During the Spurgeon's preaching module study week in February 2004, we each had to prepare and deliver a 10 minute sermon - and, by implication, to do so in the light of the principles we had been thinking about during the week. The others picked their passages first, and this was the last one left, apart from a passage towards the end of Revelation, and I wasn't going there if I could help it. Not in 10 minutes.
What you have here are the notes I had prepared, along with some footnotes describing some aspects of the preparation and the response. I didn't speak from the notes in the end, so there will be some variation from what I actually said, but I think it's pretty close.
The passage before us is Ephesians chapter 3, verses 14 to 21: the final part of chapter 3, and the climax of the first part of the letter in which Paul is looking primarily at doctrine, before he starts in the second part to focus on the application of these truths.
We have been encouraged this week to look for a problem in the text [Note 1]. One thing I am very good at is finding problems. So, what I would like to offer you this afternoon is not so much a three-point sermon, as a 'three-problem' sermon. [Note 2]
My first problem is not so much with the passage in front of us, as with the whole book. I happen to believe that Paul wrote Ephesians as a circular letter to a number of different churches. It was not written for a particular person or church, or to combat a particular problem. So the content of this letter, the nature of the new life we have in Christ is relevant to all Christians, everywhere.
It would be so much easier for me, if this letter had been written to a stable and mature individual, or perhaps to a group of respoected leaders. Then, when young Christians come up and ask about 'Spiritual Warfare' and the Christian's armour in Ephesians 6, I could tell them not to worry about it: come back in ten or fifteen years, and you might be ready for such things.
Or when a young convert reads the list of ministries in chapter 4 - the apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor and teacher - and decides that God is calling him to be an apostle, I would have a straightforward answer. You're not ready for that yet.
And wouldn't it be convenient to be able to hold out the promise in chapter 1, verse 3, to encourage the congregation to persevere in their faith? [Note 3] "Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ." Wouldn't it inspire people to live every day for Christ, if as a result, they could obtain every spiritual blessing in Christ? But astonishingly, this is not the end of our spiritual journey, but the starting point.
Paul is telling us, amongst other things, that we start the Christian life with everything. From the very first moment we are born again, we have everything we are ever going to need. God does not withhold any good thing from His children. It is all of His grace.
Evangelicals are very good at offering grace to people before they are saved, and then, once we have them in the church, we explain all the things they have to do to be a good Christian. Christians are are so often saved by grace, then go on to live by works. Paul is telling us that the Christian life, like salvation, is all of grace.
Of course, having all the blessings is not the same as knowing what to do with them. You can have something and not know you have it, which is why we need teaching. You can have something and not know how to use it. And you can have something and only learn how to use it by using it - like a piano. The moment you have a piano, you can play it: simply put your fingers down on the keys, and you make a sound. But if you want to make a good sound, you need to work at it.
We have in the heavenly realms every spiritual blessing in Christ - it is up to us what we do with them. [Note 4]
At this point, I read the passage. [Note 5]
One problem that hits us between the eyes is in the doxology at the end. "Now to him who is able to do immeasurable more than we ask or think..." raises an obvious problem. If God can do "more than we ask or think," why doesn't He? If He can, why doesn't He answer our prayers, solve our problems, meet our needs?
I have to admit that I desire power. I want to be able to make things happen. I want to be able to achieve my goals. I want the power to accomplish the things I set out to do.
In the film, Bruce Almighty, the main character is given God's power. And his response was to try to use that power to achieve the things he desired. But during the film he discovers, as we all must, that you cannot use power to achieve anything that you really desire. At least, not if you understand power as the ability to make things happen.
We see God's power at work in many ways. But, if we believe that God has been finally and fully revealed in the person of Jesus, then the clearest demonstration of the nature of God's power can be seen in Jesus. And in Jesus, we discover...
Notice it is not my power at work within us, but His power. And His power can do immeasurably more than we imagine. No matter what wrong is done to you, in Christ you have the power to forgive. No matter what suffering you may face, in Christ you have the power to endure it.
The final problem I have is that I am brought up short by the climax of Paul's teaching, the goal to which he has been moving through the first three chapters. It is so unexpected.
I suppose we each have goals, however clearly we articulare them, and however consistently we work towards them. I don't know what your goals may be. As professional Christians, it's probably not fame or fortune.
Perhaps your goal is to run a Bible College, or lead the Baptist Union, or to pastor a mega-church, with 17 services each Sunday and meeting in a football stadium. Maybe you don't want a mega-church, and an ordinary congregation would satisfy you, as long as it is growing, and loving, and demonstrating Christ to the world, and appreciates your ministry.
Whatever your goals, whatever you are aiming for in your personal and professional life, in this passage, Paul is giving us our true goal. 'For this reason,' he says - in the light of all that has been said in the first three chapters, this is where we find ourselves.
The reason why we have been given every spiritual blessing in Christ, the reason why we were made alive in Christ when we were dead in our sins, the reason why we were united with all God's people, and the reason for all the rest of the wonderful truth about the new life we have in Christ - it all comes together for this purpose: "that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith" and that you may know "the love of Christ". [Note 6]
Our highest goal in life is not to achieve great things in God's name, not to lead thousands to Christ, not to recover neglected truths or preach inspirational sermons. Our true goal as Christian leaders is exactly the same as the goal for every child of God: union with Christ, and to know His love. It is that simple, and that profound.
And the wonder is that through the power of God working within us, we can be confident that He will accomplish immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, to bring into full and complete reality His goal for our lives, and the lives of those we care for [Note 7]. Isn't He wonderful?
[Note 1]. I find it interesting that, of the sermons I heard (we were divided into two groups for this exercise, so we only heard half the practice sermons), I was the only person to address my fellow students in the context of the course we were doing. Everyone else preached a sermon as if there were talking to their congregation on a Sunday. One student even referred to it as an 'artificial exercise', as if sermons preached to college students were not the real thing. For me, one of the key factors in any sermon preparation is: who is going to hear it? I can't imagine preparing a sermon as if it were for a familiar Sunday congregation, but knowing it was to be delivered to a totally different group of people in a totally different context. [Back]
[Note 2]. We had several days to prepare for this, and as I prayed about the passage and what to do, various ideas became very clear. I had lots of pieces, but the overall structure didn't fall into place until about half an hour before we were to start. It is relatively common (for me, at least) that the structure emerges out of the content at a fairly late stage in the process, but half an hour is closer than I would like.
While the form of the sermon only emerged at the last minute, the function was clear almost from the outset: in this passage, Paul is encouraging his hearers, using some basic truths about the new life we have in Christ, helping them to appreciate afresh something of what it means to be united with Christ, and moving them to worship. I soon realised I could not preach on this passage without at least attempting to do the same. [Back]
[Note 4]. The only real criticism I recall from the feedback, came from this section: several people thought I could have omitted or made it shorter. Perhaps it could have been a little shorter, but I thought it was necessary for two reasons.
Firstly, I am deliberately and explicitly addressing ministers and Bible College students, and saying this book is relevant to them. But one key aspect of this relevance is that the book is also relevant to the people they minister to, week after week. If I leave the impression that this book is relevant to you because you are a minister and a mature Christian, then I have both misrepresented and undermined the true meaning of the text.
Secondly, this section introduces the idea of the text meaning in reality the opposite of what we expect or often understand it to be about. This idea of turning our expectation on its head doesn't work as an underlying theme, in my opinion, without this section. In my preparation it seemed very clear that the 'rule of three' applied here: two instances would be a coincidence, while three is a deliberate pattern.
The alternative, as I saw it, was to talk explicitly about the upside-down or paradoxical nature of much Christian truth, and then to give the other two sections as examples of this principle. One of the other students clearly picked up on the theme of paradox, and suggested I could have used it instead of the 'problem' theme to provide structure.
But I could not see at the time how to do this while retaining the function I had identified of bringing people through the text to a place of appreciation, wonder and worship. Perhaps, with more preparation, this would have been possible. This approach (explicitly addressing the question of paradox) would have been my preferred option if I had been preparing a lecture, and not a sermon. [Back]
[Note 5]. It's possibly a little unorthodox to have the Bible reading here, but when I say the problem as 'hits us between the eyes,' I wanted to give people the possibility of remembering what they had just heard, and recognising that Paul's words do just that. The text needed to be fresh in people's ears for this. At least part of the reading needed to come at this point, and I didn't have time to repeat the text too often, so the most straightforward solution was to read the whole passage at this point. [Back]
[Note 6]. What this shows us of the upside-down nature of our normal understanding of the Christian life is breathtaking. We make sure the youngest covert knows that 'Jesus loves you', and has accepted Him 'into your heart' (and I am not saying this is wrong!), and eventually we hope they may come to know God's blessings in their life. Paul starts us off with every spiritual blessing, and brings us finally to Christ dwelling in our heart, and knowing His love.
I cannot help but be reminded of the quote from T S Eliot in
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And to know the place for the first time.
I just wish I had the time to develop the thought in the sermon. [Back]
[Note 7]. Of course, in this context, 'those we care for' is deliberately ambiguous. It normally means our families and friends, but in speaking to pastors, it must include those towards whom we exercise some pastoral care. [Back]