A sermon for Epiphany based on Ephesians 3:1-12
First Baptist Church of Lynchburg
January 5, 2020
By Paul Dakin
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
We begin this morning with an item from the “Truth Really Is Stranger than Fiction” file. It is a news article that came over the Associated Press newswire earlier this week. It is one of those things that caught my attention and made me think as I was reading—perhaps more than it deserved. The article struck me as unintentionally funny in some places—and a bit more sobering in others. Maybe you saw the article too. It was the story about a Baby Jesus that went rogue from an outdoor nativity scene. I am going to read you the article exactly as it appeared…and I promise that I am not making any of this up. The headline reads:
DATELINE—December 31, 2019, Tallahassee, FL—On the sixth day of Christmas, Baby Jesus vanished from his manger in a popular nativity scene at a Florida park—right under the noses of Mary, Joseph and bowing kings.
The disappearance of the replica startled 8 year-old Nate Takacs, who had rushed to get a glimpse of angels and the infant Savior only to find an empty crib at the display at Dorothy B. Oven Park in Tallahassee. The park each year hosts a well-trafficked and colorful Christmas display.
“When I saw the barn and the angels and the kings bowing down, I ran to see what Baby Jesus looks like,” Nate recalled Tuesday. But he wasn’t there.
“Why would they take Baby Jesus? It’s a big sin,” he told the Associated Press. He rushed back to his parents, who alerted city officials via Twitter. Might some Good Samaritan have taken the baby to protect him from vandals whose holiday spirit was more “bah, humbug” than cheery?
City officials could not immediately say what had happened to the first Baby Jesus. And they couldn’t confirm if the disappearance was the result of foul play. One city employee told the Tallahassee Democrat [newspaper] that some vandals would stick cigarettes into the baby’s mouth.
“I was really disturbed that some people might have been vandalizing him,” said Nate’s mom, Lynne Takacs. “I was shocked by that.”
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By Tuesday, a different infant was taken out of storage and placed in the manger. The Takacs said they were relieved. “I’m glad they put another Jesus back,” Lynne Takacs said.1
Let me offer up three observations on the article, if I may:
When 8 year old Nate Takacs discovered that the Baby Jesus was gone, his reaction was, “Why would they take Baby Jesus? It’s a big sin.” Admittedly, this situation was no doubt disappointing to young Nate. He went to the manger in the display expecting to see the Baby Jesus. But he didn’t and that was a big letdown for him. In his young mind, I am sure that this did indeed appear to be a big sin. And kudos to his parents for obviously teaching him about right and wrong. However, I’m not sure that the disappearance of a figure from a nativity scene classifies as “a big sin” in the grand scheme of things. What do you think? It is stated later on in the article that “City officials could not immediately say what had happened to the first Baby Jesus.” Hmmmm….Might we suggest that they read the New Testament for more information? And finally, the article states that “A different infant was taken out of storage and placed into the manger,” with Nate’s mom commenting at the end, “I’m glad they put another Jesus back.” Hmmmm…Theologically speaking, I have to ask the question, “Exactly how many different Jesuses are there?” And isn’t it wild that the city officials apparently had the foresight to stockpile replacement Jesuses for just such an emergency? People keeping extra Jesuses on hand in case they need him…I’m not sure what to make of that. But I am pretty sure that the scriptures do not teach that there’s more than one Jesus…Then again, I guess that there are lots of things that people try to substitute for Jesus in their lives. And there are lots of people who want to create a Jesus that is more to their own liking instead of the one they find in the New Testament—creating a Jesus in their own image that they are more comfortable with. It seems to be that way to me…Just sayin’…
Tomorrow (January 6) is the day known on the church calendar as “Epiphany.” “Epiphany” is another one of those fancy church words that we sometimes throw around without really thinking about what they mean. The word “epiphany” means “a revealing,” “a showing forth,” or “an unveiling.” The gospel reading for Epiphany is always the story of the visit of the Wise Men to the Baby Jesus. It was read a few moments earlier in the service. You know, the “we three kings of orient are” portrayed in countless Christmas pageants—the Wise Men that young Nate Kakacs saw at the nativity scene as described in the news article.
The significance of Epiphany—and of the visit of the wise men—is that it shows that the salvation that God was bringing through his Son Jesus was available for all peoples everywhere. It demonstrated that it was not just for the Jewish people only. This salvation was freely being offered to non-Jews—Gentiles—as well to his own chosen people. You see, that’s because the wise men who visited Mary and Joseph and the infant Jesus were not Jewish. They were from distant lands—pagan
1 (Accessed January 1, 2020) Emphases are mine.
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lands. But God revealed the Savior to them through the star in the east announcing his birth. And as you know, they travelled a long way in order to worship him and bring him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh…
The truth is that God had intended all along to include the Gentiles into his kingdom. In fact, this news goes all the way back to the ancestor of the Jewish people, Abraham. In Genesis 12, God speaks to Abraham to tell him that he would become the father of a great nation. And in verse three, God tells him that “All peoples on earth will be blessed by you.”
Throughout the centuries of the Old Testament, God continued to remind his people that his salvation was available to all people everywhere. He did this through the prophets and the poets that he sent to the nation of Israel. Just a few examples will suffice.
Isaiah 56 declares, “Let no one who has bound himself to the Lord say, ‘The Lord will surely exclude me from his people.’ The Lord responds, ‘I will give to them an everlasting name…for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.’” And in chapter 9, the Lord says, “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death, a light has dawned.” Psalm 117 says, “Praise the Lord, all you nations; extol him, all you peoples.” And Psalm 72 says, “All nations will fall down before him, all nations will give him service…May all nations be blessed in him…May his glory fill the whole earth.” In addition to these, there are plenty of more verses from the Old Testament that could be mentioned…
But somehow, in spite of all of the prophets and the poets, the message of God’s expansive, all-including love for all people got distorted…and forgotten. The people turned a deaf ear to them. During these hundreds of years of the Old Testament times, it became an article of faith among the Jews that God’s salvation would be for them alone. After all, they were God’s chosen people. They came to believe that God’s love was only available to those who were literal, physical descendents of Abraham. No one else would be included. The celebration of Epiphany reminds us that such an idea was NOT originally God’s plan. God’s salvation through Jesus was demonstrated to be open to everyone. And in Galatians 3, which is the sermon text for today, the Apostle Paul calls this aspect of God’s plan “a mystery.”
“Mystery” is the term that runs throughout this passage. In referring to the work of Christ, the Apostle Paul writes in verses three and four that this mystery was made known to him by revelation. He goes on to say in the next verse that this mystery has been revealed to the apostles by the Holy Spirit. And in verse nine, he writes that, although he considers himself to be the least of the saints, God has given him the task of making this mystery known to all—even the Gentiles.
The key to this mystery is that through Christ, God has called the Gentiles to faith in a new way. In the past, Gentiles could become part of God’s people, but it was an arduous process that involved several steps including baptism and circumcision. But no longer. The secret revealed is that Gentiles are now accepted into God’s family through faith in Christ. God was not content to let part of his creation be
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shut out and separated from him. Instead, through Christ, God has acted to give everyone the chance to be into a new relationship with him. And this relationship is NOT founded upon who your parents are or who you are related to. No one is a part of the Kingdom due to an accident of birth. It is solely on the basis of God’s grace through faith alone.
You see, sin is what separates us from God—Jew and Gentile alike. The mystery revealed is that now we are all called to the same faith, regardless of who we are, and in spite of our sin. To be a child of God is to relate to God in faith. Connecting with God cannot be done through trying to do enough good deeds…or trying to live a nice moral life…or trying to obey the Ten Commandments (along with all the rest of the other 603 rules) as best you can. The Bible tells us that none of those things—by themselves—can bring us closer to God. None of those things can be the basis of the relationship that he desires to have with us.
That’s the amazing part about this mystery that has been unmasked. Everything needful in the life of faith has already been done by God for our benefit. Grace is at the heart of the mystery that Paul proclaims. All we have to do is to reach out to it in faith to take hold of it as we follow the way of Jesus. And as we do, then verse 12 tells us that we can approach God in boldness and confidence through our faith in Christ.
Okay—so the mystery of God’s plan through the ages has been revealed in Jesus. Both Jews and Gentiles now are invited into God’s family. The question might well be asked, “SO WHAT?” I think that’s a fair question. What are we to do with this information? What is the next step we should take? What difference does it really make?
Verse ten tells us that it is through the church that “the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known.” Isn’t that a great phrase—“the church in its rich variety?” Even during the days when the New Testament was being written, churches were not all alike. In their day as well as ours, churches do not follow a cookie-cutter pattern. Lots of different churches—with different kinds of people in them—different ethnicities—different social standings—worshiping in different ways—proclaiming the word of Christ uniquely as directed by the Holy Spirit. Every church in the New Testament was different than every other. And yet, they were all united in one goal: to make known the ways of God through Jesus. That was the unifying factor. It was true in the days of Paul more than 1900 years ago. It is still true in our day as well.
Paul says that it is his purpose—and by extension it is our purpose as well—to let this mystery be known to everyone. This is one of the main tasks of the church—to spread the good news of God’s kingdom with those who have yet to discover it—to those who have yet to know the goodness of God in Christ. Now that the mystery of God’s plan has been revealed—the secret has been uncovered—it is to be shared with everyone. There is no more reason to wait…No more reason to keep it a secret…
Of course, the revealing of this mystery of the Spirit certainly does not explain away all of God’s mysterious ways. The great hymn writer William Cowper noted this when he wrote, “God moves in a
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mysterious way, His wonders to perform. /He plants his footsteps in the sea, and rides upon the storm.” Later in the hymn, he goes on to write that “Blind unbelief is sure to err, and scan his work in vain. /God is his own interpreter and he will make it plain.” The way of salvation through Christ has been revealed—but there is still much of the mystery of God that we do not understand. We have to take on faith…We have to learn to walk by faith—and not by sight…
The sermon closes with a thought from New York Times best-selling author and writer on spirituality Anne Lamott. Concerning the aspect of mystery in the Christian faith, Anne wrote these words: “The first holy truth in [the class] God 101 is that men and women of true faith have always had to accept the mystery of God’s identity…and love…and ways. [I wish it were not so], but that is the truth.”2 Whereas there is still much that is mysterious about God, praise be that he has made plain to us the way to come to him through Jesus! And by faith, we now follow him…
To God alone be the glory! Amen.