January 20, 2020
The Epiphany 3A Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for Matthew 4:12-23 from the Lectionary Gospel; Isaiah 9:1-4 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 27:1, 4-9 from the Lectionary Psalms; and 1 Corinthians 1:10-18 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Lectionary Epistle: Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 30 (Lord’s Day 11)
Author: Scott Hoezee
We’ve come to call it “the Holy Land.” From the Mediterranean Sea in the west to the country of Jordan in the east, from Syria in the north to the Sinai in the south, travel companies, tour groups, and tourists treat this piece of Middle Eastern real estate as a unity. It’s where Jesus walked and that’s what now makes it “holy.” It’s essentially one place with Jerusalem more or less as its center. That’s how we think of the Holy Land today, and this way of viewing that part of the world influences the way we and our congregations read the Bible.
It matters little to most folks precisely where this or that gospel event took place. One locale is as good as the next–it’s all the Holy Land, after all. Jericho or Jerusalem, Capernaum or Bethsaida: the places matter little compared to the presence of Jesus in those places. Unless we are actually in Israel on a tour group, we are typically interested in what Jesus said, not where he said it. In fact, if we preachers gave the average congregation a quiz on gospel geography, even those who are quite biblically literate would not do too well. “Where did Jesus meet Zacchaeus?” “Where was it that Peter confessed Jesus as the Christ?” Many folks, off the top of their heads, wouldn’t have a clue (and might not even be so sure it matters where these things happened).
But knowing such answers ought to be more useful than merely helping someone win a game of Bible Trivia. After all, geography is pretty important. We’re shaped by places. The philosopher José Ortega y Gassett once famously said, “Tell me the landscape in which you live, and I will tell you who you are.” Most of us sense the truth of that. As Kathleen Norris pointed out in her book Dakota, people who live on the prairies think differently than do city folks, mountain folks, or those who live on the sea. Place matters.
We may have a hard time describing just how and why that is, but all of us know that certain areas of the country carry certain associations. Just listen to the political pundits in an election year like this one as they point to different parts of the map. Politicians tailor their messages for the sensibilities inherent in certain places.
The backlog of information and assumptions we have about different places shapes our reactions to certain events. For instance, if you knew of a well-known, gifted pastor who for years had preached in a very upscale congregation in Los Angeles, California, how would you react if one day you heard he’d taken a call to pastor a tiny church in Grand Forks, North Dakota? Well, you’d wonder about such a move. You’d maybe even prognosticate that this could be a difficult transition for the family who might undergo what we refer to as “culture shock” (which is the key comic premise behind the recently successful situation comedy Schitt’s Creek).
Yet in the gospels we often forget all this. We shouldn’t, because in the stories of Jesus, place is important. And not just because Jesus, as a real human person, always had to be somewhere. But there is more theology involved in locale than we sometimes realize. Matthew 4 is a good example.
Hard on the heels of his baptism by John and his wilderness temptations, Jesus preachers his first sermon upon hearing that John has been arrested, and as he does so, Jesus picks right up where John left off. As Matthew reports it in 4:17, Jesus’ first sermon is a word-for-word repetition of John the Baptist’s sermon from Matthew 3:2. On one level it is good to see Jesus affirming the ministry of John, telling people what John told them: “Turn around, change your life: the kingdom of heaven is coming!” But that’s what John said. Shouldn’t Jesus be able to say something more? John said the kingdom of heaven was near. Well, with Jesus on the scene shouldn’t he be able to say, “It’s not just near it is now here!”? But no, Jesus echoes John: it’s near, so get ready.
That’s the first surprise about Jesus’ inaugural sermon: it’s just a knock-off of John the Baptist’s work. But the second surprise is even bigger: namely, the locale Jesus was in when he gave the sermon. No sooner does Jesus hear about John’s arrest and he high-tails it north some eighty miles to Galilee. Jesus then moves out of his backwater hometown of Nazareth and settles in at an equally out-of-the-way place called Capernaum on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee. In other words, Jesus has gone out into the sticks. Eighty miles may not sound like much to those of us accustomed to driving 70 miles an hour, but in a day when nothing moved faster than a donkey could plod, eighty miles was quite far indeed. Jesus has taken himself very far away from Jerusalem, from Judea, and from all things religious.
So surprising is this shift in geography that Matthew feels the need to bring in a prophetic heavyweight like Isaiah to re-assure his readers that this move makes some biblical sense after all. Matthew was right: Isaiah did associate God’s promised One with Galilee. But even those familiar with Isaiah did not necessarily think this is where the Messiah would begin his work! Maybe God could grandfather in the outlying regions once Jerusalem was taken care of, but to start out in the sticks?! It did not look like a logical choice.
It may not have been logical but it was theo-logical! The nearness of God’s great kingdom of shalom has already been announced in the vicinity of Jerusalem. So Jesus makes a point to proclaim the nearness of the kingdom also to others. Jesus has come to this world for the sake of this world–for all of it. There are no unimportant places. There are no places where the presence or preaching of Jesus would be “wasted.” Ultimately the whole world needs Jesus, and so Jesus begins by making a foray into the wider world.
Place matters. Every place. Every person in every place. Because in the end the “Holy Land” is not over in Israel: every place where the Spirit comes into a person’s heart is holy ground. Our goal should be to keep proclaiming and living out the kingdom until the knowledge of God covers the earth the way the waters cover the seas. For then it will indeed be true once more to say, “The earth is the Lord’s and all who live on it.”
“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near!” That is what Jesus says (cribbing from his cousin John) in Matthew 4:17. In his wonderful commentary on Matthew, Frederick Dale Bruner paraphrases this, “Move, because here comes the whole new world of God!” The verb translated as “is near” is the same word Jesus uses later in Matthew when he sees Judas in Gethsemane and says, “Here comes my betrayer.” So when Jesus says in verse 17 that the kingdom of heaven “is near,” he means it’s marching straight toward you! If you’re crossing a street and see a garbage truck barreling down on you, you may well say, “Hey, look out! ” Jesus’ words have that same urgency. “Look out! Move! A whole new world is headed straight toward you!”
As Bruner says, every word of Jesus is nuclear. These words are urgent and the implications of this kingdom’s approach are immediate. If someone tells you to “Watch out!” when you’re crossing a street but then you just stand there, something is going to happen quite soon. Jesus’ point is the same: you cannot hear him tell you that the kingdom is approaching but then just stand there like a statue with your hands in your pockets. You need to repent, literally to turn around, so that you are ready to embrace this kingdom, so that you can hop onto the kingdom instead of getting crushed by it as it rolls over you.
If you are going to try to establish yourself as a public figure, you try to nudge your way into the limelight, not out of it. Today if you are an author and get the chance to plug your book by having Savannah Guthrie interview you on the Today show, you snap up the opportunity! If Oprah Winfrey wants to make your novel one of her Book Club titles, you are only too glad because every book Oprah puts onto her list appears on also the New York Times bestseller list soon thereafter. So what would we think of an author who turned down the Guthrie interview and the Oprah Book Club offer in favor of driving over to Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, to be interviewed by a reporter for the Broken Arrow Gazette? We’d say he was out-of-touch! That’s not how you sell a lot of books.
To the minds of his contemporaries, Jesus messed up, too, by giving up the potential spotlight of Jerusalem in favor of Capernaum way out in the backwaters of Palestine. Even Matthew feels the need to muster a biblical heavyweight like Isaiah to show that Jesus did not go wrong when he went north but instead Jesus went north to fulfill a prophecy. But the point is that it is only after Jesus had put a lot of miles between himself and Jerusalem that he announced the advent of the kingdom. Maybe it was Jesus’ way of saying that the kingdom of God is not tied down to a single location, and certainly it cannot be restricted to the spots on the map we deem important. The kingdom can come, and does come, most anywhere and everywhere.
Author: Stan Mast
Consistent with the season of Epiphany, the Lectionary readings from the Old Testament continue to focus on the Servant Messiah as the light of the world. It’s a message we need to hear because we live in particularly dark times, as did the nation of Judah to whom these words were addressed.
The time of Isaiah’s ministry was indeed a time of darkness. Assyria had already overwhelmed the northern kingdom of Israel (which was mostly never to be heard from again) and this was discussed in Isaiah 8 (see below). Soon enough Judah would also be threatened by the people who conquered Assyria; viz., the Babylonians who would deport most of the people of Judah over time and lay siege to Jerusalem before finally conquering it and destroying also the precious Temple of Solomon in the early 6th century B.C. The world was a dark, turbulent place in the 600s & 500s B.C. and Israel/Judah was often caught up right in the middle of it all. No one had to look far to discover the meaning of people walking in darkness.
In that dark time of international tension and terror, conspiracy theories abounded, as we read in Isaiah 8:12-14. As people “breathed with” (the literal meaning of “conspiracy”) each other about what was “really” happening in their country, the darkness deepened when they sought advice from “mediums and spiritists” who “whisper and mutter (8:18-22).” In other words, as their desperation increased people sought unorthodox sources of information, “consulting the dead on behalf of the living,” instead of “inquiring of their God.”
Seeking light in the dark places, the people of God found only deeper darkness, as described in verses 20-22 of Isaiah 8. “If they do not speak according to [the law and the testimony of God], they have no light of dawn. Distressed and hungry, they will roam through the land; when they are famished, they will become enraged and, looking upward, will curse their king and their God. Then they will look toward the earth and see only distress and darkness and fearful gloom, and they will be thrust into utter darkness.” This is the background against which our text promises light for those who have been “walking in darkness.”
It is easy to see the parallels with our time, as international tensions and internal dissension leave our people filled with fear. What is really happening? What will happen next? Conspiracy theories abound on all sides. Even Christians fall prey to this atmosphere of suspicion and dread. They need to hear Isaiah 8:12-14, “Do not call conspiracy everything these people call conspiracy…. The Lord Almighty is the one… you are to fear…. And he will be a sanctuary….” Sadly, people look for guidance everywhere but the Word of the Living God.
Into this present darkness comes this Word of the Living God. “Nevertheless…,” a lovely word, a contrarian word, a version of that great two-word summary of the Gospel, “but God.” Here’s the darkness in the world, but God has something else for his people. “Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress.” Then, referring to those northernmost portions of the northern kingdom, the territories that were the first to be attacked by Assyria and thus the first part of Israel to be subject to pagan darkness, God promises a reversal of fortune. “In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and Naphtali, but in the future he will honor Galilee of the Gentiles, by the way of the sea, along the Jordan….” (Here again God points beyond his people Israel to his people among the Gentiles.)
And now here are the words read at Epiphany services around the world, and rightly so. “The people walking darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death (or as the newer translations of this text and Psalm 23:4 have it, ‘in the deepest darkest shadows’) a light has dawned.” The Christian church has claimed this as a Messianic prophecy because Matthew’s gospel explicitly applies it to Jesus’ move to Galilee (Matthew 4:12-16). “When Jesus heard that John the Baptist had been put in prison, he returned to Galilee… to fulfill what was said through the prophet Isaiah….”
Isaiah speaks of the coming of this light as an accomplished fact, but, of course, there were many centuries of darkness ahead. Even after that Light dawned on this world, there is still plenty of darkness around us. So, this text is a call to faith, and to joy. By returning Israel and Judah from Exile, God has “enlarged the nation.” And by sending his Son to be the Savior of the whole world, God has enlarged the Kingdom to include people from every nation and tribe.
Our response on this Third Sunday after Epiphany should be one of joy, the kind of joy people feel when there is an abundant harvest. In 21st Century urban cultures, we don’t feel as dependent on the land as do people in nations where there is food insecurity. So, maybe we can’t relate to that joy. And perhaps we don’t know the joy of “dividing the plunder” after a war is over. But we do know about celebrating victory after a long hard battle, whether it was in WWII or at the end of a long sports season or after months of treatment for cancer. That’s the kind of joy God’s people should have in this season of Epiphany when we are reminded again and again that “a light has dawned” in this present darkness.
To help your people experience joy at the dawning of the Light, it might help to review the reasons for joy that Isaiah gives the people of Israel. (This will require stepping outside the bounds of the Lectionary reading for today, but that division seems arbitrary and unhelpful anyway.) We find those reasons in verses 4-6, each introduced by “for” in the Hebrew, though the second “for” doesn’t appear in the NIV translation of verse 5: for God has delivered from oppression, for God has destroyed all the gear used in war, for God has given a Son who will bring the peace that all people crave.
It shouldn’t be hard to apply these reasons to our lives. When Isaiah writes about the “yoke that burdens, the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor” that God has shattered, he is clearly referring to the Babylonian conquest and captivity. For some of us, the oppression that burdens our lives may also be political or societal. For all of us, it is the spiritual yoke of sin that lays across our souls. In sending Jesus as the light of the world, God has shattered the bondage of sin and is shattering the chains that bind people in their societies. We should rejoice in our new found freedom, even if it isn’t fully enjoyed yet.
When Isaiah writes about the burning of boots and garments, he means that all war will cease. Not only will swords be beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks (Isaiah 2), but even the uniforms and combat boots will be destroyed by fire. There will be no more war. For those who have grieved the loss of loved ones killed in battle, or witnessed the destruction of their land, and struggled with the lingering effects of PTSD, what good news it is that God will bring a peace that cannot end.
But how can there be peace in this world? Only by the grace of God that appeared in the birth and life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Thus, our light-filled prophecy ends with the greatest reason for joy. “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be upon his shoulders.” Not on the shoulders of mere men and women, however qualified they may be. Even the most skilled and charismatic leaders have never been able to bring the peace the world craves. No, it will take a ruler who exceeds all human possibilities.
That’s what Isaiah describes in those 4 famous names given to this Son: Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. I won’t try to explain those infinitely deep words in these brief lines. Let us simply point our people to the way those names soar above our present political realities. Only such a person can bring peace.
In fact, in a world where politicians come and go, where nations rise and fall, where governments are formed and dissolved, where there is always tumult among and within the nations of the world, it seems impossible that even this Ruler can succeed. But listen to the way Isaiah describes his reign. “Of the increase of his government and peace, there will be no end.” Not only will he endure, but he will continue to increase. Things will just get better and better under his reign.
Like David (indeed, sitting on David’s promised eternal throne), he will establish a peace characterized by justice and righteousness. In previous pieces, I have noted that many wars are caused by the unjust peace that ended the prior war. It is the absence of justice among the nations and of righteousness in the peoples that causes continued war. But this Son with the impossible names will be able to establish a peace that will last because all will be treated with fairness and justice. It will be a herculean task, but this Child can do it because “the zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this.”
On this Third Sunday after Epiphany, the reality of the Dawning Light should fill us with overflowing joy because of these promises of a new world governed by the Child who has been born to us and who died for us and who now reigns over us and who will come again to establish that peace among us.
It shouldn’t be too hard to illustrate what it was like to live in a tense and fearful world where conspiracy theories abounded. Just the other day a family member said, “I just don’t know how our country can survive if Trump wins another election.” An hour later I heard a news report in which a Trump fan said, “If Elizabeth Warren gets elected, it will be the end of America as we know it.” Given those kinds of statements, it is no wonder that folks on both sides of the battle are prone to believe wild theories about what their opponent is doing or will do if elected. And it is no wonder that dread is everywhere.
To illustrate the joy to which Epiphany should move us, it might be helpful to show on your overhead screens pictures of, say, the Berlin Wall coming down (its 30th anniversary just happened), or the wild celebrations at the end of WWII or after the Washington Nationals won the World Series, or the exuberance of parents and grandparents at the announcement of a pregnancy.
Psalm 27:1, 4-9
Author: Scott Hoezee
C.S. Lewis said somewhere that when you add it all up and consider it all together, in the end we would find that our prayer life is also our autobiography. Who we are, where we’ve been, the situations we’ve faced, the fears that nag us, and not a few of the core characteristics of who we are as individuals: all of it can be, and really should be, detectable and on display in the way we pray. Perhaps this doesn’t apply to formal prayers we say in public. Maybe it doesn’t include fully even the prayers we say with our family at the dinner table.
But prayer as autobiography in the sense Lewis meant emerges more from the sum total of our private prayers. Because it is in those intensely private moments that we spend with God that we lay bare our souls, that we open up our hearts, that we maybe cry out to God in ways we’d be embarrassed to let anyone else see. It’s when no one else is listening except the God who loves us that we confess the more craven parts of our hearts. For better or worse, the temptations with which we struggle and which we confess do reveal something about who we are. It’s when we are in quiet moments of prayer that thoughts occur to us that maybe we don’t tumble to at other times (and that we would not utter were other people listening in). But the point is that over time, our prayers are our autobiography, the story of our lives, the patterns of our thinking, the priorities that rise to the top.
Psalm 27 is like that, too. Here is a psalm that has long been a favorite for many. It contains memorable turns-of-phrase, several of which are among the Bible’s staunchest statements of trust in God. True, this is also one of those psalms that contains a kind of ancient language that is rather remote from our experience. In one of her many wonderful books, Anne Tyler shows us the character of Maggie who, near the opening of the novel, attends a funeral. In the course of the funeral, the minister read what Maggie thought was a really lovely psalm, which was a relief to Maggie since she had always been under the impression that the psalms were forever going on and on in a paranoid way about enemies and attacking armies.
Well, Psalm 27 does have some of that kind of talk (though the Lectionary oddly skips over that and chops this poem up rather strangely—this sermon starter is considering basically the whole psalm). We don’t go through most of our days thinking about our lives in quite the military-like language used in some of Psalm 27. But despite the foreignness of some of that, this is nevertheless a psalm we feel we can relate to, a psalm that bursts with precisely the kind of trusting confidence in God we all would like to have.
But if you look at the whole psalm, you realize that this is not simply one long string of statements of confidence, trust, and repose. Instead, this looks to be the autobiography of this psalmist, replete with a variety of spiritual and mental dispositions. In the end tonight, we may discover that it is precisely this variety of expression that fits our lives just as well as (and maybe even better than) the statements of confidence with which we may be more familiar. In other words, it’s honest.
Look at the sweep of these verses. Again, the strong and staunch statements of confidence are what most of us already know about. With the Lord God Yahweh as his light and his salvation, as the stronghold of his life, of whom or of what would he ever need to be afraid? Evil men with butcher knives could stalk him in dark alleys by night, but he would not be afraid of them. An entire army with horses and chariots and strapping soldiers bearing swords could march on him, yet would he be confident in the protection of his vastly superior and much stronger Lord God Yahweh.
That’s how the psalm begins. It is also how it ends (more or less). But then there are those other parts of the psalm. Starting in verse 7 we begin to hear something a little different. “Hear my voice when I call, O Lord God Yahweh! I am seeking your face the way my heart urges me to do, so do not turn your servant away.” Actually, it says something starker than even that in verse 9: it says not only “do not turn your servant away” but also “do not turn your servant away in anger.” This is followed by a plaintive plea not to reject or forsake the psalmist. Then comes verse 12 where the psalmist, who earlier had expressed such utter conviction that God would always help him to triumph over his enemies, suddenly this same psalmist is all-but begging God not to turn him over to his enemies. And you can detect more than a twinge of anxiety at the end of verse 12 in the description of those evil people who are snorting out the hot stinky breath of violence–what’s more, they are quite literally breathing right down the psalmist’s neck.
But finally comes that lyric verse 14, a verse we have all repeated to ourselves many times. “Wait for the Lord, be strong and take heart, and wait for the Lord.” That verse is beautiful and it is true, but has it ever struck you that the posture of waiting seems a very different one than the posture we envisioned for the psalmist in verses 1-3? “Wait for the Lord” the psalmist says in conclusion. In fact, he says it twice. Wait. That’s the bottom line of Psalm 27. Waiting. Maintaining confidence while waiting. Bucking ourselves up to be strong of heart while waiting.
That last verse leaves a different taste in your mouth than those boldly confident verses from elsewhere in the psalm. Earlier you might have thought that here was a psalmist who could not be shaken and just maybe we suspected that the reason he could not be shaken is because this is one of those lucky fellows for whom the Lord seems always to come through immediately. He always gets his prayers answered, and pretty swiftly at that. He always walks on the sunny side of the street.
But not so. Psalm 27 is this man’s autobiography. If we’re honest, then we’d have to admit that taken all together, this psalmist reminds us a lot of ourselves. If we have faith, then we have a level of trust in our God, who is the target of our faith. Faith involves hope and trust precisely because, as the apostle Paul says in one of his epistles, we cannot at this point see our God the way we can see lots of other things in life. We hope for what we do not yet have, Paul says. And so while we await the consummation of our salvation and that day when our faith will be made sight, we hope and we trust.
As John Calvin famously said over and over, although it’s not open to scientific scrutiny or proof, the inner testimony of the Holy Spirit affirms for us that God is real and that God is love and that our God is reliable. But until that day when our faith is made sight, the fact that we have trust means that we don’t have quite that level of confidence that comes with verifiable knowledge.
That’s where doubt and fear can seep in. Even if we have very confident trust (as does this psalmist), if there is the least little fissure of doubt, anxiety can creep in. It’s like trying to seal up your house to keep mice out. Try as you may, the fact is that the mouse can get through an opening the size of a dime, and it’s pretty tough to seal up every dime-sized fissure in the walls. So with the psalmist, we also have lots of confident things to say about the providence of God. But also with the psalmist, we have those times when our prayers switch from phrases like, “Though an army besiege me my heart will not fear” to things like, “O God, protect me! Here they come! They look ugly and dangerous! Don’t abandon me, please!”
So there you have it in Psalm 27: the heights of confident faith and the depths of the anxiety that can still come to us when the bottom seems to be dropping out. Here we have both the loving and cozy relationship the psalmist has with God and all those glowing words about meditating on the beauty of God in the temple and yet we have also words about those times when we hide our faces from God out of fear that he’s mad at us for our sin. Above all, we have in the end that admonition to wait. We wait because we don’t have all the answers just yet. We wait because we don’t yet know whether or not any given prayer will be answered the way we hope.
Our lives of discipleship in this world are varied. Because of that, there are those Sundays when we can belt out a hymn like “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” and feel the truth of it clean down to our toenails. And then there are those Sundays when we can’t get through it without our voices cracking because lately God has seemed to be on vacation. There are those Sundays when, although we have sins to confess, we sense God’s grace and have good hope that it will not just forgive us but also make us stronger for next time. And then there are those Sundays when we recall that thing we said or did and feel every bit the hypocrite even for being in church. How could God not be just furious with us?
The psalmist who wrote Psalm 27 can relate to all that. But so can the God he served and the God in Christ we serve. Because this is the loving Creator and Redeemer who sticks closer to us than flesh is to fingernails. Even if your father and mother rejected you, this God would not. It’s just not in him. So even though our lives have their share of ups and downs, the constant steadiness of God is a reassuring source of refreshment for us. The Lord is our light and our salvation. Always. Of whom, then, shall we be afraid?
Trust is the word you employ when you are sure about something yet without necessarily having it nailed down as a piece of knowledge. By way of an analogy once used by Richard Mouw: let’s say someone comes to you and claims to have seen your son smoking marijuana this past Friday night. But suppose that in reply to this accusation you can say, “That’s not true because last Friday night, my son and I were at a Whitecaps game together and we were together the whole evening.” If you could say that, then you would not need to trust that your son didn’t do such a thing–you’d know it. But what if your son really had been out of your sight that Friday evening? In that case you’d have to go and ask him about it. If he swears that this is not true, and if you have good reason to believe that your son is not a liar, then you will trust him. You’ll go back to the accuser and say, “My son denies it, and I trust him.” But you won’t finally know, will you? And, alas, we’ve all invested our trust in people who did turn out to be lying to us. Trust can be a difficult posture to maintain. But in so much of life and in the life of faith, it is what we have to go on.
1 Corinthians 1:10-18
Author: Doug Bratt
The Reformed expression of the Christian faith’s many strengths have not always included Christian unity. Reformed Christians’ actions have sometimes tweaked an old saying to sound something like, “Where two or three are gathered in Jesus’ name … there you have three or four Reformed denominations.” Presbyterians sometimes talk about “split p’s”.
So this Sunday’s RCL’s Epistolary Lesson’s proclaimers might think of this as a good text for our Reformed siblings in the faith to hear. Paul begins it, after all, with his appeal to the Corinthian Christians to “agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you are united in mind and thought” (10).
Yet while Christian unity is certainly a prominent theme of 1 Corinthians 1:10-18, this text also touches on a couple of other themes. In verse 17, for example, Paul insists that Christ did not send him to baptize, but “to preach the gospel – not with words of human wisdom, lest the cross of Chris be emptied of its power.” The apostle then adds, “The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (18).
Those who proclaim the entire text the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday may want to explore how its apparently diverse themes of unity, the gospel and the cross are united. In that light, I think that J.R. Daniel Kirk (Preach This Week: Commentary on 1 Corinthians 1:10-18, January 23, 2011), to whom I owe some ideas for this message, is onto something. He sees the cross as that which unites these various themes. In fact, Kirk writes, “We discover in 1 Corinthians that the cross creates its own economy.” He then goes on to explain that the cross transforms both our personal and actions’ value. Those who view the world through the lens of the cross view that world differently than other people.
This may seem like a tall order. We, after all, naturally view everything from our own perspective. But as we noted in last week’s Epistolary Lesson sermon starter, Paul begins his first letter to the Corinthians by insisting that God has graciously given God’s adopted sons and daughters all we need to faithfully obey the Lord.
That means that the Spirit equips God’s adopted children to do things like view the world through the cross. The Spirit also fully empowers God’s people to be, among other things, united rather than divided. God will in fact, the apostle promises, keep God’s children strong in that unity until “the day of our Lord Jesus” (8).
So Paul can beg his readers to view their fellow Christians through the lens of the cross. He does so “in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (10). As Kirk notes, that’s important because not only is Jesus’ name the authority by which Paul calls Corinth’s Christians to unity; it’s also Jesus’ name that unites God’s adopted sons and daughters in the first place.
Yet, of course, Jesus’ isn’t the only name that Paul mentions in 1 Corinthians 1. And therein lies the rub. Christ’s name and saving work on their behalf makes God’s beloved people one. But Paul at least implies that his Corinthian audience is using others’ names just as often, if not more often than Christ’s. “Paul’s our guy,” some of them are insisting. Others claim that they take their marching orders from Apollos. Still others insist Cephas is their “main man.” And a few, Paul seems to almost sheepishly add, “follow Christ.”
Kirk suggests that even the sources of Paul’s knowledge about those divisions hints at those factions. Some folks who meet in Chloe’s small group have told the apostle that the Corinthian church is splintering. So while we don’t know much about Chloe or her household, we sense they’ve perhaps taken on themselves the role of being Paul’s eyes and ears. Might we even think of them as “tattle-tales”?
Yet while factions have “united” around people like Paul, Apollos and Cephas, the apostle begs them to unite themselves, instead, around Christ. Isn’t it, after all, Christ, not Paul in whom the Corinthian Christians are “sanctified” and on whose “name” they call (2)? It is in Christ, not Apollos that God has given them God’s grace (2). It is Christ, not Cephas for whose return Corinth’s Christians “wait” (7). And it is Christ with whom God has graciously called God’s adopted sons and daughters into fellowship (9).
“Is that Christ divided?” Paul asks rhetorically and with perhaps a strong sense of exasperation in verse 13. Was it not Paul but Christ who was crucified for all of God’s beloved people, including the members of the Corinthian church? Was it not Paul but Christ in whose name they were baptized?
Last week we noted how Paul soaks 1 Corinthians 1:1-9 in God’s person and work. Now we find him continuing in that vein in today’s Epistolary Lesson. In our hurry to make our preaching and teaching “relevant,” those who proclaim the gospel sometimes dash past God’s work to get to the meat of our preaching that is human work. Those who proclaim the gospel do better when we imitate the apostle in making our proclamation first and foremost about the God whom we worship and serve in Jesus Christ.
In fact, even when, as Scott Hoezee notes, Paul seems to ramble a bit toward the end of our text, he keeps a kind of laser focus on that triune God. In verses 13b-16 he talks about baptism. The apostle notes that he didn’t baptize anyone in his own name. He remembers baptizing Crispus and Gaius (14), as well as the household of Stephanas (16). Yet Paul can’t remember whom else he baptized.
While we may find Paul’s incomplete list of people he baptized either humorous or poignant, he may actually be employing a powerful rhetorical tool here. After all, by mentioning baptisms he’s already forgotten, he takes the focus off the baptizer (himself) and putting it squarely where it belongs: on the Lord Jesus Christ in and into whose name God’s children are baptized. In doing so the apostle reminds Christians that our unity stems from our shared connection through our baptism in Christ’s name.
It is a unity that remains under attack in the 21st century. In fact, we might even think of the Church as continuing to engage in a kind of civil war. Sometimes the battles rage over theology – over baptism, the Lord’s Supper and the return of Christ. Other skirmishes seem to merge the political and theological – debates over climate change, abortion, same sex attraction and immigration.
Those who proclaim 1 Corinthians 1:10-18 might explore our primary identity in the midst of our divisions over those “hot button” topics. We no longer take our cues from Apollos or Cephas. But Christians remain tempted to take our cues from our political party, socio-economic status or racial identity. God’s 21st century adopted sons and daughters are tempted to view the world and its citizens not through the cross, but through various lenses that we let others put on us.
The gospel we join Paul in proclaiming invites us to see the world from a biblical, not politically partisan perspective. So we sometimes first ask, “Is that a Democratic or Republican, or Conservative or Liberal perspective?” Paul, however, invites us to ask if it’s a perspective that’s consistent with our understanding of God, humanity and God’s creation.
Paul ends this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson by talking about the cross’s wisdom and foolishness. The Holy Spirit grants the cross of Christ enormous power, not only as a means of God’s children’s salvation, but also to transform the way God’s people think about the world and other people.
But Paul also notes a couple of things can diminish that power. It can be “emptied” (17) through reliance on human wisdom and cleverness in talking about it. Paul is determined to simply preach the gospel so that the Spirit can powerfully use it.
What’s more, the cross, quite simply, doesn’t make any sense from a human perspective. It’s “foolishness” (18). It was, after all, an instrument of torture used to humiliate and subjugate both criminals and ordinary citizens. The cross’s only apparent power lay in its ability to intimidate people.
Yet Paul insists that the cross has enormous “power” (18) for those whom God has adopted as God’s sons and daughters. It makes sense only to those whom the Spirit equips to see it as God’s means of salvation for the world God so deeply loves. Through the death and resurrection of the crucified Jesus, God brings life to those whom God is graciously saving.
Barbara Lemmel (“Makeshift Communities, The Christian Century, January 6, 1999) tells a story that reminds us that congregational divisions are not unique to the Christian tradition. It seems that a young rabbi discovered a serious problem in his new congregation. During Friday services, half his congregation stood for prayers while the other half remained seated. Each faction shouted at the other that they were observing the true tradition.
Since the rabbi couldn’t find a way to solve the dilemma, he had a conversation with the synagogue’s 99 year-old founder. When he met the elderly rabbi, he described his problem. “Tell me,” the young rabbi pleaded, “was it the tradition for the congregation to stand during the prayers?”
“No,” the elderly rabbi answered.
“So,” the younger rabbi responded, “then it was the tradition to sit during the prayers.”
“No,” the elderly rabbi again answered.
“Well,” the younger rabbi pressed, “what we have is complete chaos! Half the people stand, and the other half sits and screams.”
“Ah,” said the aged rabbi, “that was the tradition.”