1 Corinthians 1:4-9
The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
November 29, 2020 – 1st Sunday of Advent

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a pastor of the underground church in Hitler’s Germany, a leader of a band of believers who in the name of Christ fought Nazi evil.  For his faithfulness, he was arrested and thrown into the Flossenberg Concentration Camp, where he’d eventually be hanged for treason.

In a letter to his fiancé Maria von Wedemeyer about half a year before his death, he wrote, “A prison cell – in which one waits, hopes…and depends completely on the door to freedom being opened ‘from the outside’ – is not a bad picture of Advent.”

Advent is a season in which we wait and hope for the arrival of the celebration of Christ’s first coming and for the arrival of His second when He will again enter our sin-sick world “from the outside” to open the door to freedom for us and the world that we and it might become fully what God had always intended.

In that hoping and waiting, we are held up by the strength of God’s grace.  Bonhoeffer did not so much hope and wait for his liberation from Flossenberg as for the strengthening inspiration of the Spirit to bear a good testimony to Christ to the end – which he did!

Another Christian dissident, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, hoped, waited and was strengthened in the same way.  For his protests against Communist evil, Solzhenitsyn suffered years of hard labor in a Siberian prison.  At one point, he ran out of his inner resources, succumbed to discouragement, and decided to give up and die.  His plan was to stop working out in the field, lean on his shovel, and let the guards show up to beat him to death.  While leaning on his shovel, however, another prisoner reached over with his own shovel and drew in the dirt a cross – which he quickly erased before the guards got near.  Solzhenitsyn said that in that second his soul was suffused with a strength that came from outside of himself, a supernatural force that enabled him to stay faithful in his witness until his release into freedom.

The Corinthians were sometimes too full of themselves to wait on God to fill them with the strength of His grace.  Why, they were even prone to forget that what strength and spiritual powers they already had came from God by grace in the first place!

Though Paul might have blasted them right off the bat for their delusions of self-sufficiency, he graciously began his letter by expressing his gratitude for who they were by God’s grace: those who had “in every way” been “enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind”, with the result that their “testimony” was “strengthened” and “not lacking in any spiritual gift”.  Even so, Paul noted, they remained, with all believers, those who still “wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ” – that is, for His manifesting His full reality and fully redeeming His broken people and this broken world.

Paul then assured the Corinthians that if they relied on Christ He would “strengthen” them “to the end” – that is, until that great Day of redemption.  He would give them the power to keep waiting in hope and working in love, and thereby be found “blameless” on that Day of days.  But it would not be because they were self-sufficient, but because “God is faithful”.  The God, who even when He lives inside of us exists infinitely “outside” of us, will at His Son’s second coming open the door to our realizing our great destiny in “the fellowship of his Son”.

When we own up to our need of strengthening from outside of ourselves, and wait on God to give us His strength, we may hope to become more than ourselves, miracle-workers even like Jesus.

Tony Campolo tells of serving as a counselor at a middle school church camp attended by the meanest kids, he said, he’d ever met.  They particularly relished belittling a boy named Billy who had cerebral palsy.  Billy’s brain didn’t communicate well with his body.  The kids called him “spastic”.  When Billy walked in his disjointed manner, the kids would imitate his movements with grotesque exaggeration; and when he talked, they’d mock him for his slow, tortured speech.

The meanness reached its lowest point when it was the turn of Billy’s cabin to give the devotions at the 150 camper morning assembly.  The boys in Billy’s bunkhouse volunteered him to be their speaker.  They felt sure he couldn’t do it.  They just wanted to put him in a bad spot where he’d fail and they could have a good laugh at his expense.

When the moment came, Billy limped up to the platform accompanied by anticipatory giggles.  Focused on the message God had laid on his heart, Billy paid no attention to the tittering.  He paused a moment behind the rostrum as if waiting for strength, and then with labored effort he stuttered out a short, simple gospel proclamation that thundered with God’s saving power.  It silenced all the mocking, and brought scores of those mean kids to tears of repentance and to a recommitment of themselves to a forgiving and redeeming Savior.  For years after, Campolo kept bumping into people who told him they’d given their lives to Christ at the camp, where he’d once served, the day a kid with cerebral palsy proclaimed the gospel with a strength beyond his own.

If God can use someone like Billy, why would any of us think He couldn’t use us to touch others?  If God can transform people through someone with significant limitations such as Billy, how can we say He couldn’t do great things through us?  If we just wait upon Him with hope, He will make us strong in achieving His good purposes!

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