Sunday, July 26, 2015

Gordon Zook: All the fullness of God

In God's household, we are rooted in love
Ephesians 3:14-21

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INTRO: COUNTING THE STARS

They must have been Third and First Graders when they wanted to see the eclipse of the moon. Betsey and Matthew, our oldest daughter and son, were talking at the supper table about the lunar event they had learned in school would be happening that night. Bonnie and I agreed to set the alarm about midnight so we could all see the special sight.

It didn’t seem like nearly as good an idea when the alarm went off. Betsey immediately began complaining and begged us to let her sleep. But we reminded her of her supper time request, and she finally got up. Matt was more cooperative, and we all went outside to view the sky. We were duly impressed as we looked at the full moon, partially obscured by the earth’s shadow, like a big bite had been taken out of the lunar sphere. Then we went back to bed.

Next morning, Matt remembered our table agreement and wondered why we hadn’t gotten him up. Betsey remembered in vivid detail and told him so. In spite of his blank memory on that occasion, Matt retained a continuing interest in the skies. As a teenager there were a number of nights when he climbed to our roof so he could get a better view. He took an astronomy course in college, and even became a student lecturer in the Earlham College planetarium.

People have been watching the moon and stars and planets and eclipses for generations. A few minutes ago, we read in Genesis how Abraham was looking at the stars some 3,500 years ago. He was learning to know Yahweh; had even set out on a nomadic quest to a new land, at the beck and call of this new divine awareness, buoyed with God’s promise that “I will make you into a great nation.” (Gen 12:2)

Three chapters later, however, (Gen 15) the promise seemed hollow. Abram was approaching his 100th birthday and his wife, although a decade younger (17:17), was well past the age of child-bearing. “What can you give me,” he asked God reproachfully, “since I remain childless and my chief servant is in line to become my heir?” (15:2-3)

That’s when Yahweh took him outside to look up at the night sky and count the stars—“if indeed you can count them.” And Yahweh assured him that his descendants would be as uncountable as the stars (15:5).

How many stars did Abraham see? Astronomers tell us that on a clear night we can see about 2,000 stars in our northern hemisphere, and if we were to travel to the southern hemisphere, we could see another 2,000 there. With telescopes the number is multiplied. Indeed, World Book Encyclopedia speaks of 200 billion-billion stars (i.e. “2” followed by 20 zeroes). In Carl Sagan’s TV documentaries about the universe several decades ago, I can still hear his voice rumbling about: “billions and billions of stars.”

Currently, astronomers are debating whether Pluto is a ninth solar planet or not. And we have been mesmerized by the recent Pluto flyby after launching of the New Horizons space craft some nine and a half years ago. We are told that New Horizons has now traveled some 3 billion miles from earth to its rendezvous with Pluto, and that it takes four and a half hours for the space craft to transmit pictures back to earth, even though signals are traveling at the speed of light.

I. LEARNING TO LIVE BY FAITH

While those numbers stagger our imagination, are they any less believable than a childless couple in their 80s or 90s, contemplating maybe 2,000 stars and a corresponding number of descendants? Our minds go spinning as Star Trek and many other science fiction fantasies imagine people (and other strange creatures) traveling between constellations and galaxies to worlds not yet discovered.

So where is God in all this? For some, God is irrelevant. If God exists at all, he would need to be much older than Abraham. Which suggests that God is probably too old to understand computers or internets or a space craft mission to Pluto. At best, many believe, God’s understandings are limited to the near stars in our galaxy.

Others see each new discovery as further attestation of an infinite God who is in it all. Abraham apparently was one of these. In spite of his advancing age and diminishing prospects of offspring, Abraham heard Yahweh’s promise. Incredible as it was, Gen 15:6 says: “Abram believed Yahweh, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”

I put Paul on the same list when he speaks in today’s Ephesians passage about the love of Christ “that surpasses knowledge,” which is far beyond our abilities to see, or our puny minds’ ability to fathom. Yet Paul prays (and our whole passage from Ephesians 3, is a prayer) that we “may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.” How much is that?

One measure can be found in the created universe. Many times people have said (maybe we’ve said it ourselves), we feel closer to God in wilderness areas:

  • where one can see an unending variety of creatures and trees and vegetation all the way to the mountain peaks.
  • when we can see stars and planets unblocked by manmade buildings or dimmed by city lights.

I, too, marvel at outdoor wonders, with their amazing variety of heavenly bodies, and trees, and garden vegetables, and insects, and (the list has no end). But I also marvel when I visit a hospital and see the microscopes, and CT scanners, and heart monitors, and hypodermic needles.

How did our universe come to be, with its outer expanses on one hand and its minutiae of tiny interacting molecules on the other? Some say it just happened. Others say that “just happening” is no more believable than supposing a variety of matter shaken together long enough could emerge as a fine watch.

When scientists study the world, they see order, and predictability, and relationships, and sequences, and causes, and effects. When I review the Genesis accounts, I see order, and predictability, and relationships, and sequences, and causes, and effects. From either starting point, there are dimensions beyond the grasp of my mind, even if I held degrees in biochemistry and astrophysics.

Paul prayed in Eph 3:16-17 that God

may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.

Faith comes from Spirit power in our inner beings, so that we sense Christ in our hearts. Thus equipped, like Abraham, we are able to “believe God” and walk with him into the future. Tho we can’t count the stars, let alone explain outer space or inner space, we proceed with a profound confidence that God is in control, and we can trust his promises.

II. EXPLORING THE DIMENSIONS OF LOVE

Paul’s second prayer, beginning in v. 17, is that we,

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 (Eph 3:17b-19a)

Here Paul depicts the love of Christ in four dimensions. Usually, three dimensions are enough to be comprehensive. That’s how the postal service measures a package for mailing. If we add a fourth dimension, we are more likely to think of time as a multiplier for width and length and height.

Interestingly, the fourth dimension specified here is depth. Perhaps it is only poetic, echoing and reinforcing height which is its opposite. Perhaps it is for emphasis, like claiming to support someone or something 1,000%. Maybe it is like counting the stars, which is beyond our comprehension, even with atomic telescopes.

Yet Paul believes this four dimensional love is knowable, because he prays precisely that we may “know this love that surpasses knowledge” so that we “may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (Eph 3:19b, NIV). After counting the stars, try absorbing the deep, deep love of Christ!

Personally, I believe Paul’s fourth dimension has something to do with inner space, regarding which he prayed in 3:16 that God would strengthen us “with power through his Spirit in [our] inner being, so that Christ may [fill your hearts] through faith” (3:16b-17a). Talk about a big order: The goal is “to be filled with all the fullness of God.”(NRSV)

What is the fullness of God? Try as I may, I can’t wrap that concept around my little brain, any more than Abraham could count all the stars. Yet, for Abraham, the fourth dimension broke through! His inner being was so overwhelmed by his encounter with Yahweh, that “he believed God.” Scripture says, his believing was reckoned to Abram as right relation with God. Presumably he was “filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.” (NIV)

This is the Almighty God, who said “Let there be Light,” and by that word created heavens and earth, a universe more vast than humans can explore, or even imagine.

According to John 1, it was that very creative word which spoke the world into being from “the beginning,” then became a human being and lived among us, of whom John proclaimed: “we have seen his glory, glory as of the only son of the Father, full of grace and truth (Jn 1:14). Then two verses later: “And from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace,” or “one blessing after another.”

As we study the NT, we understand that John’s “word which became flesh” is the Christ who died on the cross as a criminal, later to resume his position at the right hand of God. In the first chapter of Eph., Paul said of the exalted Christ:

God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way. (Eph 1:22-23)

Amazingly, the Church, those who follow Christ, become the earthly manifestation of the fullness of Christ. Listen again to Eph 3:18, where Paul prayed for his original readers and for us:

that you … may have power … 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. (Eph 3:18-19)





  1. TRYING TO IMAGINE THE UNIMAGINABLE

The first half of Ephesians (chaps. 1, 2, 3) represents a carefully crafted essay on the blessings that come to those who are “in Christ Jesus,” as Paul characterizes the relationship. The second half (chaps. 4, 5, 6) focuses more on how those so blessed should respond. The first half, which we have been studying these past three Sundays, is a worshipful exposition of what God has done through Christ. The second half is a logical exhortation to live accordingly. That portion is to be highlighted the next four Sundays. [Thomas R. Yoder Neufeld, Ephesians, Believers Church Bible Commentary, p. 20.]

This two-part structure helps explain the unexpected doxology, or ascription of praise, which appears here in the middle of the letter, at the end of Eph 3. Most often Paul speaks a short benediction at the end of a letter or, as in Romans, he places a longer doxology such as this one at the end. But here, it seems, he can’t wait. Already he has been counting our blessings:

  • God’s plan to bring all things together under Christ, ch 1
  • God’s grace exhibited in Christ, chap 2
  • Christ’s peacemaking between Jews and non-Jews, ch 2-3
  • and the four-dimensional love of Christ, chap 3

Now Paul stirs our sense of wonder to believe that there is no end to all that God can do, and will do, for us:

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! (Eph 3:20-21)

Which then allows him to launch the second part of his letter in Chap 4, with “Therefore … “

Immeasurably more than all we can ask or imagine…” Just how big is our God? How full is the fullness of God? In the OT we see God as big enough to create the universe. Then when the creation went sour, God implemented the plan to call a particular people as channel for reclaiming and blessing all peoples. The NT delivers good news that the blessing has arrived in the person of Jesus, the word become flesh, and representative of the family of Abraham.

It wasn’t what the Jewish people asked for or imagined. According to the NT, Jesus’ contemporaries couldn’t see it when it was happening, or if they could see it, they didn’t want to. For example, there is that heated conversation in John 8 which goes something like this:

People: Abraham is our father. (39)

Jesus: If you were Abraham’s children, you would do the things Abraham did, like believing the truth that I am teaching you. (39) If I am telling the truth, why don’t you believe me? (45)

P Aren’t we right in saying that you are a Samaritan and demon-possessed? (48)

J I am not possessed by a demon, but I honor my Father and you dishonor me. I am not seeking glory for myself… If anyone keeps my word, he will never see death. (49-50)

P Are you greater than our father Abraham? He died, and so did the prophets. Who do you think you are? (53)

J Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad. (56)

P You aren’t even 50 years old, and you have seen Abr! (57)

J I tell you the truth, before Abraham was born, I AM (58)

That was beyond imagination. And rather than believing like their father Abraham, they reached for stones to throw.

Nor was it anything non-Jews asked or imagined. Although Gentiles didn’t have the benefit of Hebrew scripture, Paul insisted in Romans (1:19-20) that much can be known about God in other ways.

What can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely his eternal power and divine nature, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made.

So in this letter to both Gentile and Jewish Christians living in Ephesus, Paul is celebrating the God who is way out in front of us, who is at work within the new people of God. Ours is a can-do God, capable of far more than our limited ability to beg or brainstorm. I experienced a bit of this amazing international, cross-cultural, able-to-do-more-than- we-imagine God this past week at Mennonite World Conference. And I newly motivated to join in Paul’s doxology:

To the boundary breaking and unlimited God: “be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever! Amen.”



CONCLUSION: EVERYTHING I HAVE IS YOURS

Evangelist Wilbur Chapman often retold the testimony given by a certain man in one of his meetings. (Obviously, money was worth a lot more then.) In the man’s words:

I got off at the Pennsylvania depot as a tramp, and for a year I begged on the streets for a living. One day I touched a man on the shoulder and said, “Hey, mister, can you give me a dime?” As soon as I saw his face, I was shocked to see that it was my own father. I said, “Father, Father, do you know me?” Throwing his arms around me and with tears in his eyes, he said, “Oh my son, at last I’ve found you! I’ve found you. You want a dime? Everything I have is yours”

Think of it. I was a tramp. I stood begging my own father for ten cents, when for 18 years he had been looking for me to give me all that he had. [John MacArthur, Ephesians, New Testament Commentary, p. 111]



So what about you?

  • Have you been able to grasp just how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ?
  • Do you believe with Abraham, that God is able to do immeasurably more than all we can ask or imagine?
  • Are you ready to participate in the fullness of God our Father, which is demonstrated in Christ’s body, the church?
  • What are you thinking or imagining that such fullness may be like?

PRAYER: Father God, having been rooted and grounded in your love, together with believers in every age and continent, we pray for heavenly power, to sense how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Jesus.

Even if that is beyond our grasp, we pray that you will fill us to the measure of all the fullness of God, through the grace of Christ who dwells within. Amen.



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