November 27, 2017
Author: Scott Hoezee
Long about the time most people are switching all of their Christmas lights on to celebrate the holiday, the Gospel reading for the first Sunday in Advent brings us straight to a text that points forward to a great and coming day when all the lights will go . . . out.
Try turning this into a fireside Christmas story and see if the children’s eyes glisten in wonder! It’s the kind of thing you might expect The Onion or Saturday Night Live to make a parody out of as some holiday Scrooge-type terrifies children with tales of apocalyptic darkness as the sun goes supernova and the moon winks out as a result. It could give whole new meaning to the phrase “Be good for goodness sake”!
So why do it this way? Why darken the Advent landscape before we really get going here? The reason is plain enough to understand, even if it is quite counter-cultural. Because let’s face it: if the church cannot proclaim and look forward to the second advent of Christ, then in all honesty there is precious little sense in making much ado about his first advent in Bethlehem. If Jesus is not coming back to make all things new and bring in the kingdom he talked about all through his ministry, then any celebration of his birth really would be on a par with fantasies about Santa Claus and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer or the generic “holiday spirit” with which people try to get infused every December. If Jesus is not the Lord of lords who can come back at the end of history, then “Silent Night” has all the charm—and all the meaning—of “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire.”
But another reason for the church to ponder the day when the cosmic lights go out is because there is something about that prospect of darkness that makes people long for—and appreciate all-the-more—the One we proclaim to be the Light of the World. If even we in the church cannot move past the cozy sentimentality and twinkling lights of the season where the rest of society places all its emphasis, then we cannot appreciate the reasons why God went to the extreme lengths he did to bring the Son of God to this world in flesh. If the whole world just generally resembled the little fantasy kingdoms in the mall (and that most of us try to approximate in our own front yards each December), then the world would not need saving and God would not have needed to go to the bloody lengths he did to make that salvation a reality.
It may be bracing for the church to kick off Advent with an apocalyptic passage like Mark 13 but among other things, such a passage reminds us, and our culture, that the stakes in the Advent of Christ are exceedingly high. The Christ of God did not arrive in this world long ago to help people be a little nicer, to encourage a few weeks’ worth of charitable giving to the United Way or the local soup kitchen, or any other such short-term, local goal. No, the Christ of God came to make straight every crooked way, to right every wrong, to upend every injustice, and to reconcile all things—ALL things—to himself.
Compared to all that, all of our little Christmas lights combined really do look pretty dim after all.
Is there any significance to the rooster? In the New Testament, the Greek word for rooster crops up in only two places. The most famous instance involves Peter on the night when Jesus is arrested–all four gospels include that story. In Mark that takes place in the very next chapter. Aside from that, however, there is only one other place in the New Testament where any mention is made of a rooster, and it’s Mark 13:35. The precise Greek word in verse 35 for the rooster’s crow is found nowhere else in the Bible.
Is there a connection? Possibly. In the verses of this lection, Jesus urged Peter and the others to be vigilant, watchful, to live every moment as though it could be the last. Along the way, Jesus said that for all anyone knew, a moment of apocalyptic unveiling could happen sometime when the rooster crows at 1:30 in the morning. And maybe Peter heard all that and just maybe he did with those words what we often do: namely, he figured that if such a thing ever happened, it would be a long time off and maybe he’d not even be around anymore when the end would finally come.
But then, within maybe just 48 hours, a rooster crowed at 1:30 in the morning and the full truth of Jesus came crashing down around Peter’s ears. Peter did not need to live to see the final day of judgment. That moment, that cry of that rooster was his apocalypse, his encounter with the living God. What he perhaps thought was a long ways off when Jesus first talked about turned it out to be far closer, far more pressingly urgent than he guessed. As it turns out, any and every crying of the rooster is a moment potentially full of God.
In a sermon on this first Sunday in Advent, maybe we preachers can challenge people to ponder the ultimate moments in their own lives when the fullness of the kingdom is revealed to be closer than they think.
In one of his sermons, Fred Craddock told a story about something that happened many years ago while he was driving by himself cross-country. He had stopped at a small diner somewhere in the South to refresh himself with an early breakfast and some coffee. He had been driving through the night and now it was getting close to dawn. So before he got too sleepy, he stopped for a while.
As he waited for his breakfast order to come, Craddock spied a black man who had just come in and had sat down on a stool up by the lunch counter. The diner’s manager then began to treat the black man with a contempt that was clearly borne of deep-seated racism. The manager was rude, insulting, demeaning toward his black guest. As he sat in his booth a little ways away from the counter, Craddock wrestled with saying something to chide this manager for his shameful, racist conduct. Eventually the black man quickly slurped down some coffee and then fled the diner. Craddock meanwhile remained silent. “I didn’t say anything,” he confessed. “I quietly paid my bill, left the diner, and headed back to my car. But as I walked through the parking lot, somewhere in the distance, I heard a rooster crow.”
With that poignant, final image, Craddock evoked an entire cloud of denial, betrayal, shame, and regret. The rooster’s crow following the disciple Peter’s triple denial of Jesus has become one of the more famous images from the gospels. Of course, even so, not everyone knows it. I once heard Craddock say that one Sunday he was a guest preacher at a church and he preached that same sermon. After the service, a man came up to him in the narthex, shook Craddock’s hand vigorously, and said, “Thank you, pastor, for that powerful sermon. That really hit home! Oh, but by the way, what was that business with the rooster?”
Author: Doug Bratt
It’s always tempting for those who preach and teacher God’s Word to talk more about prayer than actually pray. So those who proclaim Isaiah 64 won’t just want to explore, exegete and apply it carefully this week. We’ll also want to actually spend time praying, perhaps using its structure and themes to do so.
The text the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday opens with an anguished cry to the Lord of earth and heaven: “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you” (1). It’s the desperate but poetic plea of a prophet who has probably returned with his Israelite people from Babylonian exile. Isaiah begs God to tear apart what his contemporaries assume separates God from them so that God can revisit the earth.
God, after all, reasons the prophet, tore the heavens to come down to earth at least once before. Though Isaiah doesn’t specifically refer to it, his imagery at least suggests that he has in mind God’s appearance at Sinai to Moses and God’s Israelite children. There, after all, the mountain trembled and spewed fire and smoke, reducing the Israelites to a trembling group of worshipers.
Yet when the prophet begs God to rip open the heavens to come back down to earth, he doesn’t seem to plead with God to come back to God’s Israelite sons and daughters. In verse 2 he begs God to “come down to make your name known to your enemies and cause the nations to quake before you (italics added).”
In his November 27, 2005 sermon in Chicago’s Fourth Presbyterian Church, John Buchanan suggests Isaiah’s essentially pleading with God, “O that you would show the Babylonians who’s in charge. O that you would come and put things right again, fix what’s wrong. O that you would come down with justice, punish the wicked, and reward the righteous.”
As Buchanan goes on to note, it’s the type of prayer that still arises from God’s adopted sons and daughters. “O that you would rend the heavens and come down …” is the kind of prayer that escapes our lips every time we read about another suicide attack on a group of people. It’s the kind of prayer that bursts from the hearts of God’s people when we hear about political machinations, corruption and foolishness. It’s the kind of prayer we gasp when we read about famine, as well as deadly storms and earthquakes. It’s even the kind of prayer that arises when we witness or hear about sexual misconduct or abuse of power both within and outside of the church.
Yet it’s as if as soon as the prophet begs God to split the heavens and come down to earth, he also peeks in a kind of spiritual mirror. After all, in almost the same breath as he prays, “O that you would rend the heavens and come down,” he goes on to confess, “All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away” (6). It’s almost as if Isaiah says, “We have met God’s enemy … and it is us!”
So almost as quickly as the prophet begs God to come down to confront God’s enemies, he recognizes that Israel has made herself God’s enemy. He admits, “No one calls on your name or strives to lay hold of you” (7a). In his November 24, 2014 Sermon Starter on this text, Scott Hoezee paraphrases this part of the prophet’s prayer: “O God, we’re sorry to say that our hands are pretty dirty. Even the best we have to offer comes to you soiled and smudged by the time we are able to offer it up to you and, to be honest, that’s not all that often as it is. Folks around here don’t pray much these days. Still others of us know that you’ve seen our sins, how they are so great that they all but carry us away like some fierce hurricane-force wind. And so we’re getting what we have deserved.”
So Isaiah admits that it’s not just God’s “enemies” and “the nations” that need God to split the heavens to come down in order to make things right. It’s also God’s Israelite sons and daughters who are in desperate need of reform. It’s not just the mountains that need a good trembling. It’s also the Israelites who need to learn to tremble in reverence and worship before the Lord.
Some of the prophet’s imagery is very vivid. After all, he compares God’s Israelite people to those who are so ceremonially impure that they would endanger their very lives were they to approach God in worship. Isaiah likens the Israelites’ best actions to a woman’s menstrual flow. He admits God’s Israelite sons and daughters are, in fact, no more substantial than the leaves that fall from the trees in the fall.
As God’s adopted Christian sons and daughters prepare to celebrate God’s ripping open of the heavens to come down to us in Jesus Christ, verses 6 and 7 form a highly appropriate kind of prayer and posture. After all, it’s not just terrorists, abusers and polluters who have who have sinned against God. It’s also us, the very people who can hardly wait to celebrate God’s Christmas arrival. We too have continued to sin against God. So God didn’t just have to tear open the heavens to come to earth in order to fix other people. God also needed to come down in Christ in order to save Christians who so gladly sing Christmas carols and retell the Christmas story. After all, as Hoezee suggests, Advent is “a good time to remember that the only reason Jesus ever advented into our time and space in the first place was because of our own sinfulness, our own weakness, our own vulnerability to temptation with which even now as Christian believers we still struggle every single day of our lives.”
Thank God, then, for Isaiah and Advent’s gracious “Yet” (8). Just when all seems lost, the prophet makes a startling profession: “Yet (italics added), O Lord, you are our Father. We are the clay, you are the Potter; we are all the works of your hand. Do not be angry beyond measure, O Lord; do not remember our sins forever. Oh, look upon us, we pray, for we are all your people.”
Hoezee continues his paraphrase of the prophet this way: “You are still our Father. We are still your children, your people. We’re just lumps of clay who are nothing unless you sculpt and mold us. So do that. Make us look like you again. Come down that way and be gentle with us so that we may follow you again.”
On the Sunday on which much of the Church begins its celebration of Advent, it’s good for those who proclaim Isaiah 64 to remember that God’s people aren’t just those who have continued to sin against God’s ways (5b). We also remember that God, in fact, in Christ has already split open the heavens once to come down to us. However, because of God’s Son’s life, death and resurrection, God did not come down to sweep away God’s adopted sons and daughters. God, instead, graciously came down to “look upon” (9) God’s people in mercy and kindness.
Yet while Advent is a season that looks back to God’s splitting of the heavens in Christ roughly 2,000 years ago, it’s also a time to look around at the ways God is constantly rending the heavens to come down to God’s people. We remember that God is always coming “down” to us by God’s Holy Spirit, making himself present to, with and among not only us, but also God’s whole creation.
Among the ways God is present to us by the Holy Spirit “potter” is by constantly molding “the clay” (8) that is God’s people. The God who came “down” to us in Jesus Christ comes to us constantly, molding and shaping us in the image of Jesus. God is always transforming us from bloody discharges, filthy rags and dried-up leaves into beautiful vessels of God’s goodness and grace.
However, in Advent we also remember that the God who split the heavens to come down to us in Christ Jesus and always comes to us by the Holy Spirit is coming again. Some day soon God will again rend the heavens to come down to God’s creation to turn it into the new earth and heavens, the eternal home of God among God’s redeemed creatures.
We long for that day when God will tear open the heavens to come as the sacrificed Lamb and victorious King. Though we have continued to sin against God and each other, we don’t have to be afraid. After all, the one who will “look upon” (9) us will be our Savior who lived, died and rose again from the dead for us.
Illustration Idea (from Scott Hoezee’s November 30, 2014 Old Testament Sermon Starter)
The most famous line from the old Pogo comic strip came in the one the cartoonist Walter Kelly produced for Earth Day back in 1971. As Pogo and another character try to make their way through a supposedly “beautiful” forest, they find walking increasingly difficult. The second frame reveals why: the forest is littered with old car tires, broken cinderblocks, broken old chairs and discarded bathtubs. Pogo Possum observes this and says, “Yes, son, we have met the enemy and he is us” (italics added).
Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
Author: Stan Mast
In all three years of the Lectionary cycle, Psalm 80 is seen as an Advent Psalm, probably because of the central prayer in verse 2; “come and save us.” In years A and C, it is the last Psalm of Advent. This year, it is the first Psalm of Advent. Its use here in the liturgical year shapes the way we think about and observe Advent. Everyone knows that Advent is a time of waiting, expectation, and hope for the coming of the Christ. Psalm 80 adds a note of desperation to all of that. More importantly, it keeps us from a pre-mature celebration of Christmas by offering us a profound reflection on God’s role in the troubles of our lives and of the world.
It doesn’t take an exegetical genius to hear the desperation in the prayers that rise up out of Psalm 80—“hear us, shine forth, awaken, come, save, restore, make your face shine, let your hand rest.” In all those pleas, and especially the first four in verses 1 and 2, there is, on the one hand, a sense of the caring closeness of God. He is the Shepherd of Israel who leads Joseph like a flock. He is right over there in the Temple enthroned between the cherubim that decorate the Ark of the Covenant. But, on the other hand, it feels to Israel as though their caring covenant Lord may be deaf (“hear us”), or hiding in the dark (“shine forth”), or asleep (“awaken”), or weak (“your might”), or away (“come”).
Most scholars identify the trouble behind the text as the Assyrian invasion of the northern Kingdom of Israel described in II Kings 17. The reference to Ephraim and Manasseh and, to a lesser degree, Benjamin point north. And the description of the vineyard being invaded and ravaged by wild boars suggests a pagan incursion. The precious people of God had undergone a dark time, and they beg God to come and save, to shine forth as he did in those hard years of wilderness wandering (cf. the Aaronic blessing taught to Israel during that wandering).
Indeed, more serious than that dark time caused by the Assyrians was the inescapable feeling that their God had gone dark and was, in fact, behind that invasion. Verse 4 is filled with the pathos of confusion and terror. Using all three names for God that echo through the thrice repeated refrain, the remnant of Israel cries, “O Lord God Almighty, how long will your anger smolder against the prayers of your people?” That is a horrific idea. God’s devastated people pray to God out of their pain, and they meet not the gentle Shepherd of Israel, but an angry, smoldering God, a God who is angry not just with their sins, but even with their prayers.
Now, to be perfectly accurate, it must be said that the word “anger” is not found in the Hebrew of verse 4. It says that God fumes, or smokes, or, as the NIV has it, smolders. And it doesn’t necessarily mean that he is angry with their prayers; it might mean that God is angry in spite of their prayers. Their prayers don’t seem to do much good, because God remains angry. All Christians have experienced something like that; it seems like our prayers aren’t answered, no matter how persistent and passionate they may be.
It does seem at times as though God is not favorably disposed toward us. Indeed, the Psalmist is sure that God is directly involved in the sorrow caused by the Assyrian invasion and the ongoing harassment by Israel’s neighbors. “You have fed them with the bread of tears (as opposed to the “bread of angels” as in the desert); you have made them drink tears by the bowlful (as opposed to water from the rock as in the desert). You have made them a source of contention to our neighbors (as opposed to the way you defeated the enemy for us as we entered the land)….”
The Psalmist goes on in this vein, rehearsing how Yahweh had brought Israel out of Egypt, drove out the nations in Canaan, and planted Israel in the Promised Land, where they grew and prospered under God’s blessing. But then, in a way that absolutely confused Israel, God seemed to turn against them. “Why have you broken down the walls” of your protection that kept us safe and secure? Why have you allowed those animals from the north to pluck our grapes, ravage the vineyard, cut down the vines and burn the whole thing with fire? Though there is much disagreement about the exact meaning of verse 16b, the NIV translation surely describes how many of the remaining Jews felt; “at your rebuke your people perish.”
Why? How can this be? And how long must we wait until God comes to save? These are not the kind of thoughts we want to entertain in this happy holiday season. We want to focus on the “light that was coming into the world (John 1),” not on a God who not only hides in the dark, but even seems dark himself.
But the reality is that all of us have experienced dark times in life and asked those agonized questions in our darkness. Who has not cried out to a God who seems deaf or asleep or weak or missing in action? Even in this happy time (indeed, especially in the forced merriment of the holidays), many people struggle with hard situations and dark depression. So, even though it may seem counter-intuitive, Psalm 80 is a perfect Psalm with which to begin Advent. “Come and save us.”
That is particularly true when we probe the ambiguous refrain that runs through the Psalm (verses 3, 7, 19). I say it is ambiguous first of all because of the increasing passion of it, as indicated by the addition of another name for God with each repetition—“O God, O God Almighty, O Lord God Almighty.” While that might signal increasing panic, it is also a sign that faith has not been lost even in the darkness. Our first plea is simply to God, the generic Elohim. Our second approach in the darkness caused by invading armies is to God Almighty, which, in the Hebrew is sabbaoth, the Lord of hosts, the God who leads the armies that can defeat anyone. And our last plea is to Yahweh, the covenant God with whom we have a personal/corporate relationship, the God who has taken us by the hand and promised to bless us forever. As life gets darker, faith must cling more firmly, which is exactly what the Psalmist does here.
Second, that refrain is ambiguous because of the verb “restore.” It might simply mean, “O Lord God Almighty, restore us to our former prosperity, reverse our fortunes and let your vine flourish again.” However, the verb there is the Hebrew word shub, the classic word for repentance. It means to turn, or turn around, or more precisely “cause to turn around.” So, whom are we asking God to cause to turn—us or God. One eminent scholar says there is no hint of repentance in this Psalm, but that seems far too definite a statement to me. One response to dark times is self-reflection and changes in oneself. Surely that would be a good thing to do as we begin Advent.
But the rest of the refrain suggests that this is really a prayer asking God to change himself. Come out of the darkness and “make your face shine upon us….” Stop being angry and “save us.” If God is really behind the trouble in our lives, however indirectly, why wouldn’t we ask God to cause himself to turn around?
Admittedly, this is a potentially problematic line of thought. Let’s not spend sermonic time speculating about the possibility of changes in the God-head, as former generations of theologians have done, writing major tomes on the simplicity and impassivity of God. If we simply look at the way the Psalm talks, the Psalmist is asking God to return to the way God treated Israel in the past. Renew the work you began in Egypt and in the conquest and in the glory days of David. Do it again, O Lord God Almighty, return to the way you acted in history, turn yourself back to it.
If we combine those two ways of understanding “restore,” we have a complete Advent prayer. Do something to us, O Lord, and do something to yourself. Turn us to yourself and turn your face to us again. Verse 14 captures the second part of that prayer in words that resonate with the spirit of Advent. “Return to us, O God Almighty! Look down from heaven and see.” And verse 18 suggests the ultimate result of a repentant turn to God. “Then we will not turn away from you; revive us, and we will call on your name.”
We talk about New Year’s resolutions. Here is an Advent resolution. We know we have turned away from you and called on the name of other gods. But now, O Lord, we make you a promise, a vow. If you will restore us, if you cause us to turn around, we will not turn away from you again. We will call only on you, O Lord God Almighty.
There are two ways you can turn this text in a Christ-ward direction. First, verse 17 asks God to let his “hand rest on the man at your right hand, the son of man you have raised up for yourself.” It is easy to see that as an allusion to David, but the context indicates that the initial reference is to Israel itself. Note how verse 15 talks about the vine, which is obviously Israel, but it uses the very language of verse 17—”right hand” and “the son you have raised up for yourself.” This is a prayer, like the rest of the Psalm, that God will bless his firstborn son, Israel, again.
However, later Judaism and early Christianity saw verse 17 as a messianic text and understood it as a future promise. The fact that Jesus was and is at God’s right hand and the fact that he called himself “the Son of Man” make such a Christ-ward reading of verse 17 a legitimate interpretation. It is in Christ that we are restored. He causes us to repent and he was most surely God’s face shining again on his sinful people. He was “the light that shined in the darkness.” And even though the darkness did not understand him, to “all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God….”
Second, in Christ we look forward to the restoration of all things, as Peter said in his second sermon. In Acts 3:19-21, he echoes Psalm 80. “Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord, and that he may send the Christ, who has been appointed for you—even Jesus. He must remain in heaven, until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago through his holy prophets.” In the spirit of Psalm 80, Paul wrote to the Philippians, “I am sure that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ (Phil. 1:6).”
The predominance of the concept of turning in this Psalm evokes a number of associations that might help you illustrate your sermon. I thought of the old Pete Seeger song popularized by The Byrds in the 1960’s. Entitled “Turn, Turn, Turn,” it was a word for word recitation of Ecclesiastes 3. “To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven.” Between the phrases from Ecclesiastes 3, the title words were repeated, suggesting that in all the times of life, we can “turn, turn, turn.” A good theme for the beginning of Advent. And I thought about a simple old Christian song that has echoes of Psalm 80. “Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in his wonderful face, and the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of his glory and grace.” And I thought about that famous phrase from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, “the still point of the turning world….”
1 Corinthians 1:3-9
Author: Scott Hoezee
The theologian Robert Jenson passed away recently. “Jens” as he was known had the ability to see through to the core of many theological and historical matters. He once made a curious point in the course of a seminar I attended one week. Jens said that in history, the Christian Church has, of course, found itself in a host of very different cultures, times, and places. As we are now in the early stages of this third millennium A.D., we know that our modern world looks and feels vastly different from the world that existed even a century or two ago, let alone a thousand years ago. Our easy use of miracles like the telephone and computer, our understanding of planet Earth’s place in the larger scheme of outer space, our familiarity with cars and jets–all of this makes us very different from most of the people who ever lived.
Even so, Jenson observed, when it comes to the basic beliefs of the Christian faith, we ought to have more in common with someone like the apostle Paul from long ago than with non-Christians alive right now. If third-century Christians could see any number of things in our modern world, they would likely be stunned. But even still, if they could somehow across the centuries listen in on our worship, then we could only pray that the message that they would hear from us in the year 2017 would be the same gospel they heard back in the year 217. If it were not, if we had allowed the modern world to alter our Christian proclamation and beliefs, then we could not properly claim to belong to the true Church. No matter how bizarre the setting of the modern world would be to Christians from the distant past, the message that gets proclaimed should still be so true to the Bible, that any Christian from any time or place would be able to hear what we say and respond, “Yup! That’s my hope, too! That’s still the same gospel message of God’s love that changed my whole life so long ago!”
Long ago in the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ, the world began again. History changed because of Jesus and because he really did “advent” into this world. One of the things that changed is that a new group known as the Church appeared on the scene as the gathering of all those who know and love Jesus as Lord. It’s a wonderful thing to know that we are part of a holy community that is now about 2,000 years old, that spans the globe, and that includes so many untold millions of people, each of whom truly is a spiritual brother or sister.
1 Corinthians is the longest letter in the New Testament and also one of the more curious documents we have in the Bible. You can begin to detect that already in this letter’s signature. These days we sign our letters at the end. But in Paul’s day you “signed” your letter right up front. As Tom Long once pointed out, however, then as now the nature of the signature–the way by which the letter is signed–provides a big clue as to what kind of letter it is.
For instance, if I am asked to write a letter of recommendation for a student who is going on in her studies at some big university, it is very unlikely that I will sign that letter with something like, “Love, Scott.” No, such a letter would be a formal communication in which I’d want to muster my credentials so that my endorsement of this person will have some clout. So I’ll sign such a letter with something like, “Sincerely, Rev. Scott E. Hoezee, Director, The Center for Excellence in Preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary.” On the other hand, if I am out of town and send a letter or email home to my wife, it’s unlikely that I would sign that letter, “Regards, Scott E. Hoezee” (at least not if I want to be welcomed home again!).
We know instinctively how to sign letters–we know when to sign off in a warm, affectionate way and when to sign off in an official, formal way. We also sense that signatures can be a tip-off for other things. For instance, suppose you’re romantically interested in someone and suppose that this someone sends you a letter or a note. Well, if this person signs off with “Cordially” instead of the “Love” you were hoping to see, then you get the sinking sensation that the romantic feelings are not mutually shared after all. Or if someone sends you a letter and if, even before you read it, you notice that the person signed off, “Sadly” or “With deep regret, Harry” you know right away this may not be a happy note! (Your heart sinks a bit more if you notice it has no signature at all. Anonymous letters are also not usually happy pieces of post!)
Ancient letter-writers like Paul signed their correspondence right up front. If you pay attention, these signatures also can be a clue as to what kind of letter you’re looking at. For instance, Paul opens his letter to the Philippians with the signature, “Paul and Timothy, slaves of Christ Jesus,” and he thereby sets up a letter that will be about service and humility. In many letters, Paul’s signature is warm and friendly, as in Colossians when he signs, “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus, to the holy and faithful ones in Christ at Colossae: grace and peace to you and, by the way, I thank God every time I so much as think of you.”
In sharp contrast you have a letter like Galatians: “Paul. An apostle. Sent not by the will of man nor on human authority but sent to you directly by Jesus Christ. To the churches in Galatia: I am astonished that you have abandoned the gospel!” And right away you know that this is not going to be a friendly letter! Paul is ticked off and so dispenses with the ordinary niceties of letter-writing to cut to the chase of rebuking the Galatians.
When Paul wrote his first letter to the Corinthians, his signature talks about callings. “Paul, called to be an apostle, to the holy ones at Corinth, called to be holy . . . together with all those who call on the Lord.” Thus Paul sets up a letter that is going to remind a very divided congregation of their common calling to be holy in all their conduct. But precisely because Corinth was so divided a congregation, precisely because Paul was quite exacerbated with these folks, I agree with Tom Long who thinks that verses 4-9 were written in a somewhat ironic mood. Paul is kind of jostling the Corinthians in the ribs here, poking some fun of them as a way to shame them.
Paul had already received a letter from the Corinthians in which they presented him with a very long laundry list of questions and disputes that were tearing their tiny congregation to shreds. Reading between the lines of I Corinthians, it’s clear that this was a congregation in turmoil. Already in verse 12 we find out that the Corinthians were divided among those who claimed to follow Apollos, those who claimed to follow Paul, those who claimed to follow Peter, and those who claimed Jesus all for themselves. Scholars think the Corinthian church could not have been much bigger than 50 to 100 people at this time and yet they’re chopped up into groups of 10-25 people, each claiming their own patron pastor.
Worse still, in and through these factions were still more sub-factions. There was the “holier-than-thou” group focused on speaking in tongues and on spectacular spiritual gifts. These were the kinds of people who, as Martin Luther once described them, thought they had swallowed the Holy Spirit feathers and all. They used their more obvious, spine-tingling gifts as a way to claim superiority over everyone else. Then there was the “smarter-than-thou” group focused on superior intellectual skills. These folks were convinced that they had been granted a secret knowledge from God that made them wiser than everyone else (and closer to God, too, since he had taken them, but not everyone, into his holy confidence).
On top of all this, the Corinthians were also bickering about questions on marriage, food sacrificed to idols, and the authenticity of Paul’s apostolic credentials. They were also filing lawsuits against one another. They were harboring in their midst a man having sex with his mother-in-law. Their celebrations of the Lord’s Supper were marred by the rich folks of the church pushing aside the poorer members. And a few folks were questioning if Easter were true, casting doubts on whether or not Jesus had been raised from the dead.
So into the midst of this factious, contentious little group of people, Paul drops his bombshell of a letter. As already noted, in the first two verses Paul establishes the letter’s tone by introducing the theme of calling. We are all called by God to be holy–that’s our number one task. Given the state in which the Corinthians found themselves, that reminder must have been a bracing slap-in-the-face–yea verily, a type of wake-up call!
But then come verses 4-9. With tongue firmly planted in cheek, Paul writes, “You know, I thank God for you people. You’ve been made rich in every way. You’re just so smart, aren’t you? Your speech is so temperate, isn’t it?” Of course, Paul knew full well that speaking in tongues was tearing the church apart as was some people’s focus on superior knowledge. He goes on: “You’ve been given so many gifts, haven’t you?” Paul knew full well this matter of gifts was nearly bringing them to blows. “And I know God is going to keep you strong“–they were dreadfully weak–“and make you blameless“–they were blameworthy in excelcis–“because it is God who has called you into his divine fellowship”–their actual fellowship was rapidly becoming non-existent.
Such is the letter to the Corinthians, such was the sorry state of the congregation in Corinth. It’s hard to believe that already in the earliest days of the church–within a generation of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection–already then the church was experiencing some of the same difficulties it has faced ever since. But so it was, and the New Testament is very honest about this. Even a casual reading of the Book of Acts shows that the early church was no more free of heresy, schism, feuding, and trouble than the church today.
OK, but how does this fit with the First Sunday in Advent when the Year B lectionary assigns this as the epistle text? Well, perhaps it is a reminder that when the Son of God got incarnated into this world, he entered our messes. He entered our troubled lives. And if in the end the church he ultimately established continues to struggle and have weaknesses, well, that is all the more testament to the fact that we need to cling for dear life to the Savior who knows full well what it is like to live in this still-broken world. Jesus came precisely because we could never save ourselves. We could not even KEEP ourselves saved if it were up to us. The at-times sorry history of the church tells us that much.
But the gospel proclaims that Jesus has indeed salvaged out of this bad and crazy world a people for himself. The love of God has come down to this world and has crept (and sometimes crashed) into the hearts of people everywhere. We are privileged beyond measure to be part of that people. Things don’t always go swimmingly. We struggle. We fail. We don’t always look like “holy, holy ones” whom God has called. But just as Paul sent his love to the mixed-up-seven-ways-to-Sunday Corinthians, so God keeps sending his love to us.
Our hope is rooted in the fact that we serve a God more relentless than even our own sin; a God who is patient and kind and who flat out will not let us go. So through it all, through the horrible Corinthian mess and through far less dramatic messes in places like our various congregations, the love of God keeps getting sent out, keeps getting received.
That is a good news message for Advent and for any time!
Composer Igor Stravinsky once wrote a symphony that contained a perilously difficult violin passage. After weeks of rehearsal with the orchestra, the lead violinist came up to Stravinsky and said, “I’m sorry, maestro, but I’ve given this piece my best and I just can’t play it.” “I understand that,” Stravinsky replied, “but what I’m after is the sound of someone trying to play it.”
As Philip Yancey once observed, maybe God takes a similar attitude toward the church. We’re called to holy, holy living, to be saints. Often we don’t feel saintly, though. But perhaps the sound of millions of Christians at least trying to play a holy tune has added up to a symphony of holiness that has changed and that will continue to change the whole world.