My family started Creekstone Church from scratch. That was the fall of 2009. Almost twelve years later, I preached my final sermon—Sunday, May 30, 2021.
This summer, I'm transitioning from pastor to professor by serving on faculty at Metro Atlanta Seminary as Dean of the Doctoral Program in Gospel Renewal and Pastoral Leadership. It is hard to leave a role I’ve treasured for so long, but after twenty-six years of local church, pastoral ministry, I am grateful for the opportunity to leverage that experience with MAS by equipping leaders in distinctively cross-tethered ministry during my "second half."
What does a pastor say for his final sermon? What “last words” does he want them to hear from the lips that have spoken to them almost every week for twelve years? As I approached my final Sunday, I struggled to narrow my focus. Until I remembered Ephesians 3.
Listen to the message on audio or read the text below.
Major-General John Sedgwick was a Union officer in the American Civil War. During a skirmish at Spotsylvania Court House, his troops were under fire from Confederate snipers. As his men took cover, General Sedgwick chastened them with what would become famous last words, saying, "They couldn't hit an elephant at this distance.”
Just seconds later. They hit the elephant.
Famous last words.
Oscar “O.O.” McIntyre was a well-known newspaper columnist in New York during the 1920s and 30s. Lying on his death-bed at age fifty-three, he spoke his last words to his wife Maybelle, whom he called Snooks. “Snooks,” he said. “Will you please turn this way. I like to look at your face.”
What beautiful last words.
In some ways, the church Paul started in Ephesus was his Snooks. He spent more time with that congregation than any other and felt a special bond with them.
Unlike Oscar McIntyre’s final words to his Snooks, Paul’s last words to the Ephesians were not spoken in person but via the letter in the New Testament that bears the name of this ancient congregations in what now is modern-day Turkey.
At the center of that letter is a prayer that expresses the apostle’s deep desire for his beloved Ephesian church to grasp the width, length, height, and depth of the love of God.
Like Paul in Ephesus, I’ve served Creekstone far longer than any other church. In many ways, as a congregation, you are my Snooks.
As I look into your faces this morning and speak my last words as your pastor, I find Paul’s pastoral prayer in Ephesians 3:16-19 expresses exactly what I want to say.
16 I pray that out of the Father’s glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, 18 may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, 19 and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.
The Incomprehensibility of the Universe
If you have been around Creekstone for a while, you have heard my theory of why the universe is incomprehensibly massive.
For example, our sun is one of between 100 and 400 billion stars in our one galaxy. Considering that there are between 100 and 400 billion galaxies(with some estimates as high as 2 trillion!), the total number of stars in the universe is estimated on the low end to be one billion trillion stars, which is one with twenty-four zeros.
Why did God make the cosmos so immense? After all, we will never explore such a vast expanse. Of course, the Lord could have created the universe simply to bring himself enjoyment and satisfaction. That would be reason enough.
The Extent of Redemption
In my opinion, there is another reason for the cosmic dimensions to creation. I believe the scope of creation serves to illustrate the extent of redemption. After all, the work of creation dovetails perfectly with the work of the cross. We see this in Psalm 19:1-4.
1 The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. 2 Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. 3 There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. 4 Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.
It is no wonder that civilizations for millennia have worshipped the sky. The immensity and order of the universe screams of a supreme, intelligent designer, defying the possibility that we live in a chance universe.
The Creator Becomes the Savior
Not only does creation highlight God’s greatness, it also illustrates the wonder of God’s grace, as the hands that made the heavens are the same hands that were nailed to wooden beams with iron spikes.
In Jesus, the Creator of the world became the Savior of the world. It is this grace in which we find the greatest glory. Where else do we hear of a King descending from his throne to serve the sentence of traitors against his own kingdom? It a story of astonishing grace that expresses the unfathomable love which gives context to Paul’s desire for his beloved friends in Ephesus, saying,
“I pray that you... 18 may have power... to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, 19 and to know this love that surpasses knowledge.”
Paul longed for them to grasp to the greatest degree possible the cosmic dimensions of Jesus’ love for them.
I think it is important to recognize the love of Christ is not a shallow, sentimental love but is an unrelenting, covenantal love that is willing to suffer, bleed, and die for one’s beloved.
We can say it this way. Jesus loves you so intensely he was willing to go through hell for you.
The operative word is willing. Jesus’ life was not taken. It was given. As the plan of the Father to redeem sinners unfolded, Jesus didn’t resent his role as the scapegoat for our sins. As Hebrews tells us, “It was for the joy set before him that he endured the cross.”
If you belong to now risen Jesus, his love for you is not merely propositional. It is filled with and fueled by a genuine endearment, devotion, tenderness, and sense of care that sets no boundaries.
Even though as finite creatures the Ephesians could never fully comprehend the infinite love of God, Paul longed for them to possess an experiential grasp of this love.
My longing for you is the same as Paul’s for them.
I want you to soak your soul in the Father’s affection, wrap yourself in its warmth, and be filled to overflowing with a sense of his approval, his acceptance, and his delight in you as his son or daughter.
But how could God love me? My sin is grotesque. It is repulsive. I wouldn’t love me if I were him.
To that, I have good news. You are not him.
Love as a Gift, not a Reward
We humans tend to experience love as a reward for goodness. But divine, agápe love is not a reward for goodness. It is a gift.
You want more good news? Since you don’t earn this love, you can’t lose it!
Remember passages like Romans 4:5, which tells us that God justifies the wicked! The wicked? That’s right.
Are you wicked? Do you feel sinful, dirty, ashamed, and alienated from God?
If you look to the blood of Jesus with faith, you will not only be fully forgiven but declared perfectly righteous! I know. It is amazing. It is astonishing grace!
In Colossians 1:21-22, Paul puts it this way,
“21 Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. 22 But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation.”
Do you know how you can believe that? Last words. Not Oscar McIntyer’s, not Paul’s, and not mine.
The last words you need to hear and believe are the last words recorded in John 19:28, where Jesus cried out from the cross, “It is finished!”
With his perfect life and substitutionary death, Jesus did everything necessary to reconcile you to God as a fully forgiven, perfectly accepted, and dearly loved son or daughter.
Believing this is harder than it sounds. This is why when Paul prayed that we would “grasp” the astronomical love of God, he used a word (katalambano/καταλαμβάνω) that means “to seize by force.”
A Final Charge
Be sure of this: you will never deserve or be able to earn the love of God. All you can do is receive it. Not as a reward but as grace.
In verse 19, Paul says that to be filled to overflowing with the love of God is to experience the fullness of God. This fullness is the filling of the Holy Spirit. What happens when we are filled with the Spirit? Supernatural, spiritual fruit begins to grow!
In being loved by grace, I am able to love with grace.
In being loved by grace, I experience the grace of peace and hope and spiritual rest.
In being loved by grace, I will be compelled to help others experience the cosmic dimensions of God’s agape love for themselves. Or, as we’ve said for twelve years, we will “help folks come alive to the wonder, beauty, and transforming power of the gospel.”
Creekstone family, my final charge to you is this. Make your greatest ambition today, tomorrow, and the next day, to leverage all your spiritual efforts toward this one goal. That you would seize, savor, and celebrate the height, the depth, the width, and the breadth of the Father’s relentless love for you in Jesus—all to the praise of God’s glorious grace.