Pastor Joel Leyrer

Text: Ephesians 3:2-6

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Dear Friends in Christ, That we are observing the Festival of Epiphany has been noted several times today.  However, did you know…Epiphany was recognized and celebrated as a holiday by the early Christian Church well before Christmas was?

Epiphany has been called “the Gentiles’ Christmas” because it emphasizes that Jesus Christ is the Savior of all the world’s people (Wise Men coming from a foreign land to worship the Christ Child is the traditional Gospel lesson for today)?

Based on that Scripture account, in some places in the Christian world Epiphany is known as the “The Festival of the Three Kings” and in others as “The Festival of the Star,” and that it is celebrated in a variety of different ways throughout the world including (among other things) house to house caroling and consuming special foods and gift-giving and Epiphany pageants?

Epiphany is the fabled “Twelfth Day of Christmas” that we sing about, it always falls on January 6, and that it concludes the Christmas cycle?  (That’s also the reason why we leave the Christmas decorations up through Epiphany.  Next week they’ll be gone.)

The word itself comes from the Greek language and means “manifestation” or “showing forth” or “revelation” of something before unknown; besides the truth that Jesus is Lord of all, it also commemorates the fact that Jesus revealed himself to be true God time and time again through his miracles?

Did you know those things?  Maybe you did, maybe you didn’t.  But one thing I believe we all recognize is that this Festival is a little different than the others.  Maybe because the other major Christian holidays call to mind a certain event in the life of Christ, whereas this special day centers more on a truth about Christ, for many of us Epiphany has a certain mystique about it.

Which makes our text for today a most fitting one.  Perhaps you noticed how the Apostle Paul used a key word several times.  It’s a word that may describe our feelings about this day, but far more importantly, it’s a word that describes the message of this day.    That word is “mystery,” and within this text we’ll find two great Epiphany-related   

MYSTERIES REVEALED

  1. The mystery of God’s grace
  2. The mystery of God’s inclusiveness in Jesus Christ

“Surely you have heard about the administration of God’s grace that was given to me for you, that is, the mystery made known to me by revelation, as I have already written briefly.  In reading this, then, you will be able to understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to men in other generations as it has been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets.  This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one family, and sharers together in the promise in Jesus Christ.”

Of all the congregations Paul had started, the one in Ephesus was the one where he stayed the longest, approximately three years.  In these opening words Paul reminds them of matters he had already shared with them, especially how God in his grace revealed certain things to him that he and the world wouldn’t have otherwise known, and which he then passed on to them.  In talking about all this, he uses the word “mystery” three times.

What does he mean?  In this context a mystery is something that, to begin with, is known only by God but which he then makes known to human beings in order that they might tell it to others.  It is a mystery not in the sense that it can never be known, but in the sense that it can’t be known unless it is revealed

And that’s exactly what God did:  He revealed the mystery of Christ and the meaning of the Gospel message to the Apostle Paul.  In turn, Paul gladly shared it with others.

This is not to say that Paul and those in the early church (New Testament times) were the only ones to understand and then pass along the Gospel message.  Believers in the Old Testament also knew of God’s plan of salvation and the promised Savior.  They knew and believed through the hundreds of Old Testament prophecies about the Messiah.  Consequently, people who lived and died before the coming of Christ at Christmas were saved eternally the same way we are:  Through faith in the Savior from sin. The only difference is that they looked forward to a Savior who was to come, while we look back on a Savior who has come.

When Paul says this truth “was not made known to men in other generations as it has been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets” he’s telling us how blessed we are to live at a time when we see clearly and understand fully how all the details of God’s plan of salvation come together in Jesus Christ.  What was believed but still somewhat “mysterious” to Old Testament believers has been fully revealed to us in the New Testament. 

As with Paul, God in his grace, working through the Holy Spirit and the Gospel message, has granted usinsight into the mystery of Christ.”  We fully know who he is and what he has done for us. We gratefully confess this each week in our creeds. We’ll come back to this thought in just a minute.

Paul goes on to talk about another facet of the mystery of God, namely “that through the Gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise of Jesus Christ.” 

The Bible clearly reveals that Jesus Christ is for all people – Jews and Gentiles (non-Jews) alike.  This inclusiveness may not appear overly significant to us, but we must keep in mind what a radical idea this was for the ethnic Jewish believers in the Ephesian congregation, which also contained “Gentiles.” 

Jewish believers had grown up with the idea that they were God’s Chosen People.  And they were, in the sense that God chose them out of all the nations on earth to be the people through whom the Savior would come.  But this choice was purely an act of grace on God’s part, not because of any intrinsic merit or worthiness on the part of the Jewish nation.  And the separateness and distinctiveness God imposed upon them through Old Testament laws and customs was to preserve this nation so that, as promised to Abraham, “all peoples on earth would be blessed” through the Savior coming from them.

However, they often forgot this.  They often thought of themselves as better than everybody else – and by everybody else they meant someone not of their race. 

Yes, God had ordained some laws of separation from Gentiles.  And yes, even at the great temple in Jerusalem there was a separate courtyard only for Gentile believers and beyond which only Jewish believers could go.   But all of this was to facilitate the great plan of salvation. 

Now, by repeating the word “together” three times, Paul emphasizes that there was no longer to be any distinction between believers.  This is the mystery of the inclusiveness of the Gospel.  Jesus Christ is for everyone.  All are one in Christ Jesus.  All are on equal footing.  As it is put in one of our hymns:

In Christ there is no east or west,  In him no south or north

But one great fellowship of love  Throughout the whole wide earth

With God there is no tribe or race;  In him we all are one

He loves us as his children through   Our faith in his dear Son

Let’s talk about the two great mysteries Paul revealed for us today and apply them to ourselves and our lives.   The first great mystery is “the grace of God.”

Ever wonder why it is that we live at this place and time, rather than having been born a thousand years ago in the “dark ages” when historians described life as being “nasty, brutish and short”?  Why is it that we live in the wealthiest, most technologically advanced nation in the world, rather than scratching out a living in a third world country?  Why is it that we have at our disposal adequate housing and medical and dental care, when much of the world doesn’t?

Is it because we are somehow more deserving of this kind of life than others?  Is it because we are inherently better than others?  Is it because we struck a pre-natal bargain with God before we were born instructing him in what part of the world we wished to be born and what kind of economic strata we wished to be born into?

No.  We have what we have and we are what we are because of one reason.  Grace.  God’s amazing grace.

But the greatest evidence of his grace to us is not what we have physically; it’s what we have spiritually.  The “mystery of Christ” has been revealed to us. 

Later in this chapter Paul talks about the “unsearchable riches of Christ.”  The word translated “unsearchable” is a word picture that calls to mind a person trying to track another person by following their footprints.  As he follows the trail he comes upon a second set of footprints crossing the first.  Then a third.  Then a fourth. Eventually it becomes impossible to continue.  There are just too many footprints.  The person being tracked becomes “unsearchable.”

This is what happens when we try to track the riches of Christ.  One individual blessing is crossed by another, then another, then another, eventually converging into one great mass of blessings.  When it comes to the riches of Christ, each of us has a bulging and bottomless spiritual coin purse.  Let’s continue that illustration…

We reach within and find a coin inscribed with the word “forgiveness”… another “peace”… another “help in times of trouble”… another “comfort in sorrow”… another “power for living”… another “strength for the journey”… another “assurance of his presence”… and after all this, a final coin inscribed “the promise of eternal life.” 

But the riches of Christ aren’t only for us.  The message of Epiphany always has a mission thrust.  Christ is for all people.  In the Book of Revelation the Apostle John saw an angel flying in the sky who “had the eternal gospel to proclaim to those who live on earth – to every nation, tribe, language and people.”  One of the neatest pictures to try to envision is what it will be like in heaven among all those believers from every nation, tribe, language and people.

Which underscores the second great Epiphany mystery:  inclusiveness.  Most of us fall into that ethnic category of “Gentiles.”  Which means somewhere along the line someone brought the Gospel to our forefathers.  Now it is our privilege and role to “pay it forward.” We who have benefited from mission work ourselves must do all we can to unveil the mystery of Christ for others through our time, talents and treasures.

So, when you think about it, it’s not that hard to understand why Christians from early on made such a big deal about Epiphany, is it?  It celebrates truths that have deep meaning for each of us.  While many may still view life as a “mystery” in the common sense of the word – not knowing why they are here or where they will go when they die – through the grace of God that mystery has been revealed to us by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ…

May the blessings of Epiphany – appropriately demystified and understood – occupy our hearts on this wonderful and important day, and stay with us always.  Amen.