January 18, 2021
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. These days some refer to the heartland of the U.S. as “flyover country.” No one vacations there but you fly over it on airplanes bringing you to more exciting destinations. (Of course, that dismissal of wide swaths of society is wrong and has led to a lot of people who desperately want their voices to be heard and to count. But that is another subject, though one connected to what I am writing here about the opening of Mark.)
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: Stan Mast
If you pay attention to the liturgical year, you know that we are still in the season of Epiphany. At first reading, I wondered what the story of Jonah has to do with Epiphany. Upon further meditation, I saw that it is a revelation of the grace of God in the most unexpected places– at the ends of the known world, from Tarshish to Nineveh. To put it bluntly, God shows up in his mercy in the most distant, damnable places. Jonah in his flight from God and Nineveh in its depravity discovered the answer to the question at the heart of Psalm 139, “Where can I flee from your presence?” Nowhere! That’s the Epiphany message of Jonah 3.
That Epiphany didn’t make Jonah happy. Indeed, what happened in Jonah 3 made Jonah furious, as we read in Jonah 4. Of course, Jonah 4 is outside our reading for today, but if we want to hear Jonah 3 in all its challenging power, we must pay attention to its context.
It strikes me that Jonah’s rage at Nineveh’s repentance and God’s relenting matches the mood in the US right now. The prevailing emotion of our painful time is not fear or sadness; it is anger, wrath, rage at the other side. In this climate, the other side of the aisle is not just a worthy opponent, but a mortal enemy, a demonic force that deserves to go to hell. That’s how Jonah and his countrymen felt about Nineveh. And that’s why he was furious when God relented in his dealings with those damnable people.
Indeed, that’s why Jonah ran away from God in the first place; as Jonah 4:2 says, he knew God might forgive those monsters in Nineveh. When God called Jonah to go to Nineveh, Jonah fled as far as he could from God. But you can’t run from the God who controls storms and big fish. From one end of the Mediterranean to the other, God pursued Jonah, and Jonah ended up right back where he started, with the call of God, in Israel.
That’s where the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.” This time Jonah obeyed, sort of. He went to Nineveh, but I wonder if he carried the message God gave him. I’ll say more about that in a moment, but I understand why Jonah might have edited God’s message a little. Nineveh was a terrible place, the capital city of Assyria, a nation that symbolized overwhelming and ruthless power of empire. Israel had been a victim of Assyria’s brutality when they were conquered and deported out of the Promised Land, stripped, shaven, with fishhooks in their buttocks. Nineveh had made life hell for God’s chosen people.
Now here is Jonah marching into the cursed capital city of cruelty with a message from God: “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.” That’s just 5 words in Hebrew. Nineveh responds with complete and universal repentance and belief in God. How could that have happened? Which God did they believe? Jonah never even mentions God in his message. And he never calls them to repentance. I wonder if the writer of Jonah left out part of the message or if Jonah himself edited out everything except the threat of judgment because he didn’t want them to repent and turn to God. He just wanted them to go to hell.
Or perhaps, as some scholars speculate, the surprising response of the Ninevites can be traced to Jonah’s expulsion from the belly of the great fish. These scholars point out that the main god of the Assyrians was Dagon, a fish god. Perhaps word of Jonah’s fish taxi had reached Assyria, and they saw Jonah as an emissary from their own god. Or perhaps they could quickly discern that he was an Israeli, whose God the conquering and deporting Assyrians knew very well.
Or perhaps the God of Israel simply over-rode Jonah’s blunt message of doom and moved the Ninevites to repent and believe. The God who sent the storm and the fish could also send his Spirit to move even these damnable pagans to change their hearts and their ways.
I’m speculating all over the place here to explain the unexpected response of the Ninevites, because they did what the Israelites never did in response to all the words of the other prophets. Contrast the stubborn response of Israel to its prophets, as summarized in Jeremiah 18:11, 12, with the submissive response of wicked Nineveh: “The Ninevites believed God. They declared a fast, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, and put on sackcloth.” Their pagan king joins the repentance with an amazing speech: “Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.” With that, he casts himself and his people on the mercy and compassion of a God he doesn’t even know.
A famous preacher once told me that there is one prayer God always hears, no matter who prays it: “God be merciful to me, a sinner!” Sure enough, God hears the plea of the Ninevites and does just that. Well, he didn’t just hear their plea; he also saw their repentance exhibited in changed lives. “When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened.”
Several important points jump out of those words. First, merely using that famous plea for mercy does not guarantee salvation. It is all too possible to mouth the words without a corresponding change of heart and life. Repentance must be sincere (cf. II Cor. 7:10,11).
Second, the king’s question reminds us that God is free to respond in judgment or in mercy; “Who knows?” God is not compelled by our prayers; his grace is sovereign. So, we may not presume on his mercy.
But, third, we must not assume that a threat once issued will automatically come to pass. God is free to change his mind, to relent, to “repent” in response to our repentance. Indeed, the Hebrew word for “relent” is shub, the classic word for repentance in the Old Testament. Yes, this challenges the classic doctrine of God’s immutability, but it does fit so many texts in the Old Testament that we can’t ignore it. Perhaps immutability has to do with God’s unchangeable will to save the world, including those whom God has threatened to punish terribly.
And fourth, this text demonstrates just how wrong Marcion was. That ancient heretic claimed that the God of the Old Testament was radically different than the God of the New, so we could ignore the Old Testament. That God was angry and punitive and nasty, with no redeeming graces. Not so in Jonah. Or in many other places.
That’s what made Jonah so angry. He assumed that because “those people aren’t my people, they can’t be God’s people.” And he was wrong. He should have known better, given how he had ended his prayer from the belly of the fish. “Salvation comes from the Lord.” That’s the message of the Old Testament and the New. It’s the message we see coming to fulfillment in Christ who came because of God’s love for the world.
What’s more, Jonah should have known how extensive God’s mercy was, given how God had dealt with Jonah’s resistance to God’s call and his flight from God’s presence. That response should have landed him, not just at the far edge of the world, but in a place of God’s eternal absence. Instead, God pursued him, provided for his rescue, reinstated his calling, dealt with his unholy anger in deep patience, and stayed with the prophet even he wallowed in God-criticizing depression. Even though we never hear a word about Jonah’s repentance, God stuck with him in mercy and compassion.
The story of Jonah was a corrective to Israel’s understandable, but ultimately damnable nationalism and racism. Yes, God loved Israel in a special way, but God always intended to bless the world through their special relationship with God. Even when they were despitefully used by their enemies, God had a bigger plan to save the world. The story of Jonah reminds Israel of that wider plan.
This story is also a corrective to our contemporary divisions. Callie Plunket-Brewton summarizes that corrective eloquently. “Jonah challenges the perspective of the righteously indignant to put aside moral superiority and take on the character of God, whose mercy is from everlasting to everlasting. Cycles of violence and blame can only be broken where mercy is extended. The only way forward for any of us is to demonstrate the same mercy that has been offered to us.”
Thomas Carlisle wrote a little book of poems that convey the message of Jonah better than any giant commentary. For example, this poem entitled “Tantrum” captures Jonah’s response to God’s mercy.
The generosity of God
Displeased Jonah greatly
And he slashed with angry prayer
At the graciousness of the Almighty.
“I told you so,” he screamed,
“I knew what you would do,
You dirty Forgiver.
You bless your enemies
And show kindness to those
Who despitefully use you.
I would rather die
Than live in a world
With a God like you.
And don’t try to forgive me either.’
Another poem, “Coming Around,” is a heartbreaking summary of the story.
And Jonah stalked
To his shaded seat
And waited for God
to come around
to his way of thinking.
And God is still waiting
For a host of Jonah’s
In their comfortable houses
To come around
To his way of loving.
Author: Scott Hoezee
Just why the Lectionary begins this short psalm in verse 5 is something of a mystery. First of all, the first verse sounds the leitmotif of this brief poem. Secondly, if you don’t see the context of WHY the psalmist needs to find his rest in God alone—because the psalmist is being attacked and ridiculed by foes—then the “rest in God” material loses some of its oomph. So were I following the Lectionary and chose the Psalm Lesson to preach on for this Sunday in January 2021, I would preach on the whole psalm. It’s not like those extra 4 verses make this too long of a reading!
But as we continue to reel from the horrors of 2020 and as the pandemic–and now in the U.S. as political unrest threatens our very sense of security—how much we need to read about how we suffer at the hands of those who wish us ill. Of late many people in this world—and certainly most Americans since the events of January 6—feel like that “tottering fence” and “leaning wall” referred to in the opening verses of Psalm 62. Foundations have been shaken. Ugly words have been and are being spewed on social media and into camera lenses. We wonder what is left that is solid, that could provide refuge.
The psalmist has an answer of course: God alone. And we are encouraged to pour out our hearts to this same God. And why not? We could never take reliable refuge in a God we could not entrust with our deepest fears and anxieties, doubts and dark thoughts. For God to shelter us, God needs to know us, needs to hear from us what makes us need divine refuge. In the spirit of the Psalms of Lament, so here we are encouraged to not hold back, to not deny our deepest yearnings or feelings for the sake of some false pretense of a piety that feels it has to pretend all is sunny and well with our souls no matter what comes. No, divulge it all to God. God can take it. And when we sense God understands, then God’s sheltering of us takes on new meaning because we know God holds the answers to help us.
But then comes a practical reminder of something we need to remind ourselves of often. Because in verses 9 and 10 the psalmist points out the final analysis of evil and arrogant people: they are in the end nothing. A piffle. A trifle. Just hevel, the Hebrew word for “breath” that gets used as the refrain in Ecclesiastes for meaninglessness, vapor, futility. Certainly the proud and arrogant of the world are good at putting on a fine show. They are full of swagger, full of sound and fury. They are splashy and flashy. They seize the headlines and dominate news cycles. They amass riches and power and seem to be able to buy their way out of almost anything. While some people go to jail for 15 years for being caught with 2 ounces of cocaine, some get away with massive fraud or crimes or swindles and never seem to have a moment’s regret and certainly never get anything remotely resembling their comeuppance.
In short, they look formidable and substantial. Forces to reckon with and all that.
But it’s not true, the psalmist declares. In the end they are nothing. Nothing in God’s sight—which is a sure way actually to BE nothing—but nothing in the long run of eternity either. Their works will not abide. Their power will come to a stunning and sudden end.
This is then followed in verse 10 with a prudent warning: don’t try to gain the riches or power these people have by adopting their methods as your own. It might work in this busted-up and messed-up world of ours but it will lead to also your ruin, to your being counted among those who finally have no real substance at all. And even if through ordinary means that are not themselves devious you find yourself having some wealth or other goods, don’t make them the center of your life. For one thing such material things can disappear in the proverbial blink of an eye. But also, in the end only one thing—or better said, only one Person—should be the center of your life and on which you set your heart and it is right back this psalm’s answer for everything: God Alone.
The psalm ends with a line that may be troubling to Gospel preachers today who need to proclaim the New Testament’s message of salvation by grace alone. Namely, the psalm ends with the declaration that God rewards everyone according to what they have done. Does this sentiment—and this is hardly the only place in the Bible where you can find it—do an end-run on salvation by grace alone? No. Even in a Gospel context it remains true, it is just that once you are baptized into Christ, Jesus’ deeds become your deeds. Jesus’ perfect righteousness gets credited to you. But if you are not “in Christ” (to use the Apostle Paul’s favorite shorthand phrase for salvation), then all that remains are your own deeds and when that happens . . . well, good luck with passing muster before a Holy and Righteous Almighty God. (And, of course, based on everything else this psalm claims, it goes without saying that if all you can present to God as the summation of your life is your ill-gotten-gains financial portfolio . . . well, then we come back to that line about being no more than a puff of air.)
Again, in a dark season of life on a global scale—and in dark and fragile moments in a place like the United States where much seems unsure just now—Psalm 62’s reminders are meant to bolster us, reassure us, give us some hope in a time of much hopelessness and loss. Applied to all that, these are not pat or easy answers. But from the vantage point of faith, they are the truth, and there is more than something to be said for that!
I have used this before in other sermon starters from passages that make a similar point but verse 9 of Psalm 62 reminds me of the end of the Harry Potter cycle of novels and films. From the beginning, the evil Lord Voldemort—he who must not be named—seemed beyond formidable. He was perhaps the most powerful wizard in the world and was certainly the most vicious and evil. He seemed invincible, even early on in the stories finding a way to come back from what looked like his death. He claimed he would live forever.
But then in the end in the final battle with Harry Potter, Voldemort is suddenly defeated. Having quite literally had his soul chipped away through a series of events, in the end Voldemort was just nothing, a breath, a puff of air. And so when in their final battle Voldemort has his own death curse rebound upon himself, he just floats away. His entire body starts to waft into the wind like the ashes of a burned up newspaper. And just like that, he is gone, quite literally scattered to the winds. (You can watch—or re-watch!—the scene here.)
That is Psalm 62’s message about all those who fancy themselves as masters of the universe for now: in the end they will be revealed as being nothing at all. As insubstantial as the ash of a piece of burned paper.
1 Corinthians 7:29-31
Author: Doug Bratt
Like most of this Starter’s readers, I’ve attended a number of weddings. I’ve even officiated at a few. But I can’t remember ever hearing or preaching a wedding message based on this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson.
At one level that’s understandable. This short text, after all, doesn’t yield easy interpretations that would fit well into a wedding homily. In fact, if 1 Corinthians 7 were mishandled, it might send a bride, groom or both scurrying for the exits without a wedding ring on their finger.
But on the other hand, this text, if handled carefully with the Spirit’s aid, may help those who marry in the Lord understand what it means to stay married in the Lord. In fact, it might offer brides, grooms and “eavesdroppers” some of the best advice they’ll ever hear not just at the wedding, but also anytime.
That advice? Basically, “Live like your time is short.” Of course, that immediately raises the question of what “time” is so “short” that it affects the way Christians live. Here as well as throughout this Starter, I am indebted to some of N.T. Wright’s insights in his book, Paul for Everyone: 1 Corinthians.
He points out that most of the first Christians thought of the time until the second coming of Jesus Christ at the end of measured time as being “brief.” Many of Jesus’ earliest followers assumed that Paul meant that the present world would pass away soon. The apostle (as well as many of his Christian contemporaries), after all, seemed to assume that Jesus would come again within his lifetime. As Wright notes, it’s hard to imagine any 1st century A.D. Christian imagining anything like a 2nd century.
That makes it hard for some 21st century gospel proclaimers to imagine preaching or teaching 1 Corinthians 7’s truths. God didn’t, after all, fulfill Paul’s expectation of Christ’s universal return within his lifetime. It may be hard for this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s proclaimers to, for example, tell people to refrain from marrying because Christ is going to return very soon.
But Wright says that Paul seems to have something even more urgent than Christ’s Parousia in mind when he speaks of the “shortness” of “the time.” Wright points to the crisis that was caused by a severe shortage of grain that plagued the Greek world of the apostle’s day. Food had largely run out. Famine was especially plaguing people who were materially poor. It was a time of what Wright calls “great distress.”
So Wright suggests that Paul is using the food crisis of his day to help people think about the crisis that Jesus’ return will precipitate for some people. Even if the more immediate crisis passed, the second would remain. Even if food flooded Corinth and others’ markets, Christ’s return remained on the horizon.
That dual crisis may help 1 Corinthians 7’s proclaimers speak its truths into the 21st century. Vaccines against and better treatments for COVID-19 give some of us hope that the crisis that is the current global pandemic will end. The affects of the pandemic are giving some people hope that the climate crisis is being at least postponed. Political and social developments are giving people hope that our crisis of racial injustice and inequality may be at least beginning to end.
Yet, in fact, even if all those crises were to somehow end and others weren’t to somehow arise, it’s as if the Spirit warns God’s people through the apostle Paul that one “crisis” will remain: that which Jesus Christ’s return will cause for those who haven’t received God’s grace with their faith. The current American political crisis, turmoil and even violence, for example, is child’s play compared to the crisis Jesus’ return may precipitate for those who haven’t yet received God’s grace with their faith. So, the apostle continues, don’t let yourself get caught in some of the “weeds” that are today’s crises, as well as the relationships and other things that so easily claim our ultimate attention. Focus more on the coming crisis for some people that will be Jesus’ return.
Those who proclaim this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson will want to think carefully and prayerfully about just what that means for not just those who are married, but also for all whom God lovingly creates in God’s image. But perhaps it means at least this: God’s adopted children don’t invest ultimate loyalty in and commitment to those things that in their present form will pass away. Live, says the apostle, “as if” those things won’t last forever. Because they won’t.
How might that speak, by God’s Spirit, to those who, for example, are getting married? It certainly doesn’t preclude fully investing in marriages and friendships. But 1 Corinthians 6’s proclaimers and hearers also never to forget that none of them last forever.
So even as Jesus’ followers work to strengthen our relationships with people, we even more diligently strengthen our relationship with the Lord. Jesus’ followers spend even more time cultivating our relationship with God than we do with our spouse, as well as anyone or thing else. After all, one will, after all, eventually pass away (hopefully after a good and long life together). The other will, by God’s amazing grace, last forever.
The same goes for our emotional states, economic transactions and use of material goods. Each has their proper place and deserves a proper amount of our attention. Yet while some may feel as though they’ll last forever, they won’t. Only relationships with God are eternal.
This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s proclaimers invite our hearers and our selves to hold on to the people, healthy emotions, and other arrangements we have and make. But we don’t cling too tightly to them. After all, some day we’ll have to let them go or they’ll be taken from us. But no thing or person will be able to take away our relationship with God.
Paul may be encouraging a relatively loose grasp on the people, emotions and economic and other arrangements because he understands that they have the potential to threaten Christians’ relationships with God, Those who proclaim this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson might consider that, as well as the tenacity of our own grip on them as we prepare to proclaim it.
Given the rest of not only 1 Corinthians’ 7th chapter, but also the entire letter, it’s unbiblical to assert that Paul commands Jesus’ followers to simply drop every person, emotion and arrangement through which God blesses God’s adopted children. But this text is an invitation to keep all of them in perspective. People and things can be extremely valuable. But they don’t hold ultimate value.
As my colleague Scott Hoezee noted in a fine Sermon Starter on this text, “we live IN this world but strive not to be OF this world.” We don’t pretend as if God expects us to live without things like spouses, friends, emotions or material goods. We also express our deep gratitude to God for the people and things with which God graces us.
But we never forget that they’re not the source of our ultimate comfort in life and in death. Were we, God forbid, to lose all of them, we would lose not even one iota of our comfort in Christ and his saving work on our behalf.
Paul concludes our Epistolary Lesson by insisting, “The world in its present form is passing away.” That’s counter-cultural perhaps especially in a North America whose media sometimes treats those things that plague us as of ultimate importance – at least until the next crisis diverts attention away. It seems to specialize more in sowing panic than cultivating hope.
Paul, however, insists that all that panics this world and consumes its attention is passing away. Pandemics and political crises eventually pass away. Emotions as well as economic and other arrangements come and go. Even people, sadly, pass away. Only one thing endures: Jesus Christ. He who is the same yesterday, today and forever didn’t just come to Bethlehem. He doesn’t just constantly come to his people by his Spirit. He’s also coming again.
I concluded my recent Christmas Day message by saying, “There is only one Lord, and it’s not any virus or any other threat. There is only one Savior, and it’s not any vaccine, politician or anyone or thing else. It’s Jesus the Messiah who has been born in the town of David.” And who, we might add, is coming again sooner than we may think to graciously take us into God’s eternal presence in the new earth and heaven.
This knowledge doesn’t drive Jesus’ followers away from relationships, any more than it drives us away from emotions, material goods or economic arrangements. Knowing that Jesus is coming soon, instead, sends God’s adopted sons and daughters to people and things with a renewed purpose: to be agents of Christ’s renewal of all people and things that Christ will complete at his return.
Some American young adults (men and women) aren’t just living as if they have no spouse. They’re not even getting married as soon as Americans once did. One cause for that might surprise us.
In a January 31, 2020 USA Today article entitled, “In Sickness and in Health, But Not in Debt,” Jessica Menton writes about how student debt is “putting a damper on young Americans’ relationship decisions.” About a third of the respondents between the ages of 18 and 34 to a LendKey Technologies survey reported that they might postpone – or have already postponed – marriage until student debt is paid off.
That number, Menton adds, shrunk among older respondents. About 17% of those between 35 and 54 would postpone marriage and 10% of those 55 and older would delay it.