January 17, 2016

The Immeasurable Greatness of His Power

Passage: Isaiah 62:1-5, Psalm 36:5-10, Ephesians 1:15-23, John 2:1-11
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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, 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 Alexander Nix, CEO of Cambridge Analytica, American presidential candidates' campaigns are utilizing consumer research data firms to learn exactly how to cater their advertising to specific lifestyles. Nix says that his company maintains between 4,000 and 5,000 data points on every single person registered to vote; things like websites visited, cars shopped for, and groceries purchased. All of these data points are then categorized by analytics firms and presented to presidential campaigns to target their advertising messaging. The entire process of compiling such massive troves of data is an effort that has taken years, millions of dollars, and thousands of sophisticated algorithms. Advertisers apparently think the information worthwhile.

Our world is awash in information. Think about all the things we measure. The research done at our universities to add to our knowledge information about physics and chemistry, about plant and animal life, about health and disease, and human behaviour (just to name a few). We have indexes for poverty and educational achievement and fitness and happiness. We wear devices to measure how many steps we took today. We seem to have this deep seeded belief that what is needed for human life to flourish is information.

The believers in the church at Ephesus would have seen it often; the great structure known as the Library of Celsus. The entrance to the library consisted of three large doors with thick columns; on the façade at the end and between the doors were four statutes depicting the Wisdom, the Knowledge, the Intelligence and the Fortune. It would be hard not to get the message of how Ephesians regarded the importance of the information contained in that Library.

A lot of energy was expended to amass the collection at the Library at Ephesus. Think about all the energy expended, in our culture, for the expansion of knowledge and dissemination of information. The gospel indicates that something else is needed for the flourishing of human life. Keep in mind that the Apostle Paul was a well-educated man who excelled in academics, among other things. He was not unaware of the content of libraries like the one at Ephesus.

With this in mind, listen again to this prayer Paul prays for the Ephesian Christians. “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, 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.”

“With the eyes of your heart enlightened.” As helpful as information and learning are about all kinds of things for life the gospel insists that something more is needed. Something more is needed than that which the eye can see or intelligence decipher. We have an indication of the limitations of sight and perception from nature. Humans can perceive only thirty percent of the range of the sun's light and 1/70th of the spectrum of electromagnetic energy. Many animals exceed our abilities in some areas. Bats detect insects by sonar; pigeons navigate by magnetic fields; bloodhounds perceive a world of smell unavailable to us.

The gospel insists that the spiritual world of God’s presence requires an inbuilt set of correspondences activated only through some sort of spiritual quickening. "No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above," said Jesus. "The eyes of our heart require enlightening," said Paul.

Paul will go on to remind these Ephesian Christians that they were once “dead through their trespasses and sins,” (Ephesians 2:1) He said that the power that gives us such spiritual life was of the same kind that was manifested in the resurrection power when God raised Jesus from the dead. A resurrection needs to occur. Someone is dead and needs life. Paul, for all his brilliance and access to the revelation of God in the scriptures, was on his way to Damascus to make life miserable for Christians when our Lord accosted him and enlightened the eyes of his heart—gave him spiritual life.

In his commentary on Ephesians theologian N.T. Wright wrote of a time when a friend was showing Wright his new telescope. Wright had been scanning the horizon towards the sea noting that there were a couple of ships going by and a few small fishing boats closer in. When he put his eye to his friend’s telescope he couldn’t believe what he saw. He could now read the names on the two ships he had seen as distant in his binoculars but also out beyond where his binoculars had registered nothing he could now see several other ships. The telescope seemed to have the uncanny power of making things appear out of nowhere.

1. Paul prayed that with the “eyes of our hearts enlightened” we would know “what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe.” Power is one of the themes that runs throughout this prayer of Paul’s. In the Greek text there are word plays using different words for power. In fact the theme of power runs throughout this Ephesian letter. Ephesus itself was seen as a place of power; in social and civic terms the city was powerful. It was a major center of political power for Imperial Rome. It was also a centre of religious power and influence; the great temple of Artemis dominated the city’s landscape. It was the powerful guild of idol craftsmen who started a riot focussed on opposition to Paul and the Christians of that city.

I also note with you a reminder that when Paul uses the verb “to know” he is not thinking about merely acquiring information. Paul thinks as a Hebrew. To know is to experience. I invite you to reflect with me on this knowing of the immeasurable greatness of God’s power for us who believe.
Power, we are told, corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. All of us have run afoul of someone on a power trip. We know those who manage others in that skilled passive-aggressive way. We know that there are different concentrations and configurations of power running through industry, the media, politics, volunteer organizations, sport, education, government. Some people are especially eager to exploit these, or especially adept at it, and thereby advance themselves to a position of prominence and power. So when we speak of the power of God what are we experiencing?

Israelite people knew 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 Israelite consciousness; it is God’s redemptive power, his saving power. God’s creative power was a display of stupendous force; a power aimed at giving life, we should note. 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.

When Paul speaks of this power at work in the resurrection of Jesus he isn’t singling out an instance of Jesus life. The resurrection is the vindication of all that our Lord did particularly in his self-giving on the cross for our sakes.

A question shouts itself at this point: if redemptive power is a self-giving that will absorb any hurt and withstand any humiliation, can it properly be said to be power? Isn’t self-giving, even giving oneself up to death, closer to powerlessness? Is it proper to speak of it as power, or are we simply misusing language? “Power”, after all, means that something is accomplished. What does hurt-absorbing self-giving accomplish? When we think of God’s power the words “Almighty God” ring in our ears. It was not long ago that it was pointed out to me that Scripture scarcely uses the expression at all. Despite the fact many church folk assume it is the most common or most typical description of God in the bible, as a matter of fact it is used only two or three times. Therefore we should be cautious about using the expression ourselves. God’s power isn’t merely the raw ability to smash stuff. Sheer power, remember, power for the sake of power, is what scripture means by the devil!

If we are going to speak of the power or might of God we must be clear as to what we mean by power. Power is the capacity to achieve purpose. Then what is God’s purpose, and how does he achieve it? His purpose is to recover for himself a people who love him, obey him, trust him, serve him. His purpose is to salvage from the sea of human self-wreckage a people who live for the praise of his glory. His purpose is to deliver from the bondage and misery and degradation of human depravity (sin) a people who mirror his image, that image in which they were created and which they have marred through spiritual perversity. His purpose is to woo and win a people who know their greatest good to be, just be, his sons and daughters. God’s power is God’s capacity to achieve this purpose. How does God do it? By giving himself up for our sakes, over and over, throughout centuries of humiliating self-renunciation and then supremely in the cross. If we are going to keep the vocabulary of “almighty”, meaning omnipotence, meaning all-powerful, meaning there is no limit to God’s power, then we must always understand all of this in the light of cross and resurrection. The cross means there is no limit to God’s self-giving; the resurrection means there is no limit to the effectiveness of God’s self-giving. To say that God is almighty, all-powerful, is to say there is no limit, no final frustration, to God’s achieving his purpose. And this is so. In other words, God is going to have a people (whether it consists of many or few) whom he has delivered and recovered, a people in whom his image is restored, a people who love him, obey him and live for the praise of his glory.

Plainly the single most critical instance of God’s power — the achieving of his purpose — is to render creatures of God children of God. In the prologue to his written gospel John says, “To all who received Jesus, who believed in his name [nature], he gave power to become children of God”. To all who seize him in faith our Lord gives power to become children of God. It is what Paul means by the resurrection power at work in us—dead in trespasses and sins now spiritually alive to the power and presence of God in our lives.

Paul went on to say that this power of God not only raise Jesus but seated him at God’s right hand far above all powers and dominions making him the head over all things for the church. Think for a moment about what a miracle it is that the church exists at all. Following the crucifixion of Jesus his disciples had all abandoned him as a tragic pretender and considered themselves victims of a cruel hoax. Think about all the forces in history aligned against its existence—everything in Ephesus that mitigated against a church ever existing there.

Think about all that mitigates against its existence today. In our own culture the last ten years have seen an explosive growth in the number of people who say they have no religion. The silencing of Christian voices in our places of government. The characterization in media of Christians as religious kooks or extremists. Our culture’s affluence coupled with its religious indifference gives rise to many things competing for attention on a Sunday morning.

And yet here we are over two thousand years since Jesus’s giving of himself on the cross gathered in worship sensing the sustaining work of the Spirit of God in our hearts as the gospel is explored in our hearing, as we offer prayer and praise in word and song, as we share in sacrament. We might think this doesn’t look like much but given our world what are the chance s that it happens at all? Yet all over our world millions of people will meet just like us in groups of varying sizes.

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 immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.