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Epiphany 5, “It’s the Message—Not the Messenger”

Pastor Gary Wong, January 31, 2021

1 Corinthians 2:1-5

As for me, brothers, when I came to you, I did not come with superior speech or wisdom in order to proclaim to you the testimony of God. 2 For I had no intention of knowing anything among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. 3 I came to you in weakness, in fear, and with much trembling. 4 My message and my preaching were not marked by persuasive words of human wisdom, but by a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, 5 so that your faith would not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.

Is there something that scares you? Some people are afraid of heights. For others, snakes and spiders are at the top of their lists. What about public speaking? The thought of talking to a big group strikes fear in the hearts of many people. A person might be the life of the party, entertaining family and friends with their stories or jokes; but it’s a totally different story if he has to give a big presentation in front of coworkers or classmates, or make a toast at a banquet. He’s tongue tied and stares at the audience with that deer-in-the-headlights look of sheer panic. Many people go to great lengths to avoid speaking in public.

But what if you had an important, life changing message to share with someone you really cared about, and you knew that if you kept silent, things would not go well for that person? Would you have enough courage to speak up? That was the situation the Apostle Paul describes in today’s lesson. Our text is a portion of a letter Paul had written to the congregation he had established in Corinth while on his second missionary journey. What kind of environment did he find in this bustling metropolis? In Paul’s day, Corinth was a great commercial center. Its citizens were proud of their culture which held human wisdom in high regard. Corinth had also earned a reputation as being one of the most immoral cities in the world. How immoral were they? The wicked people of Sodom and Gomorrah would have felt right at home in Corinth!

Paul’s challenge was to proclaim the gospel to people who were wise in the ways of the world and who embraced an “anything goes” lifestyle. How did Paul go about trying to convince them that his message was superior to philosophers like Plato and Aristotle? How could he persuade them to give up a lifestyle that indulged every desire of their sinful flesh? Paul wrote, “When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom …My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words” (1 Cor. 2:1, 4). Did Paul write that because he was incompetent or didn’t know the right words to say? Paul would be the first one to admit that he wasn’t a great public speaker. By Greek standards, his preaching was unimpressive. For starters, Paul was short. He was fluent in Greek, but he spoke it with the unmistakable accent of a Jew. To the Corinthians’ ears, Paul’s speech was like the grating of fingernails across a blackboard rather than the smooth, symphony-like tones to which they were accustomed.

The way Paul delivered his message didn’t impress many of his listeners, either. He didn’t use any sophisticated arguments or fancy phrases. Now, it’s not as though Paul was incapable of eloquent speech. Paul was a gifted, intelligent speaker. He was the star student under Gamaliel, the pre-immanent Rabbi of his day. Paul was also wise in the ways of the world. He was knowledgeable about the works of poets and scholars whom the Corinthians admired. Yet Paul made a deliberate decision not to use persuasive words or fancy rhetoric. If he catered to what the Corinthians’ itching ears wanted to hear, he could never be sure that they were convinced by his message rather than his oratory. If they could be persuaded merely by smooth sounding arguments, what would prevent them from believing the next person who came along who was a more persuasive speaker? In his letter, Paul wrote that he didn’t want their “faith to rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power” (v.5).

Rather than focusing on the way his message was delivered, he wanted his listeners to focus on his message. What was Paul’s message? Simply put, Paul proclaimed the good news of our Savior, Jesus Christ. Indeed, Paul was determined to proclaim the gospel and only the gospel. How confident was he in the message he was proclaiming? Paul told the Corinthians, “I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (v.2). Paul knew that he didn’t need anything else besides the gospel. But how easy was it to convince the Corinthians that the gospel is superior to worldly wisdom and knowledge? It wasn’t. Jesus was not a very impressive figure by worldly standards. Jesus was the son a lowly carpenter who started off following in his father’s footsteps. And even though he never had any formal education or training, he left the carpentry business and started preaching and teaching about the kingdom of God.

At first, only a small, ragtag group of followers jumped on Jesus’ bandwagon. The people in his hometown of Nazareth rejected him; his own brothers thought he was crazy. The elders, chief priests and teachers of the law—the self-proclaimed experts—dismissed Jesus and rejected his message because it was at odds with their teaching. Yet, as Jesus continued to preach and teach, the number of followers grew. These people were not wowed by Jesus’ appearance nor were they impressed by his oratorical skills—they were convinced by his message. Jesus proclaimed the gospel with authority. The number of Jesus’ admirers grew to the point that a huge crowd hailed him as a king when Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Yet, what a difference a handful of days can make! On Good Friday, the huge crowds were nowhere to be found. Only his mother and a few of his followers witnessed his crucifixion. This charismatic, unconventional rabbi whose message would shake the world now hung on a cross with two convicted thieves as companions. This pathetic, powerless figure died an ignominious death; his lifeless body was then laid in a tomb.

If the message Paul was proclaiming had ended with Jesus’ death, Paul’s efforts would have been in vain, a prodigious waste of time, or as Paul put it in this same letter, “my preaching [would have been] useless and [I] should be pitied more than all men” (1 Cor. 15:14, 19). If Jesus’ body had remained in the tomb, no words, no matter how eloquent, could convince anyone to believe Paul’s message. However, you and I know that Jesus’ death is not the end of the story. Yes, Jesus was crucified, died and was buried. But Jesus rose from the dead. Jesus’ resurrection is proof that everything that Paul said is true. Do you remember what Paul resolved to proclaim to the Corinthians? His message was all about Jesus Christ. Jesus’ name means Savior. He came to save us from the consequences of our sins. His title, Christ, tells us that Jesus is God’s Anointed One—the one whom God chose and commissioned to carry out his plan of salvation. Jesus saved us by living a perfect life and then giving up his life on the cross. His blood paid for our sins. Jesus suffered the pain of hell and died so that you and I might have eternal life.

That’s the message that Paul proclaimed to the Corinthians. It’s the same message that we have the privilege of sharing with those who do not know Jesus as their Savior. Yet, Paul had told the Corinthians, “I came to you in weakness and fear and with much trembling” (v.3). Why was Paul afraid? Was it because he lacked confidence or had doubts about the message he was proclaiming? Absolutely not! Paul was awestruck and trembled because he knew that he did not deserve to have the privilege of sharing the gospel. After all, Paul had persecuted Christ and the church. He described himself as the worst of sinners. Yet Jesus graciously brought him to faith and then made him his apostle to the Gentiles. Paul knew that he was a weak, imperfect sinner. He also knew that if he were to depend only on his own skills and wisdom, he would fail in his mission. So, what gave Paul the confidence and courage to become the greatest missionary of all time? Paul realized that it wasn’t about him—it was and is all about Jesus! In his letter to the Romans, Paul wrote, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16).

God’s Word alone has the power to change hearts and lives. It gives us the confidence to boldly share the good news of Jesus with others. Like Paul, we know that we are weak, imperfect human beings. Even though we know that God made us his children at our baptisms, we also know that we daily fall short of the perfection God demands of us. Our consciences are plagued with guilt over the countless times we’ve failed to do what God wants us to do and instead done what he forbids; how we have hurt ourselves, others, and our relationship with the Lord by our sins. Yet we, like Paul, know that God loves us and forgives us for Jesus’ sake. The gospel motivates and empowers us to love God with all of our heart, soul, strength and mind, to love our neighbors as ourselves and to live lives that give glory to God.

You and I know that God has graciously given us forgiveness, life, and salvation. That’s the message we want to share. If we depend on our own abilities, we will fail. Instead, we follow Paul’s example: we simply point to Jesus. It’s as simple as saying “Jesus loves you. He died on the cross to take away your sins. And one day, Jesus will take you to heaven.” Now, please understand. This is not an excuse to be lazy. While we can do nothing to add to the effectiveness of the gospel, we can certainly get in its way by stumbling and fumbling with our words. In order to be more effective in sharing Jesus, it helps to know what we’re talking about. That means doing our homework. Read, study and learn more about God’s Word. I encourage you to do that at worship and Bible study. Read from a reputable study Bible and supplement those readings with commentaries such as our synod’s Peoples’ Bibles at home. The people with whom we want to share the gospel are probably going to have questions. The more we know God’s Word, the better we can lead people to Jesus.

God has given us the best news of all to share. We tremble in awe that God has chosen us, imperfect jars of clay, to be his witnesses. We don’t have to be afraid to speak up. God empowers and equips us to share the gospel with others. We don’t have to use persuasive words and complicated arguments to convince people about our message. Simply share Jesus. Don’t add, change, or take anything away from God’s Word. Remember, it’s the message—not the messenger. Amen.

“Rise to Arms! With Prayer Employ You” (CW 455)

Text: Wilhem E. Arends, 1677-1721, abr.; tr. John M. Sloan, 1835-after 1890, alt.

Rise! To arms! With prayer employ you.

O Christians, lest the foe destroy you,

For Satan has designed your fall.

Wield God’s Word, a weapon glorious;

Against each foe you’ll be victorious;

Our God will set you o’er them all.

Fear not the prince of hell—Here is Immanuel!

Sing Hosanna! The strong ones yield To Christ, our shield,

And we as conqu’rors hold the field.

Jesus, all your children cherish,

And keep them that they never perish

Whom you have purchased with your blood.

Let new life to us be given

That we may look to you in heaven

Whenever fearful is our mood.

Your Spirit on us pour That we may love you more,

Hearts o’erflowing; And then shall we, From sin set free,

Sing praise through all eternity.

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