June 17, 2012

Hope, Inheritance and Power

Passage: Ephesians 1:18-19

... 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, according to the working of his great power.

According to a poll conducted this year for Reuters by Ipsos Global Public Affairs nearly 15 percent of people worldwide believe the world will end during their lifetime.  "Whether they think it will come to an end through the hands of God, or a natural disaster or a political event, whatever the reason, one in seven thinks the end of the world is coming," said research manager Karen Gottfried.  About one in 10 people globally also said they were experiencing fear or anxiety about the impending end of the world.

We have just come through the season of college/university graduation ceremonies; speeches offered there are aimed at saying something hopeful to graduates.  2012's Baccalaureate speaker at the University of Pennsylvania was an unconventional choice for an Ivy League school. To address their newly-minted graduates, aspiring to dazzling careers, they picked a man who has never in his adult life, applied for a job.  The speaker was Nipun Mehta founder of ServiceSpace.org.

Mehta began his talk to the graduates stating: “Right now each one of you is sitting on the runway of life primed for takeoff. ... So what I’m about to say next may sound a bit crazy. I want to urge you, not to fly, but to – walk.”  In his concluding comments he underlined his theme of walking: “As you walk on into a world that is increasingly aiming to move beyond the speed of thought, I hope you will each remember the importance of traveling at the speed of thoughtfulness.”

A more jarring challenge to 2012 graduates was issued by Brett Stephens in a recent Wall Street Journal piece subtitled: "Attention graduates: Tone down your egos, shape up your minds." He continues: “if you can just manage to tone down your egos, shape up your minds, and think unfashionable thoughts, you just might be able to do something worthy with your lives. And even get a job. Good luck!"

Are you hopeful about life?  What gives you hope?  Does a slower pace to life increase your hopefulness?  Does “travelling at the speed of thoughtfulness” or “toned down egos and unfashionable thoughts” lead to a more hope-filled life?  Are you anxious about what is next on history’s horizon?  When you listen to graduation speeches (or any speech for that matter) the speaker inevitably reveals their view of the world; their assumptions about the nature of our existence come to the fore.  One of the questions that worldviews ask and try to answer is, “What time is it? Where are we in the flow of history?”

I am not sure what the Apostle Paul would say if he were invited to address the 2012 graduates of say the University of Toronto; but I think I know what he would say to the graduates belonging to the church.  “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, ... the riches of his glorious inheritance ... and ... the immeasurable greatness of his power”.

I wonder sometimes if we Christians overlook the treasure that is to be found in the good news of Jesus Christ; if we look past the wonder of “the hope to which Jesus has called us” and grab on to the things the world holds up as hopeful.  At any college/university graduation the things that are held up as hopeful—the youth and energy of the graduates, the potential to be leveraged from their courses of study, the possibilities in the world before them—look vast and exciting.  I am not wishing to disparage any of these but will they sustain us in the vagaries of real life?  Do you not find that so much of what gives a momentary boost of euphoria to our hopefulness is all too soon exposed as rather shallow against the storms of life that inevitably come?

It is one thing for a man of sufficient wealth to be comfortable in life, living in a country of free people, to offer a hopeful word to a group of students with academic ability and sufficient wealth to have participated in such education.  (This is not to disparage any of these things—clearly prosperity is to be preferred and multiplied rather than poverty.  Recall John Wesley’s axiom with respect to wealth: Earn all you can. Save all you can. Give all you can.)  The Apostle Paul, however, writes from prison to a church where many of its members come from the slave/indentured classes of Roman society.  The engine of Rome’s prosperity was generated on the backs of an enormous slave population in the empire.  The people to whom Paul writes do not have the opportunities that you and I take for granted in a free and democratic society.  And yet Paul speaks of a hope which possesses Christ’s people that can fill the heart in the face of much hope-robbing circumstance.  Paul assures these believers that as they come know God a hope will fill up their hearts and lives.

1. The hope to which he (God) has called you.  Paul knew that as we come to know God he will acquaint us with this hope.  When Paul uses the word “to know” knowing is never merely the acquiring of information; Paul thinks as his Hebrew ancestors thought; to know is to experience.

Hope, for Christians, is a future certainty grounded in a present reality. The present reality is the faithfulness of God.  The landmarks that identify God’s faithfulness to his people are throughout God’s conversation with Israel and his coming in Jesus. One such landmark is Israel’s release from slavery in Egypt and her passage through the Red Sea and the stamp at Sinai, the gift and claim of the Ten Words. Another landmark is Joshua’s leading the same people into the promised land. Another is the renewal of God’s covenant promise to his people and their renewal of their promises to him as God met with his people in the person of David and the person of the prophets.

The most noteworthy landmark of God’s faithfulness to his people, however, and the one that towers over all others, is the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.  Here God fulfilled his promise to his Son.  And the promise now fulfilled to the Son continues to spill over onto all whom the Son summons, over onto all who cling to the Son in faith.  God has promised to renew the entire cosmos in Christ. The raising of the Nazarene from the dead is the first instalment of this and its guarantee as well.  Therefore the raising of Jesus Christ is the crowning landmark of God’s faithfulness.

But how is it that we believers affirm this when others do not?  How is it that we see in the resurrection of Jesus the Father’s pledge and guarantee that one day the entire creation will be healed?  How is it that we maintain such a hope, this “future certainty,” when so many people around us look out upon the world and see only what contradicts such a pledge? So many people look out upon the world with its turbulence and treachery and turpitude; they see only a world which, if it isn’t getting any worse, is certainly getting no better.

None of us would ever say that the world, of itself, is improving; of itself it isn’t getting better. Still, all of us at worship this morning are convinced that our hope isn’t misplaced. God has raised his Son from the dead, the climax of his many landmark acts of faithfulness. God will bring to completion that good work which he has begun in Christ Jesus. (Phil. 1:8) He will restore to its created goodness that creation which now sits evil-ridden and haemorrhaging from innumerable wounds.

There are two aspects to the present reality of God’s faithfulness: one, his raising his Son from the dead as promised; two, his flooding us with his love so as to support us in our hope.  It is this second aspect that Paul prays for in the believer’s life when he prays that we may know “what is the hope to which he has called you.”

In his Roman letter Paul speaks of God’s gift of hope: “…we rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God…and hope doesn’t disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.” ( Rom. 5:1-5) Right now Christians are vividly aware of God’s love flooding us; we know we are awash in God’s love. His love is the environment in which our life unfolds as surely as water is the environment in which fish thrive.  Our experience of his loving faithfulness prevents our hope from evaporating into nothing or worse, collapsing into despair. Our present experience of God – his love flooding us and supporting us – is an aspect of that present reality (the resurrection of Jesus) which grounds the future certainty.

Friends if ever we abandon this hope, we abandon the world.  Many think that a hope in a final restoration leads to a careless attitude towards the world.  But God who so loves the world won’t abandon it, and we his followers should not abandon it either.

2. Our hope is that God will restore the world to its created goodness; let us reflect for a moment on what are the riches of his glorious inheritance.  The idea of inheritance implies that there is something yet for us to be fully enjoyed.  The wonders of the love of God we know now point to wonders yet to come.

Mitch Albom in his book Have A Little Faith tells of asking his Rabbi what heaven was like.  His Rabbi responded, “How can I say? I believe there’s something.  That’s enough.”  I think the Rabbi has spoken wisely; there is much we do not know.  It is sufficient that we know our Saviour goes to prepare a place for us.  If you knew all the details would it make heaven more or less attractive to you?  Do people want to know because they want to check it out before making a commitment; do you need to see customer reviews before you book?

I think that one of the reasons some hesitate about looking forward to heaven is because we have tried to describe what it is like and have ended up with unhelpful images.  The idea of never-ending praise of God is imaged by some as joining an ever-singing choir; there are some of us who do not find this a compelling image—any more than being subjected to eternal preaching.  There is, I believe, hesitancy born of not wanting too much goodness; as if too much of a good thing is harmful.  We prefer the devil we know to the one we do not know.  The lie that Satan whispered in the garden that the goodness of God isn’t to be trusted; that the things he has marked off as out-of-bounds are pleasures he arbitrarily denies (if fact God knows them and is keeping you in the dark); this lie continues to have its impact on people.

I read recently of a report on a study of novels aimed at teenagers. “Popular teenage novels contain hundreds of swear words and the most popular characters are the most foul-mouthed.  Books from popular series including Harry Potter and Twilight were found to contain language which parents may deem as obscene or vulgar despite some being targeted at children as young as nine. The study of 40 teenage and young adult books found that characters who swore were generally portrayed as rich, attractive and more popular than those who did not.”

Why our fascination with deviance; our preference for heroes that have a dark edgy side.  You may recall in school that well-behaved students who excelled in their studies were assigned a nickname designed to tarnish image.  We wanted to have their marks just with less effort with respect to behaviour.  So tell me, does coddling a moderate amount of vice lead to hopefulness in life?

I look forward to the day when God will purge the world of everything that undermines or diminishes love; that Day when love and nothing but love will pour out of us in self-forgetful self-giving.  I have sufficient experience of the self-giving love of abiding friends that, though imperfect, it helps me imagine the riches that await us in a world where such love is uninhibited and undiminished.  Such are the riches of God’s glorious inheritance.

3. The third thing Paul is convinced we will come to experience as we come to know God is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe.  Power for its own sake is forbidden in scripture.  In the ancient world power was connected to magic. Ancient people believed that the universe was riddled with many different forces or powers, and magic was the means of harnessing, co-opting, exploiting the different forces.  There is a story in the book of Acts of a sorcerer named Simon who wanted the power he saw in the Apostles as people were healed—he offered to buy it and his efforts were repulsed by God.

Sometimes we equate the power of God with the idea that he can do anything at all.  When we think of addressing God as “Almighty God” we imagine God to be the giant strongman, mightier than the world's champion weightlifter, able to do so many "almightynesses" that they couldn't be listed in the Guinness Book of Records. But such a notion identifies God with sheer power, and sheer power, remember, power for the sake of power, is what scripture rejects and God opposes!
Indeed the Bible asserts that God is powerful. After all, he fashioned the cosmos out of nothing and sustains it moment-by-moment unaided. And yet it isn't the creative power of God which is at the forefront of Biblical consciousness; it is God's redemptive power, his saving power.

God's creative power was a display of stupendous force; but God's redemptive power is a manifestation of patience, mercy, self-renouncing pardon. God's redemptive power is a self-giving which will absorb any hurt and withstand any humiliation. Israel knew this throughout its entire history, and came to know it most pointedly in Israel's greater Son. For it is in the cross supremely that we meet redemptive power. As Paul writes; God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead.

Paul reminds Timothy that God has given every child of God a "spirit of power and love and self-control". He means a power for love and self-control.  The child of God is promised power for both love and self-control. Love is the integrity of life-facing-out; self-control is the integrity of life-facing-in. Power is needed for both. As our love engages a harsh world we shall find ourselves souring; as our self-control meets with unrelenting temptation we shall find ourselves capitulating. Power is needed if love is to thrive and self-control strengthen. Every child of God, rendered such by the power of God, is promised as well power for love (as we confront turbulence "out there") and power for self-control (as we discover treachery "in here").

Hope, inheritance, and power; such are God’s gifts to his people.