Sermon for the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany
February 17, 2019
1 Corinthians 15:19
What Do You Expect?
I received a thank you this past week from somebody that appreciates sermons that are neither self-help therapy lessons nor political pep rallies sprinkled with a little “gospel talk.” But I do want to start today with something that I did learn many years ago from a book on relationships that, I guess, falls into the self-help category. I read it to help me professionally in my previous vocation but it does have applications for us in our relationship with Jesus and, in particular, with verse 19 of our Epistle Reading: “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.” We might take it for granted that we understand that this verse speaks of the resurrection of Jesus and that the entirety of our faith in Him rests upon that one event, but I tell you that we do not really understand it until it permeates our entire lives and we learn to be content as poor, hungry, weepers that are persecuted for the sake of Him who is risen and seated at the right hand of God, the Father.
What I learned from that book on relationships is that every relationship needs to balance expectations and boundaries. For instance, to maintain a good relationship with my next door neighbor, I cannot expect that he would mow my yard or that I can “borrow” his grill anytime I want, because those are not normal expectations nor observing the boundaries of his property. But it is normal that he expect I would mow my yard and that I would ask to borrow his grill if I wanted to use it. You can probably think of a million examples of blown expectations and violated boundaries.
Here I labeled them as “normal.” Obviously, normal is governed by culture, region and family. The more cursory the relationship, the easier to maintain. The closer the relationship, the more difficult it is to remain within bounds. The closer the relationship, the more important the agreement on boundaries and expectations. So, within the intimate relationship of ourselves with God, it is of great importance that we clearly understand these expectations and boundaries. Unlike the relationship that I have with the person next door, our relationship with God and its boundaries and expectations are not dependent upon culture, region, or family. Nor are they fluid with time. They are clearly defined for us in the Bible and summarized well in the Small Catechism, which each of you has been taught.
The Ten Commandments thoroughly describe God’s expectations for us and lay boundaries for our relationship with God and with other people. The Creed lays the basics of how we are to think and believe in God. The Lord’s Prayer teaches us how to speak with God and clearly what we are to expect from Him. And the Sacraments give us proper expectations of God as regards the forgiveness of our sins and the sustained life in this hostile world. In a sense, we could say that preaching is a constant reminder of these expectations and boundaries. Because of our sinful natures, we are constantly trying to modify and change these expectations and boundaries to something we want or like instead of what God has set forth.
There is a strain of Christianity that follows a modern theology. I guess they consider it a more enlightened theology. The way they think is that it doesn’t matter if Jesus rose from the dead. Certainly this is contrary to what Paul says in this one verse from our Gospel text as well as from the rest of the New Testament canon. This kind of thinking undoes all of Scripture as it removes the hope of a bodily resurrection for all of us. If Christ did not rise, then none of us will. Now they might say we will have a spiritual resurrection, but if everything is just spiritual, what does that have to say about Christ’s incarnation and his substitutionary atonement. If He did not rise as the first fruits from the dead, did He actually die for us? Did He actually become man as us? Such thinking undoes all of Christianity and undoes all the expectations that we can have of God, like a resurrection unto life eternal. Such a distortion of the Faith damages man’s relationship with God because it undoes the expectations we are to have of God.
Jesus lays out some proper expectations for us in today’s Gospel reading and declares how blessed we are and will be if we can maintain these expectations in check. After healing all of them, He tells the crowd, how blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of God. Conversely, He levies a woe against those who are rich, for they have received their consolation. Some may ask, maybe even you, if Jesus is talking materially or spiritually. Does Jesus mean that we should be poor in spirit or just plain poor? The answer is yes.
We are to be poor in spirit, that is, devoid of any means to help ourselves and dependent completely on God for inclusion in His kingdom. There is no beautiful kingdom that we are going to build with our hands or minds. And we are to be poor materially, in that, we have no trust in things as the means or the proof of anything beyond a present capability to help others. God does not give us wealth because He is more pleased with us than our neighbor nor does He punish us with poverty because we have been disobedient. Wealth is simply a tool by which we live and provide for certain necessities as well as support the ministry of the Gospel here and abroad. It should not be the thing in which we trust or the thing on which we depend. If we find our comfort in the fact that we have enough in the bank to have a good retirement or we believe that our savings is sufficient to see us through any calamity, we have already received our reward. That means we have exactly what we hoped for, material comfort only. If our trust is in the nest egg, then the nest egg is our consolation. But if our trust is in God and in the promises that HE made, and the guarantee of a resurrection like Jesus, then the wealth of this world provides no consolation or buffer from the ills of this world. Our hope is not that we will survive this life in comfort and ease, but that we endure this life in faith in Jesus and a hope that reaches for the riches of life in the presence of the holy Triune God.
It is a difficult thing to set aside present day comforts and the things that we think bring us happiness. It is impossible for us, without the help and aid of God Himself, to set aside wealth and to be poor, depending upon something that we see by faith. But this is the holy expectation of our right relationship with God, that we will be far rich than we can imagine, our comfort far greater than earthly possible, in the resurrection that we shall enjoy on the Last Day. For us and this reason, God sets forth the boundaries that we are to observe in action and thought to guard us against false belief. But He also establishes great expectations for us in this relationship that through the Gospel and the Sacraments, His Spirit is always working to preserve us as poor upon this earth, forgiving our sins and maintaining us as citizens of God’s kingdom, keeping us from false hopes of earthly rewards and our eyes upon the prize of a full resurrection of body and soul just like that of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The peace of God which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.