Twentieth Sunday After Pentecost: Never Give Up
For which cause we faint not; but though our outward man is corrupted (it is wasting away), yet the inward man, (the soul) is renewed day by day.
(II Corinthians 4:16)
I. We Experience Life in the Midst of Death.
“Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day” ( v. 16).
When Paul says that outwardly we are wasting away, all but the young understand what he means. His meaning is lost on the young because by and large they don’t feel like they are wasting away. When you are 18 and just graduating from high school, you feel like your whole life is stretched out before you. You think you will live forever even if you know you won’t. It’s a wonderful thing to be young and full of energy. You might as well enjoy it because life will change your perspective soon enough.
The legendary actor/director/author Woody Allen gave an interview to the New York Times in which he talked about his own faith at the age of 74. He makes it clear that he doesn’t believe in God:
Q. What seems more plausible to you, that we’ve existed in past lives, or that there is a God?
A. Neither seems plausible to me. I have a grim, scientific assessment of it. I just feel, what you see is what you get.
Then there is this question:
Q. How do you feel about the aging process?
A. Well, I’m against it. [laughs] I think it has nothing to recommend it. You don’t gain any wisdom as the years go by. You fall apart, is what happens. People try and put a nice varnish on it, and say, well, you mellow. You come to understand life and accept things. But you’d trade all of that for being 35 again. I’ve experienced that thing where you wake up in the middle of the night and you start to think about your own mortality and envision it, and it gives you a little shiver.
For all his earthly achievements, Woody Allen seems to have learned nothing valuable about ultimate reality. As he gets older, he begins to fall apart as we all do sooner or later. But he has no answer for it, no hope beyond his own coming death.
When Paul says we are all wasting away, he means it quite literally. Did you know the human body is programmed toward death? Scientists use the term apoptosis to describe this “programmed cell death.” In the average human adult between 50 and 70 billion cells die each day. Think about that. You lost at least 50 billion cells yesterday, you’ll lose at least that many today. By this time next week, you’ll have lost 350 billion cells to programmed cell death. No wonder we’re all feeling worn out. It’s literally true. When Paul says that “death came to all men” in Romans 5:12, that’s not just true in the spiritual realm. It’s literally true in the physical realm.
We’re dying all the time. Little by little our bodies are wearing out. No one can escape it. It’s happening to me. This year I celebrate (if that’s the right word) my 59th birthday. Here’s what I notice. Newsprint keeps getting smaller and smaller! And I don’t seem to hear quite as well as I did ten years ago. My body doesn’t move as fast as it did twenty years ago. The young people seem a lot younger than they used to. And “old people” don’t seem as old as they seemed when I was young. You can’t escape the aging process.
But there is another reality at work within us. While we are dying on the outside, that is, in our fleshly bodies, on the inside, in the realm of the soul and the spirit, we are being renewed by God every single day. And these things happen at the same time.
We are dying.
We are living.
We are falling apart.
We are being renewed.
We are heading toward death.
We are experiencing new life.
That’s why Paul isn’t overly worried about whether or not his enemies kill him.
If they do, he wins!
If they don’t, he still wins!
Strange as it may seem, Paul views his troubles as part of God’s plan to renew him spiritually. Years ago we used to sing “Every day with Jesus is sweeter than the day before.” It’s not that every day seems sweeter or feels sweeter or that every day is a bed of roses. It’s not. Some days are dark and desperate. But the “sweetness” of Jesus may be seen in his goodness to us in the midst of our trials. We read of a saint of God who having gone through deep waters has emerged more beautiful than before. I have seen it happen in those who are dying of cancer. You can see their faith actually growing stronger as their body grows weaker. They are experiencing life in the midst of death. Paul says this is God’s plan for all of his children–daily spiritual renewal.
That’s the first reason we never give up.
II. We See Glory at the End of Suffering.
“For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (v. 17).
When we are going through great suffering, it rarely seems either “light” or “momentary” to us. Rather it seems that our troubles will never end and that we will be crushed completely. So how is it that Paul can confidently say these things? If this life is all there is, then Woody Allen is right in his grim assessment. “What you see is what you get.” But on the other hand, perhaps he spoke truth deeper than he knew. Since this life is all that Woody Allen can see, his viewpoint leads only to darkness and despair.
Christians “see” something that others don’t see. We “see” beyond this life to a life to come. We understand that no matter what we endure now, there awaits for us an “eternal glory” that far outweighs what happens to us in this life. On one hand we are all “fragile-looking travelers” as we pass our time on earth. So many things can happen to us. We may get cancer or we may be shot during a battle or we may fall over with a heart attack. The line between life and death is microscopically thin for all of us. So what does our Christian faith say about death? It tells us that the believer in Christ “dies into glory”. The stars die at sunrise because the mighty sun rises over the eastern horizon. Even so we die in this life and rise with Christ our King.
We should be clear about one point. We see these things and know them by faith.
During the worst trials of life, it will not seem that there is any purpose at all. Indeed, for the worst things that happen, the terrible betrayals, the breakup of a marriage, the long years of chronic pain, the sadness of seeing our children struggle in their own marriages, none of that seems to have any purpose. And I daresay that as long as we gaze upon our trials, they will serve only to perplex us more and more.
During a dark moment of my own life, when I felt myself going under and could see no ray of light, no hope at all, and could hardly think of a reason to go on, this one thought sustained me:
“Whatever was true is true.”
My trials, grievous though they may seem to me, cannot abolish whatever is true about God and the universe. Truth is truth, regardless of my personal feelings about it. Jesus is Lord whether I believe it or not. He is Lord even if I deny that he is Lord. Truth does not depend upon my personal belief for its existence.
2 + 2 = 4 is true regardless of how I feel about it. The same is true of all spiritual reality. Even when I may be sinking down, down, down, when I feel that all is lost, whatever was true is still true and will always be true. That illustration is fitting because Paul encourages us to do our own moral and spiritual calculation.
Take all the suffering of this life,
All the pain,
All the heartache,
All the rejection,
All the misunderstanding,
All the evil we encounter,
All the hatred directed at us,
All the malice we endure,
All the sadness,
All the tears,
All the sleepless nights,
All the fear,
All the doubt,
All the worry,
All the confusion,
All the perplexity,
All the sickness,
All the broken dreams,
And then add it all up, total it up to whatever fantastic sum it may come to, and then add to that the sadness of every funeral you’ve attended for the death of someone you loved, think about all that death has taken from you, meditate on it, make that sum as large as you can, and place it on one side of the ledger.
Now place on the other side these things . . .
The Word of God,
The promises of God,
The love of God,
The power of God,
The plan of God,
The wisdom of God,
The kindness of God,
The sovereignty of God,
The grace of God,
And then add to that the death of the Son of God with its infinite transforming power toward us who believe, and then add to that the resurrection of the Son of God who came forth from the tomb undefeated, alive from the dead, holding the keys of death and Hades in his hand, who is now declared the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Factor all that in, and then add to it the indwelling Holy Spirit who is the down payment on all the promises of God and the guarantee of our salvation. Now put that sum on the other side of the ledger.
You do the figuring. Which is greater? Your sorrows or the vast and immeasurable promises of God, made in his Word, guaranteed by the Spirit, and purchased for us in the death and resurrection of our Lord?
Or we can let Paul do the figuring for us. He already knows the answer. We will soon receive an “eternal glory” that “far outweighs them all.” The various translations say it in different ways, but I prefer the Douay Rheims Version when it uses the phrase “above measure exceeding.” that is “far beyond our expectations”
Not just exceeding,
Not just more exceeding.
But above measure exceeding.
Life on this earth can be so painful and so baffling that I’m pumped by the thought that the glory that is coming is “far more exceeding” and “far outweighs” whatever we have been through.
And that’s the second reason we never give up.
III. We Fix Our Eyes on Eternal Reality.
“For the things which are seen, are temporal; but the things which are not seen, are eternal.” (v. 18).
We tend to see what we want to see.
And we tend not to see what we’re not looking for.
Let me tell you a story through the eyes of someone else:
“Years ago I served on staff with someone who loved to drink coffee. Like many people, she loved a cup of coffee in the morning and in the afternoon. One day after staff meeting, she told me she was going to run down to Starbucks to get a cup of coffee. When I said there wasn’t a Starbucks nearby, she said, 'It’s only two blocks from here. Just down the street next to the theater.' I had driven down that street many times, and I knew for certain there was no Starbucks by the theater. But she insisted there was. I said there wasn’t. And so a friendly argument ensued. A couple of days later as I drove down Lake Street, I saw it. There was a Starbucks right where she said it was. And it had evidently been there a long time. Why didn’t I see it before? I’m not a coffee drinker so I don’t look for coffee shops. Even though I had driven by that Starbucks a hundred times, it had never registered in my brain. I never saw it because I wasn’t looking for it.”
We tend to see what we want to see.
We tend not to see what we’re not looking for.
The same is true in the spiritual realm. Paul uses a word that means “to gaze intently upon.” It means that we make a conscious choice to believe that some things are true that we cannot see at this moment. I have thought about this principle when I speak at a funeral service for someone I have known and loved. It’s hard to bury a body in the ground, knowing that you won’t see that person tomorrow or the next day or the day after that. In the words of playwright Noel Coward, we live in a death-sentenced generation.
It’s easy for all of us to be overwhelmed by the power of death. When that happens to us, we end up thinking and talking like Woody Allen instead of like Christian believers. So we must train our minds to focus on things that may not be easily seen.
What is seen is temporary. I’m glad about that because it means that death is temporary. It doesn’t feel that way right now. Death reigns on planet earth because sin reigns. But life has been let loose through the victorious resurrection of the Son of God.
By faith we “see” the unseen.
The people of the world think we’re nuts because they can’t “see” what we see. And the only reason we can “see” anything is because God in his grace has opened our eyes to “see” eternal reality.
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind but now I see.
So we sing on, right through our tears.
We don’t deny our tears or pretend the pain isn’t real.
But we sing on anyway.
We see in the distance the great City of God.
We see in the distance all the saints of God.
We see a light shining through the darkness that surrounds us.
So we sing on, we preach on, we pray on, and we keep on believing. God has given us eyes to “see” the unseen and so we will never give up.
His Kingdom Is Forever
For all the damage Martin Luther did with in the Church, the one thing you can say about him is that he could write a good Hymn. As I worked on this sermon, my mind was drawn to the final words of the final verse of his hymn A Mighty Fortress which builds to a triumphant conclusion that mirrors the words of our text:
Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also;
The body they may kill: God’s truth abideth still.
His kingdom is forever.
Those words may come literally true for us as they have for believers across the centuries. We may be called someday to pay the ultimate price, and no matter what, we all must say farewell to this mortal life sooner or later. If they kill the body, it matters not.
God’s truth abideth still.
His kingdom is forever.
Do you believe that?
The greatest need of the church today is for Christians to live as though these things are true. The world waits and watches for believers to live by the “un-worldly” standards of this amazing text.
When we live like this, when we “see” the invisible and make it the rule and ground of our life, the world will know that what we have is more than theory, that it can’t be explained away as mere religious enthusiasm. The world will know that what we believe comes from some other place they can’t understand, can’t see, and can never duplicate.
God’s truth abideth still.
His kingdom is forever.
That’s why we will never give up.