Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Don't Despair!

            In case you haven’t heard, the Catholic church is embroiled in yet another sex abuse scandal. This time, it is alleged that more than 1,000 children in Pennsylvania were sexually abused by priests over many decades. Sadly, the investigation has now expanded to include churches in New York, New Jersey, Illinois, Missouri, Nebraska, and New Mexico. To make matters worse, at least one of the abusers was known and sanctioned, though not removed, by high-level people within the church—perhaps even the pope himself. In any event, whether or not the pope was aware, he is aware now and it appears that he has simply decided to stick his head in the sand and hope that it all goes away. Like the last scandal that rocked the Catholic church, I’m sure the authorities will get to the bottom of it and bring those responsible to justice. My purpose is not to air the Catholic church’s dirty laundry—you can follow all the ugly details for yourself reported by virtually every major news outlet. Catholic clergy doesn’t have a monopoly on horrific behavior. There are countless examples of Protestant churches whose ministers have wounded some of those who have been entrusted to their care. I’m not trying to draw your attention to the sensationalism of sinful behavior. Instead, I want to draw your attention to something I believe is even more tragic.

            In one particular article I read, the author, who was Catholic, was writing an open letter to the pope supposedly on behalf of all Catholics imploring him to do something to address the atrocities committed by Catholic priests because the faithful (that’s what Catholics call themselves) are “despairing.” Of all the horrible things I’ve read and heard about the storm swirling around the Catholic church, that one comment stands out as being the most troubling for me. Let me explain. “Despair” is defined as the complete loss or absence of hope. Think about that for a minute. Can there be such a thing as a hopeless Christian? It would appear so. How does that happen? It happens when we put our hope; our faith, in someone or something other than Jesus Christ. Maybe you put your hope in your wealth. You thought you were investing wisely and then a relative talked you into giving them most or all of your money because they had an inside tip on the investment of a lifetime only to realize that they stole your money and disappeared and now you’re despairing because all your wealth is gone. You met the person of your dreams and you believed you would spend forever together. You put all your hope in that relationship but then the trouble starts and you’re handed divorce papers and your despairing because your marriage is over. You finally landed the perfect job. All your hard work paid off and you now had your dream job. You felt like you had it made and you poured your soul into that job. That job was all you hoped for. But suddenly things began to change when the company restructured and that job that held all your hope now feels more like a terrorist encampment and you’re one of its hostages and you’re despairing. You’ve been sick for years but you’ve started a new treatment plan that seems to be working. You knew your faith in modern medicine wasn’t misplaced. But then the treatments that were so promising fail and now you’re despairing. You belong to a religious organization that you love and you put your hope and faith in its leaders only to find out that they are horribly flawed and sinful and you’re despairing. When you put your faith in your wealth and lose it, you despair. When you put your faith in a relationship and it ends, you despair. When you put your faith in your job and it sours, you despair. When you put your faith in medical treatments and they fail, you despair. When you put your faith in a church leader and he or she sins, you despair. So when do Christians despair? When they put their faith in someone or something other than Jesus Christ. The Bible is very clear—no matter what you have gone through or are going through, put your full hope and faith in Jesus Christ alone and Don’t Despair!

Subject Text

2 Corinthians 4:7-12

            7But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. 8We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; 9persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. 10We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. 11For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body. 12So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.


            In Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth, he identified problems in the young church and offered solutions to those problems. More importantly, Paul gave the Corinthians instructions for how to live within a corrupt society. Corinth’s geographical location placed her along primary trade routes which afforded her a reputation for commercial prosperity. She also became a byword for evil living. If a Corinthian was ever a character on a Greek stage, he was always shown drunk. On the hill of the Acropolis above the city was the temple of Aphrodite—the goddess of love. The temple had fallen into ruin by the time of Paul but the successors to the 1,000 temple prostitutes were still hard at “work” in the city of Corinth. In Paul’s day, the city became synonymous with wealth, luxury, drunkenness, and rampant sexual gluttony. In short, Corinth became synonymous with filth. It was in this context that Paul wrote his letters to the church in Corinth. It appears that some “leaders” in the church in Corinth didn’t care for Paul’s instructions and questioned his authority. As a result, much of Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians is spent defending his authority. Evidently, based on the context of our Subject Text, some of the believers were following Paul’s instructions from his first letter and were, perhaps, facing some hardships and persecution. This really shouldn’t be a surprise, should it? The Corinthian culture really doesn’t sound much different from some of the places you and I live. And I’m guessing more than a few of you have experienced the wrath of unbelievers (and maybe even some believers) when you stand up for Biblical truth. You’ll experience it when you stand up against abortion. You’ll experience it when you stand up against the militant homosexual agenda. You’ll experience it when you stand up against sex outside of marriage. You’ll experience it when you insist that there are only two genders—male and female. You’ll experience it when you insist that Jesus Christ is the only Way, the only Truth, and the only Life and that NO ONE can go to the Father (get to heaven) except through faith in Jesus alone. Some of you experience this persecution daily to the point of fearing for your lives. Some of you have sacrificed your livelihoods because you live your lives according to these Biblical truths. Some of you have lost your friends because you refuse to conform your lives to the ways of the world. In any event, no matter what you may be facing, hardship, persecution, sickness, and even death, Paul’s instruction is very clear—Don’t Despair!

Text Analysis

            7But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.

            What treasure if Paul referring to in v. 7? Well according to the previous verses, it is the Gospel. As believers, we carry within ourselves, the truth of the Gospel message—salvation is found in Jesus Christ who is the Lord of all. We literally carry the reality of eternal life with God within our bodies that are deteriorating every day. And God entrusted frail humanity to nurture and perpetuate this truth to demonstrate His sovereign power. Unbelievers, and sadly some who call themselves believers, claim that the Bible is no longer relevant. However, this passage refutes that claim and perhaps demonstrates that the Bible is growing in relevance not diminishing. Let me demonstrate using v. 7. At the time that Paul wrote this letter, the Gospel message was a little more than 30-years old, so most believers were first-generation believers. Although the church was growing numerically and expanding geographically, it was still very small relative to the unbelieving world surrounding it. For the Gospel to survive 30 years in a somewhat hostile environment is certainly impressive and, to some extent, demonstrates God’s power to sustain the message. Wind the clock forward 2,000+ years and 50 generations and of the 7+ billion people on earth, 2.3 billion are Christians spread all across the globe. Not only has the light of the Gospel message not dimmed, it continues to shine brightly with each passing generation. Not only does that prove the relevance of the Gospel message and the truth it conveys, but it clearly illustrates what Paul refers to as God’s “all-surpassing” power.

            “People keep treasures in safety deposit boxes and vaults. But God places his precious treasure—the message that frees people from sin—in perishable containers; that is, in human beings. The message of freedom that God entrusted to them would last much longer than their frail bodies. Why would God do this? Because he delights in empowering the weak in order to confound the strong. The Lord loves to answer the prayers of the needy and bring down those who take pride in themselves. God works through the weak and powerless so that it is clear that the power comes from God alone.”[1]

8We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; 9persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.

            We don’t really fear for our lives here in America when we profess our Christian faith. However, here in Colorado, at least one baker has been targeted and taken to court by militant homosexuals because he has refused to bake wedding cakes for same-sex weddings because he believes marriage should be between one man and one woman according to his Christian beliefs. However, my heart aches for the brothers and sisters in Nigeria and other parts of the world who are being tortured and murdered by Muslims for their Christian faith. Thousands of your brothers and sisters are praying for you so that you are not abandoned. But Paul isn’t only referring to being persecuted for our faith. He is referring to the trials and tribulations of life in general. Like me, you might be struck down by an illness, but you refuse to let it destroy you. Every month it seems like you have to make a choice between keeping a roof over your family’s head or putting food on your family’s table. No matter how hard you work, it never seems to be enough to make ends meet and every day there seems to be something new you have to deal with. The walls seem to be closing in all around you, but you refuse to be crushed. You learn that your pastor or priest has hurt a number of people in your congregation with their horrible behavior. You’re perplexed by their blatant sinfulness, but you refuse to despair. Paul isn’t saying in vv. 8-9 that as Christians we are somehow protected from the hardships of life and living in a sinful world. What he is saying is that no matter what storm may be swirling around us, we must never lose sight of our ultimate hope; the “treasure” entrusted to us—eternal life through Jesus Christ. These jars of clay may be cracked but they are not broken. We are held together by the “all-surpassing” power and sovereignty of God whose light shines brightly through the very cracks caused by trials and tribulations we face.

            “It bears repeating that through the cracks the divine light shines to enlighten others. If Paul were a superman, faster than a speeding bullet and able to leap over tall buildings with a single bound, he could hardly proclaim the message of the cross. His weakness and God’s power working in and through his weakness, however, is consonant with the folly of the cross. Christ crucified is not only his message, but it is also his model. He has become the suffering apostle of the suffering Messiah. We can learn from his example that [Christians] do not have to be wonderful, just faithful.”[2]

10We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. 11For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body. 12So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.

            In so many ways, Christianity is a paradox. The first will be last, the humble will be exalted, we see things that are unseen, we become wise by being fools for Christ, we are made great by becoming small, we receive strength when we are weak, those who try to save their lives will lose their lives, and those who freely give up their lives will receive eternal life. Verses 10-12 are the penultimate paradox for Christians. We are all of us dying daily. It is simply a reality of life. However, for the Christian, the life of Jesus should be revealed in our lives as the light that shines through the cracks in these fragile jars of clay. We are hard pressed trying to make ends meet but find a way to help a neighbor who might be being pressed even harder. We might be persecuted for our faith but we refuse to compromise to avoid further persecution. We might be struck down by illness but we are always at the ready to lift up others who are struck down. We may be perplexed by the sinfulness of humanity, even the sinfulness of those who minister to us, but we refuse to take our eyes off Jesus who was the one and only man who was without sin.

            Our mortality is an unavoidable reality. It is also unavoidable that the more faithful we are each day, the more we are likely to suffer in some way. Not because God delights in our suffering but because the world will hate us even more. However, it is important to remember that God’s light shines the brightest in and through our suffering and weakness. Paul says that when he is at his weakest point, God is at his strongest. This is, perhaps, the greatest paradox of all—through our suffering; through our brokenness; through our sickness; through the process of dying as faithful followers of Christ, we are being prepared for eternal life with Christ as we light the way to God for others.

            “Paul is making two important affirmations regarding Christian experience. First, the resurrection life of Jesus is evident at precisely the same time as there is a ‘carrying around’ of his dying. Indeed, the very purpose of the believer’s identification with Jesus in his sufferings is to provide an opportunity for the display of Jesus’ risen life. Second, one and the same physical body is the place where the sufferings of Jesus are repeated and where his risen power is manifested.”[3]


            At the beginning, I told you about the Catholic writer who claimed that Catholics (the “faithful”) are “despairing” over the thousands of clergy sexual abuse cases around the United States now being widely reported and the pope’s failure to address the issue quickly and decisively. I asked the question if it was possible for Christians to despair. It appears that they can be based on the article I read. But only because their faith is misplaced. In this particular case, Catholics who are despairing do so because they’ve placed their faith in the clergy, including the pope, who are sinners just like the rest of humanity and they’ve forgotten that their faith and devotion belong to Jesus Christ and no one or nothing else in this world. If we focus our faith on Jesus Christ and Him alone then we will never have a cause to despair. So, based on this lesson, I will ask the question: Should Christians despair? The answer is clearly, no!

            Here is what is really sad, when we put our hope and faith in something other than Jesus, our mortal bodies; these jars of clay, are still cracked and fragile vessels. However, the light of God dims and no longer shines through the cracks to light the way to God for others. Then, not only do we despair but we don’t offer hope to others either and then they are left to despair as well. You may be persecuted like the brothers and sisters in Nigeria and elsewhere in the world, but God will never abandon you. You may feel like the walls of your life are crashing in on you, but God will never allow you to be crushed. You may be perplexed about the tragic circumstances impacting your life, but God will never leave you hopeless. You may be struck down by illness, but God will never destroy you. God has given us, as believers, a priceless treasure that we keep in these fragile jars of clay. Your jar of clay may be horribly cracked like mine, but God holds it together and makes His light shine brightly through the cracks to light the way for others to find Him and to see Him in you. In another paradox, the more your jar of clay is cracked, the more useful you are because more of God’s light will shine through you. Therefore, let’s remember to fix our eyes on and put our faith only in Jesus and Don’t Despair!

[1] Bruce Barton, Philip Comfort, Grant Osborne, Linda K. Taylor, Dave Veerman, Life Application New Testament Commentary, (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2001), 723-724.
[2] David E. Garland, 2 Corinthians—The New American Commentary, (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1999), 230.
[3] Murray J. Harris, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians—The New International Greek New Testament Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eardmans Publishing Co., 2005), 347.

(Audio Version; Music--"Here Again" by: Elevation Worship and "You Say" by: Lauren Daigle; Music coordination by: Meagan Seredinski)