The Third Sunday in Advent (Observed on the Second Sunday in Advent)| December 5, 2004| Rev. Rolf Preus| 1 Corinthians 4:1-5
Jesus Christ Himself honored John by saying of him, “Assuredly, I say to you, among those born of women there has not risen one greater than John the Baptist; but he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” (Matthew 11:11) John was a fearless prophet. The prophets of old foretold his coming. Yet to belong to the kingdom of heaven is a greater honor than to be a great prophet. The little children who are members of the kingdom of heaven have wealth beyond the imagination of man. The treasure of this kingdom is the very mysteries of God. To know the mysteries of God is to know God.
These mysteries are not for those who are wise according to the standards of this world. Speaking of the treasures of His kingdom Jesus prayed to God the Father, “I thank You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things from the wise and prudent and have revealed them to babes.” (Matthew 11:25) What impresses the crowds is not what is impressive to God. His standards upend the standards of this world. The world is not seeking after the kingdom of God. People judge by human standards. St. Paul writes:
For Jews request a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. (1 Corinthians 1:22-25)
If you judge by human standards you will also judge those who preach God’s word by human standards. John preached Christ. He identified Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. He said of Jesus, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” (John 3:30) He said, “He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry.” (Matthew 3:11) John’s entire ministry was devoted to directing attention away from himself to Christ. Still, many of John’s disciples did not want to leave John to follow Jesus. They were more attached to John, the preacher, than they were attached to the preaching John preached. This is why John sent them to Jesus. They had to see and hear for themselves that Jesus was the sum and substance of all of John’s preaching.
And this is the way it must always be for Christian preachers. As St. Paul wrote:
For we do not preach ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord, and ourselves your bondservants for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us. (2 Corinthians 4:5-7)
Preachers are earthen vessels and they have clay feet. Christians should not follow after this preacher or that preacher on account of any quality in the preacher. As St. Paul writes in our text, “Let a man so consider us, as ministers of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.” A minister of Christ does not serve by his own authority but by the authority of Christ. The minister of Christ is a steward of God’s mysteries, not a promoter of his own personal philosophy. The mysteries of which Christ’s ministers are stewards are mysteries that God has hidden from the wise and the powerful and has revealed to babes. The mysteries of God come from God. They don’t come from the steward. A steward is a manager of what belongs to another. The mysteries of God belong to God and God has given them to the church. They aren’t the private property of the stewards.
The mysteries of God do not require a degree of human cleverness to grasp. They are grasped by faith alone. The mysteries of God are all centered in Christ. Included is the mystery of the incarnation that we celebrate on Christmas. St. Paul writes in 1 Timothy 3:16, “And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifested in the flesh.” Another mystery is the mystery of the resurrection. As St. Paul writes later on in this Epistle to the Corinthians:
Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed; in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. (1 Corinthians 15:51-52)
Another mystery of our Christian faith is the relationship between Christ and His Church as St. Paul writes to the Ephesians:
“For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This is a great mystery, but I speak concerning Christ and the church. (Ephesians 5:31-32)
The mystery of mysteries is the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus for our salvation. This is the greatest mystery of all. This is the essence, soul, and center of all divine truth. Apart from the passion and resurrection of Jesus we are blind to all spiritual reality because in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus our sins are forgiven, we are reconciled to God, and we are rendered righteous before the bar of God’s justice. But it is precisely this central mystery of our salvation that the world in her wisdom regards as the greatest foolishness. That God would stoop to bear the burden of sinners! Those who are dying without hope despise the suffering of the God-man. This is why they are dying with no hope. And this is why Jesus, in our Gospel for today, says: “And blessed is he who is not offended because of Me.” (Matthew 11:6) He was speaking specifically of His suffering. Don’t be offended by God when He condescends to suffer for you. Don’t look at the bloody sacrifice of Christ as an offense. Of course, it offends the pride of the world, but that pride leads only to destruction. Yes, it offends those who trust in their own virtue, but that trust will only disappoint. The high and mighty of this world are offended by the cross, but we who have found forgiveness of our sins in Jesus’ suffering glory in the wisdom that offends this world. St. Paul writes earlier in the Epistle from which our text is taken:
But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God ordained before the ages for our glory, which none of the rulers of this age knew; for had they known, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But as it is written: “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man the things which God has prepared for those who love Him.” (1 Corinthians 2:7-9)
The things God has prepared for us He prepared for us on the cross. There it was that Jesus removed from us the sin of which we were guilty, the curse our sin evoked, and the death our sin deserved. St. John the Baptist pointed to Jesus as the Lamb of God. It is as the Lamb of God that Jesus opens our hearts to receive all the mysteries of God. As the Lamb of God takes away our sin He brings us into communion with the holy God that we may be partakers of His eternal Wisdom. It is not in our works. It is not in our merits. It is not in any humanly devised status we could gain by any number of good deeds or any amount of virtuous living. It is not by avoiding evil and doing good. It is not by an exercise of our will or by our moral or intellectual prowess. It is in Jesus taking away our sin. God in Christ has mercy on us lost and condemned sinners. He finds us, delivers us, and rescues us from our sins. This is why we glory in the preaching of the cross. It is, for us, the everlasting wisdom of God.
This is what the preachers are called to preach. This is what it means to be a steward of God’s mysteries. It means to preach the pure gospel of Christ and to administer His holy sacraments. They reveal to us the heart of our gracious God because they give Jesus, the Lamb of God, to us. The gospel and sacraments come to us from none other than the crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ who is the very Wisdom of God, as Solomon teaches in the Proverbs. We don’t need eloquent orators. We don’t need powerful polemicists. We need the mysteries. We need them because in them is our God and our eternal life with God. The steward of the mysteries is nobody. The minister of Christ has nothing of his own to administer. But like the waiter or waitress at the local restaurant, he is only to serve what is given him to serve.
The pastor is always a minister of Christ and since Jesus doesn’t lord it over His flock, neither should the pastor. He is only the steward of God’s mysteries. He doesn’t own them. You don’t need to know a pastor’s opinion about anything. But you do need to be enriched by the mysteries that belong to Jesus. This is why you need a pastor. You don’t need any particular pastor, but you do need the mysteries of God and you need someone who will faithfully give them to you. You need the gospel and sacraments of Christ. This is why Jesus instituted the pastoral office.
We don’t judge our preachers by human standards. This doesn’t mean that they are above criticism. Far from it! It means that we bind our pastors to teach according to the divine doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures and faithfully set forth in the creeds and the confessions of the Church. We insist that our pastors preach the pure doctrine that we confess in the creeds, Catechism, and confessions.
The more we care about the saving mysteries of God, the less we will care about human status, human wisdom, and human judgment. We should neither put our preachers up on pedestals nor should we subject them to unfair criticism because they lack this or that skill or gift. We honor faithful stewards not for the sake of their persons, but for the sake of the mysteries of God that they administer for our good. If we want to encourage the ministers of Christ we can do no better than to urge them to be faithful in their stewardship of the mysteries of God. In this way the ministers of Christ will also be serving those to whom the mysteries of salvation belong: the beloved bride of Christ, His holy Christian Church. Amen.