Tuesday, January 09, 2024

To Have An Epiphany

This is a lightly edited version of the sermon for Epiphany. The sermon itself is available as a podcast. To hear it, click the link below.

Epiphany Sunday

Reading: Ephesians 3:1-12

Epiphany was actually yesterday, but it has become the custom in the church worldwide to celebrate it on the Sunday nearest to it. Epiphany marks the end of the Christmas season. The decorations are all down, or at least they should be! At Epiphany, we think of the visit of the Wise Men, though their visit would, of course, have been later than 12 days after the birth of Jesus. (You can listen to my Christmas podcast if you want to know more!)

The coming of the Wise Men symbolizes the coming of Gentiles to faith in Christ. St Paul writes about this in the second reading this morning. We all know the story of the Wise Men. We are, however, less familiar with its meaning. We take it for granted nowadays that the Gospel is for everyone; not just for the Jewish people, but for all people.

St Paul in our reading, however, describes the inclusion of the Gentiles as a ‘mystery’. Now St Paul uses the word ‘mystery’, not in the sense of an Agatha Christie novel, a mystery that can be solved by a clever detective and human ingenuity, but a mystery in the sense of something that is hidden, which can’t be understood, but which has to be revealed, revealed that is by God himself. It needs an ‘epiphany’, something which opens our eyes so that we can see.

St Paul writes that the mystery has been made known to him by revelation, as, he writes, it also was to God’s holy apostles and prophets. This mystery, St Paul explains, was not made known to former generation. So, what is the big deal?

Well, in the Old Testament, it is God’s chosen people, the Jews, to whom all God’s promises are made. There is talk in the prophets of Gentiles believing and worshipping the true God, but they do so as Gentiles, as outsiders. God’s chosen people remain the Jews.

The mystery made known by revelation, however, is that the Gentiles can become ‘fellow heirs’, ‘members of the same body’, ‘sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus’. That is, they can become in every way equals to the Jewish people in their relationship with God. How do they become equals? In the same way the Jews themselves now come to God: through the Gospel. Of this Gospel, St Paul writes, he has become a servant according to the gift of God’s grace. This gift was given to him, St Paul writes, to bring to the Gentiles ‘the news of the boundless riches of Christ’. This single idea is the key to understanding St Paul’s life, mission, and teaching. Indeed, it’s the key to understanding the history and development of the early church. (For anyone who will be taking my course at Ming Hua this coming semester, we’ll be talking a lot about this!)

St Paul was charged with the task and responsibility of telling the Gentiles what God had planned for them. St Paul was entrusted with this role by God. He describes it as being ‘commissioned by God’. God’s grace, he says, was given to him for the Gentiles.

Well, as we read this passage from the third chapter of Ephesians, we should notice St Paul’s emphasis on ‘grace’. He was given a commission of grace. He became a servant according to the gift of God’s grace. This grace was given to him. It is by grace that St Paul preaches a gospel of grace. So the obvious question is, what is grace? Well, grace quite simply is a gift, a gift given to us freely; it is something that we neither merit or earn.

St Paul and all the New Testament writers assume that we do not deserve anything from God except judgment. The Gospel, the good news concerning Jesus, is that we can be saved from the judgment we deserve by God’s grace, for no other reason than God grants it out of love through faith in Jesus. There could be no better message at the start of a new year than this. God offers us here today the chance to become heirs with all God’s people, to become members of Christ’s body, and sharers in all that God has promised. St Paul says he was given the role of taking the news of the ‘boundless riches’ of Christ to the Gentiles. And this is the news we are being given today at the start of a new year. The boundless riches of Christ!

Imagine for a moment being told that you had just inherited a fortune. How would you feel? How would any of us feel? We’d feel elated and excited, and yet this is precisely what St Paul writes has happened to us. We sort of take it for granted if we take it at all. And this is the problem. We do not take it! Firstly, because we do not believe it or are not interested in it, or, secondly, because we don’t think we have to do anything: we assume it’s ours anyway. What’s all the fuss about?

For very good motives, the Church in recent years has focused on the unconditional love and acceptance of God. We have taken seriously the message that God’s love is for everyone and not just the chosen few. We’ve preached that whatever people have done, whoever they are, wherever they’re from, God loves them. God’s love isn’t exclusive, it’s inclusive. It’s universal.

This idea of the unconditional, universal love and acceptance of God is now central to the Church’s message and mission. So central, in fact, that you will find it stated on every church website. If you don’t believe me, randomly pick a church in any country in the world, go onto its website, and you will find this stated in one way or another. And it is because we have been at pains to tell people that they don’t have to do anything to be loved by God that we have stressed that we don’t have to do anything ourselves to earn or receive God’s grace. And it’s here we have made a fatal mistake.

For while there is nothing we can do to deserve God’s love, we do have to receive it. Notice the phrase in verse 12: it’s through faith in him. You may remember the story of when St Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy go to Philippi (Acts 16:11-40). St Paul and Silvanus are imprisoned in the jail in Philippi. At midnight there’s an earthquake. St Paul and Silvanus have the opportunity to go free, but they remain put. The Philippian jailer says to them, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved? (Acts 16:30).’ St Paul and Silvanus don’t reply by saying, ‘Nothing, you’re saved already.’ They say, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved, you and your household. (Acts 16:31).’ Believe in the Lord Jesus! In other words, have faith in Christ.

Tragically, we are being encouraged to perpetuate the lie that we are all saved regardless of whether we have faith or not. Now I used to be of the opinion that it didn’t really matter if people believed this, as long they had faith. It also didn’t matter what they believed happened to other people as long as they had faith themselves. I’m now of the opinion that this idea that we’re loved by God regardless of whether we have faith or not, that we don’t have to do anything, is at the heart of many of the problems facing us as a Church. There is an extreme version of grace in the Church that insists that if we require faith of people, we make faith itself into a work, something that we can be praised for. God’s grace really is a gift, but a gift doesn’t stop being a gift once we open it. And grace doesn’t stop being a gift once we receive it by faith.

Many cannot be bothered with God’s grace. Faith is out of fashion. It can be depressing, can’t it? Not only are people not interested in faith, but increasingly are deliberately abandoning faith altogether. That’s the number one story in churches in the West at present.

St Paul writes that he has been given God’s grace to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things. The task that was given to St Paul of taking the news of the boundless riches of Christ to people has now been given to us. And it is what God is calling us to do as a church as we enter a new year. It is what we pledged ourselves to do on Pledge Sunday back on the Second Sunday of Advent. But St Paul also adds another phrase that it is very easy to miss.

St Paul writes in verse 10 that it is God’s plan that ‘through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places’. Let me ask a question. What do America, Russia, Taiwan, India, the UK, and the Solomon Isles have in common as we enter 2024? Does anyone know? The answer is that they’re all having elections this year. In fact, 49% of the world’s population will go to the polls this year. That’s a staggering statistic. But all this talk about electing rulers gives us the impression, that it is the rulers and authorities of this world who count and that it is the rulers and authorities of this world that we have to fear.

Those in power, those who rule and have authority, certainly think they are the ones who matter, which is why, like President Putin today and King Herod before him, they are so anxious to hang on to power. It’s interesting how many scientists, philosophers, and politicians all share the same basic world view, one we are all encouraged to share, that this world is all there is. So that what happens in this world is what matters, and we, of course, matter most. But St Paul would tell us that this world is not all there is, and we are certainly not the centre of it. Rather there is a spiritual dimension that we ignore at our peril. St Paul writes that the wisdom of God in its rich variety should be made known to the rulers and authorities not in this world but in the heavenly places.

We like to think we are so wise, so clever, but while we continue in unbelief, while we persist in this belief that this world is all there is, we simply demonstrate our ignorance and foolishness. We need to see that God is the creator of all things and that God is the centre of all things, and that it is only when we come to know him that we find our own place in life and in this world. In other words, before we finally leave Christmas behind we each of us need an epiphany. Like the wise men, we need to see the child with Mary, his mother, and kneel down and pay him homage (Matthew 2:11). We need to kneel down in worship.

For it is only when we kneel down in worship before the child and his mother that we will be ready to get up and get on with what 2024 has to offer. St Paul writes that it is in him, in this child, whose birth we have been celebrating this Christmas season, that we have access to God in boldness and confidence through faith in him, through faith in Christ.

And so, at this, the start of a new year, may God grant us an epiphany. May God grant us to see the child with Mary his mother and through faith come to him.


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