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What Abundance!

 

(A word-study in the Greek verb PERISSEUEIN, “to abound”)

Text: Colossians 2:7 — “…abounding in thanksgiving.”

Aren’t you amazed at God’s magnanimity, his generosity, his large-heartedness? Clues to his magnanimity (but only clues) are seen in his handiwork. His creation abounds in examples of munificence. Think of the stars. There are billions of them in our galaxy (even as ours is not the only galaxy). Not only are there are innumerable stars, many of these stars are vastly larger and brighter than the star we know best, our own sun. The largest star is 690,000,000 miles in diameter; it is 800 times larger than our sun, and 1,900 times brighter. (Can you imagine a star 800 times larger than the sun?) And how vast is the star-world? Light travels at the speed of 186,000 miles per second. Other galaxies have been located as far away as six billion light years.

The creation is profuse just because the heart of the creator himself overflows ceaselessly. How many kinds of plants are there? And within the plant domain, how many kinds of trees? And within the tree domain, how many kinds of pines? Ninety! There are ninety different kinds of pine tree alone!

And then there is food. When I moved to the Maritimes I was astounded the first time I saw a fishing boat unload its catch. As the gleaming fish spilled out of the hold I felt there couldn’t be another fish left in the North Atlantic. And I was watching one boat only, an inshore-fishery boat at that, unloading only one day’s catch!

As much as we are inundated with fish we have to remember that only 1% of the world’s protein comes from fish. The rest comes chiefly from grain. And right now there is enough grain grown to give every last person 3000 calories per day. (We need only 2300 to survive.) When I was in India I saw tons of food piled at the roadside, in village after village. To be sure, there’s often a problem with food-distribution — since 15,000 people starve to death throughout the world every day — but there’s no lack of food-production. Let us never forget that France is the breadbasket of the European Economic Community, yet the nations of central Africa — where protein-deficiency diseases proliferate — produce more food per capita than France does. Even in its very worst years of famine India has remained a net exporter of food.

Whenever I reflect upon God’s overflowing bountifulness I pause as I think of food; I pause, but I don’t linger. I do linger, however, whenever I think of God’s great-heartedness concerning his Son. The apostle John cries, “It is not by measure that God gives the Spirit!” (John 3:34 RSV) [“God gives the Spirit without limit!” (NIV)] The rabbis in Israel of old used to say that God gave the prophets, gave each prophet, a measure of the Spirit; but only a measure of the Spirit, since no one prophet spoke the entire truth of God. Upon his Son, however, God has poured out the Spirit without limit. The Spirit hasn’t been rationed, a little here, a little there. No rationing, no doling out, no divvying-up; just the Father pouring out everything deep inside him upon the Son, then pointing to the Son while crying to the world, “What more can I say than in him I have said?”

It is not by measure that God has given Christ Jesus the Spirit. To know this is to know that in our Lord there is to be found all the truth of God, the wisdom of God, the passion of God — as well as the patience of God — the will and work and word and way of God. It’s all been poured into him.

If God has poured himself without limit into his Son, then you and I can be blessed without limit only in clinging to the Son. If God has deluged himself upon his Son, then we are going to be soaked in God’s blessings only as we stand so close to our Lord that what has been poured into him without limit spills over onto us as well.

I: — Paul tells the church-folk in Ephesus that the riches of God’s grace are lavished upon us in Christ. Grace is God’s love meeting our sin and therefore taking the form of mercy. (Eph. 1:8) Since God’s mercy meets our sin not once but over and over, undiscouraged and undeflected, God’s mercy takes the form of constancy. God’s constancy remains constant not because God is inflexible or rigid (and therefore brittle); God’s mercy remains constant not because he expects human hearts, now hard, to soften (some will, some won’t); God’s mercy remains constant in the face of our sin just because he has pledged himself to us and he will not break his promise to us even if every last human heart remains cold and stony and sterile. Grace, in a word, is God’s love meeting our sin, expressing itself therefore as mercy, and refusing to abandon us despite our frigid ingratitude and our senseless resistance. To speak of grace at all, in this context, is plainly to speak of the riches of grace. And such riches, says Paul, are lavished upon us, poured out upon us without calculation or qualification or hesitation or condition.

Several years ago in Cook County Jail, Chicago, the prison chaplain visited a prisoner on death row. The convict had only hours to live. Quietly, soberly, gently, sensitively the chaplain acquainted the convict afresh with the truth and simplicity and sufficiency of God’s provision for all humankind, and specifically for this one fellow who would shortly appear before him whom any of us can endure only as we are clothed in the righteousness of Christ. The convict — angry, frustrated, resentful, envious of those not in his predicament, just blindly livid and senselessly helpless — the convict spat in the chaplain’s face. The chaplain waited several minutes until a measure of emotional control seemed evident and said even more quietly, soberly, sensitively, “Would you like to spit in my face again?”

When the apostle speaks of “the riches of God’s grace” he never means that God is a doormat who can only stand by helplessly while the entire world victimizes him endlessly. When he speaks of the riches of God’s grace, rather, he means that the patience of God and the mercy of God and the constancy of God — the sheer willingness of God to suffer abuse and derision and anguish for us — all of this cannot be fathomed. Two hundred years before the incident in Cook County Jail Charles Wesley spoke for all of this when he wrote in his hymn, “I have long withstood his grace, long provoked him to his face”. Because of our protracted provocation, God’s grace can only be rich, can only be lavished upon us. Little wonder that Paul exclaims, “Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.” (Rom.5:20) The marvel of God’s grace is that as abhorrent as our sin is to God, it is so very abhorrent to him that he wants it to become abhorrent to us as well; therefore he meets our sin with even more of his grace.

Why does he bother to meet our sin with grace abounding? Because he knows that if only we glimpse how much more he can give us we should want nothing less for ourselves. Jesus insists, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” Our Lord has come that his people might have life aboundingly, hugely, wholly, grandly, plentifully.

We should note that while Jesus urges “abundance” upon us, he doesn’t tell us in what the abundance consists. He simply says that what he lends his people is to be described as bountiful, copious, plenteous, profusive. Why hasn’t he spelled it out more specifically? I think he hasn’t in order to minimize the risk of counterfeit imitation. If our Lord had said, ‘Abundant’ life consists in a,b,c,d, then people would immediately endeavour to fabricate or imitate a,b,c,d — all of which would render abundant life, so-called, utterly artificial.

People crave reality; they won’t settle ultimately for artificiality, regardless of how useful artificiality may appear in the short run. They crave reality. Surely that which is genuinely profound and truly significant will also be attractive. And surely that which is so very attractive will move more people from scepticism to faith and the possession of abundant life than will a clever argument which leaves them unable to reply but more sceptical than ever.

A minute ago I said that when Jesus speaks of “abundant life” he doesn’t say in what the abundance consists. Nevertheless, from the apostolic testimony as a whole we can put together a composite description. If generosity is a mark of discipleship, then one feature of abundant life is ungrudging, anonymous generosity. If love is too, then another feature is uncalculating concern for others regardless of their merit or their capacity to repay. If forgiveness of injuries and insults, then a marvellous forgivingness and an equally marvellous forgetfulness. If seriousness about prayer is a feature of abundant life, then equally significant is a willingness to forego much before foregoing the time we spend with our face upturned to God’s. Nobody wants to reduce holiness, the holiness marking Christians, to sexual purity. At the same time, wherever the New Testament urges holiness upon Christ’s people the context nearly always pertains to sexual conduct. (This is something the church has simply forgotten today.)

Needless to say, in all of this we shall always know that the abundant life streaming from us arises at all only because of the riches of God’s grace proliferating within us.

II: — In view of all that God pours into us, generates within us and calls forth from us we are to “abound in thanksgiving”. (2 Cor. 4:15; Col.2:6-7) We are to spout — geyser-like — uncontrived, unscheduled outbursts of gratitude to God. Of course there’s a place for scheduled acknowledgements of God’s goodness to us as we offer thanksgivings at set times (including Thanksgiving Sunday). More frequently, however, and more characteristically, unplotted effusions of thanksgiving overflow even the channels of good taste and middle class demeanour.

Despite all the sporting events that can be watched on television, there remains no substitute for seeing them “live”. Saturday night broadcasts into one’s living room and the Maple Leafs “live” at the Air Canada Centre are simply not the same event. One thing that never ceases to thrill me at a live game is the crowd’s spontaneous eruption when the home team scores. A Leaf player “drains one” (as they say in the game), and 19,000 people shout with one voice. There are no signs that suddenly flash, “Applaud now.” There is nothing prearranged to cue the crowd. There is only uncontrived exclamation.

Surely you and I will “abound in thanksgiving” only as we are overcome yet again at God’s astounding munificence and we cannot stifle our exclamation. And on Thanksgiving Sunday in particular, is there anyone whose heart doesn’t tingle at blessings too numerous to count? Then of course we are going to abound in thanksgiving.

III: — To know we have been given so much, to be grateful for having been given so much, is to shout “Amen” instantly when Paul urges us to “abound in every good work.” (2 Cor.9:8b) Anyone who has been blessed profoundly, anyone who gives thanks profusely, will always want to abound in “every good work”.

The older I grow the more I realize how important the ordinary, the undramatic, the “ho-hum” (so-called) is everywhere in life. Often the dramatic is deemed especially important, if only because the dramatic is unusual. An automobile strikes a pedestrian crossing the street; the pedestrian’s leg is severed, and the throbbing artery spouts blood, quickly draining away life — when along comes a fellow in his brand-new Harry Rosen Italian wool suit; without hesitating, he rips up the sleeve of his jacket and twists on the tourniquet — just in time. Good. None of it is to be slighted.

At the same time, 99.9% of life isn’t dramatic. For every dramatic assistance we might render there are a million opportunities for the most undramatic, concrete kindnesses whose blessings to their recipients are priceless. Maureen and I in Brandenburg, Germany, for instance, (one hour off the airplane) trying to find the tourist information bureau (needed for a list of “Zimmer mit Fruehstueck” — Bed & Breakfast); we have made four circuits in our rented car of the downtown maze of a mediaeval city, know by now that we aren’t going to find the tourist information bureau if we make 40 circuits, know too that we don’t know how to stop making circuits; a woman who speaks German only saying, “It’s too complicated for me to describe how to get to the bureau from here; I’ll walk you to it” — and then walking the longest distance out of her way to help two strangers from a foreign country whom she will never see again. The young mother across the aisle from me on the train to Montreal; her baby is only six months old, too young to be left alone; the woman is exceedingly nauseated and needs to get to the washroom before; would I hold her baby until she has returned from the washroom? Of course.

Because the undramatic abounds in life (as the dramatic does not), the apostle is careful to say that we are to abound in every good work.

IV: — There is only one matter left for us to probe. What impels us to do all of this? To be sure we are commanded to abound in thanksgiving, commanded again to abound in every good work. We can always grimace grimly and simply get on with it just because we’ve been ordered to; or we can recall the riches of God’s grace that have been lavished upon us. But to have to recall something is to admit that we are lacking an incentive that is immediate; and to grimace grimly and do onerously what we’ve been told to do is to admit that discipleship is a pain in the neck. Then what impels us to abound precisely where we know we should abound? Paul says we “abound” from the heart as joy — joy! — wells up within us.

When Paul saw that the Christians were going to go hungry in Jerusalem during the famine there he asked the Christians in Macedonia for help. The Macedonian believers were poor, dirt-poor. And yet when the apostle asked them to help people they had never seen they “gave beyond their means.” (2 Cor. 8:3) Not only did they give beyond their means, they begged Paul to grant them the privilege of helping others in dire need.

What impelled them to do it? Paul says simply, “…their abundance of joy overflowed in a wealth of liberality.” (2 Cor. 8:2) It was their joy — not their sense of duty, not the obligations of obedience — just their joy in Christ, their joy at the mercies of God, their joy at the super-abounding grace of God in the face of their abounding sin; it was their abundance of joy that impelled them to give beyond their means, poor as they were, as soon as they heard of those who were poorer still.

Only a superfluity of joy renders us those who are willing to make a real sacrifice for the kingdom; and only a superfluity of joy allows us to see that alongside the wounds of Christ we shouldn’t be speaking of our sacrifice at all.

On Thanksgiving Sunday, 2002, I want such abounding joy in my heart as to attest the mercy of God lavished upon me and lavished upon me endlessly in the face of my all-too-abounding sin and undeniable need. For then abounding thankfulness will stream my lips, even as abounding kindnesses flow from my hands.

Victor Shepherd
October 2002