Ephesians 3: 8 Although I am less than the least of all the Lord’s people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the boundless riches of Christ, 9 and to make plain to everyone the administration of this mystery, which for ages past was kept hidden in God, who created all things. 10 His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, 11 according to his eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord. 12 In him and through faith in him we may approach God with freedom and confidence.
The early 1970’s were busy years for everyone who was trying to figure out Bible prophecy and when the end of time would be. The Watchtower Society of the Jehovah’s Witnesses told their members to prepare for Jesus’ return in 1975. I remember that vividly because a great-aunt of mine was a Jehovah’s Witness. She was constantly trying to convince and convert us, so that, like her, we too would still be around after Christ’s return. After 1975, she got rather quiet, and the pressure let up. Readers should also know, however, that I owe this great-aunt big-time. She and her husband helped sponsor my family in coming here from war-torn Europe in 1947.
In all fairness to her and others, the world did feel apocalyptic in the early 1970’s. There had been a decade of civil unrest and great social change around the world, not just in America. There was war in Vietnam and the Middle East, and nuclear weapons were ready and waiting for a turn of a key to let fly. High level corruption, cover-ups and outright falsehoods from Washington were eroding our trust in authority and government. There were major global tensions with Russia and China, energy-related crises, and a president in growing danger of impeachment. I’m glad all those things are resolved and long behind us now. One of my high school friends even said that he didn’t plan to go to college because Jesus would surely return before his graduation.
It didn’t stop in the 1970’s. There were billboards and bumper stickers proclaiming a date for Christ’s return in May of 2011. Allegedly, the Mayan calendar predicted that the world would end in 2012. That was news to most Mayan Indians. And when the Chicago Cubs won the World Series in 2016….. And if the Minnesota Vikings should ever even get to the Superbowl….
I believe, and confess with the creed, that Christ, “shall come again to judge the living and the dead,” plus, “I believe in the resurrection of the dead and the life everlasting.” But we should know better than to get into detailed end times speculation like what I just described, because the Bible itself tells us that we will not know the date when God makes all things new. When the world’s last night and the final inspection does come, I just want to be found at my post, faithful and ready, even if a bit surprised.
But today’s passage from Ephesians 3 tells us about one place we should be able to look and learn everything we can and need to know about the future. It’s called, “the church.” In verse 10 Paul says, “God’s intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, 11 according to his eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
The church, you say? The crazy, mixed-up, fallen and very fallible groups of people, with histories and reputations of confusion and collusion with cruelty, conflict, corruption, the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Conquest of Indian America, of sometimes hypocritical and self-serving entanglements with politics and business, and with today’s child sex abuse scandals? The church as a sign of the wonderful world to come, when God makes all things new?
Over the past few weeks I have addressed the question, Why Church? I’ve tried to do so from God’s perspective, about the church in relation to Jesus Christ, and what God wants of the church. The first week I said that the church exists to carry on the cause, or the combat of Christ for the coming of God’s kingdom, and to carry forward Peter’s confession: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” The next week I spoke from I Corinthians 12, about how we, the church, together are the very human body through which Christ seeks to be present and active in the world today. The same love that brought the fullness of God into the world in Jesus of Nazareth brings him back to us and through us by his Holy Spirit. Last week I spoke from several New Testament passages to say that the church is the home which our homeless God is preparing for himself, as God has been doing all throughout the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation. Today’s text gives us a fourth reason why church matters so much to God, and why it should matter to us: because God wants a demonstration plot here and now in which to display his wisdom to a watching world in heaven and hell and everywhere in-between.
By “wisdom” we mortals usually mean “how to win friends and influence others,” how to get along and get ahead in life, avoid life’s avoidable pitfalls and problems, deal constructively with those problems we can’t avoid, and hopefully keep some integrity and authenticity in the process.
I’m not knocking that. It’s better than the alternative. There’s much of that kind of wisdom for the here-and-now in the Old Testament, in Proverbs, in some of the Psalms, in Job and Ecclesiastes. Wisdom in those books is about getting through this mysterious world the best we can, in relation to God and to others. And usually, those two things go together: pleasing God and living well with others. When they don’t, and when bad things happen to good people, wisdom also includes the humility to say, “I don’t know why, but let’s help those who suffer.”
With Jesus, however, wisdom takes on a much fuller dimension, for here and now, and in the future. It is about living in and for the next world, as well as this one. It’s about our citizenship in the New Jerusalem in eternity, and not just our citizenship in America or Oregon today. This wisdom God reveals to us, through the Gospel. But Paul here is saying that God would also reveal his wisdom through us, the church, to a watching, waiting world.
That makes of us, “God’s demonstration plot.” Like at Oregon State University in Corvallis, where students in the ag department tend demonstration plots where they experiment with dryland farming techniques and develop drought-resistant varieties of grains, legumes and vegetables. That’s to prepare for a future with longer, hotter and drier summers. These demonstration plots are not just for the benefit of the students and faculty. The students and faculty are demonstrating and displaying wise ways of farming for farmers, ranchers and gardeners from all over the state and the country, who also come, observe, lend a hand and learn from these demonstration plots, so they can take what they learned back to their own farms and gardens. Such demonstrations are what makes them “demonstration plots.”
But God is not experimenting with us. God already knows and shows the outcome of his demonstration plot in Jesus and his resurrection. We, the church, demonstrate and display the world of the future the more we look and act like Jesus.
I’ll mention four ways in which God demonstrates his wisdom for the future through us, the church: preaching and teaching; worship; love and mercy. As for the first, Paul says how he displays God’s wisdom in verse 8: “preach[ing] to the Gentiles the boundless riches of Christ, 9 and to make plain to everyone the administration of this mystery.” Preaching and teaching the gospel of Jesus Christ is one obvious way in which God uses us to display his wisdom to a watching world. Those of us in our ministries of Christian Education are doing more than filling class time: we’re tending God’s demonstration plot of the New Jerusalem, and displaying God’s wisdom to the world.
Another way we display God’s now-and-future wisdom is through worship. Of all the things we do as a church, like teach Sunday School, have committee meetings, work days on church property, handle finances, worship God and more, which of these things will we do forever, around the Throne of the Lamb? Did somebody say, Committee meetings? No, worship. When we sang earlier this morning about the “Wonderful Grace of Jesus,” and about “the tender love of God,” did you realize that we were practicing and preparing for something delightful that will engage us forever in timeless, rapturous wonder and joy? Our worship of God here and now is practice for, and a foretaste and a foreshadowing of, our eternal enjoyment and celebration of God in the renewal of all things.
But our teaching, preaching and worship will be very unconvincing demonstrations without a third thing that most convincingly demonstrates God’s wisdom for this world and the next: love, love for God, love for each other, love for people and love for God’s world. Even, a Christ-like, cross-shaped, unconditional love for each other. We don’t ever get such love perfect this side of eternity. But sometimes we get close. And then it becomes attention-grabbing. For example, two years ago, we dedicated some budget funds to helping immigrants get legal status. When we gave out some of that money recently, the lawyer expressed gratitude and a pleasant surprise. In our generosity she got a glimpse of the cross-shaped unconditional love that characterizes God’s wisdom.
And whenever we fall short in loving, as we will, we will need a fourth thing that Paul mentions in verse 8: grace. Paul says, “Although I am less than the least of all the Lord’s people….. grace was given me….” God displays and demonstrates his forgiving, healing, reconciling wisdom precisely by doing so not through people who don’t need forgiveness, healing and reconciliation, but through people who know they need them, and badly. Martin Luther said that one theme of the Bible, over and over, is that “God rides lame horses and whittles rotten wood.” That way, no one can deny that it is through God’s power that God’s kingdom comes, and not our own.
Grace came to Paul also in the form of power, “to preach to the Gentiles the boundless riches of Christ…” There he also talks about grace as a calling, a commission, and the power to carry it out, a power neither he nor anyone else would have on their own. So, all the things God calls us to do, in order to display and to demonstrate his wisdom to a watching world, God also gives the power to do. That too is grace.
Demonstration plots are not just for visitors and observers who come to learn. They are also for the people who tend them. Demonstration plots don’t just grow new varieties of plants for gardens and farms; they grow gardeners and farmers, too. In a similar way, the church is not only a demonstration plot of God’s here-and-future wisdom, the church is a training ground for us as we grow in the wisdom of God.
We, then, are like robins in the snow. Here’s what I mean: Some of you have asked about my family back east, in the frigid Midwest, and how they’re doing through this brutal cold snap. I’ve kept in touch with them this week, and they are all surviving. The worst thing they’re experiencing now is cabin fever.
By the way, thanks for inviting Becky and me to move here to Oregon a few years back.
I can safely predict something that will happen back there in a little over a month. Someone will wake up some cold, grey morning and hear something that will sound strangely out of place. Funny. It’s a bird song that you associate with warm, wet weather, and worms on the sidewalk. It’s too early in the season for that. He looks out the window to see that there’s still some snow on the ground. His cell phone says that it has warmed up to 25 degrees, Fahrenheit. But in a tree nearby, standing against the cold grey sky, are a few robins perched on a branch, hunched up with their feathers fluffed out against the cold. There’s always a few who stay around bird feeders during the winter, and a few who come back surprisingly early, like scouts checking out the scene. Maybe they text their friends and family back in Kentucky or Arkansas to say, “We’re finding a few dried and shriveled chokecherries and hackberries from last summer to eat, but no worms yet, not until this snow melts and the ground thaws. Stay down south another week or two.” But one of those robins is singing, singing the very same song he’ll sing in spring and summer, even though one shouldn’t put the snow shovel away for another two months.
Ours is a crazy cold world in more ways than one. But God wants there to be church for the same reason that robins sing in the snow, as though it were already spring, because it will be, eventually. Indeed, the church exists, like those robins singing in the snow, to give the world a foretaste, a preview, a wake-up call, of the great cosmic spring, a spring of endless worship, love, peace and mercy, when God fully answers our prayers, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”