This sermon was preached at Carnegie Presbyterian Church, Carnegie PA, Sunday July 26 2009, at the 9:00AM service.
Sermon on Christian Unity –
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Old Testament Lesson: Isaiah 42:1 “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him and he will bring justice to the nations. 2 He will not shout or cry out, or raise his voice in the streets. 3 A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out. In faithfulness he will bring forth justice; 4 he will not falter or be discouraged till he establishes justice on earth. In his law the islands will put their hope.” 5 This is what God the LORD says– he who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and all that comes out of it, who gives breath to its people, and life to those who walk on it: 6 “I, the LORD, have called you in righteousness; I will take hold of your hand. I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles, 7 to open eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness. 8 “I am the LORD; that is my name! I will not give my glory to another or my praise to idols. 9 See, the former things have taken place, and new things I declare; before they spring into being I announce them to you.” 10 Sing to the LORD a new song, his praise from the ends of the earth, you who go down to the sea, and all that is in it, you islands, and all who live in them. 11 Let the desert and its towns raise their voices; let the settlements where Kedar lives rejoice. Let the people of Sela sing for joy; let them shout from the mountaintops. 12 Let them give glory to the LORD and proclaim his praise in the islands. 13 The LORD will march out like a mighty man, like a warrior he will stir up his zeal; with a shout he will raise the battle cry and will triumph over his enemies. 14 “For a long time I have kept silent, I have been quiet and held myself back. But now, like a woman in childbirth, I cry out, I gasp and pant. 15 I will lay waste the mountains and hills and dry up all their vegetation; I will turn rivers into islands and dry up the pools. 16 I will lead the blind by ways they have not known, along unfamiliar paths I will guide them; I will turn the darkness into light before them and make the rough places smooth. These are the things I will do; I will not forsake them. 17 But those who trust in idols, who say to images, ‘You are our gods,’ will be turned back in utter shame.
New Testament Lesson: Ephesians 3:14-21 14 For this reason I kneel before the Father, 15 from whom his whole family in heaven and on earth derives its name. 16 I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, 18 may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, 19 and to know this love that surpasses knowledge– that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. 20 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, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.
Today I’m going to talk about a mystery… not an Agatha Christie type mystery but a mystery of faith. Faith mysteries have to do with God… but they’re things so far outside our ability to understand that when we’re confronted with them we usually just say “OK God, whatever it is you said that’s what I believe”. Today I’d like to dig a little deeper than that.
In the reading from Paul’s letter to the Christians in Ephesus he talks about one of the great mysteries of the Christian faith. And in doing so he calls on Isaiah to back him up. This morning we’re going to try to trace Paul’s thinking and see what he has to say to us about living the Christian life.
As we trace his thinking, it will be helpful to set up three categories in our minds to help sort the information we’re going to look at. Picture three containers to put things into. Container #1 is labeled “Paul’s Prayer”. Container #2 is labeled “Our Goal”. Container #3 is labeled “A Warning”. Paul’s prayer, our goal, a warning. Here we go.
Paul was known for being a man of BIG ideas. It was not unusual for him to write letters that were pages long just to express one thought. And this letter to the Ephesians happens to be one of them. The opening words of our reading in Eph 3:14 are: “For this reason…” We’re starting in the middle of a thought which begs the question, ‘For what reason’? To understand what Paul is talking about we need to look back to what he said previously.
For those of you who have your Bibles open and want to follow along, I’ll call out the verses as we go. Otherwise just sit back and enjoy the ride. Starting in Ephesians Ch 3.
The beginning of the chapter, verse 1, starts out with the words: “for this reason…” So we need go back further. Previous paragraph? Eph. 2:19 begins “Consequently…” (or “So then…” – RSV) Back further. Eph 2:14: “For…” Eph 2:11: “Therefore…” Eph 1:15 “For this reason…” You get the idea. Paul has this one BIG thought throughout the entire letter.
So what is this huge idea that Paul is stringing together? If you have your Bibles open, follow along, otherwise keep on sitting back, here we go with the Reader’s Digest version of Ephesians. Starting in ch 1 v 3, Paul says:
3 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ… 4 For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. 9 And he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure… 13 And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. 15 For this reason, ever since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints, 16 I have not stopped giving thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers.
Ephesians 2:1 As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, 2 in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world… 12 remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise,
Stop there for a sec. The word “foreigner” implies “Gentile” – the two words in Paul’s time carried roughly the same meaning. You and I, all of us here, are Gentiles because we weren’t born into the nation of Israel, God’s chosen people. So these words are addressed directly to us.
…[we were] foreigners without hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ. 19 Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household,
Ephesians 3:4 4 In reading this, then, you will be able to understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to men in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets. 6 This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus. [Notice the repetition of the word together.] 8 Although I am less than the least of all God’s people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ,
Now we’re back to where our reading began. 14 For this reason I kneel before the Father, 15 from whom his whole family in heaven and on earth derives its name. The whole family, that is, Jews and Gentiles together, both here and in heaven. Having said this, Paul drives home his point in ch 4 v 3:
3 Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.
Paul is saying that all believers, Jews and Gentiles, are one in Christ. So that’s our context, and it is huge.
And so back to our text for today, Eph 3:14. Paul says “For this reason…” – for what reason? Because of this mystery: that by God’s power people who were not chosen – not Israelites – had become God’s chosen people. It was no longer just the nation of Israel. AND because God had called Paul to be the apostle, that is, the messenger, to the Gentiles. (The other apostles of his day – Peter, James, John, and others – were apostles mostly to the Jews. Paul is the apostle who held us Gentiles close to his heart.)
So for this reason, Paul prays to God on our behalf, and asks that God would strengthen us, dwell in us, establish us in love. BTW that word “establish” in Greek means “rooted” the way a tree is rooted. Have you ever tried to dig up a tree? You know what the roots are like. They grip into the ground and they will… not… budge. That’s what Paul means when he says “rooted in love” – so deeply that we can’t be budged. So that, together with all the saints we may (v 18) “grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ”, (v 19) to know “love that surpasses knowledge”, to be filled with the fullness of God.
How is this possible? How can Paul’s prayer be answered? I think the key is in one little phrase, a little half-line that looks like a throwaway comment in v 18: together with all the saints.
IT IS IMPOSSIBLE for any one of us, no matter how intelligent, no matter how loving, no matter how spiritual, no matter how good, IT IS IMPOSSIBLE for any one of us by ourselves to grasp ‘how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ’. We can’t do it. It will take all of us together to begin to grasp the height and depth of the love of Christ. The body of believers, together as one, the whole church, is called in Scripture the bride of Christ. And I think that’s why. It’s going to take all of us together to make a bride worthy of Christ and capable of knowing the depth of His love. And that is the mystery Paul is talking about. The mystery of faith. And in catching a glimpse of that mystery, Paul can’t hold back the praise:
20 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, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus [see how Paul brings the two together – Jesus and the church – to God’s glory] throughout all generations, for ever and ever!
Just a little side note. I love that phrase “forever and ever”. Notice that’s not just one forever, that’s two forevers: “forever and ever”. Those of you who were raised Catholic will recognize the phrase in Latin, in saecula saeculorum – it’s a double plural – for ages of ages. It just… never… ends, this love between Christ and His church, never ends.
So that’s container #1 – Paul’s prayer. Paul prays that we might grasp the reality of this mystery, that God has chosen people from all nations, Russians, Chinese, Americans, French, Spanish, English, Egyptians, Iranians, Pakistanis – all nations – Jews and Gentiles, to be His; and the reason He brings us together is so that we can know the height and depth and breadth and length of His love, forever. And ever.
Here’s container #2 – the goal. Over now to Isaiah 42. How does Paul know all this? It’s interesting to find the answer we have to look to words that were written over 700 years before Jesus was born. Isaiah starts with these words: “Here is my servant, whom I uphold…”
It’s not immediately obvious who the ‘servant’ is, but a few verses later the servant is identified. Verses 6 & 7. “I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles, 7 to open eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness.” Does anyone recognize those words? Where have you heard them before?
Jesus read the following passage from Isaiah at the synagogue in Nazareth:
Luke 4:18-21 18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” […] And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
700 years before Jesus was born, Isaiah saw Him coming. Skeptics these days will try to tell you this is all a hoax, that the book of Isaiah was written after Jesus died. The Dead Sea Scrolls prove this isn’t true. The Scrolls contain the oldest copies of the book of Isaiah that have ever been discovered, and they were made about 150 years before Jesus was born. Earlier this year I visited the place where the scrolls were discovered – Qumran. This stuff is not mythology – it’s history and it has been proven. Isaiah knew. And Paul marvels at this mystery coming true.
Isaiah didn’t know Jesus by name, but here’s what he did know.:
V1 – God delights in Him; God has put His Spirit on him; and His mission is to bring justice to the nations. BTW when you see “the nations” in the OT that’s the same thing as saying “Gentiles” – he’s talking about us again.
V2 – “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out” – This servant is a man of great compassion. He treats the injured with tenderness and the weak with kindness.
V4 – “he will not falter or be discouraged till he establishes justice on earth” – He will accomplish the mission God has sent him to do. And here’s the amazing thing: Jesus’ mission was to bring justice to the world through Himself, by taking our imperfections and everything we’ve ever done wrong on Himself, and dying in our place. The justice of God is a justice rooted so deeply in love that He would rather sacrifice Himself than see us die.
So container #2 – our goal – is Jesus Himself. Just like Paul said in his prayer, our goal, together, is to be the recipient of Jesus’ self-giving love, forever.
OK here comes container #3 – The warning. Isaiah includes a word of warning in this passage, not once but twice, and when a prophet of Isaiah’s calibre repeats himself, we might want to listen. The first is in v. 8 which reads:
“I am the LORD; that is my name! I will not give my glory to another or my praise to idols…” and v. 17 – “But those who trust in idols, who say to images, ‘You are our gods,’ will be turned back in utter shame.”
There are two things I want to point out in these verses. First, in verse 8 “I am the Lord, that is my name!” In the Bible, wherever you see the word Lord written in all capital letters, that means in the original language it actually had God’s name there – Yahweh. The name Yahweh in Hebrew means “I AM” – that’s God’s name. It’s the name He used when He introduced Himself to Moses in the book of Exodus. So here God is saying “I am the I AM, that’s my name!”
Secondly, God will not allow worship to be given to anyone or anything else. Does this mean we should never praise another person? never think another person is wonderful? No! It means never putting another person in God’s place. It means God – Father, Jesus, and Spirit – is the most important person in your life, and nothing else comes before Him.
Making anything else more important than Him is idolatry. And I don’t need to say much about that because idolatry is all around us in the world. Some people make idols of money, or power, or career, or romance; some people make idols of family, or marriage, or children; some make idols of being Democrat or being Republican; some people make idols of rock stars or athletes or politicians or actors; some make idols of education, or physical strength, or popularity; some people even make idols of themselves, and become little gods of their own little universes.
All these things that people make idols out of are good things, treated in an appropriate way, but none of them should be more important to us than God. I don’t remember who said it, I think it may come from Alcoholics Anonymous, but there’s an old saying: God is the only thing in the universe that can control us without destroying us. And God in His love warns us not to make the mistake of losing ourselves in anything other than Himself. If we do, as it says in v 17, we bring utter shame on ourselves. That’s our warning, and that goes in container #3.
So. Three containers. First, Paul’s prayer, that we might understand the mystery of our having been chosen by God to be His, and together grow to know a love that is beyond our understanding. Second, we have a goal: Jesus Christ himself, God’s delight, who gives sight to the blind and liberty to the captives and light to the Gentiles and justice to all nations through His sacrifice of Himself in love. Third, we have a warning: Don’t ever be fooled into settling for second best. Because that’s what idolatry really is. There is no other God, there is no greater love, there is no one else worthy of worship, there is no one else worth giving our whole hearts and lives to.
And so I close with Paul’s words, Eph 3:20
20 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, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.