Sunday, January 04, 2015

To the Praise of His Glorious Grace: Matthew 2:1-2, John 1:1-9, Ephesians 1:1-14

Happy Epiphany! This morning's texts are Matthew 2:1-2John 1:1-9, and Ephesians 1:1-14.

The sermon is here:

And the music is here:

The wise men get a bit of a bum deal when it comes to the Christmas story. They just sort of get an aside at the end of it. “Oh, and by the way, some wise men from the East came too with some strange presents for the baby.” That’s not exactly how it’s told in the Gospel of Matthew, but that’s sort of how it gets tacked on in re-tellings of the story. The wise men aren’t even mentioned in Mark, Luke, or John, but they actually get a full 12 verses in Matthew. And while we generally put them up in the nativity at Christmas because it just makes more sense logistically, they were almost certainly there well after the shepherds had left. Some speculate they visited the family when Jesus was at least a year or two old.
            The church historically commemorates the wise men on the 6th of January. . . 12 days after Christmas. This celebration is traditionally called “Epiphany.” It’s the official end to the church season of Christmastide. That’s where we get the idea of the “12 Days of Christmas.” Epiphany is the day we celebrate the fact that in Jesus, God came to humanity not just for the Jewish people, but for all people. The shepherds who were from right down the road in Bethlehem, represent God revealing Jesus to the Jewish people, and the wise men from very far away, represent God revealing Jesus to all the rest of the people in the world.
Our passages from the introductions to the Gospel of John and the letter to the Ephesians are both songs of praise about God’s great, saving, transforming grace revealed to the whole world in Jesus Christ. They are songs of Epiphany. These passages are both thought to be hymns or poems of some sort from the early church. As we’ve talked about recently, hymns in church use are designed to carry theology with them. They are written in a way that can get important information like the gospel out to as many people as possible in a memorable way. And the two passages we read have another thing in common as well: they are both about Jesus and what a blessing God’s grace in Jesus is for us.
            My Mom used to make me write thank you cards for everything. Birthdays, Christmas, you name it. I grumbled as a kid when she made me do it, but truth be told, I actually enjoyed it. I still do. There is something honest and gritty and strengthening and relationship building about saying, “You did something good for me and I need you in my life.” No matter how large or small the gift or gesture was.
Paul’s letter to the Ephesians sort of opens as a thank you card to God. “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ.” Thanks to God – blessed be God’s name for blessing us with tons of blessings. Whether it’s a formal hymn or just Paul waxing poetic about how great God is, it’s a song of praise. It’s more than just a flowery introductory paragraph to a letter.
Similarly, the introductory verses of the Gospel of John are more than just the beginning of the story. They say far more than simply, “Once upon a time. . .” They are a song of praise. There is wonder in this passage. In the beginning was the Word! Jesus was there! Before creation! What blessing! What grace! What love from God that the Word Jesus Christ came to earth – completely God and completely human – for us.
We have a hymn of thanks and praise that we sing every week in our liturgy as well. Just like Paul and John make a point to include thanksgiving in a prominent place in the Gospel and the Epistle, we make a point to include thanksgiving in a prominent place in our worship service.
Each week, as a thankful act of praise in response to the scriptures read and the Word proclaimed, we join together in a hymn of praise and then we share our monetary offerings to God. The first thing we do as a congregation in response to the scripture and the sermon is to share our physical resources with the church and those in need so that we can keep the lights on and the bills paid and so that we can reach out to those who are struggling. In our gratefulness, we remember that all we have is given by God. And then, before we pray over the offerings to dedicate them, we sing the doxology.
“Praise God, from whom all blessings flow. Praise him, all creatures here below. Praise him above, ye heavenly host. Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.”
We call it “The Doxology” as though it were a title of a song, but in reality, “doxology” is a general term. According to the Concise Oxford English dictionary, doxology is:
doxology /dɒkˈsɒlədʒi/
noun (plural doxologies) a liturgical formula of praise to God.
—derivatives doxological adjective
—origin 17th century: via medieval Latin from Greek doxologia, from doxa ‘appearance, glory’ + -logia (see -logy).[1]

Doxology is simply a formal thanks and praise to God in the context of the church community. We could call the introductions to John and to the letter to the Ephesians doxologies. They are grateful responses of praise in the community of believers.
Paul lists many things to be thankful for. God has: blessed, chosen, destined, bestowed, lavished, made known, gathered up. And it’s not because we’re some sort of superstar awesome perfect people either. God stretches out a hand to us when we are at the lowest of low and lifts us up. And our saying “thank you” for that with our words – our doxology is important, but it can’t end there. That has to be accompanied by our physical gifts and also by our gifts of time and talent. After the doxology and prayer of dedication and thanksgiving, we celebrate communion if it’s the first Sunday of the month, and with out without communion, we end the service with another song of praise, and the section of the service that is generally called “the sending.” This is where we as a congregation are sent out into the world to be light – to carry the message of grace to the people outside the doors of this building.  It’s where we acknowledge that this message – this Word that we celebrate is not just for us. It’s for all who will hear it. And out of our gratitude that we have heard it, we carry it out into the world around us so that others too may hear this good news that grace has been given.
Sometimes, we are given a gift so overwhelming that a thank you card seems like a silly, insignificant gesture. But we send it anyway. Part of what makes a gift a gift is the acknowledgement that it was not required. Nobody has to give anyone gifts for Christmas or birthdays, but we do it anyway because if we were obliged to give, they wouldn’t really be gifts. They would be some sort of tax or toll. God didn’t give Jesus because God HAD to give Jesus. Grace in Christ, our salvation, our opportunity to be in relationship with the living, reigning, saving God of all, it a gift given freely and to all who will receive it.
We are winding down the Christmas season. It officially ends on Wednesday and most people are starting to take down their decorations. But that doesn’t mean that God’s work through Jesus ends. This is just the beginning of the story. This is the part where we take the gratitude for the gift we’ve been given and respond. This is where we sing a doxology – a song of praise as a community – in response to the gift of Grace.

[1] Soanes, C., & Stevenson, A. (Eds.). (2004). Concise Oxford English dictionary. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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