November 12, 2017

To Know the Love of Christ

Passage: Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25, Psalm 78:1-7, Ephesians 3:14 – 4:16, Matthew 25:1-13

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.

What does the world need more of? Imagine that you have just listened to a news broadcast or scanned a newspaper’s front page, how would you complete the sentence, “the world needs more (fill in the blank)”? I recall a recent television advertisement declaring that “the world needs more heroes”. The ad was to promote a series of television drama shows presumably about heroic people. You may also recall in celebration of Canada 150 the ad assertion that “the world needs more Canada.” Possibly the word that came to mind for you was love—“the world needs more love.” And even if we didn’t complete the sentence with the word “love” it is likely that what we did say could easily be categorized under the topic of love.

1. In the Apostle Paul’s prayer for the church we hear of a love he is certain the world needs more of. “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.”

When Paul begins this prayer he writes that he “bows his knee.” Contrary to what we typically imagine, to “bow the knee” doesn’t mean to get down on one’s knees to pray, perhaps like a child saying “Now I lay me down to sleep”. To “bow the knees”, rather, is a Hebrew expression meaning “to collapse”: to stumble, fall down, crumple. In modern English we say that someone’s knees buckled. Jewish people don’t kneel to pray: they stand.

Then why does Paul (a Jew) “bow the knee”? We should recall our Lord Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane on the eve of his crucifixion wherein he would bear in himself the Father’s just judgement of the sin of the whole world. We are told that Jesus “knelt” to pray. He didn’t calmly kneel down beside that flat-topped rock we see in so many church pictures. The Greek text uses a verb tense that indicates our Lord’s knees buckled; he collapsed, got to his feet again and took a few steps, staggered once more and collapsed as his knees “bowed” and buckled beneath him repeatedly – all the while with perspiration running down his face, Luke tells us, as though blood were pouring out of a forehead gash. “Bow the knee” is an expression Jewish people used of that pray-er who was preoccupied, intense, passionately concerned, in the grip of something crucially important and therefore unmindful of all else.

A reading of any of the four gospels will make plain this same conviction of the Apostle Paul—there is a love the world needs. Not any love, but the love of Christ. What we humans perceive to be love is often self-serving. A child is convinced that love means a parent will give them whatever they want. Many think the same of God—that God should be the champion of our agenda and self-realization. So much so that many conclude, because of the presence of evil in our world or of some difficulty that arises, that God does not love—i.e. does not give us what we want or expect or what we think love should afford us. The love the gospel asserts that the world needs is the love of Father and Son most characteristically seen in the self-forgetful self-giving at the cross.

2. Today as we share in baptism of children we are thinking about our role as parents and as a church in the future of these little ones. As parents and grandparents what is it that we want our children to know and learn about. We want them to flourish in life—what will make for their flourishing? What are the things we don’t want them to know? Yes, we want them to be sure they know we love them. Yet there is a love that is much higher, of unfathomable depth, that will go any length, and has breadth beyond comprehension; the love of God shown in our Lord pouring out his life for us. This is the love the gospel would have us to be sure to tell our children about.

In our worship today we read together the beginning of the prayer known to us as Psalm 78. In that prayer a commitment is uttered regarding things we will not hide from our children. What were those things the Psalmist has in mind? “The glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might, and the wonders he has done.” The rest of Psalm 78 is a recitation of God’s faithfulness; a naming of the events of God’s steadfast love for his people, even in the event of Israel’s unfaithfulness. The goal of not hiding these stories from their children? So “that the next generation might know them, the children yet unborn, and rise up and tell them to their children, so that they should set their hope in God, and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments.”

According to the gospel, there is a love that is essential our children know about. If you would, imagine with me the Jewish household in which Jesus grew up. It would be there he would have learned of how God promised blessing for the world through ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; of how Israel became enslaved in Egypt; of their rescue when God sent Moses; of the crossing of the Red Sea; of their possession of the Promised Land, plus many more stories. Of these events of history that show the steadfast love of God for his people; that reveal God’s purposes to save and redeem—the one that towers over all the rest is the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. It is these stories we must not hide from our children—rehearse the stories of Jesus with them.

In the Ontario of my childhood the stories of Jesus were broadly known. We read them at church and also at school. Stories of Jesus were so well known references to Bible stories were common in our everyday speech; i.e. a euphemism like “removing the speck from your neighbour’s eye” was commonly understood as a picture of being judgemental. Not so much anymore. If we want our children to know of this love of God that surpasses knowledge we will have to be deliberate in telling our children because there are fewer and fewer other opportunities for them to know.

So make sure that Christmas is a time you tell them that it is Jesus’ birthday. Tell the story of stable birth and visiting shepherd and announcing angels and wise men bringing gifts. There are great adventures as well; walking on water, calming a storm, feeding five thousand as a little boy offered to share his lunch. There are great parable to know—of finding lost sheep, welcoming the prodigal son home, and of the good Samaritan. Don’t forget about Zacchaeus who climbed a tree to see Jesus and of the many sick people whom Jesus healed.

At some point you will come to the events that happened in Jerusalem and how our Lord gave his life for us. Jesus’ triumphal entry riding on a donkey is one little children can love. Of course, when we deal with the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection—the awful events of Good Friday—we will do so in an age appropriate way. But don’t hide these essential events from them. Children need to know that our Lord has conquered death and promised eternal life through faith in him.

I was driving with my six-year-old grandson and from his place in the back seat he called out this question to me: “Papa, do you miss your Dad?” (My father died in 2013). I must say the question surprised me a little, but his query had me thinking about my Dad. “Yes, I do,” I responded. His next question was, “what happened to him?” And so we talked about him dying and of Jesus’ promise to take my Dad to be with him and of Jesus’ same promise to us as well. His next question was, “Do you miss your Mom?” And we again revisited Jesus’ promise that was certain because God raised Jesus from the dead. I was talking with my grandson’s mother a few days later about our conversation and she said he recently told her he wanted her to stop getting older.

Now I would not pretend to know what is prompting these questions in his six-year-old mind but he needs to know the story of Jesus. The story of how God’s love conquers even death. As a little boy he knows he lives in a world where people die and is trying to sort out what means for him. He needs to know of Jesus’ resurrection to life and in that of Jesus’ promise of life to come—that death is defeated and that the promise is for my grandson even as he holds on to Jesus in faith. Trust in Jesus will calms the fears in the heart of the young.

3. The Apostle Paul’s letter to the Ephesian church underscores that telling this story of Jesus is the mission of the church. This is why God gives gifts to the church—apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. It is for this reason that God give each of us gifts—for the building up of the body of Christ. We know what the mission is and there is a role for each believer to play in this mission. In this mission of building up the church of Jesus Christ each of us can become a part of Jesus’ ministry force on earth.

Let us think for a moment on the nature of the church—because the church also has a commitment to not hide the stories of God’s faithfulness from our children. In classical Protestant thought the church consists of those who gather to hear the Word of God preached and to respond to the Word preached through praise and prayer. Now many say they feel close to God out in nature. As gently as I can, permit me a response in the spirit of the tradition of classical Protestantism.

We can genuinely feel close to God only as we are close to God. And since as sinners we are God-flee-ers we can be close to God only where God has drawn close to us. And where has God drawn close to us? Not in nature: God has drawn exquisitely close to us in his Son; specifically, in the cross of his Son. When we are profoundly moved at nature’s beauties we are not being moved by God; we are being moved by God’s creation, the things that he has made, but we are not thereby in touch with the person of God himself. We are in touch with the person of God himself only as we are touched by that Son whose crucified arms embrace us and plead with us to embrace him in return.

Plainly we can’t inform ourselves of the gospel. The gospel—what all humankind needs as it needs nothing else—is not a human invention. It’s a divine cure. And concerning God’s cure we have to be informed. It is out of this conviction that the Protestant conviction regarding the church arises—it is where people gather to hear the gospel preached and to respond to the announced Gospel. Here, as we gather in our Lord’s name, unfailingly he promises to be present with us—to draw near.

Dorothy Sayers wrote a series of detective novels focused on her fictional character Lord Peter Wimsey. Sayers' creation Wimsey was an aristocrat detective from the 1930s who solved all kinds of crimes.

About halfway through her Wimsey detective series, a woman suddenly shows up in the novels. Sayers new character is named Harriet Vane, a female mystery writer and one of the very first women to get through Oxford. Harriet and Peter fall in love. Until that point in the series, Wimsey was an unhappy, broken bachelor, until Harriet Vane shows up and her love starts to heal his broken soul.

It's interesting because Dorothy Sayers, like her fictional creation, was one of the first women to graduate from Oxford. Like Harriet Vane, Dorothy Sayers was a writer of mystery novels. Dorothy Sayers looked at her character, Lord Peter Wimsey, and saw that he needed someone to help him out. So who did she put in there? A detective novelist, a woman, and one of the first women to go through Oxford. Who was that? She put herself into her own stories. She looked into the world that she had created and she fell in love with the chief character, Peter Wimsey, and she wrote herself into that story so she could heal him.

The magnitude of God’s love is seen in his coming among us in Jesus of Nazareth. God created us for great things but we've turned away from him and become damaged by our sin and rebellion. But God looks into this world and he loves us and he writes himself into his own story. Only he really writes himself in, he really puts himself in there in Jesus Christ, and he comes and he heals us and redeems us that we might be his own.

The world needs to know of the love of Christ. May our Lord help us to treasure and proclaim his love.