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A Sermon by Mark D. Roberts

"Inspired by Possibilities Far Beyond Ourselves"

by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts          November 7, 2004

Preached at Irvine Presbyterian Church

Copyright © 2004 by Mark D. Roberts

Note: You may download this sermon at no cost, for personal use of for use in a Christian ministry, as long as you are not publishing it for sale. All I ask is that you give credit where credit is due. For all other uses, please contact me at mark@markdroberts.com. Thank you.

Scripture Reading: Ephesians 3:14-21

     14 For this reason I bow my knees before the Father,  15 from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name.  16 I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit,  17 and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love.  18 I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth,  19 and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

     20 Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine,  21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

Small Prayers

     When I was in college, my Christian friends and I frequently debated the morality of "small prayers." "Was it right," we would ask, "to ask the Lord for a good grade on a test?" Or, "Was it moral to pray for Harvard to beat Yale in the Game?" (Answer: Yes, of course, because this was a fundamental matter of good vs. evil.) Then there was the all-time favorite moral dilemma: "Was it okay for Christians to pray for a good parking space?"

     It's ironic that we spent so much time debating the pros and cons of parking prayers, since none of us had cars. The hellish nature of driving in Boston, combined with the excellence of mass transit in the area, meant that very few Harvard undergrads had cars at school. I suppose that's why we spent so much time on the "praying for parking" debate. No matter where we came down, it wouldn't impact our lives in any direct way.

     I don't usually pray for parking spaces, though I'm not morally opposed to it. And, frankly, when it comes to our new parking lot over where the Modular Building once stood, I'm not praying for a spot, but rather that God would miraculously expand a "compact" spot to fit my car. Now that would be a cool sign of God's power, don't you think?

     I suppose that sometimes our prayers can be so small that we implicitly trivialize God. But, frankly, I'm not so worried about whether or not we're praying too many tiny prayers. I'm worried that we're not praying enough big prayers.

     What's a big prayer? It's an expansive prayer. It's a prayer that looks upon life, not from my miniscule perspective, but from God's majestic one. It's a big prayer that asks our big God for big things.

     When I'm desperately trying to find a parking spot outside of South Coast Plaza during Christmastime, a small prayer would be, "Dear God, please find me a place to park!" A big prayer would be, "Gracious Lord, deliver our society from our pervasive materialism." Another big prayer would be, "Lord, even as all of the folk in this shopping mall are being inundated by the secular celebration of Christmas, may they somehow see you. May they come to know the real meaning of Christmas this year!" And the biggest prayer of all would be, "Omnipotent God, please help me to find a good gift for my wife this year!" Just kidding. That probably belongs back in the small-t0-middling prayer category.

Praying Big

     Ephesians 3:14-21 is a big prayer. In fact, it's just about the biggest prayer in all of Scripture. If you want to learn how to pray bigger prayers, here's a great model.

     In context, Paul has just shown how the church of Jesus Christ figures centrally in God's great plan for the universe. God intends ultimately to unify all creation in Jesus Christ (Eph 1:10). The church is the active, visual demonstration of God's plan in action (Eph 3:6-10). Thus the church stands alongside Jesus Christ in the center of God's plan for the cosmos.

     In light of this grand vision, Paul begins to pray for the church. First, he asks that God "may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit" (Eph 3:16). In other words, may the Holy Spirit present within you empower you so that you might live faithfully for God, and so that you might serve him in the world. Point one of this big prayer: we need more of the power of the Spirit.

     Second, Paul asks that "Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith" (Eph 3:17). Of course if we're believers in Jesus, then Christ already lives within us through faith. So what is Paul praying for? Not that we who are Christians might once again accept Jesus into our hearts. Rather, he's asking that we might continue to make room for Christ in our lives, giving him increasingly more of ourselves. As the NLT puts it, "And I pray that Christ will be more and more at home in your hearts as you trust him" (3:17).

     This brings us to the most expansive request of all. For sake of clarity, I'll stick with the NLT:

May your roots go down deep into the soil of God's marvelous love. And may you have the power to understand, as all God's people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love really is. May you experience the love of Christ, though it is so great you will never fully understand it. Then you will be filled with the fullness of life and power that comes from God. (3:17-19)

     Now that is one big prayer, you've got to admit. It's not just big, it's "hunormous," as my six-year-old son Nathan once said about the High Sierra mountains. (Not a bad word, really: huge + enormous = hunormous.) Paul prays, not only that our roots grow deeply into God's love, but also that we might actually know in a personal, experiential way, the ultimately unknowable love of God in all of its dimensions. Then we will be filled with all the fullness of God. Filled with all the fullness of God! I told you this was a big, giant prayer.

     Now here's a prayer to inspire our prayers, a prayer to teach us to pray big prayers. May we be empowered by the Holy Spirit. May Christ live within us more and more, taking up residence in every portion of our inner being. And, last but not least, may we be firmly rooted in God's love, experiencing the love that is without limits, even to the extent that all the goodness of God fills our lives. Wow!

     Do you ever pray that way for yourself? Do you pray that way for your children? Do you pray that way for our church? If not, then why not get started? If you're a parent, use this prayer for your kids:

Lord, may you fill my daughter with the power of your Spirit. May you live in her each day as she gives more and more of herself to you. And may my daughter have such a profound experience of your love that her heart is continually being expanded by your greatness. Fill her completely, Lord, with you!

I wonder what God would do among us if we started praying this way regularly for our children, our spouses, our LIFE groups, our Sunday School classes, and our whole church. I wonder . . . .

A Brobdingnagian Benediction

     When Nathan was little he made up new words. Now that he reads, he's always finding unusual words to enjoy. Last year in his reading he came across the word "Brobdingnagian." I won't even ask how many of you know this word. It's pretty rare. It comes from Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, in which Gulliver visited the land of Brobdignag, a land populated with giants. Thus the adjective Brobdingnagian means "extraordinarily large."

     Ephesians 3:20-21 is a Brobdingnagian benediction. Not just a big one, but a gigantic one. Check this out:

Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Amen.

     Notice the description of God. He is the one who "by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine." No matter your biggest dream, your greatest wish, your most Brobdingnagian desire, God is able to do far more. According to this benediction, there is no limit to what God can do.

     And, notice carefully, God does this "by the power at work within us." Again we're back to the indwelling power of the Spirit. God can do incredible things apart from us, of course. But he chooses instead to do them through us, by the Spirit. Astounding!

Implications for IPC

     Just consider the implications of this benediction for us. God is at work within us through his Spirit, and he is able to do through us more than we can ask or imagine. There's no doubt God wants people in this community to come to know him. Now he could show up as a 100-foot tall giant, Jesus Christ in all of his heavenly glory, right here on this campus. That would certainly get people's attention! Or God could descend from heaven in a fiery chariot, right in the middle of the Fourth of July fireworks show, while all eyes are looking up to heaven.

     But God hasn't chosen to do these things. How is he revealing himself to our neighbors? Through us. Through you and me. Through our church, and the other Christian churches in our city, as we live out the truth of the gospel.

     What do you imagine might be the results of this exhibition? A few people becoming Christians? That's a good start. Perhaps even more than a few. Why not? In fact why not pray that vast numbers of our neighbors will receive the love and grace of Christ through the ministry of Irvine Presbyterian Church? Now that's getting bigger. But God can still accomplish infinitely more than this. These are possibilities far beyond ourselves, don't you think?

     Why don't we pray that hundreds of the young people who come to Pizza lunch will also come to faith in Jesus Christ? Is this too big for God to handle? I don't think so.

     Why don't we pray that hundreds of young adults will give their lives to Christ in the midst of our new third Sunday service? And, along with that prayer, let's pray for the hundreds of children whose lives can be changed for eternity through the third service children's program.

My Vision for IPC

     Now when I start talking like this, some of you folks get nervous, understandably so. In fact during this capital campaign I've been asked, "Do you want IPC to become a megachurch? Is that your vision?" Usually this question is asked by folks who don't want IPC to become a megachurch. In many cases, they left a megachurch to come here, and now it sounds like we're going to become just like what they left behind.

     I will answer the "Does Mark want IPC to become a megachurch?" question this morning. But I want to do something far broader, and, far more heartfelt. I want to share with you my personal vision for our church. This is a big picture, a long-range vision. I'm looking ten, fifteen, maybe twenty years out. There are two parts of this vision. One is something I've talked about before, though it may be new to many of you. The second part is quite new, even to me.

     Notice that I said this is my personal vision for our church. Although this vision emerges from the pages of Scripture and has been bathed in prayer, I am not claiming that it is necessarily God's vision for our church. This determination will come, in time, as God guides the future Sessions of this church.

My Vision for Planting a New Church

     Let me begin by answer the "Do I want this church to become a megachurch?" question in a very personal way. As most of you know, I was once an associate pastor at a 4,000-member church. My experience there was quite positive in many ways. But I also came away with a desire never to pastor a church of that magnitude (or larger). Now I hasten to add that God is sovereign over my life, and if he wants me in such a church, so be it. But in the last few years when I've been contacted by some of the largest churches in our denomination as they've been looking for a new pastor, I've felt zero inclination to pursue a new call. And, I'm glad to say, as I've laid these opportunities before the Lord, I've sensed only a deeper call to be the pastor of this church. And, as you can tell, I don't want to turn IPC into a megachurch.

     But let me remind you, yes, once again, that this is not my church or your church. Irvine Presbyterian Church belongs to Jesus Christ. And what we are to be is his call. So, no matter our personal preferences, we must surrender them all to the Lord.

     When I have done this, when I have prayed, "Lord, what do you want our church to become in the future?" I've had a sense that God does want us to be somewhat larger. As we reach out to this community, as we welcome new believers into our fellowship, as we provide a church home for people who are now disconnected, we will grow. This is an evitable result of our missional emphasis. As I have said many times before, I believe that God has placed this church on this spot, right in the center of Irvine, so that our neighbors might hear, see, experience, and receive the good news of Jesus Christ. As this happens, we'll get bigger.

     But there are limitations to this spot, mostly having to do with size. When we have completed our Master Plan, we'll have many more spaces for fellowship, for learning, and even for worship. So we can grow a good bit before we begin to hit the wall, literally. We can probably double in size without losing our ethos and intimacy as a church. But as we approach 2,000 members, we'll come to the limits of this spot, unless we were to do some radically innovative programming.

     At that point churches like hours have two choices. Some decide to keep on growing. So they buy more property. Or they have two church campuses. Or they move altogether. But there is another option that some churches have chosen. This is the church planting option. Rather than growing larger themselves, some churches put lots of energy, lots of money, and lots of their people into planting another church. This is what I believe God wants us to do someday.

     Years ago our Presbytery had a plan to start a new church in the North Irvine/Tustin area. But that plan was permanently tabled for lack of money. I'd love it if, someday, we would go to Presbytery and begin that process again. Over a decade or so we'd invest a whole lot of ourselves in beginning a new church. At some point we'd even end up sending a bunch of our members to become the core of that new church.

     I believe that this model of church growth is closer to the spirit of the New Testament than the megachurch model, usually. But let me say that megachurches have an invaluable function in the body of Christ. I thank God, for example, for the ministry of Saddleback Church. Yet, for the most part, I believe the body of Christ will be stronger overall if there are many more strong churches rather than a few Brobdingnagian ones. So, from my theology and my experience as an associate pastor of a 4,000-member church, this area would be better served by "Irvine Presbyterian Church" and "North Irvine Presbyterian Church" than by one hunormous "Irvine Presbyterian Church." I hope and pray that someday God will use us to make this happen. And, frankly, I'd love to be here as your pastor when that happens.

My Vision for the Last Capital Campaign

     The second part of my vision for this church is the new one. It came as I was preparing the Beyond Ourselves devotional guide. I was praying through Ephesians 3:14-21 - our text for today - and was asking the Lord, "What is my big prayer for IPC and my ministry here? If I were to stay here for another thirteen and a half years, what would I long to do? What would I yearn for our church to be?" As I prayed, an obvious thought came to mind, and so I prayed it: "Lord, I'd love to be pastor of this church when we were finished building out our Master Plan. I'd love to see this church ministering with all the tools we have planned. And I'd love to be here after we did our last capital campaign. I'd love to pastor this church when we had no more capital campaigns, ever!"

     Now I'll admit that wasn't entirely a godly thought. Part of it reflected, quite honestly, my physical and emotional exhaustion. But I do long for the time when we have finished the "building season" of our life, when we can devote more of ourselves to our mission and less to providing necessary tools for that mission.

     No at first when I prayed my "big prayer," it seemed like I was reaching pretty far. But as I did that, the Spirit of God stirred within me. My sense of God's possibilities for this church and my ministry here began to expand. I believe God gave me a glimpse of something else he'd like to do with our church. All of a sudden I found myself praying in a completely different mode. I was praying something I had never before thought or prayed: "No, Lord, that's not it. I don't want to be here when we do our last capital campaign for our buildings, with a ten-percent tithe to our mission partners, or course. I want to be here for one more capital campaign. In this one the percentages would be flipped. We'd raise ten-percent for our church, while ninety-percent of that campaign would be for our mission partners. Ninety-percent we'd give away for your ministry elsewhere. Lord, I'd like to be here for that capital campaign!"

     As I said those words to God, I felt a passionate desire that overwhelmed me, and, frankly, surprised. There's no question in my mind that God wants us to complete our Master Plan for ministry in this community. And I'm blessed to be your pastor in this season of our life together, believe me. But I'd love to be here when we begin the next season, a season of far greater mission beyond ourselves, both in our community and throughout our world.

     Now it may be that a substantial chunk of that "90% for others" capital campaign will be, in fact, devoted to planting a new church in North Irvine. The Lord only knows. And he's also the only one who knows whether or not I'll be your pastor then. A lot depends on how quickly we're able to move ahead on finishing our Master Plan for this campus. I'd love to be here as your pastor in fifteen years, Lord willing, but in twenty years I'll be 67. At some point I'll have to retire, I suppose.

     Nevertheless, on November 7, 2004 I want to plant a seed in this church which, I hope, will someday bear rich fruit for the kingdom. This is the seed of fully beyond ourselves capital campaigns. Most churches, when they're finished building their building, stop having capital campaigns. I hope we never do. When we're done with this campus, I pray we'll do at least one campaign each decade, with the vast majority of the money going to our partners in ministry, both here in this city and throughout the world. May we never become a church that stops giving sacrificially just because we have the buildings we need for ministry. May we always be a church that stretches out, giving generously and sacrificially to God's work throughout the world.

Conclusion and Segue

     Well, there you have it, my vision for the future of Irvine Presbyterian Church. I've given you my big prayers. I've shared all that I can ask or imagine of God. Is this too much? Is this too big? Hardly. Because the God at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine. When we think we've come to the outer limits of God's vision, God is just getting started.

     Please understand that God's limitless resources are not just for churches, but also for all of God's people. This means you. God wants to do more in your life than you have ever imagined. The powerful Spirit of God dwells within you, not only to help you in your daily challenges, but also to use you far beyond yourself in Christ's ministry in this world. As you seek the Lord, as you pray big prayers, as you step out in faith, God will do more through you than you have ever envisioned for yourself.

     But remember, dear friends, that our fruitfulness as individuals and as a church does not come primarily from having a broad vision or from praying big prayers. It comes from "being rooted and grounded in love." It comes from "knowing the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge." That's one reason why we keep coming to this table, again and again and again. Here we remember God's preeminent act of love for us through Christ. Here we know, not just in our heads, but also in our hearts, "the breadth and length and height and depth" of the love of Christ. As we grow in this love, as Christ makes his home in our hearts through faith, as God's Spirit empowers us, there is no limit to what God can do through.