January 25, 2015
I love the Scriptures. I really do. That should be perfectly evident every time I step into this pulpit. There should be no question about it. But sometimes, I must admit, that I don’t like them very much. And usually, when I don’t like them, its because I don’t understand them. no matter how much I fight with them and no matter how much I struggle with them. And when I first looked at our passage this morning, my first reaction was “Yowzah, I could never preach on that!” What in the world is the Apostle Paul talking about? What is he thinking? This is indeed strange stuff!
But over the years, I’ve learned to never say “Never.” The more I tried to ignore this passage, the more it kept calling to me. “Work with this one, work with this one.” It is a very strange passage, and it is strange because what is said in it is not characteristic of the Apostle Paul at all. All of the writers of the Scriptures have, what I will call this morning, a “signature.” And as one truly studies the Scriptures, one gets to know that “signature.” Our passage this morning seems not to be written by the Apostle Paul at all. It is not written in his usual style, and it contains some advice, at least on the surface level, that is contradictory to his other teachings.
And so here I am this morning, trying to give this passage my best shot, doing my best to extract a sermon from it. I’m already guessing that as I read this passage, that some of you were scratching your heads, wondering what was up with these words, too. So let’s see if we can figure out what to do with it.
Chapter seven was written by Paul in response to some questions that the folks in Corinth had sent along ahead of time for Paul to answer. They had written him a letter with these questions, and Paul begins Chapter seven by saying, “Now concerning the matters about which you wrote.” That’s back in Verse one. And a lot of their questions had to do with conduct within marriage. And so in Verse 25, Paul tackles the issue of the unmarried, or as he puts it, the “virgins”. The question behind Paul’s answer was probably, “Should our young people be entering into marriage?” And that’s an odd question at the outset, because that’s what young people do. They fall in love and they get married, and they make babies. That’s the pattern that God has established from the moment that God first planted Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Marriage is the highest and holiest of all human relationships. It is the most sacred earthly relationship that any of us can enter into. Throughout the Scriptures, the wonder and glory of marriage is extolled and celebrated. It is even used to define the relationship between God and his people. In the Old Testament, God fancies himself as the husband of his people, and in the New Testament, Jesus names himself as the bride of the church. And so marriage is serious business.
But here, in our passage this morning, Paul seems to be setting aside all of that by saying, “Eh, don’t be so hasty when it comes to getting married.” But when he says that, he provides two qualifiers that complicate things a bit. The first is that he has no command from the Lord on this. Paul says this, from time to time, when he’s about to give his personal opinion. He’s careful to distinguish in his teachings those things that he believes are a clear commandment from God, from those things that he’s offering an opinion on. But he also says that he’s pretty sure that his opinion is good, and that it is trustworthy, because by God’s mercy, he’s been given some good wisdom that goes beyond his own.
The second reason that Paul offers up as encouragement that young couples should not be racing to get married, is something that he calls “the impending crisis.” And the mystery deepens. Some of your Bibles may call it the “present crisis.” So what is it? Is it the “impending crisis”, or is it the “present crisis”? We don’t know. Both are legitimate translations, but neither of them help us very much. There’s a crisis. Its either here, or just about to be here, but what is it? Was there something going on in Corinth, or about to go on, that contraindicated getting married? We don’t know. Paul just believes that in view of this crisis, that folks ought to just stay the way that they are, and not make any major changes in their lives. He says, “Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife.” But if you really want to get married, go ahead, because there’s no sin involved. You won’t be disobeying God, its just that you won’t be taking my advice.
OK, that’s perfectly clear. Not! But maybe there’s a hint about what this crisis is all about. Its in Verse 29. Paul says, by way of explanation, “I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short.” And here’s where we kick the hornet’s nest. Paul may be talking about the end times. I know that may seem premature to us, because just about two thousand years have passed since Paul wrote these words, and Jesus still hasn’t come back. But as much as we may or may not like it, all of the writers of the Epistles in the New Testament anticipated the immanent return of Jesus Christ to this earth. They never imagined a two thousand year delay. All of them were certain that they would witness the return of Christ in their life-times. In Paul’s mind, the end-times had been set in motion by our Lord’s death and resurrection. There was nothing more that needed to be accomplished. Salvation had come into the world, the promise of eternal life had been established in Christ’s resurrection; only the final consummation remained, Christ could return at any moment.
And so for Paul, the impending crisis, or the present crisis, if you prefer, is all the evidence he needs, to know that the appointed time has indeed grown short. In the first century, God’s people stood at the end of history. And in two thousand years, nothing has really changed. We, too, stand at the end of history. Christ could return at any moment. Every generation of Christians has anticipated the soon return of Jesus Christ to this earth, and we should be no different. Its just that the time is not ours to determine. It never has been. That is totally up to God. And so even in the first century, the Apostle Paul could say with a clear and confident conscience that the appointed time has grown short.
And because the appointed time has grown short, this calls for a radically new understanding of our relationship with the world. The return of Christ is in plain view, and that absolutely determines how we conduct ourselves and how we live our lives in this present age. And so having announced that the time has indeed grown short, Paul launches us into the most troubling part of this passage of all.
Paul says, “From now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it.”
Here are five injunctions that are both absurd and completely contradictory to Paul’s teachings elsewhere in this Epistle and in the others that he has written. Even his sermons in the Book of Acts do not even come close to putting forth ideas like this. These words are so unlike the Apostle Paul that we might want to wonder if he even wrote them. Did some impostor sneak these words into Paul’s writings? Unfortunately not. They are as authentic as they can be. And so they must mean something other than what they say.
Is Paul championing some kind of escapism from reality? It sounds like it, and some have used these words as an excuse to escape from reality; to bug out of this world and to escape from their commitments and responsibilities in it. To go hide somewhere, but mostly just to be lazy and irresponsible. Paul would say, and has said elsewhere that to do that would be sin.
So what in the world is he talking about? Paul is saying that in view of the impending crisis, and because of the shortened time frame in which we live, that we must live our lives with radically altered values. We are Christians; we are followers of Jesus Christ. That commitment not only informs, but also supersedes everything that we are, and everything that we do, and every commitment that we make. We know, deep in our hearts how all of this is going to end, and so we shape our lives and values accordingly.
Of course we are going to get married if we fall in love. And not only are we going to get married, but we are also going to honor the sanctity of our marriages, because we know that they model the very relationships that we have with God. We’re going to have great marriages because they show the rest of the world what true love is, and a good marriage draws others to God.
Of course we are going to mourn and grieve. We suffer losses. Our Lord grieved deeply in his experience of humanity, and he shared that grief with others. He asked for prayer when he grieved, and so must we. But, as Paul says elsewhere, we do not grieve as those who have no hope. He may be hinting at that here.
Of course we will rejoice. Joy is the primary emotion of all believers. Joy is meant to be celebrated and shared with others. Elsewhere, Paul tells us to rejoice with those who rejoice; he’s always encouraging his readers to make his joy complete by being obedient to the Lord’s commands. Joy is our greatest gift.
Of course we’re going to be buying stuff. No matter how rich or how poor we are, there’s stuff that we need, and the usual way to get that stuff is to buy it. Our Psalm this morning takes a dim view of robbery. But what we won’t do, is allow ourselves to be defined by our possessions.
And finally, yes, of course, we will have dealings with the world. We cannot avoid it. But we will have dealings that are characterized by truthfulness and honesty and integrity, or we will not have them at all.
And we will have and do all of these things knowing that these things are not who we truly are. We are children of God. That is our true identity. Everything else about us and around us is far less important than that. Paul concludes this passage by saying that the present form of this world is passing away. Along with this world, all of the personal, social and commercial expressions that define it are also passing away, fading away into non-existence.
For us, eternity is in plain view. We know that we have a definite future and we can see it with clarity. We also know that life in eternity will be different and better than life on this earth. And so in anticipation of that different and better life, we live our lives today with a clear sense of what really counts and what doesn’t matter a hill of beans. We are not under the influence of those things that determine and dictate the lives of others. Time is short, Paul says. We haven’t got much time. Let’s live with eternities vows in mind.