Make ready thy way. This line in the Collect Prayer for this 3rd Sunday in Advent is an excellent synopsis of our Epistle from I Corinthians 4. Making things ready is time-consuming. We often wish God worked as a genie; a mere snap of the finger to fix anything or anyone. God does not work in this manner. He works patiently and calls us to the same. While I was the Rector of All Saints in Vacaville, CA I was asked to coach the local Christian school’s JV baseball team. Having grown up playing and watching the sport, I took the opportunity in a heartbeat. Coaching any sport at the High School level takes a lot of preparation before the first game. There are meetings with the parents and players about expectations for the season. There are tryouts to see who will make the Varsity and JV teams. Then, there are the two weeks or so of practices to prepare for games. In these practices, the fundamentals of the game take all the time. The very basics of the game prepare the players to implement what they learned or re-learned on the field of play. A few weeks after the season started, I had a student approach me about joining the team. He found a ready welcome as we were always short of players. He had last played baseball a couple of years back in little league. We did not have the time to prepare him adequately before his first game. In the middle of the game, we were in a desperate situation to have him pitch. We put him out on the mound. Immediately with a runner on first, he committed a balk, which meant he made an illegal motion on the pitcher’s mound, advancing the base runner to the next base. My pitching coach had to go to the mound to give him a very short crash course on how not to commit another balk. It was a classic case of not being ready (even though he claimed he was more than ready). Our lives in Christ are much the same. We are in a constant mode of preparation by God through His Church and His Word. Our work as the Church is work of preparation for the ultimate return of Jesus Christ to judge the living and the dead. This is one of the themes of the Advent Season. This morning, let us focus on how our collect for the week provides the blueprint for implementing our Epistle into life.
Turning the Hearts of the Disobedient
First, making ready the way entails the following from our collect prayer, “by turning the hearts of the disobedient to the wisdom of the just.” Our message as Christians must contain such entreaties. It begins with dealing with our own sins. From the standpoint that we live lives of repentance and lives of forgiveness, we are in a position to call the disobedient to obedience. We are better heard when we willingly repent and forgive. We are less apt to be heard when we place ourselves above others in a “holier than thou” approach. This approach places self above others as the standard to look to and emulate. Such is prideful and will end in heartache every single time. We have all fallen short of the glory of God. Our model is to point to Jesus while we ALL repent and call others to do as we do in humility.
This is what it means to be stewards, ministers, and servant of the mysteries of God as we read in I Corinthians 4:1. Turning the hearts of the disobedient to Christ means diminishing self, placing Jesus at center. It is as our Epistle in its context, a little later in I Corinthians 4:13 states, “When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we entreat.” Now, these humble methods are contrary to the way this world tries to change the hearts of people. In this world, the model to turn hearts is to revile back against those that revile to the point of crushing them beyond hope. The worldly model to turn hearts is to persecute those that persecute us to the point of crushing them beyond hope. The worldly model to turn hearts is to slander those that slander us to the point of crushing them beyond hope. These are not the ways of Christ. These are the ways of pride, vainglory, and hypocrisy.
Our call is to reach out to all that are disobedient, including fellow members of the Church. God works through our faithfulness. As I Corinthians 4:2 states, “Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found faithful.” Often, it is easy to overlook our own sins and the sins of fellow Christians to focus primarily on pointing out the problems of those outside the faith. This approach disdains what our Savior did in His earthly ministry to dine with sinners to call them to life in Him. For us, we are not perfect as Christ. In appealing to fellow sinners, we call them to the same repentance we practice.
This requires God-given patience. I Corinthians 4:5 states, “Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart.” Too often when we are dealing with sin, we demand timelines based on our selfish desires and needs. Or, we make it difficult with unbiblical demands to make amends that they fall into despair. In such, we often leave God out of the picture and make it all about self. In such states, we let our selfish desires get in the way of God to the point we want more than what God requires in His Word in terms of repentance and forgiveness. As I Corinthians 4:6 states, “not to go beyond what is written, that none of us be puffed up in favor of one against another.”
Have you ever had someone not repent for his or her sin against you? Have you ever had someone not forgive you even though you repented and asked for forgiveness? Have you ever had someone repent to you and then go right on sinning the same sin against you? Have you ever repented to someone, heard the words “I forgive you” to then go and act as if they did not forgive you? In such, we experience not the work of God, but the work of people that are consumed in self and the ways of this world. They choose to go beyond what God has written in favor of adding to the Gospel, adding to what repentance and forgiveness means from Scripture. They make repentance and forgiveness all about self and NOT all about Jesus Christ.
Turning the hearts of the disobedient means, we wait on the Lord even in these situations. It means we pray for those that will not repent or that repent and keep sinning that God would soften their hearts. It means we pray for those that will not forgive or those that say such and act in an unforgiving manner. Such is to turn the other cheek while giving all these things into the hands of God. As Isaiah 26:8 relates, “In the path of your judgments, O Lord, we wait for you.” His path is hard, for it places all the hurts people level against us upon Christ. It is hard because we often want to take the glory for reconciliation instead of giving God the glory. It is hard because we often want to say “poor me” when we have been hurt, slandered, or have had forgiveness refused instead of praying for endurance in Christ.
To the Wisdom of the Lord.
This brings us to the whole point of turning the hearts of the disobedient … to the wisdom of the just. This is through Jesus Christ alone. It is not about us. It is about Christ. The more we acknowledge this, the more we will break out of the vicious cycles of hard hearts that will not repent or will not forgive. Christ is our rock where we all fail when we try to do it alone.
The conclusion to such trust in Christ is what we read at the end of I Corinthians 4:5, “Then each one will receive his commendation from God.” We do not seek the approval of people. Our approval is through Christ alone. Often, this will not result in the approval of people. God is working on the hard hearts of the unrepentant and the unforgiving. We are called to pray for them, to leave the timing to the Lord. This patience is part of the wisdom of the just, leaving the power to change people where it belongs, with God.
Now, this is hard. We like to think we have the power to change people. Rather, God merely has given us the authority to proclaim the message of Christ, repentance, and forgiveness to the world. He alone has the power to change the hearts of people. It is our role to patiently proclaim this message and patiently pray for God to work in His time. Such humility is seen in I Corinthians 3:6-7 and is worthy of note in how we deal with fellow sinners, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.” The faithfulness is not in how successful from a worldly perspective our work of proclaiming the Gospel looks. We live in a world that wants the credit for the growth and change. When we attempt to take the credit for the growth and change, we will be consumed by destructive pride. Faithfulness is to proclaim Christ in word and in deed and to wait on the Lord’s timing. The faithfulness is to pray through the entire season or seasons of our planting and watering.
Turning to the wisdom of the just has in mind what Jesus said in Matthew 11:6, “And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” In other words, turning from disobedience to Christ is to place our lives in His hands, not to take offence in Him while the world takes offence in Him. See, faith is to let go of our sinful notions of self-preservation in terms of being consumed by what sinners think of us, say about us, or may even do to us.
The wisdom of the just in not being offended by Christ is to rest in Him as our Promised Land, our Sabbath rest, and our Temple. He cares for us eternally. Isaiah 26:3-4 provides more in terms of what Jesus gives us as we learn to lean on Him and less and less upon self and the whims of people, “You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you. Trust in the LORD forever, for the LORD GOD is an everlasting rock.” As we turn from our sins or forgive the sins of others against us, our minds stay upon Christ over and against being set on selfish motives or upon what others think about us, say about us, or do to us. Repentance that turns from disobedience to seek Christ to go and sin no more is difficult, yet peaceful. Forgiving others is difficult, yet peaceful. When we refuse to repent, peace is absent. When we refuse to forgive, peace is absent.
This path of reliance on Christ to trust Him to repent and to trust Him to forgive is outlined in Isaiah 26:7, “The path of the righteous is level; you make level the way of the righteous.” God calls us to Himself through His Son Jesus Christ. We need to stop fretting about trying to figure out how to earn His favor or to be noticed. We need to place all our cares upon Him. We need to believe in Christ, to rely fully upon Him as we daily forsake our disobedience, asking for the grace of obedience.
Turning the hearts of the disobedient begins with all of us making repentance a constant in life, rather than a rarity in life. Turning to the wisdom of the just is to pray for God’s help to soften our hearts to make forgiving others a constant in life, rather than a rarity in life. We must place all our fears in God’s hands. In so doing, we make ready the way of Christ. In so doing in the context of our Gospel, at the end of Matthew 11, we will find rest in Christ for our souls. We will find that His burden is light. We will find a little everyday how He uses us through the little things of repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation by His power in His time to make ready His way. May this be so in our midst. Amen.