Ephiphany Sunday January 7, 2024
536, WS 718 v.1-2, 718 v.4-5, 99
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) (TLH) unless otherwise noted
WS - Hymns from the Worship Supplement 2000
Prayer of the Day: O God, by the leading of a star You made known Your only-begotten Son to the Gentiles. Lead us, who know You by faith, to enjoy in heaven the fullness of Your divine presence; through the same Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
“May the God of all grace, who called us to His eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after you have suffered a while, perfect, establish, strengthen, and settle you. To Him be the glory and the dominion forever and ever. Amen.” 1 Peter 5:10-11
Dear Fellow-Inheritors of the Lord’s goodness:
There are many rather strange and delicate tensions in the life of every Christian—opposing forces or extremes between which the child of God must navigate. There is the struggle between communicating necessary and helpful information, on the one hand, and gossip on the other. There is the struggle between sharing good news about yourself and bragging; between charity and enabling sinful laziness; between mission work and sheep stealing, confidence and arrogance, rest and slothfulness. In all these areas (and countless others) we struggle for consistent balance.
This morning we must navigate yet another: the tension that will forever exist between Godly humility and an honest acceptance of the fact that our Creator God knows us by name and loves us. The Bible, of course, teaches both truths. It teaches both the need for humility and the privileged status that is the possession of every single child of God. This is the part of what our text describes as “the mystery” that we will examine this morning. The key, of course, is always to acknowledge that everything that we have is only what we have received— which is itself a most humbling exercise. All glory, here and elsewhere, belongs always and only to our God. If we can keep this one fact in the forefront, we will not only better understand that great mystery mentioned in our text for this morning, but it will also become for us all the more spectacular and precious.
The text that will form the basis of our study this morning is found in Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, the Third Chapter:
I, Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus on behalf of you Gentiles—assuming that you have heard of the stewardship of God’s grace that was given to me for you, how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I have written briefly. When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit. This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.
Of this gospel I was made a minister according to the gift of God’s grace, which was given me by the working of his power. To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things, so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have boldness and access with confidence through our faith in him. (ESV)
This is God’s Word. Ever aware that these are, in fact, inspired words and therefore true and applicable in every regard, so we begin this morning with this simple, powerful prayer: “Sanctify us by your truth, O Lord. Your word is truth.” Amen.
Who doesn’t love a good mystery? Whether it’s books, movies, or plays, mysteries are pretty much always a staple for writers and producers because there is always a huge market. It can be hard to find someone who doesn’t like the genre. Only that’s not exactly what we are talking about here. When you and I hear the word “mystery,” what usually comes to mind is an intriguing and unknown conundrum over which we puzzle and concerning which we seek an explanation. In other words, there is an obvious question or puzzle that we try to piece together with the information available.
That’s not the sort of mystery our text is talking about, for a couple of different reasons—chief of which was the fact that there was no real question that anyone was trying to figure out. Our idea of a mystery usually involves some sort of crime, together with the process of trying to figure out “who dunnit.” The word used in our text (translated there as “mystery”) actually refers more to a “revelation"—information that was hidden and then revealed. And here’s the troubling part: the specific information revealed in our text ought to thrill us, but probably doesn’t. The mystery is the fact that the Gentiles were/are included in God’s salvation plan.
One would think, since most in our circles are Gentiles (non-Jews), that this sort of news would both interest and excite us. Yet we tend to greet it with a sort of half-hearted, “Oh, that’s nice.” Why do you suppose that is? How could it be possible that we hear such great news about our eternal future with so little excitement or enthusiasm? Our reaction is dulled, in part, because that “mystery" was revealed long ago, and most of us have heard it from childhood. That news is, in fact, the heart of the event we celebrate this morning: the Epiphany. The word “epiphany” means “manifestation” or "appearance” and refers not only to the revelation of the Promised Messiah to the gentile Magi (described in our New Testament lesson this morning) but to all of creation. Epiphany is God’s clear message that all, Jew and Gentile alike, are loved by our God and included in his salvation plan.
But there’s a problem here that goes deeper than familiarity. The sad fact is it’s hard for us to get too excited about the reception of something we feel we are entitled to. Our American sense of entitlement bristles at the thought that we could ever be excluded from anything on the basis of our race or origin. “Of course the Savior came also for us!”
Only he really didn’t have to, did he? If our answer to that question is anything other than, “No, he certainly didn’t,” then we need to reexamine the undeserved aspect of God’s grace. The love that God showed to mankind collectively, and to each human being individually, is undeserved in every respect. To put it another way, God could have sent his Messiah to save only the Jewish race and we would have absolutely no grounds for complaint. He could have come only for women, only for men, only for children. All would have been “fair,” because none of it was deserved in the first place.
Clearly this sort of divine truth flies in the face of our society’s sense of “fair.” Yet God is not affected by society’s ever-shifting sense of justice and equality. That which is created does not have the right to question or dictate to the one who created it. God communicated this truth through the Prophet Isaiah when he said, “Woe to him who strives with him who formed him, a pot among earthen pots! Does the clay say to him who forms it, ‘What are you making?’ or ‘Your work has no handles'?” (Isaiah 45:9)
Do you recall how the Chaldean King Belshazzar was condemned by God through Daniel as having been “weighed in the balances and found wanting”? (Daniel 5:27) We need to understand that image. Each of us must face the same test. On one side of the scale is our sin. On the other is the payment for that sin. Since no human being can add a sin payment to balance that divine scale, we need someone else to add what we cannot. Man naturally imagines that his own goodness accounts for something in God’s system of divine justice. It does not. In fact, he sees all of our “righteousnesses” as “filthy rags.” Not only do they hold no value in his sight, apart from Jesus Christ they are repulsive to him. So the first thing we need to do to rightly appreciate this mystery of Epiphany is to recognize that we, on our own, bring nothing but sin to the scale of God’s justice. We add absolutely nothing good or positive. As his enemies we deserved nothing but his anger, displeasure, and punishment.
Once we truly zero ourselves out in that way, the next step is to recognize the enormity of the weight of our sin on the other side of the scale. No honest person should have trouble doing just that. The final question is then obvious: Who will balance the scale for us? Who will provide the positive, the goodness or righteousness, that we cannot?
The answer, of course, is the gospel itself. God himself provided the goodness, the balancing weight, that we could not. He did so by sending his Son. Because of the payment Jesus made, we are now perfect in God’s eyes—the weight of our sin balanced by our Savior’s perfection. We had no right or expectation of anything at all from our God, yet we are now called children of God and heirs of heaven. Unlike a human heir, where a benefactor’s last will and testament can be altered, God’s will cannot. Forgiveness has been earned by Jesus Christ—a fact that can never be repealed, altered, or nullified. Every single one of us, Jew and Gentile alike, was included in the payment Jesus made.
This is the mystery or revelation that Paul talks about in our text:
the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I have written briefly. When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit. This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.
If this revelation ever begins to dull in your ears, know that it’s time to take stock of the enormity of your own personal weight of sin, together with your inability to balance God’s divine scale.
Paul then goes on in our text to talk about his own personal revelation:
Of this gospel I was made a minister according to the gift of God’s grace, which was given me by the working of his power. To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things.”
Paul was shown the weight of his own sin on the road to Damascus at his conversion. What he was shown shook him to the core. Not only was he a natural enemy of God in his heart and in his thoughts, he had been living as an enemy of God in his actions. He had personally and actively persecuted God’s Church. His life had been dedicated to bringing harm to God’s children. It was therefore never with false humility that Paul said things like he did in our text: “To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given…” Paul felt his natural deficiency deeply. It truly terrified him when he learned the truth about himself. In fact, his terror was made all the more profound in that he had previously considered himself to be God’s righteous servant, doing the will of God by terrorizing the followers of Jesus. Paul (then Saul) had been so convinced of the rightness of his actions that he was willing to dedicate his life to his focused mission of eradicating the Christian Church. He staked his eternal future on the rightness of his actions. Imagine the trauma of discovering that the thing on which he had been staking his eternal future was, in fact, grounds for damnation in the sight of the One who would one day judge him. Imagine Paul’s relief when he learned that Jesus had also paid for his sins.
You and I ought to know the feeling well. Apart from Jesus Christ, you and I were—and still would be today—on that same path and doomed to hear God’s eternal condemnation on the day of our judgment. The fact that you and I are not daily flooded with relief and gratitude at the “revelation of the mystery” and the message of Epiphany is itself a testament to our unworthiness.
Once Paul was washed spiritually clean by the blood of the Lamb at his conversion, he was instantly shocked by his former filth. You and I can grow alarmingly comfortable with the foul stench of our own personal sin, and it is only God the Holy Spirit, working through his Word, that can effect that spiritual cleansing in us. Only God can teach us to know how much we need our Savior, and how unworthy we are to have the Holy Spirit as our houseguest.
Let this then be our prayer on this Epiphany Sunday—that the Holy Spirit would strip us of our natural sense of entitlement and sin, reveal to us all that is foul in our lives, and then renew for each of us the joy of the forgiveness and salvation that is ours through faith is Jesus Christ alone. Amen.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.