Epiphany 4 A: God Chose What Is Not to Destroy What Is

The readings for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany are…

Old Testament      Micah 6:1–8

Psalm                    Psalm 15

New Testament     1 Corinthians 1:18–31

Gospel                   Matthew 5:1–12

This is my last pandemic blog post.

Why my last? Because the people of the world are tired of the pandemic. Because I’m tired of my pandemic exercise of using each Sunday’s readings in the Revised Common Lectionary to reflect on the madness of the world.

And I found a good excuse to end this exercise because a very wise man, and a very serious committee, have declared that we are “turning a corner” from pandemic to endemic. This was the declaration of Dr. Ofer Levy, a pediatric infectious disease specialist of Harvard University Medical School, and part of an advisory committee which is now recommending to the Food and Drug Administration that we move toward single annual vaccinations against Covid-19. (Reported in the January 26, 2023 New York Times)

This then is my excuse to move from weekly reflections on the Sunday readings to more occasional blog posts, and ones that draw wisdom from many sources, especially life here on the farm, and hopefully from the godly wisdom of insignificant people. I might call it blue collar wisdom and spirituality.

Of course, I am inspired by that mischievous apostle, Paul, in the most provocative verses from our New Testament reading for this day. All through the Corinthian correspondence Paul has in mind the challenge to his ministry presented by some very, very important people. These critics of him and his gospel see themselves as more authentic missionaries than Paul himself. Paul has no official credentials, no charisma or charm, and no strength of personality that one would expect of a great leader.

Paul makes no defense of himself. Instead of doing what a certain ex-President does, and talk always about himself, Paul makes the case for the revolutionary thing that God does in this world, centered on the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. Paul doesn’t seek to persuade people to choose him as leader. He makes his case instead about God’s choice. His argument punches through with three expressions of that choice that God has already signed, sealed, and delivered:  God chose the world’s foolish  to shame the wise; God chose the world’s weak to shame the strong; and God chose the things that are not to abolish the things that are.

This morning, just before I awoke, I dreamed a very familiar dream of trying desperately to get my things together for a trip home. As usual I was frustrated because the more I tried to get dressed, and pack suitcases, the more ridiculous the chaos become all around me. And, in this morning’s dream, I also could not get my memory together. Why was I here and not there? What was I trying to say to others? What tasks was I leaving unfinished? Ad infinitum. So, finally, just before I woke up, I had this sinking feeling, and said to myself, “I’m losing my mind.”

You see, I have had dreams of struggling to get home for decades, and frustration dreams for years and years. But I attribute this new fear of “losing my mind” to the creeping realization that I’m getting very old. When I was a young father, I had a months-long bout of existential anxiety. I thought of black holes. I thought of my young son dead and gone. My family doctor helped me out with a medication—thank you Lord—but he also advised me against reading obituaries in the paper. But lately I can’t seem to stop scanning those obituaries looking for birth dates later than 1947. There are way too many.

My time is coming. I can feel it. I now sing “Head and shoulders, knees and toes,” thinking they’re all letting me down.

It’s that last choice God makes, and Paul writes about, that jumps out at me today: “God chose what is not, to abolish what is.” God chose what is nothing!

It’s what the senile must think: “I’m disappearing.” It’s what the lonely feel: “I’m forgotten.” It’s what the women in Iran and Afghanistan say about having no rights, and knowing the “international community” is silent. It’s what the Palestinians said just today: “We are being killed off, but the world doesn’t notice.” We are nothing.

But when the Apostle Paul had an experience of the risen Christ, he realized that God is in the business of choosing nothing to overturn what is. And the greatest “what is” is death itself—the ultimate erasure.

Back when all I could think of were black holes and vanishing children, I learned that there wasn’t a damned thing I myself could do about it. That black hole of dread and anxiety had the power to swallow me up. I had to admit it to myself, and to my God in prayer. God answered when the darkness was lifted as surprisingly as it fell on me. God chose my weakness and foolishness to put me to shame, in order to resurrect me in Christ. I was nothing and could do nothing. But Christ does it all.

Now I will endeavor to be reminded of this good news, when I am dreaming, and when I am fully awake. When I’m losing my mind, my health, or my life, I will reach out to this comfort: God has chosen what is nothing. God has chosen me. And that makes all the difference.


About John

John is a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who has served congregations for over 40 years, including in rural, suburban, campus ministry and urban settings. His love of Border Collie sheepdogs has been fortified by his many friendships with shepherds all around the world. Nothing he has ever or will ever accomplish is as significant as the patience God, his wife and his friends have shown in putting up with his deficiencies.
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