Advent 1B 2011
1 Corinthians 1:3-9
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind— just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you— so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
When, someone asked me this week, did Black Friday become such a concept in our culture? Black Friday: the day after Thanksgiving, when supposedly Christmas shopping season begins. Whoever got the idea Christmas shopping began then never met my mother. But, according to Wikipedia, the term originated in the mid-nineteen sixties in Philadelphia, where it originally was used to describe the heavy and disruptive pedestrian and vehicle traffic which would occur on the day after Thanksgiving. Use of the term . . . began to see broader use outside Philadelphia around 1975. Despite the humorous shopping scene in the 1996 movie, Jingle All the Way, there have been actual incidents of violence among shoppers fighting each other to get the best bargains. This year a woman in California used pepper spray to fight off other consumers vying with her to get the newest Xbox 360 game. In 2006 store videos in a Roanoke, Virginia Best Buy recorded a man assaulting another shopper. Last year a woman in Madison, Wisconsin was arrested for cutting into line and threatening to shoot anyone who objected. And in 2008 a crowd of 2,000 shoppers waiting in line for the 5 a.m. opening of Walmart broke down the doors and trampled a store employee to death. When police and store employees tried to intervene, the shoppers complained they were tired of waiting in the cold and refused to halt. Black Friday, indeed.
The authors of the Advent Conspiracy study we’re going to be holding on Wednesday mornings and evenings challenge how the world – especially the business world – has stolen the Christmas story from the church and used it for their own purposes. This is our story, the study says, and we need to look at it again to see what it really says, and reclaim it as our own. So, this season, listen carefully to the scripture lessons. They’re not about video games and elves and reindeer and stuffing ourselves full of food. You’re not going to change Toys R Us and Best Buy, but you can live an alternative.
Nowhere is that alternative more clear than in Paul’s message to the church in Corinth, our first reading for today. Let’s set the stage: Corinth was a city in Greece at an important mercantile crossing between the Aegean and Ionian Seas. People of every nation, religion, color, and tongue lived there. The young Christian Church there reflected the diversity of the city. As hard as it is for us to deal with diversity in our own time, it was even more difficult for these early Christians to figure out what it meant to follow a Jewish messiah as Jews, Greeks, Romans, Turks, Africans, and heaven only knows what else. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church was written because the church was tearing itself apart because of theological, cultural, and ethical conflict. That is why, after writing chapter after chapter about the proper use of different spiritual gifts like tongues and prophecy and healing and teaching and interpretation, Paul sums everything up in his famous thirteen chapter by saying that it doesn’t make any difference how gifted you are spiritually if you don’t love people. Faith, hope, and love endure, these three, but the greatest of them is love.
We have to read this morning’s lesson in the light of what was happening in the Corinthian Church and Paul’s ultimate admonition to them about love. Paul begins his letter as he begins almost every other letter in the New Testament: Grace to you and peace. But, from whom does grace and peace come? Not from Paul and Sostenes, his scribe: from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Now, look at how Paul reminds his listeners, again and again, where everything that’s good comes from: I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind— just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you— so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Paul’s language is specific and deliberate, as he writes to a church that is tearing itself apart over who is the more spiritual, the more gifted, the more holy in the congregation. It’s not about you, Paul says at the outset: anything that you have has been given you by God. There’s nothing for you to brag about. There’s nothing for you to Lord over someone else. This is about God, not about you.
We’re all waiting, Paul says, for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. In Paul’s day, Christians expected the world to end at any moment with the return of Christ in glory to judge the nations and create a new, eternal world of peace and justice where God alone would rule. In the meantime, the infant Christian church was trying to figure out how to live, preparing for that day.
The answer, Paul says, is in verses 8 and 9: (God) will strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. We don’t do this on our own – we live by the power of God. That’s the first mistake that the Corinthian Christians were making -- they thought that their spiritual gifts were self-generated. Those of us studying the Book of Acts this fall have seen how Jesus very specifically says that the gift of the Holy Spirit is not for the personal pet use of believers, but to empower them to be witnesses to Christ. God gives spiritual gifts, Paul says in First Corinthians, for building up the Body of Christ, the church.
What, then, does Paul mean when he says that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ? Is he saying that only if we’re sinless are we safe when the world blows up? Well, that might be true – if we are sinless then we wouldn’t have anything to worry about. But how many of us here this morning are betting on being without sin when Jesus comes?
The key to blamelessness is in the next verse: God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. This verse reveals the chasm between following Jesus and every other major religion on the planet. God’s faithfulness is expressed by calling us into fellowship with Christ and with Christ’s people. Adam Hamilton says that the church, for all its flaws, is God’s plan for the salvation of the world. If you don’t like that, take it up with God, because it’s his plan, which the Bible says right here. We cannot follow Jesus by ourselves. We are called into the community of Christ’s Body. And, if you read the rest of First Corinthians, it now becomes clear what Paul means by blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. Our perfection isn’t measured by whether we said a cuss word when we hit our thumb with a hammer, or whether we failed a math test last week, or whether we doubt something in the Bible or that the preacher said last Sunday. Blameless is a matter of our relationship with other people: Jesus gave us a new commandment, to love others as he loved us and gave himself for us. That’s what Paul says with complete clarity in the thirteenth chapter: we can have the faith to move mountains, but if we do not love each other, we’re useless.
What does this have to do with Black Friday? The rest of the world measures whether its ready for Christmas by whether they have beaten someone else to the Xbox 360 display. If we have sacrificed enough time spent in line, or enough money, or enough effort to buy something no one needs, then, we believe, we must be a good parent, spouse, or friend. We, who call ourselves by the name of Jesus, are often indistinguishable from that hell-bent clan. If we are exhausted on Christmas Day, perhaps it is because Jesus will not answer our prayers for help in enduring that nonsense.
There is an alternative. God pours out strength and gifts, Paul says, for us to be blameless in our love for God and for each other, for us to encourage each other in the fellowship of his Son to be something different from what’s going on around us. We have this marvelous gift of Advent – a time of silence instead of noise, a time of repentance instead of celebration, a time of clearing out instead of accumulating, a time of serving the poor instead of imitating the rich.
Every year we all look for the perfect Christmas, and we never find it. I believe the scriptures are calling us to a different perfection, measured not by the perfect toy, the perfect decoration, the perfect meal, or the perfect performance. God’s standard of perfection is in our love for God and for God’s people, expressed through the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. So, I invite us, together, to a season of prayer, of fasting, of silence, of worship, of study, and of sacrificial giving to the poor.
God is faithful, 1 Corinthians 9 says. Will we be?