“More Than We Can Ask or Imagine”
Rev. Michael J. Zehnder
July 24/25, 2021 Ascension Lutheran Church, Littleton, CO
I feel like I have a lot of nerve preaching on this Ephesians 3 text. It’s certainly a recognizable topic – God’s love – so unfamiliarity is not the problem. The difficulty is that Paul admits that the size and magnitude of God’s love is beyond human understanding. He says,” I pray that you may grasp how big God’s love is; wide, long high and deep and then he says, verse 19, “and to know this love that surpasses knowledge.” Love that surpasses knowledge?! Even for a genius like Stephen Hawking or Albert Einstein, it’s beyond human comprehension. So basically, what I’ve set out for myself this day is to explain the unexplainable. Nervy! Paul prays that you would know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge. What? Wait a minute – what did he say? “I want you to know something you can’t know!” How can you know what is beyond knowing? This is going to take more than sheer intellectual concentration. We’re going to need the power and gift of the Holy Spirit. And even if you are not able to fully know it intellectually, you can know it by experience. But let’s get some help and start with prayer for this spiritual understanding. Would you bow your heads with me?
Dear Lord, just as Paul prayed 2,000 years ago that we could know the depth of your love so we pray the same thing today right now. Help us to grasp the vastness of your love, more than that, send us Your Holy Spirit so that we might experience it this day and for the rest of our lives, never doubting it’s incredible magnitude, but always relying on the certainty of Your love, especially when we’ve messed up or are going through hard times. In Jesus’ Name. Amen.
I’ll never forget when one of my sons shouted at me, “I hate you!” He was about 10 and it was the day after Halloween. He had already eaten tons of candy the day before and already that morning so I put the remainder on the top of the refrigerator where he couldn’t reach it unless I got it down for him. He asked me for more candy and I said, “No, you’ve had enough. Anymore and you’ll get sick.” That’s when he laid the bomb on me, “I hate you,” he said. I thought for one brief second about how to respond and then it came to me, “Well, I love you,” I said, and there wasn’t one doubt in my mind that I dearly loved him, even though he was saying something cruel and unfair to me and I was just trying to protect him from his childish desires. At the time, I’m sure he didn’t believe in my love. For him, love meant I would give him the candy he asked for and thought he deserved, because as he put it, “I earned that candy by going out trick er treating.” For him, no candy = no love.
I think that simple memory sums up what a lot of us think about God’s love. We ask for things we don’t get and in our minds that means He doesn’t love us. Sometimes they are good things, like “Lord, please heal my mom.” “Lord, please help me find a decent paying job.” “Lord please help me find my lost pet.” “Lord, please take away my loneliness.” And the healing doesn’t come, the job doesn’t come, Fluffy isn’t found and the days are still lonely. And just like my son did with me we may become angry with God. “Don’t you love me?” we cry out. “How can you let this happen to me?” we complain. “Why aren’t you answering me?” we ask. More than one person has lost faith in God because of a tragedy or an answer to prayer that was a big fat no and in our spiritually childish minds we equate it, like my son mistakenly once did, with a lack of love for us on God’s part. Sometimes that leads us to doubt, then anger, then unbelief. But that’s the height of MIS-understanding!
God, who is infinitely wiser than us, knows what is best. Sometimes His no’s are just a result of sin in this world which is trapped in bondage and decay. Sin has its costs and sometimes God does not spare us earthly consequences. He’s paid for the eternal consequences on the cross, but on earth there may be physical repercussions for our mistakes. Other times, His no’s are because He has something better in mind for us. Sometimes His no’s are not no’s at all, but delays in order to teach us something or get us to rely more on him or to line up something even better. After all, God said NO to Paul’s prayer – the greatest apostle who ever lived. Paul wanted him to remove some kind of problem – we don’t know what it was – but he called it a thorn, a messenger from satan. Paul asked God three times to remove it and spare him the consequences and three times God said no. Why? Because God wanted to teach Paul to rely more on His grace and to know that it was sufficient for him and to keep him humble because of the great revelations he had received. God’s NO was a good thing! Do you realize that God also said no to one of Jesus’ prayers? Oh yes, he did. In the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prayed, “Lord if there be any other way, please take this cup from me” (referring to suffering on the cross). And God said NO, you must face the agony of the cross and separation from Me. If God had said yes, Jesus wouldn’t have paid the punishment for our sins. We would not be forgiven. We would not be saved. We would not go to heaven and live with God forever. It’s a good thing God said no to Jesus’ prayer. Now there was nothing wrong with Jesus’ prayer. It was normal for His human flesh to recoil from the suffering ahead and for His divine Spirit to dread separation from the Father with whom He was ONE for all eternity. But God’s will for Him WAS to be stricken, smitten, afflicted and crushed for our iniquities by God Himself and to have Him cry out in agony, “My God, My God WHY have you forsaken me?!!!”
Why would God do that to His only-begotten, beloved Son? Because He loves YOU. And there’s my first point in trying to get into your head and heart about this love that surpasses knowledge. When you are suffering or going through trials and it may even seem that God is not answering your perhaps very good and noble prayers with a yes, stop looking at the candy you want on top of the refrigerator and look to the bloodied Body of Jesus Christ hanging on a cross for YOUR sins that he did not commit. A mental view of a bloodied Christ on the cross is a picture of love that surpasses knowledge. No one dies for a good person, much less a criminal. Sometimes people donate a kidney to save someone, but they don’t donate a life. But Jesus – our God – did! He donated His life. He took the horrendous hit for sin that we deserved and we got off scot-free. That’s love that surpasses knowledge, common sense or understanding.
The truth is that many people fall from faith because of what they perceive to be God’s NO’s, either for their own prayers or for the tragedies they see around them. We make a terrible assumption that God should be like a bell-hop. Put in the service request and He should hop to it and serve our needs – right now. Or we treat Him like a pop machine. Put in the payment – such as a prayer request – and out should pop the answer we want in the timing we want. In our arrogance, we might even think, “Hey God, I’m one of your best believers! I go to church, I go to Bible class, I give generously, I teach Sunday School, I tell others about you” or whatever our arrogance leads us to believe about special treatment we think we should receive.
Let me tell you a hard Biblical fact. Many of the best and most famous believers in the Bible got no special breaks because of who they were. Think first of Mary, Jesus’ own mother, of whom it was prophesied that the whole world would call her blessed. Luther called her “Theotokus,” the God-bearer. Think Jesus’ mother got special treatment? How about a 75-mile hike at nine months pregnant from Nazareth to Bethlehem? No red carpet for Mary, the mother of God! She and Joseph finish the journey, and she goes into labor but there is no room in the inn. She gives birth to the Son of God in a shelter where the animals are kept and lays her baby in a feeding trough. No relatives were there, not a mother, not a cousin, not a sister, not a midwife – no friends, no loved ones or family. Only her husband Joseph was there and they hadn’t even gone through a Lamaze class!
What about the 12 disciples? As far as we know, only one – John – was spared a gruesome death for preaching about Christ. Peter, who refused to renounce his faith was crucified, tied upside down on an x-shaped cross because he said he wasn’t worthy to be crucified in the same fashion as his Lord. From there, he preached for two days before he finally died. Thomas was impaled by a spear. Tradition holds that St. Paul was beheaded in Rome and died as a martyr for his faith.
The great prophet Elijah who called down fire on the altar of Baal, and prayed for and received rain after three years of drought was sawn in half for His preaching. Other prophets were put to death by the sword. According to Hebrews 11, “some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. [Some] were stoned…They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated – the world was not worthy of them!” Yet the Bible commends all of them for their faith (Heb. 11). Faith in the deep, deep love of God.
In other words, Point #2, your alleged worthiness does not guarantee you any special treatment or “yes answers” to all your prayers although James does promise a yes to this request: “If any of you lacks wisdom he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault and it will be given to him. (James 1:5) Your faith in Christ, no matter what your circumstances, does guarantee you an eternal glory and profound wisdom about of the love of God for sinners. Ask for it!
Point #3 There is nothing more important than knowing the deep love of Christ so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. It’s more important than health, more important than a decent paying job, more important than food, home, spouse or finances. Look at the beginning of our Ephesians passage. Paul says, “I KNEEL before the Father…and…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.”
What an impressive description of Paul’s prayer-posture! Our text depicts Paul on his knees praying for his people. He says, “For this reason I KNEEL before the Father.” Paul isn’t standing, sitting or walking. He GETS DOWN ON HIS KNEES. Kneeling paints a picture of Paul PLEADING with God to bless his people. It’s no mere request for a blessing. He begs, he pleads, he earnestly kneels at the door of heaven, and implores God to grant what He is asking. The posture of kneeling expresses the intensity of his desire. He begs God that they would KNOW the profound depth of God’s love for them, a love that goes beyond understanding. It’s like he praying, “If I can only ask one thing, here it is: that they would know your love.”
Knowing God’s love means you will not lose faith and you will not lose your joy. In Philippians, Paul writes, “Rejoice in the Lord always in all circumstances.” How wonderful – if in the middle of a trial, a health tragedy, a relationship tragedy, a financial set back, a reputation problem, a job loss – that you would not doubt God’s love and not lose your joy. This prayer comes from Paul, who was later imprisoned and bound with chains. His reaction was not, “Boo hoo, God must not love me.” Instead, he sang his heart out for joy in the Lord. That’s what Paul wants for you when he prays you would know the depths of God’s love. Bottom line: he’s praying for you to be happy because if you know the depth of God’s love you can and will rejoice in all circumstances. It is the “so what” of this sermon and of this text. Paul wants you to know the depth of God’s love, but there is reason for it beyond intellectual achievement. If you know it, you will experience it in your heart, your life, your attitude no matter what happens. Jesus said in John 10:10, “I have come that [you] may have life and have it to the full.” He didn’t say, “I came that you might have Information.” He didn’t say, “I came that you might have profound intellectual understanding about me.” He said, “I came that you might have life and have it to the full, have it abundantly. The abundant life is a happy life not an unhappy one. Do you realize that God actually wants you to be happy? God is not a kill joy. He’s the one who created all good things in life, including all the wonderful things you can experience through your 5 senses. Happiness now and forever is the gift He wants to give you. Paul says if you know this love that surpasses knowledge you’re going to “be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.” That’s the definition of happiness, not full of self, not full of the world or things, but full of God.
This means when you fall into sin you’re not going to worry that God can’t or won’t forgive you because it was such a terrible thing. Before conversion, Paul put Christians to death and says he was “a blasphemer and the least of all apostles.” But God forgave him. King David committed adultery and murder and God forgave him. Simon Peter was impulsive and always talked before he thought. When Jesus was going through the worst day of His life, Peter denied three times even knowing Him. Two of the disciples were such hotheads Jesus called them “sons of thunder.” Moses had an anger problem, illustrated one time when God told him to speak to a rock so that water would pour out of it. But Moses was so mad he struck the rock. Because of his anger issues, God chose a new leader – Joshua – and Moses wasn’t allowed to go into the Promised Land even after leading the wandering Israelites for 40 years in the wilderness and delivering the 10 commandments after a face to face with God. But he was forgiven. Peter was forgiven, Paul was forgiven, David was forgiven, the sons of thunder were forgiven. All these examples and the biblical truths about sinful leaders in scripture are there to comfort us. Like us, they were human sinners, but they were forgiven. So are we!
As scripture says, “If you confess your sins, God is faithful and just to forgive your sins and cleanse you from all unrighteousness.” Think of the greatest sin you’ve ever committed. I’ll give you just 2 seconds….there, you didn’t have to think very hard, did you? We all have sins in our past that scar our consciences. Sometimes we worry about sins like that, but God doesn’t want you to be paralyzed with fear. If you’ve confessed it and know the depth of God’s love, you’re not going to worry because you KNOW you are forgiven and you EXPERIENCE God’s peace in your hearts. Secondly, when you’re going through a trial – a health problem, a financial problem, a substance abuse problem, a relationship problem – if you KNOW God’s love you’re not going to act as if you have no God. You’re not going to cry out, “God must not love me” or “God must not really exist.” Instead, you’re going to remember that you have gone through no darker rooms than Christ has gone before you and that “He will not allow you to suffer more than you can bear.” Even during trials you’re going to do what Paul says in Philippians, “Rejoice in the Lord always.” At the end of this message, I don’t want you to react to the depth of God’s love like the “church lady” used to do on SNL and say, “Well, isn’t that special?” The point of knowing the depth of God’s love isn’t information but formation: so you will be HAPPY in all circumstances. Isn’t that the bottom line of what everyone wants? To be happy!? It’s what we want for our kids and grandkids; it’s what we want for ourselves – a happy life. It’s what God wants for you – a happy, abundant life to the full! You’re going to be happy knowing that terrible sin you’ve committed is forgiven and that you are at peace with God. You’re going to be happy in the midst of trials because you know that “Nothing can separate you from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus.” You’re going to be happy when God says “no” or “not yet” to a prayer request, not because you’re a masochist but because you completely TRUST in your heart in a loving God to be “with you always, even to the ends of the earth” and know through Christ you are “more than conquerors.”
One final note about God’s love – the special adjectives Paul uses to describe it. He wants you to know how “wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ.” How wide is it? Wide enough to include all people of every country, every race and of every time and every place. How high is it? High enough to completely cover up your sins under the white robe of Jesus’ perfection. God says in Micah 7:19, “I have hurled all your iniquities into the depth of the sea.” How deep is it? Deep enough to meet your deepest needs. How long is it? Long enough to last forever. And ever. And ever. Amen. Alleluia!