"These are evil times, so make every minute count."
I'm going to suggest something about this passage right at the start that some of you might find strange. Whether or not you can easily say 'Amen' to Paul's message here without feeling an uncomfortable twinge or two depends on which generation you fit into, and broadly I'd put that as under 60 and over 61.
I'll come back to that later.
What I do think is vitally important is that we place this passage in its proper context. Firstly, and it's worth emphasising what might seem the obvious, Paul is giving this instruction not to involve in all these forms of behaviour to the Church, not to the unbeliever. As I say, that might be overstating the obvious, but it needs saying.
In placing this in context, we have to take a step backwards into the Old Testament and God's dealings with his people.
The Hebrew nation from the days of Moses shared a commitment to keeping the Ten Commandments. What that meant in practice was that each individual set out to obey God among a close community who understood and shared their values, morals, beliefs and goals
Now let's quickly take a giant step forward again into the world of the infant Church at Ephesus and the first Christians. They found themselves as a minority within a Greek-Roman world whose values, beliefs and goals were in direct conflict with Christianity.
Ephesus was world famous as a centre of magic (the Glastonbury of its age) and attracted among others a continual stream of Jewish and Gentile exorcists. The religious focal point was the goddess Artemis of Ephesus - worship of whom spread throughout the Mediterranean basin, and her Ephesian sanctuary was recognised as one of the seven wonders of antiquity.
Christians in the early Church at Ephesus faced conflict over the state's right to demand worship of the emperor. They were very much aware that immorality was part of everyday life in the Roman world, it was happening all around them. They had to endure the brutality of the Roman games, the rejection of the claim of unique authority from a Jewish carpenter from Nazareth, and the acceptance of many gods, not one God.
Do you get the picture? The Christians of Ephesus were very much the minority both in numbers and influence in a world that had embraced anything that would satisfy the longings of the flesh (to use an old fashioned term).
They were living out their faith in a country that had very loose sexual morals, embraced violence as a sport to be enjoyed, dabbled in all manner of magic and sorcery, preferred the glamour of Artemis to the claims of Jesus and lived in a community that considered it the individual's right to chose which god to follow or not.
Now are you beginning to see perhaps that, without even looking at the passage in detail, it's all becoming scarily relevant to today?
It's relevant because of the type of society that we live in today, and that's a society that is different to that in which a lot of folk grew up. It's certainly different to that in which my parents were raised, and quite alien to their experience. It started to change after the 1st world war, but only in the last few decades have we really seen the full implications.
We live now in what is known as a Postmodern world (Postmodernism because it took over from Modernism). I'm not going to even try and explain what is meant by the differences, other than to show by examples. I quote from Clive Calver
Modernism (which probably had its heyday in the Victorian age)
Emphasised human reason and logic as the basis for society
Saw science and technology as the instruments of reason and progress
Believed that human ingenuity was all that was needed to create a utopia
Was set in the context of a residual Christian belief within the nation
Asks 'What is the meaning?'
Emphasises the collapse of truth in terms of anything being true for everyone
Stresses that what may be true for you may not be true for everyone
Highlights a transformation in thinking - from the rational to the irrational
Is set in the context of a virtual absence of residual Christian belief
Asks 'What is the point?'
Is often suspicious of science and technology
I said at the start that whether or not you can easily say 'Amen' to Paul's message here without feeling an uncomfortable twinge or two depends on which generation you fit into, and it's a simple fact that those born two or more generations ago can hardly recognise the current landscape of morals, beliefs and attitudes.
How do these statements (which broadly cover what a lot of people believe) affect you
If it feels good it can't be bad
All religions are as good or bad as each other and all offer a route to God. It doesn't matter what you believe as long as you are sincere about it.
What is wrong depends on the circumstances at the time
If no-one gets hurt then it doesn't matter what you do. No-one can impose their sexual values on anyone else. You must do what is right for yourself. That includes extramarital affairs, sex outside marriage, being a single parent, sex with whoever you want and whenever you want
Stealing from individuals is frowned on, but stealing from the system is ok. It's bad to steal a credit card from a handbag, but ok to copy a CD or install unlicensed software on your PC.
No-one can dictate what I can do, so there's no need for censorship. If you don't like it then switch it off. The on-off switch is all the protection society needs.
We are a multi-faith society so the Church must embrace shared religious worship, especially on civic and state occasions.
Any other attitude is intolerance and bigotry as no one faith can ever have a monopoly on truth.
Right, end of the theory. We still haven't started to look at the passage, but what I wanted to do was look how the situation we find ourselves in now, 2000 years after the Ephesian Church was started is so very similar. Almost as if the world has turned full circle upon itself.
When I first looked at this passage in the NIV it came across quite austere. I could almost imagine the rather severe looking Victorian minister standing in the pulpit with finger pointing and the congregation dodging their heads around to avoid the finger of accusation resting on them. Then I came across this translation and the whole atmosphere of the passage changed.
Suddenly I pictured Paul as a football coach at the FA Cup with his players in a huddle round him, while he gives them a last minute pep talk and a squirt of the water bottle before they go back into play. 'OK lads,' he says. 'You know what you're up against, they're out to intimidate you but just don't rise to it. You've trained well, you know what you've got to do. Play the game the way you've been taught. There's a cup to be won. Now get out there and win it fairly.'
And that's the sermon in a nutshell, really!
Verses 3-5 cover a wide range of social activity
"You are God’s people, so don’t let it be said that any of you are immoral or indecent or greedy. Don’t use dirty or foolish or filthy words. Instead, say how thankful you are. Being greedy, indecent, or immoral is just another way of worshipping idols. You can be sure that people who behave in this way will never be part of the kingdom that belongs to Christ and to God"
Of course, before we can say amen or not to this depends on our reference point. To Paul I think that was very plain and it would be based upon the Ten Commandments and Jesus' own summary to 'Love the Lord your God …… and love your neighbour as yourself'.'
Our interpretation of what is meant by the terms immoral, impure or indecent must be made and understood with reference to God's word to us through His Prophets together with Jesus' and the early Christian writers' interpretation of the Law to a more contemporary community. Lastly by asking that most challenging of questions in a situation of temptation ' What would Jesus do?'
Have you tried doing that? There was a craze recently of friendship bracelets with the initials WWJD on them, but I wonder how often people wearing them ever used those initials as a reminder to ask the question.
Ask it next time you find yourself in a situation that demands the question being asked. It's a very, very difficult call to make at times. I'm not going to give examples of such situations because I know that you're perfectly capable, as indeed I am of feeling uncomfortable just thinking about the concept!
Jesus himself said that "Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of Heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the Kingdom."
And what do we find but Paul echoing these words "6 Don’t let anyone trick you with foolish talk. God punishes everyone who disobeys him and says foolish things. So don’t have anything to do with anyone like that."
'There are plenty of folk out there who will try and persuade you to accept society's morals and values and say that they're equally valid.' Says Paul. 'But don't have any truck with them.'
"8 You used to be like people living in the dark, but now you are people of the light because you belong to the Lord. So act like people of the light and make your light shine"
The Old Testament Prophets had plenty to say about religious observance and a matching lifestyle. Hosea 6 "For I desire mercy not sacrifice, and acknowledgement of God rather than burnt offerings."
Amos 5:21 "I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies.'
Isaiah 1:11 "The multitude of your sacrifices - what are they to me?" Says the Lord."
God saw the outward show of religion but looked beneath to see what was going on in the hearts, minds and lives of his people, and didn't like what he saw one bit. And this outward behaviour made a mockery of all the trappings of their religiosity. "I don't want all this." says God to his people. "I'd much rather see you showing love, concern and justice. That's the kind of sacrifice I want from you."
"Take your evil deeds out of my site!" He says through Isaiah. "Stop doing wrong and learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed, defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow."
"Now!" says Paul. "Forget all that nonsense about life and ethical/moral issues being all shades of grey. We're talking black and white now. Where are you going to place yourself ?"
" You used to be like people living in the dark, but now you are people of the light because you belong to the Lord. So act like people of the light and make your light shine. So act like people of the light and make your light shine. Be good and honest and truthful, as you try to please the Lord. Don’t take part in doing those worthless things that are done in the dark. Instead, show how wrong they are. It is disgusting even to talk about what is done in the dark. But the light will show what these things are really like. Light shows up everything" (vs 8ff)
There are times in our lives when we can look for compromise, find by negotiation a common point of agreement where everyone is happy. This isn't one of them, says Paul.
A hunter raised his rifle and took careful aim at a large bear.
When about to pull the trigger, the bear spoke in a soft soothing voice,
"Isn't it better to talk than to shoot? What do you want? Let's see if we can't work this out, negotiate."
Lowering his rifle, the hunter replied, "I want a fur coat."
"Good," said the bear, "that is a negotiable item. I
only want a full
stomach, so let's sit down and find a compromise."
They sat down to negotiate and after a time the bear walked away, alone.
The negotiations had been successful.
The bear had a full stomach, and the hunter had his fur coat!
Paul makes a stark contrast between the environment of the mainly pagan world in which the Ephesian Church was based, and the community of believers. It's not a compromise, a question of degrees of grey. Rather it's a stark contrast between black and white.
And then, in case that sounds like an impossible choice to make he reminds the readers of his letter that the positives of life in the light lane are many and fruitful. Remember the passage in Galatians where Paul speaks of the fruit of the Spirit - love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.' This is what you should be looking for, says Paul, ' These are the qualities that really matter in life because they affect not only ourselves but our attitudes to others,'. Fruitfulness not fruitlessness.
"If you show these fruits in your life they
will show up the barrenness of the world for what it is. Black against
Act like people with good sense and not like fools. These are evil times, so make every minute count. Don’t be stupid. Instead, find out what the Lord wants you to do' (vs 15ff)
'Come on,' says Paul. Recognise that these are essentially pagan times in which we live. There are loads of opportunities to show people the difference that a life with Christ can make. Make every minute count, make the most of every opportunity. Don't mess about and miss the chance. Ask yourself the question 'What would Jesus do?' 'What would God have me do or say in this situation?''
It's not always easy to reach that point where you can discern the will of God. Paul recognises that and also knows that some would resort even to drink or drugs in order to try and get focussed, to reach the right point of spiritual awareness. 'For goodness sake, NO!' he says. 'Let the Holy Spirit be your inspiration.'
'The life you lead' Paul tells us. 'Is one that is forever thankful, and that spirit of thankfulness leads to an expression of praise for all that God has done, and is reflected in the way that Christians live as a community, as the body of Christ.'
"When you meet together, sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, as you praise the Lord with all your heart. Always use the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to thank God the Father for everything." (vs 19-20)
It's a difficult message that Paul shares with his readers. To us who have been brought up in a Postmodern world of relative values, of greyness, it is probably harder than those who were raised in the more austere years at the beginning of the 20th century, because we have been continually bombarded with the world's values on our TV screens, newspapers and cinemas since our very impressionable early years.
But Paul's message is particularly relevant to us because the world in which we live is so much like that of the Ephesians. We live in a predominantly pagan world, with values to match. The world would do its best to persuade us that we can compromise on so much of what is contained within the Bible. But like the story of the bear and the hunter, there are some things that we cannot compromise. We cannot compromise our faith, our Church and our lives within the community we live and work in. Those are non-negotiable. If we try and compromise then like the hunter we're going to get swallowed up.
It's black and white really, says Paul. Place yourself within one box or the other. There's no fence-sitting, no grey area to find a comfy spot to lay yourself down in.
"You used to be like people living in the dark, but now you are people of the light because you belong to the Lord. So act like people of the light and make your light shine………….. 15 Act like people with good sense and not like fools. These are evil times, so make every minute count." (vs 8-9, 15-16)
Make every second count. If there is one phrase I'd like you to go home with, then I think it's that one. These are evil times, so make every minute count.
There's urgency in Paul's message, and with that urgency a challenge. To make a difference out there by the way that we live our lives. To show the world for what it is not by continually slagging it off, but by showing that there is a better way. And it's not a choice between boring religious life and worldly excitement because living the Christian life is nothing if not fruitful, and certainly exciting - but in a different way to the world. A different way and a better way.
Paul has given his pep talk to the team. It's a hard game, and the opposition are playing dirty. It's a Gary Linekar eleven against Vinny Jones and his mates. They know what they've got to do. Get out there, Paul tells them, win the game but do it the God's way.