This text teaches us about concepts found in the Third Article of the Creed; concerning the gifts of the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, and the communion of the saints (or of holy things). I would suggest, along with your study of the text, a devotional study of the Large Catechism on the Third Article this week.
The Old Testament from Isaiah 62 nicely holds together the Gospel and the Epistle for this week’s proclamation. Isaiah connects the two major themes: first, the eternal wedding feast of the Messiah with His Bride the Church, and second, the Living God who speaks to declare His people righteous and to give them His glory. The preacher will be hard pressed to see a direct connection between the Wedding at Cana and 1 Corinthians 12. However, Isaiah shows that the marriage of Christ and His church is about making vows and promises, one to the other. God is not mute like pagan idols. He speaks and makes His promises to His bride. He manifests His glory, so we believe in Him. And we, in turn, confess Him as our Lord. Paul, in 1 Corinthians 12, attaches the benefits of God to His words. The gift of the Spirit is evident in the confession of Jesus as Lord. Vows are made between Bridegroom and Bride. This is the most beautiful marriage in which the Bridegroom “works all in all” for us, His bride.
Perhaps we as preachers have felt God has been silent in our own lives. I am not suggesting that we are any kind of spiritualists, waiting for the indwelling Spirit to speak outside of His external Word, but I mean that the changes and chances of life muffle our ears from hearing the promises of God. So, we seek some kind of sign or evidence that God is still at work in us. Struggles in the congregation, lackadaisical hearers, lovelessness in the home, and personal weakness that causes us to fall into sin all lead us to look for something extraordinary to strengthen our faith or assure us we have any faith at all. If only water were turned into wine… if only we would triumph over this or that sin… if only. But something extraordinary has happened, and St. Paul does not want you or your congregation to be ignorant of it: “No one can say Κύριος Ἰησοῦς except by the Holy Spirit” (12:3)! When you are looking for some epiphany of God’s grace, some spiritual gift in your life, some assurance that God is still at work in us, the Spirit tells us that His greatest gift is to call Jesus Lord.
Many hearers of the Word may feel they cannot call Jesus Lord. They would not curse Him, but they feel very far from Him. A very subtle temptation in preaching is to turn people to their own wrestling and struggling (Thesis IX of Walther’s Proper Distinction of Law and Gospel, if you are familiar with it. If not, check it out). Of course, in preaching we intend to persuade people to think and to act differently, but we must avoid turning them to their own efforts at all costs. This temptation is also present when preaching about the gifts of the Spirit. The Pentecostal style of preaching and teaching regularly makes manifest gifts of the Spirit a prerequisite for being a “true believer,” and inevitably turns people to their own searching and wrestling to find the Spirit at work in them. Lutherans can do the same thing, if we preach we are Christians because we confess Jesus as Lord in such a way that the confession is something we could conjure up on our own or even conceive of on our own. Those who feel cold inside are never warmed by the “truth” that true Christians confess Jesus as Lord. Instead of describing what a spiritual person does, we are called to announce the promises of the Bridegroom. God, again, is not silent. The Holy Spirit is at work, speaking His life-giving Word into our ears. It is not our love for Christ which causes us to confess Him as Lord, but His love for us. The love of God has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us (Romans 5:5).
The whole passage is Gospel and describes the effect of the Gospel on the whole Church. The underlying Law is how the very gifts of the Spirit become the cause of our own vanity. We are mighty proud we have pure doctrine to show others how wrong they have been. We are so pleased with ourselves that we have this or that gift of the Spirit: strong faith, wisdom, the power to heal, discernment, etc. “I thank you, God, that I am not like these others!” Paul is simply pointing out what the church who has the same Spirit is like. The Law is directed at the whole body of Christ and each member will be forced to reflect on his or her own life in this body, to see whether they have received the gifts, so that a pinky toe is not upset at the ear for being an ear. To help flesh out this distinction between the gifts of the Spirit, you may want to teach a bit concerning the spiritual gifts (πνευματικῶν), of which the most important is to confess Christ. The body of Christ is filled with a variety of God-given gifts (χαρισμάτων), deaconal works (διακονιῶν), and activities (ἐνεργημάτων) for building up the body.
A sermon on the church and her life together as the Bride of Christ is a wonderful way to rejoice in the Epiphany of Christ, the heavenly Bridegroom. It seems to me you could use this text from 1 Corinthians 12 and weave it together beautifully with Philipp Nicolai’s great Epiphany hymn, “O Morning Star, How Fair and Bright” (LSB 395), which allows the message of Epiphany to run through our confession of the Holy Church.
Concordia Theology: Various resources to assist you in preaching I Corinthians 12:1-11 from Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, MO.
Lectionary Podcast: Dr. John Nordling of Concordia Theological Seminary, Ft. Wayne, IN assists you in preaching I Corinthians 12:1-11.