Fifth Sunday After the Epiphany February 4-5, 2023
“I Am Third” I Corinthians 9:16-27
Rev. John R. Larson Ascension Lutheran Church Littleton, Colorado
Sometimes it just hits us. We screwed up life. Everything, somehow, got in the wrong place. Somehow we forgot the place of God and others in our life. Marriage became lifeless; we dropped the ball about the place of our friends, fellow workers and neighbors in our life have been misplaced; we even find ourselves forgetting about our own kids.
Our priorities got messed up and therefore life got messed up. It can happen. It does happen. Sadly, we can live life as if we are the only person who really matters.
I hope that if you have found yourself there, someone has given you a big (loving)slap to get you out of that place!! Your spouse simply shakes their head and questions, “What gives?” Or, your kids give you ‘the evil eye’. Or, your co-workers start talking about you around the water cooler. I hope someone honestly will tell you that life got on the wrong track. We can make the wrong choices in life. We can take a path that is evil and sinful.
With only one more game of football for a few months a few of us will soon fall into a deep depression for a while. So, to lift our spirits let me tell you about a football player. In the early 1960’s a football player from Omaha, Nebraska went to play at the University of Kansas and then the Chicago Bears. From 1965 until 1972 Gayle Sayers was the best player in football. He ran faster than the guys who tried to catch him. He caught passes and returned punts and kickoffs. Gayle Sayers, the Kansas Comet, is the youngest person ever to be inducted into the Professional Football Hall of Fame.
Gayle Sayers also authored a book titled “I Am Third”. (He must have stolen that title from me and today’s sermon!!) This is his summary to his book, “The Lord is first; my friends and family are second; and I am third.”
I think he has it right. Lord; others; self. That is the right order in life. Those are the right priorities. If life is as it should be then God must be first. The first commandment says, “You shall have no other gods before Me.” (Exodus 20:3 KJV) In Matthew 22 Jesus was asked, ‘What is the greatest commandment?” He replied, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment.” (Matthew 22:37-38) In the Lord’s Prayer we surrender everything to God with just one little petition. We speak this word and tell God that He is in control, in charge and the first priority in our life. We pray, “Thy will be done…” (Matthew 6:10b)
Jesus spoke against those who had their priorities in the wrong order. In quoting Isaiah the prophet, He says of those whose religion was out of order, “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” (Matthew 15:8) God has to be first in our life. Our hearts must trust Him completely and our lives must follow Him. If He is not first we are messed up.
That which follows the heart of faith is the life of love to others. Jesus, after telling them of the greatest commandment, said, “And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:29) In I Corinthians 8 Paul talks about Christian freedom and Christian responsibility. In Corinth some of the meals that were eaten were in the homes of non-believers, folks who worshipped idols. Before the meal some of the food had been sacrificed to an idol. Paul says, “We know that an idol is nothing in the world and there is no God but one.” (I Corinthians 8:4b) A Christian can eat that food. It won’t harm them. But then he introduces a greater priority than Christian freedom – it is Christian love. He says, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” (I Corinthians 8:1b)
He goes on to tell about his priority, which is also God’s priority. “Be careful, however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak…This weak brother, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. When you sin against your brothers in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause him to fall.” (I Corinthians 8:9, 11-13)
I am third. Not first. He is first. They are second. I give up my freedom, my rights, what I am entitled to, for the sake of others. There is someone more important than you, it is “them” – a whole world of “them”. It takes a strong person, a confident person to give up what is rightfully theirs to someone else, freely and without resentment. In our text from today notice how Paul becomes secondary and others become primary, “Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.” (I Corinthians 9:19-22)
Paul is not a person with no backbone. He doesn’t say one thing to one group to get their favor and then something entirely different to another group to get their favor. NO!! He is relating to each group (the Jew, the Gentile, the weak, the strong) that he speaks with. He seeks to understand them so they can be reached with the message of life in Jesus Christ. He acts as a mature Christian, one fully understanding God’s love.
He tells us that the reason he preaches is not to get something off his chest but he has a burden for the people that he loves. The Old Testament prophet Jeremiah says about preaching, “But if I say, ‘I will not mention Him or speak any more in His name’, His word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot.” (Jeremiah 20:9) That is what Paul says here, “Yet when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, for I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” (I Corinthians 9:16) He did it in love for others.
Paul didn’t even get paid for preaching!! Not a dime. Don’t expect that here, though. I go with the old adage from an old-time preacher, who after the offering said, “God, I’m going to throw this money up in the air, you take what You want to keep; and whatever falls to the floor must be for me.”
I am third. God. Others. Self. But we are not inconsequential. A few years ago I read that our Koinonia small group was studying If God Had a Refrigerator, Your Picture Would Be On It. I haven’t read the book, but I’m assuming the book tells us that we are pretty important to God. How we must live our life, if we are going to have the priorities that are in the right order, is to say that “I am third.” It’s Biblical. But the reason we can say that is the truth is that God has made us first.
Our life, our redemption is the primary focus of God. Jesus Christ came into this world for us. He came to speak a louder word than the deception of the devil. In Jesus you’re forgiven. In Jesus you have eternal life. In Jesus you will live forever with the greatest joys of life, eternally.
Jesus became last so that we might become first. Jesus says, “The Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:28) When He is ready to suffer and then die for the sins of this darkened world, Jesus speaks a word of complete obedience to His Father and total love for us, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from Me. Yet not as I will, but as You will.” (Matthew 26:39) Because He has placed us first, on Good Friday he speaks this word, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34)
When I think of it, Jesus was third. He was obedient to His Father, He had great compassion for others and became their servant, and His needs fell toward the bottom of the list of important people to care for. Paul says this great word, “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who being in the very nature God , did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made Himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:5-8)
Have you found your place in life yet? It would be good to find that place soon. But so many people struggle with this. It seems to be something that they never really get. Where is God in all of this? Where are the other people in my life in all of this? And where do I fit in? I am third. The Lord, first. Others, next. I am third. Amen!!
(This message was originally preached to the saints at Ascension Lutheran Church on February 8, 2015 – eight years ago.)