The Second Sunday After Epiphany January 15, 2012

INI

Let Me Get This Straight

1 Corinthians 1:10-18

Scripture Readings

Isaiah 9:1-7
Matthew 4:12-17, 23-25

Hymns

130(1-4), 292(1-6), 292(7-9), 336

Now to Him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us, to Him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen. (Ephesians 3:20-21 ESV)

Dear fellow Christians:

“Cant can’t, candor can.” That was the title of a paper on effective communication that I read several years ago. It stuck with me for three reasons: First, because it was rather clever. Secondly, because it represented a profound truth. Third, because it tended to do exactly what it condemned.

The title has to do with how we communicate, especially how we communicate the Gospel. “Cant,” as the word is used here, refers to communication that is either highly specialized and technical, or wording that is pious sounding, but hollow and insincere. (Think of a politician who speaks for an hour and yet tells you nothing.) In general, the rather clever phrase refers to language that is all form and no substance—words that fail to communicate anything worthwhile. It is in that sense that “cant can’t—can’t communicate, can’t get the job done.

Candor, on the other hand, is just the opposite. It is openness and clarity and therefore always communicates well.

Although we live in an age of information, our society is also marred by a profound lack of clear communication. This is nowhere more evident than in the Christian churches of our day. There we often find churches that have abandoned candor in favor of cant, that is, they have learned to marginalize and cloud the harder truths of God’s Word with human words that actually say nothing concrete. At the same time they reserve candor for the fluff statements with which no one ever disagrees, for example, “We stand firmly behind the conviction that women should be respected!” and so on.

The Devil could not be more pleased for he knows full well that souls are not saved by confusion and misunderstanding (cant), but by the sure and certain truths of God’s Holy Word—both Law and Gospel (candor).

We turn again to that Word of God today and there find the clarity and precision that we would expect to find. It is a clarity and precision that is critical given the nature of the message. Today’s text is found in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, the first chapter:

Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment. For it has been declared to me concerning you, my brethren, by those of Chloe’s household, that there are contentions among you. Now I say this, that each of you says, “I am of Paul,” or “I am of Apollos,” or “I am of Cephas,” or “I am of Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, lest anyone should say that I had baptized in my own name. Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas. Besides, I do not know whether I baptized any other. For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the Gospel, not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of no effect.

These are the very words of our God. That He would use these words to clearly communicate His truths to our hearts and minds today, we pray: “Sanctify us through your truth, O Lord. Your word is truth.” Amen.

Suppose you are on a plane and you are called upon to defuse a ticking bomb. Failure means death and you only have a minute or so left on the timer. You are on the phone with an expert who is trying to talk you through the process. Who do you want on the other end? At times like that I doubt you would want a gentle, roundabout soul who says, “I was just thinking—and this is just my opinion, take it for what it is worth—but I was just thinking that it might be advisable, at this particular point in time and given all of the circumstances as we have now come to know them if one were to…"

You want someone who says, “Unscrew the panel on the front of the bomb and then cut the blue wire.”

On the other hand, if there has been a sudden death in the family, you want the gentle guy who with great tenderness says, “Come, please, and sit down. Unfortunately I have some very difficult news that I have to share with you,” rather than the guy who blurts out, “Hey, guess what! Your Aunt Milly just died. Bummer.”

Most of us know instinctively which situations in life call for which approach. The problem that we address today is that we live in a world where supposed tact has become more important than truth, especially in those critical spiritual areas where only the unvarnished truth is acceptable.

Our text advocates agreement in the areas of doctrine and practice. In plain English that means that our God wants all of us to believe the same thing and to teach to others that same doctrine on which we have all agreed. Apparently that wasn’t happening in Corinth at the time Paul wrote this letter. When it came to doctrine they were all teaching something different, but they were defending their lack of harmony by claiming harmony with one of several different religious leaders of their day: Paul, Apollos, Cephas (Peter), even Christ Jesus Himself.

Paul cuts to the heart of the issue when he asks, “Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?[v.13] In effect Paul was saying, “Let me get this straight. You are teaching false doctrine and justifying it on the basis of what you claim some other man said?” His point was that Paul, Apollos, and Cephas all taught the same thing, and their doctrine found its source and full agreement in Jesus Christ. There could, therefore, be no division among them if they were really following these men for every man they cited found perfect agreement in all that God’s Word teaches.

We have exactly the same problems today. “I am Catholic” or “I am Methodist” or “I am Baptist” should all mean exactly the same thing—“I am a Christian, and I teach and believe everything—and only those things—that Christ Himself taught.” But that is not really what they mean, is it? They mean that they teach and believe according to what others of their denomination have taught them. Frequently their position has nothing whatsoever to do with what Jesus Himself taught or what the Bible says.

A man cannot rightly claim to be a follower of Jesus Christ and still believe that he can be saved by good works—not when Jesus Himself taught that “whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” Salvation through believing and salvation through works are opposites.

So also a man cannot rightly claim to be a follower of Jesus Christ and still believe that the elements in Holy Communion only represent or symbolize Christ’s body and blood—not when Jesus Himself said “This is my body…this is my blood(Matthew 26:26ff, et. al.).

A man cannot rightly claim to be a follower of Jesus Christ and still believe that Christians essentially save themselves by making their decision to accept Jesus—not when Jesus Himself said that Christians “are born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God(John 1:13).

Don’t lose sight of the blessing—the good and precious gift that you and I enjoy in our congregation and in our church body. The vast majority of church bodies today mask their divisions with equal parts of confusion and rationalization. You are more likely to find a PETA member running a trap-line and vegetarians on the Beef Board than you are to find doctrinal clarity in most denominations today. Denominations that downplay doctrine have to use language that sounds devout and religious, but that really only disguises the discord and falsehood that truly exists.

So what’s so bad about masking the division and discord that truly exists in a congregation or synod? The short answer is that it’s bad because God’s Word says it’s bad. The more in-depth answer is that Jesus Christ is diminished whenever and wherever doctrinal division exists. Christ Himself is marginalized in direct proportion to the error that is taught. If man is saved, even in part, by his own actions rather than through faith in the actions of Jesus Christ then that same Lord Jesus obviously becomes less important, if not altogether unimportant. If man is saved only when he makes the decision to be saved, then Jesus and what He accomplished for us becomes, at best, secondary.

The Bible never presents us with ambiguity. There we will find not even a hint that we are saved by anything other than by God’s underserved love through faith in Jesus Christ. And that doesn’t mean faith that Jesus was a good guy and a good example that we now need to follow. It means trusting that the perfect life that Jesus led—which He then sacrificed in an innocent death on Calvary’s cross—that life represents the sum total payment for all sins of all mankind. Trusting in Jesus means that we simply point to him on Judgment Day and say, “I bring nothing but sin and failure, but He paid my sin debt.”

That is the Gospel. It is the good news of sins forgiven in Jesus Christ. Here, again, there is no indecisiveness or confusion. In fact nothing on earth could ever be more clear or more simple. You want to go to heaven? “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved(Acts 16:31).

Yet, while the Gospel is clear and simple, life in a sinful world is not. We have enemies that not only surround us, we have an enemy that lives within us. That old Adam within us still wholeheartedly supports clarity only in those areas where the old Adam agrees. That sinful part of each of us remains in league with the Devil himself. As an ally of Satan our sinful flesh forever longs to compromise with evil and recognizes ambiguity and generalizations as one of the best ways to accomplish that goal.

We need some practical examples to demonstrate that the problem also afflicts you and me. I would suspect that no one here would object or disagree if I said that prostitution and pornography are evil. But what if a fellow Christian were to humbly point out to you that your clothing was immodest, revealing, or suggestive? You see the problem. We want clarity, but our old Adam wants clarity that doesn’t point out my faults. Clarity means that we define “hot” in today’s usage as “that which causes others to lust” and therefore as something to be avoided. Plain language means that we no longer call it “colorful” when we use foul, unchristian language. We call it sin. It means we don’t pretend that God has no problem with spending hundreds or thousands of dollars on luxuries and entertainment while we dribble a few dollars into the collection plate.

True clarity, true honesty, often tweaks our sinful pride and, therefore, often hurts…often, but not always. Clarity in connection with how much and how often we fail, how often and in how many ways we sin, also helps to lend clarity to the marvel of God’s Gospel. Then it is that we can lift our eyes to the cross and in true and utter amazement say to our God, “Let me get this straight. For Christ’s sake you have forgiven me ALL of my sin? Every single one? In Christ you love me even though I sin so often and in so many ways? Through all that you love me still and want me to join you forever in your heaven?” The answer, of course, is a crystal clear “Yes! Your sin debt has been erased by my Son. I love you!”

This is the key. This is the bottom line. If we know nothing else and if we are confused about all other things, this is the one thing we need to keep straight: God, for Jesus’ sake, has forgiven my sins. Trust in this simple truth is, by definition, saving faith. Once such faith is created in our hearts by the Holy Spirit, that faith brings with it a love for every word, will, and command of our God and a stubborn refusal to compromise one word that our God has given to us. To this end we pray: “Father in Heaven, keep this great truth straight in my heart: you have made me your child and an heir of heaven through faith in Jesus Christ. Let no confusion or human manipulation ever cloud my understanding of, and trust in, the truth by which I am saved. Live in me. Be my Guardian, my Protector, and my Champion. Protect my heart from error and make me, in turn, a faithful witness of this great, saving truth to others. If all else fails in this life, let me get this straight.” Amen.

—Pastor Michael J. Roehl


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