Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord Jesus Christ.
New years are often associated with new beginnings, with resolutions to do things differently, to make positive changes in our lives. And even though you’ve probably heard that old saying that “new year’s resolutions tend to go in one year and out the other,” this still seems to me to be a good time to consider what we do and why we do it here in the church. To consider whether there are things that we could do better or even things that we need to do differently in order to be the church that God has created us to be.
And as I’ve been thinking and praying about this for some time now, it’s occurred to me that perhaps the reason that we don’t do a better job at being the church that God created us to be is that maybe we don’t really know what He created us to be. What is our purpose?
And as I considered this, I thought about my own experience. I’ve been a good church person all my life. I can count on one hand the number of Sunday worship services I’ve missed in my lifetime—most of them due to cancellations. In addition, throughout most of my childhood I attended Catholic schools, where I went to church every morning Monday through Friday. I’ve served on Church Councils and Mission Committees and on Parish Boards of Education; I’ve taught Sunday School and led VBS for more years than I can count. I went to Bible studies and baked cakes for funerals and helped decorate the church for Christmas and Easter—Denny and I were even involved in trying to reform the church, to bring back the authority of Scripture. And through all of this I thought that I was being a really good follower of Jesus Christ—I thought I was doing just what God wanted me to do.
And then one day God called me into full-time ministry. He led me to a seminary called The Master’s Institute in St. Paul and after several interviews they gave me a lengthy application to fill out, an application filled with questions like, “Describe your understanding of the Trinity” or “Explain the doctrine of salvation by grace alone through faith alone.”
Hours later I made it through about fifteen pages of these questions and came to a page filled with questions requiring only one-word answers. I breathed a sigh of relief and then I read the first question—and it rocked my world in a way that changed my life forever: “How many people have you personally led to Christ?”
I was stunned! And I thought: What kind of a question is that? How do you lead someone to Christ? How do you even find someone to lead to Christ? What’s that got to do with being a pastor anyway?
I’d spent my whole life being a good churchy person—and I had believed for my whole life that being a good churchy person and doing a lot of good churchy activities made me a good and faithful follower of Jesus Christ. “How many people had I personally led to Jesus Christ?” I thought for a long time and I came up with a couple of people who I thought I maybe had played some role in their coming to Christ—or at least in their coming to church—but I couldn’t definitely name a single person that would someday be in heaven because I told them about Jesus Christ. And then I thought about who I knew that I could possibly lead to Christ—and I couldn’t think of a single soul. I was so involved in church activities that all my friends were in the church.
I was convinced that I would be rejected by the seminary because I had to write “0” as my answer to this question. To my great amazement, however, they accepted me—and thus began an education not just in theology and the Bible, but in what it meant to be a follower of Jesus Christ. During my first few months of seminary, and really during the whole first year, I would go away on Friday afternoon feeling shell-shocked. I had read the Bible and I had listened to countless sermons and I considered myself to be more knowledgeable about Christianity than most people—and every week I was learning things that no pastor in my Lutheran church had ever talked about. Things like what it means to really follow Jesus. Things like what Jesus intended His church to look like.
In the process, of course, I realized in a way that I never had before just how awesome God is—just how much He loves me and to what great lengths He’ll go for His children. Because He could have left me right where I was—being busy with religious activity and never realizing that most of that busyness was completely without spiritual productivity. Being active in the church but doing little or nothing to advance the kingdom of God.
God could have let me live out my life—my very comfortable life—continuing to be helpful and involved in church activities, never realizing how little impact I was having on helping more people enter into the kingdom of God.
This is how I learned that one of the worst enemies of Christians can be the good things in the church. Because teaching Sunday School and serving on church boards and committees aren’t bad things—they’re good things. Unless they prevent us from doing better things.
And so then God sent me here and I came all fired up to lead people to Jesus and to do all the things that we are called to do—only to find myself often discouraged by people who seemed to prefer churchy activities to growing the kingdom of God.
But recently it’s as if God has been nudging me, as if He’s saying, “Hey, you had to learn this stuff—maybe they need somebody to teach them, too. Maybe it’s not that they’re unwilling—maybe it’s that they don’t know why I created the Church any more than you did before I sent you to seminary. Maybe that’s why I brought you here.”
Brothers and sisters in Christ, Jesus did not come into the world to live among us so that we’d build big fancy buildings where we’d gather to sing hymns and say a few prayers and listen to a message about being a good person. He didn’t come to make sure we understood that He’s good, we’re bad, and we need to try harder—that message isn’t even in the Bible!
Matthew includes this morning’s passage in his gospel so that we’ll understand this; he gives us this story that includes three groups of people: King Herod and “all Jerusalem”, the chief priests and scribes of the people, and the wise men. Do any of you have any trouble at all identifying which group you want to be associated with? King Herod is a pagan who likes his world the way it is; he sees Jesus as a threat and so just wants to get rid of Him—he cares about Jesus, but not in a good way. The chief priests and scribes are indifferent—when Herod asks them about the Christ, they know their Scripture. They can tell him that the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem, but they show no curiosity whatsoever about the wise men and their quest for the child. They don’t ask if they can come with them—apparently they just return to business as usual. Who needs God to be good churchy people? Religion can carry on just fine without a Messiah or Savior—in fact, bringing God into the picture can change the agenda and cause all kinds of problems.
The wise men, however, were eagerly seeking the newborn king of the Jews. Nearly 600 years earlier, Daniel spent 70 years in exile in Babylon. During his time there, he repeatedly found favor with the king, and, like Joseph in Egypt centuries earlier, rose to positions of great authority in this foreign land. Daniel became the head of the Magi or wise men and, as he was never afraid to talk about his God or to give Him glory, the wise men surely learned from him about the Messiah that the Jews were waiting for.
We’re not told how the wise men knew that the star was the star of Jesus, but we are told that as soon as they saw it, they came to worship Him. It wasn’t enough for them to just know that the Messiah has been born—they wanted to meet Him personally. Just as each one of us is called to meet Jesus personally. Daniel shared the glory of God in such a way that even centuries later, the knowledge that the wise men had of this God of the Jews was such that they would go to great lengths to meet Him.
Isaiah tells us that “darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples”—but that “the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen unto you” (Isaiah 60:2). We’re in darkness when we don’t know Jesus—and currently it’s estimated that, on this planet of 7 billion people, about 2.7 billion of us don’t know Him. Another 1.5–2 billion people have heard of Jesus—they know about Him, but they don’t know Him in any personal way.
It was because Jesus knew that this would be the world of the twenty-first century that He invented the Church—a body unlike any other that has ever existed, a body, not a religion.
This is what Paul is talking about in his letter to the Ephesian church. In the passage you heard earlier, Paul is reminding the Ephesians that God made him a minister of the gospel because God had a plan to “bring to light for everyone” (Ephesians 3:9) “the plan,” which is knowledge of Christ Jesus. To bring light in the gospels always refers to bringing Jesus. We live in darkness until we meet Jesus.
But what Paul is talking about is far more than knowledge—far more than just knowing about Jesus. when Paul says, “I, Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus on behalf of you Gentiles” (Ephesians 3:1), he’s saying that he’s given up his right to his own life. He’s given up his right to do what he want to do and has chosen to do what Jesus wants him to do, which is to share the gospel with the Gentiles, the pagans—to tell them about Jesus.
The purpose of the Church of Jesus Christ is to search out Jesus Himself, to develop a personal relationship with Him, and then to bring that light wherever there is darkness—to tell others about Jesus so that they, too, can have a personal relationship with Him.
We are to be like the wise men—if we know something about this king, this shepherd, we are to seek Him out, to discover Him, to meet Him up close and personal. And then we’re to go and share the good news. Although the wise men are never mentioned again the Scripture, church tradition says that they were so strongly affected by their encounter with the baby Jesus that they became Christians—either immediately or later when one of the apostles came and preached the gospel—and that they were eventually martyred for their faith.
The point is that when people came seeking Jesus, he never offered religion. He offered Himself. He offered a relationship. And so relationship was extremely important to the early members of the church. They were so clear in their understanding of the church as a “body”—as a group of believers connected to one another and all connected to Jesus Christ as the head—that it was unthinkable to them that any believer would not be part of it.
And so it is to this kind of a body that Paul is referring in verse 10 when he says that “through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known” (Ephesians 3:10). The purpose of the church is to make the “manifold wisdom of God … known.” And: “This was … the eternal purpose”(Ephesians 3:11).
Paul, in this letter to the Ephesian church, is saying that the purpose of the church is to be the display of God’s wisdom, which brings God glory. God’s wisdom, which, Paul says, is manifold, a word meaning, “much, diversified, many.” It reminds me of Paul’s words to the Roman church: “Oh, the depths of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways. … For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.”
Paul is telling us that while we—meaning this local church—can do many good things, ultimately it is what God has done both for and in the church that brings him glory. In this regard, being is more significant than doing. It’s who we are that matters the most. And who we are, first and foremost, are children of the Most High God. This is why Paul will instruct us in the next chapter of Ephesians to “live a life worthy of the calling you have received” (Ephesians 4:1). Our primary calling—yours and mine and that of every follower of Jesus—is to bring glory to God.
We become children of the Most High God, members of His Body, when we enter into the church, into His family, through Holy Baptism. That’s why baptism is so important. Kynlee.
We do this, he says, “so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 3:10). Paul told us in chapter one that we’re “blessed in heavenly places” (1:3), and that Christ ascended “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, above every name that is named” (1:21). In chapter two, he tells us that we, too, have been raised up and seated with Him in the heavenly realms (2:6). Now, he’s saying that, like a million laser beams illuminating the heavens, the church penetrates even to the realms beyond with our display of God’s wisdom—when we’re displaying it.
Matthew in his gospel wants us to know that this baby born in Bethlehem, is not just the king of the Jews; He’s not even just the King of the world. He’s the King of the universe—a king whom even the stars in the sky obey, a king worshiped by wise men from distant lands, a king for all people in all places and all times. A king who will eventually ascend back to His heavenly throne, leaving behind a small group of people who form the beginning of His Body, His Church, here on earth. A group of men and women who clearly understood that their purpose was to share what they had been taught, to shine the light of Jesus Christ into the world. A group of men and women who, like Paul, were willing to set aside their own ideas about what their lives should look like to become “prisoners for Christ Jesus on behalf of you Gentiles” (Ephesians 3:1)—they gave up their personal agendas for the sake of those people who were living in “thick darkness” (Isaiah 60:2).
This is the purpose of the church—it was the reason that Jesus invented the church in the first century and it’s the reason that the church continues to exist in the twenty-first century. It’s the church that He wants us to be. And so as we begin this new year, I want us to begin to pray about how we can best do this. And I believe that God is calling us to a five year plan to become a part of His Body that reflects His glory so brightly, that we, like the wise men of long ago, will know what it is to “rejoice exceedingly with great joy” (Matthew 2:10) as we worship our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.