Sermon 02-05-2023: “God Turns Nobodies into Somebodies”

Scripture: 1 Corinthians 1:18-31

I know there’s been some controversy in the past few weeks surrounding former UGA quarterback Stetson Bennett IV, but I’m not talking about that this morning… The fact is, as much as it pains a Yellow Jacket like me to admit, Stetson Bennett deserves all the accolades that come his way because of what he accomplished on the football field.

His story is simply remarkable… and incredibly unlikely. Bennett grew up a huge UGA fan, and got to realize his dream of playing quarterback for the Bulldogs his freshman year in 2017—well, at least he had a shot at playing quarterback. Bennett didn’t receive a coveted scholarship offer, but he made the team as a walk-on. I mean, he’s 5’11”—a little undersized to be a starting quarterback in the SEC.

But after Georgia recruited five-star quarterback Justin Fields, it looked like Bennett would never get playing time, so he transferred to a junior college in Mississippi and played there in 2018. He had a successful year, he was prepared to accept an offer from the mighty Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns, but then his beloved Bulldogs reached out to him: they needed a backup quarterback… and they believed in Bennett enough to give him a scholarship this time. So he accepted. He was now a former walk-on and backup quarterback for the Bulldogs. Better than nothing, right?

So he played just a little bit in 2019, and started a few games in 2020—only to lose the starting job to another star quarterback, JT Daniels, who transferred from USC.

In 2021, Daniels got injured, Bennett became the starter again… and the rest is history. Two national championships, a nomination for the Heisman… the first “former walk on” to win one national championship, much less two.

And of course he had doubters all along the way. Lots of people—a few Georgia fans but especially sports media commentators—failed to believe in him. So he had a “chip on his shoulder.” “I’m going to prove all these people wrong. I’m going to show them that I’m not a nobody… I’m somebody.”

My point is, relatively speaking, Stetson Bennett, who was a “nobody” back in 2017… became the biggest somebody in college football! He proved that he deserved his success… that he earned it… that he belonged in the highest echelon of the game.

In a way, many members of the church at Corinth could relate to Bennett’s story… They could relate to this impulse… to prove that they’re somebodies, and not nobodies

And that’s what this sermon is about: how “nobodies” become “somebodies” and what kind of difference it makes… I’m going to talk about this in three points: Point Number One, apart from Christ, we are all nobodies; Point Number Two, in Christ, we become somebodies; and Point Number Three, one important difference that being “somebody” makes in our lives.

But Point Number One… We’re all nobodies, at least apart from Christ…

As I discussed last week, the desire to be “somebody” was at the heart of the main conflict that was happening in the Corinthian church. Recall that the Corinthians were dividing up into different cliques… and saying, “I belong to Paul,” “I belong to Apollos,” “I belong to Cephas”—or Peter. If I am associated with a powerful leader like Peter… if a charismatic leader like Apollos baptized me… if an influential apostle like Paul is my close, personal friend… then I must be someone really special! I must be somebody! 

The Corinthians are starting to believe that they are “somebody” based on worldly standards. It’s important to them to “measure up,” to be people of worth, to feel good about themselves, based on worldly standards. 

And Paul will have none of it!

See verse 26: “For consider your calling, brothers [and sisters]: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.” While there were a handful of rich and powerful people in the church—people who measured up pretty well according to worldly standards—the vast majority of people in the church at Corinth were not like that. They were mostly poor, mostly uneducated, mostly working-class or slaves… there were many women, who were second-class citizens back then. 

They were mostly a bunch of nobodies

In fact, what was true of the church at Corinth—that they were mostly nobodies—was true of the early church in general. Listen to what a fierce second-century critic of Christianity—a Roman writer named Celsus—had to say about the kinds of people who were becoming Christians. You can practically hear the contempt in his voice as he writes the following:

[Celsus believed that this is what Christians themselves said and taught:] “Let no one educated, no one wise, no one sensible draw near. For these abilities are thought by us [Christians] to be evils. But as for anyone ignorant, anyone stupid, anyone uneducated, anyone who is a child, let him come boldly.” [Unquote… From his perspective, that’s what Christians were allegedly saying. He goes on:] By the fact that [the Christians] themselves admit that these people are worthy of their God, they show that they want and are able to convince only the foolish, dishonourable, and stupid, and only slaves, women, and children [to join their churches]. 1

It’s almost as if Celsus had stumbled into a church service and heard someone reading or preaching from today’s scripture—and had completely misunderstood Paul’s point! After all, Paul himself was as smart and well-educated as they come. He was one of the ancient world’s best writers and thinkers. His influence on our world today is incalculable. And at least prior to answering God’s call into apostolic ministry, Paul was perfectly successful and prosperous… in worldly terms.

Paul’s point isn’t that you can’t be wise, educated, well-to-do, powerful… if you’re also a Christian; he’s just addressing the plain fact that the vast majority of the Corinthian believers were not that way… They were nobodies, in worldly terms.

God seems to really love nobodies!

I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I want to be a nobody. Something within me—it’s called sinful pride—resists being a nobody. And even if I start out as a “nobody,” I always want to become a “somebody”… Like Stetson Bennett himself, I always want to prove that I really am a “somebody.” Always! 

What about you?

I’ll never forget, back around 2007 or ’8, I was at a party in the home of some church members who lived in our neighborhood. I had only been a pastor for a few years at that point. And I was feeling… ashamed of myself. In relation to most people at Alpharetta First, I felt very poor. I had a lot of student debt at the time. I was driving this 15-year-old Honda that we were holding together with baling wire, chewing gum, and duct tape. Every day I would park in the Associate Pastor parking space. My car was surrounded by—I’m not exaggerating—Lexuses, and Audis, and Beemers. Meanwhile, when I pulled out of my parking space—assuming my car would crank successfully, which it didn’t always do—there was an oil stain on the pavement where my car was leaking oil. I was embarrassed! 

I’m not proud to tell you, but these experiences early in my pastoral ministry—after I’d left a relatively prosperous engineering career… these experiences wounded my pride.

So that’s the background, the context, ofthis party I attended… Lisa and I were the only church people there. And this one guy—a very successful businessman named Jorg, who had only recently located to the U.S. from Germany—asked me what I did for a living. “I’m a pastor.” 

He said, “A pastor!” And he started laughing—like it was the funniest thing he’d ever heard! “Sorry… I’ve never met anyone our age who would be… a pastor!” He finally got hold of himself, apologized, and proceeded to tell me that in Germany only very young children and very old adults go to church. 

Of course, I should have been prepared to tell him, “That’s perfectly okay that you feel that way, Jorg… You’re not offending me. Because you don’t understand… Whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.” 2

That’s what I should have said… and I hope and pray and believe that I would say something like that today. I really do. But you know the effect his words had on me then? I thought something like this: “I’m going to prove him wrong. I’m going to become somebody… even though I’m just an associate pastor now… I’m going to work hard to show people who think I’m wasting my life and talent that I’m somebody. I’ll have a church of thousands, tens of thousands, I’ll write books, I’ll become bishop… I’ll… I’ll…

“I mean, yes, of course I’ll continue to follow Jesus, to trust in him, to seek to please him… but what would be wrong with getting the world’s approval while I’m at it? What’s wrong with being successful, not only in God’s kingdom, sure, but also in worldly terms?”

I wanted both… I wanted spiritual success, but also worldly success. I wanted to be a “somebody,” and not a nobody… according to worldly standards.

Fast forward two years later… I saw Jorg again—at a different event. This time he was excited to see me. He said, “Brent, you’ll never believe it! One Sunday last year, my wife dragged me to church. I started reading the Bible every day… Me, of all people, reading the Bible! And, to make a long story short, I’m a Christian!”

Yet I could hardly be excited for him at the time… Because I felt doubly ashamed! Because two years earlier a part of me was envying this man his worldly success—he was a “somebody,” not a nobody like me. I wanted to be like him. Now, here he is, two years later, telling me in so many words that being a “somebody,” apart from Christ, isn’t worth a hill of beans! Better to be a “nobody,” according to worldly standards, and have Jesus!

Well, duh! I should have already known that! Jesus said, “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul?” 3

Worldly standards simply don’t matter, Paul says. See verses 27 and following:

But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not [or, as the New Living Translation puts it: “things counted as nothing at all”], to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.

So… Paul says, “Stop trying to be somebody… according to worldly standards!”

It doesn’t work… It won’t make us happy, anyway… and besides… all of us—apart from God’s grace, before Jesus rescues us, before we get born again, before we receive God’s gift of eternal life in Christ—all of us are nobodies… We’re nobodies in the only way that matters… 

We are all nobodies when judged, not by worldly standards, but by God’s standards. 

Unlike Stetson Bennett, who had a chip on his shoulder and wanted to prove to the world that he was somebody,we can never prove that we’re somebody… to God. It’s impossible. In fact this is one important difference between traditional religion and Christianity. In traditional religion, God says, “I will accept you if you do this, that, and the other thing… Make yourself worthy of me, and then you’ll enjoy my favor… then I’ll love you and accept you… then I’ll answer your prayers and do things for you… then you’ll go to heaven when you die.”

There are plenty of people who call themselves Christians who continue to practice this kind of religion!

But Christianity isn’t like traditional religion… Pastor Tim Keller makes this point frequently in his preaching. In fact, he put it nicely in a tweet a few years ago. He wrote: “If you want to become a Christian, all you need is nothing—but most people don’t have that. Most of us come with our recommendation letters, our resume, our morality, our money.” Most of us come to God with our list of reasons why God should accept us and love us, why God should show us his favor, why God should give us eternal life, why God should let us into heaven.

I’ve talked to a lot of strangers in this town—people outside of our church… And when I’ve asked them, “Why do you think you’ll go to heaven?” you know what they say? “Because I’m a good person. I have these good works to show for myself. I have this spiritual resumé, and it’s pretty impressive.”

And of course, they’re not measuring themselves based on God’s standards; they’re comparing themselves to other people… “I’m about as good as they are…” Or “I’m a little better than those people are.” Or “I’m not as bad as… fill-in-the-blank.

But you know God doesn’t measure our goodness like that. He measures our goodness against his law—against the Ten Commandments… or even Jesus’ challenging words, like, “Anger is spiritual murder.” “Lust is spiritual adultery.” “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect,” 4 “Whoever wants to save their life must lose it…for my sake,”5 “whoever doesn’t forgive the sins of others, your Father won’t forgive your sins,” “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” 6

I heard a United Methodist leader complain recently on Facebook that we don’t need all this theology and doctrine in order to be a Christian… All we need is to do what Jesus says to do in the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats… We need to roll up our sleeves and get to work: feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, visit the sick and imprisoned… Being a Christian, she said, is all about doing… not believing the right doctrines and having the right theology.

And I wanted to say, “Hold on! Not so fast!” Jesus says, in Matthew 25:45, “Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’” And that may be fine—we all makes mistakes, after all… ExceptJesus says to these same people—the people whom he calls “goats,” the people who fail to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, etc., “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”

How many times have I passed a homeless beggar on the street without helping? How many times have I failed to welcome the stranger? How many times have I felt contempt for the poorest among us because, after all, why can’t they get their lives together? How many times have I even visited a prison? I’ve literally only visited a county jail one time… If Jesus is the “least” among us, I have surely failed to serve him a million times over! Am I in trouble?

Somebody better tell me how I’m not like one of the so-called “goats” in the parable, how I’m not going to go to hell?

And for that… we need theology… and doctrine!

We need to know, in other words, that based on God’s standards—the only standards that matter—we are all nobodies, and there’s nothing we can do in our own power, to become somebodies. 

We need to know that Christ did for us what we were unable to do for ourselves. He lived the life of perfect obedience to the Father that we were unable to live and died the death that we deserved to die. When we believe in Christ, his righteousness now counts for our righteousness. His death on the cross as penalty for our many sins counts as our death on the cross. Christ has earned for us what we were unable to earn for ourselves: eternal life and resurrection. 

So that’s Point Number One: all of us were nobodies before Christ…

But now, Point Number Two, guess what? If we believeand receive the good news of Jesus Christ, if we believe and receive this “word of the cross,” as Paul calls it in verse 18, we become “somebodies”… “somebodies” in the only way that matters!

When I was a baby, I was adopted into the family of Kit and Alton White. I have two older sisters—one was also adopted; the other was natural born. Being adopted never seemed like a big deal to me until I was in the fourth grade, and I got into a fistfight with some kids who were teasing me about being adopted. And, yes, I got beat up… but in my defense, I was outnumbered! 

Anyway, my parents found out about it—and it became this big, embarrassing incident at the school. Everyone in my class knew about it. The principal got involved. It was embarrassing. And I just wanted people to stop talking about it—to stop talking about me! When I was a kid, I only ever just wanted to blend in…and, to say the least, all this focus on the fact that I was adopted was the opposite of blending in!

But my parents wanted to make sure I was okay with being adopted. So they took me aside and said, “Brent, because you’re adopted, you’re extra special… even more special than if we had had you naturally…because, after all, we chose you. We didn’t have to have you; we chose you.” 

I know my parents meant well, but even as a nine-year-old kid I was skeptical: I didn’t imagine, for example, that my parents went to the hospital, to the maternity ward, and had a nurse roll out a dozen babies in bassinets, and said to my parents: “Please pick your favorite baby out of this lot. Please pick the best-looking, the most athletic, the most intelligent, the most gifted.” 

I suspected, even back then, that they just got stuck with whomever the adoption agency sent them. I mean, make no mistake, my adoptive parents won the lottery when they got me, but…

My point is, brothers and sisters, when we believe in Jesus, when we receive for ourselves this gift of eternal life he offers, we become God’s sons and daughters through adoption. Except… It’s not even adoption like what human parents like mine have to go through. No, the Bible says that God is not “stuck with us”—as if God said, “I would love to adopt someone like Jennifer Garner or Brad Pitt or Elon Musk or LeBron James or Patrick Mahomes—or any number of other beautiful, powerful, successful people in the world—but I guess I’m stuck with Brent White. He’s the best I can do.” No! 

God wanted me and you. God chose us to become his children… even before he created the universe, the Bible says, he knew us and he chose us!

If you don’t believe me, look at verses 27 and 28: Three times Paul says, “God chose… God chose… God chose”… Verse 29: “so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.” The University of Georgia didn’t choose Stetson Bennett—at least not until he worked hard and proved himself worthy. At which point Stetson Bennett could boast: “Look what I’ve done!” 

But God’s choice of us, as I’ve said, isn’t based on anything that we can do! God’s choice wasn’t based on worldly considerations like beauty, power, and success

But he chose us just the same.

Let that truth sink in! 

You’re not necessarily “somebody” in a way that matters to the world… Big deal! Because you are “somebody” in an infinitely more significant way!

And that’s Point Number Two: When you receive Christ as your Savior and Lord, you becomesomebody” in the only way that matters!

I said earlier that I envied Stetson Bennett his success. But are you kidding me? Because I’m “somebody” in God’s eyes, I have something far more valuable—infinitely more valuable—than even two national championship rings!

But do we even believe that?

And this brings us to Point Number Three… What’s one important difference in our lives right now because we are somebody?

To answer this question I want to draw your attention to Joshua chapter 1. Remember: Moses has just died. The people of Israel are on the brink of the entering the Promised Land—the land of Canaan. God has chosen Joshua to lead the people. And God tells Joshua exactly what God is going to enable Joshua to do: Verse 3: “Every place that the sole of your foot will tread upon I have given to you, just as I promised to Moses.” Notice God says, “I have given to you,” as if it’s already a done deal. As if this gift has already been given—never mind that Israel would have its work cut out for themselves; it would take a lot of hard work to conquer and settle the land. “Never mind,” God says, “It’s going to happen. From my perspective it’s already happened! 

Then in verse 6 he writes: “Be strong and courageous, for you shall cause this people to inherit the land that I swore to their fathers to give them.”

In other words, Joshua can live his life and face his future with strength and courage… why? Because God has promised to do these things—and to enable Joshua to do these things.

I suspect that God hasn’t told any of us what exactly our future holds. I guess it would be nice… I mean, at least it would be nice if our future held something good, like Joshua’s future. I don’t want to know if it doesn’t turn out so well!

But not so fast… God chose us… before the world began God chose us… He chose us every bit as much as he chose Joshua. 

We are chosen, like Joshua, to glorify God, to do his will, to fulfill his mission, to accomplish his purposes. 

And God has no less of a plan for our lives than he had for Joshua.

We’re chosen just like he is!

Therefore, are we really so different from him? I mean, sure, God probably hasn’t revealed to us exactly what he’s going to do for us, exactly how we’re going to fulfill his plan, exactly what the future holds for us.

But he has told us that if we’re in Christ, literally everything that happens in our future—literally everything—will be used by God, transformed by God, shaped by God, into something that will be for our ultimate good. And the whole time God is doing these good things, he will be producing within us by the power of his Holy Spirit the fruit of joy in our lives.

And when we finish running our race of Christian faith, we will make a transition from life to an even greater kind of life—in the direct presence of our Lord—and that, Paul says elsewhere, 7 is even better than the best life in the here and now.

With all these promises in mind, brothers and sisters… be strong and courageous!

  1.  Gordon Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, rev. ed.(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014), 85.
  2.  Philippians 3:7-8 ESV
  3.  Mark 8:36-37 ESV
  4.  Matthew 5:48 ESV
  5.  Matthew 16:25
  6.  Matthew 5:20
  7.  Philippians 1:23

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