Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Big Big Love

"And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, 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, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge. . ."
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Three preachers sat discussing the best positions for prayer while a telephone repairman worked nearby. "Kneeling is definitely best," claimed one.

      "No," another contended. "I get the best results standing with my hands outstretched to Heaven."

      "You're both wrong," the third insisted. "The most effective prayer position is lying prostrate, face down on the floor."

      The repairman could contain himself no longer. "Hey, fellas, " he interrupted, "the best prayin' I ever did was hangin' upside down by my foot from a telephone pole."[1]
 _ _ _ _ _
We can imagine that the prayer from the telephone pole was a big prayer.  Paul, in his letters that we read in the New Testament, includes a lot of prayers for his readers.  My favorite, and maybe one of the biggest in what it is asking, is the prayer for the Ephesians that we read today.  It’s a prayer for cosmic and profound understanding, and yet one that seems to defy understanding.

Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is a love-letter to the church, and I think it’s my favorite of his letters.  It’s encouraging and prayerful and powerful, and my favorite part of the whole letter is the part we read from today.  It’s a big, big prayer, asking God to help us understand and live into his big, big love so that it permeates all of our lives.

One of the reasons I especially like this prayer is that it’s very physical.  Paul begins this part telling us that he falls to his knees for this prayer. (v14)  Kneeling is maybe the most fitting position for a prayer that is desperately pleading to God, like this one is.  Jesus is kneeling when he prays in the Garden of Gethsemane (Luke 22:44) and  King Solomon, the highest authority in the kingdom, kneeled to pray, acknowledging that God’s authority was higher (1 Kings 8:24).[2]

Paul’s prayer seeks to give us the physical dimensions of infinity.  Of course, that’s impossible because there are no dimensions to infinity, but Paul reaches out into infinity with this prayer, into the infinite dimensions of God’s love and grace.  So let’s explore those dimensions a bit--the breadth and length and height and depth of God’s love.

God’s love is wide.

When I think of things that are really wide, I think of the Grand Canyon.  At some points it is 18 miles wide.[3]  I could try to describe it to you.  There are some fantastic pictures of it.  But I don’t think we fully appreciate how big it is until we are standing on its rim looking at it for ourselves.  The first time I saw it, I was in awe of it.  God’s love is wider than that.

God’s love is long.

The longest road in the world is the Pan-American Highway.[4] It is 19,000 miles long.  It’s a network of highways that connect from Prudhoe Bay all the way at the top of Alaska to Ushuaia, a city on the southernmost tip of Argentina.  It takes about a month to drive from the end in Alaska to the other end in Argentina.  God’s love is longer than that.

God’s love is high.

The highest point on earth, measuring up from sea level, is Mount Everest which is 29,000 feet high.  Over 4000 people have climbed Everest.  The first to reach the top was Sir Edmund Hillary in 1953.  It takes about 2 months to climb.[5]  One reason it takes so long is that you have to pause at points to get acclimated to the lack of oxygen.[6]  Because it’s so high, there’s only 1/3 as much oxygen in the air at the summit as there is at sea level.  God’s love is higher than that.

God’s love is deep.

The deepest place on earth is the Marianas Trench out in the Pacific Ocean.  It is estimated to be more than 35,000 feet deep, which is 7,000 feet more than Mt. Everest is high.  It is so deep, and the pressure so high, that it can only be reached in specially-built submersibles, and only 3 have ever made it down to the deepest parts of the trench.[7] God’s love is deeper than that.

God’s love is incredibly wide, and long, and high, and deep.

God’s love is wider than the Grand Canyon, and also wider than the gap that exists between us and God, the gap between our humanness and God’s divinity and perfection.  God’s love is wider than the breadth of our experience.  God’s love is wide enough to take in the whole wide world.  We learned to sing about that as kids.  “He’s got the whole world in his hands.”   

God’s love is longer than the Pan American Highway, and longer than the journey of our lives.  We have trouble waiting for God, and like the writer of Psalm 13 we sometimes cry out to God, “How long must I wait?”  And yet God waits for all eternity for us to turn to him (2 Pet. 3:9).  He began preparing our salvation in Jesus Christ at the beginning of time (Eph 1:4), and he will be with us until the end of time.

God’s love is higher than Mt. Everest, and maybe height is the easiest dimension to imagine because we think of heaven as the highest place, and God is in heaven. Similarly, God’s love is deeper than the Marianas Trench, and maybe we understand depth because we know about the depths of sadness.

Thinking about height and depth takes us more into the emotional and reminds me of some of what’s been written about the range of emotions in mental illness, and the practice of charting moods on a scale in which normal is zero, depression goes down to minus ten and mania goes up to plus ten.  The highest of heights would be the euphoric mania at the top of the scale and the deepest of depths would be the bottom of the scale.  We all have up and down moods, some worse than others.  Severe mania or severe depression can get pretty near to the top and bottom of the scale.  It can be extremely painful to be living in those heights and depths.  But God’s love is higher and deeper even than that.

What Paul is saying here, what Paul prays for us to be able to know is that no matter how far away God seems, no matter how long we wait for answers, no matter how high or low we go, God is there with us.  God’s love is bigger than any of it.

We see examples of the immensity of God’s love throughout the Bible. In the passage that Carol read us from the prophet Hosea he describes through the analogy of a loving parent how God’s love for Israel was bigger than their tendency to keep turning away.  From Genesis on we read about the nation of Israel and their problems with disobedience.  But God kept loving them anyway despite their rebellion.  Hosea paints a picture of God as the parent tenderly taking care of a baby, and patiently helping a toddler take its first steps.  In Hosea’s words we hear God’s deep compassion for his people – “My people are bent on turning away from me” but “how can I give you up? . . .My heart is torn . . . my compassion grows.”   God continues to care for Israel because he is infinitely loving, and offers us a never-ending supply of grace.

I mentioned earlier about how the Grand Canyon is hard to fully appreciate until you see it in person.  The same is true about God’s love, and I think that’s what Paul knows, too, and why he writes this prayer.  We can make logical comparisons to width and length and height and depth in a host of different ways, but none of those will fully compare to the immensity of God’s love.  That’s why Paul says that it surpasses knowledge (v19).  He doesn’t say that it’s unknowable, just that it goes beyond the limits of intellect and theory.[8]

We grow to understand and appreciate God’s love as we see it for ourselves, as we experience it by living it out in our prayers and our trust and our actions.  Love is to a great degree indescribable.  Paul does his best to describe it for us in 1 Corinthians 13 by describing the actions and attitudes that characterize love.  Throughout his letters he gives us directions for living out that love.  Those are just words until we try them out, put them into practice, and experience them for ourselves.[9]

God’s love is wide, and long, and high, and deep.  God’s love surpasses knowledge, and goes beyond what we can describe, and yet Paul wants us to be strengthened by knowing how big God’s love for us truly is.  He wants us to trust God’s love enough to be firmly rooted in it, and to remember, as he says in the closing words of this section, that God can do immeasurably far more than we can ask or imagine.   

If we cannot describe it, cannot measure it, cannot fully understand it, and cannot even imagine it, why bother trying?  Why even talk about it at all?  Because there will be times we are tempted not to pray because what we’re asking seems too big, or we’ll give up praying because we’ve asked so many times, or we’ll be so deep in sadness and despair that we don’t even know how to pray, and those are the times we’ll need to remember that God’s love is bigger than what we’re asking, and longer than the number of times we can pray, and deeper than the depths of our hopelessness.  God’s love is higher than the challenging mountains we face.
We cannot measure it, and we cannot even imagine all that God can do.  This is the God we’re talking to when we pray, and prayer is the way we connect with God’s bottomless love and his unimaginable power.  Prayer connects us to the heights of heaven, with the depths of earth, and all of time and space.

There’s another way to think about this.  Geometrically.  This may be going back awhile for some of us, but in math classes we learn to use a number line.  We put arrows at the end of the line to represent the fact that the line continues on into infinity.  When we get into the more complicated math, we learn to plot numbers on a graph that doesn’t just have a horizontal line, it also has a vertical one.  Those lines have arrows on the ends, too, because they continue on into infinity in all four directions, just like God’s love—wide, long, high and deep.

Just like a cross.

We are limited by our physical dimensions, in our perceptions, but God is not limited.  When we turn to God in prayer we are stepping into the cosmic, infinite dimensions of his never-ending love.  We are rooting our feet in his love, connecting with the heavenly heights of his love, and reaching out through time and space, and to all the world, putting our trust in the one who can do far more than we can ask or imagine…and who has already shown us this by raising Jesus from the dead.  He lives in us, and works in us as we talk and walk with him.
That incredibly big love makes its home right here in our hearts.

This sermon was preached at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Galveston TX on Sunday, October 25, 2015.

[8] Maxie Dunnam, Communicator’s Commentary
[9] The poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote a sonnet describing love that may have been inspired by the verses we read today from Ephesians:  How do I love thee?  Let me count the ways. http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/how-do-i-love-thee/
The framework for this message was inspired by this song: 

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