Second Sunday after Epiphany, Year A, January 19, 2020
Isaiah 49:1-7, Psalm 40:1-11, 1 Corinthians 1:1-9, John 1:29-42
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Chinook and Naselle Lutheran Churches, WA
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Our reading from First Corinthians this week comes from the first part of the letter. And man, does Paul have some good words for the Christians in Corinth! He says he is ALWAYS giving thanks for them, because of the grace that God has given them, how they have been enriched by God, in speech and knowledge of every kind. The testimony of Christ has been strengthened among them, and they were not lacking in any spiritual gift. If you read this part of the letter, and don’t go any further, you’re left with the idea that things must have been AWESOME in Corinth. God was working in and among them, they have all these spiritual gifts, what more could any community of faith want or need?
And then you read the rest of the letter, which is about all the problems the congregation has been having. Factions that split the community, arguments about EVERYTHING, people taking advantage of and belittling one another, people using their spiritual gifts for personal aggrandizement rather than the good of the community and the will of God, you name it, it happened. If there is a thing that could possibly go wrong in a Christian community, it happened in Corinth. That’s why Paul wrote to the Corinthians so often—at least four times that we know of, though only two of his letters survived. They were really messed up. They were a problem congregation. If there was a way to get the Gospel wrong, they would find it.
And yet, God gave them God’s grace through Jesus Christ. God gave them every spiritual gift and strengthened their faith in Jesus Christ. No matter how much they squandered God’s gifts or used them for selfish ends or just … missed the point, God was with them, nurturing the faith in them and giving them every spiritual gift and everything they needed to be part of the body of Christ. They had problems, but a lack of spiritual resources wasn’t one of them.
An even more pointed reminder of God’s gifts can be found in our reading from Isaiah. This particular part of Isaiah was written during the Babylonian Exile. The nation of Judah had been conquered by the Babylonians, and the Jewish people taken away to be slaves in other parts of the Babylonian Empire. They had lost everything. Many of their people decided that God didn’t care about them any more and started worshipping Babylonian gods. Even those who stayed faithful had lost all hope. They were as good as dead. Everything they’d tried to build or do had been destroyed. And yet, in the midst of that, God sent the prophet to tell them that they were not abandoned, that God was with them. And more than that, their nation was going to be restored—the exile would not be permanent, eventually they would be freed and allowed to go home. And more than that, God was actively working in them and through them to make the world a better place, to make the world more like God’s kingdom. Even in the midst of slavery and exile and death and despair, God was at work. God had chosen them, and God would redeem them out of slavery, and God would help them rebuild.
Which I think is something a lot of churches today need to spend some time thinking about, because we spend a lot of time focusing on how bad things are. In coffee hours after church, in pastor gatherings, in committee meetings and Bible studies, you hear the same refrain. “Things just aren’t what they used to be. Twenty years ago, we had so much more, and we just can’t do the things we used to do. We’re too small, we don’t have enough money, we don’t have enough young people, we don’t have enough anything. We look at the numbers of people we used to have but don’t have any more, we sigh wistfully at what we could do if we had more people, if we had younger people, if we had more money, if, if, if. And we get so focused on what we used to have, what we don’t have, that we can’t see what we do have.
And what we have is this: the grace of God. What we have is God’s presence in us and among us. The God who called us by name, who claimed us as God’s own children, who has been with us all our lives and was with every one of our ancestors in the faith throughout their lives, is with us still today. God has claimed us as God’s own, God has given us spiritual gifts, God has called us to minister to one another and to the world outside our doors.
The question is, are we listening to that call? And not to what the call was twenty years ago, but what the call is now. Because God’s call changes over time. The central goal of ministry—to proclaim the word of God, the good news of Jesus Christ, and to bring light and healing to the world—hasn’t changed. But the most effective ways to do that have changed. And our resources have changed, too! I don’t want to pretend that we are what we used to be, and I don’t want to say that we can’t grieve for what has been lost. We are smaller and older than we used to be, and there are many things we just can’t do any more.
But the most important question as Christians is, are we listening to what God is calling us to do here, now, today, or are we so caught up in our grief that we can’t imagine what new things God is calling us to? Can we take a clear and positive view of the gifts and resources—spiritual gifts, physical resources, and people—that we have right now, and ask what God is calling us to do with those gifts and resources? It may be something we’ve been doing all along. It may be something new and different. But God is present, calling us and equipping us for ministry, just as God was present in Corinth, and just as God was present during the Babylonian Exile.
Now, if you’re wondering what that might look like, here are some things it might be. I am not a prophet; I can’t say for certain what God’s will for us is. That’s something we all have to think about and pray about and talk about together, trusting that God will be in the midst of our thoughts and prayers and conversations. But here are some suggestions.
First, and most obviously, God is probably calling us to grow in faith and love as a congregation and as individuals. There’s pretty much no time that God isn’t calling us to do that. I don’t mean that we should be insular, caring only for what’s happening inside our own walls, and I certainly don’t mean that we should just get in a rut and stay there. I mean that we should be actively working to deepen our relationships with God and one another. We should be actively working to increase participation in spiritual disciplines such as prayer, Scripture reading, worship, charity, confession and forgiveness. We should be actively working to build healthy relationships with one another and with everybody around us.
Second, given that God created us for relationships and that God thinks it is not good for us to be alone, and given how fragmented our society is and how many people today are lonely, God may well be calling us to reach out to people in our community who are lonely and disconnected, and build relationships with them. Not just so we can invite them to church, but because it is not good for human beings to be alone and God calls us to love one another. I can’t do it by myself. These days, people get suspicious of ministers who want to be their friends. But just being there for people, making sure they don’t fall through the cracks, can make a huge difference both in individual lives and in society as a whole.
What do you think God is calling us to do? What gifts and talents do you see that God has given us, and how do you think God wants us to use those gifts and talents?