WHO IS JESUS FOR?
The main point of today’s message is that the Good News of Jesus Christ is a Gospel for everyone. Anyone can come to the cross. Anyone can put their faith in Christ. Anyone can be saved. Not only is that a nice idea, it is biblically sound and God’s promise to us.
At this point you might be asking, “What’s the big deal? Isn’t it obvious that the Gospel is for everyone?” The truth is that, no, it’s not obvious. One of the big debates in the early Church was whether or not the Gospel was for everyone. Many at that time, in fact, believed that salvation was only the Jews, Gentiles need not apply.
Jesus after all was a Jew. The Apostles were Jewish. Most of the first Christian converts were Jewish. Most of the people whom interacted with Jesus were Jewish. Who can blame them for thinking that the Messiah was for the Jews alone? In Matthew 15, Jesus is approached by a Canaanite women who wants him to heal her demon possessed daughter. In Matthew 15:24 (NIV) Jesus answers her by saying “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” To be sure, we have to interpret this in context – because Jesus did indeed heal her daughter – but it does provide a clue of what the early church thought. There is good reason to think that initially people thought that the Gospel was or the Jews alone.
What happened? What happened to change the attitude of the early Church so that they began to see that the Gospel was for everyone? Maybe they remembered the story that Mary told them. One day, as she was working around her home in Bethlehem being a mother and wife, a knock came to the door. When she opened the door she saw a group of men wearing splendid clothing. They were obviously from another land far, far away. But who were they and what did they want at the home of a simple carpenter? But she opened the door and let them in and they presented their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. These Magi from the East were clearly not Jewish and yet they found their way to Jesus’ door because they felt the need to come,
There are a lot of doors in this world. Some of them are easier to open then others. Have you ever noticed how many doors have restrictions about who can go in and out? Think about it. Think about the signs that you see on doors. Some doors say “No Admittance”. Others say “Authorized Personnel Only”. Other doors might say “Exit Only”, or “Emergency Exit Only”, or “No Pets Allowed”, or “No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service”. There are all sorts of restrictions about who can go through a particular door.
I remember going to the Hamilton Club in downtown Hamilton back in the days when I was an accountant. That was in the late 1970’s. Back then the Hamilton Club was for men only. Women were not allowed to go in the front door. If the firm that I worked for had a function to which women were invited, they had to enter the building through the back door. Some of the female accountants got a bit bent out of shape by that and understandably so. You’ll be happy to know that changes have been made and women are now welcome at the Hamilton Club. In fact, I checked yesterday and there are a number of women on the Board of Directors. But that’s the way it was and, if you didn’t like it, that was too bad because things weren’t going to change just because you felt offended. Things were different forty-five years ago.
How things have changed and, in some ways, for the better. Now, it’s practically illegal to have men’s only anything. In fact, it’s almost turned too far the other way. Have
you noticed the number of health clubs and spas that cater to women only? In the gym that I go to, there is a women’s only section. You can tell because it says so right on the door: “No Men Allowed”. Apparently, that’s supposed to be a good thing because some women don’t want to work out with men watching them. But do think that men would be taken seriously if they wanted a men’s only section of the gym. That’s just not going to happen.
Doorways are often blocked by signs. If signs don’t do the trick, sometimes there are security guards or bouncers. They all serve the same purpose. They all restrict who can and who can’t enter through a particular door. In this world there are all sorts of restrictions. You can come in. You can’t come in. You will be served. You won’t be. Etc., etc., etc. There are so many doors in this world that are designed to keep people out.
THE DOORS OF THE TEMPLE
Up until birth of Christ, there were all sorts of doors designed to bar people from God. As far as many of ethnic Jews were concerned, they were the Chosen People and salvation belonged to them alone. The door to salvation was well sealed against all but the chosen few. You had to be Jewish to qualify. You had to keep all of the laws, both those made by God and those created by the religious authorities. You had to keep all of the festivals and offer the prescribed sacrifices and offerings at just the right time.
These exclusions were usually explicit. They were only too obvious in the Temple at the time of Jesus’ birth where progressive restrictions prevented access into certain areas by various groups of people. The Gentile Court could be entered by anyone including Gentiles and unclean Jews. The Gentile Court was separated from the Sacred Enclosure by a low wall. Gentiles could not enter the Sacred Enclosure on penalty of death. “No Entry” signs were posted in three languages. Another door provided access to the Women’s Court which could be entered by all Jewish men and women who were ritually clean. A set of stairs and another door led to the Israel Court which was for Jewish men and boys only; no women allowed. Inside of the Israel Court was the Priests Court which could be entered only by the serving priests who were all of the tribe of Levi. Another door led to the Sanctuary which consisted of the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies. The Holy Place was where the priest performed their regular sacrifices. The Holy of Holies was the innermost area of the Temple. It was entered only once every year by the High Priest who had to be of the family of Aaron. This lone priest offered the sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people.
Can you visualize these restrictions building on restrictions? The closer you got to the innermost sanctuary, fewer and fewer people could enter. While everyone could enter the Gentile Court at any time, only the High Priest could enter the Holy of Holies and that was only once a year.
The theology of Israel was reflected in the construction of the Temple. The further you were away from the Holy of Holies, the further you were from God. The High Priest was right there with God. The other priests were a little further away. Jewish men came next, followed by Jewish women. Forget it if you were a Gentile or, worse yet, a Samaritan. The doors were barred to you. If you tried to enter, the penalty was death. That was made very, very clear and very, very final.
THE DOOR OF BETHLEHEM
Enter the Magi, wisemen from the east who were searching for the new King of the Jews. But they were not Jewish. They were, of all things, Gentile astrologers who looked to the stars to tell them of the fortunes of the earth. They had journeyed to Judea from their homes somewhere in, of all places, modern day Iraq. They had seen a star in the sky and followed it to Bethlehem. Note that Jesus was, by this time, about two years old. For some reason, his parents had not returned to Nazareth after his birth but had set up residence in Bethlehem, Joseph’s ancestral home. They had long since moved from the stable to a house where Joseph, presumably, had opened his carpentry shop.
When the Magi got off their camels and approached the door of the house what did they see? Did they encounter a sign that said “No Admittance” or “Restricted to Authorized Personnel” or “Jews Only”? I don’t think so. Did they discover a locked door or a guard dog or a security guard barring the way? No. All they found was a door to a house and so they decided to knock.
What did Mary do? She opened the door and saw a group of men dressed in splendid clothing. They were obviously wealthy and had come from a distant land. Would she let them into her home? For the sake of hospitality, she should be a good host. But what of the safety of her child napping on the cot by the fire? Could she take that risk? What if these strange travellers were a bunch of nut cases?
We don’t know how long the Magi stood waiting but eventually they were invited to enter. There they found the child Jesus with his mother Mary. Matthew tells us that they knelt down and worshipped him.
Not only does this story pull at our heart strings, it represents a profound shift in the availability of salvation for the peoples of the world. Up until this time, salvation was thought to be for the Jews alone. The doors were barred to anyone else. Gentiles could no more get close to God then they could enter the Holy of Holies. It just wasn’t thought to be possible.
It all changed with Jesus. As Paul wrote in Ephesians 3:6 (NIV):
This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, member together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.
When Mary welcomed the Magi into the presence of the Christ Child, it blew the doors off of the house of salvation. The result is that the secret is out. The signs are off the door. The locks are unlatched. The guard dog has been tamed. The security guards have all gone home. The Gentiles have an equal share in God’s salvation along with the Jews. They are part of the same body and share in the same promise that God made with all creation through Jesus the Christ, the Messiah of God.
That’s Good News. That means that everyone is able to come to God to receive the salvation that is Jesus’ precious gift to us. You don’t have to be part of the right race, or language group. You aren’t barred by your gender, the colour of your skin, the marital status of your parents, the job that you do or the amount of education that you have. It doesn’t matter if you are the Prime Minister of Canada or the town drunk, God has opened the door and enabled you to come into the wonderful house of salvation.
Jesus was very clear about this. In John’s Gospel, when he was speaking about himself as the Good Shepherd, he said to his disciples, Jews all, in John 10:16 (NIV)
There are other sheep which belong to me that are not in this sheep pen. I must bring them too; they will listen to my voice, and they will become one flock with one shepherd.
Jesus said that other sheep would hear his voice and come to him. Those sheep are the Gentiles, the non-Jews who would come to faith in Jesus Christ and receive the salvation that only he can offer. The Magi came to the door of Jesus’ house and they found it open. They were the first Gentiles to bow down and worship him and they came when he was still a boy. I don’t know if there was a physical welcome mat sitting there on the step but there sure was a spiritual welcome mat. It said, “Open the door. Come on in. This child, God’s son, is for you.”
KEEPING THE DOORS OPEN
Jesus opened the door of salvation wide so that all people could enter through him. Do you believe that? Do you really believe that? Do you believe that all people are able to walk through those doors? Do you believe that God’s desire is that all people discover the salvation that Jesus offers through faith in him?
If we believe that the doors of salvation are wide open and that anyone can enter through Jesus Christ, then we must honour that belief with faithful action. We as the Church of Jesus Christ, must keep in mind what Mary did. When strangers came seeking the Messiah, she welcomed them in. When people come to our doors seeking Jesus we need to ensure that our doors are open as wide as they can possibly be. The doors of this church should not be barred to anyone. Anyone who wants to enter may come. We need to not only welcome but also to encourage everyone to enter in and be part of this family of faith.
So, here’s a question to ponder. Why is it that there are still so many people in this community who feel that they cannot be part of the Church of Jesus Christ? There are all sorts of reasons why they feel that way. Maybe they think that they are too bad. They have sinned too much and their sin is so great that it disqualifies them from God’s grace. Or maybe they feel judged by the people in the church who might turn their noses up at those who aren’t part of the community of faith. Maybe they look at the church and see a group of middle class, educated, white people and don’t know how they could possibly belong to a group like that because they are too poor or they are illiterate or they are native, Hispanic or black. Maybe they’re right because there are all sorts of churches that are just like that. There are all sorts of churches where they would not be welcomed because there are so many conditions on who can and who can’t come into the door and be part of the Body of Christ in that place. Often those conditions are unwritten. But that does not mean that they don’t exist because in some places they certainly do.
I don’t think Cottam United Church is like that. At least I don’t think it is. But maybe, I’m wrong about that and, because I am already part of the in group, I may not even notice those who are being excluded. But I don’t think I’m wrong. I think we are a welcoming group of people because I ask people, especially new people, about their experience at Cottam United Church. Almost always I get positive comments which is good.
Because I hear those stories, I am very confident that no matter who walks through those doors at the back of the church, they will feel like this is a place to belong. No one is going to shun them because their skin is a different colour or they speak a different language. No one will turn their noses up at them because they can’t afford to put anything into the offering plate. No one is going to look at them askance if they sing a bit too loudly or a little off key. I know that no matter where a visitor sits, no one in this church will tell them that they have to move because that pew is reserved.
The doors of the Church must be opened just as wide as was the door of Mary’s house in Bethlehem when the Magi arrived in search of the new king of the Jews. When we open our doors to everyone, we declare to someone that, “Jesus died for you too and I want to share that faith with you. You are welcome to enter in and receive the gift of salvation that Jesus has made available just for you.”
Let’s keep that in mind in this new year. Why not make it an ongoing goal to ensure that we keep up with this welcoming behaviour? Let’s each of us take on that ministry of hospitality and welcome anyone who comes. If you see a visitor, talk with them. Tell them who you are. Let them know that you have noticed them and are happy to see them. Invite them down to our fellowship time after worship where we can get to know them better.
Don’t only do that when people come to church. Do it in the community. Is there a new person in your neighbourhood? Invite them to come and join us. Is there a family that has gone through a hard time, a death or illness or other crisis? Let them know that this church is a place where they can find healing and support. Does your child have a friend who wants to come to Sunday School? Bring them along. Believe me, pretty soon their parents will follow. Let people know this church’s doors are open to all people and that they are welcome to come in and share in the salvation that Jesus offers.
Our prime mission in life is the share the Good News of Jesus Christ with the world. Let’s go out of our way to let people know that the Good News is for them. God’s salvation is available to all people.
PRAYERS OF THE PEOPLE
Holy God, our Friend and Father, we thank you for all of the good things that you have given. We are so blessed that we often fail to recognize your great generosity. We can take for granted those things that seem ordinary but you are in the simple things of life. As we consider all of your blessings, help us never to become conceited or arrogant at our good fortune. Enable us to embrace humility in our hearts, knowing as we humble ourselves and seek you and your way of doing things, you will bring light into our lives at the proper time in the proper way.
Thank you, God, that you have called us to enter into your salvation. May we share that Good News with all the world. Enable us to encourage others to seek a deeper and stronger relationship with you through study, prayer and fellowship with other Christians. Keep us from being judgmental and narrow in our outlook. Remind us that you welcomed Gentiles from a far away place to enter into the house in Bethlehem and worship the Jesus Christ. There is no one who is beyond your salvation for you have opened the doors wide.
We pray for our environment. You, O God, made the earth as part of your creation. Help us to be the stewards whom you called us to be. Enable us to treat the earth well and to adjust to the changing cycles of this our home in ways that are sensible and beneficial.
We remember those who are sick and pray for their healing that their recoveries may be quick and complete. We thank you for those who watch over us in times of need offering support and comfort.
Loving God, we come to a new year. As we contemplate 2023, evaluate goals, make plans, and reflect on decisions to be made, help us to remember that you are always near. There is no limit to your great mercy, patience, and care. Thank you for the assurance of your faithful love, freely given without condition or limit. Help us to love you with all of our hearts and to exemplify your character and way of doing things in all that we do and say in the coming new year. We pray our prayers in Jesus’ name. Amen.
WORSHIP RESOURCE PAGE
January 8, 2023 / Epiphany
Isaiah 60:1‑6; Psalm 72:1‑7, 10‑14; Matthew 2:1‑12; Ephesians 3:1‑12
CALL TO WORSHIP
ONE: Arise and shine for your light has come!
ALL: The glory of the Lord shines upon us!
ONE: Arise and shine for your light has come!
ALL: The love of Jesus is within us!
ONE: Arise and shine for your light has come!
ALL: The light of God shines through us!
ONE: Come, let us worship!
We gather together in worship, in complete awe of you, the glorious Maker of the whole universe. You are as close as a whisper, as playful as a baby’s laughter, as loving as a parent’s cuddle. Come to us in our worship. Hold us close and nurture our spirits. Feed our faith with your indwelling presence. Inspire our actions by the power of the Gospel. Meet with us in this place, O God of all Creation.
PRAYER OF CONFESSION
Your light of love always calls us to respond yet we confess that we shield our eyes from your glory and turn away. Each day seems ordinary. Each person looks the same as the next. Our days become routine as we fail to see the needs around us. Forgive us, O God. Enlighten us with the joy of each new day. Inspire us with new opportunities to grow in faith. Enliven us with a passion to serve you.
ASSURANCE OF PARDON
Jesus understands. Jesus forgives. Jesus gives us as many new chances as we need. Let us live with assurance and let the light of God shine in our faces, in our hearts, in our lives.
DEDICATION OF OFFERING
As Magi offered gifts most rare, we offer our gifts to you. In awe and humility we come to bring you what you deserve from the fruit of our labour. Accept us and our gifts.
Let us arise from this place and leave in God’s light. Let us shine the love of Jesus on everyone and everything. And may God’s richest blessings fill our lives.