Pastor Hopkins preached this sermon on Wednesday in the first week of Lent, 3/4/2020. The text for the sermon was the Epistle lesson from the first Sunday in Lent. To read the Bible texts for the first week of Lent, click here.
St. Paul begins this section of his letter by making an appeal to his apostleship. To be an apostle means that he is an ambassador of Jesus Christ. Part of being an ambassador means that he represents Jesus, not merely in terms of authority, but in this case, for the good of God’s people. Paul’s appeal to his apostleship, his ambassadorship, is so that the Corinthians would receive him as they would Jesus; particularly because he is there to bring God’s grace.
And as he does, Paul does not want them to be receiving the grace of God to no purpose. By receiving God’s grace, Paul wants the Corinthians to be reconciled. To express what that means, Paul cites Isaiah 49:8.
This is Isaiah’s proclamation concerning the Year of Jubilee. The Year of Jubilee would mean that land was to be given back to its original owners. It means that prisoners were to be released and set free. And that year, that season, is now.
Now, Paul writes, is that favorable time. Now is the day of salvation. Now it is for you as it was for the people of Israel – that everything lost is returned. Now is that time that you prisoners are set free from the bondage of sin by God’s grace.
In the same way that nothing could interfere with God’s solemn decree of grace in the Jubilee Year, so now nothing ought to obstruct the grace of God in Christ for you. Part of God’s grace, given through His ministers, includes their example, which is given to reflect God’s own self-sacrificial character. The apostles, then, are pointing to Christ with words, but also with their suffering.
And that, really, is key. Paul is not really boasting in what he is suffering. He is highlighting it because he wants to show that his ministry is a picture of Jesus ministry. His legitimacy comes not with impressive spreadsheets or worldly adulation. His ministry is marked with suffering that is meant to imitate Jesus’ suffering.
Before Paul did anything for anyone in the Church, it was Jesus who had endured; Jesus who had been stricken, smitten, and afflicted; Jesus who endured the greatest hardship and calamity, the beatings of the Romans, the imprisonment of the tomb, the angry mob, nights spent in prayer, hunger in the wilderness.
It was Jesus who endured these things not merely by passing through them, but enduring them in perfect purity, in full knowledge of His mission, in patience with the impatient, kindness toward the unkind, led by His Holy Spirit with the only true love, made known in true speech and true power.
Thus the apostles imitate their Lord; they are pictures of His grace, and Paul does not want the Corinthians to receive that grace in an empty way. It would not only be a waste of Jesus’ sufferings and their sufferings, it would profit them nothing.
But grace does not come by force. And so the weapons of righteousness, by which they will do battle, by which they will carry out their ministry, are actually gifts. God’s Word and Sacraments, prayer, and service… None of these things work by coercion. And so they are instruments by which God works in grace and mercy.
Even the outcome of Paul’s ministry is a reflection of Jesus’ ministry: Jesus is honored by some but dishonored by most. He is slandered and mocked, even as He is praised. What else is this than a summary of Passion week? Jesus is treated as an impostor Messiah, and yet He is true Messiah. And though He is the Messiah, He is rejected as one who is unknown, even as He is well-known to be David’s Son and heir.
It is Jesus who was not only dying, but who died, and behold: He lives. It is Jesus who was punished for the world’s transgressions, but did not die eternally. Jesus is the Man of Sorrows, the Suffering Servant foretold by Isaiah, who nevertheless has joy in the trial that is set before Him; and rejoicing thusly, He endured the cross, despising its shame.
It is Jesus who has emptied Himself, who has given up all that belongs to Him by right as God, who became poor for your sake, that He would make you rich. It is Jesus who in His state of humiliation had nothing. Birds have nests and foxes have holes, but the Son of Man had nowhere to lay His head. (Matthew 8:20) And yet, this is He by whom all things were made, and the cattle on 1,000 hills are his.
What does this mean? What does it mean that the apostolic ministry imitates Jesus ministry? It means that you should receive from us God’s grace. It means that when we say that God has listened to you, it is because He has. It means that when we say the day of salvation has come, it is because it has. It means that now, today, in the present, is the favorable time. Jesus’ sacrifice is accomplished. It is in the past. But the benefits of His atoning sacrifice extend to you now, to this very moment. So if now is the favorable time, if now is the year of Jubilee, if now is the day you are set free once again, then be free.
Being free as Jesus is free – free from this world’s lures, free from death, free from the devil; being free as Jesus is free means that your life will look something like Jesus’ life, and the life imitated by His holy apostles.
Borne with purity, knowledge, patience, kindness,
With the Holy Spirit, genuine love, and truthful speech;
Empowered by continually receiving God’s Word and Sacraments, those weapons of righteousness, not wielded in vain; but showing the world a picture of Jesus, so that they would know this time of Jubilee as well.
That they would be set free, and brought home now in this favorable time.