3rd Sunday after Epiphany
Grace, mercy, and peace be yours from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ! In the name of Jesus, dear friends in Christ, I’d like to begin this morning in a bit of a different way. I inserted a sheet of paper into each of the bulletins and I hope that you’re all able to have one or at least be able to see one. At the top of the paper are two timelines. The top one is a time line of our world. If you have a pen, take a moment to fill in the length of your life, how long you expect to live from your birth date and estimate to the year you think you may die. I’m going to guess for me about the year 2060, that would put me at about 80 years old. Now, on the bottom line is a line with an arrow. Can you guess what that line indicates? That line indicates eternity. How long are you going to live eternally? Forever! Right? God tells us that what happens in this life (point to top line) has a bearing on where we spend this life (point to bottom line). Now, would any of us want something, anything to happen in this life which would jeopardize where we spend eternity? Would any of us want anything, be it a relationship, a job, a material possession, a craving, a whatever, that would tear us away from our God and jeopardize our eternal life? I think it is very safe for each one of us to say no. Well, that’s the perspective that God wants us to have constantly in our lives. God in love and mercy has called us to faith in Him and to follow Him. He wants us to keep Him and His Word as the number one priority in our lives no matter what.
This is the point the apostle Paul made to the Corinthian Christians. In the context of our text this morning Paul is writing to a group of Christians who live in a place called Corinth. Corinth was located in what is now Greece. Paul had been at Corinth and while he was there he spread the Word and some people were brought to faith. When Paul wrote the letter he was in a different city and wrote 1 Corinthians to correct some sins that had crept into the church and he heard about it. He also uses the letter to address some practical questions the Corinthians had. One of those questions had to do with marriage.
Some Corinthians were wondering if they should pursue marriage or not. Paul says there are some advantages to not marry. The unmarried person is able to focus single-mindedly on the Lord and service to the Lord whereas the married person has a spouse to think about and a family. Yet, Paul makes it clear that since there’s so much immorality and temptations in the world it may be best to marry so you aren’t led into temptations. Another point Paul makes is that it’s not necessary to make drastic changes in your life situation when God calls you to faith, if married, stay married, if not, you don’t have to get married, etc.
And then we come to the words of our text. (Read Text) Do those words sound kind of shocking and strange to you? I’ll have to admit that when I first read this text assigned for the 3rd Sunday in Epiphany, I was initially somewhat surprised. At first it may sound as though God is telling people who are married to give up their roles and responsibilities as husbands and wives and to live like single people, right? Is God telling us that we are to be quite stoic, not expressing emotions, neither mourning nor being happy? Are the things we buy not really ours? So, is the application of this text that we are to divorce our spouses, sell all our possessions, and sign up for plastic surgery so we’ll never laugh or cry?? What’s God saying here?
Well, this leads us first to a principle of how we understand any communication, including God’s Word. God does want us to take His Words literally and not to come up with absurd conclusions like when God says this he really means something else. Just like when I say, “It looks like it’s going to be a nice day today” I don’t really mean, “I’m getting hungry.” That would make communication impossible. The same is true with God’s Word; He wants us to understand His Word literally unless the context forces us to understand it differently. Just like if I were to say, “I’m so hungry I could eat an elephant.” I don’t literally mean I’d like to eat an elephant. It’s a figure of speech, a type of rhetoric, a way of communicating in order to make a point. Well that’s what the apostle Paul uses here.
We know he is not literally advocating husbands and wives to abdicate their God-given marriage. He just recently at the beginning of this chapter said, “Each man should have his own wife, and each woman her own husband” and in Ephesians “Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church…wives respect your husbands,” and Jesus Himself said, “What God has joined together let man not separate.” And Paul can’t be advocating we never have emotions either. He said in Romans, “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.” So that can’t be what Paul is talking about here.
So what is God through Paul telling us here? Paul does mean what he says here. But he’s speaking using a type of figure of speech or a form of rhetoric. He’s making a bold statement to make a point. He tells us that the time is short. And indeed it is. God’s plan of salvation is in it’s final stages. Jesus was born, Jesus lived on earth perfectly, Jesus died on the cross to pay for all sins, and Jesus rose from the dead to show the world His victory. The salvation God provides for us is complete. The only thing left is for Jesus to return on the Last Day and take all believers to heaven. That could happen at any moment. Even though Paul wrote this over 1900 years ago, the time is still short. So, Paul tells us to follow our Lord unrestrictedly. God wants us to have a single-minded focus on Him. God wants to be the number one priority in our lives, no matter what. God wants to be more important in our lives than our spouse, our family, the things that cause us to be sad or happy, or anything we have or use in this world. God wants us to live like everyone else in the world using the things of this world, but in our minds and in our hearts we have already now a sort of disconnect. Since Christ is our all in all, should anything that is ours on this earth be taken from us, no matter what, it could never harm the way we view God or our relationship with Him.
Now think about all the things in your earthly life, your life here on this earth that you hold near and dear to you. Now imagine losing just one of those things. How are you feeling? Are you feeling a lump in your throat, perhaps a hole in your heart, perhaps even a bit of anger? Now think about losing 2 of those things, 3, 4, 5…all of them. How are you feeling now? If you lost all of those things that you hold most precious to you in this life here on earth can you envision a shaking fist at God? A throw in the towel attitude? Give up on life, God, church, religion? I think it’s safe to say that each one of us has broken the first commandment far more than we’d like to admit: we should fear, love, and trust in God above ALL things. The simple fact that God hasn’t taken away the earthly gifts we enjoy- whether it be a spouse, emotions, or things- ought not lull us into a complacency that is not ready to give any of them up without questioning God or shaking our fist at Him should He allow them to be taken from us.
The kind of following Jesus has called us to is one of no restrictions, nothing holding us back. He has called each one of us in our lives to follow Him come what may, no matter what. To many this probably sounds absolutely absurd, foolish, silly, crazy, and idiotic. Isn’t it only natural to throw an absolute fit or temper-tantrum if your “luck” would turn against you? Isn’t it only natural to curse some “higher-being” if He should not give you what you want and take from you what you consider most precious? Isn’t it only natural to become cynical about life, to give up on this religion thing, to forget about God and live life to serve ME, no matter what?
So why? Why follow Jesus? Why listen to God? Why see Him as our number one priority in all things? Why did the Ninevites, a wicked and evil people, repent in sackcloth and ashes? Why did the disciples, the very ones who had been disciples of John the Baptist, after seeing John the Baptist thrown in prison like a criminal, why did the disciples then follow Jesus, the one whom John said was the Messiah, if He “couldn’t” keep John out of prison??!! Why should you follow Jesus? He doesn’t promise you an easy life. He doesn’t always give you what you want. He doesn’t take care of all your earthly problems. And if that’s not it, He also wants you to follow Him, listen to Him, do what He tells you no matter what. He wants you to follow Him unrestrictedly,
Why follow Jesus? To be sure it makes no sense to our sinful human reason. But there’s another reason. You see, you do follow Jesus unrestrictedly. How? Only through the power of the Gospel. By God’s amazing grace you see the big picture. The Gospel has worked on your heart. You’ve seen the love of God that held absolutely nothing back, but gave you all He has, He gave you Himself. He who did not spare His own Son but graciously gave him up for all, how will he not along with Him graciously give you all things? You see, though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, so that you, through His poverty might become rich. Jesus owns all things by divine right and has power over all things, but for you and me he made Himself poor, born in a stable, placed in a manger, walked on this sinful earth, so that for all the times we’ve been angry, upset with God, He wasn’t. And for all the times we’ve placed something ahead of God in our lives, Jesus didn’t. Jesus was perfect for you! And He went to the cross so that with His blood He could wash you clean! Why? Simply because we were lost on our own and couldn’t save ourselves, but He wanted to make us His own. You see, it’s by God’s grace alone that God called you to faith, by grace alone that you heard His gospel message, by grace alone that you are white with Christ’s perfection, by grace alone that you follow Christ, by grace alone that you are spending eternity in heaven! It’s the power of that grace that leads you to follow unrestrictedly!
So while we live our short lives we enjoy all of the many blessings God has given us- no matter what they are- but while enjoying them, in our minds and in our hearts we’ve already let them go should our loving God take them, or allow them to be taken from us. Yes, you listen to God’s call and follow Him unrestrictedly because you’ve seen His unrestricted grace! Amen.
3rd Sunday after Epiphany