January 18, 2016
Author: Scott Hoezee
Suspense! If you stop at verse 21 as the Lectionary would have you to do and hold off on what happens in verses 22 and following next week, then a sermon on this text ends in some suspense as we wait to see how the people will react to what Jesus has just said and claimed.
Of course, most of us know what happens next. Initially, the people spoke well of Jesus. That in and of itself is a bit surprising since what Jesus seems to be claiming is rather remarkable. At first glance Jesus’ claim that this clarion prophecy from Isaiah 61 was being fulfilled in the hearing of those people seems startling, if not flat out over-blown. After all, that particular chapter in Isaiah is loaded with transformative imagery. If even half of the salvation and restoration Isaiah talked about there were to come to fulfillment, no one could possibly miss seeing it! This would be “Breaking News” for sure.
Imagine a similar prophecy applying to today: suppose someone wrote up a lyric poem or other treatise in which it was predicted that the day would come when every person in the country would have healthcare provided free and at no cost to them, when every unemployed person would find meaningful and fulfilling work, when every crack addict would recover from his addiction and when every broken down inner-city tenement would get an “extreme makeover” such that every such hovel would shine and gleam like some multi-million-dollar New York City penthouse overlooking Central Park.
Now those are the kind of grand promises that, if ever they were fulfilled, no one could miss seeing it. If that prophecy were fulfilled, there would be no missing it.
Probably people had similar views of Isaiah 61. So how could Jesus sit down quietly and make the wild claim that it was fulfilled? Right then. Right there. Fulfilled. Really, Jesus? How? Where?
It’s a fair question. But maybe we need to look a little more closely at the verses Jesus actually quoted that day. Because what he quoted did not say that every prisoner was released or every blind person was healed. Instead what he said was that the coming of all that was being proclaimed to these people along with the message that the year of the Lord’s favor was upon them. They were seen by God. The lowest of the low, the ones so marginalized as to scarcely register on our human awareness were seen by and loved by God himself.
The kingdom Jesus was proclaiming and ushering in was not going to be flashy. That much had been proven in the first part of Luke 4 when Jesus again and again refused the devil’s temptations to do showy, big, flashy things. Jesus was not interested in parlor tricks and miracles-on-demand. He wasn’t interested in worldly authority and being hailed as the new Caesar. He wasn’t interested in making angels appear out of thin air. He was interested in the Word of God, in serving God quietly, in letting God’s slow-kingdom-coming remain a hidden phenomenon (but that kingdom was not for that reason any less real).
The hidden hand of God. It’s been God’s way of operating ever since he chose an obscure and childless couple of senior citizens to found a mighty nation way back in Genesis 12. For whatever the reason, the kingdom of God comes within us long before it comes into view under the spotlights and klieg lights of the wider world. It takes faith to believe that the quiet little man who sat down in the Nazareth synagogue that day was very God of very God, Light from Light and all that. It takes faith to believe that “Joseph’s son” was the cosmic Creator of all creatures great and small. And it takes faith to believe him when he says that something as soaring as Isaiah 61 is being fulfilled somehow in that outback region of the Roman Empire 2,000 years ago.
In fact, if it was hard for those people to believe Isaiah 61 was being fulfilled, we today now have a couple millennia more of hard data to deal with, most of which is more than enough to cause us to doubt the kingdom’s presence in the world. We’ve seen way too many wars, way too much persecution, way too much genocide, way too much corruption to believe easily that the kingdom has come in Christ Jesus or that the world is, even now, being ruled by the one who is King of kings and Lord of lords.
Yet the words of Jesus hang in there: it is all being fulfilled. It’s the agony, perhaps, of “the already and the not yet.” It’s that most startling of all theological developments that God inaugurates a hidden kingdom instead of a grandly visible one but that we get to participate in that kingdom’s renewal of all things even when the world around us seems calculated to knock the stuffing out of our hopes for that kingdom.
Give the people of Nazareth credit for knowing that it’s hard to believe all this. But thanks be to God we have the Holy Spirit to keep us close to the bosom of the Father even so, keeping alive in us all the hope that just is the gospel of Christ Jesus our Lord.
I noted at the outset that stopping this reading at verse 21 creates some suspense. This story doesn’t end there in verse 21. The ultimate reaction of the crowd is yet to come. But in another sense, there is also spiritual suspense at the end of verse 21: we are suspended between hearing Jesus’ promise that this goodness was going to be fulfilled and experiencing that fullness. It’s coming, Jesus says, the kingdom is near, you can proclaim it to those longing and thirsting the most to hear it. But it’s not quite here yet. Not completely. Still, in this suspenseful state, we keep looking for glimmers of the kingdom even as we do our best to let the Holy Spirit work in us to show forth the kingdom and its grace-laden ways.
We may be in a state of suspense. But it’s a good suspense, bristling as it is with the coming of so very many good things!
Luke tells us in verse 14 that Jesus returned to the region of Galilee “in the power of the Spirit.” Not long after that we will hear Jesus read the words of Isaiah 61:1 in which he claims “The Spirit of the Lord is on me.” And indeed it is—we were told that already. Having come through his wilderness encounter with the Devil, Jesus is feeling the presence of his fellow member of the Trinity in new ways. Of course, that doesn’t mean everything will be easy. Things do go a bit sour, after all, before this part of Luke 4 is finished. But maybe that is a reminder to also us that even when we know we are doing the Pentecostal work of God’s Holy Spirit, there may still be outward events that can discourage us. But if Luke 4 is any indication, then we can take comfort in knowing that outside discouragements are by no means an indication we’re not cooperating with the Spirit after all!
As Barbara Brown Taylor has written, in the Lord’s Supper the minister holds up a whole loaf of bread as a reminder of the whole, perfect presence of God among his people. But then that loaf is shattered, broken, torn, and the crumbs fall onto the table. It is a reminder that our perfect wholeness, that peace for which we yearn and pine, is not behind us but up ahead yet. Wholeness is coming, but the broken loaf reminds us that it is coming not through what we’ll do but through what Jesus already did. His brokenness is what will one day put our lives back together whole and complete, relationships and all.
Tom Long once told a story which illustrates this. One time Long was asked to preach at what was billed as a special “family worship service.” It was a great idea . . . on paper. The notion was to hold the worship service not in the sanctuary but in the fellowship hall. There families would gather around tables, in the center of which would be the ingredients for making a mini-loaf of bread. The plan was to have the families make bread together and then, while the sweet aroma of baking bread filled the hall, the minister would preach. When the bread was finished, it would be brought out and used for a celebration of the Lord’s Supper.
It was a great idea . . . on paper. But it didn’t work well. Within minutes the fellowship hall was a hazy cloud of flour dust. Soggy balls of dough bounced off Rev. Long’s new suit as children hurled bits of the dough at each other. Husbands and wives began to snipe, nerves were frayed. Then the ovens didn’t work right and it took forever for the bread to bake. Children whimpered, babies screamed, families were on the verge of falling apart. But finally, and mercifully, the end of the service came. The script called for Long to pronounce the normal blessing saying, “The peace of God be with you.” Too tired and irritable to ad-lib anything, Long just said it straight out, holding limp, flour-caked hands to the air and saying, “The peace of God be with you.” And immediately, from the back of the trashed fellowship hall, a young child’s voice piped up, “It already is.”
We come to worship each week from the broken mess that just is our life in a fallen creation. We believe the kingdom of God has come in Christ but we know full well that there is much that remains broken, incomplete, wounding. But we hold onto that kingdom vision and the peace it gives to us. Because the Lord God anointed Jesus to announce the year of the Lord’s favor, we have hope and we have peace, already now.
Author: Scott Hoezee
Let’s just admit that if you preach for a living, then Nehemiah 8 sounds vaguely like a dream come true! Someone preaches and . . . people gobble it up. They love it! They can’t get enough. They are vaguely disappointed that the sermon ended (instead of being relieved as may happen all-too-often in actuality.)
There stands Ezra in what amounts to a pulpit with a large throng of people in front of him. He reads and explains the Word of God. The people had not had a chance to hear it just this way in decades. In fact, probably most people there that day could never remember a time when they got to soak up the very Word of Yahweh as it had been handed down from the time of Moses. So they stood in rapt attention, hanging on Ezra’s every word. There was much they understood but the tougher points were nicely explained by Rev. Ezra. He made it possible to understand . . . to understand nothing short of the very Word of God, the will of Yahweh for his people.
Although we were not told this along the way, we find out in verse 9 that as it turned out, the people had been so moved, so convicted, so arrested by Ezra’s explications and readings, they were weeping. Since we’re not really told why they had started to cry, we can only speculate. Ezra tells them not to “mourn,” which may indicate that what was behind the tears was a certain sadness at how out-of-alignment their lives had been vis-à-vis God’s will for his people.
But maybe it was more than that.
Maybe what set their tear ducts to flowing was the beauty of God’s revelation, the sheer wonder of getting to hear something proclaimed in public that had not been heard for so very long during Israel’s long period of Babylonian exile. Now they had come home. Granted, it was a ramshackle wreck of a place to which they returned and the work required to set things to right was daunting. But they were home and, as such, were eager to lap up the words of Ezra in that he was speaking the Word of Yahweh.
Again, a preacher’s dream come true! An attentive audience. A congregation eager to hear what you have to say and not merely willing to tolerate another sermon en route to the end of the service. They listened. They weren’t glancing at their watches, weren’t nodding off, weren’t wearing expressions on their faces that could indicate concentration but could just as easily signal either boredom or deep anger (or both!). Yes, we preachers know what it is to look out into the faces of our congregations and see such a variety of expressions, each of which betrays one state of mind or another. Seldom, though, are the people as attentive as Nehemiah 8 depicts the returned exiles as being.
This is a curious passage. It is made all-the-more curious near the end when Ezra tells the people that instead of crying over God’s Word (for whatever the reason) they needed to go home and feast. They needed to celebrate. They needed to put on the fatted calf (insofar as these still-poor exiles were able to do that at least) and just have a great time, being sure to share their food and drink with those who could not join the feast without some outside donations. And so the passage that begins, as it were, “in church” concludes with a delightful portrait of a banquet. The sounds of crying over the beauty (or the challenges) of God’s Word get replaced in the end with the clinking of stemware, the smacking of lips, and the convivial sounds of laughter and conversation emerging from the homes of the Israelites as they gather around tables laden with good stuff.
Perhaps it tilts us too much in the direction of making an allegory out of this passage but perhaps what we can see here is more than just a preacher’s dream of a hyper-attentive congregation that is truly eager to be engaged by God’s Word and the preacher’s words. Maybe what we see here is a portrait for how God’s people should receive, and respond to, the Word of God at all times. We are mostly too blasé these days. Maybe were we deprived of God’s Word for a long time like these former exiles had been we’d likewise come back to church and to the hearing of God’s Word with something approaching their level of eagerness.
But perhaps the real “trick” is to keep up our joy in God’s Word even short of such periods of forced deprivation. Maybe the eagerness we see here really can and should be our attitude toward the Word of the Lord at all times even as we should respond to that Word with the joy and festiveness with which this Lectionary passage concludes as the people engage in their various celebrative feasts.
If so, then let’s admit as preachers (since it is mostly preachers who read these sermon starter ideas) that just that joy, eager expectation, and raptness of attention needs to start with us. Malcolm Gladwell claimed in his book Blink that we human beings are pretty good at making snap judgments about people within the first 20 seconds or so of an encounter. We size people up in a big hurry and, for better or for worse, the decisions we make about the people we meet (he’s kind of gross, she’s fat, he’s remarkable, she’s intriguing, etc.) stick with us and are hard to shake. People can size up their preachers in a “blink” as well. We preachers can convey a lot in a hurry. People will know soon enough if we are swinging into the pulpit with zeal and with a giddy eagerness to share the fruits of that week’s sermon preparations and writing or whether we’re dragging ourselves into that pulpit, feeling vaguely bored by our own sermon even before we utter the first word of it.
Preachers who want their people to be enthusiastic receivers of God’s Word need to let the enthusiasm start within their own hearts. Preachers who want God’s Word to elicit rapt attention and a full range of emotional responses in the congregation need to be attentive themselves, letting the Holy Spirit convict their hearts and souls during the week by never approaching the Bible with a bland, “Well, time to get up another sermon” attitude that over time inures us to being surprised by the Word, moved by the Word, delighted by the Word.
Nehemiah 8 may well be a passage to help preachers and congregations alike “recover their first love,” so to speak: namely, our love for that old, old story that is finally never old but is ever fresh, ever new, ever surprising and, for those reasons, ever a source of delighted joy and celebration!
Oh, and when you’re finished preaching, tell the folks to go home, to tuck into that Sunday noon pot roast, to raise a glass of Cabernet, and to see also all that as an extension of a feasting on the Word and on all the goodness of God’s good creation!
Over the course of church history we have developed all kinds of new things. The Orthodox developed their fine tradition of iconography. Skilled composers have set the gospel truths to music in chants, oratorios, hymns. Artists have painted untold numbers of masterpieces depicting biblical scenes, and manuscripts of the Bible have long been adorned in a variety of visual ways. In more recent times filmmakers have dramatized biblical stories, and for ages now preachers have pulled in lots of cultural illustrations to help make the Word of the gospel more vivid for people’s lives.
But in a day when some people believe the spoken and written word is just generally a dying breed, in a day when some churches seem to think that glitzy technology and entertainment formats borrowed from television are absolute necessities if people are going to be reached, in a day when even many preachers shun the trappings of traditional proclamation so that they can instead sit on a barstool and just casually “chat” and “share” with folks who would be put off if they really thought they were being preached at–in a time of flux and change like this, we need to savor and return to the one thing the church has traditionally believed: namely, it is the telling of the gospel’s truth that is God’s power at work to generate faith in people’s hearts.
Maybe we’ve begun to lose faith in the power of words. Maybe the true Word gets drowned out today in the cacophony of words that cascade over us day after day. Advertisers are constantly blitzing us with flurries of words–words that mean nothing. The talking heads on 24-hour cable news channels never shut up yet seldom strive for thoughtfulness, contenting themselves with idle chatter. In some ways all of life now looks like one of those ridiculous exploitation shows in which the whole audience is constantly shouting, the show’s host is shouting to be heard above the din, the guests are talking over each other and cutting each other off and swearing so much that the soundtrack sounds like just a long series of the censor’s bleeps.
But no one on those shows really thinks their words will change anything. That’s why some years ago when one man murdered another man as a result of what was said on Jenny Jones, everyone was just shocked. All those gushing words weren’t actually supposed to lead to anything. Words seldom do.
But I will be so bold as to say that if you do not believe in the power of at least one Word, then you are missing something fundamental to the faith. We need to believe that the Word of the gospel–all by itself, unadorned, without video accompaniment–has the power to change lives. We need to believe that passionately because only by so believing will we be motivated to keep on speaking that Word ourselves. You don’t need a pulpit to tell people what you believe. You don’t need PowerPoint. You can be as plainspoken as they come. You may stutter, you will likely bump into questions you can’t answer. Probably at some point you’ll run into those who think you’re pretty simpleminded still to be believing in those old gospel “myths.”
That’s OK. If you believe that the gospel contains the power of God, then you’ll keep telling the old, old story. If you do, then somewhere along the line, whether you ever find out about it or not, the very power of God is going to burst forth in someone’s heart. This Word can do that!
Author: Doug Bratt
This is the kind of psalm that almost begs to be sung, even if it’s just a solo in the shower or car. After all, C.S. Lewis once called Psalm 19 “the greatest poem in the Psalter and one of the greatest lyrics in the world.” So it’s no wonder that lyricists have set a number of beautiful interpretations of it, including “The Heavens Declare Your Glory” and “God’s Glory Fills the Heavens,” to music by famous composers such as J.S. Bach and Franz Haydn.
Rolf Jacobson suggests the psalmist organizes Psalm 19’s glorious hymn of praise around the central theme of “word” or “speech.” In verses 1-6 it speaks of creation’s “words” of praise to God. The “heavens’” words, however, are largely inaudible. While the NIV translates verse 3 to mean, “There is no speech or language where [the skies’] voice is not heard,” according to the NIV Study Bible it may also mean, “They have no speech, there are no words; no sound is heard from them.”
The psalmist insists God’s glory is visible in God’s handiwork that is the “heavens” and “skies.” The Reformed confession of faith that is the Belgic Confession makes a similar claim in Article 2 where it insists, “the universe is before our eyes like a beautiful book in which all creatures … are as letters to make us ponder the invisible things of God: his eternal power and his divinity.”
Yet Psalm 19’s poet goes even farther. She asserts that creation somehow joins the worshiping congregation in praising its Creator and Sustainer. After all, what God creates isn’t divine, as parts of our culture insist. Instead, creatures like the “heavens” and “skies” merely point to the glory of the One who makes them. The praise they offer is as unceasing as the rhythms of day and night. God’s creation praises the Lord on a daily basis throughout the day and night. That praise also extends across the whole world, just as the heavens and skies cover that world.
Psalm 19’s preachers and teachers may want to look for ways to help people explore how to slow down enough to “listen” for that praise in a world that’s often far noisier than its skies. They may also want to ask, if those heavens don’t actually make any audible noise, how do they declare God’s glory? Might we think of this a bit like the way we think of one of Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings? After all, we might say something like “Starry Night” “declares its maker’s praise” because one can hardly help but notice and perhaps praise Van Gogh’s artistic genius displayed in it. How much more, then, might God’s handiwork declare its maker’s praise?
Part of God’s handiwork that somehow declares God’s glory is the sun (4b). While some of the psalmist’s contemporaries thought of it as divine, the poet asserts that it’s merely one of God’s many creatures. In fact, it’s a creature that’s eager to do that for which God created it by giving off light and heat as the earth circles it. The psalmist compares the sun to a bridegroom who’s straining to leave his parents’ home for his wedding or a racehorse that’s chomping at the bit to start a race. The latter image recalls scenes of thoroughbreds racing in something like the Kentucky Derby, eagerly lunging forward toward its finish line.
Psalm 19’s verses 7-10 signal a noticeable shift. After all, its Hebrew name for God changes from el to Yahweh. The verses also become poetry with what Jacobson calls “crisp and measured meter.” Most of all, however, they shift our attention from the creation that quietly, if not inaudibly declares God’s praise to Torah that very tangibly declares God’s glory. Verses 7-10’s six phrases have a similar structure. Each lists a synonym for God’s law, plus an adjective, plus a description of that law’s positive impact on those who gratefully observe it.
So in the second part of Psalm 19 a description of the creation’s inaudible words of praise to God morphs into a description of the concrete word of God as we find it in God’s law. Article 2 of the Belgic Confession mirrors that shift. After all, it insists that God “makes himself known to us more openly [than in creation] by his holy and divine Word, as much as we need in this life for his glory and the salvation of his own.” In other words, while God’s creation declares God’s glory, God’s word declares that glory even more plainly, even if still inaudibly.
Those who preach and teach Psalm 19 may want to invite listeners to consider how the wider culture thinks about God’s law to which the psalm most specifically refers. Do people think of the commandments as a killjoy by which God tries to take away all freedom? Do they think of it as a kind of one-ton albatross that drags them down?
One might say Psalm 19’s poet thinks of it as more like an owner’s manual. After all, a car owner might think of that manual as something that restricts his freedom to use the car as he chooses. So he might choose to exercise his freedom by doing something basic like running the car without putting gasoline in its tank. However, the people who designed and made the car know what’s best for it. So the wise owner is the one who follows the owner’s manual’s instructions by periodically filling the car’s gas tank with gasoline. In a similar way, the wise creature seeks to obey the owner’s manual that is the Law given by the Creator.
Psalm 19’s author uses a number of synonyms for God’s “owners manual for people” that is God’s written revelation. However, no matter which synonym she uses, she always points to the positive benefits of obeying that law. Some of the imagery the poet uses is very vivid. In verse 7, for example, she insists God’s law revives our soul like a cold glass of water revives our drooping bodies and spirits on a hot summer day. In verse 8 she notes that God’s law makes even the simplest people who obey it wiser than members of the Mensa Society who ignore it. And in verse 10 the psalmist insists God’s law is even more precious than two of God’s creation’s most valuable commodities: sweet honey and valuable gold.
Yet in verse 12 it’s as though while the psalmist knows all of this about God’s glorious creation and law, he recognizes that he has still disobeyed that law. It’s almost as if he recognizes he has treated that priceless gift like a worthless piece of junk. After all, knowledge of God’s perfect, trustworthy, right, sure and precious law isn’t enough all by itself to keep God’s sons and daughters faithful. We need God’s gracious forgiveness for sins of which we’re both aware and unaware. We also need the Holy Spirit to equip us to respond to God’s grace with thankful obedience. After all, as Jacobson notes, it’s not the law but the Lawgiver who graciously makes both God’s children and their prayers “pleasing” in God’s sight.
People have always considered gold to be one of the most precious and valuable minerals in the whole world. So the psalmist may have shocked his contemporaries when he insisted that God’s law is “more precious than gold.”
Yet in the last decade alone the price of gold in American dollars has risen more than 320%, from about $260.00 to nearly $1100. One analyst predicts the price of gold will jump as high as $2200.00. So how can we join the poet in asserting God’s law is “more precious than … much pure gold”?
1 Corinthians 12:12-31a
Author: Stan Mast
Today there is a great deal of concern about the weak state of the church in western civilization. Millions have left the church to join the ranks of the “nones.” That is a serious problem, but I want to suggest that an even greater problem is the one Paul addresses in our text on this third Sunday after Epiphany. “A house divided against itself cannot stand,” said Abraham Lincoln, speaking about a nation divided over the issue of slavery. He was echoing Jesus, who uttered those words when his enemies accused him of casting out demons by the power of Satan himself.
Paul doesn’t use those exact words in our text for this third Sunday after Epiphany, but he is addressing a divided church. How can the church attract the “nones” and the “formers” and the “nevers” to Jesus if the church is divided into warring parties? If the church is the one place on this earth where people can see the Body of Christ, if that Body is the clearest Epiphany of the glory of Christ at this moment in history, what happens to our witness if the Body is divided? “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” That reality gives this text a sense of urgency.
Today the church is divided by a host of major hot-button issues: politics (which vision of the body politic is more Christian and effective), sexual ethics (who can legally marry), social justice (how shall we deal with the immigration issue), theology (who will be saved and how), and worship (which style will help the church grow). In our text for today the cause of division in the church at Corinth may seem much less serious than the issues facing the church today, but the way Paul deals with the Corinthian division may show us a way to heal the fractures in the Body of Christ today.
The issue in I Corinthians 12 was the divisions caused by the diversity of spiritual gifts in that local church. In the first 11 verses of this chapter Paul has pointed out that this diversity comes from the Triune God, particularly the Holy Spirit. There is a diversity of gifts, but they all come from “the same Spirit.” Not only do they have a common source, but they are intended to accomplish “the common good.” So, don’t argue over which gifts are superior.
In our reading for today, Paul shifts his argument, focusing on a new image, the human body. Verse 12 is the theme of this whole section. “The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body….” This is so self-evident, so experientially obvious, that no one could argue with it. Then Paul drives his point home; “so it is with Christ.” Of course, Paul is not talking there about Christ himself; he is referring to the way Christ is made visible in this world. The only body Christ has in this world is the church. “Now you are the body of Christ and each one of you is part of it.” (verse 27) Everything that follows flows from and is an elaboration of this fundamental, and incredible, theme.
I say “incredible,” because it is literally unbelievable that the Incarnate Son of God, the eternal Holy One, should entrust the work of making himself known to a motley crew of mere mortals, and sinful ones at that. What a terrible risk that was and is! How can it be that a squabbling pack of naughty children are the agents of his Epiphany? Well, says Paul over and over, it’s all because of grace.
Note how often Paul emphasizes that God’s grace is behind this incredible thing called the Body of Christ. He begins in verse 13 by reminding us how we got to be in the Body in the first place. “For we were all baptized by one Spirit…. And we were all given the one Spirit to drink.” Now, we could easily get lost in the theology of that sentence. Is Paul talking about water baptism or regeneration? Is there a difference between being baptized by and drinking one Spirit? Is the latter a reference to the Eucharist? But let’s focus on Paul’s main point. We are in the body because of God’s sovereign work by his Spirit. Christ died for sinners and the Spirit created the church out of that group of sinners for whom Christ died. We’re in the church, part of the Body of Christ, because of God’s grace.
Don’t let your church miss what that means. It means that the church is not a voluntary organization, a creation of human will and intellect, like a corporation or a country club. Yes, of course, there is a very human side to it all; we do choose to join this church or that one, or to leave entirely. But ultimately, the church exists and will continue to exist because of the gracious work of the Triune God. “On this rock, I will build my church.” When we do church in its many forms, we are not playing our own game. We are doing something very holy. “The holy catholic church” is God’s way of making the invisible Christ known.
Part of the way God reveals Christ is through the diversity of gifts in the Body. The Corinthians wanted to fight over how the gifts were distributed. “I’ve got a better one than you do.” “My gifts doesn’t really count for much.” To those with inferiority complexes and to those who were megalomaniacs, Paul says the same thing. It is God who gave you that gift. God “arranged the parts of the body…just as he wanted them to be.” (verse 18) God “has combined the members of the body and has given the greater honor….” (verse 24) God “has appointed….” (verse 28) When you fight over gifts, you are fighting over the sovereign grace of God. So stop it and use your gifts for the common good.
To show how foolish and counter-productive it is to battle over the distribution of God’s grace in the church, Paul addresses, in order, the ones that feel inferior (verses 14-20) and the ones who think they are superior (verses 21-26). Those who have what seem to be lesser gifts feel as though they don’t belong to the Body. Paul helps them by imaginative exaggeration, that is, by drawing a caricature. Imagine a body that was all eye or all ear. You wouldn’t have a body; you would have something ridiculous, something that couldn’t function in the real world. “If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be?” “If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body.” So wipe that hang dog look off your face. Stop your whining about how unimportant you are. And use the gift you have.
As to those who think they are superior, who think they don’t need the presence and the gifts of other believers, Paul simply points to ordinary human experience. Isn’t it the case that the parts of the body that seem to be weaker (like, say, your internal organs) are in fact indispensable? And don’t we treat the less honorable members of our bodies, especially the unpresentable ones (like, say, our genitals) with special honor, covering them out of modesty. In reality, we always treat the lesser part of our bodies with special care because of how important they are to us. So bend your proud head. Stop singing your independence. And appreciate your “lesser” members.
God’s whole idea in creating the Body of Christ was to show the world what humanity could be and should be through Jesus Christ. He “combined the members of the body and has given greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no divisions in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.” Imagine a reunited human race, post-Cain and Able, post-Babel, post-sin, in which everyone cares deeply for each other. Imagine a world with no war, no competition, no loneliness, no sorrow. It is unimaginable, isn’t it? We can’t picture it in our mind’s eye. That is exactly why God has created a Body in the world, a group of sinners who are not divided, who care equally for each other, who suffer and rejoice with each other. God wanted the world to see what is possible by the grace of God in Jesus Christ.
That is why divisions in the church are so counter-productive, so monstrously out of step with God’s plan. How will the “nones” and the “formers” and the “nevers” find their way to the invisible Christ if they don’t see his Body working the way it should? A sermon on this text should be a call to repent of our divisions, to trust God’s plan, and to use our gifts together for the glory of Christ. Those great divisive issues I mentioned at the beginning of this piece will still be difficult, but if we remember why God created the church in the first place, we will have greater motivation to unite around our mission of Epiphany.
After the horrific ISIS-inspired massacres in Paris last November, a musician sat in the street and played John Lennon’s haunting hymn, “Imagine.” As you know, it’s all about a world without bloodshed and strife, a world full of peace and harmony. But do you recall that line about “no religion.” Lennon thought that peace was possible only if we got rid of all religion. I suspect he was right. Religion has been the cause of much bloodshed through the ages. More religion will not heal the world. Only Christ can do that. Imagine a world at peace!? Look at the Body of Christ where the grace of the Triune God is recreating Shalom.
At a church conference a while back I saw a T-shirt that captured the good news of our text. The front of the T-shirt, the side people read as they approach, said, “I don’t go to church.” On the back, the side you read when you turn around after passing that provocative message, it said, “I am the church.” Church is not a place to go. It is a people on the go. Church is what I am. I am part of the Body of Christ.
A bright yellow highway department truck crept along a city street. A worker slowly climbed out of the truck and laboriously dug a large hole between the sidewalk and the street. A few minutes later, a second worker got out, filled the hole and tamped down the dirt. A few yards down the street, they repeated the procedure, then again and again. An elderly lady was watching. Finally, she walked over to the workers and asked, “What in the world are you doing?” One of the workers said, “We’re on an urban beautification project.” “Beautification?” she asked in dismay. “What’s so beautiful about all those filled in holes?” “Well, you see,” said the worker, “the man who plants the trees is out sick today.” In a ridiculous way, that little story reminds us that when one person does not do his or her job, there is a hole.
Finally, a lovely quote from the inimitable Frederick Buechner. Defining our call to ministry, he said, “It is the point where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.” In our text, Paul reminds us in forceful terms that God has equipped with gifts that will help us to meet that need.