December 31, 2012
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
Strange, isn’t it? For ever-so-long now the Church has often been seen by those outside of the Church—and not infrequently by even a good many folks inside the Church—as being a kind of exclusive club. Too often it all comes down to who’s in, who’s out. In history popes and other religious leaders have used their power to keep out or throw out those they didn’t care for politically or personally. Excommunications, shunnings, pogroms, crusades, and scarlet letters have all been headline-making ways in which the church made it clear who was who in the spiritual pecking order.
Again and again the Church has tried to distinguish itself from the world and if in some ways that’s a good and natural thing to do, it is in other ways a dreadful and terrible thing to do. Because so very often what that has meant in history is that the Church becomes—to those on the inside at least—a fairly homogeneous group of folks whose number one task becomes the maintenance of that homogeneity. Sometimes it’s not even intentional. But when for as long as you or your parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents could remember the people at church all looked like you, thought like you, voted like you, and made roughly the same amount of money as you, after a while the mere thought of someone radically different being a part of the congregation scarcely ever even occurs to anybody.
But once that unspoken expectation calcifies for a generation or three or a hundred, eventually it morphs into a kind of unspoken goal of keeping out those who would upset the tidy world inside the church. The strange, the different, the odd, the exotic types of folks become not so much unwelcome in the church as they become just not within the scope of consideration. Soon it becomes a simple statement of fact that they just wouldn’t fit in. Why, such different folks—the swarthy, the poorly clad, the tatooed, the foreign born—probably would not even want to be in our congregation because, after all, what would be the point? With whom could they ever have a meaningful conversation at a church potluck? And anyway surely our pipe organ music, our hymnals, our liturgy would not be their cup of tea. Surely it would be better if they formed congregations of their own, with their own kind and such.
And although I write from the pipe organ/hymnal side of the church tradition, it may be just as true that those who worship in very different ways might feel the same way in reverse: why would high-end Anglican and Reformed types want to hang out with singing-and-swaying Baptists or be a part of worship services that contain elements of this or that tradition that is so very different from all things European?
Whatever happens and however it happens, we become myopic in our view of what the Church is or what it should be, could be, might someday be.
Matthew will have none of it. He knew that over time Israel, the Hebrew people, the Jews had become this way. Even as Jonah had no desire to see greasy Ninevites become part of God’s covenant people in any way, shape, or form, so God’s people centuries later were still focused on keeping things neat and tidy and uniform within the people of God. Spiritual pedigree, family lines, and maintaining a certain narrow point-of-view on all things legalistic and ritualistic had become far more important than seeking to expand the horizons of God’s people to see a much more diverse and colorful picture of just who would count as children of the heavenly Father.
And so Matthew opens his Gospel with what to modern eyes looks like a dry-as-dust family tree of Jesus, only to reveal to those with eyes to see a series of things in that family history that were anything but dry and anything but expected or pleasant. Four foreign-born women (three with dubious sexual pasts) are named or hinted at in the genealogy as Matthew’s none-too-subtle way of reminding his mostly Jewish readers that the family that produced the Messiah had itself been far more diverse than most people wanted to admit, had had plenty of skeletons in the family closet, and had, therefore, hinted all along that God was up to something much bigger than just saving a whole bunch of people who looked and acted and thought exactly alike.
In case someone missed that in that family tree, Matthew concludes what we now call his opening chapter by introducing us to “Immanuel,” to “God with us” only to then immediately open his second chapter with a primer on just who the “us” was with whom this God-in-flesh would be. If “Immanuel” means “God with us,” then just who constitues the “us” part? Matthew gives the opening salvo of an answer by introducing us to a group (no one knows how many) of astrologers from Baghdad whose pseudo-science and quasi-religion was as overtly condemned by Scripture as the foreign nature of these Magi was detested by any person with a holy bone in his body.
The Magi were not only spiritually lost and religiously detestable, they were stupid. They bumbled into the court of the most paranoid man who had ever occupied a throne of power only to inquire after a newborn king in the neighborhood. Many Jewish babies would die before the larger story of all this was finished, and it was singularly the clueless nature of these pagans that was to blame for it all.
Yet there they are at the head of the Gospel according to Matthew. There they are as an apparently welcome presence at the bedside of the Son of God, of Immanuel. There they are getting as included in the “us” of “God with us” as were Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba in Jesus’ family tree. We’re not told what ever happened to the Magi. This is no conversion story so far as we can tell. For all we know they went back to Persia and did their funky astrology for the rest of their mortal days.
But there’s no missing Matthew’s message and it won’t be the last time he works this theme. He’ll keep working it right up until the very end when the resurrected Immanuel will again assure his followers that he will be “with them” forever even though that would mean that he’d stay “with them” while they spread out into the whole world to baptize and make disciples of ALL nations—Persian folks, Egyptian folks, Roman folks, Greek folks, African folks, and all kind of folks the disciples didn’t even know existed in other parts of a world they still didn’t even know was round: they were all included in the scope of Immanuel’s final “Great Commission” to them.
Expect the unexpected, Jesus was saying and Matthew was teaching. Look for wild diversity, not buttoned-down uniformity, in the Church that would soon be built. Expect surprises. See the unpredictable as they only inevitability worth talking about. Expect barriers and dividing walls to be breached and eradicated, expect former foes to become sisters and brothers, those you once shunned to become cherished friends.
We assign this text to Epiphany and it falls on an actual Sunday only once every half-dozen or so years. And if an “epiphany” is a kind of revelation, then it’s the kind of surprise revelation that should come far more than once a year on January 6 and far, far, far more often in the church than every six years.
The more routine and uniform the membership of our churches becomes, the more we need this text to shake us up.
The gifts presented to Jesus were not exactly your typical baby shower presents. Some have claimed that the incense and myrrh were actually items that pointed forward to Jesus’ death and burial. It would be the equivalent of bringing embalming fluids and a casket to a child’s post-baptism celebration!
Others, however, see the gifts as royal offerings indicating that in their own way, the Magi recognized in this infant no less than a king.
So which is it: do the gifts indicate that Jesus will die some day and need embalming or that he is the king? Maybe we need not choose. Because as the rest of the gospel will tell us, Jesus becomes the cosmic King of kings and Lord of lords precisely BECAUSE he sacrificed himself. Because he was born to die he is now the One to whom all creation owes allegiance and honor. The world resists that, which is why no sooner do the Magi present Jesus with these gifts and we find Jesus and his family on the run from Herod, who will murder other children in an attempt to kill Jesus. The commingling of death and Jesus’ royal status really is on display in Matthew 2, especially if we read on into the story of the Slaughter of the Innocents.
From Debra Blue’s book Sensual Orthodoxy, p. 17 (Cathedral Hill Press, 2004): “I’ve been thinking maybe someone should start a small group of guerilla activists whose task it would be to plant shocking figures in manger scenes. They could work both inside private homes as well as in the most visible places. Suburban housewives will shriek to find Batman figures on the roof of the manger on their mantle. Churches will be horrified to find Barbies and plastic dinosaurs on their altars. But people will pay attention. They will look twice. They may even stop their car. They have even get out when they see a garden troll or a pink flamingo or a big plastic Homer Simpson leaning over the baby Jesus on the Cathedral lawn. I actually wonder if I’m not the first to come up with that idea. It might have been some guerilla group that first placed the wise men in the manger scenes.”
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
Oh how we love Isaiah 60 these days! But I wonder if the full sweep of these half-dozen verses really sounded that great to the folks way back when who first heard this. Israel had lately been held captive by foreign types. Their land and Temple had been sacked. And anyway—as noted in also the sermon starter for January 6, 2013, on Matthew 2—the Israelites (and later the Jews) had become pretty insular, pretty focused on making sure that only certain types of folks got in good with God. Jonah’s disdain for the Ninevites was hardly a blip or an exception to wider attitudes in Israel. Jonah’s covenantal ethnocentrism was typical.
So just how encouraging was it to hear Isaiah predict that the scope of God’s people was one day going to include so many foreign folks? By the time you do get to Matthew 2 and see the first hint of the fulfillment of these words in the form of astrologers from Baghdad visiting the long-awaited Messiah, you’ve got to wonder how the buttoned-down types in Israel reacted.
But Isaiah is clear as clear can be: this will all be great because it will all be bathed in a radiant, holy, shining light. In the beginning God’s first order of creation business was to create light. According to Genesis, God did not create the sun first, nor the stars, nor any proximate source of light, but he created just light. Pure, radiant light. It is one of several features of Genesis 1 that accords quite well with the widely accepted scientific theory of the Big Bang. Whatever else the Big Bang was, it was most assuredly one gargantuan burst of light. The cosmos began in the light.
The universe was born when into the deep darkness of the primordial abyss, light flashed. And from God’s first light came, eventually, life. Indeed, Genesis tells us that God made humankind from the dust of the earth, and science tells a similar story. Near as we can tell, after that first burst of cosmic radiance, eventually stars were born. They blazed their light into space but eventually died out. And from the ashes of those dead stars was created the very stuff of life itself: carbon. God created us out of the dust of long-dead stars. Something of their radiance has passed into our very life. We are stardust beings, created by God to bear our own kind of brilliance as he fashioned us in the divine image.
We were created in the light, from the light, and we still need light. Some years ago I heard Neal Plantinga tell the story of the farmer whose wife went into labor one dark night in the nineteenth century. As the doctor tended to the woman, he asked the husband to stand near the bedside with a lantern. Soon the woman delivered a healthy baby boy. But then the doctor called out, “Wait a moment–another one is coming,” and the woman then delivered a twin baby. That was surprising enough until the doctor called out that yet another was coming. Suddenly the farmer began to move out of the room. “Hey,” the doctor exclaimed, “come back here with that lantern!” “Oh no,” the man replied, “it’s the light that attracts ’em!”
We are drawn to the light. Yet light remains a mystery. Isaiah 60 is also somewhat mysterious. On the one hand, this chapter famously opens by telling the people, “Arise, shine.” A little later Isaiah predicts that other nations will be drawn, “to the brightness of your shining.” But that makes it sound as though the source of the light is Israel itself. If I tell you to “put on a happy face” and then remind you that “when you’re smiling, the whole world smiles with you,” then it is clear that it’s your face and your own smile that I’m talking about. So also here: when Isaiah tells Israel to shine and talks about the brightness of their shining, it sounds as though the light in question emanates from the Israelites themselves.
Yet this same chapter talks a great deal about the fact that it is ultimately Yahweh who shines upon his people Israel. “The glory of Yahweh rises upon you . . . The sun will no more be your light . . . for Yahweh will be your everlasting light.” So who is doing the shining in this chapter: the people or God? It looks as though it is both.
It is because the Lord God Yahweh shines on Israel that they themselves can likewise shine. Curiously, however, the way Isaiah puts all this does not make it appear as though Israel were no more than a mirror. He does not say, “Arise, reflect, for your light has come,” but rather “Arise, shine.” He does not say that nations will come to the brightness of what bounces off them as a result of God’s light but he says those nations will come to the brightness of your light.
It all seems a bit mixed up and yet maybe it hangs together in a larger sense. Maybe we need to be so radical as to say that because of who God is, we ourselves possess our own luminosity. We are not just mirrors that reflect but our own source of light. At one time or another we’ve maybe all heard the phrase “reflected glory.” There are people in life who like to bask in the light of others. They themselves are not the president but they like to stand near him, get captured in the same photo as the president. They can then tell other people how close they are to the president, they may even brag a bit about their proximity to power. These are people who exhibit a kind of fake casualness when they drop things like this into a conversation: “The other day I was talking to the president and I said, ‘Barack . . .'” And once you hear that, you know what’s going on.
But maybe some of us have also felt the desire to capture some reflected glory. Have you ever been asked to introduce someone famous at a lecture? Have you ever had the opportunity to sit at the head table up on the dais at a banquet where the guest of honor was a celebrity of some kind? If so, then you know how special you can feel being that close to someone well-known. True, no one came to hear you introduce the speaker and no one paid a hefty price for his or her seat at the banquet to stare at you sitting up on the dais, but still you feel like maybe some of this other person’s celebrity rubs off on you.
Some years ago Philip Yancey asked me to help him with a book he was writing, and as a result he thanked me by name in the “Acknowledgments” section of the book once it was published. I am certain that more people read my name there than have ever read my name on the spine of any book I wrote! Yet still I confess to having enjoyed being associated with someone as talented as Mr. Yancey is. A little reflected glory goes a long ways!
But it’s still just reflected glory. But a reflection does not have much substance of its own. I’m told that reflected sunlight has very little heat to it–something always gets lost in the reflection process. So also those who like to be seen in the company of the famous and powerful may get a buzz out of that reflected glory, but the fact is that such people will likely never be very powerful themselves. There is a big difference between being associated with a person who does a lot of good and actually doing something good yourself.
But I suppose that when the light you are talking about—when the “reflected glory” you are considering—has as its source no one less than Almighty God himself, all of these typical categories of reflection get turned on their head. In this case the original light is SO intense, SO radiant, SO holy, and SO good that it has a substance all its own—a substance and a righteousness so powerful that one cannot reflect that light without simultaneously being caught up in and even transformed by that light. So perhaps that is the sense in which we can be at once shined upon and yet be said to shine in our own right, too.
But as noted at the head of this sermon starter, for Israel that meant getting used to something they were not accustomed to: namely, that holy light was going to attract far more than just folks who looked and acted and thought just like the rest of Israel. The God who created this richly diverse world by saying “Let there be light” was going to prove magnetic on ALL the various peoples who eventually spun out of that primordial burst of creative light.
Being part of that Creator God’s creation means welcoming them all when they show up even as we ourselves wish to be welcomed. That’s the deepest challenge and the dearest message of the day we call “Epiphany.” Here’s hoping we all have enough wideness in our hearts and in our minds and in the grace given to us as to find this a welcome Epiphany always.
In the beginning there was light. And almost from the beginning, evil and sin and all things unholy have been depicted as darkness. To this day people describe depression as rather like slipping into a dark hole. Author William Styron once told his own tale of battling depression in his memoir titled, Darkness Visible. In fact, in recent decades psychologists have discerned a link between a lack of light and depression. Some of the most melancholy people in the world live in the northern reaches of places like Finland and Norway where, during many months of the year, sunlight is restricted to a few scant hours per day. Even in other parts of the world something called “Seasonal Affective Disorder,” or “SAD” for short, has been discovered in people who drive to work in the morning darkness of winter, labor all day in a windowless office or factory, only to drive back home in the evening darkness. But when people go without natural light long enough, something goes awry and they begin to slip into depression. For some, a most striking remedy has been prescribed: light therapy. By exposing some depressed people for a few hours every week to sun-like light, doctors have been able to lift the fog of depression.
Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14
Author: Doug Bratt
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
One possible exercise for those who preach and teach the psalms is to ask what an “anti” Psalm 72 might look like. Psalm 72 is the poet’s prayer for an (unidentified) king. So like what might its opposite prayer look? For what sorts of things do we naturally ask on behalf of our leaders?
“Endow our president with victories over our enemies”? “Help our prime minister to lead us to unprecedented prosperity”? “Make our president smart enough to do things that will help our country and hurt our enemies”? “Equip our prime minister’s term in office to be marked by peace and prosperity”?
Those are not the sorts of things for which the psalmist asks on behalf of the king. She prays that her monarch will be characterized not by the power for which we often praise our leaders, but by justice and righteousness. As James Mays notes, these two characteristics are the foundation of the other royal characteristics for which the poet asks in Psalm 72. The poet prays that God will endow the king not with the king’s sense of justice or righteousness, but God’s. So as Beth LaNeel Tanner notes, these characteristics come not from human ability or insight, but are gifts from God.
The psalmist asks God to endow the king with such righteousness and justice so that he can, in turn, judge and lead his people with righteousness and justice. Such characteristics and leadership, of course, reflect both God’s character and the nature of God’s reign over everything that God makes. So the poet essentially begs God to fill the king with both a godly nature and godly leadership.
Such leadership keeps a special eye out, has a special place in one’s heart for “afflicted ones,” for those on society’s margins. Here the poet may be referring to people who are economically disadvantaged. Or, as Tanner points out, she may also be speaking of people whom the community falsely accuses or attacks. The psalmist returns to this theme of care for society’s vulnerable in verse 4, as verses 12-14. There, after all, he again refers to the “afflicted.”
Of course, many flawed human rulers don’t have a heart for people on society’s margins. This reality may offer those who preach and teach Psalm 72 an opportunity for honest dialogue with worshipers about what shape such care might take in the 21st century. While any such talk may be politically volatile, Psalm 72 certainly offers worship leaders an opportunity to speak prophetically about human leaders’ responsibilities towards those on society’s margins.
Tanner refers to Psalm 72 as Israel’s king’s “job description.” Yet it’s a pretty idealistic job description. Kings have never, after all, been any less flawed than any other human beings. Jeremiah 22 is particularly vivid in its account of Israel’s kings’ unrighteousness. Perhaps, in fact, David was God’s only “yes!” to this prayer, though he too was only a qualified “yes.”
Those who originally edited the psalter referred to this psalm as “of Solomon.” Perhaps they saw in verse 15’s reference to “gold from Sheba” an allusion to Sheba’s queen’s gift of gold to David’s son. James Mays sees a more compelling connection between Psalm 72 and Solomon’s prayer for wisdom so that he might judge his people with justice (1 Kings 3:3-14).
Yet Solomon was perhaps even more flawed than he was wise. The Scriptures ultimately portray him as a faulty example of a king. So this psalm’s idealism seems to point beyond human kings to a More Perfect King, One about whom the prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah and Zechariah talked.
However, Psalm 72 also alludes to a kingdom unlike any other in the history of the world. In this kingdom, says Tanner, it’s not power but justice that is mighty. In this Kingdom special treatment is afforded not the rich and powerful, but the world’s most vulnerable people.
Yet perhaps this psalm also points us beyond kings and kingdoms and back to ourselves. God’s adopted sons and daughters are, after all, servants of God and God’s kingdom. Tanner suggests that the king and some of the Messiah’s job descriptions now belong to all who profess Jesus as Lord. In John 14:12 Jesus says, “The one who believes in me will also do the works that I do, and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.” Psalm 72 models a structure for our lives and relationships by which God can do those greater things through us.
Of course, the poet speaks only verse 1 in the imperative. So one might assume that the only thing for which she prays on behalf of the king is justice and righteousness. Yet though the psalm’s other verses seem descriptive, they probably also reflect the psalmist’s prayer on behalf of the king. We might, in other words, interpret a verse like 3 to mean something like, “May the king judge your people in righteousness, your afflicted ones with righteousness.”
Such an approach makes verse 3 a bit more palatable. Taken on its face, it seems to insist that if the king is just and righteous, God will bless God’s children with abundance. But taken as a prayer, it’s the poet’s plea for God to work in creation for the good of God’s sons and daughters.
Along those lines, the poet prays that God will empower the king to serve a long time, thereby living out the full life that Israel thought of as part of God’s kingdom (Isaiah 65:17-25). She also prays that God will cause the king to both help his people flourish and rule over the whole earth.
Tanner makes an interesting observation about the scope of the king’s rule as described in verses 8-11. It offers the prospect of a kingdom that stretches over the full land of promise that Israel, in her unfaithfulness, never completely possessed. In that way, the poet is begging God to make the king faithful in a way earlier Israelites never were. Yet the psalmist also goes on to ask God to extend the king’s kingdom across the whole known world.
Why will the world’s rulers then honor this king? Because he’s so economically, politically or militarily powerful? Will they bring him their tribute as a way of protecting themselves from this king’s onslaught? No, the psalmist suggests that other rulers will honor Israel’s king precisely because of his care for the poor. So while modern rulers generally form alliances in order to protect themselves, Psalm 72’s poet suggests that Israel’s neighbors will honor her king precisely because he’s so just and righteous.
Both later Judaism and the early Christian church saw Psalm 72 as a description of the Messiah. Christians see strong allusions to Jesus Christ in this text. He alone was, after all, perfectly wise and just. He defended those on society’s margins. Jesus’ reign, inaugurated at his ascension, will endure forever.
On top of that, in the season of Epiphany during which Psalm 72 is appointed, Christians can hardly read it without thinking of the visit of the Magi to the young Jesus and his parents. These “kings” from distant shores, in fact, brought tribute to him. And someday, Christians profess, all kings will willingly bow down to King Jesus.
Some people heard in Rev. Rick Warren’s prayer at President Obama’s inauguration echoes of Psalm 72 for Israel’s king. He prayed, after all, “Give to our new President, Barack Obama, the wisdom to lead us with humility, the courage to lead us with integrity, the compassion to lead us with generosity. “
Yet is it in any way instructive that Warren made no overt mention of the “afflicted” and “needy” in his prayer? While he alluded elsewhere to people on society’s margins, he spoke of all Americans’ need to care for them. Was he worried about the political ramifications of a prayer for the President to lead Americans in the ways of such care?
Author: Stan Mast
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
As many churches will do this Epiphany Sunday, my last church often celebrated the Epiphany of our Lord with a careful study of the story of the Magi in Matthew 2. Guided by that singular star in the western sky, those 3 wise men from the East represented the nations of the world coming to see the manifestation of God’s glory in a little child. We often concluded our Epiphany service with a commitment to carry the light of his glory into the world, symbolized by holding candles high and singing “This Little Light of Mine.” The simple beauty of that candlelight service never failed to move me.
Our reading from Ephesians today takes the Epiphany of our Lord to a whole new level. Here we have not a single star and a few wandering human beings and “This Little Light of Mine.” Here we are pointed to the entire star studded sky, the whole universe, filled with rank upon rank of heavenly beings, gazing in wonder at the great mystery of Christ. And our ears are filled with the majesty of a full orchestra accompanying a thousand voice choir as they thunder, “O Light Everlasting.” Ephesians shows us Epiphany on a cosmic scale, as the mystery is “made known,” “revealed,” “made plain” not only to the Gentiles, but also “to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms according to his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
In this letter to the Ephesians, Paul was not addressing a knotty problem as he was in Galatians or a fractious church as he was in I Corinthians. When he wrote to the Ephesians, his intention was to expand their horizons and evoke a sense of awe. He does this by explaining the wisdom and forethought, the purpose and plan of God on a grand scale, larger than planet earth and human history, transcending space and time. So he opens with that great doxological sentence of 1:3-10, which concludes with a revelation of the mystery of God great plan “to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ.” Our text for Epiphany is part of Paul’s explanation of that great mystery, the third step, in fact, of that mysterious plan. An Epiphany sermon based on this text should explore that whole concept of the mystery of Christ.
We’ve just celebrated the “Magnum Mysterium” of the Incarnation, but that was just the beginning of the mystery of Christ. The word mystery is found 28 times in our New Testaments, a strong suggestion that mystery is at the center of the Christian faith. In his provocative new book, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, Ross Douthat shows how heresy always springs from the desire to simplify the mystery. “What… distinguishes orthodoxy from heresy… is a commitment to mystery and paradox. Mystery abides at the heart of every religious faith, but the Christian tradition is uniquely comfortable preaching dogmas that can seem like riddles, offering answers that swiftly lead to further questions, and confronting believers with the possibility that the truth about God surpasses all our understanding.”
“Thus orthodox Christians insist that Jesus Christ was divine and human all at once, that the Absolute is somehow Three as well as One, that God is omnipotent and omniscient and yet nonetheless leaves us free to choose between good and evil. They propose that the world is corrupted by original sin and yet somehow essentially good, with the stamp of its Creator visible on every star and sinew. They assert that the God of the Old Testament, jealous and punitive, is somehow identical to the New Testament’s God of love and mercy. They claim that this same God sets impossible standards and yet forgives every sin. They insist that faith alone will save us, yet faith without works is dead. And they propose a vision of holiness that find room in God’s kingdom for all extremes of human life—fecund families and single minded celibates, politicians and monastics, queens as well as beggars, soldiers and pacifists alike.”
“Time and again, in the early centuries Anno Domini, the councils of the Church had the opportunity to resolve the dilemmas and shore up the fragile synthesis—to streamline Christianity, rationalize it, minimize the paradoxes and the difficulties, make it more consistent and less mysterious. They could have joined the movement called Gnosticism in attempting to minimize the problem of theodicy—of how a good God can allow evil to endure—by simply declaring this pain-filled world the work of a foolish or wicked demigod, and portraying Jesus as an emissary from a more perfect deity than the one who made our wounded earth. They could have fallen in line behind the second-century theologian Marcion’s perfectly reasonable attempt to resolve the tensions between the Gospels and the Hebrew Scriptures by abandoning Christianity’s Jewish roots entirely. They could have listened to the earnest British theologian Pelagius instead of Saint Augustine, and replaced the mysteries of grace and original sin with the more commonsensical vision of a God whose commandments can be obeyed through straightforward exertion.”
In that long quote Douthat uses the word mystery in several senses, ranging from that which is merely hard to understand to that which we cannot finally understand. The latter sense is very popular in Christian circles today, leading to a kind of Christian agnosticism that scoffs at the whole idea of certainty and assurance in matters of faith. While it is certainly true that we cannot fully comprehend an infinite God, Paul does not use the word mystery in that sense here in Ephesians. Mystery doesn’t mean utterly unknowable; it means unknowable by human means. It refers to that which was hidden in God and thus inaccessible to human investigation, but is now revealed by God, not only to a few elite (as in the ancient mystery religions), but to all believers. The mystery of Christ of which Paul speaks cannot be discovered by Sherlock Holmes, but it has now been revealed by the Holy Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets.
What is this mystery? There is much that is mysterious about Christ; what specifically is Paul talking about here– his incarnation (O, Magnum Mysterium), his death (I Cor. 2:1), our resurrection through his resurrection ( I Cor. 15). In Colossians 1:26 and 27, a passage that sounds very like our text in Ephesians, the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations is “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” So, is Paul talking about the mystery of Christ’s Incarnation, Atonement, Indwelling?
No, he is talking about something even bigger—not just a baby, or a cross, or the Holy Spirit, but the universe. Or, more accurately, he is talking about how God will use that baby and that cross and that Spirit to reunite a fallen and fractured universe. Paul has already explained how God has brought sinners back to himself by his grace in Christ (2:1-10). Then he showed how God has brought warring humanity (Jew and Gentile) back together by his grace in Christ (2:11-22). Now he delves deeper into that union of humanity in Christ. This is the “mystery of Christ” of Ephesians 3:6, “that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.” The mystery, in a word, is the “church” (verse 10) composed of Jew and Gentiles in full equality.
That’s the mystery hidden for ages in God. Oh, God had revealed that the nations of the world would be blessed through Israel (Genesis 12:3). And he had revealed that the nations would come to the God of Israel. So it was not a huge epiphany when the Magi came to worship the promised Jewish Christ. What was totally unexpected was the complete inclusion of the Gentiles in the covenant with all its blessings. They wouldn’t be junior members, members by exception, members who could worship in the court of the Gentiles but not in the places reserved for the real Chosen People. No, in Christ Jesus, the Gentiles would be completely equal to Jews in the family of God.
Paul communicates this with three words beginning with the Greek prefix sum, translated together in the NIV. In God’s plan for the world, there is no longer a nation called Israel with whom God deals in a special way, into which Gentiles might be adopted as ugly stepchildren. No, now there is a new body, the church, in which even the deepest and most ancient of all divisions are united in Christ. In God’s house there are no “boarders” or “squatters,” only beloved children.
In the church, the great unification project of God (announced in Ephesians 1:9 and 10) is revealed to the world. But not just to the world! Here’s the surprise of our text, the surprise of Epiphany. The church reveals God’s plan (like a sneak peek, a preview, a movie trailer), not just to a waiting world, but to a waiting cosmos, to the “heavenly realms.”
What on earth, what in heaven, can that mean? Most scholars take Paul’s words about “rulers and authorities” in verse 10 to be a reference to angels. That seems to be the way Paul uses the same terms in 1:21 and 6:12. In I Peter 1:12 the apostle says that “even angels long to look into these things.” So perhaps Paul is painting a picture here of the angel hosts, whether good or evil, peering over the edge of eternity or hovering in the air all around us, watching the drama of redemption being played out in human space and time. As finite created beings, they don’t know everything. Particularly the evil angels will have a jaundiced view of what their Divine Enemy is up to. In the birth and growth and continued existence of the Church, the angels have an Epiphany of “the manifold wisdom of God (verse 10)” that will unite all things in heaven and on earth under one head, even Christ.
That’s what most scholars think, and that’s a marvelous picture. But let’s speculate a bit further about this mystery. What if Paul is talking here about human beings who have been transformed into rulers and authorities in the heavenly places? I mean, remember how Jesus answered his disciples’ question about what would come to them after they had forsaken all for him? “I tell you the truth, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” (Matt. 19:28) And doesn’t Rev. 4:4 say that there are 24 thrones around the throne of God in heaven? That makes me think of the Narnia Chronicles in which the children are royalty in Narnia. Picture the departed saints leaning over the edge of eternity. All their lives they wondered at the mystery of God’s will in their lives and in the world. What on earth is God doing? Now, glorified in heaven, sitting on their thrones, these royal ones get an Epiphany of God’s manifold wisdom by seeing the multi-national, multi-racial, multi-ethnic church.
Or, take this a step further, as C.S. Lewis did in his space trilogy. Undoubtedly using our text in Ephesians as his launching pad, Lewis imagines that the universe is full of sentient beings who are watching the drama of redemption on planet earth. In the first book, Out of the Silent Planet, a man named Ransom takes a rocket ship to Malacandra, which is what its inhabitants call Mars. There are three kinds of sentient creatures on Malacandra, none of whom has fallen into sin. But they know that earth has, and they know that Eldil (God) has set out to redeem that planet. Now, they are watching with bated breath to see how God’s plan will work out. Lewis gives an unexpected, but not entirely warrantless interpretation of Ephesians 3:10. That is Epiphany in outer space, a truly cosmic take on the journey of the Magi.
Whatever Paul meant by “the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms,” his overall intention is clear. He wants us to understand that in Jesus Christ something big happened, something bigger than a moment in time and a place on earth. What happened in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth was “according to his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord.” And God’s great plan fulfilled in Christ Jesus our Lord has a very practical result, says Paul in verse 13. “In him and through faith in him, we may approach God with freedom and confidence.” The mystery of Epiphany gives us permission to pray, not just with fear and trembling, but with freedom and boldness. “O Magnum Mysterium!”
A more modern and more shocking take on the relationship between Christianity and outer space is presented by Maria Doria Russell in her two books, The Sparrow and Children of Men. The first one ends with such horror that it has rocked the faith of many readers, while the second resolves the horror of the first in a way that enables some readers to hear “the music of the spheres.”
Here’s the premise of the two books. A group of Catholic scientists decide to launch a space probe in response to a message from outer space. Russell writes, “The theological rationale for this mission had been worked out decades before there was any evidence of other thinking species in the universe. Now there was proof. God has other children. We have to know them. They went to know and love God’s other children. They went for the greater glory of God.”
In this age of renewed exploration of Mars and deep space probes, many people wonder how the discovery of life elsewhere in the universe would affect the Christian faith. Both Lewis and Russell suggest that such a discovery shouldn’t do anything to the Christian faith, except show us that God’s plan is larger than us and the earth. Ephesians 3 gives us a little room to imagine that God intends the existence of the church to be an epiphany of God’s glory to inhabitants of the heavenly realms, whoever they may be. This gives fresh meaning to the thread worn chorus, “Our God is an awesome God, he reigns in heaven above….”
As a way of getting people to think into the concept of mystery, I would refer to all the TV shows that focus on solving the mystery, usually about murder. “CSI” and “Elementary” do a terrific job of depicting the details of careful investigation of the crime scene, exacting analysis of evidence, critical thinking about alternative explanations of the crime, and a well reasoned conclusion about the solution to the mystery. Human effort is usually able to solve the mystery.
Paul’s point is that the mystery of Christ is accessible to us through divine revelation by the Holy Spirit to the Apostles and prophets. Apart from that revelation, the agnostics are right. We don’t know, and we can’t. But because of such revelation, the agnostics are wrong. We do know. But such knowledge should be the source not of arrogance, but of awe that leads to humble but bold prayer.