We hear these words of Isaiah promising a beautiful future, one where predators and prey will befriend one another, but we must put this into context if we are to hear the fullness of this vision. It did not come to Israel during calm periods of peace, but during interesting times. It came to Israel during times when alliances with outside forces threatened the sovereignty of the state. It came to Israel during times when the economic systems promoted the wealthy and devastated the poor. It came to Israel at a time when, as Isaiah put it, “Your hands are full of blood” and there was no justice for the oppressed, poor and marginalized. It came to Israel during dark and frightening times.
I wonder if it might almost be heard as a parent comforting a child about to undergo surgery, yes honey, this will hurt, but one day you will walk again, one day you will play again, but yes, it will hurt. Our lectionary this year is insistent that we look at the darkness and brokenness within us. It’s terribly difficult to do and honestly, I was looking for a more upbeat and inspiring message today. One that would fill us all with hope, love and joy, But first, our scripture tells us, repent. The scripture from our lectionary that I didn’t read today was the one with John the Baptist yelling at the pharisees, repent you brood of vipers. I really wanted something more upbeat than that, but here it is again, Isaiah only a few chapters from yelling at Israel saying, God hates your worship, God won’t listen to your prayers, not when your hands are full of blood. We are reminded that advent is not only a time of anticipation but of preparation. Be gentle with yourselves this advent, but be persistent too. Take up your cross and be a part of the healing that this nation, this time, all of us, so need. We are the people who have been called to this moment, to be peace in the world, to bring healing, to speak the gospel word.
Oh, it’s a hard word today! A few days ago someone asked me how there can be so much darkness, so much pain in the world. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, who became famous for documenting the stages of grief, once toured concentration camps in Germany. She was met there by survivors who had returned to the camp to tell their stories. Stories not only of loss, despair and death, but stories of redemption, of finding meaning and purpose in caring for one another, of finding hope in the midst of this most painful situation. As she toured the camp she began to notice that there were images of butterflies carved and scrawled in corners and over beds, in midst of these horrible living conditions, images of butterflies and she asked her tour guide about this. Her guide responded, “We knew we were in hell, that all we knew was gone and that everything was falling apart. Some of us believed that God was still at work in the midst of this, that God would triumph, even if we didn’t know how. We believed that God was remaking us and that in the end, God would be triumphant.”
So we turn to the hope, the promise, yes, the chrysalis looks like death, but something new is being born and we must stay faithful and stay present to this. Reverend Yolanda Norton, an assistant professor at San Francisco Theological, described it this way: “In Isaiah 11:1-10, the prophet finds himself in a season of despair. He writes in the interstitial space between destruction; a time that has seen and is anticipating devastation at the hand of the Assyrian empire. And yet, the prophetic speech of Isaiah is filled with a persistent hope that God will bring peace, order, and love in the midst of chaos and ruin.”
She goes on to remind us that while Isaiah is promising us that the end is secure and that God will not now nor ever abandon us, God does work through us and insists we participate in the healing of the nation. This is not a suggestion that God will magically make everything better even if we persist in tearing things down. Isaiah spoke truth to power, and that power was involved in tearing things down, in oppressing and hurting people. Get right with God, he said, do it now, but to the people he spoke words of peace, of promise.
This is the promise, that we have a savior and he will judge with righteousness, and his justice is restorative. Even the most venomous among us will be made whole, will be made well. Nature, red in tooth and claw, will become peaceful and a new paradigm will reign. And we are called to participate in this transformation. In the first chapter of Isaiah we are told what this will look like, “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”
Christ is constant, God’s mercy and justice are constant, but we are not. So in the season of Advent we are called again to the paths of righteousness and of hope, of mercy to those who are vulnerable and justice for those who are oppressed. We are called to be a living witness to the hope we find in Jesus Christ. To live each day with the intention of lifting up those who are beaten down by life, who struggle and who are hurting. We are called to stay present to all the pain and loss in the world and to see it through eyes of compassion and not grow weary but abide in the promise, gain sustenance from the love and mercy of God.
Viktor Frankl was a psychologist who was interned at the concentration camps. He stayed present, he observed, and he noted what it was that made a difference, what it was that helped some survive while others, seemingly strong and healthy succumbed. He said later that what made the difference was the act of reaching out to others with love and compassion. In a vivid example of this a survivor recounts how, as a young man he and most of his neighbors were herded into a cattle car to be transported and on the way the cattle car was left on the side of the tracks in bitter, freezing cold. He noticed that one of his neighbors, an older man, was shivering violently and he went to him. He sat with this man all night, rubbing his freezing feet, holding him, keeping him warm and alive. When the dawn broke only the two of them were left alive, their act of solidarity, of keeping one another warm through the bitter night had saved them.
We are called to just such acts of solidarity. We are called to the audacious hope and conviction that even when things seem to be at their darkest, that God is still working a great good in us. We are called to righteousness, yes, but also a stubborn faith that even when the world seems to be tottering on its axis that God is in control, that God has good in mind for us and not evil. So we step bravely into this future, this incredible belief that we can stay present to the pain of the world, that we can have compassion for one another, and that love will win.
For I am about to create new heavens
and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered
or come to mind.
18 But be glad and rejoice forever
in what I am creating;
for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy,
and its people as a delight.
19 I will rejoice in Jerusalem,
and delight in my people;
no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it,
or the cry of distress.
20 No more shall there be in it
an infant that lives but a few days,
or an old person who does not live out a lifetime;
for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth,
and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed.
21 They shall build houses and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
22 They shall not build and another inhabit;
they shall not plant and another eat;
for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be,
and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.
23 They shall not labor in vain,
or bear children for calamity;[e]
for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord—
and their descendants as well.
24 Before they call I will answer,
while they are yet speaking I will hear.
25 The wolf and the lamb shall feed together,
the lion shall eat straw like the ox;
but the serpent—its food shall be dust!
They shall not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain,
says the Lord.
I had the good fortune to find some time to walk around Madison yesterday afternoon. As I met one smiling face after another, watched children ride their bikes down suburban streets, saw people helping each other, their kids racing from one house to another I was reminded again and again that people are basically good and kind. I was reminded that we all bear the image of God and the love of God just shines right on through us like sunlight through a stained glass window.
It was a reminder that, although our country feels so very divided right now, we share a goal that goes way beyond the election. We share the goal of a country in which all people can live with great hope and joy, with meaningful work and justice for all. And as I thought about the fact that not only have we just had a contentious election, but that Friday was veteran’s day and I, like so many of you, have such deep, deep gratitude for our veterans and all that they have done for us. All that they have given to help us attain these greater goals of freedom, equality, and a bright future. We all hold those things in common, values and goals we cherish.
We are in a new land today. Let that sink in. We are in a whole new place and we aren’t certain what will happen, how we should live. It’s just really shaky and uncertain. And that’s exactly where the people who third Isaiah was speaking to were at. It’s interesting to hold Isaiah 65 right next to Isaiah 66 because they parallel one another, the first written to those who had not been faithful-but ending with a promise anyway, and the second written to those who had been faithful, also ending with a promise.
Let me be honest and clear with you. I’m really hurting from the results of our recent election. I don’t dislike Trump as a man. I’ve known many men like him, and I want to be clear that I am not saying that anyone here who voted for him is in favor of the racism, misogyny and abuse that is raising its head right now. I do not believe anyone here wanted to see the Klan marching in victory.
My heart is with those who are now fearing that this means half of America doesn’t value them, doesn’t believe they have a right to safety, or hope, or a future. I hear their fear, I hear their dismay, and I can’t ignore it. I have been left wanting to comfort the women and young girls around me with the knowledge that even though we have elected a man who sees them as nothing more than objects to rated, used, and abused, their sacred, intrinsic worth, remains.
So please understand that I recognize that most people who voted in this election, regardless of who they voted for, are good, decent people, who don’t want anyone to be hurt or scared. They certainly don’t condone violence even as violence against women and minorities immediately escalated following this election. Please know, that I understand that no matter who won this election, some of us would be hurting.
We as a church have not done a very good job of acknowledging trauma and I want to acknowledge that there are those among us who have experienced sexual violence, it’s an unseen, often unacknowledged trauma. if you are one who feels your abuse and trauma have been dismissed and disregarded, if you feel unsafe then these next words are for you:
Hold onto your anger with tight fists and don’t let it go! Your anger is a holy fire lit by God within you, reminding you that you are a child of God! A child of the most high and any abuse or violence against your being that you have suffered is so very, very wrong! Don’t let go of that!
Even if there is only one person here who has experienced abuse or sexual assault present here today, hear me clearly: you deserve better than this.
So please hear me now, listen with every fiber of your soul, especially if you are one of those,
You are so deeply loved and cared for, God weeps with you for every violation of your beautiful tender soul. You are beloved, chosen, called, you are seen wholly and completely in every aspect of you being, broken and whole, and loved completely. The breaking, broken parts of your life, are continually washed clean in the tears of God. You are stronger than you ever thought you could be, and those times when you don’t feel strong enough, that’s why we are here, that’s why God gave you us, because it’s okay not to be strong enough. Everyone has their breaking point, and those times when you can’t quite make it, it’s okay.
And again, I want to be clear that I am not saying everyone who voted for Trump approved of his behavior or the interpretation that others are putting on it. I want to acknowledge that there must be incredible frustration and hurt in being wrongly labeled and categorized.
We are called to wrestle and engage with all that is happening, and refuse to let it go, refuse to numb out, or accept violence as politics as usual. So hold onto your pain until it blesses you, until it leads you to treasure, until it brings you to the thing you love the most. Pain is the red flag saying this is important, this is important, this is important.
Trust that God is at work in this process. God is the one who shifts our painful experiences from pointless and painful to transformative. Who uses them to open our hearts and souls to those around us. It is God who shifts our pain from meaningless to redemptive.
We are incredibly divided in our nation right now. Incidents of violence have increased, students are protesting, protests are becoming riots, and it’s all very frightening. To extricate the people from despondency, to attach meaning to their past and present misery, was the task that the prophet and God had in common.
We find ourselves in a new land, where we are called to hold aloft the light of Christ and remember who we are and whose we are.
The exiles in Isaiah, having returned to the promised land also had some faithful and some not-so-faithful responses. The first half of Isaiah 65 lists some of these faults, forsaking the worship of the God of Israel for those super fun worship ceremonies on the hill, defiling oneself, doing what is evil in the sight of the Lord.
We, like the exiles returning to Jerusalem, have been through a sea-change, in fact it’s still going on. And we, just like they did, get to choose how we will respond and most likely, just as it was with them, it will be a mixed choice, a little back and forth, because it’s hard to be all in, all the time. But we do get to choose, and the good news is, that we were born for just such a time. We are a gracious, loving community; we are a community committed to dialogue and to learning, to building bridges across divides. We are a people who know we are called to love justice, to walk with the oppressed, to be humble, and to welcome all people to the love and grace we have received in Jesus Christ.
Now that doesn’t mean we won’t slip once in a while. We won’t necessarily argue or be hurt or angry. We will have different views and perspectives, but we are committed to the way of peace, we are committed to the path of healing, we are committed to one another, we are committed to following Jesus.
We are a wrestling people, not a walking away people. For I remember the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to abandon you.
And that brings us to the second part of Isaiah 65. The part that we take refuge in during hard and difficult times;
For I am about to create new heavens
and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered
or come to mind.
18 But be glad and rejoice forever
in what I am creating;
for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy,
and its people as a delight.
19 I will rejoice in Jerusalem,
and delight in my people;
no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it,
or the cry of distress.
Violence is loud, but Love is more pervasive. We are in process, this is not over yet.
This is the promise we hold onto. That centering our lives on God, living faithfully, we will be participants in creating a new heaven and new earth. That God will delight in us, that every tear will be wiped, every wound will be healed. That in this new kingdom the fruit of one’s labor will not be stolen, that health and wellbeing will be the prospect of all people, not only the wealthy, that we will not fear for the future of our children, but see them live blessed and joyful lives. This is the promise we hold onto.
Now we don’t get to this promise without going through the rest of it. It’s a process, not instant gratification. And this process involves a lot of healing, a lot of looking at the places where we’ve gone wrong, but the promise remains. So we need to actively disavow racism, misogyny, and violence- no matter who you voted for, these things don’t represent who we are. We need to create a safe place for all the children of God to gather, to know they are wholly and completely welcome. And we need to be vocal about doing this. We must witness to the world that we walk the path that Jesus taught us to.
We are in need of deep healing. We urgently need to see the love of God made visible in our world today and we are uniquely empowered to be that love made visible. We are needed right now. This we know. We are healers, caretakers, visionaries, we are worker bees and community organizers. Our message to the world is one of love and grace, not because we are so great but because God is. Not because we are the most forgiving, but because God is. Not because we are the most inclusive, but because God is.
We are all tasked with choosing love over hate, faith in God over despair, and we are all tasked with making these choices visible so that others may see them and take heart. We are called to be love in action, love determined to make a difference, love working to change and transform a life, a culture, a world. It is this love in action that brought Jesus to the cross. It is this love in action that we are called to bring to the world. Take up your cross is not a passive directive! God who entered into the messiness of life and the cruelty of death to be with us, invites us to do the same for each other.
We are not responsible for fixing everything, for healing the world, that’s God’s work. But we are responsible for the piece of the world within our reach. So today my friends, seek out and find that piece of the world near you that needs healing, needs love. Be that healing and that love, let your light shine brightly so that others may see it and take hope, so that others may see it and discover the reason for your hope.
I invite you to consider one solid, concrete way of being the love and healing that the world needs so much right now. Wear a safety pin so people will know you are committed to being a safe person. Sit next to the woman in the hijab, confront hateful talk when you hear it, pray for those who you are afraid of or who anger you. Find at least one concrete way you can be the peace and healing we so need in the world, for the world needs you today. And don’t let go of hope. Choose to rejoice in God especially when things seem dark and hard.
Once, when I was working in the rehab, a place where we didn’t even use the word God, a young man asked if he could close group using the Lord’s prayer. With the rest of the group’s consent he did so. Now I was confused by this because I knew he wasn’t a Christian, that he had recently expressed an interest in Buddhism, so I stopped him after group and asked him what that was about. He said, “when I was running drugs and I had to go through the park where the other dealers were hanging out, and I would get scared, I would say that prayer under my breath the whole way. It helped me feel safe.” We don’t have to begin with perfect faith or any faith. God hears us. This is why we worship, especially when things are difficult, uncertain and scary, because we need it. It changes us, it works in us. So don’t let go of the struggle until it blesses you. Don’t stop halfway through and reside in the pain, praise God always
O sing to the Lord a new song,
For the Beloved has done marvelous things!
By the strength of your Indwelling Presence,
We, too, are called to do great things;
We are set free through Love’s forgiveness and truth.
Yes, your steadfast love and faithfulness
Are an ever-present gift
In all our lives.
All the ends of the earth have seen
The glory of Love’s Eternal Flame.
Make a joyful noise to the Lord your God,
All the earth;
Break forth into grateful song
And sing praises!
Yes, sing songs of praise extolling
Let the melody be
Gratitude and joy!
Let the voices of all people
Blend in harmony,
In unity let the people
Magnify the Lord!
Let the sea laugh and all that
The land and those who
Dwell upon it;
Let the waters clap their hands;
Let the hills ring out with joy,
Before the Holy One, who radiates Love
To all the earth.
For Love reigns over the world
With truth and justice,
Bringing order and balance
To all of creation!
A reflection on Luke 10: 1-20
Click here for audio~06020102
When I was a young newly married woman I lived in Germany on a military post. At first blush it appeared that I was off on an incredible adventure, living in a foreign land but in military housing we had enclaves of Americanism. There were residents there who never ventured off post. They stayed where the language, the customs, the community, especially the food, were familiar. Others of us dared to venture out into the unknown, to be greeted with strange sayings such as Gruss Gott and to be eyed warily as foreigners. A few brave souls learnt the language and moved into the community, taking jobs and finding housing off post, but most of us would spend most of our time on post, resting in familiarity. Anywhere where a group of immigrants, or transient workers, which I guess in a sense is what military families overseas are, live there tends to arise a pocket of home, a neighborhood that remembers and sustains the culture of home.
We take great comfort in familiarity. It connects at some deep visceral level and assures us that we do, in fact, belong. We know the social contracts that are implied and not spoken. We know the social customs and the familial ties that pass unseen to visitors. Here in church we know when to stand, when to sit, which version of the Lord’s prayer to recite—and we can recite it by memory. I remember that moment when, as a child, I realized I had it fully memorized. I began to recite it looking around to see if anyone noticed that I could recite it by memory and silently judging those who were reading it off the page. Knowing the Lord’s prayer by memory was sort of like my membership card, proving I was an insider. Today I’m back to reading the various prayers and creeds as different versions compete in my mind, is it debts and debtors, is it sins and transgressions, is it trespasses? Are we using inclusive language? But I still have that insider, I belong, familiarity. I mean doesn’t everyone, everywhere stand for the Gloria Patri? And does anyone need to see the music anymore?
But then I venture into another church, something different and I experience my first altar call. I find myself surrounded by people who can’t sit during a song and they simply must wave their hands in the air. And I am reminded that our ways of being are just as strange, just as foreign and unknown to those who visit us. One church I visited introduced me to prayer stations. The pastor stating, “there are many opportunities to respond to today’s message, you might want to light a candle over here, draw or write a prayer on the grafitti wall back there, write a confession on rice paper and release it into the baptismal waters knowing that just as it dissolves there so your sin is absolved,” he went on, and I sat there stunned. He wanted me to do what? But over time as I surrendered my preconceived ideas of what church has to be, must be, in order to be real church my experience was transformed, was widened and I began to see the Holy Spirit moving and shifting through each of these experiences.
In our scripture today we hear Jesus sending the 70, or 72 depending upon the version you read, out into foreign areas, strange new places, where they were to abide and dwell with the first peaceful resident who would take them in. They were not to seek a familiar enclave or to search for the best possible experience, “I’m going to stay with Sam because he has a hot tub!”And they were not to take their own sustenance or means of sustenance along with them. Leave your spare clothes, your extra cash, your comfy slippers, and don’t stop to chat with people on the way, get moving! Go, go now, into the strange new places and meet those who are unlike yourself.
I think Jesus knew that our human tendency is to stay with those most like ourselves and when possible to avoid being dependent on others. I think he knew that if his disciples were to truly meet others, to get to know them, to know their stories and their lives, that they had to live together. They had to ask for what they needed. They had to meet these people right where they were if genuine, authentic relationships were to be formed. I think Jesus knew that our human nature is to avoid vulnerability, is to avoid change, is to protect and defend and be self reliant, but this is not the gospel way.
Oh, and how we want to make it that sometimes! We want promises and assurances and we want to be right and certain. We want to bask in the security of what is familiar and routine. But God asks us to grow into something new. God asks us to allow ourselves to be transformed and made over, the old is passed away, behold I do a new thing!
But that middle bit, the part where transformation takes place, it’s messy. No catepillar ever became a butterfly without going through the chrysalis. I can imagine a hundred awkward scenarios as the 70(2) went out. It seems like it’s always the simple things that mess us up. Do I take my shoes off or keep them on? Where is the bathroom? Do I stand or sit? When we come together as church here we, as the insiders, know all of these things.
Jesus’ invitation to us, today, is to set aside our expectations and enter fully into relationship with all people, those who may enter this sanctuary, and those who may never do so.
We are to set aside that which is familiar so that we might meet people right where they are. Parker Palmer, who wrote a wonderful book called, Let Your Life Speak, reminds us that the soul is a quiet and shy thing. It does not like to be pushed out into the open and force will cause it to disappear like water from a tight fist, but if coaxed with promises of welcome, of hospitality and gentleness, it will show up. When we put aside our way of being in order to meet others right where they are, we become a welcoming, hospitable church that invites others to be fully present, with all their crazy ways of being, and all of the gifts that God has given them to give.
In the 1950’s just after the second world war a Japanese woman petitioned a presbyterian church for membership. They said no. No they didn’t need nor want any of her type there. With incredible grace and humility she continued to attend anyway. It is not unusual today to see the sanctuary decorated in hundreds and hundreds of origami cranes, because as she sat in the pews with the restless children, she would teach them some simple origami to keep them quiet. Eventually their heart was softened and she was granted membership. She has long since passed away, but that church was gifted great kindness and humilty through her witness.
We are called not only to meet others where they are but to welcome strangers with such a full and gracious hospitality that they will be empowered to give of themselves and all that they are. We are called to enter into relationship with all who come, allowing them to change us as much as we seek to change them. Each and every time we seek to witness to Christ’s love for the other and we seek to see Christ’s image in the other, we risk becoming a new creation, transformed, made new. No outward sign will do, only a change of heart will suffice.
To really know and understand something, we must move into action, our thoughts and our best understanding must flow through our hands and out into the world where we can see them. The seventy (two) who were sent to all nations, were asked to be act as/like Jesus, to put into action that which they had been taught. Is it ever enough to to simply know? To know and refuse to act, is much the same as not knowing.
Jesus invited the seventy[two] and us! to do something very Christlike, to empty ourselves of all of our preconceptions and right answers, to meet those who so desparately long for connection right where they are, and to love them, just as they are. The seventy[two] had learned this way at the master’s knee, but to fully realize what they had learned they needed to put it into action. And they returned with incredible joy! Love, community building, salvation, restoration, healing! It had all happened for them just as they had seen it happen for Jesus. And Jesus reponded, “I saw the adversary fall from heaven like lightening!
We have only to give up our desire to seek safety and familiarity, to go, go now! Trusting that God will go with us, and risk a little vulnerability, risk making a mistake or two, and meet others, right where they are.
Click here for the audio file~09031901
I had to take this scripture into myself this weekend. To let it work on me, to feel the poetry of it. The kneeling, the bowing, the praying, the astonished heart of one who has been overcome by the fullness of God, of God’s love. This text reads like a love poem to the Damascus road experience. The astonishing moment where a bright light shines lovingly on all the dark and hidden corners of one’s soul and changes everything. This river of grace and love which flowed through Saul the persecutor changing him, altering him forever; breaking open his heart, enlightening his eyes, drawing forth love and compassion from one who was, who had been a persecutor.
And then he is no longer that, but something new. Love paints all things with a new light and his life is transformed. One might wonder if Paul ever regretted it, this move from wealthy pharisee with political power and prestige to hunted revolutionary speaking and preaching the gospel of Jesus to a hurting and lost world. But if we wonder then perhaps we have missed the love poem written in this text. So many years after the Damascus road incident, so many years and experiences later, Paul writes:
Kneeling before the Father,
The archetypal father from whom all fathers
On earth or in heaven (perhaps even the third heaven but who can say? In the body or out.)
Take their name
I only a simple child
Moved by the love of the Father
Moved by the love which,
Is beyond my knowledge
Somehow I feel
A new experience
An abundance of glory
(can you not feel it? )
Is the love of the Father
A love which has no height
No width nor circumference
With which to contain it.
(can you not feel it?)
An abundance of glory, an earth shattering, life changing, unexplainable fullness of God. All these years after Damascus and he’s still in love with God. Paul is given to some rebukes in his writing; he is given to some self promotion, but mostly, he is given to love and surrender for the sake of the gospel. And Paul knows that this is not an easy love, it is not a comfortable love but one which will change you, which will shake up your life and take you to places you cannot at this time imagine. Even as he prays that we too might have the experience of God’s love he also prays,
But be strengthened
Be rooted and grounded
Because you’re going to need it
Because this love,
It will change everything and change is hard
Even when it’s good.
(Love lives in your heart now, can you feel it?)
In your inmost being
In the depths of the dark inside places
Of your soul.
Because hope grows.
A new light
A new potential
Future possibilities expand
Love says yes
Because your heart
Just might break open
To wondrous new possibilities
And you may find yourself
Opening up to impossible people
And impossible situations
Which are quite possible now
(how cool is this? But do you dare believe it?)
Paul who had been Saul, who had been replete with all the signs of success that one might hope for in his day, must have spent a lot of time shaking his head, wondering how he came to be in the places he ended up. How did this upright pharisee end up running from the law, hanging precariously in a basket as it was lowered down the city walls. How did he end up shipwrecked on an island. How did he end up in prison? He must have been shaking his head in wonder at times, because no matter how bad it got, it was better than anything he had ever known. It was a fullness of God’s presence, of God’s love, of God’s Spirit that he could not put into words. It was the love of God in Jesus Christ which he could not contain, could not encapsulate such that he could somehow convey it.
It was beyond the height, the depth, the width or length, of anything he could hold up and show. It was uncontainable, this love which flowed through his veins and remade him, which rebirthed him, a whole new creation.
Paul threw it all away. All of his privilege and his influence, his respectable position in society. All gone. He was no catepillar refusing to become a butterfly, creeping around on all those legs, staying safe and remaining in all that he knew. He threw it all away, entered the chaos of the chrysalis and was reborn, remade, because this uncontainable, unknowable love shattered every preconception and expectation that he had. And in this love poem that is our Ephesians text he prays the same for us. “In the abundance of his glory may he, through his Spirit, enable you to grow firm in power with regard to your inner self, so that Christ may live in your hearts through faith.”
In the abundance of his glory, that unrestrained, indomitable, life-changing, life-altering glory, which no person can witness and not be changed by-
Be Changed! Grow firm and strong, be brave, so very brave, because this will change everything; it will take you to new places and new roles, new positions in society, it will change everything!
This is no prosperity gospel! This is not a promise that if you believe God will give you everything you ever wanted, but rather that God will fill you with good thing you’ve never even considered, never imagined, never even knew you needed. You may find yourself dangling from the city walls in a basket, on the run from the police because you fed the homeless, because you protested the violence, because you stood with those who suffer and demanded justice. You may find yourself walking away from a life of prestige and privilege and yet feeling somehow deeply fulfilled and not lacking anything at all.
But it is an act of bravery, an act of trust to open one’s heart so fully to Jesus. To surrender so deeply and let God remake you. Because, if you are like me, then you know what it is to say, ‘I have plans. I know where I’m going and I know what I want to achieve, so the sooner God gets on board with my plans, the better we will get along.” It’s an act of bravery to let go of our expectations, our hopes and dreams and let God bring something new and unknown into our hearts.
I wonder if you will try something with me. Hold your hands out and clench your fist tight. White knuckle it for a moment. All that God longs to give you, the goodness and abundant life that Jesus came that we might have, is not something that God will force upon us. Go ahead and release your fists, turn your hands over, palms up, feel the openness, the release, the surrender of an outstretched hand, an open palm.
When Saul was riding down that Damascus road he was holding tightly to all he knew. He was a white knuckle pharisee, trying his very best to do every right and correct thing. He was in control, till God knocked him for a loop, unseated him, and offered him an opportunity for growth. Paul, courageously opened his heart, released his grip, and surrendered. God does not pry our hands loose but offers us opportunity, after opportunity. The pain of a tight-fisted grip on life is unnecessary and therefore sad and painful. God asks only that we will release our grip on our preconceptions, our plans, our insistence on safety and being right, and let God fill our surrendered, up-turned palms with good things!
God longs to fill our lives with good things, with a rich, full, abundant life. Jesus looking down over Jerusalem, that city which kills its prophets, where he would meet his own death, was filled with compassion. “If I could,” he said, “I would take you all under my wing, like a mother hen.” If you will let me, I will love you, I will care for you. What more do we really want, than to know we are loved, we are accepted, we belong?
Glory be to him who, working within us, can do infinitely more, than we can ask or imagine. Infinitely more, and yet we struggle to allow this, to let go of our plans, but Paul says, let go, let God work within you. It will be more and greater than anything you could ever imagine! It will bring you to places you never thought you would be, you never thought possible! Infinitely more. Just let that sink in. God will do infinitely more than you can imagine.
But be filled with the fullness of God, that incomprehensible, life-changing, life-altering love and then watch what happens!
God who is at work within us,
will not abandon us,
will walk with us as we go,
leading us, bringing us to a new land,
a new way of being.
This new way of being that is not rooted in fear and self protection, but is rooted and grounded in love. It is not rooted in white knuckle sobriety or propriety, but in deep surrender, faith, and trust in the One who loves us. This new way of being that insists we be rooted and grounded in love, that we act with love, that we open ourselves up to love, that we release our fear-based grip and allow God to fill our lives with good things.
Paul, in his deep-rooted love, in the rich abundance that has flowed into his heart and soul, changing him, taking him to unimaginable places, opens his heart with deep compassion for the church, for that beleaguered, struggling community and he prays:
Kneeling before the Father, from whom every fatherhood in heaven or on earth takes its name: in the abundance of his glory may he, through his Spirit, enable you to grow firm in power with regard to your inner selves, so that Christ may live in your hearts through faith and then, planted in love and built on love, with all God’s holy people you will have the strength to grasp the breadth and the length, the height and the depth, so that knowing the love of Christ, which is beyond knowledge, you may be filled with the utter fullness of God.
Glory be to him whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine; glory be to him from generation to generation in the Church and in Christ Jesus for ever and ever amen
This prayer, this love poem, it is our prayer, is our love poem to God, to one another. May we be rooted and grounded in love, may we speak with love, may we act with love, and may we be strengthened in our inner selves, may we have the courage to release our tight-fisted, fear based grip and allow God’s grace and love to flow through our veins, remaking us, re-birthing us, making us a new creation, that God might look down upon us and say, “I’ve got kin in that body.” May God who can do infinitely more than we can ever imagine forgive our fear and continue to work within us, remaking us, reforming us into the body of Christ.