Plans … we all have them. Denny and I planned to spend a few days in Minnesota this past week, and then I got the flu and didn’t even leave the parsonage for three days. An Illinois family planned to fly home from their Florida vacation on Friday to return to their regular lives when their plane crashed, killing all but the youngest member of the family.
A week ago, an AirAsia plane filled with people planning to go to Singapore crashed into the Java Sea. Not only their plans but also those of their families changed in an instant.
2000 years ago, a young girl named Mary was planning to marry her fiancée, Joseph, and, if she was like most young brides, expecting to just live happily ever after. Then the angel Gabriel appeared and told her that God had another plan for her.
Shepherds in the fields outside Bethlehem were planning on just another cold winter night with their sheep when suddenly the skies above them were filled with an angelic chorus and before morning arrived, they had met the infant Jesus, Son of God—perhaps even held Him in their arms.
Plans … we all have them. The apostle Paul knew a lot about changed plans; he knew exactly where he was headed until one day while riding toward Damascus, he met the Son of God—and his plans changed forever.
Some years later he wrote to the Ephesian churches about God’s plan. He wanted them to understand that God’s plans are as different from our plans as night and day. Our plans are always tenuous and always subject to being changed by circumstances—whether or not we realize it. God’s plans, on the other hand, are absolutely certain. God’s plan was set before He ever began to speak the world into existence. God’s plan is certain, just as the hope that we have in God is certain.
There are no circumstances that can change God’s plan and the hope that we have in Christ Jesus—because He knows all circumstances. He has given us free will, but He also knows the choices we will make, He knows everything that will happen, and He’s taken all things into account—this is the “mystery of his will” (Ephesians 1:9) that Paul talks about. We don’t understand it—but we can totally rely on it.
And what Paul is telling the Ephesians, what he’s telling you and me in this passage, is the good news, the amazingly incredible good news, the best news we’ll ever receive, the news that we—you and me—are a part of God’s plan.
Even “before the foundation of the world,” Paul says, God “chose us in him. … He predestined us for adoption as sons and daughters through Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 1:4-5). Paul says that everything—everything that has ever happened, everything that ever will happen—is a part of God’s big plan, “a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Ephesians 1:10).
God has a plan, a plan of salvation, a plan that will at some future time, unite all things. And you and I are included in that plan—before God began the creation of the world, He created a plan for my life and yours. How amazing is that? It’s incredibly amazing! And Paul wants us to get that—just look at the language he uses. Imagine, if you will, the overwhelming joy and wonder and awe that he’s feeling he writes this, the same joy and wonder and awe that he wants us to feel as we read it. He can’t get the words down on his scroll fast enough! In the original Greek, this entire passage is a single, continuous sentence.
“In love God predestined us…. He chose us …. He adopted us … He has blessed us with His glorious grace … He lavished the riches of His grace upon us … He’s guaranteed our inheritance.”
Notice also that as Paul shares his wonder at what God has promised us, he uses the word “us” six times. Because Paul is speaking not to individuals but to us as the church, as the body of Christ, a body that is filled with the Spirit of Christ Jesus.
Paul’s letter to the Ephesian church is often referred to as the gospel of the church, because no one could come away from a careful reading of this letter with the idea that salvation is a private matter between me and God.
We tend to get stuck on individual salvation without moving on to the saved community. We emphasize the fact that Jesus died for us to “redeem us from our sin” forgetting the part about to “purify for himself a people of his own.” We think of ourselves more as Christians than as members of the church, and our message is often more one of a new life in Christ Jesus than it is of a new society.
In Ephesians, however, Paul is passionate in his setting forth of God’s eternal purpose to create through Jesus a new society, a society that’s characterized by life rather than death, by unity and reconciliation rather than division and alienation, by righteousness in place of wickedness, by love and peace instead of hatred and strife, and by an unrelenting battle against evil rather than a grudging compromise with it.
So what Paul is saying is that God has a plan, a plan that extends all the way back before the beginning of time. A plan that is absolutely certain and that He has promised He will bring to fruition. And that God’s plan, unlike ours, is not subject to change. What God says He will do, He will do. And the amazingly good news, he says, is that you and I are a part of that plan.
You and I are not accidents of nature, we’re not just random happenings in a random world. We’re here because God created us as a part of His plan.
Then he goes on, in verses 11 and 12, to say that “we have obtained an inheritance” and that we’ve received it for a purpose: “to be the praise of his glory.”
Then, in verses 13 and 14, Paul speaks to us individually, now that we understand that while we’re individuals, we’re also a part of the larger body, the church, reminding us that when we heard the gospel and when we “believed in him, in Jesus,” we were “sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it.”
We’re part of God’s plan as and His children, as a part of His family, we’ve already received the gift of eternal life. And He’s sent His Holy Spirit as His seal, as His guarantee, to live within us. “Just so you don’t forget, I’m giving you a part of your inheritance right now.”
This is the church, this is the body that we were created to be. A people living in the world, but different from the world. A people so amazed and so filled with joy at the incredible gift we’ve received that we’re constantly sharing the good news, sharing our joy, with everyone we know—because we want them to experience what we have, we want them to join our family.
This is the church that God intended; it’s the church that Paul was planting on all his travels. It’s the church that we see bursting forth in Africa and South America and China.
It’s a church that we see little evidence of in this country—we’ve become more of a milk-toast body, a people more concerned about having our own way or making things happen the way we think they should happen than we are about discovering our role in God’s plan.
A good friend of mine, a number of years ago had a powerful experience with the Holy Spirit one day, and in telling me about this, she said, “I’m not sure that I want that much of the Holy Spirit in my life.” She speaks for many of us.
A former member of this church, when they were leaving a few years ago, told me that we were becoming too caught up in “this whole Jesus thing.” “We’re not the Lions club or the Legion hall,” I told them. Not that there’s anything wrong with those organizations, but the church was created for a very specific purpose: to, in Paul’s words, “be the praise of God’s glory.”
“Well, the church should be just like the Lions or the Legion,” this person told me. “It should just be about community and fellowship, because everybody else’s beliefs are just as valid as yours. In fact we should be celebrating all those different beliefs.”
God—not me—has called us to be a people set apart; set apart just as surely as those Israelite people were set apart long ago, set apart not because He loves us more, not because we’re somehow more special than all those people outside the church. Set apart for the purpose of showing His glory to all those outside people so that they, too, can come and be a part of His body. So that in the fullness of time, many who do not yet know Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, will be united to Him.
We cannot do this without being different, without being set apart—without being overcome with awe and wonder at the amazing gift that we have received.
Seven and a half years ago, as I drove to Iowa to begin to serve as your pastor, I prayed to God to make this particular body a body that would reflect His glory to the world in such a way that lives would be changed, that hearts and minds and souls would come to Him. I continue to pray that prayer.
And as we begin a new year here together, I pray that this year lives will be changed, hearts that have formerly been closed to the gospel of Jesus Christ will be softened, people that we might even now think of as being beyond hope, will fall in love with our Savior. I’ve seen it happen—and I know that it can happen again.
Are you with me in this? Is this your prayer for this church in the coming year? We’ll be engaged in three days of concentrated and committed prayer this week, along with thousands of our brothers and sisters in LCMC across the country and around the world—at least I will be. And I hope that you will be, too.
Because in order to become the kind of church that God wants us to be, prayer is the answer. In his letter to the Ephesians, immediately following the passage printed in your bulletin, Paul continues, “For this reason, because I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance to the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come” (Ephesians 1:15-21).
Paul prays unceasingly for the Ephesian church because of their faith and love—and he does so with an expectation that God will answer his prayers. Because he knows that God is powerful!
Paul really believes that God is able to change human nature; he really believe that God is able to take people who are spiritually dead and make them alive in Christ. Because Paul really believes in the resurrection! God overcame death when His Son, Jesus, rose on the third day—rose in a new resurrected body. And what Paul is telling us in the first chapter of his letter to the Ephesian church is that the power available to us today through prayer is the very same power that God exerted to raise Jesus from the dead.
And we, for the most part, simply ignore this power that’s available to us. Instead, we trivialize the gospel, speaking of becoming a Christian as if it were no more than deciding to turn over a new leaf and begin a new year with a new list of resolutions, resolutions that we’ll most likely have forgotten a few weeks or months down the road.
For Paul, however, and for the New Testament believers, becoming a Christian is an event so radical that no language can do it justice other than that of death and resurrection—death to the old life of self-centeredness and resurrection of a new life of love. The same God who rose Jesus from physical death can raise us from spiritual death.
And Paul’s prayer is that we may “know Christ and the power of his resurrection” (Philippians 3:10). His prayer is that the Ephesians, and us, may know the hope of God’s call and the glory of His inheritance and the greatness of His power—he wants us to know this not just in understanding but also in experience. He prays with the expectation that God will answer, that through the power of the Holy Spirit, we will experience revelation and wisdom in our understanding of Christ.
Now all of us say that we understand the importance of prayer—some of you might even have written “pray more” on your new year’s list of resolutions. And so, as we approach three days of prayer this week, I’m wondering: If you’ve thought about this at all, what are the things that you’re praying for? For yourself? For your congregation? I asked a couple of you and you said that we should pray for things like more people to be here on Sunday morning and more contributions in the offering plate and more participants in Bible study and more children in Sunday School. Or we should pray for God to resolve whatever personal problems we’re experiencing.
None of those are bad things, but they’re considerably different from what the apostle Paul says that we should be praying for. And far more narrow in terms of vision that what God is offering us.
When Paul says “blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing,” he’s not thanking God for a warm bed or a comfortable life. He’s blessing God for allowing us to be a part of His kingdom.
Are you praising God for allowing you to be a part of His kingdom? Are you thanking Him for creating you for the purpose of serving Him? Are you seeking His will for you? Are you longing for Him to use you to share His good news with the lost and broken people of this world?
Or are you, like my friend and so many others, wanting to limit just how involved you allow God to be in your life? In your church? Because if you give Him free rein, who know what He might call you to do? He might call you to join a Bible study, to feel a sense of loss when you have to miss an opportunity to worship Him in the company of your brothers and sisters in Christ? He might call you to care about those lost people in our community and in other places around the globe.
So my question for each one of you is: Do we really believe that God is all-powerful? Do we really believe in the power of prayer the way that Paul did? The way that the other disciples and so many others throughout the centuries did?
Now I doubt if any of you are sitting there thinking, “No, I really don’t believe that prayer is powerful.” And yet, if we really believe in the power of prayer, why aren’t we doing more of it?
Why do we sit here and say, “Well, I always thought that this would happen … ?” “Well, some people might not like it if …?” “Well, I think we should do this …?”
Do we not think that if we cry out to God He will make His will known? Do we not really believe that He who created this church, He who put it in this particular place, had a particular plan? And that maybe His plan isn’t yours. And if that’s the case, which plan should we pursue? And if God has promised that He will provide for whatever is needed to accomplish His plans, do we believe that?
Or do we really, deep down in our hearts, believe that the God we worship isn’t big enough to carry out His promises? Oh, maybe He really did do all those things that we read about in the Bible, but that was a long time ago, and how do we know that He can still do those kinds of things today? How do we really know that He cares about us? How do we really know that He even knows where McCallsburg, Iowa, is?
Is that what we really think?
I hope not—because the God I know, the God I love and worship, really can do all things. He knows the number of hairs on each one of our heads, He cares about the smallest details of our lives—and He’s capable of dealing with the largest issues in our world.
But He has, for reasons that we don’t understand, said that He acts when we pray. And that our prayers become more powerful as we join together. “Where two or three are gathered,” He said. Not where two or three thousand are gathered, not even where two or three hundred are gathered. “Where two or three are gathered,” we have a congregation, we have a body of Christ—and when we cry out in prayer, God hears and He answers. Sometimes in small ways, sometimes in amazing ways. The evidence exists—although reports are often noticeably absent from the mainstream media.
We all remember that last summer, the nation of Israel was battling a barrage of missiles being fired at them by Hamas, and yet there were remarkably few civilian casualties, partly due to Israel’s Iron Dome defense system. The system is effective 90% of the time, but the 10% of missiles that got through should have done significant damage–and yet they didn’t.
In one case, an Israeli Iron Dome operator/commander says that during the week of July 27, he personally witnessed the hand of God divert an incoming Hamas rocket into the sea. As reported in Israel Today, the commander said, “A missile was fired from Gaza. Iron Dome … fired the first interceptor. It missed. A second interceptor was fired and it missed, too. At this point,” he said, “we had just four seconds until the missile lands. We had already notified emergency services … and had warned of a mass-casualty incident, when suddenly a mighty wind came from nowhere and diverted the missile, sending it into the sea.”
During the same week, Col. Oer Winter, commander of the Givati Infantry Brigade, described a mysterious fog that enveloped him and his troops as they advanced on an enemy position in the early morning. Col. Winter described the fog as “clouds of glory,” and said that it was due to the fog that they were able to successfully complete their mission.
This same commander had earlier sparked debate when he told his troops to lead the charge against an enemy that “curses, defames and abuses the God of Israel.” And that he was praying that the “Lord your God go with you, to fight for you against your enemies and save you.”
Even the leaders of Hamas have taken notice. One Hamas commander recently said, “We fire our rockets, but their God changes their paths in mid-air.”
Why don’t we live in expectation for God to do these amazing wonders in our lives? The angel Gabriel told Mary that “Nothing is impossible for God”–why don’t we believe it?
Why don’t we recognize that if we, in this generation, could begin the apply God’s staggering promises regarding faith-filled prayer, our lives, cities and nations would be transformed. Pastor and author E. M. Bounds says, “Prayer can do anything that God can do.”
Many of you may remember the 2006 movie Blood Diamonds, which brought to light the ongoing civil war of 2000 in Sierra Leone that resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of people. What the movie didn’t show was that 50,000 rebels ransacked and terrorized the nation, murdering even small children until, in desperation, 1200 Christian leaders came together to cry out to the Lord for His deliverance.
The leader of the rebel army was arrested on the first day of prayer, but things didn’t improve immediately. Christians continued to pray, however, and in the succeeding months, the rebels eventually handed over their weapons voluntarily to UN peacekeepers who broke them up and made them into farm implements! Sounds like the prophecies of Isaiah 2:4 and Micah 4:4: “they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks.”
As a result of prayer, peace, security and development returned to Sierra Leone. The current president, Ernest Bai Koroma, is a Christian who has taken a leading role in the national prayer effort. In fact, just yesterday, I came across a news article reporting that on New Year’s day, he asked the country to begin a week of prayer and fasting to end the Ebola virus outbreak that has killed more than 2700 people in the country. “Today, I ask all to commit our actions to the grace, mercy and protection of God Almighty,” he said.
And then I came across another article, dated yesterday, that reported that “Sierra Leone’s Kailahun district has gone from Ebola hotspot with up to 80 infections per week in June to a place with zero new cases in the last three weeks.”
Coincidence—or the power of God?
Brothers and sisters in Christ, fall on your knees this week and pray to God to show us the plans that He has for us. Pray that we will have the courage to pursue those plans, the love for Him to set aside our own personal plans and agendas. Pray for God to work in our lives not just in small ways, but to use us in great and mighty ways. Dare to pray for great things—and dare to believe that in God, all things really are possible. And then continue to pray those prayers in the weeks and months to come. Who knows that we have not been placed here for such a time as this?