The Epiphany of Our Lord (January 6, 2008)
“Epiphany Economics” (Ephesians 3:1-12)
In the name of Jesus, our Epiphany Lord. Amen.
“Jobless rates his 5 percent, a 2-year high, fanning recession fears.”
“Recession fears grow as jobless rate rises.”
“Wall Street sinks on growing recession worry.”
Those are just some of the recent news headlines about our national economy. This is probably not news to you. The presidential hopefuls have been talking a lot about the state of the US economy. Stock prices have dropped. Housing prices have dropped. The price of consumer goods is up. The price of oil has remained at an all-time high.
What does all this mean? What causes all this? I have no idea. I am not an economist. I hate dealing with numbers and money-matters. It’s just not my cup of tea. I don’t know the difference between a “bear market” and a “bull market.” What I do know is that when you hear the word “recession” that’s bad.
Our national economy is driven by all sorts of factors. But we’re not here to talk about the national economy. We’re here to talk about God’s economy. The word “economy” comes from the New Testament word that is usually translated “stewardship.” It has to do with the administration of a household or an estate. You hear the word “stewardship” and most people right away think “money.” But “stewardship” is about so much more. It’s about our whole life.
We heard that word “stewardship” in today’s Epistle reading. There St. Paul refers to “the stewardship of God’s grace.” In that text, Paul explains God’s economy as it relates to who is a member of God’s household, the Church.
You and I deal with economics when we manage our household affairs ... working to earn money; budgeting how we spend our money; making sure our family is cared for, fed, clothed, schooled; caring for and maintaining our home and our possessions. More importantly, we deal with spiritual economics as we manage our life of faith.
But just like there are signs that the national economy is suffering, there are signs that our spiritual economy is suffering.
It all starts with poor management of resources. We know what’s good for us. Listening to God’s Word. Daily reading of God’s Word and prayer that flows from that Word. Receiving the Lord’s Supper often. But we have a tendency to neglect these things. They take second fiddle to our own wants and desires that have nothing to do with God, or that may even be opposed to God.
Poor management is rooted in an uncaring attitude. The truth is, we really care more about earthly economics than spiritual economics. The price of gas, the condition of the stock market, and the value of the dollar disturb us more than the condition of our hearts.
And the result of poor spiritual economics is recession, depression, and collapse. In ecomonic terms, a recession is “a significant decline in economic activity lasting for more than a few months.” Spiritually speaking, it’s a significant decline in our participation in God’s Word and receiving the Lord’s Supper. Worldly matters matter more than spiritual matters.
A spiritual recession turns into a depression. In economic terms, a depression is “a severe or long recession,” like the Great Depression our nation faced in the 1930’s. In spiritual terms, we face emotional and spiritual depression. You might compare it to what some call “Seasonal Affective Disorder.” The lack of light in regions like ours in the wintertime causes a severe change in some people’s mood. For some, it’s simply a lack of energy or a feeling of restlessness. Others begin to feel empty inside and hopeless. Likewise, when we remove ourselves from the light of Christ which we receive here in the Divine Service, we may find ourselves experiencing a bit of depression. Something is missing in our lives. We become spiritually restless. Guilt feelings nag at us. Hope and peace evade us.
A recession becomes a depression. And a depression may become a complete collapse—the total breakdown of an economy resulting in social chaos and civil unrest. The Stock Market Crash of 1929 was an economic collapse. Businesses closed. People went bankrupt. Workers were fired by the thousands. Thousands of people found themselves jobless, homeless, and hopeless. Not a few committed suicide.
Spiritually speaking, our lives may not be all that chaotic and unrestful. In fact, sometimes we feel quite content. We don’t feel guilty about anything in particular. Things seem to be under control. But the end result of removing ourselves from those things we know are important for our spiritual life is a complete collapse of our spiritual life. Out of the healthy habit of regular attendance at church and Bible study, we lose the desire for knowing and loving God. Being involved in God’s household – the Church – is no longer a priority. And at that point, one is in danger of no longer being a part of God’s household at all, because faith has been thrown out the back door and into the garbage.
What can turn our poor spiritual economy around? Nothing that you and I do. Only, as St. Paul calls it, “the stewardship of God’s grace.” It’s all about God’s economy. It’s all about the way he organizes and manages his household. It has nothing to do with our own working to restore ourselves to his favor. It’s all about God’s gracious gifts being given.
Notice what Paul says about “the stewardship of God’s grace.” He says to the Ephesian Christians, it “was given to me for you” (v. 2) and that he “was made a minister according to the gift of God’s grace, which was given me by the working of his power.” (v. 7) God arranged it just so in his household that he gave Paul a message ... the Good News about Jesus, the message about his life, death, and resurrection. But that message was not for Paul to keep to himself. It was meant to be proclaimed. It “was given to me for you,” he says. It was for the benefit of all who heard him. Paul was made a minister, a servant, someone sent to deliver the message from within God’s household of faith to bring others into God’s household of faith. And that message is not just any message. It comes with power. It has the power to call people to repentance and faith, just as it did for Paul on the road to Damascus. Remember, at one time Paul “persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it.” (Gal. 1:13) That’s why he calls himself in our text “the very least of all the saints.” (v. 8) But Paul makes it perfectly clear that it’s all about gifts. “To me,” he says, “this grace was given.”
In God’s economy – the way God manages his household – he arranged things so that the first recipients of his grace were the people of Israel. He chose them to be the bearer of his promises to bring about a Savior. Once that Savior arrived on the scene and completed his work of dying for the sins of the world at the cross, then God’s plan was for his grace to be given to the Gentiles, too. The Wise Men in today’s Gospel are representatives of the Gentiles upon whom the Light of Christ now shines. They were the first non-Jews to kneel before the Savior and worship him.
Paul says that “the stewardship of God’s grace” was given to him in order to reveal the mystery of Christ. That mystery now revealed was that the Gentiles are “fellow heirs” along with Jews who had come to believe in Jesus as Savior. Both Jew and Gentile believers are “members of the same body, partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” In God’s economy, he calls ministers by grace “to preach the unsearchable riches of Christ and to bring to light for everyone the plan of the mystery hidden for ages” so that “through the church the manifold wisdom of God is made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.”
Have you ever stopped to consider where you might be had God decided that it was not “economically feasible” to include you in his plans? He could have decided to stick with the people of Israel and have the Savior be only for Jews. Where would you be now? You people of northern European stock would be worshiping Thor and Odin and other gods. And you’d be excluded from God’s household. You people of British Isles descent would be Druids worshipping any number of gods and goddesses, looking to nature and the stars and the sun for direction. And you’d be excluded from God’s household. You people of Native American descent would be looking to your tribal shaman to control or cooperate with the good and bad spirits for your benefit. And you’d be excluded from God’s household.
But it was “economically feasible” for God to include you. That’s not to say it wasn’t costly. It was. It cost the life of God’s one and only Son. But God the Father sent his Son for you, to be your Savior, the Savior of both Jews and Gentiles.
God’s economy is all about gifts being given ... costly gifts, but free nonetheless. We see the Wise Men today in the Gospel lesson bringing gifts to the Child Jesus. They’re so familiar, we can quickly name them. Gold. Frankincense. Myrrh. Each is a gift typically given in those days to show respect to an important host. But they also can remind us of the rich gifts of life and salvation that Christ brought to us. Gold is fit for a king, and Jesus was the Son of David and is our eternal King who rules and reigns for our good, whatever the earthly economy is doing. Incense is burned along with prayers to God, and Jesus is God in the Flesh, in whom we have “boldness and access with confidence” to the throne of God. And myrrh is a burial ointment, reminding us that our Lord was buried following his death for the sins of the world.
And now, like the Wise Men, you and I can kneel before our Savior and offer him gifts as a grateful response for calling us by grace into his household of faith. Our stewardship begins with God’s stewardship...the stewardship of God’s grace to us.