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Sermon for July 28, 2024 – Proper 12

Welcome to this week’s episode, a special rerun from our Speaking of Life archive. We hope you find its timeless message as meaningful today as it was when it was first shared.

Program Transcript

Speaking Of Life 3035 | King David’s Foil
Greg Williams

Don Quixote had Sancho Panza. Sherlock had Watson. The hare had the tortoise. This literary convention called the “foil” has been around since stories were told. The foil is not necessarily the enemy of the main character but is someone who brings out and exposes parts of that person.

The Bible is full of foil characters. From Cain and Abel to Jacob and Esau to Peter and Paul—these “foil” relationships expose and develop the people in these stories. One of King David’s many foils was Uriah.

The story starts in 2 Samuel 11, with this foreshadowing verse:

In the spring, at the time when kings go off to war, David sent Joab out with the king’s men and the whole Israelite army. They destroyed the Ammonites and besieged Rabbah. But David remained in Jerusalem.  
II Samuel 11:1

In the following verses, David takes Bathsheba to bed after seeing her bathing on the roof. She becomes pregnant so David brings her husband Uriah home to let nature take its course and cover things up.

Uriah refuses to sleep with his wife and sleeps in the doorway of the king’s house, ever the soldier on guard. He declares that as long as the army is sleeping rough, and as long as the Ark of the Covenant is in temporary housing, he can’t go home. David gets him drunk and again tries to get him to go home, and again his plan fails.

Ultimately, in one tragic final stroke, David tells the commander to put Uriah in the worst of the fighting, causing his death.

Indirectly, and without even much interaction, God uses Uriah in the story as David’s foil. In a short series of actions, probably constituting just a few weeks, David is exposed as a broken, hollow man in need of healing.

The story starts with David wandering the rooftops, away from the wars that Israel was fighting. He is on his own, at the height of his royal power, looking over his empire. He feels indestructible.

He sees Bathsheba on the roof, and everything changes.

And the juxtaposition with Uriah makes it worse. David uses unchallenged power to take another man’s wife and force a commander’s hand. David acts out of impulse and lust; Uriah acts out of loyalty and respect. David orchestrates a man’s death out of cowardice, Uriah is the man who died fighting bravely.

Through the course of these events, God brings vivid clarity into David’s.
And then by exposing David through the foil of Uriah, God heals him.

Has God ever sent a foil into your life? Maybe someone who challenges you to bring out your best? Maybe someone who annoys you and grates on your patience? Maybe someone who by sheer contrast gets your attention and shows you where you need a savior?

God’s goal is always to heal, to redeem, and to restore. Because of his love for us, he is faithful to bring foils into our lives. We are blessed when we pay attention.   

I’m Greg Williams, Speaking of Life.

Psalm 14:1-7 · 2 Samuel 11:1-15 · Ephesians 3:14-21 · John 6:1-21

On this tenth Sunday after Pentecost, our theme is comprehending God’s love. The readings for today help us see that our lack of understanding about the mystery of God does not impact God’s love for all creation, even as human beings inflict pain and suffering on one another. Psalm 14 talks about the refuge and comfort God provides those who must endure evil in this world. 2 Samuel 11 recounts the story of David using his power and position to take advantage of Bathsheba and his subsequent efforts to cover it up. John 6:1-21 tells the story of Jesus feeding the 5,000 and then walking on the stormy sea to the disciples’ boat. The sermon text comes from Ephesians 3:14-21, and it helps us understand the foundation where all our ministry efforts must begin.

How to Pray for Others

Ephesians 3:14-21 (NRSVUE)

Prayer is a critical part of a Christian life, and many might identify with the notion of prayer as a conversation with God. Author Richard Foster writes, “And so I urge you: carry on an ongoing conversation with God about the daily stuff of life, a little like Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. For now, do not worry about ‘proper’ praying, just talk to God.” There are specific types of prayer we can practice that help us develop an ongoing conversation with God, such as breath prayers or centering prayer. But today we’re going to think about how we pray for others and what that looks like. First, we’ll look at some common problems that can sabotage our prayers for others, and then we’ll consider a broader foundational perspective based on our sermon text.

Though the motivation to have a prayer chain or designated prayer group is generally positive, unfortunately, church prayer groups can sometimes devolve into gossip. Instagram comedian Landon Bryant (@landontalks) shares his funny perspective on prayer chains from his experience growing up in the American South. Bryant compares prayer chains to “newsfeeds” and explains how this happens:

As long as you preface it with some sort of religious reason, you can say what you want and tell all their business because we’re praying for them. This is the Lord’s work; this is not the work of men and their flappy tongues. This is the work of the Lord, and I’m a servant of the Lord doing my very best to uplift those around me by listing off everything someone did that was incorrect. We want clarity with prayer requests – not one of us down here likes an unspoken prayer request – you know somebody’s gonna speak it so it might as well be you. But we don’t gossip – we will never – that is a sin. But we will put you on our prayer list, bless you.

Though Bryant’s comedic routine might be a caricature, it also should give us pause to consider whether we’ve participated in prayer groups in this fashion.

Another hazard of praying for others is prescriptively telling God how to fix someone or something. This issue is often connected to the idea of praying specifically or including prescriptive details to convey to God our fervency and faith. There’s an old joke about a preacher caught in a flash flood at his church. His church was surrounded by water, and so he prayed for God’s deliverance. Two boats and a helicopter came to rescue him, but he shooed them away, saying that God would deliver him. He ended up drowning, swept away by the rising flood waters, and in heaven, he asked God why deliverance never came. God responded, “I sent two boats and a helicopter; what else did you want?”

In this case, the preacher had a specific idea of what God’s rescue might look like, and because two boats and a helicopter didn’t fit that ideal, they were dismissed. The danger of prayer that is too prescriptive is that we will miss the miracles that we didn’t even think to ask, whether for ourselves or others. This is also true when we pray for others.

Our sermon text today allows us to eavesdrop on the apostle Paul as he prays for the believers at Ephesus. We’ll learn how we can approach praying for others from a bigger, more helpful, foundational perspective. Let’s read Ephesians 3:14-21: [Read sermon text].

The context of Ephesians 3:14-21

Looking back to the earlier verses of chapter 3, we read that Paul is writing of the great “mystery” that the Holy Spirit had revealed:

In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: that is, the gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel. (Ephesians 3:5-6, NRSVUE)

Paul discusses his responsibility to bring this “gift of God’s grace” to the Gentiles and then states that this gift was “in accordance with the eternal purpose that [God] has carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord” (v. 11). Paul’s ministry to share the good news of inclusion in Christ with the Gentiles and Jews is the reason he offers the prayer found in v. 14-21.

Paul offers three big ideas that we can consider when we’re praying for others: being grounded, knowing the love of Christ, and trusting outcomes to God.

Being grounded

Paul begins the prayer emphasizing the unity of believers (“from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name” – v. 15), and then Paul makes his first request: that believers would be strengthened spiritually. The word used in v. 17 for Christ dwelling in us is katoikein, which implies a permanent residence rather than temporary.

This imagery of a permanent residence in us is furthered by the wording “rooted and grounded in love” (v. 17). The imagery of roots firmly entrenched in the soil of love offers a broader perspective to our prayers. Rather than praying that someone might change a behavior we find offensive, which is often subjective and relative, we can pray that their spiritual nourishment and stability comes from the love of God. For author Nadia Bolz-Weber, this grounding addresses the choices people make:

I recently heard someone say that [he’s] started to realize ‘God’s will’ for him is that he lives a life filled with compassion, love, and service. God’s will isn’t that he becomes an astronaut, or that he [is] single, or that he lives hand-to-mouth, or that he [is] super rich – God’s will is that no matter the path he takes, …he takes it with compassion, love, and in service to others. I haven’t stopped thinking about that. Maybe God’s will is more how than what.

Knowing the love of Christ

Next, Paul asks that the church might fully grasp how deeply loved each person is. Notice that there is no caveat assuming any transformation has taken place in them; we are loved and accepted by God as we are, warts and all. When we really grasp the “breadth and length and height and depth” (v. 18), we can’t help but be humbled. Princeton theologian Sally A. Brown writes, “The indwelling presence of God is a sheer and utter gift, not a reward for merit. God chooses to live among us; God’s glory fills us. This is sheer grace, unimaginable possibility, life-giving hope.” Paul uses the Greek uperballousan gvoseos, indicating a love that is beyond what we can comprehend on our own. This love is connected to the mystery of God, and by linking this mystery to our prayers, Bolz-Weber argues that God is both expansive and small:

Prayer is a blessed escape from the tyranny of my petty resentments and annoyances when I miraculously, and sometimes for the 100th time that day, get over myself and remember that God is bigger. And that is the mysterious part. The bigness of God is more unknowable than I used to think it was. And at the same time, God’s bigness infinitely folds in upon itself just enough to fit inside my smallness – like a divine nanobot, doing its redemptive work inside of me.

Recognizing God’s unknowability and mystery while being assured of the security of divine love is a blessing to pray for others. We can ask that they might understand the depth of Christ’s love for them, and we can ask that we might convey that same love to them, too. After all, Christ followers are Jesus’ hands and feet.

Trusting outcomes to God

Verses 20-21 are called a doxology or formal praise to God. In these verses, Paul acknowledges that God is able to achieve much more than we might ever desire or dream. While these verses are sometimes used to support the myth of productivity that is so common in the American culture, Paul is giving us an “out.” Without having us ask or pray, God is influencing people through the Holy Spirit toward more love, kindness, and goodness. We certainly can take part in promoting these qualities in the world, but the outcome is not in our hands. For reasons we don’t completely understand (remember the mystery of God), Paul encourages us to pray for others, knowing that the outcome of those prayers is not contingent on them, on our faith, or on the faith of those we pray for.

However, prayer for others ignites compassion in our hearts, which fuels social justice movements and change. Praying for those who suffer compels us to seek the flourishing of all, not just ourselves. We’re challenged to express this concern for others by taking concrete steps within our scope of influence, and in this manner, we are co-contributors with God in forging new systems and communities that are fair for all. In ways we can’t quite explain, prayer changes things.

When we focus on being spiritually grounded, comprehending Christ’s love, and trusting the outcomes of our prayers to God, our prayers are launched from a broader perspective rather than the nitty-gritty of personal or confidential details or prescriptively advising God on outcomes. Rather than dictating to God what we think should happen, we become agents of change in the world, co-contributors of flourishing, and participants in what God is doing in the world.

Call to Action: This week, ask the Holy Spirit to help you join in his prayer for others. Pay attention to your prayers for others and notice any tendency to devolve into gossipy details or prescriptively figure out a solution. If you catch yourself, try to reframe those prayers to ask for spiritual grounding, an awareness of deep divine love, and the most compassionate response from you toward that person. Ask God to help you see and love others as he does.

For Reference:

Simon Dent—Year B Proper 12

Video unavailable (video not checked).

Ephesians 3:14-21


July 28, 2024
Ephesians 3:14-21, “The Fullness of God”

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Program Transcript

The Fullness of God w/ Simon Dent W4

Anthony: We’re in the home stretch. We’re moving to our final pericope of the month. It’s Ephesians 3:14-21. It is a Revised Common Lectionary passage for Proper 12 and Ordinary Time, which falls on July 28. Simon, we’d be grateful if you’d read it.

Simon Dent:

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.

Anthony Mullins: I want to read that again. “He is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can dare ask or imagine.”

And I’ve got a pretty vivid imagination, Simon, but that’s astonishing that this is the God who we’re in relationship with. Verse 19 gives a prayerful statement from Paul that all would know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge. And a little insight on me, my faith tradition as a youth held up knowledge, especially biblical knowledge, as the pinnacle of Christian life.

For those in our listening audience who may have had a similar experience as the one I described, share with us how the love of Christ is superior to the factual comprehension of the scriptures.

Simon Dent: Yeah. It’s not to deny that knowledge and having good information about Christian faith, about who God, is not important. We read in Proverbs that call, “Get wisdom, get understanding.”

But we see that it’s a problem that has happened throughout history. We see that in Jesus’ own reaction with the Pharisees. In John 5, he speaks to the Pharisees and said, “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think in them that you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me.” [verse 39]

So, Jesus is clearly saying the scriptures don’t actually have the eternal life. I am eternal life, and these scriptures actually testify about me, and you need to come to me to actually experience eternal life. One of the problems about a community that’s so focused on knowledge is that relationally you can tend to rule people in or out according to whether they fit within your particular understanding of what you’ve gained.

I was once in a community that was all about preaching the grace of the gospel. And often what they taught was just so beautiful and life-giving, it made your heart sing. But I never really felt safe amongst those people, in case, I suddenly maybe had a slightly different take on something that was in some ways the accepted norm.

And it just made me realize maybe even in preaching the good news of the gospel and understand the good news of the gospel, we can, in some ways, rule people in or out because we are trusting more in our knowledge and our understanding and our theology — of getting it all right rather than actually allowing that theology to actually lead us to Jesus Christ and his expansive beauty that embraces us all, that gives us the freedom to maybe explore a little, play a little with our understandings of the scriptures without that sense of necessarily being ruled in or out because we haven’t actually got it right.

So yeah, unless knowledge leads us to a relationship with God, then it’s not the knowledge that comes from the Spirit.

Anthony Mullins: That’s right. If theology or understanding of God and the scriptures, they don’t lead us to worship, something’s wrong. If they don’t lead us to love, something’s amiss, right?

Simon Dent: Yeah, that’s right. That’s right. And it’s not just love for God. It’s ultimately that love for one another and expansive openness towards one another as well.

And I think in the tradition that I grew up, there was very much a lot of love for God, but there were barriers, and we were wary about other people, particularly people who might think a little bit differently. So, it didn’t necessarily lead us out to that love of one another.

Anthony Mullins: Yeah, that’s so well said.

I’ve met people (and I’ve done this on some level myself) where because the scriptures were held up as the pinnacle and knowledge of them — and again, like you so well stated, we need to know the scriptures for sure, because they do point us to Jesus — but I’ve known people that had spent hours and hours studying their Bible every day, but they didn’t allow the Bible to study them.

And what I mean by that is to examine their lives, to call them to have an unction to go out and love their neighbor. This has got to get expressed somehow to your fellow brother and sister. And if it doesn’t, then again, we need to go back and allow the word to examine us, as we read the written word for sure.

Simon, as a final request before we end our podcast episode. I’m just going to ask you to share how you’ve personally experienced the gospel glory that God is able to accomplish abundantly more than you could ask or imagine.

Simon Dent: This is a very special verse for me because it was a verse that I shared at my wedding day, when I looked at my beautiful wife. And I just was thinking, man, who am I to be blessed in such a way to have such a beautiful person to journey life with?

And I was just struck by this first that God knows us and gives us more than we ever ask or imagine. And so that was a joy for me, particularly for me coming from a family where there was a fair bit of dysfunction. There was love there for us, but I grew up as a child feeling pretty insecure and unsafe because there was a bit of violence in our family.

And to be brought into a place, a home, if you like, where you’re actually deeply free and loved and accepted as you are and delighted in (as the first few verses of Ephesians tell us), it’s quite transforming.

I used to be a TV cameraman and before I was a believer, I had this desire of actually being a news correspondent where I’d travel the world and do all these amazing things. And my whole identity was really built up in my success. When I became a believer in Christ and I discovered Christ’s love for me, I said, I don’t really want to do any of that. I just want to give my life completely to Jesus and do whatever Jesus wants to do, because this is the most amazing news for me.

And basically, the job that I had finished up, so I started going to look for some freelance work and I knocked on the door of one company that was making videos. I had no idea about this, [inaudible] some videos for Christian mission organizations overseas. So, I traveled for five and a half years with this company making prayer videos, promotional videos for mission organizations based overseas, and traveled to 75 different countries.

And it was as though Christ had given that desire that I had before I knew him to travel the world, and he just magnified it and used it for his glory. And that was beyond what I asked or imagined. I thought I was just giving it up, but he actually just provided such a way that I could just use my gifts and serve him and love him.

The very final thing I’ll say on that, and this is a special story for me. From that moment, I felt the call of God to be a pastor. Other people fed into my life and communicated that. We have a number of processes to be ordained in the Uniting Church. And I was at one of the last processes where I was going to sit before the panel that would make a decision as to whether I would go through or not.

And I was at a church near the bush, and I was just walking around in the bush beforehand. It was quite early, and I was full of concern. I said, oh Lord, are you actually calling me to this? I want to say, I don’t think I’m able to do all of this.

And as I was walking through there, I was in the bush and I said, oh, Lord, I’d love to see a koala. It was just this side point. And as I was walking through there, I saw a koala going up in a tree. I said, oh Lord, that’s fantastic. Thank you for that.

And then I turned around. Seriously. Three seconds later, there’s another koala in the tree there. Oh, wow. That’s cool. Four steps down the track — this has seriously happened — a mother koala with a baby on its back walked across the path in front of me and then up the tree. And I suddenly just took that as a word. This wasn’t just something that was happening.

This is God saying, this is my call for you. I’m going to provide for you. But more than that, I’m going to provide for you abundantly, give you more than what you ask or imagine.

And I went into that process with a deep confidence of God’s calling for me in this ministry. But more than that, his own provision for me to do what he’s calling me to do. So, a great grace.

Anthony Mullins: I’m so thankful you shared that. What a beautiful expression of the goodness of God, the tenderness of God, the closeness of God.

And it points us to the reality of the incarnation that God comes and meets us. It’s like a friend of mine says, he didn’t just write us a letter. He paid us a visit. He shows up even in the bush, right?

Simon Dent: Yeah, that’s right.

Anthony Mullins: In burning bushes and in the bush in Australia, he shows up. And oh, thank you.

Thank you. That was just a fitting way to close this podcast. I’m so glad you joined us, Simon. It’s a joy. We have never met personally, but I hope our paths will cross one day and that would be so lovely.

And I want to remind our friends that are listening: Jesus Christ is the sermon God is preaching. So, let’s keep listening to him. Let’s keep pointing to him and let’s keep heralding the good news of his gospel.

I want to thank Simon. This was so sweet. I also want to thank our team because this podcast couldn’t happen without the likes of Reuel Enerio, our producer and our digital content creator, and also my beautiful wife, Elizabeth, who does the transcription, so you can read every word that Simon has said.

Thanks again, Simon. We’re so grateful. And as is tradition, we’d like to close with a word of prayer. So, would you please pray for us?

Simon Dent: Yeah, I’d love to. Thank you, Anthony.

Father, we bless you. We thank you, Lord, for the revelation that you’ve given to us, that you have loved us in your son, Jesus Christ. And more than that, Lord, you have joined us in him, into this amazing dynamic relationship of peace and joy. You’ve granted us the gift of your Spirit, so Lord that we may know you, but also Lord that we may walk with you in the world.

And Lord for all of those who are listening to this, those who are preparing to teach on these passages, we ask Lord that they may know in the depths of their being that you are the one who has called them, you are the one that has adopted them into your family. And Lord, that you’re the one that’s given them the gifts of the Spirit so that others also may hear and have the types of experience that Paul himself had.

And Lord, we bless you for your amazing goodness to us. Bless all of those who are listening, those who are teaching and leading. And we pray, Father, for great fruitfulness from all that they do through the work of your Spirit. In Jesus’ name and we pray. Amen.

Small Group Discussion Questions

  • What do you think of comedian Landon Bryant’s observation that prayer groups or prayer chains can be an opportunity for gossip? Are specific details necessary to pray for others?
  • What do you think of comedian Landon Bryant’s observation that prayer groups or prayer chains can be an opportunity for gossip? Are specific details necessary to pray for others?
  • Have you ever had a prayer answered in a different way than you might have expected? If not, can you think of a biblical example where this happened? For example, Sarah had Isaac despite her advanced age, answering Abraham’s prayer for an heir.
  • How might praying for someone to be “rooted and grounded” in God’s love help them, regardless of their situation? In other words, how does establishing this foundation lead to better actions and choices made?
  • How would trusting outcomes to God help us focus on the big picture? At the same time, how do you see the practice of praying for others working on us to change our hearts and our world for the better?

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