First Sunday in Advent
1 Corinthians 1:3-9
December 3, 2023
If you know anything about the Corinthian church, you know that they had some major, major problems. The most frustrating of problems for Paul and Apollos and other pastors or apostles who dealt with that little church was that the members of that church came out of Greek, pagan cult worship and practices, which included temple prostitution, the worship of stone idols and statues of false gods, a philosophy of living that was very contrary to the Christian way of life. The converts who left paganism and became Christian, they had a tough road to hoe when it came to putting to death those old-engrained ideas and beliefs and embracing fully the teachings and traditions of Christ and the Apostles.
As we read through Paul’s first letter to Corinth, we get a sense of the most egregious of their difficulties. The very first problem Paul confronts is the division developing in the ranks. Some people considered Paul to be the true leader or apostle of the congregation. Others considered Apollos, their pastor, to be the apostle to follow. Others considered Peter, the sort of head honcho in Jerusalem, to be the man to follow. Others piously said no, that Jesus is the man to follow and not any of the apostles at all.
And we still get a lot of this today, don’t we? I follow Luther, I follow Calvin, I follow the Pope, I follow Christ and reject all you all. And yet this is not how God wants His church to behave, is it?
In this seemingly overarching concern, Paul says, “no,” that the faith isn’t about who is wiser or who has a great philosophical argument, or which teacher to follow, which apostle to study, which pastor to imitate, but that Christianity is about the death and resurrection of Christ, and that all Christians are to follow Him, even to the foolish hill of Calvary and the cross.
The matter of, what we might call, theological division in the church was a big deal for Paul. He didn’t want the members each believing as they pleased about this, that, or the other but wanted the congregation in full agreement, full “concord,” over all matters, not just matters of faith, but all matters, because he know that “just a little yeast affects the whole lump of dough.”
The next pretty big concern for Paul in that little congregation was the matter of sexual immorality in the church. There were some things going on that even Greek paganism would consider too far. And the members were boasting about it; they were celebrating and promoting their sexual immorality and presenting the Christian faith in a false light, presenting the one true God as a far less worthy god than the very idols worshiped throughout the city of Corinth. He said not to associate with anyone who bears the name “Christian,” yet who continually live sexually immoral lives.
Then Paul deals with the issue of Lawsuits in the church, prostitution – in the church, people inflamed with lust – in the church, to which Paul had to say, “you gotta get married if you can’t live chastely and control yourselves,” that they were to live their lives as the Lord has called them to live, and not as the unbelieving world lives. There was still some degree of idol worship going on, there was a deep confusion concerning the spiritual gifts, and finally there was a horrible abuse of the Lord’s Supper.
The city of Corinth was a cosmopolitan and very diverse city, and that cosmopolitan/diversity world was interfering with the church, affecting the Christians, and making them think that the same sort of diverse opinions and beliefs and lifestyle should be celebrated in the church too. Interestingly enough, this sounds a LOT like the modern, western church, doesn’t it, that the spirit of Corinth has made its way to the 21st century?
So, how in the world could Paul, who knew all this was going on, start his letter to them with the words “I give thanks to my God for you…you are not lacking any gift…Christ will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of the Lord?”
Guiltless. How in the world could Paul be confident that on the Last Day the believers in Corinth will stand guiltless when all of this, very sinful stuff, was going on?
Well, here’s another interesting twist in our readings today. In our Gospel, Jesus is riding into Jerusalem on the foal of a donkey and as He’s riding in on this colt, people are throwing their garments down on the road and shouting out “Hosanna to the son of David, blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord, Hosanna in the highest.” They’re literally crying out, “Lord, save us.”
See, it was the practice of ancient kings, after a battle, to ride into their main cities on a beautiful, white horse and as they’re riding through the main street to the castle or the throne room, for people to throw their cloaks down and cheer and celebrate the king’s return.
But Jesus rides in on a beast of burden, a donkey, and He hadn’t fought any battles or conquered any enemy nations. But there are the people with palm branches and shouting and celebrating His arrival.
But here’s the real twist…five days later, the same people who were crying, “Hosanna to the son of David,” would be crying out, “Crucify Him, crucify Him,” and Jesus knows this even as He enters Jerusalem listening to their praises.
Paul calls the very sinful and divided people of Corinth, “guiltless,” and he thanks God for them. Jesus rides into the holy city listening to and in the Book of Matthew, even defending the praises of the very same people who will cheer His crucifixion.
What’s going on here? Well, let me ask you this: If you were taken out of time and magically transported to 2,000 years ago and placed into the church at Corinth or out on the streets of Jerusalem as Jesus rode in, how would you stack up? If you saw the people in Corinth abusing and misusing the Lord’s Supper; if you saw sexual immorality in the congregation; if you saw all the division among the members, what would you do, who would you follow, what would you say? Or if you saw Jesus riding into the city on a colt, would you cry out Hosanna with the very same people who also cried out “Crucify Him, Crucify Him?”
In reality, if we were all being completely honest with ourselves, we’d all admit to blending in, to not making waves, to not going against the status quo. We may find fault in Apollos and side with Paul, or we may find Paul is far too absent from our lives and side with Peter. We may think the man engaged in sexual immorality is a nice guy and we should overlook his deviance, we may see the abuse of the Lord’s body and blood going on at the altar and sort of blind ourselves to it. We may wave the palm branches one day but be pressured to cry out “Crucify Him” the next.
We are human, sinners, our thoughts and words and deeds both praising the Lord and cursing Him in the same breath. One moment we are most strongly committed to the Lord and His Word and the next something in life distracts us and we run off and forget the Lord even exists. For a season we are deeply studying His Word, attending church, asking deep and engaging questions and the next we don’t even give Bible Study the time of day.
We are a people who, at one moment shout Hosanna, and the next shout, “We have no king but our own desires.”
And yet, into this mess called the sinful flesh and heart, our Lord charges in triumphantly and conquers the worst of enemies, Satan and his fallen armies. But He doesn’t do battle through typical means. Instead, He comes in riding on a beast of burden, and He rides, not to a gold-lined throne of fine wood and padded seating, but to a throne drenched in blood and pierced with nails, where sinners go to die.
Paul called the people of Corinth “guiltless,” not because they were perfect, sinless people. They were most certainly sinners in more ways that you know. But Paul called them “guiltless” because the Man of Sin died for them on the cross.
Jesus rode into Jerusalem hearing the praises of the people, and He died for the same people while saying, “Father forgive them, they know not what they do.”
And like Corinth, like Jerusalem, Jesus comes to us today, not with the judge’s hammer, but with His own blood, and He covers our guilt, hides it away forever, so that when He comes again to judge us all, we are guiltless before Him.
And in this freedom, this acquittal that He has won for us, we respond in thankfulness and praise. See, this is why St. Paul could write the rest of his letter to the Corinthian church members. He had no doubt that they were children of God because he didn’t question His Lord’s promises, and so out of love and care for them, he called them to repent and to grow and to mature in the faith. And some of the stuff he wrote was pretty pointed.
Jesus spent three, three and a half years with 12 sinful men, one of which betrayed Him. And He spent that time with them, not because He was trying to turn them into disciples but because they WERE His disciples, His students, and some of the things Jesus said to them was pretty pointed. They were believers, in spite of the fact that they questioned and doubted and had their own ideas and opinions about Jesus, that Peter was going to deny Him, that Thomas was going to doubt He rose from the dead, that the Zebedee brothers were going to want positions of power over others in the kingdom, that they all thought Jesus was coming to be an earthly king…even so, Jesus called them brothers and gave them the Apostolic authority and mission.
Likewise, in this period of discipleship where we, His beloved brothers and sisters are following Him and learning from Him, we sin and we fall short and we cry out “Hosanna” one moment and in our sinning, we cry out, “Crucify Him” the next. But because of His blood, we are guiltless.
And so, we learn and we grow, and we develop in the faith, we become mature and strong and bold in our confession as we battle against temptation and sin.
As Jesus fought against the hordes of devils and the stream of false teachers and protected His disciples so they would not fall, so now He battles for us, and as with the people of Corinth, as with the disciples, it’s not always comfortable or easy to be Christian. Sometimes we need to hear harsh words from our leaders. Sometimes we need to be exposed to the reality of or sins so that we repent and stop sinning and literally destroying our lives or the lives of others. Sometimes we need to be reminded of what the Lord has done for us so that we relearn humility.
This is the Christian life. And it IS a life, and it’s most certainly not like the world’s version of living. For our lives are wrapped up in Christ the guiltless which makes us guiltless, and which gives us a freedom to respond in thankfulness and in lives lived as imitators of He who calls and saves us.
So that’s the twist. It’s not our goodness or kindness or commitments which save us or make us right with God or set us apart from this falling and dying world, but it is Christ for us, Christ in us, and Christ leading us which makes us guiltless and fully ready for the day when He will come again to judge all people. Amen.