Third Sunday in Advent
December 12, 2010
“Ministers of Christ and Stewards of the Mysteries of God”
1 Corinthians 4:1-5
Let a man so consider us, as ministers of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover it is required in stewards that one be found faithful. But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by a human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. For I know nothing against myself, yet I am not justified by this; but He who judges me is the Lord. Therefore judge nothing before the time, until the Lord comes, who will both bring to light the hidden things of darkness and reveal the counsels of the hearts. Then each one's praise will come from God. 1 Corinthians 4:1-5
Last week we saw how God talks to us through the Bible. God teaches us through the words of the Bible. God’s doctrine gives us patience, comfort, and hope. The Bible doesn’t belong only to a select few. It belongs to the whole Church.
But when Jesus established his Church here on earth he didn’t simply hand out copies of the Bible and tell his people to read it. In addition to giving us his written word he gave us the oral word: the preached word. God has appointed preachers since the beginning of time. He talks to us through the mouths of men.
Those that God sends to speak have nothing to say except what God gives them to say. In times past God spoke in a variety of ways through the prophets. Then Christ came. He fulfilled the prophecy of the Scriptures and he sent out his apostles to preach to the whole world. His apostles wrote the New Testament. Just as the Holy Spirit had guided the prophets to write down what he wanted written down, so he also guided the apostles to write. The written word of God remains the standard according to which we may and must judge the preaching of our preachers.
The pastors don’t work for themselves. St. Paul, speaking for all pastors of the Church, says: “Let a man so consider us, as ministers of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.” We think of a pastor as our minister – our servant – and so he is. He is to serve us with God’s word and sacraments. But if he is to be our minister he must first be Christ’s minister.
As Christ’s minister, the pastor serves as a steward of the mysteries of God. The mysteries of God are the gospel and the sacraments of Christ. Earlier in this Epistle St. Paul speaks of Christ’s crucifixion as a mystery. Later on he speaks of our resurrection with Christ on the last day as a mystery. God’s gospel is a mystery because it transcends human wisdom. We must become simpleminded if we wish to understand it. What shines as great wisdom in the eyes of the world’s great thinkers is foolishness in the sight of God. The mysteries of God cannot be reasoned out. We take them on faith.
St. Paul writes in 1 Timothy 3:16,
And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifested in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen by angels, preached among the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up in glory.
God became flesh on Christmas. It’s a mystery. He suffered and died on the cross on Good Friday, taking away the sin of the world. It’s a mystery. He rose from the dead on Easter Sunday. It’s a mystery. We are joined to his death and resurrection in our baptism. It’s a mystery. We eat and drink his body and blood for the forgiveness of our sins in the Lord’s Supper. These are all mysteries of God.
Ah, but what can we do with these mysteries? How can we use them? Can they pay our bills? Get us a better job? Find the right friends? Improve our relationships? Prepare for our retirement? No? Well then, what good are they? I know what I need in life and these mysteries are not what I’m looking for.
And so people hire themselves preachers to give them what they are looking for. St. Paul spoke of them:
For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables. (2 Timothy 4:3-4)
These teachers teach what the market demands. You want law and order? You got it. Self-esteem? That, too. Patriotic fervor combined with just a bit of nostalgic Americana? Just put your order in. Whatever you want, you can be sure of one thing. It’s for sale. Just look at the religious books for sale at Walmart. That’s what sells. Walmart wouldn’t stock it if it didn’t. That’s what the itching ears are looking to hear.
The minister of Christ isn’t sent to scratch the itching ears. He is sent by God to administer the mysteries of God. He is to teach Christ. He is to portray Christ as Christ reveals himself: not as a great philosopher, but as the Savior of sinners; not as the guru of successful living tips, but as the way, the truth, and the life.
The minister of Christ has nothing to offer you but Christ. He ought to be blameless, as the Apostle says. Not because his sins can hurt you, but because if he has a bad reputation nobody will listen to what he has to say. And what he has to say is a matter of life and death because it’s all about Christ. But his piety doesn’t benefit you.
The Christians in Corinth were divided up into cliques favoring this or that minister. The congregation was divided over which minister was the best. They would judge the one by the other. The Apostle confronted this sectarian spirit by saying that he didn’t even judge himself. God would bring to light what was hidden. It’s not our job to put the minister under a microscope to see if he passes our tests of sensitivity, eloquence, effectiveness, and charm. A steward is to be faithful. Not necessarily popular. Faithful means taking the mysteries of God with utter seriousness and care and making sure that the people of God are hearing and receiving what God wants them to hear and receive.
Americans are known all over the world as very practical people. What does it do? How does it work? This is how we approach most things in life. If we cannot see a practical purpose for it we discard it as having little value. And so the mysteries of God are put to the practicality test. When that happens, they are compromised if not tossed aside completely.
But what do we know about success? Really! Would you say that John the Baptist was a successful man? He died young. He spent the last months of his life languishing in prison. He died by being beheaded. Is this the way you would like to go?
But John preached Christ. When he was suffering all alone it was the truth of his preaching that sustained him in the faith until he died. The preaching isn’t the preacher’s. It’s Christ’s. And Christ is God. God knows what we need better than we do.
About thirty years ago when I was serving as pastor of a congregation in Clear Lake, Minnesota a single mother with a very troubled teenage son from a neighboring town asked me if I would be willing to teach her son in my catechism class. Naturally, I said I’d be happy to do so. Since she was at work when we had classes, I agreed to pick him up before class and drop him off afterward. I asked only one thing of her: to come to church on Sundays and to bring him with her.
After missing church a couple of times I called her to talk about it and she informed me – very politely – that church just didn’t relate to her son’s needs. All this stuff in the Bible, all this talk about Jesus, it just didn’t connect with her boy. He needed practical help to deal with his problems in life. He wasn’t getting that in church.
I learned something very valuable from that woman. I knew what she wanted from me. I knew what her boy was lacking. He needed a father. He needed structure, discipline, and a loving home. She wanted the church to be that for her boy. She wanted her boy to learn to behave and she wasn’t doing a very good job of teaching him.
This woman wanted God to fix her problems. God does that. But he does it on his terms, not ours. We need more than structure, discipline, and a good moral code. We need a new life! The mysteries of God are not a list of instructions on how to fix things. They reveal God to us. They reveal God to us in our need no matter how deep it is.
The mysteries of God bring us to the suffering of Jesus where God undid all the wrong we did. The gospel not only tells us about Jesus dying for us; the gospel actually grants to us what that death has won. It gives us the forgiveness of our sins. It tells us that we are righteous before God. The message of the cross is the message of God entering into the very heart of our failures and confronting the sin behind them all and blotting it out by his obedient suffering. It is the mystery of sin forgiven.
The mysteries of God bring us to our own resurrection from the dead when God will bring to light everything that remained hidden and we will stand in joy beside our God and Savior, Jesus. We are not there. We are here. But in the holy mysteries we are placed there. In our baptism we are united with Christ’s death and resurrection. At the Lord’s Supper we eat the body that Jesus once offered up on the cross and we drink the blood shed there to forgive us our sins. We are joined to heaven where Jesus even now intercedes for us. These holy mysteries bring us into fellowship with the saints who have gone before.
Individual pastors come and go. The ministry of Christ remains. It belongs to the whole Church. Elsewhere in this Epistle, St. Paul writes:
Therefore let no one boast in men. For all things are yours: whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas, or the world or life or death, or things present or things to come—all are yours. And you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s. (1 Corinthians 3:21-23)
We pray that God will provide us with pastors whose first devotion is not to our wants but to the divine mysteries that meet our deepest needs. Administering those mysteries for us is Christ’s work. It’s not an offering the minister offers to God on our behalf. It is Christ speaking through his ministers giving to us the very treasures of heaven. God will answer our prayers and he will sustain our ministers, just as he sustained his servant John the Baptist. Amen