I want to ask you a very important question, one I hope you’ve thought about. What sins are we tempted to commit within our society? In other words, if you were going to commit some sin, what particular sins would you be likely to commit just due to the fact that you live in Toronto in 2009?
The assumption is that we live in a certain context that makes some sins more acceptable or powerful than others. Our culture gives us some opportunities for trouble that other cultures don’t offer. What temptations do we face in our culture that are especially strong?
Let me give you two temptations that I think are especially strong living in Toronto in 2009. It’s not like they aren’t temptations anyway, but our culture makes two of these temptations especially strong.
One is sexual sin. I was standing in a Wal-Mart in December, and on the front of a bridal magazine I read the title of a story: “Why sex gets even better once you’re engaged.” If you’re not yet married, and would like to remain a virgin until you’re married, it’s now seen as kind of quaint. But even if you don’t do anything, it’s hard to avoid seeing things on the magazine rack, on TV, the Internet.
In every culture, people experience sexual temptation. But in Toronto in 2009, we face new kinds of temptations, temptations that aren’t faced in other cultures in other parts of the world. And certain things that used to be off limits are now very much tolerated or even expected. There are real temptations, and a lot of us are struggling. It’s a particular challenge for many in today’s culture.
I think you’ll agree that sexual sin is a strong temptation within our culture. You may be surprised by the second temptation that I think we face that is unique within our culture, although in today’s economy it’s coming up a lot more.
We also face a temptation to be greedy. This one is more subtle. I have had people tell me that they are struggling with sexual temptation. I have never yet had somebody come to me and say, “Pastor, you have to help me. I’m struggling with greed!” Yet it’s a very real problem, and most of the time we don’t even recognize it as a temptation.
I bought a cellphone just over a year ago. It’s a good cellphone. I can check my email, surf the web, even make a phone call on this thing. There’s only one problem with this cellphone: it’s not in iPhone. I really want an iPhone. Every few months, I start scheming of ways to get out of my cell phone contract so I can get an iPhone. Every few months, Charlene helps me see that my current cell phone is just fine, and I don’t need to spend money to get a better one.
There’s nothing wrong with having an iPhone, and having one doesn’t mean you’re greedy. That’s not my point. My point is: why am I not happy with what I already have? Why am I always wanting more? And why, if I bought a cellphone, would I be really, really happy – until they came out with a new and better iPhone?
And if it’s not a cellphone for you, it’s something. We are continually tempted to be ungrateful for what we already have, and to convince ourselves that we need more. We need a better TV for the SuperBowl. We need a bigger house. We need a better car. In Toronto in 2009, we are continually tempted by the sin of greed – and most of the time we’re not even aware that it’s a sin.
It’s important to know what temptations we face within our culture, because we are especially vulnerable in these areas. And in today’s passage, this is exactly what the apostle Paul wants to talk about. Paul knew the dangers that the residents of Ephesus faced within their society, and he wasn’t afraid to address them. And surprisingly, they were the same temptations I just mentioned: sexual sin and greed. Not every culture faces these temptations, but the Ephesians did, and so do we.
The people Paul writes to in Ephesians were Gentiles (non-Jews), and many of them had led immoral lives in the past. When you become a Christian, you don’t escape all the influences from the past, and you’re not immune to the patterns of thought you pick up from others. We all tend to absorb the way of thinking of the surrounding culture, and we’re not even aware of it.
In Ephesus, sexual temptation was a real problem. Adultery, incest, and prostitution were common. There were brothels and other temptations. When you live in a culture in which these things are available and acceptable, it’s hard not to be influenced, even if you are a Christian.
Greed was also a problem. Ephesus was a wealthy city. When Paul was in Ephesus, he was caught in the middle of a riot. The problem was that Christianity was hurting the local economy. They were afraid people would stop buying shrines to the goddess, and that this would hurt business.
I don’t think I have to convince you of the parallels. We too have lots of opportunity to get involved in all kinds of sexual temptation, and we too are preoccupied with the economy and our personal financial freedom. We are not immune to the culture around us and the temptations that come with our culture.
How do we respond?
Let’s start by looking at the principle that Paul gives us. Paul says in verses 3 and 4:
But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for the Lord’s people. Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving.
Paul tells us that extreme caution is needed, that there must not even be a hint of sexual immorality or greed among us. And Paul knows us well enough to know what might happen. We may avoid sexual immorality in our behavior, but still end up making off-color jokes. We aren’t committing sexual sin, so we think we’re okay, but can we ever tell a good off-color joke.
The principle is this: that we recognize the cultural temptations, and instead of asking how far we can go, we don’t even start to go down the road of temptation. We set the tolerance level to zero.
This seems extreme, doesn’t it? Last year we had a propane explosion in Downsview. One of the issues that came up was the amount of asbestos in the air. Officials were trying to reassure people that although asbestos was a problem, the levels were safe. Residents responded by saying: what level of asbestos would you consider to be safe? There’s no such thing as a good level of asbestos! If you’re breathing asbestos, it’s not a good thing.
Paul is essentially saying here: how much sexual immorality and greed is safe for our souls? I mean, is there a certain level at which it becomes dangerous? Paul says that even a little bit of sexual immorality is like asbestos to the soul. Even a little bit of greed is out of place for a follower of Jesus Christ. So we need to turn down the dials of tolerance in our lives all the way down to zero. Even a little bit is too much.
Notice, by the way, that Paul anticipates some argument. Some are going to think Paul is a little extreme here. He says in verse 6, “Let no one deceive you with empty words…” Paul recognizes that some are going to say, “Come on, Paul. Get real.” And that this is going to happen within the church. But Paul warns us in verses 6 and 7, “Because of such things [sexual immorality and greed] God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient. Therefore do not be partners with them.”
I know that most of us have drawn lines, and we’ve committed not to cross that line. We’ve said we’ll do certain things but not others. We’re okay with some levels. We’ll read this type of magazine that shows this much but we won’t read another type of magazine because that goes too far. We’ll accept a certain level of greed, because everyone wants a bigger house, but we won’t get too greedy. But Paul tells us to take that line and draw it right at the beginning. Don’t even allow a little sexual immorality or greed into your life. And don’t listen to anyone who tells you it’s not a big deal.
If I stopped here this morning, you’d probably walk away unconvinced. Some of you may even think, “There we go. More commandments and impossible standards. Just what I expected.” What I’ve said so far can lead you to believe that Christians are isolated, out-of-touch, prudish people who don’t know how to have fun. “Christianity is a straight-jacket,” you might be thinking. “No thanks.”
Paul is actually a little more sophisticated than that in this passage. You see this in verse 5 where he says, “For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person–such a person is an idolater–has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.” We often skip over that middle phrase – “such person is an idolater” – but we shouldn’t. Paul is telling us something important here.
What is an idol? An idol is actually one of the dominant images for sin in the Bible. It’s the sin beneath all sins. What is idolatry, and why does Paul mention it here? Idolatry is taking a good thing and making it an ultimate thing. It’s taking something that is good, and is even a gift from God, and making it ultimate in your life. So sex is good: it’s a gift from God, and is designed as a gift within marriage. But it becomes an idol when we take it outside of its intended place. The irony is that we think we’re becoming sexually liberated, but it actually leads to enslavement. Instead of enjoying sex as a gift from God, our sexual appetites begin to control us. Many of you may know what this feels like. It starts out as a desire to enjoy sex more, but in the end, your sexual appetites start to control you. It promises more than it ever delivers, and it leaves you feeling unsatisfied. Sex is a great gift from God when it’s enjoyed as he intended, but when we turn it into an ultimate thing, an idol, it leads to our ruin. It’s a terrible idol.
Or take the other issue, greed. There is nothing wrong with money. In fact, money is a blessing from the Lord. But when we begin to take money and make it an ultimate thing in our lives, it leads to idolatry and enslavement. Our whole lives begin to revolve around accumulating more and more stuff. We become driven to work. We end up in debt because we buy more than we can afford. And in the end, the stuff we accumulate lets us down. It doesn’t satisfy us like we thought it would. We buy what we want, but it never delivers the happiness we hoped for, and soon it’s out of date or in the way. Money is a wonderful gift from God, but it’s a terrible idol. It leads to enslavement, not freedom, and not happiness.
So Paul is not writing in order to take away our fun. He’s writing to bring us into line with the reality that God has created, and to save us from the horrible sin of idolatry. Paul also says that this isn’t fitting for those who have been changed by Jesus Christ. He says it’s “improper” in verse 3.
Not only that, but God’s wrath is upon those who are disobedient, according to verse 6. Let me unpack this a little for you. If I looked over one day and saw a man hitting on my wife, how do you think I would feel? I would be less than happy. The reason is jealousy. We normally think of jealousy as a bad thing, but in this context it would be a good thing. A husband and wife are not supposed to be dispassionate about each other. I am jealous for my wife’s affection, and will not share it with another.
The Bible frequently refers to God as a jealous God, who will not share his glory with another. Again, in God’s case, this jealousy is a good thing. God will not sit idly by as his people worship sex or money instead of him. It not only leads to enslavement, but it also leads to God’s judgment.
So that’s why Paul gives us the principle: to have zero tolerance for sin. Don’t even flirt with it; get rid of it from the get-go. And it’s not because he wants us to be prudes. It’s because this sin is idolatry, and idolatry leads to our enslavement and God’s judgment in our lives. It’s for God’s glory and for our good that Paul tells us to stay away from these sins.
We’ve looked at what Paul says, and why he says it. We’ve seen that we must have zero tolerance for sin, even though our culture says it’s fine. And we’ve seen why: because it’s not just a matter of sinful acts; it’s a matter of worship. Sinning in these areas means that we’re taking a good thing and turning it into an ultimate thing, worshipping something other than God.
If you’re like me, you’re wondering how you’re actually going to live this out. It’s not really helpful to be told, “Don’t sin anymore! Don’t have sexually impure thoughts. Don’t be greedy.” You’d be right in saying, “Thanks a lot.” It’s like telling my dog to stop sniffing when we go out for a walk. He can’t help himself. He’s a sniffer. And I can’t help myself. I’m a sinner.
But Paul doesn’t just tell us to go and try not to sin. He reminds us of the gospel – that the power we need is not our own. We’ve been changed. He says in verse 8, “For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light.” Notice what he doesn’t say. He doesn’t say that we used to be in the darkness, but we’re now in the light. He goes further than that. He says that we actually used to be darkness, but now God has changed us. We are now light. What this means is that when we come to faith in Jesus Christ, God fundamentally changes us. We are new creatures. So we don’t have to go out there and try to become light; that would be impossible. All we have to do is live in line with who God has now made us. “Live as children of light,” he says. Live out the implications of the change that God has made within you.
Then he says in verse 14:
Wake up, sleeper,
rise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.
There are lots of debates about what Paul is quoting here. Some think it’s pieced together from various Old Testament passages, like Isaiah 60:1: “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD rises upon you.” Some think it’s an Easter or baptismal hymn from the early church. Wherever it came from, Paul is reminding us that we used to be asleep. We used to be dead. That’s our natural condition: asleep, dead, and in the dark. But if we have come to Christ, everything has changed. “Conversion is nothing less than awakening out of sleep, rising from death and being brought out of darkness into the light of Christ” (John Stott). We don’t have to change; we need to come to the cross, and remember the cross, and live out what Jesus did for us then.
We don’t have to change. Jesus has changed us. What we need to do is to remember the change, and live in light of that change.
So what sins have you been tolerating? Do you see this morning the problem with idolatry – that making good things into ultimate things leads to our enslavement and God’s judgment? When we remember what Jesus has done for us, and that he has changed us from the inside out, then we will have the power to live in the light, because he’s set us free from the power of sin.
Father, a lot of us don’t feel free from sin. So we need to come to the cross. Thank you for the fundamental change that you make in us; that we have been changed. We were asleep, dead, and in the dark, and at the cross you make us awake, alive, and you bring us into the light.
May we live out the implications of what Jesus did at the cross. And may this lead to our freedom and to your glory. In Jesus’ name, Amen.