imagination

Dear friends in Christ:  I didn't pick this convention theme lightly. Both national and district statistics are sobering. 

Congregations are frustrated when they see their non-denominational neighbors growing while they continue to decline, and wonder why this is so. Is there something wrong with us? Many are frustrated because their churches are getting older and their members' lower energy levels prevent them from reaching their community in effective ways. Some churches are holding on to decaying church buildings because they believe if they let them go, they will betray their forebears whose blood, sweat, and tears built their building. But they are running out of funds to maintain it and their numbers are far below any critical mass needed for moving forward. In these circumstances, they are thinking what Israel said about their situation in exile, "We are clean cut off." It's one thing to look at our situation realistically; it's another to move from there into despair or gloom. That ought not happen to those who serve a God who is able to do immeasurably more than all that we can ask or imagine, as our theme words from Ephesus maintain. That phrase, "immeasurably more than we can ask or imagine," must have struck a chord in the memory of those Ephesians. So let's go back to the day of St Paul and begin with his visit to the Ephesian church to whom he later wrote those words.

According to Acts, Ephesus was the scene of Paul's dust up with the silversmith guild. But prior to that conflict, Luke writes, "God did extraordinary miracles through Paul." That seems to be an understatement, as he goes on to illustrate: "even handkerchiefs and aprons that had touched him were taken to the sick, and their illnesses were cured and the evil spirits left them." Who here could have imagined that such things could cure illness? Who picked up the first apron or handkerchief and how did that person discover its healing power? This is a phenomenon clearly beyond our imagination, although apparently similar to the thought of the woman who said about Jesus, "If I just touch his clothes I will be healed," and Mark records other similar incidents where people who touched Jesus' robe were healed. Perhaps these things happened to demonstrate that Paul really was a genuine apostle who had been commissioned by Christ. But that is only the beginning of what God did in Ephesus. Next Luke records that seven sons of the chief priest Skiva decided that they wanted to get in on a good thing and try to exercise the power of Jesus by exorcising demons in his name. What happened next was certainly beyond their imagination – a demon revolted and refused to obey their command! "Jesus I know, and Paul I know, but who are you?" The man with the evil spirit "jumped on them and overpowered all seven! He gave them such a beating that "they ran out of the house naked and bleeding." Sounds like something from a Hollywood action film that we readily would classify as "fiction." Would you believe it if you had only heard about this? Such a thing is beyond our comprehension here. Luke probably included this story for the same reason, only to contrast the genuine nature of Paul's ministry with the less-than-sincere exorcism attempts by these men. We hear exorcism stories from overseas missionaries working among primitive tribes and assume that such things couldn't happen in our more sophisticated world. But how sophisticated are we? One author said, "I now receive e-mails ... from people who claim, in all apparent earnestness, to believe that Poseidon and the other gods of Greek mythology are real." (pg 91, Harris, Sam. Letter to a Christian Nation Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.) The effect in Ephesus was electrifying. Luke tells the reader that "All Jews and Greeks in Ephesus were seized with fear. The name of Jesus was held in high honor." Those who practiced sorcery brought their magic books together and held a public burning. Now what is the significance of this? They were giving up the belief systems by which they had organized their entire world view for another. An even greater miracle beyond imagination! Could you imagine people giving up their prized belief systems today? Materialists selling off their opulence, their luxurious second and third homes? Could you imagine atheistic scientists surrendering their faith in a self-propelled evolutionary process? Could you imagine drug dealers flushing their valuable products down the toilet for Jesus? Could you imagine gang leaders abandoning their positions of neighborhood authority? Could you imagine politicians giving up the perks they receive from those who want to buy their votes, all because Christ has convinced them to live according to a different belief system? It is beyond our comprehension.
Such a wholesale change is never without effect, however. When some see these changes in those who once shared their sacred belief systems, they feel threatened. They push back. Jonathan Wells, author of Zombie Science – More Icons of Evolution, reports the reaction of evolutionists to the intelligent design paradigm, "the evolution industry was as much about the posturing, salesmanship, stonewalling, and bullying that goes on as it is about actual scientific theory." (pg 181) So it was in Ephesus – Demetrius gathered his fellow craftsmen and said, "We have a problem. This fellow Paul has convinced and led astray a large number of Ephesians by saying that gods made by human hands are no gods at all. We are in danger of losing our reputation and goddess Diana is in danger of losing her worldwide status."
So maybe you are thinking, "I couldn't imagine such things happening where our church is located or in its present condition," and you are enumerating all the local roadblocks you imagine. I would ask, however, "What might happen if you really believed that God is able to do immeasurably more than all that you can imagine or ask"? Or do you believe that God only did immeasurably more than all the first century folks could imagine or ask? Some of our leaders and congregations don't think so. Several years ago, all signs indicated that Prince of Peace in Cincinnati, was on the verge of closing. Only a handful of faithful members met in their basement while the sanctuary above continued to decay. Last year I was honored to preach at their rededicated sanctuary! More than we could have imagined! Redeemer Lutheran Church in Convoy, Ohio, didn't think God's power was limited to the first century when they began their community center. Living Word in Galena, doesn't think so. They brought on board a DCE to free their pastor to begin considering church plants in two nearby communities. The folks at Christ, Cleveland didn't think so when they sold their property and relocated to a church given to them by a small independent Lutheran congregation. Oromo Lutheran Church, whom we officially welcomed into our District at this convention, didn't think so when the ELCA bishop gave them, yes, you heard correctly, gave them the church building where they meet! Unthinkable in human terms. But not outside God's imagination, I must add a recent personal example to this. A year ago a Pastor Geneti from Mekane Yesus – the Evangelical Ethiopian Lutheran Church - sat in my office and told me it was imperative that I come to Ethiopia to teach on marriage and the family. After studying their proposal and needs, and much prayer, I agreed to go. I was encouraged to form a team. As I thought about it, one name came to mind – Professor Ben Freudenberg from the Concordia Center for the Family here at CUAA. So I e-mailed an invitation to him. Since this would require him to be absent from his Spring quarter teaching load, would he be released from his duties for this trip? He received a resounding "yes" from the University and brought with him two colleagues. While I taught the Biblical foundation for marriage, he and his two colleagues stirred excitement beyond anyone's imagination. So much so that a cooperative venture between the University and Mekane Yesus for the next 5-10 years is in the works right now! This was certainly beyond what any of us thought possible. If the future plays out half of what we think, that involvement with their churches will make a huge impact on the complexion of marriages and family life in Ethiopia for generations to come. It has the possibility of making them known as the denomination through which Christ heals and restores broken families and helps insulate families from the corrosive effects of the Western culture which is rapidly touching their home life in negative ways. Beyond our imagination!
Those of you who were here early perhaps visited the North Campus, another example of God working beyond our imagination. A failed law school's buildings went on the market. No takers. Concordia put in a bid far lower than the asking price, and it was accepted. For about $11 million dollars the university got not just the building but $2 million worth of furnishings as well! It now houses nursing, athletic training, and other health-related majors soon to be announced. Did the University just pick up an otherwise unmarketable building at a fire sale price? Some Chinese businessmen didn't think so when they inquired if the building was for sale last year.
Now before you start to think, "Nothing like those things could happen at our church," realize what you are saying! You are limiting God to your imagination. If a shepherd boy could kill a well-armed giant with a slingshot, who are you to tell God what he couldn't possibly do? There's a fascinating story told in 2 Chronicles. A vast army of Israel's enemies was approaching. King Jehosaphat prayed, "We don't know what to do but our eyes are upon you." A prophet spoke for God, "Don't be afraid or discouraged. The battle is not yours but God's." With much prayer and praise the army set out for the battleground. When they got there, Chronicles says, "they saw only dead bodies lying on the ground. No one had escaped. The Israelites collected so much plunder it took three days to gather it." What had happened? The Lord had turned Israel's enemies on themselves and they annihilated one another. Beyond anyone's imagination!
Which brings us to the grandest, most profound act God has done, truly beyond our imagination. Even when they were told it was going to happen, Jesus' disciples could not comprehend it. Avowed atheist, the late Christopher Hitchens, wondered how the Christians got from a Jesus whom they believed they had seen alive after his death, to a Jesus designated as God's Messiah. "Why him?" he asks. After all, he reasoned, Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead, brought a widow's son back to life, and according to Matthew's Gospel, countless dead came out of their tombs on the day Jesus died and showed themselves to be alive the same day Jesus appeared to the disciples. None of them were designated anything special, so why should Jesus have received the title of "Messiah"? Hitchens is right in this regard – others were brought back from the dead, but they were not resurrected. They were only resuscitated. That means they all had to die again. But not Jesus. The disciples recognized that something distinctively different had happened to Jesus. The body which came from the tomb was qualitatively different from the one that the women had placed in the tomb. We use the word "glorified" to describe the difference. As Paul tried to explain what "resurrection" is to the Corinthians, he notes that it is like the difference between the seed that goes into the ground and the plant that comes out of the ground. While those who mourn their deceased may wish that they were still alive, or that by some medical miracle they could be returned to life, no one's imagination has put forth the idea that one could return from death never to die again, able to defy the laws of nature and pass through solid objects, and still eat regular food! One day we will see God's imagination in full force, and be filled with open-mouth astonishment as we see what no eye has seen nor ear heard in the new heaven and earth.
This is the God who is able to do far more than we can ask or imagine. If that is so, what might it mean for our congregations? What might it mean for your congregation? Could James' indictment rightly fall upon your church: "You have not because you ask not?" If God is able to do more than we can ask for, perhaps our problem is that we don't even ask for what we can imagine? In twelve years' worth of visiting churches on Sunday morning, I have not one recollection of a prayer offered for the conversion of specific individuals by name, known to members of that congregation. You may say, "Well, God knows who they are." Then why have I heard countless prayers for the sick or dying by name; why have I heard prayers for specific people who have lost their homes to fire or flood? Why have I heard prayers for the newly confirmed, or for those about to undergo surgery or for those who are recovering from it? Why do you not think it equally important to name unbelievers you know in prayers for the Holy Spirit to work conversion in their hearts? Do we view conversion as more of a miracle than physical healing? If you offer the name of an unbelieving neighbor for prayer, do you think that that that obligates you to speak to convert them? If you offer the name of someone about to undergo surgery, does that obligate you to perform the surgery? Does a prayer for someone who lost a home in flood or fire obligate you to rebuild their home? Perhaps if you are the surgeon or you are the contractor, or a volunteer with Habitat. But otherwise, no. So with conversion – that is not your work but it belongs to the Holy Spirit. If the Spirit wishes to use you in the process, He will find you. He will equip you. He will guide you to play whatever part He wants you to play, just as he directed Philip to catch up to that chariot and run alongside it. How God may use you is part of His work that exceeds our imagination. Jehosaphat's words seem appropriate suggestion for our time – we don't know what to do but our eyes are on You."
So my friends, let's not be afraid to imagine, for it is a gift from God. It is a quality which He Himself possesses. Gilbert Parker said, "Imagination is at the root of much that passes for love." How else can one explain God's outrageous plan of redemption? How else to account for all that God did for His people in the Old Testament? If God has no imagination, how does one explain the existence of giraffes and platypuses? It is my hope and prayer that you, the congregations comprised of laity and pastors, will take the lead in this. No District or Synodical President can lay out an imaginative plan that will be adapted nearly so well as that which is conceived of locally, for you know your circumstances and opportunities far better than anyone else. If God can imagine more than we can, isn't it time to put our nets into the other side of the boat, to fish in waters we thought were empty? We might find ourselves as stunned and surprised as everyone else in the Bible when God's imagination led Him to do far more than His people thought possible.