This sermon was preached on Sunday, March 7, 2021 by Rev. KJ Norris.
Prayer of Illumination:
Through God’s Word, O Holy Spirit,
bring us closer to our Savior.
And in response, triune God, prompt our hearts
to offer you sincere thanks for our salvation.
In the strong name of Jesus, our Lord. Amen. (The Worship Sourcebook, 2013, p. 576)
In the season of Lent, we are encouraged to draw closer to God. Scripture reading, prayer, and giving of ourselves—usually by giving something up so that others might strengthened is a part of this six week journey.
Here at Kerr we often speak about prayer. We know that there is no right or wrong way to pray—that prayer is about a relationship with God. It is about taking time to talk with God and to also listen to the Spirit of God who spoke in the past and still speaks today.
We started the season of Lent on Ash Wednesday with a creative prayer of confession. Earlier this year we spent time committing to heart some of the prayers of the Bible—some of the Psalms—so that the ancient prayers which are found in Scripture might dwell in us as well. And last year we got a grant for prayer books—that’s my favorite way to prayer. I love that the PC(USA) encourages us through this book to pray every day—maybe even four times a day—to pray without ceasing as the Bible says—and it guides us to pray for people and situations I would perhaps otherwise forget. To pray for specific places around the world, for instance. Or to pray for those from whom I am estranged. (Note: You can get the Daily Prayer as an app or you can download the entire Book of Common Worship for free which includes daily prayer).
There are many beautiful ways to pray, but the important thing is that we pray!
And today, we have the opportunity to look deeply at how Paul prayed for the churches near Ephesus. In Paul’s elegant prayer, we find three analogies about who God is and we remember three ways our lives are transformed by God.
So today’s sermon is sort of a good old fashioned Bible Study sermon where we go verse by verse. So let’s dig in deeply to this prayer.
Notice, Paul’s prayer starts with a little introduction. He tells us how he prays.
How does Paul pray? (on his knees). How many of us pray on our knees? I was thinking about that this week. When I lived in India, we always prayed on our knees but it’s a practice I’ve gotten away from. When we elected elders we knelt and at my own ordination service, I knelt, but otherwise, it is rare.
And yes, there are some of us who certainly should not kneel physically because if we get down there, we might never get back up. God does not want to injure ourselves. But throughout Scripture we see people taking postures in prayer. Generally speaking, when people pray in Scripture, they either kneel or stand. Does it matter? Is your prayer not heard if you are sitting down when you offer it? No.
But how Paul prays does say something to us. It reminds us that our posture before God does matter. Yes, we can always call out to God when we are in trouble like Jonah did from the belly of the whale or shout to God in frustration like many of the Psalmists do. But today we are talking about an ordinary practice of prayer. We are thinking about the day to day conversation with God.
In that kind of prayer, our posture is something we should consider. We may want to kneel to remind ourselves that we are small and God is big. We may want to stand, out of respect for God or because we want to joyously lift ourselves before God. Or perhaps it’s less about our physical posturing and more about our posturing of the heart. Maybe we want to find a quiet place; turn off the TV and radio. Maybe we set aside time early in the morning before the household is awake or late in the evening when that quiet hush falls over the area. Perhaps we light a candle to remember that God’s own Spirit is with us—the Holy Spirit who is described as a fire or a wind that cannot be tamed.
However we regularly pray, the important thing to remember is that we are bowing before God with our hearts, minds, and bodies, as Paul shows through kneeling.
The second phrase of his introduction (read verse 15) reminds us that we are praying to the one who has adopted us—and not only us but every family everywhere is invited into the family of God—just as we discussed last week.
Then the prayer starts in earnest: Read 16-17.
Here we find the first analogy and the first way we are changed. We are to imagine a tree. Perhaps a great and mighty sycamore whose roots have pushed up the sidewalk in front of the house. Or perhaps an old willow tree whose branches seem to extend in all directions and whose roots are known for doing the same.
We are to be like that. Rooted. Deep. And what are we rooted in? God’s love. Sometimes I think we start to see love as simple. One of the very first songs most of us learn as children is “Jesus loves me.”
We think that love is for children. And certainly, it is. But love is deep and strong. And God’s love is a kind of covenant faithfulness beyond compare. It is not like our earthly English word for love which can be used to describe our favorite foods which change over time. No, this is deep and eternal. It’s a kind of love which changes us. It’s a kind of love which can grow in us and flow through us our whole lives. And the more we root into God’s love the stronger we become—like one of trees in the old Red Wood forest in California. Trees which you cannot see the top of as your look from below. Trees which require 10 people to link arms and wrap around to even get a sense of the girth.
This is Paul’s prayer for the church. That we together as a community would be rooted in God’s love. Notice—it is a change of heart. Christ dwells in our hearts through faith, we are told in verse 17. Our hearts are no longer our own as we grow in God. All our sin, the unforgiveness we might have for one who has wronged us or the unforgiveness we have for ourselves from the one whom we hurt. Or the bitterness in our hearts for the life that didn’t go the way we thought it would. All of that—all of the deepest yearning of our hearts. This is given up as we bow our knees in prayer, as we Holy Spirit roots us in the love of God and as Christ dwells within us.
But Paul doesn’t stop there. He has two more analogies to go. The next is a spatial analogy. It’s an analogy not for the heart but for the mind. Picking up in verse 18 (Read 18-19a). It’s actually an odd phrasing in the Greek language. First: to comprehend. Comprehend perhaps is a good word here because I do think that Paul is praying for the mind of believers. Our minds are involved in faith. We don’t stop thinking when we come to believe—in fact it is quite the opposite. Our minds are expanded in realizing that there is more to this world than we can even comprehend.
But this word comprehend perhaps is better translated “grasp.” It’s a kind of comprehending that is not just about understanding but holding on to. It’s more than comprehending it is grabbing, grasping, holding fast. We are to hold fast to breadth and length and height and depth. This quite possibly is a throwback to the book of Job (Verher and Harvard, 2011, p 127).
Job is asked: “Can you fathom the mysteries of God?
Can you probe the limits of the Almighty?
8 They are higher than the heavens above—what can you do?
They are deeper than the depths below—what can you know?
9 Their measure is longer than the earth
and wider than the sea (Job 11:7-9).
Who is God? God is one who is beyond all imagination: Higher, deeper, longer, wider than we can possibly comprehend.
This is the greatest oxymoron a prayer could ever have. Paul prays that we might know the unknowable. That we might grasp the uncatchable. When God is at work in our lives, our minds are changed. We are enabled to dream bigger than we ever imagined. We are enabled to see beyond what earthly eyes can see. Our minds are expanded.
And we come to realize that we will never fully know God. God is beyond us. This is one reason why God is worthy of our praise. If God was small enough for us to comprehend, why would we worship God? We would study god or maybe try to dissect god or recreate god. But NO! God is beyond our comprehension. And yet, we are invited into this great mystery, using our minds to continuously explore, knowing there will never be an end to the depths we search.
And then, Paul turns to a third analogy. If only our hearts and minds are engaged, we may begin to despair. After all, our hearts are often sore from the sorrows and sins of the world, from the sorrows and sins we find within ourselves. And our minds may become frustrated, wondering if we can never fully understand, why should we try? If the puzzle can never be solved, why begin it?
But Paul’s prayer does not stop with only the heart and the mind, instead he engages a third part of us that we in the English speaking world rarely discuss: the gut. We often only think of our minds and emotions. We talk regularly about those who are ruled by their hearts—by their emotions—and those who are ruled by their minds—by logic.
Often we chide one another for only being one or the other. Those who are ruled by emotion, we say, don’t really understand what is happening. They need to be more thoughtful. And those ruled by logic are often seen as uncaring. They put ideas before people. In reality, we need both—we need our hearts and our minds to be able to make decisions, to fully live this abundant life God is calling us to.
And there is a third thing. The gut. In the ancient world speak spoke not only of the mind and the heart but also of the gut. The gut we might say is a kind of intuition. It isn’t ruled by emotion—it isn’t a feeling, like the heat of anger when we see injustice or the flutter of joy when someone we love enters the room. Nor is the gut a kind of thought or understanding that comes from study or conversation. The gut is a kind of knowing that is set apart from the knowing of the mind or the knowing of the heart. This is more instinctual. (Note: for more on understanding the self, including the gut, see Heuertz, The Sacred Enneagram, Chapter 4).
Perhaps it can be described as a deep kind of longing that is not an emotion but rather a state of being. Or a fueled determination which is set upon an intrinsic knowledge that the world is not as it should be. Think of the movie the Matrix, it’s a call to take the red pill instead of the blue pill. The gut is a sense perhaps driven by sight, smell, taste, and feel, and yet apart from them. It’s a bodily ache inside us that lets us know we are incomplete without God.
And in the power of the Holy Spirit, our hearts, our minds, and yes, our guts, are transformed by God. And Paul lifts up his final prayer to God that we might be filled. That our guts would be satisfied. That instead of that nagging emptiness many of have much of the time that we would be filled to the brim with the Spirit of God. That we would be as Jesus describes to the woman at the well, full of a living water which flows through us. That we might never thirst again. That the water might flow out from us to all whom we meet.
This is our prayer. That we, the Church, all of us together and all of us individually—in our uniqueness and in our unity—that we might experience God in every way a person can experience.
That our hearts might be rooted in the deep love of God; that our minds might be expanded in the mystery of God; and that our guts might be filled with the fullness of God.
And Paul closes his prayer with this promise and praise. (Read verses 20-21).
As we allow the Holy Spirit to root our hearts, and expand our minds, and fill our guts, we find that God is able to do abundantly far more than we can ask or imagine.
So let us imagine. Dream of God’s kingdom come on earth. Trust in faith. And pray. Pray as Paul prays. Pray by surrendering all that we are to God, knowing that God will not disappoint. Amen.
The Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, & F.A.C.R. (2013). The Worship Sourcebook (2nd ed.). Baker Books.
Heuertz, C. L., & Rohr, R. (2017). The Sacred Enneagram: Finding Your Unique Path to Spiritual Growth (Illustrated ed.). Zondervan.