“Good News About Death” (2 Corinthians 4:7-5:1)
Rob Tennant, HillSong Church, Chapel Hill, NC
Sunday, June 7, 2015
Recently I made a minor blunder. It was a small mistake made in the course of carrying out my duties as pastor of the church. So, I said to someone, “Your preacher is a clay pot.” A bit of Biblical literacy is required in order for that allusion to make sense. Paul writes in 2nd Corinthians 4, “we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.”
Of course clay pots, once they cool are hardened, and if they are dropped on a rock or a concrete floor, they smash. Was Paul saying that we who follow Jesus are hard headed and hard hearted? Yes.
We can be short tempered with one another. We hold on to forgiveness and mercy. We refuse to give it. We refuse to give one another grace. We can be very hard hearted.
We can be given the truths of scripture and yet we are so locked on what we think we already know, we are seemingly incapable of seeing what God wants to show us. We become set in our thinking, fixed, static. This intractable stance makes it difficult to learn new things or be open to new relationships.
Yes, Paul was most certainly saying that we who follow Christ are hard; we’re set when we should be malleable in our master’s hands. And we are fragile, easily cracked. It dropped on the floor one time too many, we may shatter. We are broken.
Thus my statement about the preacher being a clay pot was and is a truth that I and each one of us is prone to falling and to failing spectacularly in our discipleship. When Paul wrote this, he said, “We.” He did not say, “You Corinthians are a bunch of cracked pots.” He said, “We are.”
I wonder if it is my fragility and my tendency to commit errors that led me to think it was a good idea to entitle this sermon “Good News about Death.” It seems a bit insensitive. We have several members of our church who have loved ones who have died in the past month. A mother or a father living a fews hours drive from here or several states away has died. And our brothers and sisters here, HillSong members, have to go through all the pain of grief and the burden of handling the affairs and estate of the death of the one we loved. This wave of loss has hit many of our members in a very short span.
Many others are in that awful spot of waiting for it. I don’t have to spend more than a minute and I can come up with a list of half a dozen to a dozen people in our church family who have a mom or a dad or a beloved uncle who is elderly and in very bad health. Then the cruel game of waiting plays out. You know your loved one is suffering and is going to die and it is probably going to be soon. But you aren’t sure. Part of your knows death will bring relief. Your mom or dad won’t suffer the daily pain any more. You want that end. But, when it does, then mom or dad is gone.
Many of our families here at HillSong are doing that difficult dance with end of life realities. Many others within the past few weeks have seen the end of life come. In a few HillSong families, they have and are experiencing both. One spouse’s mother dies. The other spouse’s father is failing fast but has not yet died. Paul writes in verses 8 and 9, “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; 9 persecuted, but not abandoned;struck down, but not destroyed.”
I hope Paul is right. I hope we are not crushed. I pray that despair is not setting in on anyone. Please, dear God, don’t let the struggles we or any believers face destroy us.
Many hear this and think, “That’s not me. Everyone I love is doing OK. He’s not addressing me this morning.” That may be going through your mind right now. Please understand, I have definitely been there. I have sat as a speaker spent much time addressing a struggle I was not facing. Maybe right now, you are not facing declining health, the reality of old age, and death. You will. I will. As long as we are part of the fallen world, even though we are in Christ, we suffer the injuries of sin and death. And this message is not all about grief. The title is “Good News about Death.” To get to the good, we have to walk through the bad and describe it as we go. And you may have problems that quite serious even they aren’t related to the type of grief I have named. Everyone of us has times in life when we are hard pressed on every side.
Of course, Paul was referring to persecutions suffered by first century Christians. But, he also had in mind that Christians are as inflicted with the fall that sin produces as the rest of humanity. Followers of Jesus make mistakes. We are cracked pots. Our bodies die. And God, in the beginning, did not create us for blunders or for death. But we do sin and we do die. So even we who have turned to Christ remain under the influence of a reality that is far from God. Indeed, what dumb thing, to name the sermon, “Good News About Death.”
And yet in death, Paul sees purpose. In verse 7 Paul said, “we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.” Our weakness points to God’s glory. Then in verse 10 he writes, “We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.” And in verse 11 he says, “For 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.”
That verse has an especially poignant phrase. We are always being given over to death. Paul’s immediate concern is the series of arrests and beating he has had to endure because he speaks about Jesus. In the place we live, work, and play, we don’t usually face bodily harm because of our devotion to Christ. That’s not an issue for us as it was for him. But his inability to do much about it is something we can understand. Paul could either stop speaking for Christ or he could he accept that doing so would get him flogged, stoned, jailed, and eventually killed. But he could not give his message and avoid the pain. He lacked the human power to control things.
We do too. Whether we face pain and loss because of our own sins or because of the sins of others or simply because the world is a fallen place, we cannot prevent suffering. It eventually hits and it hits hard. Paul’s phrase we are always being given over to death may taken on additional meanings in our lives, but it speaks. His words can be ours. Or we might say it as it is written in the version of the Bible known as The Message, translated by the late pastor and scholar Eugene Peterson.
We’ve been surrounded and battered by troubles, but we’re not demoralized; we’re not sure what to do, but we know that God knows what to do; we’ve been spiritually terrorized, but God hasn’t left our side; we’ve been thrown down, but we haven’t broken.
We feel broken. Grief, disappointment - these are heavy things, but we know God carries them because he has. Jesus was God in the flesh. Unlike Paul, Jesus could have called on legions of angels and his suffering on the cross would have been prevented. There would be no crown of thorns. There would be no nail-pierced hands. There would be no tomb. He was fully God even as he was fully man and could have avoided every trial and every wound. He didn’t though. Jesus chose to take the cross on himself and in doing so took sin on himself and the penalty of sin on himself. He bore it for us.
Thus, he knows what we’re going through. In the book of Hebrews we read the following about Jesus:
14 Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
He has been tempted and passed the test. He has suffered and overcome it. So, Paul says, our suffering and our weakness point to Him. Second Corinthians 4:11, “we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh.” The point, the purpose in our difficult times, is we lean on Jesus in spiritual dependence and for emotional healing. People see us at our worst and they see Him. Our weaknesses point to His glory and strength.
There is more than just a purpose in our pain. There is also a promise that Jesus has something much better in store for us. “Do not lose heart,” Paul writes. “Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. 17 For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure,18 because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.” The faithfulness in which we live in the challenging days of life is a mark discipleship. It is also a staging area for “the eternal weight of glory.”
Again Peterson’s rendering in The Message illuminates the promise we have from God that our sufferings and grief will give way to eternal life and eternal joy in the presence of God.
These hard times are small potatoes compared to the coming good times, the lavish celebration prepared for us. There’s far more here than meets the eye. The things we see now are here today, gone tomorrow. But the things we can’t see now will last forever.
5 1-5 For instance, we know that when these bodies of ours are taken down like tents and folded away, they will be replaced by resurrection bodies in heaven—God-made, not handmade—and we’ll never have to relocate our “tents” again.
The Good News about Death is in facing it we turn our faces to God and those around see us and their faces are turned to God. The even better news is God promises that for us resurrection lies ahead. We have hope for loved ones we watch die painful deaths, and we have hope for ourselves.
I was listening to a radio show this week. The conversation was about wrist watches. The host talked about professional athletes he interviewed. These are millionaires, and he said many of them spend tens of thousand of dollars on wristwatches. He has several co-hosts on his show and they all weighed in how much they spend on watches. One asked, “Do you think a really expensive watch is a sign of status for man, a way of showing all he’s accomplished.?” They discussed this for a while and decided, yes, it is a status symbol to wear a really expensive watch. They talked about watches that cost more than any car I have ever driven. Why? A wealthy person wears this for the purpose of telling everyone around him how rich he is. And all the radio guys agreed this is a good thing.
I think such crass materialism is a step toward death without redemption.
We don’t watches to show we are. We wear death. We don ourselves in our fragility. We clothe ourselves with weakness, the same weakness that blankets the millionaire quarterback and his $500K wristwatch. We cracked clay pots wear death and all the while we look to Jesus. Someone nearby sees us and they follow our gaze. And then they too are looking to Jesus. And there is hope because we know and looking with us they know what Paul wrote and what is true.
The one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus, and will bring us together into his presence.