A Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent
December 17, 2023 at Holy Communion
1 Corinthians 4:1–5
“When the Lord comes, he will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness” (1 Corinthians 4:5). In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. ☩ Amen.
During my formation as a priest, I spent an intense summer doing a program of full-time hospital chaplaincy with a classroom component in which we were encouraged—it’s not too much to say that we were “pressured”—to learn some psychology and explore the experiences that feelings that motivate the way we interact with others. That time was a profound period of growth not only on my pastoral practice, but also in my self-awareness and ability to navigate my own reactions and emotions.
But it also had an effect I did not anticipate: it made me watch television differently. Some time ago I was watching a new season of a science fiction series—and not even a very good one, really—and I was broken open. The arc for the main character throughout the season was about him facing suppressed memories from his past related to the death of his mother and his feeling of guilt. But once he is forced by events in the plot to re-surface these memories, he experiences healing and growth even though he is already an old man.
Although nothing in my story is like his, I recognized what was happening to him, because I had been taught to do this kind of work with myself and with patients during my chaplaincy internship. So this mediocre show prompted me to do a lot of journaling over a few days, exploring the places in my heart that need to get a little air. I also experienced healing, and it was a small turning point for me in my growth into wisdom, self-awareness, and self-control.
The wisdom of looking into the dark places of the heart is not new: it does not belong to TV shows or hospital psychologists. St Paul knows what is going on when he says in today’s Epistle, “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” (1 Corinthians 4:5).
We are very familiar with the Christian teaching that we should withhold judgement—so familiar, in fact, that we miss the second part of what Paul has to say. The reason we withhold judgement is not because there is no judgement, but because judgement belongs to God. When the Lord comes, he will reveal everything that is hidden, and the secrets and motivations of every heart will be brought into the light of his glorious day. Then every impulse that is good will be rewarded, and every wrong motive and action will be seen clearly for what it is, no longer able to be concealed or disguised.
In fact, St Paul is simply repeating something that Jesus himself said, when he taught that “nothing is covered up that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. Therefore whatever you have said in the dark shall be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private rooms shall be proclaimed on the housetops” (Luke 12:2–3).
When we discussed these words at Bible study this week in connection to the Epistle, someone said, “That’s terrifying!” It’s not hard to empathize with that reaction. Think of your darkest secret. There will come a day when your neighbours know your story in full. This is hardly a comfortable thought.
However, the purpose of this teaching is not to leave you terrified. The purpose is to help you be prepared for that day. In our Epistle, Paul says that knowing that the Lord is coming to reveal all secrets means that he doesn’t need to be anxious about what anyone thinks of him in the present—he doesn’t even need to be anxious about himself, and whether he is living up to his calling. He trusts that the Lord who will reveal the secrets of his heart is a righteous judge. St Paul knows that he is an open book to God, and he’s okay with that because has placed his faith in Jesus. There’s nothing that man can say against him if Jesus offers him forgiveness and welcome into the kingdom.
But there’s more to say, too. It’s one thing to have an open-hearted trust in Jesus as a righteous judge who accepts genuine repentance, but there is still a danger of using Jesus’ forgiveness to avoid examining the contents of our hearts. We can cling to the hope of Jesus’ forgiveness as a cover for our continuing anxiety about judgement, justifying our refusal to explore those places by saying, “Whatever is in there God will forgive,” instead of having the real confidence that comes from allowing God into the darkest places in our hearts. God doesn’t want us to be anxious about the coming day of judgement: he wants us to be healed and learn to trust.
So scripture also says, “Confess your sins to one another, that you may be healed” (James 5:16). Christians have always observed the practice of being open with one another about their sins. In ancient times, new Christians or people returning to the faith would acknowledge their sins before the entire assembly, be forgiven in God’s name, and then welcomed into the fold to live in the confidence of having no secrets. In our prayers every Sunday we acknowledge our wrongdoing. And private conversation, confession and absolution, is always available from a priest upon request.
The purpose of all these practices is to be healed from the secret hurts which disturb our peace. To heal, a physical wound needs oxygen: to heal, a spiritual wound needs to see the light of day. So in another place St Paul talks about it this way: “At one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Therefore walk as children of light” (Ephesians 5:8). The call of a Christian is to leave behind the darkness of secrecy and concealment, to depart from the night of pretention and hypocrisy, and to live openly, honest with himself, with God, and with one’s neighbours.
A person who does this is prepared for the Lord’s coming.