December 3, 1989 (Advent I)
True to the Vision
Fred Craddock, Professor of Preaching at the Candler School of Theology, has been heard to say that the longest trip he ever took was from his head to his heart — that his journey from “belief” to “life” has been and continues to be a pilgrim struggle. The same might be said of all who are working toward integrity, toward the integration of faith and practice.
We may believe in God, for example — truly believe in our hearts — and proclaim, either through creed or confession, that the Maker of Heaven and Earth is Lord over all things, both seen and unseen. At the same time, however, our everyday living may witness to the kind of practical atheism that is characteristic of most secularism. The old cliche about “Sunday faith and Monday work” may be more than just behavioral, and more profound than our revivalist forebears ever imagined.
The hardest task facing the Christian is walking, not by a segregated sight (you may substitute “compartmentalized,” “divided,” or “schizophrenic,”), but by an integrated faith — a growing and grappling faith that works to merge belief and life, hope and perspective. The longest journey we all have to make is from our head to our heart.
This passage in Isaiah is about such a journey: how people will enjoy the peace God’s reign will afford.
The vision is yet to be fulfilled, of course; hence the natural question, “How should we live in the ‘meantime,’ as it were?” What should be the faith-response to this prophetic vision? What can be fairly characterized as the behavior of hope?
Verse five tells us. Liturgically fashioned (as is Micah 4:5), this verse calls not only for a word of response on the part of the people, but for their pledge to live true to the vision they have seen through the prophetic vision, to live “as if” this reign of God is already in place — and for believers, of course, it is! The faithful are called to walk in the light of the promise of God’s reign until the light dawns for all people, and their faith-journey begins. Such faithful “as if” living will itself be a potent testimony, and an incarnation, of the coming reign of God.
We might describe such “as if” living as ‘proleptic,” or “anticipatory.” It is a life whose logic is that of the future. Faithful people live as if the coming reign of God is already a reality. As the faithful integrate the future into the present, they help the ancient promises become a reality. As belief is merged into life, as vision is grafted into stance and stride, as the trip is made from head to heart, then the first steps of the universal pilgrimage are taken.
The invitation of Isaiah 2:1-5 is for all faithful people to journey, not by sight, but by faith, until all the people of the earth shall come to the city of God.
Those so travelling will head the stream to Zion, and into God’s new kingdom. (TS)
December 10, 1989 (Advent II)
Bound to Hope
Some years ago, Karl Rahner, perhaps the greatest Roman Catholic theologian of this century, authored a book entitled The Practice of Faith. It comprises brief essays and meditations, grouped under topical headings, on various aspects of Christian life and devotion. I have found nearly all of these occasional pieces both profound and powerful, even those focusing on matters which, distinctively Roman Catholic, are alien to my experience and convictions.
One of the most telling features of the book is found in the topical headings themselves. There are essays on faith, hope and love. Significantly, the topic about which Rahner writes the most, is hope.
What a witness! Rahner’s theological enterprise, as academic and philosophical as it can be, is nonetheless fundamentally a theology of hope.
Many other theologians in recent years, Protestant and Catholic, have sounded a similar summons to hope. In so doing they have themselves heard the call of yet another interpreter of Christ, who centuries ago used much the same language as he wrote to the Romans, praying that they might “abound in hope.”
“Hope springs eternal,” as the old saw goes, and there is a sense in which hope can be called a universal emotion. All persons are “bound to hope,” as my grandmother might have put it. There is an instinctive drive in humans to look forward, to lean into the future. When this drive is lost, the results are catastrophic. In fact, hopelessness might be described as a kind of living death, a foretaste of Hell.
Carl Braaten, himself one of the pioneers in the “theology of hope” movement, has observed that, medically, hope is necessary to recovery. Conversely, the absence of hope accelerates the hour of death (cf. The Phenomenology of Hope).
Our world is full of examples of false hope, of course. Further, what we often call hope sounds more like temporally displaced nostalgia than anything else. But true hope is the nerve of our faith, and of our worship.
This passage from Romans speaks most powerfully to us on this the second Sunday of Advent. God is a God of hope (verse 13). And hope is the foundation of this entire season of celebration. It is hope that gives root to the prophecies we read during these weeks. It is hope that gives voice to our praise. It is hope that gives wing to our praying that the coming again of the Christ child might at last bring light and life to all God’s children.
What the Scripture proclaims, however, is that true hope does in fact spring from the eternal — from the steadfast love of God, and from the Son of that love, Jesus Christ.
Paul notes in our passage of the day that such hope is fostered through Scripture. The testimonies of God have been given, not only for the purposes of instruction, but also in order to encourage Christians who are enduring hardships on account of their faith. Abiding hope, then, is anchored both in the faithfulness of God toward the faithful (as is witnessed by the testimony of scripture record), and in the loyalty of the loyal toward God (as is characteristic of steadfastness). True and lasting hope characterizes the human experience of relationship with God (verse 4).
This abiding hope, shared with other believers, is the basis of our fellowship with one another, the same-mindedness (“agreement”) that characterizes our faith. Such same-mindedness (cf. Phil. 2:4ff) is “in accord with Jesus Christ.” Thus our lives become “harmony” to the praise our voices give to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ (verses 5-6).
This hope is intended for all people. With its origins in the sacred history of the covenant community (verse 8), true hope has become a gift to Jew and Gentile alike. The root of Jesse has blossomed for the world (verses 9-12)!
The lesson ends in somewhat circular fashion. “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope” (verse 13). Paul’s affirmation is that joy and peace and belief, themselves gifts of the Holy Spirit, enable us to “abound in (true) hope.”
All humans, to one degree or the other, may be “bound to hope.” Those journeying to Bethlehem during this season are certainly so bound, and that because they are bound to the God of hope. So bound, they are granted to “abound in hope.” (TS)
December 17, 1989 (Advent III)
Behold, Your God Will Come
The Gospel According to Mark proclaims that the gospel of Jesus Christ begins with the voice of one crying in the wilderness. It has often seemed to me that, experientially, the tears we cry — for ourselves and for others, because of the way things are and aren’t, on account of the “wilderness … the dry land … (and) the desert …” in our lives — those tears are by far our most potent and eloquent prayers for God to come and save us. And behold, God comes!
What Good News that our crying may be a preamble to God’s declaration of salvation! What Good News that the wilderness, far from being a place (condition) apart from the presence of God and His Christ, is the beachhead, as it were, for God’s landing in our lives!
Such is the witness of Mark’s gospel. Such is the witness of Isaiah’s gospel.
The passage from Isaiah for this, the third Sunday in Advent, is a wonderful promise of salvation to the earth and all its children. It is a promise that may cheer the heart of all who hear it, and especially those who are in some sort of wilderness in their own lives. And, of course, that is almost everybody.
Each year on Ash Wednesday, as our community of faith begins Lenten observances, I lead my congregation in a service of confession. On slips of paper from the bulletin, we write down those issues, problems, and sins in our lives that we want most to confess to God. Before burning these slips to make ashes, which are then mixed with oil and used to fashion a cross on the worshippers’ foreheads, I read the slips, not aloud, but so as to hear, as it were, the confessions of my congregation. Each year I am reminded of the length and depth and breadth of the wildernesses through which my people sojourn.
Your tradition may not be inclined toward such a service as the one I’ve described. You are still aware of it, though, the desert which stretches in all directions around those whom you serve. You know that each time you stand to preach, there are gathered before you people who are unhappy in their marriages, unhappy in their jobs. There are people who stagger under the stress of failure, and the stress of success. There are people who feel they have lost something they can never find, have missed something along the way, and now are trying to salve the pain and distress and regret in their lives through various chemicals, and various relationships, and various acquisitions.
Neither are those behind the pulpit immune. We all know too many stories of men and women who, in the crunch of serving God and the church, somehow lost their way, lost their will and vision, forgot their first love as they pursued other, lesser loves.
And what can we say in the face of such tragedy? What can we say in the way of hope to the people we serve, who so often find themselves on another way? What can we say to and about our staggering colleagues? Is there any good thing we can say to all of those, ourselves included, who wonder where it will all end, who wonder what will become of us and our Church? Is there any word of hope or deliverance?
“Say to those of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong, fear not! Behold your God will come …’ Blind eyes shall be opened. Deaf ears shall be unstopped. Those who are limping shall again leap like the deer. Tongues unable to speak will sing for joy.
“Waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert. And a highway shall be there, and it shall be called the ‘Holy Way.’ And the redeemed shall walk there. The ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing” (verses 5-6, 8a-b, 10).
What a wonderful promise for all of God’s children! All that ails them shall be healed, not by efforts, or resolutions, or by any other than the power of God’s coming. “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, (and) the desert shall rejoice and blossom” (verse 1). Those hands which are weak, those knees which are so feeble as to stagger under the weight of life, they shall be made strong and firm, shall again work, shall walk along the Holy Way.
God’s promise is that God’s own shall walk in the highway God is preparing; that there will be restoration and redemption. And all because, as we remember today, God is coming, and we all “shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God” (verse 2c).
What good news to all who are crying in the wilderness. “Be strong, fear not! Behold your God is coming!” (TS)
December 24, 1989 (Advent IV)
That Baby’s Beautiful Name
Naming a child can be a very trying experience. Knowing there are two sides to every family, it’s hard to keep peace by naming a child after a parent on one of those sides. And if you make a mistake and name your child something like … (We better pass on the examples!), somebody — namely, the child — has to live with it for a long time.
When God came into the world in Jesus as the Babe of Bethlehem, the angel told Joseph the baby was to be named after the Father: “You are to give Him the name Jesus, because He will save His people from their sins.”
Jesus means “God saves.” The name of Jesus is the fame of Jesus. God saves. He is Lord. He is God. He is Immanuel. He is the enfleshed God. He is God with us.
God saves. He is the One through whom we are reconciled to the Father. Through Him, we are no longer slaves to sin. Through Him, our sins are no longer held against us and we are graced with the peaceful assurance of our eternal salvation. And this assurance of salvation enables us to joyfully and triumphantly live in the meantime.
Jesus means “God saves.” The name of Jesus is the fame of Jesus. And it’s the most beautiful name ever given to a baby.
“You are to give Him the name Jesus,” the angel told Joseph, “because He will save His people from their sins.” Of all the things I have read or heard about what it means to be saved, these few lines from William Hendriksen, the great Greek scholar of Calvin Seminary, remain among the most clear and comforting: “To be saved means to be emancipated from the greatest evil: the guilt, pollution, power, and punishment of sin; and to be placed in possession of the greatest good. Although in the present passage the negative alone is expressed, namely, to save — from sin, the positive is immediately implied. One cannot be saved from something without also being saved for something: true happiness, the peace of God that transcends all understanding, freedom, joy unspeakable and full of glory, answered prayers, effective witness bearing, assurance of salvation ….
“The promise of the angel to Joseph, then, is this, that this child must be called Jesus — meaning, in brief, Savior — because in the fullest and most glorious sense He will save His people from their sins.”
It is that good news that prompted Augustine to say with praise, “All my memories are now free from dread.” Then there is the story of Joseph Polworth who read through the New Testament and recounted the experience like this: “I had no definite idea in the resolve…. It seemed a good thing to do…. I began, but did not that night get through the first chapter of St. Matthew…. When I came to the twenty-first verse and read ‘Thou shalt call His name Jesus; for He shall save His people from their sins,’ I fell on my knees…. Suffice it that from that moment I was a student, disciple.” Jesus is the baby’s beautiful name. Jesus is God and God saves us in Jesus.
Whenever I think of Christmas, I think of snow. And I always get extra excited when it snows on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. Snow, for me, is a symbol of God’s grace. I love snow. I love God’s grace. I like to walk in snow, drive in snow, and even roll around in snow. I don’t like to shovel snow, but I like everything else about it.
I like to walk in God’s grace, move ahead in God’s grace, and roll around in God’s grace. Snow, for me, symbolizes the ceaseless grace God showers upon us. What I mean is that God’s grace is like the snow that falls upon the earth and covers all its scars and wounds and makes it all look so beautiful and pure.
Of course, we often destroy the beauty of snow in the same way we destroy the beauty of God’s grace. We mess it up. We make it dirty. We poison it. But then it snows again! What I’m trying to say is that, like the snow that covers what is wrong on earth and keeps covering the earth on a regular basis, God is continually covering up our scars and wounds and sins with His grace. God is always giving us another chance to be pure and beautiful. And so every time it snows, I think of God’s grace. And it comes every year — several times a year.
That’s what Christmas is all about. Every year we remember and relive the greatest truth of our faith: God has always loved us, loves us now, and will always love us. Simeon summed it up like this, “Mine eyes have seen Thy salvation” (see Luke 2). Isaiah prophesied, “He will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (see Isaiah 9). The angel announced, “Today … a Savior has been born to you; He is Christ the Lord” (see Luke 2).
Jesus is the baby’s beautiful name. That’s beautiful. That’s Christmas! (RRK)
December 31, 1989
The Lesson of His Suffering
It’s almost a shame — to turn so quickly from the joy to the pain, from the carols proclaiming God’s advent to these scriptures recalling Christ’s crucifixion. Just last week we were singing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”; today we sing “O Sacred Head Now Wounded.”
It’s almost a shame. Last week we heard Isaiah proclaim an imminent arrival to the incredulous Ahaz (Two Men and a Baby!). And we found ourselves in the stable with Joseph and Mary, and another baby definitely on His way, too, bringing salvation through birth.
Now, only a few days later, though His salvation is, of course, still ours to receive, it is death that brings it.
Jesus, the author of life (Acts 2:15), wrote the story in His own blood. It was the death of Jesus that brought us life, and His suffering that perfected the path of our salvation (verse 10).
On this, the first Sunday after Christmas, we remember — and attempt to learn something of the lesson of His suffering.
Now and Then is the second volume of Frederick Buechner’s autobiography. In it he makes this observation:
“… lest students of comparative religion be tempted to believe that to compare them is to discover that at their hearts all religions are finally one and that it thus makes little difference which one you choose, you only have to place side by side Buddha and Christ themselves.
Buddha sits enthroned beneath the Bo-tree in the lotus position. His lips are faintly parted in the smile of one who has passed beyond every power in heaven or earth to touch him. “He who loves fifty has fifty woes, he who loves ten has ten woes, he who loves none has no woes,” he has said. His eyes are closed.
Christ, on the other hand, stands in the garden of Gethsemane, angular, beleaguered. His face is lost in shadows so that you can’t even see his lips, and before all the powers of heaven and earth he is powerless. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you,” he has said. His eyes are also closed.
The difference seems to me this. The suffering that the Buddha’s eyes close out is the suffering of the world that Christ’s eyes close in and hallow. It is an extraordinary difference, and … before you’re done, you have to make a crucial and extraordinary choice” (pages 53-4).
There is “extraordinary choosing” going on — grace over justice; weakness over power; acceptance over denial; silence over defense; death over escape; the needs of the many over the needs of the one. These are some of the lessons His suffering teaches, lessons that serve to perfect pioneering and perfect our discipleship.
He was one with us, the text tells us. Since “the children (of God) share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise partook of the same nature, that through His death He might destroy … death, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage…. For because He Himself has suffered and been tempted, He is able to help those who are tempted.”
It is a powerful passage, linking as it does the birth and the death, the event and the intent of Christ’s mission — and the outcome for those who by faith are saved by His life and death. It is all of it tied together. One cannot think of His birth without recalling His death, without in some sense experiencing the life He has given us.
The new life that Jesus has give us is a life free from the bondage of the fear of death. We do not have to be afraid to die, because Jesus has already died for us.
His eyes have “closed in” our suffering, our fear of death, our bondage, our situation, and have hallowed them. Jesus has died for them, to bring us to life. As Christ has pioneered and perfected our faith, our suffering for Christ has meaning. Our fear of death is overcome. Our slavery is defeated. Our situation is redeemed.
Because He Himself suffered, He is able to help us. It is an incredible affirmation — that God is not impassive to our situation, but has taken our part, has taken our flesh and frailty to save us.
And while we, like Buechner’s students, must — before we’re done — make an extraordinary choice, we do so in light of the extraordinary choice God has already made — to take on our suffering as His own. (TS)
January 7, 1990
The Character of Christ
I have in my office a handcrafted marble piece from Tennessee, a picture entitled, “The Face of Christ.”
The description on the back says: “What do you see as you gaze into the face of Christ? An humble birth in a stable with an ox looking on and a star overhead pointing the way? Do you see angels heralding His birth? In that patient, tender face is drawn the prayerful struggles in the wilderness and the final agony on the cross. One glance is not enough as you are ‘looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith’.” The artist incorporated into the face those various scenes to make the actual face stand out.
Isaiah saw deeply into the face of the coming Christ centuries before His worldly entrance. Revealed to him was the character of Christ, and the prophet shares it with his listeners in chapter 42, verses 1-9.
I. Christ, the Character of Compassion (v. 2)
Here the person of Christ becomes revealed to mankind. It indicates His gentleness, tenderness and the absence of self advertising. He does not need anyone to lead a noisy parade on His behalf! Isaiah’s enlightenment comprehends Him as compassionate. Sympathy, pity and the sorrow for the sufferings of others characterized the life of Christ. He modeled that for us so that we might carry out His lifestyle.
Several years ago the newspapers carried a human interest story about a little boy who was riding a bus across town. He was huddled close to an exquisitely-dressed lady and was swinging his leg out into the aisle when he accidentally rubbed his shoe against the woman who sat across from him. Angrily she protested to the lady next to whom he sat, “Pardon me, but would you make your little boy remove his dirty feet from the seat?” The well-dressed lady took a hard look at the youngster as if she had not been really aware of him before and giving him a shove said, “He’s not my boy. I never saw him before.”
Embarrassed, the little boy moved aside and sunk down in the seat as if to try to shrink from view. It was obvious that he was fighting back tears. “I’m sorry,” he said to the lady whose dress he had soiled. “I didn’t mean to.” The lady was no longer angry and she felt badly that she had responded the way she had.
“That’s all right,” she said. “Are you going somewhere alone?” He lowered his head and answered, “Yes, I always travel alone. My mommy and daddy are both dead so I live with my Aunt Maggie. But when she gets tired of me, she sends me to Aunt Elizabeth.” The lady asked sympathetically, “Are you on your way to Aunt Elizabeth’s now?” The child answered, “Yes, but Aunt Elizabeth is hardly ever home. I hope she is home today though. It sure is cold.”
“You sure are young to be riding the bus alone,” said the lady. “It’s OK,” said the boy, “I never get lost but sometimes I get awful lonesome. So when I see someone I’d like to belong to, I sit real close to them and pretend they’re my family. That’s what I was doing when I got your dress dirty. I forgot about my feet.” The lady moved over to the little boy and put her arm around him. He just wanted badly to belong to somebody.
When has compassion touched your heart lately?
II. Christ, the Character of Encouragement (vv. 3-4)
What a precious promise of hope and encouragement for us in His loving care. W. E. Vine wrote: “If we sometimes feel like the broken reed, fit only for crushing, or feel that our light is but a poor flickering thing, let us bear in mind His desires towards us, and present ourselves to Him for His gracious renewing and His restoring power.”
Chuck Swindoll said that encouragement is “putting courage into someone.” Who do you know that needs courage? Plug your courage into their lives today.
I look at my congregation that averages 210 on a Sunday and this week I buried two men — that’s two widows needing encouragement. One lady lost her brother and then read about the location and time of service in the newspaper because of a rift in family ties. One family called in desperate need of milk and juice because of a family financial crunch.
There are several older folks who can’t drive anymore because of age and must depend on help to get to church, the store, anywhere. The young couple who is trying to work through their pasts and make their marriage a positive thing. The single parent, whose husband is in prison for child abuse, and who now has to raise her daughter without a father.
Look around at your congregation. Who needs a word of encouragement? Don’t hesitate. Do it now!
III. Christ, the Character of Power (vv. 5-7)
These verses reveal His omnipotence and eternity. God declares through Isaiah that the coming Messiah is the Creator or Arranger of the heavens, and earth and its products, and the Giver of life and spirit. He gives assurance and promise to us as He says: “(I) will take hold your hand.” “(I) will keep you,” “(I) will give you a covenant of the people,” “(I) will open blind eyes,” “(I) will bring out the prisoners from the dungeon.”
The application pointedly means us! He who has called us in righteousness will still hold our hand, and will keep us, making us ministers of His Gospel, enabling us to bring light and liberty to those who are in spiritual darkness and captivity. Why? Because He is the God of action! That is His character.
IV. Christ, the Character of Steadfastness (vv. 8-9)
How fantastic to put our faith in an unmovable God. He is powerful because He is God. He is action, because He is God. What an incentive it produces for faith to lay hold His promises — even in the darkest hours, amidst the most perplexing and disturbing circumstances of events.
His glory is the manifestation of His nature, attributes and power. His praise will be shared with no one because He is our steadfast God — who will never leave us or forsake us. And we, as Christians, must follow His example.
What a beautiful character of the Messiah Isaiah saw! What a beautiful character of the Messiah we have seen in history! What a wonderful character of Christ we experience! (DGK)
January 14, 1990
How to Speak a Difficult Word
(1 Corinthians 1:1-9)
As anyone knows, Paul often is compelled to write difficult words to people by way of his Epistles. Frequently the Epistles are prompted not only by the Spirit of God but also by circumstances peculiar to the church or churches which received these letters.
The church at Corinth is certainly no exception. Widely regarded in his time as the Las Vegas of the Roman Empire, Corinth was known as sin city. In fact, “to corinthize” was a descriptive view of immorality. How does Paul speak harsh words of rebuke to this congregation?
Reading through the letter we see Paul rebuking the church for its disunity. “For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brethren” (1 Cor. 1:11). In chapter five, sexual immorality is dealt with straight away. “It is actually reported that there is immorality among you, and of a kind that is not found even among pagans; for a man is living with his father’s wife. And are you arrogant” (1 Cor. 5:1-2)!
Further on in chapter seven, Paul seems to be answering questions the church must have asked in regard to Christian standards of marital conduct. How are Christians to deal with sexual temptation? What of those who either remain unmarried or those contemplating divorce? Paul even gives counsel to those who are in a widowed state.
Chapter eleven begins with the thorny issue of dress code appropriate for worship. It seems even the Corinthian celebration of the Lord’s Supper misses the high calling of Christ Jesus. Paul states, in painfully judgmental language, “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord” (1 Cor. 11:27).
How, we might certainly ask, can Paul speak so directly — so harshly — to the failings of this congregation and still get a hearing? It is difficult to discipline people; our society is a testament to this fact. Children and adults resent being reproved. Those whose task is to enforce rules and regulations will admit it is one of the most delicate matters with which human beings are faced. How is the disciplining word spoken without destroying the relationship? This is Paul’s dilemma and ours.
The answer is found in the opening verses of chapter one. Paul sets the context of his strong words in the much larger context of God’s prior Word of grace. Paul’s harsh words are spoken to the Corinthians within the overarching context of God’s Word of salvation in Christ. If God’s action in Christ is forgotten or overlooked, Paul’s words of discipline become belittling or petty.
Paul begins his letter to the congregation at Corinth with words of salutation and greeting. He reminds the church that they not only are sanctified in Christ Jesus, but are called to be saints together. From the very beginning, Paul’s words are words of remembrance. Remembering who the people of God are called to be is a powerful word of identity. They are a unique people, not because of what they do, but because of who God has called them to be — “those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Second of all, Paul offers thanks to God for them. In a sense, this is a prayer of thanksgiving. Paul thanks God for them! This is another powerful reminder that God is the uniting force between Paul and them. Paul’s words of discipline will later be heard, it is hoped, within the larger Word of God’s sovereignty. In other words, these are not merely Paul’s words to them; these words are from God.
Last, Paul prays that they may not be lacking in any spiritual gift. These gifts he catalogues elsewhere as those skills and abilities to minister to God’s people. This is a prayer for power — God’s power dwelling among persons of the congregation.
Paul writes a difficult letter, full of hard, pointed words, which can be seen as words of grace only within the loving context of God’s will. The opening nine verses set the stage for all Paul says.
We too, like Paul, are compelled for conscience sake to speak the truth in love. For Christians, all words — whether difficult or easy — are spoken in love. So we hear, so we preach, and so we live. (DNM)
January 21, 1990
Unity or Mutiny?
(1 Corinthians 1:10-17)
There are few things which scandalize the Church as the Body of Christ more than disunity within the Church. Neither is there anything more common than disunity. As Paul checks his “laundry list” of difficult topics to confront at Corinth, it is important to note the issue of unity is at the top of the list.
Epiphany means “manifestation” or “appearance.” It is the season of the Christian year when missions and evangelism are emphasized and a fitting conclusion to the “Christmas cycle.” If Advent signifies the coming of Christ and Christmas signifies the arrival of Christ, then Epiphany is the appearance of Christ. Thus, the Church as the Body of Christ is a powerful symbol to the nations of the unity of the Church in Christ.
But there is an ironic twist in this beautiful theological proposition. The places where the church needs unity to make an evangelical witness are often the very points where unity is obviously absent. For instance, when churches attempt to work together at the world, national or local levels, it often demonstrates anything but unity.
In our passage today, Paul senses that the disunity in Corinth is incarnate within the leadership of competing factions. Groups in the congregation claim either Apollos, Cephas, Christ, or Paul himself as their spiritual head. Rhetorically, Paul asks, “Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you?” For the Corinthian church and for today’s church the things which ought to unify us are the very things which most often are divisive. This is a scandal.
My friend, Jerry, told me of his recent visit to Crown Center in Kansas City, Missouri. As he was sitting on a bench, he watched his five-year-old play in thirty jets of water shooting up from a courtyard’s flat slab of concrete. It was one of the many fountains in the city.
As he watched his son, he also saw many different kinds of people walk to the edge of the slab and, in bathing suits or street clothes, enter the jets of water. There were sophisticated vacationers speaking foreign tongues and there were day laborers simply wanting to cool off. While they were in the water they were united in the joy of the spontaneous play. Their unity was somehow a product of the mystery of community. After they left the water, they returned to their own worlds. Jerry saw this as symbolic of baptism. In the water many different people were joined together in the celebration of life.
The context suggests that people saw the party they were loyal to symbolized by the person who had baptized them. Thus, people were of the party of Apollos or Cephas or Paul, depending upon which one may have baptized them. To give an ancient problem a modern twist, substitute Baptist, Methodist, and Catholic for Apollos, Cephas, and Paul. As Christians, we should celebrate our baptism as people of God — not let it be a point of contention between us.
The gospel is preached to empower the life in Christ. The danger for Paul — whether from eloquent wisdom or divisiveness — was that the cross of Christ would be emptied of this power.
The struggle of the church through the centuries and in our time is to create unity among many Christian people. We look back nostalgically to the harmony of the church at Pentecost. This idyllic vision of the unified church at infancy is no small matter of frustration to those who pray that we may be one. Many folk abandon the church, because the church as it should be and the church as it is are separated by a great ugly ditch.
When all is said and done and prayed over, our frustration will only dissipate when we realize that unity within the Body of Christ is never manufactured by people. Rather, unity must be accepted as a gift from God. It is a mystery too profound for human reason. The only thing for us to do is to give thanks that God created the church, and receive it as the gift of God’s love. (DNM)
January 28, 1990
A Calling to the Backslider
A minister’s little girl and her playmate were talking about serious things. “Why do you suppose we call people backsliders?” one asked.
“Oh, that’s easy,” replied the other. “You see, when people are good, they go to church and sit up in front. When they get tired of being good they slide back a seat, and keep on sliding till they get clear back to the door. After a while they slide clear out and never come back to church at all.”
Throughout this book, Micah reveals how blameworthy Judah has become of backsliding. God’s people have strayed so far away from God that they are compared to an enemy and an invading foe. In robbing the helpless and the defenseless they are not only enemies of their victims but of God as well.
Judah is like those the little girl talked about — they have gotten out of the back door of the church. It is Micah’s divinely ordained job to point out sin in the lives of the people and nation and to call them back to the “sanctuary.”
I. God Convicts the Backslider (vv. 1-2)
The idea of “conviction” as a verb is to prove or pronounce guilty of a charge; as a noun it is the one found guilty of the charge.
The prophet is not the ultimate finger pointer to Judah; God is. The preacher in the pulpit is not the ultimate accuser to the backslider today; God is! The job description of the prophet reads: “to tell what God speaks.” It’s one thing to be accused by humans, but it’s quite another to be accused by God. When God speaks, we best listen. He points out the wrong in our heart.
Andrew Bonar once said that a man asked him, “Is not conscience a safer guide than the Holy Spirit?” Bonar stated that he took out his watch and said, “Is not my watch better than the sun?”
The sun rules the time. Conscience is fallen and corrupt. If we have someone tell us we are doing wrong it should be God through His Holy Spirit.
II. God Confronts the Backslider (vv. 3-5)
Conviction enlightens; confrontation demands response. It’s fine to show me my inadequacies; just don’t ask me to change my habit, attitude, outlook, idea, or sin. Yet God does expect us to change!
There is a story about a man who went to his doctor complaining about terrible neck pains, throbbing headaches and recurring dizzy spells, the doctor examined him and said, “I’m afraid I have some bad news for you. You have only six months to live.”
The doomed man decided he would spend his remaining time on earth enjoying himself. He quit his job, bought a sports car, purchased a closet full of new suits and shoes.
Then he went to get himself a dozen tailored shirts. He went to the finest shirt shop he could find. The tailor measured him and wrote down, “size 16 neck.”
“Wait a moment,” the man interrupted. “I always wear a size 14 neck, and that is what I want.”
“I’d be glad to do it for you, sir,” the tailor replied. “However, if you wear a size 14 neck I can guarantee you that you’re going to have terrible neck pains, throbbing headaches and recurring dizzy spells.”
The tailor had unknowingly unmasked this man’s real problem. Real problems require real solutions.
God demands real solutions for our wrongs! If we have gone off the narrow way it’s time to get back on. You do it by simply coming back to Jesus because He still loves you.
The whole of Micah — after all is said — is simply, “Come back home; God still loves you!” (DGK)
Outlines in this issue are provided by: Torn Steagald, Pastor of Highlands United Methodist Church, Highlands, NC: Robert R. Kopp, Pastor of First Presbyterian Church, Winston-Salem, NC: David N. Mosser, Pastor of First United Methodist Church, Georgetown, TX: and Deri G. Keefer, Pastor of Three Rivers Church of the Nazarene, Three Rivers, MI.
Sermon briefs deal with Advent texts
December 3, 1989 (Advent I)