Sunday, November 27, 2011

Together In the Waiting Game

1 Corinthians 1:4-9 (ESV)
4 I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus,
5 that in every way you were enriched in him in all speech and all knowledge-
6 even as the testimony about Christ was confirmed among you-
7 so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ,
8 who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.
9 God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

I have heard about this church that just couldn't seem to get its act together. It had some major problems and it really wasn't addressing them. Let me tell you a little about their problems. One of their biggest problems was that they were extremely divided. They looked for and usually found, any reason to distinguish themselves from the pack. They went so far as to argue about which leader in their church they most identified with. They lorded the gifts they had over each other to make themselves feel special. They argued about marriage and whether someone should stay single or get married. It seems they may have even argued about the idea of getting divorced for Jesus. If these were their only problems there might have been some hope but the problems only get worse. Many people came to fellowship with the idea of getting drunk and gorging themselves before others got a chance to eat. It seems there was a major sex scandal in the congregation. A man was carrying on an affair with his step-mom, which was something even the outside world looked down at, but they covered it up. It is even possible that members of the congregation were using prostitutes. They had major problems. This church was located in Corinth around the middle of the first century AD.

I only mention all of this because we have to be aware of it to understand our lectionary passage today. Paul was writing the Corinthians to address these major issues so it is clear that as he is writing our passage today he is aware of them but our passage would never tell you that. If you only read our passage you might think that Corinth was a place of incredible piety in Christ. Paul is writing a thanksgiving for the Church in Corinth, I want to look at this thanksgiving today in light of the holiday we just celebrated and the season of advent we are entering, to see what we might learn about ourselves.

We are together in the waiting game. As a community we are in a waiting game. We are waiting for Christ to come but we are not alone we wait together with all believers everywhere and more specifically those whom we are in fellowship with in our congregation.

We are entering into a season today that recognizes waiting on many different levels. The most obvious remembering of waiting is the birth of Christ. This season is the preparation season for Christmas so we await the coming of our salvation in a tiny baby. Behind this obvious waiting we also remember the waiting if Israel for their messiah. In advent we take on the role of Israel who has waited in anticipation for their messiah to come for hundreds of years. They expected true deliverance from this messiah. They believed he would come to rule them and save them from the oppression they were under from other nations. In remembering this we also anticipate freedom from oppression. We remember that we have come from a past where we were under the power of sin and evil and our messiah will come to save us. The last layer to this waiting is in our anticipation of Christ's return. This season is as much about our community waiting for Christ to come again as it is about remembering that Christ came in the first place. This is why we have this passage for our first Sunday in advent in the lectionary.

My two daughters were born early. Well, they weren't really born early but they came at the very beginning of being full term rather than going the full 40 weeks a pregnancy can go. This spoiled my wife and I when it came to our third pregnancy. Azariah was not like his sisters. He liked the comfort of the womb and just wasn't ready to come out. It came to 40 weeks and the doctors decided to induce labor. Who knows how long he would have stayed in if labor hadn't been induced. Though it got difficult to wait that long it wasn't all bad. The waiting gives you time to prepare and time to savor what is to come. In all of our pregnancies we used key events along the way to keep our families in anticipation for the little one who would soon join us. The first announcement, the first ultrasound, finding out the sex of the baby, revealing the name and then the birth. We found all of this got everyone excited about the little person who was joining our family. In the same way, we as a community join together year after year to remember our waiting and to get excited about it because we know what will be at the end.

I don't think I have to mention here that Paul is speaking to a Church. He is not writing to an individual. He is writing to the Church of God in Corinth. This passage has to be understood in the context of community and specifically the community of Christ. Paul is speaking to a community that has identified with each other for one reason, they are under the same Lord. More than this, they recognize that they are a part of a larger community and that this community is incomplete. There is a future for this community. It is going somewhere, or rather going towards someone. The anticipation of the future is something that defines who this community is and how they act. In some sense it tells us that we are not to remain stagnate. We are a moving community. We are always to be moving toward the return of Christ but we don't do this alone we are in this waiting game together.

We are to be thankful for each other. We just celebrated a season of thanks where historically it was thanking God for provision in the harvest. Today we use it as an excuse to remember all we are thankful for. Paul shows us here that we are to be thankful for each other in all that we do. We should celebrate that God has provided us with an eternal family under his rule.

Sometimes the people we end up thankful for are the ones we least expect to be thankful for. In several ministries I have served in there have been people that It seemed were always of a different opinion than my own. Our personalities were strong and we had different ideas about the ministry and usually ended up arguing. Two different circumstances come to mind when I think about this. In both these circumstances it was someone who was a lay leader in the ministry and they were very involved with what I was dong at the time. One relationship deteriorated to the point where I realized we couldn't even have a conversation without tension anymore, so I organized time with a professional mediator. The other was relationship with a volunteer couple became stressed as their constant demands for more led me to walk around on egg shells. In both these circumstances there was a pivot point where I realized these people were my strongest partners in Christ and God had provided them for the ministry he was doing through me.

Maybe if I had followed the example of Paul in this passage I could have avoided the stress in those relationships. If I had viewed them not in the perspective of how they related to me but how Christ related to them then I would have been more thankful for them. Paul has every reason to not be thankful for the Corinthians. It seems to me that Corinth could have been in the running for the position of Paul's "thorn" in his side. It is customary in his letters for Paul to thank God for the church he is writing to but it seems with the content of the rest of this letter there is little to be thankful for. Custom or not, I might have just skipped the thanks while writing to this church. Paul is a much better man than I am and when he looks at the Corinthians he sees Christ and not their imperfections.

We should learn from Paul's example. In my experience Church can be one of the most contentious places when personalities battle for dominance. When people fight to get their own way they come up against each other as adversaries. In our denomination this is happening right now. Whatever side of the issues people are on the real problem in my mind is that sides have been drawn. People have begun to see each other as enemies. This ultimately makes people objects to overcome and not people to know and love. Paul reminds us to reorient our vision. To see people through Christ and not how we can get over on them. Ultimately this leads us to Paul's conclusion of thanksgiving. We must thank Christ for the work he is doing in the world reconciling his Church to God. When we do this I think the gospel is displayed and a new community is formed that does not resemble any other community on earth. Our thankfulness for each other despite our own problems and failures is a witness to the gospel for the world. For this we should always remain thankful for one another in the Church.

While we are thanking God for one another we should also remember that Christ is our present and our future. We live now for Christ and we live toward Christ. Our season of advent is possible because Christ came and created us as his church and because we anticipate his return for final consummation.

In our passage today I believe Paul's whole goal is to redirect the Corinthians to Christ. Within the opening verses of the letter Jesus Christ is mentioned in almost every sentence. In our short passage alone Paul mentions Jesus by name five times and refers to him even more often. If you dig deeper into what Paul is doing here you begin to see a genius form of rhetoric.

Paul takes some of the major problems happening in the church that are causing division and gives thanks for Christ accomplishing them. The church had lost its focus and began to see the reason for their greatness as coming from within. Instead, Paul reminds them that the traits they saw themselves as having are really from Christ. In chapters 12-14 we learn that one of the biggest divisions in the Church is over spiritual gifts. There are some who have gifts of prophecy and some with gifts of tongues. These groups used these gifts to try to gain distinction for how special they were rather than to point to Christ. In our passage today, before you ever read about this conflict, Paul thanks Christ that they were enriched in him in all "speech and knowledge", the same two gifts later talked about as being points of contention. He is showing them that their problem is not the gift but how they are viewing the gift. They see it through themselves and not through Christ.

Paul also does this in affirming the one who his hope is in. He states that he trusts the faithfulness of God in Jesus and this is the reason for his thanksgiving. Paul can be hopeful for these people because he trusts the one who has made himself manifest in them. He does not have hope and faith for the Corinthians to figure it out on their own but knows Christ is ultimately in control of his church and will work them into his own image.

I was born a Roman Catholic because my mom had been raised in the RC Church. When my mom became a protestant I naturally followed in her footsteps. When I was in college I learned about the history of the Church. It was then that I began to struggle with the idea of the Reformation. I began to see that the unity of the church is very important in the gospels to Jesus and also in almost every letter in the New Testament. When I viewed what happened in the reformation and subsequent generations, all I saw was division. Eventually I came to a conclusion that I would trust the church into the hands of the one who it belongs to, Jesus. Jesus became my hope for the church and I began to trust that despite the division, Jesus was at work spreading his gospel.

The question I want to ask us today as we enter advent is one that Al Timm spoke about last week. Is Jesus the center of our lives? We say it often, "Jesus is the reason for the season" and that may be true but can we let this season of advent make Jesus the reason for our being? Can Making Jesus the center change the way we see and interact with each other? Can we enter into this season of Advent with incredible thankfulness for each other because we see each other in Jesus' eyes and not our own? Can we reorient ourselves around Jesus and see that we are together in this waiting game so we should be thankful for each other remembering that Jesus is not only our future hope but our present reality. Amen.

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