Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“God Will Strengthen You to the End” (1 Corinthians 1:8)
January 15, 2017
Dave Johnson

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

In his masterful biography on Abraham Lincoln entitled With Malice toward None, Stephen B. Oates recalls an episode that occurred when Lincoln was riding around Washington, D.C. to review Union troops:

Between reviews Lincoln climbed into a mule-drawn ambulance and bounced around the camp grounds visiting with the men.  He was amused at his driver, who cursed everything with a flourish—the mules, the raw weather, the mud, the cavalry that sloshed by.  Lincoln tapped him on the shoulder.  “Excuse me, my friend, are you an Episcopalian?”  No, the driver replied, he was Methodist.  “Well,” Lincoln said, “I thought you must be an Episcopalian, because you swear just like Governor Seward, who is a churchwarden” (375).

As the Civil War progressed, with thousands of soldiers losing their lives and hordes of duplicitous office seekers calling for Lincoln’s resignation, Lincoln’s fatigue mounted.  He and Mary left D.C. for a weekend getaway to rest, and when asked about it Lincoln responded, “It is a great relief to get away from Washington and the politicians.  But nothing touches the tired spot” (Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln by Don and Virginia Fehrenbacher, 43).

Today’s New Testament lesson is from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians.  In the days of the Apostle Paul, Corinth was a prosperous port city and center of international trade.  During his second missionary journey Paul spent eighteen months there planting a Christian church while also laboring as a tentmaker.  As was Paul’s custom, he had begun his missionary work there by preaching the gospel every week in the local synagogue, but his Jewish hearers “opposed and reviled him” and so Paul turned his attention to preaching to the Gentiles instead.

But one night in Corinth the Lord appeared to Paul and encouraged him: “Do not be afraid, but speak and do not be silent; for I am with you, and no one will lay a hand on you to harm you, for there are many in this city who are my people” (Acts 18:9-10).   That proved to be the case, for although Paul was still “opposed and reviled,” many Gentiles responded to his preaching and became Christians.

The church at Corinth was a vibrant church, but like every church it had its share of weaknesses.  There was deep spiritual pride in this church, deep spiritual hubris, which led the “super-spiritual” among them—the ones who thought they had it all figured out, thank-you-very-much—to look down their noses at those who were not as “spiritually mature.”  There was also partisanship at the church in Corinth, as some favored the ministry of Paul while others favored the ministry Apollos.  There was also rampant sexual immorality in the church at Corinth, which of course reflected the rampant sexual immorality of Corinth itself.  Apparently the church at Corinth was an Episcopal church.

Nevertheless, in spite of all these weaknesses of the church at Corinth, Paul begins his first letter to them, as he does each of his thirteen New Testament letters, by proclaiming the grace of God to them: “Grace to you and peace from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (1:3).  He continues by further emphasizing the work of God’s grace among them:

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 the Lord Jesus Christ (1:4-7).

And it is the next verse that I am preaching on today, as Paul continues, “He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1:8).

God will strengthen you to the end.

Paul himself had personally experienced God’s strengthening him, and he encourages the Corinthians with the promise that God will strengthen them too, not just for today, but all the way to the end.  How?  With grace—as John Newton put it, “’Tis grace that brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home” (Hymn 671 in The Hymnal 1982).  It is only the grace of God that touches the tired spot.

What is the tired spot in your life?  Or maybe your life is like a leopard skin, covered with multiple tired spots—tired spots galore.

Since we commemorate Martin Luther King Jr. this weekend it is appropriate to learn from the great slain civil rights leader.  Last summer I visited several MLK sites. I drove Highway 80 from Selma to Montgomery.  In Montgomery I visited Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where Dr. King served as pastor from 1954 to 1960.  Even though the church was closed, a kind young parishioner who was leaving the church took a few minutes to lead me inside and give me a tour.  She showed me his office and even let me stand in the pulpit from which he preached.

Later I visited the parsonage at 309 S. Jackson St. where Dr. King lived with his wife Coretta and their young children, Yolanda, Martin III, and Dexter.  The tour guide was a gracious lady who had been a personal friend of the King family.  She laughed and told me, “If I had known what a big deal he was going to be, I would have paid more attention to his sermons.”  She showed me the dining room where the family ate and where Dr. King met with other civil rights leaders, the phone that used to have a direct line to the White House—the same phone on which Dr. King and Coretta listened to many death threats—the study where Dr. King wrote his sermons, and the crater on the front porch where a bomb exploded on January 31, 1956, the same front porch that was bombed again a year later.

The tour concluded in the kitchen, where Dr. King would sit up late at night drinking coffee, thinking, praying.  It was in this kitchen where late one night, after receiving yet another angry phone call, yet another death threat, that Dr. King almost gave up.  How many more death threats?  How many more bombs at the home where his wife and children sleep?  Like the Apostle Paul, Dr. King had been “opposed and reviled” and like Abraham Lincoln, needed rest from the tired spot.

The tour guide then played a tape recording with an excerpt from a sermon in which Dr. King spoke about how God through the Holy Spirit spoke words of encouragement to his heart that night, how God through the Holy Spirit touched his tired spot with grace, grace that enabled him to keep on keeping on.

On March 3, 1968 Dr. King preached a sermon called “Unfulfilled Dreams” in which he refers to the grace of God being the means by which “God will strengthen you to the end.”  This was part of his sermon:

There’s a highway called Highway 80.  I’ve marched on that highway from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery.  But I never will forget my first experience with Highway 80 driving with Coretta and Ralph and Juanita Abernathy to California…it goes all the way to Los Angeles.  And you know, being a good man, being a good woman, does not mean that you’ve arrived in Los Angeles.  It simply means that you’re on Highway 80.  Maybe you haven’t gotten as far as Selma, or maybe you haven’t gotten as far as Meridian, Mississippi, or Monroe, Louisiana—that isn’t the question.  The question is whether you are on the right road, not having reached a destination… But if you’re on the right road, God has the power, and he has something called Grace.  And he puts you where you ought to be (A Knock at Midnight, 196-197).

A month later while he was standing on the balcony of Room 306 at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Dr. King was shot…and yet, because of what he had preached about a month earlier, “something called Grace,” his dream while in some ways still unfulfilled, still lives on—and God’s grace led him home.

God will strengthen you to the end…by his grace.  What is this grace like?

In Colum McCann’s award winning 2009 novel Let the Great World Spin Corrigan, a Catholic missionary living in the slums of mid 1970’s New York City, is visited by his brother, Ciaran, who does not understand why he would live and minister in such a sordid setting.  He speaks disparagingly about a local prostitute named Jazzlyn, “She’s a mess.  They all are.”  But listen to how Corrigan responds: “Ah, no, they’re good people…They just don’t know what it is they’re doing.  Or what’s being done to them.  It’s about fear.  You know?  They’re all throbbing with fear.  We all are.”  Corrigan then continues describing this fear:

It’s like dust.  You walk about and don’t see it, don’t notice it, but it’s there and it’s all coming down, covering everything.  You’re breathing it in.  You touch it.  You drink it.  You eat it.  But it’s so fine you don’t notice it.  But you’re covered in it.  It’s everywhere.  What I mean is, we’re afraid.  Just stand still for an instant and there it is, this fear, covering our faces and tongues.  If we stopped to take account of it, we’d just fall into despair.  But we can’t stop.  We’ve got to keep going (29-30).

Corrigan is right—that is what fear is like, and yet “We’ve got to keep going.”  The good news is that there is something else just like it, the grace of God—“You walk about and don’t see it, don’t notice it, but it’s there and it’s all coming down, covering everything”—and by this grace God will strengthen you to the end.  God offers this grace in the gospel, and God offers you this grace in Holy Communion—“You touch it.  You drink it.  You eat it.”

One more illustration…on her 2007 album, Waking up Laughing country singer Martina McBride has a beautiful song called “Anyway” in which she sings:

You can spend your whole life building something from nothing
One storm can come and blow it all away
Build it anyway

You can chase a dream that seems so out of reach
And you know it might not ever come your way
Dream it anyway…

You can love someone with all your heart for all the right reasons
And in a moment they can choose to walk away
Love ‘em anyway

And that is what God does.  In spite of the storms that may blow away what you build, in spite of your unfulfilled dreams, in spite of the fact that people may choose to walk away, God loves you anyway.

Jesus was “opposed and reviled” all the way to the cross, where he died for the church at Corinth and for you.  On the cross Jesus took the blame upon himself for all the spiritual hubris, all the partisanship, all the sexual immorality in the church at Corinth, and in your life—“so that you may be blameless.”

The gospel is thus very good news for those with a tired spot.

With his grace God will strengthen you to the end—and in the meantime enable you to keep on keeping on.