I Corinthians 7:29-31
January 25, 2009 - Third Sunday after Epiphany
The last time I preached on this text was January 23, 2000. I mentioned then that our country was currently enjoying a season of prosperity. Though no one realized it then, we were right at the end of the so-called “dot-com bubble,” when high-tech companies prospered on business plans centered on the Internet and the technology that supported it. Dozens of promising start-up companies became initial public offering phenomena that traded for millions and gave their owners fantastic fortunes—on paper.
Less than two months later, on Monday, March 13 of that same year, the bubble burst. The NASDAQ fell four percent and began a long drop. The Dow Jones and S & P were also declining. One estimate is that five trillion dollars in investments were wiped out in the next couple years. The dot-coms had become “dot-bombs” or “dot-compost.” What Paul said here in our text in verse 29 was absolutely right, “the time is short.”
Of course, not many people in the business sector were reading or thinking about what Paul had to say. Or if they did, they didn’t really get the connection. So in 2005 another bubble began to inflate, this time in the housing market. You all know the consequences of that. As I prepare to talk with you about our text again this morning, just nine years later, we are definitely not in a season of prosperity. We might almost be ready to believe Paul when he tells us, “the time is short.”
Paul, of course, was not focused on business or the stock market. What we read this morning comes right in the middle of a lengthy discourse on marriage. He affirms the goodness of sexual relations within marriage. He encourages those able to be celibate to remain unmarried. And he urges those married to non-Christians to stay with their partners if the unbelieving partners will stay with them. Overall, his aim in all this talk about marriage can be seen in the verses which bracket our text. Verse 28 says, “But those who marry will face many troubles in this life, and I want to spare you this.” Verse 32 says, “I would like you to be free from concern.”
The point is that marriage concerns, just like financial concerns, can distract you from and hinder your relationship with Jesus Christ and your service to His kingdom. In fact, anything in the world, even emotions like grief or happiness, can keep us from following Jesus, if we don’t receive them and use them in the knowledge that, “the time is short.”
Next Sunday afternoon I will fly to Chicago and move into a hotel room for a week in order to attend our pastors’ Midwinter Conference. I will unpack and put my socks and underwear in a drawer. I will hang my pants in the closet. I will stick my toothbrush in a cup by the sink. I will lay the book I read before bed on the nightstand. In other words, I will make myself at home, temporarily.
All along, I will know that room with a number on the door is not my home. I won’t drive any nails in the wall to hang pictures. I won’t go out and bring in new furniture. I won’t replace the shower curtain with a color I like better. It’s all temporary and I’m only going to be there a little while. I’ll use the bed, and the bathroom, and the television, but I won’t worry too much about getting truly and completely comfortable, because my time there will be short. That’s how Paul asks us to see our life in this world.
The word “short” here is literally something like “bringing the ends together.” It has the sense of compression or compaction. Christian time is compressed. It brings together the first coming of Jesus and His second coming. In Mark’s Gospel this morning we read how Jesus began His ministry on earth declaring “The time has come. The kingdom of God is near!” The arrival of Jesus was urgent. He met some fishermen on the beach and called them “without delay.” And we’re told those first disciples “at once” left business and family behind and followed Christ. His coming compressed the time.
For us, the return of Jesus, His second coming, shortens time at the other end. He asked us to be alert, ready, because He will come back suddenly, cutting off all possibility of last-moment preparation. The time to get ready is now. The time is short.
Our lives are sandwiched between the first coming of Jesus and the second. And the second is closing in on us. It’s like in Star Wars where Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia and Hans Solo are caught in a giant garbage compactor on the Imperial ship. The walls begins to press inward. The seconds tick away before they will be crushed. They have other concerns. Hans is worried about his space ship and has debts to pay. Luke has lost his family. Hans and Luke are both in love with Leia. But right now those concerns are minor in the face of the advancing walls. That’s how it is with the coming of Christ. We have other concerns, but the biggest and most urgent crisis is His return.
Paul asks us to recognize and deal with the crisis of Jesus coming back. The time is short. So he gave us a series of “as if”s, beginning with the horrible sounding admonition, “From now on those who have spouses should live as if they had none.” If you think there’s no crisis, see what happens if you go home and try to take that seriously!
But we are supposed to take it seriously, along with verses 30 and 31: “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.” Paul is calling for a new attitude and a new way of life that takes the return of Jesus for the true crisis it is. Though we have spouses, feelings, and property, we must live “as if” we did not have them.
What does this “as if” mean? It is not a complete separation from or neglect of people and things in our world. Paul’s not inviting married men to start dating other women or to stay out late or to leave the toilet seat up as if they weren’t married anymore. That would be just the opposite of what he said earlier in the chapter, where he stated the obligations Christian husbands and wives have toward each other. As he will go on to write later to the church in Ephesus, husband and wife should love each other as Christ loved them.
So what does this “as if” mean? Like our lesson last week about our bodies, it’s a matter of ownership. We are to receive and use and be involved in the relationships and objects of this world with a deep sense that they are not in the end ours. My hotel room is not really “mine.” I just get to use it temporarily. Just so, my relationships and my property are not really mine. Like my very self, they belong to God and are just on loan to me, temporarily. I need to live in them and use them in that light.
In ancient philosophy, the Stoics had a glimmering of this truth. They talked about regarding things of the world with detachment, with apatheia, apathy. It wasn’t the kind of apathetic laziness that we associate with those words, but an emotional detachment. Let go of your passions. That’s what apatheia means, “not passionate.” Your happiness is not wrapped up in circumstances beyond your control, in people and things that will come and go in your life. Instead, true human happiness is found by living dispassionately, in rational harmony with the divine order of the universe. And in our verses today, Paul almost sounds like a Stoic.
Yet what the Stoic philosophy misses is that not everything is a matter for apatheia. The divine is more than the perfectly rational order of law and duty they thought it was. Christians know that God Himself loves us passionately and that we are called to love Him with the same passion. Unlike the Stoics, we don’t turn completely away from passions. Instead we live all other passions in light of one great passion of God for us and us for God. That’s the great passion that led to the Passion of Christ on the Cross. He was passionate enough about us to die for us. Paul asks us here to be passionate enough about Jesus to let some other passions die for Him.
So Paul’s not talking about indifference to human passion. He’s not picturing us standing back and letting the world go by as if we didn’t care. He envisions Christians getting married; weeping at funerals; rejoicing at parties; buying and selling in the market. In Romans 12:15 he specifically commanded, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.” He sees us making use of all the good gifts which God has placed at our disposal in the world. Yet, he says, use it all with this understanding: it is temporary… and that which is permanent is coming. What we do and who we love and what we own does matter, but it matters only in terms of that which will last, that which will matter in the end, when Jesus comes back.
In marriage a Christian spouse is not supposed to be aloof and indifferent. Just the opposite. You throw yourself into the relationship, loving your spouse as Jesus loved you, as Paul directed in Ephesians 5. But as a Christian you realize that what truly matters in your relationship is what the two of you will share for eternity. Buying a house, having sex, raising children, saving for retirement, even just getting along, are all temporary aspects of marriage. But what lasts forever is that you are sister and brother in Jesus Christ. All the rest only counts insofar as by doing it we encourage and build up each other up toward the life we have through Christ, the life we expect when He returns.
The same is true of all the rest of human experience. Pain and pleasure, sorrow or happiness, comes and goes. The stuff we’ve bought will get broken, go out of style, or become obsolete. None of it truly matters in the end, unless we receive, experience, and put it to use knowing that the present time is short, but there is eternal life in Christ to come.
So the griefs and joys of this life touch us, touch us deeply, but they do not consume us. We lose someone we love and it hurts. We mourn. But in I Thessalonians 4:13 Paul says, “We don’t want you… to grieve like others who have no hope.” When we mourn, we remember to hope, because a great joy is coming. And when we are given joy in this world, in a new job, or a new house, or a new baby, or even in a few moments of crazy fun, we remember that an even greater joy is coming.
Our text concludes, “For this world in its present form is passing away.” That’s a wonderful corrective to any notion that Paul thinks this world doesn’t matter. Our world is not going away, only its present form. Our bodies, our relationships, even the objects around us are not just going to disappear. It’s all going to be changed. That’s the Christian view. When Christ comes back our world will take on a new form, a better form. It will become the kingdom of God.
The King James Version translates with another word that I think is really helpful in our time. There the last phrase reads, “for the fashion of this world passeth away.” What better image for our culture right now? Nothing on earth is more changing and less permanent than fashion.
Fortunes rise and fall with hemlines. Financial empires are built on the conviction that you will always want the next software upgrade. Careers are established on the assurance that new models of cell phones must arrive annually. Houses were built believing that buyers would want the latest architectural design. Both corporations and consumers are fashion surfers, hoping beyond hope to catch the next big wave. And none of it lasts. All of it, the fashion of this world, passeth away.
That’s why the time is short. That is why Paul advises us not to engross ourselves in our possessions in such a way that when fashion passes we have nothing left. To do so is to be like those who carve intricate and beautiful sculptures from ice. There will be a few hours of glory, but it all drips away into puddles in the end.
In the short time, one of the best things a Christian can do is to give. If the stuff of this world is not going to last, why not? Why not give away this stuff we cannot possibly keep in the end, if it means an opportunity to enjoy something that lasts forever? The missionary Jim Elliot, who gave up his life to bring the Gospel to a tribe in Ecuador, said, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”
If our time is limited, then why cling to and hoard every dollar, every possession? Let go of it now, before we’re forced to let go of it in the end. It even makes sense to quit hoarding our minutes and hours. For some of us, time is the most precious commodity. We will pay dearly in money and effort to have an hour of entertainment, a half-hour of exercise, a weekend of vacation. We may guard our leisure hours more carefully than our money. But if we believe in an eternal kingdom, why not give up some of those short, temporary moments to receive moments that will last forever? Some of you did just that this past week to work here at the family shelter.
Paul is saying that, as Christians, we want to be like the city workers in the capital of Zimbabwe. They are on strike this weekend. The problem for them is that they are being paid in Zimbabwean dollars. Inflation in that country this past year has been in the millions of percents. That’s right. I said it correctly. Inflation in Zimbabwe was 11 million percent at one point in August. Last week they printed a 50 billion dollar bill. It was worth about $1.25 in US currency.
So now Zimbabwe workers are on strike. They don’t want to be paid in Zimbabwean dollars that are getting more and more worthless every minute. They want American dollars or South African rands, currency that will last. That’s exactly what you and I need to say to the world around us.
We don’t want the wages of our lives to be paid in currency that is passing away. We don’t want to just get married and have fun and buy houses only to find that we cannot keep any of it in the end. It’s all only temporary. We want that which is really worth something, that which really lasts. We want Christ and His kingdom. Everything else only matters if it helps us arrive there, helps us receive Him.
So as a simple spiritual exercise today, I invite you to consider for a few moments what temporary things you’ve invested your own heart and soul in. Where in your life have you acted as if the time for a relationship or a possession or a feeling was long when it’s really short? What might Christ be calling you to lay down in order to follow Him, or to use in a new spirit and new way in order to live for Him?
Whatever it is, write it down on a slip of paper, lay it at your feet, and walk away from it this morning. Then let this symbol of walking away from words written on paper be the beginning of a new spiritual journey, of laying down in heart and mind, and in action, whatever might keep you from following Jesus. And in return for what you lay down, may Christ our Lord pick you up and give you His Kingdom and Himself.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2009 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj