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The key word or concept I want you to focus on is the word “detour,” especially as it relates to the changes we often have to make to our plans. As we will read, Paul refers to the plans he had made, and how they changed. Like Paul, we have purposes and plans, but a critical part of our walk of faith is to learn that all our plans are contingent, dependent, and prone to many, many detours. Sometimes we need to look beyond them towards the greater purpose God is working out.
Let’s turn our attention to Scripture.
15 Since I was sure of this, I wanted to come to you first, so that you might have a double favor; 16 I wanted to visit you on my way to Macedonia, and to come back to you from Macedonia and have you send me on to Judea. 18 As surely as God is faithful, our word to you has not been “Yes and No.” 19 For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom we proclaimed among you, Silvanus and Timothy and I, was not “Yes and No”; but in him it is always “Yes.” 20 For in him every one of God’s promises is a “Yes.” For this reason it is through him that we say the “Amen,” to the glory of God. 21 But it is God who establishes us with you in Christ and has anointed us, 22 by putting his seal on us and giving us his Spirit in our hearts as a first installment.1 Corinthians 1:15-22
Verse 15 begins a section that really doesn’t end until chapter 2, verse 13. Paul picks back up on the themes presented in this section in chapter 7. The letter shifts from themes of consolation and hope at these points because Paul must engage in a little bit of self-defense.
From what we can put together, evidently Paul and his companions were on a missionary expedition that was meant, at least in part, to raise funds for the church in Jerusalem. Evidently, there were a number of crises at this time that had led to widespread food shortages, and the holy poor in Judea were especially vulnerable. Paul saw this as a wonderful opportunity to show solidarity within this Jesus movement across Jewish and Gentile divisions by having the predominantly Gentile house churches in the region to take up a special offering to support their Jewish Christian brothers and sisters.
Paul left with every intention to travel to Corinth, visit with the house churches there, go on throughout Macedonia to visit other churches, take up collections, and then return back through Corinth, collect their gifts, and travel to Judea. At least, that was the plan as Paul lays it out in verses 15-16.
However, controversy had boiled up over his letter we call “1st Corinthians,” wherein Paul had taken the community to task on several egregious controversies. To make matters worse, that letter was followed by what Paul called a “painful visit” that resulted in even harder feelings. Another letter, sent by Paul via Titus, was sent, and some of the tensions seemed to be resolved. As a result, Paul rejoiced and had told them he would visit them, clear up any issues, continue on this fundraising expedition, and then come back down for a final visit before heading back to Jerusalem.
Yet, it seems like Paul never made that visit in the way he had planned. As he made his way on this missionary journey, he had stopped in Ephesus for a while, and things had really gone gangbusters. You can read about this for yourself in Acts 19. The proclamation of Jesus Christ had gone over so well, there were riots, and people seemed to be abandoning their idolatry, throwing the whole economy of Ephesus into a tailspin. It is here, most likely, that Paul was imprisoned and tortured. This is that period of darkness he had referred to previously in verse 8, an experience of affliction so great that he had been reduced to despair.
So, Paul gets out of prison, and he has the choice: resume with the plan he had made to go to Corinth and Achaia, or go another direction that would take him through Philippi and Thessalonica in Macedonia first. We’ll talk about Paul’s reasoning next week, but the simple fact of the matter is that Paul’s plans changed, and as we see in verse 17, he is being accused of speaking out of both sides of his mouth. In the end, Paul seemed to be unreliable and flaky, and the community in Corinth felt further slighted.
Of course, Paul had his reasons, but honestly, the reasons are secondary. As he addresses this concern, Paul points to something much more profound than our justifications. As this section of Scripture suggests, the detours free us to see something that is otherwise very difficult to grasp. At the heart of the matter is that all of us, whether we tend to be planners or fly by the seat of our pants, operate under the illusion that we get to chart the overall course of our lives, and what happens day to day.
While this is true to a limited extent, if we were honest, we would have to admit that the only dependable thing about any of our plans or our spontaneous actions is change itself. As the famous philosopher Heraclitus once said, “All is in flux.” I would suggest that Paul would have us see that life lived on our own terms is really just one great big detour. The trick is to look beyond the detours and see a greater purpose at work.
Paul begins to outline his case in verse 19. While the Corinthians see him as flaky, unreliable, and an unsure hand, they need to set their eyes on Jesus Christ and his purposes for Paul and his crew. As Paul puts it in verse 20, in Jesus, everything is God’s reliable and sure “yes.” That “yes” of the utter reliability of God’s purposes for us through Jesus Christ shows the detours, the twists and the turns, the disappointments and the triumphs to be the unfolding of a redemptive purpose that resounds the glory of God, and the blessing of the people of God.
In other words, the speed bumps and the hairpin turns work to establish us firmly in Jesus Christ such that all that happens to us, by the work of the Holy Spirit, eventually becomes a down payment, or a “first installment,” as Paul puts it in verse 22, of the new creation that is dawning within us as the body of Christ.
In the end, we don’t believe in accidents of history. As God’s children, even our failures, shortcomings, aborted plans, and frustrated projects stand to be transformed by the working of Christ’s love in our lives. I don’t know about you, but I find that to be incredibly liberating, especially as we deal with the craziness of our lives in the middle of a global pandemic. In fact, it is so freeing and so subtly profound, amidst the everyday shuffle of life, I’m prone to forget this central truth.
As Christians, we don’t have to live lives of frustration and disappointment. We have a better way; our vision is clearer as we focus on his presence within our lives. All of who we are, even the broken down palaces of last week’s plans are destined to participate in the redemptive glory of Jesus Christ