The Blog of Jack Holloway

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Sermon: Knowledge of Christ's Love is Power (7/29/18)


II Samuel 11:1 – 15
Psalm 14
Ephesians 3:14 – 21
John 6:1 – 21

When we read our Psalm for this morning, we are struck by a rather a hopeless picture: “All are corrupt and commit abominable acts; there is none who does any good. … Everyone has proved faithless; all alike have turned bad; there is none who does good; no, not one” (Ps. 14:1, 3).

When we read our passage from II Samuel, a similar picture emerges. Here, the great King David, the earnest man of God, God’s chosen one, takes a woman out of her rightful home, regardless of her consent, and has sex with her. When she becomes pregnant and he can’t cover it up by pretending it’s her husband’s child, he has her husband killed.

I Samuel 16 says that “the Spirit of the LORD came mightily upon David” (v.13). David, it says, was “a skillful musician, a mighty man of valor, a warrior, one prudent in speech, and a handsome man” (v.18). And, indeed, he demonstrated that he was such a man. He was brave and fought Goliath with a slingshot when all the other men of Israel were too afraid to even go near him. Later, he was continually victorious in battle. And mighty warrior though he was, he was still merciful toward Saul, even when Saul was evil toward him.

All the while, he remained devoted to the living God. And God himself anointed David, and remained with him, and in II Samuel 7, God makes a covenant with him and promises to remain with him forever.

But it is only a few chapters later that we get to the passage we read today. Lust, promiscuity, adultery, murder. Are these really the fruits of David’s life? Surely, all are corrupt and no one is good, if someone like David can commit such abominable acts.

Have you ever been disillusioned by someone? Think of someone you have known for whom you had a lot of respect, someone who you thought quite virtuous, but who at some point did something that contradicted everything you thought. Maybe it was a family member, a mother or a father, maybe it was a pastor, or a close friend, or a mentor, or even a partner or spouse.

Whoever it was, it was someone great, like David, someone you loved, like God and the people of Israel loved David, someone you needed, like the people of Israel needed David.

But David was human, and he did a stupid thing—a thoughtless, inexcusable thing. A few things in fact. And there was no going back. There was no undoing them. And there was no way to reverse the effects his actions had on others.

What are we to make of it? What are we to say when we encounter such corruption? What are we to do when those we look up to fail us? When those we depend on abandon us? When those we have learned to revere and admire as beacons of light make horrible decisions? When those who we thought had godly, moral integrity reveal themselves to be corrupt and sinful? What are we to do? How do we not become jaded and cynical when that happens?

Thomas Merton says, “it is in the deepest darkness” that “the infinite God Himself becomes the Light of the darkened soul and possesses it entirely with His Truth. And at this inexplicable moment the deepest night becomes day and faith turns into understanding.”

Similarly, today, I want to say that to see corruption is not to see a refutation of God, for all corruption is matched and overcome by God’s righteousness. To see darkness is not to see the absence or the nonexistence of God, for all darkness is matched and overcome by God’s infinite light. Paul says, “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us” (Rom. 8:18).

All the corruption in the present state of things finds its limit in God, for whatever we think possible is far surpassed by what is possible for God; whatever we think is concretely decisive is far outweighed by the omnipotence of God.

We can see this from our Ephesians passage. The author points to intimate spaces—“every family in heaven and on earth,” “your inner being,” “your hearts”—and he highlights these intimate spaces as the spaces that God will fill “with all [his] fullness.” He lays out these dwellings, only to fill them to overflowing with the love of Christ, speaking of “the breadth and length and height and depth … that surpasses knowledge.” He sets up a container, only to have the love of God burst it open.

Our hearts are as small as our fists. In the grand scheme of things, what are hearts and our fists capable of accomplishing? What are our fists compared to the vast, expanding cosmos? What are our hearts compared to the irresistible forces of energy at work in the universe? We are dust, and to dust we shall return. We read in James chapter 4, “What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes” (v.14). What can we really accomplish with our tiny hearts and our tiny fists?

But think of your heart in light of our Ephesians passage. Think of it less in terms of arteries and nerves and veins and all that fleshy stuff. Think of it as strengthened by the power of the Holy Spirit. Think of it like a tree rooted in the rich, abundant, and strong soil of God’s love. How far could that tree grow? How many branches could it have? How many leaves break out of its shoots? How many other species of life could its nutrients sustain? How many fruits could it bring forth and offer to the world?

Or think of your heart like a tall building, firmly grounded and set on the foundation of God’s power. How high can it soar? How many stories can it sustain? What sights of far-off places are visible from its peak?

“The power of Christ at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.”

You can see that this passage is particularly concerned with power. The author prays that the Ephesians “may be strengthened in your inner being with power,” and that they “may have the power to comprehend … and to know the love of Christ.” He makes clear that this power belongs to Christ, that it is ministered to us by the Holy Spirit, and that it can accomplish far more than we can ask or imagine.

And this power is demonstrated to us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. As Kathryn Tanner says, we see him suffer “the effects of sin – [he is] tempted, anxious before death, surrounded by sufferings of all kinds, [and located] in social conditions of exclusion and political conflict.”  Jesus encounters these effects, but, she continues, as the very Son of God, “he cannot be conquered by them.”  Because Jesus is one with God, when he encounters the effects of sin, he overcomes them, even as a human. In Jesus, a human overcomes sin and death. 

So Jesus approaches a large crowd, and he wants to feed them. But he encounters scarcity. “Not even six month’s wages,” the disciples say, “could buy enough bread to give all of them even a little bit! And we’ve only got five loaves and two fish! What are they up against so many people?” But the disciples don’t understand the breadth and length and height and depth of God’s love. They don’t understand the power of the Holy Spirit. So they’re skeptical. Jesus encounters doubt and cynicism.

But Jesus, who is one with God the Father, ignores the disciples. And he ignores the scarcity. He gives thanks for the food, distributes it to all, and then says, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” He doesn’t even ask if there are leftovers, he just tells them to gather them up. Sure enough, there were leftovers. Twelve baskets full!

Jesus overcomes cynicism with faith, and scarcity with abundance.

He was rooted and grounded in God’s love, strengthened with the power of the Holy Spirit, filled with the fullness of God, and so he was able to accomplish more than is humanly possible.

And as we see in Ephesians, we are empowered to do the same through the Holy Spirit. The same Spirit that united Jesus to God unites us with Jesus, and so with Jesus’ victory. Quoting Tanner again: “Christian lives reproduce in their own distinct way” Christ’s encounter with sin and death and his overcoming of sin and death.  Because Jesus did it, the Holy Spirit makes it possible for us.

So “do not be afraid,” as Jesus says in our Gospel passage. “Be not doubtful, but believing,” as he says in chapter 20. For with God, all things are possible.

Faith is the assertion that the present state of things is not ultimately decisive, that the status quo does not have the last word, that what seems impossible to us is not impossible to God. Even in the lowest, darkest, most hidden recesses of existence, the darkness dos not overcome the light.

John Calvin describes this element of faith beautifully. He says, “In the realm of faith the two apparent opposites—evidence and things not seen—struggle with one another and are united. … [God] promises eternal life—to those who are dead. He speaks of the blessedness of resurrection—to those who are compassed about with corruption. He pronounces those in whom sin dwells—to be righteous. He calls those oppressed with ceaseless tribulation—blessed. He promises abundance of riches—to those abounding only in hunger and thirst. God cries out to us that He is coming quickly to our aid—and yet He seems deaf to every human cry for help. What, then, would be our fate, were we not powerful in hope, were we not hurrying through the darkness of the world along the road which is enlightened by the Spirit and by the Word of God.”

Eternal life, resurrection, righteousness, abundance, and even God himself all strike us as impossible. The poor stay poor. Sinners stay sinners. The dead stay dead. These claims often seem so self-evident as to be unquestionable. They carry a strange, natural quality, a necessity that is somehow indisputable. We don’t quite know why, but they just seem obvious. The dead stay dead. The poor stay poor. Sinners stay sinners. Of course that’s the way it is. Of course.

So where is room for hope?

I heard a character in a TV show declare, “Hope is a tease, designed to prevent us from accepting reality.” In another TV show, a character says, “The universe is a cruel, uncaring void. The key to being happy … is to just keep yourself busy with unimportant nonsense, and eventually you’ll be dead.”

I admit, I have had plenty of times in my life when I have accepted such conclusions as inevitable. I know it all too well. But as Paul says, “the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God.”

The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” The fool says in his heart, “There is no hope.” “Have they no knowledge?” our psalmist asks.

And so Ephesians prays “that Christ may dwell in our hearts through faith,” and “that we may have the power to comprehend … and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge.”

To know the love of Christ is to have the knowledge that surpasses knowledge.

Hope pours forth from God’s love. To know that God loves the world is to know that there is hope. “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” God loves the world, so we will not perish. God loves the world, so we will have eternal life.

And as Paul says in Romans 8, “If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? … Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Nothing can separate us from God’s love, so nothing can tear us away from our promise future. We are victorious in Christ. We are accompanied by the Holy Spirit, the power of Christ’s victory. We are never abandoned by the God who loves us with a love that surpasses understanding. 

So, “Be strong and courageous,” as it says in Deut. 31, “Do not be afraid or terrified … for the LORD your God goes with you, he will never leave you nor forsake you” (v.6).

“Do not fear,” Isaiah 41:10, “for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”

God loves you. You, in all your complexity and difference and particularity. God loves the world universally, and God loves you specifically. You are never truly alone. You are never truly estranged. You are never truly an outcast, for you are, truly, always in the hands of God. As Psalm 27:10 says, “Though my father and mother forsake me, the LORD will receive me.” Even when you have no one around you, or when you don’t know anyone around you, God knows you. God knows you and loves you.

Jesus says in the Gospel of Luke, “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Do not be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows” (12:6–7).

When it seems like there’s no hope, when everything around you contradicts the promises of God, when everyone around you doubts and says, “Not possible”—do not be afraid. Know that God loves you, that God is the refuge of the afflicted (Ps. 14:6), that he makes the impossible possible, and that he will restore the fortunes of his people. As God loves the world, so Christ will deliver, Christ will redeem, Christ will save.

This knowledge of Christ’s love is the power that defies all odds, that breaks open the present, overcomes all things, and makes a new world possible.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon for the
Tenth Sunday after Pentecost
Old First Reformed Church
July 29, 2018

Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (New York: New Directions Publishing, 1972), 135.
Kathryn Tanner, Jesus, Humanity, and the Trinity: A Brief Systematic Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001), 27f.
Ibid., 29.
Ibid., 31.
Ibid., 56.

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