“Unimaginably More”; Ephesians 3:1-12; January 5, 2020; Boeuff Presbyterian Church

“Unimaginably More”
Ephesians 3:1-12
January 5, 2020, Boeuff Presbyterian Church

Sometimes when I am looking for an entry point into a passage of scripture I look for which words are repeated. In our Epistle reading from Ephesians the word of the day, if you will, was undoubtedly “mystery,” repeated four times within our passage.

Now when I think of mysteries, I primarily think of them as a literary genre or type of movie. Something solved by Sherlock Holmes in an English countryside, Veronica Mars in Neptune, California, or Jessica Fletcher in Cabot Cove, Maine. Often in these contexts mysteries are essentially questions, especially “whodunnit?” that end up having one clear answer or explanation. Colonel Mustard in the Ballroom with the wrench, something like that.

But that is not what Paul means when he uses it in this passage. The way he frames it is more as something that has been revealed that was not known previously. In a way it works in the opposite direction of mysteries as a genre, first God reveals something and then prophecy is referenced to see if it lines up. It’s not that prophecy wasn’t pointing to a more expansive kingdom of God, but that it was simply more than the contemporaries of the prophets could’ve fathomed or thought to look for.

Augsburg University professor, Jennifer V. Pietz frames it in this way:

“The assertion that this mystery was unknown to previous generations (verses 5, 9) raises the question of whether or not the Old Testament prophets, whose words Christians interpret as pointing to Christ, had any understanding of the mystery. Some interpreters assert that the “as” (os) that begins the second part of Ephesians 3:5 signals a comparison, meaning that the mystery was not made known to previous generations to the full extent that it has now been revealed. Others think that Paul is in fact claiming that earlier prophets did not envision God uniting Jews and Gentiles in Christ in the way that Ephesians describes, even though doing so was part of God’s eternal purpose (verse 11). In either view, Ephesians 3:1-12 is clear that the decisive revelation of this mystery is occurring now (verses 5, 10).” (http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4347)

Just reading this text with a modern lens could lead us to believe that Paul was just musing to himself on these sorts of things. That his understanding of God’s promises for humankind were simply that, his understanding. But what he is claiming is that the mystery of God’s design of unification and reconciliation must be from God by the Holy Spirit because it is beyond what the human brain could come up on it’s own.

Today is Epiphany Sunday, most closely tied to the narrative of the Wisemen’s arrival after the birth of Jesus and the revelation of Jesus as the expected messiah. If “mystery” is the word that Paul uses to frame the question, then “epiphany” is the answer. Jesus is the epiphany to the mystery of how God will redeem humanity. And radical inclusion of all people, Jews and Gentiles alike, is the epiphany to the mystery of who are included in the humanity to be redeemed.

This has major implications for Christians of every time. It means that all people are able to receive the grace and redemption offered by Christ’s resurrection. And if all are able to inherit Christ’s redemption then all are to be invited to claim their place as known and beloved by God.

It reminds me of a blessing that my seminary’s beloved Hebrew professor, Carson Brisson pronounced at the end of each class. The ending of it goes something like this:

“May joy and nothing less find you on the way. May you be blessed, oh may you be a blessing and may light guide you and countless others, whose invitations we may not even been aware of were sent, all the way home.”

The part that came to mind especially with this week’s text is the line about light guiding others “whose invitations we may not even been aware of were sent.” This is the truth that seems to stop Paul in his tracks, that God’s invitation is so much larger than what the prophets could’ve imagined. 

And while this epiphany of God’s expansive inclusion is incredible in its enormity it’s also incredible in its specificity. Because it is for everyone, that means it is for every one. Whoever you’re thinking of right this moment, it’s for them. And that other person who you might think beyond saving, them too. And you in the midst of the worst thing you’ve ever done? You too.

It really means something that this message comes to us in the person of Paul. After all, we are first introduced to Paul as a man known as Saul, a persecutor of Christians. The first few verses about him in scripture in Acts 8 he is introduced approving of the death of Christ’s followers and then “ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, [and] committed them to prison.” The fact that it is this man that becomes such a voice for the church is honestly rather staggering. Redemption for him, really? Co-inheritor of heaven with Christ? Him?

For Paul, receiving this epiphany that he too was able to be redeemed, wasn’t just some abstract reality, but genuine Good News. God was able to use him, all of who he was to revolutionize the church, spreading the Gospel of Christ’s resurrection far and wide, both in this time and also in ours.

Presbyterian Pastor Michelle Wahila explains it in this way:

“Like Paul we are planted in a particular place and time with a particular holy purpose. Don’t be afraid to claim your story and who you are. You can say, “this is me: brave, bruised, but who I am meant to be.”

Paul’s testimony was that “God’s grace was sufficient.”[2] Our God is the God who answers our failings with affirmations. Jesus whispers to you: I know your imperfections. I know you who are, but do you know who I am?

On your very worst day, when you think your story is finished, Jesus calls you beloved. If you aren’t hearing this, you aren’t hearing Jesus. He chose you before creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love, he claims you.” (https://upcendicott.org/sermons/2018/8/19/merry-christmas)

What a mystery, what a revelation, what an epiphany! Thanks be to God. Amen.

“Dreams and Promises;” Genesis 28:10-19a; July 20, 2014, FPC Jesup

“Dreams and Promises
Genesis 28:10-19a
July 20, 2014, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

SLIDE 3 - Christmas-in-JulyToday in worship we are celebrating something very special, no it’s not anything to do with the World Cup. And no it had nothing to do with RAGBRAI, though both of those would be appropriate timing wise. We are celebrating Christmas: the birth of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. July seems a strange time to do this as we’re used to the celebration of Christmas being firmly lodged between Thanksgiving and New Years, surrounded by so many days of shopping, giving, getting, and overscheduling. Celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ in July by comparison seems quite odd and out of place. But we celebrate Christmas in July today not because the worship committee and praise team bumped their heads and became disoriented to which month is was, but because we believe that acknowledging Christ’s coming to earth is something we should do, in the words of our special music today, “more than once a year.”

SLIDE 4 - Jacob DreamOur scripture today takes us back in time, far before even the manger scene of that first Christmas, to another restless night. We hear the story of Jacob. Jacob was on the run from his brother, Esau, from whom he had stolen his father’s inheritance.

SLIDE 5 - Jacob and EsauThough they were twins, Esau was the older and therefore by his birthright would be in line to carry on his father’s legacy, which if we can remember our scripture from a few weeks ago was that same one given to Abraham: that the people would be faithful to God and God would bless them with abundant descendants. SLIDE 6 – Fooling IsaacBut Esau’s mother, Rebekah, had other plans. She did not like Esau’s wife, Judith and so wanted her son Jacob to take his place in the family lineage. Jacob and Rebekah schemed together so that when it came time for his ailing father, Isaac to die Jacob imitated his brother’s appearance and took his blessing for the inheritance.SLIDE 7 – Esau and Jacob fightingAnd then Esau, understandable angry, vowed he would kill him.

It is in the midst of this crazy family drama that Jacob finds himself in “a certain place,” lies down with a rock for a pillow, and has a dream.

I’m not sure what you place under your head before you go to sleep, but I’m doubtful that it’s a stone. Even with this questionable choice in bedding, he is able to sleep deeply and has a dream where he pictures a ladder from heaven to earth. Angels go up and down this ladder, and then God’s own self comes down the ladder and tells Jacob that God will extend the blessing of Abraham on to him, giving him an abundance of descendants. God closes the speech with one of my favorite lines, “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”[1]SLIDE 10 - Jacobs Ladder

Why is it that this dream comes to Jacob? Jacob was the one who took the inheritance of Esau. Jacob deceived his father and betrayed his brother. By all measures God could just write off Jacob as a schemer and a thief, but God doesn’t do that. God blesses Jacob anyways.

SLIDE 11 - GraceWe too could be seen as inheritance thieves, because we only become inheritors of God’s grace through Jesus Christ. As Paul teaches the Romans, “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”[2] Unlike Esau, Christ doesn’t vow to kills us, but rather takes on death in our place. Thanks be to God that there is no such thing as “anyways” in God’s value system!

XIVWe read on in verses 16-19, “Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place — and I did not know it!’ And he was afraid, and said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’ So Jacob rose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. He called that place Bethel.”[3]

I love this moment in this story. Jacob wakes up looks around him, forever changed by this encounter with God, wanting to memorialize the moment, and so grabs that rocky pillow of his, sets it up on his side, pours oil on it and calls it “Bethel,” which means “house of God.”

SLIDE 13 – DivineHave you ever had a moment like that? Where you are just so aware that God is present in that space that you want to mark it down, want to remember that location forever in some sort of divine foursquare check-in.

If I asked you where God lives, what address would you provide? Perhaps a church address? Maybe the Vatican or Mecca? Up in heaven in a house with many rooms? Or is it your own “certain place,” some rocky field somewhere between where you’re no longer wanted and the unknown beyond?

SLIDE 14 – God with UsFor thousands and thousands of years people have been trying to get a hold of that address. In Second Samuel, King David tries to build a house for God to contain God’s divinity.[4] But God’s answer to God’s location is right in what God says to Jacob, “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go…for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” Any address we give to God is only temporary. God’s presence is with us always.

SLIDE 15 – ImmanuelEvery year at Christmas we affirm that Jesus is Immanuel. Immanuel means “God with us.” May we always remember it is so. Amen.

 

[1] Genesis 28:15

[2] Romans 6:23

[3] Genesis 28:16-19

[4] 2 Samuel 7