January 25, 2016
Author: Scott Hoezee
I confess that I don’t quite understand this passage. Or at least I don’t understand how it turns out. It’s not so much what is contained in this Lectionary snippet of verses 14-21 as in what follows when the people in the synagogue turn on Jesus with a murderous ferocity. After all, Luke 4:15 assures us that everyone was praising Jesus. Then, following his Scripture reading from Isaiah and even his words that this was being fulfilled right then and there, everyone spoke well of him and was amazed by his gracious words.
Luke uses pretty big terms here to describe how people—all the people—were reacting to Jesus and it’s all really positive. So how can those same people ALL turn on him (and that is the term Luke uses in verse 28: ALL the people were furious)? And what leads Jesus to say in verse 24 that “no prophet is accepted in his hometown”? Hello? Pay attention, Jesus. You just were being accepted. Everybody liked you. Everybody was speaking well of you. Everybody was amazed at your gracious words. You had them in the palm of your hand! You were doing so well.
It reminds me of some student sermons I have heard. Sometimes student sermons are really poor right from the outset and just grind on from there until you beg for Jesus to return before the sermon ends. Short of the parousia, when such sermons do finally end, you sense great relief. (This does not happen all that often, by the way, but there are times . . .) But other times a student’s sermon starts out really strong. Hope rises in the professor’s heart! This is interesting. All of the other students are listening with rapt attention. Important questions have been raised. The text is being engaged thoughtfully and beyond a mere surface reading.
But then, sometimes, something goes terribly wrong in the second half of the sermon: the good questions that were raised receive pat answers after all. Or what had been good about the sermon gets eclipsed when the student suddenly utters a few lines that you just know would be deeply wounding to any number of people in a congregation were this sermon actually delivered some Sunday. In any event, it sometimes happens that the student ends up saying something offensive or the student drops the homiletical ball in some other way and then the sermon that started out so strong and with such great promise falls flat after all.
Jesus was doing so well. The sermon started out so strong. People were lapping it up. And then . . . well, then he just had to go and get up in their faces and as much as tell them that they were as sinful as Israel of old back in the days when Elijah and Elisha (and Yahweh for that matter) saved their best stuff for people outside of Israel. It was as though Jesus was saying, “You can keep your amazement and you can keep your nice opinions of me because I see the truth: it’s all shallow, it’s all empty as a hollow rain barrel, it’s all a façade as you wonder what you yourself might get out of it all. I see the truth and so I am flat out going to refuse delivery on your good opinion.”
And the people reacted with fury. But you have the sense that their anger stemmed from more than just having been accused of something. Maybe they also sensed that Jesus’ words had a certain bite to them—a bite of truth. After all, accuse me of something patently false and you may well make me very upset. But flag something negative about me that also happens to be perfectly correct and I will be more than upset: I will be hopping angry (all-the-more-so if it’s a truth about me I have labored hard to keep hidden for ever so long now).
That’s maybe why the old adage about prophets and hometowns is right: both parties know each other too well. The townsfolk write off the would-be prophet because they knew him when. It’s difficult for some people to go from having tousled a little kid’s hair when he was young to accepting that same kid as an authority figure later in life. We probably all know people—relatives or people from the place where we grew up—who never stop using the diminutive version of our names even long after we have become adults. “Hey there, Scott-a-Roo! How’s it going, Janey-Pooh?” And for at least some of these people, what lies behind that kind of greeting is the message, “Don’t think you can tell me what to do, Scott. Don’t think I am going to take you seriously, Jane. I’ve been around longer than you, know more, have experienced more. Don’t think your Ivy League education or the experiences you gained when you lived in Asia for two years mean diddly-squat to me.”
Who knows if that was just what was happening to Jesus that day in Nazareth. But if that is how the townsfolk regarded him, Jesus brought his own backlog of Nazareth experience to bear, too. He’d heard Mary and Joseph talking about some of these people over the years when he was a youth growing up. He remembers how old Eli had once said such a cutting thing to Mary that she cried for a week. He recalls how Matthias swindled Joseph out of the pay he had rightly earned on that carpentry job Joseph once did for Matthias. It’s not that we have to think Jesus was bearing grudges all over the place (that would not be a very good thing to think of our Savior!) but if his backlog of knowledge told him that these people had problems—and if that helped him to see through the thin veneer of their initial acceptance of him in the synagogue that day—that would hardly be surprising.
Who knows just what we are to make of all this. But perhaps in this Season of Epiphany one thing we can take away from this aspect of Luke 4 is this: Jesus really was born truly human and he was born into—and then lived in—our very real world. This is such a human story. The drama here is so familiar to us all. We know how this feels. We sense the community dynamics here. God’s Son was present there in the flesh—and actually had been for many years by this time when Jesus finally launched his public ministry—but his divine presence was so earthy, so mundane, so common that Jesus blended in to the community woodwork and was caught up in the same web of rumors, gossip, back-biting, and all the rest as any other human being in Nazareth at that time.
Let’s admit that the way this synagogue story turns out is not very nice. But let’s remember also that Jesus came down here to this planet precisely to enter into all that silliness and pettiness and tawdriness so as to save us from all that. Thanks be to God for his gritty salvation!
There is nothing particularly striking about the Greek (or English) text of this story. As noted above, in verse 30 the Greek literally says that after the people of the town try to throw Jesus off a cliff, he simply “passed through their middle and went on.” That simple statement likely hides a miracle. The fact that the Greek text also does not miss a beat to go right into verse 31 which says “And he went on to Capernaum” may also tell us something. Yes indeed, he disappeared clean out of Nazareth and immediately popped back up in Capernaum where some real work could be done in a way not possible in Nazareth due to the people’s disbelief. Also, commentators point out that a typical reaction to perceived heresy would be to stone someone. However, casting a person down ONTO the stones below was considered to be the same punishment, albeit in different guise.
From Dr. David Davis, Pastor, Nassau Presbyterian Church in Princeton, New Jersey:
I know this doesn’t sound so holy, but sometimes we want to take Jesus and shake him. At least that means you are listening, paying attention to where the Gospel rubs your life raw. Luke reports that “Jesus passed through the midst of them and went on his way.” Some readers have a way of becoming fascinated with the escape. Such a display of power, a crafty move to avoid the mob. Was it a miracle? Luke seems rather unconcerned. Luke is just as content with the understanding that it wasn’t time, yet. Luke seems to prefer that image of the lingering crowd up there on the hill. And so we’re told “he went on his way.” He kept on his way. He moved along the way. He kept right on going. He proceeded in that direction. He went on the way. He went on his way of bringing good news to the poor and proclaiming release to the captives, giving sight to the blind and letting the oppressed go free. He went on his way. He went on his way healing the sick and embracing the outcast and eating with the sinner. The hometown crowd is never satisfied and the understandings of “Us” and “Them” are forever etched in stone. But he still went on his way. Which means, of course, that he went on his way to Jerusalem, before another crowd, up another hill. He went on his way, the way of the cross.
When God’s light shines on the way of the cross, you and I are invited to see both the stretch of God’s grace and the truth of our own disobedience. Here so early in Luke’s Gospel, the Lord’s encounter with humanity’s self-righteousness and preoccupation with the hometown attitude, it is already driving him to the cross. Before the healings and the teaching and the miraculous catch of fish, before Mary and Martha, and the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son and Zacchaeus, before the rich man who was told to sell everything and give it to the poor and the poor widow who put in everything she had, before all of that, Jesus was on his way to the cross. Before Luke makes it abundantly clear that the Gospel of Jesus Christ would reach into “all the living that you have”, Jesus was well on his way.
It’s that reach that causes us to squirm, or to keep a safe distance, or to run away. The Canadian theologian Douglas John Hall remembers that Paul Scherer, a great preacher of the past, used to point out that in the New Testament the kingdom of heaven and the life of discipleship is so often described as a great feast, a bounteous banquet. But then that preacher reminds the hearers of the irony that everyone was trying stay away from that feast. Or as Hall himself then wonders, how is it that the theology of “megachurchianity” in our culture assumes that everyone has this strong compulsion to “get as close to Jesus as possible?” To draw near to this Jesus is to encounter the Gospel that confronts and convicts and threatens. And you and I find our place somewhere in Luke’s crowd, because if we’re honest, the Gospel of Jesus Christ hits too close to home, to the hometown crowd. “They got up, drove him out of town and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff….but Jesus went on his way.”
When your encounter with the Gospel causes knots to form in your stomach, when you realize again that how you broker your time, and the decisions you make with your kids, and how you to do your money, and the plans you put in place at work, and the absolute oppression you endure to a schedule, or when you struggle again with how it all reflects upon and relates to the life of faith…when your view of the world and your politics and your opinions are being poked not by your disagreement with a preacher, or your frustrations with the rhetoric of the public square, or your inability to safely and naively compartmentalize your life because after all religion and politics don’t mix, when your life out there is being prodded by your very understanding of God and the magnitude of the Gospel, when your experience of life and of death is so ripe, when your awareness of suffering and the burden you bear in caring for another weighs so heavily, when your angst about the world or your children’s future, when it all drives you to point a finger at the Almighty and have it out for a change, when you just want to put in a word for the hometown crowd….
Author: Scott Hoezee
My wife mentions this semi-often. For her, it’s a combination of envy and consternation. The issue is vocation, “calling,” and it crops up in conversation between the two of us whenever someone asks me once again to tell my “call story” to be a minister or in case some other preacher—in the course of a sermon perhaps—tells her call story. “Must be nice to know for sure what God wants you to do in life,” she’ll say. “How come other people don’t get ‘called’ the way ministers do?” I always try to assure her that people are called—all people. Everyone who calls him- or herself a Christian should be able to tell a call story of some kind no matter what line of work they are in.
Fact is, though: in the church we don’t ask lawyers or mechanics or bus drivers to tell their call stories. We just ask clergy types.
That’s probably spiritually myopic on our parts but on the other hand, the Bible itself does tend to make a big deal out of call narratives. This Lectionary passage is by no means the only one in the Bible that conveys this same message but Jeremiah 1 is a lyric example of providence and the divine call in action. And it is a reminder to all Christians—and not just pastors or those called to high profile jobs in the church—that our God is a never-ending blur of activity who is constantly preparing people for various calls and, simultaneously but unbeknownst to the people involved, God is constantly equipping people for the call that will come.
How often isn’t it true that people end up getting called into a line of work they never before considered, that they never in their wildest dreams ever thought they would do, only to engage in that work and discover that God had been equipping them for years for a task they were not even aiming at! Most of the time in our lives providence is best recognized in retrospect. True, there are dramatic “Ah-Ha” moments that we all experience now and then, but in the ordinary run of our lives God’s work is quiet, behind the scenes, and unrecognized by us at the time as being the very work of God. “Ohhhh . . . now I understand why such-and-such happened to me fifteen years ago!” Or, “Now I understand why God had for so long made me so interested in Topic X in life: as it turns out, God was preparing me for this job all along!”
Such was Jeremiah’s surprise as this prophetic books opens. God calls to Jeremiah to tell him that the divine eye has been upon him not just from the very beginning of his life but from a time even before he was himself that proverbial gleam in his mother’s eye. God saw Jeremiah coming a long ways off. And God appointed him to be a prophet. This, of course, came as startling news to Jeremiah who, apparently, had not had any previous inkling that this could be his life’s work. Maybe it did not even sound that good to him, either. In any event, he starts to do what any number of divinely appointed figures in the Bible have done: he resists the call. He makes up an excuse.
“I’m too young. I’m not a public speaker. What could a child like me have to say anyway, and who’d listen even if I tried? No, no, Sovereign God, you’ve got the wrong guy.”
But God will have none of it. If you look closely at this text, however, what God then goes on to say could not have re-assured Jeremiah one bit. At first God says what you pretty much expect he would say: “You must go. You can’t disobey me. I will give you the words to say. I will be with you.” That all sounds fine. But then God adds one other phrase that must surely have caused Jeremiah’s heart to skip a beat even as a flutter went through his stomach: “I will rescue you.”
Um . . . God will rescue him . . . from what exactly? Rescue implies peril, danger. Needing to be rescued implies falling into an unpleasant situation. So if Jeremiah is going to need rescues as part of whatever it is God is calling him to, then this job proffer just got a lot worse!
God then goes on to say a bit more that may explain why rescue is going to be needed now and again: God has appointed Jeremiah to, among other things, “uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow.” Yes, yes, God then goes on to say he will get to “build and plant” as well but all this talk about uprooting and such occupies a lot more space in these words and appears to point forward to a prophetic ministry that is going to be as unpleasant for the people who hear God’s words through Jeremiah as it may prove to be for Jeremiah himself.
Yet this, apparently, is the ministry for which God had been equipping Jeremiah all along, whether Jeremiah knew it or not. This was the call God put on his life, and as with all whom God calls, Jeremiah would know no peace until he gave in and let God have his way with him.
Then again, as the rest of this book shows, giving in to this divine vocation did not give Jeremiah much peace, either! The course of his life and ministry would be every bit as harsh and difficult as God’s darker words in Jeremiah 1 intimate. All Jeremiah can do is what all of us who are called by God can do; viz., go forward in the firm belief that you have indeed been called by God and equipped by God for the work at hand and that God will stay true to his promise—made here to Jeremiah but made equally surely for all of us—“I am with you.” God promises to stay with his servants even across the hard times, even (or perhaps especially) through the hardships that come precisely because you are faithful to the calling God issued and the claims God made on your life.
Providence is, as noted above, often best recognized in retrospect. Only in looking back do we see how things fit together and then we are, often, astounded at how much work God was doing even when we were so very unaware of it. But we need to carry that sense of astonishment forward as well in the sense of knowing that even when our vocation lands us in situations from which we need rescue, even when the prophetic words we speak have the effect of uprooting and tearing down certain things (to the anger of some of our hearers) and so land us in hot water, the God who was so busy preparing us for this work when we were unawares has not stopped performing all that busy work even when the hard times come (as they most assuredly do for us all). In the throes of a crisis, we may be as unable to detect all of what God is up to as we were years earlier when God was quietly prepping us for the work to which he was planning to call us. But recalling that God is always at work in just such sure and steady ways can be a comfort in crisis: we are not alone. Rescue will come (one way or another). God is faithful and he will not let us go.
Such sentiments can too easily be made into the stuff of saccharine piety or overly sunny pronouncements that do not take due note of the genuine pain people are going through. Still, being assured of God’s ongoing presence and work in our lives as we exercise the work to which he called us is no small comfort. It sustained Jeremiah through all that came his way. And it can sustain us all.
Some while ago in the New York Times there was an article that was filled with a lot of eye-rolling sentiments about the glut of autobiographies that have flooded the market. Mostly these were the life stories of Hollywood celebrities and yet sometimes they were autobiographies of people who were not yet 17 years old. Or they were written by people who were in their 30s but whose only accomplishment so far in life is that they had married some famous billionaire or won first place in “America’s Got Talent.” Grand narratives like “The Life of Mahatma Gandhi” such books are not. The author of this critical article also noted that in a recent survey, something like 70% of the people who were asked thought their own life story was worth telling. To this author that statistic was still more evidence that modern people are altogether too full of themselves.
A week later, though, there was a highly insightful “Letter to the Editor” that picked up on this to say “This article claimed that 70% of people think their life story is worth telling. So that means that 30% think they have no story worth telling. How sad.”
This flipped the argument on its head, of course. And whether any or most of us should publish autobiographies, the fact is that every life, every person, every story is precious. God really does attend to every one of us. And in God’s eternal memory, the story of each person really does matter and is preserved.
Author: Doug Bratt
Psalm 71 seems to be an elderly person’s plea for God’s help in dealing with his enemies. While some scholars see this as aging King David’s prayer, the identity of the psalm’s author is not essential to the psalm. In fact, James Mays calls its language “plastic.” By that he seems to suggest that the psalmist’s difficulties can be seen as metaphors for any kind of neediness.
After all, among advancing age’s greatest challenges is dealing with declining physical power. So in times of weakness young people can be as vulnerable as the elderly and so, as a result, might pray this prayer. In fact, the Old Testament, as in Hosea 7:9, speaks of the community as “old” in times of decline. Passages like Jeremiah 2:2 also speak of the community as “young” in times of renewal. So those who preach and teach Psalm 71 may want to reflect with worshipers on how it might be heard as a plea for help by all sorts of different vulnerable people.
Psalm 71 intertwines repeated pleas for help with declarations of trust and descriptions of trouble. That alternation of trouble and trust puzzles some biblical scholars. Yet as Joel LeMon notes, the psalm’s structure reveals how through the years the poet has learned to hold in tension the realities of both trouble and trust in God’s faithful deliverance. “In alternating lines,” he writes, “this prayer expresses sure trust, profound anxiety, and in the end, overarching praise: a reasonable – and laudable – end to the golden years.”
Perhaps the heart of Psalm 71 is verse 5’s “You have been my hope, Sovereign Lord, my confidence since my youth.” Mays points out that “my hope” is the predicate of the sentence whose subject is the “Sovereign Lord.” So it’s as if the psalmist is insisting that her hope is based solely on the Lord in whom she trusts. Yet Mays also points out that the form of that verse suggests that the Lord is not just an “other” who is “out there” to provide hope and help, but is also very much present to the psalmist in and through the hope God gives her.
This, of course, is critical because the psalmist is under some kind of unnamed distress. He refers to the “hand of the wicked” and “grasp of evil and cruel men” (4). It’s a vivid picture of God’s enemies as reaching out to grab the psalmist. Yet that’s not the full extent of the psalmist’s plight. After the end of the section the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday, the poet also speaks of enemies who not only speak against him, but also wait to kill him (10). The psalmist and God’s enemies even claim that since God has abandoned the poet, they have their chance to seize him.
Those enemies’ claims are ironic in light of the psalmist’s description of her relationship with the Lord. In saying she has “taken refuge” in God, the poet paints a word picture of someone who’s fleeing for her life with her enemies in hot pursuit. When she finally finds a boulder that offers shelter, she wedges herself into a crag to both hide herself and seek protection. The Lord, professes the psalmist, is that “rock of refuge,” (3) a solid, unyielding source of protection from her enemies. This suggests, says LeMon, that the Lord is close enough to the psalmist for her to be able to run to God from protection from her enemies who are so close by.
Among the reasons why the psalmist can place his hope in the Lord is his long-standing, in fact, lifelong relationship with the Lord. The poet professes that God has been his “hope” and “confidence” ever since he was a child. He has relied on the Lord since he was born. In fact, the psalmist even goes so far as to say that God delivered him from his mother’s womb. So in a psalm the poet fills with vivid images, among the most striking is of God as a midwife who assisted with the psalmist’s birth and then was someone on whom the poet could lean when he was still young and weak. In fact, LeMon says that “relied on” (6) is a picture of a child at his mother’s breast or holding his father’s hand. Since as we age we in many ways become increasingly like young children again, even this description of childlike dependence is consistent with the psalmist’s portrayal of himself as old, frail and gray.
Yet Psalm 71:1-6 especially raise the question of just where God is to the poet. Is God near enough to be taken refuge in (1)? Or is God far off, or at least farther away than the wicked who seem close enough to grab the poet (4)? It’s almost as if the poet vacillates between feeling far away from and close to God. Yet perhaps that’s not surprising. Most worshipers sense God’s nearness at some times and distance at others.
Yet no matter how far away or close by God may feel to the psalmist, she feels free to plead with the God to rescue and deliver her or, to paraphrase verse 4, snatch her away from evildoers’ grasp. She, after all, longs to rest in God’s loving hands rather than squirm in her enemies’ calloused hands. Because God has proven himself faithful throughout the poet’s long life, she’s able to beg God to listen to and save her again. The poet also pleads with God to be her rock and refuge to whom she can always turn. After all, she seems confident that all God has to do is give God’s “command” to “save” her and it will happen.
Mays notes that the passage of time is a major theme of Psalm 71. It uses words like “always” (3 & 14) and “ever” (6). Three times the poet refers to “all day long” (8, 15, 24). The poet asserts that God continues to work over time. In verses 20-21, for examples, he also professes “You will restore my life again … you will bring me up again … You will … comfort me again (italics added).” In doing so he paints a picture of someone who has repeatedly trusted and praised God as well as a God who has repeatedly proved himself faithful.
This relationship offers Psalm 71’s preachers and teachers an opportunity to encourage worshipers to develop and maintain a healthy relationship with the Lord right from the beginning of life. It offers an opportunity to encourage parents to teach their children to trust in the Lord when they’re young. Psalm 71 also offers leaders an opportunity to challenge the worshiping community to do all it can to ensure that even its children rely on the Lord as their “hope” and “confidence.”
Those who lead worship services in nursing homes, care facilities or hospitals know the “staying power” of the psalms and familiar hymns. Those who struggle with the affects of advancing age or illness may have forgotten virtually everything. But some still remember the psalms and hymns they learned as children.
The elderly father of friends struggled with dementia. He no longer even recognized his family members. Yet just days before he died, he joined his family in singing “Amazing Grace” with gusto. Those who preach and teach Psalm 71 may want to add their own examples of this “confidence [in God] from youth” (5) that outlives virtually everything else.
1 Corinthians 13:1-13
Author: Stan Mast
For this 4th Sunday after Epiphany, the lectionary returns for a 3rd time in a row to Paul’s 1st letter to the Corinthians, particularly this section focused on the divisions in that church created by their abuse of spiritual gifts. Having emphasized that all the gifts come from the same Spirit for the common good and that these wildly diverse Christians are part of the one Body of Christ, Paul increases the intensity of his appeal for unity with this introduction to his famous hymn to love: “And now I will show you a more excellent way.” What follows is, indeed, excellent. I agree with Leon Morris, who concludes his comments on I Corinthians 13 with these words: “The commentator cannot finish writing on this chapter without a sense that clumsy hands have touched a thing of exquisite beauty and holiness.”
With my clumsy hands, I’m going to turn this exquisite gem in a variety of ways. Emily Dickinson said, “Tell the truth, but tell it slant.” I’m going to suggest five different slants or angles you might take when you preach this text. I suggest you pick the angle that best fits the needs of your church at this time in its history.
If your church is struggling with the same kind of divisions as the church in Corinth, you might preach on I Corinthians 13 in exactly the way Paul intended it. After an entire chapter on gifts given by the Spirit, Paul turns to something more important, namely, the fruit of love produced by that same Spirit. Some commentators make the mistake of calling love another gift, but it manifestly is not a gift. It is the first fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22). That’s important because Paul says that not everyone has the same gifts, and that’s OK. Indeed, it is the will of the Triune God that gifts are disparately distributed. But it is also the will of the Triune God that every Christian manifest all the fruit of the Spirit.
Love is more important than prophecy or knowledge or tongues, says Paul. Indeed, you can be immensely gifted, but if you don’t use your gifts in love, you and your gifts will amount to nothing in promoting the growth of the church and the coming of the Kingdom. In verses 1-3 Paul uses hyperbole to emphasize the excellence of love. “If I speak [not only] in the tongues of men and [even of] angels, but have not love, I’m just a noisemaker.” If I have such a prophetic gift that I “understand [not just some, but] all mysteries and all [again, note the universal] knowledge, but have not love, I am nothing.” And so he continues to the extreme of martyrdom; “if I surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.”
Now it must be said that those last words of verse 3 are very difficult to translate, but the idea seems clear. No matter what you do in the church, no matter what gift you use in ministry, no matter how much of yourself you devote to God, if you don’t do it in love, it amounts to nothing at all. Love is the more excellent way than gifts and service and, even, sacrifice. So stop arguing about gifts and ministry, and love each other. That’s one way to preach this text, as a powerful call to unity based in love.
Or you can focus on the nature of this love to which Paul calls the church. I would emphasize those last two words, “the church.” Paul did not write I Corinthians 13 for weddings, though it does apply there nicely. I’ve used it there, and so have you. But it is not addressed to a husband and a wife; it is addressed to the Bride of Christ, the Body of Christ that is not acting in a loving fashion. Accordingly, Paul is not talking about eros, the kind of romantic, even sexual love that is uppermost in the minds of a young bride and groom. Nor is he talking about philos, the kind of sentimental, warm-hearted family love that flows around the Thanksgiving table and the Christmas tree. He is talking about agape, the kind of sacrificial love that led God to send his only begotten Son so that sinners who believe in him should not perish but have everlasting life. Paul isn’t calling members of Christ’s Body to feel passionately about each other or even to like each other. He is calling us to act in a self-sacrificing way toward people who aren’t nice to us and whom we may not like one bit.
All of the lovely poetry in verses 4-7 is designed to show a divided church how agape love looks and acts. I emphasize “show,” as opposed to “tell.” Paul doesn’t give a definition with a few words; he paints a picture with a full pallet of words (16 in all). It is a verbal picture, that is, a picture that focuses on verbs. That is, Paul tells us what love does, not how it feels.
If you decide to approach the text from this angle, be sure to exegete these 16 descriptive words very carefully. They mean more and sometimes other than we think. “Love is patient,” for example, does not mean that love waits for things to turn out; it means that love is patient with people who have hurt you. The Greek is macrothumei, which has to do with being slow to avenge injury. Love is forbearing with those who have offended you. And not just patient, but even kind. Love doesn’t just put up with hurtful people; it is actually kind to them.
Or take the rest of verse 4, “love does not envy, or boast, and it is not proud.” The words are so evocative. Envy is resenting what another has or is, while boasting is crowing about what you have or are. And “proud” is phusioutai in the Greek, a word that refers to blowing or puffing or inflating. Love is not puffed up with itself. Lovers are not blowhards. Love does not walk around with an inflated sense of its own worth.
I could go on and on about the importance of parsing these words carefully, but let me close with one more example. In verse 5, “love is not easily angered.” Paul doesn’t say that love never gets angry. There is a place for righteous anger in the face of gross injustice. Love should get angry where sin ruins God’s creation, particularly the pinnacle of that creation, the human race. How often does the Bible say that our loving God is angry with the depredations of sin? But love is not easily angered; it isn’t irritable or touchy or explosive, ready to fight or argue at the drop of a word. With careful work, there is much fertile soil here in which a preacher can plant the seed of real agape. Too often the church acts just like the world, and this text gives us a plethora of powerful words to call Christians back to their true selves, namely, people in whom the Spirit is producing the fruit of love.
Another angle on this text might focus on the mysterious language of verses 8-13. In demonstrating that love is more important than any gift, he begins with a simple statement, “love never fails.” That is followed by the claim that the gifts will fail, whether they are the spectacular gifts so prized by some of Corinthians (tongues) or the “ordinary” gifts emphasized by Paul (prophecy). There will be no need for tongues or prophecy or special knowledge in that day when we meet God face to face. There will always be a need for love, and even faith (in the sense of trust) and hope (in the sense of faith leaning forward into God’s good future in the new heaven and the new earth). That is pretty clear, but then things get mysterious.
You could preach an interesting sermon on verses 9-12, where Paul focuses on the imperfection of what we have and know and see. Even though they come from the very Spirit of Christ, the gifts we have been given do not give us perfect knowledge. Even with the gift of knowledge, we only know in part. Even though God has given us the gift of prophecy, we are always only partly right about God and his will.
Then to drive home the limitations of even the most gifted person, Paul uses two examples—a child and a mirror. We are all like children, especially these battling Corinthians (cf. 14:20). Children think they know everything. Witness my brilliant 10 year old grandson, who has memorized almost every basketball statistic possible. But even the most intellectually gifted child is still a child. And, implies Paul, so are all of you. So stop your childish know-it-all arguing.
What you think you see so clearly is really just an indistinct reflection of the real thing, the kind of image you see when you glance into the imperfect polished metal mirrors for which Corinth was famous. What you see reflected in that mirror is not the real thing in all its beauty. One day we will see face to face and we will know as completely as we are now known. For now, it is important for the unity of the church that all Christians confess the limitations of our knowledge. We think like children, we see indistinctly, so we know only in part.
This is not a call to agnosticism. It is a call to humility. More than that, it is a call to let love dominate our interactions in the church– not our version of the truth, not our carefully constructed doctrinal formulations, not our rock solid certainty that we are right, but agape. Again, let’s not go overboard here and fall into the trap of saying that we don’t really know anything about God. Let’s instead live in love, as we see it write large in the love of God that sent his Son.
That leads us to the fourth slant on this text. You could preach verses 4-7 as a portrait of Christ. Just before he left his disciples for the cross, Jesus said, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:35) We don’t know what Jesus looked like physically, but we do know what he looked like spiritually. He was love incarnate, and the characteristics of love in these verses will help you paint a vivid spiritual portrait of Christ. I would suggest finding episodes in the life of Jesus that illustrate each of the sixteen words Paul uses to describe agapic love. You probably don’t want a sermon with 16 points; I was once reduced to a near coma by a 12 point sermon. Perhaps a better approach would be a series on the love of Christ as portrayed in these verses. Such a sermon/series might help Christians to love Jesus more.
Or, finally, you could preach an Epiphany sermon on this text. How does Christ manifest his glory in a dark and skeptical world? It is through the church. But what is it about the church that best shows the reality of the Risen Jesus? Some think it is the church’s relevance to the needs of the day, while others emphasize the church’s purity, either in holy rigor or in correct doctrine. The Corinthians wanted to focus on spiritual gifts and the ministry that used those gifts. But as important as relevance and purity and ministry are, Paul says there is a “more excellent way” to make Christ known. It is the way of love. Without love, relevance and purity and ministry might make the world a better place, but those things won’t lead anyone to the love of Christ.
A number of years ago, I was privileged to travel to Cuba to visit a tiny sister denomination, the Christian Reformed Church of Cuba. Under Castro’s nose, this little band of Christians was thriving. In fact, they had just built a beautiful new church building. As Rev. Erilio Martinez showed us through this yellow stucco, white tiled edifice, we asked if this building would attract people to Christ. He said, “No. It might get them here once or twice. But they won’t come to Christ because of this building.” I asked if the preaching of Christ would do it. He said, “No, even that won’t do it. They won’t believe us unless we show them love.”
Then I thought of the way this little group of poor Christians loved their community. They had an outsized impact on their town, because they fed the poor, gave medicine to the clinic, visited the sick, helped educate the children, and did countless small acts of kindness to non-Christians. How can we show Christ to the world? “They won’t believe us, unless we show them love.” A church loving the world the way Christ loved the church—that is the clearest Epiphany of Christ today. Perhaps that’s why Paul opens I Corinthians 13 with these words, “I will show you a more excellent way.”
I met my wife in my first semester of college. By the time summer rolled around, we were deeply in love. But I had to go back home to Denver where I had a summer job waiting for me. She had to stay in Grand Rapids for her job. We would be apart for 3 long months. To help me remember her, she gave me an 8 by 10 color portrait of her. Whenever I would waver in my love or begin to forget what she looked like, I would look at that picture, remember how beautiful she was in every way, and fall back in love. That portrait saw me through a long and lonely summer. Many people carry pictures of their children or grandchildren to help them keep their loved ones in mind and heart. So we Christians need to keep a portrait of Christ before the eyes of our faith. A sermon on I Corinthians 13 that focuses on the beauty of Christ’s love might be just the thing your church needs to keep their “first love” and remain faithful.