The Third Sunday in Advent
December 14, 2014
“The Ministry of Christ”
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
God speaks. God has always spoken to his people. In fact, we become God’s children by means of God speaking to us. God talked to Adam in the Garden of Eden before sin entered into the world. After Adam fell into sin, God continued to speak. We confess concerning the Holy Ghost: “Who spoke by the prophets.” The Bible is God speaking to us. The reason the Bible is the standard by which all teachers and teachings in the church are to be judged is because it is God’s word. God speaks. What he says goes. What he says in the Bible is true and clear. His word is powerful. His law condemns sinners to hell. His gospel rescues sinners from their sins and sends them on their way to heaven as saints. God speaks and it is so.
God didn’t drop the Bible down from heaven. He didn’t dictate it through Gabriel to an illiterate Arab trader or inscribe it on golden tablets and bury it in northern New York State to be discovered by a treasure seeking con artist. The Bible was written down by men who publicly preached. They spoke as God directed them. They wrote as God directed them. The Apostle Paul was a preacher and teacher of God’s holy mysteries. The written word of God was written to be read out loud. For most of the history of the church most folks who have had access to the Bible had to rely exclusively on what they heard read by others.
Last week we considered how the Bible, the written word of God, gives us hope. It is a means of grace. That is, it is a means by which God gives us his grace. Simply by reading the Bible, we can hear God speaking to us. He exposes our sins to our conscience. He forgives us of all our sins for Christ’s sake. He comforts us, strengthens us, guides us, and confirms us in the one and only saving faith.
But it never was God’s intention that we should rely solely on what we read for ourselves. God has also established in his church and for his church an office of preaching. God has always called men to preach. Adam preached. Abraham and the patriarchs preached. The prophets preached. The apostles preached. There are no prophets or apostles today, but the Lord Jesus established an office whose incumbents are sent by God to preach the gospel and administer the sacraments. Jesus personally assigned to them their duties. As his ministers or servants, they preach the gospel, baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, administer the Lord’s Supper, forgive the sins of penitent sinners and retain the sins of impenitent sinners. They are to teach everything Jesus wants his Christians to know.
St. Paul summarizes the duties of this office in the words of our text: “Let a man so consider us, as ministers of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.” A minister of Christ administers what Christ gives him to administer. He administers the mysteries of God.
Human mysteries are puzzles that you can figure out if you study all of the clues. Smart people can solve human mysteries if you give them enough facts. Divine mysteries are different. Their truth is clearly revealed but nobody can figure out how they can be true.
God is triune. God is one. Moses writes: “Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God, the Lord is one!” The Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Ghost is God. They are three distinct persons, each of whom is fully God. But they are not three gods. They are one God. This is a mystery.
Jesus Christ is true God and true man. He was born, lived, suffered, died, and rose from the dead. He lay in a manger on a bed of straw. Yet he is the Creator of the universe by whom all things in all of creation were made. This is a mystery.
The sin and guilt and punishment of this whole world of sinners is reckoned to Jesus, the sinless and perfectly righteous Son of God and his perfect righteousness is reckoned to this whole world of sinners. This is a mystery.
The bread we eat and the wine we drink in the Lord’s Supper are bread and wine that, if examined by a chemist, would be quite ordinary. Yet they are not ordinary bread and wine. They are the very body and blood by which our sins are forgiven and we are rescued from death. This is a mystery.
These mysteries are true. They are impenetrable, unfathomable, sublime, and heavenly. And they are true. They bring life and salvation to those who believe them. That’s why God sends his ministers to preach and teach them. They are to be stewards or managers of these wonderful truths.
A minister of Christ must be faithful. He is not sinless. Were he sinless, he’d be in heaven and couldn’t preach here on earth. He will have his faults, shortcomings, weaknesses, and sins – he will need a Savior as much as those to whom he preaches. But he must be faithful. That is, he must preach and teach as God tells him to preach and teach. He must not tire of it, give up on it, or lose confidence in the power of God’s word. Most of all, he dare not substitute something else for God’s mysteries.
Ministers who toss out the mysteries of God and promote instead a message of human potential will have plenty of followers. Think of the success of such preachers as Joel Osteen and Joyce Meyer. They pack in huge crowds, sell millions of copies of their books, and ignore the mysteries of God, preaching instead a message of successful living by thinking good thoughts. Joel Osteen has no theological education and therefore no business preaching. St. Paul writes that the minister must
. . . hold fast the faithful word as he has been taught, that he may be able, by sound doctrine, both to exhort and convict those who contradict. (Titus 1:9)
Osteen doesn’t know the sound doctrine.
Joyce Meyer was raised in the sound doctrine, at least for a while, attending a conservative Bible believing Lutheran congregation in Missouri. She rejected what she was taught in favor of a message of human empowerment. The Bible clearly forbids a woman to preach publicly in Christ’s church, but today’s religious consumers don’t care what the Bible says. They want a religion that will get them what they want. They’re in charge. Let God deliver.
I mention Osteen and Meyer as illustrations. They are just two prominent examples of what passes for religion in America today. Religion is marketed as a commodity for sale. Those in the business of selling religion know that the customer is always right.
The faithful steward of God’s mysteries must remember whose minister he is. He does not bow to market demands. He does not permit the religious consumer to set the agenda for his preaching and teaching. The mysteries of God are not crafted to appeal to the desires of sinful people for self-vindication, self-validation, self-empowerment, or whatever form of selfishness is in style. The mysteries of God are God’s truth that God reveals about himself and us. God knows better than we do what we need to hear.
The mysteries of God reveal God to us. Listen to what Jesus prayed to his Father as he was facing his crucifixion:
Father, the hour has come. Glorify Your Son, that Your Son also may glorify You, as You have given Him authority over all flesh, that He should give eternal life to as many as You have given Him. And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent. (John 17:1b-3)
The mysteries of God reveal God to us. The person of the preacher isn’t the point. Preachers as entrepreneurs promote themselves as evidence of how God will bless others. St. Paul, on the other hand, pointed to Christ. He was like John the Baptist. He wanted neither judgment nor praise. He didn’t judge himself or justify himself. He was not the point. The point of preaching is always Jesus Christ and him crucified. This is the mystery upon which faith rests. St. Paul writes:
But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God ordained before the ages for our glory. (1 Corinthians 2:7)
To know God is to have eternal life. To know God you must know his Son. To know his Son you must see him in his suffering. The mysteries of God include the sacraments of Christ. In Holy Baptism, we die with Christ and rise with him. In Holy Communion, we eat and drink the body and the blood that were given and shed for us. The crucifixion of Jesus is where we meet God. All of the mysteries that God reveals to our faith are centered in the cross where Jesus suffered for us.
The Father’s love, the Son’s redemption, the Holy Spirit’s comfort – they are all located there where Jesus was crucified for us. Our reconciliation with God, the forgiveness of all our sins, our future glory in heaven – all of this is ours on account of Christ’s suffering on the cross. When the Lord Jesus confirmed to John the Baptist’s disciples that he was indeed the Christ, he concluded his demonstration of it by saying: “The poor have the gospel preached to them.” And then he added, “And blessed is he who is not offended because of me.”
The ministry of Christ offends. We don’t get to know God by giving lip service to doctrinal propositions concerning him. The truth becomes ours only through faith and faith is impossible without repentance. This is why we must learn the Ten Commandments and take them to heart. We must know that we have sinned and brought upon ourselves God’s retribution. Only from a position of humble sorrow over our sin can we learn to trust in Christ’s sacrifice on the cross where he bore our sin in his own body. The need for Christ’s death offends religious people who want a religion that makes them feel good about themselves. So preachers set aside the stewardship of God’s mysteries for what will make them popular with the people.
But such men are not ministers of Christ. The minister of Christ knows every time he ascends into the pulpit that the only hope any of us has is in the blood and righteousness of Jesus. So he preaches it. In good times and bad, whether he sees any response or not, when he’s feeling good about his job or is discouraged, he preaches the wisdom of the cross. Yes, it is foolishness to those who don’t know God. But for us who are on our way to heaven, it is the wisdom of God, the power of God, and the revelation of his most holy mysteries. Amen.