January 3rd, 2021 — Pastor Galen Zook, homily on Ephesians 1:3-14
A New Year
It’s the start of a new year, and I have never seen us as a society be so ready to move on from one year to the next. 2020 was a very difficult and painful year for so many, and we were very ready to be done with 2020!
Although we like to think of the new year as a completely blank slate with unlimited possibilities and endless opportunities, the reality is that many of the challenges we faced in 2020 have carried over with us into 2021. The coronavirus pandemic is still raging — in fact there is a new strain that is reported to be even more contagious than the first. On top of that, the political, cultural, and socioeconomic divisions that were heightened in 2020 have seemed to only grow stronger, and there are still many people facing unemployment, underemployment, hunger, and homelessness.
But in the midst of all of this we’ve been given a glimmer of hope in that the coronavirus vaccines are starting to roll out. I’ve personally enjoyed seeing posts on social media of friends of mine in the medical profession receiving their first doses of the vaccine.
And so, even though for most of us our physical circumstances haven’t changed yet coming into this new year — we’re still having to wear masks and practice safe social distancing — the promise of the vaccine is filling us with hope that things will get better, and that the end of the pandemic is in sight.
The knowledge that things will eventually get better drastically changes the way we perceive our present circumstances.
Every Spiritual Blessing
The Apostle Paul, in his letter to the Ephesian church, expressed great hope and joy, even in the midst of the difficulties and challenges that he and the Ephesians were experiencing. Paul wrote this letter from prison, and he was writing to a congregation facing persecution because of their faith. And yet Paul writes with almost breathless excitement — in fact, in the original Greek, this whole passage was one very long run-on sentence!
Paul wrote to the Ephesian church that God has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing. That we were chosen before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. That God has destined us for adoption as God’s children through Christ, and that through Christ we have redemption, and forgiveness according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us.
Paul tells us that with all wisdom and insight God made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ — a plan that in the fullness of time he would gather up all things in him.
Paul speaks of the inheritance that we have in Christ. He talks of us living for the praise of God’s glory, and that we are marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit, which is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of God’s glory.
The Birth of Jesus Changes Everything
And all of this came about as a result of the baby born in the manger that we celebrated a little over a week ago! An innocent baby, who was born into a world filled with suffering and grief. A child whose family was forced to flee to Egypt to escape the wrath of a tyrannical ruler who sought to take the child’s life. A sinless human being who went around doing good and proclaiming the Kingdom of God, yet who experienced pain and rejection, betrayal, and was ultimately put to death on a cross.
Paul knew that the story of Christ’s birth was not just a nice story. He knew that the shepherds and the angels and the wise men were not just the stuff of pageants and plays, or of storybooks and carols.
Paul knew that the reality of Christ’s birth, and of his life, and death and resurrection changed everything. Although the physical world may not appear to have changed all that much, and although in the physical realm the people were still longing to be set free, in the spiritual realm Christ’s birth had ushered in a new era, and because of the work that Jesus did for us on the cross we can experience redemption, and forgiveness, and adoption into God’s family. Because of Christ’s death and resurrection we have been promised an inheritance, and although we may not have received it yet, it is still very much ours.
In writing this letter to the Ephesians, Paul was writing to a group of people made up of many different cultures and ethnicities, and socio-economic backgrounds. He was writing to Jews and Gentiles, citizens, and slaves, men and women, rich and poor, young and old. He was writing to people who grew up in religious households, as well as to those who have never set foot in a church or synagogue. And yet, because of Christ, we have been made one, and we have obtained an inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of God’s glory.
Many of the things that Paul is talking about are what we might call “intangibles.” Things like grace and forgiveness and glory cannot be seen or heard or scientifically observed. But Paul wanted the Ephesians and us today to know that they are very much real, even if they cannot be seen. His gushing words and overflowing phrases were an attempt to awaken us to the reality around us, and to assure us that even though our physical circumstances may not appear very different now that Christ has come, for those of us who have chosen to follow Christ and received Him into our live our situation and our status has very much changed.
What was it that gave Paul the confidence and the boldness that these things were true, even though from outward appearances nothing seemed to be different? Why was Paul so exuberant, when he and the Ephesian church were still facing such challenging physical circumstances?
Paul’s imagery of adoption is helpful here. Because when someone is adopted into a new family, their outward appearance may not change all that much. Their personality and their looks remain the same. And yet their status is completely different. Rather than being an orphan, they now have someone to take care of them. Rather than being alone, they now have a family! And, especially in the Roman world, when someone was adopted by a wealthy family, they would be guaranteed an inheritance, right along with the children who had been born into the family.
One symbol of this reality is often that the adopted child takes on the name of the family that they are being adopted into. And so, while the child may look the same on the outside, and while they maybe haven’t actually received their inheritance yet, even so their status, and the reality of their present circumstances has very much changed. They have a new name. A new identity. A new family.
Jesus Gives us a New Name
New Year’s day is the day in the Christian calendar called The Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus. It’s the 8th day after Jesus’s birth, when he was officially named Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in Mary’s womb.
The Gospel of John talks about Jesus as the Word of God — the Word who became flesh to dwell among us (see John 1:14). And so the naming of Jesus sort of “seals the deal.” It confirms the reality that God took on flesh and became one of us.
Author Bobby Gross says it this way: “The Word who spoke the world into being is assigned a linguistic configuration of sounds and symbols within that world. He is named Jesus, as the angel had instructed. The Word becomes flesh. The divine takes on the human. The ineffable is named. This is the mystery of the incarnation.” (Bobby Gross, Living the Christian Year: Time to Inhabit the Story of God, 78).
But it doesn’t stop there! Not only did God take on human form and a human name and become one of us, but through Christ, God gives us a new name, a new identity as children of God. Because of Christ we are adopted into the family of God.
Athanasius, writing in the 4th Century, said this, “The Word was made flesh in order that we might be made gods. … Just as the Lord, putting on the body, became a man, so also we…are both deified through his flesh, and henceforth inherit everlasting life.”
The psalmist in Psalm 8 put it this way:
O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens…. When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor….. (Psalm 8:1,3,4,5)
And Psalm 8 ends with: “O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” (Psalm 8:9).
The name of Jesus, which means “to deliver” or “to rescue” is powerful — it symbolizes the reality that God became flesh to dwell among us and to save and rescue us, and that through Christ we can be saved and adopted into the family of God.
The name “Christian” which means “follower of Christ” or “little Christ” symbolizes this great exchange. As Christians we have been given a brand new identity, adopted into the family of God, brothers and sisters together in Christ.
Our present circumstances may not seem all that different. Life does not instantaneously become easier when we choose to follow Christ. But our whole identity, our whole being is profoundly impacted when we make Jesus the Lord and Savior of our lives.
And so I want to end by reading Paul’s words over us from Ephesians 1:3-14 one more time:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.
Amen, and Amen.