July 15, 2012

Experiencing the Wonder of God’s Love


I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.   (Ephesians 3: 18-19)

This morning I’d like us to think about Paul’s words when he tells us that we should all comprehend -  “the breadth & length, height & depth” of the love of Christ?”

When a group of young children between the ages of 4 and 8 were asked:  “What does love mean?”  Here is a sampling of their responses:-

• Rebecca, aged 8 said:  “When my grandmother wasn’t able to bend over to paint her toenails because of her arthritis, my grandpa did it for her, even though his hands had arthritis too.  That’s love.
• Billy, aged 4 – described love this way:  “When someone loves you, the way they say your name is different.  You just know that your name is safe in their mouth.”
• A six year old, with food on his mind expressed love like this:  “Love is when you go out to eat and give somebody else most of your French fries without making them give you any of theirs.”
• Another little fellow said:  “love is what makes you smile when you’re tired.”

But my favourite reply is:
• “Love is what’s in the room with you at Christmas, if you stop opening presents and just listen!”

Isn’t it wonderful how perceptive little children can be at times.  Think how wonderful it would be if we could regain the simple faith of a young child.

John MacArthur, the author of a commentary on Ephesians, says that he doesn’t think that in using the words – breadth, length, height & depth - that Paul is referring to four different types or categories of love, but rather that he is referring to the vastness and completeness of God’s love, as shown in and through Christ.

Whether we accept MacArthur’s interpretation of these words or not, -one thing is certain, Paul isn’t just telling the Christian community in Ephesus that God loves them.  They knew that already.  His message was deeper than that.  Paul wanted these new Christians to know the full extent of the magnitude of God’s love.

There are many things in life that we know and accept as facts that really don’t change us in any substantial way.  For example, most of us know the chemical formula for water; - H2O.  In other words, water is composed of two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen.  But simply knowing this formula doesn’t do much for us when we are desperately thirsty on a very hot day.

When you’re suffering from thirst, what you need is more than just knowledge of the composition of water; you need a thirst quenching drink of fresh, pure, water.

Well, the same is true when it comes to God’s love.  Simply knowing that God love us in an intellectual sort of way, (as something we were taught in Sunday School), doesn’t change us in any substantive way.  It’s only when we experience that love, touching our hearts and minds, that God’s love becomes real to us.  When you experience God’s love in your life, that experience is transforming.  It changes how you perceive yourself, and how you relate to other people.  It’s a life-altering experience!

However, while having an intellectual understand of God’s love is very different from experiencing that love - it is at least a place to start.  So let’s look at how Paul describes God’s love.

He begins by referring to the width of God’s love.

Human beings tend, by nature, to limit the width of their love.  They may love their spouse and their children, but they’re not so sure about loving their neighbour’s family.  They may be willing to do anything within their power to protect, or to rescue their immediate loved ones, but they’ll think twice about doing the same for the stranger in need.

But that’s not what we see in God’s love.   In his letter to the Colossians, Paul says:  “there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!”  (Col. 3:11)  In other words, God’s love isn’t restricted.  It is infinitely wide in its scope.  It’s available to every single human being.

Sometimes it’s hard for us to comprehend a love that is that wide; and we may wonder how it is possible for God to love all human beings?  And yet the Good News of the Gospel is just that; God does love even the most heinous of sinners.  He loves the person, not the deed; and therein lies the important distinction.  God loves who we are, but not necessarily what we do.

Next descriptive word used by Paul is ‘the length’ of God’s love.  Length refers to time.  And what it means is that God’s love is not something that is here today and gone to-morrow.  God loves us forever, through eternity.

Have you ever had a friend who comes to you with a problem, and after a great deal of soul-searching, you offer him or her what you think is a good solution, only to see your friend totally disregard your advice?  If this becomes a pattern in the way your friend relates to you, it won’t be long before you simply give up, and stop offering your help.

“What’s the use,” you’ll probably say to yourself, “there’s no point in trying to help, because he won’t listen anyway.”

It’s very human to give up on trying to help someone who seems to ignore all the best advice that she’s given.  But what Paul is saying, is - that’s not the way God interacts with us.  He never gives up.  He’s always there, always willing to love and forgive us.  His love goes on forever and ever.

There is something about ‘height’ that challenges and inspires the human heart.

In the April edition of the National Geographic , there’s a story about a woman named Gerlinde, an Austrian, who was determined to reach the top of the second highest mountain in the world, K2.  If she succeeded in achieving this goal, she would become the first woman in history to have climbed, without supplemental oxygen, all 14 of the world’s highest peaks.  Of the 14, K2 is considered the most difficult climb.

Whereas Everest has been climbed by more than 5,100 people, the summit of K2 has been conquered by only 302 climbers.  And roughly one climber has died for every four who have succeeded.  The story of her ordeal and eventual success is a tribute to her determination and courage.

What is it about extremely high mountains that seem to beckon adventurers?

(As an aside comment, the article in National Geographic, records that for Gerlinda, her passion for climbing was awakened, not in school, but at church.  What better place is there to find inspiration for achievement!)

When I was a student working for the summer in Banff, one of the first mountains I climbed was called Tunnel Mountain.  (Its summit is 5,500 feet above sea level.)  I remember the thrill I felt when I reached the top of it.  But some weeks later, after I’d reached the summit of Mt. Rundle, the peak that towers to about 10,000 feet, I remember looking down on Tunnel Mountain and wondering why I’d been so thrilled when I had reached the top of it.

We measure our challenges in life, by comparing them with other experiences we’ve had.  Individuals who possess a particularly adventurous spirit, are driven by the desire to conquer even greater challenges than before.

When Paul spoke of the height of God’s love, he too was comparing it to other forms of love.  The love of God, which he experienced in Christ, was far superior to any human love that anyone has ever experienced before; God’s love is the ultimate expression of love; the highest love that can be attained.

What is it that attracts people to Christ?   Is it because He was a master debater, or the wisest of all teachers?  I guess for some people such qualities are appealing.  Or is it His miracles that most attract people to follow Him?   Perhaps for some people, Jesus’ miracles are the attraction, but I think the primary appeal of Jesus’ life and ministry is the magnitude of His love.

Human beings crave love.  In fact scientists have demonstrated that we can’t survive for very long without it.  And so, when we encounter a love as powerful as Jesus’ love; a love that enabled Him to willingly go to the Cross in order that we might have life eternal; experiencing that love exerts a powerful magnetism over us.

Paul assures us that God’s love is so wide that it embraces every human being;  it is so long lasting that it will never let us go;  and it is of such high quality that it will never let us down.

However, it is the fourth quality of God’s love that is the most remarkable; and that’s its depth.

The Greek word depth that is used by Paul refers to the distance beneath the surface; that which is there yet often unseen.  It’s a word used to describe how far down are the waters of the ocean.  It’s also the same word that is used in the parable of the seeds where Jesus says that the seed sown on rocky soil quickly shouts up, but because it has no depth of soil, it dies when the scorching sun shines down upon it.

When Paul uses this word ‘depth’ to describe God’s love, he is referring to how solid and how real it is.  It is something that reaches down to the very deepest parts of our being, and changes us for the better.

I’d like to share with you a true story of a woman who was touched by this depth of God’s love; and how her life was completely turned around as a result of it.  The story begins in my first year at Emmanuel College, where I was studying theology.   I lived in the college residence during my first year.  My room-mate was a graduate student who had just arrived from Japan.

He’d been offered a two year scholarship to study in Toronto.  It was the opportunity of a life-time for him.   But there was a problem.  A few weeks before he was to leave, he married, Shigeko,  the girl of his dreams.

One of the first things Isami told me about himself was, that he wasn’t like most Japanese men.  They were stoic and unemotional.  But not Isami, he was a deeply emotional human being, for whom the hardest thing that he’d ever had to do was leave his bride behind, while he pursued two years of study in far away Canada.

Toward the end of Isami’s first year at Emmanuel, he was asked to speak about his story of faith at a Sunday morning worship service in one of the large downtown Churches, in Toronto.   Unbeknown to him, in the congregation that morning, was a woman who absolutely despised the Japanese.    She had good reason for her hatred because during the World War II, she’d been interned in a Japanese prisoner of war camp, and been brutally treated by her Japanese guards.

When she emerged from that experience she was left with a deep hatred toward anyone from Japan.   So intense was her hatred, that if she saw a person walking down the street whom  she thought might be Japanese, she’d cross over to the other side of the street, simply to avoid any possible contact with that person.

This woman had recently published the story of her ordeal, and the sale of her book had realized a fairly generous royalty, which she had set aside for something special.

On the morning that Isami spoke, she was sitting in the congregation.  I’m not sure exactly what Isami said that morning, but whatever was contained in his story of faith, it made such a power impact on her, that at the conclusion of the service, she approached him and offered to use this nest-egg from her book to bring his wife, Shigeko, to Toronto, and to pay for an apartment so that they could spend Isami’s second year together.

That’s what can happen when the depth of God’s love touches a human heart.  God’s love is so deep, that it can penetrate the darkness of our worst thoughts.  It can wipe clean the closets of our sin, and despair, and hatred.

God’s love is so wide, it embraces everyone.  It is so long-lasting that it will never let us go.  It is so high that nothing compares with it.  And it is so deep that it can melt hearts of stone.

It doesn’t matter what we’ve done in the past.  It makes no difference whether we’ve led a good, moral life, or committed the worst sins; God still loves us with a love that is beyond compare.   And when we allow that love to enter our hearts and minds, it transforms us; taking what is soiled and dirty, and cleanses it.  All that is necessary from us, is a willingness to let God’s love in, and let the power of that love, do its work of healing with our hearts.

The way to experience the vastness of God’s love is to let Christ become the center of our lives, so that we become rooted and grounded in His love.  And when we do, then we begin to truly comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length,  the height and depth of God’s love, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses all human knowledge, as we become filled with the fullness of God.