As Christmas was approaching, I was feeling the pressure. As I was pulling together the bulletins and writing a couple of sermons I grew anxious that the Christmas services would be a special blessing to all. In the midst of writing one of the sermons I received a text from the Archbishop telling me that he was praying for me and wishing me a blessed Christmas. I was so encouraged, knowing that he was praying for me, that a good deal of my burden was lifted and I was able to press forward with renewed energy.
I believe that the Church at Ephesus must have experienced a similar sense of encouragement knowing that the Apostle Paul, not only held them in high regard, but that he also was praying for them. He said that he did not cease to give thanks for them and then he tells them the things for which he prays. This is no “now I lay me down to sleep” prayer. This prayer is powerful and it is safe to assume that God inspired the Apostle to pray this prayer because it was God’s will for His Church. This was God’s will them and it is God’s will for each of us.
But before we take a closer look at what the Apostle prays for them and for us, notice the context of the prayer. He is praying these things because God has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in Christ and has chosen us before the foundations of the world to be holy and blameless in love.
There is a lot of theology packed into those couple of lines and while on one hand it would be edifying to unpack that theology, let’s not miss the forest for the trees. Paul is not inviting a theological debate on predestination versus free will here. He is informing us that God is going to do these incredible things for us because even before the creation of the world He set His love upon us. Don’t get sidetracked at this point worrying about the guy in Papua New Guinee who has not heard the Gospel. Simply accept this truth that you are accepted in the Beloved, that you were chosen before the foundations of the world. Once you are grounded in that truth then you can worry about the guy in New Guinee and maybe even be moved to do something about it. Now lets look at the prayer.
First he prays that God would give us a spirit of wisdom and revelation as we come to know Him. That sounds kind of mystical but it is very important to understand. The journey that we are on is to know God, but we must understand from the outset that the knowledge of God does not come in the same way that we gain knowledge about science or medicine or art. We cannot study our way into the knowledge of God. We can only know Him as He reveals Himself to us.
Think of it this way. You can read a thousand books on marriage and even earn a PhD in marriage and family therapy but until you are actually married, you don’t have a clue. You have to be in a relationship in order to learn how relationships work. And so God invites us into a relationship with Him and it is in the context of that relationship that we come to know Him more fully and are conformed more and more into His image.
This spirit of wisdom and revelation that St. Paul speaks of is the Holy Spirit in our lives. Without Him we cannot know God. It is why we must be careful not to quench or to grieve the Holy Spirit and why we are to have our lives open to His teaching and direction. He is the one who leads us into all truth.
Have you ever been frustrated trying to share the Gospel with a really smart person and yet no matter how simple you put it they don’t seem to get it? St. Paul explains why in 1 Corinthians. “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him, these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit…. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God for they are folly to him and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.” So we need the Holy Spirit to reveal God to us because He is not known simply through human wisdom.
But his prayer does not stop there. Next St. Paul prays that we would know the hope to which we have been called. It is very important that we understand that he is not using the word “hope” as we use it today. We apply hope today to something that we would like to have happen but to which there is no guarantee. We even apply hope to something that may not even have a snowball’s chance. For example you hear all the time of people hoping to win the lottery in spite of the fact the chances are in the hundreds of millions to one. But still they hope.
Hope is used in a very different way in the New Testament. In the New Testament, hope is a reality in God that we have not yet realized. But it is so certain of a reality in our future that it should affect how we live our lives today.
If you knew that your name was in an irrevocable trust and that at some point in the future that you would inherit a vast fortune, do you think it would have an impact on how you live your life today? Of course it would. If nothing else you wouldn’t any longer worry about your financial future. Well our future in Christ is certain and St. Paul is praying that we are enlightened to understand the hope that we have in Christ.
And what is that hope, what is the reality yet to be realized? Our hope is the return of Christ. Our hope is the resurrection of the dead. Our hope is that these bodies of corruption will be exchanged for incorruptible ones. Our hope is that we will be joint heirs with Christ in a new heaven and a new earth. Our hope is to be with the Lord forever.
And should this hope affect how we live our lives today? How could it not? Our hope is what gives us different priorities from the world as well as different values and different goals. The world is about grabbing all the gusto and “he who dies with the most toys wins.” But we are to be about loving God with all of our hearts and loving our neighbors as ourselves. The world is about storing up riches on earth. We are to be about storing up riches in heaven. We understand that while you can’t take it with you, you can send it on ahead. The certainty of our future, our hope, influences how we live from day to day.
The third thing that St. Paul prays for us is that we would know of his glorious inheritance among the saints. Actually the way this sentence is structured it can also read that we would know his glorious inheritance IN the saints. This brings to mind the time of persecutions of the early church when the deacon w
as ordered to turn over the treasures of the church to the governing officials and a couple of days later the deacon brought them the poor and the sick. He understood the true riches of the Church.
To have that same perspective we have to be careful how we appraise one another. You know the expression that we are not to judge a book by its cover. Well the Apostle took it a step deeper and said that we are to know no man after the flesh. In other words we are not to value one another with standards of the world like how much money or education they have or their position in life. Rather we are to appraise one another according to the Spirit and when we do that we see others of infinite worth because they have been created in the image and likeness of God. Rather than dividing people into class or race or status we, as we promised in our baptismal covenant, are to seek and serve Christ in all people.
In one sense it was a true gift when the Episcopal Church took our building away from us in 2006 because those years in the wilderness had us experience what we knew intellectually and that is that the Church is the people and not the building. I believe during that time we grew in our appreciation for one another. We experienced his glorious inheritance IN the saints.
The last thing for which he prays is that we would know the immeasurable greatness of His power toward us who believe. If God willed all of these wonderful things for us, but did not have the power to bring them about, then our hope would be nothing more than a wish. But because of His power then all things are possible and so we do not hope in vain. His sovereignty over all secures us in our daily lives and allows us to rest in His will.
This story of the holy family fleeing to Egypt and then returning to Nazareth is an example of His power to care and to keep His own. Notice that both the flight to Egypt and the return to Nazareth were fulfillment of prophecies so these were done in accordance to God’s will. And yet there is no indication in the text that the principals involved were aware that they were fulfilling prophecy. Add to that the wrinkle that in both cases they were responding to the actions of evil men. The holy family fled to Egypt to avoid Herod and they moved to Nazareth to avoid Archelaus. We can hardly say that these two evil men acted as agents of God in threating the Child and yet their actions and Joseph’s response led to the fulfillment of prophecy. Only God’s sovereign power could coordinate people and event in such a way to accomplish what had been predicted by the prophets and at the same time have people operate as free moral agents.
Because of the greatness of His power we can see events in our lives as reflections of His loving and powerful care. While not everything that happens to us every day is a direct result of the hand of God, you don’t have to have too many divine appointments happen before you start to doubt coincidences and start believing that the Shepherd is watching over His sheep.
Some people doubt that the Lord is that intimately involved in each of our lives but that is because, to quote JB Phillips, their god is too small. If He can spin universes off of His fingertips then He can get you where you need to be when you need to be there. When I think back over my life I realize that if x or y or z did not happen then I would not be who or where I am today. What brought about the x or y or z in my life if not the power of the Lord? It wasn’t an alignment of the planets and it certainly wasn’t my doing. I’m not smart enough to weave what has become the tapestry of my life.
And where we particularly see His power at work towards us is when He brings good out of evil. In His power He was able to take the execution of the only sinless Man who ever lived and make it the very cause of our salvation. I would i
magine that if we had the time that nearly every one here could give a testimony of something happening to them that they would not wish on their worst enemy and yet God was able to work it to the good. People who are able to see His power work in this manner are people of faith and often are used as wounded healers. People who cannot see God’s power at work become crippled by bitterness and unforgiveness. So we need to understand His power.
The greatness of His power towards us is therefore the reason that we do not live in fear. If because of His power there is nothing that can separate us from His love then what is there ultimatley to fear? I read a letter written in the Middle Ages from an Abbot to some Knights Templar who were defending a holy site. He said it in very lofty terms but in essence he presented to them a win/win situation that resulted from faith in God. He remarked that if they defeated the enemy then they had won a victory for the Lord and if they were killed in battle then they would go and be with the Lord. So either way it comes out a win and so he encouraged them to be brave. Belief in God’s power creates a win/win situation in our lives and frees us from fear.
I saw a great quote that I posted last week. It said, “Our hope is not in the new year but in the One who makes all things new.” Perhaps the most important thing that God can make new for us in this new year is our relationship with Him. This prayer of St. Paul is the means for that very thing to happen. Let us pray. “I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe.” Amen.