January 15, 2017 “Big Secret” – Ephesians 3:1-12
January 15, 2017 – Epiphany Sunday
The Maroons are not a football powerhouse. But something incredibly powerful happened at Stagg Field at the University of Chicago. The greatest play ever to occur there came when the University of Chicago didn’t even have a football team. In 1942, the field and bleachers stood empty. Football had been cancelled three years before. But an event a hundred times more exciting than a football game (at least to me) was going on, out of sight, on a deserted squash court beneath the bleachers.
Where my daughter went to college was the site of the first success of the Manhattan Project, America’s top-secret program to develop an atomic weapon before the Germans did. On December 2, 1942, under the leadership of displaced Italian physicist Enrico Fermi, a team of scientists produced the first controlled nuclear reaction in a pile of uranium nearly two stories high. The pile ran for twenty-eight minutes and produced about 200 watts of electricity. Afterward, a code message was sent to the National Defense Research Committee: “the Italian navigator has just landed in the New World.”
Once Fermi proved it was possible, giant nuclear piles at Oak Ridge, Tennessee and Hanford, Washington produced the plutonium which would be used to build the first fission bombs at Los Alamos in New Mexico. The whole project was one of the most closely guarded secrets of the war, so secret that Fermi did not tell his wife until the war was over.
Today’s text is about another secret project. In the language of Scripture, it was a “mystery,” hidden for generations. Verses 2 and 3 tell us that, like a spiritual Enrico Fermi, Paul the Apostle was made the administrator of this secret. God had revealed to him what no one else had known, a mystery of grace.
The letter to the Ephesians is full of references to God’s long-term plan, His project for our world. In chapter one we read how God predestined the whole course of history according to His “good pleasure.” In the second chapter, verse 7, Paul tells us that God’s purpose was carried out in the past so that His incomparable grace could be known in the future. With chapter 3 now, the heart of the whole plan and project is plainly stated.
The secret of the plan, the mystery, we are told in verse 4, is “the mystery of Christ.” Jesus was God’s big secret. As John 3:17 says, Jesus did not come to condemn the world or to destroy it with an explosion of wrath. He came to save the world. God held His coming back until the time was right to complete His project to save the world. As the third and fourth verses of Ephesians 1 say, Jesus Christ was God’s plan before He even made the world. The coming of Jesus was God’s game plan from the very beginning.
As you know, I don’t often talk about football and I care about it even less. But I’ve seen a game or two, so I know about the “quarterback sneak.” He takes the snap and then gives every appearance of handing off the ball. One or more other players speed away as if they are carrying it. Then suddenly the quarterback himself slips through a defensive hole and begins to run. You realize he has the ball. If it works, the other team is fooled too. Yards are gained through the element of surprise.
A quarterback sneak is effective because it’s a risky play for the most valuable player. Ninety percent of the time the quarterback stays safe behind the offensive line, protected from tackling and injury. A quarterback doesn’t usually carry the ball himself. The defense is not expecting it very often. So when it does, it can be a big play.
Such was God’s secret game plan. As our Christmas Eve text from Hebrews 1 said, for centuries God played a good game of handing off the ball, passing it to prophets to carry the message of salvation. But the final play, the secret plan all along, was that God Himself would come into our world in a heavenly quarterback sneak. A baby would be born in Bethlehem and the Maker of heaven and earth would be carrying the ball Himself.
Jesus Christ was God’s sneak play. Becoming human Himself was His big secret. No one could have expected it. How could a baby in a manger also be the One who made the rain fall on the hay which lined that bed? How could a boy standing in the Jerusalem Temple be older than the stones of which it was built? How could an unschooled man talking to the scholars of His time know more than any of them? Only because God had snuck in where no one thought He would. He became one of us.
That’s the big secret—Jesus Christ, God come to earth, God incarnate in human flesh. It’s the most fantastic mystery the world has ever witnessed. And that’s just the point today. We’ve heard about it. The big secret is Jesus Christ, but the big secret is also Jesus Christ revealed.
In the church year January 6 is known as Epiphany. It’s a Greek word which literally means to “shine forth,” “to appear,” to be revealed. In Titus 2:11, we read “the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared.” The thing about God’s big secret is that it’s not a secret any longer. Jesus has shined forth. He’s appeared and we are no longer in the dark. We know the plan now. By believing in Jesus Christ we may be saved.
As verse 5 of our text says, the secret was hidden. It was not made known. It was a real secret. No one except God knew what He was up to. The time was not yet right. The mystery was not made known for generations.
Edgar Allan Poe wrote a story called the “Purloined Letter.” In it a damaging communiqué to a royal person was stolen and then used as blackmail. The blackmailer’s apartments were searched from top to bottom by the police but the letter was not found. Yet there it was, hidden in plain sight. The envelope was turned inside out and disguised as another letter hanging in a rack below the mantle.
That’s how God hid His plan, brilliantly, in plain sight. Clues to what Jesus would be and do are littered all over the Old Testament, beginning in Genesis 3 verse 15 when God speaks of the offspring of the woman who would crush the head of the serpent. The prophet Isaiah almost gave the whole thing away in several prophecies, especially chapter 53 of his book. But no one saw what it really meant.
What God intended to do through Jesus was hidden like the purloined letter, obvious to anyone with eyes to see it. Now that it is revealed it’s easy to see Jesus throughout the Old Testament, in Genesis and Isaiah and Psalm 22 and Micah 5. But then it was a secret.
The same sort of concealment happened during the Manhattan project. The story goes that as the project began the National Defense Research Committee called up John W. Campbell, writer and editor of Astounding Stories magazine. They asked him to quit publishing science fiction stories about atomic energy. Campbell pointed out that such stories were already common in his magazine. If all mention of atomic energy suddenly disappeared, that would be more of a tip off to a spy than if they simply continued as usual. The government heeded his advice and the Manhattan Project stayed secret. Likewise, God kept mentioning His plan in the Old Testament, but no one noticed.
The coming of Jesus was an open secret for another reason. God never intended for it to stay secret. Our faith has mysteries, but it does not have secrets. The religion of Jesus Christ is an open book, a story that is told completely to anyone who will listen.
In the world of Jesus’ time there were religions built upon mysteries that were also secrets. One of the largest in ancient Rome was Mithraism, worship of the Persian god Mithras. It had similarities to Christianity. They practiced baptism, had Sundays as holy days and preached peace and brotherhood. But the big difference was that Mithraism had secret mysteries. The action of their god, slaying a great bull, was acted out in hidden rites which only the initiated attended. Even now we can only guess at what they did in their inner sanctuaries by the carvings and statues we find there.
Christianity, on the other hand, has mysteries like God becoming human and the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. They are mysteries because they cannot be grasped completely by human intelligence. But they are not secrets. All our doctrines and practices are out in the open, for anyone who cares to know and see. We celebrate Epiphany because Jesus Christ shines on the world like light. His story is not hidden in darkness.
The temptation to secret mysteries is still with us. It’s part of the attraction of Mormonism. Go to the Mormon stake house down the street and you will be able to enter every part of it. But go to one of their temples, like the one in Portland or the big one in Utah, and though you can take a tour you won’t see it all. Mormons have secret places and secret rituals in which only the most devout participate. That’s one reason why Mormonism is not quite Christian. Christians have mysteries, but not secrets.
In our text, Paul tells the whole secret. God’s design for our world is not a mystery for hidden rooms and private rituals. It is a mystery revealed, brought “to light,” as verse 9 says. Jesus Christ our Savior is a mystery, but He’s no secret.
There is another part, however, to the secret. The big secret of God is Jesus, but there is more. Verse 9 continues on to say that through the ministry of the apostles, He wants to bring it to light for everyone. Ultimately, the big secret of Jesus Christ was revealed to the whole world, and, as verse 10 suggests, revealed even to the angels.
That is why the coming of the magi to Bethlehem is the Gospel reading for Epiphany. As we celebrate the appearance of Christ in our world, we remember that He came for everyone. The magi are the first appearance in the story of people who are Gentiles. Far across the world, God shined the light of a star which attracted men from Persia in the east to come and worship the little Jewish boy who had been born in Bethlehem.
Which all means that part of the secret is that you and I get to know the secret. It wasn’t only for God’s select group. Verse 6 says that the mystery of the Gospel includes the fact that both Gentiles and Jews are brought together in one body, through Jesus.
Therefore, the fact that the secret of Jesus is revealed to everyone leads to the wonderful conclusion of verse 12: “in [him] we have access to God in boldness and confidence through faith in him.” There are no insiders and outsiders in Jesus. There are no strangers. Even the most foreign people may come to Jesus. Everyone is welcome and therefore we are welcome. We can come to God with confidence.
This confidence that God accepts us in Jesus was expressed in a hymn we used to sing in the church I grew up in:
I am happy today, and the sun shines bright,
The clouds have been rolled away;
For the Savior said, whosoever will
May come with Him to stay.
“Whosoever” surely meaneth me,
Surely meaneth me, O surely meaneth me;
“Whosoever” surely meaneth me,
“Whosoever” meaneth me.
That old Gospel song is a personal appropriation of Paul’s thought here and of Jesus’ invitation in John 3:16: “Whoever believes in Him will be saved.” The mystery of grace in Jesus is revealed for everyone—and that means me too. It means you. It means anyone who will come to Christ in faith.
That same message of inclusion which inspires our personal confidence also gives us personal responsibility. Paul felt that responsibility with a passion. He felt it, says verse 8, as grace “to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ.” What Jesus does for you and me is no secret. It’s meant to be shared. Paul’s responsibility is ours too. “Whosoever” means me, and at the same time it means everyone else. The secret belongs to anyone who will hear and believe.
The Manhattan project secrecy helped win the war and kept Nazis from building an atom bomb. Now there’s talk of building more of those awful things and letting even more nations in on that horrible secret. It’s why we feel fear of North Korea and China and Russia and even our own huge stockpile of bombs. One wishes that secret weren’t so well known.
But the secret mystery of Jesus Christ is different. The secret of the bomb produces a light that blinds everyone who sees it. Jesus is a light by which even the blind can see. A nuclear world war would mean death for everyone. Faith in Jesus means life for anyone. Revealing the bomb’s mystery brings fear to the world. But the revelation of Jesus Christ brings hope to the world. As Paul was, you and I are servants of that hope and the trustees of the big secret. Everyone needs to know.
As this year begins, remember the big secret you know. Come to Jesus with confidence and know that God has saved you by His grace. Then share the secret. You know someone who hasn’t heard or hasn’t yet accepted the great mystery. Pray for her, for him. Find a revealing word of grace to drop into a conversation or extend an invitation to come here and worship with us as we celebrate the mystery that has been revealed.
Enjoy being in on the biggest secret of all time, but don’t keep it to yourself.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2017 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj