Immeasurably More

This is the sermon I preached today, based on Ephesians 3:14-21 It’s holiday season and some of us will be heading to the coast. Nearly all of us have. When we stand on the shore, there’s so much more out there. And sometimes you can stand on the shore, and if you look left, all you can see is the sea, and if you look right, all you can see is the sea, There is nothing else on the horizon – you’re struck by the boundless depths of the ocean. But you don’t really experience the sea unless you get your feet wet, actually you need to get out of your depths. Even then, you don’t experience the depths of the sea – you need to go diving or to a sea life centre to experience the breadth of life there. Then you become aware of the boundless depths of the ocean. Wouldn’t it be a shame if all you experienced of the sea was the view you got from the shore, gazing at the pretty blue thing out there. And yet, for many of us when it comes to our faith, if we’re honest, we’re standing on the shore. Some of us might have dared to step beyond the shore, but we’re still only up to our ankles and we don’t believe we can go much further. God’s saying, “I’ve got more for you than that – I don’t want you just to be paddling. I want you to be immersed in the full depths of all I have for you.” This morning I want us to widen our horizons, our expectations of what God can do in us and through us, so we might begin to grasp the immeasurably more that God has for us. Because God is a God of immeasurably more – he is able to do “immeasurably more than we can ask or imagine.” God says, “I want you to imagine more with me, and together we can do some fantastic things.”

We’re going to be looking together at this passage from Ephesians 3:14-21, which is one of the great prayers of Scripture. In fact, if you’re wondering what prayers to pray for others, or indeed yourself, this is a great prayer!

Lord, we pray that “You would strengthen us with power through his Spirit in our inner being, 17 so that Christ may dwell in our hearts through faith. And I pray that we, being rooted and established in love, 18 may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, 19 and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that we may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.”

Wow, that’s mindblowing!

It’s great that we’re looking forward to some wonderful celebrations of love, and there’s no doubt about the depth of love there is between Kerri and Ray who are being married next weekend, but God’s love that he wants us to experience is even bigger than that! God’s sating I have so much more than you can possibly imagine.

But what stops us from experiencing that “more” from God?

This morning I want to explore two barriers that stop us experiencing all that God has for us.

 

1) We fail to grasp how much God loves us

2) We make God to small

 

1) We fail to grasp how much God loves us

 

I think some of us are afraid of God. I think my nan was a God-fearer. This fear can impact everything we do, when it comes to faith. We come to church out of some sort of fear that when we meet with God face to face, we’ll be rejected because we haven’t met the standards and he’ll judge us if we’ve not gone to church or said our prayers often enough. And then, when we come to pray, we pray as though God doesn’t really want to hear from us. We fumble over our words and think of ourselves as not being important enough to be worth God’s time and certainly not good enough for God.

God doesn’t want us to come to him like this. He wants us to come to him like children come to their parents – with confidence. He wants us to know that his love for all of us is “wide and long and high and deep” and that his love for us “surpasses knowledge” (vv.17-19) – he wants it to be in our head and our hearts, to the depths of our being. He wants us to be filled with this love – not just to paddle in it, but to be completely immersed.

God loves you. Oh, how he loves you. If you’re here this morning, doubting the depths of God’s love for you, hear the voice of the Holy Spirit saying over and over again, oh, how he loves you. Grasp that. He has adopted you into his family, and made you his child. He delights in you. He wants you to know that to the very core of your being. You don’t have to strive to be in his favour. You already are. People in this world are desperate for love and approval. It’s there for them, and they don’t need to do anything to earn this love.

“The Law commands that we love perfectly. The Gospel announces that we are perfectly loved.” – William McDavid.

I think if we really grasped God’s love for us, it would change the way we prayed, it would change the way we hoped. I think it would also change some of the relationships we have with each other, because if we’re anchored by the knowledge of God’s love for us, we no longer depend on our family and friends to sustain us. This means that when we let each other down or hurt each other it’s not a disaster, because our self-worth is derived from God’s unchangeable, perfect love for us, rather than what others think of us and how they treat us. I think it would bring freedom to those who are imprisoned by fear. Why? Because, as it says in the Scriptures, “there is no fear in love, because perfect love drives out fear.”

God wants you to experience his love, to be immersed, as we are in the ocean, in his love for you. Knowing this and experiencing this love knocks down one major barrier to experiencing God’s boundless grace – we fail to grasp God’s love for us.

I pray that you would grasp that just a little bit more today, that you are infinitely precious, and infinitely loved, and nothing can take that away from you.

The second barrier that prevents us from living fully in God’s boundless grace is that

2) We make God too small. We put limits on what God can do.

St Paul ends his prayer with the words,

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.” (vv.20-21).

Do we believe in the God who can do immeasurably more? Do we know that God has so much more for us?

Christian author and speaker, Louie Giglio in the early days of his career in teaching at youth conferences and lock-ins, would preach and stay in the homes of host families. In fact, he had never stayed in a real hotel in his life – until one day, the hosts of this youth conference wanted to bless him so they gave him the nicest hotel room in the city. When he was with them all everyone talked about was the room, and how wonderful it was. When we saw it, he was impressed, but not that impressed – it was just an ordinary hotel room. What he didn’t realise was that he’d actually been given the hotel suite, with a living room, a dining room and even a second bedroom on the other end of the suite. Sitting on the dining room table was a massive gift basket with snacks and a t-shirt for the youth conference where he was speaking and a wonderful note welcoming him. He only discovered this later, by chance – he’d been given the key to the bedroom section at check in and not been told about the main suite that he had access to as well. He nearly missed out altogether on the best room in the city.

What if we lived our whole lives in the adjoining bedroom and thought our Christian journey is this, and God’s saying, I have so much more for you. More than you can ask or imagine. We don‘t have to be confined to the room. We can step out to experience all that God has for us –as individuals and as a church.

I don’t want us to merely exist as a church. I want us to really live. Jesus came so that we could have life to the full, to live life in colour, not just in black and white. I want us to grab the life God has for us with both hands.

Last Sunday – fantastic to celebrate our children’s and youth work. But, got to be honest. I’m not satisfied with current situation. Rich history of children’s and families’ work in the church. Why then are do we only have five teenagers who come regularly to church? What about the ones who are around their age who don’t come to church any more? I think there are about 30 children between the age of 14 and 18 who used to come to church but do so no longer. Of 9 young people who were confirmed only two years ago, only 3 still come to church. This is heartbreaking. I know this is a common experience with churches across the country – that young people drop off after the age of 11 and we don’t see them again until they come back when they themselves have had children. I don’t want to be satisfied with that. I believe God has more for us than that. We need to raise our expectations. We need to have a bigger view of what’s possible. What if we have 50 children as regular part of the church community? It’s not impossible – not in Allesley Park, which is a family area with four primary schools. But these things don’t happen by chance – we need take some steps of faith.

This is why I – and the PCC – believe the appointment of a children’s worker is vital – so vital that we’re willing to invest £17,000 of money that could otherwise be spent on the development of the building. I’m fully expecting that we’ll be able to obtain grants to help towards the costs of this role. But if we don’t, we risk running out of reserves completely. One temptation would be to hold onto our money and think that the children’s work would work itself out. We’d risk less that way, wouldn’t we? Actually, it depends on our perspective. I did some number crunching recently. In the past year, our average attendance of children has dropped by 8 in the past couple of years. If this continues at the same rate, we’d have no children left in the next 6 years. To not do something at this stage, to not act now, when we have great kids work and potential to grow in this area. To not act now could be far more risky than to act and to use the resources that are available.

We don’t have to be satisfied with the status quo. I don’t want to be satisfied with the idea that decline is inevitable, becayse church competes with so much these days, so we may as well get used to it. I don’t want that. I believe the narrative can change, and God calls us to dream bigger dreams for us as a church community. I want to dream that we can have 50 children as regular worshippers and that they don’t drop out at the age of 14. We need to dream bigger dreams and step out. The thing about swimming in the depths is it’s risky. When you’re out of your depths, anything can happen. But, we have a God of grace, of boundless possibility –a God who loves us he will not let us drown. I want to encourage you to dream bigger dreams. I want to encourage you to be people of faith who believe that God has immeasurably more for us. Be full of faith, because God is the Lord of the church – and he will build his church and his kingdom. He says, “I will buiold my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.”

So, we’re on the shore. I don’t know where you are in your life. Have you limited what God can do for you? Are you praying small prayers? We put fetters on God, and God wants us to break out of those fetters and pray bigger prayers. To think bigger thoughts, to imagine bigger ways that God might work. We need the work of the Holy Spirit to stir us up, that we might dream God’s dreams for us. There is more for us. Not just in the area of children’s work. It’s been wonderful to have 5 adult baptisms in the past year. I want this to be the start. Why not pray for 10 – or more next year – more salvation, more of God at work, more lives changed. There is more for us.

Our duty is to allow God to work in our lives so that our imaginations can be released to dream the dreams God has for us. And then, to get to the edge of the shore. There’ll be areas of our lives where we’re challenged, where we find it difficult to imagine God working, where he’s saying to you, if you want to get the more I have for you, you need to step into the water. Get ankle deep, knee deep, and then immerse yourself fully, and we need to take a risk. . Some of us have got situations where we’re struggling, where we feel imprisoned and we can’t imagine a different future, and God is saying, come on – come out into the deep, like when Jesus walked on the water, he called Peter to walk on the water towards him. While Peter had his eyes fixed on Jesus, he did it, he walked on the water.   And Jesus is saying to us, looking at us, saying come on, walk on the water. Imagine what I can do in you and through you. Imagine my love for you – a love that will never die. Because God can do so much more than we can ask or imagine.

My prayer today is that this morning you grasp his love for you in a deeper way, that you swim in the ocean of God’s love for you. And also, as a church and as individuals, we’re able to swim in the ocean of God’s possibilities for us. We need to take risks, to take steps of faith so that we might see God’s kingdom come in ever greater ways in our church, in our lives, in this community.

20 Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.

 

This week's update

As you may know, I've been writing a mini-blog each week for our church news sheet.  Beginning this week, the aim is to publish these online too.  This is the latest edition, hot off the press! Happy new year! Have you made any new year’s resolutions? Are any still intact? If not, don’t worry, there’s always next year!!! Seriously though, I’d like to suggest a resolution that we might all make this year – to know Jesus better and to become more like him. This is God’s purpose for each of us; as preacher and pastor John Stott reflected, “God wants His people to become like Christ. Christlikeness is the will of God for the people of God. … In our own strength it is clearly not attainable but God has given us his Holy Spirit to dwell within us, to change us from within.” Come, Holy Spirit!

People of Truth and Grace

This is the text of the sermon I preached this morning, reflecting on Paul's courage to speak the truth in Acts 13:1-12.

 

Life was good for Jonathan Aitken. He was a high-profile, successful politician, destined for greater glory as a future leader of the Conservatives and therefore possible Prime Minister. Then, in 1995 Jonathan Aitken found himself the subject of front-page headlines that alleged he was involved in dodgy dealings with Saudis. He responded with the following speech …

 

If it falls to me to start a fight to cut out the cancer of bent and twisted journalism in our country with the simple sword of truth and the trusty shield of British fair play, so be it. I am ready for the fight. The fight against falsehood and those who peddle it. My fight begins today. Thank you and good afternoon.

 

When Jonathan Aitken made that speech, claiming to fight for truth I'm sure many applauded. How brave he was to stand up against the tyranny of the press that so often can be full of lies.

 

He was right - the truth matters. There is, I feel, something hard wired in us that demands to know the truth and we feel so angry when we are lied to or about.

 

In the last ten years, we have had big inquiries over the Iraq war – were we led astray, were there really WMD? there is an ongoing investigation into police conduct at Hillsborough where police witness statements were doctored and false accusations were made about Liverpool fans. There is still so much anger about the way the truth has been obscured time and time again. Even now, there are accusations and counteraccusations flying around. What about the recent downing of the Malaysian Airlines plane? Who was responsible? Who supplied the weapons? Have the rebels in Ukraine doctored evidence at the scene of the crash? We all demand to know the truth.

 

We want to get to the truth – about historic child abuse. The truth must come out.

 

Jonathan Aitken was right about the importance of fighting for truth. Falsehood needs to be confronted.

 

But it’s not just in the big institutions, or in government or high-profile cases where truth matters. Truth matters in this church community, in my life.

 

But, some might argue, how do we know what truth is – isn’t it subjective? A matter of opinion?

 

Actually no. Truth is objective. Truth is a person.

 

Jesus said, I am the way, the truth and the life.”

 

He also said, ‘If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free’ (John 8:31-32).

 

Jesus is the source of all truth. We also read, “For the word of the Lord is right and true; he is faithful in all he does.”

 

The truth isn’t out there, it’s here [pick up Bible]. And the thing about the Bible, is that we need to allow to challenge and correct us. We can’t just pick the bits of the bible that we like. There are, of course, parts that we need to wrestle over, and discuss together, which is why we need to read the Bible in community, not just on our own. Most importantly, we need to allow the Bible to read us, as well as read the bible.

 

I remember being at university. I was well aware of God’s calling on my life as a vicar. I then read the parts of the bible that outline the qualities that someone should have who aspires to that sort of role …

 

above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, 3 not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. 4 He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him, and he must do so in a manner worthy of full respect.

 

Elsewhere it says an elder must be blameless, not overbearing, not quick-tempered … He must be hospitable, one who loves what is good, who is self-controlled, upright, holy and disciplined. 9 He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.

 

I read those words and I looked at myself and realised how far short of those standards I fell. I knew myself. I knew I was a sinner. I struggled particularly with self-control and quick-temper. I certainly wasn’t holy or disciplined.

 

And yet, I still felt the overwhelming sense of God’s call on my life for this vocation in life. I knew that I needed to change, to be different, and I knew that I needed help to do so.

 

Of course, this is where the Holy Spirit comes in – with our co-operation he works in our lives, shaping us and making us more like Jesus. We need to be open to the work of God in our lives. But we also need each other’s help too. We can’t do this Christian life on our own.   It’s just too hard. So I did something that would be alien to many of us. I found a more mature Christian and met with him regularly, and gave him permission to ask some brutally honest and deep questions of me. No holds barred. It was sometimes painful, but it really helped me.

 

Home truths were brought to me. A mirror was held up that showed who I was –

 

I was told I was arrogant, that I often devalued people by being distracted when I was talking to them. I was also told that certain habits that some may argue were harmless enough could, if they took root, destroy me. It could be a flaw in my character that would trip me up and undermine the work I do for God and the work God does in me.

 

These revelations hurt, my pride was dented. But what matters more? That my ego is respected, or that the sin that is in my life is dealt with? If you need an operation, what would you rather have, a good surgeon or a mate who will be nice to you?

 

I know of a young woman who is in an accountability group where in their first meeting they confessed persistent and habitual sin in their lives.

 

Wow. Sounds crazy, doesn’t it, but it demonstrates how much holiness matters.

 

We are called as Christians to love each other. We think that being nice automatically means being loving. So, we opt to be nice to each other. Don't tell the truth, because we think it'll hurt. Not telling the truth will hurt more long term.  Too often we don't want to say anything that might hurt the feelings of people around us. We want to let sleeping dogs lie, we don't want to upset the apple cart. We mistake niceness for love. They are not the same thing. Sometimes sleeping dogs need to be opened. Apple carts sometimes need to be upset, turned over, even destroyed.  if they aren't they could destroy us. 

 

The recent tragic case of Peaches Geldof tells us the dangers of addiction. But it’s not just drugs that destroy us. We can be addicted to other things … lust, porn, anger, bitterness, gossip, jealousy, being judgmental, idolatry, ambition … lots of different things that can hold us captive and destroy God’s work in us. And often, we can’t see it ourselves. That’s why we have the term blindspots. We’re blind to the damage we’re doing to ourselves or to others. This is why we need each other, to confront the truth. Telling the truth, however hard, is love. Ignoring the truth because we’re being too nice is not love.

 

Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.(1 Cor 13:6).

 

I don’t want to be known as a nice vicar. I’d much rather be known as someone who had courage to tell the truth. Why? Because my calling here is to do what I can to build up and encourage the body of Christ here so that together we become mature in the faith. The key passage for me here is in Ephesians 4:11-16.

 

Ephesians 4:11-16

11 So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12 to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.

14 Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. 15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. 16 From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.

 

We need to be people who are anchored to the truth, to not be people who only listen to the parts of the Bible that we like, or to listen to teaching that makes us comfortable. This means we need, each of us, to know our Bibles, so we know what it says about the way we should live our lives, we should also do our utmost to grow in our relationship with Christ, to stay close to the one who is the way, the truth, and the life. We also need to be filled and refilled with the Holy Spirit, who Jesus describes as the “Spirit of truth … [who] will guide you into all the truth” (John 16:13).

 

Does this mean that we have permission to go around and say exactly what we like to each other? No, of course not. In our passage from John this morning, we heard that Jesus was full of grace and truth. Paul writes of speaking the truth in love. In that most famous passage about love, we’re reminded that our words and deeds are worth nothing without love. We need to be loving in the way we speak to each other – to think before we speak, to think about how we phrase any criticisms, if we should speak them at all.

 

In our survey our weakest area came out as loving relationships. This might have surprised many of you, because this is a tight-knit community. I wasn’t very surprised, because we don’t think about how we speak to each other. We can be careless with our words. And we also speak about each other rather than to each other. I have heard complaints about various things mainly through someone approaching me and saying, so-and-so says this. We need to speak the truth, but do so in love – and we must remember we’re doing God’s work …

 

James 5:19 My brothers and sisters, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring that person back, 20 remember this: whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins.

 

All of this takes courage, and it could be costly, because we may need to confront some difficult, deep-rooted habits. However, the cost of not speaking out the truth could be much, much worse. After his famous speech, Jonathan Aitken took the Guardian newspaper and Granada TV court for libel, but the case collapsed in June 1997 when evidence was shown that backed up their version of events and not his. He had lied in court, and was later convicted on charges of perjury and perverting the course of justice. His fall from grace was complete and he spent 7 months in prison.

 

Then, everything changed. Through his fall from grace, he met with God, having an encounter with Jesus, who came to bring truth in this world, the one who is the way, the truth and the life. Aitken writes,

 

I had been travelling on a spiritual journey. It was largely the pressures of adversity that had set me on this voyage of exploration. Those pressures had included defeat, disgrace, divorce, bankruptcy and now jail - a royal flush of crises by anyone's standards. Yet pressure can be a making as well as a breaking experience. For after several false starts, stumbles, doubts and backslidings, my voyage of exploration evolved into a committed quest for a right relationship with God.

 

A quest for truth may be costly, but the consequences of not speaking the truth, of not confronting sin or injustice are much, much worse.

Be strong and courageous

Just over 32 years ago, I was given the name Andrew. It means "strong, courageous, manly." I remember being in secondary school assembly one day when the local Christian worker was talking about the meaning of names, and he mentioned the meaning of my name. There was a titter that went around those sitting near me, and I was embarrassed, because I felt that there was no way I could live up to that name. I felt far from manly as a teenager, and I don't think that ever really changed. I was never a "blokey" bloke, I felt I related to women better than men, so I felt that I wasn't really doing much to live up to my name. On my ordination retreat in June 2009, i felt so excited, and yet hugely daunted by the prospect of serving God in this new way. I was very clear that I was completely inadequate - there was no way I could do any of it on my own. There is a theological argument in some quarters that people change upon ordination to priesthood. I don't really believe in that, because I believe I'm no more different from any other followers of Christ - we are all part of the "royal priesthood" (1 Peter 2:9) - and yet, I believe there was a change in me upon my ordination - a moment of anointing and equipping for the ministry to which God called me. I also believe I was given the courage and boldness that had previously seemed to evade me. Suddenly I wasn't so afraid any more. Sure enough, when I went up for prayer at New Wine a couple of months later, the words from Joshua 1:9 were spoken over me, "be strong and courageous." I found myself standing up for things and people I would never have previously. A year or so later, out of the blue, a member of the church community where I served as curate (assistant pastor, for those unfamiliar with the lingo), said to me, "keep being bold." He'd seen and wanted to affirm that boldness in me. I believe I was bold, and that I saw the fruit of that boldness in people's lives.

On the morning of the service to mark the beginning of my life as vicar of St Christopher's Church in September last year, I was in Coventry cathedral. The reading from the day was from 1 Chronicles 28, in which the following words appeared: “Be strong and courageous, and do the work. Do not be afraid or discouraged, for the Lord God, my God, is with you. He will not fail you or forsake you until all the work for ... the Lord is finished." I believe God was giving me an incredibly timely reminder of his command to me, to be bold and courageous. I would need to make difficult decisions, some of which might be unpopular. In the face of this, God was calling me to be courageous.

Just last week, at New Wine, as I was being prayed for, someone spoke over me, "mighty man of God." I don't know if he knew the meaning of "Andrew" (most people know me as Andy, anyway), but in that moment God through him was bringing me back full circle, to the identity bestowed on me at birth. I am called to be strong and courageous.

One of the themes that leapt out at me from the talks at New Wine, was the command to be courageous, that the church needed to stop being so afraid of losing face, or being unpopular. In short, we needed to get over ourselves! Robby Dawkins, a pastor in Chicago, through whom God has worked amazingly, said, "all of us have more power and authority than we use. ... It's about Christ in me. Christ the resurrector lives in us. We need to step into our true identity as God's children. ... Jesus came to show us what WE can do, not what HE can do." Robby's lived that out in his ministry and seen God do some extraordinary things - not because he's particularly special, but because he's grasped what it means to be people in whom God's Spirit lives and works.

The reason why we can be strong and courageous, living out that command God gave to Joshua, the reason why I believe I have been able to be bold, is because of the promise that's attached to that command ... "be strong and courageous," God says, ... "For The Lord your God will be with you wherever you go." Step out, God says, be bold. You will face opposition and hardship. You will face the regular temptation to fall into discouragement or disappointment, you will have every reason to be afraid, you will face what will seem like insurmountable odds. There will be times you want to throw in the towel and give up. But don't forget something vital, something that changes everything - I will be with you every step of the way. I'll catch you as you step into the unknown. I will never leave you. I will give you the strength you need. I will do all this for the sake of my glory, for the extension of my kingdom." We actually have an advantage over Joshua and Solomon, and the others in the Old Testament to whom that command was addressed - because Christ lives in us through his Holy Spirit. We have all we need to see Jesus work in mighty ways through us in our churches and communities. I believe if we really began to grasp this, we would see change in our nation.

Christ lives in me. His power and authority lives in me. I'm actually beginning to believe this. And so, since returning from New Wine, I have an extra spring in my step. I have prayed for people to be healed with that little bit more faith. I am feeling just a little bit bolder. I am taking courage, because I know that God is with me, that he has called me to love and serve this community that he loves so much that he sent his only Son to live and die for every one of the people who live here. I can be bold, because God goes with me. I can be bold because God's kingdom and the commission he's given us to make disciples matters more than my own reputation. I can do nothing without him, but "I can do all things through him who strengthens me." (Philippians 4:13). It's about time I lived up to my name, and became strong, courageous, enduring, a mighty man for Jesus.