January 11, 2016
Author: Scott Hoezee
Apparently we are going to have to revise our definition of “glory.” Sometimes things happen in life that make us update long-held notions and definitions. It reminds me of the scene from the movie A Beautiful Mind in which the socially inept genius mathematician John Nash (played by Russell Crowe) haltingly proposes to his girlfriend by saying “Does our relationship warrant long-term commitment?” In response his wife-to-be says “Just give me a moment to revise my girlhood notions of romance.”
Something like that happens in John 2 about glory. We need some revision to what we thought that concept was all about.
We typically think that “glory” is the bright shining presence of God, the white-hot holiness of the divine that is so stunning, even Moses had to be hidden in the cleft of a rock to keep it from frying him to a crisp. We think that “glory” is the power of God that is so raw and so real, the priests who once entered the Holy of Holies did so at great peril (and if anyone else tried casually to enter that place where the glory of God dwelled, they would surely die).
Even on a human level, when we talk about “glory,” we generally mean things that are dramatic, that raise someone up to such a pinnacle of splendor as to elicit the adoration of everyone else. In Hebrew kabod is “glory” and it means something with gravity, something heavy, something weighty in the sense of being momentous. In Greek doxa is “glory” and there’s a reason that this Greek word has passed on to form the first part of our word “doxology” because when we are in a doxological mood—singing our praises at the top of our lungs perhaps—it is likely because we have been exposed to something stunning, something spectacular, something loaded with heavenly portent and power.
Glory is big. Glory is bright. Glory is loud. Glory is a multisensory extravaganza that you will not miss if you are anywhere in glory’s neighborhood when it happens.
But John 2:11 tells us that when Jesus quietly transformed water into wine in an effort to do no more than solve a social mishap that helped a family save face in front of their friends, this was somehow Jesus’ first revelation of no less than his glory. Indeed, this glorious manifestation was sufficient as to cause the disciples to put their faith into Jesus.
Glory in wine? Glory in providing wine to folks who’d already had a few too many?
From the outside looking in, it’s difficult to see what is so glorious here. Let’s take a bird’s-eye view of the situation. Suppose you were looking down on this wedding banquet from some great height. Would you see anything “glorious”? You could watch the goings-on below you at this wedding feast from start to finish and never once would you see any bright shining lights, any flashes of visible power, any hint of divine presence, or anything else that caused people to fall back in wonder.
So where was the “glory” of it all? Well, it was right there, as it turns out, in the quiet man who hesitated intervening initially and who, once he did intervene, did so very subtly. There is no evidence that the wider crowd at this wedding reception ever knew what had happened. Only Mary and the disciples—and the servants who had done Jesus’ bidding—realized what had happened. (Isn’t it curious to ponder how many of Jesus’ miracles happened within earshot of people who never knew anything unusual had happened?!)
Yet it was a glory revelation. It was enough to generate faith in the hearts of the disciples. Somehow they discerned Jesus to be the Messiah, the one who would bring abundance where there had once been only scarcity. Somehow they saw in this quiet miracle in Cana an echo of all those soaring prophecies from Isaiah about how when the kingdom fully comes, all the good things we enjoy would flow freely and in never-ending abundance. When needs are met—even needs as commonplace as the one in Cana that day—somehow joy follows and that joy is related to the glory of God.
Iranaeus once said that “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.” God desires us to flourish, to enjoy and take delight in his creation even as God did at the dawn of time (and you can spy that divine exuberance in Genesis 1). God’s heart breaks over the spectacle of poverty. God’s heart breaks when people in his abundant creation experience want. Granted, running out of wine for wedding guests who may well have had their fair share to drink already may not seem like the kind of dire want or need that would break God’s heart—and perhaps it wasn’t—but John may be using this as an emblem, a shadow, of the real thing. But the point remains the same: where God’s Messiah is, abundance follows.
Jesus, after all, did not make a case of wine but hundreds of gallons. He did not make a cheap or watery wine but a vintage better than most had ever tasted. This entire story smacks of being “over the top” in so very many senses. There is an extravagance here, almost an element of luxury, that seems to burst the narrow confines of the event at hand. It’s as though someone asked for a bottle of water and Jesus gave him Lake Michigan. It’s as though someone asked for $50 to buy her child a toy and Jesus gave her the entire Toys-R-Us warehouse. At such a small event, Jesus’ actions seem outsized.
Yet the disciples saw the glory. It was the glory of God providing more than is requested, more than can be imagined. It was the glory of God giving access—if even for just a little while—to the abundant fullness with which God endowed this creation in the beginning.
Yes, we may have to revise our definition of “glory” if John 2 is a revelation of it.
But maybe, just maybe, that will mean we’ll see divine glory a lot more often in our lives than we might otherwise think. When the hungry in our cities are fed, when the homeless are housed, when children without decent shoes get nice new sneakers from a local clothing ministry, when the despairing are comforted by a word of hope, when the sad can dry their tears with the gospel comfort of the resurrection to come: when we see these things happening in our churches and in our communities and in our families, then we are seeing the glory of God as God continues to guide us back to that for which he created us and this whole cosmos to begin with.
This text is appointed in the Lectionary Year C for the time of Epiphany. We’re in between the big spectacle of Christmas and the big spectacle of Easter. We’re in that time of the church year when we look at Jesus’ ministry, at all the stuff Jesus said and did that somehow never warranted so much as a shout-out in the great creeds (that pivot from “born of the virgin Mary” to “suffered under Pontius Pilate” as though not much of consequence happened in between). But the “glory” we read of in John 2 reminds us that for those with eyes to see and ears to hear, there is a lot of glory to behold between Bethlehem’s birth and Easter’s resurrection.
And as just noted, just maybe that reminds us that there is plenty of glory to see in our everyday worlds, too.
“On the third day . . .” That is how John 2 opens but as people have been asking for centuries, so I ask, “On the third day of what?” Up until now John has not narrated any stories for us as being on “Day 1” or on “Day 2” and so we’re not thinking along those lines. In fact, the only temporal markers John has had up to this point is a series of lines that talk about “The next day” (cf. John 1:29, John 1:35, John 1:43). But then there must be a pause between the “next day” of 1:43 when Jesus calls Philip (who then fetches Nathanael) and the wedding in Cana because Jesus and the disciples had to journey from the area around Jerusalem, where John had been baptizing, all the way up to Galilee in the north. So we’re not sure if “the third day” of John 2:1 indicates a time span that included that 80-mile walk or if this was the third day since they had arrived in Galilee.
Given all of that confusion, it’s no wonder that quite a few scholars across the years have concluded that “the third day” is code in John for a kind of resurrection scene. The three-day span in the Bible has always been significant with the third day in the sequence comprising a kind of climax. Certainly all of us who now regularly intone the phrase “On the third day he rose again from the dead” in the Apostles’ Creed cannot fail to hear resurrection echoes whenever we hear “the third day,” and so in John 2:1 we are perhaps being tipped off that the significance of what is about to happen goes beyond the mundane details of the story at hand. Something Messianic is up.
A friend of mine is one of the best chefs in the United States (and has been so acclaimed by people who know what they are talking about). The celebrity chefs on Food Network notwithstanding, most chefs tend to be introverts. My friend, too, is certainly a rather shy and retiring person. He’d rather stay in the background than be centerstage with a spotlight shining on him. But like most chefs, the one thing that brings my friend joy is seeing others enjoy his food. More than once when eating in his restaurant, I have seen him standing in the shadows near the kitchen, watching people delight in his culinary creations, and beaming in happiness at seeing the diners’ enjoyment. Most will never shake hands with my friend. Most will never bother to seek him out to say “Thank You” or send a letter of appreciation to the restaurant at some later point. Nor does my friend stroll through the dining room tacitly and subtly soliciting praise. He’s mostly content to look upon people’s delight from afar.
I wonder if God is not accustomed to this as well. At Cana, Jesus watched people enjoy an outstanding wine whose origin most people never learned (and maybe would not have believed even had they been told). And if people did not thank him, it was nothing new. As Augustine first observed—and as C.S. Lewis later enjoyed pondering—what Jesus did at Cana (as in many of his miracles) was really no more than a speeded-up version of what he does every year on a thousand hillsides as vines silently turn water from rainfall into wine. Millions of people enjoy that wine every year without for a moment recognizing the divine origin of it all. It’s a reminder that we serve a God whose effusive overflow of providential gifts knows no bounds. It’s a reminder that God is also often content to watch people—sometimes even Christian people who should know better—from afar as they soak up the goodness of his creative work.
Author: Scott Hoezee
These first verses of Isaiah 62 are like a geyser erupting in hopefulness and wild abundance. This is like a prophetic fireworks display with a never-ending grand finale as color and light fills the skies, eliciting a long string of “Ooohs” and “Ahhhs” from those seeing the spectacle. This is one of those passages so chock-full of promise and imagery of joy that it is almost impossible to overstate it, almost impossible to stray into the realm of exaggeration in talking about it.
Because here Yahweh promises that his people—desolate, barren, bewildered, and long held in foreign captivity—will soon be transformed at every level. The people themselves will be turned into a crown of splendor, into shining diamonds so brilliant, they will refract the divine light of glory in a million directions at once. Israel will become the bull’s-eye, the dead center target, of all the divine delight God can muster. God is going to pour his love and ardor into these people the way a mother pours every ounce of her love into a child.
But it’s not just the people: the very land itself will be blessed. Curiously, we’re told the land will enter into a kind of marriage relationship (an odd image but striking!). Like the people, so the land will respond to the loving, delighted touch of its creator God. The land will flourish, will produce abundantly everything that a land can produce. Images of over-stuffed cornucopia spring to mind as you read these words.
It is very simply a shining set of images: the people shine, the land shines, the whole earth shines. And the reason is because the light of God is getting reflected off it all. God is going to beam down an extravagantly warm and wonderful light on his people and on the whole creation and that light is not only going to cause wonderful growth the way sunshine makes crops grow but it is going to get radiated back, too, in a reflection of the divine glory.
In the Year C Common Lectionary, this passage is paired with the Wedding at Cana story in John 2. It’s not difficult to see why. As I wrote in the sermon starters for John 2, that story is also a story of hyper-extravagant abundance. The “glory” of Jesus that John says was revealed for the first time in Cana of Galilee stemmed not just from the neat trick of turning water into wine but from the fact that Jesus produced that day such a colossal amount of wine (and of the best wine most anyone had ever tasted at that). Granted, Jesus’ repairing the social faux pas at that little wedding was a micro-version of the kind of grander-scale abundance of which Isaiah 62 speaks, but both passages are clearly working the same side of the street, and it is a street called “Flourishing.”
God wants his creation—and his people in that creation—to flourish. And when the delight of God rests upon a person, that flourishing happens, too. God delights in his people and in his creation and all of that, in turn, becomes a further source for delight when God takes such obvious joy over watching his people enjoying themselves.
It is, in short, a portrait of shalom. And let’s none of us pretend to be so ascetic, so other-worldly as a result of our Christian faith as to make us immune to the magnetic pull of such a picture.
But let’s also be careful: after all, Isaiah 62 is one of those passages that can be too-easily seized on by the “health and wealth” promoters of what is being called today “The Prosperity Gospel.” Be in good with God, Joel Osteen and many others promise, and you can have your best life now, you can have it all, and it is the will of God that you do so. Be that shining crown of splendor (with real diamonds purchased at Zale’s), be a diadem of splendor (as the sun glints off the high-buff finish on your Mercedes), let the divine delight transform your dwelling place from a two-bedroom apartment to a 10,000 square-foot mansion with beveled paneling and marble floors. Isn’t that all a snapshot of Isaiah 62? Isn’t this what we should expect? I recently heard of pastor who drove a new Porsche into the sanctuary as a way to say to the people that surely God wants us to have the best so why not a Porsche for the pastor? I recently heard a story about several televangelists who own their own private jets and who insist it’s necessary for ministry.
Clearly there is a vision in Scripture for the flourishing of God’s people, and clearly that kind of a vision is what informs even most people’s views of what will be “The New Creation” of our God and of his Christ one day. But for now we cannot revel in that vision—or pursue it with abandon to feather our own nests—without paying very close attention to the gospel and even to the balance of the prophets in the Old Testament. Because short of God’s ushering in his new order, we still live in a selfish and fallen world. We are called by our Savior to sacrifice ourselves, to give ourselves up. We are called by the prophets to pay special attention to the marginalized and the poor and are assured that great woes are issued to those who build their own wealth on the backs of precisely those poor and marginalized people.
Yes, as John 2 shows and as Isaiah 62 predicts, where God and where his Christ go, there will be abundance, there will be healing, there will be a flourishing of life. But this cannot be sought selfishly or without regard to the wider witness of Scripture, much less than the larger example of the Savior who was crucified for our sakes. We all desire, deep down if not pretty close to the surface of our hearts, the kind of shining splendor and hyper abundance of good things that we see in John 2 and Isaiah 62. But for now we cannot hope for those things ourselves without being mindful of others in this world who even now live much, much farther away from such a shining reality than many of us do.
“Blessed are those who weep now, for they will be comforted,” Jesus once said. Reflecting on that, Lewis Smedes once said that for now and until the kingdom fully comes, only the heart that hurts has a right to also feel joy. Only the one who can weep over—and then do something about—those with less has a right to be glad for what God has given already. If we take a passage like Isaiah 62 that so drips with fatness and apply it to only our own little selves, then we take what is a truly lyric passage that dreams of a world reborn by grace and turn it into a nightmare after all.
In her memoir Take This Bread, Sara Miles is bowled over one day when her thoroughly secular life gets transformed into a life devoted to Jesus through the simple act of her eating the bread of communion in a San Francisco Episcopal church into which she just happened to wander one Sunday morning. Miles was uncertain what compelled her to go to the Table in the first place, and she surely was convinced that a simple piece of bread would not do anything for her, and yet no sooner did the bread enter her mouth and Jesus filled her mind and heart. It really was, as it turned out, just what the ministers claimed: the bread of life. Of life. And it fed her in a way nothing ever had. But for Miles it wasn’t just the experience of receiving an abundant new spiritual life into her own heart on account of eating the flesh of Jesus in communion. She knew she had to spread it around and so turned her whole life in the direction of feeding other people by establishing a series of food pantries in the San Francisco area. And although Miles is able to distinguish between the one Table of the Lord from all the other food pantry tables on which they place cannellini beans, cracked wheat bread loaves, and bunches of bananas, in the end she sees those tables as connected too. God feeds us. We feed each other. And somehow, in the dance of life between Creator and Creation, it just maybe all ends up being about the same thing: Life in all its abundance!
Author: Doug Bratt
Verse 1’s reference to an “oracle” that’s in the psalmist’s heart about the wicked’s sinfulness may puzzle citizens of the 21st century who link Oracle to Internet technology. They may wonder if this is some sort of moral “Cloud.” That’s why it’s important to remember the term “oracle” generally refers to some kind of revelation from God. The Bible records prophets such as Balaam, Isaiah and Jeremiah as speaking such oracles. The NIV Study Bible suggests Psalm 36’s oracle may be an “insight, perhaps coming like a flash, into the true character of the wicked.”
Some scholars believe Psalm 36 was originally two psalms. Yet as J. Clinton Mc Cann points out, its perhaps unwieldy form is actually both important and instructive. The words and witness of the poet are, after all, surrounded by references to “the wicked” in verses 1 and 11. This serves as a kind of reminder that opposition always surrounds God’s children. This was true of the psalmists, prophets and especially Jesus. In fact, even today people regularly oppose God, God’s law, God’s ways and even God’s people.
On top of that, the psalmist’s description of the wicked is also a description of the natural state of worshipers. By nature, even God’s sons and daughters rebel against both God and God’s good purposes. What’s more, we struggle against our own rebellion even after God’s grace has rescued us for God’s loving plans and purposes.
While we generally assume that the line between good and evil runs between people, worshipers recognize that line runs almost right down the middle of all people. So Psalm 36 offers those who preach and teach it an opportunity to reflect with worshipers on humanity’s basic sinfulness and Christians’ struggles to resist the temptation to continue to rebel against God.
The contrast the psalmist draws between the nature of wickedness and the living God could hardly be more vivid. While the wicked don’t offer God the loving worship and obedience God deserves, the poet insists that God’s love and faithfulness is like a tower that reaches all the way to heaven. Rebels against God are so “stuck on themselves” that they miss God’s towering love. So they’re a bit like someone who stands before the Sears or CN Tower and simply denies it even exists.
While the wicked are so self-absorbed that they don’t even recognize their rebellion against God, God’s righteousness, the psalmist professes, is like mighty mountains and God’s justice is like the oceans’ depths. Since wicked people assume they’re only accountable to themselves, they oppose God and God’s righteousness and justice in every imaginable way. So they’re like people who stand at the foot of Mount Everest or Baker but claim they aren’t real.
While the wicked wholeheartedly commit themselves to destroying others, God, insists the psalmist, preserves both “men and beasts.” In fact, while the wicked plot to harm others even while they lie in bed, God foils their destructive plans. God preserves and saves both people and “beasts.” So worshipers don’t have to either fear the power of the wicked or assume they must provide for themselves. God generously provides for all of God’s creation and creatures.
This assertion offers Psalm 36’s preachers and teachers an opportunity to reflect on God’s care for God’s whole creation. Christianity sometimes devolves into an obsession with “me (or us) and Jesus.” This psalm reminds us that God loves God’s entire creation. God is stunningly generous not just with people, but also with “critters.” In fact, Jesus goes on in Matthew 5:45 to assert that God sends rain on both the wicked and those who know God.
While the wicked who so richly benefit from God’s generosity plot death, God, in a sense, plots life. Life is, after all, among God’s good gifts to God’s creation. Yet people naturally distort that life by often doing what makes the rich richer and the powerful more powerful. God, by contrast, longs for abundance for all.
On top of that, while the wicked live and stagger around in a kind of moral darkness, God is the light in whom we see light. In a world characterized by so much spiritual darkness, God graciously displays God’s light through God’s love, faithfulness, righteousness and justice.
Because of God’s loving faithfulness, the psalmist can conclude Psalm 36 by begging God to continue to show God’s love and righteousness to those who know and faithfully obey the Lord. She can also plead with God to protect her from the evildoers who relentlessly plot her harm.
So Psalm 36 doesn’t advance a kind of “Pollyanna” theology. It’s very candid about the reality of human wickedness and arrogance. Yet the psalmist also professes a far deeper reality. God is startlingly loving and faithful. So God’s adopted sons and daughters can stake our lives and future on God’s never-failing love. After all, God’s purposes for God’s world will ultimately prevail. God will get the last word.
Among the United States’ Marine Corp’s most cherished mottoes is: “Earned. Never given.” It refers to the respect that Marines earn by enduring almost unspeakable deprivation throughout boot camp. The motto “Earned. Never Given” is emblazoned on an emblem presented to men and women who are, until then, considered “recruits.” It signals that they are now Marines.
Yet one might argue that Psalm 36’s motto is: “Given. Never earned.” It affirms, after all, that God in God’s faithfulness, preserves both “men and beasts,” in other words, God’s whole creation. Yet people don’t somehow earn shelter and protection. God graciously gives it to us.
1 Corinthians 12:1-11
Author: Stan Mast
All four of the lectionary readings for this second Sunday after Epiphany share a similar emphasis on God’s abundant grace to his people. Psalm 36 sings God’s praise for his love and power poured out on his people. Using gorgeous language Isaiah 62 promises the exiles that their God will restore them to their former beauty and glory. In John 2 Jesus miraculously turns water into wine at a wedding, but it’s not just that transformation that shows the glory of Jesus for the first time. It’s the amazing quality and sheer abundance of the wine; six stone jars holding 20-30 gallons are all turned into $300 a bottle wine. God’s grace flows in giddy abundance. And here in I Corinthians 12 Paul reminds the Corinthians that God’s grace has produced a rich diversity of gifts among them, such that everyone who calls Jesus Lord has some special grace with which to serve him.
But instead of celebrating the abundant grace of God and using those gifts for the common good, the Corinthians are in competition, comparing their gifts to each other. Like heroes in classic Greek tragedy, their strength was their weakness. From the beginning of this letter, Paul has been correcting this contentious congregation. They argued about which preacher was better (1:10-15). They couldn’t agree about how to treat open sexual immorality in the congregation (chapter 5). They were taking each other to court over unresolved issues (chapter 6:1-11) and they couldn’t agree about the proper exercise of Christian freedom (6:12-20). That argument extended to marriage, food sacrificed to idols, worship practices, the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, and the doctrine of the Resurrection. They fought about nearly every aspect of the church’s life.
Now we discover that the argument had spilled over into the area of spiritual gifts. Indeed, it is possible that their giftedness was the root of the problem. They were so gifted that each one felt like an expert, especially those who had been blessed with gifts that were more ostentatious and obviously supernatural, like the gifts of wisdom and knowledge and speaking in tongues. Like the citizens of Garrison Keillor’s fictional hometown of Lake Wobegon, “all the children (of God) were above average.”
Apparently the leaders of the Corinthian church had written a letter to Paul asking for his help on a number of these disputes, as indicated by Paul’s introduction to those subjects, “Now about….” So, here he writes, “Now about spiritual gifts, brothers, I do not want you to be ignorant.” That’s an interesting way to put it. “I do not want you to be ignorant.” Is that a subtle put down? You are ignorant. God has blessed you with all these gifts and you are comparing your gifts with boastful claims to superiority, but you are in reality ignorant about those gifts. So let me correct your ignorance.
But before actually talking about spiritual gifts, he reminds them of the Spirit’s role in their conversions. In verse 2, he opens with “You know….” You are ignorant about spiritual gifts, but you know this—“that when you were pagans somehow or other you were influenced and led astray by mute idols.” Paganism is a mystery, because those gods were mute. This, of course, was a common Jewish criticism of pagan gods; they can’t see, they can’t hear, they can’t move, they can’t speak. Unlike the God of Israel. Unlike the Holy Spirit. “Therefore, I tell you (in Greek, “I make known to you”)….” What follows emphasizes the role of the Holy Spirit in their confession of faith. The Spirit would never lead someone to say, “Jesus be cursed,” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord,” except by the power of the Spirit. Unless the Spirit spoke those words into or along with or through the former pagan, none of you would now be a Christian. In other words, you can’t take any credit for the fact that you now serve the living God. You can’t even brag about your confession of faith, because that ultimately came from the Holy Spirit.
So that is triply true of your spiritual gifts. Though his main focus here is on the Holy Spirit, Paul takes pains in verses 4-6 to root the rich diversity of spiritual gifts in the rich diversity of the Triune God. You people want to fight about which gift is best? Listen, no matter what you call your gifts and no matter how you use them, all of your gifts come from the One God who is three persons. Three times Paul uses the same word to describe the superabundance of gifts (diairesis, diversity). “There are a diversity of gifts, of service, of working, but they all come from the same God who is Spirit, Lord, and (implied) Father.”
That should have settled the issue, but knowing that he is dealing with a stubbornly contentious bunch, Paul drives the message home even harder with verses 7-11. He lists 9 gifts that were clearly in evidence at Corinth, though the list cannot be exhaustive. The New Testament names 20 gifts, but even that is probably representative. His point is not to limit the list of legitimate gifts, but to remind them that all of them come from “the same Spirit,” a phrase he repeats over and over. If each one comes from the same Spirit who brought you to faith in Christ, how can you brag about your gift?
I won’t say much about the gifts because Paul really doesn’t say much. He doesn’t tell us, for example, how “wisdom” and “knowledge” differ. And he doesn’t go into detail about how the gift of faith given to some differs from the gift of faith given to all Christians (as in verse 3). Apparently the Corinthians who exercised these gifts knew what he was talking about. I do have one observation, however. The gifts that were most highly valued in Corinth are listed at the end– the gift of speaking in tongues and interpreting those tongues. That place in the list doesn’t mean those gifts are unimportant or illegitimate; they, too, have been given by the same Spirit. But they aren’t the most important either. In fact, says Paul in I Corinthians 14:1, if you want to do any ranking, the gift of prophecy (preaching the Word authoritatively?) should top the list. But the point here is not ranking; it is the common source.
And the common good. Verse 7 is the theme verse of this pericope. “Now to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” I’ll say a word about that word “manifestation” in a moment, but now let’s focus on “the common good.” Here’s a wonderful place to anchor a sermon on this text. Paul is clearly referring to the common good of the church. Forget your competition and use your gift for the community of faith. But I’d like to suggest that we shouldn’t define “common good” so narrowly. When we focus on the church exclusively in our exercise of our Spirit given gifts, Jesus remains invisible and apparently impotent to do anything about the sorrow that engulfs this dark world.
Howard Snyder, in his landmark, The Problem of Wineskins, wrote, “The church’s task is not to keep Christians off the streets, but to send them out equipped for Kingdom tasks.” The problem is that the church isn’t up the job. On our own, in our own strength and wisdom, even the most dedicated of us aren’t able to do those Kingdom tasks. It’s all too much for us, which is exactly why God sent his Son and why the Father and the Son sent the Spirit.
That’s why verse 7 is genuinely good news. On this second Sunday of the Epiphany season, let us encourage our people to do the good they are already equipped to do. Everyone is good at something that can contribute to the common good. Years ago I learned an important lesson from Red Auerbach, the legendary coach of the Boston Celtics basketball team. He had a reputation for being able to use older stars effectively after they had passed their prime. His secret? He sat down with these over the hillers and explained what he expected each player to contribute to the team. “We have a real need here and you are capable of filling it. If you will focus on what you do well, instead of what you once could do, you can help this team a lot.”
We don’t have to be superstars to serve God. As the old coach said, “We have a real need here and you are capable of filling it.” You are capable, says our Lord, because “to each the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.” That’s the good news of the Kingdom of God, “where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.” (Garrison Keillor again.)
Just two more notes on which you might focus as you preach this text. One is a grace note, a sovereign grace note. As he concludes this remonstrating word to competitive Christians, Paul reminds them that the abundance they experience is all of grace. Not only are “all these the work of one and the same Spirit (the main point already forcefully made),” but also “he gives them to each one, just as he determines.” That last word is bouletai in the Greek, a word that Paul uses elsewhere to refer to God’s sovereign choosing, his eternal counsel, his eternal plan. Think of that complicated sentence in Ephesians 1:11. “In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will.” By using that heavy word here, Paul is saying that the gifts we’re received were the free gift of God’s grace. We didn’t deserve them. We didn’t receive them because we did something right. Yes, we can ask for them. We can pursue spiritual disciplines. And we should develop the gifts we have been given. But it is the Spirit who gives the gift of prophecy or leadership or healing or tongues. So let us humbly receive and faithful use them for the common good.
In that way Christ will become visible in this dark world. Here we can focus on that word in verse 7, manifestation. No, it’s not the word epiphaneia; it’s phanerosis, which conveys the same idea. There is only one place the splendor of the Lord Jesus is clearly displayed in the world today, and that is the church, when it uses those Spirit given gifts “for the common good.” Let us be clear and forceful about this with our congregations and with ourselves. The fruit of the Spirit matters more than the gifts (ala I Corinthians 13 and Galatians 5). The fruit of the Spirit becomes most visible when the church uses the gifts of the Spirit for the common good. Then Jesus becomes visible. When the church hoards its gifts or uses them only for self-preservation or personal glory, Jesus will remain hidden from view. The world will have nothing good to say about him or his body. And Epiphany will be only one day on the church calendar, rather than an everyday occurrence in the life of a dark world.
I know I have used this illustration before, but it is too apt to ignore in the light of those last words above. In his moving book, Father Joe, Tony Hendra tells the story of how a simple Benedictine monk living on a tiny island off the coast of England saved Hendra’s soul. Hendra makes his living as a satirist: he was editor in chief of Spy, the original editor of The National Lampoon, and a college classmate of Monty Python members John Cleese and Graham Chapman.
As a teenager, Hendra was sent to Father Joe’s monastic retreat after being caught in an affair with a married woman. For the next several decades, Father Joe was the primary source of friendship, family, and faith for the cynical Hendra. Hendra was so touched by Father Joe that he even considered joining the monastery himself, but he eventually moved away to Hollywood where he adopted a “celebrity lifestyle.”
But the influence of Father Joe was always with Hendra, a constant light in the darkness. “Far away across the Rockies, across drowsy, sleeping states, across the jagged teeth of my hometown, across that other eternal night of an ocean—thousands and thousands of miles away—was the man who had once been the center of my world, my calm harbor, my sheltering wing. A tiny lighthouse on a tiny island, blinking his faith into the night. Here comes the beam again, sweeping round, a pinprick in the darkness, sending out its simple message. ‘Love. Love. Nothing but love.’ There, now it’s gone again.”
That is a description of every Christian who uses those Spirit-given gifts for the common good—a tiny pinprick of light in a dark world, a tiny epiphany of the splendor of Christ’s love for a hurting world. Together, we can become a magnificent lighthouse, reflecting the Light of the world into every dark and distant corner.