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Please turn your attention to our second reading for today as we think about what Paul prayed for on behalf of his fellow believers.
Paul was writing to the Christians in Ephesus from a Roman prison, but even the strongest prison couldn’t restrict his freedom to talk to God in prayer. He assures his fellow Christians that, not only is he still praying, but that, despite his own difficult situation, he is still praying for them. He had just reminded them that, because of what Jesus has done for us, we may approach God in prayer with freedom and the confidence that he always hears our prayers and always answers our prayers in the way that he knows is best.
After Paul points out that he is praying to the one true God, the Father who sent his only perfect son Jesus to be the savior of all, and who created all that exists, he mentions three things that he is asking the Lord to do for his fellow Christians in Ephesus.
His first request is, that, according to the riches of his glory, he would strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner self, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.
Isn’t this the prayer of every parent and grandparent? You see children instructed in the word, filled with joy as they express their faith. If you ask them why they are going to heaven they get a big smile on their faces as they confess, “Because Jesus died on the cross and washed my sins away.” At Christmas you hear them recite the Christmas Gospel and join their voices in gleeful, sometimes overly exuberant song. You rejoice in their simple, childlike expressions of faith. But, as they get older, they seem to become self-conscious. They don’t sing out as gleefully as they once did- too worried about what others might think. They get into High School and College and their faith is challenged by professors and friends who don’t believe, and they begin to wonder if what they always thought they knew about God is true.
Most of us have been there at one time or another. Most of us still have doubts and questions especially when we witness disaster, or experience illness or loss. We know what is needed. We know that we can’t remain strong in the faith on our own. We need to be strengthened. Our inner self, our new man of faith, needs to be strengthened to be able to resist the temptations that face us every day, and to overcome the doubts that Satan tries to plant in our hearts through those who speak for him and ask, “did God really say?”
Our spirits, our inner selves, can only be strengthened by The Spirit. And God’s promise to us is that The Spirit works to strengthen us through the Gospel in word and sacrament. Through the means of grace, he is constantly pointing us to Jesus and all that he has done for us, so that Christ is dwelling in our hearts. He is the object of our love and the foundation of our hope. He is the only reason we, or our children, or our grandchildren can say, “I know that I have eternal life.”
We want all those we love to have Christ dwelling in their hearts through faith. We want them to be rooted, to be firmly connected to the true vine of Jesus. We want them to be grounded, literally, to have a firm, unshakable foundation, the foundation of the inerrant word of God given through the Apostles and Prophets. Only then will they, and we, be able to resist temptation and overcome doubt and remain in the faith until the end
God answers this prayer when you bring your children and grandchildren to church regularly; when you read your Bible or Bible story book with them at home; when you have family devotions. When they get older and object to going to church or having devotions you remain strong and follow the example of Joshua who said, “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” God answers this prayer when they see you studying the word yourself and striving to put what you learn into practice. When we talk about the Lord and his word as we get up, as we lay down, as we are together in the car, as we sit down to eat; as we show that God’s word is infused into every part of our lives, not just an hour a week.
We pray with Paul, Lord, strengthen your people by the power of The Spirit who is at work through the Gospel in word and sacrament so that, being rooted and grounded in Christ and his love they may resist temptation, overcome doubt and remain firm in the one true faith until the end.
Paul’s second request is that you would be able to comprehend, along with all the saints, how wide and long and high and deep his love is, and that you would be able to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge.
Paul wants everyone, all the saints, all believers everywhere, to be able to comprehend the incomprehensible. The love of Christ surpasses knowledge. It’s so wide and long and high and deep that no one can fully wrap their minds around it. As Paul says in another place, we can kind of begin to grasp that someone might offer to die, or to sacrifice themselves for a good person, or for someone they love. People donate bone marrow or give one of their kidneys to someone. A soldier or a policeman might draw the fire of an enemy so that others might escape. But what is incomprehensible is that Jesus sacrificed himself for us, while we were still sinners. He literally took our place on death row so that we could be set free. He suffered Hell for us so that we could go to heaven. He did what we can’t imagine anyone doing for anyone else. It seems incomprehensible. But, by the power of the Spirit working through the word, we know that it is true. And as we go through life and have people sin against us, sins that pale in comparison to what we have done to God, we begin to comprehend more and more, not just in our minds but in our hearts, the greatness of God’s love for us and for the whole world. God demonstrated his love for us in this, while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. That’s a love that surpasses knowledge.
We pray as Paul did. Lord, the greatness of the love that you showed us in Jesus is incomprehensible; yet, Lord, as we learn more and more about it from your word, and as we see your love in contrast to our lack of love, may we learn to appreciate it more and more each day.
Paul’s third request is, that you may be filled to all the fullness of God.
God is full of every good thing. In him there is no darkness, nothing bad or evil. His essence is love. He possesses all power, wisdom and strength. He wants to bless us with every spiritual blessing. He wants to restore in us the image of perfection that Adam and Eve had before they sinned. One commentator said that Paul is asking that we be filled to overflowing with all the good things that God dispenses through his church. To be sure, as long as we live on earth we won’t be filled with all the fullness of God, but the more we grow in faith and the knowledge of God the more we will be filled, molded into his likeness, until he restores to us the perfect image of God in heaven.
To put it simply, Paul is praying that these Christians in Ephesus would never take God, or the blessings that come through his word and sacrament, for granted. It’s so easy for us to do that! Our lives are so busy. There are always multiple things that we can choose to do, from work, to sports, to recreation, you name it. It’s so easy to give way to what seems to be urgent, or important in the short term. It’s so easy to forget that one day we will have to face death and then those things that seemed urgent and important for the short term won’t matter. Only God’s word, his love and his promises will matter. Only knowing that Jesus never took God’s word and promises for granted; that he never set them aside for less important things that seemed urgent, will matter. Only knowing that he went to the cross to pay for our failure to be strengthened as often as possible through the word and sacrament, and that he rose from the dead, that he is our savior, will matter.
Paul closes his prayer by reminding us that God is able, according to the power that is at work within us, to do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. The widow of Zarephath didn’t imagine, or even ask Elijah to raise her son from the dead, but he did. The widow of Nain never imagined that she would meet Jesus on the way to the cemetery or that he would raise her son from the dead, but he did. Even Mary and Martha didn’t imagine that Jesus would raise Lazarus from the dead, especially since his body was already decaying. But he did.
God is able to do anything, things we can’t even imagine, things we might not even dare to ask him. So, as the Hymn says, You are coming to a king, large petitions with you bring, for his grace and power are such, none can ever ask too much. He has not promised to give you everything you ask, but there isn’t anything you can ask that he can’t give. Ask, as Paul did, and then trust him to do what you asked, or something even better than you could have asked or imagined.
As Paul prayed for his fellow Christians in Ephesus, he was confident that God could do all he was asking and more; that God would answer his prayers in the way he knew was best. By God’s grace, because of all that Jesus has done for us, may we too pray with such confidence and then join Paul in saying, to him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever! Amen