Ephesians 5:15-20 New International Version (NIV)
15 Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, 16 making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. 17 Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is. 18 Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit, 19 speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, 20 always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
We have had some absolutely wonderful weather this summer. The temperatures have been a bit cooler than the average summer and the rainfall has been a bit more abundant. All of this means that we are actually getting vegetables from our garden in August. We usually start out with good intentions in the spring and we do well with our early crops like lettuce and peas. We weed the garden, water it when we need to, and lo and behold, vegetables grow! But sometime around the 4th of July we lose a bit of interest. The rain comes less often and we soon get tired of dragging around the hoses or carrying buckets of water around. Our vegetables that start well soon begin to wither and die. The late-summer crop tends to suffer. But oddly enough, the weeds seem to do just fine without the rain!
There is an advantage to the normal, hot, dry August and that is that it also usually means that I don’t have to mow my yard more than once or twice per month. Just like my enthusiasm for gardening fades, I tend to be a lot less excited to do yard work in the late summer. In April I am excited to get out there and get that green ring around my shoes that tells the world, “I’ve just mowed my yard.” But between April and August that excitement dwindles.
I remember one spring talking with a friend who had one of the nicest yards in Staunton. The landscaping was impeccable. The mulch was fresh. The spring flowers were bursting forth with beauty. And their grass was thick, green, and healthy. And in my conversation with this friend he was complaining about how often he needed to mow the grass in the spring. He was mowing twice a week!
So I asked him, “How much fertilizer do you put on your yard each year?” He told me that he fertilized it every year in the fall and in the spring, a winterizer in the fall and a weed and feed in the spring.
I told him that I thought I had found his problem.
We’ve all heard the saying, “You reap what you sow.” This saying is found in Galatians 6:7. From an agricultural perspective this is a no-brainer. If you hope to harvest corn in the fall, you don’t plant wheat in the spring. But the saying goes deeper and has more meaning than just harvesting the same kind of crop as the seed planted. It also means that the success of the crop, the total harvest, is going to increase if you spend more time prepping the soil, tilling it, removing weeds, and fertilizing the soil.
Again, none of this is brain surgery. We know how this works. I know the reason that my tomatoes usually suffer at the end of the summer, but the other plants thrive early is because I stop watering them and weeding the garden. My friend knows that the reason he has to mow his yard so often is because he fertilizes and waters it. You reap what you sow. You only get out of something what you are willing to put in.
Verses 15-16 from our text this morning teach us a similar lesson: “Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil.”
I called last week’s sermon “Kindergarten Christianity” because I felt that Paul was teaching the Ephesians something that we all learned in kindergarten. We’ve known this since we were 5-years-old, but knowing something and actually doing it are two different things. Today’s passage also fits into that same category. The first thing that Paul says is be wise, make good decisions. People don’t intentionally make decisions that will hurt them. But people do make decisions based on what will bring them the most pleasure or the least pain the quickest.
Imagine I have two options for a snack in my home. I have a nice, shiny apple and I have a piece of pie. We can even say that it is a piece of apple pie. They are both sitting on the kitchen counter, neither will require any more work to get or to eat. I know very well which of the two I should have for a snack. I know very well that the apple will be better for me today and I will be healthier for years to come if I choose the apple over the pie. But that’s not always the choice I’m going to make. I’m not always going to make the wise decision but instead I may make the decision that gives me the most pleasure right now.
Or if I have 30 minutes to kill before I need to leave to pick up my children, I could go for a run or I could watch a show on Netflix. I know which one is the wise decision, but I am probably going to choose the option that is going to cause me the least pain.
So even though everyone in the world knows this, Paul is encouraging the church in Ephesus to make the wise decision. Weed your garden, eat the apple, go for the run. Because we reap what we sow.
Paul gives a good reason for making wise decisions. He says to make wise decisions so that we can make the most out of every opportunity.
There are some people that would have us believe that everyone in the world has the same opportunities in life. Usually it is those who have a lot of money, power, and influence. They tend to say, “Look at me. I made it, and you can too. All you need to do is work hard.”
I’m not fully convinced. The child in Africa who isn’t getting enough to eat also probably doesn’t have access to basic education. But that’s an extreme. I think that if we are honest, we will all admit that some people are born into families and situations that make it nearly impossible for them to succeed by many of our standards. Some families can’t afford a bus pass to get to the library. Other families need their children to work jobs after school to make ends meet, and the children can’t spend as much time studying for their math exam or for their SAT’s. So no, I don’t think that every child born in the United States has the same opportunity to be the President or a CEO. But that isn’t what Paul is saying here.
Paul says to make the most of every opportunity. Regardless of your lot in life, make the most of it.
It is so easy to get bogged down with the things that we are not or the things that we have. We look to the person next to us and ask why he or she got all of the good things. Why does my brother have the perfect abs and hair? Don’t we have the same genetics? Why is she smarter than I am, didn’t we go to the same school? I should be the one on the cover of a magazine, or the one getting a book deal, not them!
Rather than thinking about all of the things that we don’t have, we need to make the most out of the opportunities that we have been given. We all are given opportunities, maybe not an equal share, but we have opportunities to do more with our lives. And often the people that are the most successful are not the people who have the most God-given talent, but the people that seize every opportunity that they are given to make something of their selves.
I remember my Seminary advisor’s advice one day as I sat in his office. I’m pretty sure I didn’t ask him for his opinion on the matter, but he shared it with me anyway. He told me that it isn’t always the smartest people who get Ph.D.’s, it is the people who go to school the longest. I’m not sure if he was talking about me or about him, and I’m not sure if I was offended by that or not! But his point was clear, as was Paul’s. Make the most out of what you have been given.
So we have two clear points from Paul so far: 1. Make good decisions, 2. Make the most out of what you have been given. The rest of the text tells us how.
Let’s look at verse 18, “Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit.” I’ve heard this verse used to argue for total abstinence from drinking, and I have heard it used to argue for drinking in moderation. I don’t think that either argument is really what Paul is going for here, though I think we would all agree that drunkenness can lead to bad decision making. Paul’s reason for speaking about drunkenness here seems to be to make a comparison.
I never put it together before someone pointed it out to me this week, but where else in the Bible do we find drunkenness and the Holy Spirit named together? Acts 2, the story of the Holy Spirit coming on Pentecost. The text tells us that all of the disciples were gathered together on Pentecost when the Holy Spirit came upon them. The believers were then able to communicate with nonbelievers in the native tongue of the nonbelievers.
But there were some in the group that did not receive the Holy Spirit that day that mocked the disciples, saying, “They’ve had too much wine” (v.13).
Evidently, the Holy Spirit and wine can have a similar effect on a person.
Let’s think this one through a bit. When a person has too much to drink, it changes them. It changes how they talk. It changes how they treat other people. It changes how attractive they think someone else is. And if effects their decision making.
The Holy Spirit is going to have a similar effect. When you are filled with the Spirit it changes how you talk, but in a different way! For the disciples on Pentecost, it allowed them to speak in other languages. For us today, it may keep us from saying mean and hurtful things. It may keep us from demeaning someone or mocking them. I know that there are times when people do stupid things and I just want to say something about it and it is only by the power of the Holy Spirit that I can watch my tongue.
Being drunk on wine changes how you treat people and how attractive you find them. Being filled with the Spirit is going to do the same thing. Because when you are filled with the Spirit you don’t see someone as a means by which to get ahead. You don’t see them as a pawn in your game or a servant to abuse, as someone below you or worse than you. You see them differently, and you are even drawn to them. When you are filled with the Spirit you are attracted to people that you normally wouldn’t be, but in a different way than if you were drunk on wine. You aren’t attracted to them because you want to make love to them, but because you want to show them the love of Christ. You are attracted to tax collectors, sinners, prostitutes, and the poor. These are people that you may not even give the time of day to under normal circumstances. But when you are filled with the Spirt, you treat people different and are attracted to all kinds of people.
And as I’ve said a number of times now, when someone is drunk on wine, they tend to make bad decisions. How many times have you heard about people getting bad tattoos when they were drunk? People make bad decisions to drive, to call ex-girlfriends, or to try to climb things when they have had too much to drink. But when you are filled with the Spirit, you are empowered to make the kinds of good decisions that Paul has been talking about through this passage. Come on, with God as your guide you are going to make good decisions and make the most out of every opportunity.
There is one more important similarity between being drunk and being filled with the Holy Spirit that I want to bring to your attention this morning. That is that they are both temporary. A person who drinks too much can wake up the next morning and be back to normal. The buzz wears off. So if someone wants to maintain a level of drunkenness, which is not something that I am endorsing!, they need to drink more.
We don’t find anywhere in the scriptures any kind of reference to the disciples continuing to speak in other languages after Pentecost. They may have, but I can’t say for sure. And for my point this morning, it doesn’t really matter. It doesn’t matter because we all know that being filled with the Holy Spirit doesn’t last forever. It can come on strong for a period of time, and it can fade just as fast.
Without a doubt, there have been times in my life that I have felt God’s presence not only near me, but within me. It is one of the greatest experiences that I’ve ever had. In that experience I’ve made decisions that I knew were God’s will. I knew that if I did something that God was going to bless it and be with me and that I would be successful. But as anyone who has ever had a similar experience can tell you, that feeling comes and it goes. It ebbs and it flows.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that you don’t always get filled by the Holy Spirit by accident. To get drunk on wine you have to pick up that bottle or that glass. And to be filled with the Spirit you need to seek God. Spend time in study, spend time in prayer, and spend time in community with other Christians.
So let’s sum it all up. Paul is calling the Ephesians to make good decisions and to make the most out of every opportunity that they have been given. Sometimes this is easy and more often it isn’t. Sometimes we know the wise decision and we choose not to make it. Sometimes we can’t tell which choice is the right one. This is when we need to be filled with God’s Spirit. This is when we need an Advocate guiding us. And God’s Spirit will change us. It will change how we talk, it changes how we see and treat other people, and it will change how we make decisions.
It is my prayer that we all become intoxicated on the Spirit of God so we may live the lives that God would have us live.