January 13, 2020
The Epiphany 2A Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for John 1:29-42 from the Lectionary Gospel; Isaiah 49:1-7 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 40:1-11 from the Lectionary Psalms; and 1 Corinthians 1:1-9 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Lectionary Psalm: Heidelberg Catechism: Q&A 103 (Lord’s Day 38)
Author: Scott Hoezee
The lamb of God. Agnus Dei. The lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Agnus Dei tolle peccato mundi. It is so familiar to us. Even if you Google that Latin phrase Agnus Dei, you instantly get over 10 million hits. And that’s in Latin! (Maybe these days quid quo pro would get more hits but probably not.) And few images in stained glass—in the world’s great cathedrals as well as in the world’s smallest country churches—are more familiar than anything depicting a lamb.
Anytime a phrase or an image takes on a life of its own like “Lamb of God” has done in history, we assume it is something that is all over the place in the Bible. Yet did you know that John 1 is the only place in the entire Bible where it is used? No Old Testament prophet ever referred to God’s Messiah as “the lamb of God” before John 1 and no New Testament writer will repeat this exact phrase either. Even in the Book of Revelation, where the apostle John mentions the image of the Lamb, the exact phrase “the lamb of God” is not repeated.
To this day scholars have not come to a consensus as to what John the Baptist meant by this designation for Jesus. But consider: if even 2,000 years later people are not certain as to what this phrase means, how likely is it that the people on that long ago day understood it!? If, as appears to be the case, this phrase was a novelty, perhaps coined by John the Baptist himself, then how did it strike those around him? The people had long been looking for the Messiah, but in the form of a king, a warrior, a hero. So calling Jesus a lamb would hardly have conjured up the idea of the Messiah. It maybe seemed downright odd or even cruel.
Even today you sometimes hear people described in animal terms, but nine times out of ten such designations are not complimentary. No one wants to be called “a pig” at the dinner table. If a high school boy refers to a girl as a real “dog,” it’s not kind. Still other times someone may be called “bull-headed,” a “bird brain,” a “cow,” a “scaredy cat,” a “barracuda,” a “pit bull,” and so forth. Each carries with it a certain descriptive connotation but none is very positive.
John calls Jesus “a lamb,” which could have been perceived a couple of different ways. Lambs are often a symbol of gentleness, meekness, and vulnerability. In this sense, calling Jesus a lamb could have been a nice thing to say, but it would hardly be the type of description that would fit the Messiah. Certainly the average politician wouldn’t be very successful in getting elected if the main way people thought about him was that he was a real lamb of a guy! When the stock market is doing well, it’s called a “Bull Market.” You can’t imagine having a “Lamb Market” and it being considered good news for investors.
But, of course, in Jesus’ day, because there was that long history in Israel of using lambs as sacrifices, there was another sense in which hearing Jesus called “a lamb” might have struck some people as cruel. Maybe it would be like today calling someone a “turkey” or a “dumb bunny” or a “jackass.” Calling Jesus a lamb may have sounded like the equivalent of accusing Jesus of being a little dumb, someone easy to gang up on.
It does make you wonder what the disciples thought when they decided to hitch their wagon to this particular “star.” Was Jesus going places or going nowhere?
Whether John’s title meant Jesus was very meek or that he was destined for the chopping block, either way (much less both ways) it didn’t seem to indicate Jesus would be very effective in the long run. Nice guys finish last and sacrificial lambs are just finished eventually. Yet John adds the kicker line that somehow this particular lamb-like Jesus would “take away the sin of the world.”
So now we have the image of a lamb and the concept of sin in the same sentence. But since the only traditional connection between lambs and sin had always involved the death of the hapless lamb, John is clearly introducing a very dark theme. This isn’t the kind of thing you’d say about someone who was on his way to the top of this world’s heap. This isn’t how you’d describe a celebrity on a red carpet or a politician on his way to the platform where he had just been nominated for president.
John could just as easily have said, “Behold, the one who is going down the tubes! Behold the loser, the victim, the dead man walking.”
How odd it must have sounded. The next day, though, John repeats it, letting you know that it wasn’t some foolish slip-of-the-tongue on John’s part. This is central to who this Jesus was. When preaching on this passage today, we do well to recover for our congregations the oddness of the phrase, re-appropriating in afresh in ways that will generate wonder and gratitude.
As noted, despite the world-famous nature of the phrase “the lamb of God,” this is a John 1 novelty not found anywhere else in the Bible. That Jesus is identified as being a lamb is surely confirmed in Revelation 4-5 but the precise phrase used in John 1 may be a John-the-Baptist novelty. What did John the Baptist mean by it? As noted, there is not a great scholarly consensus on this question. The most obvious choice is to connect this to the Passover lamb but even this is disputed by many. But if you do not go that route, the other options are limited to a single verse scattered here or there in the Old Testament, the best known of which is Isaiah 53’s passing reference to a lamb being led silently to the slaughter. But either way or both ways, calling Jesus a lamb surely was meant to conjure up sacrifice and suffering and such. Probably that is why the next time we run across that image in the Book of Revelation, we are told that the lamb John of Patmos saw in his heavenly vision was not just any old lamb: this one was a lamb “that had been slain.” A dead lamb walking—that’s what John saw. It is also what John the Baptist predicted in John 1.
The folks in Hollywood love to shower themselves with awards, as we saw very recently in the 2020 Golden Globe Awards. There are, of course, awards presented in other fields: journalism and literature have the Pulitzer, the sciences and related fields have the Nobel Prize, and even religious folks get in on the action through things like Christianity Today’s “Book of the Year Award” and the lucrative “Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion.”
But no single field has an array of awards like the entertainment industry: the Golden Globe Awards, the People’s Choice Awards, the New York Film Critics Awards, the Emmy Awards, the Cannes Film Festival Awards, the Tony Awards, the Grammy Awards, the American Film Institute Awards, the Los Angeles Film Critics Awards, the Screen Actors Guild Awards, and of course the Academy Awards.
You are probably familiar with what often happens before these ceremonies begin. Outside the theater hosting the show, they literally roll out the red carpet. Velvet ropes cordon off the walkway leading to the entrance, and sometimes a few tiers of bleachers are erected for spectators. Hours, and sometimes even days, before the show begins, crowds gather hoping to catch a glimpse of the stars. Then, as the limos begin pulling up and depositing their precious celebrity cargo, cheers and screams emanate from the spectators as the likes of Tom Cruise and Julia Roberts, Jennifer Lopez and George Clooney, Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep begin their high-profile trek down the red carpet, stopping frequently to speak into the microphones being shoved their way by eager reporters.
It’s amazing how much excitement can be generated by having the right kind of person simply walk past you. That’s why there is a kind of delicious contrast provided by John 1. There has never been a more important celebrity on this planet than Jesus. Yet John 1 makes clear that without some extra divine help, you would hardly be able to pick Jesus out of a crowd. Even John the Baptist admits that if God hadn’t let him see the Spirit descending onto Jesus like a dove, he himself wouldn’t have known who Jesus was.
If you look at it from the right angle, John 1 is almost hilarious in being so understated. Jesus had no red carpet to walk on. He wasn’t a Brat Pitt-type who became the center of attention wherever he went, causing people to crane their necks to see him. Small wonder people missed recognizing Jesus then. We for sure would miss him today! While thrusting an autograph book in the direction of Julia Roberts or Leonardo DiCaprio, Jesus would probably brush past us and we’d never see him.
Author: Stan Mast
We met the famed Servant of Isaiah in last week’s Old Testament lesson, where God introduced him/them to us. Now in this reading, the second Servant Song, we learn more as the Servant reflects on his/their calling, ministry, failure, reassurance, and ultimate glory.
The mixed pronouns in that last sentence reflect the long controversy over the identity of this servant. If you read only verse 3, it seems obvious that the Servant is the people of Israel. But the opening verse certainly sounds individual with its reference to birth. Indeed, verses 1 and 2 are remarkably like the calls of the prophets Isaiah (Isaiah 6) and Jeremiah (Jeremiah 1) and Ezekiel (Ezekiel 1-3). So maybe the Servant is the Prophet himself. Further, it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to hear in verse 7 an early version of the Suffering Servant song of Isaiah 53, which the New Testament takes to be a prophecy of the sufferings of the Christ.
We can view that controversy as an obstacle to clear preaching, or we can see it as an opportunity to explore the depth and richness of God’s plan of redemption. The Servant was, indeed, Israel, called by God to be a light to the world. When Israel failed, God called Isaiah to be the Servant who would speak words of judgment and hope to Israel. And when both Israel and Isaiah failed in their God given commission, God sent the Servant Jesus to fulfill the mission of Israel and Isaiah. So, he said, “I am the light of the world (John 8:12).”
I’m getting ahead of myself. But I wanted to urge you not to be turned off by the controversy. This complex passage is tailor made to help you reveal the glory of Christ on this Second Sunday after Epiphany. The most obvious connection to Epiphany is that line in verse 6, “I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.” That has been called the Great Commission of the Old Testament, a soaring prophecy that looks beyond Israel’s judgment and exile, return and restoration, to the salvation of the whole world and the glory of the hitherto despised Servant.
When we focus on that Great Commission of the Servant, we understand why Isaiah opens his reflections on the ministry of the Servant with a call to the nations of the world. “Listen to me, you islands; hear this, you distant lands.” I will be coming to you with the Word of the Lord, so listen well, unlike Israel whose ears and eyes were closed to the Word.
In the rest of verse 1 and in all of verse 2 we hear the qualifications of the Servant for his mission. First and most important, God chose him for the work, even before he was born, even before his mother had named him. The Servant was elected by God, who then “made his mouth like a sharpened sword….” This points to the fact that his ministry was not the kind of royal governance suggested in Isaiah 42, but the kind of prophetic speaking that would pierce the hearts of sinful people. The Word of the Servant would be like a sharp two-edged sword.
But his ministry would be hidden; “in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me into a polished arrow and concealed me in his quiver.” For much of his ministry, his glory would be hidden, with only an occasional epiphany of his true identity. So it was for Israel, for Isaiah, and for Jesus. Thus, his enemies were forever challenging, “Are you the Christ? Tell us.” Even his believing disciples moved from certainty to doubt again and again. He came to reveal the glory of God, but most of the time that glory was hidden in the flesh of a man named Jesus.
Nevertheless, that Servant knew he was called by God. “He (Yahweh) said to me, ‘You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will display my splendor’.” This verse is the clearest indication that the Servant is the nation of Israel. However, it is possible that we should read “my servant, Israel” not as vocative, but as a predicative. That is, it could read, “You are my servant, [you are] Israel.” The individual servant represents the nation of Israel. The servant is the ideal Israel. When corporate Israel failed to “display [God’s] splendor,” God chose another to be his servant and do what Israel had failed to do. “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth (John 1:14).”
But as I said above, that ministry was not always glorious. Indeed, it was filled with failure and frustration, as voiced in verse 4. “But I said, ‘I have labored to no purpose; I have spent my strength in vain and for nothing.’” After three years of authoritative teaching, amazing love, and astonishing miracles, the Servant died ignominiously on a Roman cross with nearly all of his followers scattered into the darkness. No glory there.
Yet the servant continues to trust that his work is not utterly in vain. Humans may reject his work, but there is still God above. In words that many a struggling but faithful minister has whispered late on Sunday night, the Servant speaks his faith. “Yet what is due me is in the Lord’s hand and my reward is with my God.” One wonders if it was this alternation between despair and hope that drove Jesus to his solitary all-night prayer vigils. The Servant suffered even before Isaiah 53.
Now into that mixture of doubt and faith comes a soaring word from Yahweh. “And now the Lord says….” No matter what my enemies say, no matter what my discouraged self says, this is what God says about his servant. I “formed you in the womb to be my servant to bring Jacob back to himself and gather Israel to himself….” That is the short-term goal of the Servant’s ministry—the salvation of God’s historic chosen people. With that reminder, the Servant remembers that “I am honored in the eyes of Yahweh and my God has been my strength….” Which is another way of saying, “You can do this great thing to which I have called you.”
Then God reveals his long-term goal for his servant—not just the salvation of minuscule Israel, but the salvation of the whole world. God says, “It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Israel and bring back those of Israel I have kept….” Well, actually, that was not a small thing at all, not to captive Israel singing their sad songs by the willows of Babylon. That was a miracle beyond belief for God’s exiled people.
But God says, “No, that’s just the beginning, just the first move in my majestic plan of salvation.” I have my eyes on the whole world. I always have. Indeed, that’s why I elected Israel in the first place, as a kind of beachhead in my campaign to retake the world from the forces of sin and death and darkness. I will win the final victory through my servant, who will be “a light for the Gentiles that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.”
This might not have sounded like good news to the exiles in Babylon. After all, they had been used and abused by the nations, completely destroyed and enslaved by Babylon. Now they are told that God had intended all along to use Israel to save the world. And when their light sputtered and died, God would send another Servant to bring that Light into the darkness. You think that your return from Exile will be incredible? Well, I will finally do the preposterous and return all nations to my kingdom. This is an Epiphany we can’t imagine in our wildest dreams. It’s as though God says to us in this text, “you ain’t seen nothing yet.” In fact, that might be the title of my sermon on this text.
Our reading ends with a verse that many scholars think is really the beginning of another section of this Servant Song, but the Lectionary includes it here. I think it an apt conclusion because in it Yahweh declares the ultimate glory of his Servant. Yes, he will be despised and abhorred by the nations, as Israel and Isaiah and Jesus were. In his death, Jesus was subservient to the rulers of Rome (and of the temple). But as Isaiah 53 will reveal, that very humiliation will be the instrument of salvation. The Servant will become a light for the Gentiles precisely by his suffering and death.
Further, his suffering and death will not be the end of him. In the end, “Kings will see you and rise up (from their thrones), princes will see and bow down.” They will do that “because of Yahweh, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.” In spite of the failures of his former servants, and through the rejection of his great Suffering Servant, our faithful covenant God will fulfill his plan to save his fallen world.
In the end, it will be glory for the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit as the Gospel is carried to the ends of the earth and the nations stream to the Light of the World. That will be an Epiphany the whole world will see. Describing the New Jerusalem, John says, “The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings will bring their splendor into it.” (Revelation 21:23,24)
Consider the difference between a script and a prescription. One of the reasons some scholars can’t accept my interpretation of the identity of the Servant is their inability to believe in predictive prophecy. It is simply impossible that Isaiah could know the details of Jesus life hundreds of years before he was born. What really happened, say these skeptical scholars, was that Jesus took the words of the prophets and imitated what they had said. He orchestrated his life so that it would resemble the picture of the Messiah given in the prophets. Jesus was following a script written years ago about other people. My interpretation argues that, rather than following a script, Jesus was fulfilling a prescription. God had prescribed how Israel should act in the world in order to be a light to the world. But they didn’t fulfill that prescription. So, God sent his own Son to do exactly what Israel had not done. He fulfilled all those prophecies, so that the work of saving the world might be accomplished. He didn’t orchestrate. He obeyed fully.
Author: Scott Hoezee
Did David (or whoever wrote this psalm) write it backwards? You can divide Psalm 40 rather neatly into two halves (though most of the second half is left out by the Lectionary). The first ten or so verses are full of confidence and gratitude for God’s deliverance. As usual in the psalms, we cannot detect precisely what prompted this exultation of thanksgiving for God’s goodness but it must have been something pretty big. So the psalmist heaps up the gratitude in verse after verse. What’s more, he goes on to note that this is not merely thanks but also praise because he has told of God’s goodness in the congregation of God’s people.
That is the difference between thanksgiving and praise, by the way. You can thank me privately and that is a fine thing. But when you want to widen the circle of appreciation by publicly declaring my goodness and so invite others to chime in, then you shift over to praise. Thanks is when you tell a restaurant server “Please give my compliments to the chef.” Praise is when you write a TripAdvisor review to encourage others to visit the restaurant and then also express gratitude to both the chef and a wider public.
The poet of Psalm 40 had done both: he has thanked God over and over for his deliverance and he has declared God’s goodness to others in order to invite them to join this psalmist in the chorus of praise to God for all God’s faithfulness. Thanks and Praise: this poet has rendered up both because God has been so great at delivering him from troubles.
Or has God done so? Because starting in verse 11 (but then becoming much more prominent after this lection technically ends in verses 12-17) it seems like all hell has broken loose on this psalmist all over again. The balance of Psalm 40 is almost a lament, an urgent plea for help as some enemies and troubles have surrounded this poet once more. As effusive as the first 10 verses were in thanking God for deliverance, the final 8 verses are the dead opposite of all that in the strenuous pleading for help, help, and more help. It’s desperate almost!
So what gives? How can Part A of Psalm 40 be a litany of thanks for deliverance and Part B be an urgent plea for help once again? Is this the result of some haphazard editing? Were the final 8 verses actually supposed to come first and then the thanksgiving would come in second to indicate that God had heeded these prayers for deliverance? That surely would make more sense. Then it would seem to be a seamless narrative. We move from Trouble to Deliverance to Thanks/Praise. It’s linear that way.
But suppose the order of this psalm and its movement from thanksgiving back to desperate cries for help is exactly how this poem was intended to be structured. Suppose this is actually an accurate reflection of just how life goes for all of us sometimes. Haven’t we all now and then had to pivot from a season of profound thanksgiving to God to a time of uncertainty and trial? Isn’t this just how life goes sometimes? You sing your praises in church on Sunday and proclaim how awesome God is, how good God has been to you but then suddenly by Wednesday or Thursday of that very week the ground seems to have shifted under your feet as you deal with a sudden illness in a loved one, the loss of a job, or some other event that feels to you like a disaster.
It is difficult (at best) to know why God seems to answer some of our prayers—for which we then give God thanks—only for us to then go back to a season when we wonder if our prayers are not just bouncing back at us as our new pleas for help seem to go unanswered (or they seem to go unanswered for a very long time). Cynics might say that probably this is because we were wrong about God’s answering certain prayers in the first place. Sure, when someone’s cancer goes into remission (or just gets cured altogether), we chalk it up to all the prayers of God’s people that got offered up for that person. And yet simultaneous to this in any given congregation is another person who dies of her cancer despite an equal number of prayers having been offered for her healing and restoration. So are prayers really answered or is it all a crap shoot?
People of faith will affirm that God hears prayers, invites our prayers, and works through our prayers. When we give thanks to God for what seems to be an answered prayer, we need to realize that in so doing we even so cannot see all ends. We cannot know all that God knows, cannot see the interconnectedness of things. But our belief in a loving God of providential care makes it right for us both to pray in the first place and to give thanks in the second place.
However this also means we cannot see all ends when trouble returns to our lives much less why, despite the incessant pleading of many people in prayer, sometimes what we most wish for humanly speaking does not happen. We should no more claim we knows the whys and wherefores of this than we really know the whys and wherefores of even prayers that do seem answered. Our proper posture is humility.
Psalm 40 reminds us of both truths. And if we feel a little whiplash as we move from verse 10 to verses 11 and following, that’s OK. That, too, is a reflection of real life and of our lived experiences. And the Book of Psalms exists for that very reason: to let us see the full gamut of life’s experiences reflected in these songs and prayers. We can all recognize ourselves in not just this or that individual psalm at any given moment but in the spectrum of all the psalms across the span of our lives. That makes the Hebrew Psalter a real gift to us. And it is further cause to join the psalmist of Psalm 40 in giving God robust thanks and praise.
C.S. Lewis once gave one of his many memorable images for dealing with some questions about prayer. We know of Jesus’s invitation to knock so that the door may be opened to us. But, Lewis wondered, what might happen when the door opens? Well, in regard to any given prayer and request, God may open the door to say “Sure, yes, I can do that.” Or he could open the door to give us the disappointing reply “No, I’m afraid not—not this time.” But it’s also possible the door will be opened to us only to have God invite us to come inside, take a seat, and then we will have a chat about all of this. There may not always be a straightforward yes or no answer. It might be more complicated than we know and that might require some patient learning over time on our part. But, Lewis said, the good news is that God welcomes also this conversation. And he is always there to be part of it.
1 Corinthians 1:1-9
Author: Doug Bratt
This Sunday’s RCL’s Epistolary Lesson may seem like a strange way for Paul to begin his first letter to the Corinthians. Of course, it would not be a particularly strange way to begin most communications. 1 Corinthians 1 begins, after all, with (for its day) a fairly typical greeting. What’s more, many of us are also accustomed to beginning our various communications with some thanksgiving and good news.
What makes this text feel somewhat out of place is that the tone with which Paul follows this complimentary beginning feels very different from these 9 verses. After all, throughout the rest of 1 Corinthians, he deals extensively with problems in the Corinthian church that include sexual immorality, lawsuits, marriage, eating food sacrificed to idols, tensions surrounding worship and women’s roles in the church, gift and talents and the resurrection. 1 Corinthians 1:1-9’s complimentary language feels almost like neon lettering against a huge black background that is much of the rest of the letter’s dark message.
So those who proclaim this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson might explore with our hearers just what’s going on with this stark contrast. Is Paul trying to “butter up” his hearers with compliments before hitting them with the rest of 1 Corinthians’ 1’s sledgehammer? Is this a rhetorical strategy by which he tries to gain the Corinthians’ confidence before he clobbers them with his deep concerns for and about them?
Yet I would suggest that 1 Corinthians 1:1-9’s complimentary beginning actually lays a solid theological foundation for the rest of the book. Paul relentlessly grounds all of this Sunday’s text’s positive things in the gracious work of God. In fact, God is either the subject of or an active participant in every sentence, verse and assertion that Paul makes. So while the apostle compliments his Corinthian readers throughout this text, he’s actually giving all the praise for it to God.
Paul begins to offer that praise by nothing that he’s an apostle. He is a herald of God’s gospel for not just the Corinthians but also the whole world. Yet the apostle insists that it’s not like he chose that career. It’s not even like Paul had any choice in the matter of becoming or being an apostle. He was, in fact, doing all he could to obliterate Christ Jesus’ Church when God knocked him off his high horse and into the kingdom of God.
Paul refers in verse 1 to being “called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God.” By that he means that God did all the hard work and heavy lifting. All Paul could find himself able to do was meekly murmur, “Who are you, Lord” (Acts 9:5).
So why does Paul begin his often-harsh letter to the Corinthian by immediately presenting his apostolic “credentials” to them? Perhaps it’s because he’s going to say some very difficult things to them. The apostle doesn’t want his readers to mistake the source of those hard words about things like Christians’ relationships, worship and leadership. He wants the Corinthians to know that they come not from him, but from the God who called him by God’s will. So we might almost picture verse 1 as a kind of “Don’t shoot the messenger” plea.
Yet Paul is also quick to remind his letter’s first hearers that it’s not just he whom God has graciously called. God has also called his Corinthian audience. Yet they aren’t just Corinthian Christians. Paul first hearers are Corinthian Christians who are also “sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy” (2).
So the Corinthian men, women and children to whom Paul writes his first letter are those whom God both calls and equips to become more and more like their Savior. No matter what follows, Paul seems to want to begin his letter by asserting that God is busy transforming members of the Corinthian church into people who increasingly resemble the Lord Jesus Christ on whose name they call.
So Paul will go on in this letter to deeply grieve and scold those Corinthians for their deeply unholy relationships and worship practices, among other things. Yet he prefaces all of that by reminding them that God is making them more and more holy, more and more like Jesus Christ. So verse 2 stands out like more neon writing on a huge black canvas. Its description of the Corinthians’ unrighteousness stands in almost shocking contrast to both God’s righteousness and the righteousness for which God is fully equipping them.
Yet even when Paul goes on to describe some of the ways the Corinthians are displaying that empowerment, Paul still is very careful to give all the credit for it to God. He thanks God for his Corinthian readers, but insists it’s because of the grace God has given them in Christ Jesus. So it’s almost as if the apostle reminds them that while he is, in fact, deeply and constantly grateful for them, that for which is he so thankful is a gift to them from God. Corinth’s Christians are in some ways praiseworthy because God has graciously made them praiseworthy.
Without God’s redeeming and equipping work, the Corinthians to whom Paul writes are like beggars. God, however, has empowered them to be rich in talent. The Corinthians speak well and know a great deal not because of some virtue of their own, but because God has graced them with those great gifts.
Those Corinthians, in fact, don’t lack any spiritual gifts (7). The Spirit has equipped them with everything they need to be holy, to honor God and bless their neighbors. So their marital unfaithfulness and lawsuits against each other don’t arise out of their lack of some spiritual gift from God. The Corinthians’ sins arise out of their failure to use the gifts with which God has graced them.
In fact, Paul essentially moves toward ending the Epistolary Lesson the RCL appoints for this Sunday by asserting that the Corinthians have everything they need to be faithful to both God and each other until Christ returns from the heavenly realm. God, the apostle insists in verse 8, “will keep you strong to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
It is, of course, a deeply ironic assertion. The rest of Paul’s letter, after all, describes a Corinthian church whose members are, in fact, very far from being blameless. They’re about as strong as wet dishcloths. Yet Paul insists God will somehow keep them both strong and blameless until Jesus Christ returns.
So is Paul at least implying here that no Christian, including the Corinthians, can stay strong until Jesus comes back unless God keeps us strong? That the Corinthians’ sins that the apostle goes on to sometimes so graphically describe and condemn throughout the rest of the letter are perhaps a result of a spiritual arrogance that assumes they don’t need God’s help?
That may also help us understand why Paul ends this Epistolary Lesson the way he does. “God, who has called you into fellowship with his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, is faithful” (9). The Corinthians are proving to be very unfaithful. But the God who graciously calls and equips them to be holy is faithful. So there is hope, not just for the unfaithful Corinthians but also for Paul’s modern readers. But that hope has little to do with us, and everything to do with God.
This second Sunday in Epiphany may mark the beginning of a mini-series of lessons or sermons on 1 Corinthians for those who proclaim the RCL’s Epistolary Lessons. Those who stick with this letter will quickly move into far grimmer passages than today’s. Its proclaimers will dive quickly and deeply into Paul’s grief over and condemnation of divisions within the Corinthian church.
As we explore those divisions, it’s good to remember the way Paul introduces them. The Corinthians who have created such deep fault lines are those whom God sanctifies and calls to be holy. We don’t have to heal divisions we create in the church by our power. God has graced us with every good thing we need to facilitate unity among God’s beloved people. So while we may not read 1 Corinthians 1:1-9 each time we proclaim other parts of the letter, it may not hurt to begin each message or lesson with a brief summary of its teaching on God’s gifts and equipping.
Those who further explore 1 Corinthians will also want to remember the grace with which Paul soaks its first 9 verses. Yes, the Corinthian church has deeply divided itself. Christ Jesus’ Church also has made and continues to make a mess of things. But God calls. God sanctifies. God gathers. God grants grace and peace. God enriches. God equips. God keeps God’s promises. And so we have hope. Hope that God calls God’s modern apostles to continue to proclaim until “the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Paul soaks this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson in thanksgiving. Those who proclaim that lesson might draw a contrast between the attitudes of the apostle and Seth McFarlane. The example also provides a contrast between not only those men’s ideas about the source of good things, but also about how good things affect the way we live.
McFarlane is a cartoonist and comedian who created the animated television show, “Family Guy.” On 9/11 he had been booked on American Airlines Flight 11 from Boston to Los Angeles. But because McFarlane arrived late at the airport, he missed his flight. Hijackers flew that airplane into the North Tower of New York’s World Trade Center.
An NPR interviewer, Terry Gross, later asked McFarlane, “After that narrow escape, do you think of the rest of your life as a gift?” The comedian answered, “That experience didn’t change me at all. It made no difference in the way I live my life. It made no difference in the way I look at things. It was just a coincidence.”