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Sermon for February 4, 2024 – Fifth Sunday After Epiphany

Welcome to this week’s episode, a special rerun from our Speaking of Life archive. We hope you find its timeless message as meaningful today as it was when it was first shared.

Program Transcript

Speaking of Life 3011 | Loving Us Without Walking Away
Greg Williams

This is one of my favorite pictures. It hangs in my office and I see it every day. My son Gatlin was playing college football, and this is a post-game scene.

Gatlin played the position of linebacker and his primary role was to shut down the opponent’s ability to run the ball in the middle of the field. That afternoon the game wasn’t shaping up like we were hoping for. In particular, the other teams running backs were coming through the middle and breaking off long runs. It was as if the other team was reading our playbook. The bad news is that all afternoon they exploited the part of the field Gatlin was defending and our team suffered a decisive loss.

In this moment captured by the picture, my wife Susan walked alongside my boy in silence. She held that moment for him, saying nothing, just loving him without walking away. The picture reminds me of a passage in Isaiah.

He gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might he increases strength. Even youths shall faint and be weary, and young men shall fall exhausted; but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint. Isaiah 40:29-31 (ESV)

Perhaps the reason for this verse’s popularity is the weariness we can all identify with. Weariness of lost games and lost relationships, weariness of our own failures and the failures of those we love—fatigue in a fallen world.

That’s why this picture means so much to me. It’s my son having that existential experience of failure and his mother reaching out to stand up with dignity and grace beside him.

The Williams boys have their share of trophies and ribbons and championship rings—we did all that. But this picture is my favorite.
This is the tangible, never-ending love of God we meet in our weariness. Of Jesus—God with us—who not only experienced death but all the frustrations and the “nothing-to-say” disappointments of life as well.

Jesus never sinned, but he knew what it was like to have things go wrong. He had to learn to be a carpenter by way of hammered thumbs and uneven tables. Do we think of him that way? Do we think of him walking off the proverbial field with Mary by his side simply staying close?

He walks beside us. He suffers with us. He gives power to the faint and reminds us that love, joy, and grace—not defeat—will have the final word.

I am Greg Williams, Speaking of Life and reminding you that you never walk alone.  

Psalm 147:1-11, 20c • Isaiah 40:21-31 • 1 Corinthians 9:16-23 • Mark 1:29-39

This week’s theme is the service of God. In our call to worship Psalm, God is praised as creator and for his care of those who are nameless and forgotten. Isaiah 40 speaks of God empowering the powerless. In 1 Corinthians, we see Paul elaborate on the paradoxical nature of service and freedom required in preaching the gospel. The gospel reading in Mark recounts Jesus healing Simon’s mother-in-law who then got up to serve.

Preach or Bust

1 Corinthians 9:16-23 – ESV

Today’s text may seem to be an odd one for the Epiphany season. At first glance this text seems to give us more insight into the person of Paul than that of Christ. However, throughout this section Paul has made use of himself as an example to follow on the basis that he is following Christ. He will soon tell his readers to, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). From that perspective, we will look at this passage to give us some insight into the person of Christ, who is the gospel given to us. Paul is carrying out his calling to preach the gospel, which was given to him directly from Jesus himself.

Preaching was Paul’s calling. He makes it clear in the opening verses of our section that preaching is something he must do, not some optional career among other equal opportunities. Hear how Paul speaks of his calling to preach:

For if I preach the gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting. For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward, but if not of my own will, I am still entrusted with a stewardship. What then is my reward? That in my preaching I may present the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my right in the gospel. (1 Corinthians 9:16-18 ESV)

Paul wants the Corinthian church to understand that he is not preaching the gospel to get something for himself. He sees himself as compelled to preach and doomed if he doesn’t. As he puts it, “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel.” He doesn’t see his preaching as a choice, but as a calling. For Paul, it is “preach the gospel or bust.” And the gospel he is preaching is the proclamation of the one who has called him—the Lord Jesus. Paul wants to be very clear that what he is doing cannot be controlled by others.

And that is a fitting point for him to be making to the Corinthian church. Paul had to write this letter to answer a whole series of arguments this church had challenged him with. Paul had previously answered the question concerning eating meats offered to idols, which the Corinthians had justified by their logical reasoning. Paul had to reorient their love of knowledge to take into account their love for other believers in their community. It seems that Paul’s challengers held themselves in high esteem and wanted to be in control of what they could and could not do. Why should they listen to Paul, or anyone else for that matter?

In that regard, Paul alludes to another issue these Corinthians had with him – his pay. Oddly enough, they were not arguing that they should not pay Paul for his services. On the contrary, they were frustrated that Paul would not take money from them like the other preachers normally did. What runs under this contention is the common etiquette in that society of patronage. It was an unspoken rule that those of high social standing would give money to those in need and by doing so the recipients would be obligated to give their donors honor. It appears the Corinthians wanted Paul to adhere to this social standard. By doing so they would think they would have some leverage over Paul. Paul does not want to be classified with others as a “philosopher for profit.” He really messed up their game plan of control by not accepting financial support from them. He knows that doing so would compromise his preaching to them. Paul is not in it for the money or anything else. He is carrying out his calling to preach the gospel.

What Paul seems to be painfully aware of is the fact that the gospel being preached is that Jesus is Lord, and these particular Corinthians were conducting themselves as if they were the only lord worth following. Not only was Paul preaching that Jesus was Lord, but he was conducting himself among them in such a way as to prevent them from lording it over Paul. And his challengers did not like it.

We may not have the patronage system in play in our society today, however, we too may see our societal systems and structures as taking precedent over God’s calling and word to us. How seriously do we grasp the gospel as Jesus being Lord? This means we are not. This means our society and culture is not. Perhaps we too want to control the message from the pulpit on account that we financially support it. Have you ever been tempted to withhold financial, or other support, when the message of the preacher strikes a little too close to home? We may not like to admit it, but we too like to be in control. But the message of the gospel is that we are not. The Lord is.

The message is good news because of who the Lord is. He is trustworthy and it is a very good thing that he is in control and reigning as Lord. The more we can come to see the Lord’s goodness, his faithfulness to us and his love for us, the easier it will be to lay down all our lording-over ways. We can easily become masters of manipulation to get what we want. Paul is aware of what is going on and more importantly, he is aware of what is at stake. This controlling attempt being expressed in the Corinthian church will be a hindrance for them to receive from the Lord. They are not living out of trust in him, but rather are trying to call the shots for themselves. Paul’s response? He is going to preach with no strings attached. He knows he cannot become indebted to them as he owes his life and existence to the one who has called him to preach. Let’s take note of how Paul’s allegiance to Christ alone frees him to fulfill his calling:

For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings. (1 Corinthians 9:19-23 ESV)

This sense of being compelled and indebted to the Lord leads him to unreservedly serve, not just his own people, but all people. He sees himself as free from the demands and expectations of everyone. And that makes him a bold preacher. He has nothing to lose, and the Corinthians have nothing to hold over him. In this way Paul knows he is free. So free that he can carry out his calling to anyone in earshot. He is not constrained by any particular people group or societal status. He can come alongside anyone and preach the gospel. He’s not threatened by someone who is different from him or goes by a different set of rules. This doesn’t mean that Paul is being duplicitous or inauthentic; he does not compromise on who he is in Christ or Jesus’ word to us. We are not to take Paul as an example of sinning with sinners in order to win them over any more than we would equate Jesus hanging out with sinners to mean he was sinning or condoning their sins. Paul does not take on their way of life, but he enters into their lives, where they are, in order to share with them who Jesus is and to share the blessings he has for them.

Running through Paul’s writing is the thought of servanthood. Paul has been freed by the gospel to be a servant to all. Even his resistance to the Corinthians’ attempts to control him is an act of service to them. True service is that which serves the gospel in the lives of others, even when it doesn’t lead to personal popularity. Paul is not trying to make friends; he is trying to share Christ. It’s not about him. In Greco-Roman society associating with the weak and being a servant would be counter-cultural and laughable. No one in their right mind would applaud the claim of becoming weak or a servant. Is our culture really any different today? Do we truly see service as an act of true freedom, or do we, like the Corinthian church, want to be in control, call the shots, and have the final say? Being weak in Paul’s era, as in ours, is not considered a virtue. We seek power and status, and rather disassociate with any who are considered “weak.”

Paul is imitating Christ. The gospel he preaches is the proclamation of the one who lowered himself to save us. Jesus did not come for his own advantage or to be popular and well liked. He came to do for us what we could not do on account of our weakness. He came to save us, and for that he got crucified.

The epiphany we can see in Paul’s message to the Corinthian church is that Jesus is compelled to be the Gospel for us, no matter the cost to himself. Jesus is Lord and he has no strings attached where we can control or manipulate him. And, when we come to see the goodness of God in Jesus Christ, we will not want to control him. We will be free to follow his call wherever he leads because he has proven to be trustworthy. We will be free to be for others even when they are not for themselves and fight against our efforts every step of the way. The freedom and devotion we see in Paul’s calling to preach the gospel comes from the one who is the Gospel, Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior.

Today’s text may be a poke in the eye for those of us who want our own control and say. It is a hard thing to die, too, but we must if we are to be free. The strings we try to tie to others are the same strings that are pulling on us. But Jesus sets us free. Here are some questions to consider.

  • How might we enter that freedom today in service to others in the gospel?
  • Who in your life needs to hear the good news of Jesus Christ, even as they fight against it?
  • Am I able to lose status for the sake of Christ?
  • Can I lay down my rights in order to gain a hearing from those who need some good news? In short, are we free to preach the gospel?

Paul’s calling is our calling as well. We may not preach like Paul or even stand behind a pulpit. But each of us preaches the gospel in word and deed by living a life devoted to Christ. That message often will not lead to being elevated on the cultural ladder of success. But, like Paul, we have been set free from such expectations. We have been lifted to the right hand of the Father. There are no strings attached. Live free. Serve all. Preach the gospel.

Into the Wilderness w/ Brad Turnage W1

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February 4—Fifth Sunday after Epiphany
1 Corinthians 9:16-23, “For the Sake of the Gospel”

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Program Transcript

Into the Wilderness w/ Brad Turnage W1

Anthony: Let’s do this. Here are the lectionary passages we will be discussing today.

1 Corinthians 9:16-23, “For the Sake of the Gospel”

Mark 9:2-9, “Transfiguration Glory”

Mark 1:9-15, “Into the Wilderness”

Mark 8:31-38, “The Way of the Cross”

Our first pericope of the month is 1 Corinthians 9:16-23. I’m going to be reading from the New Revised Standard Version, the updated edition, which is the Revised Common Lectionary passage for the fifth Sunday after Epiphany, which is February 4.

If I proclaim the gospel, this gives me no ground for boasting, for an obligation is laid on me, and woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel! 17 For if I do this of my own will, I have a wage, but if not of my own will, I am entrusted with a commission. 18 What then is my wage? Just this: that in my proclamation I may make the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my rights in the gospel. 19 For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might gain all the more. 20 To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to gain Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might gain those under the law. 21 To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not outside God’s law but am within Christ’s law) so that I might gain those outside the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, so that I might gain the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. 23 I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I might become a partner in it.

Brad, I’ve heard it said that there’s a fine line between preaching with conviction and preaching with arrogance. And I think the fine line is humility. Paul writes, there’s no ground for boasting in the proclamation of the gospel. Tell us about that. What does he mean?

Brad: I think there’s no place for boasting because the gospel begins with our death, and dead people have nothing to boast about. What is a dead person going to boast about? That you’re more dead than the next guy? That you’re better at doing absolutely nothing of any real value? And I think more than anybody, Paul understood that, especially coming from his old life that was blatantly sinful, right?

We all have that same darkness, but for Paul, he couldn’t deny it. He had this history, and he knew that any hope he had was that his life was now given to him in Jesus. In Galatians 2:20 he says, I’ve been crucified along with Christ. The life I now live I’m only living through the faith of the Son of God who gave himself for me.

There’s no boasting because you didn’t do anything and all you can do is hope that if you’re dead enough, someone else will resurrect you. And I think that’s what Paul means. And ironically the one thing that Paul does allow himself to boast about is the fact that he’s weak enough not to get in the way of what Jesus is doing in his life, that Jesus is his life.

And if we can just get out of the way, then then we get to participate in that. And so, I think it is this starting point of, our life has no value aside from the one that has filled us through Jesus Christ with this new self. So, I think that’s why Paul says there’s no boasting.

There’s nothing to boast about. You didn’t do anything.

Anthony: That’s such a good perspective. And that reminds me of Robert Capon, and I’m quoting loosely here, but he talked about Lazarus coming out of the grave. What else was he going to do? Life himself told him to come forth, and he came forth. And that’s, I think, a metaphor for all of us, is it not?

Brad: I think so. But again, you’re going to hear me say the words upside down and backwards a lot today. It is that mystery that the only way to life is in our death. And ultimately, that is true. That day that we pass on in our death, we come into the fullness of life and the kingdom.

But it’s also true right now that when we learn to die to ourself and we learn to let go, we allow for Christ to come to life. And that letting go that dying to ourself is such an important part of the Christian life. And I think you were right on when you said that fine line between preaching with conviction and preaching with arrogance is humility.

I think the harder question is how do we find that humility? Especially, preaching is such a terribly challenging job to stay humble because you’re literally standing on a pedestal in front of everybody. And people tell you how great you are, and people tell you.

For me, the pathway to humility is just being really honest about my own darkness. Years ago, I was preparing a talk on the Good Samaritan, and I was talking to my pastor, and he said the most important part of the Good Samaritan is that it reminds us that we have the ability to see somebody as less than human.

And I thought, no way. But the more that I just get honest about my sin, the more I see there’s some real darkness and there’s some real brokenness that is in my heart through my old self. And my old self is still a ghost that’s trying to cause problems. And the more I’m honest about my sin with myself, the more I hear the voice of God say, and yet I do not condemn; you now go and do likewise.

I think that’s how you are able to preach with boldness without it turning into boasting is if you’re just really honest about the fact that you’ve got nothing to give outside of Christ in you because of that old self that still ghosts around. But we try to let it go so that the new self will do what it does, and that is point to Jesus.

Anthony: Yeah, I’ve been rereading a book by Eugene Peterson called Working the Angles and he talked about how the community of faith is a community of sinners and one of those sinners happens to be called pastor or preacher. That puts it in perspective. I’m just the one that, for whatever reason, the Lord is speaking a word but it’s his word.

And I have been raised to new life in him because I was dead, and I had nothing to do with it. So yeah, well said.

Paul really makes the point, leans into the fact that he’s trying to be all things to all people. And so, when you exegete a passage like this, I think the question has to be asked, what does it look like to be a slave to all, Brad? Help us. What does that look like?

Brad: Yeah, good luck with that one. Slave to all. Is there a harder calling? It’s just everything, giving away of everything to all. I’m not there yet, but I continue on, trying to take hold of the one who has taken hold of me in Jesus.

And I think it starts with having a paradigm shift that you have really died with Christ and the life you now live is in Christ. It’s not yours. You are a new creation bought and paid for by the blood of someone else. And not only have you been bought with a price, the one who bought you has given you away to the world for the sake of the world. That is our calling.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, Be the salt of the earth. Preserve that image of God in this world, be the light of the world. You are the light of the world to be this reflection of God in the world for the sake of the world. And I think one of the things about modern Christianity, at least here in the West, is that we don’t talk enough about what our role is in the world.

And that it’s to live for the sake of the world to be the image of God in the world. God in Christ made himself a servant, and he gave himself away to all and his life is now our life. And so, we have that same calling. The calling to give your life away. And the crazy thing is that the hardest thing is that it’s not just for the believers around us, but it’s for those who don’t believe, and it’s not just for those who love you, but it’s also for those who hate you. To make yourself a slave to all, as Paul says to, starts with this realization that our life isn’t ours to begin with.

And of course, it’s easier said than done. But coming to an understanding of that, I think has to be the start. And again, that’s upside down and backwards, but most anything in the gospel is going to feel that way.

And then if I were going to say, practically, how do we live that out, this idea of being a slave to all? I talk about two things. I’d say, first is you got to figure out the places that you’re already a slave. Because you can’t be a slave to all and a slave to something else that has you, that’s controlling you.

So be really honest. Where are the places in your life that you’re a slave? And start figuring out how to let some of those things go. You can’t hold onto two things at once. What are those things that demand our attention and demand our obedience? Ask God to help you see those things and then to have the faith through Christ to let those things go.

And then I’d also say that if you want to be a slave to all, you have to start small. You can’t be a slave at all before giving your life away to some. So, what does that mean with your family? What does that mean for the people around you? If you can’t give your life away to your wife and to your neighbors, you’re not going to do it “to the all” that Paul calls us to. So much of that is just putting other people’s interest above yours.

And it’s a great tool for ministry. And it’s something that in youth ministry, I’ve really seen God use. Coming along somebody and learning to love what they love is a great way of being in relationship, in sharing Christ with somebody. I had a student several years ago that I had been trying to connect with, and I just never could really get him to lean in. It just felt every time I tried to talk to him, I was hitting a wall. But I found out from his mother that he was a big fan of this TV show that was on Netflix. And one weekend, I just binge watched the entire show. And then I learned to love what he loved. That was the starting point of coming alongside of him for a couple of years and really getting to share Christ and Christ’s love and to be loved back by him and to see Christ in him.

I think that’s what it means. It’s just this perspective change that it’s not all about you. And it can’t be all about you because again, you’re dead and the one that is your life is the king of giving it all away, the king of being the slave for all. The more we understand that the more we can find little ways to do it.

Anthony: Friends, we just had church. Brad was our teacher. Thank you. That was rich and challenging at the same time, especially in our culture where it is all about me. And it’s not. But that’s the way we try to live, and there’s a reason it doesn’t end well, right? It’s not the way it was meant to be. Thank you, Jesus, that you were the servant of all.

Small Group Discussion Questions

  • How did Paul view his calling to preach? What stood out to you about how he talked about his calling to preach?
  • It seems that the Corinthian church wanted Paul to accept their financial support so they could have some leverage over him. In what ways can you see that dynamic being played out today?
  • How would you describe true service?
  • How does knowing the Lord set us free from all other expectations that are set upon us?
  • In what ways can we preach the gospel even if we are not called to vocational preaching?
  • Discuss the temptation to gain status in our cultural surroundings that prevents us from boldly proclaiming Jesus as Lord.

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