The Third Sunday after Epiphany January 25, 2015


The Can and Can’t of Christianity

1 Corinthians 1:10-18

Scripture Readings

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


536, 206(1-5), 148(1-4), 655

Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own? For you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s(1Corinthians 6:19-20).

Dear Fellow Christians:

Our son and soon-to-be daughter-in-law had scheduled their wedding for January 11th. On January 1 my wife and I began checking weather forecasts. That’s when the long range forecasts began to include the weekend of the wedding. Talk about an exercise in futility and the very epitome of “time wasted.” Mercifully, the 10-day forecast was calling for great winter weather on both the main travel day and on the day of the wedding itself. We know better than to trust any weather forecast, let alone one that predicts the weather ten days in advance, but at least it provided a measure of false hope—for a time.

As the day drew closer, the weather prediction deteriorated, and—I’m ashamed to admit—the anxiety level increased. When the day of travel and rehearsal actually arrived, what had been forecasted as a sunny and warm day turned out to be a full day of 31 degree freezing rain. Outside of a full-blown blizzard, it turned out to be the very worst driving conditions imaginable. By the time we drove to our hotel after the rehearsal, the roads were so slippery that even after we had come to a complete stop, our car began to slide off the road into a ditch. It didn’t help that our trusty GPS sent us off into a cornfield a couple of times as part of a “shortcut.”

In the end, everyone made it safely, no one was hurt, no cars were damaged, and the happy couple were married.

There are obvious lessons to be learned here. First of all, learn what you can and can’t control and stop sweating the stuff you can’t change. For example, repeatedly checking the weather forecast, in our case, was worse than just time wasted. It exposed a lack of faith. We weren’t praying so much when the report was good, but we sure were praying when it all went bad—as though we don’t really need God when the weather is good, or that God can and will protect everyone in good weather, but He’ll have trouble in bad?

There is an almost endless succession of things like that in life, isn’t there? There are things about which we can’t do nothing, and there are things concerning which we can do something. How just plain dumb it is that we spend so much time and effort on what can’t be changed, and then so little on what can change. This is nowhere more true than in connection with our Christian faith. The text that will teach us more about this particular truth is found in the Apostle Paul’s first recorded 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. For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

So far the very words of God. These are not only the words of God, here is where that same God has promised to meet with us. To prepare our hearts to meet with our God and to learn from Him, we pray: “Sanctify us by Your Truth, O Lord. Your Word is truth!” Amen.

Does Scripture ever demand the impossible? In the context of the Law, yes. In the context of the Gospel, no. When, for example, the Bible is addressing those who believe that they earn their way to Heaven through their own works or goodness, then Scripture demands of them that which is impossible. This is what James was talking about when in he said: “If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. For he who said, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ also said, ‘Do not murder.’ If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law(James 2:8-11).

James is talking to those who believe that they have a chance at keeping the Law perfectly and thereby earning their way to Heaven. His point is that you have to keep every single commandment perfectly if you are going to succeed. If you fail just once—in any commandment, no matter how “trivial” it may seem to you—and you are instantly guilty of breaking every commandment. Show partiality, for example, and you are just as guilty as any murderer, idolater, or adulterer.

The point is that whenever Scripture demands something beyond our ability to carry it out, it does so always and only in the context of the Law, and it does so to crush in us any false hope of saving ourselves. The goal is always to make us despair of our own goodness and to recognize our need to be rescued by someone else by a Savior.

When Jesus told us in the Sermon on the Mount: “…unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven(Matthew 5:20 ESV), His goal was not to inspire us to try harder and do better, but to recognize that we can never fully satisfy the demands of the Law. We can never save ourselves. Supplying the necessary perfection is something that we need to out-source. We have nothing in-house to fulfill this sort of demand this requirement of absolute perfection.

Does that then mean that whenever we read a command in God’s Word we are supposed to just ignore it, since we can’t keep it anyway? Certainly not! Even as we recognize that we are saved by grace, not by our own works, so we also now want to do everything and only what our God wants us to do. God Himself worked that desire in us when He created saving faith in our hearts. The Bible calls that clean and holy part in us “the new man.” It’s the part in every Christian that wants to do the right thing for the right reason.

This can be a difficult distinction to make. While the Law always condemns us because we can’t keep it perfectly, the Christian recognizes the Law as a perfect statement of God’s will for us. We will, therefore, use that same Law as our guide as we strive to keep God’s Law perfectly.

It gets even more challenging. Christians need to learn to read God’s Word with a God-given wisdom that teaches us to discern between what we can and cannot do. To understand, we’ll look at examples of each. When the Jailer in Philippi asked Paul and Silas: “What must I do to be saved?” the answer was, “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved(Acts 16:30-31). Some understand this as a command which man needs to fulfill—as though we must decide to believe and only then will we be saved. If that were the case, the answer would have been “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will save yourself.”

By their answer, Paul and Silas were actually speaking against the very premise of the question. The Jailer had asked “what must I do…” The answer was, “You cannot do anything.” Paul and Silas simply stated a fact, “those who believe in the Lord Jesus will be saved.” The key verse comes next: “And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house…and he was baptized at once, he and all his family(Acts 16:32f ESV).

Faith is a gift from God, worked in the human heart through the Word of God—whether spoken or connected with the water of Baptism. It was through the spoken Word and the waters of Baptism that saving faith was created in the hearts of the jailer and his entire household. It was not—could never have been—an act of human will.

Our past failure to live up to God’s standard is never supposed to serve as our license to quit trying to live according to God’s will. Our purpose in trying to keep God’s Law changes, but not our ultimate goal, which is perfect obedience. Before conversion we did it to try to earn God’s love. Now, knowing that Jesus has already done what we could not, we seek to offer a lifetime of “thank you” through our obedience.

This brings us to the first command of the Apostle Paul in today’s text: “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.[v.10]

How do you read those words? How do you hear them? What do they say to you? Do they sound to you like just another thing that our God demands of us but that we can’t deliver? Unfortunately, that’s how most Christians in our society regard them. To most this is just another demand that our God doesn’t really expect us to fulfill. So most people today don’t even regard this as something they should work at doing. In fact, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard Christians tell me that this sort of agreement just isn’t possible today: “Pastor, I’m sorry to break it to you, but you’re just being naïve if you think that the members of your congregation agree with you on everything the Bible teaches. That’s just not possible.”

The fact is this command was not given to be ignored or broken. It was given by a God who fully expects us to carry it out—fully and completely—as He expects us to obey all of His other commands. That means, in the case of our text, that our God wants us to be perfectly united in all that we teach and believe. How is such unity possible in our day when so many believe that “truth” is whatever you want and believe it to be?

The false premise that needs to be discarded is the idea that there is no absolute standard of right and wrong. There is such a standard and it is God’s Word—the Bible. That is the rally point, and it does lie within the power of man, once brought to faith, to search out and acknowledge as objective truth everything God’s Word teaches. Everything that is written in God’s Word has one intended meaning and that meaning is God’s timeless, objective statement of absolute truth. Our God fully expects us to acknowledge it as such.

The problem is that prideful man refuses to divest himself of his preconceived notions. Even Christians today often refuse to allow God’s Word to dictate what they do and do not believe. Unlike coming to faith in the first place—which is something that God the Holy Spirit has created in each of us—knowing and following God’s will after conversion involves conscious acts or decisions. It involves a resolution to simply let God’s Word tell us what is and is not true and, therefore, what we as individuals do and do not believe.

This mindset requires not only careful study to learn exactly what God’s Word actually teaches, but abject humility on the part of man. It requires that we throw away what we once regarded as truth and always cling to only what God’s Word actually teaches.

Here’s how the Apostle Paul put it: But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith—that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead(Philippians 3:7-11 ESV).

In practical terms, this means scrapping whatever we thought we knew about the age of the earth, and accepting instead only that which the Bible tells us. It means setting aside our own human experiences and believing instead that which we have never experienced and that which is impossible according to everything we’ve ever seen. No virgin has ever given birth, but that is how Mary gave birth to Jesus. In our experience, no corpse has ever been raised from the dead, but Lazarus was. Jesus was. No one could ever feed thousands with just a few fish and a few loaves a bread, but Jesus did. It means humbly accepting as my personal view the truth that I could never bring myself to believe in Jesus Christ, but the Holy Spirit has created that faith in me—believing it because the Bible tells me that that’s how it always is. It means refusing to commune with those who teach differently because God told us not to, despite the fact that is seems kinder and more loving to do otherwise.

It is, in fact, a mark of abject sinful pride whenever we cling to a belief that God’s Word does not allow. More to the point, it is something that we have the power to correct. Having been brought to faith in Jesus Christ, we have become spiritual people—fully capable of discerning and believing the truth. That’s why Paul in our text not only told the Christians to be done with the factions in the congregation—as though Paul, Apollos, Peter and Jesus all taught something different—he also fully expected them to do it. This is undoubtedly part of what the Holy Spirit was communicating to us through Peter when he wrote: “…humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God…(1 Peter 5:6). How arrogant and God-displeasing for any Christian to regard anything as truth where God Himself has said otherwise.

We have been made children of light. Let that light of God’s Word drive every last remnant of darkness from your heart, clinging instead to the truth as God Himself has revealed it to us in His Word. Recognize that there are always going to be two opposing forces—God and the sinful world—lobbying within your heart, pulling mightily in opposite directions. Humbly acknowledge the simple fact that “God’s Word is truth.” Prayerfully consider and take to heart words like the last verse of our text: “…the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.[v.18] Amen.

—Pastor Michael Roehl

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