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Sermon for January 15, 2023 – Second Sunday after the Epiphany

We easily give applause when we experience something wonderful in our lives. And sometimes it can leave us speechless when we encounter the same overwhelming feeling when we grow to know God to greater depths.

Program Transcript

Speaking of Life 5008 | More Than I Can Say
Greg Williams

Sonny Curtis and Jerry Allison wrote a song called “More Than I Can Say” back in 1959. And it went on to be performed by Leo Sayer, who rode the song to the top of the billboards back in the 80s.

The lyrics were simple and repetitive. Here are the opening lines:

I love you more than I can say

I’ll love you twice as much tomorrow

Oh, love you more than I can say

Set to a catchy tune, this song will get stuck in your head for days. In addition, we can all identify with the experience of loving someone or something “more than we can say.”

Or, maybe it’s more than that. Perhaps this little ditty resonates with us at a far deeper level.

After all, praising comes quite easy for us does it not? Have you ever been startled by a streaking star shooting through the night sky that made you shout, “Wow! Look at that”? Or maybe the sighting of that rare double rainbow after a storm that turns everyone’s attention skyward with utterances of “oohs” and “ahhs.” It seems praise comes naturally when we are encountered with something amazing or beautiful.

“More Than I Can Say” may have been written back in 1959 but this is not the first time a songwriter has attempted to praise someone beyond words. Look at this lyric in Psalm 40 which is a thanksgiving Psalm:

You have multiplied, O Lord my God, your wondrous deeds and your thoughts toward us; none can compare with you!
I will proclaim and tell of them, yet they are more than can be told.

Psalm 40:5 (ESV)

When we come to know God for who he truly is, we too will be compelled to praise him “more than we can say.” That’s the blessed life we are created for. Praising God for all eternity means we are in the presence and in a relationship with One who is praiseworthy beyond words. We come to know this God only in Jesus Christ, who reveals this Father to us by the Spirit. The more we come to know our Triune God, the more our praise will naturally pour forth. And scripture indicates that this song of praise will get stuck in our heads for all eternity. After all, God is good…well…more than I can say.

I’m Greg Williams, Speaking of Life.

Psalm 40:1-11 • Isaiah 49:1-7 • 1 Corinthians 1:1-9 • John 1:29-42

This week’s theme is a call to faithfulness. The call to worship Psalm expresses thanksgiving to God for his faithful deliverance. The Old Testament reading from Isaiah recounts the calling of the servant to be a light to the nations. The text in Corinthians records Paul’s introductory remarks to a letter calling a wayward church back to faithful obedience. In the Gospel reading from John, we have Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist who bears witness to Jesus as the Lamb of God, which calls others to follow him.

Faithful to the End

1 Corinthians 1:1-9 (NRSVUE)

Today, for the Second Sunday of Epiphany, we have the opportunity to read someone else’s mail. It comes from a letter written to the church in Corinth, and it’s a juicy read. If it weren’t part of the canon of scripture, I suspect we would blush a bit at the thought of peeping into a private letter written to another church. After all, it’s none of our business what’s going on in the church down the road, right? But the Holy Spirit has inspired this letter not only to be read in this one particular church, but to be included in the Bible for all churches to read. And, it turns out to be a selected reading for Epiphany. So, we can conclude that whatever it contains sheds some light on who God is as revealed in Jesus Christ. So, let’s take a peep.

Today’s text includes Paul’s introductory remarks for a letter of correction sent to the church in Corinth. I can’t think of many people who like to be corrected, but I think it’s safe to say that even fewer like doing the correcting. Paul is in the position that he must confront this congregation in Corinth on a vast array of issues. These issues seem to be stemming from a fair amount of accommodation to the culture around the church.

The city of Corinth was a crossroads of Greece for commerce. The city was near an overland route for seafaring boats to be rolled on logs as a shortcut to save time sailing all around the Peloponnese peninsula. Corinth had become a diverse city with many different peoples and their deities. Corinth was also known to be morally corrupt. Perhaps we feel safe to air out the issues of a church from the past in a city that is no longer around. But, if we are honest with ourselves, this description of Corinth sounds embarrassingly similar to nearly every city in western society.

The problem with the church in Corinth unfortunately was the culture of the city was showing up in the life of the church. Surely that is not the case for our church, right? Well, we don’t have to answer that. Thankfully, we can address the issue of succumbing to cultural pressures from the safety of a letter written to someone else, admitting that it is also written for us today. And, let’s face it, we would be naïve to think this letter doesn’t hit its mark in our own congregations in one way or another. So, maybe as we read Paul introducing his first letter to the church in Corinth, we can open our ears as if he is writing to us.

Paul, who had planted the church in Corinth four or five years earlier, sets out to address 11 specific issues the church in Corinth is dealing with, ranging from divisions, sexual morality, lawsuits, worship wars, marriage, and women’s role in the church, just to name a sampling. That’s a lot of issues Paul will have to cover. We may feel a bit of comfort being able to scratch off a few of the issues in Paul’s list that do not pertain to us. Whew! But, some of them may hit their target. More than that, the issues all stem from the same problem. Putting our faith somewhere other than the Lord Jesus Christ. With that said, I don’t think we can find too much distance between our brothers and sisters in Corinth and those of us hearing this letter in our current location. Let’s see how Paul chooses to introduce such a letter.

As we go through these nine short verses you will notice that before Paul speaks a single word of correction, he mentions the name of Jesus Christ eight times – at least in the translation we are using. That gives us a clue as how Paul intends to address the issues troubling our churches and each of us individually. For Paul, it appears that whatever list of problems we may be challenged with, the answer to each and every one is always the same—Jesus.

Let’s see how Paul begins:

Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes, to the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours. (1 Corinthians 1:1-2 NRSVUE)

Paul first identifies himself as one who is called to his role as an apostle of Jesus Christ, and states that this calling is by the will of God. He also includes Sosthenes in the address. Paul is not speaking on his own. This positions Paul’s letter to be read with the understanding that these issues Paul is going to address is primarily between the church and God. They cannot dismiss his correction as a simple personality conflict or use some other scapegoat. It’s far deeper than that. We may be tempted to dismiss many of our conflicts with others, especially those called to speak God’s word to us, as mere personality conflicts. “We just don’t see eye to eye,” or “He just doesn’t like me for some reason.” It’s our propensity to justify ourselves when faced with correction. Paul’s introduction doesn’t allow room for such maneuvering based on personalities.

Paul then identifies this church as “the church of God that is in Corinth.” The location of the church is secondary to their true identity. They belong to God. With all the problems facing the Corinthian Christians, Paul still refers to them as “sanctified…and called to be saints.” This means they had been set apart for God’s purposes. They were called along with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours.” Their calling was a shared calling among all the churches. Even with all their struggles and challenges, God’s call to them remained, and they still had a place and purpose in the body of Christ. It may be for us as well that we need the reminder that our personal congregation or denomination does not stand in isolation. We belong to the body of Christ, which spans the globe as well as history. What we do in our little corner of the globe as a congregation effects the witness of the entire body. No church or individual believer is called to walk alone.

Now, Paul will begin to address the Corinthian church more directly and personally:

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 gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 1:3-7 NRSVUE)

Paul speaks “Grace and peace” to the church and goes on to say he is thankful for them. His thankfulness is not grounded in what the church has to give, but in what it has been given—grace. Paul does not want them to remain in their state of disgraceful living, but rather receive the grace already theirs in Jesus Christ. The correction he speaks to them throughout the letter will be Paul’s way of holding them to grace. Often when we hear the word “grace,” we may be tempted to think that someone is making an exception to their way of living. But this is not the grace we see in Jesus Christ.

God’s grace extended to us in Jesus did not just look at our sins and say, “Oh, I’ll make an exception in this case, and just overlook your sin.” That’s not a grace that does us any good at all. Jesus did not come to “overlook” our sins. He came to destroy our sins and to remove them as far as the east is from the west. So, when Paul brings up all the issues that need to be addressed, he is actually holding them to grace. He is not treating them as if their sins are trifle matters. To do so would be to treat them as trifle objects of God’s love. God loves us enough not to let us continue in our sins. His grace moves to remove the sin and deal with it for good.

He goes on from here to confirm their calling by pointing out their gifts of grace. He speaks truth into their lives by reminding them that they “do not lack any gift.” Paul can point to the reality that God has been at work in their lives. And on that ground, Paul can be thankful that God is not done with them, and God will complete what he started. That can be an encouraging reminder to us as well when we look at our lives and see a list of issues we are still struggling with. If we can see God’s work in our lives at any point in the past, (and even if we can’t see it, others often can), we can be assured that he is still working and will not quit. This motivates us to learn to cooperate and not resist the work he is doing.

Paul concludes his introduction with further encouragement:

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 partnership of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. (1 Corinthians 1:8-9 NRSVUE)

Paul wraps up his introductory remarks by focusing their attention on Jesus Christ. Jesus is the one who will “strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Again, Paul is reminding us that Jesus is the one who will see our calling through to the end. Jesus never loses sight of the goal or purpose of where he is taking us. Even if our lives start looking more like the surrounding culture out of which we have been called, Jesus calls us back to himself. He will not be satisfied with our self-satisfaction. He intends to make us perfect.

He concludes this introduction to this letter to the Corinthians with the reminder, God is faithful; by him you were called into the partnership of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” It’s God’s faithfulness that gets the last word. As we view this passage in the season of Epiphany there is a message of answering God’s call in our lives that will lead to seeing and experiencing the triune God more fully. The old saying stands true, “obedience unlocks understanding.” As we faithfully respond to God’s call in all the various ways we hear it, we can be sure that we will be opening ourselves up to receive the blessings of knowing him more. We grow in seeing and experiencing God’s faithfulness to us. He comes through every time.

But, if we continue in disobedience, favoring our way of doing things or settling for the approval of our culture over the approval of God, then we will not have the privilege of seeing God’s faithfulness to us. Our actions don’t mean he is not faithful, but it does mean we will not experience the freedom that comes with living out of that faithfulness.

There’s an illustration told that captures this experience quite well. There was a man who had to cross a frozen lake. As he is trying to cross the lake, he is fearful the ice will break, and he will fall through. So, he crawls slowly across the frozen lake, making painfully little progress in his journey. But then he sees a wagon carrying a load of timber pulled by a team of horses gallop past him on the ice. It was then he realized the ice would hold, and he was able to walk in freedom. So it is with us. It is not our faith in the ice that keeps us from falling through. It is the unbreakable ice holding us up that enables us to walk in freedom. Every step of obedience in our walk with the Lord will be one more step that lets us know the ice holds. He is faithful to us, and we grow by putting our trust in his faithful hands. Soon, we too will be galloping unhindered in our journey with him to the other side of the lake. God is faithful to the end.

Small Group Discussion Questions

From Speaking of Life

  • Can you think of other examples that naturally elicit a response of praise?
  • Discuss how the song, “More Than I Can Say,” resonates with a believer’s response of praise of God.
  • Has praising God for all eternity ever sounded like a bore or drudgery to you? Did the video help you see praise in a different light? If so, how?

From the Sermon

  • Do you prefer being corrected or doing the correcting?
  • What similarities do you see in your city or town and that of Corinth?
  • Were you able to identify in some way to the list of problems facing the Corinthian church?
  • What did you make of Paul using Jesus’ name eight times in his introduction to his letter?
  • What difference is made by knowing your church does not exist in isolation but is part of the wider Body of Christ?
  • How does walking in obedience increase our faith?

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