Work in progress

This is a sermon for the fifth Sunday after Epiphany, given in the “church up the road” and the “church next door.”  The Scripture it references are is 1 Corinthians 2:1-13.

I wonder if you’ve ever had a moment where it seemed that the whole world changed?  I’ve heard people talk like that about things like learning about President Kennedy being shot, or learning about 9/11.  More personal traumas, too, can change our lives in an instant; the car crash that leaves someone never the same, for example.

Those are negative examples, and maybe it’s easier to think of those.  Maybe positive examples might be like the moment you look at someone and realise that this is the person with whom you want to spend the rest of your life.  Or the moment you learn that you’re going to be a parent.  Or the moment when you realise you are so inspired by some cause that you’re willing to spend the rest of your life committed to it.  Maybe it’s being offered the job that comes to define how you look at the world for the rest of your life.

The reason I’m thinking about that this morning, though, is that I suspect Paul’s own life-shattering moment shaped what we heard from his letter to the Corinthians this morning.  We know the story from Acts, of course; the road to Damascus, and the light, and the voice, and the scales falling from his eyes some time later… and Paul was never the same again.

And he argues here with the Corinthians that this sort of experience – a life changing encounter with the power of God – is what our faith rests on.  Not, he says, in lofty words or wisdom.  In Christ, argues Paul, something radically new has taken place; and not only will Paul never be the same again but neither will anything else.  If only we can see it.

I worry sometimes whether that leads us to expect that the power of God will always be a flashy or dramatic thing.  That we might look around and see an absence of startling miracles and think that that means God’s not up to much here.  I don’t actually believe that.

I remember the first time I went to visit the Community of the Holy Name.  I’d gone to stay for three days on retreat, and in the evening of the first night, while all the nuns headed to bed and the house was silent, it seemed to me that somehow it was glowing.  Not the flashy fireworks of charismatic revival, but a quiet golden glow of the Spirit gently doing His thing in and amongst all the very ordinary moments of an ordinary day.

I think for most of us the power of God is more like that.  Quiet and patient and often unremarked.  But that doesn’t make it less real or life-changing or important.

So, Paul argues that the power of God has come into our experience in ways that leave us forever changed.  We have been given a glimpse, in our own lives, of what God is up to and what all of creation is heading towards, in its final fulfilment of the purposes of God.  That’s what Paul is talking about as the things that no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived; what God has in store for us at the end of the age, when God will remake the heavens and the earth and even each of us; make all things new, and as they should be, without sin or flaw or error.

That’s what the power of the Spirit at work in us reveals to us; and that – in Paul’s logic – is what our faith rests on.  It’s what our love of God rests on.

But there’s an interesting thing here because Paul has this quote, in the middle of this passage, where he says “It is written…”

it is written,
What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,
nor the human heart conceived,
what God has prepared for those who love him.’

but the thing is, we don’t know where he was getting that from.  It’s not written in any document we still have.

So there are two possibilities.  Either Paul is quoting a source we no longer have, or he’s thinking of a source we do have, but getting it a bit wrong, either accidentally, or intentionally changing the wording slightly.

And that second possibility is really quite interesting, because while we don’t have an exact match for this quote anywhere, what we do have is partial matches in several places in the Old Testament.  But where Paul has put “what God has prepared for those who love him,” in the Old Testament texts we read things like, “those who wait for him,” or “those who choose him,” or “those who are loyal to him.”

And the fact that Paul has taken those ideas, but summed them up as “those who love God” gives us some insight into what Paul thought it meant to love God.

If you love God, you choose God.  You worship Him, learn from Him, and commit to being the kind of person He wants you to be.

If you love God, you are loyal to God.  You’re steadfast.  You don’t get bored and drift away.  You don’t decide to check out what other competing deities might have to offer.  You have a sense of obligation to this relationship.

If you love God, you wait for God.  You don’t demand everything right now.  You don’t get anxious or frustrated when you don’t have the answers (that tends to be my weakness, by the way).  You’re able to be confident when life seems messy and confusing because you know – you know – that something better is coming, as surely as tomorrow’s sunrise.

That’s what Paul implies with what I suspect is a very careful and intentional misquote here.  He sums up these common Old Testament themes of those who choose God, who are loyal to God, who wait for God… by saying that they are those who love God.  This is what it means to love God.  This is what it looks like and feels like.

It’s a very significant use of words on his part.

This is Paul’s way of interpreting spiritual things to those who are spiritual (that’s supposed to be us, by the way).  He’s saying that our personal experience of God’s power in our lives changes us, gives us a glimpse into eternity, and motivates us to show our love for God in our commitment, our loyalty, and our patience.  I’m certainly not perfect at that yet.  I’m a spiritual work in progress.  But if I can see my own improvement in these things, I can be confident that it is truly the Holy Spirit at work in me.

And the same is true for each of you.

The Lord be with you.

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