Preached and posted online for All Saints, King City, Ontario, Anglican Diocese of Toronto, Sunday, 3 January, 2021, the Feast of the Epiphany (transferred from 6 Jan).
Lections for Epiphany: Isaiah 60.1-6, Psalm 72.1-7,10-14, Ephesians 3.1-12, Matthew 2.1-12
Text: [T]he plan of the mystery hidden for ages in[d] God who created all things; 10 so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places (Eph 3.9-10).
If you don’t want to read the text below, here’s a link to the video version I did for the parish website.
Paul’s letter to the Ephesians tells us momentous things about the role of the church as an ordained part of God’s plan for the salvation of the world and the defeat of God’s cosmic enemies, sin and death. We will consider these ideas shortly, while approaching them in a roundabout way in the steps of the wandering Magi, those mysterious figures who “bearing gifts … traverse afar”.
Who were the Magi? The Greek word magoi, from which we get our English word magician, suggests someone learned and clever, a priest, or an astrologer, or some combination thereof. Earlier uses of the word in antiquity point to Zoroastrianism, one of the religions of Persia, or Parthia as the Romans called it, so somewhere far away, to “the East”.
They tell King Herod that “we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage”. Their association with astronomy might allow us to think of them as scientists, people who use their intellect to observe and draw conclusions, though contemporary astronomers such as Neil de Grasse Tyson might scoff at the idea of a wandering star that stopped over Bethlehem.
Matthew however didn’t think of the Magi as scientists. He saw them as heralds of the incarnation, as faithful foreigners who used their intellects to follow God’s leading and to make God in Jesus known to the world. The Magi confirm earlier prophecies from the Hebrew scripture that the Gentiles will come and worship the God of Israel, as we saw in our first lesson. Even the star, whether we think of it as a natural or supernatural sign, is hinted at in Hebrew scripture as a sign of God sending a ruler for Israel (Num 24.17-18). The Magis’ gift of gold, frankincense and myrrh are also prophetic, pointing to Jesus’ role as the Messiah, a king in the lineage of David who will die for the sins of the whole world.
Like John the Baptist who we saw before Christmas, the Magi are included in the gospel because they point to Jesus. They recognize God’s acts of revelation, of God revealing God’s self in the star and in the babe in Bethlehem, and they respond to it. The Magi are thus an example for us, so that we are ready to recognize God in Christ and to respond with gratitude and adoration to our Saviour.
St. Paul likely didn’t know any of the nativity stories, or if he did, he never refers to them in his letters. What he did know and preach was that God had revealed himself to us in Christ. If we look at our second reading from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, we see over and over again how Paul wants us to know one big thing – that it has pleased God to reveal himself to us, for no reason other than God’s goodness and kindness towards us.
Because of God’s self-revealing, Paul tells the church in Ephesus, he was made an apostle –“you have already heard of the commission of God’s grace that was given me for you, and how the mystery was made known to me by revelation” (Eph 3.2). His commission, Paul explains, is to help others “to perceive my understanding of the mystery of Christ” which has “now been revealed” (Eph 3.4-5).The mystery that is now made clear is that all people, Jews and Gentiles – even magicians from far off Persia! – may be saved by becoming God’s family – “heirs, members of the same body” – through Jesus.
Had Paul known the nativity stories (he probably didn’t as Matthew and Luke’s gospels post-dated him), he would surely have said that they confirm God’s plan, a design that was kept a “mystery hidden for ages” but has now revealed in Jesus. Furthermore, if Paul had known about All Saints King City, he would have said that we, like the church in Ephesus in the first century, are now part of that plan. Paul writes that it is “through the church” that God’s plan to save the world in Christ “might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (Eph 3.10).
This statement is so extraordinary and so important to our existence that it bears restating. Paul says that the church – all churches, any church – exist so that God’s plan for salvation, in all of its wisdom and graciousness, can be shown to the world. Note that Paul makes it clear that the church is part of God’s plan, not ours – God has now revealed revealed this plan to us through Christ, “so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known”. The words “so that” I think clearly link the church to God’s plan for us. In other words, the church is not our invention or project. The church is God’s gift to us to manage. This realization is always worth keeping in mind for those of us entrusted with positions of leadership, as there is always the temptation in those roles for us to think that we own the church.
Paul writes that the church exists so that “the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (v10). If any church needed a mission statement, if any parish needed a reason why it should go through the hard and tiring business of staying open, there it is. This church (insert name of church here) exists to show the world God’s plan to save the world. That’s a paraphrase of a long and complicated text, but I think it captures the idea. Let’s try it again. All Saints King City exists to show the world God’s plan to save the world. How does that sound to you? We should put that in our next parish profile.
Paul says something curious about the church existing so that God’s plan and wisdom can be made “known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places”. What does that mean? Who are the “rulers and authorities in the heavenly places”? To answer this question, let’s go back to the Magi. What do they say when they first meet King Herod? They don’t say “Good day, Your Majesty, what a nice palace you have here”. They say “Where is this child who has been born king of the Jews” (Mt 2.2). Being so clueless as to Herod’s political role and status makes the Wise Men seem charmingly naïve and unworldly, but surely it is a deliberate message on Matthew’s part to say that there is only one King of the Jews, and it is not Herod. Their question also foreshadows the sign placed over Jesus’ head on the cross, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews”. Part of the mystery that Paul refers to is how Jesus’ kingship can be seen in the cross, an instrument of torture used by Rome to shame and humiliate its enemies.
Here, in the shadow of the cross, I think we find the answer to who are the “authorities in the heavenly places”, because Paul knows that the cross is the weapon by which God in Christ defeats the power of sin and death. Sin and death are cosmic powers, they are the last enemies which God defeats at the end of the Book of Revelation (Rev 20.14), but until then they must be exposed and confronted. Immediately after the departure of the Magi, we see these cosmic opponents of God in Herod’s ordering the massacre of the children of Bethlehem (Mt 2.16-18). The killing of the Holy Innocents is an act of a petty and vicious tyrant, but its echoes can be heard across the centuries in every slaughter, every genocide, every death camp and ethnic cleansing. Herod reminds us that for now, sin and death have a place in the cosmos, what Paul calls the heavenly places, but their foothold is temporary, and their defeat is certain. We may seem well insulated from all that sin and death here in peaceful King Township, but all the more reason why we should return to our refugee sponsorship projects as soon as the Covid vaccines permit, because those projects are part of God’s cosmic struggle against sin and death.
Today we are at the start of a year, with a pandemic still raging and a future that seems uncertain and dangerous, and Herods aplenty on the world stage. We see through them. We know that Jesus is the king who defeats sin and death. And so here we are, the church, established by God, entrusted with a mystery now made clear. Like the Magi, like Paul, our role is simply to be and to say that God in Christ has a plan to save the world. My prayer for us as a parish is that our faith, our lives, and our worship always point and lead others to this one great truth.