Powerful Prayers: To Know the Unknowable

(Note: For a few weeks , I will post the manuscript that goes with the audio (posted Tuesdays) from a sermon in the Powerful Prayers series. People have requested the sermon manuscripts many time, but I’ve always been reluctant to make it available for two principal reasons: 1) I never simply read a sermon, so what people read is not exactly what I spoke. The manuscript might be better or it may be worse but it will be different. And (2) because the sermon has not been edited for publication. With those caveats, here is The Spirit of Wisdom and Revelation III (His Incomparably Great Power for Us Who Believe)

(Ephesians 3:16-19) I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. 

We have a house plant that is like something out of a science fiction movie. Someone gave it to Karen – this nice, shiny, dark green plant – and she watered it and took care of it and it got bigger. When it was in danger of becoming root-bound, Karen transplanted it into a bigger pot. I think it might have outgrown that pot as well, so she put it in an even bigger one and now it is threatening to take over our house. We recently set it next to my side of the bed. I have dreams that it is going to eat me in my sleep.

Sometimes plants need to be transplanted to be healthy and strong. Sometimes people do too. In this passage, Paul talks about people being rooted in love, and the good things that can come from that.

Some people first took root in soil that has little love in it. It was highly acidic and full of selfishness. They grew up with selfish parents, in selfish schools, around selfish friends, and they were poisoned by it. They can hardly be blamed them for turning inward on themselves, but they can be transplanted them into the rich soil of Christ’s love in the church. That’s what happens when someone comes over to God’s side through faith in Jesus and is baptized into Christ. They are transplanted. The church becomes their family. If it is a healthy church and there is plenty of love in that soil, they will, apart from injury, grow strong.

Being rooted (verse 17) is an agrarian image. Being established, as the NIV has it (also verse 17), is a construction image. Paul loves to mix those two metaphors. He does it here. He does it in Colossians 2:7. He does it in 1st Corinthians 3:9, where he calls the Corinthian church both God’s field and God’s building.

Being rooted implies life. A seed without life won’t root, it will only rot. Being established (better, laying a foundation) implies intention. No human has to be involved in a plant taking root (just ask the teams that pull weeds around the church) but a building’s foundation doesn’t just sprout from the ground. Laying it requires planning, intention, and effort. Both images – agrarian and construction – have something important to teach us.

In the first, we see the necessity of life. Imagine that “spirit photography” (as it is called) was a real thing. (And many people believe it is and think they can capture ghosts and spirits with it). Let’s say you took a before and an after picture of me with a “spirit camera”– before God brought me to himself and after. The principal difference would be that in the “after” picture I would have life. This is the promise repeated throughout the Bible: “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” “The Son gives life to whomever he chooses.” “I have come that you may have life and have it to the full.”

Life is powerful. It grows. It adapts. It changes. We can try to control it but we cannot create it. We can guide it, but we can’t give it – it’s not ours to give; it’s God’s. and because he gives it, we can take root in love, draw it into ourselves, and share it with others.

The other image, the construction image, implies intentionality and effort. This is not about organic growth but painstaking construction, building one block on another. Life grows, like the seed in Jesus’s story, which grew whether the farmer slept or got up. But a building rises because the builders got up and got to work. The farmer doesn’t understand how the seed grows, but the builders understand how the building rises, and they know it won’t rise unless they get to work.

Followers of Jesus need both: to be rooted and innately growing; and to be founded and systematically built. There is, on the one hand, nothing they can do to create life and, on the other, things they must do to build a suitable home for that life.

Notice again that the rooting and the foundation-laying are done in love. Love is the soil in which the growing seed is planted and upon which the rising building is founded. Things grow poorly in the desert and a loveless life is a desert. But love is a garden, where people grow fruitful and beautiful. The church can be such a garden but the love comes from God (1 John 4:7).

People not only grow beautiful in love, they grow strong. (That’s the beginning of verse 18.) People who are rooted and grounded in love are strong enough to weather life’s storms – they are stormproof – and discerning. Paul’s prayer is that they, rooted and established in love, may have power. Being loved is a prerequisite for this kind of power. Being unloved is an obstacle to it.

The Greek word for power here is not the usual one. This one has the idea of being strong enough to accomplish something. It is the word a koine Greek speaker would use to say (for example): “He is strong enough to do 100 pushups.” But, in this case, what is it that we are strong enough to do because we are rooted and established in love? We are strong enough, verse 18, to grasp the width and length and height and depth of the love of Christ.

Some people simply are not strong enough to grasp – to comprehend – the love of Christ.  We tend to think there are smart people who comprehend things and there are strong people who get things done. The smart people wear glasses, walk around with their noses in books, and got beat up a lot when they were kids.

And of course it was the strong kids who beat them up – the kids who didn’t wear glasses and couldn’t find a book in the Library of Congress. And, even if they did, they’d only use it to hit the smart kids over the head.

But this is a false dichotomy the Bible does not support. Smart does not equal weak and strong does not equal stupid. Quite the opposite: there are some things we will never grasp until we become strong. One of them is Christ’s love. That’s why Paul asks God to give the Ephesians power to strengthen their grasp.

This thing Paul wants people to be strong enough to grasp, this knowledge that transforms a life in all its dimensions, is the breadth and width and height and depth of Christ’s love. Paul looks out and as far as he can see is the love of Christ. He looks left and right and he can find no end to it. He looks up and it extends to the heavens. He looks down and it reaches beyond the grave.

If you could travel to z8­­_GND_5296. 6 – the most distant galaxy yet discovered, 13.8 billion light-years away (and remember just one light year is about 5.88 trillion miles) – you would find the love of Christ there. If you could reach the deepest part of the ocean, the Challenger Deep, where the atmospheric pressure is 16,000 pounds per square inch, (which is equivalent to turning the Eiffel Tower upside down and resting the point on your toe), you would find the love of Christ there.

What measure can we use to gauge the love of Christ? We measure breadth and width and height and depth in inches or yards. We weigh objects in pounds and ounces. We measure time from nanoseconds (a nano-second is one-billionth of a second) to millennia. But none of those units are sufficient to measure the love of Christ.

Perhaps other units and systems are needed. What about the Smoot? Every MIT student knows what a smoot is: it is a unit of length equal to five feet seven inches. It is named for Oliver Smoot who, as a fraternity pledge in 1958, was used to measure the Harvard Bridge which connects Boston and Cambridge. After repeatedly lying down on the bridge and having his position marked in chalk, it turned out that the bridge was 364.4 smoots (and an ear) long. Google now offers the option to measure anything in smoots. I, for example, am 1.134 smoots tall. But there are not enough smoots to measure the heights and depths of the love of Christ.

If you try to measure how long the love of Christ will last, you’ll use units of time. How about “the moment”? When somebody asks you to do something and you reply, “Just a moment,” you probablythink you’re giving yourself some wiggle room, but you’re not. A “moment” is quite precise. It was a medieval time measurement, roughly equal to one and a half minutes. Put a billion moments into the equation, and you have not even come close to the end of Christ’s love. Put a billion millennia into the equation and you are still no nearer. That is the love we must grasp.

Paul’s request in this prayer is broken into three parts. The first is that the Ephesian followers of Jesus would be given power to strengthen them. The second is that, being so strengthened, Christ would settle down and make himself at home in their hearts – their command centers. The third is that, being strengthened, they will be able (verse 18) to grasp the dimensions, and so (verse 19, and this is how I translate it) “to know the knowledge-surpassing love of Christ.”

Now, before we go on, we need to go back. Paul prays the Ephesians “may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and so to know this love that surpasses knowledge” (Ephesians 3:17-18). Don’t miss the words, “together with all the saints.” It is not a throwaway clause.  

We will not have power to grasp how wide and long and high and deep the love of Christ is in isolation from the saints. We need all the saints – all God’s own people – to get a handle on (to grasp) the immensity of Christ’s love. Even though we can never succeed in measuring or quantifying it, we can grasp it; can know it experientially—but only in partnership with all God’s other people. You know things I do not know, see things I have not seen, just as I know and see things you do not. Only together can we begin to get a handle on – to grasp – the unending, overwhelming love of Christ. Only in partnership with all Jesus’s people does being “filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (verse 19) become a possibility.

No one ever accused the Apostle Paul of thinking small. What a goal! “…that you may be filled to the measure of the fullness of God.” This is the goal to which Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians has been headed all along. But let’s pause a moment to ask, “Who is being filled to all the fullness of God?” Michael or Abby – the individual believer? I think not. The “you” here is plural and, in this case, that is significant. Paul is praying for the church of Jesus to be filled to all the fullness of God. He’s praying that God will come to the Living Temple – remember the end of chapter 2? – as he did Solomon’s temple, and fill it with all his fullness.

This is not a prayer for Christians in isolation but for Christians in the church. Don’t forget that God wants to demonstrate (verse 10) to rulers and authorities his manifold wisdom through what – individuals?  No. Through the church. The church that knows the knowledge-surpassing love of Christ, that has grasped and won’t let go of that love, is a miracle on earth. The church that forgives, gives, protects, trusts, hopes is a stunning alternative to the what people see in their homes and at work every day. The church that has grasped the love of Christ is both compelling evidence of God’s wisdom and a persuasive advertisement to join God’s people.

Let’s be that church! A church that is fertile soil, rich in love, in which people get rooted and upon which they build their lives.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to becoming that church is the lovelessness that we ourselves bring into it. Many of us were not rooted in love but rather in fear, rejection, indifference, and condemnation and some of that stuff is still circulating through us. We are upset when the church does not love us, but we are not doing a good job loving the church. It is a vicious cycle. When we don’t love, we don’t feel loved. When we don’t feel loved, we don’t love. What can we do?

Well, we can start by praying for our church, as Paul prayed for the Ephesians. How much we need to know this love and how essential it is that we should pray for it! If it were true, as a famous Christian once said, that “God does nothing except in answer to prayer,”[1] would God be doing this? I think that great man exaggerated, but he exaggerated to make a point: God wants us to have a role in what he is doing, and prayer is a major component in that role. Let us pray this prayer for LCC and for all the Church in Brach County!

Next, we can get active – not passive – about loving each other. We can call and encourage each other; go out to lunch together; pray together; go on vacations together; serve together; share hobbies; share sorrows; drive each other to appointments; loan cars, give aid. In other words, we can bless each other and work for each other’s good. St. John said, “Let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth” (1 John 3:18). Just talking about love is not enough to enrich the soil. People who take root in mere talk are easily uprooted. We need action.

Finally, we must learn to look beyond each other’s imperfect love (we are all so very imperfect) and draw on Jesus’s perfect love. We will let each other down. Yes, we are being purified, but there is still a lot of impurities (and, in some cases, poisons) in our lives that have not been refined out. The love we need is Jesus’s – through each other, yes; a thousand times yes – but also straight from the source.

Jesus’s love is enough for you: enough to fulfill you, change you, and enable you to love, however anyone else may act. Jesus’s love will sustain you when no one else loves you. Jesus’s love will not run out when you mess everything up. Jesus’s love is enough.

Karen and I were at Lake Tahoe for our 40th anniversary. Lake Tahoe is the eighth deepest lake in the world at 1645 feet. The lake is so large that if it were tipped over, its contents would cover the entire state of California in 14.5 inches of water. It could provide every person in the United States with 50 gallons of water per day for the next five years. Just one year’s evaporation from Tahoe could supply Los Angeles enough water for five years. And Lake Tahoe is a small lake compared to Lake Superior (120 times as large) and the world’s largest lake, the Caspian Sea (576 times as large).

Your personal use of water could never exhaust the limits of Lake Tahoe, nor could your need for love could ever exhaust Christ’s limitless supply. Whatever you need, whatever you do, you can never exhaust Jesus’s love.[2]

Sometimes – maybe for you, this is the time – we need to be reminded of that. The supreme image of that love is Jesus on the cross. His head, crowned with thorns, points to the furthest reaches of heaven – to z8_GND_5296.6 and beyond. His feet, to the depths of the grave and beyond. His arms reach as far as the east is from the west. This is the measure of his love.

 “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:10).

Take root in that love and you will flourish. Build on it, and you will be unshakeable.


[1] John Wesley

[2] David Finch, “A Picture of Praise,” sermon on PreachingToday.com, http://www.preachingtoday.com/sermons/outlines/2014/november/picture-of-praise.html

This entry was posted in From the Pulpit, Prayer, Sermons and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Powerful Prayers: To Know the Unknowable

  1. John Kleinheksel says:

    I can’t get through to the content, Shayne. J

    Like

  2. salooper57 says:

    Thanks, John. Don’t know what happened, but glad you caught it. Will you try again and let me know if it doesn’t appear as it should?
    Shayne

    Like

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