Pastor’s Sermon Notes: “Standing on the Promises: God’s Promise of Faithfulness”
Rev. James E. Lunde
Warrenton Presbyterian Church
2nd Sunday after Epiphany, January 15, 2017
Good morning, it’s good to see you and have you with us for worship today at WPC. Today we continue our new year’s series Standing on the Promises of God. Last week, as we remembered our baptism, we also remembered God’s promise to us that–no matter what–we belong to God. Today, as we continue this series, we’ll be exploring God’s promise of faithfulness–remembering that no matter how far we stray from God–God will continue to seek us out. The faithfulness of God is the common thread of our lectionary readings this morning. The prophet Isaiah reminds his listeners of the Lord’s faithfulness even before birth as God formed us in our mother’s wombs. The psalm we read together reflects how God’s faithfulness and steadfast love are the source of his safety. Now we turn to the beginning of 1st Corinthians as the apostle Paul reminds a conflicted and divided church of God’s faithfulness to them.
1 Corinthians 1: 1-9 (New Revised Standard Version)
1Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes,
2 To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours:
3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
4 I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, 5 for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind — 6 just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you — 7so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. 8He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
As a preacher, I have grown to have great respect for the storyteller and radio personality, Garrison Keillor and his long-time show, A Prairie Home Companion. Arguably, the most beloved part of his show was his weekly news from Lake Wobegon segment in which Keillor would share stories from the fictional town. This segment would typically end with these words:“Well, that’s the news from Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.” A psychologist by the name of David Myers has taken this sign-off to coin what he calls the Lake Wobegon effect–which reflects, as Keillor’s sign-off indicates, people’s tendency to overestimate their abilities. The more clinical term for this cognitive bias is called illusory superiority. One of the best known cases of the Lake Wobegon effect was found with a survey in which over 80% of people considered themselves to be above average drivers–something that is statistically impossible–thus underscoring the very human tendency to overestimate ourselves.
The promise we are exploring this week is the promise of faithfulness. When we hear that word, faithfulness, our 21st century minds go in a number of different directions, but most of those directions are talking about human faithfulness. This week as I wrestled with our lesson, I wondered if the Lake Wobegon effect can teach us something about the way we view our faith. We have a tendency to try–to want to save ourselves. Human nature makes us anxious to have control, to be able to do something that contributes–so it’s no surprise that many of us, myself included, have a tendency to connect faithfulness with ourselves rather than God. We hear in scripture that we are saved by grace through faith, yet we forget that even this saving faith is not our own doing, it’s a gift from God. Another pastor Katherine Pershey admits she often assumed that “God was the object of faithfulness, not it’s subject.”
But the ongoing story of the Bible is the story of God’s faithfulness despite our lack thereof. No matter how far we stray from God–God never stops reaching out to us. To me, this promise is a perfect continuation of where we left off last week. God not only promises us that we belong to God as beloved children, but that God continues reaching out to us no matter how far we stray–no matter how much we distance ourselves–God never gives up seeking us out. And the clearest form we have of this is in the sending of God’s own Son, Jesus into the world.
This is the faithfulness of God. Throughout scripture (as we’ve seen in our readings this morning), the promise of God’s past, present and future faithfulness rings out–and it was exactly this promise the Apostle Paul wanted to convey to the Corinthians in the midst of their troubles.
The ancient city of Corinth is a beautiful place. Marie and I were able to walk the ancient ruins a few years ago while we led youth on a trip tracing some of the footsteps of Paul. Corinth was an important port city to the Roman Empire, and as such, it was a cosmopolitan city with people and backgrounds from all walks of life. Paul writes to the Corinthians after spending nearly 18 months there forming a church. Now when we think of church, we normally think of one big building, but back then we’re talking two or more small, covert house churches that shared some resources and fellowship together. Paul is concerned that the church he started has quickly fallen away from his teaching of the gospel to them and how they are to live that out in community. There were different teachings filtering in, battles for leadership, people bickering over what spiritual gifts were better than others, and vastly different social and economic backgrounds in the community–needless to say, Paul had his work cut out for him.
So Paul writes them a letter. Later in this letter (after our reading today) we’ll see Paul explicitly address the concerns and conflicts at work in the community. But here, in these opening nine verses, Paul uses customary letter-writing salutation, he expresses gratitude to God for the church community in Corinth, and finishes this section with one reminder in verse nine. It reads: “God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” Paul in his best manners, reminds the turbulent church that, because of God’s faithfulness, they have been called together into the fellowship and service of Church. Because of God’s faithfulness, not theirs, they have this special task of coming together and proclaiming the gospel in a time when the community needed to hear it. Faithfulness (of God, not their own) becomes a uniting force for the community, rather than an attribute to measure with a yardstick.
In a radically changing world, Paul knew that God’s promise of faithfulness would provide hope and encourage strength to the Corinthians in the midst of their troubles. The promise of God’s faithfulness can bring together a broken and divided church and re-ignite them to continue their ministry. In a very subtle, but powerful way, Paul changes the conversation. He changes the conversation from one that is about our faithfulness–how faithful we are, how much more qualified we are to serve–to a conversation about God’s faithfulness. The dialogue transforms from their abilities to God’s. Paul offers the Corinthians to trust in the faithfulness, the power and love of God–over and above their own. It is only through this power that true Christian community can form and transform a society.
These powerful, yet subtle words to the Corinthians are applicable to our lives and world today as well.
We can strive to be faithful–we should strive to live our lives of faith in community with others– but we know that as humans, we will ultimately fall short. Even with the best of intentions, we let each other down–we let God down–we fall short of the people God calls us to be. But as Paul says, God is faithful. Despite our shortcomings, God loves us anyways. Despite our attempts to continually stray, God runs out to meet us.
One of the best examples of this I’ve seen was during a conference I attended. Some of the middle schoolers heard me tell this story during my workshop at the Massanetta Springs Middle School Conference this summer. Anyways, at this conference, a pastor of a new church development gave a talk about welcome and hospitality. She shared how in their community during the passing of the peace–they share a different Christian greeting. They wanted this moment in worship to embody the welcome of Christ and his limitless faithfulness and love. So instead, they decided to share this greeting while passing the peace: Jesus loves you, and there’s nothing you can do about it.
Jesus loves you, and there’s nothing you can do about it. It sounds kind of funny when you first hear it, but when you listen closer… it becomes a powerful message and testament of the promise of God’s faithfulness and unending love for us. Jesus loves us, there’s nothing we can do to earn this love. There’s nothing we can do to lose this love. The God we know in Christ simply loves us no matter what. This is the promise of God’s faithfulness–a promise that needs to be shared…
Tomorrow as our nation celebrates the life and legacy of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I thought we would be well-served to hear a few words from Dr King. I’m going to read a few sentences from a sermon of his entitled God is Able, in which he, like Paul reorients our understanding of faith and faithfulness–from being human centered to God centered.
Hear Dr. King’s words…
“Only God is able. It is faith in him that we must rediscover. With this faith we can transform bleak and desolate valleys into sunlit paths of joy and bring new light into the dark caverns of pessimism. Is someone here moving toward the twilight of life and fearful of that which we call death? Why despair? God is able.”
Dr. King shows us (like Paul) that it’s the power, love and faithfulness of God that allows for our faith to transform our lives and our community. If you able and weather permitting, I hope you will join me at 1pm at the Highland School for a community worship service…
The promise of God’s faithfulness, of God’s tireless pursuit of us, gives us strength, hope and courage to face the difficulties of this life. The promise of God’s faithfulness becomes clear in a church community that seeks to embody this faithfulness we know and experience in the living God. A faithfulness that welcomes people as they are, invites them to be transformed by the amazing love of Christ, and strengthen them to go and serve others in his name. So let us go strengthened by this promise of God’s faithfulness, and may we share that promise with the world around us.
- Series inspired by Katherine Willis Pershey in: A Preacher’s Guide to Lectionary Sermon Series, Westminster John Knox Press, 2016.
- Garrison Keillor, “A Prairie Home Companion Radio Show,” American Public Media
- Katherine Willis Pershey, A Preacher’s Guide to Lectionary Sermon Series, Westminster John Knox Press, 2016. p. 14.
- 1 Corinthians 1: 9 (New Revised Standard Version)
- Martin Luther King Jr., “God is Able” in Strength to Love, Fortress Press, 2010, p. 116.
Works Consulted and Cited:
New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, National Council of Churches for Christ, 1989.
Martin Luther King Jr., “God is Able” in Strength to Love, Fortress Press, 2010
Multiple Authors, Feasting on the Word, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press), 2010.
Multiple Authors, A Preacher’s Guide to Lectionary Sermon Series, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press), 2016.
Website for A Prairie Home Companion, American Public Media https://www.prairiehome.org/