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Sermon Text: 1 Corinthians 7:29-31
Date: January 24 & 25, 2014
Third Sunday after Epiphany, Year B
1 Corinthians 7:29–31 (NIV84)
What I mean, brothers, is that the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they had none; those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep; those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away.
The Time is Short
“We’re late!” That’s never a phrase you want to hear, is it? There are few things that can get your pulse racing like being late for something important. Maybe you had a conversation like that today on the way to church. It’s nice to feel like you’ve got plenty of time to deal with whatever may come your way, to have time to react and plan in a way that will be calm and productive.
Unfortunately, the Apostle Paul has a message for us this morning that doesn’t convey that sense of laid-back ease that can be so comforting. Paul’s message is frank and upfront at the start of our lesson, “The time is short.” We don’t have much time left on this planet. Our lives will come to an end or the Lord will return shortly. So what does that mean for us as Christians? How does that inform our attitudes, our plans, our goals, and how we do spend the time that we have left?
The call to faith and to service changes us. It changes us because it turns us from a child of the world to a child of our heavenly Father. It means we look differently and behave differently, because we know things the world doesn’t know. We know of our sin and what it means to offend the holy God. We know of our forgiveness, and what that means for our relationship with God. But it also means that we know, as Paul clearly states, that our time remaining here is short.
Our lesson takes place in the midst of a chapter almost entirely about marriage. The Corinthians would wrestle with issues of sex and marriage as they saw so many bad examples in the world. Paul gives advice and recommendations to single and married people alike. He wished that everyone could be like him—celibate and devoted to the work of God without and family restrictions—but he recognized that few people were able to function like that. He was very clear that for as many blessings as there could be in remaining unmarried and living a chaste, focused life, that it was far “better to marry than to burn with passion” (7:9). He notes later that “those who marry will face many troubles in this life” (7:28).
Paul is not really as against marriage as he may appear to be, but he is against anything that distracts from God and his Word. In the Corinthian congregation, there would have been many Christians who were married to non-Christians. In that case especially, there would be a great burden placed on the Christian and a constant temptation to fall away because it was easier to keep peace at home. But our focus, Paul says, can’t be on peace and comfort in this life; our focus must be on the life that is to come. And that’s the thought process that gets us to our lesson this morning. Paul says, “What I mean, brothers, is that the time is short.” There’s not much time before the Lord returns; he could do so at a moment’s notice. And so let’s be ready, let’s be focused.
To begin he says, “From now on those who have wives should live as if they had none.” Now let’s be clear what Paul isn’t saying. Paul is not saying, pretend you aren’t married and get caught up in wild, carnal living. Such a life would hardly respect the order that God established for marriage and sexuality. Nor is he saying, “Ignore your spouse and mistreat her or him.” That’s hardly reflective of the love that God has had for us.
No, when Paul says that whose who are married should live as if they are not, he means this: Jesus must come before your spouse. No matter how much you love them, no matter how dedicated you are to them, no matter how wonderful your relationship is, when push comes to shove, Jesus has to outrank your spouse. Because a loving marriage, while wonderful, will not save. But faith in Jesus as Savior brings eternal life. As such, he has to be the most important thing in your life.
Such priorities bring perspective to other relationships too. Your spouse, or child, or friend, or whomever, are not always easy to love. They are not easy to love because they are sinful and you are sinful. In our sin, we bite at each other and fight. In our rebellion against God we are selfish and seek our own good, not the good of others. But in any human relationship, if Jesus is seen as the most important to all involved, that has a trickle-down effect of bringing blessings to all parties. When a husband and wife see their relationship to Jesus and the dedication to their personal faith as the most important part of their life, there in that connection with God they also learn to love one another better. When Jesus is the priority, the distractions of this life fade into the background, spouses find the solution to their own sin and their spouse’s sin at the cross of Jesus, and they in turn help each other get ready for eternal life with our Savior.
Paul recognizes that it’s certainly not just personal relationships, not just marriages, that can distract during this short time when focus is so very important. No, he goes on: “Those who mourn [should live] as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not.” Paul addresses two polar opposite emotions: mourning and rejoicing. Paul’s message to people who are mourning is not that they need to just “suck it up,” nor is he trying to be a wet blanket to those who are happy. No, Paul’s message, as to married people, is to keep perspective because, of course, the time is short.
We have a lot of things in this life that cause us heartache. Sin is our constant companion, and whether it’s our sin or the sins others do to us, these are things that make us sad, and rightfully so. Paul isn’t saying, “Don’t be sad” or “It’s wrong to be sad.” Paul is simply reminding us that a joy that outweighs all the sadness is coming. Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome, “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18). In other words, nothing here is so bad that it can rob you of eternal life. Jesus’ death paid for your sins; he loves you. In the end, nothing else matters. You belong to him forever and because of that you will be happy, forever. When the sadness and misery of this life get us down, we need to zero in on that as our source of true, lasting joy.
But there are a lot of things in this world that can bring us happiness and joy, aren’t there? And it’s not that all joy or happiness in this life is bad; far from it. But how long does that joy last? Whether our joy is a few moments, a few days, a few months, or even an entire lifetime, it’s still nothing compared to eternity. So if our joy is coming from something that isn’t Jesus, if our goals center around things that distract from our Savior, we need to keep those in check. It would be better to be unhappy for an entire life here and then get to share the joy of perfect, eternal life with God than to be happy now and be miserable in hell because someone thought they didn’t need a Savior. To rework what we heard Paul say in Romans just a few moments ago, we ought to consider that our present joys, too, are not worth comparing to the glory that will be revealed in us. The joy we receive here is shallow; the joy of eternal life is limitlessly deep.
The last direction Paul gives, because time is so short, is this: “Those who buy something [should live] as if it were not theirs to keep; those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away.” You’re sensing the pattern, right? The world is passing away. The things of this life are not important. What you hold in your hand, have in your house, or protect in your garage is temporary. It is certainly not wrong to have things; God gives us many blessings. But we ought not make those things our god. The things of this world cannot be the most important things to me because these things will pass away—at a time that is soon coming! You don’t forsake the eternal for something perishable. We don’t want to turn into Esau selling our birthright for a bowl of stew (see Genesis 25:29-34). We value and protect our birthright, our forgiveness and that faith that trusts God’s promises, because the time is so very short.
Jesus is our top priority. And whether Jesus calls us to be full time fishers of men or he calls us to another vocation where we can let our light shine, we keep his eternal perspective. He’s given us the greatest gift, the timeless gift, the gift that endures to eternal life. And while everything else that he provides is a blessing for which we can be grateful, nothing supersedes the importance of forgiveness in Jesus and eternal life.
Nothing in this world, not our family, not the things that make us sad, not the things that make us happy, not the things we buy or use, none of it is worth even a fraction of what that blood of Jesus, shed for the sins of the world, shed for our sins, is worth. We are eternal members of God’s household. We will belong to him forever in a home where time will not matter, where nothing will pass away. In his mercy, God will bring this world of sin and suffering to an end and bring us to an eternity of perfection. Lord, hasten the day when we are with you, and until then, keep us strong to make you the priority and to share what you’ve done with all people. Amen.