Rev. Teri Peterson
1 Samuel 7.10-14, Ephesians 2.8-10
11 August 2013, Singing Faith 10
Come Thou Fount
Rock of Ages
Halle Halle Halle
The Love of God Comes Close
As Samuel was offering up the burnt-offering, the Philistines drew near to attack Israel; but the Lord thundered with a mighty voice that day against the Philistines and threw them into confusion; and they were routed before Israel. And the men of Israel went out of Mizpah and pursued the Philistines, and struck them down as far as beyond Beth-car.
Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Jeshanah, and named it Ebenezer; for he said, ‘Thus far the Lord has helped us.’ So the Philistines were subdued and did not again enter the territory of Israel; the hand of the Lord was against the Philistines all the days of Samuel. The towns that the Philistines had taken from Israel were restored to Israel, from Ekron to Gath; and Israel recovered their territory from the hand of the Philistines. There was peace also between Israel and the Amorites.
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.
Time for a quick poll. Be honest—before the children’s message today, how many of you have wondered what on earth we’re singing about when we say “Here I raise my Ebenezer”? How many were familiar with the term? Did anyone know before the scripture reading where it came from?
As I mentioned to the children, Ebenezer is a name of a monument—a stack of stones that helped the people of Israel remember God’s faithfulness. They looked at all the ways God had helped them; concrete ways, like helping them with their belligerent neighbors, feeding them in the desert, providing guidance day and night, calling prophets to lead. And for each act of faithful providing, they added a stone until the pile was a towering monument to God’s goodness and promise. Whenever the people saw it, they would be reminded, and it would be like a tether, a connection to all God has done and promises to do.
Often we have a hard time seeing what God is doing in our midst. A tangible reminder like an Ebenezer is a way to use our senses to be reminded that God is faithful and strong, like stone, and constantly present and seeking us, like the shepherd who goes out looking for the one lost sheep.
And sometimes it’s not that we have a hard time seeing what God is doing, it’s that we have a hard time using words to talk about it. Talking about God, about our faith, about our spiritual experience, is an important aspect of our faith lives. Our call is to proclaim the gospel—to both live and speak good news to the world. But sometimes the words we use in church seem like they’re hard to understand. I mean, who talks about an Ebenezer instead of a monument? Though there is something beautiful about using the traditional words, with all their depth of history and context and nuance, they also take a little bit of explaining.
Granted, Ebenezer isn’t exactly a word that gets a lot of use, even in the church. It’s pretty much in that one song, and that’s it. But plenty of other words are used all the time and it’s not clear we really know what they mean—words like “worship” and “righteousness” and “faith.” When Samuel leads the people of Israel in setting up the Ebenezer, it’s an act of worship—an act of ascribing worth to God and to their relationship with God. The word “worship” literally means “to proclaim the worth of”—so when we come to worship, we come to claim that God is worthy: of praise, of offering, of sacrifice, of time, of energy, of waking up early on Sunday morning. And when we say that our lives are worship, that means we are committing ourselves to live in such a way that everything we do is designed to glorify God, rather than ourselves.
Because, really, you can worship anything or anyone. And many people worship themselves, putting themselves first, before God. Many of us find it easier to proclaim the worth of the latest gadget or the latest blockbuster movie, but not of God. It’s easy to build monuments to our own glory rather than to God’s glory. That’s why over and over again Paul says the same thing he said in this morning’s reading from Ephesians: this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God. Just as when we talk about stewardship, we remind ourselves that the earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it—we are here to be good stewards, to be caretakers, to treat it as precious and valuable and, above all, someone else’s. What we have does not belong to us, it belongs to God. The word stewardship is often condensed into just a pledge campaign, but it’s really a word that refers to our whole life’s effort at managing the gifts God has given us in a worshipful way. How do we use what we’ve been given? How do we give out of the generosity of God’s abundance rather than hold tight in our anxiety? When we start to hold on too tightly to anything—whether it’s money, or status, or the way things have always been—it becomes the thing whose worth we put above God’s. The reality is that it is all a gift of God, and we are called to use those gifts for God’s glory.
Speaking of called—that’s another word that gets tossed around in church-world, but the meaning is sometimes vague. We like to think that only professional Christians are called, and the rest of us are free to pursue our desires. Or that a calling necessarily involves voices and visions, which not many people receive. But everyone is called—here in Ephesians 2 Paul talks about the good works which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. This is our calling—to live according to the way God has prepared. Jesus calls us to follow him, to take up a cross, to mingle with outsiders and eat with sinners and share all that we have. Samuel calls us to remember God’s faithfulness, to put a stone on the Ebenezer and declare our own faithfulness in return. When we can’t quite hear God’s call to us, we can look to scripture and simply do our best to follow the call God whispers to all people: come, follow me.
It’s tricky though, to follow. The author of Come Thou Fount struggled with following that way of good works, and his life was one of wandering and returning, wandering and returning. The author of Amazing Grace struggled as well, ultimately changing both his whole life and the lives of countless people who would no longer be sold into slavery. Both men made some space—just a breath of space really—for the Spirit to enter and do her work, changing them from worshipping themselves and their social and economic status, to worshipping God. That is a gift of pure grace.
Grace is the last word I want to talk about today. We use it a lot, but we human beings are woefully inadequate at living it or extending it to others. Paul says that grace and faith are inextricably linked—faith is a gift of God’s grace, and through faith we understand grace. The word is simple: it means gift. This is a gift of God, so no one may boast. Grace is God’s nature, and God has always been self-giving. God’s grace is a gift of love, compassion, hope, relationship, call, generosity, providing. Through grace, we experience God’s presence. Simply a gift, given with no quid-pro-quo expectations. Yes, God gifts grace with hope that we will pass it on, that we will be as generous as the generosity we have received, that we will love the way we have been loved. Yes, God gifts grace with the hope that we will worship and praise, glorifying God in our every action and every word. But we cannot earn grace, we cannot buy it, and we cannot lose it. Grace is entirely an action of God, given freely and constantly. Interestingly, the authors of both The Old Rugged Cross and Amazing Grace were staunchly opposed to a theological movement that was gaining popularity in their time—the idea that God’s grace is present but we have to do something to receive it, or we have to take steps toward God in order for grace to be given to us. Both authors’ hymns are full of the assertion that there is nothing whatsoever that we can do to deserve salvation, to deserve grace, to force faith. God acts, God gives, and no one may boast. All we can do is respond. That’s grace—not that we deserve it, but that God gives every good gift anyway, and we live in gratitude. Because the root word of gratitude is, of course, grace.
So we give thanks for God’s faithfulness—raising an Ebenezer, for this far we have come, and God’s grace will lead us on.
May it be so.