Fifth Sunday after Epiphany February 5, 2023
1 Corinthians 12:1-11
132:1-4, 415, Worship Supplement 2000 #786, 132:5
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
Sermon Audio: https://anchor.fm/ministrybymail
Prayer of the Day: Lord God Almighty, even as You bless Your servants with various and unique gifts of the Holy Spirit, continue to grant us the grace to use them always to Your honor and glory; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
May the Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.
Fellow Recipients of the Lord’s goodness:
Like most adults with real-life experience, you probably shake your head whenever you hear someone (often a frail, naïve young person) boldly proclaim, “I don’t need your help. I can take care of myself!” The obvious response is, “No. No, you can’t. But God can.” There are lots of nonsensical expressions out there. Another curiosity is “I’ve forgotten more about (whatever) than you’ll ever know.” I’m not sure how comforting or reassuring it is to hear someone brag about how much they don’t know because they’ve forgotten. I always want to respond, “So, are you saying we’re equal because we both remember the same now?” The point here is that sinful human beings are very good at absorbing the credit and glory that should always be reflected back to that One who provides every good thing. We survive danger and hardship not because we are strong and capable, but because we are in all ways provided for, and protected by, our God. Every talent and ability that we possess we have only because God first gave it to us.
All of which ought to warn us that Christians too can often misread the signs and circumstances of our lives. We too can dramatically overestimate our own strengths and abilities or take personal pride in what God alone has given to, or accomplished through, each of us. We are obviously supposed to use all the gifts and abilities God has given to us, but we are just as obviously never to take personal credit for them.
Our text for today speaks to this very thing. God help us to look and listen with the eyes of faith and understanding. Our text is found in Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, the 12th Chapter:
Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers, I do not want you to be uninformed. You know that when you were pagans you were led astray to mute idols, however you were led. Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking in the Spirit of God ever says “Jesus is accursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except in the Holy Spirit.
Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. For to one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. 11 All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills.
This is God’s Word. Heavenly Father, grant that we might rightly recognize and accept that these are your words, given to us by divine inspiration for our instruction and growth. So also we pray, “Sanctify us by Your truth, O Lord. Your word is truth!” Amen.
The lost art of tracking has always fascinated me. If what we read is accurate, the ability to “read signs” in the old days was truly remarkable. Tracking was much more than just finding a print and announcing “Yep. He went that-a-way.” Good trackers formed an intricate mental picture of exactly what had happened—based only on a few marks in the ground. Although I find this lost art fascinating, the key point for our purposes this morning is, first of all, that the tracks themselves had no real value—other than the information that they passed along to those who could read them. It’s sort of like reading the biography of a famous person. No matter how good or clever the writing, the focus isn’t ink and paper or even the words themselves. It is the picture they draw of a human being that had once passed that way.
What we want to do this morning is to look carefully into our hearts and lives and to ask ourselves what we see there. The answer is often, “Not a whole lot.” But the problem isn’t that there is little or nothing there, it is that we really don’t always know A) what to look for, and B) what it is that we are looking at when we do see what’s there. Our text for this morning is going to help us with both. We’ll use God’s Word to tell us exactly what we are looking for, and then to explain exactly what it is we are looking at when we do find such evidence. What we’ll find are signs that God himself has been present in our hearts and lives, in most cases for a very long time. It shouldn’t surprise us therefore that some of what we will find is old. Some is new.
Remember, it’s not about the signs themselves; it’s about what the signs tell us. So first the old sign—what is it and what exactly does it tell us?
The “old sign” that Christians can identify in our hearts is the fact that we believe not only in the existence of God, but that he sent his Son, Jesus Christ, to sacrifice himself for our sins on the cross of Calvary. Look carefully into your heart and you’ll see that that is the case. Yet for now, don’t look too closely. Just get an overview. When we stare too closely (when we study ourselves too minutely to determine if we really do believe) we can actually tend to doubt what we are really seeing. So take a quick look inside and ask, “Do I believe that Jesus died to pay for my sins?” Yes? Then know that you’ve just come face to face with irrefutable evidence that God himself has visited you; that God himself has been present in your heart.
God’s Word is our instructor here. In our text we find these key words: “Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking in the Spirit of God ever says ‘Jesus is accursed!’ and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit.” These words teach us what we are looking at when we look inside and find faith in our hearts. What we are seeing is evidence that God himself has been there, in your heart. For most the sign seems old, because God himself created that faith in you long ago in the waters of Baptism.
When our text says that “no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord'” it is not talking about just pronouncing those three words. Any pagan could do that. What unbelievers cannot do is to speak those words as an accurate expression of what is inside of them. They cannot speak those words as a confession of faith and as an expression of the hope that fills their hearts.
This is part of how we know that the faith that currently exists in our hearts is evidence of God the Holy Spirit himself having visited us. Man cannot create faith in himself—which is exactly what our text is teaching us. “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit.” This section of our text is evidence that God has visited us because it teaches us that we cannot create saving faith in our own hearts. God the Holy Spirit is the only one that can do that. If that faith is now present in your heart, God the Holy Spirit put it there, created it there. God the Holy Spirit has visited you.
Learn to recognize something else here. This is evidence not only that God has visited you, but that he cares about you. He wants you with him in heaven for all eternity or he wouldn’t have bothered to create saving faith in your heart in the first place. Next time you are tempted to imagine that God is far from you, or that he really isn’t concerned with what is going on in your life, look again at his footprints in your heart. Look and be reminded that he loved you enough not only to send his Son to suffer and die for you, but to send the Holy Spirit into your heart and to awaken you from your death-sleep. The fact that God has performed such a miracle in you—transferring you from death to life—is evidence of love and concern, not animosity or indifference.
Yet for most of you, that’s the old sign. It indicates something that for most was accomplished long ago. Where then is the evidence that our God still cares today? How do we know that he didn’t just visit us, long ago, and has since given up on us?
Look carefully at the sign again and understand what you are actually seeing. The sign isn’t all old. Much of it is as fresh as today. In fact, what we are really looking at is not so much a single set of divine footprints as it is a well-worn path. God did not just visit once. He lives there, in your heart. 1 Corinthians 6:19-20: “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, 20 for you were bought with a price.” Again, from Paul in 1 Corinthians 3:16: “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” Just as you and I cannot create faith in ourselves, so we cannot sustain it. Therefore the very fact that you still have faith in Jesus Christ is evidence that that same Holy Spirit that brought you to faith is still living and active within you. He didn’t just pass through your heart long ago. He took up residence there long ago.
Our text compels us to look at one other bit of evidence in our hearts, one other sign that indicates that God himself has visited us. Look carefully at the gifts and abilities that you possess and know that it is God alone who has given them to you. Our text put it this way: “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone.” Every single gift that you possess is therefore a divine footprint in your heart, in your life. Why did he give you what he did? Our text answers: “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” By “manifestation of the Spirit” our text is talking about sign— divine evidence that the Holy Spirit has visited and blessed you.
The fact is every single human being hearing or reading these words has been showered with a variety of gifts—which is evidence of the existence of God in our lives. Unfortunately, Christians have a disturbing tendency to downplay the very real gifts they have been given, usually because they are busy looking at the gifts of others— gifts or attributes they believe they have not been given. Paul addressed this when he spoke of how important it was for each part of the “body of Christ” to do what it was designed to do. The foot cannot see, but neither can the eye walk. Our text lists some gifts that were specific to the Corinthian congregation of the 1st Century, but there are others, like wisdom, knowledge, and faith. Through Peter we are taught how valuable in God’s sight is “a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious.“ (1 Peter 3:4) In Romans 12, Paul mentioned gifts of service, gifts of encouragement, gifts of teaching, generosity in giving, leadership, zeal, mercy, and cheerfulness. (Romans 12:7-8) Some can build, some can repair, others have an amazing gift to be able to open up and talk to strangers.
Look carefully then at the tracks that God has left in your heart—the sign he left there in the form of gifts— and recognize what you have been given and why you have been given it. The “why,” again, is so that you might use those gifts “for the common good.” Your God fully expects that you will use whatever he has given you to glorify him alone and to serve your neighbor.
The bottom line is that your God is not far from you. He is right there, living within you. The evidence is obvious, and therefore also ought to be extremely comforting—if we will but take the time to look carefully with the eyes of faith. That same God who sent his Son to pay the full penalty for your sins, that same God who cared enough to bring you to faith and who day by day preserves that same faith within you—that is the God who even now lives within you. Learn then to recognize his presence and his on-going gifts. You are his own. You have been bought with a price—the blood of Jesus Christ, God’s own Son, which has now cleansed you from all sin and transformed you into an heir of heaven. Amen.
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