January 27, 2002
Third Sunday after Epiphany

LECTIONARY READINGS
from the Revised Common Lectionary
Isaiah 9:1-4
Psalm 27:1, 4-9
1 Corinthians 1:10-18
Matthew 4:12-23

The underlined text will take you to a sermon on the gospel text.


Missing the Point
1 Corinthians 1:10-18

There is power in the good news of Jesus Christ. This power is most clearly seen in the cross of Christ. Paul says that the message of the cross is, "...the power of God."

The cross of Christ turns the notion of God's divine love into something that touches us personally... an abstract concept becomes incarnate. Not only does God love us, but God has taken the initiative to reach out to us by coming in the person of Jesus Christ. Even more, the cross of Christ demonstrates the absolute limits to which God will go to bring us back to our spiritual home. The Almighty God of this universe cared so much about you and me the very Son of God comes to this earth to pour out his life for us.

There is power in the message of the cross!

If we tried to imagine how this amazing good news could be shared with a broken world, you would expect that God would insure the spreading of this message by all means possible. Perhaps angels from heaven would be entrusted with the message to make sure no human error interfered with God's plan. Or maybe there should be a selection process whereby only the very committed... only certified "super-saints" would be entrusted with the message. At the very least, wouldn't you think God would want to entrust responsibility for the good news to some sort of professional group that had a track record for progressively important tasks?

Since the message of the cross is, "...the power of God," I have to wonder -- if I were in charge, would I want the message to be handled by only the very capable and the very proven?

Yet, the astounding thing about this message of God's power is that responsibility for bringing the good news to a broken world is given to all those who receive the good news. If we receive it, we are bound to share it. When our lives have been renewed by the power of God's good news, we are committed to carry that good news to others. This mission is not for the angels of heaven, nor the super saints of the ages, and not even for religious professionals. (Perhaps especially not for religious professionals!) The mission to carry this message to all who will accept it is given to all who have embraced it.

Ah, but then there is another dimension to this message of the cross. Paul also says that, "...the message about the cross is foolishness..."  How in the world can a message be at once "the power of God," and at the same time, "foolishness?"

Paul's answer is that the message of the cross is both at once. It is the power of God and it is foolishness. The difference is not in the message, but in the one who receives or rejects the message.

  • "The message of the cross is foolishness... to those who are perishing...

  • But to us who are being saved... it is the power of God."

The good news of the gospel is not forced upon us. God offers and we are given the choice to receive or reject the offer. The Divine decision to create human beings in the image of God includes the absolutely radical concept of choice and free will. It is the exercise of our ability to choose that determines whether the message of the cross is God's power or foolishness.

The message of the cross is mere potential until we choose to receive it. When we open our lives to receive this great good news, it becomes God's power for us. We are free from the bondage of sin and self and liberated for God's purposes as we are renewed by the Spirit of God. Thus - this message is God's power to us who are in the process of becoming what God intended us to be! (That is "being saved")

On the other hand, if our action regarding the message of the cross is to make the choice to reject it, then the message is so much foolishness to us. "What a silly thing that God should come to earth in the person of Jesus Christ and call us to repentance and faith," the one who is perishing thinks, "I will run my life as I see fit." 

In Christ, there has been an intersection of divine love and human need.  This intersection which is graphically portrayed in the cross, is at once a matter of "fact" and a point of decision. We hear the message of the cross and then turn toward the redeeming love of God or continue on our own way.  We discover God's power or we declare it to be foolishness.

***

This is the essence of today's epistle reading. There is an "either - or" quality to the text. It is black and white. The message is "God's power" or it is "foolishness." There are no "shades of gray" that fill the space between the opposites. We can not come to the message of the cross as "kind of powerful" and "a little bit foolish." 

Ah, but we try; human beings, blessed with the endowment of free will and yet burdened with the gift of choice, do manage to muddy the waters. They managed to miss the point in Corinth and we are just as vulnerable to missing the point today.

Follow closely here. Not only does God allow us to exercise a choice in receiving or rejecting the message of the cross...  God also gives us the responsibility to bring this message to the rest of the world. Our Christian lives are fashioned as we continue to use the gift of choice and allow the power of God through the work of the Spirit of God within us. We begin by choice and we continue by choice. In other words... God depends upon us for the sharing of the message of the cross.

This is the key point Paul wants to make to the Corinthian Church. Their life together is critically important to the task of taking the message of the cross to the world. 

The problem is that too many people in the church are missing the point. Their personal squabbles and pride are getting in the way of their mission. "I appeal to you brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you..."

The Corinthian church had a remarkable opportunity to have a major impact on their city. Corinth had a horrible reputation as a city of loose living, scandalous sensuality and drunkenness. Other Greeks would use the term "corinthianized" to refer to someone we might call a "low life."

What a place for a vital congregation to have an impact!  If they could keep it together and give themselves to the main point - which was the preaching of the cross as the power of God.

But the church was tangled up in petty divisions and cliques were forming in which each group thought of itself as spiritually superior to the others. You see - divisions bring about a diversion from the main point of the faith. Instead of seeing the power of God at work in the Corinthian Christian community - there was a great danger that the world around them would see nothing but the same old, same old. Squabbling, pride and parochialism. They would be no different than the world around them that was perishing.

Paul is very concerned about this because the divisions which brought about debate would also wind up brining about denial. The message of the cross would be as foolishness to the world if the community of faith did not have the unity and integrity that God wanted to bring about in their lives. As well as choosing the faith for themselves, the Corinthian congregation was being challenged to "get it together" so that others would have the opportunity to choose the message of the cross. It would be impossible for others to choose the message if they could not see it lived out in the church.

***

If we give just a bit of thought and reflection to this short story of the Corinthian Church, it should grab us by the throat!

The fact that we all have the opportunity and ability to choose faith is not news. We've known that from the time we were young. Others may try to force the faith upon us - but deep within, you and I know that faith is a choice.

But - have you thought about this...  When we have made the choice to embrace the message of the cross and to place our trust in Christ - we were given the responsibility to make that message and that choice available to others. One of the central ways that message is shared with others is through our reputation as a congregation.

If we - like the Corinthians - miss the main point - we make it more difficult for the message of the cross to become God's power for others and we make it more likely that others will dismiss the message of the cross as foolishness!

The apostle's words are for us today as surely as they were for the church at Corinth almost two thousand years ago.

"I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose."

We are called to live in the unity of the Holy Spirit with one mind and one common purpose - namely, to live together in such a way that the message of the cross is made evident to others as the power of God."


Reflection on the Texts

Isaiah 9:1-4

The Isaiah passage is chosen for 9:2 and the fact that it is quoted in the gospel text. The Psalm ("The Lord is my light and my salvation") could be combined with Isaiah and the gospel text to do some reflection on the nature of the light that has come to illuminate the darkness of the human condition. You would tie in John 1:3-5: "All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it."

The beginning of Isaiah details the judgment that is to befall the nation because of its rejection of God's word. Nevertheless God plans to bring the nation into light out of darkness and those who were dwelling in the land of the "shadow of death" will have light and great joy. Matthew applies the text to the birth of Jesus and the advent of God's plan in Messiah and though the context of Isaiah points to particular historical circumstances in Isaiah's time - the underlying plan of God for the people of God points to a fulfillment beyond historical circumstances. What Isaiah declared is indeed fulfilled as "light and truth" eventually come to us through the incarnation.

There is a biblical theme that runs throughout scripture where true joy and celebration come at the intervention of God into human history where oppression is broken and God's people live in faithful covenant with their Maker.

Light and life are found in relationship with God and darkness and death are the consequence of separation from God.


Matthew 4:12-23
Choose the NIV reading at Bible Gateway for IVP commentary on this text

* Matthew 4:12-17 does not have parallels in the other synoptic gospels.  It is a part of Matthew's "fulfillment" message relating the coming of Jesus into Galilee to Isaiah 9:1-2.

Ή A group of pastors went to a leadership conference at Willow Creek.  Some thought it was great and wanted to go home and duplicate Willow Creek. Others thought it was nothing like church at all and wanted to go home and forget the whole thing. Most thought almost anyone could learn something from the experience. My most important "take home" lesson was this single question, "What am I going to do with my one and only life."   Asking the question this way brings a certain urgency to the issue of how we will "spend" our lives.

² Matthew does not quote Isaiah 9:2 verbatim and for some that is a problem since there is no exact replica of Matt. 4:15-16 in Isaiah.  However, Matthew does not intend nor claim an exact quote.   The words are consistent with Matthew's treatment of the "fulfillment" theme -- namely, Jesus is the one who fulfills the promise of Messiah and the hopes of the People of God throughout the O.T.

v.13 "He made his home in Capernaum"  from "katoikew" -- the NRSV gets the translation correct here.  "oikos" is house and with "kata" means Jesus took up permanent residence or "made his home" in Capernaum. The arrest of John signaled the beginning of Jesus' wider ministry. Luke adds the information that Jesus' move from Nazareth to Capernaum also came on the heels of a violent rejection of Jesus in the synagogue at Nazareth. (Luke 4:31)

v.15 "Galilee of the Gentiles" Galilee is literally surrounded by Gentiles.  Phoenicians on the west, Syrians to the north and east and Samaritans to the south.

v.17 "Began to proclaim"  "kerusso - κηρύσσω" "To proclaim as a public crier -- to publish -- especially a divine truth." Jesus comes with the proclamation that we need to examine our lives and make the appropriate changes in light of the fact that the reign of God has come near.

v.18 / 21   Andrew had been a disciple of John the Baptist (John 1:35-41) Peter, James and John become an inner circle ... closest to Jesus.  They are with Jesus in the transfiguration experience. (Matt. 17:1) They alone attend the raising of the young girl in Mark 5:37. In Mark 13:3 Peter, James, John  -- (and this time Andrew) -- are alone with him to ask questions concerning the eschaton. In his Garden of Gesthemane trial, they are asked to go deeper into the garden with him. (Mark 13:3)

There is an alternate sermon in following the careers of Peter, James and John.  You might also include Andrew as the "silent" disciple who nevertheless made it all happen with his quiet evangelism.

v.23 Jesus' threefold ministry of preaching, teaching and healing is instructive. Preaching ("kerusso" - see above)  is to "herald or announce" the good news of God's reign - kingdom. Teaching = to develop especially the disciples in the principles of kingdom living.   Healing = the work of the people of God in bringing the implications of the reign of God to the world around us.


1 Corinthians 1:10-18

Another way to approach the Corinthian text:

The Pitfalls of the Church

1. The One Essential Principle ~ Unity   (v.10)

Having greeted the church and praising them for their strengths, Paul now turns to the critical issue of unity in the Body of Christ. Jesus knew, of course, that the most difficult issue the disciples would face would be the issue of unity.  They would have to have a common love for each other to successfully carry out the mission he gave to them.  Explore John 13:31 (the new commandment) then John 15:12 and 15:17.  Three times in the Upper Room, Jesus issues this commandment.   Why does this command get such attention -- because Jesus knew it would be the most difficult.

Paul now encounters the human propensity for division.  The fact is we are "wired" for discord. It will take the "same mind" -- which is the mind of Christ to overcome this division.  See Ephesians 4:3.  The unity Paul wants is available only through the ministry of the Spirit.

2. This Is Not "King of the Castle" ~ (vv. 11-16)

Paul turns to the most critical issue that has come to his attention.  Visitors (from Chloe's household" have told Paul that there are quarrels in the church.  People are choosing up sides.  It's the old "skins and shirts" debate.  It's the "us again' them" propensity of human beings.

Some people in Corinth were followers of Paul, others of Apollos and still others of Peter. The most difficult group of all was probably mae up of those who said, "I am of Christ." Most pastors face this at one time or another in their ministry. I served in a church where no one would ever fill the shoes of the great Dr. Smith. (Not his real name). You can be sure that whenever people are discussing how great or how terrible another pastor or another leader is, two consequences are inevitable. 1) Jesus Christ looses his place as the center of the church and 2) The churches witness is damaged. One of the ways I like to say this is, "The reputation of Jesus Christ is on the line in our life together!" This is not "King (or Queen!) of the Castle" we are engaged in -- it is not the body of Paul or Apollos or Peter, or Dr. Smith -- it is the Body of Christ!

Paul asks the rhetorical questions that calls us to the heart of why we have come together as a church.  Christ is one, his body is one, he was crucified for us and we are baptized in the name of Christ.  In fact, as Paul would say to the Ephesians church, "There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all...." [4:5-6

3. Back to Basics ~ (vv.17-18)

Christ is not divided (meaning there can not be groups in contention with each other in the genuine church) and Paul was not even called to baptize.  One thing is essential and that is to proclaim the gospel.

(This could be a good opportunity to offer some insights into what the role of the pastor is -- really !  Of course we are called to do pastoral care and a score of other things -- but if we are not "proclaiming" the gospel -- we are out of touch with God's purpose and likely not to be building the body of Christ.  Theoretical question for your folk:  "If there is ever a conflict between what you believe you have called me to do and what I believe Christ has called me to do ... which voice do you want me to listen to?")

There is a simplicity to the gospel message which Paul does not want to nullify with overlays of human wisdom or oratorical skill. Paul says that the preaching of the gospel is "foolishness to those who are perishing."  In 1:23ff. he talks further about wisdom, foolishness and the message of the cross. When Paul says he does not want the cross "emptied of its power" or "be made void"  NASB) -- he uses the word κενόω - kenoo -- which is the word used in Phil. 2:7 for Christ having "emptied himself".   The gospel message (the message of the cross) is the power (δύναμις - dunamis) of God. The term is used especially of the miraculous power of God. (Used in Phil.3:10 -- "I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection."

You will need to conclude this message with an exploration of what this "power - or - dunamis" -- of the message about the cross is.  (Unconditional love -- resolution of the problem of human sin -- reconciliation with God -- and ...)


 Worship Helps

Call To Worship   (Based on Psalm 27)

L:   Let us declare our faith,
P:  The Lord is our light and our salvation!
L:   Of whom shall we be afraid?
P:  We fear no one, for the Lord is the stronghold  of our lives!
L:   Let us affirm the desire of our hearts,
P:  One thing we ask of the Lord, that we may dwell
      with God all the days of our lives!

Confession of Sin

O Lord God, full of mercy and compassion, give us courage today to see ourselves in the mirror of Your Son Jesus Christ. We confess that we fall so short of all You have made us to be. Give us grace, O gracious Lord, lest we be overcome by the truth of our shortcomings. Give us understanding, O Lord of truth, that we might receive and grow in the redemption so freely offered in Jesus our Savior. Amen.

Assurance of Pardon

May the God who is merciful and gracious beyond all that we can imagine forgive us our sins and renew a right spirit within us through our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Prayer of Thanksgiving

O Lord of heaven and earth, we stand amazed that you should care for us and shower gifts upon us we can barely begin to appreciate in the lifetime you have given to us.

You have given us the gift of faith to keep us hopeful no matter what life brings our way. By faith we overcome obstacles, engage the challenge of living and defeat the power of death. We praise you that you should give to us the amazing gift of faith.

And we thank you O gracious Lord for the gift of fellowship. In the church, the Body of Christ, you have given us a new family to encourage us throughout the years of our lives. Give us grace to give to each other in this family - all the things that we have in you. May we, as your people, be an oasis in this world where people can expect acceptance, forgiveness and love.

Above all, O Lord, we give you thanks for the gift of a certain future. In the strength of you love and grace to us we discover the wonder of everlasting life. Our destiny is never in doubt with you. Though kingdoms may rise and fall and nations come and go, we are secure in your love. Generations will blend into ages and ages into eternity - yet we are forever loved in your Son Jesus Christ.

We give thanks to you O God for the gifts that we shall never fully understand until that day we stand before your throne and join the voices of angels and saints of all the ages in declaring your praise.

O God of love, we join our hearts here today in a chorus of praise and thanksgiving for all that you are to us.

In the name of Jesus we offer our praise.

Amen.

Prayer of Dedication

O Lord, there is none like you, pouring out the treasure of divine blessing we can barely comprehend.  Our hearts are empty and you fill them, our joys are few and your multiply them. O teach us to become like our Lord Jesus spreading light and life and love everywhere our steps would take us. And would you be pleased, our Savior, to touch other lives through the gifts we bring today. Amen.