Sermon – Epiphany 3 – "The Time Is Very Short" – 1 Corinthians 7:29-35 – 1/22/12

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If you ever have the opportunity to tour the Holy Lands, one of the stops that you will want to be sure to make is the “Church of the Seven Apostles.” The “Church of the Seven Apostles” is located right on the shore of the Sea of Galilee and it marks the village called Capernaum. Capernaum is where Jesus began His ministry after His baptism and temptation and Capernaum is probably where He stayed when He was in the region of Galilee.

This is that area from which Jesus recruited 7 of His 12 disciples; the four which we heard mentioned in our gospel reading earlier, Philip and Nathanael whom we heard about last Sunday, and Matthew the tax collector.

The people in Capernaum were generally receptive to Jesus. This is where He preached His famous ‘Sermon on the Mount,’ and where great crowds came with their diseases and sicknesses so that He could heal them.

In 1998, I had the pleasure of visiting the Church of the Seven Apostles with it’s seven, red domes, each toped with a white cross. Inside, the walls are painted with beautiful frescoes that depict scenes of Christ’s ministry in Capernaum and several of those scenes are of the crowds of people who came to Capernaum with their demons and illnesses and diseases to be healed by Jesus.

One of my most poignant impressions of this building was a wall just beyond the railing at the chancel on which, quite literally, there were hanging hundreds of wristwatches. I asked the monk who was on duty to explain the meaning of all of the watches. He explained how the gospels all speak of Capernaum as the place where people from throughout Galilee and even distant Judea and even beyond the borders of Israel came to Jesus for healing.

In keeping with the gospel tradition, people of faith continue to come to this place. And the custom has somehow evolved that those who have a terminal illness, will take off their watch and hang it on the wall as if to say, “Lord, my life is in Your hands.”

Maybe you have known someone who was diagnosed with a terminal illness and the doctor told them that they could expect to live only a few more weeks or months. Maybe, you are someone who has a disease that you are fully aware will shorten your ‘normal life expectancy.’ It might be helpful if we would all imagine for a moment that we have been diagnosed with a terminal illness and the time that we thought we had to live has been drastically shortened.

How does that affect the way that you will spend the time that you have? Does it change your perspective on things, your priorities or your goals at all, and if so, how? Are the things that were important, still seem as important? Or does a lot of what seemed like it was important yesterday, suddenly become unimportant, if not even ridiculous and things that you thought you’d get around to dealing with someday, suddenly become a matter of urgency?

I think that this is what Paul is getting at with the congregation in Corinth when he writes to them saying, “This is what I mean brothers; the appointed time has grown very short.” It’s not that the people in the congregation had a physical, terminal illness. But what Paul wants to instill in them is that attitude of someone who lives with the awareness that they’re time “has grown very short.”

While traveling home from the Seminary on Friday, I had the chance to read a short book by the keynote speaker at the conference, Richard Bauckham. Bauckham writes that “recent studies on 1 Corinthians have made very clear that social status is the issue in much of Paul’s debate with the dominant faction in the Corinthian church.” (The Bible and Mission p.50).

I reread 1 Corinthians with that thought in mind and sure enough, their concern for social status is pretty apparent. They boasted about who baptized them, they wanted to sound ‘wise’ and look stylish. There was a lot of boasting which led to a lot of quarrels and jealousy in the congregation.

In contrast to all of their striving for social status, Paul says, “Christ sent me to preach the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of it’s power.’ He mockingly says, “We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honor, but we in disrepute… We hunger and thirst, we are poorly dressed and buffeted and homeless, and we labor, working with out own hands. We have become, and still are, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things.” And then he has the guts to say, “I urge you then, be imitators of me.”

Paul seems to be a man who thinks that “the appointed time has grown very short.” His priorities seem to be set by a whole different goal than theirs, and ours.

But just what is this “appointed time that has grown very short”? Is Paul suggesting that we should live as though we are going to die any moment and make no investments in our future or the future of our community or country or church? Or, is he saying that we should ignore our responsibilities to others? Some have taken him to mean just that and used this text as a reason to sell everything, quit their job, leave their spouse and family and hike the Appalachian Trail. “Live while you can.”

But this certainly can’t be right. Jesus says, “Who then is the faithful and wise manager whom his master will set over his household… Blessed is that servant whom his master will find [at work] when he comes.” (Luke 12:42-43).

Paul cuts the path of irresponsibility off for the Corinthians saying, “I say this… to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord.”

No, Paul is talking about the whole created order of this world that will be replaced by a whole new world order, and in fact, already has. The ‘new order,’ Jesus warns, will turn this present order of this world upside down. He hints at the new order of things like this, “The first shall be last and the last shall be first.” “Let the little children come to me for of such is the kingdom of heaven.” So much for ‘social status’ and ‘boasting’ about our greatness.

In the grand scheme of things, the cross of Christ crucified marks the dividing point between the old and new. Now that this crucial point in world history has happened, Paul says, “the present form of this world is passing away.”

The word “form” in the New Testament is “skeyma,” “scheme.” The old schematics have been replaced by a whole new schematic. In the crucifixion and resurrection of God’s Son, God has laid a whole new blueprint for this world overtop of “the present form of things.”

The ‘present form of things’ goes something like this. God speaks to us and says, ‘trust Me. I am your God and you are my people. I love you and because I love you, I will provide all that you need for a perfect life and you will be filled with MY joy and MY peace and MY love and you will love ME with all of your heart and soul and mind and strength. And you will love what I love and you will love your neighbor as yourself.’

And we respond by saying, “I don’t believe You. It sounds too idyllic and out of touch with reality. It’s not the way THINGS WORK IN THE REAL WORLD where only the fittest survive and dog eats dog and everyone strives to be first and greater than his neighbor.”

And God responds to our disobedience and rejection of His love by disciplining us as a loving father disciplines his dear children. And we repent and swear to turn from our sins. And God says, “I forgive you all of your sins.” And then we sin again. And God disciplines us, and we repent, and God forgives, and so on and so on.

That’s the “present form of things” isn’t it? A form that drags all of nature along with it so that even the “creation groans.”

But now, God has RE-FORMED this world. Just as He ‘formed’ it in the beginning through His Word, now He has REFORMED it through His Word made flesh. Jesus knew His life expectancy would be cut short as He would bear the terminal disease of our sin in His body. As He dies on the cross, the “present form of this world” dies in Him. “It is finished.” And when He rises on the 3rd day, the new creation is born.

The prophet had foretold, "For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind.” (Isaiah 65:17) Now, in his Revelation, St. John sees Jesus sitting on His throne who says, “Behold, I am making all thing new.” And then these words immediately follow, “It is done”, the eternal echo of the victory over the “old scheme of this world” that He established on the cross. (Rev.21:5).

And what a “new form” it is. Where there is no sin, there is no reason for God’s discipline. Think about it, no disease, no suffering, no pain, NO DEATH. No disasters, no famines, no plagues, and all swords will be turned into plowshares. “Neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, FOR THE FORMER THINGS HAVE PASSED AWAY.” (Rev.21:4).

The new has arrived. And it has arrived for you. In his 2nd letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he IS a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new HAS come.” (2 Cor. 5:17)

So, how does this change your outlook and perspective on this world knowing that “the present form of this world is passing away,” and that “the appointed time is very short,” indeed, that it has already come and the future kingdom of God is already present among us?

Let the Ninevites be our example. The prophet Jonah told the Ninevites what Paul told the Corinthians. “The appointed time is very short.” Forty days to be exact. What if your doctor told you that you had 40 days to live? You think that might change your perspective on things? It did the Ninevites. “And the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them.” (Jon.3:4).

What Jonah preached to the Ninevites and Paul preached to the Corinthians, Jesus preached to the Israelites. “The time is fulfilled, the Kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the gospel.” (Mk.1:15).

“The time is fulfilled,” says Jesus. “The appointed time is very short,” says Paul. “Yet forty days,” proclaims Jonah. The testimony of the Scriptures is in unanimous and in perfect harmony, the present form of this world is terminal. Trying to measure or calculate the time how much time this old world has left is not the point, and misses it entirely. The Ninevites only had 40 days left, and that was almost 3,000 years ago.

The point is that we live in a time where the ‘old scheme’ of things and the ‘new scheme’ of things overlap each other. The present is already past and the future is already present. It is very easy to become confused and focus on what is passing away instead of what is eternal and forever. The distractions are countless.

Jesus spells it out as clearly as it can be said. "Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.” (Matthew 6:19-20)

Let this be a call to reexamine the goals and priorities of our life, as individuals, as husbands and wives, as employees, as citizens, as neighbors, as a congregation. Where we need to repent, let us repent and turn away from what is passing away. Where we have made new beginnings, let us remain steadfast and strive to grow in faith.

“I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord.”

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