January 15, 2018
The Epiphany 3B Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for Mark 1:14-20 from the Lectionary Gospel; Jonah 3:1-5, 10 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 62:5-12 from the Lectionary Psalms; and 1 Corinthians 7:29-31 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Lectionary Epistle: Heidelberg Catechism: Q&A 117 (Lord’s Day 45)
Author: Scott Hoezee
If Mark were a Broadway play, then the first 13 verses are like the overture. As we come to verse 14, the curtain is about to go up on the drama and when it does we see . . . Galilee. We’re not in a bigger city like Jerusalem or Sepphoris or Rome. Nope, little old Galilee.
Today it would be like expecting to see some drama unfold in New York City or Los Angeles only to have the story zero in on some place called Outbank, North Dakota. It’s probably a nice place but . . . it’s not what we were expecting. It reminds me of a scene from the classic movie The Philadelphia Story in which Katherine Hepburn plays the haughty East Coast sophisticate Tracy Lord. At one point she meets an earnest young woman who tells Tracy that she is from Minnesota. With a dismissive, if not vaguely bored, tone in her voice Tracy says to the woman, “Ah, yes, Minnesota. How nice. That’s west of here somewhere, isn’t it?”
In other words, “You’re from nowhere, aren’t you, dear?” Or at least nowhere that counts.
That’s the reaction Galilee might have garnered from the sophisticates of Jesus’ day. It’s not the kind of “happening place” where one would expect a great drama to unfold. But as the curtain goes up on the active phase of Jesus’ ministry, that is where we find ourselves even as Jesus—far from initiating some grandly unique message—basically tears a page out of John the Baptist’s book to declare “Repent! The time is fulfilled. The kingdom of God is near.”
We’ve heard this before. That was John’s message but we thought John was the warm-up act. He had said so himself. So what’s the main character doing reprising all that? Jesus calls this announcement “good news” but at this precise moment as the story begins, the message itself is sufficiently thin on content as to make it difficult to discern what’s so good about it. The kingdom we are told is near. It’s not here. It’s not fulfilled. It’s not crashing in to replace the dim and sometimes grim realities of this world (nor doing anything overt as of the moment to solve even something as locally important as the occupying presence of the Romans in Israel). Something appears to be up. Something’s in the wind. But just what that something is . . . well, we’re not told.
But Mark does not give us a chance to ponder that for long as the story moves right along to the shores of the Sea of Galilee. However, the drama quotient of it all is hardly enhanced as Jesus calls to his side four simple fishermen. Smelling of fish and looking every bit like the working-class folks that they were, Simon, Andrew, James, and John hitch their wagons to Jesus’ still nondescript program and begin to follow him. Jesus does not tell them where they are going. Beyond some cryptic promise to become “people fishers,” he also does not tell these four the specifics of what they might expect to happen next. He certainly does not promise them riches or rewards or anything tangible whatsoever. Yet they follow but their doing so hardly is the stuff of great promise or portent.
It is at once striking and quite probably revealing that Mark’s version of the gospel story gets off to such a humble, modest start. Matthew has his mysterious star in the east and the Magi who follow it. Luke gives us layer upon layer of drama surrounding the birth and later appearance of Jesus. John brings us to the rim of the galaxies and the beginning of all things with that all-creating Word of God who was with God in the beginning.
But not Mark. Mark allows Jesus merely to appear from out of nowhere, emerging humbly from the heat vapors emanating from the desert floor to be baptized by John. And then at the very moment when we do expect the curtain to rise on the drama to come, we end up in Galilee even as Jesus starts to cobble together a set of followers that can be described only (and perhaps at best) as rag-tag.
This is “the beginning” Mark already told us. As many scholars have noted, it’s tough to know what Mark meant in his opening verse about “the beginning.” What constitutes this beginning? How far does it extend? Is the beginning the first 8 verses of the gospel? Does it extend through the 13th verse? Does this lection of Mark 1:14-20 round out the beginning? Or is Mark more clever than all of us by basically saying that the entire gospel from Mark 1 through to the end of Mark 16 is but the merest beginning of a gospel that finally knows no bounds?
Tom Long believes it may be the latter and that there’s a reason why we therefore find Jesus in Galilee when he utters his very first words in Mark. Because these are the humble trappings that match the gospel ministry Jesus is launching. “Galilee” is the place where most of us live. Most of us live not in the citadels of power or in the glare of the bright klieg lights of history. No, we live in the Galilees of the world, on the margins, in those places where the powers-that-be do not visit and that they do not know much about more often than not. We start in Galilee because the Galilees of this life—and the simple fisherfolk who live there—are the places and the people Jesus came to save.
And so when we come to the gospel’s climax and we listen to the angel’s words to the women at the now-empty tomb of Jesus in Mark 16:7 “You must go to Galilee for there you will see him,” we as readers of the gospel are actually being directed back to Mark 1:14. We need to go back to Galilee, back to the humble beginning of the gospel and the humble, mundane characters who inhabit it to see it all through new eyes. Once we have been to the cross—toward which Mark drives us all throughout his gospel—and once we’ve seen the victory of God at the empty tomb, we go back to Galilee and all it stands for to realize anew that just such a place is what Jesus redeemed. The victory of Easter that the angel proclaims in Mark 16 directs us back to Galilee to realize that that cosmic victory is always finally a very local reality. It comes to Galilee and all who live there. It is a gospel and a victory for them, for fisherfolk, for the outback, and for every last one of us.
Thanks be to God! Yes, thanks be to God for Galilee! Because Galilee is where most of us live most of the time. How good it is to know that just there is where we again and again find Jesus proclaiming the Good News.
In Mark 1:17 Jesus uses the curious phrase alieis anthropon to entice Simon and Andrew to follow him. They would become “people-fishers,” anglers for human beings. It was a clever way to connect their current occupation with what Jesus had in mind for their future—it was in that sense, if you will forgive the pun, a good “hook” to get the attention of these men. Maybe had they been construction workers, Jesus would have invited them to become builders of human hearts. Maybe had they been real estate agents, he would have invited them to become sellers of kingdom turf. The source of the metaphor is obvious enough–they were fishermen and so Jesus used a fishing metaphor to address them. What Simon and Andrew understood from the metaphor is harder to discern. Fishing had been the source of their livelihood up to that time. Was Jesus promising them a more lucrative way to make money? That seems unlikely. Jesus did not look like someone who offered riches. But maybe he did look like someone who offered these men a chance to bring people into that kingdom whose nearness Jesus had been talking about ever since arriving in Galilee. And maybe the thought of reeling folks in to that better place was just intriguing enough as to have been part of what motivated these men to start modeling their lives on the life of the man whom they did not previously know but who seemed to believe in a future greater than could be imagined in that present moment.
The message we have to proclaim and to embody and to exemplify is the same now as it has always been: the kingdom of God is at hand. Today as much as ever, people need to know that this kingdom is real and available. They need to see the joy and the possibilities of that kingdom in us. Because often people are too easily satisfied just to make do with what is quick and easy and cheap. People settle for sex or liquor or a rock band or the distractions provided by entertainment. They look to these things to save them, or at least to help them move forward in a grim world. But, as C.S. Lewis once wrote, we are far too easily satisfied. We’re like a child who turns down an invitation for a day at the beach and chooses instead to stay sitting in a slum alley making mud pies just because the child really can’t imagine how much better a day at the shore can be. “What could be better than making these slimy mud pies?” the child might think. Ah, if only he knew!
Or as Dallas Willard writes, when he was a boy, rural electrification was just happening and power lines were being strung throughout the countryside. But suppose even after the lines were up and running you ran across a house where the weary family still used only candles and kerosene lanterns for light, used scrub boards, ice chests, and rug beaters. A better life was waiting for them right outside their door if only they would let themselves be hooked into the power lines. “My friends,” you could proclaim, “electricity is at hand!” But suppose they just didn’t trust it, thought it was too much of a hassle, and anyway didn’t believe the promises that things might be easier with this newfangled juice running into their house. “If it’s all the same to you, we’ll stick with the old ways.”
Maybe the kingdom is like that: it’s here, it’s real, it’s right outside your door. The kingdom of God is at hand! Don’t be so easily satisfied with the temporary pleasures of sex and money, power and food, cable TV and the wonders of technology. A better, exciting, hopeful, joyful kingdom of life is real. The kingdom of God is at hand. We live knowing that this is true! We live to help others believe it, too.
Jonah 3:1-5, 10
Author: Doug Bratt
Sometimes actions have surprisingly pleasant results. A soccer players weakly strikes a ball that ricochets off a defender and into the goal. Or a chef blends guacamole, tuna fish and lima beans into a recipe that somehow turns out to be delicious.
Other actions, however, have surprisingly unpleasant results. With perfect form a basketball player launches a three-point shot that a defender swats into the bleachers. Or a chef buys an expensive piece of meat that turns out to taste like a car’s balding tires.
Yet the results of actions may never have been more surprising than those of Jonah’s preaching in Nineveh. After all, among other things, each person in Jonah 3 at least starts as good as dead, spiritually if not physically.
Jonah certainly had been as good as dead. In fact, it really doesn’t matter if some big fish actually swallowed him or not. A person’s heart and brain may be going a hundred miles an hour. But he’s basically spiritually dead if he’s deliberately rebelling against God’s good and loving purposes.
Yet do you ever wonder if Jonah 3’s preacher suspects he’s inhaled too many whale fumes? After all, no sooner does the great fish vomit him out than he starts hearing a familiar voice and message again. God, using the same language Jesus later uses to call dead people from the tomb, tells Jonah, “Get up and go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim …” Just where has Jonah heard that before? At the beginning of his story (1:1).
Yet while Jonah is no more in love with Nineveh than he ever was, he at least seems to have learned his lesson. Instead of again running away from God and Nineveh, the very reluctant prophet walks straight toward God’s will.
Jonah 3 invites those who proclaim it to explore with hearers just what their own “Nineveh” looks like. Craig Barnes, to whom I’m indebted for some of this Starter’s ideas, suggests it’s that place you and I would rather avoid. Our Nineveh is not, as Barnes points out, the place we dreamed of landing in. It may even be a place that hope seems to have abandoned. But it’s the place to which God sends God’s adopted sons and daughters.
After all, even if our Nineveh doesn’t realize it, it belongs to God as surely as we do. It may be a bad or even evil place. But God longs to save our Nineveh’s as surely as God longed to save each one of God’s children.
God assignment for Jonah is quite simple: “Preach what I tell you to preach in Nineveh.” Though the narrator doesn’t tell us what God tells him, he at least hints that it’s good news. Yet we can hardly imagine Jonah tells Nineveh what God wanted him to say. There’s little grace in his blunt message that’s just five words long in the Hebrew.
Of course, God hates the brutality that characterized Nineveh. So we imagine both the prophet and the book’s original audience hoped Nineveh would simply ignore Jonah so that God could finally just destroy it with the back of God’s hand.
God, however, refuses to quickly give up on Nineveh. While God relentlessly promotes justice, God doesn’t enjoy the destruction of even the most wicked person. So God rejoices when Nineveh hears God’s word, believes it’s true and acts as though it will be destroyed unless it changes its ways.
If God’s adopted sons and daughters ever needed a reminder that it’s not about our teaching, witnessing, or even us, we get it in our text. After all, Jonah’s less-than-inspiring sermon takes hold, off and wing all the way to Nineveh’s palace.
God isn’t, after all, just gracious and patient. The God who created all that is created by the power of God’s Word and raised Jesus from the dead is also powerful.
The Nineveh’s of those to whom we proclaim Jonah 3 may also seem spiritually or emotionally dead. But God sends God’s people to our family, home, workplace, neighborhood or gym anyway. “Proclaim to it the message I give you,” God still tells you and me.
Of course, God’s “preachers” sometimes feel like we have a mouthful of marbles. We stumble over our words. We know our lives are less than a walking advertisement for the God whom we proclaim. We don’t have all the answers for Nineveh’s hard questions. Or you and I may not be so sure we want our Nineveh to experience God’s mercy.
Those who proclaim Jonah 3 can take heart. Our witness can’t be any more boring or half-hearted than Jonah’s. Yet God uses it anyway. After all, God, as a colleague notes, can and often does hit straight shots with crooked sticks.
But look at whom God’s grace hits. Not just Nineveh’s ordinary citizens, but also Nineveh’s king who engineered much of the brutality that devastated Jonah’s world. That king stops issuing decrees of violence and starts issuing a decree of repentance. He also challenges his subjects to join him in turning away from evil ways and towards a life lived according to God’s good purposes.
“Who knows?” the king poignantly adds in verse 9. “Maybe God will respond to our turnaround by changing God’s mind about us. Maybe God will quit being angry with us and let us live.” Yet while Nineveh’s king can only hope God will change God’s mind, God does change God’s mind about Nineveh. What God said God would do to Nineveh God doesn’t do. God graciously spares her.
God’s changing of God’s mind may be a frightening concept for people who take it out of context. It may make God’s adopted sons and daughters wonder if God will arbitrarily change God’s mind about us. Those who proclaim Jonah 3 need to help our hearers see God’s changed mind about Nineveh for what it is: a gracious if mysterious display of how God can be moved.
As the Ninevites turn to God, God graciously turns to them. In fact, God turns toward Nineveh long before she turns to God. God withholds God’s punishment until after Nineveh has a chance to hear God’s call to repent. In our eagerness to have God know everything, we sometimes leave little room in our imaginations for such divine 180’s. Yet by doing so we limit what we imagine God can do.
However, both those who proclaim and those who hear Jonah 3 might also consider this: when God changes God’s mind, it’s always in the direction of life. So God’s people don’t have to worry about God arbitrarily changing God’s mind about us. After all, God’s love is secure because it depends not on people’s goodness, but on God’s unfailing mercy.
Yet this raises questions about God’s children’s readiness to welcome the people into the life of the church about whom God changes God’s mind. Jonah wasn’t ready to welcome Nineveh into God’s family.
God’s adopted sons and daughters still claim we want to reach all people. We even claim we want the world’s Ninevites to turn to God and come and join us. But what if they do? What if, for example, people with lots of body piercings and tattoos chose decide to join us? What about those whose sexual or political orientation doesn’t match ours? If we preach repentance that one day takes hold and they show up in our local churches, then what?
Who wants that “Ninevite” neighbor who abuses his wife and children to experience God’s grace? Maybe not God’s people, but God does. Who can turn that “Ninevite” co-worker who is serially unfaithful to her spouse from her evil ways? God’s people can’t, but God can.
Who wants “Ninevites” who grew up in the Church but now openly defy God to rise from their spiritual death? Since God does, God invites God’s adopted sons and daughters to do the same.
In his October 3, 2015 blog, “Review of ‘Charles Williams: The Third Inkling’,” Bruce Charlton notes, “The playwright and poet Charles Williams was one of the four main Christians of the mid-twentieth century Anglican revival, which was the most recent significant Christian revival in England (the others were CS Lewis, TS Eliot and Dorothy L Sayers, who were all friends and very strong admirers of Williams).
“So I have the highest regard for some of the novels and his theology… [Yet] Williams was in love with Phyllis Jones, and … had a warped kind of interaction with Lois Lang-Sims, and … there were other rather vague rumours about ritual magical-sadism with others – the sheer extent of Williams’s activities along these lines was never before clear … CW [also] had intense love relationships with both his main biographers Anne Ridler and Alice Mary Hadfield …
“The fact is that Williams did not repent these activities – indeed he specifically states at one point that he did not repent the extra-marital affair with Phyllis – that he indeed regarded repentance of this sin as a temptation; one that he had been strong enough to resist …
“Williams’s theology is one which really has little or no role for repentance, because he is always trying to discern the unity of all experience; and the ways in which apparent evil is actually good …
“I tend to think that repentance is almost the essence of Christianity, and this means that there really are things that need to be repented – in other words, sins. For any traditional Christian there was a great deal about Williams’s sexual life that was very obviously sinful and needed to be repented – and his refusal to repent it amounts to a denial of its sinfulness, and an implicit assertion of its virtuousness – which amounts to a far worse sin than the original transgression.”
Author: Stan Mast
Psalm 62 is a Psalm of trust with a healthy dose of instruction mixed in. It is tailor-made for troubled times in which the clamor and agitation, grasping materialism and sheer meanness of society threaten the person who is trying to live a God focused life. In other words, Psalm 62 is for times like ours. Here we listen in on the Psalmist as he (the superscription attributes this Psalm to David) commits himself to God when threatened by assaults of conspirators who wish to de-throne him. In this Psalm we have a model of trust in such times; indeed, in the opinion of many scholars Psalm 62 is the greatest expression of simple trust anywhere in the Psalter.
Though the Lectionary is focused only on verses 5-12, it is important to take the Psalm as a whole, because the first two verses are echoed almost exactly in verses 5-6. Such repetition is a literary device that points us to the central focus on the Psalm. Further, verses 3-4 give us the occasion for the writing of the Psalm; without them, the trust exhibited here hangs unexplained in thin air. This is trust in the face of forces that make life very untrustworthy.
So, while I won’t spend a lot of time on those opening 4 verses, it is important to take them into account. The first two verses and the last two verses frame the rest of the Psalm; verses 1 and 2 are an expression of simple yet profound trust while verses 11 and 12 give the simple yet profound reason for such trust. Verses 5-8 are an extended confession of trust and hope, repeating but elaborating on verses 1 and 2.
The remaining verses speak of those who threaten the Psalmist. Verses 3 and 4 identify the intention of these hypocritical liars; they intend to “topple him (the Psalmist, presumably King David) from his lofty place.” They are, as one scholar put it, “reputation wreckers.” Verses 9-10 reveal their weakness and wickedness. Though they think they are heavyweights, they are in reality “but a breath…, together they are but a breath (verse 9).” Further, they are obsessed with material things, whether honestly or dishonestly gained. Not only are they increasingly rich, but they also, and more importantly, “set their hearts on” their riches. These are the kinds of folks Paul warned about in I Timothy 6, when he said that the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.
In contrast to the weakness and wickedness of his enemies, the Psalmist trusts in God. He uses a proverbial convention to give the reason for that trust. “One thing God has spoken, two things I have heard….” What follows sounds a great deal like the childhood prayer we taught our little ones. “God is great, God and is good, and we thank him for this food.” The Psalmist’s trust in troublesome times is based on two great truths that God has revealed: “you, O God, are strong, and you, O Lord, are good.”
Because God is all of that, the Psalmist is able to trust quietly (verses 1 and 5) even though these enemies threaten his life, because he believes that God will make it right in the end. Despite the lies these enemies are spreading about him, threatening his place in the world, the Psalmist trusts that in the end, God will judge all people, not on their big words, but on their deeds. The Psalmist knows that the accusations of his foes are not true, and he trusts that God will reward him according to what he has actually done, not according to his damaged reputation. That last verse (5), in other words, is not teaching some version of salvation by works. It is simply appealing to the justice of God to make things right in a world where so much is wrong. Judge me by what I have actually done, not what people say about me. My deeds show who I am. Or to put it in terms of James 2, our works show our faith (in the case of the Psalmist his quiet trust).
There are many homiletically fruitful points in this lovely Psalm, but I’ll focus on just two of them—first, the contrast between the quiet trust of the Psalmist and the frantic clamor of our times and, second, the connection between this Psalm and the Epiphany of Christ.
Verse 5 sets the tone for the entire Psalm, transforming the indicative of verse 1 into self-talk, an exhortation to actually do what he says he believes in verse 1. It’s easy to say that we rest in God alone, but when trouble comes, it’s not so easy to do. So the Psalmist gives himself a bit of a pep talk. “Find rest, O my soul, in God alone.” God is my hope, my rock, my salvation, my mighty rock, and my refuge. I know that; I believe that. Now, I have to rest in that God alone.
Several things merit comment in those few words. The word translated “rest” is a word that means to be quiet, to settle in peacefully, to rest silently. When he is blasted by the words of his enemies, he does not fight back with a storm of words, as some contemporary leaders do. Rather, he is silent, not because he is helpless or cowardly, but because he trusts the God who is his rock, his salvation, his refuge. Because he trusts God that way, he exhibits what Calvin called “the grace of silence.”
Rather than dividing his trust between God and his army, or God and his family, or God and his charismatic personality, he trusts in God alone. Indeed, the word “alone” is the Hebrew particle ak, which occurs 7 times in Psalm 62, four of those uses in verses 1, 2, 5 and 6. It has the sense of exclusivity and fullness. In each of those instances, ak is the first word in the verse, conveying that twin ideas that I rest in God alone and I rest in God fully.
After calling himself to trust God that way, the Psalmist turns to his people in verses 8-10, “Trust in him at all time, O people….” You are surrounded by people who are putting their trust in their own efforts or position (the “lowborn” and the “highborn” of verse 9) or in their wealth (verse 10). But don’t be like them. Rather, join me in trusting God in quietness and rest.
Rather than joining the clamor of society, “pour out your hearts to him, for God is our refuge.” There is a place, of course, for speaking out in a world where so much is wrong. The world needs its prophets and its protestors, but this Psalm calls all of us to a quiet core, to a calm reliance on the God who is strong and good. The noisy frantic crowd that is willing to do anything to succeed is not nearly as important as you might think. Patrick Reardon summarizes this first homiletical approach to Psalm 62. “To this quiet waiting in the presence of God is contrasted the busy agitation of life without God, filled with vanity, dishonesty, lying, cheating, hypocrisy, cursing.” Let us call our people to quiet rest in God’s presence, “far from the madding crowd.”
Second, we should ask what this Psalm has to do with the Epiphany of Christ, since this is the selection for this Third Sunday after Epiphany. Does Psalm 62 give us any helpful way to preach on the revealed glory of Christ? Well, not at first glance, but let’s look more carefully.
One scholar suggests that we might read “honor” in verse 7 as “glory.” The use of the word “salvation” which is yeshua in Hebrew suggests at least a tenuous connection to Christ. “My salvation and my glory depend on God….” Those could well be the words of Jesus as he experienced growing opposition to his ministry. Apart from a few flashes of his glory (in his baptism and the call of Nathanael, as we’ve read in the Gospel readings for the last two weeks), Christ labored incognito. Yes, the Gospel of John shows how his miracles revealed his glory, but his enemies saw those miracles as reasons to oppose him. So, we could read Psalm 62 as the words of Christ during those dark days when enemies tried to “topple him from his lofty place….” His quiet strength in the face of that opposition is the ultimate example of the heart of Psalm 62. “My soul finds rest in God alone.”
Or, more plausibly, the twin truth of verses 11 and 12 give us a powerful angle into a Christ-centered sermon on Psalm 62. The Psalmist is able to rest quietly in God, because he knows that God is strong and good. However, a skeptical person might ask why the Psalmist is in so much trouble if God is both strong and good. That dual claim raises the problem of theodicy. If God is so strong and, thus, able to do what he has promised, why are these enemies still here? Again, if God is so loving and, thus, committed to his people’s welfare, why are these enemies still attacking. Maybe God is strong, but not loving. Or loving, but not strong. If God is both, how can we explain the suffering of his people?
The Psalmist doesn’t attempt to explain this conundrum; he simply asserts both truths. Though that will not satisfy any despiser of the faith, it is often all a believer can do. It’s simply a matter of faith, even if I can’t always make sense of it. But here’s where Christ comes into the picture and helps us with the problem of theodicy. God’s strongest response to problem of suffering is not an argument, but a theophany, the appearance of God in human history, not in glory, but in humility.
In Jesus Christ, the strength and love of God were joined in a suffering human. The great Christ hymn of Philippians 2:6-11 traces out the trajectory of that ultimate theophany. “Who being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human appearance. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross.” The very existence of Jesus Christ is the greatest epiphany of God’s glory the world has ever seen.
Except that the world did not see that glory; only a few did. But they bore witness. And now, all who believe their report can say with the Psalmist, “Find rest, O my soul, in God alone…. For he (alone) is strong and good.” The life, death and resurrection of Jesus is the proof of those (allegedly) problematic poles of truth about God. To put it very simply, how do we know we can trust God alone and fully in troublesome times? Because in Christ, God has demonstrated that the strength and love of God are our hope and our salvation.
The day will come when the whole world will see the epiphany of Christ’s glory, as taught in the conclusion of that Christ hymn in Philippians 2. “Therefore, God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
This year the Third Sunday of Epiphany falls very close to the one-year anniversary of the Inauguration of President Trump back in 2017. It has been a tumultuous year for America and for the world. Whether you and your congregation are pro-Trump or anti, all of us will agree that Psalm 62 accurately captures the tone of our times—assaults, lies, cursing, hypocrisy, materialism, meanness, everyone trying to topple someone else. What a time to preach Psalm 62 with its invitation to rest in Christ alone!
1 Corinthians 7:29-31
Author: Scott Hoezee
In Ron Chernow’s new biography of Ulysses S. Grant, we read that in the early days running up to the full outbreak of the Civil War, enthusiasm for the war ran high on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line. Both sides saw the cause as one of justice. Both sides fervently believed in their cause. And as Chernow makes clear, although Grant himself had darker intuitions as to how this might all go, there was high confidence on both sides that this war would be short and that either the Union or the Confederacy would very soon deliver one decisive knockout blow that would swiftly end the whole conflict. Few could have imagined the war would take up even a very big chunk of chronological time in 1861, much less make it clear to 1862.
Of course, Chernow writes all of that—and we all read these words—with a heavy heart and a sense of retrospective foreboding for all those well-intentioned but finally tragically naïve ways of thinking. The war would be a long four-year slog, a bloody horror, a reckoning in human treasure the likes of which the darkest pessimist could but dimly have speculated about in late 1860 after Lincoln was elected and the wheels of war began to turn.
Reading 1 Corinthians 7 is not as heavily foreboding as all that. Yet there is some parallel. Reading Paul’s words here, it is pretty clear he did not envision a long period of time for the church before Christ would return. He seemed to think he might not live to see the full in-breaking of the kingdom but you get the sense that neither could he have imagined history making it to the second century A.D. before the end came.
And so we get a chapter like 1 Corinthians 7 in which most of Paul’s words tend to make the best sense if Christ’s return was in fact fairly imminent. Some of us preachers—this author included—have shied away from preaching on this chapter for that very reason. Two millennia on the high side of Paul’s penning these words, one wonders how relevant they are, what the application might be. It has been a very long time since any father cautioned his daughter against marriage on account of it just producing difficulty for her, difficulties she could easily do without since the coming of Jesus might be, like, next week. Indeed, if even the most devout Christian father today urged a child not to marry, no one would believe the return of Jesus was the real reason. If someone invoked that as a reason, everyone would conclude it was just a dodge to cover up their not liking the fiancé in question or not wanting to lay out the $20,000 a big wedding might end up costing their pocketbook.
So what do we do with Paul’s thoughts, even the ones in the exceedingly small 3-verse snippet the Lectionary has chosen to pull out of this larger chapter? If we chalk this all up to eschatological misjudgment on Paul’s part, is the whole of it just an error? Is this just a footnote on some erstwhile way of thinking that has no traction for the church 2,000 years later?
Probably we need not go that far. Yes, as always we exegete and then we apply. And if we do that here, we will see that there is contextual/historical baggage associated with this that we need to leave to one side. But we will also recognize a core Christian conviction on display here: we live IN this world but strive not to be OF this world. “Weaned affections” is how the Puritans used to think about it. We have things as though having them not. We don’t pretend we can live without food or some measure of money, shelter, clothing. Scripture does not call every believer to be some ascetic pole-sitter in the middle of a desert somewhere.
But we see the world differently. A friend of mine recently noted how much she likes how her pastor closes every service at the end of his parting benediction: “Remember that you live in a world where a resurrection took place.” That’s right. We just recently finished the annual Advent Season which reminds us that actually the entirety of church history and of our lives right up to this present moment take place between two Advents: the one in Bethlehem’s stall and the one yet to come. And if that second Advent seems remote to us despite our belief it will one day happen, it is still on the far horizon of our lives. We live in a world where a resurrection took place and where that resurrected One will be back.
And that properly changes everything. What we possess in life, we receive with gratitude. But even a comfortable bank account and prudent retirement planning can never be the source of our ultimate comfort or hope. And we must be able to say that were we to lose all that in some fiscal catastrophe—and goodness knows THAT is not as farfetched as it may have seemed to some before 2008—we would not have lost a single ounce of our deepest, truest comfort in Christ and in his gospel. Nothing shall separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, Paul wrote in Romans 8. So if we find ourselves thinking that the loss of a spouse or of our 401K or of our cherished house in the Hamptons would be the end of us or would effectively cause us to doubt God’s own love for us, well then Paul has some highly relevant words for us in 1 Corinthians 7 after all.
This is less an illustration than an attempt at an insight into human nature. Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 7 that if we are sad, we should behave as though we are not really all that sad; and if we are happy, then we behave as though we don’t care about happiness. This is not easy. And let’s admit something else: we have all met people who, perhaps on the thought that this is what is being required of them in a passage like this one, seem fake and nearly plastic to us. They have so cut themselves off from the ability to cry as to lack depth and if they laugh, it also seems hollow, forced. Of course, there can be other reasons to be so plastic, reasons not very pious.
It reminds me of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind. Scarlett is a self-absorbed schemer whose every emotion—or lack thereof—seems to be some kind of game. No one understands Scarlett better than Rhett Butler, and at the end of the film as Rhett prepares to quit Scarlett once and for all, he utters a line that sums her character up perfectly (and it is more devastating than the more famous “Frankly, my dear . . .” line that comes moments later). As he offers her a handkerchief, Rhett says, “Here, take my handkerchief. Never in any crisis of your life have I known you to have a handkerchief.” What Rhett means is that she’s never really shed a true tear. It’s all stagecraft, niggling, maneuvering, manipulating. She’s never had a hankie because she never really needed one.
That is the kind of faux, plastic character we recoil from. If Paul in 1 Corinthians 7 is telling us to be disconnected from true emotion, then he would be calling us to a kind of pathology, to having a kind of character no true flesh-and-blood human being should want to have. It would even be at variance with the incarnate Jesus’ own personality that seemed genuinely to know both joy and sorrow.
If anything, Paul may be calling us to deeper grief than those who do not know Christ, to grander joy than can be available to those who do not know the power of the resurrection. But we do not grieve as those who have no hope and we do not have a light and momentary happiness that is forever dependent on the circumstances for its existence. We are deeper all the way around precisely because we understand the deepest truths of the creation. We cannot get knocked sideways by any light and momentary grief but grieve only over the deepest tragedies. And we do not spend our lives being distracted by what is ostensibly “happy” in cheap comedy or in mocking what is good but find a joy that cannot be undone by death.
Paul is calling us to be more real, not less so. A challenge for sure. But not an impossible one for those who know Christ and the power of his resurrection.