November 24, 2002
Twenty Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

LECTIONARY READINGS
from the Revised Common Lectionary

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
Psalm 100
or
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
Psalm 95:1-7a
Ephesians 1:15-23
Matthew 25:31-46

[Underlined text will take you to another sermon]


"God's Power for Living"
Ephesians 1:15-23

Our reading from the Epistle today gives some amazing insight into the heart of the apostle who saw Christianity spread beyond anything the disciples could have imagined. He is writing to the church at Ephesus when he opens his heart to them with affirmation and tells them exactly what he asks for them in prayer. In doing so, he sets out the primary prayer agenda for Christian leaders, teachers and parents.

I. The Apostle's Prayer

I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers.  [15-16]

Two powerful characteristics of a church are embedded in this introduction to Paul's prayer. The first is that this is a community of faith.  And secondly it is a community of love.

There is an interesting point in the translation of this verse. The New American Standard Bible (NASB) tends to stick to the literal translation of words. In verse 15 instead of your faith translates verse 15 this way:  "...having heard of the faith in the Lord Jesus which exists among you, and your love for all the saints..."

What happens here is that the focus is not so much on the person who has the faith as it is on the faith which has come to the church by the power of God's spirit. Paul picks this up again later in the passage. It is clear that the faith which empowered the church at Ephesus was a gift of God and a work of the Holy Spirit. Perhaps the "tip off" to this is the end of the verse:  "...your love for all the saints."  Loving most of God's people would be a pretty good feat for most of us - but to love all of God's people is a supernatural gift of the Spirit of God.

"I never stop giving thanks for you," Paul says. The Ephesian church is a source of joy in the apostle's heart. It is very much like his statement to the Philippian church, "You are my joy and my crown."

A church which is alive with faith and living in the love of the Holy Spirit is the joy of God's heart!

The mark of an authentic faith, is not in the way a church worships, nor is it the way people talk about faith... the mark of a living faith is the ongoing transformation of lives. The mark of genuine love is not simply the way we appreciate each other and try to like each other. The love of God is something Paul said, "...has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us." This is a divine love which binds us together, smashes barriers of separation and prejudice and brings the most unlikely people together.

II. Four Things The Apostle Wants Us To Know

1. In Christ we have hope: [vv.17-18]

"...that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give to you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of Him. I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened, so that you may know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints..."

In order to have any sense of spiritual growth in our lives, we need a knowledge of Christ that comes to us in a personal way. This is not the factual knowledge that we can obtain by taking a course in the life of Christ, but the knowledge that comes to us through the work of God's Spirit in our lives. This is the difference between knowing about" and knowing" by experience. I knew about being a father long before I ever had children. In a sense I had some knowledge of parenting. It was not until my own children were born, however, that I knew parenting in a personal way.

This is a really important issue when it comes to our desire to see people we love come to the experience of faith in God for themselves. Giving facts about God, or saying what we think Christ would want someone else to do never really gets the task done. We learn from the apostle Paul in this text that the way to start is to pray for people before we ever consider talking to people about the life of faith.

The question I would have for you here is - "How many people do you have on your personal prayer list that you pray regularly would come to know Christ and the life of faith?"  

2.  In Christ We Have Power [19-20]

"...and what is the surpassing greatness of His power toward us who believe. These are in accordance with the working of the strength of His might which He brought about in Christ, when He raised Him from the dead, and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places..."

It is difficult to overstate the phrase, "the surpassing greatness of His power..." We might try, "super mega power," but even that does not quite get it. This is the power, Paul says that God used in raising Christ from the dead and brought about the reality pointed to in the creed when it is affirmed that Christ is, "seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty."

One of the great issues in our world today is the sense in which people feel powerless. We have not really begun to understand what the real intent of faith for our lives and for our church is all about until we come together as a church in God's power to carry out our mission in the world around us. We are called to be salt and light, to give witness to God's mighty power to bring about justice, hope and love. Yet it is more than clear that none of this can take place within our own strength. It is when we are in touch with and energized by the power of God which is intended to work within us that we begin to sense the possibility of changing the world around us.

In some ways, Paul points to the fact that this power of God that can work within us is not something ordinary. He prays for the church continually that they will have the spiritual knowledge it takes to be the powerful church God desires us to be.

3. In Christ We Have Victory [21-22]

"...far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age, but also in the one to come. And He put all things in subjection under His feet, and gave Him as head over all things to the church..."

These thoughts take us back to one of the central themes in all of scripture namely: God's people live under the power of a divine promise that no matter how long the road may seem or how dark the night may appear to be, God's victory over all unrighteousness is certain.

We live under the promise of the resurrection, the power of God within the community of faith and the affirmation that "all things" have been put under the feet of Christ who is, "head over all {things} to the church."  

It is the certainty of God's victory in the long term that powers our life of faith in the short term.

4. In Christ We Have Fullness

"...which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all."

We need to untangle this a bit, but the heart of this short verse of scripture is that Jesus Christ brings fullness, that is completeness and full maturity to our lives as God intended them to be.

BUT - this is directed at the church, the family of faith, the people of God. This is not a "Jesus and me" kind of individualistic fulfillment that would imply God's greatest concern is that I live a happy and comfortable life.

The New Testament vision of a church that is healthy and whole, a church where people may discover the fullness of Christ, is a church that is self consciously bound together as the Body of Christ. This is a church where Christ is the head - not in name only - but is evidently the head of the church.

This is not something that comes about because we hang a mission statement in the halls of the church building or open with prayer at church board meeting. This is Christ as head of the church which is evidenced by our openness to God, to each other and to the cries of a broken world. It is something people know by experiencing our life together and not something they read in our newsletter.

One of the reasons we don't experience the fullness of Christ in the church these days is that we have too low a view of the church. It is seen as just another social grouping by too many. We will gain the power God has for us when we regain a very high sense of the Church as the Body of Christ and ourselves as intimately woven together in a fabric of faithful community. Perhaps it would help to re-center ourselves on Paul's words in Eph. 5:25, "Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her..." 

The Apostle Paul's prayer actually opens up God's design for the church. In Jesus Christ we have hope, in him we have power, in him we have victory and in him we have fullness.

 


Connections in the Texts

"Let’s make one thing clear," our readings are saying. It is the most ancient confession of all. "Jesus Christ is Lord." God reigns over all!" There is a sermon in bringing together all of the lectionary texts – something along the line of, "When All is Said and Done!" Several central points of faith are made in these passages which address the conclusion of all things.

* There is an accounting to come and God is absolute Judge of all things

* To be a part of the Household of God is to share in the Heart of God.

(That is the caring, outreaching heart of God becomes our heart. One of the primary functions of the Holy Spirit is to shape the character of Jesus Christ in the people of God)

* One of the foundation characteristics of God is a passion for the well being of the people of God. If you count the "I wills" in Ezekiel you will find the agenda for a witnessing community.

* There is special warning for those who are charged with the responsibility to care for the sheep.

* The church as the Body of Christ is to contain all the "fullness" of Christ.

The Psalm for today is a celebration of the central points of the texts and a wonderful conclusion to the year of Matthew. Once celebrated on this last Sunday of the church year – the Reign of Christ prepares us to take the journey once again.

Matthew

The final reading from Matthew’s gospel in the lectionary cycle is fitting. It is not the conclusion of the Gospel in the chronological, linear sense. The logical conclusion to Matthew is the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The text does, however, address the final outcome of all things. The Son of Man will come "in his glory." God will reign and the kingdom will come.

Positioned on this last Sunday before Advent begins, the text speaks to that which is most on the heart of God. It calls to mind Jesus’ beginning sermon in Luke 4 when he quotes Isaiah 61:1-2. "The spirit of the Lord is upon me to preach good news to the poor…" (vv.18-19) As we enter the season of preparation for celebration of the incarnation, our hearts are turned to the reason the incarnation takes place.

The issue of the great judgment suggests another theme for a message – perhaps, "Irreconcilable Differences". There is a difference between sheep and goats – those who cared for the sick, the naked, the stranger and the captive are those who are "of the kingdom." Notice the "blessed" did not wear their righteousness on their sleeve. They as well as the "goats" were not aware of their reaching out to "the King." "When did we see you…? Great question. The "Irreconcilable Differences" are between those who see with the eyes and care with the heart of God and those who see through their own self-centered vision.

So is this "works righteousness?" Those who do good are saved and those who do not do good are lost? Verse 34 suggests not. The "blessed" are blessed by "My Father." This is still all of God – and yet there is responsibility for reaching out. The plan of God does not abrogate the responsibility of humankind. Neither does the responsible working of persons supplant the grace of God.

This familiar passage could be overwhelming – there is such surprise on the part of those who finally inherit the darkness. The passage calls each one of us to self examination. "Nominal" Christianity is no Christianity at all. A name recorded on a church membership list is not the same thing as a name recorded in the Lamb’s Book of Life. A fitting supplementary text for this reading would be James 1:22, "be doers of the word and not hearers only…"

Ezekiel

This passage is filled with the heart of God and the passion of God to find all those who are lost. It points to the ministry of Christ in a striking way. Ezekiel’s extensive discussion of the shepherd’s of Israel and THE Shepherd of God are foundation blocks in the working out of the Gospel. Jesus’ words about coming "to seek and save that which was lost" – about "the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep" and "My sheep hear my voice – point to these words from Ezekiel 34.

Two statements drive the fervor of this passage:

"I myself will search for my sheep…"

"I the Lord have spoken."

How can you help your people get hold of this? I recall a time when I was about 10 years old and my father asked me to do something for him. I do not even recall what it was he wanted. I do recall – very clearly – how the episode transpired. I did not want to do what he wanted and must have hesitated and groaned about it. His response sticks to this day. "Fine!" He said firmly, "I’ll do it myself!" He got up to do the errand or task and I jumped up as though struck by lightning and ran to do my father’s bidding. I don’t think I ever hesitated again.

Now – how will it be for us when God has to say, "Fine! I’ll do it myself!"

Ponder this. Some form of the words, "I will" are used twenty one times in this passage. The concepts form a virtual agenda for the church.

Ephesians

Paul’s prayer is that we who are the Body of Christ might know the incredible treasure we have as God’s people. In fact, it takes the intervening work of God’s Spirit to help us come to know what it is we have in our relationship with Christ.

In Christ we have: Hope, spiritual riches as God’s people, and inner power – the same power that brought about the resurrection of Jesus Christ. This hope, treasure and power are all rooted in the fact that Jesus Christ Is Lord of all and the ultimate reign of God over all things is certain.

There is a preaching theme in this text: "Have you discovered how rich you are?"

 

Worship Helps

A Call To Worship  (Based on Psalm 95)

Leader:   We have come together to sing to the Lord.
People:  Let us joyfuly sing to the God of our salvation.
Leader:   The Lord is great and greatly to be praised.
People:  The splendor of all creation is from the hand of God.
Leader:   O come let us worship the Lord.
People:  Let us bow down together in the presence of God.
Leader: For we are the people of God!
People: Let us hear the voice of the Lord today! Amen.

 

Confession of Sin

We come in humility O Lord.  We come trusting that your mercy is sufficient to cover our sin, for our hearts would fail under the burden if Your were not the gracious God You are.  We have spoken badly of others, your children in the Body of Christ.  We have been silent when we should have spoken for You.  We judge others and often place ourselves above judgment.  We pray that You would forgive us our wrong and help us to so embrace Your love that we will become courageous followers of Your Son Jesus Christ.  Amen.

 

Assurance of Pardon

Friends, the word of the Lord assures us that if we confess our sin, God is faithful to forgive our sin and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.  Open your hearts to receive the grace of God and the forgiveness of your sin.  May you be in peace.

 Prayer of Thanksgiving

We rejoice and give thanks O Lord, for the great gift of salvation you have made possible for us through the sacrifice and suffering of your Son Jesus Christ.

We can not fathom the depths of your love. As the heavens are high above the earth, so are your thoughts higher than we can grasp. We come so short of fully embracing the peace of Christ, for it goes beyond all understanding. The greatest news that has ever come to this world is ours because of a grace we could never have imagined.

Help us, O Lord God, to turn from all those things that seek our attention and distract us from the important things. Give us grace to so rearrange our priorities that we see clearly the life you have designed us for. We so often settle for so much less than we could know if we but placed your will and your ways at the center of our living. Help us to choose the better part even as your servant Mary did so long ago.

Bless you Lord, all praise and thanksgiving belong to you. You alone are worthy of the devotion of our heart and mind and soul and body. Amen.

A Prayer of Dedication

As we bring these gifts to You today O Lord God, We pray that
our hearts would be turned to the things You care about most
of all. May our eyes be opened to see the needs of others, our
ears opened to hear the cries of the lost and lonely and our
hearts opened to share what You have given to us. Even as
we give, dear Lord, may we receive your heart! Amen.