Tuesday, January 5, 2021

“You Are Included in God’s Church” Ephesians 3.1–13 Epiphany Jan .’21


1.                Grace mercy and peace to you from God our Heavenly Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. The message from God’s Word as we observe Epiphany is taken from Ephesians 3:1-13 and is entitled, “You Are Included in God’s Church,” dear brothers and sisters in Christ.

2.                We all want to be in a group. God didn’t make Adam to remain alone. We even see fellowship within the Holy Trinity, as Moses reveals their conversation in Gen 1:26: “26Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness…” The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit speak, a holy conversation revealing unity and purpose by the three persons of the Godhead. But this singular group, the Holy Trinity, doesn’t desire to remain alone. He creates the Church, the first two members consisting of Adam and then Eve. Mankind is included into the fellowship of the triune God by his choice, his undertaking, his Word. It is all his delightful way.

3.                As the biblical story unfolds, the original ingathering by God’s voice rebel, letting their ears hear the voice of a separatist god-wannabe, the devil. They remove themselves from him and divide the fellowship they had with each other. No longer a community, either with God or the other, they followed only the selfish designs of the devil. Exclusion, fracture, division.

4.                This is the way it is with the rebellious ones, attempting to make a community apart from God on their own terms. The sinful result is a community-less entity of singulars, with curved-in attractions and with others so selfishly curved in on themselves the same way. This churchless community is absolutely all about me, myself, and I.

5.                You know what that’s like. You were there once, before Jesus snatched you by his gracious grasp and made you his own, a decisive one-sided divine work. Oh, you still tend to lean that way, away from the concern for God and each other. The Lord, though, is rather persistent in his care for you. He won’t let you fade away into self exclusion and division, to be a community of one. How isolating!

6.                For God, had planned that he wouldn’t let mankind have its own way, heading for eternal destruction. He sent the one who is the unifier, and by his shed blood, the world’s been brought back to the Father, through the Son, by the Spirit’s preaching. The Father showed his Fatherly heart as he took the “children of wrath” (2:3) and re-created them into the image of his Son, ones absolutely loved by him.

7.                It would have been easy for the little ragtag group, the Church in Ephesus, mostly Gentiles, non-Jews, to believe they were outside the circle of inclusion, that they weren’t God’s Church, in his house. Why, nearly their whole city was involved in the worship of Artemis, the goddess of fertility. The prostitution house was within two hundred yards of their famous library—and their amphitheater, which seated 25,000! Now, that was a holy fellowship, they thought—intellect, sexual enticement, and group entertainment! But, in reality, it was only a community of perversion.

8.                This, Paul says, is why he was sent, yes, even given a special revelation of the Ephesians’ inclusion. Ephesians 3:2–3 says, 2assuming that you have heard of the stewardship of God’s grace that was given to me for you, 3how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I have written briefly.” Yes, the Jews are God’s chosen people and remain his chosen if they believe in the Father’s provision for their sin. But so are the Gentiles, anyone who is in his Church, for they are made, “one new man in place of the two” (Eph. 2:15). Unholiness, whether it comes from the Jews or the Gentiles, didn’t advance one into God’s circle of inclusion, his Church.

9.                You Gentiles, you members of this Church in Ephesus (and you sitting here today), do not overlook this fact. God sent a special call to this man called Paul. His call papers were not filled out by any call committee; no, they were filled out by God himself in person, immediately, not through persons, as he does today.

10.             He did this so that you, too, would know for certain that the mystery now revealed fully in Christ is that all people, all are included, all are Church members by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. Kingdom inclusion is by grace, not by any kind of merit. Even unholiness does not deter God, for all of this—your unholiness—is on Jesus.

11.             You need not doubt; you need not despair. You Ephesus Lutheran Church members need not consider yourselves any less before the almighty God than even St. Paul, the chief of sinners. Since inclusion is on God’s terms, that is, his Son’s replacement punishment and sin-payment for you, there is no doubt. Even more so, because you are in him, baptized into Christ, the Father’s given you access to him through Jesus by the Spirit’s prompting. You think all these powerful buildings around you and all the pomp and power displayed by the Roman hierarchy here in town are greater than you? Just the reverse! God Has Declared You His, Included, the Church, glorious and holy, united, one Body, Jew and Greek, male and female, all one with him.

12.             Through Jesus, and alongside Jesus, you petition the Father as Jesus does. You talk to God about your neighbor, and then you talk to your neighbor about your God, joining Jesus, your great High Priest, in holy work. This you need to hear today, O beloved of God, in America. It’s a new America. Gone is the appearance of a Christian America. The American church—it appears—is like those old feeble houses on the eastern plains of the Rockies, simply waiting for the amassing storm clouds to flood over the mountains and crash into them, leaving no wall standing.

13.             The Church will get rocked, for the Church—as from the beginning in Genesis 3—is squarely in the crosshairs of the devil’s evil might. Fear not, O Church, for God still sends his Son to preach of the Son, as he did in the garden. He sent this preacher to preach of his Son to you today. He sends preachers around the world, to Ghana and Kenya and Singapore and the Dominican Republic. The Son sends preachers who preach about the Son, bringing the broken and despairing into his Church, no matter the race, color, or size of sin. And the Church stands.

14.             Let all hell break loose. But don’t fear! You are so secure in the wounds of Jesus, drenched by his blood in baptismal splashing and drinking of the river of life at the rail, that you do not run. Rather, you, his Church, face westward, into the wind and storm . . . snuggled right behind Jesus, your Savior and your Lord. Amen. The peace of the Lord that surpasses all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus until life everlasting. Amen.


“O King of the Nations, You Have Come,” New Year’s Eve, Mat. 2.2 Dec. ‘20


1.                Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Heavenly Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. The message from God’s Word on this New Year’s Eve is taken from Matthew 2:2, and it’s entitled, “O King of the Nations, You Have Come,” dear brothers and sisters in Christ.

2.                By now you’ve all probably heard this joke enough times to be bored with it. But here goes. “What would have happened if it had been three wise women instead of three wise men? Answer: they would have asked directions, arrived on time, helped deliver the baby, cleaned the stable, made a casserole, and brought practical gifts.” With all due respect to all the very wise women among us, the real Wise Men did ask directions. And having traveled hundreds of miles, they were as on time as they could have been. In fact, by the time they arrived in Bethlehem, the Holy Family had moved out of the stable and were living in a house. And what of the gifts they brought? Turns out they were not only practical, but they were also valuable and prophetic. Joseph and Mary could have used the gold to provide for their needs on their journey to Egypt. And frankincense and myrrh remind us of Christ’s priestly work in praying for us, then dying for our sins and being buried. Somehow, I don’t think a casserole would convey that message.

3.                Only Matthew has the story of the Wise Men, and his audience is primarily Jewish. You’d think since the Wise Men were probably Gentiles, Matthew would have let Luke tell their story. Luke is the writer who seems most concerned with reaching out to tax collectors, sinners, prostitutes, Greeks, and the like. But the Bible is full of surprises. Matthew, maybe the earliest Gospel writer, could have told us about Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem, Jesus’ birth in the stable, and being welcomed by choirs of angels and shepherds, but he doesn’t. He skips all that and tells us about the Wise Men who come perhaps up to two years later. Clearly, their story must be important to Matthew, or he wouldn’t tell it. And it is. So Matthew includes it. It’s important because, The Story of the Wise Men Shows Us That Jesus Is the King and Savior of All People.

4.                One kind of people for whom Jesus is King and Savior is Jews. When the Wise Men arrive in Jerusalem after their long journey, they start asking people they meet on the street, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?” (v 2). They’re in the capital city of David, the center of Jewish history, religion, culture, and scholarship. So, they think, the average man on the street will know more than they do of the new King’s birth and whereabouts. They assume everyone they meet, including King Herod, will be delighted to learn that a new King, a descendant of David, has been born, in fulfillment of the prophecies they’ve studied. Boy, are they in for a surprise! Very few people think this is good news. Herod doesn’t think it’s good news. He’s poured his heart, soul, and fortune into being the king of Judea. He’s been confirmed by the Roman Senate. He’s spent millions on public works projects, including a new temple to endear himself to the people. He’s slaughtered so many members of his own family whom he thought threatened his throne that it’s hard to keep count. Herod, is not happy to learn that a new King is born. The priests, the Sadducees, the Pharisees aren’t happy about the news either. Over the last century or so they’ve worked out a carefully balanced relationship with the Romans. The priests and Sadducees get to run the temple and collect tithes and offerings in return for keeping the people subject to Rome. The Pharisees get a free hand policing morality and religious life of the people in exchange for not interfering with the priests and Sadducees.

5.                And I suspect most citizens of Jerusalem aren’t too happy about a new King being born either. If the Romans see the newborn King growing up and gathering a following that might threaten their power, there could be a violent intervention. That would be bad for the peace and bad for business. So practically nobody but a few Jewish shepherds and some Gentile Wise Men rejoice in the news that Jesus is born, “the king of the Jews.” But it’s not a surprise. Isaiah not only prophesied the birth of King Jesus, the descendant of Jesse and David, 700 years before it happened, but he also predicted his rejection. In ch 53, Isaiah writes, “He was despised and rejected by men . . . despised, and we esteemed him not” (v 3). John, who doesn’t give a nativity story, tells us, “He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him” (Jn 1:11). And for the most part even today, Jewish people still do not receive Jesus. Their Messiah was prophesied. He was longed for. He came. He was rejected. And he still is. But that doesn’t mean he’s not King of the Jews. Gentile Wise Men recognized he was, even if most Jews do not. Rejection, even by his own people, does not make him any less the true King of Israel.

6.                Another kind of people for whom Jesus is King and Savior is Gentiles. That’s who the Wise Men are. They’re the first non-Jewish people we know of to believe in Jesus. Their inclusion in the people of God would have been stunning and revolutionary for Matthew’s Jewish Christian readers. Despite the Old Testament promises of a descendant of David who would rule the nations, Jews didn’t think of the citizens of the nations as being citizens of the kingdom of God. Gentiles might be subjects, tributaries, or vanquished foes in submission to the kingdom of God ruled by David’s son, but not equal members. Surely, Gentiles could never be children of God, heirs of the covenant promises.

7.                Oh, yes, they could! That’s the whole point of this story being included in Matthew’s Gospel. Gentile Wise Men perhaps from Persia, “near kings,” as Origen, one of the Church Fathers, calls them, come to Jesus bringing gifts, and they are welcomed. They are not just subjects bowing to a foreign conqueror; they are valued and cherished citizens, equal in standing before God with any natural born child of Abraham.

8.                How do we know they’re God’s children too? Because God called them. God put the star in the sky where Gentiles as surely as Jews could see it. God wants everyone in every nation, all the Gentiles, to come in faith to his Son. That’s what the Great Commission of Holy Baptism is all about. The risen Lord Jesus, before he ascends into heaven, assembles his disciples in Galilee and tells them, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Mt 28:19). Just as he called through the star, in Baptism, God calls each one of us his. Then through their actions the Wise Men evidenced their faith. They had believed the promises of the Bible about the star of the new King. They acted on their faith and sought him out. They offered him the best they had, gold, frankincense, and myrrh. They knelt in worship and then rose from their knees as holy saints. Anyone who believes in Jesus and acts in faith as they did, Jew or Gentile, is included in the family of Abraham and is a citizen of the kingdom of God and his Son, Jesus.

9.                The final kind of people for whom Jesus is King and Savior is sinners. From a lifetime of hearing Christmas stories of the Wise Men, singing songs such as “We Three Kings,” placing the Wise Men in manger scenes, and having our children dress up as Wise Men for church plays, we have a warm place in our heart for them. So did the Early Church. One of the first known works of Christian art is painted on a second-century tomb in the catacombs. It depicts the Wise Men bringing gifts to Jesus. By the Middle Ages, the Wise Men were considered saints. Their supposed relics, originally from Constantinople, are venerated in the cathedral at Cologne, Germany. They’ve even had names ascribed to them: Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar.

10.             But frankly, if the Wise Men were to come to our church, we’d probably be a bit uncomfortable around them. And we’d want to ask them some pretty tough doctrinal questions before we’d invite one of them to preach or teach a Bible class. Why? Their designation as “Magi” in some versions of the Bible says it all. “Magi” is the English transliteration of the word magoi, plural of the Persian word for astrologer or priest. The Magi practiced a strange blending of astrology, magic, science, and religion. As did many people in the ancient world, they probably thought of the stars and planets, including the star they followed, as being a celestial being, perhaps an angel. And maybe in this one case it was, because it didn’t behave as an ordinary star. It went before them and then stopped over the home of baby Jesus in Bethlehem. Normal stars appear to keep moving as you walk toward them. This one didn’t; it stopped.

11.             But mixing astrology, magic, and religion is not something Christians should condone. We’re suspicious of any belief or practice not found in the Bible. Like Luther, we’re very suspicious of what we call “extra biblical revelation,” that is, revelation of divine truth from somewhere other than the written Word. Not only that, but we Lutherans place no stock whatsoever in astrology and horoscopes and the like. Maybe they’re fun to read in the newspaper, but there’s no way we actually believe the stars, planets, and constellations determine or predict the future. In fact we must say with Scripture that consulting the stars is idolatry and represents a lack of faith in the good and gracious plan of God. The Wise Men weren’t so clear on this. They were astrologers who mixed the religion they got from Jewish exiles in Persia and the superstition they got from their native Persian culture. Nevertheless, God somehow worked with what was familiar and important to them and revealed to them a profound truth.

12.             The King of the Jews, promised and predicted in Num 24:17, had come. The Wise Men had read the Hebrew Scriptures. The Word of God said, “A star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel.” They saw an unusual star shining far off, immediately assumed it pointed to the new King’s birth, followed it, and found Jesus. They were probably still in need of some serious teaching, but faith was alive and well. Not as Jews but as Gentile sinners they came to worship the newborn King of the Jews. And they were welcomed. They were let into the house, where they saw Jesus with their own eyes. Then God confirmed their inclusion in the kingdom of God by granting them a vision that warned them not to return to Herod, who wanted to kill Jesus, but to return home another way.

13.             The message of the Wise Men is that God welcomes sinners to the kingdom of his Son. Make no mistake: false doctrine, false practice of religion, mixing truth from God’s Word with errors—even by well-meaning folks such as the Wise Men—is sin. But Jesus is everyone’s King, not just the King of the Jews or the King of the righteous, but the King of sinners who receive him. It’s just as we sing in “O Little Town of Bethlehem”: How silently, how silently The wondrous gift is giv’n! So God imparts to human hearts The blessings of his heav’n. No ear may hear his coming; But in this world of sin, Where meek souls will receive him, still The dear Christ enters in. (LSB 361:3) Did you catch that last line? Whatever the sin of the Wise Men or yours or mine, the hymn’s promise is true: “Where meek souls will receive him, still The dear Christ enters in.” All who believe in Jesus and are baptized are included in the kingdom of Jesus. That’s the message of the Wise Men, a message of great joy. That’s why we sing again and again during this holy season: O come, Desire of Nations, bind In one the hearts of all mankind; Bid Thou our sad divisions cease, And be Thyself our King of Peace. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel Shall come to thee, O Israel! (LSB 357:7)

14.             We pray: Lord Jesus, longed-for King of the Nations, you have come. Receive us by your grace and welcome us through faith into your kingdom, just as you did the Wise Men. In your name we pray. Amen.