As we thank God for bringing Jesus into the world, we look forward to his return with confidence that Christ has given us what we need in the present age.
So here we are, in church this first Sunday morning of the advent season. Advent is the time of the year when we prepare to celebrate Jesus’ birth in a few weeks on Christmas. But we are also preparing for Jesus to return. During this advent season more than any other perhaps, we get a feeling of expectation that might be similar to the feeling of the new Christians in the Corinthian church. Like the Corinthians, we rejoice and celebrate that our savior has been born, and we expectantly wait for His return. So what do we do while we are waiting? One thing we do is we have hope.
“Hope” is the theme of this week’s advent candle. We have hope because God is faithful to fulfill the promises God has made to us. God’s promises throughout the Hebrew Bible were answered in the birth of Jesus. But Jesus did not fully bring the judgment and salvation of God when he ministered to those in the ancient Middle East. Jesus did all the work of salvation when he died of the cross for us, was resurrected, and ascended to heaven. But we are still living on through time, many many generations later, awaiting Jesus return and the execution of God’s judgment and reconciliation. So we live in hope for the time when Jesus will return, and set everything right. This is the advent hope that we have when we believe in Jesus as our savior.
Our situation this morning as we sit here in these pews is not much different from those in the Corinthian church. Our world is a bit different due to all the time that has passed, but we still struggle with how to live our lives As Christians. Paul let the good news of Jesus be known in Corinth when he visited. His proclamation influenced people to believe in Jesus, and to start a congregation. The good news of Jesus is explained simply in John’s Gospel. Jesus says, “I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned, he has crossed over from death to life (John 5:24).”
What a cool gospel, that believing in God is the only requirement to be included in eternal life. What is even better is that “believing” is a gift from God. Paul explains this in his letter to the Ephesians. He writes, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast (Ephesians 2:8-9).”
This Gospel of grace could easily have been misunderstood by some of the Corinthians to mean that they had a blank moral check. Imagine how excited you might get if you really came to believe that you would do whatever you wanted to do and it was perfectly fine? That’s great news! You could party all the time without any eternal consequences. If some of the Corinthians believed this, they might be super excited and behave badly.
The Corinthians apparently had some behavior troubles after they accepted Jesus. A large portion of the letters we have from Paul to the Corinthians was devoted to addressing behavior problems in the congregation. The Corinthians may have gotten too excited about Jesus, to the point where they thought their behavior on earth no longer mattered for eternity. They may have thought they were immune from prosecution, so to speak.
Even though this is a shallow point of view, I can understand this thought. If belief in Jesus guarantees life eternal with God, they why not have a great time for the rest of your life. You know, maximize your enjoyment while you wait for Heaven. After all, our actions don’t get us saved right? This shallow point of view could be easy to fall into if a new believer did not understand the entire story of God’s master plan to reconcile all creation. Perhaps some of the Corinthians didn’t understand that they have a role to play in this plan or that their actions matter.
But Paul knows that their actions do matter. After all, God has given us the Holy Spirit to empower us to work as the hands and feet of Christ. What we choose to do with our time, energy, and resources will matter forever. Unless there is some kind of memory wipe that happens when we are resurrected. There is no evidence at all that I can find in the Bible that there is a memory wipe. Quite the opposite.
If their behavior didn’t matter, then why would Paul have told the Corinthians in Chapter 16 to, “Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be courageous; be strong. Do everything in love (1 Cor. 16:13-14a).” Or why would Paul have written to the Ephesians that, “…we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” Ephesians 2:10
Our passage from this first letter to the Corinthian church is what Paul says to them RIGHT BEFORE he gets into sorting out the behavior problems of the congregation. But even though there is a corrective tone to much of the letter, Paul reassures them that Jesus will keep them firm to the end, so that they will be blameless on the day of our Lord. Paul explains that God has given the Corinthians every spiritual gift that they need. This is the hope the Corinthians can cling to in spite of their mistakes and failures.
So Paul wants to correct the Corinthians behavior, but he doesn’t want the Corinthians to despair as if they are not good enough to earn the salvation they desire. He doesn’t want them to lose the hope they have found in Jesus.
I know what it looks like to loose hope. I know a guy named Chris. Chris and I were roommates in college. Most of the time that I spent with Chris in college, he had a girlfriend that he met in high school. He was really into her. Then, one day, they broke up. Chris was devastated. He withdrew from school. He had no job, He had no hope. For months, he barely got out of bed. He convinced himself that he would never find someone else he wanted to have a life with, so life for him became pointless. When his life became pointless, he became completely ineffective. He was consumed by his worry.
Like Chris, some of the Corinthians may have been in real danger of being devastated after they realized that God still expected them to make good choices. In my experiences, more people are worried that they are not good enough for eternal life than people are overconfident in their justification before God like the Corinthians may have been. Often in my own life I find myself relating to the man in Mark chapter 9 who wishes Jesus to heal his son from a demon. Jesus tells the man that anything is possible for one who believes, to which the man responds “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” Mark 9:24
It’s easy to make as public profession of faith in Christ, but it can be difficult to know what we really believe. This doubt leaves room to question if we are really “saved” or not. We have the knowledge that we have been saved by Christ in order that we might serve God on earth and persevere in our relationship with God after we die. But we keep making mistakes. How do we have hope, knowing our failures and lack of perfection in this life? This thought process can be toxic. Doubt can paralyze a person or a congregation and cause them to despair.
For this reason, Paul’s reassurance to the Corinthians is designed to give them hope. Paul wants them to cling to the hope that God has already given them all they need spiritually to ensure their salvation. Paul gives a very similar reassurance to the Philippian church in his letter to them chapter 1. He tells the Philippians, “He who has begun a good work in you will see it to completion (Philippians 1:6).”
It is this same hope that we can cling to despite our mistakes and failures. We are equipped for our current age, so that no matter how God judges us in the end, we can be sure it will come out favorably. God gave us all the gift of salvation through God’s Son Jesus. By faith in Jesus, we have access to the infinite treasures of the Holy Spirit. These treasures include every spiritual gift we might need to live our whole life with our faith intact.
This hope that God has given us secures us in our salvation, and it empowers us to focus on the mission Jesus gave us recorded in the gospel of Matthew to, “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” (Matthew 29:19-20)
Advent hope is as much a call to action as it is a comforting thought. The hope we have for Jesus to return and complete the work is the hope that empowers us to keep expecting God to bless our small imperfect part in God’s master plan.
This hope of doing a small part for the ultimate good was what eventually helped my college friend Chris to re-engage in his life. He recovered by reaching out to other friendships in his life that were not romantic. He began investing more in our friendship and made more friends around campus. He began helping others with their schoolwork and participating in study groups. As a result, he became effective in the world as a person again.
God wants all of us to be effective in the world and to choose to have faith in Jesus. So choice is important! But we need not become overwhelmed in despair. The question of importance as we await the return of the Lord Jesus is not am I in or out of heaven….. It’s what will I do until I get to Heaven. Because Regardless of how you feel, God has given us all we need period. So the real question is? What are we going to do for the rest of our lives? What will we do as we await the return of our savior?
As we prepare to celebrate Jesus’ birth, I encourage us to remain vigilant in our efforts, by clinging to the hope; knowing that God has given us all we need, so that we will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. Let us not be discouraged.