January 29, 2018
The Epiphany 5B Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for Mark 1:29-39 from the Lectionary Gospel; Isaiah 40:21-31 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 147:1-11, 20c from the Lectionary Psalms; and 1 Corinthians 9:16-23 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: OT Lectionary: Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 96 (Lord’s Day 35)
Author: Scott Hoezee
Usually we are far too casual about God’s kingdom. “Your kingdom come, your will be done” we say each time we intone the Lord’s Prayer, but when we finish our prayer and open our eyes, we do not see any such kingdom. It is difficult for us to conceive of a kingdom that is not also a definable place on the map–a realm with borders and with visible signs that this particular place is different from all other places.
Most of us know what such markers might be like. Cross the border into Canada and immediately lots of things look different: highway signs, street signs, traffic lights. Everything is in kilometers, some traffic lights have something called a “Delayed Green.” The lines painted on the roads may be a different color. In England the entire flow of traffic is reversed, which is why some of us very nearly get hit when crossing some London street because we instinctively look the wrong way to see if any cars are coming. (Winston Churchill nearly died in New York City once when he made this same mistake when crossing a street and looking the wrong way to check for traffic.)
A kingdom or country or nation or realm would rather be like that, we think. Kingdoms are defined by their different customs, signage, currency, and habits. So it is perhaps no surprise that when even Christians pray for the coming of God’s kingdom, they quietly assume that this is something that will happen only, or at least mostly, in the future. When God’s kingdom comes, we’ll all know it because living inside the borders of that kingdom will be just as obvious as being in a different country even today. But although we do believe in the reality of the New Creation that is yet to come, it is nevertheless wrong to relegate God’s kingdom to any other place, dimension, or time than this place, this time.
As Dallas Willard has written, the kingdom is real and it is real NOW. Because a kingdom is that realm where the effective will of the king determines what happens. In a sense, we all have our own little kingdoms in life–those places where what we want happens. If we say it, it goes. Maybe this is in our households, maybe it happens at work in the department of which you are the manager. But wherever a person can say, “Well, that’s the way I want it and so that’s the way it is going to be,” then that is in a real sense a kingdom, a place where your influence rules and makes stuff happen.
That’s why the kingdom of God is real and that’s why we can see it, right now today. The kingdom is present wherever people pray the way Jesus taught us to pray. The kingdom is present wherever Jesus nurtures certain behaviors and lifestyles that we call the Fruit of the Spirit. The kingdom is present wherever people pour water over the heads of babies or take bread and wine to their lips all simply because Jesus told us that this is the way we are to act in remembrance of him.
The kingdom is present wherever a believer somewhere refuses to go along with some scheme because she believes it is untruthful and that going along with it would make her less transparent to Jesus. Whenever and wherever a believer refuses to participate in sinful activities, whenever and wherever a kindly old woman brings light into a neighbor’s darkness by speaking a word of peace, whenever and wherever a man sits down to tutor a homeless child, and whenever and wherever all such things are done because all these people believe there is a cosmic Lord named Jesus, then there–right there and right here and right now–the kingdom of God is present because the effective will of Jesus is calling the shots.
When the Son of God came to this earth, he announced the arrival of the kingdom. That kingdom is so real, and is such a viable alternative to all things evil and dark and wrong, that of course it only makes sense that the demons knew who Jesus was and fled before him. What’s more, if this same Jesus, who himself embodies the fullness of every kingdom virtue, could walk the streets of New York or Chicago this very day, don’t doubt for a second that he would even now cause any number of unclean spirits to come out of the woodwork.
Someone once suggested that the reason there were so many demons around Jesus all the time may be similar to the reason why when you go to the E.R. at the local hospital you find so many injured people. It would be rather foolish to see injured people at the E.R. but to then say, “Earlier today I was at the mall but I didn’t see any injured folks lying around there! How come so many cluster at the hospital?” The answer is so obvious as to make the question absurd. So also here: as the very incarnation of God’s kingdom, Jesus attracted and drew out and unmasked the forces that opposed him.
Once upon a time and far, far away Jesus did this, but it doesn’t have much to do with us, does it? Mostly the realm of the demonic is remote from our daily experiences.
So what do we make of Mark 1’s presentation of Jesus the exorcist? Is this demon business something that used to exist but is now just a throwback to a bygone era? If you go through an antique store with your grandpa, you’ll run across lots of outdated stuff. Maybe you’ll ask Grandpa, “What’s this thing?” and he’ll reply, “Well, long time ago we used this to make toast.” Is that what Mark 1 is like–a kind of theological antique, a relic from an age long gone?
If so, then a big gap opens up between our faith and our lives. So maybe what we need to do is take the Bible’s language seriously in the belief that on some level, this does describe a vital aspect of reality in also this day and age.
There are realities and spiritual forces at work in this world that are undeniably anti-God and anti-Christ. We err if we think that the demonic was only long ago and far away. We err if we limit the presence of the demonic to only caricature-like spectacles of The Exorcist variety. The devil is, among other things, an opportunist. When the Bible tells us that the devil prowls about like a lion, looking for whom he might devour, that may mean that this prowling will take many forms and it won’t necessarily be lion-like in every instance. The “devouring” may well take many forms, starting with whatever is expedient. If in a given culture what we might regard as “obvious” forms of demon-possession or demonic activity would be too easily spotted (and so probably resisted), then another form will be taken.
In the frightening film Devil’s Advocate actor Al Pacino is a very convincing demon in a designer suit. He’s also a lawyer and, lawyer jokes aside, the point of the film is that the law is as susceptible to demonic influence as anything. The devil will always survey the landscape to see where the cracks are, and they won’t always be the same from one society or place to the next.
In some ways, then, reading these texts about “Jesus the Exorcist” connects us with a world so remote from our own and from our typical experience that it may as well be a story about talking animals or aliens from outer space. In other words, we conclude that whatever necessitated Jesus’ being an exorcist back then no longer applies to us now. That was then. It is not now.
A good sermon on Mark 1:29-39 will surely make people a bit more thoughtful on such matters.
Mark 1:34 is the first clear instance in Mark of the motif known as “The Messianic Secret.” There was a slight hint of this in Mark 1:25 when Jesus tells the unclean spirit to “be quiet,” but this is the first instance where we are told that Jesus actively was preventing knowledge of his true identity from getting noised around too much. And it will come up again and again from here on out. Possible reasons for this secrecy have been bandied about for centuries. But it does seem that Jesus knew that for him to accomplish the work he came to do, he could not let people too quickly seize on him lest they turn him into what they wanted him to be as opposed to what he knew his Father would have him to be (and for that to happen, he’d have to trek all the way to the cross). Mark drives us as readers to the cross. And so there is a sense in which even for readers of this gospel that every instance of hearing Jesus silence those who know his true identity is a goad for us, too, to keep reading, to not impose on Jesus (even yet today) our own ideas on what he should be like, what he should say, what he should do. Our job is not to jump to conclusions or force prior agendas. Our job is to keep following, even though we know that the path down which we follow Jesus is going in the opposite direction of where we’d prefer to go.
In a cartoon I once saw there were two somewhat rough-looking characters emerging from a church after a worship service. As they walk down the church steps, the one man is saying to the other, “Well, the news wasn’t all bad–at least I ain’t made no graven images lately!” Among other things, this little cartoon may remind us that in church, we can be rather casual in tossing around language that you mostly don’t encounter the rest of the week. We even read whole stories from the Bible that are so different from anything we have ever experienced–or even anticipate experiencing–that there may be a quiet and subtle disconnect between what we say in church and the rest of our lives.
If the gospel is true, however, then any apparent gap between what we talk about in church and what goes on the rest of the week must be only apparent and so not a real gap. That is to say, if there is simply no such thing as “graven images” in life, then talking about such an unreal thing in church ushers people into a realm of fantasy, a fictional world that has no true connection to the actual world.
We need to ponder this sometimes when dealing with passages that treat the presence of demon and the demon-possessed as a run-of-the-mill reality in Jesus’ day. Is there ANY such thing still around today?
Author: Doug Bratt
Grasshoppers are interesting creatures. While they have wings, just like eagles, they can’t soar like eagles. Yet grasshoppers can really jump. If people could jump like them, we’d be able to leap more than 40 yards.
Yet while grasshoppers can be colorful, heads that are relatively tiny also house their brains. If you walk through a rural field in the summertime, you’re likely to squash lots of them. So grasshoppers are perhaps more interesting than majestic.
That’s one reason why Isaiah’s claim that “people are like grasshoppers” (22) may seem like a demeaning description of people whom God creates in God’s image. We, after all, like to think of ourselves as far greater than little green critters. However, Babylon has just dragged Isaiah 40’s Israel into exile as part of God’s judgment on her. So she has shrunk Israel to little more than a grasshopper in the cosmic order of things.
Yet both those who proclaim Isaiah 40 and those to whom we proclaim it may also sometimes feel like grasshoppers. Maybe it’s the other students at school who mock them. Or perhaps loneliness or even advancing age makes people feel like grasshoppers. We may feel like grasshoppers when we trudge into our workplace or try to raise a difficult child. Or perhaps reports from their investment or pension funds make people feel like grasshoppers.
Sooner or later, we all feel like grasshoppers — especially when we compare ourselves to the Lord of heaven and earth. God is, after all, the creator of everything that is made. In fact, when we compare anything God made to its Creator, even the greatest things are tiny. Things like mighty mountains, immense galaxies and awesome oceans are a bit like our cooking, knitting, or pottery compared to you and me.
Over the years people have thought of leaders like Josef Stalin and Mao Zedong as mighty. People sometimes still assign almost extraordinary power to democratically elected leaders like presidents and prime ministers. Isaiah, however, reminds us that almighty God not only raises up such leaders, but also topples them like fragile houses of cards. God reduces even the mightiest and most charismatic leaders “to nothing.”
I think Americans fall into a trap when they assume if they just elect enough politicians that share their views, moral problems will quickly shrink. Isaiah, after all, reminds us that compared to God, even our most talented leaders are like dry dandelion seeds that even a mild windstorm can scatter. The Lord is capable of reducing even such gifted leaders to nothing.
In fact, Isaiah insists, even the mightiest nations, like the Babylon of his day, or, by implication, the United States, Canada or China in ours, are like a drop in the bucket compared to God. Of course, nations seem to be quickly shrinking in comparison to various alliances. So while we may readily agree with Isaiah about nations’ vulnerabilities, we need to remember that he writes about nations like Babylon that were very powerful in his day. So we might to compare the prophet’s nations to powerful modern alliances like the European Union or OPEC.
However, while Israel thought of the nations as fat monsters, Isaiah insists they’re not even strong enough to move the needle when they step on God’s cosmically precise scale. So we might say that even modern superpowers are like the nothingness that preceded creation compared to the Lord.
Isaiah assumes that God’s people have always understood that. Yet sometimes things happen that sometimes challenge the assumption that nothing and no one compare to the Lord. To most of Israel’s contemporaries, after all, her Babylonian exile meant that Babylon’s god was stronger than Israel’s God. To them Jerusalem and Israel’s destruction meant that Babylon’s gods had somehow defeated their God. So we sense that some Israelites had begun to compare God to a grasshopper.
Sometimes people and things also challenge our own assumptions about God’s greatness. We may wonder if, for example, cancer or advancing age is somehow mightier than God. Economic crises or terrorism may seem stronger than our living Lord. Or perhaps our fears, doubts or worries seem incomparable.
In fact the things that make us wonder if God is really so great may even lead God’s adopted sons and daughters to say with Israel, in verse 27, “My way is hidden from the Lord; my cause is disregarded by my God.” Sometimes struggles, after all, lead even God’s people to wonder if God can even see or cares about what’s bothering us.
Does God even care, we all naturally ask, if I’m afraid or confused? Does God even see that my life sometimes feels like just one long walk on a treadmill to nowhere? Doesn’t God see the injustice that sometimes seems to flourish in our world, communities and sometimes right in our own lives?
Of course, many of those who proclaim and hear Isaiah 40 learned about God’s incomparable love for us a long time ago. But in case our memory has shrunk, the prophet reminds us that nothing but God’s own nature limits the Lord. So time and space don’t limit God. Nor do God’s energy or endurance limit God. God doesn’t get tired like people do. Even taking care of a rebellious world doesn’t somehow wear God out.
In fact, finally, the prophet insists, God is cognitively unlimited. In other words, God’s wisdom and understanding is complete. God both knows about and sees everything. So our mighty God is able to help tired, weary and weak people like the Israelites, you and me.
But will this perfectly wise God help people like you and me? Does, in other words, the God who’s able to help grasshoppers like us also actually want to help us? Isaiah insists God, in fact, loves to give power to people who sometimes lack it.
Most of us naturally want to do something to fix whatever’s wrong with our world, those we love and us. You and I, however, can’t fix some of the things that make us most weary and weak. While we may be able to temporarily revive our energy, only God can give strength that lasts to those who “hope in the Lord.”
As a result, God’s adopted sons and daughters learn to wait for God to work in our lives and world. Yet we don’t wait with our legs crossed or hands in our pockets. Christians wait on tiptoes, as it were, fully expecting God to both revive us and perhaps use us to help revive our world and its people. After all, Isaiah insists that God won’t just sooner or later increase the “power of the weak.” No, as surely as God created the “ends of the earth,” God “increases the power of the weak” (italics added).
“Weak” would seem to be good descriptions of Isaiah’s Israel that’s in exile. Yet those who hear and proclaim Isaiah 40 today also know what it means to be weak. After all, even children and young adults, as the prophet reminds us, sometimes “grow tired and weary.” Even the strongest people eventually “stumble and fall.” So at no matter what point of life in which we find ourselves, whether or not we always realize it, all of us desperately need God’s help.
Through Isaiah 40 God reminds us that those who rely on the Lord find that help. God doesn’t always take away our problems. Yet God gives us the strength to deal with them. God helps vulnerable people like us so that we can run and not tire out. God lends us a hand so that we can walk and “not run out of gas.”
In her August 24, 2006 New York Times article entitled, “Secrets of Endurance: Eating to Go (and Go and Go),” Catherine St. Louis describes the running phenomenon that is “bonking.” She compares it to running out of gas in the fast lane of the Long Island Expressway.
Australian triathlete Chris Legh fell victim to bonking at the 1997 Ironman championships. His meltdown was, in fact, so vivid that a Gatorade advertisement immortalized it. Just before Legh reached the finish line, his limbs went as limp as a rag doll’s because he was both dehydrated and underfed. “One moment he was striding,” St. Catherine reports. “The next he had collapsed.”
“You can do all the training in the world,” she goes on to quote Legh as later saying, “but if you go out too fast, or make a mistake with your nutrition, then your day is done.”
Psalm 147:1-11, 20c
Author: Stan Mast
Psalm 147 is the second Psalm in the so-called Hallelujah chorus that ends the book of Psalms. It is part of the final triumphant response of God’s people to their difficult experience with God in a hostile world. Gone now are all the “why’s” and “how long’s,” the threats of enemies and the crises of faith. All of Israel’s attempts to worship God properly in the light of his grace now come together in pure praise. The final word to all of God’s people is, “Praise the Lord.” When it’s all said and done, we can (and should) praise the Lord because of his cosmic lordship and his covenant care. That interweaving of cosmos and covenant in Psalm 147 is an echo of Isaiah 40-66, Psalms 33 and 104, and Job 37-39.
Not surprisingly, this post-Exilic Psalm opens and closes with praise to Yahweh for his special care for Israel. He has brought them back from exile and he has given them his word (Torah) which marked them as unique in all the earth. Many scholars think that Psalm 147 was composed for the Levitical choirs on the joyous occasion of the dedication of the rebuilt walls of Jerusalem (Nehemiah 12:27-43). During that time of rebuilding after Exile, the rediscovery and public reading of Torah had been a crucial part of recovering Israel’s national identity. So, it’s not surprising that in its final words of praise, Israel should focus on Yahweh’s special mercies to Israel.
What is surprising is the counterpoint of Yahweh’s cosmic lordship. Words about God’s grace to the exiles who are brokenhearted and wounded (verses 2 and 3) are followed unexpectedly with the stunning claim that this tender God “determines the number of the stars and [even] calls them by name (verse 4).” Even though the ancient poet had only a rudimentary grasp of the immensity of the universe, he knew that this claim was literally incomprehensible; “his understanding has no limit (verse 5).” That soaring affirmation is followed by another assertion about God’s care for the humble of the earth (Israel), a care that will finally cast down their wicked enemies.
The second stanza of Psalm 147 opens (verse 7) with a call to worship that echoes verse 1, but here the focus is not first of all on God’s special care for Israel. Verses 8-9 praise God for his general provision for life on planet earth. “He covers the sky with clouds; he supplies the earth with rain and makes grass grow on the hills.” In this way he provides food for dumb beasts and helpless baby birds.
Then in verses 10-11 the Psalmist turns back to Israel, with an implicit warning and an explicit promise. Before the Exile, Israel engaged in all kinds of political intrigue and military maneuvering to stave off the threats of the invaders from the north. But it didn’t work and, says God to his people, it won’t now. Your only hope is in Yahweh, who does not take “pleasure in the strength of the horse (the ancient battle tank or stealth bomber) or in the legs of a man (a reference to the foot soldier, the infantry).” Rather “Yahweh delights in those who fear him [and] put their hope in his unfailing love (the Hebrew there is hesed, the ubiquitous word for covenant faithfulness).” Only God’s special care will assure you of a blessed future.
That pattern of nature alternating with grace continues in the third and last stanza of Psalm 147, which the Lectionary ignores. In verses 12-20 the order is grace (Jerusalem’s gates are strengthened by Yahweh and Israel enjoys peace and prosperity), nature (God sends the snow and ice of winter, followed by the soft melting breezes of spring), and ends with grace (God gives Torah to his chosen people, thus distinguishing them from all other nations). Surely Israel has abundant reason to praise the Lord, even if they have had a difficult history with him.
What is the purpose of this interweaving of nature and grace, of God’s cosmic immensity and God’s covenant intimacy? At first read this juxtaposition is jarring, but on closer scrutiny it is positively joyful. Thus, the Psalm opens with the joyful exclamation, “How good it is to sing praises to our God, how pleasant and fitting to praise him!” This interweaving of themes is designed to gives us a unified theology of divine sovereignty by placing God’s concern for his people and his control of the world side by side.
James Luther Mays puts it eloquently. After pointing out how the Psalm combines the cosmos with the covenant people to create a unified view of all reality, Mays writes as follows. ”The history of the community is a small part of reality, but the power that moves its course is the same that governs the stars. On the other hand, the processes of the world are vast, impersonal and uncaring, but the sovereignty at work in the world is the saving, caring God whom Israel had come to know in its history.”
All of this becomes relevant for the church today if we simply insert “church” for Israel and Jerusalem in the text. Even as God restored Israel and rebuilt Jerusalem, he will restore and rebuild a currently troubled and perhaps failing church. Even the gates of hell cannot prevail against the church that confesses “you are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” The God who cares for the church is the God who counts and names the stars. He is willing in his covenant hesed and able by his cosmic power to save the church today as he spared Israel then.
Further, the emphasis on the word of the Lord at the end of the Psalm is a precursor to the Word made flesh in the New Testament. The Word of God puts the stars in place and names them all. The Word of God commands the seasons on earth. The Word of God gives clear direction and identity to those who fear the Lord and keep his commandments. And, best of all, the Word of God came down to earth from beyond the stars, became part of the earth by taking on a human body, and died for the sins of those who did not live by Torah and even for those who never knew it.
In words that expand on Psalm 147, Colossians 1 gives a stunning description of the Word made flesh, a picture of both cosmic lordship and covenant care. “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created; things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him…. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood shed on the cross… to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation….”
The immensity of the universe is not an argument against the existence of God, as some claim. Rather it is an argument for his ability to do what he promises for his people. In Psalm 147 God’s immensity and his intimacy are inter-woven in a way that anticipates the wonder of the Incarnation.
I wrote that last paragraph as an introduction to an idea that might help you highlight the theme of Psalm 147. For the last several decades one of the most popular arguments against the existence of God has been a theory proposed by Nicholas Everitt in his book, The Non-Existence of God. In what has been called “the argument from scale,” Everitt claims that the sheer size of the universe is evidence against God’s existence. Here’s the formal argument:
- If the God of classical theism existed, with the purpose traditionally ascribed to him, then he would create a universe on a human scale, i.e., one that is not unimaginably large, unimaginably old, and which human beings form an unimaginably tiny part of it, temporaly and spatially.
- The world does not display a human scale.
- Therefore, there is evidence against the hypothesis that the God of classical theism exists with the purposes traditionally ascribed to him.
In other words, if God really cared about humans as the Bible says he does, he would have created a universe more suited to human thriving. The sheer size of the universe proves that a God who cares about humans does not, in fact, exist.
Now, of course, this argument presumes that this huge universe is not good for human life, and that is far from proven. Indeed, some scientists argue that the sheer size is exactly what was needed to create the conditions on earth upon which human life depends. And the argument assumes that the world was created purely for human flourishing, an assertion that the Bible never makes. Yes, we are the image of God on earth and, thus, assigned with ruling it in his place. But that biblical teaching does not mean that “it’s all about us.” In fact, it’s all about God.
We could argue more on logical and theological grounds with the argument from scale, but I mention it here not to disprove it. Rather it is a stark reminder of how life looks to people who reject the interweaving of cosmos and covenant that runs through Psalm 147. For those who trust Yahweh and his incarnate Son, the immensity of the universe is an argument in favor of trusting God. Not only is he willing to restore and rebuild our crumbling lives, but he is fully able to do that because the stars and the seasons, the ruins of Jerusalem and the baby ravens are in his hands. The argument from scale points to the cross where the Almighty God spread out his arms and embraced the cosmos, so that he might “reconcile to himself all things… on earth and in heaven…. (Col. 1:20).
1 Corinthians 9:16-23
Author: Scott Hoezee
It is not too difficult to take Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 9 and interpret them in a quite uncharitable way. Because on the face of it, one could allege that Paul here presents himself as human Jell-O, as a chameleon, as a glad-hander who will say or do anything to ingratiate himself to whomever he is speaking.
We all know people like this. And we mostly don’t care for them. They seem to lack integrity. They are unctuous, flattering suck-ups who seem to lack a spine or a definitive position on most any issue you could name. “Are you a man or a mouse?” my wife has sometimes asked me when I hesitated to speak my mind or to cross swords with someone who was disagreeing with me. It is not a nice question to face.
Yet here Paul seems to leave himself open to such dark conclusions about his character by saying over and over that he blends right in with whatever group of people he is among at any given moment. A Jewish audience? Paul is a Jew. A Gentile audience? Paul is a Gentile. People hung up with the law? Paul adapts and speaks to them accordingly. Is he with people who object to things that are not really objectionable but they object anyway because they are less mature in their faith? Paul plays along. And on and on.
What is going on here? And how can we interpret these words in ways that don’t cast Paul into the bad light of a spineless wimp?
Well, if there is one thing we know about Paul it is that the message of Jesus has to be right and rightly preached. If the content of the message is clear, if it is all Jesus and all grace and all about the paradoxical power of the cross, then not much else is going to distract or upset Paul. You can see this in Philippians 1 when Paul admits that there were some fellow preachers with him and around him while he was in prison who were preaching out of some of the worst motivations imaginable. Yet Paul said he rejoiced. They might be invidious, proud, arrogant people who were trying to out-preach Paul out of all kinds of less-than-savory ego issues but if the Gospel MESSAGE rang true then (in Paul’s own words) “What does it matter?”
Of course, to see Paul’s purple-faced reaction of fury to what happens when the message is messed up, see Galatians 1 and 2. If you try to subtract some power from the cross of Christ—and most especially if you do that by propping up human accomplishments as though our feeble efforts could chip in to God’s great salvation—then it was game over and Paul could do nothing but lash out. But get the Gospel message right, and Paul could let all kinds of stuff slide.
So also in 1 Corinthians 9: Paul makes clear that he just has to preach. It’s not a choice for him really. Once he met Jesus in that blinding flash on the Damascus Road, the Gospel got down so deep into Paul’s bones and heart and psyche and soul and body that trying to make Paul NOT preach was like thinking you could hold back a 10-foot wave on the ocean by putting your hands out in front of you. Good luck with that.
Paul just had to preach because he loved Jesus that much. What’s more, because he knew that Jesus deserved the love of every last man, woman, child, infant, and critter on the planet, he was determined to do all he could to widen the circle of praise for Jesus and for his sacrifice and for his love and his grace. Just look at passages like Colossians 1:15-23 and watch the verbal gush and whirlwind Paul was capable of when he really got rolling in talking about Jesus. This was the animating center of Paul’s existence.
That is why in 1 Corinthians 9 Paul says that so long as the message rang true, he was perfectly willing to be flexible in excelsis in finding doorways through which to get that message across to any given group of people. Paul was not being wishy-washy or mealy-mouthed. He did not lack integrity, spine, or character. He just let the Spirit turn him into a master communicator who was skilled at finding just the right spiritual, personal, and rhetorical angles to get the message of Jesus and his love across to people. And if there was some other stuff about the law or about being a bit weak in one’s faith or about most anything else you could think about, well, that all could be dealt with in love down the road. The main thing was to get the Gospel across first, get people to fall in love with it the way Paul had, and then go from there.
Most preachers today—and most people to whom we preach today—do not travel as widely or in as many varied circles as Paul did. Mostly we are in one place for a longer time, though even there we all know that as important as it is to exegete Scripture correctly as pastors, we need to exegete context too. More than was true a generation or two ago, context even within denominations is no longer uniform coast to coast, congregation to congregation. We, too, need to discern with the Spirit’s help what is the best way to preach the Gospel to THESE people as opposed to folks in some other locale.
But probably the biggest take-away we should want for our people if we preach on 1 Corinthians 9 is the clarion challenge to wonder: Am I as on fire about the Gospel as Paul was? Does my own love for Jesus animate me the way it did Paul? Could I also say of myself that the love of Christ is so deep in my bones that there is just no preventing me from talking about Jesus whenever I can to whomever will listen? And am I willing to let lots of other stuff slide in order to make that happen?
Paul is jumping up and down for Jesus with joy and exuberance in 1 Corinthians 9. Do we?
There is something about the contagious enthusiasm for Jesus in this poem—and the effect a child’s enthusiasm has on the parents by the poem’s conclusion—that gets at Paul’s enthusiasm in 1 Corinthians 9. And anyway, it’s a fun poem!