"Supernatural Splendour in Chipped China"
February 12, 2006 2Cor.4:1-11,16-18
The Glory and the Grind
We really got a dose of winter this past week: schools and roads closed various days. We've experienced snow in both its beauty and its bother. Wednesday, for example, the scenery was gorgeous: with a clear blue sky for a backdrop, brilliant sunshine was reflecting off deep white glistening snow that formed a creamy icing that contrasted with underlying tree branches. It was strikingly beautiful. A CBC radio person commented that it was like walking in "a marshmallow world".
Yet that same snow that was so pretty could also be a pest. Many people were still without electricity due to broken branches and downed power lines. It made repairs difficult for Hydro One personnel. When I went to get into my car at the hospital parking lot to head home for supper, I noticed a huge buildup of hard-packed gummy brown snow and ice rubbing up against most of the backside of my front wheel. I tried to knock it off using the wooden handle of my scraper, poking and hacking away, but the attempt was futile. It seemed I wasn't making any headway whatsoever.
Some days, perhaps most if we're honest, life can seem like that: you're just chipping away at big problems without seeming to make any headway. It's known as the "daily grind", and there's not much 'glorious' about it at all. Just a continual hum-drum, encountering one problem after another, without seeming to make progress or get any further ahead. If that's your experience, here's some good news: though Paul also suffered many hardships and setbacks, he found that those who trust in Christ can be renewed inwardly, even as they encounter daunting troubles. His glory and power are released inside us to help us keep on, and point us to rewards that ultimately await those who persist in His cause.
Clay Pots with New Life Inside
In 2Cor 4, Paul doesn't try to hide the fact that there can be many difficulties in trying to life a Christian life. V4 says "the god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers" - when we try to share the gospel with them, it may see that there's a 'veil' or blindfold in front of their eyes. It can be discouraging to invite people out to special church events, only to receive non-committal, indifferent, or hostile replies. Even though the Good News of Jesus and His saving work may seem so obvious to us, others are resistant; His Lordship goes against the grain of human self-centredness, pleasure, and pride. Kenneth Chafin as a young pastor became discouraged because not everyone responded to the message about Christ. He commented to an older member of the church that "they seem to shed the gospel the way a duck sheds water." Sensing the young man's discouragement, the person replied, "Kenneth, you need to remember that it's not the water's fault." Still, it's frustrating when you're trying to share God's help but sin creates a veil over human understanding.
Paul lists other conditions to which many of us can probably relate. In vv8-11 he talks of being "hard pressed on every side...perplexed...persecuted...struck down." NLT says "hunted down...knocked down...under constant danger of death..." Paul, the former persecutor, was now on the receiving end of anti-Christian hatred; the hunter was now the hunted. In chapter 11(26f) he states, "I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers.I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked." What hardships he endured trying to get the message out!
The words "hard pressed" have the sense of being squeezed. The word "perplexed" can be translated "to be without resources, to be in doubt, not knowing which way to turn, to be at a loss with one's self." Can you relate to that? As you came to this place this morning, did you feel like you're getting squeezed by worldly pressures, you have so many problems you don't know which way to turn? That's exactly what Paul's talking about. Sometimes it can be the consequences of sin that are dragging us down, but trying to live for God brings its own challenges and opposition from others.
As an apostle or missionary, Paul could say in v10, "We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus...we...are always being given over to death for Jesus' sake..." All the abuse sparked by his evangelist tours was taking its toll on his physical body: he observed bluntly in v16, "outwardly we are wasting away..."; (NLT) "our bodies are dying..." That doesn't sound promising! Being a faithful witness was exacting a toll on the evangelist greater than just that of your typical person in the over-40 category - though there are days we do feel older than our age!
But it's precisely in conditions as tough as this that Paul surprisingly asserts a supernatural strength is available to our inner person that acts as an overcoming supply. Despite the darkness of unbelief and danger of active opposition. V6, "For God, who said, "Let light shine out of darkness," made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ." In the midst of darkness, doubt, and death - light! Glory!
The emphasis on "glory" runs strongly through this passage, carried over from chapter 3, where Paul recalls Moses' face shining radiantly as he descended from meeting with God on Mount Sinai. Paul maintains that the New Covenant, with its ministry that brings righteousness to people rather than condemning them, has "surpassing glory" compared to the old dispensation (3:10). In 4:4 he speaks of "the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God." The glory or beauty or radiance is associated with Jesus, who is God's image or "icon" or likeness. Jesus could say in John 14(9), "Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father." Only a madman could make such a boast - unless that person really were God-in-the-flesh. And as God's 'snapshot', the radiance of God's glory (Heb 11:3), Jesus wowed those who had eyes of faith that were receptive to His great miracles, love, and oneness with the Father's will. It is the believer's awesome privilege to know what v6 refers to as the light "of the glory of God in the face of Christ".
The source of the glory is God, unquestionably. But those who walk with Christ find as they abide in Him, His glory rubs off on us and through us. It becomes OUR glory, both now in this life, and eventually in eternity. Skip back to chapter 3 v18: "And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord's glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit." See that? There, the glory is becoming attributed to US not just God. NLT puts it this way: "And all of us have had that veil removed so that we can be mirrors that brightly reflect the glory of the Lord.And as the Spirit of the Lord works within us, we become more and more like Him and reflect His glory even more." Reflective mirrors - or maybe a fluorescent tube, glowing because of the divine energy within. With some Christians, that glory seems to shine out especially through their eyes, which the Lord described as "the lamp of the body" (Mt 6:22). When people look you in the eye, can they detect Jesus being reflected in your gaze? Or what's distracting or clouding our eye?
Beyond this present life, even more glory awaits those who journey with Jesus through the trials. 4:17 says, "For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all." This is a rich verse to study in the Greek, or if you have a Strong's- numbered version. Our troubles are light, "but for the moment", temporary, they won't last very long. Although there's enough snow to make me wish I had a snowblower some days, it's late enough in the season that it's hardly worth getting one now; this season's load will soon be past. That's like our earthly life compared to the time we'll spend in eternity. (Besides, it's healthier for me to use a scoop!)
And what are these momentary troubles DOING? What's the verb here? They're ACHIEVING for us an eternal glory; they're working hard for us, accomplishing something very valuable, there's a definite outcome being wrought or produced by these trials. It's an energetic action with beneficial result. Namely - "an eternal glory that far outweighs" all the troubles. The term Paul uses for "far outweighs" is really interesting, "from hyberbole to hyberbole an eternal weight of glory", an exceedingly surpassing whump of glory (Dow translation). Uhh - can hardly lift it, in comparison! The writer's piling on the superlatives, today he might talk about a "googolplex" of God's wonderful goodness and radiance accumulating for believers as a result of their nano-troubles.
This beauty and strength from above shines forth from within us, like a simple earthenware olive-oil lamp lights up the whole inside of a one-room Palestinian dwelling. V7, "But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us." It's an unimposing lamp, not a bushel bucket: the lamp has to be exposed, vulnerable, giving forth, letting its reserve be consumed not retained.
Do you have any "favourite" earthenware at home that's been used so much it's a little chipped or worn? I have a once-nice mug that's used pretty well every other day; the handle's been broken off and obviously glued back on, but it still serves the purpose to hold my hot drinks. We're just ordinary everyday mugs, Paul's saying, nothing fancy or impressive to look at - even a little banged up and worn - but the Lord still delights to use us in sharing His grace with others.
"This precious treasure...is held in perishable containers..." (NLT) God's supernatural supply is the treasure; Jesus-in-me. HIS life being revealed in my mortal body is what it's all about (11) - that's priceless. I recall when I was growing up, whenever Dad came in from town he'd empty the change out of his wallet into a little blue plastic dish that sat high up on top of the china cabinet. After a while it would get pretty full, holding what seemed (in a little boy's eyes) a lot of money. What made that simple blue dish with the plastic moulded curves so valuable wasn't the dish itself, but the money inside. Likewise, here Paul's saying those who are led by Christ's Spirit have a treasure inside, something priceless that upgrades our whole being. Our outside may not be very impressive - our appearance, our status, whatever people normally take pride in - but God's got a purpose for each one that's in submission to Him.
Sometimes we don't recognize the treasure within because we're looking too much at the commonness of the clay pot. Mike Yaconelli tells of an attractive young woman on the fast track toward a lucrative business career who decided she wanted to delay her career plans in order to work with inner-city young people. God had been working in her heart, and she felt a real sense of calling. She was hired by a church where the ethnic mix was changing, and within weeks she was working with gang members. She successfully convinced a few of them to attend a Bible study at the church. One night she was explaining that if you want to be a disciple of Jesus, nothing can be more important than Him (seek first His Kingdom, Mt 6:33). Her words were, "If the gang is more important than Jesus, then the gang has to go.If your girlfriend is more important than Jesus, then the girlfriend has to go." One of the gang members was so into what she was saying that, after hearing those words, he reacted violently by throwing his arms back, yelling, "Dude, it's hard to be a disciple!" and his elbow crashed through a window. When the church found out, they were very upset at having to pay $26 to fix the window, and they restricted the gang members from using the room. Here was a young woman teaching gang members about Jesus, and they were listening. She was doing such a good job that her students understood how costly faith is. What a teacher! But all the church could think about were broken windows.
A few weeks later, the pastor accidentally interrupted one of the Bible studies. He sat down and spent a few minutes talking with the gang members. After he left, one of the guys said, "Hey, I like that guy.Let's go to church this Sunday." The youth worker decided to seat them in the balcony rather than with the congregation downstairs. When the minister came out and announced the giving of the peace, one of the gang members spontaneously stood up and yelled, "Hey, dude, you are cool!" The congregation turned around in shock. After the service, the youth worker was told not to bring the gang members back to the church until they learned how to behave inside a church.
Yaconelli concludes, "The church should have turned around and invited the gang members downstairs. They should have applauded a woman who was doing an amazing job of evangelism. Instead, the youth worker was fired. Apparently this church was more concerned about comfort than it was about group of gang member's discomforting search for spirituality." So, they didn't recognize the TREASURE hidden in the rough jars of the gang members who were in faith responding to Christ's leading, or the treasure in the ministry of such a gifted youth worker. What cracked pots (in the stupid sense) we can be when we focus on our own appearance and fail to discern God's working inside people, whatever they look like on the outside.
Look Up, Don't Give Up
Troubles come - that's a given in earthly life. When you're trying to live for the Lord, troubles may come even thicker and faster. You have an enemy who's trying to trip you up. Temptation is everywhere, particularly in this media- and materially-rich society. Relationships often suffer the cost of pursuits motivated by greed and lust. But whatever our problems may be, Paul reminds us in vv 1 and 16 - like book-ends for this chapter - "Therefore we do not lose heart." "We never give up." (NLT) He gives two reasons for saying this: in v1, the reason is that through God's mercy we have this ministry; God in forgiveness and grace has redeemed us and given us a job to do, we're appointed for a purpose. The other reason not to give up is in v14 (just ahead of the 'therefore' in v16), "because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus and present us with you in his presence." We know - we take it as a fact, as sure as you're sitting on that chair - that God not only resurrected Christ from the dead, He's going to do exactly the same thing for us when we die, AND present us all before the heavenly throne. Or as one version says, "will give us a place in His glory with you." Establish that in your consciousness. Reckon it as a 'done deal'. Whatever may befall us in this earthly life - whatever suffering or shame or ridicule the enemy may try to throw at us, however hard it gets - God's got something much better in store for us. Being with Jesus will make all this life's troubles fade into insignificance.
So, let your light shine, no matter how 'ordinary' you may feel, no matter how little you may seem in the grand scheme of things or how big your obstacles. God delights in using clay pots, simple earthenware lamps, because then there's no question that it's 'a God thing'.
Our daughter Emily in a recent LivingLightNews article tells about Edmonton realtor Allan Barbe (photo - rather an ordinary-looking man, with even less hair than me!). At age 17, Allan was introduced to the world of rock and roll, and after joining a band, he soon dropped out of school and began touring. He recalls, "I discovered smoking dope, experimenting, meeting girls...the hormones were flying." In California he managed to finish high school and started university, but again dropped out after one semester and joined another band.
Allan took a part-time job selling electronics. A 70-year-old salesman named Jack Rhinehart used to come in when it was slow. Allan says, "We'd sit and talk and he'd always turn things around to talk about God." Allan thought Jack was a bit strange; after all, here was an elderly man taking interest in a self-described 'hippie-freak'. One day Jack asked Allan point-blank, "If you died today, would you go to heaven?" Allan stammered, "I think so; I'm a pretty good person." Jack proceeded to show him in the Bible how he could know for sure his ultimate destiny would in fact be heaven. Allan recalls, "Right there, on March 9 1980, in the middle of the electronics store in Oceanside CA, I gave my life to the Lord.It was the fact that I could have assurance, and know that Jesus Christ really did die for me - it wasn't just a nebulous thing that happened."
Just a month later, Jack died from a heart attack. As for Allan, his life changed immediately; there was an inner difference. He explains, "I didn't have a desire to play in bars or go pick up chicks.The Bible says we become a new creature, and I guess I did."
Allan later moved to Edmonton, married, and became a realtor. He also became recognized nationwide for his devotion to both country and community, as demonstrated by the Canadiana and Gospel music he writes and performs. Three years ago, he was awarded the Queen Elizabeth Golden Jubilee medal for his work in promoting Canadian unity through his song "(One) Canada (Uni)". His friendship with a local MP has opened up countless venues for him to promote patriotism and, at the same time, share his Christian faith. This past November, Allan Barbe was one of 8,000 Albertans to receive the province's Centennial Award for outstanding service to the community. Allan gives of his time and talent selflessly, performing in places like inner-city coffee shops for free. He notes, "Up until I'd accepted the Lord at 21, music was my god; it's wonderful to see the grace and mercy of God when He takes something you've used for your own purposes, and uses it for His."
The Lord delights in using ordinary people to showcase His goodness and glory. Paul said in v5, "For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus' sake." Let Him be Lord, in control, and He'll use your talent for something much bigger than you'd dreamed. And whatever troubles may come, don't drop out, don't give up: He'll renew you and reveal His life in you, day by day.Let's pray.