Comments, Observations, and Questions
Sometimes I wonder what the inventor(s) of the Revised Common Lectionary were thinking when they chose the texts for the three year cycle. I mean, take the reading for today, the first Sunday of Advent. It is the very same text the RCL used for the second Sunday of Epiphany in this same year. Come on, people. Surely, there are other fruitful texts you could have picked. Why use the same verses twice in the same year, and verses that fit the liturgical calendar only with some ingenious manipulation? Those were my first thoughts upon approaching this “Epiphany/Advent” text.
Then a closer look almost makes me repent of my harsh judgment of the RCL folks. There actually is something here to help us begin our Advent preparations. In verse 7 Paul says that these Corinthian Christians “eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed.” He follows that with a reference to “the end” and “the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” That is Advent language. This text can help us remember that Advent is not just about the first coming of the Christ at Christmas, but also about his second coming at the Parousia (which, of course, was the focus of the RCL at the end of this liturgical year). A text like this reminds us not to rush to Christmas too quickly. There is spiritual advantage in waiting, holding back, living in the land of “not yet” for a while.
But Paul reminds us that our waiting should be eager. The word he uses in verse 7 is a favorite word of Paul’s. He uses it in Romans 8:19, 23, and 25, as well as in Gal. 5:5 and Phil. 3:20, all of which point ahead to Christ’s coming. The compound Greek word conveys a heightened sense of waiting, not waiting as you would as you sit in a rocking chair, but waiting on tiptoes, eagerly leaning forward to see what/who is coming.
Apart from anything else this text may say to us, this concept of “eagerly waiting” for the day of Christ is a powerful preaching point. The question is, “Do we?” Or have we slid into the careless earthbound living of Noah’s contemporaries, as Jesus put it in Matthew 24:37-39? As I think about my own life, I’m aware that I lean into my daily routine much more eagerly than I lean forward into the Great Interruption. As we read the New Testament letters, it is clear that the early Christians were much better at eager waiting than we are. So this season of Advent can be a call to reorient ourselves, to recover a vision of the coming Christ, not just as an adorable baby at Christmas, but as the King whose coming will bend every knee and move every tongue.
Are there practical things we can press on our congregations to help them intensify their focus on Christ’s coming? Are there Advent disciplines that will increase their eagerness for his return? Undoubtedly there, but it is interesting that Paul’s emphasis here in I Corinthians is not on what we can/should do, but on what God has done in his gracious love. The classic secular Christmas carol, “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” is filled with warning. “Oh, you better watch out, you better not cry, you better not pout, I’m telling you why. Santa Claus is coming to town.” And “he knows when you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake.” According to the theology of that carol, whether we receive the gifts we want will depend on how we’ve behaved in the past year and particularly in the weeks before Christmas, because, presumably, that’s when Santa pays extra close attention.
In this text, there is none of that finger wagging call to better behavior. Rather, Paul emphasizes that God has already given us all the gifts we could ever need or want, for Jesus’ sake. We hear of grace everywhere in this text. Derivatives of charis are found in verse 3, as part of Paul’s standard greeting, in verse 4 in the word “thanks” and in “his grace given you in Christ Jesus,” and in verse 7 in “spiritual gifts.” Clearly, this charis is sometimes saving grace, while other times it is the spiritual gifts that our Savior showers upon his beloved church. But the point is that this is a grace-soaked passage.
That is the tone to set in the season of Advent. In the Christ who has already come, God has already “enriched us in every way.” Yes, there is room for urging God’s people to live more consistently Christ-like lives. Indeed, this church at Corinth was filled with some egregiously sinful behavior, and Paul takes them to task for it. But Paul begins his address to this gifted but troubled church by reminding them that they are already the recipients of grace.
There is no suggestion that they might lose their gifts if they don’t shape up. That’s because this grace has come to them “in Christ Jesus,” rather than from Santa Claus, who might not give the gifts we desire if we misbehave. Over and over Paul stresses the name of Jesus, often in combinations designed to deepen their faith and heighten their hope. Sometimes he is simply “Christ,” then he is “Christ Jesus,” and then he is “our Lord Jesus Christ,” and by the end he is “his Son Jesus Christ our Lord.” In him we have the fullness of salvation, so there is nothing we have to do to earn it. Indeed, it is precisely because we “do not lack any spiritual gift” that we “eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ.” He’s not Santa Claus, from whom we hope to receive our earthly desires; he’s our Savior who has already “blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing.” (Eph. 1:3)
In verse 7, Paul uses a word that will entirely reorient our Advent preparation. We “eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed.” That last word is the Greek noun apocalypsis. The root of that word is the idea of being hidden, covered, removed from sight, or, literally, veiled. That’s exactly how things are for 21st century Christians. The Christ we worship and adore is hidden behind the veil of history. We do not see him anywhere, except with the eyes of the heart illumined by faith. The Apocalypse of St. John (aka The Book of Revelation) pulls aside the veil to show us Jesus ruling all things from the throne at the center of the universe. But as we look out into the world, we do not see him.
So, we eagerly wait for his unveiling when every eye will see him in his glory. In our Advent prayers, we pray for “Apocalypse Now.” That reference to the nightmarish Vietnam War movie reminds us that praying “Maranatha, come, Lord Jesus,” is a very serious prayer. As the Apocalypse of John shows us, the Second Coming of the Christ will bring catastrophes of biblical proportions (as newspeople say when describing the damage done by a horrific flood or hurricane). We don’t need to emphasize this inordinately in preaching on this text, but it is a reminder that this season of Advent is about waiting not just for the birth of an innocent baby, but also for the return of the King who will set all things right with incredible power and grace.
Such a thought might fill little children and even their grandparents with considerable apprehension. What will happen to me on that day? What if I’m not eagerly waiting when Jesus is unveiled? What if I’m asleep at my post? Or, what if I eagerly wait, only to discover that I’m on the wrong side of history? Paul assures his readers that such a thing cannot happen, because “he will keep you strong to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” The Day of the Lord may come like a thief in the night, but those who are in Christ will not be caught unprepared, because the Lord himself will preserve them to the end.
The word translated “keep strong” is bebaiosei, which has also occurred in verse 6 where it is translated “confirmed.” The idea is that God in Christ will so establish, confirm, root our faith that it will endure to the end. We can’t be caught in some sin that will cost us our salvation. In Christ, we will be found anengkletos, “beyond reproach,” even if, like the Corinthians, our lives have been full of sin and error. What a marvelous promise for this season of Advent, and for any season. A serious focus on the Apocalypse might fill us with fear, but this promise should move us to a stronger faith.
That is all the more true if we focus on verse 9. How do we know that this incredible promise will be fulfilled? Well, says Paul in the Greek, “pistos ho theos.” Faithful is God. You may not be faithful all the time, but it is of the very nature of God to be faithful to his word of promise. God has “called you into fellowship (koinovia) with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord,” and he will keep you in that fellowship. So, you cannot lose your salvation, because he who called you is utterly faithful.
The season of Advent is a time to celebrate the faithfulness of God, not only in keeping his promises to send Immanuel into the manger, but also in keeping his promises to hold us in koinovia with his Son to the very end. Unlike Vladimir and Estragon, the hapless “heroes” of Beckett’s tragic play, Waiting for Godot, our eager waiting cannot bring disappointment. Those men wait for a person named Godot, whom they have never seen, so they don’t know exactly what to look for. As they wait and wait, they wonder if they have missed Godot, if Godot will ever come, if there really is a Godot. By the end of the play, they are thoroughly disillusioned, because Godot never comes, as far as they know. Paul’s conclusion to this text assures us that those who eagerly wait for the revelation of Jesus Christ will actually meet him, because God’s grace in Christ will keep them in constant fellowship with him. Indeed, the eager waiting assures us that we will finish strong, because the One for whom we wait is faithful.
When I think of eager waiting, I see a mental picture from long ago, when our first son was only a year old. We lived in a big parsonage in St. Louis, Missouri. A wide picture window looked out on a busy road. Greg loved to stand by that window watching the vehicles go by. He would stand on his tiptoes, bouncing up and down in excitement, as he strained his little neck to the left or the right, hoping to catch sight of the next vehicle. If a car raced into his vision, he would scream, “Cah!” And best of all, if a big truck rumbled by, he would shout, “Fruck!” And he would laugh with glee. That is eager waiting.
Everyone who has seen the movie version of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Return of the King will recall the climactic scene at the end when Frodo finally hurls the Ring into the flames. Remember how the whole world came apart, how volcanoes erupted in fire and lava, how earthquakes peeled away all solid ground, how the forces of evil tried to flee? I don’t know if the movie won an Academy Award for special effects, but it should have. If you want to depict the Apocalypse of Jesus in biblical proportions, watch that movie again. It will bring Paul’s words to vivid life. But remember to emphasize the promise at the end of this Advent text. We’re not trying to scare the hell out of people, but to assure them of heaven when all hell breaks loose.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 30, 2014
1 Corinthians 1:3-9 Commentary