Advent 1B

November 27, 2017

  • The Lectionary Gospel +

    Mark 13:24-37

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • Old Testament Lectionary +

    Isaiah 64:1-9

    Author: Doug Bratt

  • The Lectionary Psalms +

    Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19

    Author: Stan Mast

  • Lectionary Epistle

    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!

    Illustration Idea

    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.