Jeremiah 31:7-14 Psalm 84:1-8 Ephesians 1:3-5, 15-19 St. Matthew 2:13-23
As some of you know I am not a football fan, which may call into question my man card. But as a graduate of Florida State University I do care about football when they play that other university in Florida, whose name escapes me at the moment. I also care about it when they play a bowl game as they did last week. I know we have some rabid Alabama fans in our parish and so given how the FSU and Alabama games turned out it hit me that last week was either a really great start to the new year or a really crummy start to the new year. It all depends upon your perspective.
Perspective is what St. Paul is praying for the Church at Ephesus to have in today’s lesson. And when we consider what St. Paul is praying for them, the perspective that he wants them to have is nothing short of astonishing. We can assume, as an inspired apostle, that he is praying for them to receive what God wants for them. And what is that?
He prays that they would 1) know what is the hope of their calling, 2) know what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints and 3) know what is the immeasurable greatness of God’s power for us who believe. Hope, riches and power. That’s what the Apostle is praying for. Hope, riches and power. Lest you think that I got a Joel Osteen book for Christmas I need to clarify further. You probably don’t need a spoiler alert for me to tell you that the hope, riches and power of the Apostle’s prayer are not what people typically imagine them to be nor what TV preachers often claim them to be.
First we need to understand that St. Paul uses the word “hope” very differently than how we use it today. When we speak of hope today we really mean something that we wish for and that may or may not happen. “I hope one day to get married.” “I hope one day to be rich and famous.” “I hope one day to win the lottery.” Some of those hopes may be realistic and some of them are improbable but none of them are assured. That is why we hope for them.
But when St. Paul speaks of “hope” it is not a wish, it is a reality but it is a reality that has yet to been realized. Hope is a pregnant woman awaiting the birth of her child. The child is a reality that is yet to be realized. So when St. Paul speaks in Philippians of the hope of the resurrection, he is not wishing for something that may or may not happen. He is assured of the resurrection but because it has not yet happened it is his hope. It is in the future but still he can take it to the bank today.Thus while the New International Version says “I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you” the New Living Translation avoids confusion over the word hope and simply says “so that you can understand the wonderful future he has promised to those he called.”
It is important to note here that St. Paul is NOT praying that we will have a wonderful future; rather he prays that we will be enlightened so that we will understand that we have a wonderful future. A wonderful future is already a part of God’s plan for us who are in Christ. The problem is that we often lose sight of that in our day-to-day lives. We also lose sight of that when we are drowning in debt or dealing with health issues or even when we watch the 5 o’clock news. That is why we need the eyes of our heart to be enlightened.
Our understanding of the hope of our calling can and should impact our daily lives. That is why Jesus tells us in the Sermon on the Mount not to worry about what we will drink or eat or wear but to seek first the kingdom of God. He is telling us to get our eyes off of the temporal concerns and focus on the wonderful future that God has for us. It’s not that we are not to care about our life here or that temporal things are unimportant. But rather we are to put our cares and concerns for this life in the context of the guaranteed wonderful life that God has in store for us. Why is that important to do?
To put it simply, if you think this life is all there is then it makes sense to do all that you can do to be happy now, even if that includes being unfaithful to the truth. But if you believe that you have an eternity of happiness before you, then you will endure what you need to endure in this life in order to be faithful.
The icing on the cake of this prayer is that we are told that Christ has been raised to God’s right hand in heavenly places and we as His Body are there with Him. We are even now seated with Him in heavenly places! This means that for the Christian, even tragedy is a temporary state. God has ordained us for a joy and glory that is everlasting.
There is a second thing that St. Paul prays. He prays that we will see what a rich and glorious inheritance God has given to us in the saints. Actually the Greek here is not really clear and I wonder if the Apostle did not intentionally make it ambiguous in order to leave us with a layer of interpretations. You can either translate the passage to read that we have a rich heritage WITH the saints or we have a rich heritage IN the saints. Or perhaps we are to understand it as both.
I saw a post on Facebook last week that got my attention. It had two photos. The first was a robin feeding a few worms to her baby birds. The second picture was of a huge steak and potato dinner. The caption below the robin with the worms was, “This is what you get from your pastor.” The caption below steak dinner was, “This is what you get when you study the Bible at home.”
I have been reading a lot lately about folks, particularly millennials, not leaving the faith but dropping out of Church. One fellow put it this way in a post. One guy said, “I don’t need to sit there and have some guy tell me how to live my life every week.” So instead they are staying home and “worshipping” through their Baals and Asherahs. I meant to say PC’s and Mac’s.
Of course one great advantage we have as an Anglican parish is that until they can figure out how to get the Body and Blood of Christ through the internet they still be need to come to Church. But that is beside the point. What I see in the Facebook post and folks dropping out are some Protestant errors coming home to roost.
The first error is that being a Christian is a private relationship between you and Jesus and Church optional. Some even see the Sacraments as optional. The irony is that you will not find that thinking anywhere in the New Testament. In fact you will find just the opposite. Those first Christians knew that the only way that they would survive is if they stayed connected to one another. Thus we read in the Book of Acts that they met not weekly but every day, continuing in the Apostles’ teaching, the breaking of bread, fellowship and the prayers.
St. Paul says that it is by one Spirit that we have been baptized into Christ’s Body and so being a member of Christ’s Body is no more of an option than my hand has to remain on my arm if it wants to survive. That is why the Church Fathers were want to say “He cannot call God ‘Father’ who does not call the Church ‘Mother.’”
The second Protestant error is that any individual is equally equipped to interpret the Bible as the Church. So many have an unspoken attitude which says, “I don’t need any commentaries or teachings of the Church, I will just trust the Spirit to show me the way.” This thinking is why we have literally over 33,000 denominations in 238 countries.
St. Paul even tells us in his letters that the letter is to the Church and not just to an individual. As such it is to be interpreted by the Church. All private interpretations must be compared to the interpretations of the Church. I have studied many cults and heresies and every one of them began with a man or woman who claims special private interpretation. But the Scriptures say that God has given teachers to the Church. It is their job to give the Church’s true interpretation of the text. So preaching is not some guy telling you how to live your life, it is the proclamation of God’s Word to tell us all how to live the Christian life.
I find it interesting that all the generations before us needed teaching and corporate worship but in this generation we see ourselves above that. I suggest to you that it is an abiding spiritual pride that would lead someone to think that they don’t need to be taught but can make it on their own.
Here is the sad thing. If we reject the riches that are to be found in the saints, in the Church, then we only manage to make ourselves spiritually poor. Corporate worship, corporate prayer, corporate fellowship all enrich the soul.
And to be very honest the Church also challenges us to grow in ways that do not happen if try to make it alone. As one disciple asked a hermit monk. “Whose feet do you wash?” God uses us to challenge one another. We have to learn to love the unlovely, and if you are thinking that you don’t know any unlovely then its likely YOU!
I would guess that most important attribute we are to cultivate as Christians is love and that cannot be learned alone. So God has given us riches in and with the saints.
The third thing for which the Apostle prays is that we would understand the incredible greatness of God’s power toward us. This last quality makes the first two a reality. It is all well and good for God to desire for us hope and riches but if He did not have the power to deliver them, then St. Paul’s prayer would just be an apostolic version of “Have a nice day”. If we can see that God’s power is perfect, then we can know that He will accomplish whatever He says he will accomplish. We certainly see God’s power to accomplish His will in the life of Jesus as revealed in our Gospel lesson today.
This is an interesting story. It is the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt and it is layered with some interesting questions. Was their flight into Egypt an afterthought or was it a part of God’s original plan? Did Joseph improvise, adapt and overcome, or was there something greater going on here? We know that Herod was filled with rage that another king had been born, and so he crafted a plan to take Jesus’ life. But Herod’s plan failed. God warned Joseph through a dream to take his family and to flee to Egypt and in doing so they fulfilled an ancient prophecy that God’s Son would come out of Egypt.
But what are we to make of all of this? Since Herod was the instigator that forced them to Egypt was Herod then a servant of God? No, clearly he was warring against God. And yet God used that. And what about Joseph? Did Joseph take Jesus to Egypt as some kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy? There is no indication that Joseph even knew about the prophecy, otherwise he wouldn’t have needed an angel to come to him in a dream and give him directions.
What we see here is the power of God at work to accomplish God’s will. Somehow, in a way that only God can do it, both Joseph and Herod acted as free moral agents yet God had them accomplish what He had planned all along and even had prophesied through the prophets. It is a mystery how God can be sovereign and man can be responsible at the same time but we don’t have to understand how it all works in order to celebrate it. We just need to know that God is all-powerful and what He wills for us will be done.
So there you have it. Hope, riches and power. That is God’s will for us and that just might be a good thing to focus on in this New Year instead of who won the game. Jesus said that He gives peace but not like the peace that the world gives and so we can also believe that He gives hope, riches and power also not as the world gives. That is a very good thing given that the hope, riches and power of the world are transient at best and corrupting at worse. But when the come to us God’s way they come as grace upon grace. Happy New Year. Amen.