for Lenten disciplines instead.

But while we may fail to keep our New Year’s resolutions, we serve a God who always keeps his resolutions—his never-ending resolution to give you grace. In today’s passage from his Letter to the Ephesians the Apostle Paul puts it this way:

(God) destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us (Ephesians 1:5-8).

Paul writes here of God’s resolution to give us grace—all the time, each and every year, each and every day, each and every hour, each and every minute, each and every second—no matter what. Paul tells us that God’s grace for us is “glorious grace…freely bestowed,” that we have (present tense) “redemption through (Jesus’) blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses” because of “the riches of his grace that he lavished on us.”

In shedding his blood on the cross, Jesus has redeemed us.

In his scholarly study The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross (1955) the late biblical scholar Leon Morris describes Jesus’ redeeming work on the cross this way:

This is likened to a slavery, a captivity which man cannot himself break, so that redemption represents the intervention of an outside Person who pays the price which man cannot pay…It is a basic tenet of biblical theology that man is completely unable to grapple with the position created by the fact of his sin…When the New Testament speaks of redemption…it means that Christ has paid the price of our redemption (61).

Almost twenty years ago I experienced something firsthand that showed me what redemption, someone else paying a price on my behalf, looks like. In the summer of 1996 my wife Steph and I flew from Wyoming to South Carolina where I was interviewed for a youth minister job at a large Episcopal parish. In Wyoming we lived in Sheridan, a small town that was over a hundred miles from the nearest Christian bookstore—you could drive south to Casper, Wyoming or north to Billings, Montana, your choice. Since this was in the days before Amazon, shopping for books and music where we lived was a real challenge. So while we were in South Carolina, the rector of the church where we were interviewing kindly took us to a large Christian bookstore. I remember walking into the store—shelves and shelves of books and music. I was like a little kid in a candy shop.

I gathered a stack of books and a stack of CD’s and went to the counter. After the cashier rang them all up I pulled out my wallet and she shook her head and smiled, “It’s already been paid for.” “What do you mean?” I asked. She picked up the two bags full of books and CD’s, “All of it,” she replied, “It’s all paid for. You don’t owe anything.” Being a little slow on the uptake I finally realized the rector had already paid for all of it.

I felt bad because I had gathered a lot of books and a lot of CD’s, a stack of each. I offered to put some back but she smiled again, “He told me you might do that, but again, they’re already paid for.” “Well can I at least pay for some of them?” I asked. “Really?” the cashier asked as she handed me the bags full of books and CD’s for which I had not paid one penny. “Have a great day!” she said. I thanked the rector of that church profusely for his generosity, and needless to say, when he offered me the youth ministry job a few days later, I accepted.

Your trespasses have already been redeemed by the blood Jesus shed on the cross for you. Your sins have already been paid for.

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band are about to embark on a tour featuring songs and outtakes from their classic 1980 double album The River. There is a gem of a song on this album that is often overlooked called “The Price You Pay” in which the Boss describes what each and every one of us experiences in our lives in one way or another:

You make up your mind, you choose the chance you take
You ride to where the highway ends and the desert breaks
Out onto an open road you ride until the day
You learn to sleep at night with the price you pay

Now with their hands held high they reached out for the open skies
And in one last breath they built the roads they’d ride to their death
Driving on through the night, unable to break away
From the restless pull of the price you pay

Oh, the price you pay
Oh, the price you pay
Now you can’t walk away from the price you pay
Now they’d come so far and they’d waited so long
Just to end up caught in a dream where everything goes wrong
Where the dark of night holds back the light of the day
And you’ve gotta stand and fight for the price you pay…

Do you remember the story of the Promised Land?
How he crossed the desert sands
And could not enter the chosen land
On the banks of the river he stayed
To face the price you pay

Oh, the price you pay
Oh, the price you pay
Now you can’t walk away from the price you pay

“You learn to sleep at night with the price you pay…unable to break away from the restless pull of the price you pay”—where is that the case in your life? Where do your resolutions, however well intended, fall short? Where, with all due respect to Shia Lebeouf, do you find yourself unable to “just do it”? That is where you need the good news of the gospel—that is where you need the good news that because of God’s resolution to give you grace, because of the blood Jesus shed on the cross, you have redemption; you have the forgiveness of your sins. The price has already been paid.

Thankfully, Jesus did not walk away from the price he would pay—for on the cross “with his hands held high he reached out to the open sky” and gave his life. Oh, the price he paid, oh the price he paid. This means you can walk in the freedom of God’s grace, in the freedom that you have been redeemed, that your trespasses have been forgiven.

One example of someone who did this was the late American icon Johnny Cash. Last year CMT aired an especially moving documentary about Johnny Cash entitled Johnny Cash: American Rebel, in which his son John Carter Cash said, “My father had a way of embracing his shortcomings, claiming them, exposing them. He was not afraid to admit that he fell short.” Like Johnny Cash you too can embrace and claim your shortcomings because Jesus has embraced and claimed you.

Johnny Cash was good friends with Billy Graham and once shared the following at one of his crusades:

I spend a lot of my time working with drug addicts and alcoholics, and only someone who has had such a problem can have complete love and compassion and understanding for such people. I love drug addicts and I love alcoholics. If some lost lonely person somewhere out there in a dirty bed and a dark room can see the light of Jesus Christ in me, then that is my reward.

Scripture tells us that Jesus is our Great High Priest who can “sympathize with our weaknesses”—in other words, Jesus has “complete love and compassion and understanding” for you. This means you are free to “approach the throne of grace with boldness (in order to) receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:15-16).

At the end of the documentary over a montage of footage from his life and career Johnny Cash is asked a couple questions by an interviewer just months before his death. “Do you realize this monumental amount of work that you’ve created, what it means in American music or do you just look at yourself as John Cash?” He replies, “Just as John Cash.” The interviewer continues, “Do you have any regrets about the way you’ve done it?” and Johnny Cash responds, “I forgave myself. God forgave me, and I figured I’d better do it too.”

The documentary ends with footage of Johnny Cash standing alone on a beach, his back toward the water, wearing a light blue shirt, khaki pants, white shoes—the ocean breeze whistling about him, his thin hair disheveled, eyes closed, his hands together in prayer—and then he stretches out his arms and raises his head to heaven in a posture of absolute surrender to the grace of God. Roll credits.

So this new year may you experience anew the grace of God. Even if you, like me, have stacks of sins and trespasses, they have already been paid for. You do not owe anything. You have been redeemed. The blood of Jesus is more than enough.

Perhaps in light God’s never-ending resolution to give you grace, this year you might consider a different New Year’s resolution: to forgive yourself.

Amen.