When Bruce and I lived in Kansas City, we developed a holiday tradition that we loved. On a Saturday between Christmas and Epiphany, we held a party for all of our musician friends. We invited them to bring their holiday leftovers, and all the music they had missed playing or singing for the last month because they were too busy performing Messiah and Nutcracker. Serious music was welcome, but not required. Concert Black dress was strictly prohibited. We called it “The Little Jimmy Dickens Society for the Preservation of the Rebek, Sackbutt, and Other Instruments of Torture.”
We had a lot of fun. Our dining room table was crowded with food, and our living room was filled with music. But not all those who attended the Little Jimmy Dickens Society were musicians. Spouses and significant others came along, and sometimes they would join in the fun with non-musical performances.
Every year, our friend Leona would rise sometime during the evening, and read The Christmas Letter she had received from a friend she barely knew. It seemed that The Letter was never less than four pages long. We were always grateful that Leona’s reading only gave us the highlights, but even this abbreviated version of The Christmas Letter made it clear that the woman who had written it thought her family was probably more intelligent, more talented, and more interesting than any other family she knew.
As we celebrate our Hanging of the Greens on this First Sunday of Advent, we get to hear the beginning of another letter, written by someone who knows how to write a good one. Maybe he learned the rules of good letter writing in the Roman equivalent of elementary school. Maybe he learned them in his studies as a Hebrew scholar. Wherever the Apostle Paul learned how to write a good letter, we can be thankful that he did. Though we call it “First” Corinthians, we know this was not the first time Paul had written to the church in Corinth, because he references an earlier message to them in chapter 5 (1 Corinthians 5:9). And this isn’t Paul’s version of a Christmas Letter, either. He doesn’t give details of his own activities for the friends who live in Corinth. This is a pastoral letter, and in it, Paul will chastise his readers for their arrogance, their disunity, and their lack of moral purity. But before he can do that, Paul follows standard letter-writing procedure for the first century. He identifies himself at the beginning, and then he sends his greeting and words of good will.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind— just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you— so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. (1 Corinthians 1:3-9)
We didn’t get to examine this text in Wednesday night Bible study this week, so let’s take a moment to look at some of the elements of Paul’s greeting from a scholarly point of view.
“Grace and peace,” Paul writes. This is where Paul’s letter-writing skills combine the best of both his Roman schooling and his Hebrew training. “Grace” or “charis” was the standard Greek blessing to open a letter. “Peace,” or “shalom” would have been the Hebrew equivalent. Here, Paul includes them both, blessing the Corinthians with a reminder that they have received God’s grace, God’s unmerited favor, and God’s complete and full peace. Not only does Paul tie together an Old Testament understanding of shalom with a New Testament emphasis on grace, he connects the Old Testament God with the New Testament Christ by way of relationship. Instead of calling God “the Lord,” or “Adonai,” Paul calls him “the Father,” emphasizing God’s relationship to Jesus, the Son. Then Paul names Jesus as “Lord.” This term, ‘Lord,’ had both a sacred and a secular application, for it was also the title normally reserved for Caesar in the Roman world. Calling Jesus Lord was both a way to name him as God, and to remind the Corinthians that Christ’s authority overrules human authority.
It’s also interesting to note that the word we translate as “grace” is also the root of the word we translate as “gift” in verse seven. God shows us love we do not deserve by giving us spiritual gifts. Grace is a gift. Paul has packed a lot into these few words: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.”
But Paul isn’t finished.
Following the greeting, a first century writer would normally express gratitude for his own good fortune. Instead, Paul gives thanks for the Corinthians, and for the benefits they have received from God. He thanks God for the grace that has been shown to them, and for their spiritual gifts of knowledge and speech. But it’s interesting that Paul does not include their faith, love, or righteousness in his thanksgiving. These are areas he will address later in the letter. In fact, Paul is about to lambast the Corinthians for their arrogance and favoritism, yet here, he thanks God for them, and for the spiritual gifts that have enriched them.
I wonder, if Paul were writing to us today, what spiritual gifts would he be grateful to see among us? Would he praise us for our hospitality, or for our service to others? Would he commend us for our perseverance in the faith, or for our wisdom? What gifts would he leave out of our list?
Lucy Lind Hogan writes, “Paul … helps the community [to] understand why they have been given these gifts. Yes, it is to help them in the living out of their faith in the here and now. But more importantly, they have been given these gifts to help them for the long journey that lies ahead; the journey that will lead them to ‘the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.’”
Perhaps the church in Corinth had forgotten the promise that Christ would come again. Perhaps they were so focused on what God had already done, they were no longer waiting in anticipation of “the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1:8)
One problem the Corinthians faced was their own arrogance. They had become proud of their knowledge and their eloquent speaking, to the point of claiming that the gifts they enjoyed were actually of their own doing instead of coming from God. They had crossed the line between celebrating what God had done, and taking credit for the result of God’s work in their midst. They were no longer looking for Christ to be revealed. More to the point, they were no longer revealing Christ to the city of Corinth. This is why Paul’s greeting mentions Christ in every single verse: he wants to remind them that God’s self-revelation in the person of Jesus Christ is ongoing, and they are to bear witness to that truth.
Just as the church in Corinth was called to give testimony to Christ’s saving power, so we are called to reveal Christ to the city of New Ulm. But we need to be careful that we don’t fall into the same trap that caught the Corinthians. It is only in God’s strength that we can be “enriched in every way, not lacking any spiritual gift” as we reveal Christ now, and wait for his final revealing when he comes again. God will be with us through every trial, through every challenge, keeping us strong as we wait for that revelation.
Dirk Lange writes that the revelation of Jesus Christ … “is an unexpected revelation. It is not waiting for another birth in a manger and not necessarily waiting for a second coming into time.” Instead, Lange goes on to explain, this waiting in the present time shows itself in the praying and thanksgiving, the singing and the sharing that changes us, forming us into people who are more and more like Jesus. That transformation happens here, in this community of faith. As Christ’s church, we are called to see “Christ ‘adventing’ in our very midst,” and to bear the testimony of that advent to the world.
From the introduction to this morning’s Hanging of the Greens service, you may remember that the word Advent means “arrival.” During this season of Advent, we emphasize Christ’s arrival in three ways:
1) Christ’s historic arrival in human form that we celebrate on Christmas
2) Christ’s redemptive arrival in the lives of His people , and
3) The Second Coming of Christ when He will arrive in glory to establish His kingdom, and to judge all people.
Even as we look back to the first Christmas, and forward to Christ’s Second coming, we can see that God is not done. God is not silent or inactive here in the meantime. God is working his purpose out, and we are part of that purpose. God continues to reveal himself to us, and through us, strengthening us with every spiritual gift for the work we have been given to do.
God is faithful and God is the one who calls us – not the other way around. God calls us into fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ, so that we might stand blameless on that last day. Blameless! What an amazing promise that is!
Paul was writing to people who had “already engaged in quarrels, nourished scandalous conduct, doubted some of the basic elements of the gospel, questioned the authority of the apostle, and threatened to go off into extravagant fanaticisms. … yet here he states unconditionally that they will be blameless” in the end.
God is faithful. Nothing we do can cancel that. God has called us into partnership with his Son. He has given us spiritual gifts, and the strength to use them, so that we can give testimony to the reality of Christ’s arrival.
This is the First Sunday of Advent, traditionally, the Sunday of HOPE. In another of Paul’s letters, he writes, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope. (Romans 15:13 ESV)
Grace and peace and hope. This is what we celebrate as we hang our greenery and begin the four weeks of expectant waiting we call Advent. We receive God’s unmerited favor toward us, love we don’t deserve and could never earn. We offer peace as shalom to others, the kind of peace that can only be realized when we call Christ our Lord. And we look forward in hope to the time when Christ will complete the work he has begun in us, bringing in the Kingdom of God in its fullness.
Let us wait, remembering that Christ came in human form to save us, Immanuel.
Let us wait, actively using the gifts God has given us, knowing that we cannot take credit for those gifts, but we also dare not abuse them or let them go unused, for God is With Us.
And let us wait, bearing testimony to the world that
Christ has died,
Christ is risen,
Christ will come again.
 William E Orr and James Arthur Walther, The Anchor Bible: I Corinthians, 145-6.