“The Magnetic Power of a Secret

Sermon Delivered By Rev. Dick Stetler – January 7, 2018

Centenary United Methodist Church

Matthew 2:1-12; Ephesians 3:1-12


    This is Epiphany Sunday, a time when pastors normally discuss the events surrounding the arrival in Jerusalem and later in Bethlehem of the three astrologers from the east. They brought their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh in honor of the epiphany they experienced in Persia when their star-gazing indicated that a child was soon to be born in the Jerusalem area who was destined to be a world ruler of great power.

    This morning we are going to discuss an alternate scripture lesson that comes from the Apostle Paul's letter to the Ephesians.   In this letter, he shared his epiphany of God's plan for a new world order. His letter was written to a group of believers who were not of Jewish lineage.

    Paul had stayed in Ephesus for three years, and during those years The Way Of Jesus gathered a number of believers. This label was the first designation given to the followers of Jesus' teachings.  In his letter to them, Paul told the group that God had appointed him to reveal what God had kept secret for eons of time.  Paul's task was to organize God's will into a form that would benefit the Gentile world.  Paul described the process:

God gave to me the privilege of taking the Good News of the infinite riches of Christ to the rest of the world and helping all people to understand how God's secret plan is to be put into place.  God kept his secret hidden through all the past ages in order that at the present time, by means of the Church, even the angels might learn of God's wisdom in all its different forms. (Ephesians 3:8f)

    Even in ancient times, such wisdom described in this fashion would have drawn significant attention.  Most people are compelled to the magnetic power of something that has been a secret until their present time.  This is like Paul saying, "Thank you God, I have the mandate from you.  We can take it from here."

    Most of us have seen extra large magazines with big splashy covers featuring shapely women with a tag line, The 30-day Secret to losing 13-pounds and 7-inches around your waistline.

    What gets the attention of a good number of people are words that inspire their curiosity.   For instance, never before revealed diaries of Meghan Markle, Prince Harry's fiancée, or e-mails containing top secret information that had been sent on an unsecured server by Hilary Clinton, or the just published written testimonies of sixty-five women detailing the inappropriate conduct of members of the United States Congress. 

    The words secret, recently revealed, newly discovered, hidden for centuries, and new miracle drug are all great marketing terms to get the public's attention.  Paul's method of communicating was quite compelling to the Greeks who thrived on abstract thinking.

    What is interesting is that Jesus made no such claims during his ministry.  He simply began teaching ideas that moved his listeners away from the faith and practices of their heritage, particularly beliefs concerning the nature of God.  Jesus' mission statement was to teach people the truth on how to live lives that mattered. (John 18:37) 

    In fact, to provide as much clarity as possible for his listeners, Jesus inspired people's imaginations with vivid images created by his numerous parables and illustrations about what it was like to live in the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus' message inspired their desire to be of service rather than to remain obedient to the Laws of Moses. (Matthew 3:17-48)

    Paul's approach was believing that God had chosen the Church to be the carrier of God's truth to the rest of the world.  By contrast, Jesus' approach was to teach people that it was their choice whether or not they wanted to reflect the qualities of God.

    The developing Church wasted no time in becoming institutionalized with Popes, Bishops, the College of Cardinals and trained ordained pastors.  The Church needed money to carry on its ministry while the Son of Man had no place to lay his head.   

    The Roman branch of Christianity shut out the other branches of the faith by labeling them as heretics. The Church decided which scriptures to keep and which ones to discard. The Church kept the scriptures secret by preventing them from being translated from Latin into the common languages of its people. Anyone who attempted to translate the scriptures was burned at the stake.

    Lay persons could only rely on their priests to interpret the scriptures for them. The priesthood coveted their control over the masses while Jesus left self-expression a decision of his listeners. Further, Jesus loved sinners. Paul taught a more oppressive message that all people had sinned and had fallen short of the glory of God. (Romans 3:23) 

    Pastors began asserting their own power and authority over people instead of giving them hope and a vision for improving the lives of others.  The Church grew in political power to a point where lay-people were routinely condemned as heretics for varying from traditional beliefs and were killed in exactly the same way that the scribes, Pharisees and teachers of the Law accused and condemned Jesus.

    What does all this mean? This is more than just a history lesson. As the centuries passed, the Church slowly and incrementally distanced itself from the small first century communities of believers known as People of the Way of Jesus.  In fact, the corruption and immorality became so rampant among the clergy that in the 12th century Pope Innocent III called his priests a sty of pigs.

    Slowly people began abandoning what once informed them about the will of God.  Spirituality began to flourish outside the Church as attendance and its salvation theology began to fade.  Today, instead of wielding authority and power, the churches and clergy have begun to engage their parishioners into being servants to those in need.  (Matthew 25:44)

    We sometimes worry that churches are not growing in the numbers that they did in the past. People began to learn how to live by experiencing what worked and what did not. In so doing they were often closer to the compassion and forgiving nature that Jesus was teaching instead of the guidance provided by institutional religion.  Yet, the healing happening all over the world has remained invisible as God's presence.  Why is that?

    One of the reasons that we do not sense God's presence among us is because our attention is drawn to stories of misfortune, social issues that need fixing, people who have made mistakes in their judgments, rogue nations, the activities of crime syndicates, drug and medication abuse, and lone-wolves randomly killing people in acts of terror. The list of life's many distractions could go on and on with each new generation.

    Centenary gives away 170 bags of groceries to needy families but what gets the headline is the man who was arrested for carrying six ounces of marijuana with an intent to distribute.

    Ignored by the storytellers of our daily news are the people who are rescuing animals from horrible living conditions, countries that are sending rescue teams to places that were decimated by recent hurricanes, Doctors Without Borders, people that are feeding the hungry and others that are trying to inform the world's people that global warming is causing weather conditions that are not getting any better as the years pass.   

    The problem is not that God works in secret.  The problem is that people become so fixated on other things that they scarcely take notice that God has not lost anyone's file.  Divided governments will seldom get along.  The miracle is that average people in very diverse societies get along just fine. God has coded people to be caring, kind and compassionate. Politicians are wired to get re-elected.

    Has the Church lost its influence?  No, it has only lost its popularity among the masses. Today, a good number of people do not need a church to feel vital or needed. Followers of Jesus must share the stage of compassion with many others.  A 15th Century Dutch theologian named Erasmus once wrote:

Truly the yoke of Christ would be sweet if petty human institutions added nothing more to what he, himself, taught.  He commanded us to love one another.

    We do not need to belong to a church family in order to move mountains and to be the leaven for the loaf.  Often what is done to help someone in need occurs from our natural response of compassion (Matthew 6:3) A short poem makes this point abundantly clear:

I would rather see a sermon than hear one any day.  I would rather one walk with me than merely tell me the way.   The eye is a better student and more willing than the ear; fine counsel can be confusing, but example is always clear.  I can soon learn how to do it, if I only see it done; I can watch your life in action, while you're serious or having fun.  The greatest of all my friends are the ones who live their creeds; for to see the good in action, is what everybody needs.

    The Good News is that each one of us has the potential to let our divinity show up in our lives just as Jesus taught his followers to do. Wise clergy today often serve as the cheerleaders for their people to be in mission.  The choice to be an angel-in-the-flesh is ours alone to make and not the Church's.

    What does the future look like?  No one knows but it will be unpredictable and very exciting. As long as there are people who are sensitive, caring, compassionate and loving, there will always be little communities that want to learn about how better to express their spiritual energies.

    Our inner world is the final frontier, not outer space and planet exploration. Whatever we have going on within ourselves, we will take out there.  We had better get ourselves together now before we head off into such endeavors.

    Churches will never go out of style.  Why?  The Way of Jesus is the only way in life that works when nothing else does. Christians can wear their label if they wish; however, we need to remember that there are others that do not need a label.  They love automatically because that is who they have become.  (Luke 9:49f)

    In the New Year all of us need to experience our own epiphany and live knowing that we are all brothers and sisters.   When we encounter people who cannot do that, we will understand that how to love one another is still a secret for many people. 

    In spite of our understanding, we must be at peace in knowing that, for most people, the path to living in heaven now remains a path that is least traveled.  Try to imagine that being in heaven now can come by one decision to do so.  Let's make that decision as we enter the New Year.



Loving God, we know that our lives are as an open book to you.  You can sift through our thoughts and know the secrets of our wills.  You can see the areas where the child in us has not grown, where our attitudes reflect the hurts of another day and where our vision of discipleship has been obscured by self-interest. Cleanse us from thoughts that are unproductive and from emotions that make visible our unresolved conflicts.  Loving God, help us to integrate the many cross currents in our lives, so that our energy flows in a direction that reveals a spirit that desires healing and peace.  Amen.



We thank you, God, that following the afterglow from Christmas day when we received anew the coming of your spirit into our lives, we are inspired by the seeking of the three Wise Men.  We, too, have known the longing to find that which will give us inner peace every day. We often experiment with new ways to begin our day, developing our bodies with new exercise routines, and discarding habits that never really served our growth.  What is it about us that causes our resolves to slide back into our all too familiar patterns of living?

Give us experiences that will energize us in the New Year.  Help us to sense and acknowledge our own epiphanies.  Show us the way to deepen our inner world rather than being preoccupied with trying to solve the problems in our outer world. Help us to choose words that make our compassionate spirits visible through what we say. Teach us how our smiles will surround others with our acceptance of them. 

Enable us to give people permission to be whomever they want to be rather than insisting that they reflect our likeness and values. May we be humble enough to understand that you will save all your children, and everyone who ever lived, in a time of your choosing and not ours.  Help us to be content to remain instruments through which the music of your peace is played. We pray these thoughts through the loving spirit of Jesus, the Christ, who taught us to say when we pray . . .