GODLY ADVICE FOR GOD'S MESSENGERS
Dear friends in Christ,
The Bible says that God gives the gift of encouragement to his church. Certain people are given that gift. The Greek word means “to stand beside” someone. We say we will be there for someone. The person who has the gift of encouragement is there for someone. Encouragement doesn’t really come naturally to most people. Our egos tend to criticize people because in our sin we don’t want someone looking better than we are. That is petty and self-centered.
Often, even in the church, the one who does the work is the one who criticized. Suggestions are often made by the people who sit on the sidelines. We enjoy criticizing way too much. We do it to our sport teams, to our government, our bosses, co-workers, family members - even our church family. I don’t know who said it first, but I like the reply, “My way of doing something is better than your way of doing nothing.”
Today we go back to the time of the apostle Paul. There were people in the church in Corinth who were giving the founding pastor of the church, the apostle Paul, lots of criticism. The Devil was smiling. Paul, no stranger to opposition and always the teacher, gives his critics something to think about. God spoke through Paul and “God Gives Guidance to His Messengers” and all who listen to their message. First of all, recognize who those messengers really are; secondly, recognize to whom they are ultimately accountable.
Recognize who God’s messengers really are. From someone like John the Baptist to Larry Zahn, God says, “This, then, is how you ought to regard us: as servants of Christ and as those entrusted with the mysteries God has revealed.” This reading chosen for this Sunday has so much to offer. I’ll warn you it is hard to get off verses one and two.
Paul wrote thirteen letters found in the New Testament either to congregations or to people. As you read through the thirteen letters, there are certainly different tones from one to the next. Philippians? There is joy! Joy for the Lord; joy in knowing each other. Galatians! Holy anger! Why? Because most in the congregation were ready to jump of the Jesus bandwagon. They were ready to desert Jesus.
Not far behind Galatians is the church in Corinth. Corinth was a very divided church. They had all kinds of reasons, bad reasons, they used. One of the reasons was that people in the church had been pastored by some of the real big guns of the New Testament church: Peter, Apollos and Paul. They got to comparing them with each other. It is clear that some liked Paul but not so much Apollos or Peter; others liked Peter and not Paul as much. I can imagine members doing this: Why can’t Apollos be more friendly like….? Why can’t the others be eloquent like Apollos? If only the others had the enthusiasm of Paul? Why can’t you be? Why can’t you do? Apparently, it was more about the peripheral things and not about that which mattered.
Corinthians! It is time to knock it off and remember who they really are! They were God’s servants and stewards. Each title God gives them is most interesting.
First the word “servant.” This was a special kind of servant. The Greek word is an under rower. Think about those ancient battleships. No diesel or atomic powered engines. Just a set of rowers. They had battleships called triremes. Some of those ships had three decks of rowers – sometimes as many as 170. The trireme was constructed so that they could ram other ships. When in battle the rowers had to work as a team under the commander to gain enough speed to ram other ships and do damage. It was roller derby in the sea. The rowers followed the beat of a drum to stay in rhythm. As a team the rowers carried out the command of the one in charge. They were to destroy the enemy.
This illustration reminds us that God’s messengers are a team. We are all on the same side, submissive to our commander in chief. The church is not a place where you pit one person against another. A divided kingdom falls. We are on the same side fighting against Satan.
The apostle also says that God’s messengers are not only servants but also “entrusted with the mysteries God has revealed.” That is the most recent NIV translation. It isn’t wrong but literally it says that God’s messengers are “stewards of the mysteries of God.” In the original Greek the word steward refers to the slave who is entrusted with the wares of the master to run his household. God’s messengers are trustees of the message he has given us, which he calls “the mysteries of God.” The message is not our own but the message of the Lord.
The word “mystery” occurs 27 times in the New Testament. Of the 27 times, 20 of them occur in the Paul’s letters. Most often the word mystery refers to the Gospel, the message of Jesus. An example. Paul wrote to the people at Ephesus to pray for him. “Pray also for me, that whenever I speak, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel for which I am an ambassador in chains.” He was in prison and wanted to be out so he could preach the mystery of the Gospel. Why does he call the Gospel a mystery?
I can think of a couple of ways that the Gospel is a mystery. It has to be revealed. Athletic coaches talk about certain attributes that can’t be coached. A coach says that you can’t coach speed. Athletes are born that way. People are born with great voices to sing or to be creative. People are born that way. The Gospel, the good news about Jesus, does not come naturally to anyone. It has to be revealed. That is done so through the Word. That’s why we need the messengers who are not teaching their own thoughts but taught the good news of Jesus.
I will add another thought about the mystery. It is truly a mystery known only within the heart of God why he loves me, why he loves you. It is a mystery why he wants us in heaven with him and why he has supplied the way. We certainly don’t deserve it. But he gave us the way and makes it known. That’s a mystery.
Let’s look at that mystery a bit more closely. Think about what this means. The apostle wrote, “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them.” Judy and I were watching a news one morning. There was a financial guru giving advice on how to teach children the value of money. Someone asked about the following: Their 12 year old child saved $200 to buy something she always wanted. Would it be right as parents to tell her to save the money because they wanted to buy it as a Christmas gift? Was that a good idea or would the child be discouraged?
Judy and I agreed that the child would not really pay for the gift. Judy thought that letting the child pay for the gift and then putting the $200 back into a bank account was best way to handle it. I think the best way was to teach the child the value of saving and as parents we would buy it. I know that after parents do such a kindness children and parents will live happily and gratefully ever after.
Paul says, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them.” He pictures us having a bank account with God our banker. It isn’t really a money account, it’s a sin account. Yet our there is no record of sin in the account. Our sins were charged to Jesus. There is no record of debt to God. Jesus paid our debt… with his holy, precious blood!
The accounts that were settled were not just yours and mine, “God reconciled the world in Christ”- for every individual sinner, whether living in the days of Jesus or born centuries before or not yet born yet. The sins of all were charged to Jesus. What a shame if people don’t believe it. That’s the message God has left with the world to believe and tell. That’s the Gospel.
We can’t stress enough how universal this message is. The church is not exclusive, it is totally inclusive. Jesus came to reconcile the world. Listen to some of the last words of the Old Testament book from Malachi. “’My name will be great among the nations, from where the sun rises to where it sets. In every place incense and pure offerings will be brought to me, because my name will be great among the nations,’ says the Lord Almighty.” Some words from the last book of the New Testament make it so clear, “Then I saw another angel flying in midair, and he had the eternal gospel to proclaim to those who live on the earth—to every nation, tribe, language and people.”
That’s the chosen reading for Reformation Sunday. It was chosen for that day because this also served as the sermon text for Martin Luther’s funeral delivered by Johannes Bugenhagen. Luther was like that angel flying in midair as is every messenger who proclaims the eternal and universal Gospel. Include in that number the prophets and pastors and evangelists and you when say to others what John the Baptist said, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” God’s messengers are those servants and stewards of God’s mystery, the Gospel.
The messengers are accountable to God. “Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful.” That means putting in the time and effort and study and to preach, to be faithful to the Lord and to his Word. Faithfulness means preaching the whole counsel of God. Faithfulness is preaching the Law and the Gospel.
Some of the people in Corinth were more interested in the messenger than his message. The church in Corinth had been exposed to some pretty big guns of the early church – Peter, Paul and Apollos. Apparently they were spending way too much time talking about them rather than the One they shared.
Pastors can fall prey to their own egos. I remember someone who said to me that I needed to go skating with some of the younger people to show that I was human like they were and could fall down. I told her I don’t need to break my leg to prove I am human. If it would help I would just confess some of my sins to them.
Paul once called God’s messengers “jars of clay.” A good minister friend says all of God’s messengers are really cracked pots. We can misread compliments. We can also misread fair criticism. The ego can go wild and be flattered beyond reason or get depressingly discouraged when criticism comes. Suddenly a pastor’s thinking about self. It is not about self, it’s all about Jesus.
As far as the hearer is concerned, Paul gives us this warning. Be immensely more interested in content of the message than in the preacher’s style or language or personality. Listen most intently for the Gospel. Enjoy it and live it.
I saw an article recently entitled “Nine Serous Mistakes Pastors Make in Writing Sermons. I won’t mention all nine, but these are included:
1. Make people feel only guilty.
2. Don’t use the word “I” at all.
3. Don’t apply anything said to individual’s lives.
4. Don’t spend time wrestling through your own sins and weaknesses.
I agree with those just mentioned. But the worst think a preacher can do is to leave Jesus out of the sermon. Or don’t preach about Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. For the congregation is to not expect to hear about Jesus life death and resurrection. That’s what faithful messengers love to preach about.