Fifth Sunday after Epiphany February 7, 2021
1 Corinthians 1:10-18
Matthew 4:12-17, 23-35
16, 134, 380, 52
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
+ In the Name of Jesus Christ. Amen. +
Dear Fellow Christians, when you conclude the Lord’s Prayer with the doxology (“For Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever and ever. Amen.”) what do you think about? What, in other words, are you declaring to be true?
In short, since “kingdom” refers to God’s rulership in the human heart (Jesus himself said, “The kingdom of God is within you”) by praying “For Thine is the kingdom” we are acknowledging that all rulership is ultimately God’s alone. We are praying that he alone would rule, as he alone can. When we pray “For Thine is the… power” we are acknowledging that the God to whom we are praying is indeed able to grant all that we have just asked of him in the Lord’s Prayer. Nothing is impossible for our God. Finally, when we pray “For thine is the…glory” we are not only acknowledging that all glory belongs to God alone, we are reminding ourselves that when are prayers answered, as they surely will be, our God alone deserves our thanks and our praise.
That’s the short explanation. This morning we will examine the second part of the Doxology in greater detail: “For Thine is the power.” The text that will teach us more about this particular topic is found in the Apostle Paul’s first recorded Letter to the Corinthians, the First Chapter:
I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow 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, so that no one may say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas. Beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. For the word of the cross is folly 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. Here is where God has promised to meet with us, to calm us, to comfort and assure us. To prepare our hearts to meet here with our God, and to learn from him, so we pray, “Sanctify us by Your Truth, O Lord. Your Word is truth!” Amen.
It’s interesting how certain phrases that are very familiar to us take on a greater depth and meaning when we isolate them from their immediate context and examine them individually. So also with our sermon theme for this morning. Most of us have said these words hundreds, even thousands of times as part of the Lord’s Prayer, and yet they take on a different character when isolate and examine these five words: “For Thine is the power.”
Our goal this morning is to gain a greater understanding of these words. We begin with a question: Does Scripture ever demand the impossible—something we are powerless to do or provide? In the context of the law, yes. In the context of God’s will for sanctified Christians, no. When, for example, the Bible is addressing those who imagine that they earn their way to heaven through their own works or goodness, then Scripture demands of them that which is impossible, that which they don’t the power to supply. This is what James was talking about when in James 2:8-10 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. James is obviously talking to those who believe that they have a chance at keeping the law perfectly, and thereby earning their way to heaven. His point was that when it comes to holiness, there are only two possible categories: pass or fail. To pass, you have to keep every single commandment perfectly. You fail if you break any commandment, even just once, and no matter how “trivial” it may seem to you. To fall short even just once puts you in the fail category. It also means you are instantly guilty of breaking every commandment.
The point here 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 power and our own goodness and to recognize our need to be rescued by someone else—by a savior, by the Savior. When Jesus told us in the Sermon on the Mount that “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” his goal was not to inspire us to try harder and do better in our attempt to earn heaven, but to recognize that we can never satisfy the demands of the law. We can never therefore even come close to saving ourselves. Supplying the necessary perfection is something that we need to out-source. We’ve got nothing in-house to fulfill this sort of demand.
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? Obviously not. Even as we recognize that we are saved by grace, rather than by our own works, so also now that new man in us wants 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. That new man in us is 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 know we can’t keep it perfectly) the Christian recognizes the law as a perfect statement of God’s will for us, and therefore struggles to keep God’s law perfectly, using that same law as our guide.
Which brings us to our text for this morning and the first exhortation or command we read there: I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.
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 an alarming (and growing) number of Christians in our society regard them. To them this is just another demand that our God doesn’t really expect us to fulfill—so they have given up trying. 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 and then repented of. It was given by a God who fully expects us to carry it out—fully and completely—as he expects us to struggle 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 believe it is? More to the point this morning, is this a command where we ourselves need to supply the power?
The false premise that needs to be discarded here is the idea, first of all, that there is no absolute standard of right and wrong. The standard is God’s Word—the Bible. “Thine is the power.” That is the rally point, and it does lie within the power of man, once brought to faith, to search out and acknowledge as objectively true everything God’s Word teaches. Everything that is written in God’s Word has one intended meaning, and that meaning represents objective, absolute truth. Our God fully expects us to acknowledge it as such. True unity is achieved when we actually and truly do that.
What is it that prevents or works against that command for unity? First and foremost is prideful man’s refusal to let go of his preconceived notions, his personal ideas of right and wrong. God’s all-powerful Word alone must dictate what we do and do not believe. What that Word also teaches is that unlike coming to faith in the first place (which is something that God the Holy Spirit alone has to give to, or created in, each of us) knowing and following God’s will after conversion can also involve conscious acts or decisions on the part of God’s children. That doesn’t mean we sanctify ourselves. That too is the Holy Spirit’s work as he separates us more and more from that which is unholy, and works in us ever-increasing godliness. That is all and only God’s power. Yet if we imagine that we play no role in our sanctification, then the passages that tell us to “put off the old man” and to “put on the new” are meaningless—as is every encouragement toward fleeing evil and pursuing righteousness. If we are just passive recipients in connection with sanctification (as is the case with justification, which was God’s unilateral declaration that he forgives our sins for Jesus’ sake) then we needn’t bother with church, Bible study, confirmation class, or Sunday school. The reality is, however weakly and as those who have been brought to spiritual life, God calls us to participate in our sanctification or spiritual walk and growth. The Holy Spirit alone freed us from our slavery to sin and death, but in so doing he also freed us to obey him. We can open our Bible and avail ourselves of its power and comfort. We can “put off” our old ways of thinking and allow that Word to tell us what is and is not true. Obviously, this mindset requires not only careful study (to learn exactly what God’s Word actually teaches,) but abject humility. It requires that we throw away what we once regarded as truth and cling instead to what God’s Word actually teaches. It is God who gave us this power, but he expects us to use it. That’s how unity is achieved—frail human beings humbling themselves to the all-powerful, inerrant Word of God.
In practical terms, that 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. 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. Walking seven times into the Jordan River cannot cure leprosy, but it cured Naaman.
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 knock off 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. You and I have been made children of light, and God expects this same unity among us today. We achieve that when we allow the light of God’s Word to drive every last remnant of darkness from our hearts, clinging instead to the truth as God himself has revealed it to us in his Word. Humbly acknowledge again this morning the simple fact that “God’s Word is truth.” Acknowledge especially this morning (and take great comfort in) the last verse of our text: “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” God’s power saved us, and that same power frees us to know the truth as he has revealed it to us in his Word. Amen.
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